Grimmjow lay where he'd been left for a long time. He heard explosions, felt the enormity of spiritual pressure that filled the sky. He heard screams, buildings fall in the distance. He heard other crashes closer to the manor, but still he lay there, unable to find the strength or will to move.
"Are you just going to lay there until he comes back for you? I thought you said you were going to save him."
"You aren't real," he whispered to her image. She was different, unlike when she'd really been part of him, she was untouched by any pain, her features soft and no longer masked by bone. She wore a white gown and no sheath.
"No, but I'm here, you've conjured me to protect you, because you can't handle it all yourself."
"I don't want to handle anything. I just want it to be over."
"What happened to that pride of yours?"
"He took it away, just like the others."
"But he's not the others. He's still Ichigo under there, and you need to save him."
"I can't even stand up."
"You haven't tried," she scolded. "Come on soldier, the war is on, and you're missing the fight."
He let out a slow breath but drew his hands up and pressed them into the earth. He let out a noise of pain and was panting just for the effort to sit.
"Shit it hurts."
"You're an espada."
"Not anymore." He looked back at his mangled six tattoo. "Now I'm nothing." "Fine, be nothing, be no one, sit there and watch the world end." She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. "Or stand up and fight for the one thing in all this universe that matters."
"And what's that?"
"Freedom, Grimmjow." And she knelt, putting a hand to his cheek. "Freedom from the tyranny that ripped me to pieces, from the evil that flows in Ichigo's veins—freedom to find the happiness you and Ichigo promised each other."
"And what if I can't do it? What if I lose?"
"Then die with honour, for having tried. But don't you dare let the legacy of the espada be the choice to sit on the sidelines and let others decided your fate. Don't go quietly Grimmjow, do what you do best—and rage against the forces that would rule you."
"It would be easier, if you were really with me."
"I know. But nothing you've faced is easy and yet, you're still breathing. You've survived it all, Grimmjow, but it will be pointless if you don't act now." She leaned in pressed her lips to his. "Save him."
He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was alone. He looked to the sky, seeing lines of fire and streaks of blue. Then he rolled forward onto his hands and knees and got his feet under him, inch by inch working his way up. He stumbled enough to grab the support beam on the deck. He leaned there for a moment and did up his pants the rest of the way. He swallowed hard, trying to keep back the pain of what Ichigo had done, in his mind and in his body. He struggled up over the lip of the deck and through the manor, heading for the other entrance that would point him in the direction of the main Seireitei.
He didn't make it that far.
The kitchen split in two right before him. Wood turned to splinters, Grimmjow was blinded in the spray of debris. He flew from the force of the impact back across the room. The roof moaned and creaked and he heard a snap just before it crumbled and caved. Tile and wood struck him hard and in his state the best he could do was just cover his head. When he felt the fire, he scrambled to get out. He let off a cero that cleared what pinned him but when he managed to get his feet under him again he couldn't see for the black smoke and he slipped and slid over the broken floor. He fell into what was left of a doorway and saw the pair of mattresses get covered in flames, Ichigo's t-shirt that had been forgotten on the floor was consumed just as fast.
"Shit," he choked on the hot soot that burned inside his lungs. His knees gave out on him and cursed again. He really could have used Halibel's power right now.
He tensed at the voice, his automatic response was to hide, so he didn't call out right away. Then the roof began to give and he wheezed out hoarsely for Ichigo.
"Dammit," the teen swore when he found him but wasted no time getting his arms under him and flashing out of the burning house. "Why in the Hell didn't you sonido out of there?" he scolded, keeping a tight grip around Grimmjow's shoulders while he continued to cough. At this, however, Grimmjow brought his head back up to meet his eyes.
"Because I can barely walk after what you did let alone sonido you bastard!" He sputtered blood at the punch and fell to the ground. "Don't you dare speak to me like that. Especially after I just saved your life."
"I wouldn't have needed saving if you hadn't—" He stopped himself.
"Taken what's mine, you mean?" Ichigo growled. "Remember Grimmjow, your place is under me."
