This one took a bit longer than expected. We're getting close to the end, people.

As always, review replies are first:

UNTensaZangetsu - Arakaki compares well to Hachi and Tessai. They're never going to have a direct confrontation or anything like that, but Arakaki has less real experience than Tessai does. Grimmjow's powerup was due to being externally powered by Hell. He currently doesn't have the armor.

Krazyfanfiction1 - My plans for after this fic is done, is to write my novel. No sequels (not for a while, anyway), and I'm not so good at crossovers, despite my Worldly series crossover between HP and FFVIII. Regarding the fruit thing, I hadn't thought about it, and it's not going to take prominence in this fic.

There was some confusion about Ulquiorra's explanation of Segunda Etapa. Let me be more clear here: Hollows live in despair. By becoming Arrancar, they gain hope for peace. By finding and subsequently losing that peace, they lose hope and fall back into despair, worse than before. That ultimate despair unlocks Segunda Etapa.

A number of you commented about the Vasto Lorde powerup. That will be addressed in this chapter.

I'm glad that so many enjoyed Ulquiorra's moment at the end there. Poor guy.

Anyway, let's get on with the chapter.

Chapter 70: Revelations

"You have failed. Again."

Zen'i bowed his head deferentially. "Yes, Hell-sama."

"This is becoming a pattern," Hell observed coldly, his reiatsu strong enough to threaten sending Zen'i to his knees. "I must know for certain if you are truly trying to kill him. Give Asahi no Kagami to me." Wordlessly, the Togabito drew the blade and offered it to Hell, who took it without hesitation. "Hmm. You used all four concepts against him, and you still lost?" Hell's reiatsu grew more intense with accusation. "Tell me in your own words what happened. I shall be checking them against Asahi."

"Yes, Hell-sama. When we began battle, I used the concept of betrayal to shake Ichigo's resolve. He is at his strongest when he is most resolved, so I was attempting to weaken him. It worked, to an extent, but he summoned his Hollow's blade and pushed it into Bankai. It compensated for his lack of focus by granting him even faster reflexes and speed. Despite your gift of power, he was able to fight me evenly at that time, until he realized the concept and acknowledged his feelings." Zen'i didn't even need to leave anything out this time, surprisingly enough.

"So… Kurosaki Ichigo has worked out how to dispel the illusions…" Hell murmured. "Asahi confirms your story so far, and I detect no falsehoods. Continue."

"It was at that time that he realized that Asahi no Kagami could focus on different concepts, so I activated the second one, the concept of self-worth. He clearly struggled against this one, and I succeeded in stabbing him through his middle. However, he put on his Hollow mask then, and regenerated from the injury. I put on my own Hollow mask and left him to struggle with his illusions while I charged a powerful enough Cero to overwhelm his regeneration, hidden in the illusions so he could not know where I was."

"Reasonable." Hell's voice was slowly growing less cold. Zen'i silently thanked any higher deity that was listening. "Continue."

"I had just finished charging the Cero when he succeeded in dispelling the new concept's illusions, and each of us fired a Cero at the other before reengaging in melee combat. After absorbing a few of his Getsuga with your armor to show how useless his fighting was, I activated the third and fourth concepts: pride and trust."

"Two at once?" Hell's voice was suddenly frigid again. "I did not want him to know of that ability."

"I apologize, Hell-sama. Given how much he had struggled with self-worth, I figured that the combination concept would give me an overwhelming advantage. However, Ichigo must have been training his spiritual sense, as he was consistently able to sense my incoming Cero and Getsuga attacks, Shunpo-ing out of the way. After struggling with it for a while, he managed to break the illusion." Zen'i pasted his most apologetic look with a shrug. "With no concepts remaining, it was only a matter of time. He was using both blades in Bankai and the Adjuchas mask, while I had two Shikai and Gilliam mask. Your armor helped, but it simply wasn't enough. It was only a short time later when he managed to decapitate me."

