Byakuya shot him a quick look from the corner of his eyes before turning to stare at the far wall again. The kido's blue glow made it look like a screen of water, dark and deep and Byakuya wondered what would be at the bottom of it; if he could figure it out if he stared long enough.
A hand landed on his blanket-enclosed shoulder and he shuddered. He had thought he was warming up but the heat of that hand made him realize how cold he still was. Gods he was freezing, how was he still able to move? He leaned into the warmth, wishing he could burrow into it and, as if sensing his thoughts, it spread to cover his shoulders.
Byakuya sighed, content and finally warm. A soft chuckle made its way to his ears and it brought him back to his childhood; to his fathers low chuckle when he showed off his new skills and his mothers constant, bright laugh, to Yoruichi's annoying snigger after she'd pissed him off. Byakuya smiled.
He brought his hand up to pull the warmth closer to him, to stretch it out over his body, only to have his brief moment of contentment shattered as his arm trembled with the effort of defying gravity. His eyes snapped open—when had he closed them?—and he looked up to see Kurosaki staring down at him, his cheeks a light pink.
He was horrified to note that he was gaping, his mouth open like a dead fish and he snapped it shut as soon as he realized it. The rest of his expression was harder to blank out and he felt the beginnings of panic as he could not maintain his usual neutral expression.
"Sorry, I uh, didn't mean to wake you," Kurosaki mumbled next to him, his left hand coming up to rub the back of his neck.
"How long was I sleeping?" Byakuya demanded, still trying to wipe the emotion off his face. He failed. Horribly, if the concern in Kurosaki's eyes was anything to go by.
"Not long, maybe ten minutes."
"Why did you let me sleep?" he asked, anger making his tone sharp.
"I thought you would heal quicker that way," Kurosaki defended, and he was right, but that only served to make Byakuya angrier.
The teenager looked baffled and Byakuya sympathized; he had no idea why he was so angry, he just knew that he was. He also knew that it was irrational, and he tamped down on it viciously, reduced to taking deep breaths to calm down. It reminded him of when he first learned to control his emotions, many decades ago, and how difficult it had been not to act on his impulses.
"Are you alright?" Kurosaki asked, his brows knitted.
"I'm fine!" he snapped, still not calmed. How had his control regressed to such a point, he wondered madly.
"Why are you so angry?" came the bewildered question.
"Because this is your fault!" he exploded. Kurosaki jumped back, surprised, and his arm dislodged from its position on Byakuya's shoulders. The captain felt the loss of it like a missing limb. Worse, even, since he had experience with paralyzed limbs and it was never so obvious and so cold as this sudden nothingness.
His anger fizzed out of existence and he desperately wanted that warmth back, even had his mouth open to demand it, but Kurosaki cut him off before he said a word. Byakuya was torn between being grateful and frustrated at the interruption.
"I'm sorry," Kurosaki said, his voice thick with grief, "I'm sorry. I know it's my fault," he kept his gaze focused on the far wall as he spoke. "I'll make sure it doesn't happen again and I'll help you with anything—with everything—until you heal and even after I guess, just…I need to know what happened."
He finally looked back at him and Byakuya felt his shoulders throb where the warmth had been, at the fire he saw in Kurosaki's eyes.
"I know there's something you don't want to tell me, but please, I need to know," he implored.
"I◙—" what could he say to that really? He felt chilled to the bone and if it would make him warm again what was so wrong about telling Kurosaki about the Hollow and—his mind rebelled at the memory and Byakuya shuddered. "I cannot."
"Dammit why?" Kurosaki yelled, standing up to pace. "What could be so bad that you—shit."
His rant died abruptly and Byakuya blinked, confused as to why. Kurosaki knelt down next to him and brought his palm to his forehead.
"Shit!" he yelped. "You're freezing!" He rushed to a hole in the walls and brought more blankets out. "Why didn't you say something?"
Byakuya kept quiet as the orange-head continued to fuss about him, wrapping him in blankets like a baby. He should be annoyed, but Byakuya found it amusing and the brief instances of actual warmth when Kurosaki touched him were enough to keep the cold at bay, and him uncomplaining.
It took him a moment to realize that Kurosaki was mumbling curses under his breath. Byakuya cocked a brow up.
