Hello everyone... we're finally here. The final chapter of A Protector's Pride. It's been a long time since I started, and I appreciate everyone who stuck with me the whole way. This is a particularly proud moment for me - I've never managed to actually finish a story I'd set out writing. I took the time to read through it all from chapter 1 to this one, and I can see the way my writing style developed over time into something I'm happy with. One day I'll go back and rewrite the earlier chapters - not sure when, but eventually.

I noticed that in my last chapter, I neglected to reply to the chapter 82 reviews, so let me reply to a few here.

Ch82 Review Replies:

doraemax - How did I progress from "Tear the sky asunder" to Eien no Tensa ("Eternal Heavenly Chains")? It has its origins in one of my alternate story paths, actually. At one point I thought it'd be cool to expand on what Bankai really is, and I wanted to show it as the combination of Zanpakuto and Shinigami together, where both of them invested in it. Ichigo would have been the one to provide the "Tensa" in Tensa Zangetsu, for instance. While I didn't end up using that story arc, I rather liked the idea, so when it came time for Ichigo's Inner World to be released, I wanted "Tensa" to be part of the name. After playing with various phrases, I decided that Eien no Tensa worked the best.

mupeterj - I'm afraid I haven't read the Discworld series yet, so no, not a reference. Interesting to know, though.

AnonymousAndrea - Yes, Ayumu's reiatsu would destroy lesser beings with just a touch. Good thing he's sealed now though.

Ch83 Review Replies:

Heika - Jikai does not mean "Earth Release" in this instance. Jikai (自界) comes from 自 meaning "Oneself" and 界 meaning "Release". Thanks again to ZeroKaze who helped me find the right name!

Rowknan - My Ichigo vs Canon Ichigo? You know how that would end - they'd beat the shit out of each other until they realized that wait, if they're the same person, that means that they can protect people twice as well!

ShinigamiMaster - Sorry, but I am well and truly done with the "Worldly" series. Like I said, I wrote myself into a corner, and I want to focus on writing my novel.

Aoi Shinkaze - Not quite correct - not everyone who has Jikai has chains as a motif. That said, I'm not revealing who else has Jikai. I'll leave that for a sequel if I ever get there.

lilyrose225 - Only Quincies who saw and understood that their powers sent souls to Hell would go there themselves.

With that settled, let's get on with the chapter...

Chapter 84: Resolution

Ichigo inhaled deeply as he followed the other Shinigami, stepping into Soul Society alongside his mother. The air was far fresher in this world, and it helped clear the lingering smells of Hell from his nose. He was not the only one who did so, either – Komamura was visibly relaxing, and even Soifon seemed a little less stiff.

Yamamoto turned to face Ichigo a few seconds later. "Kurosaki, we must return to our Divisions and begin filling out reports on the events in Hell. No such report is required of you, but it would be appreciated if you could provide one within the next few days so it may be placed in our records for future reference, should an event regarding Hell require it."

Ichigo nodded in acquiescence. "How detailed does it need to be?"

"That is up your own judgment," Yamamoto answered simply. "There are no rules or standards for the reports – merely what you believe may be useful reference in the future. While some like Soifon-taicho are extremely detailed on their reports for the sake of analyzing their actions to become more efficient, others like Zaraki-taicho are short and to the point."


"You are, of course, welcome to stay in Soul Society as long as you like. It is my understanding that your mother owns a house in the Rukongai?"

Masaki nodded affirmatively. "Urahara-san gave me a house in the West 1st District, yes."

That was news to Ichigo, but he took it in stride. "Then let's take you home, Mom. Yamamoto, you'll have my report in the next day or two. I assume you'll be calling the living world to let everyone know that the mission was successful?"


"Would you mind passing along a message that Mom and I are ok, and that I should be back either tonight or tomorrow?"

Yamamoto inclined his head towards Ichigo slightly and then turned on his heel and began to walk back to his Division. The others quickly followed suit, leaving Ichigo with Masaki. It was a quiet, comfortable walk back to her house. It was only when they entered and Masaki went to the kitchen to make some tea that Ichigo finally spoke what had been on his mind.

