This chapter has been rewritten as of 11/2/18...and then a minor edit was made 9/14/20. Turns out I had Kairoseki written in this chapter instead of Sekkisekki for years. Incredible.

Chapter 1

Soul Society was in ruins. Smoke drifted up into a sky riddled with rifts and cracks between dimensions. Souls, what few remained, darted between buildings, trying to avoid catching the eye of anything that could be watching. Blasted-out buildings, creaking husks of homes, and torn-up streets made all of the Seireitei—and most of Soul Society—look like a war zone.

And it had been one. For eight years. Eight long, bloody years.

I set my elbow on the desk in front of me and bowed my head, knotting my fingers in my hair. It was all I could see now; all the places the war had touched, broken, and burned. There had been thousands of Shinigami at the start and that number had dwindled to a few shattered souls. The Gotei Thirteen didn't exist anymore. There wouldn't be enough soldiers to staff even one of the squads. All the captains were dead, all their lieutenants, every single seated Shinigami—

Catastrophic losses, to the point that we'd stopped sending notes home because it was piling up and the homes were probably destroyed anyway.

Some of those letters were still around here, scattered among the stacks and stacks of paperwork that the war had generated. I'd been combing through them bit by bit, but there was just too much for me to get through it all. This office in what used to be the Eighth Division barracks had been Shunsui's dumping ground before all the battles moved to Hueco Mundo.

Opening my eyes, I stared down at the summary I'd been drafting for the last month. A catalogue of the war, of sorts, only with after-action reports, casualty numbers, everything. Notes on types of hollows, relative strengths and weaknesses, even the damn time of day. I was only three years into the war and already the document spanned nearly three hundred sheets of paper riddled with graphs, tables, and paragraph after paragraph of description.

The war had progressed in stages. After Mugetsu hadn't been enough to stop Aizen from mutating again, the self-proclaimed traitor had waged war on all of creation. He destroyed Karakura—the real Karakura—while I was helpless to do anything but watch. My friends and family escaped annihilation, but my home, the place I'd grown up, had been obliterated. I didn't see much of what happened next; the loss of my powers made me all but useless.

Aizen hadn't waited for the Gotei Thirteen to figure out how to fix me. He amassed an army in Hueco Mundo after he slaughtered everyone in Karakura Town, using them as fuel to make a King's Key. The time he spent creating hollows with his Hōgyoku—the beginnings of the endless waves of completely twisted abominations—was the first stage, when no one really knew what to expect. The stage I spent powerless, waiting for someone to find some way to let me reenter the fight.

The second stage was when Aizen laid siege to all of Soul Society, massacring any and all souls he could find. The central districts flooded with souls fleeing the slaughter and quickly ran out of space. Aizen pressed in from all sides; he took every district past the sixties, then the fifties, the forties, until he stood poised to destroy it all. In a desperate move, I led a counterstrike against him, sneaking behind enemy lines to catch Aizen with his guard down. It wasn't enough; everyone with me was killed, and all I could do was watch Aizen find his way into the Soul King Palace.

They forced him out, of course, because the traitor hadn't been expecting them to be as powerful as they were. In the time Aizen took to recover, the Zero Division took Renji, Rukia, Byakuya, and me in. They saw us as the most promising of the remaining Shinigami and the only ones who could be temporarily removed from battle without our meager defenses collapsing entirely.

They broke Tensa Zangetsu, leading me into a spiral of self-discovery that ended with me finding out the truth of how my mom and dad met and why I had a hollow fused to my soul.

Aizen kicked off the third stage by invading the Soul King Palace once again. He could make as many King's Keys as he wanted with all the souls he'd murdered. We tore apart half the Soul King Palace with all the power we released in our most evenly-matched battle up to that point. Inever found outwhat happened to the Zero Division; one second we were fighting, the next I was back in Soul Society with a weakened Aizen and a confused Byakuya, Renji, and Rukia.

Later, Kisuke told me that the Spirit King may have interfered, but I had my doubts.

We slowly forced Aizen back out of the Seireitei, which his forces had invaded while the rest of us were training in the Soul King Palace. Suì-Fēng and the Second Division launched a daring raid on Hueco Mundo, trying to destabilize Aizen's armies and stir up resentment among the hollows. That single raid shifted the entire battlefield to Hueco Mundo, but not before Aizen found and killed my family right in front of me.

