Time of Dying

Disclaimer/Notes: Agh! I know... anyone who is kind enough to read this has every right to come after me with torches. Hehe, I'll even leave my door unlocked, for if someone wants to kill me for taking so long to update. But... I'm really sorry! Things have been very hectic for various reasons. Add a serious writer's block to that, and I've been largely unable to type any words that I didn't immediately erase and/or regret thinking, much less actually putting them down. But... the story is coming to its close, and I don't want to miss anything. Despite all the trouble I've gotten the characters into, I really want to keep them in-character, so... hehe, I'm really sorry it's taken so long, but I hope the story is better for it. To anyone who is still reading, I am more thankful than words can even say. I owe you much more than mere gratitude.

She just blinked at him a few times, and he stared blankly back.

"Oh," she said. "Oh my." And it was at that point that Ishida Ryuuken decided that the girl was indeed mentally deficient.

"Excuse me," he murmured—cursorily, because no one here could see him anyway. If there had been time, he would have apologized for knocking her down, but time was in short supply here. He stepped out of her way and began moving forward.

The girl stood to her feet, dusting herself off and hurriedly looking around. "...You're excused," she told him blankly. And now she was facing him. A clueless look passed over her face, and she rubbed the side of her head, which had been the unfortunate recipient of most of the force when she had ungracefully hit the ground several moments previously. "Could you please tell me which way I was going?" she said. "I'm a bit confused and I need to hurry."

That makes two of us, then. Ryuuken met the girl's eyes, noting her immediate response to his gaze. He gave a very annoyed glance to the artifact he carried with him, and wondered why this girl could see him. If this stupid contraption had stopped working, he was in for a world of trouble. Quickly calming himself down, he evaluated all the possibilities. He took in the determined set to the girl's jaw, the pallor of her skin, and the loosely fitting shinigami robes that somehow seemed alien on her slender form. "You're from the human world, aren't you?" he asked at last. That would go a long way toward explaining everything.

"Ehhh..." She uncertainly spun her gaze in his direction before returning it to the road ahead. "I can't waste time. It was this way, I think..."

"The human world," Ryuuken repeated impatiently. "You're from Karakura, aren't you?"

She seemed torn between continuing onward and staying there. "Umm... how did you know?"

This one really knew nothing of the ways of subtlety, did she? It was a wonder that she wasn't dead. "Come with me, then."

"Huh?" She stopped suddenly, her breath forced out and back in with a desperate gasp. "I can't sense him anymore..."

And then a realization Ryuuken him very, very hard as well. Please God, please tell me this isn't the girl Uryuu was willing to lose his life over. Surely he has better taste than this.

But he asked anyway. "Who is it that you're looking for?"

"Ishida-kun," the girl replied bluntly.

It figures. Ryuuken swore to give Uryuu an earful next time he saw him. Surely he could have chosen a more sophisticated example of the female species. Ryuuken sighed. "I'm searching for him, as well. Follow me. I know where he is." It would probably be a problem to drag someone like her around for any period of time, but as cold-hearted as he would have liked to be, she would surely get herself in more trouble alone, if her current actions were any indication. Of course, that little bump on the head could have rattled her, too.

"You're looking for him, too? What a coincidence!" She stepped in beside him as he started walking again, following his destination's deep resonation with the device he carried. The honey-haired girl looked at him for several moments. "You look familiar. Do I know you?"

"No," Ryuuken said, hurrying up the steep hill's incline. Did this child have to talk incessantly?

"What's your name?"

"Ryuuken," he said absently. "Ishida Ryuuken."

Her eyebrows knit for a moment. "I see." Then a flash of almost pitiful inspiration. "Oh! You're Ishida-kun's dad!"

Ten points. "We have to hurry."

The girl nodded, keeping up with his pace, though he could see that she was quite winded. Her pained steps suggested that she had been running for a long time. They finally stopped in front of a gray stone building. The deep foundations suggested multiple underground levels.