"Mom… do you want to stay in Soul Society?"

Masaki said nothing for a little while as she continued working in the kitchen, but Ichigo could tell from the look on her face that she was thinking it over. Finally, as they sat in the living room and Masaki poured some tea for them, she answered. "How much do you know about Quincies?"

Ichigo blinked at the non-sequitur. "Probably not as much as I should," he admitted. "Quincies are humans whose primary power is the manipulation of reishi. They typically use it to make bows and arrows to fight from a distance since, being human, their bodies are a lot more fragile than Shinigami and Hollows. Until recently I thought that Quincy arrows destroyed souls, but now I know that Quincy arrows send souls to Hell due to some contract with Ayumu that the first Quincy made."

Masaki nodded. Ayumu had told her about the contract in her captivity, so it wasn't news to her. "There's a fair amount more than that. Ichigo, there's another reason why most Quincies make a point about fighting at a distance. Quincies have an innate weakness to Hollows. Unlike normal humans, if a Hollow's reiatsu invades a Quincy, then that Quincy's soul is destroyed."

Ichigo frowned. "Are you sure about that? It sounds a lot like that belief that Quincies attacks destroy Hollow souls."

Masaki sighed. "Painfully sure. Did your father never tell you how we met?"

Ichigo sat forward in his seat, eager to hear more about his mother's past. "No, he didn't."

Masaki smiled at her son's eagerness. "Well, I suppose I'll have to correct that, won't I?"

And so Masaki spoke of that fateful day in the rain, of how she'd witnessed Isshin fighting a strangely powerful Hollow and how she'd joined in the fight. "… but as soon as the Hollow saw me, it went right for me. Did it see me as the greater threat? Or as a bothersome annoyance? I don't know. But it was too fast, I couldn't hit him properly. So I let it get close enough to bite me."

Ichigo stood so fast he nearly upended the table. "WHAT?!"

"Calm down, Ichigo," Masaki scolded. Ichigo reluctantly sat down. "I let it get that close so I could hit it point-blank in the head with an arrow. It self-destructed a moment later, but your father saved me from the explosion. But the Hollow bit me… and somehow, it invaded my soul. Over the course of the next day, I grew weaker and weaker… until I had a Hollow hole. I collapsed."

"And then what?"

"Then your father and Ishida Ryūken took me to see Urahara, who explained to them the concept of Soul Suicide." Seeing the question on Ichigo's lips, she quickly continued. "There's a lot of technical stuff behind Hollowification, Ichigo. It involves inserting a Hollow's soul into a normal soul, then breaking down the boundary between them to make the original more powerful. But… it also breaks the boundaries between the soul and the rest of the world. When that happens, the soul self-destructs. Urahara called this process Soul Suicide."

Ichigo frowned. "Then how do the Vizard exist? How do I exist?"

"Simple. Urahara developed a method to stop Soul Suicide," Masaki answered. "Just as Hollowification is the cause behind Soul Suicide, he had to insert something else to do the opposite of Soul Suicide – to strengthen the borders between the soul and the outside world."

"And what's the opposite of a Hollow?"

"A human soul."

Ichigo blinked. "I don't get it. Human souls turn into Hollows all the time. How are they opposites? And if Quincies are humans with powers, don't they qualify as humans, then?"

Masaki shrugged. "It's a bit beyond me, honestly, but Urahara explained to me later that Quincies are different enough from normal humans on a soul level that they can be considered a slightly different species. Compatible, obviously, but distinct. Supposedly Shinigami and Quincies are opposites, while humans and Hollows are opposites."

Ichigo shook his head, trying to ignore how his head was starting to hurt. "So… what? Urahara injected a human soul into you to balance out the Hollowification?"

"Not exactly." Masaki shook her head. "To save the Vizard, Urahara made a vaccine made of Quincy arrows and human souls."

"So in order to save you, he needed a vaccine made of a Shinigami soul and a human soul…" Ichigo connected the dots, frowning.