It was the first time I used Resurrección at full power, and the results were catastrophic. I didn't remember any of it, but when I came to, I was in Aizen's dungeons. I stayed in his care for months before Shinji and the Visored broke me out and brought me back to the Shinigami camp hidden among rolling white dunes.

I spent more than six years in the endless desert, losing track of myself among sand and stone and blood. At some point during the confusion, when I was around eighteen, I felt myself die. Not my Shinigami self, but my human body. Whatever had been sustaining it in the World of the Living stopped. It was the strangest feeling, to know that I was dead. For the first time, I was actually a Shinigami, not a living human with a Shinigami soul. My aging slowed practically to a stop after that, making me look eighteen for the rest of the war and all the time after. I was a teenager fighting a war in the realm of hollows against a wannabe god, and I, for all my determination, all my strength—I was not enough.

All my friends died in that desert, their bodies breaking apart under an alien sky.

Aizen, in the final year of war—he knew he was losing, but didn't care—hunted Orihime and Uryū in Soul Society, where they had still been fighting as souls. Somehow, he found them, broke them, and taunted me with their shattered bodies.

I snapped, then, going on another rampage. Aizen and I fought for weeks straight, tearing apart the walls between dimensions and destabilizing all of existence with the power we released. Shinigami and hollow alike died before they even saw us coming, our power disintegrating them like dust in the wind.

I would never forget those final moments. Exhaustion dragging on my bones, thoughts flashing like strobe lights, one last Mugetsu to end them all and finally, finally breaking the Hōgyoku. The end of the Winter War. My friends, my family, and Aizen, all dead. Me, standing alone, staring, uncomprehending, at where the madman had stood.

One thing kept me going, kept me motivated to care about the world I had saved at the cost of my own: Chad's soul was still out there somewhere. It was almost fitting that he was the only one of my friends to apparently survive the Winter War. Our close bond only made it hurt more.

So, once the war was over—and after I managed to gather the paltry remains of the Gotei Thirteen and get them in some semblance of order—I searched for Chad whenever possible, exploring as much of the Rukongai as I could before duty called me back to the Seireitei.

One of these days, I would find him. I'd promised I would.

As though sensing my thoughts, the page under my elbow mocked me.

342 confirmed dead, it sneered. Forty-six missing, bodies never recovered. Enemy forces numbered in the thousands. Three new types of hollows detailed below.

The Battle of Broken Tree. The last time I rushed into something without a plan when there were lives on the line. I closed my eyes and flashes of the battle seared across my mind.

"Fuck this," I growled. I set down my pen and stood. The paperwork would still be here when I returned. Spending another few hours searching for my friend wouldn't send Soul Society into any more ruin than it already was. Before I could even step out from behind my desk, though, Kisuke's reiatsu flared high and wild. I froze. Was there a threat? But no, it was only him.

Something was wrong. Kisuke had locked himself in the ruins of the Twelfth Division after I killed Aizen. I hadn't heard from him in months, only checking in enough to sense his reiatsu while I put out fire after fire around Soul Society. Had he detected something? What was left to threaten us that hadn't been killed or consumed in the war?

I heard the nearest door crash open, a meager complaint from the Shinigami assistant I had assigned to me at all times, and then Kisuke shoved his way into my office and stopped, panting, in front of my desk. I waved away my assistant, who was standing, both awestruck and afraid, in the doorway. Kisuke ignored the whole exchange.

"I did it," he said.

Those three words were a shot of fire into my veins. I knew what Kisuke was talking about; I'd snuck into his lab a couple of times just to make sure he wasn't doing something dangerous. Still, I was skeptical.

"Kisuke, I don't thi—" I started, running a hand through my neck-length hair in a habitual gesture I'd picked up at some point in the past few nerve-wracking months. Some of the bangs hung between and over my eyes, but they didn't bother me. I'd gotten used to them, because there was no way I was going to take a break just to get a damned haircut. I didn't even know if it was still possible to get a haircut; the Seireitei was in shambles, even after all the time I'd been spending trying to get the place back in order.

The fact that half the Rukongai had been destroyed during the fighting wasn't helping.

