The slash was fast and came down with a force that nearly tore a grunt through his lips, but he still blocked it easily; his arm didn't even quiver. A low growl rumbled out from behind the mask whose soulless empty eye sockets stared him down, then he was flung backwards by an invisible force.

Naruto landed, skidding backwards with one hand thrown out.

"Not bad," he said, "not bad. You're getting better. But you can't rely on those powers all the time, Ichigo!"

He vanished and appeared behind his student, sword in motion, and Ichigo spun around and blocked, grunting. Naruto gave a flick of his finger, "Shô!" and Ichigo went soaring backwards, but he righted himself easily and was upon his opponent again in a matter of seconds.

Hyôrinmaru and Tensa Zangetsu collided loudly, scraping against each other and letting off the screech of grinding steel. Naruto twisted, ducking fluidly under Ichigo's black blade, and carved a gash on his abdomen that gave a quick spurt of red blood. Ichigo let out a hiss beneath his mask, then, a moment later, the injury bubbled and sealed over as if it had never been there. Chisoku Saisei — High Speed Regeneration.

Naruto spun around and clashed with Ichigo again, allowing himself to be impressed — his student (Young Grasshopper! he thought with a mental snicker) was picking up Itten Issen surprisingly quickly. Every time he swung, it was better, more refined, truer to the spirit of the style, and the style itself seemed well suited to Ichigo — which made sense, since his Bankai compressed all of his power to increase his speed and power exponentially.

Itten Issen and Niten Issen (Single Heaven's Flash and Twin Heavens' Flash), unlike most styles, were not at all flashy. While there was certainly a measure of "style" to them, both were designed to be fast and effective, not flowery and fancy. It was a style that worked well for both Naruto and Ichigo, since both of them had been thrust into battle young and forced to learn from experience rather than a formal teacher (Jiraiya may have been an amazing Shinobi, but he knew next to nothing about using a sword).

Naruto pushed Ichigo's sword away and moved past his guard, throwing his back into Ichigo's chest, then his elbow into Ichigo's stomach. One of the things that made Itten Issen such a versatile fighting style was that it also utilized opportunist grappling and Hakuda. It did have style, yes, but there was an element of unpredictability to it that made it perfect for fast fighters. And that was the thing, wasn't it? So long ago, before those ill-fated Chunin Exams, unpredictability was Naruto's trademark.

Ichigo stumbled backwards, growling at the injury. He lifted his hand and cocked it back as if to swing, but, at that moment, his mask disintegrated into thin air and he was so surprised by it that he couldn't compensate the extra strength and was sent flying backwards by the next attack, skidding across the ground.

"Time!" Naruto called.

"Eleven minutes twenty-three seconds!" Kensei answered, scowling.

"All right, Ichigo," Naruto said as Ichigo began to stand back up. "That was good. Take a break. Rukia!" she squeaked, jumping a little at the sudden summons. "You're up!"

"H-hai!" she replied, standing straight up so fast that it looked like she had simply teleported. She was standing across from him a moment later, fidgeting nervously. Naruto looked back to Kensei, then nodded. Simultaneously, Kensei started the stopwatch and Rukia pulled on her mask.

It was a nondescript thing, really rather ordinary looking, with navy-blue markings above and below the left eye that vaguely resembled a snowflake or perhaps the sun peeking out from behind a cloud. Other than that, it didn't really look all that different from the mask of the average, run-of-the-mill Hollow.


Crisis Core: The Azure Moon
James D. Fawkes

Chapter Nine: The Face of Lost Pride
— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"This is a tactical nightmare," Naruto muttered to the air, looking up at the sky. Shining blue shone back down at him, littered here and there with puffy white clouds. Naruto was only concerned with one cloud in particular, one that was very conspicuously out of place and moving far faster than any natural cloud had the right to.

An overcast day would have been better, he could not help thinking. On a day where the sun was mostly blocked and the sky was covered with a film of stoic gray clouds, it would have been far easier to hide the procession marching through the sky, disguised as a cloud. But here, out in the open, a single cloud amongst a smattering of others stood out as much as a Gillian in Soul Society, especially moving so damn fast.

"Aura," he mumbled exasperatedly, "I'll never understand why you have so many artifacts sitting in plain sight. This is practically begging for someone to come along and steal it."

Perhaps that was the purpose. After all, what better way to draw out those who would steal and misuse such powerful items than to put them on display? Still, he couldn't help thinking that it was incredibly risky. What happened if someone actually did manage to steal it?

The Royal Seal, capable of manipulating time and space, in the hands of someone like Aizen? That was not a pleasant thought.

"Guess that's what I'm for, huh? I just wish the whole 'send in the strongest to deter would-be thieves' thing actually worked."

The reason it didn't, he decided, was because there were too many idiots out there who thought they were hot stuff. All his foes were either incredibly stupid or Aizen-level genius. Why couldn't there be a middle ground? Why couldn't he have enemies who were smart enough not to pick a fight, but too dumb to go around him? Fighting all these six-part-plan villains and muscle-my-way-through bad guys was just so…troublesome.

Good god, Naruto thought with an internal moan, I'm channeling Shikamaru!

"Taichô!" a voice said suddenly. Naruto didn't even need turn around; he recognized the reiatsu instantly.


"All lookouts are reporting that things are normal," she said seriously. She could be serious enough in the middle of an important mission, but, he lamented, she never dealt with paperwork with the same level of professionalism. Instead, she left it all to him.

She turned ice blue eyes up at the cloud. "The closer you get, the more impressive it looks, huh?"

Naruto snorted, "There's too much fanfare and tradition in this whole thing. If Central Forty-six weren't such a bunch of stuck up bastards, this could have been over with in a couple of minutes." He folded his arms. "Having a parade and all that just to move the Seal is just asking for someone to try and steal it."

"Not you too, Captain," Matsumoto said. "They'll get mad if they hear you say that."

"Hmph," was Naruto's reply. "Anyway, you need to —" He suddenly looked back over his shoulder, eyes wide — "What the — ?"

A moment later, a ray of swirling red and blue energy slammed into the cloud above them, and the answering shouts of pain and panic let them know that it wasn't just passing through. Naruto reached for his sword and paused a moment to look at his Lieutenant, "Matsumoto!"

"Hai!" she said with a nod. He leapt away without waiting for a further response, flash-stepping into the cloud as a ball of flames attacked and consumed several of the footmen and priests who were part of the Royal Seal's procession. Hyôrinmaru came free with the slightest of tugs and he slashed across, his blade extinguishing the flames as it met the resistance of another sword.

The woman across from him was decked out in red and white — white sweater, white hems on the stocking-things on her legs and the skin-tight red arm-warmers on her frail-looking arms, pale white skin, and a white mask fragment in her hair, which was red. There were crimson markings around her aqua-blue eyes, and a red skirt beneath her sweater. He knew immediately that she was an Arrancar.

"Who are you?" he demanded. Ice began creeping up her sword, which looked as though it bad been forged from bone, and her eyes widened — and he allowed only the fleeting though that she was pretty, all else aside — then she flung herself backwards, flipping acrobatically.

He followed after her, "Wait!"

She laughed, like the tinkling of tiny bells, and leapt onto the flaming remains of the traditional wooden construct housing the Seal — he'd never bothered to learn its proper term — and he after her, but she was gone. He frowned; he'd lost her in the flames, which she'd used to cover her escape. That was sloppy, he chastised himself.

He frowned deeper, and turned to look into the hole in the roof. There was something there, something masking its presence so well that he couldn't identify it for sure. Then it unleashed its power and its reiatsu pressed down on him, and he recognized it — but the memory was not his. It belonged to Toushiro, and the thrill of surprise, followed by a memory of a handsome, black-haired boy, left him too stunned to dodge the blade that stabbed into his stomach.

But the wound was a wake-up call, and he leapt backwards and out of the way. A figure walked towards him, wearing a white mask with six eye-holes, and more memories rose unbidden. Naruto's irises flickered back and forth between bright, glowing blue and stunning sea-foam teal, and the distraction of the wound and the memories trying to rise up inside of him made his sword work sloppy as the figure assaulted him with a blade that was too familiar for comfort.

Each attack was swift, but wild and, though coordinated, lacking in any style. He was self-trained and had learned through experience rather than a formal teacher. Naruto, however, was not faring much better. His body kept switching between Itten Issen and the standard Shino Academy kendo, and frustration welled up inside of him with each strike.

"Enough!" he hissed, and crossed swords with the man in front of him. The figure twisted his head.

"This brings back memories," he said amusedly, looking at Naruto through the holes in the mask. "You've grown, haven't you, Toushiro? You're not a little boy anymore."

"Damn it," Naruto grunted. His eyes settled for teal, then he pushed their swords away and reached for the mask with his free hand. "Show me your face!"

He missed and managed only to grab and pull off the cloak as the figure leapt away and into the sky. There was a moment's pause as he heard Matsumoto call for him, but he didn't respond. He squashed the memories down; he would think on them later. Right now, he had a decision to make. He looked down into the wooden box, and thought of the memories he had seen.


Naruto had no connection to him, but he had once been Toushiro's best friend, and Toushiro was now a part of Naruto. That part, the part that was Toushiro, insisted that this was a matter of honor. Their fight had been interrupted all those years ago and no clear winner, at least as far as Toushiro was concerned, had been decided. It was only honorable to finish it.

Naruto acknowledged that and would have committed himself to that fight for that reason alone in different circumstances, but there was something else that bothered him, and it was that something else that made the decision.

"Taichô!" Matsumoto called.

Naruto looked back at her — Sorry, Matsumoto — then turned around and leapt into the sky.

Because of his mistake, because of his actions, another Shinigami had bonded to Hyôrinmaru, and because of that, had had his fate irrevocably altered. It was Naruto's fault. He had to take responsibility for that.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Ichigo scowled, lifting a hand and pressing it forward. He was stopped by the barrier he had figured was there, which lit up with rainbow lights when he touched it, and felt the annoyance surge through him.

"Damn it," he pulled his right hand back and scratched his head, annoyed. "They better not be messing around so close to my home."

He unsheathed Zangetsu and made three cuts, two vertical and one horizontal, in the rough shape of a doorway on the barrier. The section he had cut fell away, and it seemed to take the dark, serene forest with it, revealing a devastated battlefield suffused in bleak white light. Ichigo felt his feet carry him inside, past the makeshift door.

Bodies lay haphazardly across the grass, all clearly dead, and swords stood, discarded, in the maroon blood-soaked soil. Flags joined the swords, their shafts cracked or outright broken, flying ripped and tattered white sheets in the soft breeze. The remains of several wooden objects, shattered beyond recognition, sat desolately with jagged ends. Several small fires sent black smoke rising into the air as they slowly petered out.

"What the hell," Ichigo whispered to the air, "happened here?"

As if in response to his question, several men clothed in black appeared around him in a circle. Each wore a shihakusho that was bound tightly around their forearms and shins and strips of cloth around their mouths, noses, and heads, leaving only their eyes open. They looked like the stereotypical ninja.

"Wait a minute," Ichigo took a good look at them. "You guys are…Onmitsukidô."

