To all those who loved this world…

And knew friendly company therein…

This Reunion…

Is for you…

"Kurosaki," the teacher said, glaring at him. Ichigo looked up, doing his best to turn his bored look into one of calmness, "perhaps you would like to share what you know with the class? Namikaze Naruto was the subject, in case you've forgotten."

With an almost inaudible sigh, Ichigo stood up from his seat, "According to the most accurate of records to date, Namikaze Naruto was born on October Tenth in the year 1183 AD. The minute details of his childhood, much like the details of any famous warrior's childhood, are obscure and relatively unknown. All that historians have been able to discern is that he was an orphan and generally disliked by the members of his village."

Ichigo took a breath before continuing, "At the age of fifteen, Namikaze Naruto was considered to be one of the strongest warriors in the military superpower known as Konohagakure no Sato, though many major researchers are still disputing over whether or not any such place ever existed. Generally, though, the Hidden Leaf Village is the accepted birthplace and 'home town', so to speak, of Namikaze.

"At the age of twenty," Ichigo went on, "Namikaze Naruto officially became the leader of his village and was, by default, its strongest warrior. Three years later, Namikaze completed a task that, before then, was considered to be impossible: he united Japan into a single country. He was married to two women, something which wasn't terribly uncommon in that age: a woman named Tenten, whose original surname or clan was never found, and the heiress to an important clan, Hyuga Hinata."

Ichigo inhaled again, "Namikaze would continue to set records throughout his life. He enjoyed a large family, reigned as the first true emperor of Japan, brought peace wherever he could, treated peasants equally, and lived to be one hundred and fifty two years old. Legends even tell of a mysterious power he wielded: the power to freeze the hottest flame and turn the moisture in the air into his weapon. Such claims have been disregarded as myth, despite the rose made of ice that still exists today in the national museum, forever frozen and preserved through some unknown force."

"Very good, Kurosaki," the teacher applauded him softly. Ichigo resisted the urge to roll his eyes, "but aren't you forgetting something?"

Ichigo sighed, "It's a widely unknown fact that the current generation of the Kurosaki family is directly descended from Namikaze Naruto through their mother's side."

Ichigo sat down amidst the stares of the entire classroom. Even Rukia was staring at him with wide eyes, though her skin had gone deathly pale during some part of his speech.

"Now, class," the teacher stated loudly, "please turn to the page we left off on yesterday. Kurosaki, if you would be so kind, I'd like you to read Act IV for us. Since you seem in such a sharing and talking mood, it seems only fitting."

Sighing, Ichigo flipped open his copy of the book, the word 'Loveless' written across the cover. Finding the appropriate section, he read, "My friend, the fates are cruel. There are no dreams, no honor remains. The arrow has left the bow of the goddess."

Taking a breath, he went on, "My soul, corrupted by vengeance, hath endured torment, to find the end of the journey in my own salvation…and your eternal slumber. Legend shall speak of sacrifice at world's end. The wind sails over the water's surface, quietly, but surely."

The Azure Moon
James D. Fawkes

Chapter One: Fragments of Memories

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

She looked down at them, the three of them, kneeling faithfully before her, heads bowed in deference. Bright, glowing blue eyes swept over them, taking in their features, memorizing the details of their faces and bodies, and imprinting onto her mind her three most loyal. They did not waver. They did not flinch or twitch. They were perfectly still.

"You three I have chosen," she told them. "You three, who are my most faithful, who have proven most dedicated to me and mine, shall forever more be beyond your brethren. You shall lead a life different than theirs, a separate life and a separate time, forever set apart from the others. You shall be my knights, and you shall always hold my favor."

She turned to one and placed a hand upon his shoulder. She spoke.

"You shall be my Crimson Knight, Knight of the Crimson Flame, and all things fire shall be your domain. Your flames destroy life just as easily as they grant it. You are power and will and resolve unyielding. So shall it be forever and ever."

As her hand left him, the man looked up at her with fire in his dark eyes, fierce and loyal and strong. His mouth was set into a resolute line and he was as she had stated: power, will, and resolve unyielding. She moved on and set her hand once more onto the shoulder of the second man. Again, she spoke.

"You shall be my White Knight, my Immaculate Knight, Knight of the White Lightning, and all things lightning shall be your domain. Your lightning strikes fast, vicious and unstoppable. You are speed and light and determination unshakeable. So shall it be forever and ever."

The second man too lifted his head as she did her hand. His gaze was fierce and his eyes seemed to glow with his resolve. He was lean and strong, as she had said: fast and vicious, with determination unshakeable. Though he was dubbed the White Knight, he dressed in black and had a black blade. She moved on and set her hand down for the last time on the shoulder of the last man. For the last time, she spoke.

"You shall be my Azure Knight, my Knight of the Azure Sky, and all things water shall be your weapon. All of heaven shall be yours to command. You, who is my most faithful, my most loyal, you, who has proven yourself in my service beyond all the rest, shall be my right hand. You are water, fluid and flexible, and ice, strong, unyielding, sharp as steel. You shall be my sword. So shall it be forever and ever."

The third man lifted his head, a head of messy, untidy hair, and met her with intense eyes the same shade of blue as hers. As one, he and his brothers said, "So mote it be," solemnly. She backed away and observed the three men before her once again.

"My Knights," she said, "hear me. Perish the thought of the day when you must, but only you may take my throne from me. No other, man, spirit, devil, or otherwise, can seat himself at the head of my realm, but you three. Should the day come where I exert tyranny, strike me down, as I will have betrayed my very heart and wronged my children. Should the day come when a pretender stands over my body, victorious, lay him to rest and take my mantle. This, above all else, is your most solemn duty."

As one, all three men spoke, "Yes, my Lady."

Naruto's eyes snapped open so abruptly that the dream vanished instantly and he was wide awake within the second. What had disturbed him was the feel of a familiar presence, one he had not felt in centuries.

Ichigo brushed a thick vine out of the way, following the strange blonde man in front of him, growling, "What are we doing here?"

The cave they were in was deep and dark and Ichigo had only seen the entrance when Urahara had pointed it out to him. He'd looked over the thing at least three times before the blonde weirdo had pointed it out to him, and those three times he had never seen the large, gaping tunnel. It was eerie and it spooked him out. What kind of power could hide such a large and obvious entrance so well?

The cave itself was much like what Ichigo expected a cave to look like: dark, deep, foreboding, silent, and, above all, huge. The ceiling was almost unnoticeable and the walls were smooth and rippling. Stalactites and stalagmites were all over the place and, the thing that surprised Ichigo most of all, gems and crystals of all kinds, shapes, and sizes were embedded in the rock, creating a beautiful glow on the wall whenever the moon struck just right.

"We're here for back up," Urahara explained plainly. "Despite the fact that you've actually managed to achieve your Shikai, you still don't stand a chance against the people you'll face in Soul Society. There are thirteen Captains, each of which would defeat you with almost no effort whatsoever. Considering that Byakuya is nowhere near the strongest of those, we need someone stronger."

"That still doesn't explain why we're here," Ichigo said, dodging past another of the hanging rock formations.

"Ah, but it does," Kisuke said, that damnable smile on his face. "You see, Soul Society at large, particularly the highest of the authorities, have been keeping a very peculiar secret from the rest of the Seireitei and Rukongai. That secret is less of a secret and more of an amazingly powerful Shinigami."