But Kisuke didn't let me finish. He grabbed my arm in a grip that was surprisingly strong and yanked me out of my seat, making me choke on my words. We were out the door before I even registered that his hand was holding my wrist, and by the time the thought to shake him off crossed my mind, Kisuke was already flash-stepping across rooftops towards where the Twelfth Division's labs were. Well, the remaining labs. Most of them were just smoking ruins now, and thanks to Mayuri, no one wanted to step foot in any place that hadn't been declared completely safe.

The switch from sunlight to artificial light was so sudden that I didn't notice until Kisuke finally stopped, panting slightly, in a large room. I blinked, waiting for my eyes to adjust, until I recognized the space as Kisuke's lab. It was a far cry from the organized chaos I had seen on my last visit a month ago. Broken vials and beakers completely covered one counter and shattered wooden stands and shards of glass spread across the floor nearby. Writing coated one wall, some of the words glowing, others surrounding craters in clear signs of Kidō spells gone wrong. The entire room felt wrong, somehow, some sixth sense prickling my skin and making my hair stand on end.

"There," Kisuke said, his voice shaky from disuse. I followed his finger and saw what looked like a giant rectangle covered in shockingly white pages of paper. When Kisuke approached it, black suddenly striped across the pages, growing in number until the rectangle was so densely covered in writing that it blended in with the wall behind it.

"Kisuke," I started again, not sure what to say. What could I say? The only friend I had left said he'd built a goddamned time machine, which could reverse everything. Reverse the Winter War, reverse Aizen, reverse a hundred thousand senseless deaths. Put everything right, back to the way it was supposed to be. Take us all out of this godforsaken hellscape.

Assuming it worked.


Kisuke's voice snapped me out of my thoughts, and I realized I'd been gripping Zangetsu's pommel at my waist. The other half of Zangetsu was slung over my back, wrapped in white, bandage-like material that always appeared, seemingly out of thin air, when I wasn't using the blade. Thinking of how I'd gotten the dual zanpakutō blades brought up painful memories of the battle at the Soul King Palace. I forced those images back into the box in my mind, slamming the lid and locking it. Time enough for that later, when Soul Society wasn't going to shit.

But if Kisuke had actually succeeded...

"I'm okay," I said. I had to be okay. If I wasn't careful, if I didn't present a strong front, Soul Society could end up like it had been a thousand years ago: a cruel, lawless battleground.

"There are risks," Kisuke said. "If you hesitate, if you waver..."

He didn't have to finish. His eyes were hard, expression cold. The man I'd come to know over the course of the war had broken with the deaths of Jinta and Ururu and then died with Yoruichi. The Kisuke standing in front of me was a ghost, alive only to mend his past wrongs.

Looking at him, seeing the flickers of regret in his eyes, I knew instinctively what he was going to ask.

He didn't have to say anything. There was only one response. There was only ever one response.

"I'll do it, Kisuke. I'll do whatever needs to be done."

Kisuke's smile wasn't quite a smile; he was trying, but a lifetime of guilt and grief made it more of a grimace. It didn't help that he looked to be on the verge of collapse.

"Good," Kisuke said, "because I'm not strong enough to go through there."

I blinked, taken aback. "You're not coming?"

"If I went through there, Ichigo, I would get ripped apart. I've run all the simulations; even if I was at my best, I wouldn't last more than an instant." I hadn't heard him use this tone of voice since the planning session of our final battle. A shiver ran down my spine even as I kept my expression neutral. "The portal is designed to go back in time; think of it as wading through the restrictive current in the Dangai. It's designed to tear you apart."

"You wouldn't send me in there if it was going to kill me."

"You're strong enough to mitigate those effects," Kisuke confirmed, glancing back at his creation as if to make sure that it was still there, that he wasn't dreaming. It pained me to see him like this, but when he turned back to me there was a steely glint of determination in his eyes. "If you go through at full power, you should come out the other side with your body and powers intact."


That small, broken smile returned. "Nothing about this is certain."

I glanced back at the rectangle affixed to the far wall. If Kisuke couldn't make it through, then no one else could.

Not even Chad.