"ARH!" Grimmjow felt the red hot flash that had once taken over him every time he saw the teen above him. Now it grabbed hold as hot and fast as ever it had and he launched himself from the ground onto Ichigo. It didn't matter that it was futile. It didn't matter that he was caught in an iron hold almost at once, what mattered was that he fought for who he used to be.
"I don't have time for this," Ichigo muttered, restraining Grimmjow in a backwards hug, one arm around his stomach the other pinned him at the throat. "I have a king to kill and the Zero squad's not even dead ye—"
He curved his body at the last instant to protect Grimmjow from the blast. Whatever power now flowed in Ichigo, the massive blast that had landed close to them didn't even make him stumble.
"What the hell was that?" Grimmjow asked when the storm faded.
"A captain of the Zero squad." Ichigo let him go and turned around. Grimmjow fell forward, still gasping from the smoke inhalation and now Ichigo's strangle hold. But he gathered himself enough to look back over his shoulder to see the source of such spiritual pressure.
"Kurosaki Ichigo," the man addressed the teen before him. "I'm surprised at you."
"Have we met?"
"No." The man looked nothing like any other soul reaper Grimmjow had seen. He wore large sunglasses, his hair was a wild mess and over his uniform was a puffy white vest. "The name is Ōetsu Nimaiya, and I've been meaning to talk to you about your zanpakuto."
At this Grimmjow reacted. He had one last desperate play and it had all to do with Zangetsu. The captain seemed to notice him for the first time. Grimmjow really didn't know where he stood with the Soul Reaper's most powerful soldiers.
"Who are you?" Grimmjow jumped when the voice was right next to him. A hand seized him around the arm and hauled him up. "Are you with the Soul Reapers or the Vandenreich?"
"Neither," Ichigo growled and swung. The man easily deflected while holding onto Grimmjow. "He's mine." With another roar Ichigo moved faster than Grimmjow could perceive. He was jostled this way and that and then a blast of heat threw him sideways and he crashed to the ground again. He saw Ichigo curse and shake the blood from one hand and the blade of the other man was steaming from a powerful impact.
"Ugh..." Grimmjow moaned, shoving up from the ground again, his arms covered in blood where they'd scraped over the ground. He got to his knees and took a deep breath, his earlier broken ribs making even that motion painful.
"You haven't been very kind to your friends lately Ichigo—or your zanpakuto for that matter."
"I wish we'd gotten here before the Vandenreich had turned you."
"Well you took your time back then. Bach thought you'd come after the initial attack."
"There are protocols. At the time, we thought Yamamoto could deal with someone like Bach."
"And then he killed the old man."
"No, then he recruited you."
"Now you're here to kill me."
"If I must."
"There's no other way to stop me," Ichigo grinned.
"Wait!" But Grimmjow's protest was lost when they collided and the very force of their power flattened him again. "DAMMIT!" He screamed when his breath returned. The other two were gone, up in the sky. Grimmjow's body groaned from the strain, the earth around him was split, buildings were cracked—if he'd been anything less than an espada he'd probably be dead right now. But that was little consolation as he tried to pick himself up out of the dirt, tried to wipe away fresh blood on his face with a hand already slicked in crimson. He held his head for a long moment, still able to feel the weight of their power even from so far above.
"Pantera..." he breathed his soul's name. He didn't even know where he'd been taken. So many times he'd found his blade again only to have it snatched away. He let his head fall back, a bloody hand print was left on his pale flesh, and he looked to the sky. "Ichigo...how the fuck do I save you from yourself when I can't even get near you?"
Blue lightening thundered through the atmosphere. He saw the light of several other battles rippling through the air. The captains of the royal guard had brought formidable soldiers with them, but so had Bach. Bodies fell here and there, farther from him there was a sonic boom, and he was sure he heard a cackle. He was sure Bach was winning.
Then his miracle happened. First there was a terrible cry of anger. Then one of pain. Then Grimmjow watched an object turn end over end through the air as it fell—right until it landed tip first in the soft ground not ten feet from him.