"And why," Ichigo cursed as he stumbled in the darkness, "would they lock an 'amazingly powerful Shinigami' in a cave in the human world?"

"The first reason is to keep others from finding out about him," Kisuke explained, "the second is that no one would think to look for such a powerful Shinigami in a forest in the human world, and the third is that you can only see the place if you've been shown it or seen it before or know it's there."

There was a glint of metal in the darkness before a tiny knife flew towards Kisuke, sinking through his hat and knocking it off his head. Kisuke seemed unfazed, however, and merely smiled, "That wasn't very nice. I think you killed my hat. It certainly has been a while, hasn't it, Naruto-kun?"

"Indeed it has," a tall blonde man walked into the moonlight, looking to be about Ichigo's age and height. He had a sword slung over his back and wore a dark shihakusho with a white haori overtop it that was decorated in red flames near the bottom, his spiky blonde hair at least an inch or two longer than Ichigo's. Tying the haori around his waist was a long crimson obi tied in a butterfly knot. The sword, the orange-haired teen noticed, had a black, wooden hilt and three golden studs, a tri-toed dragon's claw holding an amethyst gem attached to the bottom, "Kakashi-sensei."

Kisuke merely continued to smile, snapping his paper fan open, "It's been six hundred sixty-five years, Naruto-kun."

"That is long," the newly identified Naruto said in agreement. "But surely you would not come here, breaking my seal and waking me three days early, simply to catch up. You have something you need me to do. Tell me, what's so scary that even the infamous Copy Ninja needs help?"

Kisuke frowned, "Twelve Captain-class Shinigami and the inability to reach them."

"Only twelve?" Naruto arched an eyebrow. "I thought there were thirteen Captains in the Seireitei."

"Yes, well," Kisuke smirked again, "the other one is your second half."

Naruto's eyes widened, "You mean…?"

"The old man has honored your deal," Urahara answered, nodding. "Hinata-chan entered the Shinigami Academy shortly after I left, or so I hear. Hitsugaya Tôshirô, your other half, is currently Captain of the Tenth Division, while Momo-chan, which is what she's called now, is Lieutenant of the Fifth Division."

"I see," Naruto rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Has she — ?"

"No, no Bankai just yet," Urahara shook his head. "Not as far as I'm aware, anyway."

Ichigo might have imagined it, but Naruto looked crestfallen for a moment. He looked disappointed. What was Bankai, Ichigo asked himself. He'd never heard the term before. Urahara had tossed around the term 'Shikai' once or twice, but never had he spoken of this new 'Bankai'.

"I take it, then," Naruto crossed his arms, "that you want me to infiltrate the Gotei Juusantai for your purposes?"

"At first, yes," Urahara replied. "After that, I'd appreciate it if you took over Ichigo's training."

"Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute! Time out!" Ichigo said, crossing his arms in an 'x' shape. "You expect me to believe that this is the real Namikaze Naruto, the man of legends that supposedly conquered all of Japan shortly before the collapse of imperial power? That he was actually some super powerful Shinigami? And that, after being dead for almost seven hundred years, he still looks like that?"

Naruto gave him a funny look, tilted his head, and, suddenly, the air was driven from Ichigo's lungs as spiritual pressure washed over him like a tidal wave. He couldn't help but fall to his knees, his black hakama pressing into the dirt ground. Calmly, the blonde man remarked, "A mere twenty percent while I'm at half strength, that's ten percent of my full power, and you can't even stand up straight. I can see why you needed me, Kisuke. This brat doesn't stand a chance."

"Oh, you'll be surprised," Kisuke commented. "His growth rate is astounding. Not nearly as high as yours turned out to be, but it's pretty fast nonetheless."

"So," Naruto turned back to Kisuke and the pressure vanished. Ichigo gasped for breath, "you and I will alternate until it's time to leave? This brat has pretty far to go before I feel safe letting him loose amongst the Lieutenants and Captains."

Kisuke smirked, "Sounds like fun."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The sign saying 'Urahara Shoten' glared brightly into the dark night, acting as a beacon for all those that would gather beneath it. As Ichigo slowed his pace down to a light jog, and finally down to a walk, he looked up, surprised, at the person already waiting there. Chad sat on a box, waiting patiently for the others to arrive.

"Hey," Ichigo breathed as he came closer. Orihime panted as she stopped next to him, smiling brightly at the dark-skinned boy.

"Oh, wow!" she commented. "You're fast, Chad!"

"Yeah," Chad nodded as he stood. "I couldn't sleep, so I got up and walked around. I got the notice around here."

He pointed to a splash of crimson on the street that Ichigo hadn't noticed before. Splattered all over the ground and on parts of the brick fence was a message identical to the one Ichigo had received, oozing in red and looking very much like a man's dying message. The orange-haired teen's eye twitched as he caught the P.S. again.

Tearing his eyes away from the message, Ichigo turned back to Chad and Orihime, "So, where's Ishida? I heard he was coming, too."

"Uryuu will come," Orihime said brightly. "Just wait a little while."

"He won't come," Chad said quietly.

"Chad!" Orihime exclaimed, looking at him as if offended.

"It's not a big deal, Inoue," Chad said. "It'd be better if he didn't come. Ishida is a very complex person. The more complex a person is, the weaker they are. That's just who Ishida is. That's why I think…he's the weakest among us."

"Who did you say wouldn't come?" a familiar voice asked rhetorically. The group spun around to find Uryuu, dressed in a strange white uniform. A bag was slung over his left shoulder. "I thought I told you, I can't forgive myself for losing to those Shinigami, so I had to train. And, since I said that, I won't stop until I've won. For that, I'll go anywhere."

Uryuu turned a smirk to Ichigo, "And I want you, Kurosaki, to see how strong I've become."

"Ishida," Ichigo began, eyes wide. "You…"

"So, you all decided to show up," another voice said from behind them. Once more, the group whirled around to face another person. A blonde stood there, his hair spiky and looking very much like he was one of their peers. Overtop the normal Shihakushô, there was a white coat with burning red flames printed on the bottom hem. A smirk adorned his lips. "A Shinigami, a Quincy, and two whose powers are new and unknown. What a motley crew."

"You!" Uryuu said loudly. "That face! It can't be! The original Quincy!"

Ichigo tossed him an alarmed look. Naruto merely laughed, "That's what they're calling me nowadays? It's a bit over the top, but not entirely untrue."

"But," Ichigo jabbed a finger at him, "I thought you were a Shinigami!"

"I am," Naruto shrugged. "Like I said, what Ishida said isn't entirely untrue…but it's not the entire truth, either. It's true, I taught his ancestors how to manipulate reishi and reiryoku the way they do, but I myself am no longer capable of it. Since losing my real body, I lost my ability to control the energy of the atmosphere and the world the way the Quincy do."

"Oh," Orihime smiled brightly. "I guess that makes this team even! Two of us, two Quincy, and two Shinigami!"

"Orihime, don't you know who this man is?" Uryuu asked incredulously. "He's Namikaze Naruto!"

Chad's visible eye widened, "As in…?"

