A/N: This chapter is LONG. Looking back on it, I can't say I'm perfectly happy with how it turned out. However, I don't have the time or energy to go back and rework this entire 12k-words behemoth. So for this chapter, more than any of the others, I would truly appreciate any feedback on how to improve it.
I've noticed there's often a drop in readers following this chapter, so either people really dislike it, or it simply takes too long to finish reading this chapter and the graph gets skewed because of that. Either way: not good. So, to anyone reading this for the first time (or rereading it), please let me know if there's anything in particular that turns you off from this chapter. If it's the length, I could always split it in two. Any feedback at all would be a major help. On the other hand, if you like it as it is: all the better! Don't hesitate to tell me either if that's the case.
Chapter 9: Back in action
Suddenly, the underground lab didn't seem so spacious anymore. So many people were in there now that they had been forced to gather every chair they could find and place them all around one of the larger working stations, essentially creating a makeshift conference table. It was the only way to give everyone a proper place to sit.
Taking his seat at the head of the table, Urahara was the one to set things in motion. "I believe it would be best if we went over everything that happened first before deciding what our next step should be," he spoke up, drawing everyone's attention. "Before we get into that though, I believe there is someone here that we should all be very grateful to."
Everyone turned to look at the woman whose timely intervention had saved the lives of almost half the people in the room. Her cheeks reddened a little when she suddenly became the center of attention. Urahara smiled at her. "I think it's safe to say I speak for all of us when I say this: Miss Nelliel, thank you. If you hadn't stepped in when you did, I fear that there would have been a lot less people sitting at this table right now."
Nel smiled brightly, looking a little overwhelmed when everyone started spontaneously applauding for her. "N- no! It's alright," she stammered, clearly embarrassed. She hadn't expected to receive so much praise. "Honestly, I didn't even do all that much... What Tessai-san and the others did was far more impressive!"
"Don't even start Nel," Ichigo cut in, smiling for the first time in quite a while. "You were awesome back there, don't try to deny it."
"I concur," Ishida said somewhat stiffly. "Without your help, me and Tessai-san never would have been able to make it out of Hueco Mundo." From his side of the table, Chad gave Nel a thumbs-up while Orihime went over and hugged her. For the next few minutes, Nel was showered with praise from every direction as everyone chatted happily with her and with each other about what had happened and how relieved they were. This continued until Urahara interrupted again, reminding them that were was still plenty they needed to discuss. "Alright, alright, that's quite enough," he said, chuckling a bit. "I fear our heroine may become light-headed if she keeps blushing like that."
Everyone calmed down quickly enough, giving Urahara their undivided attention as he talked. "Since miss Nelliel is with us now, it would be quite rude to leave her out of the loop while we talk, so we should start by bringing her up to speed somewhat." Since no one argued, he kept on talking. "First of all, miss Nelliel: what do you know of the man you just encountered in Hueco Mundo?"
"Not much, I'm afraid." Her demeanor instantly changed as the topic shifted to Takahashi. When she spoke, she sounded completely relaxed and confident. Ichigo was a little taken aback at seeing her act so mature all of a sudden. He was used to the bubbly, hyperactive Nel who had nearly crushed him to death by hugging him last time he saw her. The Nel sitting next to him seemed older, wiser somehow. "All I know is that he suddenly appeared in Hueco Mundo about three days ago and attacked us at Las Noches. We believed him to be a Vasto Lorde at first, and labeled him La Fiera - the Wild Beast, since no one seemed to know who he was. It was only after I had been monitoring him for some time that I was able to discern that he was in fact a Shinigami."
Urahara nodded in response. "Well, we're still in the process of gathering information, so I hope you'll forgive me for giving you the abridged version for now. The man in question is named Takahashi Katsumi. Until 112 years ago, he held the position of Captain of the Third Squad in the Gotei 13. After Central 46, Soul Society's government, learned that he possessed Hollow powers, they ordered him to be executed. However, he went on a rampage, and it was decided that sealing him away would result in far less collateral damage than continuing to attempt killing him outright."
Nel didn't say anything as she listened to the story. Her expression however clearly showed that she had her doubts about the righteousness of Soul Society's leaders, who had sentenced one of their own to be executed for the sole reason of acquiring the powers of a Hollow. Being a Hollow-Shinigami hybrid herself, she was offended that it was even considered a crime in the first place.
"Obviously," Urahara continued, "he's not sealed anymore. He somehow managed to break out of a specialized, very high-level sealing array, leading us to believe he had outside help." That caught Ichigo's attention. He shared a look with his friends, who all wore similar expressions of confusion. "Excuse me," Uryu interrupted the shopkeeper, "but you believe he had an accomplice? Why is this the first time we're hearing about this?"
"Because until we find some proof, this is only conjecture at best," Urahara answered simply. "The physical location of the seal was extremely well-guarded. I can't imagine anyone getting near it undetected."
"I was asked to inspect the place," Yoruichi backed him up. "Back when I was still a Captain. It was only a couple of weeks after we'd been ordered to put him down. That place has so many well-trained guards and powerful Kido defending it, even I couldn't have broken in without help."
If even Yoruichi couldn't get in there, then no-one could, Ichigo reasoned. But if that was the case... "Then why would you think someone else busted him out?" Everyone turned to look at Ichigo now. "If no-one could get in without Soul Society knowing about it, he has to have escaped on his own, right?"
"The sole reason we believe he had help, and by we, I mean myself, Tessai and captain Ukitake, is because the other possibility is far more unlikely, if not outright impossible." He leaned forward and tented his fingers. "Izanagi's Seal, which was used to hold Takahashi, was designed specifically to restrain the most powerful of Shinigami. It is made in such a way that breaking it from the inside is completely impossible. It's an extremely complicated, and potentially dangerous spell if used carelessly. It manipulates both time and space, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that normally only the Head Captain and the leader of the Kido Corps know its exact mechanics. These are exceptional circumstances though, so I was given special permission by Captain Yamamoto to examine it, together with Tessai. We found there were no loopholes or weaknesses to exploit. Even a Kido master like Takahashi wouldn't stand any chance of escaping by himself."
There was a moment of silence following his statement. If Ichigo was understood correctly, there were only two options here. The first was as good as impossible, and the second was almost as unlikely as the first, only being considered because there were simply no other alternatives.
"Well then, if there are no further questions?" He looked expectantly at Nelliel, who shook her head. "Very well. Now then, there are some things I would like to know as well." He turned to Yoruichi. "What exactly happened in Hueco Mundo, for one."
"There's not much to say," Yoruichi stated sourly. "After I arrived, I went looking for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. I knew Takahashi was around, so I decided to lay low and moved around quickly using Shunpo. Unfortunately, by moving so fast I didn't notice the traps he'd set up in time. I ran right into a Kido web and got some nasty burns for my trouble." She crossed her arms, seemingly more angry at herself for failing to notice the trap in time than at Takahashi for putting them there in the first place. "When the trap went off I obviously gave away my location, so I started running in the opposite direction and hid among some rubble. I treated my injuries as well as I could and stayed there until the others found me." She looked away angrily. "Long story short, I screwed up and didn't learn a thing."