I frowned. If I needed to be at full power, then I would need to undo the seal I'd placed on myself after the war. It was similar to a Gentei Reiin, and its power was held in the shape of a black crescent moon, about the size of an eye, over my heart. I could release it without words; I'd practiced until I could—but I hadn't released that seal in months. It was a final failsafe; the power it contained was the power to destroy gods. I couldn't take it lightly. But going through that portal risked death or eternal torment if the currents of time pulled me apart. I couldn't not unseal. Either way, it was an incalculable risk.

At the same time, if I stayed here, my life would be little except dealing with the aftermath of the Winter War. I would hunt for Chad, maybe even find him, eventually, but the rest of my friends weren't coming back. My family wasn't coming back. The life I had was never coming back. And Yamamoto had lived for a thousand years; with how much power I commanded, I could live for twice that, maybe even longer. Two thousand years of fixing a decade's worth of pain.

A wry smile twisted my lips when I looked up at the time gate. It was a ridiculous plan. A last-ditch plot that would probably end up with me dead in a place no one would ever find me.

"Give me a day, Kisuke," I said, turning to face my old friend. "I'll need that long to prepare."

If I wasn't prepared to see everyone alive again—because I had to entertain the possibility that Kisuke's invention would work—every emotion in that box would come pouring out and I wouldn't even be able to say my own damn name without wanting to scream. I knew trauma. I knew grief. I wasn't going to let myself get blindsided again.

"Twenty-four hours," Kisuke said, and we clasped hands. His skin was cold and clammy, nearly translucent from lack of sunlight.

"Take care of yourself," I said. "Get some sleep."

Kisuke nodded, and after one last glance at the gate, I left. I paused outside, the fresh air a sharp break from the stale air and artificial lighting of the lab. Only then did I let myself properly think over Kisuke's proposal.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Holy shit."

There were a couple Shinigami wandering around nearby, but I wasn't in the mood to talk, and my office had an irritating open-door policy. So I didn't go back to the office or the stacks of paperwork it contained.

I launched into the air with shunpo and took off running. I kept going, past the broken walls of the Seireitei that I'd wanted to get fixed, eventually, just so they could go back to the Soul King's dimension, but Sekkisekki was hard to find. I couldn't go as fast as I conceivably could with the seal in place, and though I hesitated for a second, I opted against releasing it. Up this high, I could get a good look at the dimensional tears rippling across the sky. Were Soul Society more stable, I would take the risk, but I would have to wait the hundreds of years for those tears to heal before I could.

The sun began to set before I made it past the known districts of the Rukongai. I stopped in a clearing, deep in a stretch of woods so far from anything that it hadn't been leveled during my final battle with Aizen. I closed my eyes, my senses taking me back to those last moments. I could taste the grit on my tongue, feel the power of Mugetsu burning me up from the inside.

I remembered thinking, as the dust slowly cleared from the air, that I'd probably destroyed Soul Society.

I remembered not caring.

The clearing I landed in was completely untouched by the war. It was one I had visited many times before, but now, with the prospect of time travel looming over everything, I paid a little more attention. The sun cast shifting shadows through the branches of the trees that ringed the circular space while wildflowers bloomed in the grasses, adding splashes of color to the dominant greenery. I found a spot to sit in the middle of the space, laying both blades of Zangetsu across my lap and taking a deep breath. The breeze played across my bare skin, exposed because my shihakushō was ripped up to the shoulders and I'd never bothered to get a replacement. The white and red harness I wore to hold Zangetsu and the tattered white haori—my dad's, gifted in his final moments—around my waist were the only alterations to my uniform I'd made in years. My shihakushō did manage to mask the seal and the hollow-hole-like black markings in the center of my chest.

Taking another deep breath, I closed my eyes and breathed out, focusing my energy on the swords across my lap and allowing my reiryoku to flow into them until I left Soul Society behind.

I blinked, taking in the cloudy sky from my position on the side of a blue skyscraper.


A white version of Zangetsu—the large cleaver blade—stopped inches from my neck, A web of glowing blue veins spread out on my skin where the blade would have struck, only fading when I released Blut Vene.

I turned to face the wielder of the blade with a raised eyebrow and a slight frown. This was followed closely by a heavily sarcastic, "Really?"

A white copy of me, identical in every single way except color, withdrew his sword and sheathed it across his back.