"And that's where your father comes in. Urahara made a special gigai from a human soul – if a Shinigami entered it, he would become a being both human and Shinigami. My polar opposite. He would need to remain close to me for the rest of my life, and he would lose the ability to see spirits, to use his Shinigami powers… for all intents and purposes, he would be a normal human until the day I died. Isshin agreed to it without hesitation, and Urahara tied our souls together. Isshin became my balancing force… and his sacrifice is the reason I survived that battle."

Ichigo's eyes were wide as he leaned back in his chair, speechless. After a moment, he finally managed to breathe out, "Well… that explains a lot, actually."

Masaki nodded serenely and took a sip of her tea as though she weren't discussing her soul's tenuous grasp on existence. "Returning to the point – something about a Hollow's reiatsu is just incredibly poisonous to Quincy. It weakens a Quincy's reiryoku for a time, and there are many documented cases of Quincies dying of Hollow reiatsu poisoning. Urahara's explanation of Soul Suicide matches the symptoms of those cases, and I truly believe that those Quincies were undergoing some form of Hollowification. You could say that Hollow reiatsu is a really bad virus, and Quincies don't have the antibodies to fight it off."

Masaki paused. "Come to think of it, I've never heard of it happening to Gemischt – mixed-blood – Quincies. Maybe their normal human ancestry provided some resistance…" Masaki shook her head. "In any case, Ichigo, the danger that Hollow reiatsu poses to us is the primary reason why Quincies traditionally fight at a distance."

Ichigo frowned, but nodded. It made sense, sort of. "But then, why didn't your soul self-destruct when you were eaten by Grand Fisher, then?"

Masaki sighed and shook her head. "I'm honestly not sure," she admitted. "When I died, the tie between Isshin and I should have broken."

"Well…" Ichigo said slowly, thinking aloud. "When you die… are you still considered a Quincy? If Quincies are a kind of living humans… then do the same rules apply after you die?"

Masaki looked just as uncertain. "I… I don't know. I have to assume they do, at least to an extent, otherwise I shouldn't be able to use my Quincy powers."

Ichigo nodded, accepting the answer for now. "Let's look at it from the other end, then. Even though a human is supposedly the opposite of a Hollow, Hollows obviously don't undergo Soul Suicide when they eat human souls… or any kind of soul for that matter. And I've never seen a Hollow shoot a Quincy arrow or – outside the Arrancar – use Shinigami powers. According to Ulquiorra, any Shinigami powers they have are a side effect of taking off their mask – not due to eating a Shinigami."

Masaki nodded, following where her son was going. "So you think that being eaten by the Grand Fisher didn't trigger Soul Suicide because there was still a border between my soul and the Grand Fisher."

"Right. Or… the Grand Fisher said he'd evading Shinigami for fifty years as he killed people. Suppose he killed and ate at least one. If that's the case, maybe the fact that he had consumed humans and Shinigami before meant that there was a balance for everything. Human to Hollow, and Shinigami to your Quincy."

"That could be it too," Masaki admitted. "I don't know if we'll ever know the truth."

They sat in silence for a while, sipping their tea. As Ichigo was pouring himself a second serving, he nodded to himself. "But you didn't answer the original question. Do you want to stay in Soul Society?"

Masaki sighed. "I'm not sure what other option I have, Ichigo. Where would I go? Hueco Mundo is full of Hollows, full of Hollow reiatsu. For all I know my soul will commit Soul Suicide if I stay there too long. I have no desire to return to Hell, and as much as I want to, I shouldn't return to the living world."

"Why not?"

Masaki gave him a raised eyebrow. "Where would I stay? How would I live? It's not like I could just go down to the market – if people see a couple of grocery bags floating through the air, there's going to be problems. And I can't just get a gigai, either – I haven't been dead that long, and people in Karakura will still recognize me. No, the best place for me is here in Soul Society."

Ichigo nodded thoughtfully. He didn't like it, but her words made sense. Making a mental note to run a couple of errands before he left Soul Society, Ichigo thought for a few moments, trying to decide his next question.

Then Masaki smirked. "Maybe in a little while I'll attend the Shinigami Academy. I am dead after all, so I should have the potential to become a Shinigami."

