Hey there! Thanks for all the great reviews! Sorry about the delay; I've been traveling. And this chapter was unexpectedly difficult.

Chapter 9


L'homme existe entre l'abime et l'infini.

Man exists between the abyss and the infinite.

The stone was pathetically simple and small. It sat against the wall directly across from the high window, so that the afternoon light fell directly on its cracked grey surface. At Rukia's insistence, they had carved in her name. The arrancar could only manage clumsy, blocklike kanji, but it was there: Inoue Orihime.

The dark-haired arrancar knelt before the gravestone, her hands folded in her lap. She found that she couldn't grieve, couldn't even let herself indulge in memory. She had nothing to say to the departed spirit of her friend. Rukia knew full well that Inoue would not approve of what she had become. Inoue was gone.

She was not quite alone, however. A tall slim arrancar stood quietly behind her, out of the direct path of the sunlight. The others had all left. The body had been interred without fuss or ceremony, a grudging concession to Kuchiki's fastidiousness. Only Aizen had paused a moment, running his fingers along the cold tomb. Then he had walked out without a word, and everyone else had followed suit. Only Ulquiorra had remained, and Rukia ignored him.

After about a half hour, however, the arrancar commander began to speak. His deep voice fell naturally into the stillness, somehow neither startling nor unwelcome. "The Presence and the Absence both exist," he said, "real and immutable. We mortals turn between them, reflecting in turns the darkness and the light. And more, we mirror the infinite souls who turn around us - the flashes of kindness, the shadows of despair. Like a shifting kaleidoscope, we catch and transmit the great, beautiful confusion of human hearts."

Rukia recognized a eulogy when she heard one, and for a while she held a respectful silence. "But we choose, don't we?" she asked finally, as if compelled. "We decide which way to turn."

"It is our great privilege and our great curse." The Espada leader stepped a little closer, so that he stood by Rukia's shoulder, and together they stared down at the little engraved stone. "This one always chose well," he sighed. "She brightened places that had long been dark."

"And you, Ulquiorra-san?" Rukia said softly. "Where do you incline your heart?"

Perhaps he did not hear her. Over the long years that followed, he never answered her question.


Ulquiorra shielded his eyes. His heart was racing, but he managed to maintain his calm, even as the high dais seemed to explode into flames and his men crushed each other in their haste to get away. Panic rose like a smothering fog in the great hall, clamped down only by their leader's barked orders. Ulquiorra's presence of mind had made him commander of the forces of the Hueco Mundo - he would not give up so easily. Yamamoto was only one man.

The air wavered and blurred before the High Commander of the Gotei 13. Engulfed in flame, the old man stood passive, shoulders bare, hands folded. Even though his face was obscured, the posture of his body spoke clearly.

Come, children.

Drawing his zanpakutou, The Espada Captain stepped forward. He was about to order a general charge when he felt the rain. Rain? He looked down at his hand, bemused. Wasn't I inside? he thought, almost dreamily. Hundreds of heads turned up. From countless tiny holes in the high ceiling, what looked like water was streaming down, covering the place in a fine mist.

Unperturbed by the screeching horror rising all around him, Ulquiorra continued to examine his hand. He watched as the liquid ran down his fingers and pooled in his palm. A golden, scented liquid. He closed his black-lidded eyes. Oil.

Whatever his sins, whatever his secrets, Ulquiorra was no coward. He stood erect, refusing to retreat from the blistering heat. Like Yamamoto had done a moment before, he said his private prayers. He made his peace.


"I can't breathe."

Ichigo relaxed his grip on her shoulders, surprised that she had regained consciousness so quickly. They had almost reached the boundary of the city. Rukia lay light and warm in his arms, no longer limp, but not resisting him either.

"Where are you taking me?" If anything, she sounded annoyed. Ichigo allowed himself a twinge of hope. In happier times, Rukia had expressed all of her better feelings through irritation.

"There's a river, out in district one," he answered out loud, picking his way through the shattered streets. "Renji and I were there this afternoon." It seemed a lifetime ago. "We stashed some food away in a little cave behind the waterfall. I thought you and I could stay there until this all blows over."

He stopped on a short guard tower on the outskirts of the Seireitei - one of many which now kept watch over the Rukongai. The city was burning behind him. Before him the humble towns of the alley folk stood dark and quiet. Of course all of the human souls had already fled into a network of underground bunkers. The Gotei 13 had painstakingly constructed these hideaways, provisioned them, and made them nearly impossible to find - ghosts' spirit power was too hard to detect. At least, Ichigo thought, we've done that much right.

Rukia slipped out of his arms. For just a heartbeat, Ichigo instinctively tried to hold on to her. But sober experience warned against it. Love, like battle, is all about distance.