Urahara nodded quietly and didn't say anything more on the subject, sensing Yoruichi wasn't in any mood to talk right now. "Then, what happened after you found her?" he asked, now addressing Yoruichi's trio of rescuers. Tessai took it upon himself to answer. "He found us just as we came upon Yoruichi. He took us by surprise. We were barely within the closest scanner's effective range, so it didn't detect him in time. He immediately used a modified version of Hado 91: Kurohitsugi to hold me in place. "
Urahara frowned upon hearing that. "Hmm. Modifying Kido has always been one of his favorite pastimes..." he mumbled more to himself than to Tessai. "Out of curiosity, what did it do exactly?"
"Like the normal version of the spell, it caused a black coffin to form around me and subsequently had sharp protrusions appear on the inside," Tessai explained. "However, aside from some superficial injuries, these protrusions only served to immobilize me. The coffin didn't disappear right away either, as is usually the case, and caused me to remain trapped until miss Nelliel came to my aid." He bowed his head politely at Nelliel, who cheerily grinned back at him. "It actually had more of the properties of a Bakudo than of a Hado spell," he went on. "However, I see no reason for him not to target my vital areas. Even if he made some sort of mistake, I find it rather incredulous that all of the spikes would miss me."
"I don't believe for a second that he missed by accident," Uryuu cut in. "If he really wanted us dead, he had plenty of opportunities to do it."
Urahara looked at him intently. "Are you perhaps speaking from personal experience, Ishida-kun?" he eventually asked.
Uryu swallowed uncomfortably, paling slightly. Whatever he was thinking of must have left quite an impression on him. "It's just that... he chose let me live," Uryu said, his voice a bit shaky. "I mean... he had me. I couldn't fight back- I could hardly even move while under the influence of his Reiatsu. I was sure he was going to finish me, but..." He took a moment to compose himself. "All he did was use Kido to render me unconscious. By the time I woke up again, the others were already there to rescue me. Apart from the injuries I'd sustained earlier on while fighting him, I didn't have so much as a scratch on me."
"I see," Urahara said softly. He turned his inquiry to Chad this time, deciding to give Uryu a little time alone with his thoughts. "Sado-san. The only part of this story we're still missing is what happened on your end after you brought Yoruichi to safety. Can you enlighten us?"
Chad nodded. "After I met up with Nel and Tessai-san, we all attacked Takahashi at the same time to try and overwhelm him. For a while, that strategy worked, and Tessai-san was able to get to Uryu and wake him up. But when Takahashi saw that, he got pretty angry. He activated his Resurreccion and fought us off, but we managed to make it to the portal. The rest you already know," he promptly concluded. He wasn't one to to drag a story out.
Urahara nodded again. For a while he just sat there, looking at his hands as he mulled over everything he'd just heard. "That leaves me with just two more questions." He raised his head to look at Nel, his facial expression completely neutral. Ichigo knew that look. Urahara always wore it when he didn't want his expression to betray what he was thinking. Nel calmly raised her head to meet his gaze when she was addressed. "Forgive my rudeness, but why were you there, and what made you decide to help them?"
Ichigo frowned. Urahara still seemed to be having trouble trusting Nel. After what she had just done for them it was rather ungrateful of him to say the least. Ichigo was about to voice an angry retort, but to his surprise, Nel just smiled at Urahara, as if his suspicion was somehow amusing to her.
"Let me start by answering your second question first, mister Urahara, since it has the simplest answer." She didn't look offended in the least that he was doubting her motives. "When I arrived on the scene, Sado had just made it to the Garganta with Yoruichi-san, while Uryu was distracting the enemy. I detected another, much weaker Reiatsu signature in the distance, which belonged to Tessai-san. I admit I didn't know what was going on at that point, but since Chad and Uryu were there, I figured the two people who were with them must have been friends of Ichigo as well. I saw that they were having trouble against what I considered to be a common enemy, so I decided to assist them. After la Fiera- excuse me, Katsumi Takahashi," she corrected herself, "left the area to follow Uryu, I took it as my chance to free Tessai-san."
"Now to answer your first question," she continued, seeing that Urahara had wanted to interrupt her, "I was there because I was asked to keep an eye on him by miss Harribel. We, the surviving Arrancar, have banded together under her leadership. Together we had managed to turn Las Noches into a safe haven for our kind, but we were forced to abandon the fortress when he showed up." For the first time since she had started talking, her voice got a slightly bitter tone to it.
Ichigo thought back to what Grimmjow had said, about the Safe Zone for Arrancar at Las Noches. As it turns out, he had been telling the truth, but the Arrancar had already moved on by the time they had been able to search the fortress. Either way, Nel was here now, so it didn't really matter anymore.
"Miss Harribel held him off while we evacuated. He fought without any sense or reason, like a wild animal, earning him his moniker. Quite a few of us were killed or injured by the Cero blasts he fired at random." She paused for a moment. "One of my friends was hurt too. He got trapped by the falling rubble and we couldn't get him out." Orihime gasped softly, covering her mouth with her hands. "All the while, he kept getting closer to where we were. At that point, I felt that my only option was to join the fight."
Ichigo understood why she had abandoned her child form now. He had a pretty clear image of what had happened: Nel and her two brothers frantically trying to escape the fortress, rubble falling everywhere as the battle outside raged on, causing one of them to get stuck... she must have been so scared. She was carefree and happy as a child, and perhaps most importantly, didn't need to fight. However, when someone close to her was in danger, she had chosen their well-being over her own happiness. Just like she'd done for Ichigo during his fight with the Fifth Espada.
"It took both me and miss Harribel just to keep him busy. After everyone had escaped, we too were forced to retreat." She cleared her throat, her voice a bit hoarse after talking for so long. "We've set up camp in a new location now. I doubt he will be able to find us there, but I was monitoring him just to be safe."
"I see now," Urahara said. "I hope you can forgive me for doubting you, miss Nelliel."
"Don't apologize," she waved away his earlier comment. "I'd have been more worried if you hadn't doubted my motives." Ichigo could feel the tension in the room lifting now that everyone felt they could trust each other. Apparently feeling the need to be a proper host now that the tension was gone, Tessai got up from his seat and took some glasses and water bottles out of a cabinet on the wall, supplying everyone with something to drink. "I've told you my story, mister Urahara," Nel spoke up again after Tessai had handed her a glass of water. "Can I ask you a question now?"
"But of course."
"Among the Arrancar, Takahashi has come to be known as la Fiera due to the savage way in which he attacked us. It was only very recently that I discovered that he was in fact a Shinigami rather than a Vasto Lorde. However, even when he took on his Hollow form again while chasing us, he didn't go berserk like the time he attacked Las Noches. Am I correct in assuming he now has control over his Resurrección?"