There was a moment of tense silence, as if they were all measuring him up, then each man reached for his sword, gripping the hilt tightly. Ichigo was surprised; didn't they recognize him? At the risk of sounding arrogant, he thought that most of Soul Society knew who he was after the whole invasion thing.

"Hold on a second," he said, lifting his hands unthreateningly — the universal symbol of surrender. "I'm Substitute Shinigami, Kurosaki Ichigo."

There was no response, not even a flicker of recognition. They all moved closer, clearly ready to pounce the moment they felt sure of victory. Ichigo's hands fell in disbelief, partly at the lack of response and partly at their stupidity; he had beaten Byakuya — did they really think they could take on a Captain Class Shinigami?

"Halt!" a voice called out, and instantly, they all stopped. To his right, the dense group of black-clad ninja separated, forming two distinct lines. Walking through them was a petite woman wearing a Captain's haori and a long yellow sash, her face a stoic mask of professionalism and seriousness. The bronze rings tied to the end of her twin braids bobbed up and down and collided with her clothes with every hit.

"Kurosaki Ichigo," she asked, a hint of danger in her tone, "what are you doing here?"

Ichigo blinked, "Wait a minute, you're…"

She stopped in front of him.

"Nibantai Taichô and Commander-in-Chief of the Onmitsukidô, Soifon," she cast her eyes over to the hole he'd made. "I believe I put a barrier up here."

It was not a question nor did it require an answer.

"So," he began, drawing her attention back to him, "what happened here?"

She paused a moment, looking back at the destruction and devastation around them. He could hear her let out a breath through her nose.

"Normally," she began slowly, turning back to face him, "there'd be no reason to tell a Substitute Shinigami, but…"

She explained, then, about the event that had taken place earlier in the morning, about the Royal Seal that had been stolen, about the Tenth Division (and her cheeks turned the lightest shade of pink every time she mentioned the Tenth Division's Captain, though she never used his name) being assigned to guard it, about Naruto vanishing. She spared no detail and told it to him like she was delivering a report.

Ichigo's eyes went wide, "What?"

One of the men charged forward, leaning down to whisper something in Soifon's ear as she twisted sideways to listen. She nodded, then turned back to Ichigo, "If you find anything, let me know right away."

She flashed through a set of hand seals — Ichigo had only enough time to figure that the Onmitsukidô must use them for Kido instead of the normal incantations to maintain silence — and finished before he could do more than lift his hand and say, "Wait — "

The world around him shattered like glass and he was left standing in the desolate forest, like before. His hand fell and he let out a short, exasperated sigh. The information he'd just been told bounced around his head like a super-ball. The Royal Seal, the Tenth Division, thieves of fire and lightning — could he never catch a break? This was supposed to be his week off from training with Naruto and the Visoreds.

"Kurosaki?" a voice asked.

Ichigo turned around, "Ishida? What are you doing here?"

"I've been aware there was a barrier erected here since yesterday," Uryuu said. He was dressed in his standard white Quincy garb with a blue belt hanging loosely on his hips. "What happened here?"

"Right," Ichigo began, trying to order everything in his head so he could explain, "well…"

He stopped, because, at that moment, it began to snow. Ichigo looked up and Uryuu held out a hand to catch a snowflake. From the overcast sky, small white petals were drifting down, melting as they hit the grass or trees or the soft brown earth. It was nearing the end of summer, just barely breaking into autumn (not even the end of September!), and yet…

"It's snowing?"

"No," Uryuu said. "He's just been hiding his reiatsu."

"Eh?" Ichigo asked, blinking inquisitively. "Reiatsu?"

An unsteady breath answered him and he turned to see Naruto stumbling out of the brush, one arm wrapped around his stomach and a tattered brown cloak in the other hand. His eyes flickered between teal green and sky blue for a moment as he looked at them, then his knees gave out and he collapsed forward, unconscious.

"Naruto!" Ichigo was by his side in an instant. "Hey, Naruto!"

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The doors creaked loudly and closed with a soft bang, but no one paid them any mind. They were all focused, instead, upon the two standing at the front of the dimly lit room — one was an old man with a long white beard and bald head, and the other was a petite woman with serious grey eyes, dark hair, and the character for 'Two' stitched onto the back of her haori.

"I see," the old man, Yamamoto, said slowly.

"Yes," Soifon said. "We have thoroughly searched the area, but found no trace of the Royal Seal. We believe the attackers made off with it. And, based on the reports about the target we have the pursuit units following, there is evidence that the man in charge of defense, Juubantai Taichô Namikaze Naruto" — her cheeks flared pink for a moment, but her voice and expression did not change — "deliberately and personally moved to erase his own reiatsu from the scene."

"Please wait!" Matsumoto stood from her place opposite Yamamoto. "You can't be suggesting that Namikaze-taichô abandoned his duty!"

She may have been wary of him in the beginning, but he and Hitsugaya Toushiro were a lot alike, especially in how they treated her. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking, perhaps she was placing a lot of trust in a man she'd only really known for about a month or two, but she liked to think that Naruto, like Toushiro, would never do what they were now saying he had done — at least, not without a very good reason.

"Then why did he take such action?" Soifon countered. "It is entirely possible that Namikaze-taichô" — again, the slightest of pinks colored her cheeks a moment — "left in pursuit of the attackers, but given his actions, it seems unlikely. Beyond that, his recent behavior is clearly against the law."

She looked for a moment as though admitting that had left a bad taste in her mouth. Matsumoto was not quite sure why — perhaps she had come to like him during their random sparring sessions? She knew that her captain and Soifon had taken to practicing Hakuda together, so maybe Soifon had bonded with him over that?

"But," Matsumoto began.

"Enough!" Yamamoto interrupted firmly. "I am hereby placing the entire Tenth Division under house arrest. Depending upon the outcome of this catastrophe, the entire division may be abolished outright."

"Abolished?" Matsumoto asked incredulously. "You're going to disband the entire Tenth Division? Our soldiers committed no crimes. As Lieutenant, I accept full responsibility!"

"Bite your tongue, Matsumoto!" Yamamoto said, cracking his eyes open for the first time. "Do you really believe a Lieutenant ranks high enough to take the blame for this? Know your place!" Thoroughly cowed, she kneeled back down. "Our top priorities are twofold: the search for and retrieval of the Royal Seal, and the capture of the person most related to the incident" — what next came out of his mouth was said out of duty; the law dictated it, and so he must obey, even if he didn't want to — "Juubantai Taichô, Namikaze Naruto. This is a special emergency order."

Matsumoto's eyes narrowed.

She was escorted, after that, back to the Tenth Division barracks, and heard as she left the voice of Namikaze Hinata, "You know, sôtaichô-sama, just as well as I do that Naruto-kun would never steal one of the Royal artifacts…"

Matsumoto stood with her men as members of the First Division milled in behind her. Sasakibe-fukutaichô stood in front of them and took a step forward.

"For the time being," he said, "the Tenth Division will be placed under house arrest." Whispers broke out amongst the others. "Furthermore, until such time as Namikaze Naruto-taichô is captured, or the recent incident is resolved, you are to remain confined to your barracks and your Zanpakuto will be confiscated."

"Why?" one voice demanded.


"Are we suspects, too?" one of them stepped forward and was stopped only by Matusmoto's arm. "You're telling us to just sit around until you figure things out? No way!" Cheers of agreement answered him. "That's fascist! Give us a chance to prove our innocence!"

"The subject is not up for debate!" Sasakibe answered, his pencil-thin mustache twitching.

"Lieutenant!" voices pleaded of Matsumoto quietly. She closed her eyes in resignation and pulled her zanpakuto from her sash, offering it up silently. There were cries of dismay from behind her as a member of the First Division walked up and took it from her silently. The talking behind her fell down after that and her fellow Tenth Division members resigned themselves as well.

Frustrated, she stalked off and flung herself against the wall a little harder than necessary, folding her arms underneath her chest. It was unfair, she told herself. The entire division was being punished unnecessarily. Did Yamamoto really think they were all involved in the theft of the Royal Seal? They hadn't even known they would be guarding it until the day it was moved; Naruto had run around frantically trying to plan the defenses on such short notice.

"Hey, Matsumoto," she looked up to see Renji and Rukia walking over to her. She raised a hand half-heartedly in greeting. Renji looked around, frowning at the line of men and women surrendering their zanpakuto, then turned back to her. "What's going on? All we heard was something about some artifact being stolen and that you guys getting put on house arrest."

Rukia nodded, and both looked at her with expectant eyes.

Matsumoto sighed, "The Tenth Division was guarding the Royal Seal, under direct orders from Yamamoto-sôtaichô — we were even there without the limiters on. The procession responsible for moving it was attacked and, during the confusion, the Seal was stolen." She closed her eyes. "Namikaze-taichô vanished when the attackers left, and there's been no word of him since then. After that, Yamamoto-sôtaichô put the Tenth under house arrest and is confiscating our zanpakuto." She sighed again. "That's how it is…"

"But they don't even know anything yet!" Rukia protested. "This is…"

Matsumoto gave them a weary mirthless smile, "It just means that the Royal Seal is that important."

"I'm sure Namikaze-taichô will return soon," Renji said, straight-faced. She saw through it in an instant, that false confidence, but was grateful for the attempt at reassurance.

"I guess," she said with another sigh. "Sheesh, why does everyone disappear without saying a word to me?"

Renji and Rukia both started.

"Namikaze-taichô's not like Ichimaru!" Renji said heatedly.

"Renji," Rukia whispered sympathetically.

"We're about to lock down the barracks," one of the First Division Shinigami said to Rukia and Renji. "Matsumoto-fukutaichô, please return to your own room. Abarai-fukutaichô, it's time."

"Ah," Renji nodded. "Let's go, Rukia."

They started to walk away. Matsumoto reached out and grabbed his arm, stopping him.

"Wait," she said quietly, staring at him seriously. "There's one thing I want you to look into. The man that Namikaze-taichô went after…I think he must be connected to Hitsugaya-taichô somehow — he called Namikaze-taichô 'Toushiro'! — and if Hitsugaya-taichô is a part of Namikaze-taichô now, then…The Captain wouldn't have left for anything else."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"Toushiro…we'll always be friends, right?"

Naruto's eyes snapped open and changed quickly from teal green to bright blue; darkness greeted him, not the darkness of death or blindness, but the gentle darkness of a carefully secluded room — perhaps even during the night. The ceiling, cast in shadows above him, looked familiar, but he couldn't place it.

He sat up, grunting at the flare of pain in his abdomen — It hasn't healed yet? — and took a look around the room. There was a desk next to the bed, which he was currently occupying, with a clock and some random utensils, blue curtains on the window next to him, a closet, the door, a simple dresser with a number of drawers, a television, stereo, a guitar — Wait a minute…This is…

The door opened, casting yellow light — artificial, from a light bulb — across the floor, and Naruto squinted as his eyes adjusted. A tall teenager with a slim build and wild orange hair walked in, greeting him with a simple, "Yo."

Naruto pressed a hand to his face and let out a relieved breath, "Ichigo. What—"

"We're at my house," Ichigo explained. "I found you collapsed and exhausted, and I couldn't just leave you there, so, here we are."

