Long Way Home: A Desperate Tale of Survival

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or any characters. We should know this by now.


"B-Brother! W-What are you doing here?!" Rukia almost shouted, still disbelieving her eyes.

"I have come here to see justice done…and to give aid to one of my most trusted clansmen," Byakuya replied, not turning away from his foe.

Air caught in Rukia's throat and she was overcome with relief. When she had been captured and news of her apparent death had spread, she feared that her brother would forsake his ambitions to discover Tsukishima's secrets. All this time, the raven haired woman had accepted the fact that her brother and her clan…had unknowingly abandoned her.

However, that certainly wasn't the case.

Byakuya's presence here meant that, despite all odds, he had truly believed his sister to be alive. He'd come all this way, risking his own life and possibly his position as Head of the Clan…just to save her. It was a higher honor than she ever imaged and she blinked away the moister that threatened to spill from her eyes.

Bowing her head to him, she smiled brightly and quietly replied, "…Thank you, Brother."

She had no way of knowing if he heard those words but little did she know that, only for a moment, Byakuya's eyes lost their cold and harsh nature.

Holding back Tsukishima's blade with one hand, Byakuya shifted his gaze and peered over his shoulder. His adopted sister was covered in filth, her hands were raw from constant battle, and blood from her arrow wound stained her robes. Her raven hair was slick with sweat, the stubborn bang between her eyes so damp it clung to her face.

It was grim to realize that if he had arrived a moment later, he would be staring at her lifeless body instead. The Kuchiki Lord's eyes flicked over to her orange haired companion next.

Blood was still seeping out of his leg and shoulder wounds, the bolt in his calf keeping him from fleeing. The boy's black sword was far from his reach but it was clear, by the small trail of red on the ground, that he had dragged himself in order to try and reclaim it. Even now, heavily injured as he was, the brave young man struggled to fight and protect both of them.

Even so, this boy had obviously been the cause of Rukia's inability to escape the situation, though he couldn't entirely fault the boy for it. Byakuya knew that his sister would never abandon a comrade, regardless of her own safety. And although he often criticized her for such foolishness, he also understood that it was a sign of loyalty.

Rukia Kuchiki was faithful to all who placed faith in her. Her willingness to risk her life for another was a choice she could make in an instant. It was a trait that was rare among warriors and it inspired great leadership. He felt a swell of pride knowing he'd chosen a worthy successor. But now was not the time for such thoughts.

Seeing the pair, exhausted and nearing the verge of death, the Kuchiki Lord's eye's darkened as he realized just how long these two had persevered. It had been nearly six months since he had given Rukia her mission to investigate Tsukishima's activities and four months since losing contact with her.

Enduring such horrors and pressing onward must have been maddening. Especially considering the putrid nature of Tsukishima's 'business' and how both of them would become a part of it if they were captured.

All these long months, the two of them had desperately struggled for survival. It was obvious that a bond stronger than steel had formed between them, or else they would never have survived this long. And although he was wary of the orange haired man, Byakuya knew that it was thanks to him that his beloved sister had returned to her homeland.

All at once, his frigid gaze returned in full force, glaring furiously at the despicable Lord who had attempted to take his sister's life.

Amidst the pain and agony of his wounds, Ichigo manage to lift his head up and stare at their rescuer.

Immediately, he noticed that the Kuchiki Head was wearing a long cloak instead of the usual battle armor. It took him only a moment to discover that it was the same kind of cloak he and Rukia had been using for the last few months.

This meant that Uryu had delivered the message!

A brief sigh of relief escaped the orange haired man before he felt his strength begin to fade. His body slumped forward but surprisingly, he didn't hit the ground. Instead, his form collapsed into the waiting arms of his partner. Ichigo smiled to himself as he felt genuine contentment for the first time in months.

"…Byakuya Kuchiki," he struggled to say, barely managing to lift his head and stare at the man's back. "…Although…I might…regret it…I'll have to leave… the rest… to you."

Before anyone had the chance to respond, the last of Ichigo's strength gave out and he fell limp in his partner's arms, the darkness closing in on him.

As her partner collapsed into her embrace, Rukia's eye bulged as his words echoed in her ears.

"Fool! Don't say things like that!" she protested, lifting up his heavy body. However, as she propped him up, she noticed that his eyes had completely glossed over and he was struggling to keep them open. Panic gripped her as she shouted, "Don't you dare die on me now, Ichigo!"

Shaking his weary body, her fist closed around the material of his robes as his breathing became more ragged. The bleeding from his shoulder and leg was getting worse and she had nothing to bandage him with.

"Dammit! Stay with me, Ichigo!" she insisted, desperately searching for anything she could use to stop the bleeding. However, without some form of blade, she couldn't even cut her own robes to use as bandages. And at the rate of which he was losing blood, it wouldn't be long before he completely lost consciousness.

"Rukia," her brother's voice startled amidst her panic. "Take the boy and go."

"B-But, Brother—!" she exclaimed, unsure of leaving her brother behind.

"Entrust this fight to me," Byakuya said again, glancing over his shoulder and meeting her conflicted gaze. "You have fought long enough. It is time that I took responsibility for placing you in such a dangerous position in the first place."

Violet eyes widened as those words were spoken. Rukia focused solely on her brother for a moment, almost unable to comprehend him. She had been prepared to die the moment she accepted that dangerous mission from him, so long ago. Never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined anyone but herself to be a fault for her failure and subsequent capture.

Had Byakuya been blaming himself for her disappearance all this time? Or had Ichigo's words influenced him so?

In either case, she didn't have any more time to object. Quickly glancing toward the Kuchiki border, Rukia knew that Ichigo's only chance for survival would be getting there as fast as possible. A field medic would most likely be waiting just inside that checkpoint. Resolve hardened within her and she forced her concerns aside in favor of assisting her partner.

"Alright," she finally answered, firmly making her choice. "Please be careful, Brother."

"There is no need for concern," Byakuya replied, his eye momentarily flicking in her directly. "I will be along shortly."

Almost against her will, a relieved smile spread over Rukia's lips. Those words were spoken with such clarity and certainty, that she began to fill with determination herself. Her brother was the strongest warrior she'd ever known, and he was staying behind to ensure their escape. That alone reassured her and gave her the strength to continue onward.

Taking a moment to gaze at her brother, she could feel the resolve radiating from him as he stood between her and Tsukishima. Byakuya's form was perfect and his defensive stance daunting. He was prepared to halt an entire army's advance if need be.

Positive that her brother would protect their flank, Rukia slung her partner's arm over her shoulder and began lifting him up. Ichigo grunted in protest and his feet instinctively moved to help himself stand.

"Hold on, Ichigo. We're getting out of here," she whispered, watching him struggle to stay conscious.

