Hey all. Hope I haven't kept you waiting too long! Still just writing when I have the time between work and family.

As always, first up are review replies:

Scaehime - You're quite close, but still not quite there.

SkywrdSwrd - I'm well aware of Inoue's limitations, but the thing is that Ichigo has never really taken the time to examine them. For all he knows, she might just be able to do it, even if she does need some help. Thanks for reviewing!

Lord22 - You want more Ulquiorra? You're about to get your wish at the end of the chapter. As for Rukia, I'm purposely not focusing on her and Renji at the moment - they'll appear when it comes time for the final battle. Right now, they're training Rukia's Bankai so it's as battle ready as they can make it.

MaJunior - Thanks for joining us! That you'd be making a fanfiction using my story as a point of divergence... that's quite a compliment.

And to all the people who noted Ichigo's lines sounding quite similar to a certain Emiya Shirou... heh. You'll see exactly what those lines are when the time comes. Now on with the chapter!

Chapter 69: Exploration of Power

Blades flashed almost too fast for Ichigo to see as he and his Hell counterpart warred against each other. Neither was giving an inch, and though Ichigo's arms tired, he refused to let such a thing slow him down.

In unison, they leapt backwards and swung with their respective blades. "Getsuga Tenshō!" Ichigo's black-and-red Getsuga roared forward from Tensa Zangetsu, meeting Zen'i's red-and-white that had come from his Zangetsu. But there was no time to wait and watch to see which won – Zen'i had once again lunged for him from the side, forcing Ichigo to match swords once more.

"You can't beat me that way, Ichigo!" Zen'i taunted. "Even if you do overpower my Getsuga, my armor will simply absorb yours!"

Behind his mask, Ichigo scowled. It was true – twice now he'd tried to carve Zen'i in twain with a Getsuga, and twice the armor had apparently absorbed it. Ichigo had suspected that the armor absorbed the reiryoku behind energy attacks. That would render Kidō nearly useless… except that Zen'i had dodged Ichigo's Hadō 4: Byakurai earlier.

But Ichigo still had precious little time to think on it, so he shoved Zen'i away, trying to buy a little time to come up with a strategy. Strangely, Zen'i didn't fight it, and instead landed lightly on the desert sands, holding up Asahi no Kagami. "Here we go. How's this?"

And yet again, ghosts materialized all around Ichigo, who groaned in frustration. "Another set of illusions?" he complained, carefully observing, waiting for Zen'i's surprise attack. But he wouldn't be able to dispel the ghosts until he'd worked out what concept they were using, and that meant listening to them.

Surprisingly, it was a reflection of Kenpachi who first approached Ichigo. "There's something I don't understand," he admitted. "I'm pretty damn strong, I know that. Wouldn't have been able to become taicho if I wasn't. And I was kicking your scrawny ass for a while, before you powered up out of nowhere. What happened?"

Ichigo blinked. An easy question? "Before, I wasn't really working with my Zanpakutō," he admitted. "I was trying to fight by myself. But when you cut me down, Zangetsu gave me an object lesson on working together, and together we could match you."

Kenpachi scratched his chin contemplatively. "But if a Zanpakutō is part of a Shinigami, then weren't you still fighting by yourself, in the end?"

Ichigo grimaced. "Sort of, but not really. Zangetsu is part of me, yes. But he's also my sword. If you and your sword don't work together, you'll just hurt each other."

Kenpachi grinned as though ready to pounce. "Working together makes you stronger? So why do you always fight alone?"

Ichigo stiffened before Shunpo-ing away from a Cero blast that screamed through the air where he'd been a split second before. Naturally, Kenpachi followed him.

"You're always alone," Kenpachi continued. "In almost every major fight you're in, you fight alone. You fought me alone. You fought alone against Byakuya. You fought alone against Aizen. You're fighting YOURSELF alone, which to me sounds like an exercise in stupidity, but hey, who am I to judge?"

"I don't always fight alone. I worked with Renji to try to take down Aizen in Soul Society. I set up a plan with the taicho to kill Aizen in the living world. And I got a bunch of people to invade Hell with me," Ichigo pointed out.

"Only because you had no choice!" a ghostly Rukia shrieked in his face. "Given the choice, you'd always fight alone! You would rather hide your problems and deal with them alone, instead of getting the help you need! You only asked for Kidō training because there was no way to learn by yourself!"

