Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Bleach.


General Warnings: AU, canon divergence, language, violence, Ichigo-centric, gen, liberties with mixing my own ideas with canon explanations


Author's Notes: No pairings for Ichigo; there might be hints, but it's gen in the warnings for a reason.


Chapter 4


XXXII.

"I hate my life," Was the first thing Ichigo told Rukia the moment the lunch bell rang and the two of them had a moment alone as they walked towards the roof where everyone was meeting up for a debriefing. After yesterday's disaster, Ichigo had gone from 'maybe being able to talk to spirits is pretty cool after all' back to 'damn I wouldn't mind not being able to talk to spirits at all'. At least he hadn't descended to 'I hate this damn curse of being able to talk to spirits', which had happened briefly right after he had met Kenpachi.

Rukia rolled her eyes, slapped his arm, and told him firmly but not unkindly, "Suck it up; it'll get better."

Ichigo knew there was a reason he had flipped an entire world upside-down just to save this girl.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Rukia ventured as they climbed a set of stairs.

Ichigo considered this. The absolutely shitty turn that his evening had taken last night would have to be kept to himself; after all, that was Hirako's problem, not his, and he had no business revealing other people's secrets to anyone.

However, he had thought about telling his friends that he could see spirits. Chad and Inoue and even Ishida would most likely take it in stride and not tell a soul but they weren't... like him, had no Zanpakutou spirits of their own, had enough on their plates what with monsters and madmen coming after them because they had too much loyalty and not enough good sense to stay away from him, without piling something like their more than slightly insane now-part-Hollow friend chatting to thin air on top of all that.

There was a reason why people who claimed they could see ghosts in the Human World were usually committed.

Rukia on the other hand... Well, for someone he had only known for all of three months, Rukia had quickly been elevated to position of best friend. It was weird how well they clicked, and despite his father's dramatic sobs about Ichigo growing up and finding a girlfriend and whatnot, it wasn't like that either. Ichigo wasn't really interested in relationships at the moment, and he'd never seen Rukia that way, for all that she'd spent two months in his closet.

They were friends, simple as that.

And if there was one Shinigami whom he could point to and say with absolute certainty that they'd never betray him, it would be Rukia.

They had been strangers when they had first met yet she'd given up her powers all because he had wanted to save his family. She had known the risks of doing so, and had still done it.

And Ichigo had had no real obligation to train like hell and invade a city all for the sake of one girl he'd barely known. It had been Rukia's choice to give up her powers after all, and after the near-fatal damage Byakuya had dealt him, no one would've blamed him for backing out. But he had still done it in the end; the option of not saving her had never even crossed his mind.

They had clicked, sometimes a little too well perhaps. For all that Ichigo didn't know much of Rukia's past (nothing except for the whole killing Kaien thing to save him), and Rukia didn't know all that much of Ichigo's (nothing again except for the sacrifice his mother had made for him), none of that really mattered to either of them when it came down to it.

So Ichigo was comfortable enough with telling Rukia. He hadn't chosen to tell Hirako and Urahara; that had come out because he had been an idiot, and his Hollow an even bigger one. But with Rukia, he had a choice, and...

"Not now," He said as they reached the door leading out to the roof. "Maybe later."

Rukia nodded as Ichigo pulled open the door. "Okay. You better not get all broody over whatever it is though, or I'll make you sorry you didn't spit it out sooner."

And that was that.


XXXIII.

"So Goat-Face succeeded Kaien even though he's from a branch line because Kukaku didn't want to deal with the politics or the government in general," Ichigo mused out loud. "What I wanna know most is why the Shiba Clan was kicked out in the first place."

Seated at the end of his bed, Engetsu cut an imposing figure with his flame-bright hair and hellfire eyes. Oddly enough, Ichigo felt entirely safe.

Engetsu considered him for a long second as if he was gauging Ichigo's temperament. :...The root of the reason stems from Aizen Sousuke.:

Ichigo sighed at this revelation. "Of course it did. What did that guy do?"

:I met with Nejibana shortly before her wielder departed for that fateful mission,: Engetsu stated in a low rumbling voice. :I am fairly certain that she did not inform me of all her suspicions but what she did say was enough for me to form my own conclusions. She mentioned that her wielder had stumbled upon some delicate information that would jeopardize him should it reach certain ears, that that reason was almost certainly what had cost him his wife's life as well. She did not tell me what that information was, but less than a week after Shiba Kaien's death had been announced, Aizen Sousuke requested an audience with Central 46.:

Engetsu paused, gaze sliding to the sunset-bright sky outside the window. :...Isshin had stepped up as Clan Head by then so he was given the official account – that Aizen Sousuke had uncovered a conspiracy planned by the previous Shiba Clan Head to rebel against the government. Isshin did not believe this, of course, and rightly so – it was all a lie. However, Aizen had managed to convince Central 46, he had proof, though I see now that it was all smoke and mirrors set up through Kyouka Suigetsu.

:The entire case was classified from the public,: Engetsu's eyes seemed to burn a deeper red. :Aizen... generously pleaded for the government to keep everything under wraps because Kaien had been a beacon of light and a role model to all Shinigami, and that it would be a shame to take that away, especially since the man was already dead. Central 46 agreed. Only the captain-commander was told. Aizen's integrity rose in the eyes of the ruling body of Soul Society. And the Shiba Clan was sentenced to exile from Seireitei. They were allowed to continue working inside Seireitei, though they would undoubtedly be monitored, but other than that, they were banned from returning to the city.

:There was no explanation,: The spirit released a mirthless chuckle. :Age-old Shinigami who have lived by their own laws for centuries are complacent. There were questions, of course, especially from Shiba Kaien's former captain, but once Central 46 closed their doors and insisted on the entire matter being confidential, it was dropped, swept under the rug and forgotten, so to speak. It did not matter that the Shibas were once friends, that they had always been acclaimed first and foremost for their loyalty. It was simply assumed that they had done something unforgiveable, and that was enough for most people to turn their backs on them. Shiba Kaien's name was only saved from such stigma because he was dead, and a dead hero is always easier to support than a living disgraced one.

:So fell one of the Great Noble families of Soul Society. Five became four, and the Shiba Clan – unable to defend themselves, and finding no real assistance from anyone outside – scattered to the four winds. They still live to this day, I believe,: Engetsu added. :The Shibas have always been free-spirited and independent, their children raised outside Seireitei's walls to give them experience in the outside world, and to remind them that they should never forget the people that the Gotei 13 pledged to protect, so it did not matter too much that they had to rebuild their lives outside the comforts of the capital city.

:However, the Shiba Clan's unjust exile gave birth to a long-lasting resentment against the Shinigami. The only reason Isshin remained a captain until he left for the Human World was because he still cared for his squad. All other Shibas cut ties and swore never to lend aid to a member of the Gotei 13 ever again.:

A mirthless smile split Engetsu's face like the slash of a dagger. :The collapse of the Shiba Clan saw an increase in Hollows and deaths. There was a reason why the Shibas were one of the pillars that supported Seireitei. Once upon a time, over a third of the Kidou Corps consisted of Shibas, quite a few healers contributed to the continued wellbeing of many Shinigami, and while not all were quite the level of genius that Kaien was, each Shiba was strong in their own right, and all were assets to the division they served. Even the Shibas who chose to work as civilians closed their shops and restaurants and took their trades into Rukongai instead.: An edge of dark satisfaction entered his smile. :When every single last one of them pulled out, you should have seen the Gotei 13 run, scuttling back and forth like frenzied ants as they sought to keep both their military and their economy afloat.

:Aizen Sousuke struck a critical blow to the Shibas, and the Shinigami abandoned them as they did the Visored, but it was the Shiba Clan who had the final laugh.:

Silence descended on the room as Engetsu finished his recount, and Ichigo tried to wrap his head around it all.

The worst thing, he decided grimly, was the fact that he had no trouble believing it. After all, he had already seen firsthand what Aizen could pull with his illusions, as well as the lengths that the Gotei 13 would go to to uphold their laws. After the disaster with Hirako and Sakanade that night, Benihime had given him a succinct overview about what had happened between the Visored and Aizen. Urahara hadn't even been able to defend himself before Central 46 had sentenced him. The Visored hadn't even received a trial. The Shibas getting booted out of Seireitei without so much as an investigation seemed to be par for the course.

