Chapter 2: Reaching Through

(Requested by a petalstorm of readers! Enjoy!)

"Senbonzakura!" Ichigo cried again, letting his reiatsu swell around him to ward off the hurricane of petal blades, "Senbonzakura, it's Kurosaki Ichigo. You must know that Byakuya is hurt. He may be dying. You have to let me get to him!"

He scanned the area around him for some sign of the masked samurai.

"Senbonzakura! Can you hear me?"

Still unable to connect with the spirit, Ichigo loosed his reiatsu around him, pushing forward against the petals again. The sea of petal blades spun more wildly, still forceful enough to resist his intrusion.

"I guess there's no choice," he concluded, "Byakuya, I am sorry about this, but if it's between you and Senbonzakura, I am going to have to hurt your zanpakutou to save you. Please forgive me."

He raised his reiatsu and let it flow into his raised blade, then he pointed the blade towards the teahouse in the distance.

"Getsuga Tenshou!" he cried.

White light flared around him as his power was released, and he watched it coalesce and strike at the cloud of petal blades in front of him. He sprang forward, angling towards an opening his attack had made, but found himself quickly driven back under the force of the petal blades.

"Damn it!" he swore, "What am I supposed to do? Byakuya needs me. I can feel his soul calling for me. I have to get to him, but how?"

He gazed into the cloud of threatening petals in front of him and thought carefully.

Maybe if I use bankai...

But I could damage Senbonzakura, even kill him. I don't know if Byakuya would forgive me for that. But I can't just walk away and let him die. I have to do something...

He agonized for several minutes longer, entranced by the spinning blades, then swallowed hard and increased his power again.

"Bankai," he said softly, pointing his sword at the petal blades again, "Tensa Zangetsu."

White fire flared around him as his shihakushou changed and Zangetsu took in his more slender, condensed form.

All right, Byakuya. Hang in there. I'm coming to you.

Ichigo loosed a snarl of determination as he swept forward, launching another blast of power, then firing himself at the somewhat larger opening his attack created. He was almost through when he heard the sound of soft, wicked laughter, and the space in front of him closed again. The petal blades spun all around him, slashing wildly at him from every direction. With a howl of fury, Ichigo struck with all of his bankai's speed, cutting apart the petals that attacked, as he retreated a short distance, and stood, panting and looking through the haze of petals to his friend who still laid, unmoving and alone just past them.

Even bankai power is not working. How am I going to break through this and get to him? It won't be any good if I really have to destroy Senbonzakura to get to him. No, there has to be another way...

He thought back to what had happened in the healing center, the white light that had risen around their hands as they had touched and Tetsuya's reaction and explanation.

It sounds far-fetched, but I have to admit that I am out of answers. If what Tetsuya said was true, then it means that Byakuya and I are meant to do something important together. That means that he's got to live. I can't fail him now. I have to break through and get to him.

But how?

He thought back to how he had been drawn into Byakuya's world.

I couldn't have gotten in here if Byakuya hadn't wanted me to come. He wants me with him, but it looks like the fact that Senbonzakura was stolen has turned him against his master, and he doesn't want me to reach Byakuya to help him.

So, what should I do?

Tetsuya said that our souls are resonating. That means there is a strong connection. That connection pulled me into Byakuya's inner world in the first place. Maybe it can help me to get to him!

Ichigo closed his eyes and pictured Byakuya in his mind. He focused on his soul ribbon and cast it carefully in Byakuya's direction, holding his breath as it approached the swell of pink petal blades and very slowly passed through.

I'm coming to you, Byakuya!

He opened his eyes and peered through the petals, watching as his soul ribbon approached the teahouse where the noble laid, and gently slithered inside. Ahead of the shinigami substitute, the petals raged into a blinding storm, roaring with intensity as they moved towards him.

Ichigo stared down the onslaught of petals, his mind going blank, except for his singular focus...reaching Byakuya, where he laid on the other side of the petal storm.

I won't fail you this time. This time, I am going to reach you.

Ichigo closed his eyes again and pictured himself following the path of his soul ribbon, passing through the storm of petal blades and touching down just inside the teahouse. He imagined himself dropping down at Byakuya's side and touching the noble's sleeping face, watching and smiling as his friend opened his wide, gray eyes.

And as he pictured it, what he saw in his mind began to happen. He felt himself floating forward and passing through the petals as though they were only an illusion. He reached the other side and floated to the steps of the teahouse, then slowly came down to the ground and stepped inside.

He heard an infuriated roar behind him and looked back to see where the air all around the little teahouse was filled with deadly petal blades. They screamed through the air, even beginning to damage the lovely trees and flowers that were a part of the noble's inner world.

