Tessai pointed Ichigo toward the trap door in response to his question, and so he descended. And indeed, Urahara's massive "training room" was not empty. Instead, his childhood friend, Arisawa Tatsuki, was training. Instead of a Karate Gi, she wore the black robes of a shinigami and a set of shiny black fingerless leather gloves with elbow guards. Her Zanpaktou, Kitsune, lay sunning on a rock nearby his mistress.

Tatsuki herself was working through a series of kata, but whenever she thrust her fist, a massive bolt of spirit energy leapt from her knuckles, speeding across the training grounds. Where it struck, rocks and earth exploded into massive fragments. The power she'd harnessed and learned to unleash under Urahara's tutelage was considerable indeed.

For a moment, Ichigo had a vision of one of those bolts of energy coming straight for him, and considered climbing back up the ladder. But no, he owed Tatsuki. If he couldn't keep a promise to her, he really was an asshole. He touched ground and walked up to her a bit apprehensively, hanging back by Kitsune's Rock while he tried to gather his nerves. Kitsune raised his head and stared serenely at him.

"Hey, Tatsuki..." He started.

Tatsuki punched one last time, sending a bolt speeding toward a nearby rock. A haze of pulverized dirt and rock momentarily obscured the area, and a few larger chunks of the broken stone fell Ichigo's way. He sputtered angrily as he stumbled back, knocking against Kitsune's perch, causing the Fox spirit to nip at him lazily before jumping off the rock and trotting to his mistress' side.

"Dammit, were you trying to kill me?" Ichigo yelled.

"No, but I was tempted. What do you want?" Tatsuki's voice was gruff, and her eyes blazed. This seemed to be a depressant to the Strawberry haired boy, as he suddenly looked shy and a bit sullen, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand while shoving the other in his pocket.

"Listen. I just wanted to apologize, Ok?"

"Apologize, huh? For what? For not telling me about the Shinigami? For not letting your best friend in on the fighting? For keeping secrets? For nearly getting you and Orihime killed when I wasn't there to protect you? There's a lot of stuff to apologize for, Kurosaki."

"Well, I'm apologizing for all of it, okay. Tatsuki?" Ichigo Growled. "All of it. I had my reasons for not telling you, but I guess those reasons seem sorta stupid now. But Now that everything's over, I wanna make it up to you. Ain't right having you this mad at me. I want things to be like they were."

Tatsuki laughed, a short bark, "Ichigo, things aren't ever going to be the same." Ichigo's eyes widened for a moment, and he looked utterly crestfallen, which caused Tatsuki to go, "Damn it, I don't mean it that way. I mean, look around. We're in a place like this, we both got talking swords with spirits and black kimonos. We're big old monsters here."

"Hey, I said I apologiz-" Ichigo began to protest, Tatsuki quickly closed the gap between them and put a hand over Ichigo's mouth.

"Hey. Don't start that now. I won't accept your apology if you start getting all weepy over stuff that isn't even your fault. You got enough that IS your fault to worry about. Who cares if we got this extra reiatsu or whatever? You're still the same stupid strawberry, and I'm still the only girl in Karakura who can kick your ass. And Kuchiki doesn't count."

"What do you mean, kick my ass, Tatsuki?" Ichigo stepped back, disengaging her hand from his mouth, "I beat you the last time we sparred."

"Pfeh. Last time we sparred, I put your head through a window."

"Only 'cuz I let you."

Tatsuki only sighed, then smiled very slightly, "Alright Ichigo. Tell you what. I'm still feeling pretty wound up from all this stuff. So I got one request from you. Let's Spar, like we used to. But not here. Tonight, at the old dojo. Midnight. I know you remember how to sneak in. You do that, we'll call it even."

"Yeah. I can be there," Ichigo said, looking determined.

"Alright. Now leave me alone for a while, huh? I still gotta think." Tatsuki said. Ichigo nodded, "Yeah. I'll see you tonight, Tatsuki."

Tatsuki turned and dropped into a fighting stance.

"Hey, Tatsuki!" Ichigo called from the foot of the stairs. Tatsuki turned, and saw on his face a smile. One of the real, unguarded ones that he'd almost never used after his Mother died.

"Thanks!" He said. Tatsuki felt a smile rise to her face unbidden, followed closely by a peculiar warmth. She let Ichigo see it for a second, then turned away and resumed her kata. For some reason, she didn't want to think right now.


Under the dark of a full moon, Tatsuki snuck wiggled the handle of the dojo's back door just right, and slipped inside. Ichigo was already there, sitting in the center of the floor facing the door. He was dressed in a Gi and wore sparring gloves and a helmet, his shock of orange hair bursting out through the top like an explosion, and for a moment, Tatsuki thought she saw that awkward little boy waiting to break out into a grin when his mother picked him up.