Ryuuken examined the structure. There seemed only to be a single entrance. Opening the door would be the quickest route, but also the most predictable. Any number of things could be waiting for him there. "We don't need to be subtle. He already knows I'll be here, anyway. This window suggests that there is a room beyond this wall. Perhaps—"

"The wall," the girl said quietly. "Wouldn't it be easier to go straight through, if subtlety isn't a concern?"

Ryuuken raised his eyebrows. "Pardon me?"

"If you need to get through the wall," she said. "I can break it down." And he heard a determination in her voice that forced him to reconsider his initial evaluation of her.

"Ah..." Ryuuken looked at the weak-looking, mild-mannered child, and wondered yet again if he'd heard her wrong. Before he could say anything, she spoke again. Slender fingers touched to the bright clips in her hair, and, closing her eyes, she whispered, "Tsubaki!" Ryuuken couldn't even follow the blade of light that flashed in front of his eyes before it connected with the wall. Three clean, silent cuts sent a section of the wall tumbling down. The flash of light returned, and when it faded, Ryuuken found himself staring at...

A very tiny... person.

"Is that all you wanted? Stupid!" the small person criticized, knocking her on the head. "If only you could muster that much conviction when fighting people, then maybe I wouldn't be locked up so much." He returned to her clip, and Orihime looked forward at the gaping opening. Rock dust fell from the almost cruelly surgical cuts in the wall, revealing a small room.

"Is that big enough, you think?" she asked innocently.

The proper words refused to come. "Ah... it'll do," he said.

He would have to remind himself not to mess with this girl.

They walked into the dust-obscured darkness inside. As they walked farther into the gaping entrance, cold air washed over them, dry and weightless and somehow forbidding. They walked on.

A feint.

A quick withdrawing and a following strike.

A gasp of breath, a quick movement—not fast enough—and the gentle patter of blood on cold white tile. Shinsou withdrew. Gasping, Rukia winced as the flow of blood increased, dripping quickly from the clean slice in her shoulder. Her expression darkened as she swung her sword, releasing a blade of ice toward his head.

"Oh my," Gin said. He flash-stepped to the side, narrowly avoiding her attack. The ice slammed into the wall behind him, shattering and cutting gouges into the flawless white stone from the force of impact. Rukia growled curses under her breath.

After a moment, a satisfied smirk quirked the corner of her mouth. "...Not so perfect, huh?"

A razor-thin slice marked his face, brightened by the slow spread of scarlet around it. He absently wiped at the thin stream of blood that trailed down with the pad of his thumb, then licked it away. "That wasn't nice, Rukia-chan." A grin spread over his face.

Shinsou darted out without warning, and Rukia leapt to the side. The blade stopped in midair and twisted, redirecting its attack toward her. It struck at knee-height, giving her no option to dodge or run. Instinctively, she jumped. Her feet landed atop the blade—feather-light—and she launched herself off with shunpou. She landed on her feet, closer to him, blade at the ready. Spatters of blood marked the ground on which she stood, and her breaths came in sharp, labored gasps.

Gin sighed. "Y'know, I really don't want to kill you, Rukia-chan."

Rukia swung her blade violently in his direction, and ice spread from its tip to the point where he stood, enveloping a section five feet wide from floor to ceiling, a beautiful but deadly display.

Ichimaru dodged yet again, landing mere inches away from the blade's influence.

"I can't say I return your sentiments," Rukia growled dangerously.

Gin shrugged, still smiling. "Didn't say ya had to." He raised his blade, and the already tainted smile took on a mocking darkness. "It's just I'll be sad when I havta bury you, is all."

Rukia huffed breathlessly, eyes casting tired malice at him. "Don't... get so cocky," she hissed.

Gin sighed. "You remind me of someone," he said. "So much like her, but so different. I'll never understand it." He shot Shinsou out.

Rukia dodged fluidly.