"I see," Naruto said. "Thanks, Ichigo. Sorry for the trouble."

He made to get up, bracing himself for the white-hot stab of pain that would strike him the moment he did, but stopped at Ichigo's next words.

"The Onmitsukidô were looking for you."

Naruto didn't look at Ichigo. "Ah," he said blandly. He had figured they would be. By now, Yamamoto would be marshaling his troops to apprehend him.

Shigekuni should know that he'd have to level the entire might of the Gotei Juusantai at me to bring me in. Or come himself. Naruto allowed himself a small smile, quick and gone as fast as it came. I don't think Karakura would survive if he and I fought over it.

"Ah?' That's all you have to say?" Ichigo demanded, leaning forward, his face set in a scowl and his brow knit. "I appreciate all you've done for me, Naruto, but what're you hiding?" There was a moment of silence. Naruto didn't speak at all, staring at the wall opposite him as though it held the secret of the meaning of life. "Say something! Don't just sit there like you're guilty!"

Naruto stole a quick glance at Ichigo with narrowed eyes, then looked back to the wall, his fingers curling up in the sheets beneath him, "It's none of your business."

Ichigo's eyebrow twitched and his hand curled into a fist as he swore lowly, teeth grinding together. With a grunt, he schooled his expression back into the scowl he was famous for and scoffed, "Che. Whatever."

Naruto let out a breath through his nose, closing his eyes, then looked at the wall again — he didn't want to meet Ichigo's eyes, not when he wasn't sure whether his own would be blue or green — and said, "I'll get it back."

Ichigo blinked and looked at him, "Eh?"

"What they stole was a very special treasure, the Royal Seal," Naruto explained quietly. "It's not something a Substitute Shinigami, my student or not, needs to be concerned with."

Ichigo's fingers twitched as though he would very much like to strangle the man sitting across from him, "Why you — ! Stop acting so high and mighty, damn it!"

The pain flared again and Naruto flinched, pressing a hand against his wound and feeling fresh blood soak over his fingers, and grimaced. Ichigo stood, moving to help him, already making offers of bandages and antiseptics — even offering to get his dad's word about treating stab wounds.

"It's nothing," Naruto told him stubbornly, trying to brush it off. His injury gave a very painful throb, as if to say, no, it wasn't nothing. And — damn it, why hasn't it healed yet? "Sorry, but I need to sleep for a while, Ichigo."

He lied back down and turned towards the window, away from Ichigo, who sighed and seemed to give up.

"Fine," Ichigo said. "I'll call Inoue tomorrow morning, so, until then, keep quiet."

He left after that, closing the door behind him, and Naruto fell into a short, troubled sleep. He woke just before dawn, breathing quick, shallow breaths and his forehead plastered with cold sweat as another memory faded and his eyes slowly shifted back to blue. His wound gave another throb, no more healed than it had been a few hours prior, and he could not help wondering if, perhaps, Hyôrinmaru was preventing it from healing as punishment for his mistake.

He pulled himself to his feet slowly, shucking off his haori and folding it neatly before he placed it on Ichigo's desk. He slipped Hyôrinmaru into his sash at his waist, which felt extremely uncomfortable, and slid Kusaka's cloak over his shoulders, securing it with a hasty knot. He leapt out Ichigo's window, landing deftly and flinching when his wound throbbed as he stood, then turned to look back at the Kurosaki Clinic and did something he didn't do often — he bowed.

He turned and left, walking instead of using shunpô, which would have caught attention, and had barely made it a block away before he found Ichigo standing across from him, arms folded.

"You didn't have to sneak out," Ichigo said, brow furrowed. "If you had to leave, you could've at least let me know. Why are you acting so damn guilty all of the sudden?"

There was a moment of silence where they stared at each other.

"Thanks for the help, Ichigo," Naruto said. He started forward again, making to go around Ichigo. "Now, don't follow me."

"Why are you trying to go alone?" Ichigo asked. Naruto stopped cold. "What're you so preoccupied with?"

"What are you getting at, Ichigo?"

"This Kusaka guy," Naruto felt his eyes go wide, "he's important, right? Who is he? The person who attacked you and stole the Royal Seal, was it this Kusaka guy?"

Naruto bowed his head a moment.

"It's the name of someone who died a long time ago," he said, "whose fate was horribly altered by a stupid mistake. A mistake he was killed for."

Naruto started forward again, altering his path the slightest to walk around Ichigo.

"He was killed?" came the question. "By who?"

Naruto did not stop. A part of him wanted to tell Ichigo what had happened, the person who had been killed, murdered, for the mistake he had made centuries before, but he could not. This wasn't Ichigo's battle. It was his mistake, so he was the one who had to rectify it.

Ichigo's hand found his shoulder, trying to stop him, "Hey, Naruto!"

Naruto's eyes narrowed and he spun around, freeing Hyôrinmaru with the same motion and swiping at Ichigo, who leapt back with a scowl on his face and his brow furrowed in sudden anger. Hyôrinmaru gleamed in the dull light of morning twilight.

"What the hell is your problem?" Ichigo demanded.

"Don't interfere, Ichigo!" Naruto replied, his voice lined with a hint of danger. "This doesn't involve you!"

"Shut up!" Ichigo said angrily. "I'm supposed to let some half-dead guy wander off all by himself? Like hell!"

Naruto gingerly pressed his free hand against the bloody wound staining his shihakusho, again wondering why it had not started to heal. Ichigo scowled, then stood straight and lifted two fingers on his right hand, brandishing them.

"You have two choices," he told Naruto calmly. "You either contact the Onmitsukidô or come back to my house."

Naruto said nothing, his ice blue eyes cold and his lips pulled tight into a thin line. Then he jerked and looked up at the sky as a ball of fire barreled down at them, swirling and twirling like a fluttering piece of paper. It crashed into the street between them and they both leapt back, Ichigo pulling Zangetsu free.

"Who's there?" he demanded, looking around. Standing in the sky were two figures, almost identical but for a few minor differences and the color of their wardrobes — one wore white and red, the other white and blue. They were both studying Ichigo with narrowed eyes, red and blue.

"Hand over Hitsugaya Toushiro," the blue one said. Ichigo looked at her incredulously, then back at Naruto, whose eyes were narrowed as well and whose entire body was pulled taut like a spring, waiting for battle and ready to move at a moment's notice.

"If you choose to interfere," the red one said, pulling a bone-like sword free from the back of her mask fragment, "you will be eliminated!"

Her sword became engulfed in flames, a single mass of flickering red and orange and yellow.

"Naruto," Ichigo said, "what the hell is going on?"

Naruto's eyes narrowed farther until he was almost squinting, then he leapt forward and slashed at Ichigo, who blocked it with minimal effort — they were sent skidding back from the force of the blow, which would have easily shattered the average Third Seat's sword.

"Please," Naruto whispered. "Don't interfere."

Ichigo's strength left him as the surprise froze his muscles. Naruto had never said "please" to him before, had never even asked Ichigo for anything that could be construed as selfish. To have the man who had trained him, who seemed invincible and unwaveringly strong, ask him so sincerely — it was jarring and very difficult to wrap his head around.

The second slash was more for show, that Ichigo could tell instantly. It was far slower than it could have been, even considering Naruto's state. Ichigo blocked it just as easily as the first, but let it throw him backwards. He watched as the red woman appeared above him and sent a fireball careening his way, but did nothing to stop it. A shock of lightning hit him a moment later, but it did not hurt — it was a tingle across his skin, barely there. The yard around him, however, was not so lucky. It had already suffered a crater from both his body and the fireball slamming into it; the lightning danced across the ground, found the exposed wires beneath his back, and leapt along the path of least resistance, popping several streetlights as it went.

Ichigo marshaled himself, tightening his grip on Zangetsu, and prepared to push himself to his feet. He did not get the chance.

"Hakufuku," he heard Naruto whisper. There was a brief flash of light — like when Hirako had knocked him out — then everything went black.

"Wake up, Ichigo," a voice said later — it could have been hours, it could have been only a few short minutes. With a frown, Ichigo realized that the technique Naruto had used had put him to sleep. "Oi, Ichigo! Wake up!"

He lifted a hand to his face, rubbing his eyes as he sat up, propped on his right hand — he felt Zangetsu's cloth hilt brush against his knuckles. His back ached in several different places, and it was no mystery why. That sort of thing tended to happen when you took a nap on a pile of rocks.

"Ichigo," Rukia's voice said, touched by a hint of concern. "What happened?"

Ichigo looked around — there was no sign of either those two Arrancar or Naruto, but the sky was still just beginning to lighten. That meant they couldn't have been gone long, but even just a few minutes was enough time for someone like Naruto to travel halfway across Japan.

"Damn," he sighed, frustrated. He ran a hand through his hair. "How long was I out for? Where'd Naruto run off to?"

Renji blinked, "You saw Namikaze-taichô? When? Where?"

Ichigo cast a glance at them and saw the serious expressions on both their faces. Frowning, he stood and gestured for them to follow — Rukia fell into step beside him on his right and Renji slightly behind him on his left. He led them back to his house, blushing every time Rukia's fingers brushed his (and so did she, he noticed out of the corner of his eyes), then back up to his room. He got back into his body first, then reached over to his desk and pulled Naruto's haori off, letting it gravity unfold it .

It shimmered as it opened, revealing the red silk inner lining and giving the flames at the bottom the illusion of motion. It was, Ichigo noted with absentminded surprise, a size or two too small to fit him — it was almost funny to realize that Naruto was actually smaller than him because he seemed so much larger than life.

"That haori," Rukia murmured almost sadly. "It's definitely Namikaze-taichô's."

Renji growled, spinning Ichigo around and grabbing him by the shirt. "Ichigo," he demanded, "why didn't you stop him?"

Ichigo scowled and pushed Renji's hands away, "I tried, but he left anyway. He chased after these two weird chicks who kept calling him 'Hitsugaya Toushiro' — " Renji and Rukia both gave a start at this — "I think they were Arrancar, but I couldn't really tell. They never got that close."

"And what did Namikaze-taichô say?" Rukia asked a little anxiously. Ichigo gave her a nonplussed look. "Didn't he say anything?"

Ichigo frowned, "Just that he'd get the Royal Seal back. And there was something else…" — he thought for a moment, eyes glazing as he searched his memory — "right! Who's Kusaka? Naruto said it's the name of a guy that got killed because of a mistake, or something like that. And then he…"

Naruto's sudden burst of anger came to the forefront of his mind again, anger that he was sure now had been half-fake. Naruto could have a temper, to be sure, but he didn't just attack someone like that, not allies, at least.

"Renji," Rukia's voice pulled Ichigo back to the present, "can you go back to Soul Society and check who this Kusaka is? There's a chance that he could be connected to the attacker that Matsumoto-fukutaichô was talking about."

"Sure," Renji said, "but why me?"