"Yep!" Urahara chimed in, walking up from behind them. "This man and the one who conquered Japan nearly seven hundred years ago are the same person. And, of the five of you…no, of the six of us, he's definitely the strongest. Hands down."

Before anyone could interrupt or ask anymore questions, Kisuke snapped his fan shut, "Now, come in and I'll explain to you guys how you're getting to Soul Society. You'll have to listen carefully, or else…you might die before you get there."

The place Urahara led them to was very familiar to Ichigo, as he had trained in it to not only achieve Shikai, but to get strong enough to fight the Shinigami in Soul Society as well. Naruto and Ishida seemed unimpressed — Naruto, of course, having already seen it before — and Chad's eyes were covered, but Orihime looked thrilled.

"Awesome! I didn't know there was such a large place underground!" her head swiveled from side to side as she took in her surroundings. "It's like a cool, secret base!"

It hadn't changed much since he'd last seen it the day before, Naruto noted. The damaged sections had been repaired — the parts where he and Ichigo had trained and demolished in the process — and entire segments of floor had been filled back in, but, over all, it hadn't actually changed from its original state.

"Okay, everyone!" Urahara clapped his hands to get their attention. When the group of five looked his way, he snapped his fingers. "We're going to get going."

Four pillars formed from nothing, shaping into a square. A ripple of shock seemed to go through the four teens, but Naruto was unfazed. Kisuke continued, "This is Senkaimon, the gateway to the Soul Society. Listen carefully, and I'll teach you how to get there safely."

Lifting up his cane, he poked Ichigo in the head with its bottom end. Pulling smoothly away from his real body was Ichigo the Shinigami, completely unbothered by the transition. Chad caught the teen's living body by the arms, holding it up as Orihime and Uryuu prodded it experimentally.

"Would you stop poking me?" Ichigo yelled, glaring at them.

"Idiots," Naruto said exasperatedly. "We're about to go to a place where most of you could easily die simply during the transition and you feel it prudent to poke and prod Ichigo's body instead of paying attention to Kisuke? We're doomed."

The three teens looked quickly ashamed and stood straight, turning their attention back onto Urahara. Ichigo silently fumed at them for dropping his body so carelessly, but decided it in his best interests to do what they were as well.

"Now that we've got that out of our systems," the hat-wearing blonde smiled. "This door is usually made by adding Reishihenkankon to the top of the Senkaimon, and then having Ketsugoufu cover it all up to make it stick together. Since Soul Society is the world of souls, you have to be a soul to go there. Separating each of you from your bodies would still leave you with a chain of fate, making it difficult for you to move, let alone go to Soul Society. As it is, the only two who can go as they are, are Naruto and Ichigo."

Kisuke held up a finger, "That's why we have Reishikanki, which changes the kishi that makes up living things into reishi, which is the main component in souls. This means that you guys can go to Soul Society in your original forms."

"Okay, got it," Ichigo headed for the gateway. "Let's get going."

Naruto grabbed him by the back of his collar, "Not yet, brat, there's more."

"Yep," Kisuke said brightly. "Now is the important topic! You'll have no trouble going through this door. Reishikanki won't hurt a bit, and, as long as you keep going forward, you'll make it to Soul Society. The only problem you'll face is time. We can only hold this gate open for four minutes. Any longer, and you'll be trapped forever in the Dangai."

"Which means you guys have to be fast," Naruto chimed in. "If you want to make it through, we have to be quick. Slackers will be left behind."

"Right," Kisuke nodded, but he was frowning at Naruto. "In the Dangai, there is a sort of current that can stop souls from moving completely. Even a single foot caught in this current can prove to be damning. The likelihood of making it out of Dangai in time is very slim, should that happen."

"So," Orihime began quietly, "how do we make it out?"

"Just keep moving," a male voice said. A black cat walked up from behind them, its yellow eyes focused on the group as it stopped in front of the gateway. "Only those confident in their success may follow me."

"What are you talking about?" Ichigo demanded as he stepped forward. "All of us came here of our own choice! None of us is going to back down!"

"You realize," Yoruichi said calmly, "that if you lose, you'll never be able to return?"

"Then we'll just have to win," Ichigo replied firmly. Kisuke and Tessai, his helper, kneeled at either side of the gate. A small smile quirked on Naruto's lips. The kid certainly had spunk, he'd give him that, and now, he had the skill and power to back it up.

"Well said," Yoruichi remarked, colors beginning to swirl inside the square.

"When it's opened, run through," Kisuke said, eyes focused on his hands. A rush of excitement filled Naruto, all the way down to his bones. For the first time in nearly seven hundred years, he'd get to see the woman he'd fallen in love with. His heart jumped at the thought, beating a tattoo against his ribcage.

As the gate flashed white, the group ran forward and vanished into it. As he stood, Kisuke reached out with a hand, touching the white swirl. A shock zapped his fingers, his face falling into a frown. Looking into the doorway, he whispered, "It's all up to you, now, Naruto. Like it always has been."

When they came out the other side, a ghastly sight met their eyes, that of purple ooze and what seemed to be giant bones. Ichigo, Chad, Uryuu, and Orihime paused a moment to take in the grotesque structure around them, even as Naruto and Yoruichi moved to continue.

"Move!" Naruto called back to them, annoyance flitting through him and across his face. "Stop looking like idiots and zoning out! The walls will close in on you!"

And indeed, the walls were beginning to constrict around them. Startled, the rest of the group hurried onward running as fast as they could to catch up to the blonde far ahead of them. Behind them, the parts they'd passed through were collapsing. Uryuu was about to turn his head, but Naruto's voice snapped him back to the front, "Don't look back! We can't afford to be distracted now!"

A light, however, caught Uryuu's attention, "What…What is that?"

Yoruichi looked back, "Seimichio! It comes through here every seven days to clean up whatever gets caught! Damn! Why today?"

"It doesn't matter!" Naruto yelled over the roar of the beast chasing after them. "If we don't make it out of here, then it'll be a moot point, anyway! Hurry! We're almost there!"

"It's right behind us!" Orihime shouted worriedly.

"Damn it!" Naruto swore quietly as he turned, flinging a hand at the beast. Reiryoku glowed around his palm. "Go! I'll take care of it! Bakudô no Sanjuunana! Tsuriboshi!" (Suspending Star)

A gooey substance shot forward, wrapping around the monstrous construct and slowing it slightly. Turning on his heel, Naruto started running again, shouting, "Go!"

Wasting no more time, the group leapt into the white light.

Moments later, high in the sky in Rukongai's first district, a doorway opened up and five objects shot out, crashing against the ground. A second after that, a man leapt out of it and landed deftly next to the point of impact, his feet clattering lightly against the dirt and dust beneath him.

"You guys are too eager," Naruto sighed as the group stood. He could understand their desire and drive to rescue this Rukia girl, but if they didn't slow down, they'd eventually make a mistake. "If you'd done it right, you wouldn't have landed the way you did."

Ignoring him, Ichigo looked around, "This is Soul Society?"

"This is Rukongai," Yoruichi explained. "It surrounds the Seireitei and is where the most souls live. Seireitei is where the Shinigami dwell."

"But there's no one here," Uryuu said doubtfully. The street was indeed deserted. It reminded Naruto of the days when he'd been hated and scorned, way back when he was barely six or seven years old and the parents warned their children to stay away from him. The faintest feeling of hurt stung his chest, but it didn't stay long.

