A/N: This occurs around episode 270, so watch for spoilers if you haven't finished yet! I'm thinking about incorporating stuff from the manga in later down the line, but I'll warn at the top of the chapter in which I start to do that. Enjoy!

Chapter 1: Rigor Mortis

Not for the first time, I crashed into the bone-white pillar with crushing force. My right arm went numb as it splintered against the rock but my grip did not falter, even as the rest of my body sagged downwards like the boughs of an apple tree before harvest. God it hurt so much... And I was tired. So, so tired.

Vision blurring, knees buckling, I came crashing downward upon the shattered surface of the broken pillar.

In the black skies of Las Noches, Ichigo Kurosaki fell.

Inoue Orihime stood rigidly before the spectacle before her, eyes wide yet unseeing. Beside her Uryu watched stoically, eyes dark, and his hand twitched toward the handle of one of his Quincy knives.

In front of them a distant figure almost indiscernible from the pillar beneath him stooped to pick up the beaten figure below him. The orange-haired shinigami hung limp from his choking grasp, hand clenched around Zangetsu in an inexplicable yet infallible grip despite his unconscious state. It was, thought Uryu distantly, as though the macabre tendrils were already enveloping Ichigo, throwing him into the confines of rigor mortis even before heart had stopped beating.

The quincy grit his teeth. I have to do something, he thought desperately. Hardening his faltering will, he nudged Orihime.

"Get ready," he murmured, careful not to draw too much attention before the plan was in motion. "If you distract him with your Soten Keshun, I might be able to get a hit in. If nothing else, we might be able to buy Ichigo some time to recover." Then under his breath: "I'm sorry I couldn't protect you, Orihime-san."

She looked at him sharply. "Uryu. Ichigo's life is in danger. Do you truly think so little of me? Do not presume me helpless." She sighed, her tone softening somewhat. "Besides. It's the least I can do." She forced a smile. "And if we don't save him now, who will save us later?"

Uryu laughed uneasily. "Yes, I suppose that's true."

"Well then." Orihime grimaced, baring her teeth. "I guess it's our turn to do some protecting."

El cuarto espada turned his gaze away, passively scanning the horizon for the dim spiritual pressures he had sensed earlier. There. The captive, Inoue Orihime, and another one he thought he recognized from somewhere else stood a ways off, talking amongst themselves. Weaklings, he thought, disgusted by their apparent lack of power. I'll deal with them quickly, he thought. Aizen only wants the shinigami. He wouldn't be forced to take his time with them. If they died, well, that was their own fault.

"Orihime," he invoked, raising his voice above the night winds. "Quincy. Any interference will be dealt with death. Kurosaki is my only charge." Ichigo still firmly in hand, Ulquiorra sonidoed onto the ceiling, a mere ten feet from the two companions. They flinched slightly. His lip curled.

They stared at each other for a brief pause, and then as though a bomb had dropped Inoue spread her arms, shouting, "Soten Keshun, I reject!"

In a second he was behind the girl, her magic flying harmlessly into the space where he had been only moments earlier. As she turned around her eyes widened. His tail whipped up—but was stopped short of its target by a lightning-blue blade. Huh. That was irritating...

Ulquiorra slammed his wing into the offending quincy, knocking him into the pillar adjacent, and in the same motion created a Lanza de Relampagos, pointing it at the woman's frantically-beating heart.

And before it had begun, the battle was over. The quincy lay panting to his right, the girl unconscious to his left, and Kurosaki also unconscious in his never-wavering grip. The espada smiled, relaxing back into his original form.

Aizen would be pleased.