Or... that was what she told her body to do. Exhaustion had taken its toll, and she merely stumbled. It wasn't enought to get away from the oncoming blade.

"Oh my!" It stopped right before her heart. Gin grinned. "Such a useless thing, the heart. Don't you think? I cut mine out a while back. You see... unnecessary trappings bind you to fear. Things and places and people... And fear isn't something that we shinigami need, now, is it?" He laughed at her acidic glare. "Would you like to die before or after Aizen-sama kills that boy of yours?"

Rukia bristled, shocked, but quickly hardened her demeanor. "Ichigo will win," she growled.

Gin's smile twisted in a dark mockery of sympathy. He lifted his face into the air for a moment, then turned scarlet eyes upon her. "But can't you smell his blood?"

Angrily, without warning, Rukia launched a fusillade of ice from her zanpakutou with a violent flick of the blade. The ice, like so many invisible blades, captured the light from the high ceiling, making it seem like diamonds shining through the air in the moment before they struck. Several hit their mark. Gin tore a small shard of ice from his shoulder, throwing it to the side and shaking excess water from his hands.

He chuckled. "Touchy subject, I s'pose. I guess that means after?"

Rukia tightened her grip on Sodeno Shirayuki and flash-stepped toward Gin. "No," she said sharply. "It means I don't plan on dying anytime soon."

A nightmare was promised, and a nightmare it was. In this place where the only color was a lifeless white, the first thing he saw was the red of his own blood before his eyes.

Everything after that was a blur of black and white and the metallic ring of clashing blades, interspersed with spatters of his own blood and the fading mist of illusions. Aizen didn't even need to say it; his eyes and languid, mirthless half-smile spoke of a superiority that couldn't be breached. I'm better than you, his eyes said.

I'll tear you apart, child, whispered the smile on his face. The man was merciless, but moved with such ease that he could have been weeding his garden. He looked pleasantly lazy, barely interested with the current events, and completely assured with his inevitable victory.

Ichigo held the grip of his blade with such force that his skin tore upon impact with Aizen's sword.

The blade itself didn't seem to have any special properties. It was easy enough to counter it. Easy, that was, until he wasn't sure what was illusion and what was real. Easy until, even with the speed of his bankai, he couldn't avoid all of those many illusions, until one of them sank cold metal into his body from behind or beneath or directly in front, until the dark shinigami robes were ragged and dampened with blood.

"Your efforts are admirable," Aizen said softly, and Ichigo was happy to see the man gasping a little with exertion. Well, if he couldn't kill him right now, he could at least give him a workout. Even though Aizen was completely untouched by Ichigo's blade, it was nice to know that he was still human.

And all humans, even those who were shinigami, could die.

Ichigo hissed a laugh through his teeth at the ex-shinigami's compliment. "You say that like I've lost already," he growled, forcing Zangetsu's slender black blade against Aizen's. The metal scraped and twisted as both fighters tried to free themselves without getting cut.

In all honesty, Ichigo was horrible when it came to strategy. In battle, he couldn't make room to think of the consequences of any particular action. He acted instinctively, without thought. When denied the opportunity to strike, he was left with nothing. He could swing all he wanted at these illusions, wasting his remaining energy while never once locking blades with his real opponent. And when he was as his weakest, Aizen would strike.

Like right now.

Ichigo gasped erratically and pushed harder against Aizen's attack.

If things went on like this, he was going to lose. Without expending much effort, Aizen was using illusions to distract Ichigo. While he could have chosen to ignore them, he had to counter each one for fear that its blade wouldn't be an illusion, and would pierce him. And at the time when he was reeling from exhaustion and confusion, Aizen moved in. It was a simple strategy, but there was no way for him to counter it.


His grip had begun to weaken.

He wasn't allowed to give up like this.

Ichigo used his remaining strength to push against Aizen's blade. Aizen. This was really him. Not an illusion. This was... his only chance. The orange-haired shinigami laughed inwardly at himself. So make something of it, you idiot.