"S-Sorry…to slow…you down…" he muttered as she raised him up. If he hadn't been injured, he was sure that she would have smacked him for that. Instead, he was greeted by soft words.

"Fool. Don't you remember how many times my stubborn pride slowed us down?"

A light chuckle escaped Ichigo and he closed his eyes as he replied, "I guess…It's my turn then…"

Slowly opening his amber eyes, he found Rukia smiling warmly, her piercing violets strong and determined. She didn't say anything more, instead choosing to tighten her grip on him and pull him up.

As they rose to their feet, Rukia's eyes momentarily shot to her white sword, that lay discarded behind Tsukishima. For what felt like eternity, she stared at the shimmering alabaster blade before turning her back on it and proceeding to usher Ichigo to safety.

Although no one around him would ever know, panic had begun to set into the cruel Lord. The moment his blade had been stopped and his eyes viewed his new foe, it was clear that he had made a fatal mistake. He was too far out alone and he knew that Byakuya would never venture out onto the battlefield without a sound strategy.

Despite that, Tsukishima knew he still held an advantage. They were positioned closer to his border than the Kuchiki's, which meant that his men would no doubt be assembling to mount a rescue. Settling his nerves a bit, the cruel Lord let a defiant smile slip over his features.

"It's quite a surprise to see you here, Byakuya Kuchiki." Tsukishima chided, gaining his fellow Lord's attention. "I'm afraid I can offer little in the ways of hospitality at the moment. I have business to finish up—!"

With a confident grin, Tsukishima twisted his blade, getting the tip of his sword underneath Byakuya's, and thrust it upward to expose the Kuchiki Head's chest to attack. Instantly, Byakuya was on guard and lowered his blade to prepare for the oncoming attack.

Tsukishima practically chuckled as he saw his opponent fall for his ploy. Rather than attacking, the Lord instead darted to Byakuya's side and made to speed past him, heading directly for the injured pair behind him.

Only just getting the both of them to their feet, Rukia's eyes widened as she watched this hated man maneuver past her brother and rear his blade back to strike at her and Ichigo once more. A demented smirk stretched on Tsukishima's face as he thrust the tip of his sword toward her violet eyes.

Suddenly, his face indented as a powerful force rammed into the side of his cheek. His entire body jerked violently to the side and he tumbled harshly to the ground, rolling once before settling his face into the dirt. As the stinging sensation of the attack fully registered, Tsukishima's eyes snapped open and he shot up from the ground onto his knees.

Gritting his teeth, the Lord glared behind him to see Byakuya retracted his enclosed fist, a small amount of blood trickling from his now exposed knuckles. Practically growling, Tsukishima rose to his feet and glared menacingly at the Kuchiki Head, infuriated by the icy visage upon his opponent's face.

"How unrefined of you, Byakuya Kuchiki," Tsukishima finally spat, tenderly touching his cheek and flinching upon contact. "I never expect one of such noble birth to brutishly strike with his bare hand."

Narrowing his eyes and scoffing, the Kuchiki Head wiped the blood from his knuckles on his robes before gripping his blade and angling at Tsukishima. "I will use whatever means I deem necessary to protect my sister and her companion. The method is of little consequence."

Returning the foul gesture with a scoff of his own, Tsukishima held his blade tightly and assumed an offensive position. Glancing behind Byakuya, the infuriated Lord saw the pair turning about and hobbling slowly toward the Kuchiki Border.

Anger coursed through Tsukishima as he realized he may have lost his last opportunity to avenge Master Ginjo. However, he was not willing to give in. All he had to do was ensure that they never made it across the Kuchiki border. They still had quite a distance to go and with their slowed pace, it would take them almost an hour to finally get there.

If he could send the two of them to their deaths, then it would be enough for him…even if he wasn't the one to deliver the final blow.

"I suppose I have to agree with you, Byakuya Kuchiki. The method needs not be refined as long as it achieves my goals," bellowed Tsukishima as he suddenly dropped his guard, surprising his opponent.

A twisted grin tugged at his lips as he raised his sword and pointed it straight up toward the sky. For a moment, Byakuya raised an eyebrow but as he carefully glanced past Tsukishima, his eyes widened for an instant. Even with the large distance between them, the Kuchiki Head could clearly see the archers standing atop the walls of the enemy border.

His steel grey eyes expanded slightly and he couldn't stop himself from glancing over his shoulder toward the fleeing pair.

"Hang on a little longer, Ichigo! We're half-way there!" the raven haired woman reassured her partner as they hobbled forward.

In response, the orange haired man grunted and tried to say, "Y-Yeah…we're…gonna…"

Suddenly, the last of his strength gave out and his legs slipped out from under him. His full weight came down upon his partner and she grunted loudly as she was forced to stop. Rukia did her best to support her partner but it was becoming more than her injured shoulder could support. It was all she could do just to stand upright and they came to an abrupt halt.

"Come on, Partner. We can't stop now. We're still within range of—"

Her own words caught in her throat as she realized their situation. They hadn't gone far from where her brother was battling Tsukishima but that also meant that there was nothing stopping the archers from firing on them!

Gasping and jerking her head around, Rukia looked up to see arrows quickly descending upon them. Violet eyes widened as she realized there was no way to avoid the attack…at least not for both of them. Knowing there was no other way, the raven haired woman prepared to push Ichigo aside and take the arrows herself.

However, before she could make a move, a shadow sped in front of her. Startled by the sudden movement, Rukia lost her only opportunity to shove her partner out of harm's way. Gritting her teeth, she glared upward and was shocked to see someone in a hooded cloak standing over her.

The stranger's back was turned and facing the oncoming arrows, a katana held in one hand.

"Keep your head down! I got this!"

Shock overcame Rukia as she recognized the voice but she instinctively did as instructed, lowering both her and Ichigo to their knees. When it was done, she couldn't stop her eyes from shooting up to see the stranger rear his blade back and slash three oncoming arrows at once. The movement rustled the hood of the stranger and it fell back, revealing a head full of crimson hair.

A bright smile broke out on Rukia's face as the red haired man turned and smirked at her.

"Renji!" she shouted, again disbelieving her eyes. "Renji! You're alive!"

Huffing and resting his blade on his shoulder, the red haired warrior replied, "You didn't really think I'd die that easily, did you?"

Stifling a laugh, Rukia allowed her mind to believe her good fortune. Shaking her head and smiling at him, she replied, "Yeah, I suppose you're too stubborn to die."

Renji's smirked widened but quickly vanished as his eyes narrowed and he glanced behind him. Spinning around, the red haired warrior deflected another arrow before assuming a defensive stance.

"We'll talk later! For now, you two need to get out of here! I'll cover you!"