"Did you just call me a masochistic dollop-head?"
"Yes!" he exclaimed without hesitation. "And a moronic idiot to boot, do you want to freeze to death?"
Recognizing the question for the worry it was, Byakuya refrained from answering. Instead, he brought his hand slowly out of the cocoon of blankets and pulled at Kurosaki's ear when it was close enough, as one would a misbehaving child. "If you add any more blankets you are going to smother me to death."
Just that brief touch warmed his whole arm, liquid fire flowing into his bloodstream from Kurosaki's ear to his fingertips and Byakuya felt an indescribable emptiness when he pulled his hand back. He bit his tongue until he tasted blood at the immediate urge to reach out and touch again. This was ridiculous.
Kurosaki sat back grumbling, but there was a faint smile on his face. It was quickly replaced by a grim line however, and a glance up showed matching eyes.
"You won't tell me what happened?" he asked again. The question offered a distraction that Byakuya readily grasped.
"No." On this, he was firm. He waited for more questions but instead, Kurosaki gave him a sharp nod before grabbing his zanpakuto and bringing it to his lap. He closed his eyes and Byakuya watched with mounting panic as his breathing evened out.
Dear lord, he thought as he recognized the position, he's going to speak to his Hollow.
He barked out a humorless laugh, and scrambled for his control. That answers that question, he thought, his gaze riveted on the still shinigami.
Ichigo found himself falling through empty space and twisted around to get his legs under him. He caught a glimpse of blue before water enveloped him. He freaked out, trying to swim to the surface before remembering that he could breathe here, water or not.
He took a deep breath. And then another. Once he had calmed his racing heart, Ichigo called out for Zangetsu.
"I know you're here! I want to talk to you before I wipe the floor with that Hollow."
"What is it you wish to talk about Ichigo?" The voice came from behind him and Ichigo mentally rolled his eyes; Zangetsu really had a thing about sneaking up on people.
The thought brought with it images of the old man popping up at the weirdest times: in class, at home, when he was out with the gang…Ichigo snorted. Zangetsu popping up while he ate dinner was both funny and creepy.
He shook his head and brought his mind back to the situation at hand. He felt a little embarrassed as he locked gazes with Zangetsu but put it behind him when he remembered why he was there.
"Did you know what was happening out there, while we were talking in here earlier?" he demanded.
Zangetsu shook his head with a mournful expression, "Up until a certain point he was intentionally blocking me out."
Ichigo narrowed his eyes. "What point?"
Zangetsu stared back at him as he answered, his voice low and calm. "The point at which he was so angry and frustrated that he forgot completely to obstruct my view. This happened twice."
"And did you do anything at those points?" he asked, trying to rein in his temper; it wasn't Zangetsu's fault. Mostly anyway.
"I was unable to do anything at the first point; he threw up a barrier almost immediately. The second time, he didn't realize he'd dropped his guard and I stopped his next blow and threw you back into consciousness, pulling him back here at the same moment."
Ichigo frowned as he thought back to the river and his sudden entrance into his Inner World, his short conversation with Zangetsu and then waking up in that field much later on. He'd never realized how much of a time difference there was between his Inner World and everything else, but there it was.
He adjusted his grip on his sword, widening his stance. "Where is he?"
"Right here!" came the shout behind him, seconds before a Getsuga-Tensho flew past his head, creating visible shock-waves in the water. "That was a freebie!"
Ichigo sneered, his anger and frustration rising up in a tidal wave as he caught sight of his smug mirror image. "I don't need your charity," he spat, releasing his own Getsuga-Tensho in a sharp swing.
"So testy," his mirror image mocked as it sidestepped his blast. It released one of its own, and disappeared from sight. Ichigo spun around after dodging, searching for it and brought his blade up to parry just as the Hollow struck from above.
"Bankai!" it yelled and Ichigo had only a moment to release his own bankai before he was thrown back hard. He crashed into a building, creating a massive hole in it, cracks spreading and widening from it.
Ichigo pushed off from it, bringing the whole building down behind him as he rocketed back to the Hollow. He stopped a couple feet away and glared at his grinning opponent.
