Hey guys, welcome back. Definitely in my groove - let's see if I can keep this up. Funny story, though. I keep my wife up to date on about how many chapters I have left on this fic, since I do plan on working pretty exclusively on my novel as soon as I finish this. She came to me the other day and said: "I just realized. First you told me you had 6 chapters left. Then it was 6 again, because you underestimated it. Then it was 5. Then it was 7, then 6 again. Now it's steadily going down. Your fanfic is playing Lightning Returns!"

Was highly amusing at that moment, actually.

Anyway, moving right along. Review replies are up first:

Quathis - You know, I didn't even realize the alternate meaning of Deber at the time I chose the name. Very fitting. Thank you.

The BadAss Writer - I'm very glad it was strong enough to make you read his words aloud. And yes, at the moment Hell's power is split between his two avatars.

SadfortheEnd - You know I've been saying for a long time that I have no planned pairings. That's still true. But if I WERE going to make a pairing at the moment... it probably would be between Nelliel and Ichigo, just from the way they've interacted lately.

A Fan1204 - Who all knows about Ichigo being the king of Hueco Mundo? Well, before last chapter, excluding all the Hollows and Arrancar: Hiyori, Lisa, Love. That's about it, Ichigo kept it under wraps pretty well.

The Reader of Words - Where do I get my chapter titles from? Well, that depends a bit. Most of the time I try to think of what "theme" the chapter has. For instance, "Invasion" was all about Ichigo and Soul Society preparing to invade Hell, and Hell invading the living world. See? Theme. Other times, like "No Plan Survives Contact", I get the name from a well known quote. "No Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy", and that fit very nicely to the backup plan falling apart the minute they tried to implement. Other examples include "Hell on Earth", "Of Heaven and Hell", and "What Makes Us Hollow" (play off of "What Makes Us Human"). Occasionally, I get inspiration from music I've heard, but I try to keep to the two above methods.

ArmorOfGeddon - my take on Yamamoto's technique's name is that that's the MAXIMUM he could possibly summon. So if he ever actually managed to get 10 trillion dead, that's it, he stops being able to raise any more. Just a theoretical limit. Or maybe he could summon the SAME ash skeletons (if they fall apart or are destroyed), up until he's summoned a total of 10 trillion skeletons. That's a bit more reasonable.

jcampbellohten - I started using Reio because "Spirit King" felt... well, cheesy. It also reminded me of Shaman King, and I'm really trying not to mix universes here. Reio sounds more regal. As for the lack of honorifics last chapter... well I purposely didn't include them when Urahara was explaining the situation, because he was being terse and professional while reporting. You're right about Ichigo calling Tessai "Tessai-sensei", though.

ryubimaru, The Dark Eccentric - No, I didn't skip a scene. Hell is in two places at once. Fighting Ichigo, fighting Yamamoto. That will be explained eventually.

Deadaletta - Thanks for joining us! It warmed my heart to read how much you enjoyed my fic. I hope to keep making you shiver with excitement until the end.

Rahkesh135 - Ichigo has not yet released his seals. Don't worry, that's coming.

Chrisburrow - Personally? Before I started calling him Cazador, I just called him Hollow Ichigo. I disliked calling him Ogihci (which was created because of the infamous mirrored name picture) because a mirrored name written in Japanese does NOT equate to a mirrored name written in English. I also disliked calling him Shirosaki or Shiro because he is so much more than just a color or a play off of Ichigo's name. He was an entity that deserved respect and a good helping of wariness. For me, he was always what Ichigo could be, if he ever went completely Hollow. So I remembered him as Hollow Ichigo. "Hichigo" just didn't have the same effect.

As for Ashido, I admittedly don't have any plans for him at the moment. He'll probably be returned to Soul Society off-screen.

Anyway, let's get on with the story, shall we?

Chapter 75: On the Frontline

Hell stared at Ichigo with an unreadable expression while Ulquiorra methodically destroyed every Togabito that had been waiting to invade the living world. "I must ask, why isn't he eating any of the Togabito's souls?" he asked calmly.

"Too risky," Ichigo answered in the same tone. "Too much chance of accidentally inheriting their chains and being enslaved to you."

If anything, Hell's scrutiny increased. "Did he determine this himself?"

"I warned all the Arrancar and Vasto Lorde. I believe seeing Grimmjow confirmed it for Ulquiorra, at least." Ichigo paused. "That is what happened to Grimmjow, isn't it?"