"You completely reject the idea of becoming part of the Gotei 13," a transparent Yamamoto rumbled lowly. "You will one day join us. You know this. So why did you turn Kyoraku-taicho down, when he offered the protection that comes with being a taicho of the Gotei 13?"

Ichigo's father, dressed in his everyday clothes, casually strolled up to him. "How many times did I offer to help with those gangs, to help in any part of your life? I am your father, but no, you had to deal with things alone. Why?"

"When your mother was kidnapped, you left alone to save her," Rukia pointed out. "Why didn't you ask us to help? Why did you have to go alone?"

"Because I had my pride, damn it!" Ichigo replied, losing his temper. "I couldn't stand needing anyone's help! I didn't want to be that little boy again, I didn't want to depend on anyone! If I could stand alone, then that proved that I'd grown stronger! If I could stand alone, then I'd know that I wouldn't be completely useless again, that I could protect the ones I care about! If I could stand alone, that meant that no one else would get hurt!"

"What about me?" a vision of Chad demanded quietly. "Did you not depend on me? Was I just a tool, then?"

Ichigo's heart skipped a beat as he tried to process. "I… I…" He swallowed. "I saw myself in you," he admitted. "We were both strong people ganged up on because of our unusual appearances. And when I saved you, and you explained that you'd taken an oath not to fight for your own sake, it reminded me of my own desire to protect others. That's why I suggested we promise to always have each other's back. I did depend on you, Chad. I still do. You're my best friend, and I know you'll never let me down. I trust you." And with that, it dawned on him. "Trust…" he whispered.

"Yes, Kurosaki," a ghost of Ishida Uryū stated coolly. "Trust. I can understand not trusting the Gotei 13. But why are you so unable to trust your nakama to fight with you? Orihime, Sado-san, even myself. We never fight together. Are you afraid we'll hold you back?"

Ichigo winced, then had to Shunpo out of the way of an incoming Getsuga. If he was honest with himself, then yes, part of the reason he never fought alongside his friends was because he was afraid of them holding him back in battle. But another part… "I'm more afraid of getting you guys caught in the crossfire. I'm strong enough to crush mountains with a mere swing of my sword. I've destroyed thousands of Kushanāda in one Cero blast. How am I supposed to make sure you guys don't get hurt? I'd rather you not be nearby when I go all out."

"You don't trust us, Kurosaki-kun. We're strong too," Inoue pointed out lightly. "Why can't you trust us to take care of ourselves in a fight?"

"I do!" Ichigo insisted. "If I didn't, then I would have dragged you all to Hueco Mundo with me so I could protect you!"

"You just can't trust us for fights that you're in, right?" Inoue finished sadly. "So why haven't you talked to us about it? Don't you trust us at least that much? Why can't you let us make our own decisions?"

Tatsuki appeared and stood next to her best friend, Inoue. "When I wanted to join, you showed me the kind of power you were fighting against, and forced me to acknowledge that I wasn't strong enough. You showed me that much trust and respect, to let me see the truth of the things. Why can't you do the same for your other friends?"

Ichigo had to fight hard to resist hanging his head in shame. "You're right," he admitted. "They deserve to know the truth. I trust them, and I'll apologize when I get a chance. If we can work it out, I could use the help. It wouldn't be the first time I've abandoned a protector's pride." Something in those words felt right, giving the same sense of meaning as those other phrases had.

The ghosts vanished, leaving Ichigo and Zen'i watching each other carefully. "I honestly wasn't expecting you to dispel that one," Zen'i admitted.

"It was tricky," Ichigo agreed. "Pride and trust?"

"Another of Hell's favorites," Zen'i explained. "He can use two concepts at once, and those two tend to complement each other, because pride gets in the way of trust."

Ichigo looked at his opponent critically. "There's more to it than that," he observed calmly. "You wanted me to look at keeps us from rejoining. What's left of my pride has trouble accepting that I could go to Hell after everything I've done. And I have trouble trusting you because I know how much time you spend with my enemy."

Zen'i reached up and removed his mask, giving Ichigo a good look at his face. "You're acknowledging your feelings, even without Asahi no Kagami forcing you to. That's good. Maybe there's hope for us after all."

Ichigo began to power down as well, allowing his Adjuchas mask to crumble off his face. "I would hope so, Zen'i. After all, you're my emotions, right? All of them, good and bad. It'd be bad if I couldn't acknowledge my own feelings."