"That's insane," Ichigo muttered, leaning back in his chair. "No wonder Ganju hates the Shinigami so much." He stared up at the ceiling. "...The final laugh, huh? Hey Engetsu, I'm not saying the government didn't deserve the Shibas sticking it to them, but was it really a smart idea to leave the Gotei 13 hanging like that? If Aizen wins, it's not just the Shinigami who will be affected. He took out Kaien, who probably found out something about him, and he made the Shibas mad enough that they abandoned the Gotei 13, leaving the whole organization a hell of a lot weaker, and that was after half the captains and lieutenants from a century ago were thrown to the dogs as well. Heck, no wonder I was kicking Shinigami ass left and right when I invaded the place; they must've had to promote people a lot sooner than they usually would just so they wouldn't have so many empty positions left. I even managed to pull a win over Byakuya. God knows I can't beat Urahara-san, and I'm pretty sure Hirako would wipe the floor with my ass. So weakening the Gotei 13 – that must've been Aizen's real plan, right?"

He peered at his father's spirit when Engetsu didn't reply right away. The looming shade was watching him, a thoughtful spark in his eyes.

:Indeed,: Engetsu acknowledged. :On hindsight, it was a rash decision to seek such petty revenge, but it was a decision fuelled by betrayal of the highest order, betrayed by their comrades, and betrayed by the organization that every Shiba – civilian and Shinigami – had sweated and bled and died for, and you cannot say that it was not justified.: He cocked his head. :I am pleased, however, to see that you have a head on your shoulders and know how to use it.:

Ichigo wasn't quite sure if he should feel flattered or insulted. It wasn't that hard to figure out, was it? Benihime's little training games of Find the Motive when she spun him hypothetical scenarios of uprisings and coup d'états and political debates at the table were much harder to figure out. He had tried more than once to convince Benihime that he was just too straightforward for all the manipulations and manoeuvrings that happened both on and off a battlefield but the spirit wouldn't hear a word of it.

:If you're not good at it, then get better,: Benihime always insisted adamantly before she would strike up another what-if argument that Ichigo would have to counter (and inevitably fail at it).

:Revenge is a dish best served cold,: Engetsu murmured, his voice like a distant thunderstorm. :And now that Aizen has revealed his hand, I am certain more than one Shinigami is looking back and wondering just how many other times they have been tricked and played for fools.:

Ichigo said nothing for a long while. Engetsu was a solemn spirit, with a veteran maturity that he wore like a cloak. But there was also bitterness there, and Ichigo supposed that that was what fed his opinion of the Shiba Clan's vengeance.

"The best revenge is living well," Ichigo mumbled, shrugging when Engetsu sliced a blood-red gaze into him. "It's a quote from somewhere; I just remembered it."

:Do you believe in it?: The spirit's voice quieted, reminding Ichigo of a banked fire.

Ichigo ran a hand through his hair, wondering what his life would be like if his father and sisters hadn't coaxed him home from his daily up-and-down meandering by the river where Kurosaki Masaki had been killed.

He probably would've continued brooding until avenging his mother had been all he thought of. And that...

"Yeah, I do," Ichigo met Engetsu's severe gaze squarely. "I'm all for revenge when the opportunity presents itself, but committing your entire life to it... If I'd done that after the Grand Fisher killed my mom, I think Kaa-san would've been pretty damn disappointed with me."

Engetsu said no more on the subject, and Ichigo pulled out his homework when it became clear that the spirit had no desire for further conversation that night.

That was alright. The fall of the Shiba Clan was plenty to keep Ichigo's thoughts occupied.


XXXIV.

"I can't believe this," Ichigo muttered under his breath as he fended off the Arrancar's – Di Roy or something like that? – attacks. Louder, he called back, "Chad, get away from here. Find Inoue and head over to Urahara-san's. See if you can't pick up Ishida as well along the way."

Chad was bleeding sluggishly from various injuries but the teen still looked reluctant to retreat. "Ichigo, I-"

Ichigo snapped out his foot, caught Di Roy in the ribs, and smashed him through three trees before the Arrancar came to a stop.

He glanced back. "...Our promise won't mean anything if you can't recover in time to fight next time. These guys are way too strong for you right now."

Mutinous frustration coloured Chad's expression but he grimaced and backed off. "Be careful; I'll find Inoue."

Ichigo nodded, and then turned sharply back to the fight as Di Roy flung himself at Ichigo again.

Well, Ichigo hadn't let Zangetsu, Benihime, and Hakuran near-kill him in training every day – and Urahara wasn't exactly an easy taskmaster either – just to lose to an idiot.

His resolve firmed. This guy was after his friends; if Ichigo had to kill him to stop him, so be it.

He waited until the last second, and then twisted out of the way. Without hesitation, Ichigo jammed a palm in the Arrancar's gut as he passed, and murmured, "Byakurai."

Di Roy only had time to scream before the pale blue lightning exploded from Ichigo's hand, punched a hole straight through the Arrancar, and shredded muscle and bone inside-out.

Ichigo took a deep breath and stepped back, swallowing hard as the Arrancar's screech of agony was cut off and the smoking corpse slumped to the ground.

Killing a Hollow that looked like a monster and killing a humanoid Arrancar was... different.

:King, now's not the time ta freak out!: Hakuran reminded him. :C'mon, pull yourself tagether; ya can handle a little death. This is what we signed up for when ya decided ta protect your little friends.:

Ichigo exhaled shortly before Shunpoing off in the direction of the nearest foreign reiatsu signature. "A peptalk from you? Lucky me."

:Anytime, King.:

"Ichigo!"

Ichigo skidded to a stop as Rukia rushed up, Zanpakutou drawn. "What happened to the one you were fighting? I was just coming to help!"

"I got him," Ichigo said shortly. "He's down for the count. How many are there anyway? I sensed around five including the one I just got."

Rukia looked a little astonished but succinctly reported, "There are six as far as I can tell; uh... five now. Ikkaku-san is fighting one, Hitsugaya-taichou is fighting another, Renji's facing off against another one, and Matsumoto-fukutaichou has one of her own."

"So," Ichigo glanced around grimly as Rukia took up position behind him. "Where's the last one?"

"Right here."

They moved in tandem – Ichigo threw himself to the left, and Rukia threw herself to the right, just as a massive reiatsu signature materialized above them.

Ichigo's breath caught when he wheeled around and spotted someone with blue hair and an insane grin hurtling towards him at frightening speeds. This guy was way, way above Di Roy in terms of strength.

And if Ichigo didn't get his act together, he was going to get killed.


XXXV.

:KING, LET ME OUT! I REFUSE TO DIE AT THE HANDS OF SOME BASTARD WITH A BAD DYE-JOB!:

Ichigo gritted his teeth and ignored his Hollow. It was taking enough braincells to not get pummelled into the ground by the Arrancar he was facing.

"You're gonna have to do better than this, Shinigami!" The Arrancar – Grimmjow – jeered as one of his fists found Ichigo's stomach and sent him crashing into the side of a building.

"Sonuvabitch," Ichigo spat out along with a mouthful of blood as he rolled to his feet and hurried off in a limping Shunpo to god only knew where. Rukia had been knocked out of the fight earlier on; it had only been luck that had allowed Ichigo to cut in and save her before Grimmjow had been able to impale her with an arm.

On the other hand, Rukia had managed to freeze said arm so that Grimmjow was now fighting with a handicap.

Still, she had been clipped in the side and had cracked her head when she had been smashed into a building (and for one awful moment, Ichigo had thought she was dead), but she had just been knocked out, a collection of broken ribs on her left side and bleeding from an ugly gash in her head, so Ichigo had left her in a safe corner with Sode no Shirayuki hovering almost anxiously over her before doing his best to lead Grimmjow away from them.

Ichigo was out of his depth though, and he didn't know what was taking the other Shinigami so damn long. He also didn't know if Chad had found Inoue or Ishida yet and had made it to safety, he didn't know why Urahara or his dad weren't here to do something, and he certainly didn't know where Hirako had disappeared off to, and whether or not the Visored would come back in time to save Ichigo from imminent death. Hell, he didn't know shit.

But he had never depended on another person to save him anyway, not since his mom had died, and he wasn't about to start now.

"Running away, Shinigami?!"

Ichigo dived out of the way, dodging a punch that probably would've broken his jaw.

:Ichigo, enough,: Zangetsu practically commanded. :Refrain from merging with Hakuran for now, but we are going to Bankai. Quickly!:

That was enough for Ichigo, and ignoring Hakuran's loud complaints, he tossed a Getsuga Tenshou in the general direction Grimmjow was coming at him – again – from, ducked behind a tree, sucked in a breath, and called it.

"Bankai. Tensa Zangetsu."


XXXVI.

It was a rush.

Ichigo had rarely gone to Bankai during his training sessions with the spirits, mostly because he hadn't always had the option of going to Urahara's training grounds and letting loose.

Now however...

Ichigo smiled, a twist of Hakuran's insanity flitting at the edges of his expression as he slammed Grimmjow into the ground below. The Arrancar sent up a plume of dust as he landed on his back, and Ichigo could hear him hacking up blood.