"Don't worry, Senbonzakura," Ichigo whispered, "I'm going to save Byakuya, and then he and I are going to save you."

He walked slowly to Byakuya's side and knelt, just as he had imagined himself doing.

"I'm here, Byakuya," he said, reaching down and touching the noble's face very gently to stir him.

Byakuya neither stirred, nor made a sound. Unnerved, Ichigo checked and found that he was breathing and that his heart was beating, but that he seemed otherwise unresponsive. He massaged Byakuya's wrists and patted his face, calling his name and urging him to wake.

"C'mon, Byakuya. Wake up, all right? I want to help you, but you have to work with me here."

He closed his eyes again, focusing deeply on Byakuya's sleeping body and letting his spirit ribbon wrap around the noble, then slip inside to seek his. He found it curled tightly, far down in the depths of the stricken shinigami's shocked soul, coiled for self protection against the attacks of his own power.

"It's okay now," Ichigo said softly, "I'm here now. Senbonzakura can't hurt us while we are in here. Come on, Byakuya, latch onto me and let me wake you up!"

He felt Byakuya's spirit ribbon flicker, then sluggishly begin to move towards his.

"That's right. Just take it slow and reach out for me. I'm going to help you."

Time slowed to an agonizing crawl and sweat broke out on Ichigo's forehead as he held his concentration and fought his way, inch by inch, to reach the noble's spirit ribbon. He let out a sob of triumph as their spirit ribbons finally touched, and he felt the strong brush of Byakuya's life force.

Ichigo..., the noble's voice whispered in his mind.

"I'm here," the young man said, tears coming to his eyes as Byakuya's body finally stirred, "You're going to be okay now."

He laid his hands gently on the noble's softly rising and falling chest, slowly infusing him with strengthening reiatsu. Byakuya shifted and moaned softly as he began to wake.

"Ichigo?" he whispered, "Ichigo, is that you?"

The noble's wide, gray eyes blinked open and gradually focused on him. Ichigo smiled at him.

"Good to see you awake again," he said in a relieved tone.

"Ichigo," Byakuya whispered, "How did you...how did you find me?"

He started to sit up, then winced and fell back again.

"Take it easy. You were hurt really badly and you're still healing."

Byakuya's eyelids fluttered and he looked around them, frowning and trying to make sense of things.

"Ichigo, how did you get here? How did you enter my inner world?" he asked, looking confused.

"I don't know exactly," the younger man explained, "I went to see you in the healing center, and something strange happened when I touched your hand. There was this...white light and I felt some kind of connection form."

"A...connection?"

"Yeah," Ichigo affirmed, "Then, your cousin walked in and saw. He told me that our souls were resonating strongly, and that it was something that had to do with the first Kuchiki that the soul king made. He said that it meant that we were supposed to..."

"Ah..." said Byakuya, trying again to sit up, and this time succeeding, "I see."

He looked down quietly at his hands, suddenly remembering how he had lost one in the fighting. He flinched at the memory of his devastating loss, and at the disappearance of his connection with Senbonzakura.

"You okay?" Ichigo asked softly, slipping an arm around him.

The younger man read the noble's discomfort and squeezed his hand gently.

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with you that we can't fix, okay? What you and I can't manage, Orihime can take care of. Don't worry."

"I am not worried by that," Byakuya said, looking up at the younger man for a moment, then back down at his hands, where they rested on the blanket.

Ichigo left him sitting there, and crossed the room to where he found tea leaves and cups. He heated some water and made them each a cup of hot green tea, then returned to the noble, who was still sitting in the bed, but now looking out of the teahouse to where Senbonzakura's petals swirled so angrily outside.

"Byakuya," Ichigo said, handing the noble his tea, "You're going to get him back."

Byakuya took a sip of the tea, then sighed and closed his eyes against the words.

"How do you know that?" he asked in a low voice, "We do not know anything about what those medallions actually do. It is entirely possible that I will never..."

"Hey!" Ichigo said, interrupting him, "Don't talk like that. I just went through hell and out the other side to come in here and help you. Don't give me any shit about it being hopeless. You're going to get your powers back."

"Ichigo, I heard what was said about my condition," Byakuya said, frowning, "They don't know if I will ever wake, and if I do, it is doubtful that..."

"Shut up about that, will you?" Ichigo snapped, "It's not gonna happen that way."

"Oh?" the noble queried, a note of sarcasm in his voice, "You sound very sure of yourself...as usual."

"Huh," Ichigo huffed, smirking, "and you sound all high and mighty like always. I see that nearly dying hasn't changed that."