He surely wouldn't be able to maintain Bankai for much longer, but if he didn't use the time he had, he was dead. Using the speed lent to him by his bankai, he ran forward, unlocking his blade from Aizen's and ducking the following swing from Aizen's free blade in a graceful sweep of his body. The pain, in that moment, tore through his body, setting every nerve afire with life, in the way that some stars burn brightest before they die. With the moment-long opening offered by his actions, he lunged.

The sick resistance of flesh against metal told him he'd hit his mark.

He twisted the blade and withdrew sharply, moving out of the range of any counterattack, then looking back to his target with a sharp glare. Yes. A flower of blood blossomed on Aizen's once sterile white clothing.

He let out a gasp as the taste of blood welled behind his teeth, and the strength drained from his limbs. He fell roughly to the ground, only managing to catch himself by burying the blade of his zanpakutou into the floor. The blade morphed back to its large unreleased form, and he knew that he would be dead soon. Ichigo coughed and spit blood down to the sterile white floor.

If not for that blade, he probably would have fallen by now.

And what if he did?

Ichigo grit his teeth, tasting the sick taste of copper.

His body was far too weak now to hold his zanpakutou's final release. He was exhausted and drained. He had no sight, no strength, no speed. A trail of blood fell slickly from the corner of his mouth.

He choked weakly on the metallic liquid.

Aizen circled mercilessly, a predator coldly taunting its prey before coming in for the final strike. His movements were slower, pained, but he was still standing while Ichigo had fallen. Ichigo closed his eyes. Soon, even willpower wouldn't be able to keep him on his feet. Soon, he would be dead and Aizen would be alive—and Rukia would be all alone.

Ichigo felt the realization jolt like electricity through his body.

Rukia. He had promised he'd meet her when she was done. He had promised himself that he would not let her down. He had promised... that he wouldn't leave her alone.

That promise would decay into a lie. Her reiatsu pulsed reassuringly like a distant heartbeat in his mind, and he knew she was alive.

Rukia... I will not let you down.

He stood to his feet and used the last of his strength to release his zanpakutou. The slender black blade mocked him.

Even if it means letting that darkness wash over me.

That determination took control of his mind and dragged the boy named Ichigo deeper and deeper down, until the spreading darkness stole his control and sent him spiraling into nothingness.

When he finally spoke again, the voice was not his own. A jagged mask streaked with smears of red like blood obscured half of his face.

"I don't think we've met before," the hollow hissed at the inconspicuous captain, happy malice coloring his voice. "I'm here to kill you."

They had been travelling the halls for about ten minutes when they arrived in the center of the building. Unable to locate any significant reiatsu, their search efforts were reduced to almost nothing. Ryuuken had deemed it best to start from the center and search outward, and to his surprise, the first thing he saw on entering the research laboratory's central room was his son.

The next moments were a rather pathetic mess of exclamations, in which everyone seemed to say each other's names—in what ranged from disbelief, to happiness, to anger—at about the same moment.

"It's not safe here! Orihime, what are you doing—"

Orihime immediately interrupted with a broken murmur. "Ishida-kun! I'm so glad you're—"

Ryuuken cut her off deftly. "Uryuu, you fool."

The dark-haired boy blinked. "Ryuuken?"

And still, he entertained that horribly rude habit of his. Could he, just once, call him father?

Ryuuken's eyes wandered down to his son, who was securely fastened to a chair in the corner. His gaze caught on the reiatsu-dampening cuffs. No wonder he hadn't been able to sense any. "Come on, then. This surely isn't going to be easy, but if we can get you out of there before that psychopath returns, all the better."

Orihime ran forward, using her Shun Shun Rikka to slice the first cuff away. "I've never done this before!" she made sure to tell him. "So just stay very still. I only want to cut the cuffs."