Certainly her face did not encourage closeness. "Why on earth, or above it," she said, walking a space away and glaring at him, "would I go along with that? Do you really think I'll just roll over and run away with you, because you slipped in a sucker punch?" Ichigo saw, with a twinge of guilt, that a bruise was beginning to flower on her lower cheek. She sighed. "It's no use, Ichigo. After Ulquiorra takes control of the city, you're the first person he'll look for. I wasn't lying when I said Aizen-sama sent me to recruit you personally. You won't be able to hide from him in the woods."

"Tch." Ichigo shrugged. "Look around you, woman."

Suddenly Rukia's eyes widened. She had reached out with her spiritual senses, and didn't like what she felt. Smoke was rising from the city in many places around them, and elsewhere, great daggers of ice jutted out of buildings like broken bones. It was evident that the battle still raged, but the noise had died down a little. Still, her gaze turned inexorably to the great hall. Flames poured out of the building's tiny windows like water escaping a sieve, joined together and lifted high into the night. It blazed like a torch, like a funeral pyre, high on the hill for all to see.

There is something hypnotic about fire. The way it moves, the way it almost breathes. Its ephemeral, self-devouring beauty. Ichigo watched it wordlessly, respectfully. A dry wind lifted the hairs on his neck, as the air for miles around seemed sucked into the inferno.

"So the Commander has sacrificed himself?" Rukia asked quietly.

Coming out of his reverie, the orange-haired young man shrugged. "In a way," he said. "Fire can't kill Yama-jii, any more than water could kill Toushirou. But Unohana told me once, ice preserves, and fire destroys. The old man is pouring himself out. He won't be a shinigami after this."

"Too bad," Rukia muttered, but she didn't sound like she meant it. Ichigo could sympathize. He could sense the void as well - a lot of arrancar were dying in that fire.

He touched her elbow, rather tentatively. "They've lost, Rukia. They can't hold you."

As if to confirm his words, a massive explosion burst out not far from them, towards the formal western gate. A bright sphere of light, like a small pink nuclear explosion, tore through several buildings, obliterating them. Shortly afterwards, they felt a blast of cold air that left ice particles on their cheeks.

Rukia shook off her old friend's hand. "You can't hold me either," she said flatly.

Ichigo set his jaw. "Rukia..."

She turned slowly towards him, her face setting into stone. "Do you know how I broke little Shirou?" The tone of her voice, even more than the words, set a shiver down his spine. "No one else could manage it. But I used that old watchman's kidou, the one that keeps you awake on lookout duty. Stopped him from blacking out, you see. His mind desperately needed to shut down, and it couldn't; he just had to bear the pain, and he couldn't Nobody could have, not what I did to him. After a few hours, he would have said anything, he would have done anything, to make me stop."

Her eyes gleamed black and savage in the moonlight. "Ichigo," she said, "I am not the person you knew."

He merely grunted. "After we lost you," he said, "I gave in to my hollow side for a while. I did things I can't admit to you, things I'll always regret." He paused. "They were about to put me down. Like a mad dog."

Rukia rolled her eyes. "And you were saved by the healing power of love, I suppose."

"Close enough," he said softly. "I was saved by you." Rukia twitched one incredulously eyebrow, but Ichigo plowed on before she could interrupt again. "I heard your voice in my spirit world, where I thought I was trapped. Clear as day, I heard you - 'we decide which way to turn,' you said." He gave a sheepish half-smile. "I guess I was remembering some conversation from a long time ago. The point is, I believed that voice. I still believe it. People can change, if they have someone to turn to."

There was a long moment of silence. The wind had definitely picked up. It seemed to wash over the city's turmoil, dissipating the smoke, the chaos. When Rukia finally spoke, she did not look at him. "I never said that to you," she murmured, as if to herself.

Ichigo didn't understand, but wasn't about to give up. "It's hard as hell," he said, "and it's impossible on your own." He took a tentative step towards her. "But you're not on your own, Rukia."

She drew in a sudden sharp intake of breath, as if in pain. She felt her eyes sting. Funny, she thought, swallowing back the tears, how much he's matured, and how naïve he's remained. How he can't see that there's no hope for me anymore. Anger began to rage against the hurt, and Rukia ground her teeth. He doesn't understand - when a soul has fallen so far into evil, there is nothing it resents more than a little simple kindness.

"You're right," she said, her voice harsh, "we've lost. The many worlds are closed to me now, all but one. To that last dark valley I will resign myself." She leapt effortlessly a few feet up to a parapet of the tower. Ichigo lifted his arms to shield his face against the new and darker wind that swirled about her form. "But as you care so much," she sneered, as shadows gathered around her, "I might as well take you with me."