"C'mon, Ichigo," Zangetsu drawled. "This is the first time you've been here in weeks. I think ya deserve it."

"Not to mention that you blocked us from communicating with you," another, deeper baritone added. I turned slightly and saw the manifestation of my Quincy abilities, the other half of Zangetsu, standing on a flagpole a few meters away. I didn't miss the reproach in his tone.

"I'm sorry about that," I said quietly. "I just needed some time to think."

Zangetsu snorted. "Right. You've already got yer time, Ichigo. Six goddamn months of it. You gotta face facts eventually. And cuttin' off two parts of your soul is damned stupid way ta go about it."

"He is correct," Old Man Zangetsu concurred. I looked between them and then sighed. They were right.


"Idiot," Zangetsu muttered. Despite the insult, Zangetsu didn't look particularly offended. He understood my decisions, even if he didn't like them. Zangetsu ticked an eyebrow."Don't forget that a lotta've 'em are idiotic. I'm—we're—part of your soul, dumbass. Brood all ya want, cuttin' us off doesn't do shit."

"I wanted to spare you some rain," I said.

Zangetsu rolled his eyes. "Oh thank fuck. I'm not soakin' wet. I'm so happy you fuckin' shut away your own soul ta spare us some of your pity party." I couldn't even protest. Zangetsu waved a hand. "Just get on with it."

"You heard everything that Kisuke said, right?" I asked, taking a seat on the skyscraper. They weren't the ones that had first been in this world; appearance-wise, they were similar, but these could be broken, cut away. A few were missing completely, leaving gaping voids where there should have been towering structures of metal and glass. I tried not to look at those places.

It had taken me a month of meditation and introspection just to feel calm enough to the point where I could hold a conversation after I defeated Aizen. Another couple of weeks just to drag myself out of the room I'd claimed. The actual taking charge and heading the reconstruction effort were recent things. In the beginning, I hadn't really thought I'd be capable of keeping myself alive, much less taking responsibility for the souls left wandering the ruins of Soul Society. But after weeks of no one else stepping up and Kisuke's isolation, I'd dragged myself out. And as the days went by, getting up got easier, even as the tasks I needed to do got harder.

"Of course we did," Old Man Zangetsu said, staring down at me. "You may have blocked us from your mind, but we can still hear and see through you."

Zangetsu waved a hand in his other half's direction as he lay down on the building's surface, not bothering to say anything out loud.

I took a deep breath, for once wondering why I'd shut myself away from these two. They were me, right? They were pieces of my soul. Then again, I hadn't really been thinking rationally after I defeated Aizen.

In the distance, thunder rumbled dangerously. Zangetsu, who had been lying down on the building with his eyes closed for all of five seconds, cracked a single gold and black eye open to stare at me.

"Cut it out," he growled. "Yer not gettin' anywhere, thinkin' like that."

"I know." I took a deep breath and then sighed, leaning back and imitating the position of my inner-hollow-turned-Shinigami-powers. Old Man Zangetsu, the embodiment of my Quincy powers, stood on his pole, staring down at me with an unreadable expression.

"We will help you, Ichigo," Old Man Zangetsu said, his deep voice carrying to me easily. "You know that we will always stand by your side, no matter what."

I grinned tiredly, the expression feeling strange on my face after so long. "Yeah, I know."

When I returned to Kisuke's lab the next day, Kisuke was already there. I doubted that he'd taken time to rest. He didn't listen to me anymore; the light in his eyes had been dulled by obsession. I couldn't even remember our last true conversation before he barged into my office.

As though sensing my thoughts, Kisuke glanced up from his computer.

"Did you find him?" he asked quietly, knowing without needing to be told that I'd searched for Chad for almost the entire previous night after getting out of my inner world.

"No," I admitted. I paused next to the counter of broken things. I recognized a couple of the Kidō formulas scrawled across the scraps of paper. Things about power, things about barriers with exclusions I couldn't understand. For a second, I thought one of the notes had Yoruichi's name on it, but when I blinked and focused, it was just another formula. Feeling the echoes of a headache, I faced Kisuke. "It doesn't matter, though. Chad will never be lost in the first place. No one will."