"Those who enter Soul Society without being guided there by a Shinigami are generally viewed as the source of all troubles," Yoruichi told him. "It's unsurprising that they're hiding from us. Now, before we go rushing into anything, we should probably—"

"Ah!" Ichigo pointed in front of them. "Those don't look any different from the streets we live on! That must be the — what did you call it? — where the Shinigami live!"

He ran towards the paved streets, unheeding of the fact that he might be in danger. Naruto palmed his face exasperatedly as Yoruichi yelled after him, "Idiot! You could get yourself killed!"

Ichigo stopped short, just barely avoiding being crushed as several thick and tall planks of wood fell from the sky, forming a sort of fence and gate and kicking up clouds of dust. As the dirt began to clear, Naruto set Ichigo down in front of the rest of the group, gaining wide eyed looks from several of them.

"Next time," Naruto told him sternly, "I won't save your ungrateful ass."

Really, what was the brat thinking? Naruto wondered. Rushing into enemy territory without a plan of action was foolish at best and suicidal at worst, not to mention all the things that could have gone wrong before he even got there. Was he, Naruto, really like this way back when he had just become a Genin? He could understand Kakashi's exasperation with him now.

"It's been such a long time," a thunderous voice commented. "Someone…trying to enter Seireitei through the Hakudou Gate illegally…Finally, I have something to do."

A large, hulking Shinigami stood in front of the gateway, holding two large axes, though they looked more like chief's knives. "Jidanbou of the West Gate is always on duty! Come on, who's first?"

The group stared, one thought going through their minds, "He's huge!"

"Ichigo," Naruto spoke first. This Jidanbou guy was definitely big and strong, but…"Can you handle him?"

Ichigo rubbed his neck, "Probably."

"What?" Yoruichi demanded. "Are you insane? We need to work together! We can't afford to let pride overrule our purpose here!"

"Yoruichi-san is right!" Orihime said. "Kurosaki-kun, let us help you!"

"He can handle this on his own," Naruto said firmly. Did they doubt his abilities that much? He could understand that they were skeptic of what Ichigo had learned, but didn't they hear what Kisuke had said about the distribution of power between their group? "After all…I trained him."

"I see," Ishida pushed up his glasses. "Kurosaki…what did you learn?"

Smirking, Ichigo grasped the hilt of his sword and swung it around, the wrappings coming loose as he brandished it. "Enough."

Uryuu nodded, "Then you can handle it."

A smile threatened to break over Naruto's face. Trust Mitsunari's descendant to have a better grasp on the power gap between Ichigo and the rest of the group, as well as the even larger gap between Naruto himself and Ichigo and his friends, than the others. The Ishida clan had always been on the upper side of intelligence.

Ichigo walked forward, standing in front of Jidanbou. The giant smiled, "So, you are first?"

He swung down, kicking up another cloud of dust and sending gasps of panic and shock throughout the rest of the group. Naruto remained calm. As it was blown away, Ichigo stood, his sword held up defensively against the giant ax. Jidanbou's eyes widened, "How…How did you?"

Then, his face cracked into a smile and he laughed, "It's been so long! So long since someone could block my axe! You're good! I can finally use all of my strength."

His grin stretched farther, "Until now, there have only been two others who could block my first ax. But…no one…has blocked the second!"

Ichigo blocked it again. Jidanbou's grin showed his teeth, "Great! You're still standing! But I'm not finished yet! Jutsu Pon Jidan Damatsuri Da! One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six!"

Relentlessly, he hacked at Ichigo, bringing his axes down one after the other, "Seven! Uh…Seven! Eight! Ah! Five! Six!"

As Jidanbou huffed and panted, Ichigo turned hard eyes up at the man, "Are you finished yet? Then…It's my turn now!"

"No! I'm not done yet!" hefting both axes up at the same time, Jidanbou cried. "Take this! My final attack! Banzai Jidan Damatsuri!"

"Sorry," Ichigo said. "I'm going to have to break your axes."

As Jidanbou brought his two axes down, Ichigo lashed out with a single slash, destroying them both and knocking the giant off his feet. Shocked, Orihime asked, "What happened? With a single attack…Kurosaki-kun…defeated that giant man?"

There was a pause as the dust began to settle, then a light hearted chuckle resonated over the street. Jidanbou's chest heaved up and down, jerking with his laughter.

"You are the first," Jidanbou said slowly as he stood back up. He was, surprisingly, smiling. "In the three hundred years I have been gatekeeper, you are the first to have defeated me."

Jidanbou beamed, "Go inside! I, Jidanbou of the West Gate, give you permission to enter!"

"Are you sure?" Ichigo asked, disbelieving. The rest of the group was equally as wide-eyed.

"Yes," Jidanbou nodded. "You defeated me. You have earned the right to enter. Your name…it's Ichigo, correct?"

"Yeah," the teen answered.

"Take care of yourself, Ichigo," Jidanbou said solemnly as he reached for the gate's bottom. "I don't know why you want to go inside…the warriors within are all really powerful."

"I know," Ichigo replied seriously, his eyes set forward determinedly.

"I see," Jidanbou said neutrally. His fingers grasped the bottom of the planks. "I'm going to open it now. Don't be astonished. Just rush in."

With a heave and a slight effort, Jidanbou lifted the gate open. The entire group, save Yoruichi and Naruto, gasped at his strength. Naruto's eyes narrowed when Jidanbou didn't immediately react, staring instead at whatever was beyond the gate. Ichigo too looked inside, his expression turning dark.

"Who is this guy?" he asked. A man stood in the streets beyond, an eternal grin stretched over his mouth and his eyes closed shut. His silver hair was short and his skin was pale. Overtop the normal Shinigami Shihakushô, he wore a white haori.

"The Captain of the Third Division," Jidanbou gasped. "Ichimaru Gin…"

"This is not allowed," Ichimaru said in a mocking voice. There was a bright flash, then a deep gash suddenly formed in Jidanbou's left arm and he fell to his knees, bringing the door halfway down. "You're a gatekeeper. Opening the door isn't a part of your duty."

Jidanbou didn't reply, holding the door open with his one hand. Ichimaru tilted his head, "Oh? You can still hold the gate open with just one hand? No wonder you're considered one of the elites."

"I lost," Jidanbou said at last, teeth clenched in pain. "When the gatekeeper loses, it's only natural that he opens the door!"

"I'm afraid you're misguided," Ichimaru said, turning around and walking a short distance away. "When the gatekeeper loses…he dies."

There was another flash, but Ichigo appeared and slashed at the silver haired man. Ichimaru blocked with his wakizashi sized zanpakuto, then pushed Ichigo back. The teen glared, "Who do you think you are, attacking an unarmed man out of nowhere? We won against Jidanbou, fair and square, and you pop up randomly and just start slashing at people! If you're so eager to fight…I'll be your opponent."

"You're an interesting guy," Gin smirked. "Aren't you afraid of me?"

"Not a chance in hell!" Ichigo replied.

"Ichigo, you idiot!" Yoruichi yelled. "You don't stand a chance!"

A funny look crossed Gin's face, but it was gone nearly as quickly as it came.