Ichigo was under no delusions – he knew he was still weaker than Grimmjow at the moment; the Arrancar hadn't even gone to his released state yet. But Grimmjow had his pride, and Ichigo had at least gotten the bastard to draw his blade, so Ichigo could either defeat him before he had time to shuck his arrogance and unseal his Zanpakutou or keep him busy until help arrived.

Ichigo preferred the first option.

"You've been holdin' out on me, Shinigami!" Grimmjow spat out, still grinning madly as if Ichigo hadn't just hit the guy hard enough to leave a dent in the ground.

A moment later, they were clashing in a flurry of metal and punches and kicks, neither giving an inch as they struggled to get one over the other.

Ichigo grunted as another piece of his Shihakushou tore off under the bite of Grimmjow's Zanpakutou, leaving a messy gash behind.

He was going to be a bloody mess by the end of this.

"Getsuga Tenshou!" Ichigo shouted, flinging the condensed black-red reiatsu towards the Arrancar. As the attack expanded, he took off again, pushing himself to his fastest Shunpo and slipping behind Grimmjow just as the Arrancar attempted to dodge the incoming assault (not an easy feat with a block of ice still encasing his left arm).

Ichigo was there to meet him.

As Grimmjow leapt to the left, Ichigo was already bringing his own Zanpakutou up, and he took great satisfaction in cleaving a gouging line from the Arrancar's left hip to his right shoulder.

Grimmjow snarled, staggering forward as blood painted the night sky. He brought his sword around but Ichigo didn't hesitate to push his advantage. He lunged, and he knew he'd win if he could just-

:King, behind ya!:

Ichigo didn't even have time to fully turn around.

"Hadou Number 32: Oukasen."

For a second, Ichigo didn't even realize something had hit him, didn't even realize he was falling. All he saw was a beam of sickly yellow light, and even as his instincts urged his body to movedammitmove, the light found its target in the right side of his torso.

For a heartbeat, and then two, Ichigo felt a wet sort of slap around that area, as if someone had smacked a waterlogged cloth against his side.

And then the pain hit.

He didn't consciously realize he was trying to voice his agony until he was choking on his own blood and plummeting out of the sky like a rock as his Zanpakutou slipped out of his hand and he hit the ground with a sickening thud.

Pain exploded in his body, and he caught a glimpse of something wet and dark seeping out from under him. In the distance, he thought he heard several voices shouting his name, but he couldn't be certain.

He was more than thankful when blissful darkness finally washed over his vision and pulled him under.

And the very last thing Ichigo saw was Tousen's back several feet above him in the air.


XXXVII.

"...lucky to have survived..."

"...ambush... ...behind..."

"...of us expected Tousen... ...retrieve Jaegerjaquez... ...didn't stay..."

"...were you all... ...why... ...leave him alone to... ...strongest Arrancar..."

"...-gaya-taichou, where were... ...captain should have faced..."

"...sent Kuchiki... ...recovering from..."

"...fight was fairly far away from Kuchiki-san... ...must have led the Arrancar away. Kurosaki-san has a tendency for self-sacrifice. From the angle of the injury, Tousen caught him completely by surprise."

Ichigo moaned lowly, the sound scraping painfully against his sandpapered throat. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth.

A hand cupped the back of his head and carefully tilted it up before the cool touch of a glass was pressed to his lips. Ichigo gulped down a greedy mouthful, almost gagging on it when he swallowed too fast.

With more effort than he'd have liked, Ichigo pried open his eyes, blinking blearily at his surroundings. It was his spirits he looked for first.

:Over 'ere, King,: Hakuran was strangely subdued where he was crouching at the foot of the futon Ichigo was lying on, and while Zangetsu looked as calm as ever behind the Hollow, Ichigo could sense a current of apprehension underneath. Beside him, Benihime had faint worry lines around her downturned mouth.

"Kurosaki-san?"

Ichigo glanced to the side where Urahara was kneeling, arm now resting under Ichigo shoulders. The shopkeeper looked somewhat haggard, and his stubble was a few shades darker, making it more noticeable than usual.

"Do you think you can sit up?" The man enquired.

Ichigo nodded at once. He was awake; no way was he going to just lie there, especially in a roomful of-

Ichigo scanned the room, brain finally catching up with the rest of him.

"What-?" He managed dazedly as Urahara half-lifted, half-supported Ichigo to a sitting position. He could understand Toshirou being here, as well as Yoruichi, and of course Urahara, but he had no idea why Kyouraku was seated a little ways away as well, sakkat removed for once and placed beside him instead. Above his head, Katen Kyoukotsu hadn't stopped staring at Ichigo.

The captain in question caught his eye and smiled. "It's been a while, Kurosaki-kun. Yama-jii decided to send me to the Human World along with Juu-chan for moral support. He's seeing your father for a checkup at the moment. It seems the good doctor's reiryoku is well above average too, and he took the whole Shinigami issue quite well."

Ichigo took a moment to digest that. "Oh."

He glanced swiftly at Urahara who nodded imperceptibly. Whatever the shopkeeper had done, it would hold up against inspection.

"I decided to drop in to see how you were doing," Kyouraku continued, and some of the good humour faded from his face. "How are you feeling? Hitsugaya-taichou had to send word back to Seireitei for Unohana-taichou to come see to your wounds. Inoue-chan did her best but you were losing blood faster than she could replenish it. Or reject it back into your body, I suppose; that's how I hear her powers work."

Ichigo stiffened in shock. He had been that badly injured? "Uh, I feel fine now. Could you thank her for me? Unohana-san must've patched me up really well."

Kyouraku smiled again, rueful this time. "She wasn't pleased with your state of health. Scolded all of us in her own way for letting you get that badly hurt so soon after last time."

Ichigo flushed a bit, and then glanced around, eager to grasp onto a different topic. "Where's Rukia? She was injured too but I had to leave her. I didn't have time to do more than make sure she was still breathing."

"She is fine," Urahara assured. "Inoue-san healed her without difficulty, along with Sado-san. Kuchiki-san has accompanied Inoue-san back to her house, and has been on guard rotation duty with Abarai-san ever since."

Ichigo relaxed, breathing a sigh of relief. "And the others? Where's Chad and Ishida? Ikkaku and Yumichika? And Matsumoto-san?"

"Your friends are training," Toshirou stated concisely. "The rest are patrolling the town. We'll be alerted at once if anymore Arrancar show up. The one you fought was an Espada, Kurosaki, one of Aizen's strongest-ranking Arrancar, ten of them altogether, and you met another two that first time of course, while the others were Numeros, starting from eleven and down, ranked by birth from oldest to youngest. The one I fought was the oldest."

"Do you remember what happened, Ichigo?" Yoruichi cut in, feline eyes sharp.

"Yeah," Ichigo nodded, rolling his shoulders to test how sore he was. The answer was: very sore. "I almost got Grimmjow, but then Tousen popped up out of freakin' nowhere and blasted me with a- Kidou spell I think? I didn't even know he was there until it was too late."

"I'll say," Yoruichi huffed, and Ichigo caught a glimpse of faint bags under her eyes as she absently brushed back her bangs. "When I got there, you were falling out of the air, and your entire right side was drenched in blood."

She fired a scathing glare at Urahara, who winced sheepishly. "This idiot should've gotten to the battle sooner but he said he was busy."

"I was!" Urahara protested, looking between Yoruichi and Ichigo. "It was very important, and I had honestly thought Kurosaki-san would've had a little more assistance on hand."

This made Toshirou twitch uncomfortably and the silence in the room descended into awkward.

:He was doing something rather important,: Benihime supported stingily. :Hirako took off somewhere and Kisuke was trying to find him, not to mention he's scrapped all his research on inner Hollows – literally dumped everything out; it was the angriest I have ever seen him in a long time – and then he started over from scratch. Additionally, he's also completed a pendant for you to use in place of the badge, not to mention he was the one to keep your condition stable after the healer girl exhausted herself until the Fourth Division captain arrived to take over. He hasn't slept since that night in the kitchen, and you have been unconscious for two days.:

'Then he's been awake for almost a week?!' Ichigo mentally spluttered, and then pinned the shopkeeper with a glower. "Get some sleep, idiot; you look like crap."

Urahara raised an eyebrow. Yoruichi threw up her hands. "Did I miss something? How did we get from blaming Kisuke for having his head in the clouds to fussing over his sleeping habits?"

In the air, Benihime rolled her eyes at Ichigo's stupidity, and Kyoukotsu sighed in a long-suffering way that told him she wasn't at all impressed by his oversight.

Ichigo gave them both a subtle stink-eye that he hoped conveyed his own absolute lack of appreciation for their completely unwarranted attitude.