Hell snorted. "Of course it is. He saw an opportunity to gain more power and took it. Well, that explains why the number of Hollows I've acquired from Hueco Mundo has been practically nonexistent, at least. You've proven more intelligent and capable than I expected. But even so… you're at a disadvantage here."

Ichigo was glad that his mask hid his expression so well. It meant all he had to do was maintain a calm tone of voice. "How so?"

"Your goal is to protect this world, correct? That means that you cannot use your full power, or this city will be leveled in our battle," Hell pointed out.

"The same applies to you," Ichigo retorted. "You want the living world's souls to augment your own forces."

"Hardly," Hell disagreed. "Do you realize how long it takes to train a soul to be able to use my chains in anything approaching a combat situation? I don't care about the people of this world. I just want this world. Once I have Hueco Mundo and Soul Society, then I'll have all the souls anyway."

Ichigo went quiet for a moment. "So, you have nothing stopping you from all your power to crush us right now."

"That's right."

Ichigo nodded, seemingly coming to a decision. "Starrk? Resurrección. And get behind him."

"Understood. Come, Lilynette." Starrk and his Fracción stood closer together, and Starrk laid a hand on her head gently. "Kick about, Los Lobos."

Hell blinked as he witnessed the two Arrancar being a complete being once more before vanishing in an impressive display of Sonido. "What was the point of that?" he asked, with just the slightest bit of derision coloring his tone. "I already know that you are hampered with the burden of protecting the people of this world. This show of force is useless."

"It's not a show of force. It's simple logic. If you attack me, then your back will be open to an attack from Starrk. If you attack Starrk, then your back will be open to an attack from me. And neither of us will hold back."

"And what happens if I ignore the both of you and decide to attack Karakura directly?" Hell asked. "Will you both attack me and forsake Karakura?"

"They won't need to forsake it."

Hell turned to one side to see Ishida standing in midair, his bow at the ready. "A Quincy…" Hell observed.

"Yes. Surely by now you've noticed – there are no more Togabito in the living world. And no more portals are opening."

"What of it?"

"That means that all the defenders of this world are free to defend against you," Inoue's voice cut in, and everyone turned to where she was. Standing atop her Santen Kesshun several meters away, Inoue's expression was calm, but determined as she turned to look at Ichigo. "Karakura is safe, Kurosaki-kun. How can I help?"

Ichigo was about to ask her to retreat to a safe distance, but then Chad's hand clapped onto his shoulder. Ichigo twisted his neck to face him. Looking into Ichigo's mask, Chad remained unafraid. "Ichigo… this is not just your fight. We are here to support you."

"That's right, Kurosaki." Ishida locked eyes with Ichigo. "You've obviously got a plan, or else you would've attacked him by now. So tell us how to help."

Ichigo's eyes went wide behind his mask for a moment, and felt his grip on Hollowification tremble under the weight of his emotion. Against his will, he remembered the illusions Asahi no Kagami had turned upon him, and the lessons imparted by them. He couldn't let pride keep him from accepting help. He had to trust in his companions, and allow them to make their own decisions.

"Inoue… Chad… Ishida…" Ichigo took a breath and steadied himself. "Thank you."

Hell laughed lowly. "What a lovely scene. Worthy of any play! But you are fools for gathering here." He drew the sword at his hip. "Reveal the truth, Asahi no Kagami!"

"Inoue, use your Sōten Kisshun over all of us!" Ichigo ordered. "Reject all illusions and keep Hell from leaving! Chad, protect her!"

"Hai!" the two answered. Almost instantly, a golden bubble materialized over them all, excluding the open portal to Hell, Nelliel and Hachi. All the illusions that had begun to take form dissipated as Inoue negated Asahi's power.

Ichigo was about to give more orders, but he was interrupted by Hell directly attacking Ishida. "Starrk!" he cried out, flashing into Sonido.

Starrk whipped one of his guns in position, and fired a powerful Cero without any charge time. The Cero rocketed into the space that Hell would have been, had he not stopped just shy of it to bring his blade to defend against Tensa Zangetsu. Ichigo was instantly hit with a flash of familiarity, but there was no time to deal with it then.