Hell was silent for a few moments, before sighing, letting up on his reiatsu. "I expected as much. You may have realized this by now, but the reason I have been sending you to fight Kurosaki Ichigo is to get a solid grasp of both your abilities and those of your originator. It is inevitable that he and I fight again, and I intend to have every advantage. Your defeat was the most likely scenario, though I would not have complained had you succeeded in killing him." He turned to the side and began to pace, his brows furrowed. "That he was so quickly able to identify Asahi no Kagami's nature and successfully deal with those concepts is troubling," he admitted. "But not overly so. It plays well into my plans in any case."

"How so?" Zen'i asked, disturbed. Had he been playing in Hell's hands the whole time?

Hell chuckled, the sound sending shivers up Zen'i's arms. "Did you think I wouldn't realize you were playing both sides, Zen'i? It's the entire reason I lent you Asahi no Kagami to begin with! If he learns and accepts who you are, then he would unwittingly accept my chains as well. His power would be greater if he accepted you naturally rather than having your soul forced together again."

Zen'i blinked. "Why would you want him to be stronger, Hell-sama?"

Hell outright laughed. "Why else? He is to be my weapon! It would be the height of foolishness for me to leave my dimension, but if I intend to conquer Soul Society we must have someone who can fight the Reiō himself. He seems the best bet."

"I see." And he did. Zen'i had had no idea he was being used, and he'd played his part perfectly. Ichigo was closer to understanding him than ever before. Zen'i could only pray that Ichigo would still be able to cut his own chains when the time came, or else he'd become Hell's slave and weapon of mass destruction.

Amagai smiled as he sent the Togabito Capture team home for the day, pleased with their progress. They were just about ready, and far faster than expected. Hinamori had taken the Kidō specialists for individualized training, as Kidō was her specialty, leaving Amagai with Daiki and Hayate.

Both of them had problems that required significant work. Hayate needed to train his situational awareness, and Daiki needed to improve both his strength and speed. So Amagai had decided to kill two birds with one stone by having his students fight him. All day, he'd chased his students through Seireitei, forcing them to constantly run away or fight him. Anytime Hayate activated his "Target" technique, Amagai would start using indirect tactics that – more often than not – placed Hayate in an embarrassing situation. The bucket of cold water just above a door was a classic, and one that Hayate had been hit by no less than three times until he'd been able to expand his awareness enough to see it in time. Oh, it'd been hilarious watching him sputter, sopping wet and having lost the single-minded concentration of his "Target" technique.

With Daiki, however, a different strategy was necessary. He would have fit right in with the Onmitsukidō, with his preference for Shunpo and hit-and-run tactics. So, Amagai had decided to train him the same way. While Amagai was playing with Hayate, Daiki could do anything he wanted, except go more than 50 meters away. Except, at random, Amagai would Shunpo and attack Daiki. And if Daiki attacked first and failed to get away in time, his taicho would hit back. The only way to avoid pain was to get faster at Shunpo, so he could slip in and out of Amagai's guard too quickly for retaliation.

By the end of it, both Hayate and Daiki had been panting, exhausted on the ground. But they'd improved significantly. Hinamori was also rather proud of her students, so Amagai had once again treated them to a meal before sending them home.

A black butterfly fluttered down in front of Amagai, distracting him from his good feelings about the day. He allowed it to land and listened for a few moments, and then the butterfly flew away. Amagai sighed. There went any sense of good feelings. Yamamoto had just summoned him to the 1st Division barracks. "Best get this over with…" With that, he flickered away.

Landing gently in front of the barracks, he entered and nodded respectfully at Sasakibe-fukutaicho before making his way directly to Yamamoto's room. He knocked.


Amagai did so and stood before the seated sōtaicho. "Yamamoto-sōtaicho? You summoned me?"

"I did. What is the status of your Togabito Capture team?"

"Currently exhausted from training, but I can have them ready to go in a couple of hours if I can have a healer look at them first. Is it time, sir?"

"Nearly. Kurotsuchi-taicho assures me that the Dangai manipulation will be complete in a matter of hours. Once it has, your team will go through to support the living world and return here once they have captured a Togabito." Yamamoto's eyes opened just a fraction. "There is another reason for your summons. Amagai-taicho, you were seen entering the Kasumiōji compound recently. I have a request."

"A… request?" Amagai's mind whirled. He'd been seen? By whom? And why would Yamamoto consider it important? And why was it a request, instead of an order?