"Do you not understand? I am still dying, Ichigo, "Look outside. Senbonzakura has begun to destroy my inner world. The rain has already begun to fall. And as it destabilizes, you will be in danger of dying with me. You must leave now, Ichigo. You are needed to help stop the quincies. You cannot be bothered with rescuing me right now."

"Hey, take it easy," Ichigo said, shaking his head, "I am still gonna do everything I have to. Tetsuya explained to me that during my waking hours, I will take care of business out there, and when I sleep, I can come here to help you."

"I don't recall asking for your help," the noble commented stubbornly, "and besides, who are you to interfere with my fate?"

Ichigo leaned forward, placing his hands on the noble's arms and glaring into his surprised eyes.

"I'm the guy whose soul, for whatever reason, resonates perfectly with yours! So quit being stubborn and drink your damned tea! We need to work together to find a way out of this."

The shinigami substitute released the noble's arms and shoved the tea back into his hand, then rose and walked to the teahouse entry. He looked out at the storm of petals and rain and sighed in frustration. Byakuya sipped at the tea and set it down again, then laid down and looked over at the younger man, studying his worried expression.

"Will you tell me something?" he asked quietly, "While I understand what you said about our resonance, what eludes me is why you want to help me. You saw how badly I failed to protect my subordinates. Many were killed and badly injured, Ichigo. And I barely put a scratch on my enemy."

"I know all that," Ichigo said, off-handedly, "And I don't care."

"What?"

"I said I don't care," Ichigo repeated, turning back and moving to Byakuya's side to sit down again, "You think that I don't know what it's like to get beaten in a fight? I've had my ass handed to me by you, Kenpachi and a whole list of others...remember?"

"Ah...I do," agreed the noble, "But..."

"But the difference is that even though I lost and I failed to protect my friends those times, I got up off my ass and just got stronger until I could protect them the way I wanted to. Sometimes it's not about who wins the most battles, it's about who keeps getting up and fighting, even after getting beaten. Did you lose? Yeah. Did people you care about get hurt and killed? Sure. But...you're still alive. And even though you might feel like you don't deserve it, you have another chance to go out and fight for the ones who are still here. Yeah, some people died, but Rukia and Renji and a lot of your subordinates survived. And they are going to be looking at you to lead them."

"Why?" Byakuya asked, frowning, "Why would anyone look up to me?"

"Baka!" Ichigo snapped furiously, "Look around you! Nobody won a battle on our side today...not even me. You're not the only one who was beaten. So, what are you saying? We should all lie down and give up, just because we got our asses kicked? I don't think so. That doesn't sound at all like the arrogant, badass taichou I know. Where's that guy, because that's the guy I came here to find."

"I am sorry to disappoint you," Byakuya replied, sipping at his tea, then gazing down at his reflection in the cup, "but right now, remaining lucid is a struggle. I am afraid I am a long way from being either arrogant or...what did you say? Badass?"

"Yeah," Ichigo answered, amusement calming his anger somewhat, "But you're going to get better. I'm going to help you do that."

"Why?" Byakuya asked, meeting his eyes with complete seriousness.

"Because you're my friend," the shinigami substitute replied, lowering his eyes, "And that's what friends do for each other. And you know, Byakuya, it hasn't gotten past me that you have watched out for me before. Just think of it as me returning the favor."

"But Ichigo," the noble objected, "Do you not realize? You have never once been indebted to me...and I have only become more and more indebted to you. What you have done for me is monumental. I have done nothing on that level for you. How can you...?"

"Then, if you want to do something monumental for me, take care of yourself. Make yourself strong again. What happened today was just the beginning. The fight is only going to get harder. And if we're going to protect the people we care about, then we have to pick up the pieces and keep going."

Byakuya went silent for a moment, his dark eyes reflective and thoughtful.

"And I am one of those people who you care about?" he asked softly.

"Huh," Ichigo mused, shaking his head and rolling his eyes, "Are you stupid? Why in the hell do you think I'm here?"

He flinched and caught his breath as he felt a tugging on his spirit ribbon and felt himself pulled back towards his body in the healing center.

"Ichigo?" Byakuya called after him.

"It's okay," the younger man assured him, "I'll be back. I promise. Just...stay where you are and I'll come back for you."

"Ichigo," Byakuya repeated in a whisper, as the shinigami substitute disappeared from his inner world.

He looked out at the storm of petals and rain, shivering as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled all around. But even though he shivered at the thought of what was happening to his inner world...despite everything...

Byakuya still trusted those last words.

"I'll be back. I promise."