"Right…Thank you, Renji," she said with a firm nod.

Her features hardening as well, Rukia looked to her exhausted partner and flinched as he struggled for breath. His condition was worsening and she needed to hurry. Unfortunately, as she tried to stand, her legs buckled under his weight and they both fell to the ground. Ichigo lay atop her and with her own strength failing, she didn't have the energy to lift them both.

Nevertheless, the raven haired woman propped herself up with her arms and slowly began the process of trying to lift them both up.

Hearing them collapse, Renji looked over his shoulder and cursed, "Dammit! I suppose we don't have any choice now!"

Rukia grunted and lifted her gaze up to watch the red haired warrior reach into his robes. A moment later, she was shocked to see him pull out a conch horn. Placing it to his lips, he emptied his lungs as the sound of the horn rang out for miles.

As the reverberation echoed in the distance, a look of awe overtook Rukia. Even Ichigo managed to slightly lift his head at the sound, one eye barely open as he fought to keep conscious.

Far ahead of them, Tsukishima watched the scene with confusion.

How had the red haired warrior appeared so suddenly? There was nowhere to hide between the borders due to the barrenness of the field. It was only then that the Lord realized the same was true for Byakuya Kuchiki as well.

The Kuchiki Head had appeared seemingly from nowhere and Tsukishima had been too flustered to question how. But now, seeing that both of them were wearing the same kind of cloak, he began to piece the mystery together. However, before he had time to realize his fatal error, his eyes bulged as he watched a number of cloaked figures rise seemingly out of the ground.

As they did, Tsukishima's eyes widened in horror.

"This…this isn't possible!"

As the sound of the horn faded, Rukia once again tried to stand herself up. And once more, she found herself unable to lift both their weights.

Just then, she was shocked when the pressure atop her suddenly vanished. Even more shocking was that she felt a pair of hands gently grasp her arms and begin to pull her up. As her uninjured arm was slung over someone shoulder, she looked at the one supporting her and gasped.


Turning her head toward her friend, Momo Hinamori smiled and said, "Rukia! Thank the Gods you're alright!"

"Of course she is!" Rukia turned to see Tatsuki addressing her, trying to hide how relieved and happy she was. "Rukia would never get killed by a bunch of weak slavers! I don't know why all of you were so worried!"

"And this time, we won't be leaving her behind!" another familiar voice shouted, which drew Rukia's attention. Turning her head, she found Rangiku standing beside her, propping Ichigo up with her shoulder.

"We need to hurry and get their wounds bandaged," the voice of Orihime sounded behind her, coming into view a few moments later. "They've both lost a lot of blood. We don't have any time to waste."

Seeing all of her allies there, alive and well, Rukia couldn't stop the huge smile that broke out on her face. "Rangiku! Tatsuki! Orihime! I-I don't understand! What are you all doing here?!"

"Obviously, we came here to rescue you!" Tatsuki exclaimed, almost flabbergasted.

"Did you really think that we'd just abandon you?" a concerned Momo questioned.

"Seriously, after all we went through to get here!" Rangiku said, partially exasperated. "That's all you have to say to us?!"

Before Rukia could answer, another recognizable voice shouted at all of them, "We can all catch up later! Right now, our first priority is getting these two the hell out of here!"

Sighing in relief, the raven haired woman saw that Uryu Ishida had been the one to speak.

He was wearing one of his own cloaks and was helping Rangiku to keep Ichigo upright. It was only then that Rukia noticed that all of her companions were wearing the special cloaks. So that was how they managed to get here undiscovered!

A rustling behind her caused Rukia to glance over her shoulder, and what she saw shook her to her very soul.

A large force of nearly sixty men and women, all dressed in armor beneath their cloaks, had formed a wall behind her and Ichigo. Staring at their faces, Rukia recognized each and everyone one of them. They were those in the clan that were loyal to Byakuya and supported his decision of making her the next heir.

There wasn't a single distrustful person in the entire group.

As she stared at the collection of warriors, she heard Momo say, "All of us came here because of you, Lady Rukia. We all volunteered to come and risk our lives on this one chance to save you."

Rukia's violet irises widened even more and a mixture of shock and joy twisted her features. All of these people believed in her so much that they willingly put their lives in jeopardy to come to her aid.

"You shouldn't be so surprised," Rangiku's voice disrupted her thoughts, making her turn toward the blonde woman. "This is the way of the Kuchiki Clan, isn't that right?"

An ironic and grateful chuckle escaped Rukia's throat as she nodded and replied, "Yes…it certainly is."

Now, for the first time in all her life, Rukia felt honored to be called a Kuchiki.

"Alright, everyone! Prepare to charge the enemy stronghold!" Renji shouted to the samurai before turning back and nodding firmly at Rukia and her squad. "You all take care of Rukia and Ichigo! I'm going to assist Lord Byakuya!"

The entire team nodded firmly as they grouped together and began to fulfill their roles.

With no hesitation, the red haired warrior dashed forward, in front of the massive force. Coming to a halt before them, Renji spun around and raised his sword high. As if on cue, all of the warriors drew their own blades and lifted them up as well.

"Show no mercy to those who tried to slay Lady Rukia!" the red haired warrior commanded before turning about. "Charge!"

As one, the Kuchiki samurai screamed a battle cry and sped forward, their furious shouts sending shivers down the spine of every enemy soldier that heard them. Once the group of samurai had gone quite a distance, Uryu and Rukia's squad shared another nod.

"Right. Let's get moving everyone! I can't treat Ichigo all the way out here!" Uryu instructed them, ushering them toward the Kuchiki border.

"Rukia needs medical attention too!" Momo insisted as she helped her friend along.

"I'll go on ahead and prepare for the procedure!" Orihime insisted, rushing toward the border with all haste.

Drawing her blade and walking behind the group, Tatsuki concurred, "I'll watch the rear flank and keep any oncoming threats at bay!"

"No wonder Rukia took so long to get home! Traveling with such a handsome man would slow me down too!" chided Rangiku as she assisted in carrying Ichigo.

Hearing the voices of all of her companions and seeing her fellow clansmen rush to aid them filled Rukia with unbelievable contentment. Never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined all of these people appearing just when they were needed most. Hanging her head, all the raven haired woman could feel was overwhelming gratitude. And although she tried to hold them in, she was unable to stop the tears of joy that spilled from her eyes.

"Thank you! All of you!" she whispered intently as her friends and allies cleared a path for the return home.

Tsukishima inwardly growled as he suddenly found himself surrounded by nearly thirty samurai, all directing their blades toward him. The other half of the Kuchiki samurai rushed past and headed directly for the weakened fort. He gripped his blade tightly but let it rest at his side, not foolish enough to fight when he's clearly outnumbered.