"Zangetsu..." He found his feet, found one last push of strength and made it to the blade just before the other two landed. The wild soul reaper had a hand knotted in orange locks while Ichigo writhed in the grip.
"You're such a child, it was easy to defeat you," Ōetsu reprimanded. "You may have more power in you than two or three captains put together, but that doesn't mean shit if you can't use it."
He drew his knee up sharply and Ichigo wheezed, sagging to the ground. While the teen coughed, Otesu looked up to see Grimmjow with Zangetsu in his hands. Grimmjow was shaking—the chance was finally in his grasp, but he didn't know what to do with it. So he met the gaze of the soul reaper and held Zangetsu up to offer it to him.
"Bach infused his power in Ichigo's body, and his soul," he explained. The soul reaper reacted, looking between the boy at his feet and the sword in Grimmjow's hands.
"That's how he made him this way?"
"Yes. Can you...is there anything you can do?"
Otesu stepped away from Ichigo and came face to face with the espada, taking Zangetsu from him.
"Who are you?" "A dead man," Ichigo growled, rising. "You'll regret betraying me, Grimmjow."
"I'm not betraying Ichigo," Grimmjow answered. Then he looked to Otesu. "All I want is to save Ichigo from himself, from what Bach did to him. I know the answer is in Zangetsu, but I just don't know what to do."
"Even if we kill Bach, it won't reverse what's been done." Otesu turned to face Ichigo now. "And you, what do you want?"
"My fucking sword back."
"You're real sword?"
"Of course my real sword you-"
And with one quick motion, Otesu broke Zangetsu in two. Ichigo lurched, clutching at his chest. Grimmjow's eyes shot wide and he grabbed the soul reaper's shoulder to force him around.
"What did you do? Zangetsu's the one we needed to save!"
"Zangetsu needs to return to where he came from." He dropped the broken blade. "All these years, Ichigo has been deceived—He's always been a quincy. He's always been a hollow. But he has yet to meet the real Zangetsu. It's not a sword he needs right now. It's a soul. The true voice inside of him."
"You bastard!" Ichigo screeched, trying to steady himself again. Otesu still kept his eyes on Grimmjow.
"Does that sound like Ichigo's real voice to you?"
"Then we have to find it, we have to wake up Ichigo and his soul."
"And then Ichigo will be strong enough to purge Bach from himself."
"Okay?" Ichigo whirled on them, "I'll make you both pay, assholes." He raised his hand. They watched the blue bow form in his palm. "Bach's been training me, I might as well put to use what I've learned."
Grimmjow was shoved to the ground by Otesu. The next thing their battle had taken off again, though not as far this time. Dangerous burst of power and flying arrows went off all around him. He held his position, hoping the soul reaper would subdue the teen again, give Ichigo his chance to resurface.
It seemed his streak of luck had run out.
It wasn't Ichigo who knocked Otesu from the sky, but Juha Bach himself. He struck with little warning while Otesu was engaged with Ichigo. The captain of the zero squad was sent so hard into the earth Grimmjow couldn't even see his body in the crater it made. He wasn't sure it was enough to kill him, but he was paid no more attention so it was clear he was out of this fight.
Ichigo landed hard on the earth, knees giving. Bach gripped his arm to keep him up.
"Father," Ichigo breathed desperately, and despite his plans to kill the man holding him he sounded genuine. "Help me."
Shit. The real Ichigo must be clawing his way up. If that was the case, the quincy Ichigo would likely choose loyalty to Bach before he let himself be drowned out.
"It's simple son, break Ichigo." He turned to Grimmjow. "Kill the espada, and you'll kill Ichigo."
The boy faced Grimmjow as well. There was only a flicker of hesitation. He'd been using Grimmjow to keep the rest of his soul in line—to keep himself from being taken over completely by Bach's hold and power. But now, unless he gave into Bach, he'd lose himself altogether. So Grimmjow watched the cold look settle in his eyes and knew that this time was it—the quincy in Ichigo would kill him and Ichigo both.