Kisuke nodded, having made peace with what he was about to do a long time ago. He bustled around the room, activating dormant Kidō spells and making the previously still writing on the rectangular gate shift and flicker with energy while he told me what I needed to do. I paid attention carefully, until Kisuke stopped in front of me.

"One shot, Ichigo," he warned. "That's all I can give you."

"That's all I need."

We shook hands for the final time. I wasn't going to get this bond with Kisuke back, and I knew that. But it was something both of us were willing to sacrifice if it meant that others could be spared the same pain.

My friends. My family. My sisters.

"Thank you for everything, Kisuke," I said. And I meant everything: the Shattered Shaft, the training, the advice, all the time and energy that Kisuke had used just to help me. He still felt guilty about parts of it, I knew, but I was determined to let him know that I was grateful for it, happy that I could protect everyone. Or at least try to. Kisuke squeezed my hand, the calluses on his palm pressing into my own. I could see his veins under his skin.

"Good luck, Ichigo."

We separated. I took up a spot on the floor in front of the portal while Kisuke headed for a shielded bank of control mechanisms. Kisuke signaled me from behind a barrier, and I took that as the sign to let my power loose. After making sure that Zangetsu and Old Man Zangetsu were ready, I released the seal on my power. New energy surged through my veins, but I kept a tight grip on it. Still, a breeze stirred by my reiatsu ruffled papers around the room. After a glance at Kisuke to confirm that everything was still green, I entered the bankai that would let me access Mugetsu, feeling the oversized Khyber knife that I'd drawn shift into a black daitō with a chain hanging off the hilt and a manji as the guard. The trench knife dissipated into reishi in the same instant.

Still my power grew. True winds whipped through the lab, kicking up dust and debris that spun in circles around me. I ignored the clouds, mentally pulling the chain of Tensa Zangetsu around my right arm, wrapping it up to the shoulder, stopping right at the ripped portion of my Shinigami robe as by powers merged together completely. The remaining chain segments hung down, and the manji that had made up the guard of Tensa Zangetsu expanded as the metal around Tensa Zangetsu's hilt wrapped around my hand in a kind of metal glove, going to just past my wrist.

Next came the hardest part, the transformation that had taken me two years to master to the point where it didn't almost kill me. It was the only state powerful enough to kill Aizen, and that was after nearly five years of constant training just so I would be able to use it without losing my strength or dying. All that training, just so it wouldn't drain me of my powers completely.

There was a surge of black reiatsu around me—my reiatsu—and Tensa Zangetsu melted entirely, becoming black, bandage-like material that wrapped around my chest and arm. Those strips lightened to become gray, leaving my left arm bare save the black markings that wound around it, mimicking the dark reiatsu that was now leaking from my right arm. Without needing to look I knew that my hair had turned jet-black and my eyes a bloody crimson. I felt the gray material cover the lower half of my face, could feel it brushing up against my skin, and I knew I was finished.

Carefully, I stopped the reiatsu from leaking from my right arm and focused it inward, pulling and pulling until my power was a tightly maintained maelstrom inside of me. In this state, even I could barely control it. I felt a bead of sweat drip down the back of my neck as I focused on not accidentally wiping out everything around me. The floor began to disappear under my feet, vaporized by the very power I fought to contain.

"Kisuke," I said as winds from my transformations faded, "now."

There was a flash of light in the portal, and I hesitated.

Then disgust at my own weakness overwrote the fear and I leapt through the portal, going so fast that my surroundings blurred. No time to stop. No time at all.

The tunnel was dark, suffocating. My power exploded out of me in a protective barrier as shadows I could barely comprehend reached for me, trying to drag me into an endless abyss. Shrieking noises echoed in the dark but I ignored them, sprinting as fast as possible without using shunpo or sonido. I ran, searching through the dark, until I found and focused on a dim light at the end. Kisuke's instructions echoed in my head:

"Focus on a certain point and go there. Remember that, once you get out, you're going to be weak enough for a lieutenant or higher to kill you for a while, so try not to go somewhere where you might get stabbed immediately."

He'd almost smiled after saying that.

And then I was reaching for the light—I took the briefest of seconds to reflect on the irony of the idea—and there was flash, a burning heat that took my breath away, and then an all-consuming darkness that trapped me so completely I was unconscious before I even processed what lay on the other side.