"Wouldn't that cause Soul Suicide?" Ichigo asked, alarm clear in his voice.

"I'll check with Urahara beforehand, but I don't think so. Humans with Hollow-based powers exist without issue. If the problem is balance, then I think it should be safe for me, a Quincy, to gain the powers of my opposite, a Shinigami. And besides, I'm not inserting a Shinigami soul into me and breaking down the barriers between us," Masaki pointed out.

Ichigo took a calming breath and nodded. Those errands had just become very high priority. After another few seconds, he realized what his next question had to be. It was selfish, but… he had to know. It would haunt him if he didn't ask, and Ichigo would like to avoid the nightmares if he could. Ichigo looked down, and his fists clenched the fabric of his leggings tightly. "Mom… do you… was it my fault?"


Ichigo swallowed, his whole body tense. "Was it my fault that you died? On the riverbank against the Grand Fisher?"

"Oh, Ichigo." The next instant, it seemed, Masaki had pulled Ichigo in for a powerful hug, one that her son gratefully returned. "It was never your fault. If anything, the fault lied with me."

Ichigo's heart skipped a beat. "What?"

His mother separated the hug enough for her to look directly in Ichigo's eyes, and he was startled to see tears welling in hers. "Your father and I knew you could see spirits. Isshin couldn't help you learn to distinguish between the living and the dead with his powers sealed, so the task was left to me. But I was selfish. If I taught you about spirits, I would have to tell you about Hollows. And I knew you would want to learn how to protect yourself, protect others from them." She shook her head. "But… I didn't want you to become a Quincy. I had heard what had happened to Ishida Sōken – I was still close to his son, Uryū's father, Ishida Ryūken. I thought that maybe, just maybe, it was because Soul Society didn't want the Quincy to continue, that the people in charge had made the order to make us slowly die out. I didn't want you to become noticed by Soul Society."

Masaki's voice was slowly growing as watery as the tears trailing down her cheeks. Ichigo's vision of her became a little blurry as well, and he realized with dull surprise that he was crying too. "I didn't want you to die, Ichigo. I thought that if I, a trained Quincy, accompanied you until you were old enough to understand, old enough to maybe be trained in how to use Shinigami powers instead, then everything would turn out alright. So I purposely didn't teach you. No, Ichigo. It wasn't your fault that I died. You did everything right that day. All you did was try to save a girl you thought was in danger, as any good-hearted human being should. No, it was my fault. If I had taught you, if I had done my job as a mother, you would have recognized the danger. I wouldn't have had to leave you, Isshin, Yuzu, Karin…!"

And then it was Ichigo's turn to pull his mother into a tight embrace, his eyes shut tight as tears streamed down his face. After all those years blaming himself… he could never have dreamed that she blamed herself too. "It's ok, Mom. I understand. You were trying to protect us," he whispered hoarsely.

"But my foolishness cost us so much…! And I, I made you think that my death was your fault, for so many years!"

Ichigo held her closer, not knowing how to comfort his mother but trusting his instincts. "It doesn't matter anymore. You're here now. Everything's alright now."

It was dusk when Ichigo left his mother's home, a concise typed report – Urahara had apparently had the forethought to have a computer installed in Masaki's home – in hand as he headed for the 1st Division. It didn't take long to get there – Ichigo had been in the Seireitei often enough he was learning the layout of the Divisions pretty well.

"Ah, Kurosaki-sama." The 1st Division fukutaicho inclined his head respectfully.

Ichigo blinked, trying and failing to remember the fukutaicho's name. He vaguely recalled that his given name began with 'Chō', because he remembered trying to work out how the man was anything like a butterfly, but that was it. They'd never really talked, and the only real interaction they'd had was when Ichigo had taken him down in an instant on Sōkyoku Hill while saving Rukia. He sighed. "I'm sorry, I'm really quite terrible with names, and we haven't talked enough for me to remember yours properly."

