It has taken everything out of him. He has nothing left. Zanpakutou shattered into bits, barely a scrap of reiatsu remains to keep him standing. He’s exhausted. Bloody. Beaten.
But a shape steps out of the gloom of dust, shadow, and ash. Ichigo peers into the murk, the form of Ulquiorra coming into view. His expression is blank, empty of reaction.
His odd cyan eyes fall first on Aizen’s defeated body. They then lift to Ichigo.
He tenses, fully expecting for Ulquiorra to draw his own blade, to avenge his master’s defeat. Ichigo has nothing left to him but the tattered hilt of his zanpakutou. His knees are weak, his breathing labored. He won’t survive this. But he’ll go down fighting. He’ll die knowing that the world and Soul Society are safe from Aizen.
If this is his fate, so be it.
Unexpectedly, however, Ulquiorra drops to one knee. He lowers his head in a formal bow, laying his zanpakutou across the blood-spattered sand.
“Long live the king,” he murmurs.
Ichigo stares. The world spins around him. And then the ground rushes up to meet him.
He wakes some indeterminable time later, staring up at a pale grey ceiling that is wholly unfamiliar. He feels just as drained as before, limbs too heavy to lift, and mind drifting from thought to thought too slowly to connect.
Ichigo turns his head and sees Ulquiorra sitting next to him. At his bedside. Like some kind of concerned lover. Ichigo wonders if he’s still dreaming.
“I’m not dead,” he says.
Ulquiorra’s expression remains perfectly bland. “No, you’re not.”
Ichigo’s fingers twitch. A miracle. “You didn’t kill me.”
“Because you are King.”
Not the king. Or a king. Merely King. Not unlike what his Hollow likes to call him from time to time.
“Of what?” Ichigo asks and makes another aborted effort to move. Nothing responds. From Zangetsu there is still silence. “And how?”
Ulquiorra’s mask cracks and he stares at Ichigo with a hint of disdain. “Don’t insult me by pretending you don’t know.”
“I’m still dreaming, aren’t I?”
Exasperation flickers across the Arrancar’s face. “My loyalty was to King, not Aizen. I won’t harm you for however long you hold the title.”
Ichigo’s still confused. Maybe it’s because his thoughts are mush and his body still refuses to respond. “How long will that be?”
“Oh.” He pauses, considering. Nope, still nonsense. “Are you sure I’m not dreaming.”
Ulquiorra rises to his feet, lips pressed together in a thin line. “Rest well, King,” he says, and leaves the room.
Ichigo tracks his exit, feeling the darkness creeping up on him all over again. This is weird. Weirder than weird. Aizen’s dead, he’s still alive, and Ulquiorra’s not trying to kill him. And somehow, Ichigo is now King. Not the king or a king. But King. Capital letters and everything.
Well, Ichigo supposes he’s adapted to worse. At least he’s alive. He can solve the rest later.