Soon, the sounds of screams rang out from the fortress behind him and Tsukishima knew that it was his men being slain. Even though if he had brought a larger force with him to the border, this might not have happened. However, he never could have anticipated this sneak attack.

Lowering his head, the cruel Lord was forced the face the grim reality that his ambition was coming to an abrupt end. Even if he managed to survive this attack, he knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Kuchiki Clan declared war and marched on his small territory.

Lifting his gaze, Tsukishima watched as the red haired warrior that had somehow escaped from the eastern border now miraculously reappeared at Byakuya's side. Standing there, with a relatively calm visage, Tsukishima waited and listened as the red haired warrior gave his report.

"You have done well, Renji Abarai," Byakuya told his retainer after hearing of Rukia and Ichigo's escape.

Both men turned and glared at Tsukishima, their gazes filled with contempt. A few quiet moments passed before the red haired warrior took a step forward only to be stopped when Byakuya held his hand out to stop him. Confused by his restraint, Renji turned to his Lord and found a pair of steel grey eyes bearing into him.

"This fight was entrusted to me. I will not let anyone interfere."

Hearing that, Renji glared at Tsukishima long enough to sneer before backing away. "Alright then, Your Lordship. Just be sure to make him suffer for what he's done."

Without a single word, Byakuya took his sword in both hands and held it firmly in an offensive position. His face was expressionless and not even a hint of weakness could be seen in his entire form.

That served as the answer to Renji's request. No one who had ever faced Byakuya Kuchiki while in that stance had ever lived to tell the tale. Reassured that his Lord would handle that bastard Tsukishima, the red haired warrior held up his hand and signaled to all of the remaining samurai.

Slowly, they all backed away from the two Lords and turned to charge the fortress, reinforcing the unit that was leading the assault.

Tsukishima was overcome with shock as he watched the samurai disengage from him and instead head toward the practically overtaken fort. However, instead of feeling despair at his fortress being taken, a small sliver of anticipation seeped into the cruel Lord. The fools had left him alone with the Head of their Clan.

Pulling his blade up and grasping it with both hands, Tsukishima assumed an offensive position and said, "How noble of you, Byakuya Kuchiki, wishing to finish our battle alone. Any sensible warrior would have welcomed the aid of his clansme—".

"Is that all you have to say before you depart from this world?" Byakuya interrupted, not even a muscle moving as he stood ready for battle. "In truth, I despite people such as you. One who earns victories through deception and trickery."

Almost immediately, Tsukishima's enthusiasm soured. However, he refused to let this prominent situation be wasted by giving in to anger. Instead, he shifted his stance, angled his blade toward his foe, and prepared to make the first attack.

"Oh, I see. So you believe that using strategy and tactics to avoid direct conflict is cowardly? Did you ever take a moment to consider how many lives have been spared because of such stratagem?" he retorted, watching his foe's reaction carefully.

Without so much as a twitch, Byakuya responded, "In comparison to the great number of lives your 'business' has destroyed, I see little value in your 'stratagem'. How can one call himself 'Lord' when he treats the people he is sworn to protect with such contempt?"

To this Tsukishima raised an eyebrow and genuine surprise registered on his face.

"The 'people' who flocked to this land that my allies and I fought and bled to claim offered nothing in exchange for their lively-hood here. They believed that simply because a new territory had formed, they were entitled to come and prosper here without lifting a finger to contribute to it."

Lowering his brow and hardening his features, he finished, "None of them earned a place in this land. None of them fought and sacrificed to create it. Therefore, they are not my people. They are little more than livestock that I have allowed to graze here. Pawns which I have chosen to exploit for the betterment of my clan."

A heavy silence dug into them both as they stared each other down. The rustling of the wind and the echoes of the nearby battle were the only sounds that penetrated the quiet moment.

That is, until Byakuya closed his eyes and said, "That audacity is punishable only by death."

Scoffing at his declaration, Tsukishima let a smile overtake his features before he steadied himself for the battle.

"It would be wise not to underestimate your opponent," the cruel Lord said quickly before twisting his blade and charging.

As Tsukishima approached, Byakuya showed no signs of movement, fixed in his stance and glaring outward. Watching the Lord lift his blade, Byakuya instinctively knew the way to counter. As the blade came down vertically, he slightly shifted his feet to the side and flicked the oncoming attack away effortlessly.

Tsukishima's blade flew up but remained firmly in his hands, his body only inches his foe's.

Immediately afterward deflecting the attack, Byakuya slashed upward horizontally, expecting to slice through Tsukishima's shoulder. To his shock, his blade swung clean, cutting only through air. As a hint of shock registered in the Kuchiki Head's mind, he felt a sharp pain tear through his side.

Steely grey eyes widened as Byakuya turned on his heels to see Tsukishima standing a short distance behind him. The most surprising fact, however, was the thin line of blood that ran down the Lord's sword. Glancing down to his side, Byakuya found a minor incision on his abdomen, just above his waist. It wasn't deep but it caused a dull ache to spread through his entire side.

For Tsukishima to have inflicted such a calculated and precise attack, without the attack itself being seen, was nothing short of horrifying. More than that, Byakuya was perplexed by the fact that he had managed to slip through his defensive stance and landed a blow at all. The very thought caused the Kuchiki Head to lifted his gaze to his foe, questioning how he performed such a feat.

Turning around and smiling at him, Tsukishima took in his opponents inquisitive gaze but said nothing as he raised his blade to attack again.

Shaking off his perplexion, Byakuya regained his defensive stance and prepared himself. Tsukishima had gotten through his defenses only slightly, because he had underestimated the Lord's speed. This time, he would be prepared for such a tactic and would not make the same mistake.

Like before, Tsukishima charged at him but this time he swiped upward diagonally. Again, Byakuya's quick reflexes allowed him to move aside and counter, slapping the attack away with no wasted movement. Remembering to consider his opponents agility, the Kuchiki Head decided to use a feign to draw his foe in closer.

Byakuya lifted his blade and pretended to go for a vertical slash but stopped as he witness Tsukishima seemingly disappear before his eyes. Trusting his instincts, the Kuchiki Head spun around and prepared to swipe behind him, where he believe his foe would appear next.

To his utter shock, just as he began to follow through with his attack, he felt a hand press against his sword arm, completely halting his attack. Once more, Byakuya's grey eyes bulged as he glanced over his shoulder to see Tsukishima smiling at him, holding back the attack with only one arm.

"There's no use in trying. Your sword will never be able to cut me," the cruel Lord informed him keeping enough pressure on his opponents arm to keep it in place. His smile widening into a smirk, Tsukishima continued, "I've seen your techniques so many times now that I've become bored of them."