"So," Gin drawled, "you're Ichigo?"

Ichigo blinked, "You know me?"

"You do exist," Gin murmured as he turned and began to walk away. "In that case, I most certainly can't let you pass."

"Then why are you leaving?" Ichigo tossed back. "Do you intend to throw that little butter knife at me?"

"It's not a knife," Gin said tersely, turning around. He aimed the blade at the teen. "Ikorose, Shinsô." (Shoot him dead, Divine Spear)

The blade lengthened and shot forward so quickly that Ichigo barely had time to bring his large sword up and block it, the thin steel of Shinsô rocketing him back and into Jidanbou. Both were knocked backwards and to the floor, the gate closing behind them. Leaning down behind it as it slowly fell back into place, Gin waved cheerily, "Bye, bye!"

"Kurosaki-kun!" Orihime rushed forward. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Ichigo replied, standing up with a slight groan. "What was that?"

"Ichimaru's Shikai," Yoruichi told him. "It would be a good idea if you didn't try to fight any of the Captains in the future. In fact, should any of you encounter a Captain once we make it inside, I suggest you run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. Only Naruto can—"

Chad interrupted before Yoruichi could say anything else, "Where is Naruto-san?"

The group looked around, alarmed. But he was nowhere to be found. Naruto was gone.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The Tenth Division Barracks were quiet, Hitsugaya Tôshirô thought as he roamed the street, far too quiet. The wind blew through the buildings softly, eliciting a low, near-silent hiss as it passed. The only other sound that he could hear was the beating of his heart, the clap-clap of his feet on the ground, and his own breathing.

As Juubantai Taichô, Captain of the Tenth Division, Hitsugaya Tôshirô wasn't really all that paranoid of a person. Few in the Seireitei could match the strength of a Captain, and the only ones who could were other Captains. Tôshirô had made no enemies amongst his comrades, so he really shouldn't be so cautious and on edge.

But he was.

There was something in the air, a feeling of anticipation that made his skin crawl and the icy pressure of his reiatsu very foreign and uncomfortable. Something, or someone, of incredible power was waiting for him, seeking him out, stalking his every move. When whatever it was would strike, he didn't know, and he didn't particularly care to find out.

"Matsumoto!" he called out sternly. "Get your lazy hind end out here, Matsumoto!"

But the buxom blonde didn't appear, and he heard nothing of her at all. There was no return call about how stiff he was and how he needed to relax, no rustling and hurried assurances that she was on her way, there was nothing at all. Something, he realized, was wrong here. Something was very wrong.

"She won't come, you know," a voice said calmly. He whirled around to face a blonde man, his pale hand shooting up to grab Hyôrinmaru's hilt. The man didn't seem concerned at all with his weapon. "None of them will come. I've made sure of that."

"You bastard!" Tôshirô snarled. It seemed impossible. An entire division of Shinigami, some of them powerful in their own right, fell to this single man? "All of them? How could you—!"

"Kill so many people?" the man finished for him. "I didn't. I merely…made sure they were…indisposed for a little while."

Tôshirô didn't relax, "Why are you here?"

"You'll have to be a little more specific than that," the man answered. A smile stretched the man's lips and a snarl curled on his own. "What do you mean by here? Which of several reasons do you want to know? There are so many, after all."

"All of them," Tôshirô demanded. "Tell me all of them!"

The man smiled, "My primary concern is collecting on a debt owed to me."

"What do you mean?" the white-haired Shinigami asked. If this man was collecting on a debt, how did that involve him and the Tenth Division? He had never seen the blonde figure before in his life. Was he one of the Ryoka? "How does that concern me?"

"Why wouldn't it concern you?" the man retorted. "You were, after all, one of the conditions and objects of the deal. Yamamoto swore it to me."

"How do you know it was me?" Tôshirô asked evenly. And, more importantly, why would Yamamoto keep something like this a secret from him? Surely, this dealt with the security and safety of the Seireitei. The man had taken down an entire division single handedly, after all.

"Momo-chan is another concern of mine," the man continued, ignoring the question. Momo? What did the man have to do with Momo? How did he even know Momo? He and she had grown up together, so anyone that Momo knew Tôshirô should also know. "Really, the two of you go hand in hand. Of course, beyond this deal of mine, I also have to rescue Rukia."

The white haired captain snarled at being ignored, a low growl rumbling deep in his throat. No matter what, the man would go nowhere near Hinamori Momo. This man…he was going to learn that facing a Captain was different than facing a division of seated and unseated Shinigami. His fingers tightened on the blue cloth of his sword, and he let go of his ironclad control.

"I don't care who you are or why you're here!" Tôshirô drew his sword, leaping forward and stabbing at his supposed enemy. The man didn't move at all. "I won't let you touch Momo!"

Before he reached the blonde man, however, his sword stopped short, hovering a few inches away from the man's chest. A thrill of despair shot through the white-haired Shinigami, sending icy dread through his veins. Tôshirô eyes widened with shock, "Hyôrinmaru…why?"

"It's simple," the man replied, walking forward. The sword's steel seemed to melt into his body. "Hyôrinmaru refuses to fight against his true master."

"Impossible…!" Tôshirô spat quietly. "Hyôrinmaru is…!"

"Ours," the man said. "Because you are just as much a part of me as he is."

The man's hand came to rest on Tôshirô's shoulder and, in that instant, information flashed through the Captain's head. Names that he never knew before — Naruto, Hinata, Tenten, Namikaze, Hyuga, Uchiha, Sasuke, Itachi, Jiraiya, Tsunade, and several more — blazed through his mind. In an instant, it was over, and in a soft voice, he said, "Yes, I…understand now. This is…how it was meant to be."

He turned firm eyes up to the blue of the man, "Even if the morrow is barren of promises, nothing shall forestall my return. To become the dew that quenches the land, to spare the sands, the seas, the skies…"

In unison, they finished, "I offer thee this silent sacrifice."

There was a flash of light, and, suddenly, Naruto was holding Hyôrinmaru in his hand instead of Tôshirô, "Loveless, Act Five."

Attention, all Captains! Attention, all Captains! Your presence is required for an emergency meeting!

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Yamamoto cast a half lidded eye around the room, taking in the visage of all the Shinigami assembled in front of him. Soifon, Captain of the Second division, Ichimaru Gin, Captain of the Third, Unohana Retsu, Captain of the Fourth Division, Aizen Sousuke, Captain of the Fifth, Kuchiki Byakuya, Captain of the Sixth Division, Komamura Sajin, Captain of the Seventh, Kyoraku Shunsui, Captain of the Eighth Division, Kaname Tousen, Captain of the Ninth, Hitsugaya Tôshirô was missing, Zaraki Kenpachi, Captain of the Eleventh Division, and Kurotsuchi Mayuri, Captain of the Twelfth. Juushiro was out sick.

"Yare-yare," Gin rubbed the back of his head as the doors closed behind him. "All this for little old me? Is it really that serious that you called everyone back from all over Soul Society?"

Gin looked around, "What's this? It seems the Captains of the Tenth and Thirteenth Divisions aren't here."

"Ukitake-taichô is excused for injury," Tousen replied. "Hitsugaya-taichô has simply not arrived yet."

"He's not healed yet?" Gin's smirk dropped into a frown. "Good luck to him."