His stomach dropped within himself, feeling her power grow. Evidently, she had not shown him a fraction of her true strength until now. Her katana seemed to materialize in her hand, without being drawn, sweeping up and around in a graceful circle. "Sode no Kuroyuki," she breathed, "Black Snow."


Zaraki looked up. "Hey," he said. An arrancar leapt at him from the rooftop behind him - without even turning, Zaraki dispatched it with a single stroke. "Something's goin' on."

A kind of grim peace had settled over the shopping district. Lights still shone in the abandoned store, offering welcoming lit doorways to the countless bodies in the street. Lamps hung serenely over the broken windows, their elegant kanji framed in a soft glow. And everywhere fell the flickering orange light of the great hall. Unohana looked up from the shinigami she was examining. Most of the corpses in the street were arrancar, but not all.

"Something..." she said, uncertainly, extending her spirit senses a little. "Ah," she said finally. "I see. Kurosaki-taichou and ... is that Kuchiki-san?" Although her voice was as calm as ever, the doctor felt a flutter of wonder. It was not like Zaraki to notice something like that. Evidently his shikai raised his awareness, steadied his control. It was possible that he might even manage kidou. Unohana shook her head. Obviously Rakujin, knowing her owner well, had not mentioned this improvement, and Zaraki had not noticed. That was all for the best. He would only think that it was girly.

"Let's check it out," Zaraki grinned, shaking the limp arrancar from his blade. "Things are getting boring, round here."


Ichigo thought he heard one of his ribs crack as he slammed against the wall. He didn't feel anything, but that wasn't surprising. The rest of his body was in far too much pain to notice a measly little rib.

"For the last time," he gasped, struggling to his feet and clearing the blood from his eyes, "just shut up and be rescued, already."

Rukia smiled at that, though the black lips on her black face could hardly be seen. Her stark white robes fluttered wildly about, buffeted by the black and white currents of her enormous power. Then she swung into a low stance, sword balanced above her head, her left hand moving in a spell. In the old days, Hinamori had been the undisputed master of kidou, as Zaraki had been the strongest in swordsmanship. But no one had ever combined the two as fluidly as Kuchiki Rukia.

Before she released her ki, however, a giant form barreled over the neighboring building and slammed into her. She absorbed the impact, turned gracefully in the air, and landed on the far side of the guard tower. The great structure lay in ruins across the road, having been knocked down only moments before.

"Hey there, kid," Zaraki called to her. "Looks like you grew up interestin' after all!"

"No, Zaraki!" Ichigo yelled, pulling himself up. "She's stronger than you thi..."

It was too late. A sheet of darkness wrapped around the giant's body, immobilizing him. Before he could even struggle against it, Rukia appeared before him. Her blade sunk into his chest, emerging from his back without so much as a whisper of sound. Unohana cried out and started towards him, only to engulfed in a wall of white. The healer screamed as the energy seemed to rip at his skin, threatening to tear it away, then slumped lifeless to the ground.

"Enough," Rukia said, standing and facing Ichigo. "Time to finish this."

He just stared at her, his heart in his eyes. A trickle of blood ran down from his mouth, but he made no effort to wipe it away. He knew, they both knew, that he could beat her. It would cost him his soul, that was all. He straightened. The city was quiet, now.

And then, unexpectedly, the city was cold. The chilled air rasped painfully in his lungs, and turned to white clouds when he exhaled. "What the..." he said, turning about. Then Rukia gave a small yelp, and his attention snapped back in her direction. Ice had started to creep up her legs, to form on her clothing. She tried to summon a kidou but found her fingers frozen together, her arms locked up. "Ichigo!" she cried, once, before the ice filled her mouth and covered her face.


Renji was sitting with his back to a great boulder in the shadow of the Soukyoku Hill, and Rangiku leaned against him, her arms clasped about his waist. All around them lay the dead and the dying. Fourth division medics had appeared and were searching for survivors. When they found one, shinigami or arrancar, they administered whatever emergency measures were called for and then carried the patients back to the hospital. Renji thought about calling them over; his leg was broken and he felt lightheaded from the loss of blood. But Matsumoto shifted slightly in his arms, her breath warm against his shoulder, and he decided against it.

"When I was earthside," he said eventually, "I heard a street preacher tell this strange story, a story about a man who wrestled with an angel. The angel was stronger, and broke the man's hip. But the man, beaten and in pain, clenched his hands together and refused to let the angel go."

At first he thought she had fallen asleep. But eventually she turned her head, so that her eyes and nose were nested against his neck. "So who won?" she murmured.