Zen'i smiled. "Getting a lot warmer, Ichigo. But too vague. You're missing the most important part."

"And what's that?"

Zen'i laughed. "Ha! Nice try. You'll have to figure it out yourself, but here's a hint: what would push you to commit evil?"

Ichigo frowned, but nodded. "I suppose you need me to kill you now?"

"Yep. Looks like you win for now – I've used all four concepts, so Asahi no Kagami needs to recharge. And we both know that if you'd gone Resurrección, you would have beaten me before I could send out the last two. Besides, you can tell, Grimmjow's dead already, and the Vizard are making short work of that army." Zen'i glanced that way and whistled lowly. "Wow, they're really taking them apart. Should've guessed that, considering that they were all pretty strong as Shinigami. Only makes sense that they're that strong as Hollows."

Ichigo stepped up to Zen'i, holding Tensa Zangetsu tightly. "Are you ready?"

The smile on Zen'i's face softened just a bit. "Having trouble killing me, Ichigo? You certainly had no problem last time, and you never showed hesitation against Cazador."

"That was before I really began to understand that you were part of me," Ichigo admitted. "And I finished Cazador because I knew he wouldn't give up until I had. You're not out to kill me. You're trying to make me learn more about myself, and by proxy you."

Zen'i gave a slight nod, accepting the point. "On a more serious note, you do realize that it's necessary for me to push you like this, right? The only real defense against Asahi no Kagami is to know yourself, and you won't have a prayer of beating Hell if you can't acknowledge who you are and how you feel."

Ichigo took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah. I get it." Then a thought occurred to him. "Does this have something to do with those dreams? Reaching enlightenment and bringing out the world of my heart?"

Zen'i practically jumped and stared accusingly at Hell's Zanpakutō. "Whoa. Asahi, what was that about?" To Ichigo, he clarified, "She just cackled directly in my head. I have no idea what you're talking about, Ichigo, but I bet anything she does." He paused. "And she's refusing to tell me anything. Figures."

Ichigo smothered the urge to chuckle at his counterpart's expense. "We should probably get on with it," he finally said.

"Yeah. Just get it over with." Zen'i offered Ichigo a smirk. "We'll see each other soon enough."

Nodding, Ichigo hardened his heart and resolve. With a single swing, he decapitated his opponent, and watched as the Hell portal sucked his corpse away. Then he turned and looked towards the Vizard, considering whether to join them. After a few moments, he shook his head and turned away, starting to walk back to Las Noches. He had much to think about.

Kyōraku Shunsui rarely had cause to visit the Kidō Corps, but more and more he found that his thoughts were centered there. There was so much going on, so many contingencies being planned and prepared. Yama-jii was training, reacquainting himself with the highest of seals that he knew. Kurotsuchi was incredibly busy between helping Urahara shift the Dangai, and preparing a number of possible anti-Togabito devices. Kenpachi was training Madarame personally. Soifon was working on increasing her reiryoku reserves, presumably so she could fire her Bankai in succession when it came time to invade Hell. Komamura was much the same, working on his speed and reiryoku. Amagai was preparing his Togabito Capture team, and Shunsui had to admit, while he'd seen better teams, he'd see far worse as well. They were well balanced and were well on their way to becoming great. In another century or two, they could be as close-knit as he and Jūshiro were, or Kurosaki Ichigo and his companions.

While they were all well and good, Shunsui couldn't help but think that the Kidō Corps had the best chance of success in creating a permanent solution against Hell. Even if Yama-jii and Ichigo-kun worked together – which Shunsui privately felt would happen only if it were absolutely necessary – Hell could not be killed permanently. He had to be sealed, and if it took the Reiō using an unknown method to shatter Hell's soul then, it would probably take the same or better this time. And unless Yama-jii was hiding that monster of a forbidden Kidō in his beard, it would need to be reinvented. Hence, the Kidō Corps.

Naturally, even the knowledge that Soul Society was researching the subject would be incredibly damning. As a result, only the taicho and fukutaicho of the Kidō Corps had been consulted, and so they were the ones trying to develop the technique, though allowances would be made if they needed to consult with other knowledgeable members. And while he knew developing a new Kidō took time – time they didn't have – Shunsui couldn't help but go check on them, at least to determine if they knew how much time it would take.