Yoruichi Shihōin was a lot of things. Surprised was typically not one of these things; as a former captain of the Second Division and Onmitsukidō, it took a lot to get any kind of reaction from the golden-eyed ex-noble. Recently, however, there was one thing—one person—that was surprising Yoruichi more than any other.

Ichigo Kurosaki.

After Renji Abarai had arrived at the secret training grounds and told Ichigo that Rukia's execution had been moved to noon the next day, Yoruichi had expected the boy to give up. The former captain was plagued by doubts; no matter what Kisuke said, there was no way that Ichigo Kurosaki could reach bankai in just three days, not with the way his spirit energy was growing. It simply wasn't feasible.

But then Ichigo had thrown that doubt back in her face with newfound determination, smashing the blade he had to the hilt and declaring that, if finishing the next day was no longer an option, he'd finish today.

Renji Abarai had gone to a different corner of the training grounds with the manifested spirit of his zanpakutō, leaving Ichigo and Zangetsu alone.

Yoruichi had expected them to begin training again right away. However, something was hovering just beyond the edges of her senses, making her feel on edge. It was similar to the ominous feeling that the former captain had sensed before Renji had appeared; yet, this time, it was even less defined. She glanced at Ichigo and his zanpakutō spirit to see what they thought, but they were frozen, unresponsive even when Renji's spiritual pressure went up some distance away. From the noises coming from that direction, Renji was engaged in combat of some sort. Confusion turned to caution and Yoruichi reached out her senses, trying to identify whatever threat was coming toward them, but it was just this shapeless, formless feeling.

So when Ichigo suddenly collapsed and his zanpakutō spirit reverted back to the doll, Yoruichi was surprised.

Her first thought was that the training was too much for him, but Ichigo's spiritual pressure was still—

Reiatsu began gathering around the boy in circles, whipping up dust in a gradually building tornado of energy. The presence that Yoruichi had sensed increased tenfold, staggering her, and then vanished without a trace.

At the same time, Ichigo was enveloped by a personal whirlwind that completely hid him from sight, even to the keen-eyed Goddess of Flash. Yoruichi was helpless to intervene, stuck in place by a feeling that she couldn't identify. Her eyes stung as dust flew into her face and she squinted. She soon had to close her eyes entirely, bringing her arms up to shield her face. As soon as she did, the ordeal was over, the only sign that it had ever happened being the gradually settling debris. Yoruichi lowered her arms, muscles tensed and ready for an attack.

None came. Where there had been a storm of reiatsu before, there was silence. And where Ichigo Kurosaki, the boy she had taken in personally to help train for bankai had been, there was someone else.

In his place was a man with long black hair and strange gray material covering his chest. Yoruichi, freed from whatever feeling had paralyzed her, carefully approached. She didn't know who or what she was looking at. The man had bandages—no, not bandages, they were something else entirely—wrapped around his chest and right arm, leaving his left arm, which was covered in strange black markings, bare. The gray material also stretched over his face, obscuring everything below his eyes behind a mask.

Yoruichi had no idea who the man could be, though he was definitely wearing the bottom half of a Shinigami uniform, along with sandals.

The final straw was that the man was silent; his reiatsu, even when he appeared to be unconscious, was completely undetectable. Yoruichi couldn't feel a thing from him. The Shihōin princess's heart was pounding in her chest, but she let her training take hold. Carefully, she placed various Kidō bindings around the unconscious man, careful not to touch him in case that would wake him up. Kidō wasn't her strong suit, but training in the Onmitsukidō taught her how to restrain a target effectively. Every time her Kidō touched the man's skin, however, it broke apart.

Narrowing her eyes, Yoruichi let the spells hover around the man instead of making direct contact. There was still some kind of interference, but they held. Yoruichi stared at the man's face again, trying to figure out if she recognized him or not.

When he woke up, Yoruichi vowed, she was going to have some questions for him. Her saving grace was that Renji didn't seem to have noticed anything amiss, most likely because he was engaged in his own bankai training and didn't have time to worry about someone else.

This situation would be rather difficult to explain to him.

Yoruichi chewed her lip. She'd witnessed it all, and even she couldn't explain it to herself.

What had just happened?

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