Ishida immediately took advantage of the blatant opportunity and promptly fired a couple of dozen arrows into Hell's back simultaneously before using Hirenkyaku to retreat to a safer distance. He frowned when he saw that Hell didn't even seem to register the attack. It would seem he'd need to use strong individual attacks rather than a number of weaker ones… or perhaps he'd just need more of them.

Ichigo and Hell swiped at each other in a flurry of high-speed attacks, with neither giving ground… until another Cero materialized without warning and slammed into Hell's side, blasting him several meters away from Ichigo… and well away from anyone else. No orders were needed – all at once, several ranged attacks were launched.

"El Directo!"

"Licht Regen!"

"Cero Metralleta."

"Getsuga Tenshō!"

The onslaught was too large and too fast for Hell to avoid, but much to Ichigo's frustration, Hell had another trick up his sleeve. He swiped the air in front of him and wordlessly conjured a tall translucent barrier just in time for it to take on the combined attacks, which impacted with an explosion that whipped the air around Ichigo and his companions. When the smoke dissipated, the barrier was gone, but Hell was hardly injured – some scratches and small rips in clothes were the only evidence of the power behind the attack.

"Damn," Ichigo cursed. "I thought we had him there."

"Did you really think that the only tool at my disposal was Asahi no Kagami?" Hell asked with a trace of amusement. "It would have been very foolish indeed not to have a means of defending myself against such an attack."

Ishida readjusted his glasses as he reassessed the situation. "Obviously overwhelming that barrier from a single direction isn't a feasible way to defeat him. Perhaps if we can force him to stretch it out, attack from multiple directions at once? We'll need to hold him in place, though, so we don't accidentally attack each other." he proposed.

Starrk nodded. "I have a technique like that." He holstered his pistols, and they disappeared. An instant later, a pack of gray wolves materialized at his side.

"Let's finish this, Starrk," Lilynette's quiet but resolved voice came out of Starrk's mouth. The wolves rushed Hell, who was staring wide-eyed at the technique.

"You… you just split your soul?!" Hell gasped in shock. "Just like that?! What are you?!"

Starrk didn't answer. "Kurosaki-sama, Ishida-san, if you possess a technique that will encase him and a few of my wolves, use it the instant the wolves bite."

Ichigo, who had been staring at Starrk in surprise, recovered and nodded at him, and then Ishida. They leapt in opposite directions, circling around Hell.

Dodging with high speed, Hell swiped at one of the wolves with Asahi no Kagami, only to see the wolf reform without being hindered in the slightest. After a few more moments, he found himself surrounded. With gritted teeth, he conjured his barrier again, and completely wrapped himself in it to keep from being bitten while he tried to think of another plan.

"Tsubaki! Koten Zanshun! I reject!"

Hell blinked and twisted to look at the girl who was maintaining the curious oval-shaped barrier. He turned just in time to see a black-winged projectile of some sort pierce through his barrier like it wasn't even there. And much to his shock, the barrier completely collapsed an instant later.

Just as several wolves attached themselves to Hell's limbs and began to glow, Ishida threw a silver vial at Hell. "A silver rod strikes the five-fingered stone bed – Gritz!" A large stone prison materialized around Hell and the wolves.

Ichigo raised his left arm and concentrated hard, summoning a large length of chains that he promptly directed to wrap around the Gritz, reinforcing it. It was not a moment too soon, either, as the Gritz practically disintegrated under the force of the explosion of several wolves. The chains went a few instants later, but it was enough to redirect most of the remaining force upwards, utterly shattering the Sōten Kisshun.

Inoue promptly collapsed onto her Santen Kesshun, and even that technique was beginning to fracture. "Orihime!" Ishida cried out, and quickly appeared next to her with a burst of Hirenkyaku. The Santen Kesshun shattered as well, but Chad had already picked her up in his arms.

"Inoue, are you alright?" Chad asked.

"I'm okay, Uryū, Sado-kun…" she muttered. "Just tired. Sorry."

"Don't worry," Hachi declared calmly as he approached with Nelliel and Ulquiorra just a few steps behind. "She's just used a lot of reiryoku. A bit of healing Kidō and she'll be back on her feet."

"Hachi," Ichigo's voice drifted back towards them as the smoke from the explosion began to dissipate. "Good job on closing the portal. Take care of Inoue, and when she's able, you two should work on getting the living world's reishi back to normal. Inoue…" his voice softened. "Thanks for your help. If it weren't for your Sōten Kisshun, Hell's illusions would have made things a lot more difficult."