Shunsui strode purposefully to a large white building in the center of the area claimed by the Kidō Corps. Similarly to much of the Gotei 13, the Kidō Corps had subdivisions that focused on different branches of Kidō. However, unlike the Gotei 13, each subdivision only had four tiers of similarly skilled members. If Shunsui could remember correctly, those tiers were Apprentice, Journeyman, Master, and Sage.

In any case, each subdivision had its own building, with all the structures forming a circle. Any Kidō Corps member could go to any of the other subdivisions to learn. In fact, they were encouraged to do so upon joining, as combining the principles of many different kinds of Kidō tended to create new spells, or modify existing ones in a beneficial way. So one could be Master of a branch of Bakudō, but only an Apprentice at fire-oriented Hadō spells, for instance.

Shunsui passed one of the buildings he himself had studied at, a small smile coming unbidden to his face from the moment of recollection. The Kidō Corps worked closely with the Gotei 13, and every fukutaicho-class Shinigami with proficiency in Kidō was approached by the Kidō Corps and offered a chance to learn. As Shunsui understood it, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement – the Shinigami in the Gotei 13 were given an opportunity to grow stronger, while the Kidō Corps gained access to someone with a great deal of experience and power to test their spells and provide valuable feedback and ideas for new spells.

Shunsui sighed, lost in memory. Lisa had been so close to being extended an invitation from the Kidō Corps before Aizen had Hollowified her. He was sure that his old fukutaicho's dream of combining Kidō and Zanjutsu could have become a reality given a chance. Who knows? Maybe it still would. Lisa was young yet, and if all turned out well, the Vizard might be reaccepted into the Gotei someday.

Sighing once more, Shunsui refocused on the present just as he was approaching the doors. This was the one building no one lacking the rank of Sage could enter without explicit permission from the taicho. Under normal circumstances, Shunsui would never have been allowed in, but Yamamoto and the taicho of the Kidō Corps had jointly decided that he would be allowed for the duration of the Hell crisis.

He knocked twice, and after a few moments, the door opened, revealing a person covered almost entirely in black and grey fabric, leaving only his blue eyes and pale hands visible. "Kyōraku-taicho," he greeted. "Come in."

"Thank you, Sage." Shunsui stepped inside. "I have come to see Arakaki-taicho. Is he available?"

"Please wait here."

Nodding amicably, Shunsui waited patiently for about fifteen minutes, then a half hour. He wasn't insulted by the wait – in his own time studying with the Kidō Corps, he'd once had to wait two hours for a meeting with a Sage, who had unexpectedly had a burst of inspiration concerning one of his projects. And the Sage was the one who had summoned him to begin with! But that was the way of things here – the unceasing pursuit of knowledge and mastery of Kidō came first.

Shunsui had been waiting for nearly forty-five minutes when Arakaki-taicho finally arrived. Arakaki Hayato was tall but lean to the point where he could be described as almost skeletal. Despite this, Shunsui could feel from his reiatsu that he was relatively healthy. His hair was very short, and while normally he was clean-shaven, Shunsui could see some stubble beginning to grow in.

"Kyōraku-taicho," Arakaki greeted him lightly. "I presume you've come to check on our progress?"

Shunsui smiled sadly. "I'm afraid so. I apologize, Arakaki-taicho. I fear that you may start to hear too much from me as this situation with Hell wears on my nerves."

Arakaki waved his hand in dismissal of the idea. "Not at all. Come, I have much to tell you."

They began walking down a hallway, and Shunsui noticed Arakaki casually make a few hand seals out of the corner of his eye. A pulse of reiatsu followed a moment later. Shunsui frowned. "A… silencing barrier?" he guessed.

"Indeed. Also a small-scale ward to alert me of anyone who approaches, so we may truly speak in private. Kyōraku-taicho, I must confess, I did not expect to see progress quite this soon, but it seems we have."

Shunsui's hopes soared. "What sort of progress?" he asked, keeping the eagerness out of his voice.

"You are familiar with Urahara Kisuke, I'm certain. Were you aware that he built a device that allowed him to achieve Bankai in three days?"

"I'm familiar with it, yes," Shunsui agreed. "Kurosaki Ichigo used it as well."