"Yes. This is not an order, so you may decline if you desire." Yamamoto's face didn't change expression, but what little of his eyes Amagai could see grew sharper. "But I must first have you sworn to secrecy. This request goes against the will of the Central 46, but I feel it is necessary to the continued survival of Soul Society."

Now Amagai was even more confused. What on earth was Yamamoto talking about? What did the Central 46 have to do with anything? "Sōtaicho?"

"Make your choice, Amagai-taicho. Do you swear to keep this conversation secret, from now until such time as I approve making it known?"

It only took a second to make the decision. "I swear it."

"Very well. Tell me, have you ever heard of Bakkotō?"

Amagai nearly jumped. As it was, his eyes widened. He knows! Son of a bitch, he knows!

Yamamoto's eyes fully opened. "It is surprising that you have. Tell me, Amagai-taicho, what is it that you know?"

It's too soon! The Bakkotō I have isn't strong enough to suppress his power! And even if it was, he has the support of his fukutaicho in the other room! He cursed himself for not being more careful. Now he couldn't kill that old bastard Kumoi for being partially responsible for his father's death. The only thing he could do was tell the truth and hope they didn't discover his own Bakkotō. "Bakkotō are parasitical weapons forged by a secret sect within the Kasumiōji," he replied dully. "They are powered by the reiryoku of the wielder, and grow stronger by consuming the wielder until it's capable of influencing his mind. At the end, the wielder is consumed entirely."

"That explains much. How did you come by this knowledge?"

"Kumoi has a private set of assassins who were equipped with Bakkotō. I have seen the results."

Yamamoto's eyes narrowed. "I see," he said, his voice never changing. "Are you aware that they are illegal?"


"Why did you not report it?"

"There was no point!" Now he could not stop the anger in his voice. "You already knew of it, Yamamoto-sōtaicho! After all, you killed my father to cover it up!"

Yamamoto paused to blink. "Your father?"

"Kisaragi. Shin'etsu," Amagai bit out, his reiatsu beginning to flare as the hate rose within him.

But Amagai was surprised when Yamamoto seemed to sag a little. "Ah. I should have known. Yes, I killed him. But not to cover up the Bakkotō."

"Then WHY?!" Amagai was so close to wordlessly releasing his Zanpakutō, but he knew that his fire-type Zanpakutō would do little harm to the wielder of Ryūjin Jakka. He was hanging onto his control by a thread. "Why did you kill him?!"

Yamamoto's eyes closed. "The Central 46 refused to investigate the Kasumiōji. Your father volunteered to infiltrate the Kasumiōji for me, but he was caught. A Bakkotō was forced upon him, and he was then taken over by it and forced to attack me. I burned the Bakkotō away, but he suffered fatal burns in the process."

The fiery aura that surrounded Amagai suddenly snuffed out. "W-what?" he stuttered. "But… why didn't you…?"

"One spy within my ranks could be excused as a renegade. But if another were caught, the Central 46 would be alerted and the entire Gotei 13 punished. At worst, the Kasumiōji would have hidden their treachery more thoroughly, making it impossible to bring justice to your father's sacrifice."

Amagai stepped back, shaking his head. "No… you lie…"

"It is the truth. My request was for you to do as your father had done – to infiltrate the Kasumiōji and bring proof of their crime. I required your secrecy to ensure the Central 46 did not become aware of the operation." Yamamoto's voice was calm, matter-of-fact, even as he stared directly into Amagai's eyes unflinchingly. "Hence why it was not an order – I would not force someone to go directly against the Central 46."

"I…" Amagai took another step back. "But… why now?" he asked weakly. "And why did you choose me if you didn't know I was already involved?"

"I chose now because they are an unwelcome distraction from the true problem: Hell. As for why you… if your team is ready, then you would be free to take care of the Kasumiōji situation. As you were already spotted entering their compound, you seemed to be the best opportunity I would have."

Amagai's knees felt weak. All those years training and hating Yamamoto… were for a misunderstanding? "Are you… going to kill me?" Amagai asked, his voice stronger and calmer than he had expected.

"No. Your actions are understandable, and no harm has truly been done. The loss of Kisaragi Shin'etsu was painful for us both. If you swear once more to me your loyalty to Soul Society and the Gotei 13, then I shall spare your life and allow you the honor of taking the head of the one truly responsible: Kumoi."