Thankfully, the man didn't seem offended at all. "Perfectly understandable. I am Sasakibe Chōjoro." He cracked a tiny smile as he witnessed Ichigo muttering the name to himself repeatedly, apparently trying to ingrain it into his memory. He'd seen similar sights over the centuries every time they had a batch of new recruits, and it never failed to amuse. "In any case, may I ask your business here?"

Ichigo blinked again, before apparently remembering what he had come to do. He held up the report in his hand. "Oh. Yamamoto…" Ichigo hesitated, then decided it was better to refer to the man with his title in his own Division. "…-sōtaicho asked me to write up a report regarding Hell and Ayumu, but I don't really know where to turn it in. I figured I would ask him, if it's not too late. I can come back tomorrow if it is."

"I'll take care of it," Sasakibe promised, and Ichigo gratefully gave the report to him. "Is there anything else?"

Ichigo nodded. "I need to head back to the living world soon, but I was hoping to discuss my mother's current situation and safety before I left. It's not that I don't trust Yamamoto-sōtaicho to keep his word, it's just to ease my mind, given recent events."

Sasakibe smiled. "As it happens, Kurosaki-sama, I am in fact the person you need to speak with. I have been Yamamoto-sōtaicho's lieutenant for a very long time, and given his preoccupation with preparing for the final confrontation with Hell, he left the details to her protection to me. If you'll come into my office?"

Ichigo followed him, and sat down as Sasakibe pulled out a folder from his filing cabinet and placed it on his desk, opening it with a silent invitation for Ichigo to read. The Vizard did so, reading carefully. There was a lot of legalese in the beginning, but Ichigo pushed through it with some effort. Turning the page, he cocked his head in surprise. It registered Kurosaki Masaki as married into the Shiba family, and therefore carrying the benefits of nobility. "My dad's a Shiba?"

Sasakibe raised an eyebrow. "He never told you?"

Ichigo shook his head. "No. It explains a lot, though." Returning his eyes to the papers before him, Ichigo continued reading. Evidently, part of the idea was to alert Shiba Kūkaku to Masaki's presence and relationship with her, and let Kūkaku deal with anything that didn't have something to do directly with the Gotei 13. Made sense, Ichigo had to admit.

For matters within the Gotei 13, Masaki would be under the direct protection of the 1st Division. While she was allowed to enter the Seireitei at any time, if she gave advanced notice there would be two members of the 1st Division ready to escort her wherever she wished to go, within reason. In addition, there would always be at least two Onmitsukidō shadowing her from a distance to prevent any further kidnapping attempts.

There was an additional section that basically boiled down to this: Masaki could visit any of the Divisions of her own will, but was legally obligated to leave if the third seat of the Division or higher asked her to go. She could not be ordered to report to any of the Divisions, or forced there. Outside of a spar, she was not to be paralyzed/disintegrated/poisoned/rendered unconscious/driven insane/mind-controlled/mind-erased/eaten by a Hollow/maimed/crippled … Ichigo paused, and turned the page. The list continued for quite some time, ending with "…otherwise altered in any way without explicit consent. Note that the above list is incomplete and may be updated at any time, and punishments may be applied retroactively." He heavily suspected that it had been written specifically for Mayuri.

The document continued for a while longer, essentially stating that Masaki shouldn't abuse her privileges and there would be punishments if she attacked a member of the Gotei 13 without provocation. It finished with a reminder that a taicho was not allowed to spar with someone outside their division without their consent. That one was for Zaraki, he was sure.

Finishing the document another few minutes later, Ichigo nodded, satisfied at its thoroughness. "Will Mayuri follow the rules?" he asked bluntly. "He is exceedingly interested in me, and I suspect that extends to my mother as well."

"He'll adhere to the letter of the law, if not the spirit," Sasakibe assured him. "Hence why the list was very comprehensive, and why punishments may be applied retroactively. Kurotsuchi-taicho is exceedingly clever and intelligent, enough so to find something that he knows would be undesirable that wasn't explicitly or implicitly listed, but he's also aware that a close eye will be kept on your mother and him to ensure that nothing happens. Don't worry – we'll take good care of her."