A wave of uncertainly passed through Byakuya's body, tensing as those words rang in his ears. In that moment of confusion, Tsukishima abruptly tugged on the Kuchiki Head's arm and forced his body to completely turn about. Byakuya could do nothing as he watched the Lord's blade descend and slash him across the chest.

The pain jolting him back to readiness, Byakuya swung his blade at his opponent but grunted as his foe leapt away long before the strike could reach him. Warm blood seeped out of the gash in the Kuchiki Head's chest, his robes torn and his chest slightly exposed due to the attack. Unlike his previous wound, this one was deep and sent pricks of agony through all the upper body.

However, though the injury made him flinch, it was by no means debilitating. Byakuya simply cleared his mind and forced the pain away, standing upright and hold a stoic visage. As he did, his gaze narrowed as he watched Tsukishima slowly smile at him.

"That moment of hesitation has sealed your fate," the cruel Lord said carefully, "I wonder if your thoughts are questioning, 'How was he able to penetrate my Absolute Defense Stance?'"

Although his opponent made absolutely no outward display of shock, Tsukishima could see the surprise deep within Byakuya's steel grey eyes. A light chuckle escaped the cruel Lord's throat as he allowed himself to relax for a moment, confident his foe wouldn't attack him.

Taking his sleeve and wiping away his opponent's blood, Tsukishima said, "Your stance just now, you believe that it is without equal and that no one would ever be able to penetrate it's defenses. Hence, 'Absolute Defense Stance'."

Making sure his blade was cleansed of red, the Lord let his blade rest at his side as he continued, "You plant both feet firmly but not hard enough so that your body can't rotate on a heel in a complete circle. This allows you to counter attack from all sides without moving from a single spot. And using your sword as both a means of attack and defense, you have calculated that anything within eighty-five centimeters around your body would be unable to pierce through such a defense."

Byakuya listened carefully to his opponent's words but did not break his stoic visage, remaining as unreadable as before. However, it was because he showed no reaction that Tsukishima was able to confirm that his assumption about the Kuchiki Head's abilities was, in fact, correct.

"What did you mean by 'seeing my techniques'?" Byakuya finally spoke, his hardened visage unshakable. "This is the first time we have faced each other in combat."

"That may be true but that does not mean I have not witness your skills in battle," Tsukishima replied, shrugging his shoulders. "After all, you personally led a unit against my forces numerous times before we negotiated peace between our lands."

As Byakuya narrowed his eyes, the cruel Lord saw that he understood his meaning.

"I have watched you in combat several times over the last decade," a confident Tsukishima continued, lowering his blade and completely relaxing his guard. "I watched you dispatch wave after wave of my finest soldiers with your techniques and I was sure to engrave them into my memory. After all, many lives were sacrificed to obtain this knowledge."

Scoffing lightly at this notion, Byakuya countered, "If it were so easy to overcome my clan's techniques, we would have been defeated long ago."

"That is correct but I believe you misunderstand something," Tsukishima informed him, letting a smile grace his lips. "You have always been a threat to my lands, one that I was confident I would battle someday. To that end, do you believe that a warrior as gifted as myself would simply leave such an encounter to chance?"

Although he tried to keep his emotions at bay, Byakuya couldn't help but feel infuriated by this turn of events. Never in his most vile nightmares would he have imagined that a fellow Lord would use his own men as pawns to discover a single warrior's weakness.

The most maddening fact was; Byakuya wasn't sure if he was impressed or mortified by this man's excessive plotting.

Furthermore, Tsukishima was known throughout the land as a fearsome warrior and tactician. It was rumored that he had also never been defeated in battle, a feat that Byakuya could now believe. With such meticulous planning and cautious forethought, it was entirely possible that Tsukishima was capable of deciphering the Kuchiki techniques with a single glance.

This thought was not only unsettling, it damaged Byakuya's pride as the Head of the Kuchiki Clan. That such a man was able to best his clan's sacred techniques only brought further shame for having been allied with him for so long!

Glancing down at the sword clutching in Byakuya's grasp, Tsukishima's smile upturned into a smirk.

"Such a magnificent blade you possess – Senbonzakura Kageyoshi. One of the Great Muramasa's Five Sacred Blades, designed for warriors such as yourself."

Tsukishima pointed at it with his index finger. "It's perfectly balanced for both offensive and defensive attacks. That alone makes it powerful. However, its true strength lies in a wielder who can simultaneously use it for both attack and defense. In other words, it was made to counter and turn an opponent's strength back onto them."

Dropping his hand, Tsukishima cocked his head slightly and said, "However, that can also be one's undoing."

"Why do you say that?" Byakuya questioned, still minutely shaken by this change in advantages.

Tsukishima lifted his own blade and said, "Although my sword was never forged by such a master sword smith, it is more than enough to combat any of Muramasa's weapons. And it is all I need to penetrate your defenses."

Almost against his will, Byakuya raised an eyebrow at the Lord, prompting him to continue, "Most would make the mistake of believing that distance would help them discover a way through your defenses but it's the opposite. If one can simply maneuver within the eighty-five centimeter range, then they can easily strike a critical blow because you are unprepared for such a close range attack."

Tsukishima let his blade lower back to his side before chuckling ironically to himself.

"Simply put, in order to defeat you one must not retreat, but continue to advance. However, it's nearly impossible for anyone to come to this conclusion without gathering the proper information. To that end, I'm guessing that very few of your clansmen are aware of this perfect stance. Perhaps Lady Rukia is the only person beside the two of us whom you've shared this with?"

Byakuya's eyes furrowed ever so slightly at the mention of his sister's name, a grim reminder of what was at stake if this fearsome opponent managed to completely break through his defenses. Taking up his stance again, the Kuchiki Head readied himself for another attack.

Seeing this, Tsukishima couldn't suppress the laugh that bellowed a moment later.

"I understand your stubborn pride as a Kuchiki compels you to fight but even you must realize how outmatched you are." He ceased his laughter and smiled again. "I have studied the Kuchiki techniques long enough to know how to defeat each and every one of them."

"You imply that you have knowledge of all my clan's sacred techniques?" Byakuya inquired, unnerved by such a declaration. "So, you know our stances and their meanings, with a single glance?"

Stifling a chuckle, Tsukishima wave dismissively and answered, "You and your sister were trained in the same sacred arts, am I correct? She has spent a great deal of time in this land and I have personally watched her impressive swordsmanship on several occasions. That would mean that simply watching her and memorizing her fighting style would be enough, don't you think?"

"You are a fool if you believe that is all that would be required to understand our techniques," the Kuchiki Head fired back, his voice low.

"Perhaps," the Lord partially admitted, "But with your current injuries, I'd say that I have deciphered them quite well. Wouldn't you agree?"