"I will be sure to get some rest," Urahara interjected, surreptitiously nudging Ichigo's arm in warning.

Right. Staring any longer at patches of air was going to get him caught. Or committed.

"Great, then I should be getting up," Ichigo threw back the blankets and began levering himself to his feet, only for the entire room to converge on him.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" Yourichi pounced on him, changing into a cat mid-leap and sending Ichigo flailing onto his back with an oof. "Do you have any idea how close you came to death? Tousen nearly ripped a hole through your stomach!"

"But I'm fine now!" Ichigo argued, struggling to sit up again and shooing Yoruichi off his chest. "And you said it yourself – Tousen almost killed me. I have to train!"

If a cat could pull off exasperated, Yoruichi could do it with style. "In one ear and out the other. At least give yourself another day to recuperate. Kisuke, back me up!"

The shopkeeper froze under the twin glares from both Yoruichi and Ichigo, but apparently, Yoruichi's – in cat form, for god's sakes; Urahara seriously needed to grow some balls – was scarier. The man flapped his fan and chirped out, "It won't hurt to wait another day, Kurosaki-san."

Ichigo scowled fiercely, contemplating the option of blackmailing Urahara with the prospect of never translating another conversation between spirits ever again.

And then he dismissed that with a sigh. Urahara had made a soul-separating pendant for him; Ichigo owed him a few conversations for that. Next time this stupid idiot kept him in his sickbed though, all bets were off.

"Fine," Ichigo grouched, suppressing the urge to cross his arms and look like a sulking toddler. He wasn't five. "Can I at least walk around if I promise not to do any training? I want to see my sisters. Oyaji had better have made up a good excuse; I'll kill him if they think I'm dead or something."

"You've apparently had a bit of a training accident," Urahara revealed. "They wanted to visit you but your father convinced them that it was an embarrassing training accident and you didn't want anyone to see you until you'd gotten a manly tattoo to cover up the scar-"

Ichigo cracked his knuckles, eyebrow ticking with irritation. "I'm gonna kill him."

"Maa, maa," Kyouraku looked highly entertained. "At least wait until he's finished diagnosing Juu-chan. A murdered doctor won't be much use to anyone, and you should always make plans to find a place to hide the body before carrying out any kind of assassination."

Ichigo smirked. It was hard not to like Kyouraku.

"I have to get back to work," Toshirou interrupted, apparently fed up with their nonsense. The guy frowned as much as Ichigo did. "Don't strain yourself, Kurosaki."

And with that said, the captain strode out the door, stiff-backed as always. Just before Toshirou disappeared from sight though, Ichigo caught a glimpse of a tall green-haired man, face marred by an X, glancing curiously back at him.

"If I didn't know better," Ichigo muttered, scratching his head as he averted his gaze from Toshirou's spirit. "I'd say he hated me."

"Toshirou-bou just blames himself," Yoruichi dismissed with a swish of her tail. "He was appointed the leader of the team sent to Karakura to help out with the Arrancar threat, and you and the other Humans were unofficially his responsibility too. Not only did Sado-kun get hurt, you almost died, and against one enemy who really should've been his opponent instead, and another enemy who's a traitor from Soul Society. That Grimmjow character was the leader of his little gang of Arrancar after all, and Tousen is self-explanatory. He feels it should've been his duty to confront both, not yours."

Ichigo squinted at the cat to make sure she wasn't joking. And then he snorted. "That's ridiculous. The guy was clearly after me, and besides, if Tousen hadn't cut in, I would've gotten Grimmjow. Since I'm not allowed to do anything strenuous, someone here go hit him on the head for me."

Yoruichi grinned a cat-grin. "Consider it done. Messing with that kid is almost as fun as messing with Byakuya-bou."

Ichigo blinked. Byakuya-bou?

Yoruichi cackled and sauntered out of the room, undoubtedly off to cause mischief and mayhem.

Cats.

"I'll leave you to your rest then, Kurosaki-kun," Kyouraku also got to his feet, placing his sakkat back on his head as he turned for the door. "Don't do anything rash. I'll pass word on to your father that you've woken up."

"Aa, thanks, Kyouraku-san," Ichigo called after the man's retreating back, waving at Katen Kyoukotsu as they drifted out after him.

For a minute, neither Ichigo nor Urahara spoke as they waited for the sound of the front door opening and closing for the last time.

:Finally!: Benihime snapped, sounding more than a little annoyed. :I thought they would never leave.:

Ichigo raised his eyebrows at her. "Don't like strangers in your house? I thought you'd know Kyouraku-san and Katen Kyoukotsu at least."

Benihime's lips thinned. :I do, as does Kisuke, but I did not see Kyouraku Shunsui or any of the old captains come to our defense a century ago. I will never forgive them for that. If not for the consequences to every living being in all three plains of existence, I would leave the Shinigami to hang themselves.:

Ichigo eyed her pensively for a moment, thinking of the Shibas and their apparently eternal split from the Gotei 13, before looking over at Urahara, who had been waiting patiently for him to finish up. "Oi, Geta-boushi, your Zanpakutou hates Kyouraku-san. And quite a few other captains at that."

Benihime's hair seemed to bristle. :You did not have to tell him that, impudent child.:

Ichigo scowled right back. "Don't be an idiot. You're the one who complained that Urahara-san was neglecting you. How do you expect that to change if you don't tell him how you feel and continue keeping all your thoughts inside you? Communication is key, you know, and god I sound like a relationship counselor."

He ducked just in time as Benihime grabbed a book off the shelf beside her and threw it at his head.

"Neglecting, hmm?" Urahara sighed, one hand darting out to snatch the book out of the air. "If you'll excuse me, Kurosaki-san, I think Benihime and I need to have a long overdue chat."

Ichigo said nothing as the shopkeeper exited the room, and with a last half-disgruntled, half-almost-anxious glance in Ichigo's direction, Benihime streaked out after her wielder.

Ichigo flopped back onto the futon, draping an arm over his eyes as he complained loudly, "I didn't even get to ask him what he did to hide my dad!"

He paused and glanced at Zangetsu and Hakuran before looking towards the door where Urahara had just exited through. "I think," He told his spirits with a snort. "The three of us have the best relationship between wielders and spirits, and considering the fact that it's me and an old man and a Hollow, that's just really pathetic."

:Don't go insultin' us, King,: Hakuran rebuffed crabbily. :We're the best; that's all there is ta it.:

Ichigo blew out a breath, not quite hiding a faint smile. As much as he complained about them – mostly Hakuran – he wouldn't trade these two for the world.

:Although next time, take my damn advice and summon me. I'll personally find a way ta make your life hell if we ever end up almost dyin' again cuz ya were too busy thinkin' 'bout strategy.:

Ichigo could really do without the backtalk though.


XXXVIII.

When Ichigo woke up again from a fitful doze that he hadn't really planned on taking, his right side was mostly healed but still aching. He opened his eyes and almost jumped out of skin when he found Hirako lounging next to his futon, back against the wall under the window and idly reading a book.

The blond glanced up. "Finally awake, sleepin' beauty? Ya've slept another half day away. It's past two in the mornin' right now."

Ichigo automatically scowled, the sentiment ruined when he had to smother a yawn. "You're back; where'd you run off to? Could've used an extra sword around here."

Hirako smirked briefly at his own words being thrown back at him. "Sorry, I went home for a bit; wanted ta tell the others about ya. By the time I got back, this place was in an uproar so I had ta stay outta sight. Apparently, even Unohana-san had to be called down. Ya don't do things halfway, Ichigo."

Ichigo glowered, pushing himself upright. "If Tousen hadn't shown up, I would've won. Grimmjow wouldn't have had a chance to unseal his Zanpakutou and I would've gutted that crazy bastard."

"What ya did was pretty impressive already, from what I hear," Hirako clapped his book shut and tossed it aside. "Ya took out a lower-levelled Arrancar and saved your friend, not ta mention that Kuchiki girl too. Again."

"But I didn't even sense Tousen coming," Ichigo griped. "And I had to use Bankai to match Grimmjow, and he wasn't even in his released state."

"Ya didn't use your Visored powers though," Hirako pointed out.

"Zangetsu wouldn't let me," Ichigo admitted.

Hirako looked almost bemused at this. "Wouldn't let you...?"

"He advised against it," Ichigo amended.

"He advised against it," Hirako repeated, shaking his head. "Jeez, Ichigo, every time I turn around..."

Ichigo scowled again, and then his gaze caught the sliver of white peeking out from one of Hirako's sleeves. "Are those... bandages? What the hell happened to you?"