Ichigo grimaced, but nodded before closing the folder and returning it to Sasakibe. "Thank you for letting me see this."

"Not at all. One must take care of family, after all."

Ichigo gave him the barest of smiles, thanked him again, and left. As Sasakibe was returning the folder to the filing cabinet, he was completely unsurprised to hear Yamamoto's voice only a few feet away. "What do you think of him, Chōjoro?"

"Reasonable, and moderately polite when he wishes to be," the fukutaicho responded easily as he closed the filing cabinet and turned around to meet the eyes of the sōtaicho. "He either didn't register my use of –sama with him or he has grown used to being called that. I suspect his time in Hueco Mundo had something to do with that, given his known general aversion to honorifics. Intelligent, but not genius level – he had to take some extra time to get through the legal sections, but he seemed to understand it well enough at the end. A bit blunt with his words, but he did take the time to finish the document before asking relevant questions."

Sasakibe gestured at Ichigo's report, which was still sitting on the desk. "He was also prompt with his duties, providing a written report and doing his best to ensure it was given to the right person." Yamamoto blinked – he hadn't expected much from someone as young and inexperienced with paperwork as Kurosaki, so he was rather surprised to be given a small stack of papers.

"He wrote all this?" Yamamoto asked.

"It appears to have been typed using a computer like those of the 12th Division. I presume that Urahara Kisuke provided one to Kurosaki Masaki's residence, and Kurosaki Ichigo utilized it to create the report."

After a moment of pondering this, Yamamoto retreated into his own office, pulled out some paper to write his thoughts, and began to read Kurosaki's report. To his pleasant surprise, it was written in the form of a timeline, detailing the events from Ayumu's resurrection to the creation of the Gate of Purification as clinically as possible, and divided into named sections. Yamamoto did note that Kurosaki left out what he had seen in Asahi no Kagami's illusions, but that was to be expected. The illusions were personalized to each victim, so there was no point in sharing what he had seen, only which concepts had been used.

Continuing on, taking notes as he read, Yamamoto reached the section where Kurosaki Masaki was killed, and his heart clenched for a moment in sympathy to Kurosaki Ichigo – it must have been crushing to see her die like that. He read on, then blinked and had to reread the next paragraph.

Seeing her die despite everything I had done, all the strength I had, I gave up. Ayumu pushed his Zanpakutō through my chest, and I would have died if not for my sisters. Their voices somehow reached me from the living world, and gave me the resolve I needed to continue. The combination of my despair and renewed resolve unlocked a new Hollow form for me: Resurrección: Segunda Etapa. It may be likened to a Hollow form of Bankai. With Segunda Etapa, I was more than capable of matching and overpowering Ayumu. I may have been able to seal him then, but I recalled that only those with Ayumu's reiryoku could resurrect people in Hell. So I chose instead to attempt to strip Ayumu of his power with my Quincy abilities, so that I might revive all those who had fallen.

There was a lot to take in, with just that one paragraph. Yamamoto knew of course that Arrancar could use Resurrección, which for Adjuchas-class Arrancar or higher tended to put them on par with taicho-class Shinigami. He had also witnessed Kurosaki using it during the fight with Aizen. But the existence of a level higher than that was… Yamamoto shook his head, lacking the words. He would certainly need to talk to Kurosaki about Segunda Etapa.

There was also the interesting information regarding Kurosaki's sisters – how had their voices reached him? Yamamoto gave a tiny sigh as he wrote down the question on his notes. That would likely remain a mystery, but it was one that Yamamoto was not concerned about.

The sōtaicho frowned slightly as he went over Kurosaki's admittance to utilizing his Quincy heritage – despite being utterly untrained in those powers, the young man had apparently done well enough to be able to resurrect all of them after the fight with Ayumu. His association with Ishida Uryū could have given him the general idea of how it was done, perhaps. It was possible, likely even, that Kurosaki had been unconsciously drawing in reishi from the air to replenish his own reiryoku ever since he'd first become a Shinigami. It would explain part of his monstrous stamina, and could perhaps even explain how Kurosaki had survived his first experience with Zaraki-taicho.