"Oi, I have something I want to ask you," he stated as he searched for an opening in its defenses. The Hollow smirked.
"Oh? An what would ya wanna ask little ol' me?" It lifted its blade to rest on its shoulders as it spoke and Ichigo took the opportunity to attack.
He saw it frown right before they clashed, an explosion disturbing the water as their reiatsu's met. Ichigo let loose a Getsuga-Tensho, but the Hollow had anticipated that and flew back out of the way. It looked ready to complain but Ichigo broke him off before he could begin.
"What did you do to Byakuya?" he asked, through his glare. The Hollow looked caught off guard, blinking twice before grinning smugly.
"Are ya jealous?"
Its weapon was resting on its shoulders but Ichigo knew it was wary and waiting for his attacks. He had to think differently to beat it; be more creative than usual.
"Jealous of what?"
"Oh? He didn't tell you?" it raised a brow at him in mock surprise.
"Tell me what?" Dammit why doesn't anyone give me a straight answer?
It was odd, to see his own face laugh at him, hear his voice distorted in a dark cackle. Ichigo didn't think he would ever get used to it as the sense of foreboding that he had been carrying since he awoke in that field, multiplied exponentially.
"Well," it laughed between breaths. "Let's just say me an' him got a lot closer." It paused to shoot him a grin that was all teeth and mockery. "You could say I...pounded," it paused to leer, "some sense into him."
Its tone of voice made the words sound absolutely filthy and Ichigo was frozen helpless as it finished. "He makes the most interesting sounds, ya know."
Ichigo went pale. Was the Hollow saying that it had—but no. It couldn't possibly have...Ichigo couldn't even think the words. He felt sick, guilt and disgust and a million other emotions clawing at him, making him light-headed, his body demanding to be freed of them. Can you even throw up in your Inner World? he thought right before he doubled over and puked.
The stench of bile made it's way to his nostrils and Ichigo breathed through his mouth instead. He gagged as that made it so much worse, he could taste the acrid bile he'd thrown up. He panted hard, as if he'd run a marathon in his human body and wondered why the Hollow hadn't taken the opportunity to attack him.
Ichigo's stomach clenched as he fought to cease his dry-heaving, his body having run out of bile to vomit up. He had the insane thought that he'd been breathing in his throw up, being in water and all, and the notion set off another bout of violent retching.
A hand squeezed his shoulder and Ichigo looked up, his eyes wide and his chest expanding with every heaving breath he took. Zangetsu stood before him, the older one, he realized with a start, apparently having dropped the bankai in his shock. Zangetsu didn't say a word, just squeezed his shoulder all the harder, as if trying to physically push his thoughts and reassurances into Ichigo.
Ichigo used the steady weight to ground himself, to force some thought into his brain and some questions out of his abused throat.
"Did—" he broke off, his voice hoarse, before taking a deep breath and clearing his throat. "Did it—" He still couldn't say it but that was alright because Zangetsu was already shaking his head in the negative. Ichigo let out a breath his body slumped over in his relief, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He took a moment to just breathe again, before he had to speak and to listen.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. There, not so hard. He snorted. Right.
He braced his hand on his knee and pulled himself up to stand beside Zangetsu. The Hollow was nowhere to be found and neither was the mess he'd have expected after throwing up what little had been in his stomach. Ichigo honed in on the former thought.
"Where did the Hollow go?"
"We are one."
The statement sounded ominous in its finality, like Zangetsu meant more than that he'd absorbed the Hollow as he'd done before, but that didn't bear thinking about. Not at that moment.
"Do you know what he did, now that you're one?" Ichigo didn't mean to sound mocking but he bit the inside of his cheek to keep from apologizing for it. Zangetsu gave him a look before nodding.
Ichigo took a deep breath, bracing himself for anything. It might not have...done that to Byakuya, but whatever it had done could've been just as bad.
A/N: Hello! I apologize for not getting this up sooner, but what with classes, work and Sandy I've been rather busy ( I am also procrastinating now because I hate this class and this essay ha fml). I feel better about this chapter (and the next one) so I hope you all enjoy reading it! Looks like Ichigo's finally gonna get some answers. How do you think he'll react? I love to hear everyone's opinions and your reviews really do help so keep them up (pretty please?)!