"What, this?" The blond shrugged, though now that Ichigo was examining the Visored more intently, he could see that the usually fluid movement was slightly stiff, not to mention there was a scatter of fading bruises on various parts of his body that wasn't hidden by his clothes. "Eh, collateral damage, ya could say."

Ichigo shot him an irritated look for the perfectly unhelpful answer. Hirako smirked and clarified, "Sakanade."

And all at once, as if simply saying her name had triggered it, the shadow of a sphinx shimmered into existence, prowling across the windowsill, her slitted grey eyes luminous with the reflection of the moon. She didn't speak, probably couldn't, and her anger was still there, shaking the air around her like a heat wave, but it was a simmering sort of fury now instead of the typhoon of rage that it had been before. She stared at him for a long moment, unreadable for the most part, and a few seconds later, she faded away once more.

He lowered his gaze back to Hirako, who looked far more pleased than Ichigo had ever seen him. "Ya saw her then?"

Ichigo nodded. "What did you do?"

"Kept my mask on and tried ta get through ta her," Hirako explained. "I still can't actually hear her but it was... better, 'specially after I let her pound on me for a few hours, and apparently, those injuries actually reflect on my physical body. Ya didn't tell me about that," The blond admonished, but he didn't really look all that concerned about the issue so Ichigo didn't bother pointing out that he hadn't actually known about this tidbit since he had confronted Hakuran here in the outside world.

"I only defended myself when her Hollow side began takin' over," Hirako continued. "And I tried talkin' her down instead of hittin' back. Stayed for as long as I could before I had ta leave my mindscape."

Ichigo couldn't help feeling impressed. He knew Sakanade had been almost too far gone to reason with, and who could blame her after being locked away for a century, and by her own wielder to boot, so it really took balls to face a mistake like that head-on all for a near zero-percent chance of getting her back, and Hirako had managed to figure it out with only the half-assed amateur information that Ichigo had been able to offer him. Their bond was obviously in no way repaired yet but it was a definite start, and Hirako was clearly determined to fix it no matter how much of a beating he had to take.

"The others had no idea what was happenin', just that I was bleedin' and turnin' black and blue while I was meditatin'," Hirako added wryly. "Hiyori almost bashed my head in for that."

Ichigo's brow furrowed. "Hiyori?"

"Another Visored," Hirako snickered, eyes gleaming. "You'll meet her sooner or later. It'll be... explosive."

Ichigo eyed the blond warily. Hirako's grin was a little too evil. "...And why would I meet her?"

"Ah, about that," Hirako leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, and then he winced and shifted back, rolling his shoulders ever so slightly. "I have a suggestion."

"Sounds ominous," Ichigo muttered. He got a light smack around the head for his efforts.

"Don't be a brat," Hirako instructed with a roll of his eyes. "Kisuke told me that ya can barely wait ta get back ta trainin' again, so I was thinkin', ya can come home with me. I've got ex-captains and ex-lieutenants lined up for ya ta fight, so you'll get in plenty of spars against very strong people. Ya can even keep up with your Kidou trainin'; one of us – Hachi – used ta be in the Kidou Corps, second only ta Tessai. He's even better at it than Kisuke."

"And what do you want in exchange?" Ichigo asked directly because Hirako could be a sneaky bastard like that.

Hirako smirked in approval. "Ya help us with our inner Hollows. I haven't told 'em about your little talent for seein' spirits yet so they'll only find out if ya agree. And they all know how ta keep their mouths shut about important things. We've been in hidin' for a century now; we know a thing or two about secrets. So how 'bout it?"

Ichigo considered it. Aizen had evidently taken an interest in him, and he doubted the madman was going to just leave him alone from here on out. But talking to eight different Hollowfied spirits and working out their problems was going to take a hell of a long time, and he somehow doubted Hirako's Sakanade was the worst of the lot.

On the other hand, they'd help him get stronger, which was always a plus.

"What do you think?" Ichigo tossed back at his two spirits.

:It is a sensible idea,: Zangetsu granted.

:Do we have ta?: Hakuran griped. :We can still get stronger trainin' on our own.:

:But the Visored will prove to be a new challenge for us,: Zangetsu pointed out calmly. :And fighting against people with Hollow powers similar to ourselves could prove to be useful in the future when we will inevitably face more Arrancar.:

Hakuran grumbled and crossed his arms but finally jerked his head in acquiescence. :Fine, but I don't like it.:

Ichigo snorted and turned back to Hirako. "Okay, I'll go with you."

Hirako seemed to have taken the entire one-sided discussion in stride, merely nodding at Ichigo's answer. "Good. We'll leave tomorrow. Remember ta pack a bag and tell whoever ya need ta that you'll be gone for a while. I trust ya know how ta be discreet?"

Ichigo scowled and dropped back onto his futon. "Yeah, I know."

Hirako smirked and picked up his book again (The Art of Peace, Ichigo noticed; he appreciated the irony). "Just makin' sure."


XXXIX.

"-my comrade, and she-"

"-sorry, but I cannot-"

"-fine, Sado-kun, I-"

Ichigo had been listening to snatches of the three-way argument from the top of the open trapdoor for going on five minutes now but he figured it was time to cut in and see what the stupid shopkeeper had done to get Chad of all people this riled up.

"What the heck is going on?" Ichigo demanded as he swung down into the training area. "Geta-boushi, I need a word with you before I leave. What's taking so long?"

Chad rounded on him, clearly looking for support. There was a rare frustration burning in his eyes that automatically made Ichigo pin the shopkeeper with an accusing look. Chad was very hard to piss off, and never for anything short of an apocalyptic reason. "Ichigo, Urahara-san won't train Inoue because her attack spirit was destroyed by Yammy. If she doesn't get training, she'll be in danger when enemies come again. She could die, all because she won't be as well-prepared as she could be."

"It- It's okay, Sado-kun, Kurosaki-kun," Inoue jumped in with a strained smile. "I understand why I should stay out of the fighting now that-"

"Aizen isn't going to leave you alone just because you stay out," Chad cut her off flatly. Inoue flinched a little and the larger teen softened minutely, letting his uncharacteristic anger ebb. "You're already involved. It'll only be dangerous for you to not receive any training."

Chad glanced expectantly at Ichigo again, and Ichigo shrugged. "He's got a point, Urahara-san. Just because Inoue's lost Tsubaki doesn't mean she's useless. She's the only one of us who can heal worth a damn, sometimes better than you even since her method is a lot more straightforward. She just needs to work on her stamina. She doesn't have a black belt for nothing either, and some training's gotta be better than none."

"But she will not be able to stand against an Arrancar, Kurosaki-san," Urahara maintained adamantly.

"Then she'll at least be able to hold them off long enough for one of us to get to her," Ichigo insisted stubbornly. He could already see the refusal in Urahara's eyes though, and he knew there was nothing he could say to change the shopkeeper's mind, but he also knew – recognized – the look on Inoue's face, the bitter edge of helplessness when one realized that they were totally powerless to lend aid when there was nothing more they wanted to do.

"It's fine, Kurosaki-kun," Inoue interrupted, forcing another smile. "I don't mind-"

"Inoue, you're gonna have to lie better than that," Ichigo told her straightforwardly. "I deal with master liars on a daily basis." He paused, running through his options. "...Okay, fine, Geta-boushi won't train you so there's obviously nothing for you to do here. So come with me. To Hirako's hideout."

Inoue's mouth dropped open a little, shock colouring her features, quickly followed by hope. "But what would I do there? I can't attack with my powers-"

"Yeah, but you don't have to use your hairclips all the time," Ichigo reminded her. "Look, if no one else will, and I doubt they'd turn you down, but if they won't, then I'll spar with you, get you used to fighting people who are faster than you, and you can also work on strengthening your other spirits while you're there."

Inoue's smile came a little easier this time. "But would the Visored want me there?"

Ichigo shrugged. "Well, Hirako already likes you-" He raised his voice to the trapdoor where he could sense Hirako eavesdropping. "-to an almost inappropriate degree, you pedophile!" He lowered his voice again, ignoring the indignant splutters from above. "And you'll be coming along with me so they shouldn't have any problems with it."

Inoue beamed at him, a faint blush staining her face now as she nodded vigorously. When Hirako swung down as well, nodding his assent at the questioning look directed at him, Inoue thanked him profusely and rushed off to pack, promising to be back within the hour.

"I don't mind, but are ya sure about this?" Hirako asked as Ichigo traded a nod with an appreciative Chad.

Ichigo frowned. "Inoue's a lot of things, and tough is one of the ones at the very top of the list. Besides, if you leave out Shunpo, you'd be surprised how badly she can kick your ass. And like I said, she can work with her other spirits in the meantime."

Hirako grunted, posture falling back into a slouch. "...There might be somethin' that can be done about that spirit of hers. Hachi might be able ta fix it."