"Don't," he protested when Ichigo straightened from the supportive hold the King had given him. He marched toward the espada who held his ground. "Ichigo don't you dare let him win!"
"Are you begging Grimmjow?" Pale fingers closed over one shoulder, the other drew back to form a fist.
"Not for my life. You know what I want."
"I do." The first hit landed. Grimmjow would have staggered and fallen from the force but Ichigo kept him steady by that shoulder so he could strike again. His knuckles came down hard and fast, uutil they both dropped. Ichigo grabbed at his chest, Grimmjow spit blood and tried to see. Then Ichigo recovered and attacked again. It seemed he was going to do this brutal and bloody—make sure he destroyed the boy screaming inside. He pulled Grimmjow half way up again, the other too disoriented to know what was happening until Ichigo drove his foot down as hard as he could on Grimmjow's leg while it was still at an angle.
He screamed at the brutal break, the bone scraping through his flesh. He collapsed in the churned up dirt, dizzy from the pain, watching the boy above him move in again—seeing the King's satisfied smile behind him.
"Do you taste it yet, Grimmjow? Do you see the end coming, the other side looming?"
"Is she waiting for you? The bitch who stole half your mind."
A kick to his ribs. A shot to his temple. His head snapped back on the ground, things were getting dim, his body was feeling cold.
"Do you regret helping Ichigo back then? Do you wish you'd killed him when he'd asked?"
Burning pain brought him back from the brink, his eyes flew wide and he let out a long scream. Ichigo dug the blue energy blade deep into his shoulder, twisting it around before he withdrew.
"She won't be there, Grimmjow. Bach decimated her. He tore her soul to shreds. There is nothing waiting for you but the cold dark."
Grimmjow put a hand up to his shoulder and coughed. Blood hit the back of his throat. He lurched again when the blade dug cruelly into his side. Ichigo dragged him up by the throat while the blade still moved inside of him.
"You failed her, Grimmjow. And now, you've failed Ichigo—utterly and completely."
He jolted the knife one more time before pulling it out. Grimmjow hung in his hold, shaking from the pain, the blood loss, but he lifted his hand from his wounded shoulder and gripped the side of Ichigo's face.
"Killing me won't kill Ichigo." He swallowed, his words hard to find and string together but the demon who held him up seemed willing to listen to his final words. But these words weren't for him. When blue eyes finally refocused, they looked deep past the glow of quincy power that eclipsed brown irises. He looked through those eyes to the tortured, crumbling word where the human he'd come to love now screamed in utter agony. "I told you I'm past saving. But your friends aren't—Rukia, Renji, your family. Ichigo it's them you'll save, when you wake up. And you will wake up. Because you're Ichigo Kurosaki—you're the strongest man I've ever known, and I promised you I'd save you. My death won't break you—it'll shake you awake." His hand slipped from his face, leaving a streak of blood. "You're soul is yours, Ichigo, and nobody else's."
His breaths were growing slow, shallow. But he saw a spark in those eyes, saw the tear escape, and he knew before his eyes shut, that Ichigo would win. He always did.
The quincy lifted a hand to his face in surprise when he felt the trickle of water rolling over his cheek. Grimmjow went limp in his arms and he set him down. The King hovered at his back.
"Well done." He stooped and drew Ichigo back up. He saw the tear. "Ichigo felt it happen. Is he gone now?"
The quincy swallowed back the feeling scratching just beneath the surface. "I think-"
Overwhelming tears. Heartache and confusion. Strong arms around him.
Ichigo shook his head but then let out a yell as the memory forced itself on him, flashing before his eyes beyond his control.
Someone held him. Bare arms warmed his own naked back. His hands were clutched into the white shirt of the man holding him. He'd soaked through the cotton with his tears.
"I've got you," that soft yet strong voice floated down to him.
"I can't do this anymore, Grimmjow. I feel it happening. It's my soul he wants."
"Your soul is yours, Ichigo. No one else's."
"It will be his in the end."
"Only if you let him. I mean it, you can still beat him."