Inoue smiled, and then let exhaustion take her, passing out. Chad passed her to Hachi, who nodded and vanished in a burst of Shunpo.

"I'll admit… that nearly killed me," Hell said as the smoke finished clearing. His clothes were little more than rags, but he seemed completely unharmed otherwise. "But you really shouldn't have given me time to heal."

Ichigo grit his teeth. It'd been a calculated risk to leave Hell alone in the smoke. Inoue had needed immediate attention, and without her barriers insulating the fight, further use of the powerful techniques needed to finish Hell off endangered the living world. Ichigo had figured that Hell was taking the time to heal properly, but the Vizard had wanted to give Zen'i his opportunity to get that portal open. "C'mon…" he muttered impatiently.

"Orders, my liege?" Ulquiorra asked quietly.

Ichigo shook his head. He had made his decision to put his trust in Zen'i. He needed to stall for time… Well, he might as well get some answers. Aizen had certainly liked to monologue – maybe Hell would too. He exited Resurrección and removed his mask to conserve his power for when the fighting would begin again. "So, Hell… tell me, does the name Ayumu mean anything to you?"

Hell's face betrayed nothing. "There have been many people called by that name. Is there one in particular you wanted to know about?"

"Ichigo?" Chad muttered. "What are you doing?"

"In a minute, Chad. How about one that's friends with a guy named Akio?"

Hell's eyes narrowed. "You…"

"Had some discussions about the nature of the human soul, about the balance between conflict and peace, and how to punish souls that were evil in life?" Ichigo pressed, his suspicions leaping to the fore at seeing Hell's reaction. "Has it been so long that you can't remember those days with your best friend?! Has it been so long since you remembered your dream, Ayumu?!"

Hell's face closed off, denying any semblance of emotion in his expression. "So… you know. How?"

"I've been having these dreams… reliving these memories… your memories!" Ichigo yelled. "I don't know how your memories got into my head! All I know is that you dreamt of turning the hearts of men, and bringing lasting peace to all the worlds!" he roared angrily. "Look at you now! Akio taught you how to open the world of your heart to rehabilitate the wicked! And now you're a conqueror of worlds?!"

"I was a fool. Human nature cannot be denied," Ayumu retorted derisively. "You cannot fathom how many souls I have communed with, how many lives I've witnessed, how much evil lies within the human spirit. Do not presume to judge me, Kurosaki Ichigo. When you have looked through a million sets of eyes, lived a million lives, only then will you know a fraction of what I have experienced."

"Do you think I care about that?!" Ichigo snapped. "Akio warned you about the possible consequences! He told you that there was a chance that your world would just turn into a prison, and you its warden!"

Ayumu inclined his head slightly, conceding the point. "Very true. But what Akio did not predict, was that I would learn to wholly understand the truth of humanity."

"The truth of humanity?" Chad repeated, his own eyes narrowed.

"Yes. I had always known that humanity was flawed. I had always known that people's motivations weren't always pure and good… but I had always thought that if people could understand each other, could empathize with each other, then humanity could move past pointless violence, could learn to live together in peace and work together towards a better future. Humanity still wouldn't be perfect, but it would be better."

"So what went wrong?" Ichigo asked quietly.

"At first, it wasn't so bad," Ayumu reminisced with an almost fond tone. "Most would learn what they needed in order to live a peaceful life. Many of them just needed a friend, someone who understood them, someone they could confide in without judgment. It gave me hope. Of course, some were utterly unrepentant, some were bloodthirsty killers, some were… well, the irredeemable were many and varied. Them, I imprisoned within my realm for eternity. Eventually, I was sure, the only humans in the reincarnation cycle would be good ones at heart.

"But things never changed as time went on. The same stories, the same tragedies, the same evils kept repeating themselves in greater and greater numbers. I lost count of how many times, how many ways I checked to ensure that those evil souls had not escaped me, were not influencing others in any way." Ayumu's fists clenched with rage. "They weren't! It was then that I figured it out. The truth of humanity. Sharing, empathy, caring… those are learned, and not everyone can grasp them, or even wants to. But greed, and pride, and selfishness is inherent within every human being! People justify their actions to make their hypocrisy more livable, to allow their own selfishness while damning others for the same! All those years, I had been treating the symptoms, not the cause!"