"From what I've heard from Kurosaki-san," Urahara said while gesturing toward Ichigo, "I believe he does indeed remain perfectly lucid while using his Resurrección." Urahara's eyes widened as he realized something. "Wait a minute... you said the attack happened three days ago?" he asked urgently. Nel nodded in response, frowning a little. "As I thought. Jaegerjaquez-san arrived here late last Friday after an encounter with Takahashi." When Grimmjow's name was mentioned, Nel's face seemed to light up. "We assume that was the first time Takahashi had attempted to use his Resurrección, and had not fully mastered it yet. After Jaegerjaquez-san escaped, he must have moved on to Las Noches..."
"In other words, he's even more dangerous now, in a way," Nel said, biting her lip. "But I'm happy to hear that Grimm-kun managed to get away. I was really worried about him..." Ichigo barely managed to suppress a snort as he heard Nel calling Grimmjow 'Grimm-kun'. He had a feeling that Grimmjow wasn't going to be happy when he found out about that. "Is he still here?" Nelliel asked eagerly, failing to hide her enthusiasm.
"He's upstairs. We believed it to be too dangerous to leave him to his own devices." Nel looked somewhat disappointed upon hearing that, but at the same time, didn't seem the slightest bit surprised. "Well then. With that out of the way, I believe it would be best if we decided what our next course of action should be."
Right away, the adults (which included Nel, of course) started talking business. They discussed a possible, temporary alliance between Urahara's group and the Arrancar as well as many different ways to combat Takahashi, including but not limited to traps, Kido, many different battle tactics as well as gadgets of Urahara's own design that might prove useful in future confrontations.
Everyone had something to contribute to the conversation. Even the normally quiet Chad came up with some good, unexpected tactics while Orihime had quite a few outlandish ideas that were so insane that they might have actually had a chance of working. Nel especially seemed supportive of Orihime's strategies, causing a few of the others to exchange worried looks.
The only one who didn't join in was Ichigo. Hearing everyone talk about what they could do to help only served to depress him. He wasn't of any use right now, after all. He looked at the faces of the people sitting around the table. No less than five of them had been in mortal danger and he hadn't been able to do a thing to help. If Nel hadn't shown up when she did, just how many of them would have made it back here?
Ichigo excused himself under the pretence of needing some fresh air, not willing to listen to the rest of the conversation.
"Are you alright, Kurosaki-kun?" Orihime was clearly worried about him, but he really just wanted some time alone right now. He forced himself to put on a fake smile and acted like nothing was wrong. Ichigo doubted she was convinced by his poor acting skills, but frankly he didn't care one bit. He left the laboratory and managed to make it all the way up to ground level before he finally snapped.
"Dammit!" he spit out from between clenched teeth, pounding his fist against the wall.
"Dammit... Dammit..." He kept on cursing, each swear accompanied by another loud bang. He had never imagined that going back to being a regular human would have been so frustrating. To think that just a few days ago he'd been checking out colleges online, fully intent on moving on with his life.
"Oi! What the hell's wrong with you?!" Grimmjow's gruff voice sounded through the hallway. Ichigo flinched, quickly looking in the direction of the voice. Grimmjow was leaning out of a door frame further down the hall, looking very annoyed with all the noise Ichigo was making. "Get lost, Grimmjow." He scowled at the approaching man. "I'm not in the mood to deal with you right now."
Grimmjow lifted his eyebrows at him. "Yeah? Well tough shit, Kurosaki, 'cause I do happen to be in the mood." He leaned his shoulder against the wall and crossed his arms, smirking like the cocky bastard he was. Ichigo wanted to punch his teeth in. "So, what's got you throwing a bitch fit?" Ichigo sent him one of the nastiest glares in his arsenal, and was annoyed to see it having absolutely no effect on Grimmjow.
"You've been down there for a while now," Grimmjow remarked when Ichigo stayed silent, nodding his head at the door that led down to the lab. "Is that shopkeeper holding a tea party in there or something?"
In spite of himself, Ichigo chuckled at Grimmjow's rudeness. "Sort of. They're talking about Takahashi again." Clearly, that had caught his attention. "Yeah? Do they know where he is?" Grimmjow asked with obvious excitement. He didn't even try to hide his eagerness to fight the powerful Vizard again. Bruised ego, Ichigo supposed.
"Actually, he almost managed to break into the lab through the Garganta a little while back, but Urahara shut the portal in his face. That probably wasn't enough to kill him though, so I'm sure he'll return to Hueco Mundo soon enough." Clearly, Grimmjow wasn't satisfied with that answer. He clicked his teeth in annoyance, making Ichigo frown at him. "Do you really want to fight him again that badly?" he asked disbelievingly. Even if he'd still had his powers, Ichigo sure as hell wouldn't be that eager to go a second round with Takahashi. Not after what happened to him last time. Of course, he still would if the Soul Society or the World of the Living were in danger. He wasn't a coward after all. It just wouldn't be with the same... enthusiasm that Grimmjow was displaying.
Said Arrancar looked at him like he'd gone mad. "Are you fucking kidding me? Of course I want to fight that asshole again!" Grimmjow pushed off against the wall and started pacing through the hallway. "Do you have any idea how fucking annoying it is being locked up in this house all day?" He kept walking around restlessly as he complained, looking like a caged animal. "I'd give anything to go out and fight! I'd go to Hueco Mundo right fucking now if I could!"
"At least you can fight." The words had slipped past Ichigo's lips before he could stop himself. Grimmjow stopped pacing. Slowly, he turned to look at Ichigo, looking like he couldn't believe what he had just heard. "Wait. THAT's what this is about?" Grimmjow said incredulously. He slowly closed in on Ichigo. "You lost your powers, so now you're just gonna sit on your ass and bitch about it?" They stared at each other. "I can't fucking believe this! That's pathetic, Kurosaki!"
Ichigo could feel his face redden. "Who are you calling pathetic, jackass?" he yelled at Grimmjow. "You think I enjoy sitting on the sidelines while my friends put themselves in danger? I hate it! It's driving me insane, but it's not like I can do anything about it!" Ichigo didn't think it was possible for him to get any angrier at this point, but Grimmjow quickly proved him wrong. The bastard started laughing, right in Ichigo's face.
"'Can't do anything about it?' Don't give me that crap. You're just taking the easy way out," he said mockingly. "If you wanna help your little posse so badly, stop being a whiny bitch and find a way to get your powers back already." Ichigo clenched his jaw. He was five seconds away from grabbing Grimmjow's head and smashing it into a wall. "I already told you," he almost growled, "it's not that sim-"
"WHO CARES?!" Grimmjow suddenly roared, making Ichigo flinch. "If you want your powers back that badly, then FIND A WAY!" He roughly shoved Ichigo, pushing him up against the wall. "Don't give me that 'it's impossible' bullshit," Grimmjow hissed. His eyes were fuming. The concept of personal space obviously wasn't something Grimmjow cared about very much: he was so up in Ichigo's face that if anyone saw them right now, it would probably look like they were making out... in a rather violent manner. "If you say that, it just means you've already given up." Apparently having said what he wanted to say, Grimmjow gave Ichigo another harsh shove and stalked back off to his room.