"I'll definitely be prohibited from contacting Matsumoto-fukutaichô," she explained. She took Naruto's haori from Ichigo and handed it to Renji. "And…"

There was no question what she wanted him to do with it: show it to Namikaze Hinata and Matsumoto. "Talk about a dirty job," Renji muttered.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"I've searched through the last fifty years of the registry," Nanao said, books strewn about the sturdy mahogany desk in front of her. Shunsui sat across from her, their little corner lit only by the flickering orange light of a small oil lantern, "but there is no record of a soldier named Kusaka."

"So," Shunsui began, "did you go back and search through the Shino Academy?"

"Yes," Nanao nodded. "There was no such name when I looked there, either. However, the names recorded in the registry when Hitsugaya-taichô graduated is one person short. The student of interest is a native of North Rukongai."

"I see," Shunsui said. "Is there any record of a Kusaka in that district's name list?"

They needed to get down to the bottom of what was happening. Matsumoto had shown the most visible distress at the fact that Naruto was wounded (as evidenced by the blood stain on the front of his haori), but Shunsui had been disturbed by it, too. By Renji's account, Ichigo had said that Naruto was still injured when he had run off the second time and it hadn't healed much if at all during the time he'd spent in Ichigo's bed. That was a disturbing piece of information. Naruto might not have been as formidable as Yamamoto was about injuries (unlike Yama-jii, Naruto couldn't walk off a gash in his belly unless it was part of some greater plan), but he made up for it by healing incredibly fast. That he hadn't healed at all nearly a day after being wounded was disconcerting.

"There is," Nanao grabbed an open book from one of the stacks and set it down in front of him. She pointed to the picture on the open page. "This is him. Kusaka Soujiro."

Shunsui took the book for a closer look, frowning down at the dark-haired young man in the picture, "So this is Kusaka." He blinked, then reread the section. "Eh? He's dead?"

"He isn't in the registry," Nanao offered. "Perhaps someone simply forgot to write his name in?"

Somehow, Shunsui didn't think so.

"That wouldn't make much sense, would it?" he closed the book and set it down. "Especially if he's dead."

"But this means that the one thread linking the attacker to Kusaka Soujiro is gone," she said.

Shunsui folded his arms and hummed deep in his throat, the cogs of his mind turning. There was so much mystery going on with this whole thing — it was nearly as convoluted as Aizen's scheme with Rukia's execution. But the fact that Kusaka hadn't been in the registry…

"As long as the disappearance of one's reiatsu remains unconfirmed, you can't mark it as a death," he let out a long breath. "Well, he's dead, but…"

"But what?" Nanao asked. He didn't elaborate. Something was very wrong and he didn't want her caught up in it.

"I'm going for a walk," he said suddenly, standing. "Nanao-chan, see if you can find out how he died."

He left, ignoring the outraged call of "Taichô!" that followed him.

After exiting the library, he did exactly as he had claimed and left for a walk. He noticed immediately, before he'd gone even three steps, the presence and footsteps of someone following him. They were dainty and clicked, which meant that whoever it was wore high-heels — he decided to test his pursuer and stopped at a T-shaped intersection, then suddenly tore off to the left. Whoever it was didn't follow.

At that moment, however, it began to snow and someone appeared on the path in front of him. His hand was at his sword in an instant as the stranger turned to face him, cloaked in tattered brown cloth and wearing a white mask with six eye holes.

"All right," he said, using his usual brand of lax seriousness, "who are you?"

There was no answer. He grinned.

"Your silence only makes me want to know more," he called out teasingly.

"Kyoraku Shunsui," the stranger said calmly. "A superficial appearance juxtaposed with an uncannily shrewd mind." Shunsui's grin transformed halfway into a smirk as his eyes narrowed, gleaming dangerously. "A man whose mind's eye is so sharp that none can compare. So you're the one who sniffed me out first."

The grin-smirk dropped.

"While I appreciate your compliments, I'd much rather hear you talk about who you are," he said.

"There is no need," the stranger said, drawing his sword. "You are about to be cut down by Hitsugaya Toushiro."

Shunsui had only a short moment to wonder why the stranger had not said 'Namikaze Naruto' before the swipe of the stranger's sword sent a torrent of water his way, water that quickly froze and skewered his floral haori. It was a power than everyone in Soul Society would recognize because the man who was supposed to be wielding it was very famous.

"That zanpakuto!" Shunsui began, but he didn't have time to go farther, as the stranger rushed him — but Shunsui wasn't one of the strongest of the Gotei Juusantai's captains for nothing. In the same motion that he dodged his attacker, he unsheathed his own sword and cut the mask away. "I'll have you show me your face!"

And he recognized it.

"You're — !"

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The journey had taken a lot out of him. That first day, he had stopped for a rest at an abandoned warehouse and propped himself up against a concrete pillar, and while he'd been napping, another memory assaulted him — and enhanced his dislike for the Central Forty-six (really, what business did pampered civilians have ordering around a military organization? Even in the living world, human leaders often delegated the finer details of warfare to the generals and commanders and captains who knew what they were doing. Central Forty-six made far too many military decisions for his liking).

Later on in the day, he'd had to stop again when his wound started to ache too badly to keep going, and he'd wound up falling asleep beside the river. He'd had a dream again, and dreamt about his horrible mistake — Kusaka finding Hyôrinmaru at the same time Toushiro did. He'd been awoken abruptly by the sound of a train screaming by and continued walking after that, heading onwards and farther away from downtown Karakura. He didn't reach the shrine that was his destination until nightfall.

When he slept again, it was thankfully dreamless. It was not, however, undisturbed. He was awoken in the middle of the night by dozens of approaching spiritual pressures and the shuffling of straw sandals. He grabbed Hyôrinmaru and used his sword to help himself stand as he silently cursed their horrible timing. He'd not had a peaceful night's sleep since the whole thing began and he'd really been enjoying it.

He peered out into the moonlit night and scowled — the grounds outside were teeming with shinigami. He imagined there must have been an entire division preparing to try to capture him out there, never mind the fact that they would fail. He was a Captain. Even wounded, they didn't stand a chance against him.

"Namikaze-taichô!" a voice called out. Naruto sighed and picked them out — amongst the mass of spiritual pressures scrambling around, there were Hisagi Shuuhei and Kira Izuru. "This is a special emergency order! Please return to Seireitei!"

There was a moment of silence as Naruto gingerly put Hyôrinmaru back in his belt, careful not to stretch his injury too much, then he pushed the doors open and stepped outside, leveling his bright blue eyes, which seemed to glow in the darkness, out at Hisagi.

"I will not," he said calmly. In a flash, he'd unsheathed his sword and appeared in front of them — his slash prevented Hisagi from drawing, but Kira had and was using his sword to keep Hyôrinmaru in check. Naruto found himself panting, not from exhaustion but from the pain that had flared up in his gut when he'd used Shunpô.

"Please, stop," Kira begged quietly. "They'll consider this rebellion."

"Back off, you two," Naruto said through clenched teeth. "Don't interfere!"

"Namikaze-taichô," Hisagi said calmly, "you're under arrest."

Naruto's eyes narrowed, "Then you're dead."

He kicked Hisagi's left leg out from under him, grabbing the other's sleeveless shihakusho with his free hand and pulling him in for a head-butt that sent Hisagi stumbling backwards clutching his bleeding nose. With a flourish of skill, he spun Kira's sword out of his hands and slashed at Hisagi, who barely had enough time to unsheathe his sword. The strength of the blow, however, sent Shuuhei as well as several of the nearer Shinigami flying back.

Hisagi recovered and flung himself into the air, landing on the Torii at the top of the shrine's steps and holding out his hands, "Bakudô no Rokujuu-ni: Hyapporankan!" (Path of Binding Sixty-two: One hundred Stepped Rails)

A beam of light formed in his hands as Kira and the others charged Naruto, then he threw it while Naruto was busy blocking and the single beam became a hundred and struck like needles at the ground as Naruto spun and used shunpô to dodge. They seemed to home in on him and a flare of the pain in his gut slowed him enough for one to slam into and through his thigh. He stumbled and collapsed atop the wooden box meant for offerings, grimacing and panting as he slowly pulled the rod free and threw it away.

He counted his stars that it was a Bakudô, which wasn't meant to do harm, simply impede. If it had been one of the similar Hadô, he might have wound up much worse off. The wound on his stomach began to bleed again as Kira came up to him, looking down calmly.

"Please don't move," he said.

"Sôten ni zase," Naruto said, slowly pulling himself to his feet and lifting his sword with his right hand. The sky darkened and black-gray clouds blocked out the moon, plunging them all into blindness. "Hyôrinmaru!"

The spiritual pressure that leapt outwards from his body sent nearly all of the shinigami flying backwards again and only Kira and Hisagi managed to stay in their spots. The sky above them roared with a sudden thunderstorm and the density of the reiatsu swirling around them sent both to their knees, trying to breathe through struggling lungs.


— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The men and women standing before Yamamoto had decreased again. First, they had lost Ichimaru, Tousen, and Aizen to defection, then Naruto when the Royal Seal went missing. Now, they were missing Shunsui, who was currently in critical but stable condition in the Fourth Division. All of the remaining Captains were serious, even Kenpachi.

"Namikaze Naruto is suspected to have defected," Yamamoto said. Something deep in his heart refused to believe it, but the evidence said otherwise. He had only one path, now. "The previous special emergency order is hereby changed."

"This is merely my opinion, but isn't this rather hasty?" Unohana interrupted.

"If Namikaze-taichô had intended to kill Kyoraku-taichô, Yamamoto-sôtaichô, I find it difficult to believe he would have failed," Hinata chimed in. Yamamoto thought she had a very significant point, but he couldn't acknowledge it. Not with the seriousness of the situation. "And I find it rather difficult to believe that Naruto-kun could be in two separate dimensions at roughly the same time."

Another good point. The encounter between Hisagi and Kira and Naruto, as well as the attack on Kyoraku, had both happened nearly simultaneously. There was no way Naruto could have done both. Those clones of his could certainly make some pretty good distance on their own, to be sure, but Yamamoto was well aware that it was impossible for one to cross over to Soul Society or stay behind in the living world without going poof. Still…

"I will not permit any objection!" he declared in a voice to brooked no argument. "The search for the Royal Seal is to continue, but Namikaze-taichô's capture is now our top priority. And if he shows any signs of resistance" — only his countless years of experience prevented a noticeable pause to his words here — "execute him!"

Several signs of unease swept around the captains before him. It was clear that Komamura, Ukitake, and Kuchiki Byakuya thought it a bad idea — it was also clear that they all believed themselves incapable of doing it, less for personal reasons and more because they didn't have the necessary strength. And that was perfectly natural. Naruto was stronger than all of them, and they had all probably figured out his ploy — only Yamamoto himself was strong enough to take on Naruto, so none of them were actually expected to succeed.

With Soifon and Hinata, it seemed more a matter of an unwillingness to do as he had just ordered. Hinata looked away; clearly, she was incapable of attacking her husband and that was understandable. It would have been beyond cruel for him to expect her to attack the man she had pledged herself to for eternity. Soifon's hands clenched into fists for the briefest of moments, and Yamamoto could see that she was attached to him in some way. He couldn't be sure what all was involved, but he had heard that she sparred with Naruto when Hinata was busy with getting the Fifth Division back in order. Perhaps they had bonded.