The unconscious experience in Quincy powers combined with the revelation of his heritage and previously acquired background information could explain how Kurosaki had been effective with his Quincy abilities despite no true training. However… Yamamoto was suspicious. Zangetsu's appearance… he resembled Yhwach so closely, in a young man directly descended from one of the last Quincies… could it be that Kurosaki's Zanpakutō, Zangetsu, was the culmination of Kurosaki's Shinigami and Quincy powers?

The more Yamamoto thought about it, the more he was certain of it. Yes. Zangetsu must have acted in his nature of a Zanpakutō, guiding and assisting his wielder in a new technique until Kurosaki could master it. Yamamoto almost smiled as he relaxed slightly. Zangetsu's inside knowledge of Quincy techniques could be most useful in the coming conflict with Yhwach. More than ever, Yamamoto was glad that Soul Society and Kurosaki's group were allies.

With that, he continued reading the report. When he eventually reached Kurosaki's unleashing of Eien no Tensa, and how he had sealed Ayumu there, Yamamoto set the report down and sat pensively for a time. So… Kurosaki had achieved Jikai.

Yamamoto took a long, deep breath, and after a moment, exhaled. It was… unprecedented. A young man not even through his second decade had reached a state of self-awareness and self-acceptance that very few souls had ever or would ever ascend to. After a few more minutes, Yamamoto nodded to himself. He had decided.

Ichigo stepped out of the Garganta and into Hueco Mundo, emerging near the front door to Las Noches. After he'd been satisfied with the state of his mother's safety, he knew it was time to deal with everything he'd left behind in the Hollow world. He'd briefly considered visiting the 12th and intimidating Mayuri to reinforce just how much of a bad idea it would be to target Masaki, but in the end he knew it wasn't worth the trouble that could be caused.

Ichigo opened the door to Las Noches tiredly. It had been a very long day, and all he particularly wanted to do was sleep. But there were things he had to do first.

"Kurosaki-sama!" Pesche's voice cried out. "You've returned!"

"Yeah. I assume that Harribel and her Fracción made it back?"

"Hai, Kurosaki-sama!"

"Good. Please send word to Ulquiorra, Harribel, Nelliel, Starrk, and the Vizard that we'll be meeting first thing in the morning tomorrow." Ichigo paused for a moment. "Also, if Nel's still awake and feeling up to it, let her know that I'd like to see her tonight. I'll be in my room."

"Of course, Kurosaki-sama."

Ichigo nodded in acknowledgment and began walking towards his room. He'd barely made it ten feet when Nelliel appeared beside him in a burst of Sonido. Ichigo blinked. Either Pesche was a lot faster than he let on, or Nelliel had been specifically watching for his reiatsu.

Ichigo opened his mouth to greet her, but was startled when she suddenly grabbed him by the wrist and entered Sonido. They appeared right outside his room, where Nelliel flung the door open and threw Ichigo onto his bed.

"What the hell, Nelliel?!"

"Explain it to me, Ichigo." Nelliel's voice was rather frosty, Ichigo noted, and so was her face. "Explain to me why you let yourself be killed by Ayumu, despite your promise to your father that you would return safely." She stepped forward angrily. "Despite the implied promise to me that you would come back to me!"

Oh. Well, Ichigo supposed he should've known better than to hope that wouldn't become an issue. Seeing Nelliel's eyes grow even angrier, Ichigo held his hands up in a form of surrender. "I'll explain, I'll explain!" he promised. "Just give me a minute to get my thoughts together, ok?"

Seeing Nelliel grudgingly nod, Ichigo took a moment to breathe. After a few seconds of deciding how he wanted to go about it, he nodded at her. "You already know that my mother died in front of me when I was younger, was killed by the Grand Fisher. And you know how much that, that broke me, and how I lived with the guilt of being responsible for her death for a long time."

The former Espada Tres nodded silently, her expression unchanging.

"But in the end, that was Aizen's fault. And I bet you're thinking that it wasn't my fault this time either."

Another nod.