"ICHIGO!" The teen stumbled from the harsh slap. His shoulders were caught and he stared back into those dark eyes and remembered everything the dark king had put him through, every part of his body, mind and soul he'd tortured to pull out this part of him—no to put in this part of him—because this wasn't him. And so the quincy stepped back from his master, his creator, and he looked to the still form on the ground. And he knew he was nothing—he knew he was just a shadow of shadow. And that shadow looked to him now and saw his failure to convert—to reeducate.
"I should have just killed you," Bach said and reached for his blade. Ichigo shook where he stood, mind and heart and soul bouncing between place and time—but as his blue blazing eyes remained fixed on Grimmjow, every piece of his soul settled onto one uniting feeling. And all of them screamed.
Because the one person that all parts of his being had come to know, to need to love—whether out of emotion, desire, or cruelty—was dead.
"I remember now, how it really felt, what you really did to me. I know what I am."
"You are me," Bach said, but the quincy shook his head.
"No. I'm nothing without him."
Bach looked at Grimmjow in disgust, but Ichigo took a step closer to the Vandenreich King despite the danger. "Not Grimmjow. I'm talking about him—Ichigo—I'm nothing without Ichigo. And you just made us kill someone he loved."
He shook his hands and Grimmjow's blood splattered over the ground. On his face the bloodied hand print still painted his pale flesh.
"That poor bastard just died to save Ichigo." He cracked his neck and looked up at the clouded sky. "He was right to do so—I can feel it, I know it—Ichigo's the only one capable of killing you. So I'll go too, knowing you're coming with me you black bearded son of a bitch."
Bach swung. His blade met the swell of black laced powers that expelled from the boy's body. Ichigo was thrown back against the earth as the dark energy left him—the very entity that Bach had created to control him, tame him, change him—left of its own accord, for its own vengeance on Juha Bach. When the air cleared of the power, the King stepped over the form left shaking in the wake of its departure.
Ichigo gasped in air as if the oxygen had left it. He felt the coldness of reality setting in, the sharp pain of wounds from the battle. But worst, he saw with his own brown eyes, Grimmjow's lifeless form beside him.
And at the foot of the King, on the broken earth of the shattered Seireitei, he wept.
Juha Bach raised his blade.
"Stop." At the voice, Bach's blade froze above his head in preparation for the final swing. For once his arrogance left him, his dark eyes widened.
"I killed you."
"Twice," she corrected, her green eyes ice cold, their dangerous fury unmatched even by the dark King who stared back at her. "You were the only other person in the room when I died."
"Most of my soul went to Grimmjow—but not all."
"I would have felt you."
"No, because there was just barely enough of me left to be a whisper. So little in fact, I was just a fragment floating in the periphery of your power. That was, until you killed the only thing in this world I cared about."
"Tiburon was destroyed."
"But not me—not this last piece of my existence. No, Bach, you're own power is your downfall, your own incredible energy has been enough to sustain me—until now. Now your power will vanish, and I will gladly bid this world farewell to see you die."
"You cannot kill me."
"I know. But he can, and you took your eyes off of him."
Juha Bach turned from Tier Halibel's smile, into the tear streaked, blood stained face of the eighteen year old boy who would kill him. He felt all the rage and pain of a broken heart, and the strength and power of a unified soul, when Ichigo drove the broken blade of Zangetsu through Juha Bach's heart. They came eye to eye as Ichigo stepped in, driving the steel as deep as it could reach. It was no more than metal now, Otesu had unmade the blade falsely born. But it was still his sword, it was still familiar to fingers coated in the blood of a friend.
And it still transferred that well of power from the deepest parts of his soul—his hollow's rage, the quincy blood of his mother, and the soul reaper that waited to be born anew—straight into the chest of the Vandenreich King.
And it destroyed him.