Mayuri and Kenpachi were the only ones who seemed to like the idea — Kenpachi probably wanted a fight and Mayuri probably wanted a new test subject (Captain-class at that). Unohana…well, it was Unohana. She abhorred fighting, even though she was probably one of the oldest and strongest of the current guard.

He looked them all over again. Yes, he imagined they all understood. His heart wasn't in this one.


— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Rukia bursting through his door woke Ichigo the next morning and in his sudden jump from being asleep to being wide awake, he managed to tangle himself in his sheets and fall onto the floor next to his bed. She didn't seem to notice; she was staring so intently at the phone in her hand that it was a miracle she hadn't run into anything on her way to him.

"Ichigo," she said urgently, "it's from Renji! New orders have been issued to the Divisions. He said there's an order to execute Namikaze-taichô!"

That caught his attention.

"An execution order?" he demanded, frantically struggling to untangle himself. He stood straight and threw his sheets to the floor when he finally managed to get free. "What the hell?"

"Looks like there was no time for deliberation and no chance of a pardon," she said softly.

Ichigo sat back on his bed. It all seemed so surreal. Naruto? An order of execution for Naruto, one of the strongest guys in the whole damn place? Who did they think was going to be able to carry that out? They'd have to get that Aizen guy back before they even considered it.

"Rukia, there's more," Renji's voice came from her phone. "We know who that Kusaka guy is!"

She spared a quick glance at Ichigo, who gave her a nod, then turned her phone onto speaker and held it out so they could both hear.

"Kusaka Soujiro," Renji's echoing voice said. "He's a former classmate of Hitsugaya Toushiro. He died right before graduating from the Shino Academy."

"Hold on a second," Ichigo said. "Everyone keeps talking about this Toushiro guy, but I've never heard of him before the other day. Does he have something to do with that name Naruto was using to go to school with us?"

"Not exactly," Rukia said. At Ichigo's look, she launched into the explanation Ukitake had given her about the relationship between Naruto and Toushiro. At the end of it, Ichigo was glad he was sitting down. His legs probably wouldn't have held him if he'd tried standing for the whole thing.

"So, what it all boils down to," Ichigo said, "is Naruto absorbed this Toushiro guy, who was a part of him that'd been separated centuries ago, and took back his rightful zanpakuto, Hyôrinmaru?" Rukia nodded. "Damn. I knew the Soul Society had some crazy shit going on, but this one really—"

What it did, he didn't get to say. At that moment, his window and a good portion of the wall around it exploded inwards, sending him and Rukia to the floor covering their heads. As soon as it was safe, he scrambled around for his badge and pressed it against his chest the moment he had it, leaving his body to lie on the floor as Rukia followed him. They both leapt into the sky, staring at the figures across from them, who Ichigo recognized.

"You two!"

"I told you before," one of the girls started.

"If you attempt to interfere, you will be eliminated," the other finished.

"Shinigami-kun," a new voice interrupted.

Ichigo spun to look at the man, dressed in a shihakusho with a tattered brown cloak about his shoulders and a white mask on his face. He scowled and tightened his grip on Zangetsu. Something in his gut told him the guy was bad news.

"Who're you?" he demanded.

"Ichigo," Rukia said quietly, "there's something off about that guy. He's got a really weird reiatsu."

The stranger didn't say anything, just drew his sword and the sheath evaporated — just like Naruto's did. And the sword, it was familiar, from the soft bluish lavender of the hilt to the guard, but it was all wrong. The guard was shaped like the four petals of a blooming lotus, not a four-pointed star, the color was off, and the blade was too short; other than that, however, it looked just like…

"That's Hyôrinmaru!" Rukia whispered.

But that was impossible, Ichigo thought. Hyôrinmaru was Naruto's zanpakuto. How did this guy have it?

"Sôten ni zase," the stranger said, "Hyôrinmaru!"

That was the signal. The two girls leapt into action, one knocking Rukia away so she could strike Ichigo, who blocked it effortlessly. He was caught off guard, however, by the long silver chain that wrapped around his other arm and tried to hold him in place for the purplish dragon swerving at him. Ichigo dodged with shunpô, but the stranger's chain tightened around his skin and he sent Ichigo spinning through the air like a bolo, trying to right himself.

Then there was a pull and Ichigo went flying one direction as the stranger came at him from the other, sword brandished and poised to kill, silvery blade gleaming.

"Damn it," Ichigo swore. "Why are you—"

"Because I am Hyôrinmaru's master!" the stranger declared vehemently.

Ichigo freed himself just in time to block, and at the clash of their swords, memories that were not his own bled into Ichigo's mind — images of two boys, one dark-haired and the other with white, talking, laughing, sparring. He flung their zanpakuto up and away, then leapt back and turned around to block the blue-girl, sending her back to Rukia like a baseball. Then the stranger came at him again, soaring upwards, and Ichigo simply dodged out of the way with shunpô, avoiding the red girl who came at him from above and a pincer attack that would have skewered him. He landed on a large steel telephone pole.

"Answer me, you bastard!" he shouted. "Who are you?"

The stranger paused, sword held cautiously by his right leg.

"My name is Kusaka Soujiro," he said at last. "The man who, in the chambers of the Seireitei's Central Forty-six, was murdered by Hitsugaya Toushiro. Soul Society has labeled Hitsugaya Toushiro a rebel, and thus, he has no home to return to!" Ichigo could almost hear the smug smirk that crept across the stranger's face. "The only x-factor left in the equation is you."

He brandished his sword and leapt forward, "Time to die, Shinigami!"

Ichigo leapt forward, too, and met him in the center with a clang as their zanpakuto clashed again. Again, memories not his own poured into his mind, and again, they were of those two boys, except they were in a cave and staring at one another incredulously. Then the cave became a giant room filled with a bunch of stuffy nobles looking down at them, declaring that they must fight to the death for Hyôrinmaru, then the cave again as the one, Kusaka, it had to be, lost and was killed mercilessly by Onmitsukidô.

Ichigo blinked as the memory ended. The man across from him reached up and pulled away the mask, revealing the scarred face of Kusaka Soujiro and a wide, maniacal smirk. He used Ichigo's surprise to knock him back, then sent a gush of frigid water forward with a single swing of his sword. It froze almost instantly into purplish ice, but Ichigo had already leapt backwards and out of the way, skidding through the air as he tried to make sense of what he'd just seen.

"Hitsugaya will walk the same path as me," Kusaka said. A vortex of purple water gather around his sword. "I won't let anyone stop me! Hyôrinmaru!"

He swung and a dragon of ice soared from his blade to attack Ichigo, who tried to block it but was swept backwards, down, and away, finally stopping as they both slammed into the ground and froze. Rukia turned around to see and froze as well, taken over by a sudden wordless despair. She could feel his spiritual pressure — it was a bit weak, but it was still there and steady; he was alive — but her eyes kept telling her, "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead…" and her heart seemed to have stopped.

"Hyôrinmaru's powers keep increasing," Kusaka's voice said smugly. "It's time. You two clean up this mess."

"Hai," two voices answered the first. Kusaka's reiatsu left.

The despair shifted swiftly to rage and she spun around, screaming her anguish as white reiatsu, tinged at the edges with navy blue, erupted around her. She reached up and brought her hand down across her face, summoning her mask as, for the first time, she unleashed Sode no Shirayuki without a word.

She leapt furiously into action, attacking both of the girls with a ferocity that seemed to shock them. It allowed her to score a hit against the blue one, carving a gash across her shoulder that wasn't too deep but had to hurt. The red one jumped on her, lashing out with her flame sword, but Rukia with her mask on was far beyond them both and batted her away effortlessly.

If she were thinking straight, Rukia would later reflect, she could have destroyed them both then and there, but her mind had been clouded with anger and so too had her attacks been wild and less focused. Though neither Arrancar could touch her, they could maneuver around her enough that they didn't suffer any serious injuries, either.

Behind them, however, there was a flash of bright light and the gigantic wall of ice encapsulating Ichigo shattered — and he stood there, a long, sleek black nôdachi gripped in his right hand and his tattered black coat fluttering in the wind. His eyes were calm and serious as he looked up at them and Rukia's heart soared; her mask dissolved into nothing. She'd been foolish. Of course he was fine. He'd faced Naruto nearly nonstop for the better part of a month. Kusaka would have been nothing, even if the attack landed.

Ichigo's brown eyes looked past her to the stunned red and blue girls, "Tensa Zangetsu."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The place that Naruto found himself in was dark and dirty and it looked like it must have been a factory at some point, but it was abandoned as he pushed open a door (it was like a maze, really) and ignored another throb from his injury. It had finally, finally, started to heal, and already it was much smaller than it had started out. That didn't mean that it didn't pain him, however. It still hurt, but it was tolerable now. He could work at this level, even fight.

The room around him was massive, so much so that he couldn't see the other three walls and the majority of the ceiling and floor were covered in shadows. Several pillars rose up from the tiles below and connected to the tiles above, and they were all massive as well, big enough that it would take two clones and himself stretching their fingers and arms as far as they could to encircle just one.

Steeling himself, he leapt over the railing in front of him (because he didn't particularly feel like walking down all those steps on the — well, it looked like a fire-escape), landing easily on the ground below, and let out a triumphant grunt when his wound didn't send spikes of crippling pain throughout his body. He straightened and it gave a small jolt, but it was a jolt he could push past, now.

He found himself walking forward as he followed the semi-familiar feel of Kusaka's reiatsu, Hyôrinmaru held tightly in his hand and every muscle taut and ready for battle. He jerked and turned to the side, and Kusaka was standing there, arms crossed and mask in place.

"You finally found me," he remarked airily. He pulled the mask away, revealing a scarred, smirking face. "I've been waiting for you. After all, that's the reason I used Hyôrinmaru to leave a wound on your body. You can't figure out how I'm still alive?"

"Let's get something straight," Naruto interrupted. "My name isn't Hitsugaya Toushiro, it's Namikaze Naruto."

Kusaka laughed, laughed hard and long. It seemed as if the idea that Naruto was not Toushiro was as ridiculous a concept as saying Yamamoto was an impulsive, virile young man who spent his summers seducing women in Fiji. For the first time, Naruto entertained the idea that Kusaka's insanity might stretch beyond the normal villainous kind.

"I could understand if you wanted to take a different name to distance yourself from Soul Society," Kusaka said. "But really, Toushiro, there's no point trying to fool me. I can feel your spiritual pressure, and no matter how much you change physically, your spiritual pressure can't lie. You are Hitsugaya Toushiro."

He held up his hand and the Royal Seal sitting in his palm began to glow, "Now, let's end this detour. It's time to fulfill my dreams…and get our revenge on Soul Society!"

The world around them blurred and twisted as yellow energy filled the air and sent bolts of electricity dancing. Then, all of the sudden, they weren't standing in the dank basement of an abandoned factory, but someplace else entirely. There was an overcast sky above them and dirt had replaced the corroding concrete and tile beneath their feet. Naruto recognized it instantly.