Yes. Kumoi was responsible for his father's death. He and his Bakkotō were responsible. Amagai knelt before his sōtaicho. "I so swear."

"Then rise, Amagai-taicho. Bring me the proof we need. Once you have it, you will publicly avenge Kisaragi Shin'etsu."

Kon stumbled back into the house, worn out from fighting. Why couldn't he have freaking energy attacks too? It was exhausting when the only weapon he had were his legs. He was just glad that this time, he'd had support. Collapsing on a chair, Kon turned around to the mute companion who had just followed him inside and nodded at him gratefully. "Thanks for helping out."

Enryū shrugged and made a few nonchalant hand gestures.

"Just part of the job?" Kon guessed. Enryū nodded. "Well, job or not, I'm glad you were there. That Shikai of yours is really something. I would've had a lot more trouble if you hadn't been able to trap those Togabito and block their attacks with those giant hand things."

Enryū smiled, but then made several motions towards another room.

"You need to check on the princess? Go for it, I'll see you when it's our shift again." Kon stretched out in the chair as Enryū left the room. It was good to get off his feet – his legs ached from overusing his Mod-Soul leg enhancement powers. Even so, Kon was glad he could help out.

Kon looked up at the ceiling, unwittingly mimicking Ichigo's own tendencies to stare upwards as he pondered. If he ignored the whole Hell situation, then his current life was more than he could have hoped for. He had an understanding family who knew exactly what and who he was. He was trusted, and loved. The only thing he had to worry about – still putting aside the Hell situation, of course – was Soul Society learning what he was. And while that was still a concern, it was much less of one than it was before Isshin and the Kasumiōji people had applied a number of supernatural defenses.

Kon smiled. It was a much better life than he'd originally thought he'd have, when he'd first luckily escaped the mass extermination of Mod-Souls.

"… Kon…?" a quiet voice asked hesitantly.

The Mod-Soul, startled from his thoughts, looked at the girl who had addressed him. It was Karin, and she looked rather troubled. "Karin? What's wrong?"

Karin's face twisted in a form of exasperation. "It's that obvious?"

"Well, when you're making a face like that it is," Kon retorted. "So what's up?"

"I…" Karin sighed. "Can you keep a secret?"

Kon fought the urge to laugh. "Karin, my own existence is secret from pretty much everyone. Who would I tell?"

"Yuzu. Ichigo. Dad," Karin said shortly. "I don't want anyone to know. Not even them."

Kon's smile slowly faded. "That serious?"

"More embarrassing, really," Karin admitted. "But… I really want to keep this private."

Kon looked at her seriously, then gave a short nod. "I won't tell anyone. So what is it?"

In response, Karin activated her eyes, which suddenly became a solid white, erasing any hint of an iris. Kon nearly tipped the chair over backwards in surprise, but recovered a few seconds later. "Karin, what sort of power is that?" he demanded.

"I call them the Eyes of the Oracle," Karin answered, grimacing. Kon watched as her eyes slowly went back to normal. "When I use them, I… well, I can see things about a person. I know things I shouldn't be able to know, see things that I shouldn't be able to see. Like just now, I could see that your real form is a little green pill, that Kon was a name my brother gave you. I could see that you've been afraid for a long time but you're finally allowing yourself to hope."

Kon swallowed. "That's a bit of a scary power," he confessed.

"A little," Karin agreed softly. "But I'm having trouble keeping it turned off."

"Ah. It's trying to stay constantly active?"

"Yeah. And since you're the only one I know whose powers directly affect your own body… besides Sado-san, I mean, but I can't leave the house so…" Karin trailed off.

"I get it. You want to know how I control it." Kon leaned back in the chair, trying to find the words. Who would have thought a human would approach an artificial soul for help? The Kurosaki family truly was a weird bunch. But he wouldn't have it any other way. "This needs a bit of background. You up for a bit of a lecture?"

Karin sighed, resigning herself to it. "If it helps."

"Alright. That power in your body is known as reiryoku, and everybody has a different amount of it. But reiryoku reacts to emotions, strong and weak. A Shinigami is stronger when he has a strong emotion like determination and resolve helping the reiryoku flow."