Ichigo's eyebrows shot up. "Yeah? And you couldn't have brought that up earlier?"

Hirako shrugged. "I'm not gettin' her hopes up for nothin'."

Oh. Well, that made sense.

"And ya better tell her about your thing," Hirako added, already moving away. "If she's gonna be around, she'd have ta be unbelievably clueless ta not notice."

Ah. Ichigo sighed, glanced at Chad's inquisitive expression, and proceeded to drag his long-time friend off to explain.

It looked like he was going to be telling his friends sooner rather later after all.


XXXX.

Chad and Inoue reacted about as well as Ichigo had expected. They didn't truly understand the significance of Ichigo being able to see other people's spirits (and in some ways, Ichigo didn't either; it was normal for him) so they accepted it as another of his quirks without batting an eye. However, he also tracked down Rukia and Renji and told them as well, and they reacted with a few extra gasps and holy-craps.

("This should seriously be impossible," Renji declared for the umpteenth time with wide eyes and a dumbfounded expression.

"This is Ichigo," Rukia pointed out, and Ichigo couldn't decide whether or not he should be offended when Renji cocked his head in thought before shrugging and nodding in a yeah-that-makes-sense-the-crazy-bastard-is-always-pulling-impossible-shit-so-why-not-this-too kind of way.)

But they promised not to tell, and Ichigo and Inoue's road trip to Hirako's place was delayed a few extra hours when Rukia and Renji wrangled him into the role of translator for them and their spirits.

("Who're you calling a baboon, you baboon?!" Renji bellowed at his blade as Ichigo facepalmed and tried not to laugh when Zabimaru continued taunting their wielder.)

("I am blessed to have such a beautiful wielder, but you would look even better if you grew your hair out," Sode no Shirayuki announced, and Ichigo relayed her words with only mild discomfort. Rukia blushed and fingered the ends of her raven locks thoughtfully.)

Ichigo also tried to hunt down Ishida but the Quincy was strangely elusive and either wasn't at home or wasn't answering the door. Either way, Ichigo didn't have time to find him so he left the other teen a text message to A: get his head out of his ass, and B: contact Chad if the Quincy wanted to know what Ichigo had wanted to tell him.

And then he and Inoue were off.

:You boorish barbarian!: Benihime screeched in his ear when they were just about to leave the shop. Ichigo and Hirako could Shunpo, Inoue could not, so Ichigo would – obviously – need to carry her (because he certainly wasn't letting Hirako do it).

Over his shoulder.

:Carrying her like a sack of potatoes!: Benihime ranted on as Ichigo grimaced and the others watched him with varying levels of curiosity. :Have you absolutely no sense of courtesy?!:

"Alright, alright!" Ichigo snapped, heat rising in his face as he let a perplexed Inoue back onto her feet, thought about it for a moment, and then – he was going to save himself the embarrassment of bridal-carrying her – turned around and told her to hop up.

"I hate your Zanpakutou, Geta-boushi!" Ichigo yelled over his shoulder as he zipped off, trying to ignore both the mortification in his own expression and the flaming red of Inoue's face when she had no choice but to tighten her arms and legs around him from behind to prevent herself from falling off at the speed Ichigo was going at. Ichigo thanked every deity he knew that Inoue was wearing jeans today.

Behind him, Hirako snickered mercilessly at their expense as he Shunpoed after them, Urahara hid a smirk behind his fan as he waved them off, and Benihime – noticeably happier ever since Urahara had talked to her – watched them go, her laughter following them straight out of town.


XXXXI.

First contact with the Visored, Ichigo soon found out, came in the form of two sandaled feet.

"YOU'RE LATE!"

Ichigo swore as wooden sandals slammed into his face as soon as he had put one foot through the warehouse door, propelling him backwards and onto the ground. Behind him, Hirako was being no help whatsoever and was instead laughing his ass off. Inoue fluttered beside him, looking torn between whipping out her spirits and helping him up.

"What the hell?!" Ichigo yelled, leaping to his feet again and reaching for his sword even as his gaze fell on a-

"Shorty," He deadpanned, blinking at the short blonde decked out in a red jogging suit.

"WHAT DID YOU CALL ME, DICKHEAD?!" The midget roared back, and for such a small person, she sure had a set of lungs on her.

"You heard me!" Ichigo retorted, cautiously leaving his sword on his back. "Who the hell are you? And what's with attacking me out of nowhere?!"

The girl bared her teeth in a human mockery of a snarl, shadowed eyes wary and looking for a fight, and without answering, she launched herself at him again, sword swinging around with murderous intent.

Ichigo did grab his Zanpakutou this time, the bandage sheath unravelling in time for him to block the incoming sword, and then he stopped.

He didn't move even when the girl came flying at him again, and it was Hirako who stopped laughing long enough to slide between them and deflect the blonde's Zanpakutou with a flick of his own blade.

Ichigo was still stuck on trying to breathe, trying to haul himself out of the drowning sensation he had gotten from the girl's Zanpakutou. The silent screaming wrath behind it had been near-terrifying, and the spirit itself was even more stifled than Sakanade had been.

Kenpachi's Zanpakutou had screamed in pain at being unheard and unnoticed and unbonded for so long.

This girl's Zanpakutou screamed in rage at being subdued and ignored and locked away, still connected to its wielder just enough to stave off the agony of a complete split between wielder and Zanpakutou, but far, far too severed for the kind of soul balance Ichigo knew to look for, the balance that all wielders and their Zanpakutou should have.

No wonder the girl had tired lines under her eyes, worn-down in a way that spoke of something far worse than a few sleepless nights.

Honestly, forget Aizen; these Visored were going to be the death of him one day, if only from all the emotional trauma.

"Ichigo?"

Ichigo blinked, turning somewhat dazedly to Hirako who had a firm hand clenched in the fabric of the back of the girl's jogging suit. It took him a moment to tune back into reality, opening his lungs again for a necessary gulp of air when he comprehended the fact that he had stopped breathing.

His gaze flicked over the blonde girl again, and then at the colourful range of people standing several feet away, all guarded and watching him like a hawk.

He meant to say 'sorry, I'm fine'. What came out was, "This really sucks."

Hirako arched an eyebrow. "What does?"

Ichigo strapped his sword back into place before scrubbing a hand over his face, swallowing a few times to get the clogged feeling out of his throat. Then he turned a flat look on Hirako. "You explain; I need some fresh air."

And without another word, he strode right back out, pausing only long enough to catch Inoue's eye and let her know that she was welcome to come with him since she didn't really know anybody there. She looked relieved as she hurried out after him.

"Are you okay, Kurosaki-kun?" Inoue enquired anxiously as they made their way out to the side of the abandoned road out front. The place was deserted for miles around, not a living soul in sight. Even the surrounding scenery looked wilted. It was actually kind of depressing.

Ichigo sighed and squatted down by the roadside. Inoue promptly crouched down beside him, unmindful of the dirt under her shoes.

"I'm fine," He assured with a crooked smile. "Just... I think helping them out with their spirits is going to be even harder than I first thought."

Inoue cocked her head in a considering manner before smiling encouragingly at him. "I know you'll be able to do it though, Kurosaki-kun. You can do anything you put your mind to! Remember how we saved Kuchiki-san?"

Ichigo smirked with dry amusement. "I think a measly invasion would be easier than this."

"And," Inoue persisted brightly. "Back when we were invading Soul Society, we all thought it was the hardest thing we'd ever have to do, right?"

Ichigo huffed out a laugh, getting to his feet and giving Inoue a hand up. "Yeah, you have a point there."

Inoue's smile widened, and Ichigo wished he had her optimism. He didn't know how she did it – or maintained it – when their lives were – literally – just one disaster after another.

"Let's go back inside," Ichigo squared his shoulders. Honestly, he didn't want to touch the Visored's spirits with a ten-foot pole, as heartless as that made him sound, but he'd given his word, and if Inoue could still keep going even after losing one of her spirits and getting into death-defying battles every other week, then Ichigo could damn well suck it up and face a few Hollowfied spirits.


XXXXII.

Ichigo's favourite Visored turned out to be the childish Kuna Mashiro, for the simple reason that her Zanpakutou spirit, while near-transparent, was at least there.

When Ichigo returned, the warehouse was filled with an astonished sort of silence, so he assumed that Hirako had filled them in on what Ichigo could do. Ichigo took that opportunity to scan the Visored more closely, and his gaze didn't stop until it landed on the green-haired girl perched on the back of a couch.

"If you guys are doing this," Ichigo had announced, jabbing a finger at the Visored he had chosen as he took in the fairy-like spirit about the size of his hand flitting above her head. "I'm working with her first."