Without warning, Tsukishima charged him again, swinging his blade upward diagonally. However, the attack was again parried and pushed back. The Lord smirked as he sped back with the Stance's striking range and prepared to slice at his foe again.

Suddenly, a flash appeared before his eyes and Tsukishima narrowly managed to cease his charge and jump back. Regaining his footing, the Lord discovered that his cheek stung and he raised a hand to it. Shockingly, when he retracted his hand, red stained his fingertips.

Lifting his gaze up, he narrowed his eyes at Byakuya and said, "Quite impressive I must admit. You managed to overcome my speed for a moment."

Glaring coldly at him, the Kuchiki Head resumed his Stance and said, "You have made a fatal mistake as well, revealing your own weakness to me."

"Weakness?" questioned Tsukishima with a raised brow.

"By informing me of you knowledge of my techniques and your measures for countering them, I now know what is required to repel such attacks," Byakuya explained, changing his stance slightly and pulling his blade in closer.

Seeing this change, Tsukishima sighed and said, "Now who's being foolish?" He raised his blade and slowly began circling his foe. "Do you believe that you can retrain your reflexes in such a short amount of time?"

Keeping his eyes focused on his encircling foe, Byakuya replied, "I have little choice in the matter—"

Before he could finish, Tsukishima rushed him from the side, thrusting his blade forward at shoulder level. Feeling ready for this encounter, the Kuchiki Head didn't turn but instead transferred his blade to one hand before using it to quickly deflect the attack.

Unfortunately, when Byakuya twisted his blade for the counterattack, he found he had only an instant before Tsukishima's blade doubled back and slice through his shoulder.

Willing away the pain, Byakuya slashed at his foe but missed completely. Tsukishima had changed his attack pattern and was now using his encircling to make his moves unpredictable. And with this cruel Lord countering all of his techniques, it was only a matter of time before he landed a fatal blow.

As Byakuya realized how desperate his situation had become, he saw another flash of steel glide past him. This time, he felt the blade cut deep into his abdomen and he couldn't help but grunt as his mind finally registered the feeling of agony.

A hand flew to the exposed wound and hot blood poured over his fingers as he pressed hard to cease the bleeding. At the same time, Byakuya raised his head and scanned the area but he had unfortunately lost track of his opponent.

It was then that he heard Tsukishima's infuriating laughter from behind him.

"Did you believe it was all a bluff? That I would be a feeble opponent that you could defeat with such ease?" he questioned as he continued to chuckle to himself.

Jerking his body around to face Tsukishima, a huge rupture of pain spread through Byakuya. He grunted audibly as his wounds ached and bled profusely. Red droplets plopped into the earth, staining it with noble blood.

However, Byakuya forced his body upright and resumed his stance again, unwilling to give in.

This display forced an exasperated sigh from Tsukishima before he dashed forward to strike again. Angling his blade, he thrust his blade toward Byakuya's chest.

Fighting the pain, the Kuchiki Head parried the attack but again found himself unable to stop the ruthless counter that Tsukishima delivered afterward. Swinging the blade with great force, the cruel Lord chose to strike at Byakuya's sword arm instead of his body.

Noticing the change in tactics, Byakuya tried to evade but it was too late. Steel sliced his forearm down to his hand, eventually colliding with the blade of his sword. The intensity of the attack ripped the blade out of his hand and sent it flying a few feet away, clattering to the ground with an audible crash.

Leaping back and clenching his injured fist, Byakuya grunted and closed his eyes, attempting to will away the pain. Opening his eyes, his vision fell upon his discarded Senbonzakura, it's pure white hilt stained in the dirt of the barren field.

Watching him carefully, Tsukishima surmised that the battle was effectively over.

Judging by the way Byakuya was holding himself, it was obvious that all of his wounds burned and ached intensely, which explained why the Kuchiki Head remained where he was instead of making a dash for his blade. With all those injuries, it was plain to see that if he moved around too much, he would bleed out more. More than likely, he was already feeling light-headed, and if he lost much more blood he'd probably lose consciousness.

Breathing heavily through his nose, Byakuya's calm demeanor returned as he lifted his gaze to him and all that Tsukishima could do was smile victoriously.

"I must say, I never anticipated you being so reckless, Byakuya Kuchiki." Tsukishima cocked his head slightly and grinned, flicking the blood from his blade. "Sending your men away was a fatal mistake. You should have overwhelmed me with numbers and never given me the opportunity to strike back."

Glancing back to his fortress, Tsukishima sighed and said, "My reinforcements should be arriving in a matter of hours and with them I can quickly overturn this battle. And without you to lead them, your Clan will be forced to surrender or face annihilation."

Turning back and staring triumphantly at his defeated foe, the Lord couldn't help the gloating smirk that overtook him. Byakuya stood, hunched over and reeling in agony from his many wounds, his injured hand still closed in a tight fist as the blood flowed down and dripped from his knuckles.

Seeing his opponent so grief stricken filled Tsukishima with unbridled joy.

"I have long since awaited this day," he admitted, taking a step forward. "The day when I would at last claim a larger territory and my land would no longer be threatened by the noble clans that surround it. With this, I can expand my influence and finally fulfill Master Ginjo's dream of destroying the clan that murdered his wife."

Despite not fully understanding the Lord's motives, his hate filled words made it infinitely clear why Tsukishima harbored such a grudge against his clan. Byakuya had always sensed that the Lord harbored such feelings but only now could he comprehend them.

Was this the reason the Lord had tortured and relentlessly pursued his sister all this time? Was it all to make the Kuchiki Clan suffer? Unfortunately, none of this was of any consequence at the moment.

Slowly walking toward the injured Kuchiki Head, Tsukishima chuckled as he said, "With your death, all my ambitions will be realized. But don't fear, I'll be sending your whore of a sister to meet you in the afterlife…very soon."

The moment those words were uttered, the Lord was shocked to see Byakuya slowly began to raise his injured arm.

When it was halfway lifted up, he stopped and held it there, closing his eyes to focus. At the same time, his form completely changed and he spread out his legs to widen the stance. He then pulled his uninjured arm up into a Jujutsu defensive position.

For a moment, Tsukishima was perplexed but he quickly laughed as he realized his foe's intent.

"Martial arts, now? You Kuchiki's are far too stubborn," he chided mercilessly as he continued to approach his foe. "I have studied many different forms of martial arts myself, including many foreign styles. Do you really believe that using martial arts instead of your lost sword will give you honor as you die?"

However, Byakuya simply kept his eyes closed and maintained his Jujutsu position.

For an unknown reason, this final bit of futility amused Tsukishima. Seeing the great Byakuya Kuchiki, hunched over and relying on his baser instincts to survive brought a twisted sense of accomplishment. Tsukishima had single-handedly brought one of the most powerful warlords to his knees. History would remember this day for centuries to come.