"Yo. Ready when you are," he said.

Tatsuki felt a lump rise to her throat, and cleared it with a quick cough before answering, "Yeah. Let me go change."

A few minutes in the girl's changing room donning her gear, and another few minutes to gather her wits -- why was she suddenly feeling nervous? -- and Tatsuki stepped onto the floor and faced Ichigo. They bowed, and dropped into their stances.

They both stayed strangely silent, their voices robbed by some spirit of gravity or perhaps by the full moon outside the dojo. The only sounds that rang out through the darkened room were the swish of fabric as they moved and danced about each other, and a series of thwacks and thuds as fist and foot met palm and elbow guard and shinguard.

Ichigo made up in raw power what he lacked in experience, but Tatsuki was the second strongest girl in Japan, and she'd had some of Urahara's special training, too. Beyond that, she had a reiatsu that was at least 3rd Seat level, and much like Ichigo, she unconsciously channeled it into every move she made. Thus, the battle went on for some time with neither combatant gaining the upper hand. Finally, they disengaged, both sweating and breathing heavily, both staring at each with flames in their eyes.

They nodded at each other. The next moment would decide the match.

Silent, they rushed forward, Ichigo punched, but Tatsuki dodged, grabbed his arm, and swept the leg. Ichigo fell flat on his back. Tatsuki, however, was not done. She pulled back her fist and yelled, and as she yelled, her fist burst into spiritual flame. Ichigo could only watch, eyes wide, as the girl bought her fist down at his face, eyes blazing, teeth bared. But just before fist connected with face, she stopped. The fire blinked out. Her hands sagged fell to her side as she knelt by the prone Ichigo, and she lowered her head until her eyes were hidden from his sight.

For a moment, silence descended over the moonlit dojo again.

Then a sound: Tatsuki began to sob.

"Ichigo... You big damn idiot... why did you have to..."

"Oi! Tatsuki! Don't cry, I didn't mean to..." Ichigo began, sitting up and reaching a hand toward her, a worried look on his face. She slapped the hand away and glared at him, tears still running down her cheeks.

"I was supposed to be your partner, Ichigo. I was supposed to protect you. How the hell was I supposed to do that when you wouldn't even wait for me? Do you know how much that hurt? Damn it, I know we haven't been as close since High School, but I still... I just wanted to fight for you. I wanted to see that big, goofy grin one more time. I miss that, damn it. I miss you."

"Tatsuki..." Ichigo lunged forward and grabbed her into his arms before she could react, pinning her against him in a massive bear hug.

"I'm Sorry, Tatsuki. You're right, I'm an idiot. I ain't gonna ask you to understand why I left you behind, but I wanna explain. Tatsuki... Besides my family, you're the one thing I got that feels real, you know. I mean, I know I got friends. Rukia, Chad, Renji, Ishida, yeah, they've all saved my life more times than I can count. But there wouldn't be anyone to save without you."

Tatsuki looked up at Ichigo with skeptical eyes.

"I'm serious," He protested, "I ain't sure who I am since my Mom died. It was my fault. I gotta live with that. For a while I couldn't. But you were always there for me, you know? Reminded me I was still a guy worth liking. I mean, outside my family. Even if I couldn't smile, you kept me goin. I don't know who I am, and I'm not sure who I'm becoming. I'm working all that out, you know? But I know I'm afraid of who I'd be without you. You're the one person I can't afford to lose. I decided that the night I had to stop Inoue's brother. If he had killed you, that woulda been the end for me. I can't do it without you, Tatsuki. But I know now I was wrong to keep anything from you. You're the toughest person I know. I gotta trust you'll be alright. Hell, you're handling all this stuff better than I am, that's for sure."

Tatsuki smiled.

"Yeah, you're still an idiot. And you're gonna crack my ribs if you don't ease up."

"Oh! Uh, Sorry," Ichigo stammered. He dropped his arms, but Tatsuki didn't move. They sat for a moment in companionable silence until Tatsuki spoke again.

"Hey. So was that a confession or something, Ichigo?"

"Uh. Yeah. I guess it was," The boy shifted a bit and looked away, his cheeks red.

"Good. I accept."

"G- wait, accept what?"

"Both of them. The apology and the confession."

"Oh. Well."

"That's all you can say? Damn, Ichigo, no wonder you haven't bagged a girlfriend 'til now." Her voice was light and amused.

"Dammit, Woman, do I look like Shakespeare here?"

"Well, acknowledging that I'm female IS a good start."

"Yeah, and if I had known what it would lead to..."

"You would have done it a lot sooner, right?"

She took the kiss for a yes.