"Why Mashiro?" The guy with the silver grey hair standing beside her instantly demanded, bristling protectively.

Ichigo glanced at him. "Because she's gonna be the easiest to work with. Hey there, what's your name?"

The last bit was directed at the spirit dressed in greens and browns with thin lines of white bone around her wrists and ankles. She swooped forward curiously, kicking up a wind around Ichigo as she looped dizzyingly around him several times.

:Hageshii... Yousei...: Came the musical whisper. :Who... you...?:

"I'm Ichigo," He introduced himself, glancing past the spirit at her wielder – Mashiro – who was all but vibrating in place, looking like she wanted to pounce on Ichigo. "Her name is Hageshii Yousei?"

"...Holy shit," The guy with the spiked afro sounded stunned. "He really can see them."

That was all anyone got in before Mashiro leapt off the couch with a squeal, darted across the six feet of space that separated her and Ichigo, and without further ado, ignoring all boundaries of personal space, flung herself at him and wrapped her arms around him in a hyperactive hug.

"Berry-tan can hear Shii-chan!" Mashiro cheered, practically strangling Ichigo as she somehow pulled off a kick-Shunpo that allowed her to swing around in the air without ever letting Ichigo go. "I can only hear her whisper, and not whenever I want either. The last time was almost ten years ago! You can help me fix that, right?"

"Yeah," Ichigo wheezed out, trying to remove Mashiro's arms before she throttled him. "I'll- do whatever- I can. But- I need you- to let me-"

"Mashiro, for god's sakes, let the kid go before he asphyxiates on us," The grey-haired Visored from before was suddenly at their side, and with an ease born from long practice, pried Mashiro off of Ichigo in record time.

Ichigo gasped for breath, making a face at the pout Mashiro was sending his way. He flicked a sour look at Hageshii Yousei when he heard the tinkling chime of the spirit's giggles, soft and fleeting like bells on the wind. "Very funny."

The spirit winked a violet eye at him before fluttering forward to inspect Ichigo's own Hollow. Zangetsu had bowed out of the meet-and-greet, preferring to stay in their inner world, but Hakuran had been poking around, and now he looked torn between swatting the fairy away with one hand and picking her up and flinging her across the room.

"Hakuran, behave," Ichigo ordered before the Hollow could follow through. Hakuran shot him a dirty look but resigned himself to suffering in silence as Hageshii Yousei pranced from his shoulder to his head and then back down to his other shoulder.

:Strange...: The spirit murmured, diaphanous wings brushing Hakuran's nose. :Hollow... strange... Ichi... strange...:

"Ichigo, not Ichi," Ichigo corrected, already scowling.

Hageshii Yousei smiled prettily at him. :You Ichi... Me Shii-chan...:

"What is she saying?" Mashiro butted in eagerly, somehow wiggling out of the grey-haired Visored's grip and latching onto Ichigo's arm this time.

Ichigo twitched. "Nothing important. She wants me to call her 'Shii-chan' in exchange for calling me 'Ichi'. What a troublesome spirit."

Snorts and chuckles rippled across the room. Ichigo glared at all of them indiscriminately.

"So? So? So?" Mashiro tugged at his arm. "Come on, Berry-tan, what do I have to do?"

Ichigo could see the resemblance between Mashiro and her spirit. "Here's step one – stop calling me 'Berry-tan'."

Mashiro turned her nose up. "No! Berry-tan is Berry-tan!"

...And this was supposed to be a shining example of a centuries-old officer-of-the-law-turned-fugitive?

Ichigo sighed, glanced at Hirako, realized that the smirking bastard wouldn't be coming to his aid anytime soon, and sighed again in defeat.

"Can I at least put my stuff down first?" Ichigo grumbled.

And he didn't even know all their names yet.


XXXXIII.

Drawing Hageshii Yousei out and bringing down the barrier between the spirit and her wielder only took five hours of talking on Ichigo's part and meditation on Mashiro's part. Ichigo was thrilled, Mashiro was exhilarated, and Hageshii Yousei – in full colour and as solid as Hakuran and Zangetsu – wouldn't stop buzzing around them, squealing with joy so loudly that Ichigo was surprised no one else could hear her except the three of them.

"Alright, stop jumping around!" Ichigo barked as Mashiro vaulted over the largest Visored – Hachi - and glomped the irritable grey-haired Visored – Kensei, her captain before they had been exiled, as it turned out – before launching herself onto Ichigo himself. "Oi! Off! And summon your Hollow mask!"

"Are you certain we do not need to erect barriers?" The long-haired Visored – Rose – interjected, a concerned frown marring his aristocratic features even as his fingers seemed to flutter to the tune of something no one else could hear. Except Ichigo. He couldn't hear it very well but if he didn't concentrate too hard, he could swear that there was a stuttering, distant melody crooning in the background around Rose. Ichigo thought he might enjoy working with this man's spirit as well.

"Mm, it'll be fine," Ichigo assured confidently, fending off Hageshii Yousei with one hand as she tried to settle on top of his head. "Hageshii Yousei doesn't... well, I don't get the sense that she's the type to hold a grudge, and she seems pretty happy right now."

Turning to the sprite, he added sternly, "Don't go nuts, okay? I'm talking to you and your other side."

For a second, Hageshii Yousei paused, solemnity slipping in front of her typical giddiness, and her violet eyes shifted briefly to a Hollow lilac-on-black colour as she nodded, tiny hands waving at him to show that she hadn't crossed her fingers.

Ichigo quirked a fond smile; he could reluctantly admit that this spirit was rather cute. "Alright then, let's try this out."

He nodded at Mashiro who danced a few steps away before before bunching herself up and shouting, "Mashirooo Chaaange!"

Ichigo, having already seen Mashiro throw on her mask before, knew that this time was different. Instead of the hornet mask instantly appearing on her face, it blurred and morphed into existence, slowly piecing together in a swirl of white.

As the others tensed nervously around them, Ichigo kept an eye on Hageshii Yousei, who seemed to have settled into something calmer, and the circlets of bone around her wrists and ankles gradually spread upwards to cover her arms and legs. Violet eyes paled to lilac as her sclera deepened to black but that was where the changes stopped. Her gossamer wings continued sparkling as they flapped rapidly under the lights of the underground training area, and while her expression now held a sharper, harder edge of awareness to it, it was a stable change, and Ichigo could still see Hageshii Yousei's innate mischievousness mixed into it. With a last joyful smile, the spirit flitted back to Mashiro's side and melted away, merging seamlessly with her wielder.

He looked back at Mashiro as the mask finally finished forming, but instead of the complete white it had once been, there were now shades of lime green around the mask's eyeholes and on the antennae, and they could all see Mashiro's own hazel eyes peeking through from behind it, no longer just the black holes that they'd been before.

Nobody said anything for a long hushed minute. Even Mashiro stayed uncharacteristically still, hands wandering over her mask as Orihime tentatively stepped forward with a pocket mirror for her. The Visored peered into it, eyes widening as her fingers trailed lightly over the new additions to her mask, fluttering almost hesitantly over them as if she was afraid that they'd disappear.

Ichigo glanced around at the others' shocked faces before rolling his eyes and stepping forward. "Mashiro, how do you feel?"

Mashiro blinked. "I-" She coughed when her speech came out much more double-toned than when she had talked while wearing her old Hollow mask, her Hollowfied spirit's slightly rougher but still higher-pitched voice now markedly layered on top of hers. "I'm fine. ...I can feel Shii-chan! Kensei, I can feel her again way better now!"

And with that, Mashiro exploded into action once more, leaping at Kensei and giving the dazed man a hug before launching herself at Hachi next, still babbling excitedly at them while holding a conversation with her spirit at the same time. One blink later and Ichigo found himself accosted once more, having the life shaken out of him as Mashiro squeezed him like some teddy bear, thanking him and chattering a mile a minute about everything under the sun.

"Okay, okay, I get it, you're real happy," Ichigo sighed, struggling to pry Mashiro off before shooting a grateful look at Kensei when the Visored shook his head and moved forward to give him a hand. "Now get off; we have to test something before your mask disappears and you keel over."

"Oh don't worry about that," Kensei grumbled as he wrangled Mashiro away from Ichigo. "The first time she summoned her mask, she lasted fifteen hours with it."

Ichigo stared. "She can keep her Hollow mask on for fifteen hours? I can barely last a minute right now!"

"Mashiro's an exception," Hirako drawled, coming forward to stand beside them. "And the fifteen hours is only when she's not in battle. The rest of us started off at a few seconds each and built up from there, and our longest time is only three minutes when we're fightin', includin' Mashiro. Three minutes in a century. Ya've had your Hollow for a few weeks and you're already up ta a minute; you're makin' the rest of us look bad so don't complain."