Deciding to humor his final attempt at defiance, Tsukishima smiled wide as he stood in front of the injured Byakuya. Spreading his arms wide and exposing his chest, he said, "If you insist on such frivolity, I will at least grant you the first strike—".

Before he could finish, Byakuya's eyes snapped open and his wounded arm shot out toward Tsukishima's chest. When it did, a small gleam flashed as a small tanto blade flew out of his sleeve and into his hand. Using that momentum, the Kuchiki Head mercilessly plunged the blade deeply between the Lord's ribs.

There was no time to cry out as the blade pierced him, the intense pain paralyzing Tsukishima where he stood. His entire body twitched as his mind caught up with what had happened. He lost his grip on his sword and it slipped from his fingers, falling to the earth with a loud clack.

His eyes dilating, Tsukishima glared down at the small blade and choked, "H-How…did you…?"

"I have never used this technique before," the Kuchiki Head explained, "It was taught to me by a detestable ninja woman. And I have never considered using it until now."

Tsukishima's eyes widened at those words and to his utter shock, he watched as Byakuya slowly stood up, as if he wasn't injured at all. Getting a closer look, the dying Lord now saw that the injuries he'd inflicted on the Kuchiki Head weren't as deep as they appeared to be.

In fact, these wounds would have barely slowed a seasoned warrior such as Byakuya. But that would mean—!

"Y-You…deceived me…" Tsukishima realized, glaring up at his foe. "Y-Your…injuries…weren't…"

Before he could continue, Byakuya narrowed his eyes and harshly twisted the small blade in the Lord's chest. Coughing violently at the painful action, Tsukishima felt blood rise up his throat and burst out his mouth. Red splattered onto the Kuchiki Head's robes but he paid it no mind, focusing intently on finishing his opponent.

As the life began to drain from Tsukishima, a melancholy smile overtook his lips as he said, "To think…you were…capable…of fighting like this…"

With absolutely no remorse in his eyes, Byakuya met his gaze and replied, "Until now, I had always believed that a battle was to be faced with a flawless stance born from training and discipline."

For only a moment, a hint of compassion lit up in those steely grey eyes.

"But today, I experienced the joy of having to fight with all my strength, struggling to survive amidst the chaos of battle. And I also learned, that there is a limit to my skills and that I still have much to discover about my own abilities. If only for that, you have my deepest gratitude."

And just like that, that moment of compassion passed and his eyes regained their frigid glare.

"However, you are an enemy of not only my clan but my sister and her companion. And I will never forgive anyone who dares to threaten them."

With a fierce tug, he ripped the tanto blade violently out of the Lord's chest and stepped back. Hot crimson burst from the gaping wound between his ribs and Tsukishima's body convulsed as he fell to his knees. Cold engulfed him as he felt his life slowly draining away. With great effort, he turned and focused his eyes in the direction Ichigo and Rukia had fled.

In these last moments, Tsukishima's ambition was forgotten as he stared toward the Kuchiki border. His eyes fell upon Ichigo and Rukia just as the gates opened to welcome them. As they were ushered into the safety of the checkpoint, he slowly began to lift his arm. In futility, he reached his hand out, as if trying to grasp them.

In this, his final moments, all he was consumed with was the burning desire to capture them. He was ever so close and he felt as if he could reach out and grasp them.

However, the large gates of the checkpoint steadily began to close and with it, the light in his eyes slowly began to fade. At the same time, he reached his hand out further, a last attempt to defy his fate. Then, as the massive doors to the border closed on him, forever putting the pair out of his reach, Tsukishima's life finally extinguished.

Byakuya watched as the Lord's arm fell limply to his side. Despite all of his talent and ability, in the end, Tsukishima had been no match for the strength of their bond.

"Quickly…needs med…treatment!" a far off voice resounded.

Ichigo's consciousness flickered as he felt his body being carried such a long distance. He tried to concentrate and register the voice and sounds he heard. Regrettable, he found that it was becoming harder and harder to maintain focus. Even the intense pain began to dull as he felt a great darkness closing in on him.

However, he still struggled to hold on, listening for anything that might help keep him awake. He heard a large gate open and felt his body being dragged onward, as it had been for what seemed like an eternity.

Just then, his body abruptly halted and was lowered. Hands flipped him over and rested him on his back. With great effort, he forced open his eyes. Everything around him was blurry and distorted, but he could make out several figures surrounding him and rushing about.

"It'll be…removing the arrows…have to…careful…" he thought he heard a young woman say, seeing a flash of auburn above his head.

"We need…op the bleed…else he'll…" a familiar voice sounded in his ears, followed by a passing of another individual.

For a second, he swore that it was Uryu who had spoken but he knew it was impossible. There was no way that his friend could be here, saving his life as he'd done many times over.

Just then, a wave of unexpected pain from his shoulder tore through him. His body jerked and he gritted his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut due to the agony. However, the pain didn't cease, it only intensified as he felt something being forcibly removed from his shoulder. He gasped loudly and began to pant heavily, his lungs unable to hold much air.

"Someon…hold…still!...We…can't…him thrashing around…!"

Abruptly, he felt numerous hands pressing down on him. The pressure only intensified his agony and he found himself crying out. As he did, that great darkness began to completely engulf him, his vision completely blackening. The combination of the pain and darkness was maddening and he felt his resolve begin to waver.

It was then that a strong voice pierced through that darkness:

"Don't give in, Ichigo! You're going to survive! I know that you're strong enough make it through this! So don't you dare die on me! We have a promise to keep, dammit!"

Gasping, Ichigo felt the encroaching blackness recede slightly as he recognized her voice.

"R-Ru…kia…" he whispered holding up his hand.

Immediately, he felt someone firmly grasp his palm with both hands. A feeling of warmth spread through him, beginning to ease his suffering. He didn't have to open his eyes or ask who it was that had saved him from that blackness. It was the same person he had once saved from a darkness so deep and terrible, it had threatened to consume her.

"Just keep holding on," he heard Rukia whispered to him, her voice cutting through all his agony. "I know that you'll pull through…you always do."

Hearing those encouraging words, Ichigo felt a different kind of darkness overtaking him. It was warm and soothing, and he felt truly safe within it. And so, with his partner's words echoing deep in his mind, he finally allowed himself to give in and let that peaceful blackness take him.

-Some Time Later-

That peaceful darkness wrapped itself around Ichigo and refused to let go. However, in that state of almost pure bliss, he found the strength to claw his way out of that heavenly peace. Swimming through an ocean of blackness, he finally felt his consciousness resurface.