Because the pain and anger of one teenage boy with a destiny he never could have guessed—eclipsed any power the dark king could ever manifest. And the desire to protect those he loved, those he could still save prevented his soul from holding back to protect its master. Everything Ichigo Kurosaki had to give poured out of him—because he wouldn't watch one more person die in his stead. No one else would ever sacrifice themselves to save him. No one else he cared about would be hurt by this man. So he fell to his knees when the surge of strength left him—most likely taking his life with it- and Bach screamed and was torn asunder by a power he'd never known, anticipated, nor could have understood.
The hill was silent.
The war had ended.
Three months later.
"I'd ask you what you were thinking about, but I already know." Rukia stopped on the rebuilt porch, staring softly down on slouched shoulders and sad eyes as they turned from the heavens back to the koi pond.
"Hey, I didn't mean to upset you." She got no answer so she sat next to him and stared out at the circling fish. "Renji said you haven't been talking again."
She just got a shrug. She sighed.
"I know it's hard without him, but you have friends here too, you know."
"Do I?" he barely whispered.
She looked at him with false offence. "Yes, what do you call Renji and I?"
"Care takers," he bit out.
"Oh come on. I know things have been hard since...he left...but-"
"But what, Rukia?" He looked up to the sky again as if he could see beyond the clouds. "It's over. I can never be with him again."
She watched him in silence for a long time.
"Ichigo..." she sighed and took a moment to collect her words, "Ichigo won't let you make that decision for him, you know."
Blue eyes met her. "It's done, Rukia. When Ichigo gets back from the realm of the Soul King, he'll be a full soul reaper again, he'll have his life back. But that life will not include me."
"Grimmjow! The zero squad chose to save your life. You can't just go throwing it away."
"I'm not!" He turned away from her fiery gaze. "But I'm not sharing it with Ichigo. I'm telling you it's over."
She watched him for a long time, then gave in. "It's none of my business Grimmjow, but I hate to see you so down after all the progress you've made with Unohana."
"I hardly call one night without nightmares progress."
"Well Renji and I do, trust me."
He looked back to her then lowered his eyes and she immediately regretted her words.
"I didn't mean we mind, Grimmjow."
"Of course you do. Who wants to wake up to their house shaking every night?"
"It doesn't matter Grimmjow, I shouldn't have said anything."
He just sighed again and slouched against the beam of the porch. "Rukia."
"Do you think..." He stopped himself and stood up. She saw the weight of emotion in every line of his body. Unohana's therapy had taken him a long way since he woke up after being healed by the zero squad, but left with memories that made him curse their act of mercy every day since. Rukia followed him the few paces to the edge of the koi pond.
"Grimmjow what is it?"
"Renji told me what Ichigo said to the Head Captain when he woke up." Grimmjow had not actually seen Ichigo since the incident. The teen had woken before him and then been taken to the soul kingdom within hours.
"So, what do you think? Ichigo said Bach said her name. Said it was as if...he saw her."
"I don't know Grimmjow, it's beyond me."
She looked up to him. "But if I had to guess...I'd say it was her."
"Because she loved you." She put a hand over his. "And sometimes love can defy the laws of the universe."
"You're just saying that."
"I'm not. Because how else do you explain how Ichigo destroyed Bach like that? How do you explain how you hung on long enough to be healed?"
He was silent. Then, "I don't know. I just know what I have to do now."
"Don't leave, Grimmjow." She knew his intentions. "Ichigo will be devastated."
"He'll go over it."
"I don't think he will," she argued. "Because if you leave, he'll think you blame him."
Grimmjow shot her a look. "You know I don't."
"But you're not the only ones left with awful memories. You know he'll take on all that guilt and it will eat him up unless he talks to you."
His fists clenched.
"You know I'm right, Grimmjow."
One fist slammed into the support beam. Grimmjow stood there for a long moment before withdrawing his hand and walking away without a word.
Rukia let out a long sigh. Then she felt a quiver in the air, the sky rippled with energy and she recognized the object that transported souls down from the realm of the soul king.
"Perfect timing," she muttered and hurried to meet her friend.
"Rukia said you were thinking about leaving. I guess I'm lucky I got back today."
They were on the outskirts of the Seireirtei, where much construction was still being done. Grimmjow still had his back to him, eyes locked on the gateway to the rukon districts. From there he would have been able to open a garganta and leave this world behind.