Ayumu's face twisted into a smile that was utterly without mirth, a smile that sent a chill down Ichigo's spine. "It was suddenly so clear what I had to do. I had to cut out the root of the problem, the part of humanity that leads us to temptation. But Akiō refused. He claimed that to mutilate the human soul like that would leave them incapable of growing beyond what they were. He couldn't see that there was no point – all the so-called growth of humans… the stories remained the same. Rape. Murder. Torture of the mind, of the body, of the spirit. Desperate acts of desperate men."

Ayumu flared his reiatsu, turning murderous eyes upon the people before him. "These crimes against fellow man and woman have existed since the beginning, and they happen today! Why is it that with this bountiful planet, you have people dying of hunger and others of gluttony?! Why is it that with this giant world, you have men with enough land to house a hundred comfortably, and others who are forced to live with no home?! Why is it that those with the resources and intelligence to cure terrible disease refuse to unless they can make a profit?! If you humans had truly grown, you would have begun to understand one another. If you humans had truly grown, you wouldn't be so enamored with POWER!" he roared, increasing his reiatsu output immensely with his anger.

Ichigo nearly swallowed his tongue as the enormous pressure hit him. He hadn't been prepared for it – he'd thought that he wouldn't be able to feel Ayumu's reiatsu, since Ayumu's reiryoku was more evolved than his own. So… either Ichigo had grown more transcendent, enough to be able to feel Ayumu… or… Ichigo took a moment to glance at his companions. Given their grimaces, Ichigo realized that Ayumu had lowered his reiatsu to a level that anyone could feel it.

Ichigo returned his gaze to Ayumu, who was calming down. "Surely you can see the same truth I do. Humans are a selfish, flawed species that can never, will never achieve paradise on their own. Your own nature fights you. I want to change that. That is the reason I fight, that is the reason I am here." His voice softened, taking on a reassuring, almost pleading tone. "Join me, and I will help you. I will remove those parts of you that can conceive of evil. I will help you achieve world peace, eliminate all crime. Imagine a world where people understand each other, where people no longer judge and scheme against each other, where war and hate have no meaning, where despair is a foreign concept. Help me, and I swear to you I will help you."

Hearing the sincerity in Ayumu's plea, Ichigo's lips and throat went dry. Such a world… it sounded almost perfect. But… something about the offer just seemed… wrong somehow.

"Ichigo… I…" Chad seemed at a loss for words. Ichigo looked at him with equally conflicted eyes, and finally Chad seemed to gather his words. "What he's saying… it reminds me of my Abuelo. He always encouraged me to use my arms to protect others." Chad turned to address Ayumu. "You would take away my desire to hurt others, right?"


"But… I channel that desire into my left arm, and I've used it to protect others. What is better? To be born perfect, or overcome your flawed nature through great effort?"

Ayumu was visibly startled by the question, but before he could formulate a response, Starrk jumped in. "I remember… being alone. So terribly alone, because the strength of my power killed those who came close to me. I remember cursing my strength, lamenting not being weak. But Ayumu… that loneliness has helped me to treasure the friends I have found. So I do not regret my years of loneliness, for now I know the true value of companionship."

Ulquiorra didn't even give Ayumu the chance to look at the former Primera. "I have known true despair. That crushing, overwhelming feeling was not pleasant… but through it, and my conversations with others, I am beginning to comprehend hope… and why humans treasure it. I still do not understand the human heart… but I feel that if I am given time, one day I will."

"I don't like fighting," Nelliel said quietly. "I never have. A world where we don't need to fight, where people understand each other… your world is tempting. But when I fought under Aizen, I learned to treasure the people I had come to hold as family. Yes, they were different, as I must have been to them. But we loved each other all the more for it, because we had come to understand each other. Can't you see, Ayumu? We grew close through trying circumstances that wouldn't exist in your world, and I wouldn't trade Dondochakka and Pesche for anything."

"I harbor hate in my heart," Ishida admitted calmly, steadily. "Hate for a man who used his power to have my grandfather killed, and then tortured his soul. I have to remind myself of the potential consequences of killing him every time I even think his name. But if you remove the ability to hate, then you cheapen the gift of love, of forgiveness. You take away the ability for a human to make meaningful choices. Like Sado-kun said… it is our flawed nature that gives our actions worth."