Amber eye fluttered, heavy with sleep as they opened to the world once again.

Much to Ichigo's surprise, he found himself staring a ceiling instead of the sky, as he had expected. Groaning and blinking rapidly to adjust his vision, the orange haired samurai slowly began lifting his arms. They felt weighed down and it took him a moment to realize that it was because a large futon blanket had been spread over top of him.

Although he felt very weak, he still managed to lightly pull the blanket off and sit up. When he did, a sting registered in his shoulder. His opposite hand rested gingerly on his wounded appendage and he tried to remember what had happened to leave him injured so. As he wracked his mind, trying to recall the memory, he heard the door to his room open.


He heard that familiar voice call out to him and he turned to see Rukia standing in the doorway, a confident smirk on her face. She was wearing a lavender kimono with her arm in a bandaged sling but otherwise she seemed uninjured. Her visage was weary but her eyes were as strong and determined as ever.

The moment he saw her, it all flooded back to him. Their desperate gamble in crossing the border, him being struck by the arrows, Rukia defending him as Tsukishima closed in, their apparent final moment together, and then…Byakuya's sudden appearance.

In spite of remembering it all, the only thought that consumed him was that she was alive and well.

"…Hey," he replied weakly, his voice hoarse.

"So you finally managed to wake up, huh?" she chided as she closed the door and approached his futon. "How are you feeling? Are you injuries bothering you?"

"…Not really," he answered softly, still trying to get his voice back. "How long have I been asleep?"

Carefully kneeling beside him, she sighed and said, "It's been about five days now."

"Five days…" he mused, having so many questions. No point in waiting to ask at this point. "So, what happened?"

For a moment, Rukia looked almost surprised, not expecting him to ask so suddenly. However, she huffed in mock annoyance before giving him a light smile.

"We managed to get through the border. My clansmen came to support us and they carried you the entire way. After that, Uryu tended to your wounds and managed to stop the bleeding. It was lucky that he—".

"Wait! You mean Uryu's here!" Ichigo abruptly interrupted, shock consuming his features.

Furrowing her brows at him for interjecting, Rukia sighed and answered, "Yes, he's here. Apparently, he was the one who convinced my brother to head for the northern border to await our arrival."

Ichigo chuckled lightly to himself upon hearing this. Perhaps he hadn't imaged his friend's voice after all. Disregarding that, he suddenly felt a huge weight lifted from his shoulders. He would have to thank the tailor once he saw him again, probably would never live it down that his friend had been the one to save him, again!

Shaking his head slightly and letting himself take a deep breath, the orange haired samurai prepared himself before asking, "So…what happened to Tsukishima?"

The moment that question was asked, Rukia allowed a triumphant smirk to overtake her features.

"Dead. By my brother's hand."

Almost against his will, a victorious grin spread over Ichigo's lips as he nodded firmly to her, obviously pleased by this news.

"Damn," he said ironically, making Rukia raise an eyebrow at him. "I wanted to kill the bastard myself."

Stifling a chuckle, the raven haired woman nodded and concurred, "I'll admit I was disappointed at first. But once you hear of how my brother defeated him, I'm sure you won't mind so much."

"We'll see," Ichigo chided, giving her another smirk. Glancing down at her bandaged arm in the sling, a small scowl crept over Ichigo's features. "How are your injuries?"

Giving him a quizzical glare, Rukia honestly scoffed at his comment and responded, "The arrow that hit me barely did any damage but Uryu insisted that I wear this uncomfortable sling until he believes that I've healed enough."

"Sounds just like him," the orange haired samurai agreed, lifting up the blanket discovering a bandage and splint on his injured leg. "I guess I'm not going anywhere either. Not until my leg heals up."

"Were you expecting to leave right away?" Rukia questioned, a bit perplexed by his comment.

To this, Ichigo grinned before spreading the blanket over his lower body again. "You know I can't stand to be around the nobility. Besides, they'll probably kick me out the instant I can walk again."

Although he sounded serious, he couldn't stop the content smile that overtook him as he complained.

Rukia scoffed slightly at this but returned the gesture before easing into a relaxed seated position next to him. Seeing her so calm relieved her partner greatly and he finally allowed himself to look about the room.

It was a small, rectangular room with eloquent designs painted on the sliding doors. He also noted that the futon he rested on was abnormally comfy and even as he sat up, he felt no discomfort in the slightest. It was by far the coziest little space he'd ever spent time in, Urahara's brother didn't even come close.

However, this did prompt him to ask, "So, where exactly are we? Inside the checkpoint?"

"Actually, we're in my brother's castle," Rukia answered with a proud smile, "They transported us in a carriage while we were recovering. I was awake for most of it but you kept on sleeping."

Hearing this, the orange haired samurai lifted his head toward the ceiling and breathed a heavy sigh.

"I almost can't believe…we actually made it here," he said astonishingly, letting it all sink in.

Just then, he felt a warm hand grasp his own and he slowly turned his gaze to see Rukia staring at him intently. He was caught off-guard by how serious she appeared to be and could only sit in silence as she squeezed his hand tightly.

"Ichigo…Thank you for keeping your promise."

Her words reminded him of the many oaths they had sworn to each other over their long journey. Assuring that he would see her home safely, making the pact to fight and die as partners, guaranteeing that he wouldn't allow himself to be killed distracting Tsukishima…and promising that they would always remain loyal to each other, no matter the cost.

As all of these memories played out in his mind, Ichigo didn't fight the warm smile that broke out over his features.

At the same time, Rukia's face erupted in a bright and appreciative smile. As he gazed at it, Ichigo almost felt as if his heart stopped. Regaining his wits, he gripped her hand in return, remaining quiet. There was nothing for him to say, it was all in his eyes and he knew his partner could see it.

Amber and violet stared into each other for the longest time, reveling in the joy of being alive and well. No words needed to be spoken, it was all there right in front of them.

They had survived…together.

To Be Continued…

Hurray for the slaying of the bastard! Hurray for the returning back home! Hurry for still having a few more chapters!

Yeah, this was a great chapter to work on but it took me so long to get it right! I slaved over this because I had that epic fight between Byakuya and Tsukishima. I re-watched their duel in the anime and wanted to try and emulate it without copying it too much. However, I didn't want it to be 'Byakuya kills Tsukishima in one strike' because that would have been boring.

This fight is one that I'm very nervous about. I did my best to edit and clean it up but I still don't know if it turned out the best. So again, could you please leave a review if you think you can suggest ways to improve it? I felt off with this one and having feedback on it would certainly help!

Anyway, leave a review in either case, to tell me what you think of the story or if you have any questions before the final few chapters. We've still got a few more to get through so I hope that you all enjoy the rest of them!

Keep on smiling, my beautiful readers! :D