"Stop wasting time!" Zaraki growled. "I heard that you went to deal with some intruders outside your jurisdiction and, worse yet, you failed to eliminate them. Why the hell not? Someone with your skills shouldn't find it too difficult to take out four or five Ryoka!"

"He didn't die?" Gin rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. "Strange. I could have sworn I took care of him."

"Stop playing games!" Mayuri demanded. "There's no way a Captain would be unable to determine whether or not his enemy was eliminated!"

"Are you saying I deliberately let them go?" Gin asked calmly.

"Exactly," Mayuri breathed.

"Shut up, Kurotsuchi!" Kenpachi shouted. "I was talking first, so buzz off! If you really want to die, then go ahead, say something else!"

"Enough!" Yamamoto called. "Stop it, both of you! Zaraki and Kurotsuchi, stand dow—!"

A sudden wave of spiritual pressure washed over the room, Yamamoto's eyes widening as he stopped in mid-sentence. All of the other Captains, save for Zaraki and Shunsui, flinched and their knees buckled, threatening to bring them to the floor. Yamamoto, however, paid them no mind. He was, instead, concentrated on the familiar feel of the reiatsu flooding the room.

"Really, now," a calm voice began. The Captains looked over at Yamamoto's chair, where a blonde man looking to be in his teens leaned up against the side of the back, smiling at them, "must you squabble amongst yourselves?"

Without waiting for a response, he whirled around, baring the back of his haori to them for a moment. The kanji for 'Juu' or 'Ten' was centered inside a diamond shaped rhombus. An instant later, before the white overcoat had even settled down, he vanished and reappeared by the doors, hands folded behind his head.

"After all," he grinned slyly, "aren't there more important things to be worried about?"

"Naru-jii!" Shunsui gasped, eyes wide. Naruto felt a trill of excitement rush through him. Shunsui was still around, then. And if someone of Shunsui's ability was still around, then Juushiro had to be, too.

Kenpachi grinned savagely, reaching for the hilt of his sword, "You're pretty strong! Let's have some—!"

"Zaraki!" Yamamoto barked sternly. "Now is not the time to be fighting amongst ourselves! We must— !"

Alert! Alert! Intruders in the city! All personnel should report to their stations!

Shrugging off Yamamoto's words and without waiting a second longer, Kenpachi leapt out the doors. They banged shut behind him. Yamamoto sighed, "It can't be helped. Everyone, please return to your defense stations for now."

Slowly, the Captains milled out of the room and left for their posts. Several of them shot the blonde newcomer a look, whether it be one of distrust, interest, or loathing. As the door closed shut, Naruto was the only one who remained, his hands falling back down to his sides as his expression turned mischievous.

Naruto smirked, "That Kenpachi guy is sure an excitable one. He completely ignored the fact that I outclass him and immediately tried to challenge me."

"The Eleventh Division did not gain its reputation for nothing," came the reply.

"I suppose," the blonde conceded neutrally. "I see Shunsui-kun is doing well. A couple hundred more years, and he may just be strong enough to rival you. But, my curiosity strikes me. What happened to Juushiro that he missed the meeting? I was under the impression that it was mandatory for all Captains to attend."

"Juushiro…took sick a century or so ago, give or take," was the old man's response. "It is a chronic lung disease that flares up now and then, but is particularly violent when he partakes in strenuous physical activity. We are, as of now, unsure how he came to contract this disease, but…"

There was a pause, "I believe the reason for Juushiro's ill health is related to who he was when he was alive. I have no solid proof, but…I believe that Juushiro went by the name…Kaguya Kimimaro when he was still a human."

Naruto's eyes widened. Kimimaro? Friendly, passionate, righteous Juushiro was Kimimaro in his past life? And yet… somehow, it made sense. The white hair was a common trait between them, and the ages fit (Kimimaro had only lived to be about fifty or sixty, compared to the late seventies most of his friends had managed), it all added up. The disease, though, was the final nail in the coffin.

Starting in a soft, startled tone, he said, "I see. Yes, that would explain it." He frowned. "Well, you're in luck. Back during those years, there was no permanent cure for the disease afflicting him. The symptoms could be treated and the final stages could be delayed for several years — even decades — but no cure. Now, however, I know of a method to cure him. I'll take care of it next time I see him."

Yamamoto nodded, "I'm sure Juushiro will appreciate it."

"It's not a problem," the blonde assured him.

An instant later, the atmosphere of the room changed to a more serious tone. Tension filled the air, so thick that it could be cut with a knife.

Yamamoto's eyes cracked open, pinning the blonde with a piercing stare, "It has been that long already?"

"It has," Naruto confirmed. He and Yamamoto had left on excellent terms, but he wasn't sure how the old man would react to some of the things he had done, some of the decisions he had recently made. "Six hundred and sixty-five years. The Nine Tails' taint is completely purified."

He hoped that Yamamoto understood the coded phrase.

"I see," Yamamoto replied neutrally. "Then you have come to collect on our deal? I see you have already collected on part of it."

Naruto breathed an internal sigh of relief.

He looked pointedly at the sword whose hilt was wrapped in blue. He shook his head, "I'm sorry, but Hinamori-san is not ready."

"I know," Naruto said. From what Kisuke told him, however, that problem could be corrected rather quickly. All he had to do was get Yoruichi to find him one of those special little dolls. "Tell me, though, how you managed to set up the Bankai trigger on her memories."

Yamamoto frowned for a moment, but said, "You are aware, no doubt, of the device we use to erase the memories of mortals who see us and witness us doing our job. When used, it wipes the memory from their mind and implants one that the person will have the easiest time believing. There is also a second device, one for the opposite purpose. Those with amnesia are usually treated with this particular piece of machinery."

The old man paused for a moment, looking at the blond skeptically, "It is usually used with a set trigger to determine what will cause the memories to resurface. Our espionage units will use both devices in tandem so that the perfect spy can be created. Most Shinigami, however, never use this device, as they have little desire to know their human lives. This device was used on Hinamori Momo-san, with the trigger for her memories being her Bankai."

Yamamoto's eyebrows knitted, "But you already know this, as you are the one who donated both technologies to us Shinigami."

"I know. But there are other ways you could have accomplished this. I simply wanted to know if you used my method," Naruto said. "Anyway, Momo-chan isn't the only reason I'm here. I'm here to help the Ryoka, too, but I must also play my new role as Captain of the Tenth Division."

"The Ryoka?" Yamamoto asked. "What business have you with them?"

"There's something off about this whole situation, Shigekuni," Naruto told him. "From what I understand, the punishment for Kuchiki Rukia doesn't fit the crime. The normal waiting period, for example, is usually thirty-five days, as I understand it. I also find it hard to believe that execution by Sôkyoku, a punishment usually reserved for rogue Captains, is going to be used on someone who merely transferred her powers to a human. I intend to find out why the Central Forty-six ruled as they did."

"I see," Yamamoto said. "I'm afraid I cannot support you, but neither shall I get in your way. The Ryoka themselves, however, I cannot oblige. It is my duty — "

"I know," Naruto interrupted. "But…I have a way to make things work out. Follow me."