His resolve restored, Ichigo pointed Tensa Zangetsu at Ayumu accusingly. "This is what Akio meant when he talked about growing beyond what we were! Our experiences, the things we've learned, we pass them on to our children, and our children's children! You say that humans haven't grown?! That we cannot learn to understand each other?! Look at the world below you! Human civilization has grown so far past what we used to be! The people of this world have never been more connected, so don't you dare claim that we lack empathy! Yes, we still have problems, but what you could never accept is that it is our imperfection that gives our lives meaning!"

"Are you alright?"

Zen'i opened his eyes from where he was sitting cross-legged just in time to watch Masaki shoot yet another Togabito attempting to escape through the Gates. They'd started coming in droves within minutes of the Gates opening, but thus far Masaki had had no trouble at all dispatching them long before they ever got close. "I'm fine. I'm just having trouble getting a portal established. Hell's still restricting that ability, and it doesn't help that I've never opened one myself."

"It can't be that different from opening a Garganta," Masaki commented with a frown. "I mean, they're both rips in the fabric of space…"

Zen'i shifted slightly. "Yes and no… see, a Garganta is an opening to the void between worlds, and from there you can go where you like. But these Hell portals, they're… well, they're more than that. It's a direct connection between two worlds. A sympathetic connection of similar energy. Like… like how water droplets attract each other, if they're close enough. The trick is getting them close enough for the attraction to happen."

Masaki took a moment to survey whether any new Togabito was coming. Determining that they were safe for the moment, she sat in front of Zen'i, curious. "So, how do you do that?"

"I have to sort of push the Hell dimension's energy towards where I want to go. Problem is that there's a rubber band effect – the further out I push, the more it resists."

"But the living world is right there," Masaki pointed out, pointing at the open Gates.

Zen'i nodded. "Right, and that's the only reason I'm making progress at all. Hell's making it very difficult to open a portal from here. I could probably make a portal from the living world to this dimension in a heartbeat, but going the other way's not easy when I'm going directly against the ruler's will."

"Hmm…" Masaki turned that over in her head for a moment, before nodding in understanding. "Am I distracting you too much?"

"Not really. I'm pretty close to the connection, but I need a few minutes to recover more power from Hell anyway to make the last push." Zen'i gestured towards his chains. "Only good thing about these chains – I can passively drain him of power."

Without shifting from her sitting position, or even looking away from Zen'i, Masaki created an arrow and shot a Togabito who was making a sprint for the exit. "So… I don't suppose you're going to tell me what part of Ichigo you are? Since Ichigo apparently has figured it out and all, telling me no longer risks whether he'll accept you back."

Zen'i gave her the saddest smile Masaki had ever seen, and she could feel her heart twist on seeing it. "Are you sure you want to know? The answer will do you no favors," he warned. "By learning this truth, you will see a dark side to Ichigo, one that he now knows he must live with for the rest of his life. I know he would rather it be kept quiet. But I also know that if you asked him, he would tell you. That is the only reason I am even considering telling you."

Masaki was quiet for a minute. "Will knowing allow me to help my son?"

"Yes, but not in the way you think." Zen'i shook his head. "Ichigo knows what I am. That means he knows himself that much more. What he does with that knowledge, is up to him. But if you know what I am, and can acknowledge and love him still, then that would be the greatest gift you could ever give him." He let another smile, wistful this time, cross his face. "It might even be enough to banish the rain permanently."

Masaki blinked, completely thrown off by the last comment. "Huh? Rain?"

Zen'i shook his head, refusing to expand on the topic. "If I tell you this secret, you will have the power to support Ichigo, or utterly destroy him."

Masaki smiled back at Zen'i as she finally understood what he was doing. "You're trying to protect him, aren't you? That's the real reason why you're explaining all this. It's so I don't just ask Ichigo, and hurt him."

The Togabito chuckled. "Yeah. You're definitely perceptive when you know what to look for." His face sobered, then, and he fixed Masaki with a piercing look. "So… do you want me to tell you?"

Masaki shook her head negatively and stood. "I will always love my son. I would never purposely hurt him unless it was unavoidable. And I do want to know, but…" She smiled down at Zen'i. "My Ichigo's all grown up. I need to trust that he'll tell me the important things, when he's ready for me to know. Whatever you are, he trusts you enough to entrust my care to you – don't even try denying it, I saw the look you two shared," she scolded when Zen'i opened his mouth to interrupt.

"I wasn't going to deny it," Zen'i replied quietly. "I was going to say thank you."