"Well, that's the point, isn't it?" he said. "The man couldn't hurt the angel, but the angel couldn't get away."

They sat for a long time without speaking. The stars had returned, glittering above them, comforting in their unconcern. Renji almost dropped off himself when Matsumoto stirred again. "It doesn't matter," she said softly, kissing him very gently. "Who won and who lost, that is. It's only the struggle that has any meaning."


"NO!" Ichigo sprang forward. Then he saw the attacker, kneeling a few yards behind Rukia's frozen body. Histugaya's hands gripped the handle of his zanpakutou, which had been thrust blade first into the earth. His white head was bowed. Not far away, Yachiru landed with a little hysterical squeal by Zaraki. "Ken-chan!" she cried, seizing his hair with both hands.

Ichigo snarled and grabbed Hitsugaya by the collar. "Let her go!" he bawled, pushing the smaller man back against the ground. The ice wielder didn't fight back, though his green eyes widened in shock and fear. Ichigo remembered vaguely what Zaraki had said about Hitsugaya's phobia of being pinned. The recollection only made him tighten his hold on the teenager's shoulders. "I swear, Toushirou," he choked, "if you don't ..."

"Stop!" He could barely recognize the wheeze as Unohana's. The healer was standing, heavily bloodied and shaking but alive. "Look closer, Kurosaki-taichou," she said, her voice a little stronger. She knelt by Zaraki's prone body and placed her hands on the massive chest. "Ice preserves."

Not releasing Hitsugaya, Ichigo tuned his head back towards his enemy, his friend, the love of his life. She was encased in a clear, slightly green crystal, her eyes closed and her hands held before her. It took him a moment to notice, but her color had returned to normal. All around her, the perfectly smooth ice walls glinted in the moonlight, surrounding her in a faint glow. She looked at peace.

Ichigo let go of his captive and walked over. Instinctively he raised his hand to the ice, which felt cool, but not cold, under his touch. The crystal was shaped like a cut diamond, like his mother's engagement ring. What had he read about diamonds? he thought. That's right - they sparkle because their facets trap light inside. Maybe ... He felt a little rush of energy leave his fingers, pulled into the crystal. The glow intensified for a second, and a little color rose in Rukia's pale cheeks.

"It's a healing technique," he heard Unohana say. "Unique to the ice and snow family. One that has been lost for eons, indeed, I had thought it merely legend." Zaraki coughed and spluttered, then struggled to sit up. "Lie still!" Unohana snapped at him. "I'm not done." Yachiru gave a little hiccupping sob.

Unohana continued speaking to Ichigo, though her eyes never left Zaraki's face. "Kuchiki-san, too, is an ice spirit," she said. "That technique will give her time to dream, time to knit her spirit back together. Stay there, Kurosaki-taichou. Let your love shine into her."

Behind Ichigo, Hitsugaya had pulled himself up and knelt wordlessly on the ground. Now that the fight was over, he could feel his mind begin to wander a little. Better not get up, he thought, not until Kurosaki had calmed down. He looked down at his trembling hands. Who was he kidding? he thought vaguely. He didn't have the energy left to stand.

"Why?" Ichigo's voice recalled Histugaya momentarily to the present. "Why would you help her? She said ..." the young man swallowed hard, his brown eyes filled with tears. "She said she hurt you."

It took the teenager a long moment before he could answer. "Yeah well," he said huskily, letting his shoulders slump. "She had her reasons."

"Everyone," Zaraki growled, heaving himself to his elbows, "has their goddamned reasons."

Unohana scooped the distraught Yachiru into a hug. "Do you know," she said, "that's rather well put."

Ichigo leaned up against the ice crystal, letting all of his memories of Rukia fill his heart. "Thank you," he whispered, "Toushirou."

To be concluded


Here's the thing... I made Zaraki's shikai a little lame, because I didn't think he'd like a flashy one (he's a brawler.) But then SilverWhiteDragon suggested a green lighting sword and I thought, you know, that would actually be kind of cool. And that's when I realized that most of you probably have better images in your head than I can write down. So, as much as I'd like to answer some questions, I'm going to leave a bunch of stuff up to the reader's imagination. Whatever you think Rukia did to Hitsygaya, go with that. Same with Yachiru's bankai. And if you've got particularly good ideas, tell me about them! Heck, tell me even if they're not good :)

Thanks for hanging in with me so far. The next chapter'll be wind down, with (maybe) one more twist (mwa ha ha ha!)

(Oh, and does anyone recognize the story of the man and the angel? Think Genesis.)

Please let me know what you think! Constructive criticism, flames, grammer nitpicks, random questions, philosophic pondering all welcome.