Gingerly rubbing his chest where Grimmjow had hit him, Ichigo watched him leave. He wanted to run after him, scream at him and beat his face to a bloody pulp, but his anger had reached a level where his brain no longer seemed capable of handling basic motor functions. By the time Ichigo could think somewhat coherently again, Grimmjow was already gone, and he was left alone in the hallway, shaking with rage. What Grimmjow said had certainly hit a nerve. He wanted nothing more than to walk right into that bastard's room and force him to eat those words, but Ichigo knew that would be counterproductive. Counting backwards from ten in his head, he took some deep breaths in order to calm himself down somewhat.
Screw him. Ichigo decided Grimmjow just wasn't worth it.
He started walking again, but in the opposite direction, away from Grimmjow's room. Seeing as he would only be getting in the way if he stayed here, Ichigo decided to go home. The others probably wouldn't even notice he was gone, being too absorbed in their strategy meeting. Heading straight for the front door, he grabbed his bag, put his shoes back on and walked right out. He quickly typed out a text message and sent it to Chad before promptly switching the phone off. What he needed right now was some alone time. He stubbornly refused to look behind him as he went.
Urahara meanwhile, looked out the window at Ichigo's retreating back. The older man sighed wearily. It wasn't hard for him to imagine how Ichigo was feeling right now. He had heard the entire conversation between him and Grimmjow while standing in the stairway. He honestly hadn't meant to eavesdrop, but then they had been pretty loud and he didn't want to intrude on them by suddenly walking out into the hallway either.
While Jaegerjaquez-san's words had been harsh, perhaps that was just what Ichigo needed to get out of his rut. But even if Ichigo did decide to look for a way to regain his powers, would he succeed? Most likely not. Urahara had already looked for a way to do it, but had come up with nothing. The logical part of his mind said that he should just leave things the way they are, and not take any unnecessary risks just to help out one person.
His heart on the other hand, did not want to leave things as they were. He wanted to help Ichigo. The boy had already done so much, both for him personally and for the rest of the world as well.
"Impossible, huh?" Urahara muttered to himself. "Maybe not..." There was one option that might work. He just never seriously considered using it before now. There were no guarantees of success. In fact, things could go very, very wrong. Not just that, but he would need the approval of the Central 46, which in itself would already be nothing less than a miracle...
Urahara blinked, halting his train of thought. Was he seriously thinking about this? The risks far outweighed any potential benefits this course of action might bring them. Logic dictated that he should abandon this plan, and banish these thoughts to the furthest recesses of his mind. Then again, experience had taught him that logic never really applied where Ichigo was involved. Besides, if his initial assumption was correct, there would hardly be any risk at all... he hoped.
Urahara walked back toward the laboratory entrance. After the strategy meeting was finished, he'd need to make some calls.
Grimmjow's words kept on bothering Ichigo throughout the week. He tried to act like it didn't didn't bother him, but his friends could tell he was acting more withdrawn than usual. Every now and then they would tentatively ask him what was wrong, but Ichigo would just brush them off and end the conversation right then and there. Both Chad and Uryu quickly learned not to press the issue, but Orihime proved to be more persistent and kept trying despite repeated failures. On Wednesday Tatsuki had held him up in the hallway after class, giving him some verbal abuse for making Orihime worry like that. Even so, he kept on sulking by himself and refused to talk to anyone about the topic.
By Thursday however, Ichigo was forced to admit that perhaps there had been a grain of truth to what Grimmjow had said.
Ichigo had known that he would lose his powers. He had accepted that once it happened, that chapter of his life would be over and done with and he wouldn't get involved with Soul Reapers or Hollows again for what he hoped would be a very long time. Back then, he had been perfectly alright with that. The war was over, so he had believed his friends in Soul Society would have been safe from then on.
But the situation was different now, and lacking the abilities he'd had as a Soul Reaper was proving to be far more of an inconvenience than he had expected it to be. The fact that he had already gone through the entire emotional roller-coaster that accompanied the whole ordeal and had put it all behind him, was now acting as a mental roadblock for Ichigo. He had been fully prepared to settle back into his old, relatively peaceful lifestyle. Which is why it was so damn hard for him to admit that he wanted to be a Shinigami again.
Over the last few days, Ichigo had gotten a taste of what it was like to sit on the sidelines, and it clearly didn't suit him one bit. He was sick of being useless, of having to wait anxiously for his friends to return from whatever dangerous situation they had gotten themselves into while he was forced to stay behind and do nothing.
He'd been stewing over his internal dilemma for three days, but now, he could say with absolute certainty that he truly wanted, or rather needed to rejoin the fight. He would go mad if he had to stay behind in Urahara's lab again while his friends went out to fight. While Ichigo didn't know how he was going to do it yet, he would be getting his powers back, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Ichigo was by nature not someone who let others do the fighting while he sat on his ass.
And as much as he didn't want to admit it, he had Grimmjow to thank for coming to that realization. Still, he was sure he would have gotten his thoughts lined up without that asshole's help too, if given some time. Probably. Grimmjow just sped the process up a little. Ichigo wasn't willing to give him any more credit than that.
Sighing deeply, as he'd been doing rather often lately, he ran a hand through his hair (he could really use a trim) and looked at the clock above the blackboard. Just twenty minutes to go until the final bell rang. He'd be making a short detour before he went home tonight.
Urahara was absently scratching the stubble on his chin, still looking a little caught off guard. His reaction was understandable, given that Ichigo had shown up at his doorstep completely out of the blue and asked, rather bluntly, for a way to regain his powers. The teen had never been the type to mince words, but still; some tact was expected with matters like these.
They were in the small communal room again, which Urahara often utilized when he had guests. Ichigo was impatiently tapping his fingers against his teacup as the silence dragged on. Urahara hadn't said anything for a long time after Ichigo had finished explaining his motivation for returning to the life of a Shinigami.
"You're absolutely certain?" he finally said, after what felt like an eternity of waiting.
"I'm sick of being useless," Ichigo replied without missing a beat. "I want to fight."
Urahara nodded somewhat absently. Then, he smiled, so briefly that Ichigo could have sworn he had imagined it. "I will admit, I have already given the matter some thought. You're not the type to sit on the sidelines, Kurosaki-san," he grinned. Ichigo hadn't done a very good job of hiding his surprise. Not only had Urahara accepted his change of heart almost right away, he'd even been looking for solutions by himself already! The man's expression quickly turned serious again. "There is... there is one way that has a fairly high chance of success..." he began cautiously, seemingly unsure of whether he should even be telling him this in the first place.
Ichigo eagerly leaned forward, spurring Urahara on. "But it's dangerous. The stakes are very high. Too high, even."
"Well, are there any other options?" Ichigo interrupted him. Urahara's silence told him enough. "Then I'll do it. I don't care what the risks are, I'll-"
The unusually harsh tone Urahara had addressed him with was enough to make Ichigo flinch. "You're being too reckless, Ichigo. There are many people who would be very upset if they knew how little concern you have for your own safety." Ichigo looked away, feeling the weight of his mentor's gaze. They say disappointment hurts more than anger, but a combination of the two certainly did a bang up job of making him feel like crap.