Masaki went very still. There was something very final about his tone. "Zen'i…? What's wrong?"

"When Ichigo gets here, tell him that I was glad I could work with him one last time," Zen'i continued, ignoring Masaki's question. "It felt good to work together without even trying. To be completely understood and accepted. It… reminded me of when we were one."

"Zen'i you are not going to die here," Masaki stated firmly, with as much authority as she could muster.

"No… I'm not." Zen'i's smile held no mirth, just a bizarre combination of regret and satisfaction. "I'm not surprised you haven't noticed." He lifted one arm, and Masaki saw, to her confusion, that the wrist where chains had dangled only a few minutes before, were completely bare. "Hell's released me. He must have noticed I was draining him more than usual."

"But, that's a good thing, isn't it?" Masaki cried out. "That means he doesn't have any control over you anymore!"

"Have you forgotten? I relied on the influx of reiryoku from Hell to exist once Ichigo rejected me. Now that Hell's not providing any more reiryoku, I no longer have a strong enough soul attached to me to support my continued existence. I'm going to fade away in a few minutes. You're a Quincy. You should be able to feel my form destabilizing."

With wide eyes, Masaki realized that she could indeed feel that very thing happening. "But won't that mean you'll return to Ichigo's soul?"

Zen'i shook his head no. "We never rejoined," he said simply. "My consciousness will dissipate. The part of Ichigo's soul I harbor will probably go back to him, but me…" Zen'i chuckled depreciatingly. "It doesn't matter. This body, this personality… it is merely a manifestation, a collection of Ichigo's desires and motivations. My… death isn't really the right word, is it? My existence ending won't hurt Ichigo at all, so don't worry about that."

Masaki was struck by Zen'i's expression, then. Never had Zen'i more resembled her son than in that moment, and in that instant it really hit her that Zen'i was Ichigo. "A manifestation, a collection of Ichigo's desires and motivations…" she echoed, her eyes widening in shock. "All Ichigo's ever wanted is to… You are…?!"

Zen'i graced her with the tiniest of knowing smiles. "Figured it out, have you?"

Masaki stared at him as the dots connected. "So… that's the reason you've been protecting me all along. It was never really about how Ichigo hurt you at all. It was never about becoming one with him again. You had no ulterior motive – you just wanted to protect me. That's what you meant when you said that you had your pride, that you remembered where you came from."

"Yep. It would've been nice to go back to being one with Ichigo, but it simply wasn't as important as you are. All those fights with Ichigo? Those were just to get him as ready as I could. It was only towards the end that I began to hope that maybe we would actually end up one again." Zen'i laughed bitterly. "We just have rotten luck, I guess. Ichigo finally understands me, finally accepts me, but there just wasn't time. Oh well." The soul fragment got to his feet with some difficulty.

"What are you doing?" Masaki asked, still stunned by the revelation.

"Opening the portal. You're gonna want to move back a bit. I'll be gone in a minute, but I'll be damned if I don't help against Hell." Zen'i raised his arms above his head and tensed, gathering the remains of his energy.

"Oh no you don't!" Masaki ordered sternly.

"Don't try and stop me!" Zen'i yelled at her. "This has to be done and you know it! Get back, and hide!"

"No!" Masaki stepped forward and placed a hand over Zen'i's heart. "You need power to continue existing, right?! In case you've forgotten, I'm a Quincy! More than that, you are my son! You! Will! Survive!"

Masaki began to glow bright blue, and Zen'i watched, awestruck, as she began absorbing more and more reishi from around her. And then Zen'i felt reiryoku enter him, felt his form begin to stabilize. "But… how?"

"Did you think Shinigami were the only ones who could give reiryoku to others?" Masaki answered with a smirk. "Or perhaps you thought that Quincies could only take it?"

"Well, ah…"

Masaki shook her head and smiled at him. "I promise you, Zen'i. You will survive to rejoin Ichigo. Now open the portal."

Zen'i was quiet for a moment, and then he began to laugh. "We never really had a chance, did we?" he couldn't help but say, still laughing. "Between you and Dad… there just was no avoiding that stubborn compulsion to help and protect everyone! Alright then! I hope you're ready for this, Ichigo!" And with a monumental effort, he opened the portal above them both.

"So… you have made your decision." Ayumu had looked troubled, but now resolve was the only thing visible in his eyes. "Very well. I shall have to - what?!" Ayumu whirled in shock as a wide portal unexpectedly opened right behind him. "What the…?!"