"This is…"

"That's right," Kusaka said. "This is Sokyoku Hill. This is the power of the Royal Seal. It's able to move space, time, and matter into another dimension at the user's will. It makes teleportation trivial. I can send an enemy's attack to another dimension before it hits. If I get injured, I can return my body to any time before it was hurt." Naruto's eyes narrowed. "Yes, that's right. I was transferred to Hueco Mundo and reborn there, and I've been searching for the power of the Royal Seal ever since, so that I could take revenge against the Seireitei!"

He held it out in offering, "Toushiro! Cut it! Your Bankai should be able to cut the Seal! And when you do, everything will evaporate!"

He laughed maniacally again and Naruto's grip on his sword tightened as his face pulled into a scowl. At that moment, however, three figures appeared behind him and landed deftly on the dirt. He recognized them all in a second.

"Looks like we made it here first," Madarame Ikkaku commented, his sheathed sword slung over his shoulders.

"Looks like it, Ikkaku," Yumichika agreed.

"Namikaze-taichô!" Renji said, and he sounded betrayed. "Why?"

"Don't bother, Renji," Ikkaku said, grinning. "What's the point asking him that now? Going by the emergency alert and our orders, we have to take in Namikaze Naruto and the Royal Seal's thief."

He unsheathed his sword and brandished it.

"Madarame Ikkaku," Kusaka said calmly, an amused grin on his face. "The foremost soldier in combining raw power and skillful swordplay."

"Flattery will get you nowhere, pal," Ikkaku said with a grin.

"But you are no opponent to me."

Ikkaku leapt into the air and towards Kusaka, sword swinging as he fell, "IS THAT SO?"

Naruto appeared in front of him and blocked him, throwing him back. Ikkaku landed easily, grin gone and eyes solemn. Naruto pressed his free hand to his wound, which had started to bleed again, though it was still much better than it had been a few scant hours ago.

"Fighting with that wound," Ikkaku said quietly. "I guess you're serious."

"Why are you going to such lengths, Namikaze-taichô?" Renji demanded.

"So you've even got these simpletons dancing to that tune!" Kusaka commented. Naruto ignored him.

"Stay out of the way," he told the three of them seriously.

They didn't listen, as he should have known they wouldn't, and released their swords all together. He scowled and swept them all back with a swing of his sword and a blast of reiatsu, but even that was a temporary measure meant mostly to intimidate, show them the distance that separated their level of power.

"Come on, Toushiro!" Kusaka cackled. "Show them your Bankai, then show them what the Royal Seal can do!"

"Shikai is already overkill," Naruto said, more to himself than anything. "If I unleashed my Bankai right here, all four of you would be crushed under the raw spiritual pressure."

Zabimaru lashed out at him, but Naruto snapped it back easily with a single swipe of his left hand, and he saw the look on Renji's face — he must have been having a flashback to Aizen, who had done something similar in this same place with the same ease. Ikkaku came next and he might have been more of a threat if he had attacked when Naruto's wound had made it difficult to fight, but Naruto grabbed him by the blade of his spear and flung him back into Renji, sending them both tumbling backwards. He looked over at Yumichika, who had yet to move.

"No wonder Zaraki-taichô wants to fight you," Yumichika said with a nasty grin. "You're a monster."

"Hozukimaru!" Ikkaku's voice cried. Naruto swung his sword upwards to knock away the thrust, then spun and slammed his elbow into Ikkaku's gut, careful not to do too much damage, and finished off with a roundhouse kick to the chin that sent him tumbling again. Any other man, any sane man, would have lied down and accepted defeat, but Ikkaku stood again, grinning, and spit out a glob of blood, then reached over and popped his dislocated left shoulder back into place without even a whimper.

Naruto frowned.

The sound of hundreds of shunpô stopped them from going any further. Behind the makeshift line of Ikkaku, Yumichika, and Renji, shinigami appeared, so many that it must have been at least two divisions' worth. Soifon's voice called out from amongst the crowd, "That's far enough!"

She, Komamura, and Byakuya all appeared beside Renji, who was brandishing his sword in Naruto's direction. He could see Renji's lips form his captain's name in surprise, but Byakuya didn't even acknowledge him.

"Surrender, Namikaze!" Soifon called commandingly.

"And the man behind you, too!" Komamura added.

"Pathetic," Kusaka breathed, then cackled insanely again.

"Who are you?" Komamura demanded. Ukitake had appeared behind him.

"Toushiro," Kusaka said, "what are you doing? Let those fools experience our hate! Our suffering!" He hefted the Royal Seal into the air and the Captains all reached for their swords, prepared for the worst. "This is our revenge! Cut it, Toushiro!"

Naruto lifted his sword and turned in Kusaka's direction. Behind him, Soifon shouted, "Capture him!" and the hundreds of shinigami behind her leapt into action. Naruto's lips curled; the presence of those shinigami would make it difficult to accomplish his goal. He didn't want to kill them, and incapacitating them one at a time would take too long.

"Getsuga Tenshô!" a familiar voice called.

A crescent of black-red energy slammed into the ground between Naruto and the divisions behind him, and a moment later, Ichigo and Rukia appeared to stand against the Seireitei's combined might.

"Stop!" Ichigo shouted angrily. "Is fighting the only thing you people know how to do? Do you people really want to kill Naruto? Don't rush to it just because someone ordered it!"

"Shut your mouth!" Soifon said, taking several steps forward. "We are the Gotei Juusantai! We must follow our orders no matter our personal feelings on the subject! That's what it means to be a Shinigami!"

"And I'm telling you that you're being stupid!" Ichigo retorted.

"Enough talk!" Soifon said. "If you insist on interfering, I'll just have you killed, too!"

Around her, all the shinigami drew their swords and looked ready to use them. Naruto wanted to lash out and hit Ichigo for being so damn stupid, but settled for tightening his grip on his sword.

"Halt!" a strong voice called, and all of the shinigami froze, then dropped to their knees reverently. Only the Captains remained standing, and the haphazard grouping of shinigami split in half down the middle, revealing a path and the hunched figure of Yamamoto Genryuusai Shigekuni that walked down it. Behind him, leaning on his Lieutenant, was Kyoraku Shunsui. Ukitake's face brightened.

"Kyoraku! So, you're with us again."

"Something like that," Kyoraku said, tipping his hat. "But I'd have bad dreams if I let this thing go any further."

When he stood even with the other Captains, Yamamoto slammed the butt of his cane into the dirt, "So, you're still alive, Kusaka Soujiro."

"'I thought you were killed,' right?" Kusaka asked mockingly.

Yamamoto's eyes cracked open, "The Royal Seal gave you new life, and Hueco Mundo raised you up."

"That's right," Kusaka said, "and I've come back. Thanks to the Royal Seal, I got my life back, and I will wield it to become the King of Soul Society!"

Yamamoto looked like he wanted to laugh and Naruto very nearly did.

"The King of Soul Society, you say? How arrogant."

"You're the arrogant ones," Kusaka said, a laugh in his voice. He lifted the Seal up and it glowed bright yellow. "Now, learn your place!"

Naruto leapt into action, his sword swinging down. Kusaka blocked it and slammed a kick into his gut, sending Naruto reeling backwards and clutching his wound. His breath came in pants as the still-tender injury flared to life again and sent painful jolts of near-crippling agony through his body. The Shinigami behind him gasped.

"Taichô!" Matsumoto's voice called worriedly.

"Stay back, Matsumoto!" Naruto told her, hand glowing green as he pressed it to his wound. Healing Kido wasn't really his forte, but he knew enough to numb the pain for a while. That normally wasn't a good idea if you intended to go into battle (and come out alive), but with both Hinata and Unohana standing behind him, however much worse it got, they could treat it. "This is my fight."

"What's the meaning of this, Toushiro?" Kusaka demanded, red eyes gleaming dangerously.

"I told you, my name's Namikaze Naruto," Naruto said. "It was never my intention to join you. My only goals were to honor the proper fight you and Toushiro never had, and to atone for my mistake, the mistake that gave you Hyôrinmaru and ruined your life."

"Didn't he betray the Gotei Juusantai?" Kurotsuchi asked confusedly.

"Then why did you attack us?" Soifon asked, a little more vehemently than she normally would have.

"Are you going to strike me down?" Kusaka asked hysterically. "Kill me? Again, Toushiro?"

"I'm just trying to atone for my mistake," Naruto said.

"And what's your mistake?" Kusaka asked, brandishing his sword. "Do you think you can atone by killing me?"

Naruto leapt forward again, swinging down. Kusaka blocked. Naruto spun around to the side and swiped again, and Kusaka blocked it awkwardly, bending his arm backwards, and jumped over the slash that followed. He brought his own sword down, attempting to cleave Naruto in half, but Naruto parried the blow and sent Kusaka reeling backwards, then attacked himself.

Again and again, they clashed, dancing over the hill, and this time it was clear that Naruto was the better swordsman. Kusaka was desperately blocking, and with every second, he got less and less chance to attack back.

"I don't understand," Rukia said. "I know Hitsugaya-taichô became a part of Namikaze-taichô and that he's trying to make up for Kusaka's death — Kusaka, who was betrayed and killed by the people he served because there were two of his zanpakuto — but what does he mean by mistake?"

Ichigo didn't answer because he didn't know.

"Hundreds of years ago, when Namikaze-taichô died, he separated his soul into two halves," Yamamoto answered her. "The first half stayed in the World of the Living and avoided notice, and this half was purely Naruto. The second half was given Hyôrinmaru and placed in Junrinan, where it grew into Hitsugaya Toushiro. If everything had gone as planned, that's all that would have happened. It did not, however, and when Namikaze-taichô split his soul, a piece of Hyôrinmaru split from it and must have bonded with Kusaka Soujiro. And because it bonded with Kusaka, his fate was irrevocably changed."

Yamamoto closed his eyes sadly, "Namikaze-taichô must blame himself for Kusaka's fate, and so he is trying to atone for the accident that doomed Kusaka to an early death. He believes he made a mistake that resulted in all of this, and that he made that mistake as a man, not a captain, so he is trying to fix it as a man."

Kusaka grunted as he blocked again, his sword vibrating in his hand as he struggled to push Naruto back, "So, from the very start, you…"

"That's right," Naruto confirmed.

Kusaka smirked self-depreciatingly. "I see. I misunderstood you."

The Royal Seal began to glow and a burst of its reiatsu pushed Naruto back as Kusaka lifted it above his head, "Then I'll do this on my own! Answer my call, Royal Seal!"

"Stop!" Naruto called. "You have no idea what you're doing!"

"My plan to use the power of a Bankai to release the Royal Seal may have failed, but…but I can do it now!"

He tossed the Seal up and cut through it as it began to fall — yellow reiryoku burst out in a violent twister, sending everyone's clothes flapping so hard that they appeared ready to tear. Yamamoto's eyes had gone wide and his mouth fell open in a sort of mild panic, but it was panic nonetheless.

"Damn it, Kusaka!" Naruto yelled.

Ichigo was suddenly in front of him, standing tall. He didn't look back at Naruto, "You don't have to suffer alone."

"Out of the way, Ichigo!"