Urahara wasn't done yet, though: "Also, you would not be the only one in danger if the situation took a turn for the worse. Many lives could potentially be lost." Thinking it safe to make eye contact again, Ichigo asked: "Just what is this idea of yours to get my powers back? You've gotten me and my friends involved in plenty of dangerous schemes where people could have gotten killed. How is this time any different?"
Urahara shook his head. "Please, just... forget what I said, Kurosaki-san. I shouldn't have brought it up in the first place." Seeing that Ichigo wanted to protest, he raised his hand to bid for silence. "Even if we choose to ignore the massive risks, this path simply isn't open to us at this point in time. Maybe in the future it will be, but I honestly hope it never comes to that."
Ichigo had no idea what Urahara was talking about, but he could sense that this particular subject was closed and he wasn't planning on forcing the issue. If there was even the slightest chance of innocent people being hurt, Ichigo felt it was far too irresponsible to try and pursue this path.
"I'll look for another way, Kurosaki-san. I know there has to be something I can do. Until then, I recommend you ask Ishida-san to help you with some basic Reishi-controlling exercises. As a Quincy, he has excellent control over the flow of Spirit Particles. Just that could already help you regain some of your Reiryoku."
"Alright." While Ichigo wasn't exactly looking forward to asking for Uryu's help, he would just have to swallow his pride this time. Getting strong enough to rejoin the fight was far more important than that.
"Well then," Urahara said, preparing to stand up, "I still have much to do, so-"
"KISUKE!" Yoruichi's voice reverberated throughout the house. "Uh-oh" was all Urahara said as the sound of Yoruichi's footsteps got louder and louder as she closed in on them. She burst into the room and went straight for Urahara, apparently not even noticing that Ichigo was in the room with them.
"So this is where you've been hiding!" She pointed her finger at Urahara accusingly. The poor man had just managed to get back to his feet, but Yoruichi promptly pushed him back down on his ass. "I'm sick of your excuses, Kisuke! Open the damn portal right now!"
"But Yoruichiii," he complained childishly while rubbing his pained backside, "It's too dangerous for you to go to Hueco Mundo by yourself again!"
"Then it's a good thing I won't be going alone, isn't it?" she bit back. "Nelliel will be joining me," she elaborated rather haughtily, crossing her arms. The pair continued to argue loudly, either not realizing or simply not caring that Ichigo was there. He didn't really understand what was going on; why on Earth would Yoruichi want to go back to Hueco Mundo after everything that happened the last time around?
"Dammit, Kisuke! I know he's hiding something, and I want to know what it is! Uryu said so too; thanks to him I even have a good idea of where to look!"
"Stop trying to change my mind, Yoruichi. It won't work," Urahara stubbornly maintained. "Besides, miss Nelliel said so herself," he pressed on when he saw Yoruichi about to yell at him again. "If she expends too much energy, she risks reverting to her child-form. She's not suited for combat right now."
"There's not going to be any combat, because he's not going to catch us!" Yoruichi snapped back at him, but it didn't appear that Urahara was going to be convinced by any of her arguments. "Pull your head out of your ass and stop be so goddamn stubborn, Kisuke!" she screamed in frustration.
Ichigo cringed. It was the first time he'd seen Urahara and Yoruichi disagreeing with each other to the point where they actually started yelling. It reminded Ichigo of the very few times he'd witnessed his parents fighting when he was little. Even so, from the scraps of information he'd heard so far in between the yelling and name-calling, he managed to get a general idea of what the problem was here:
Takahashi had hidden something in Hueco Mundo. During the rescue mission, Uryu had apparently gotten quite close to whatever it was and told Yoruichi of its location, which meant that they already knew where to look. They had also gotten an idea of what traps he used and how to evade them, which meant that the only thing they still lacked was some decent firepower in the unlikely case it came to blows.
In other words, they needed someone who was both fast and able to remain undetected, but could also pack a punch in a direct confrontation. It just so happened that Ichigo knew someone who fit that description to the letter, and would be all too eager to participate in a mission involving Takahashi. The only problem here was that there was no guarantee he wouldn't turn against them, but he was sure Urahara would be able to remedy that.
"Oi, guys!" he called out, temporarily making them halt their verbal shit-flinging. "I think I may know someone who could back you up, Yoruichi." Neither of them noticed the tiny smirk that was starting to form on Ichigo's face.
Just as Ichigo had expected, getting Grimmjow to agree hadn't been the least bit difficult, much to the surprise of Urahara and Yoruichi. There had been the issue of Grimmjow potentially backstabbing them during the mission, but thanks to Urahara's latest invention, that risk had already been minimized.
"There, that should do it," the resident mad scientist piped up, taking a few steps away from Grimmjow to admire his handiwork from a distance. Admittedly, an explosive collar was a rather crude form of insurance, but it would just have to do for now. "You're good to go, Jaegerjaquez-san." Urahara removed the Reiryoku-draining shackles and placed them on a stool, with Grimmjow's discarded Gigai sitting down on the floor next to it. The second those handcuffs stopped making contact with Grimmjow's skin, the weight of his Reiatsu immediately crashed into Ichigo, giving him a short bout of vertigo. Without his own Reiatsu to act as a buffer, Ichigo had somewhat of a hard time resisting the power Grimmjow was subconsciously emitting. It was almost as frustrating as it was embarrassing.
Now that his hands were free, Grimmjow carefully prodded the thick black collar around his neck. Clearly, he was none too happy with it. He glared at Urahara, who cheerily grinned back at him, but didn't say or do anything otherwise. It was just something he was going to have put up with in exchange for getting involved in the action. Compared to slowly going mad while locked up in his room, he figured this was a small price to pay.
"I've just contacted Nelliel," Yoruichi announced as she walked up to the three men. "She said she'll meet up with us near the Southernmost point of Las Noches' outer wall."
"Alright. Then I'll run the final system checks and you'll be good to go." Urahara sat down behind his console and began typing in commands. He'd been spending a lot of time at that computer lately. "In the meantime Kurosaki-san, could you hand Jaegerjaquez-san his Zanpakuto? He's probably going to need it."
Ichigo didn't even have to look to know that he had just become the focus of Grimmjow's attention. He could almost literally feel the other man's eager gaze burning holes into his back as he moved to open the heavy, reinforced box Urahara had set on the table behind him. It was rectangular in shape, and was just big enough to store a blade in. It was obvious Urahara had been very careful with Grimmjow's sword; it was even wrapped in cloth to prevent any scratches from getting on it. Ichigo carefully took the blade out of the chest and brought it over to Grimmjow, who was clearly doing his best not to jump Ichigo and rip it right out of his hands.
As soon as Ichigo was within reach, Grimmjow snatched the sword away from him before he even had time to blink. He ripped of the cloth and carelessly tossed it to the floor, meticulously inspecting every square inch of his Zanpakuto, as if he was sure Urahara had done something to it.
Ichigo didn't blame him one bit.