"Now, everyone!" Ichigo roared, ripping on his mask and gathering power in his left hand. "We've got to push him through!"

The sounds of everyone using their techniques at once overlapped each other. But Ichigo flashed into motion, dashing alongside the attacks. He knew that Ayumu would use his barrier to weather the assault. The only way to get Ayumu back to Hell was to drag him there himself.

The attacks hit a shimmering barrier. As Ichigo expected, Ayumu managed to get his technique up in time. And also as he expected, Ayumu was completely unprepared for chains to envelop him, barrier and all, a moment later. With a massive yank, Ichigo pulled Ayumu after him into Hell.

The moment Ayumu crossed the threshold, Ichigo dissipated the chains and let Ayumu's momentum send him flying deeper into Hell. Ichigo twisted around to see the portal close a moment later, with his friends just shy of making it. Removing his mask, he Shunpo-ed to where he could sense Zen'i, only to see him collapsed on the ground, panting as Masaki tended to him with glowing hands. The demand that Ichigo had been prepared to make died in his throat – Zen'i used everything he had to keep that portal open for as long as it took. It was just bad luck that no one else had managed to make it in.

"Ichigo, he's on the verge of dying," Masaki quickly told him. "He's got to rejoin the rest of your soul or he'll just cease to exist."

Ichigo nodded sharply. "Alright, Zen'i. Make it quick – Hell will back in a moment."

With effort, Zen'i got to his feet and drew Zangetsu. "You know how this goes, right?"

Ichigo snorted. Seeing Zen'i's grip tremble with lack of strength, Ichigo gently helped raise Zen'i's blade to his heart. Masaki gasped, but they ignored her as, together, they pushed Zangetsu into his heart. There was no pain. There couldn't be.

Zen'i and his version of Zangetsu began to dissolve as his spirit returned to Ichigo's heart. Zen'i could not help but smile. "I'm home…"

Ichigo smiled back. "Ah. Welcome home. Let's protect everyone together."

Zen'i nodded, and then his form was no more.

"You know, you and your friends have become very, very annoying," Ayumu's voice growled as he appeared a short distance away. "Not only did you succeed in bringing me back here, but your friends have managed to shore up the Gates enough to temporarily seal the hole you made in them. That woman is naturally going to reverse the reishi resonance as well, meaning days more work recreating it."

Ichigo smirked, pleased at that news. "Good to hear."

"Of course, she'll need time to reverse it. And strong as they are, your friends' reinforcements to the Gates are temporary and not sufficient to keep me here permanently. Once you're out of the way, I can break them at my leisure."

"Well, that just means I should finish with you first," Ichigo replied calmly, reaching for his Hollow power. He was engulfed in black reiatsu for a few moments before it faded, revealing him in his Resurrección once more.

"Hmph. Let's see if you can."

Alright, and that's a wrap for now!

Well, I'm sure 90% of you had already figured out that Ayumu was Hell, so I'm not going to make a big deal out of that bit. But I am proud of the dialogue that resulted from that revelation.

Inoue was very useful, but she has limits. Looks like she found hers, after an admittedly impressive contribution to the fight. Holding back Asahi no Kagami's illusions, insulating the fight, and destroying Ayumu's protective barrier? Very nice indeed, and within her capabilities, I think.

Masaki finally learns what Zen'i is, and helps him stay alive. Way to go Masaki! It's my opinion that Quincies have the ability to transfer reiryoku between themselves. I'm sure they would have learned at least SOME healing during the war with the Shinigami, or in the years they were in power fighting Hollows.

Yes! Progress! Ichigo and the gang managed to get Ayumu back into Hell. If only Zen'i had been able to keep the portal open for another few seconds... then Ichigo could have had some extra help.

And Zen'i has finally come home to Ichigo's heart. It felt like the two of them took over my fingers and wrote those lines themselves. Made me smile, at least.

Time for the canon rant!














I don't have much to say about canon right now - Mayuri is trolling Zombie-Hitsugaya. It's a little amusing, watching Hitsugaya go through the Groundhog Day loops, but I'm really disliking the explanation Mayuri used. I think it would have been better if he had just left the specifics unsaid, and let the readers imagine he's fused Kido with his medicine to create a cool effect.

Not much else to say at the moment, so until next time!