Ichigo scowled on reflex. Technically, he had only managed an entire minute once but at least he was getting there. Still, he couldn't quite wrap his mind around three minutes in a century. That was just... He'd go insane if it took him an entire century to manage a mere three minutes.

"Still," Ichigo continued when Mashiro finally stopped jumping on people. "I want to see if anything's different. Mashiro, go destroy something.

"And now would be a good time for that barrier," He added as the green-haired Visored scampered off.

"You want the barrier now?" Lisa asked, frowning. "She seems fine."

Ichigo nodded. "Yeah, but the first time I tried Shunpo when I had my mask on, I went too fast and I almost killed myself crashing into a tree. Now that Mashiro's in sync with her Hollow, her attacks will probably be even stronger, and I don't want to get caught in the backlash when she kicks something."

Some skepticism remained but Hachi was willing enough to execute a simple Kidou spell in front of them as insurance.

"Okay, go ahead!" Ichigo called as soon as the Kidou barrier had been erected, glowing a pale blue around them.

Even with the mask on, Ichigo could sense Mashiro's grin, and without further ado, the Visored hurtled into the air, the jump taking her almost as high as the ceiling, and as she began to descend again, she tucked herself in, flipped once, twice, three times, extended a leg, and let gravity do the rest.

"MASHIROOO KIIICK!"

KA-BOOM!

Ichigo only had time to think 'oh crap' before he grabbed Inoue and tucked her behind him as a quarter of the training grounds detonated under the force of Mashiro's kick, sending pieces of rock everywhere as an earthquake rolled beneath their feet, shaking the very foundations of the room they were standing in. A crack split the barrier that Hachi had raised, and a few pieces of rubble flew through it even as the large Visored began repairing it as fast as he could.

Ichigo unsheathed his blade in the blink of an eye, cutting in half a large jagged boulder coming their way before Inoue summoned her spirits and hastily assembled her own shield around the two of them. All around, the other Visored who had a free hand quickly began defending themselves from the oncoming rock-storm as they fought for balance upon the roiling earth underneath them.

The violent tremors seemed to go on forever even as the sandy dirt that had been kicked up started settling, and by the time everything came to a standstill and they could see again, Hachi's barrier was tattered around the edges, Inoue's shield flickered before dissolving, Hiyori and Rose had fallen over, Love and Lisa were wiping their glasses, Hirako, Kensei, and Hachi who had all taken the brunt of the recoil were covered in a fine layer of dust, and Mashiro could be spotted in the middle of a crater that extended downwards by at least thirty feet.

She was also curled up and snoring away softly, Hollow mask nowhere to be found.

"So," Ichigo said mildly as he stepped away from Inoue and cautiously tapped the ground with one foot to make sure it wouldn't cave underneath them. "Now would be a bad time to say 'I told you so', huh?"

Hirako reached back and cuffed him over the head. "Shut up."


XXXXIV.

Half an hour and a shower each later, Ichigo was in the kitchen with Hirako cooking again as the others took their time cleaning themselves up. Normally, it would be Rose who cooked since he was apparently the best at it but Hirako had told him that the man could literally spend hours in the shower, especially after a workout ("We'd grow old waitin' for him. Best ta just cook dinner ourselves.").

Ichigo made a face at the pot of bubbling stew in front of him as the sound of Love's voice booming out a jaunty but very off-key song reached his ears from somewhere in the warehouse. Elsewhere, Kensei could be heard pounding on a door and yelling at Rose to hurry the hell up in the shower since Lisa and Hachi had hogged the other two, and Hiyori was screeching at Kensei to shut the hell up before he woke the dead. "Jeez, are they always like this?"

Hirako snickered but the look he levelled Ichigo was uncomfortably intense. "Nah, they aren't. They can be as loud as they are now but not exactly like this. Happiest I've seen 'em in a century."

Ichigo stared dubiously at the blond. "This is happy?"

Hirako snorted and turned back to the pasta he was making. "Ya really don't understand the crazy shit ya've pulled, do ya?" The man reached for a wooden spoon to stir the pasta, not looking up again. "Ichigo, we – all of us Visored – we'd given up on bein' able ta talk ta our spirits properly ever again. Ya think we'd be as pissed as we are, nurse a grudge the size of Soul Society for as long as we have, against one man just 'cause he unlocked the darkest part of our souls and made them into living manifestations? Hell no; we could've lived with that, we are living with that. We could've even eventually overlooked the whole part where he got us condemned and exiled; an extended vacation in the Human World relieves us of a crapload o' paperwork, ya know."

Hirako's piano hands stilled though his gaze didn't waver from the food. "But the one thing we couldn't forgive him for was cuttin' us off from our Zanpakutou spirits. That bastard cut us off from our souls, not completely but enough that it sometimes feels like we might as well have lost a chunk of ourselves, like we might be better off dead. The Gotei 13 and Central 46 screwed us over as much as Aizen did, not even givin' us the courtesy of launchin' a proper investigation after all the years of loyal service we've sweated and bled for them. But it was Aizen who fucked with our souls ta the point where we couldn't even hear them anymore, and that's not somethin' we can ever forgive.

"But you," And this time, Hirako did look at him, head tilting to one side as the man appraised Ichigo with thoughtful, eagle-eyed regard. "Ya've given us a way ta get them back. Ya've already done it with Mashiro. Do ya have any idea how much that means ta us?"

Ichigo's ears burned with embarrassment, and he quickly turned back to the soup, pretending that it needed all of his attention. In his opinion, the whole him-helping-them thing wasn't that big a deal. After all, he would be getting spars in return, so really, it was more of a you-help-me-I'll-help-you kind of arrangement. Besides, what else was he supposed to do? Sakanade had been bad enough, Hiyori's spirit even worse. It would be inhumane not to lend a hand when he could.

"Of course," Hirako continued, clearly taking pity on him by moving on. "That doesn't mean we're not gonna kick Aizen's ass when the time comes. Just 'cause we could forgive 'im for gettin' us Hollowfied and exiled doesn't mean we have. We owe 'im some payback at the very least."

Ichigo smirked a little at this, shoulders relaxing. "Well, if you take care of him, maybe I won't have to do anything after all."

He felt Hirako's eyes on him again. "Don't ya want a shot at him?"

Ichigo scoffed, craning his head around to raise an incredulous eyebrow at the older Visored. "You realize I don't even really know the guy, right? I met him that one time just as he was leaving. Sure, he almost killed a whole bunch of us on his way out, but that wasn't exactly anything new for me or my friends seeing as practically all of Seireitei had been actively trying to kill us just two minutes before Aizen showed his cards. So honestly, it isn't as if I have some personal vendetta against him."

He paused to lower the temperature currently heating the soup. "Of course, if any of my friends are pulled into this mess, then yeah, I'll have to fight too. I probably will in the end, the way things are going. But it's not like I actually want to go to war. I'm only sixteen years old, you know, and joining the army's never been one of my career choices."

Hirako hummed noncommittally, idly tossing some pepper into the pasta sauce. "Well, can't fault ya for that logic. ...Ya've crossed blades with Aizen though, even if it was just once. Did ya pick up anythin' from his spirit?"

Ichigo halted his movements, memory flying back to the first time he had come face to face with the traitor. One corner of his mouth involuntarily tipped downwards, and he busied himself with stirring the soup again. "...I didn't see Kyouka Suigetsu. It must've been in Aizen's inner world at the time."

Hirako grunted, eyeing Ichigo speculatively as he reached for the olive oil. "Not what I asked, Ichigo."

Ichigo shrugged as he turned off the fire altogether. "Madness, I suppose. And hunger, for power. Arrogance, self-righteousness, a cunning heart, a ruthless logic to every one of his actions. ...If you want my opinion though, I'd say Aizen's an idiot. The Hogyoku ruined the man he used to be."

And without another word, Ichigo picked up the pot of soup and padded out of the kitchen to the dining room where Inoue had already set out all the cutlery and tableware.

He thought of the Visored's desire for revenge (and rightfully so), and the torment that Aizen had put Rukia through with his manipulations in the background, and the danger and violence that the madman had directly and indirectly placed Ichigo and his friends in time and time again.

Ichigo thought of all that, and he held his tongue and didn't say that he had also felt a crippling amount of loneliness emanating from Aizen's Zanpakutou.

In the end, what did it matter? He'd done his best to put it out of his mind up until this point. After all, loneliness was no excuse for all the shit Aizen had pulled.

So it didn't matter, not really. All it meant was that Ichigo just might have a better understanding of Aizen than pretty much everyone else.

And honestly, that wasn't something worth rejoicing about at all.


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Hageshii Yousei - Tempestuous Sprite