"What you may not be familiar are the principles behind such an artifact. It forcibly materializes the spirit of whatever Zanpakutō is stabbed into it. However, the Zanpakutō spirit is part of one's soul. Under normal circumstances, the only one who can force it to materialize is the wielder him- or herself. What Urahara Kisuke did, was externally force an artificial splitting of the soul!" Arakaki's voice grew more and more excited as he explained. "It provides an excellent base to work from! All we should have to do is expand the effect to separate the soul into an uncountable number of pieces, then make the effects permanent!"

Shunsui could not hide the relieved smile that spread across his face. "That's wonderful news!"

"Of course, that leads us to a very dangerous question," Arakaki's voice had sobered, and Shunsui couldn't help but notice the troubled expression. "This spell is very, very dangerous. It will almost assuredly utterly destroy any soul that is not sufficiently strong to survive the separation. And even for those souls that survive, there's no telling what will occur to their cycles of reincarnation. If there were ever a spell to be labeled forbidden, this would be it. So I must ask, Kyōraku-taicho… do you truly wish this spell to come into existence?"

Shunsui closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened them, they were sad but resolute as he met Arakaki's gaze. "Yes. But I do not intend this spell to survive. Use your skill in imbuing objects with this spell, and make a dagger that once used, will shatter alongside its victim. After that, may this spell never be seen again. Once the crisis is over, destroy all records of the spell, and make the underlying principles behind Urahara's device forbidden to all but the taicho of the Kidō Corps."

Arakaki sighed but nodded. "It shall be done."

Chad awoke to the sound of his alarm, largely refreshed from his nap. He grunted softly as he lifted himself from his bed and stumbled over to his kitchen. Making a light breakfast, he shook his head to clear the remnants of sleep from his mind, and then sat to eat.

Several minutes later, Chad stepped out of his home, took a breath, and forced his mind to focus. In keeping with Yoruichi's rest rotation, he began walking to where he could vaguely sense Ishida. As he got closer, Chad could sense that the Quincy's presence on a nearby rooftop. With a small burst of power, Chad flashed up to join him with his Paso Del Viento. Ishida was sitting, eyes closed, and visibly tired. Chad would almost mistake him for being asleep, except that he could feel Ishida's reiatsu permeating the air around him in more strongly than when Ishida was relaxed. And Chad could almost make out… ribbons? "What are you doing?" he asked curiously, stepping closer. Yes, they were definitely ribbons.

"I'm monitoring the area through reiraku," Ishida explained, opening his eyes. "Through concentration and a little energy, Quincy and Shinigami can join the spiritual and visual senses, enabling them to see the reiryoku in the air around them in the form of ribbons. A ribbon's color determines the species of the reiryoku's owner, and a skilled user can use the ribbon to determine the spirit's location. Humans, including Quincy, are white. Shinigami are red. Hollows are black. Togabito are, strangely enough, purple."

"That sounds very useful," Chad commented. "Could you teach me?"

Ishida stood and brushed himself off. "If even Kurosaki with his complete lack of anything resembling control could do it before he could even sense Hollows, I'm certain you can as well."

He was proven right when less than three minutes later, Chad was looking interestedly at the reiraku that waved in the air gently. "Does it feel weird when I touch your ribbon?" Chad asked, reaching for but stopping just short of the ribbon that he could sense was Ishida's.

"No. Remember that the ribbon is simply visualization. When you grab the ribbon with your hands, what you are truly doing is grasping reiryoku in the air," Ishida lectured. "Its only real use is tracking. By holding the ribbon, you can follow its path with your spiritual sense all the way back to its origin, the owner of the reiryoku."

Chad nodded and let the ribbons fade from his sight just in time for Inoue to arrive, carrying a basket in her arm. "Oh! Sado-kun! I didn't realize you'd already arrived. Uryū, are you alright? I'm sorry I couldn't stay any longer."

"I'm tired, but otherwise fine. And don't worry about it," Ishida assured her. "Here, I was just teaching Sado how to use reiraku. Would you like to learn?"


It took her a bit longer, perhaps ten minutes, but Inoue was able to grasp the technique just the same. "It seems this technique is not restricted to merely Shinigami and Quincy," Ishida mused. "In any case, I'm going to rest. I hope your shift is uneventful. The next scheduled Togabito attack is in approximately twenty minutes." And with that, he flickered away with his Hirenkyaku.