"Well then, ready to go, Jaegerjaquez-san?" Urahara interrupted him, apparently finished with the preparations. Behind him, the enormous device was already busy tearing a hole in space to open a passageway to Hueco Mundo. Honestly, Ichigo thought it was somewhat pointless to use the device when Grimmjow could have accomplished the same result just by snapping his fingers. In fact, Ichigo wasn't entirely sure why Urahara had even bothered to build the thing in the first place when he was perfectly capable of opening a Garganta himself. He made a mental note to ask about it sometime.
Grimmjow took one last look at Pantera and, finding nothing out of the ordinary with it, slid the blade back into its scabbard. He gave Urahara a curt nod to show that he was ready, and walked over to the stabilizing Garganta. Yoruichi quickly joined him, playfully smiling at Grimmjow, but she was ignored completely.
Ichigo walked up behind them, feeling more than a little discomforted about not being able to join them. "Good luck," he said hesitantly. While he had meant to address both of them, only Yoruichi responded by turning around and giving a thumbs-up, while Grimmjow, not surprisingly, didn't seem to care.
With a final, decisive tap, Urahara finished inputting the required commands. "All done on my end. Now let's get this show on the road, shall we?"
Grimmjow inhaled deeply, taking in the familiar scent. While he felt no real attachment to this empty desert, it was still technically his home and he was far more familiar with this environment than he was with the chaotic World of the Living. The high concentration of Reishi in the air also did him a lot of good. The portal had taken them to an area that was approximately two kilometers away from where they would rendezvous with Nel. While this was somewhat inconvenient, opening a Garganta any closer than that would no doubt give away their location to the enemy. The trip from here to Las Noches would also give them a chance to look around and see if anything was out of the ordinary.
"You must be happy to be back," his female companion asked casually. He noticed that in spite of how aloof she acted, she was actually being pretty vigilant, and was already scanning their surroundings for the slightest hint of danger.
"Not particularly," Grimmjow grunted offhandedly, hoping that she would just keep her trap shut for the rest of the mission. He hated the talkative types, especially when any physical abuse on his part would leave him without a head on his shoulders thanks to the collar they had put on him. And he personally preferred it firmly attached, thank you very much.
Yoruichi frowned somewhat. "Not much of a conversationalist, are you?" Grimmjow didn't even bother to answer this time, and Yoruichi clearly hadn't expected him to. Without another word, she took of in the direction of the abandoned fortress, with Grimmjow being forced to follow. He wasn't giving that shopkeeper any excuses to flip the switch that would make his head go 'pop'.
Even so, annoyed as he was with the collar around his neck, it felt pretty damn good to be out in the field again. And while he disliked the woman, he had to admit she was skilled. She was barely putting in any effort, and he was already straining to keep up with her. It was clear she was an expert at Stealth operations too: the vast open desert didn't leave them much spaces to hide, so they were for the most part completely exposed, but she made damn good use of the cover they did come across. Every time they passed a sufficiently large rock or piece of rubble, they would stop to look for any traps that could impede their progress, and start moving again immediately after confirming it was safe. Another thing that had impressed Grimmjow was how she would seemingly pick out the best routes purely by instinct: without needing to think about it she would pick a path that would be both easy for them to navigate, as well as provide them with natural protection in the form of dunes or trenches in the sand.
But no matter how good she was, Grimmjow had the home field advantage here. While Yoruichi took the lead for the most part, she knew well enough to listen to Grimmjow's advice when he signaled her to take a different route. The desert hid many dangers that only someone completely familiar with it knew how to evade. All in all, despite the lack of verbal communication, they made a surprisingly good team.
As such they reached the rendezvous point much quicker than anticipated, all the while being relatively certain that they hadn't been detected yet. On the other hand, they hadn't managed to find Takahashi either, so they had no idea what he was up to at the moment.
"You got here sooner than I thought you would." Grimmjow reflexively reached for Pantera when he heard the voice, thinking it was an enemy, but was quickly proven wrong. Nelliel's head suddenly popped out of the ground in front of them, soon followed by the rest of her body as she emerged from an underground tunnel. To his shame, Grimmjow had never even known of the existence of said tunnel, despite having lived in the fortress for quite a while.
"It seems you found a good hiding place," Yoruichi said approvingly as they politely shook hands in greeting. Nelliel eagerly nodded in agreement. "There's many underground passageways like this one. Not just under Las Noches either, some of them go on for miles further into the desert. They're really useful for smuggling supplies to our encampment."
Grimmjow had stalked off to the side somewhat, hoping that Nelliel would just leave him alone, but that was clearly too much to hope for. "And Grimm-kun! I'm really happy to see you're alright." He refused to look at her. If he did, he didn't think he would be able to hold back the murderous rage that had welled up the second that godawful nickname had come out of her mouth. Fortunately for him and Nelliel both, Yoruichi had realized what was going through Grimmjow's head and warningly placed a hand on his shoulder. "Play nice, now."
Literally bristling with annoyance, Grimmjow stopped reaching for his sword and turned in Nelliel's direction. He still refused to look directly at her, though. "Hi," he finally grunted, and that was about all they would be getting out of him for the rest of their time together.
It seemed to be good enough for Yoruichi. She let go of him and started speaking again: "Alright, the plan's simple: if we see him, we hide. If he sees us, we run for the portal and don't look back. Any questions? No? Then let's go."
Once again, they took off at a high speed. When it came to using Sonido, Nel seemed to be on par with Grimmjow, though he was rather pleased to see that he might have had the edge in endurance: Yoruichi didn't slow down in the least as they curved around Las Noches' massive dome, and fatigue got to her much quicker than it did for himself and Yoruichi. Ever since Nnoitra had cracked her head open, the amount of Reiryoku she could store in her body had decreased dramatically. He hadn't even been Espada-rank yet when that had happened, but he remembered just how strong Nelliel Tu Odelschwank had been back in the day.
They eventually slowed down once they got closer to their destination. He could already see the giant 'Zen-garden' the shopkeeper had briefed him on in the distance. He was familiar with the area, but had never taken the time to inspect it more closely. From this point onward, they would most likely be dealing with Takahashi's traps. Though the man himself was nowhere to be seen so far.
"It looks like the coast is clear, but you never know with that guy," Yoruichi whispered. "He could be hiding just about anywhere. Do either of you see anything?"
Nel closed her eyes as she concentrated on the Reiatsu in the air around them. "He's definitely been here not too long ago," she said. "But I'm quite certain he's nowhere near at the moment."
"Same here," Grimmjow spoke up. "Can't see him, smell him, or sense his Reiatsu, apart from some residual energy. Don't hear anything out of the ordinary either. He's not here, though I doubt he went very far." Even if he had somehow managed to hide himself so well even a skilled tracker like Grimmjow couldn't find him, they were in a relatively open area. The crystal trees didn't make the best hiding spots, and sufficiently large rocks were far and few between. If he was hiding, they'd spot him the second he made a move.
"It would certainly make things easier on us if he's not home. We'll move in closer, but at a slower pace this time. Remember, there will most likely be traps, and you won't be able to spot them easily. Be careful." Yoruichi started running again, but she didn't dare use Shunpo anymore. That was simply too risky at this point.