"I should have left a long time ago," the espada spoke without turning.
"Because you didn't want to see me again?"
"Because this is not where I belong."
"What does that mean, Grimmjow? You can't possibly want to go back to Hueco Mundo. What's left there but sand?"
"I don't know," Grimmjow finally turned back to face him. He saw the new uniform Ichigo wore, the twin blades at his belt instead of one. Ichigo was changed, looked stronger—whole. Grimmjow bowed his head. "But it's more than I have here."
Ichigo's chest felt. "I see. You can't even look at me. I don't blame you."
"Oh fuck you!" Grimmjow's eyes shot up with a surprising blaze of fury. "I don't blame you for what happened when you were possessed."
"Then why are you leaving?"
"Because I have to, Ichigo. I can't be with you, I can't be here anymore."
"But I'm back. It's all over now. We can finally be-"
"Together? A human kid and a fucked-up hollow? Even if we get past all of the other shit, you will go back to your life in the world of the living. I won't age, but you will. I don't have a purpose anymore, but you do. I have nothing, you have everything."
"I don't, if you walk away."
"Well then suck it up, because I am leaving Ichigo."
He turned but Ichigo caught his shoulder. Grimmjow stopped. They stood there like that for several long seconds.
"Let me go, Ichigo."
Grimmjow let out a soft sigh at the sound of tears in the teen's voice. He turned back to see his eyes just waiting to spill over.
"After all this, you're going to cry?"
"Grimmjow I have been waiting to get back to you every day I was up there. Now I'm finally back and you're going to leave. I thought I had killed you. On top of everything else I did to you and I-"
His voice broke, he couldn't hold Grimmjow's gaze when the tears won out. But those strong arms wrapped around his back and his face pressed into Grimmjow's collar. He felt the long breath rattle through Grimmjow's chest as he let it out and bowed his head into Ichigo's.
"I just can't believe you're okay." Ichigo was trying to keep calm but three months of worrying on top of exhaustive training were winning out. He'd looked forward to this moment for so long only to have it crumble away.
Grimmjow pulled back. They watched one another and then he leaned in. Ichigo savoured the kiss he'd waited for, but it ended all too quickly and Grimmjow stepped away from him.
"But I'm not okay, Ichigo. I'm not okay with who I am now, in this place. I've become weak. I've lost myself to what happened to me. I can't stay with you."
Ichigo's chest clenched. "Don't leave, because you think it's best for me."
"I do think it's best for you, but that isn't why I'm leaving. I need to go back to where I was strong, where I was me."
"And then what? Will you come back?"
"I don't know. I can't make you any promises, Ichigo, but you have to make me one."
"Don't come after me. Let me do this on my own. And don't wait for me."
"You can't ask me to-"
"I am. I don't see how I'll ever be happy again, Ichigo, not unless I do this my own way. And if I know you're waiting for me to come back, it will just distract me. I need to be alone and I don't know what I'll decide I want later. I need to be free of everything that happened, Ichigo, including you. So if I decide to never come back, I can, without regret."
"You're saying goodbye, aren't you?"
"I can't believe this."
"Well, are you going to say goodbye or not, because you might not get another chance."
"Wait." Ichigo stopped him from turning away. "What I mean to say is, I'll say goodbye, if you do one thing for me."
"Give me one more day."
Grimmjow balked at this. "So you can change my mind?"
"No," Ichigo said it so frankly there could be no mistaking his motivations. "Grimmjow I know you've had three months to come to terms with things, but I haven't. I didn't get any information up there, when I left, you were still asleep, so I had no idea how you were. I just...if you're going to leave, I will respect that. But I am asking you to give me a chance to just accept you are alive, you are alright. Just stay for one more day. Let me get my head around everything. And then if it's what you really want, I will say goodbye. Please."
Grimmjow looked half angry, but after a long pause, he gave a short nod. Ichigo relaxed a bit in relief.