"I never knew Kurosaki-kun and Uryū could use these…" Inoue commented in awe as she reached out and touched a ribbon idly. "No wonder they always seem to know exactly where we are. I wonder why he was using them today, though…"

"He probably wanted to know exactly where the Togabito were the minute they arrived, so he could finish them in one strike from a distance," Chad replied quietly, looking up at the sky. There were a few clouds in the sky, but the sun shone brightly, warming his skin. It was hard to believe that Hell could invade on a day like this.

Inoue's eyes lit up. "I could do that! Tsubaki, how far can you travel from me?"

One of her hairpins began to glow, and Tsubaki emerged, arms crossed across his tiny chest. "I can go as far as you like, as long as you have a target and a strong enough will."

Inoue smiled happily. "Then that's what we'll do!"

Chad merely nodded, quietly glad that they had a decent plan of action. He pulled out his special coin, the one his Abuelo had given him. He hadn't been able to give it much thought since the Togabito had begun coming in waves, but Chad knew that he was close to unlocking its power. "Duty…" Chad murmured.

"Hmm? What's that?" Inoue asked, looking at the coin with interest.

Chad took a few moments to answer. "It's a memento from my grandfather, the man whose arms you restored in Soul Society. It's also a symbol of a promise I made to him many years ago."

Inoue's smile dimmed somewhat. "Do you mind if I ask…?"

"I promised to use my strength to fight only for the sake of others, and never for myself."

"But… why wouldn't you fight to protect yourself?" Inoue asked, not understanding.

"I…" Chad hesitated, but plunged on regardless. "I was a very violent child when I was young. I've always been bigger, stronger than everyone else. I was a bully. After my Abuelo accepted a beating as punishment for my actions, he taught me that these arms of mine were given strength for a reason, and that the greatest thing I could do with them is to protect others. And because I had finally learned and taken it to heart, he gave me this coin, so I would always remember.

"When my Abuelo died, I vowed to only fight to protect others. I no longer had the right to protect myself – I had given up that right when I used my strength to hurt them."

"Wow… I never knew. But wouldn't defending yourself now help you defend others later?"

Chad nodded. "It would. But I treasure this coin, and my vow, far more than I do my own life. Thankfully, Ichigo and I have promised to protect each other, so when I cannot protect myself, he will protect me. And when he cannot protect himself, I will protect him." He looked down at his arms. "My right arm embodies my faith in my Abuelo's teachings, that my strength is meant to protect. My left arm holds the violence of my past, my will to attack without mercy. Just as my arms are my strength, this coin…" Chad trailed off, closing his eyes.

"The coin…?" Inoue prompted after a few moments of silence.

Chad spent several seconds longer trying to come up with the words. "This coin holds my feelings of duty," he finally stated. "The sacred promises I've made, both aloud and silent… I must keep them, or else risk losing who I am. That is my pride as a man, the pride that my Abuelo instilled in me."

As if in response to his words, the coin seemed to glow for a brief moment, bright enough for both Chad and Inoue to stare at it. "Does your coin do that a lot?" Inoue asked.

"No… that was the most I've seen it do," Chad admitted. "The power is there… I think it's just waiting for something."

Inoue nodded, before her eyes widened with recollection. "I think it's like what Urahara-san said. Our powers awakened when we needed them most, because we cursed our powerlessness with all our hearts. Your coin is waiting for you to truly need it."

Chad looked at the coin speculatively. "So what you're saying is that it's waiting for a dramatic time."

The mood broken, Inoue giggled a little and rubbed the back of her head in an embarrassed manner. "Heh… maybe?"

Chad smiled. "I think you're right. It wouldn't be the first time my powers have done that. The true form of my right arm only appeared the moment I needed it to block a Cero from Ulquiorra."

"Really?" Inoue giggled again. "Well, according to Urahara-san, our powers are reflections of us, right? I guess that means you're a dramatic person."

Chad wanted to frown at her, he really did, but he could see the hilarity in it as well. He chuckled, and while neither said anything more as they waited for the inevitable attack, each felt the time they spent was comfortable, downright pleasant compared to what it would have been alone.

Ichigo watched as Tsuki left the training room, pleased with his progress in sealing. He'd gotten far better at the generation and manipulation of his chains, and he was improving on the binding aspect as well. He was beginning to understand Bakudō a lot more than he ever thought he would – it all came down to the way his reiryoku interacted with his opponent's body and reiryoku. The simpler spells interacted with the opponent in simpler ways. More effective and difficult bindings interacted with the opponent in more complex and numerous ways.