While the mission was going well, Grimmjow was seriously disappointed. He'd actually been hoping to run into the bastard again. While victory may admittedly be a bit too much to hope for, he should at least be able to get a few solid hits in now that he was somewhat prepared for a confrontation. Well, that's what he told himself, at least.
As Yoruichi had predicted, they came across plenty of traps as they zeroed in on their goal. The cloaked Kido webs had been expected, but the Kido minefields? Now those could have been dangerous had Yoruichi not detected them in time. The webs were annoying simply because there were so goddamn many of them, but at least Grimmjow could spot those and alter his route in time. With the mines on the other hand, he had no way to tell where they were. He just wasn't good enough at detecting and differentiating the many Reiatsu sources. Even using Pesquisa proved fruitless. Nelliel was having slightly more luck than him in that department (to his unending frustration) but Yoruichi was the only one who could make reliable predictions of their locations. She saved his ass more than once by warning him in the nick of time that he was mere inches removed from setting off one of the infernal things.
The worst part was that they couldn't risk blowing them up prematurely either, since that would most likely alert Takahashi and let him know where they were. Grimmjow was a little surprised that the enemy would use such a method to defend his territory. While they were fighting, he certainly hadn't gotten the impression that he was a rational person who planned ahead. Yet from what he'd found out about him in the last few days, the guy was apparently some sort of freaking wizard that used mostly Soul Reaper magic to fight. He guessed appearances could be deceiving.
He was snapped out of his reveries when Yoruichi gave them the signal to stop moving. "It should be around here," she said, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. Grimmjow could guess what had her feeling uneasy: getting here had been far too easy. They were smack dab in the middle of the area they were supposed to scout, and yet Takahashi was nowhere to be found. There was simply no way he would leave this place so defenseless if it was indeed as important as Yoruichi and the shopkeeper seemed to believe. It was true that all these traps would keep out most unwanted visitors, but they were clearly lacking in the case of an intruder who specialized in stealth. What's more, he should have already known that Yoruichi might have been coming. All this added up to 'danger' in Grimmjow's mind.
"Yoruichi-san," Nelliel spoke up. She'd wandered off in another direction when they arrived, apparently having found something. "What is it?" The other two members of the party went to join her, expertly evading another mine they came across as they walked.
"There's something here. I can't get through." To demonstrate, she picked up a handful of sand and threw it at the seemingly empty space in front of her. Instead of simply falling to the ground, the sand made contact with something solid and slid down its surface, revealing something that was rather large and spherical in shape.
"It's a cloaking field!" Yoruichi exclaimed. "I've never even seen one this big. This has to be it!"
They all stared at where the barrier was. For a while, nobody said anything.
"You uh... You don't think he's in there... do you?" Grimmjow asked cautiously, still closely monitoring the area in front. "I really, really hope not," Yoruichi replied, not very reassuringly. "So how about we just shoot first and ask questions later then, because standing here like a bunch of pussies isn't going to do us much good," Grimmjow stated matter-of-factly.
Yoruichi frowned, clearly not liking the idea, but surprisingly enough Nel backed him up on this one. "I agree with Grimm-kun, Yoruichi-san. We've already made it this far, and in a worst-case scenario it's still three-to-one. At the very least, we should be able to escape if he does show up. He's powerful, but all three of us are faster than he is."
The only reason Grimmjow hadn't violently murdered her yet for using that bloody annoying nickname again was that he might get to blow something up thanks to her input. While murder would definitely be much more gratifying than just blowing up the barrier, it would also result in his head being torn from his body by means of a violent explosion. It was probably for the best if he held off on killing her, at least until he got rid of the collar around his neck.
"You do have a point," Yoruichi finally admitted to Grimmjow's elation. She sighed, accepting that this was really the only thing they could do aside from giving up, and held out her arm toward the invisible dome. "Let's do this, then." Blue flames appeared in her open palm.
Grimmjow couldn't help but grin ferociously as he mirrored her gesture and gathered up energy for a Cero blast. Nelliel followed suit, the only difference being that she fired her own, violet Cero from her mouth instead of her palm. The three of them unleashed their attacks at the same time; two powerful Cero combined with the blue, fiery explosion caused by Yoruichi's Soren Sokatsui were more than enough to rip the barrier to shreds. Space seemed to warp as the illusion disappeared, revealing what had been inside of the dome.
"There's... Nothing inside," Yoruichi said disbelievingly. "I'll admit it is rather anticlimactic," Nelliel added. Grimmjow summed the situation up most accurately, though: "Well, this bites."
Not ready to give up just yet, Yoruichi jogged over to where the dome had been, searching for anything else that may have been cloaked. She was quickly forced to admit that there really wasn't anything there. "Yoruichi-san. We should move," Nelliel urged. "After that explosion, he has to know that we're here now... This whole thing may have been a trap from the very beginning."
She shook her head. "No. He wouldn't go through all this trouble just to lure us here. I think he was hiding something in that dome. We just waited too long to come here. He must have already moved it."
"How the fuck does any of that matter right now?" Grimmjow rudely interrupted their conversation. "I don't know about you two, but I'd rather not get caught in an ambush."
"He's right, Yoruichi-san. We have to go now." She looked around nervously, obviously expecting something to happen. "There's no point in taking the long way back to the portal. I'll open a Garganta from here and-" They didn't find out what else Nelliel was going to do, because at that very moment, something rather large fell from the sky and landed right in front of her feet, instinctively making her leap backwards.
"'Tall, beautiful young woman, green hair, cracked mask with horns'... You must be Nelliel Tu Odelschwanck. You wouldn't happen to know that guy, would you?" Takahashi came out from behind a large rock, looking like a total savage. The top of his Shinigami uniform was simply gone, his Hakama were in tatters, he was barefoot and his hair was so greasy and messy it looked like he had a bird's nest on his head. The fact that he had partially-dried blood splattered all over him didn't do his image any good either.
Grimmjow looked at what Takahashi had thrown toward them. Upon closer inspection, it turned out be a person rather than an object. The poor bastard wasn't looking too healthy.
"I found him wandering around Las Noches, looking for supplies. He told me lots of interesting things." Takahashi slowly came closer. His calm demeanor was in stark contrast to his current appearance. To be fair though, anyone who wasn't a Hollow would probably look like that after spending half a week in the wilderness of Hueco Mundo. Even Grimmjow hadn't looked too respectable after wandering around the desert by himself for a few days.
"Though he wasn't very talkative at first," Takahashi went on. "I had to spur him on a little."
Nelliel dropped to her knees beside the injured male Arrancar and gently lifted him. Grimmjow didn't recognize him, but that didn't mean much. Apart from his Fraccion, he never cared about any of the other Arrancar in the slightest. "I'm so sorry, Nelliel-sama," the injured Arrancar sputtered. "I... I told him about the encampment. And about you and miss Harribel." He took some shallow breaths. "The pain was... was simply too much."
"It's alright. Don't try to talk too much." Nelliel quickly looked him over. He had multiple lacerations, a broken arm, and burn marks on his chest from what Grimmjow could see. Painful, but not deadly. He would be alright after getting proper treatment.