"Like Ichigo."

Kon nodded. "Like Ichigo. But a Shinigami loses strength and control over his powers when he is plagued by doubts, uncertainty, or other kinds of emotional instability." He smiled. "Your problem, Karin, is that you are unstable. You resent being helpless. You hate being confined in this house, forced to wait for someone else to save the day while you can do absolutely nothing to help. And while you understand it here –" Kon tapped Karin's forehead with two fingers. " – you can't help but want to prove them wrong here." He moved his hand to tap her chest where her heart was.

"How…?" Karin whispered, stepping away with wide eyes. "How can you know that?"

"I don't need fancy eyes to tell me how you're feeling, Karin." Kon smiled sadly, withdrawing his hand. "I felt the same way when Rukia was taken by Soul Society to be executed for giving Ichigo her powers." He was silent for a few moments, then took a deep breath and soldiered on. "Anyway, Karin… That strong desire, that constant sense of indignation you feel, that quiet resentment you nurture… all of that is making your reiryoku very… what's a good word… reactive. When you're calm and focused, you're able to suppress your power, but when you're frustrated or curious enough to let your control slip…"

Karin understood. "Then my power activates. So what do I do in order to fix it?"

Kon shook his head. "You need to resolve the emotions that are making your power so reactive, or practice your control so you can control it even then."

Karin bit her lip. "How did you get over it, in your case? Being useless while Ichigo saved Rukia, I mean."

Kon grew very quiet. "I eventually realized how selfish I was being," he finally told her, so quiet that she had to lean in to hear him. "He had entrusted me with his body while going to save her, so I was here, with his family, for days. And one day, while I was watching over his sisters, I thought to myself, 'If he never comes back, then he's going to make his sisters cry.' It was then that I realized just how much he had to lose, how much he had risked. I, who had no family, no friends, no one to come back to… I didn't really have much of a life anyway. I would have happily risked it for Kuchiki Rukia, because she saw me as a person.

"But I had forgotten – Ichigo saw me as a person too. An annoying one, but a person nonetheless. He'd beaten me in his own body before, and the Shinigami who had taken Rukia had curb-stomped him. He knew there was no way I would survive Soul Society. Hell, he didn't know if he'd survive, even after Urahara's training! Don't you see, Karin? He gave me his body so if he didn't come back, at least I would be able to live the human life I had always wanted! He gave me his body so I could protect his family if he didn't make it back!"

Karin's eyes widened, and she stepped back as her hands flew to her mouth in horror. She hadn't made the connection before, when Ichigo had described going to Soul Society to save Rukia, and her brother had glossed over the fights. To think that he'd gone with the knowledge that he could die…

Kon's voice lowered again. "That realization… the understanding that Ichigo trusted me, me, with his family… my desire to go to Soul Society and save Rukia myself was selfish. I didn't have the power, but I couldn't begrudge the one who did, not when he was giving his all to fulfill our wish, not when he had entrusted his own wish to me." He turned suddenly piercing eyes towards Karin, as sharp as any gaze that Ichigo had given her. "This is the world we live in, Karin. This is what it means to live with one foot in the world of spirits. Your brother was thrown into it without warning, without preparation, with only just enough training as there was time for, and he's nearly died too many times to count on the way to becoming as strong as he is now. Don't think for a second he's told you about all the close shaves he's had. None of us – not me, not Ichigo, not your father, no one – want you or Yuzu to ever have to go through that."

"And how am I supposed to get strong enough to protect myself, then?" Karin demanded. "Do you expect me to rely on them all my life?"

"Of course not," Kon agreed, leaning forward to drive home the point. "You need training. But guess what? So do the rest of us. No one was prepared for Hell, not even the strongest people in Soul Society. Everyone's working their hardest, so there's no one to spare to train you. And Karin? Before you start thinking of trying to fight them in secret, the difference between the Hollows you can handle and the Togabito is a bridge too long for you to cross at once. You'd die. No ifs, ands or buts about it. You. Would. Die. And then Ichigo and your dad would go absolutely berserk, and attack Hell before everyone's ready. And then they'd probably die, and even if they didn't, they'd doubt themselves, question themselves, asking just what they could have done differently.