"I swear I'm not trying to take advantage or anything. But I just need this...if you really are going to leave."
"Fine." Was all the espada dared say, and followed him back up the hill.
Ichigo woke half on the floor. He'd rolled to the edge of the mattress in the night and his legs were on cold wood while the rest of him was snuggled against Grimmjow's chest. The espada had been hesitant to lay down with him, but in the end he'd agreed and they had spent the night in each others company, though nothing more. Ichigo had tried to stay awake, but failed. Now he savoured these last moments before the sun rose and Grimmjow would wake, no doubt stirring and shirking away from him.
But it wasn't quite like that. He could feel the reluctance in the espada to pull away. But he did it all the same, dressed and stood with Pantera on his hip. And Ichigo knew when he rose, that this was really happening, Grimmjow really was going to leave and there was nothing he could do about it.
Without a word, he stepped into him. He held him tight and for a long time. Grimmjow let him, he didn't move until the teen disengaged. They didn't kiss, they didn't do anything but stare at one another for a long time. So many words ran through Ichigo's head—words to say he loved him, he would wait, he didn't want him to go—but he said nothing, because none of those words would have been fair. After everything that had happened to them, there was nothing he could say that the espada didn't already know. And that was why he could understand what Grimmjow needed—there was no one in the universe who could better understand the emotions of the last espada.
"Tell Rukia and Renji I am thankful."
"Don't blame yourself."
"I'll try not too."
"Just..." Grimmjow stopped speaking, but his hands rose to grip the sides of Ichigo's face. He held his gaze for a moment before bending in for that final soft touch, when their mouths melded as one, and Ichigo could feel as physically close to him as he did emotionally. "Just live." Grimmjow finally concluded his sentiment—the thing he'd desired most since he'd stopped hating Ichigo and started loving him. He just wanted the teen to feel happy, and right now his heartbroken eyes conveyed just the opposite.
"You do understand right?"
"I do, but I'm still sad."
"It's okay, Grimmjow. I know this is what you need."
"Then this is it."
Ichigo swallowed hard. He stepped into Grimmjow and held him tight.
"Kid, you saved the fuckin' world. Hold onto that."
"Bye, Grimmjow." Ichigo withdrew, eyes watering. He held back from saying anything more, he had to give this to Grimmjow and not hold him back from taking this step. Grimmjow nodded, as if acknowledging what Ichigo was doing, and stepped back toward the door. Only when he turned away, did he speak his final words.
"You gave me what I wanted."
Ichigo fought to keep his voice steady. "What was that?"
"For you to triumph. For you to be free." Grimmjow's own voice was shaking, and with that, he stepped through the door and disappeared from the manor steps.
Ichigo watched the empty spot for a long while. Then he sank to his knees and he wept.
Because he loved too deeply not to be hurt.
But after some time, he rose again, stepped outside and felt the sun wash over his face.
And his tears dried. He knew he would be okay, because the future was bright, no dark shadow now loomed before them. He was strong, he was whole. So he could hope for a day when past memories would be but whispers, when old wounds would be all healed, and when the sky might split to let one, hollow soul back into his life.
Until then, he would be true to his word. He would live, he would love, he would be Ichigo Kurosaki, and he would be free.
Wow, thank you all so much for your support on this story. I am especially glad for all the reviews concerning the twist at the beginning, where you did not know that Halibel was dead. For those who re-read to see the effort I put in to making that all workout-thanks so much and thanks too all for the compliments. I tried to harken back to that in this final chapter after the "three months later" when you didn't who Rukia was addressing. In any case, thanks so much for the support on this one. I enjoyed many parts of this story, but found other parts extremely difficult, and some days I am still uncomfortable with certain scenes and think "I'm just going to delete that story," but that would be unfair to anyone who followed it. So here it is in its entirety, I may someday choose to remove it but not for a while until I am sure everyone has had a chance to complete it. I look forward to hearing your final thoughts and I again, I am very thankful for everyone who read this story, it was out of my comfort zone but reading your thoughts and encouragements allowed me to finish it.
Thanks so much,