And it was surprisingly easy to make his reiryoku do what he wanted as long as he was connected to it. As long as he held one end of a chain that had connected to Tsuki's vents, he found it easy to cast multiple bindings on her. Then again, he mused, he wouldn't have such a luxury when he fought Hell. For one thing, he needed to be able to overwhelm Hell's reiatsu…

Ichigo frowned. How could he train himself to emit more reiatsu? He knew he'd done it when he was angry – he wasn't blind. He'd seen the Vizard-Arrancar struggle against the weight of his power. What Ichigo needed someone who could stand against him even then… or maybe a power-up he could hold back as a trump card. His eyes lit up. "Ulquiorra?"

The Arrancar materialized next to him in a burst of Sonido. "I'm here, Kurosaki-sama."

"Is Resurrección: Segunda Etapa unique only to you?"

"No, Kurosaki-sama. Any Arrancar may learn it, but it has some… unpleasant prerequisites."

Ichigo blinked and looked at him questioningly. "What sort of prerequisites?"

"True despair." Ulquiorra looked at him unblinkingly for several seconds. When it was clear that Ichigo needed more information, he merely nodded to himself. "I see this will require some clarification. Very well. Kurosaki Ichigo, what exactly is the difference between a Hollow and an Arrancar?"

"The presence of Shinigami powers," Ichigo answered promptly.

"While that is a difference, it is not the defining difference," Ulquiorra told him bluntly. "The true difference is our masks. The mask of a Hollow is formed from the heart it once had as a human. An Arrancar is a Hollow that has removed parts of its mask and thus has regained parts of its heart. This heart, this… humanity… is what allows for Shinigami powers within Arrancar."

Ichigo nodded slowly. "So… Shinigami powers are more of a side effect, then."

"Yes. But have you ever considered why a Hollow would become an Arrancar?"

"Before, I would have thought it was to gain power," Ichigo admitted. "Maybe they gain some rationality back?"

"Both of those are factors, yes. However, it ties back to how Hollows survive. Hollows survive by consuming souls, including other Hollows. Upon becoming Adjuchas-class Menos, however, Hollows have a new risk: forever losing their individuality if they regress. Becoming an Arrancar removes that risk… and by gaining Shinigami powers, Arrancar no longer hunger for souls unless they have used more reiryoku than they can recover comfortably. Just as Shinigami do not require sustenance unless they over-exert themselves."

Ichigo had to admit it, he was impressed. "Sounds like a pretty sweet deal."

"It is… bar one aspect. Hollows are borne of despair. In the end, a Hollow's entire life is a desperate struggle to survive, to eat and not be eaten. They can never find peace as they might have as humans or Shinigami. But Arrancar have some humanity, and now that they are no longer burdened with the necessity of cannibalism, they can find a semblance of peace."

"I'm not seeing the downside here."

Ulquiorra's eyes looked at him sharply, intently. "Kurosaki Ichigo, when you have struggled all your life, and finally managed to find contentment, to locate that elusive peace, what do you think happens to your newfound humanity when that peace is taken away and you know that you can never achieve it again?"

Ichigo's eyes widened. "You fall back into despair," he whispered in horror.

Ulquiorra nodded. "Deeper than ever before. That, Kurosaki Ichigo, is the prerequisite to Segunda Etapa. True despair." In what was perhaps the most human display Ichigo had ever seen the Arrancar perform, Ulquiorra slowly placed a hand over Ichigo's chest, where his heart beat strongly. "I have sought to understand the human heart for so long because I cannot understand why humans would allow themselves the possibility of so much pain. I cannot understand why losing everything I valued a second time hurt so much more."

That last page or so of this chapter was written in about an hour. I swear Ulquiorra took over my hands and typed it out himself. The price of Segunda Etapa is suffering true despair? Wow, that's one awful drawback.

Chad and Inoue get some bonding time. They rarely ever interact as individuals, so it was nice showing them this way. I feel they'd get along quite well. They do in my head anyway.

I bet none of you saw it coming that the key to splitting Hell's soul came from a canon artifact. Urahara's inventions are always a little dangerous. And that's my thought for the reason behind the maximum time of three days to achieve Bankai. Any longer than that and the forced splitting becomes harmful to the soul.

Anyway, that's all I've got for now. Not really seeing a need for the spoiler space today. Suffice to say I'm looking forward to seeing Renji and Rukia kick ass.