"Can you see it now, Karin? Your selfishness? I understand your desire to be out there, making a difference. Believe me, I really do. But you aren't ready," Kon told her bluntly. "If you want to grow stronger, strong enough to be respected, strong enough to protect yourself, then master your own power first."

Karin scowled at him in a way that was very reminiscent of Ichigo's own expressions, then stormed off. Kon sighed and shook his head. He hoped that Karin would think about his words.

"You've grown, Kon."

Kon turned his head to the side to see Isshin step in from the kitchen. "How long have you been there?"

"I was there the whole time." Isshin turned his eyes upstairs to where Karin had stomped away. "The Eyes of the Oracle, huh? Scary indeed. I'm just grateful it's not an offense-based power, or else it might have been even harder to stop her."

"Yeah." Kon looked at Isshin in concern. "Did I go too far? I know I got dark there at the end, and she's still so young."

Isshin sighed and plopped down onto the couch. "It can't be helped. No one wants to hear the truth when it's unpleasant, but she needed to hear it or else she might actually have tried to fight the Togabito in secret. I just wish Hell hadn't woken up. Then we wouldn't be in this mess."

"Me too."

They sat in silence for several minutes, before Kon cleared his throat. "Kurosaki-san…"

"Call me Isshin. Or Dad. Or even old goat – that's one of Karin's favorites." Isshin smiled. "You're part of the family, Kon. There's no need to be formal."

Kon had to swallow the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. "Isshin… I… Is it going to come down to Ichigo again?"

"I sincerely hope not," Isshin responded, sighing. "But no matter what happens, someone has to fight Hell, and Ichigo is the most likely candidate unless Yamamoto decides to do it himself."

Kon took a deep breath and exhaled loudly, clearly making the wordless sound communicate his exasperation and frustration. "Guy just can't catch a break."

Isshin nodded with only the slightest hint of bitterness crossing his expression. "I just wish there was something I could do to help him, something to take some of the burden off of him. Even if the only thing I could do was talk to him, and listen to him, that'd be something." He shook his head. "I'm worried for him. Even if Hell were to be handled tonight, and Masaki rescued this instant, I don't think Ichigo would be able to let things be with Soul Society."

"Would you?" Kon asked. "She was your wife. And they were responsible for sending her there. Would you really let those who condemned her get away?"

Isshin's body stilled, and Kon could feel reiatsu begin to permeate the air as Isshin struggled to control his emotions. "I know," he responded tightly. "And if it were just me at risk, then there would have been no hesitation at all to go after them and ensure every single one suffers for it. But it's not just me." Isshin took a deep breath and sighed loudly, forcibly relaxing his body. "It's Karin, and Yuzu, and Ichigo, and you. As much as I want to take vengeance on those who deserve it, it's not worth risking my family. Masaki wouldn't want me to if it meant that."

"Ichigo's a smart guy. I think he knows that too."

"Yeah. I hope so."

Ichigo was hunched over his desk in his room, gazing at the words that he had written intently, trying to understand just what they were. "My life's purpose has been to protect. I have thrown away a protector's pride. My humanity compels me," Ichigo whispered. Those were the lines that had come to him without warning during his fight with Zen'i. What were they?

All that Ichigo knew was that even thinking the words raised the hair on his arms and neck. There was a strange power behind them… and though he couldn't explain how he knew, Ichigo knew that the words were important because they described him. No… they defined him.

Ichigo could feel that there were several more lines to learn, and the very first of them started with the chilling declaration "I am…" I am what? I am human? I am Kurosaki Ichigo? I am Vizard? I am transcendent? He had no idea, and yet when he focused on that feeling, Ichigo felt the words were on the tip of his tongue. It was aggravating how he was so close and yet so far.

Ichigo knew that the smart thing was to let the rest come to him naturally in time, just as these lines had come to him when he was focused on fighting Zen'i, but he couldn't help the niggling sense of importance and curiosity. Even so, he reluctantly moved away from his desk and flopped on the bed, looking at the ceiling.