In a blur, Naruto disappeared, Yamamoto following shortly after. They reappeared in Yamamoto's office, which was open to the sunlight on the outside, revealing the slow light of the rising sun. Naruto walked up to a table, upon which a giant shogi board was set up, the grid overlaying a gigantic map of Seireitei. He picked up one of the thin, pentagonal pieces, showing it to the old man, "I say we play a giant shogi game. Your pieces are the Shinigami of Seireitei."

Written on the piece he was holding was the name 'Zaraki Kenpachi', underneath which was the number of his division. Naruto continued, "I, on the other hand, will command the Ryoka. When I make a move, I'll move the piece responsible for it. When I defeat a Captain or Lieutenant," — he set Zaraki's piece down and picked up the one labeled 'Hitsugaya Tôshirô' — "I will remove that Captain or Lieutenant's piece from the board. Similarly, when you or one of your Captains makes a move, you move the corresponding piece. Defeated and captured pieces are removed from the board."

"I see," Yamamoto replied, stroking his beard. "And when does the game end?"

Naruto looked up from the board, "On the day of Kuchiki Rukia's execution."

"Very well," Yamamoto reached down and moved Zaraki's piece into the middle of the board, "may the best man win!"

Grinning, Naruto moved the piece labeled 'Kurosaki Ichigo' up next to the piece labeled 'Madarame Ikkaku', "I intend to."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"Turn into sand!" Ganju cried as the ground came closer. "Seppa!"

With a crash, they landed in a large, sand-filled hole in the street. Ichigo surfaced first, gagging and spitting up sand, "Gah! Disgusting! Ugh! Looks like your weird magic saved us."

He brushed the particles off his clothes, holding his sleeve open upside down as sand emptied from it. He was doing similarly with his other sleeve when he felt it, a funny prickling on the edge of his senses.

"Haha!" an excited voice called from behind them. "So lucky! Originally, I thought standing guard was boring, so I wandered off. But here's the prey right in front of me! Lucky! Today is my lucky day!"

The man speaking was shaved bald, pointing the end of his sheathed sword at them, "As for you, you're very unlucky."

He spun around and started dancing, "Lucky! Lu~ucky! Lucky, lucky, lucky! Lucky!

"Ta-da!" he struck a pose. Ganju and Ichigo just stared. "What are you two still doing in there? I did my lucky dance to give you some time to get out of there and run away! Why aren't you doing anything but staring? What ungrateful bastards!"

"Hey," Ganjuu whispered into his companion's ear. "Let's get the hell out of here!"

"Run away?" Ichigo hissed back, his head whipping around. "This is not the time for your usual stupidity!"

"You're the idiot!" Ganju retorted. "These guys are much stronger than normal Shinigami!"

"What are you two arguing about?" Ikkaku asked, bending down to look at them. He shrugged. "Oh, well. Go ahead and keep arguing. Nothing can change your upcoming demise, anyways."

"But if we keep waiting, someone will come and take our kill," his partner stated.

"Ah, that makes sense," Ikkaku grinned, moving into another pose. "All right, then! I'll give you a limited amount of time to argue! You have until I finish my next dance!"

"I don't care, I'm running! If you want to fight, do it alone!" Ganju leapt out of the hole and started running.

"Tch. How troublesome," Ikkaku muttered. "Yumichika!"

"I'm on it," his partner said, chasing after Ganju. They turned a corner and disappeared.

Shaking his head, Ichigo placed his hands against the edge of the hole and hefted himself upward, bringing a knee up to gain some more leverage.

"I have a question," Ikkaku said as Ichigo climbed out of the pit, "why didn't you run? That guy noticed that we're stronger, so he ran away. I thought that was a pretty smart decision."

"If you really are stronger than me, what would have been the point in running," Ichigo asked as he straightened, "if you would have caught up to me anyway? But…if you're just a weakling…"— Ichigo unsheathed his sword — "I can simply kick your ass and move on anyway. That's what I thought."

"I see," Ikkaku leered, "you're not so dumb, after all."

There was a flash of steel as Ikkaku unsheathed his own sword and slashed down at Ichigo, who dodged to the side. Bringing his blade up, Ichigo slashed at Ikkaku, who hooked his sheath underneath Zangetsu's massive edge and blocked. He retaliated with a horizontal attack; Ichigo set his foot against Ikkaku's sheath and leapt upwards over it.

Lightly, Ichigo landed on the top of the tiles on the wall, pushing off as he did a flip in midair. His sword came down, but Ikkaku leapt backwards deftly. He dodged a second time as the large zanpakuto swept out in a horizontal arc, Ichigo using his momentum to move back into a standing position.

A third strike followed, but Ikkaku couldn't dodge with the wall to his back, so he held his sword up defensively to the side of his right arm. As soon as Zangetsu impacted, he pushed it away with a soft grunt and a grin. Taking advantage of Ichigo's being forced on the defensive, his stabbed forward with his sheath, followed quickly by one from his sword. Ichigo deftly dodged both.

As Ikkaku moved to make his third attack, Ichigo leapt over it and Ikkaku's head, doing a summersault in midair and retaliating. As Ichigo lashed out, Ikkaku did too. They landed opposite one another, backs turned.

"One question," Ikkaku asked as blood dripped onto the stone, "what's your name?"

"Kurosaki Ichigo," Ichigo answered. Ikkaku smirked.

"Ichigo, huh? That's a nice name," Ikkaku responded. "Men with the word 'ichi' in their names are often powerful and successful." He spun around and brandished his sword, a cut above his eye bleeding sluggishly, "I am the third seat of the Eleventh Division, Madarame Ikkaku! Since we both have 'ichi' in our names, let's make this a great fight!"

"Tch," the orange-haired Shinigami muttered, a similar injury oozing crimson on the left side of his forehead. "Whatever."

Ichigo reached up and wiped the blood out of his eye. Ikkaku stared, "I just can't understand. Even though there's a fair amount of distance between us, only a rookie would remove his hand from his sword in a fight like this."

"What does it matter?" Ichigo said defensively. "I got blood in my eyes, so I wiped if off."

"Wounds above the eye don't have to be very deep to bleed a lot," Ikkaku commented. He pulled the cap off the end of his sword, dipping his finger into a sort of beige cream and spreading it on his cut. "Instead of constantly wiping away the blood, you should find a way to stop the bleeding all together."

"You have ointment to stop the bleeding! Cheater!" Ichigo shouted, pointing. "You're only using it on yourself!"

"It's called being intelligent! Intelligent!" Ikkaku shot back. "Hmph! What a weirdo. You act almost completely like an amateur. You certainly don't look like a fighter."

Ikkaku rushed forward, quickly closing the distance between the two of them. His first stab came with the sheath, but it was knocked to the side by the large cleaver. The second came from the sword, though it, too, was easily parried, "Your reaction time is top notch!"

Ichigo took advantage of the slight lull afterwards to slash downward. Ikkaku blocked it, grinning, "Your attack are surprisingly strong."

Twice more, he attacked, first with a horizontal slash, then with a swipe of his sheath. A stab followed, but all three missed their target. With a harsh whoop, Zangetsu made its own bid, trying to bisect Ikkaku at the middle, but the bald shinigami leapt backwards unharmed, then rushed forward. They clashed again, the steel of their swords trembling with their might, "As for your agility, I don't mind saying that it's very close to mine."