She turned to Takahashi, sending him a glare so nasty even Grimmjow was involuntarily shocked. "Why did you do this?"
"Because I needed information. I've been out of the loop for 112 years, you know." Say whatever you will about him, Takahashi was pretty straightforward at least. He stopped moving once there was only ten meters of sand separating him from Nelliel and the rest of the group. "According to what he told me, I missed out on quite a bit. Aizen taking command of the Hollows and trying to take over the world was pretty unexpected. Even more surprising was the fact that he almost succeeded. And while my informant wasn't entirely sure about this last piece of gossip, he said it was Ichigo Kurosaki who was finally able to stop him. It's a good thing I neutralized him when I had the chance."
"You bastard!" It was the first thing Yoruichi had said since Takahashi appeared. "Haven't you done enough damage already?! And for what, petty revenge? I never imagined you'd sink so low, Katsumi," she sneered at him. Now Grimmjow was far from an expert on this sort of thing, but it sure looked to him like there was a history there.
"Don't tell me you're getting upset over what I did to that Hollow. I even kept my word and didn't kill him after I got the info I needed. Last time I checked, you were still a Shinigami. They're sort of our natural enemies, remember? Speaking of which," he looked straight into Grimmjow's eyes, and Grimmjow involuntarily took a step back before he could stop himself. "I'm not sure I approve of the company you're keeping."
"Times have changed, Katsumi," she countered. "As I'm sure you've already noticed." Takahashi smiled at her thinly-veiled jab at him, but he kept staring at Grimmjow, and it was seriously starting to freak him out. Part of him just wanted to let loose and tear into that fucker, but another, more rational part told him he'd be facing certain death if he did. That first part was rapidly beating out the second though.
"We've already met, haven't we?" he finally addressed Grimmjow directly. To his own satisfaction, he didn't so much as flinch this time. "We sure did." Surprising even himself, Grimmjow sent the other man a bloodthirsty smirk. Any fear or hesitation he'd had earlier on was suddenly being replaced by the intense desire to tear the man in front of him into tiny, bloody pieces. "Not that long ago, actually. You having trouble remembering? 'Cause I'd be more than willing to jog your memory."
Takahashi seemed amused by his sudden shift in demeanor. "I'll admit, my memory is a bit fuzzy when it comes to the first few days I was in Hueco Mundo. It seems I went a little overboard back then. Congratulations on surviving, by the way."
Grimmjow cackled madly. "You son of a bitch," he chuckled, unsheathing Pantera as he closed the distance between the two of them. "I'm going to enjoy-" A blur suddenly passed him by and slammed into Takahashi, knocking him off his feet. "Get out of here!" Yoruichi screamed at her two allies. A white energy enveloped her entire body as she moved at speeds Grimmjow hadn't thought possible.
Nelliel suddenly grabbed his arm from behind, making him jerk back. "Grimm, we have to go!" she was carrying the injured Arrancar on her back. A Garganta was already waiting right behind her. When Grimmjow failed to respond, she pulled on his arm with what seemed like far too much strength for a woman of her slim posture.
"Let go, woman! I'm not running away again!" He forcibly pulled his arm free, intent on joining the fight. Takahashi had put on his Hollow Mask and was currently firing one Cero after the other at Yoruichi, accompanied by fireballs, massive golden chains that tried to pin her down and god knows what else, but none of it was hitting her. She was just way too fast for him.
"Was smashing my face in not enough for you, Yoruichi?!" Takahashi screamed at her in between Kido incantations. If he still cared about Grimmjow and Nelliel being there, he sure wasn't showing it.
No way in Hell was Grimmjow just going to run with his tail between his legs. And he definitely wasn't letting some stupid woman he didn't even like put herself in danger for his benefit. He was already indebted to far too many people as it was. "Grimmjow, what are you doing?! Yoruichi-san can make it back to the other Garganta by herself! We would just get in her way!"
"Like I care!" Grimmjow screamed back at her. He put the razor sharp edge of his Zanpakutou against his palm and pulled the blade back, producing a sizable cut. A stream of blood quickly welled up from the wound and started dripping onto the sand. He held out his bleeding palm, aiming for Takahashi as he prepared another Cero. "Shihoin! Get away!" he screamed at the top of his lungs as the Cero in his hand turned electric blue and its power became too great to hold back. He just hoped she'd heard him; the shopkeeper probably wouldn't be too happy with him if he happened to hit the woman with a Gran Rey Cero.
Not being able to suppress the energy any longer, Grimmjow let it all go in one giant, cataclysmic blast that wiped away everything in its path. Ideally, that would include Takahashi, but he couldn't tell yet since the beam was obscuring his vision.
Unable to aim properly with one hand, he planted Pantera in the sand and used his left hand to grab his wrist and steady the humongous death ray somewhat.
"ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FREAKING MIND!?" an obviously very pissed off Yoruichi screamed into his ear. Seeing how angry she was only served to amuse him, really. Plus, since Yoruichi was standing behind him now and was thus out of the danger zone, he really had no reason to hold back anymore, did he? Grinning like an utter psychopath, he pumped all the Spirit Power he had into the Gran Rey Cero, making the beam even wider than it already was. In exchange for using that much power, his accuracy and control were greatly reduced of course, but who really cared? He sure didn't.
The beam swayed erratically from left to right now that Grimmjow couldn't fully control it anymore. Anything it hit, be it crystal tree or solid rock, was instantaneously reduced to dust. After completely decimating the landscape and most likely attracting the attention of every Hollow in Hueco Mundo with the laser light show Grimmjow was providing, the beam finally lost power. Grimmjow fell to one knee, chuckling as he saw the devastation he had wrought. At first, he didn't see Takahashi anywhere. Then, he noticed the massive trench in the sand that started in about the same place the man had been standing earlier, and kept going for easily a hundred meters. At the end of said trench, off into the distance, he could make out four separate, white shield-like objects partially buried in the sand. As he looked, the first crumbled into dust, revealing the second and third shields to each have a massive hole in the center, leaving only the fourth and last one in somewhat decent condition. "Damn," Yoruichi said, her tone of voice holding the middle between 'impressed' and 'disappointed'. "You should have kept it up just a little longer." The meaning behind her words quickly became clear: the three remaining shields all dislodged themselves from the sand and floated upward, revealing-
"Son of a bitch," Grimmjow breathed out. With some effort, Takahashi slowly climbed out of the trench he'd made when pushed back by Grimmjow's attack. Grimmjow was rather satisfied to see him stumble and almost trip over something as he got to his feet. He did not look happy.
Nelliel cleared her throat, making him and Yoruichi look at her. "I believe it would be a good idea to leave right now," she said rather calmly. She honestly seemed far too composed considering what had just happened.
"Yeah," Yoruichi agreed. "We should do that." She took hold of Grimmjow's upper arm and pulled him along as she hurriedly entered the Garganta. Grimmjow didn't even bother to resist, being far too exhausted after the stunt he just pulled. He let her drag him into the portal, making sure to send Takahashi one last, shit-eating grin just before the rift sealed shut.