Ichigo spun around, "You don't have to carry the burden by yourself! Let your friends take some of your pain, and the resolve that goes with it!"

"This," Naruto said lowly, "has nothing to do with them."

The punch came before he could stop it and knocked him on his ass. Ichigo stood over him, his fist still shaking but his stance unwavering. "Did you ever think about how everyone around you felt while you tried to carry everything by yourself?" he asked. His eyes softened. "I knew someone who didn't want to rely on others, just like you. And in the end…he was the weakest of them all!"

Naruto didn't say anything; he just stood slowly and kept the thoughts rolling through his head to himself. He didn't need to say it; Ichigo, even if he didn't realize it now, would know that he was grateful for reminding him about the importance of friendship and loyalty.

"Taichô!" several voices cried, and members of his division stood around him now. "Namikaze-taichô!"


"Prepare yourself, Ichigo," Naruto said at last. "Here he comes."

The twister died down, the swirling winds slowing to a stop and revealing the humanoid form of an ice dragon, its eyes glowing red. Kusaka had transformed into a monster, with big teeth, a long snout, wings, tail — the whole nine yards. His voice, distorted and echoing, came from somewhere inside the creature he had become, "It's mine at last! This is the power of the Royal Seal!"

The laugh that followed was twisted and maniacal, but it was matched by the bloodthirsty cackle of Zaraki Kenpachi, who leapt past everyone else, sword raised and yellow reiatsu glowing around him, to attack the monstrosity. His blow, a single stab into the creature's gut, cut it in half without preamble. The grin on his face vanished.

"Done already? I thought you'd be more of a challenge."

The beast grabbed his sword and leapt backwards, carrying Kenpachi with him over the edge of the hill. A deranged and booming chuckle rent the air as it leveled triumphant red eyes on its foe, "Your attacks won't work on me!"

Kenpachi's return chuckle stopped whatever else it might have said.

"You're not dead yet?" he asked. "Now we're talking!"

He pulled his sword free and made to hack the dragon-man to pieces, but the beast carved a single gash into Kenpachi's chest with ridiculous ease and he fell backwards through the air, bells jingling the whole way.

"You're in the way."

A stream of water gushed down and enveloped Kenpachi, and there was no response, not even a deranged cackle. Kusaka flew over to a tall bell tower and landed on it deftly — in an instant, ice had encapsulated it and formed a giant pillar as his wings grew larger and longer, spread out as if to take in the entirety of the Seireitei.

"Amazing!" he laughed as the sky darkened. "This power is amazing!"

Two figures, one red and the other blue, dropped from the clouds and landed before him, kneeling gingerly. He looked at them both, "What happened? Don't tell me you ran away with your tails between your legs."

"Please forgive us," the red one said quietly.

"Whatever," Kusaka said, lifting his hands. Ice captured them both, and he lifted his head, roaring. Mist shot out from his body, spreading around and solidifying into ice as it went until it had formed an entire tree whose branches extended even overtop the Sokyoku, slamming into the ground.

"Don't be afraid!" Yamamoto commanded. "Kill the felon, Kusaka Soujiro!"

Affirmatives answered him, then the Shinigami leapt into action — all except Kurotsuchi, Yamamoto, Ukitake, Kyoraku, Unohana, and their Lieutenants. They used the branches to reach for him, and those with longer-range zanpakuto attacked as soon as they had a clear shot, but Kusaka blocked them all, laughing the whole time. With a motion of his hands, the branches cracked and broke and the Shinigami were sent tumbling to the ground below.

An orb of dark energy formed then in Kusaka's icy chest, sweeping outwards and forming a dome, growing and growing until it had enveloped a large section of the Seireitei around him.

Yamamoto bowed his head in resignation.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

When Naruto came to, it was on the tiled floor of the Seireitei with Matsumoto standing above him, her back pressed against the slab of concrete that she was holding up. In an instant, he was on his feet and pushed it away for her. She dropped to her knees and smiled up at him.

"It's the Lieutenant's duty to watch their Captain's back," she told him.

There was a rumble as more rubble was moved around, then another slab was thrown away violently and Ichigo stood from underneath it, rubbing his back gingerly, then offering a hand to Rukia, who took it gratefully and allowed him to pull her up. He looked over and noticed Naruto immediately.

"Hey, Naruto. You guys okay, too?"

"Rukia! Ichigo!" Renji called, appearing atop one of the slabs. Zabimaru was slung across his shoulder, resting comfortably in Shikai. "Take a look around you. See what's happening?"

They all looked up, eyes going wide. Behind Renji were four gigantic stone towers, each one connected at the top to a large platform whose bottom tapered into a nest of spiked rocks — stalactites, it looked like. It looked only vaguely like a castle, and even then, it looked like no castle Naruto had ever seen.

"It looks like we're trapped inside its spirit walls," Renji said, peering back over his shoulder.

"What do we do?" Ichigo asked.

"Like I know."

There was a blur of white cloth, then Soifon and Yoruichi dropped down in front of them, landing deftly.

"Ichigo!" she called.


Everyone hurried over, huddling around them as Yoruichi started to explain, "Every second counts."

"The sôtaichô is preventing this dimension from expanding any further," Soifon said. "We've been ordered to kill Kusaka while he's doing that."

"We're going to climb up there the old fashioned way," Yoruichi said, smirking. "We're going to use our feet. And then we'll break down the center tower. So let's do it now, while he can't move."

"All right," Ichigo said, fist clenched.

"Wait a minute!" a voice called. Ikkaku and Yumichika came towards them from a crumbling hallway, the former with sword slung over his shoulder and the latter with his arms folded. "We're finally getting to a real party! I'm not about to be left out!"

"Me neither," Yumichika said.

There was a dull roar and everyone spun around as bright yellow light shone from the platform's stalactites, glowing between them, and from it came Hollows of all shapes and sizes, all hell bent on attacking the small group.

"Don't worry about them!" Yoruichi barked over her shoulder. "Leave this to us!"

Soifon flung her haori off, then they both ran full tilt towards the Hollows with a simultaneous cry of, "Shunkô!"

The two women became alight with white reiatsu and the backs, shoulders, and arms of their clothes were obliterated in an instant. They leapt forward to meet their attackers and carved a vicious swathe through them effortlessly, energy crackling around them.

"Amazing," Ichigo said quietly.

"Captain," Matsumoto mumbled. Naruto turned to face her, and cradled in her arms was his haori and crimson obi. She smiled. "Here."

Naruto hesitated only a moment, then, with the others watching and smiling proudly, he shucked off Kusaka's cloak and slipped his own haori back on, pulling his arms through the sleeves with practiced ease and flipping the collar back up when it folded beneath itself in the back, as it always did, then tying his red sash back into its usual butterfly knot around his waist and his green sash back into its position, slung over his right shoulder and under his left. Hyôrinmaru rested on his back once more.

He turned around and faced the formidable towers in front of them, pausing to enjoy the feel of silk on his upper arms and neck again, then turned his head towards them.

"Matsumoto," he said. "Watch my back."

"Hai!" she replied seriously.

"We're splitting into two groups," he said. "Madarame, Yumichika, Matsumoto, you're with me. Renji, Rukia, you're with Ichigo. Go!"

They all took off, splitting up and heading for one of the four towers. A liberal application of shunpô had them all at the base of their chosen tower in only a scant few seconds, and it was easy for a Shinigami to leap across the gap and land on a stone outcropping — Rukia, Renji, and Ichigo were lucky enough that their tower had a spiraling walkway going up its height. For Naruto and his group, however, they had to jump straight up, finding ledges where they could like some bastardized rock-climbing adventure.

Halfway up, they were attacked by a large Hollow that floated in the air, shooting balls of condensed lightning at them. Naruto recognized them from the two girls who had attacked the Royal Seal's procession and later Ichigo, which meant that the Hollow attacking them was the blue girl. He cursed and prepared to unleash Hyôrinmaru, but before he could, their tower shook threateningly.

"This monster can move?" Matsumoto asked, surprised.

"No," Ikkaku said, a slow grin creeping onto his face, "that's not it. This reiatsu belongs to…"

A deranged, bloodthirsty laugh echoed up from the tower's base, then the tower was split in half from bottom to top. Ikkaku let out a little laugh of his own, "Taichô!"

"Damn Kenpachi's impulsiveness," Naruto said lowly as the tower began to crumble. "Hurry up!"

They pushed onwards and made it just in time to reach that center platform. Behind them, the remains of the tiered spire they'd been climbing fell to pieces and collapsed to the ground. Naruto spared a glance back at it, "Well, at least we managed to—"

"Taichô," Matsumoto said quietly. He turned around to see that the division grounds Kusaka had upheaved for his castle now played host to a number of Hollows, including at least three dozen Menos Grande Gillian. The nearest group saw them immediately and turned, orbs of red glowing in their mouths.

"Shit," Naruto swore. "We need to take care of this quickly, don't have time for fooling around. Guys, get back and stay back, unless you wanna be crushed!"

The Cero grew larger and larger. Matsumoto looked at him, "Taichô, what are you—?"

"No time for arguing, Matsumoto!" Naruto said anxiously. "GO!"

She and the others leapt away, just as the group of Cero were unleashed upon him and came screaming his way. He swung his sword in their direction, eyes glowing blue and cold as ice, and said a single compound word.


Even as far out of the way as they could be, Matsumoto, Ikkaku, and Yumichika — and even Ichigo, Rukia, and Renji — could feel the sheer power released in that single moment as those Cero impacted. Then, as soon as it came, it swept back in on itself and seemed to disappear completely as the beams of red light dissipated, leaving behind a trail of dust and destruction.

"Taichô!" Matsumoto called — and she couldn't believe that he had been taken down so easily. There was no way, just no way…

Then the reiatsu appeared again, so dense and powerful that even Yamamoto could feel it outside the dome. Every Captain atop that central pillar stumbled, and everyone without a Bankai struggled to stand; the Hollows were crying out in agony and confusion, and the reiatsu was so fierce that it distorted the gravity on that floating piece of land: entire buildings were hovering several feet off the ground.

When it finally tapered off to a more manageable level, the Lieutenant class Shinigami still had trouble standing straight and the Menos were all running around in a panic.

"Nadegiri," a calm voice called quietly. Everyone watched as an arc of blue light leapt towards the Hollows, slicing through nearly half the Menos and catching a number of others in its path. When it finally stopped, it carved a gigantic gash into the tile and formed a jagged wall of spiked ice. Unfortunately, no sooner had it slain those Hollows than did they reform, completely unharmed and untouched.

"Damn. Was afraid that might happen."

Matsumoto, Ikkaku, and Yumichika looked back to where Naruto had been standing, the dust and smoke having been cleared by the arc of light, and found him standing there, dressed entirely different but looking nothing like he was using Bankai.

His haori had changed. It was now sleeveless, solid azure-cobalt, and hemmed in gold, reaching nearly to his ankles. A navy blue sash wrapped around it snugly at his waist and an eight-petal lotus design, bearing great resemblance to the guard of Kusaka's Hyôrinmaru, was embroidered in gold silk on each side of his chest and the two kanji for "Azure Sky" on his back. Ice covered his feet and left hand, shaped into the likeness of a dragon's claws. In his right hand was Hyôrinmaru, and that was it. For all intents and purposes, Naruto may as well have just changed clothes.