Ishida decided that it was a bit like using a dangerous knife to sharpen a pencil, but he was glad that she had found an alternate use for her abilities. He made sure to stay completely still, though. Last time he'd checked, Tsubaki hated his guts, and Orihime was still a little bit absentminded. If he came away from this with both hands intact, he'd be lucky.

The first cuff fell away.

"Thanks, Inoue-san." He raised his other wrist, holding it still as desperate thoughts flashed through his head. Kurotsuchi... that man... he was probably close. Inoue, please hurry—before...


The room suddenly turned ice cold as a voice crackled through it.

"What a wonderful reunion. I see you all made it here."

In the wake of his previous thoughts, Ishida was left to wonder if thinking about misfortune really did bring it upon you. Footsteps clattered against the solid floors, and the silhouette of Kurotsuchi Mayuri appeared in the doorway. "You're all where I wanted you. How wonderful." He smiled.

It was a secret smile with a twisted, acid-tainted joy that only a demon like him could share. "I'll kill you all," he said.

Ishida winced. Inoue's second cut had missed, nicking the cups and his wrist in a sharp, off-course swerve before Tsubaki returned to her. "You..." he growled to the man standing in the door.

Uryuu gritted his teeth as the deep-colored liquid poured copiously from the slice in his wrist, spilling over the heavy reiatsu-dampening cuff and landing on the floor with vague, barely audible dripping sounds. Mayuri smiled. "My, aren't we looking helpless today, Quincy." He watched the steady drip of Ishida's blood to the floor. "I'll kill you all," he said. Sickly, methodically, his eyes roved over each one of them.

"You," he said to Ishida, coolly, with an undertone of amusement, "have been subdued. You," His gaze went to Orihime, now, "have no killing intent." And finally, to Ryuuken. "And you are driven by emotion. You're here exactly as I planned for you to be." His eyes lingered on Orihime, and Ishida stood to his feet angrily, but was unable to say a word when Mayuri spoke again. "You, however... I wasn't expecting you here just yet. That filthy girl Nemu lapsed in her duties, didn't she? Oh well. Aizen should be especially happy to receive you early."

Indescribable fear visibly shook Orihime at the mention of the ex shinigami captain's name.

"He's expressed a great deal of interest in the merits of your abilities, you know." Mayuri smiled. "And I, of course, am quite happy with the arrangement."

"You're... betraying Soul Socety?" Ishida ground out.

"I was never attached to them in the first place. I go where te research terms are the most generous. Coincidentally, they are with him. Now, no more idle chatter. Stop struggling; I don't plan to let go of you easily."

Scowling acidically, Ryuuken drew his bow. "No one said it had to be easy," he hissed.

Author's Notes: Yikes! I was really freaked out, writing most of this, because I've never written many fighting scenes before, so the scenes with Ichigo and Rukia gave me a huge amount of trouble. This story should be seeing its end very soon. Again, to anyone who is still reading, I owe you my first-born. Or chocolate. Bunches and bunches of chocolate. (Whichever is tastier.) I'd appreciate any thoughts at all. Please Review?

Update July/08: I am in the process of rewriting the final chapters, since I lost all that I had written before, due to a mistake. I've completed an outline, so now all I have to do is put everything into words. So that writer's block will not be able to take me down again, I'm going to complete as much as I can of the last several chapters before posting the next one, so that I'll have backup while I make the final touch-ups. I can't possibly apologize enough for the unforgivably long delay, but I promise I will try to post the rest as soon as possible.

I'm afraid that the delay is also partially because the Bleach manga has failed to capture my interest for a long time with the endless, substanceless battles that plagued the Hueco Mundo Arc. I will definitely, definitely finish this story, but I'm battling with the need for inspiration. I can't be so rude as to ask for your continued patience, but I thank you for your patience thus far—so, so much. I will finish this story, somehow, some way. Thank you more than words can express to those who have left their kind reviews. You guys are always what keeps me writing. I feel honored, as a writer, to have such kind readers.