Ulquiorra's revelation about Segunda Etapa was… depressing, really. Ichigo had never thought he would ever feel sorry for the guy, but those last few moments, Ulquiorra had been unable to hide the tortured soul behind his eyes. He had never been able to find real peace again. Ichigo no longer had any desire for Segunda Etapa, seeing that. Instead, he had spent the time practicing his Resurrección, with Cazador helping less and less.

With Segunda Etapa no longer a viable possibility, Ichigo had briefly considered finding and eating a Vasto Lorde, but ultimately decided against it. He would be ending a Hollow's life for a power boost, and there were so few Vasto Lorde to begin with. Also, that would leave a very bad impression on the remaining Vasto Lorde-class Hollows. He'd rather have them fight by his side, or be available to protect Hueco Mundo when he finally left. Of course, if a Vasto Lorde challenged him, then there'd be no reason not to.

In any case, Ichigo still hadn't released his power seals. They were still a trump card on their own. And Zen'i was ultimately on Ichigo's side. They could fight together against Hell when the time came, or perhaps Ichigo would be a distraction while Zen'i got Masaki out of Hell.

The Vizard frowned, remembering Zen'i's hint. "What would drive me to commit evil…? No… perhaps the real question is: what would turn me into him?" he murmured.

What could push Ichigo to become Zen'i? Ruthless, relentless, willing to sacrifice anything if it meant achieving his goal? Ichigo closed his eyes, trying to remember the way Zen'i had argued with him on their methods…

"Why do you fight me? I want the same things you do! I want to protect my family, I want to make sure they can't be hurt anymore!"

"How is it perverting our desire to protect Yuzu, and Karin, and Mom, and everyone else if we make a few examples of what happens if you try?"

"Why do you fight your destiny to rule, to protect your family? Don't you want to keep them safe by any means necessary?"

The Vizard's eyes opened. Zen'i wanted to protect, just as Ichigo did. Zen'i valued his family, just as Ichigo did. Ichigo understood now. Zen'i had told him from the very beginning exactly who and what he was. Now more than ever before, Ichigo knew that Zen'i was part of him. He was what Ichigo could become, if he abandoned his morals, his ethics, in pursuit of his goals.

There was nothing Zen'i would not sacrifice, no one he would not slay, if it meant the people he cared about were safe. Zen'i would raze entire dimensions, killing both innocent and guilty alike, if it ensured their well-being. And with a cold chill running down his spine, Ichigo realized that he could not say with absolute certainty that he would not do the same under the right circumstances.

It was with a quiet horror that Ichigo finally made the connection, that he finally comprehended just what Zen'i was. Zen'i was the part of Ichigo that would damn himself with a smile. He was the part of Ichigo that Ichigo himself would never, could never cut out.

Zen'i was Ichigo's desire to protect.

Okay, yes, I am really evil. I tested that last scene on a friend of mine before I posted the chapter, and she screamed "WHAT?!" at the very end. Hopefully it hit you guys the same way.

Ichigo's reason for not going for a Vasto Lorde upgrade is simple: he'd rather have the Vasto Lorde Hollows as allies who respect him instead of subordinates who fear him. And he's afraid their power will be needed to protect Hueco Mundo during the final battle.

Zen'i's plans turn out to be part of Hell's plans. Oops? And now we know why Karin's power is acting up.

And Amagai finally has part of his story resolved, simply out of coincidence. Yamamoto needed a spy, and Amagai is apparently already in with the Kasumioji. Why not? Also, in case you didn't guess, Byakuya's the one who spotted him.

Let's get on with the spoiler rant













... I really don't know what to say. Superstar is just... what? I almost want to consider him on the same level as that one cross-dressing Arrancar, Charlotte Chuhlhourne. But James is really, really freaky. He's cut in half, and then a bunch of pieces, and he regenerates into a bunch of little James. WTF. Where's Soifon when you need her? Two stabs and for sure dead.

Rose's Bankai was pretty cool, but like so many non-main characters, he's quickly defeated because he revealed its secrets. If he'd just stayed quiet, he might have won. Kensei's Bankai got some nice elaboration, and its powers suit him well. Would've been nice if we could have seen Hisagi's training results.

Aside from that, I don't really have anything else to say beyond excitement at seeing Renji's "new blade".

Until next time!