He started walking forward.

"Stay as far away as you can, Matsumoto," he said without looking her way. "If you get too close, you'll be crushed by my spiritual pressure."

"Taichô," she began breathily, "what…?"

"This is the final form of my Bankai," Naruto said simply, "Tenkô Hyôrinmaru. It compresses almost the entirety of my Bankai's power into a single blade, but it's not complete yet, and I've just recently found out why. Because it's not yet complete, I can't control it entirely, so if you get too close, you'll die."

He sized up the monsters in front of him. Another Cero boomed towards him, but he casually flicked a hand upwards and a wall of ice rose up before him to block it. With the same hand, he made a pushing motion, still casual, and the wall gushed forward, now water, to overwhelm the creature that had attacked him. It froze again an instant later, a giant sculpture with a helpless Gillian in the center.

"Ikkaku, Matsumoto, Yumichika," he said, "Ichigo and I are going to make a dash for it. Think you could keep my path clear for me?"

A chorus of "Yes, sir!" answered him. Matsumoto faltered halfway through; there was a cut on Naruto's arm, a thin sliver that should have bled if nothing else, but there wasn't a single trace of red anywhere. A compression type, he said, like Ichigo's Tensa Zangetsu or Kuchiki-taichô's Senkei: Senbonzakura Kageyoshi. But there was something...different. With Kuchiki-taichô and Ichigo, it was about compressing the Bankai's power to increase its combat and destructive potential. With Naruto, it felt almost as if he had become Hyôrinmaru; there was so little difference between their spiritual pressures now that she almost couldn't tell them apart.

"I like that idea!" Ikkaku said, grinning. "But, Namikaze-taichô, like it or not, I'm going to be clearing that path all by myself!"

"You're going to use it?" Yumichika asked curiously.

"Yep," Ikkaku said, brandishing Hozukimaru. "Matsumoto, Namikaze-taichô, please keep this a secret from everyone!" He started spinning his spear; a twister of reiatsu formed around him. "Bankai!"

When the dust cleared, three blades, a spade, a curved scimitar-like thing, and a strange, crescent-shaped dragon-crested weapon, all adorned him, two in his hands and the third hovering over his shoulders and behind his head. "Ryuumon Hozukimaru!"

Then he started spinning them by the chain that connected them and the crest began to turn red. He carved a quick swath through the ranks of the Hollows and Naruto gave a brief nod of thanks, then dashed as fast as his feet could carry him through the long crater that remained. Hyôrinmaru was wielded mercilessly against anything that got in his way, and as he went, he left a trail of jagged ice pillars in his wake — the remnants of mindless beasts who thought to attack him.

The moment he reached the base of the ice tower, two black wings sprouted from his back and carried him upwards, Ichigo, panting slightly, a few steps behind him. A trio of dragons came downwards from Kusaka's perch, but Naruto swept them aside with his hand and they disintegrated. A single swing of his sword unleashed nine, all winged and ice-blue, and they soared snake-like towards the top.

Ichigo took the lead and slashed down at Kusaka's monstrous form, who blocked it with a blast of yellow reiatsu not unlike a Cero from his mouth. Ichigo was repelled, then leapt out of the way as Naruto's nine dragons assaulted Kusaka, one taking each ankle and wrist, another two grappling with his thighs, and another two doing the same for his arms. The last one curled around his torso and bit into his neck. Ichigo reappeared again, mask still on, and stabbed his sword into the creature's head.

"Getsuga Tenshô!"

A flash of red-black reiatsu obliterated the monster's head and carved out a decent portion of the tower. The creature was still for a moment, then began to crumble as a pillar of blue light soared up into the sky, and the dome began to disintegrate from the top down. Everything that had been transformed changed back and all of the Hollows were blown away into dust.

As the last remnants of the Seal's influence faded, Ichigo dissolved his mask and Naruto dropped out of Bankai (and every Shinigami Lieutenant level and below breathed a sigh of relief) and both landed back on the ice, which was, itself, slowly melting away. The figure of Kusaka stood hunched over across from them, propping himself up with his sword. Naruto frowned and stepped forward, slipping into the Shino Academy's kendo rather than his own style.

Kusaka looked up at him through a curtain of black hair, "Toushiro…"

"Let's end this," Naruto said.

Kusaka brandished his sword in the same style as Naruto, smirking faintly.

"Yes, let's."

At an unseen, unheard signal, they dashed for each other and gave one mighty stab towards another. They collided with the ringing clang of steel. There was silence for a moment, then Kusaka's Hyôrinmaru clattered to the ground, the blade snapped in half, and slumped over Naruto as his blood began to bloom red across the white captain's haori.

"I guess this is it, then," Kusaka said hoarsely, a weak smirk on his face. "You really are Hyôrinmaru's master, ne, Toushiro?"

"I'm sorry," Naruto said quietly. For everything. For cursing you to this fate. For making the mistake that cost you your life and future. For destroying your chance at happiness.

Kusaka let out a breath like a chuckle, "You've got nothing to apologize for." Because I don't blame you. I never did.

And then he vanished, disappearing into tiny shards of blue reishi that floated up into the sky. There was a flash of gold above him, but Naruto ignored it and reached down for the upper half of Kusaka's Hyôrinmaru — all blade — and took it into his hand. He frowned and squeezed it until it drew blood, then, from nothing, it seemed, a completely new sword built itself particle by particle from the jagged edge of that shard. It was almost identical to the form of Kusaka's version, but the hilt was the same color blue as the sword in his right hand. Once again, there were two Hyôrinmaru.

He flipped the second blade up and caught it by its hilt with his left hand, gave it a once over, then slipped both swords over his shoulders. Two sheaths formed and there were two swords on his back once more. More importantly, Hyôrinmaru was whole again.

"Oi, Naruto," Ichigo called. Naruto turned around and caught the small golden object that was tossed his way. It was the Royal Seal. "So, did you fix your mistake?"

Naruto smiled sadly, "The only mistake I made, Ichigo, was believing that a life, no matter how short, could be a mistake. So, thanks."

"Naruto-kun!" a voice cried, and Ichigo let out an indignant scream as he was flung out of the way by Namikaze Hinata, who enveloped Naruto in a tight hug — just in time for his earlier technique to wear off and the entire pain of his wound to flare to life in all its agony. Naruto let out a strangled yell at the sudden powerful jolt that set all the nerves in his abdomen on fire.

Hinata jumped back, aware now that she'd hurt him, and looked down at the bloodstain on his front. The black parts of his shihakusho were darker and wet, and the white obi that held his hakama up and sodenashi closed was stained red and maroon with dried and fresh blood. Even his haori bore spots of crimson on it.

"You're hurt," she stated plainly.

Naruto grinned and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, "Yeah. Sorry."

She slapped him.

Murmurs of surprise swept around the shinigami who had turned to watch. Naruto's face had dropped all signs of humor and was instead frozen in something like surprise — his eyebrows were up in his hairline and his mouth had formed a perfect little, 'oh.' Already, a red, hand-shaped mark was beginning to show on his cheek

"That," Hinata said, her voice filled with a seething undertone, "was for worrying me!"

She grabbed him by the back of his neck and pulled him down for a passionate kiss, one that made his lips tingle pleasantly and sent liquid fire rushing through his veins, pumping excitement and energy to every single cell in his body. Her fingers threaded themselves through the mess of spiky hair on his scalp and his own fingers found their way to her cheek and her own hair, caressing her soft, porcelain skin and the silky dark locks that cascaded down just past her shoulders. The catcalls and wolf-whistles that erupted from their audience were ignored.

They pulled apart only when they could not remain together, breathless and cheeks flushed.

"What was that for?" he asked quietly.

"I felt like it," she replied with a smile.

Naruto laughed.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

To be continued

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach

Bonjour. Konnichiwa. Hola. Guten tag. Zdravstvujtye. Salveo. Maes senois aneu.

I find it ironic. I have unwittingly (yes, it was accidental) recreated "LOVELESS." The three Knights – one flies away (the guy, Tsukuyomi, at the beginning of last chapter), one is captured (the Azure Knight, Susano'o, who descended among the mortals to change the world), and the one who remains becomes the hero (the Crimson Knight, Kagu-tsuchi, who became a hero to the Shinigami).

Sodenashi means "sleeveless." It's a sleeveless kimono, different from the normal shihakusho "kosode," which means "little sleeve." The "Tenkô" in Tenkô Hyôrinmaru means "Heaven's Light." "Itten Issen" is another name for the "Megami Tengoku Issen" revealed in Naruto's midnight fight with Gin several chapters back.

Yes, you read right. Soifon's crushing on Naruto. It's a little different from the normal, "I love Yoruichi-sama!" approach to her, but I hope it's not too out of character (especially since she seems to be trying to deny it pretty hard).

I wanted to portray Kusaka as slightly delusional, enough where he could pass off Naruto and Toushiro's physical dissimilarities because their spiritual pressures were almost identical, and thus, mistake Naruto for a grown-up Toushiro. Did I succeed?

Watching the movie, I found Rukia's reaction to Ichigo getting frozen quite interesting. I played it up a bit here, but it was still very similar. That's very telling, I think.

Naruto's first CCTAM Bankai. What did you think?

EDIT: An anonymous reviewer pointed out that Tenkô Hyôrinmaru seems too much like Ichigo's Bankai, and I understand his point. HOWEVER, what you see of it right here is only a short glimpse - like the Privaron Espada that Ichigo fought in canon, you saw [it] only for an instant. Next time Naruto uses Tenkô Hyôrinmaru, however, or perhaps when he wields it against Aizen, you will understand exactly why it's different. Or, perhaps if you reread the chapter, you might understand better why it's different (Cause I made some changes). Remember what Toushiro told Harribel - "All of water is my weapon. All of heaven is under my command." - and you'll have a very slight idea of the true power of Tenkô Hyôrinmaru, as well as its limitations. And no, it isn't like Ichigo's Final Getsuga Tenshô.

As for why Matsumoto and the others were not crushed by his reiatsu, he was holding as much of it in as he could. Still, if they had gotten too close (twenty feet = OHSHI - WAY TOO CLOSE!), they would have died. Instantly.

I'm looking for an artist who meets these criteria:
Is experienced with Photoshop or other similar programs
Can expand upon a basic color palette
Can work with a hand-drawn and scanned portrait with little to no problem and w/o a reduction in the quality of the final product
Can work with both anime/manga style portraits as well as realistically drawn figures
Can color in the spirit of the picture as well as in how it's drawn

If you think you meet the above criteria, please prepare a portfolio of one or two pictures and provide me a means to view them. Scenery is optional; the person/people should be the focus. I will announce the winner (if any) at the end of chapter ten.

On the other hand, if someone simply wants to draw fanart for this story, hey, feel free. I'd just appreciate it if you showed me, you know?

In mortem, veritas. (In Death, Truth)

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes

ames Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes(Signature best viewed in Wendy Medium font style)