Ichigo just scowled, and, an instant later, they leapt away from one another. Ikkaku grinned, "Why are you so serious? I'm complimenting you! But…you're too good to just a rookie who likes to fight. Saying that you're using your instincts seems to be praising you too much. Who's your master?"

Ichigo paused, "I have two. Each only taught me for five days, so I don't know if that's long enough for me to call either of them my master…but they did teach me."

"Who were they?" Ikkaku asked again.

"Urahara Kisuke," Ichigo said, "and Namikaze Naruto."

"Come on!" Ichigo shouted. "Stop messing around! Show me your shikai!"

"My shikai?" Naruto asked amusedly. His sword gleamed in the artificial light of the vast basement. "You're nowhere near earning such an honor. Besides…every time I've unleashed my sword…someone has died."

"You think I'm going to die that easily?" Ichigo asked dangerously. "Show me your shikai."

"Fine," Naruto sighed. He brandished his sword. "Ama ni Jôshôshiro, Sô'unga."

"I see," Ikkaku said slowly, his eyes wide. "Then…with those two as your teachers…it would be rude of me to kill you too easily."

He slammed the bottom of his sword's hilt with the top of the sheath, crying, "Nobiro, Houzukimaru!"

Instantly, the sword morphed into a spear. Ikkaku grinned triumphantly and brandished it, "You don't have time to be surprised, Ichigo!" — he started forward — "Here I come! Don't miss it!"

"Who do you think you're talking to?" Ichigo called back, dodging around the first two stabs. The third one was knocked to the side, but Ikkaku switched things up and swung with the dull end using his right hand. Ichigo blocked it effortlessly, but still blinked slightly in surprise. He didn't have time to do anything else, as the pole moved again and lashed out with several jabs. Ichigo avoided all of them easily.

"Heh!" Ichigo scoffed confidently. "I know that a spear has a longer range! As if I'd miss that!"

"You're wrong, Ichigo," Ikkaku said seriously. He spun Houzukimaru with ease, then stabbed forward, holding it near the bottom with his right hand. Ichigo ignored him and moved forward past the wood, scrapping his blade against it as he went. Ikkaku's eyes widened excitedly, glimmering with triumph. "Split, Houzukimaru!"

In response, the pole split at two places, swinging around towards Ichigo, blade first. At the last possible second, Ichigo grabbed the pole just beneath the steel, fist clenched tightly as it stopped a few centimeters away from where his arm had just been. Ikkaku, who had started to brag, slowly trailed off, "It's a…tri-sectioned…staff…"

As Ikkaku tried to get over his surprise, Ichigo suddenly jerked the spear-like weapon out of his hands and threw it out of the way. Ikkaku jumped backwards cautiously, eye flickering over to the staff laying behind Ichigo. Ichigo himself spun his sword around and flung it into the air, going through strange hand motions that Ikkaku had only seen Soifon-taichô use.

As the Ichigo grabbed Zangetsu from midair, he said, "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu."

In a blur, four other copies of Ichigo appeared, each one looking identical. Ikkaku's eyes went wide, and he barely managed to dodge as they all came at him simultaneously. The first attack swept over his head, the second would have taken his feet off, the third would have given him a lobotomy, and the fourth would have taken his arm off. Rolling over the fourth Ichigo's back, he leapt over the final attack, leaving the other copy to get hit. Number four vanished with a poof.

Scrambling in his haste, Ikkaku dove forward and grabbed his Houzukimaru, rolling into a standing position. The four remaining copies turned to look at him in unison, "Namikaze Naruto taught me more than simply how to fight. He also taught me many of his clan's useful and powerful techniques. Underestimating me is dangerous."

"I see," Ikkaku said seriously. "But, I've noticed that those clones can only take one good hit before they go pop, so it's not nearly as useful as you think." He grinned, "Prepare yourself, Ichigo!"

With a sudden burst of speed, he joined their numbers, dodging around a strike from one of the clones. With a sharp jab from the dull end of his pole, the first clone vanished. The second slashed down, but dodged to the side, sending Houzukimaru's blade into its gut. That clone disappeared as well. The third copy swung at him, but he ducked under it and bisected the last clone. It was gone an instant later.

Spinning around, Ikkaku blocked the attack from the final Ichigo, the real one. Grinning, he said, "He may have taught you that technique, but it doesn't seem like you can use it too well! If you could, then you would have beaten me with that skill of yours!"

"I'll admit that this is the first time I've used it in battle," Ichigo replied. He pushed downward with more force and Ikkaku grunted as Houzukimaru's pole began to crack. "But you never get good at it unless you try!"

Backing away from the deadlock, Ikkaku twisted and swung at Ichigo's back. Zangetsu came up and blocked it effortlessly, without Ichigo even turning around. Solemnly, the orange-haired shinigami spoke, "I'm sorry, Ikkaku, but…I can't waste anymore time here."

With a renewed speed, Ichigo knocked Houzukimaru to the side as he spun on his heel into a crouch, sending his sword in an upward diagonal arc. Ikkaku tried to block, but, to his shock, Ichigo's zanpakuto cut straight through Houzukimaru and carved an ominous gash up from his left hip to his right shoulder. Ichigo leapt backwards.

"It's over, Ikkaku," he said firmly.

Growling, Ikkaku flung the severed section away, brandishing the remaining whole like a cornered wolf, "It ain't over yet! I can still hold my weapon!"

"Put it away, Ikkaku," Ichigo said calmly.

"I ain't lettin' go of it!" Ikkaku declared, smirking. "If you want me to drop it, you're gonna have to cut off my hands!"

"Put it away, Ikkaku!" Ichigo repeated. "You've lost! The fight's over!"

"It ain't over!" Ikkaku insisted. "It ain't over till one of us is dead!"

Letting out a battle cry, he rushed forward, his Shihakushô rippling as he went. Ichigo's face twisted into a snarl and, as Ikkaku closed in, he cried, "Too slow!"

He slashed upwards, carving a deep gash in Ikkaku's right arm. The bald man's eyes widened and his mouth fell open, his dark eyebrows shooting upwards. Blood splattered over the tile ground, and Houzukimaru fell to the earth.

With one final curse, Ikkaku collapsed into unconsciousness.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

To be continued

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach

Chapter one is up! This chapter, continuing with the theme that SUTFH started, is named after a song. Takeharu Ishimoto is behind it, and it's the opening theme (Title Screen Theme, technically) for Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. I thought it fitting that it would also be the opening theme for Crisis Core: The Azure Moon.

Soon, I will also have come up with the titles for the next few chapters and have cited their sources as well. Keep an eye out on my profile.

Those of you who have just started reading, I suggest you go back and read Sit Upon the Frozen Heavens first. A few things in here won't make sense unless you do. That said, you don't have to read it to get everything going on in here, but you'll be missing out on quite a few plot details if you don't.

Also, I skipped Ganju and Kuukaku's initial introduction because the events between the Jidanbou fight and the breaking into the Seireitei didn't change all that much (aside from Ichigo beating Ganju with almost ridiculous ease). Rest assured, I won't be skipping any of the major fights, but the minor characters (Ganju, Hanatarou, etc.) won't appear all that much when unaccompanied by a main character.

Men cry not for themselves, but for their comrades…

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes
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