Ichigo sighed. "Ayumu's Zanpakutō, Asahi no Kagami. It makes it hard to think rationally, tries to overwhelm you with your own emotions. Yes, intellectually I knew that my family, my friends, you… you all wanted me to live. I knew that. But it's like, like that knowledge was pushed to the back of my mind, present but not important in that moment when the illusions are there."

Ichigo paused, considering. "Ayumu's Bankai spirit, Shinkyō no Zanhansha, did say that Asahi no Kagami was originally intended to be a therapy tool, to heal the minds of others. To isolate the patient from outside influence or judgment could have been a useful trick for doing so, to help both the patient and the therapist determine where the issues truly are…" He shook his head. "I'm getting distracted. The point is that, in that moment, it was like the world was down to me and the illusions. And those illusions were designed to break me."

Ichigo met Nelliel's eyes intently. "The illusions were of my mother, convincing me that I was at fault for what had happened to her. Because I couldn't tell the difference between the living and the dead, I unwittingly disabled the greatest advantage of a Quincy – fighting at a distance – and she died fighting the Grand Fisher to protect me. Because I foolishly clung to my pride, I failed to purify the Grand Fisher and save her soul. Because I didn't slaughter my way through the Berean once I found out where she was, she was sent to Hell. Because I wasn't strong enough to protect her from Ayumu, she was removed from the cycle of reincarnation."

Nelliel said nothing, but her expression had softened somewhat, recognizing the emotional pain that Ichigo must have gone through despite his matter-of-fact tone here.

"Like I said, it's hard to think rationally while under the influence of Asahi no Kagami. Those illusions convinced me that mine was a useless existence. With all my power, with all I'd sacrificed, with everything I'd been through, I couldn't save a single soul who meant so much… not just to me, but to my whole family. To my distraught mind, there was only one thing to do – die and let either Zen'i or Cazador de la Luna take over when I resurrected. I was sure they could use the power better than I could."

Ichigo spread his arms wide. "And there you have it. I didn't intend to abandon anyone, or break any promises. But for what it's worth, I am sorry that I hurt you."

Nelliel said nothing for a short time, before she too sighed and sat on the bed next to Ichigo. "It hurt, seeing Ayumu run you through with his blade," she said quietly. She reached down with one hand, gently taking one of Ichigo's and squeezing it gently. "Please don't do that again."

Ichigo squeezed back. "I won't."

They sat quietly for a minute before Nelliel spoke again. "I want you to make me a promise now. One you won't be able to forget, even if your mind is addled by illusions, even if you can't think straight from blood loss."

"What is it?"

"Always come back to me."

Ichigo's breath caught. Was this what he thought it was?

"I know we haven't known each other very long. But you and me… we're kindred spirits, aren't we? We fight to protect those we care about. For me it was Pesche and Dondochakka, and later Starrk and Lilyette… and for you it was your friends and family. Anything else comes second. I knew before the mess with Hell that you were more than a friend to me. I thought perhaps those feelings were the result of your having cared for me while I was transformed into a child. Or perhaps I was simply admiring you for having compassion for everyone, even your enemies, despite being so strong.

"But then that night came, that night we spent together. And I came to know you so much better. The reason I was not there the following morning, the reason I left before you woke, was to sort out my feelings, because they hadn't diminished in the slightest. No, somehow they'd grown stronger."

Nelliel turned her head to meet Ichigo's eyes. "Ichigo… please tell me the truth. Do you feel something for me? Something different than what you feel for your friends? Because if I am alone in this, I would like to know now so I don't embarrass myself further."

Ichigo's hand squeezed Nelliel's tightly as he swallowed, hard. "… Yes. You're not alone – I do feel something for you. I don't know what it is, but you're right – it is different from how I feel for them. When I look at you, I see a confident, intelligent, beautiful woman who shares my ideals, who helps simply because it is the right thing to do. You and I…" He struggled for a few seconds to find the words, before abandoning the previous sentence and trying again. "Do you remember what I said, before I left to invade Hell with the others?"

Nelliel began to smile. "You said that you wanted me to fight by your side, that it didn't seem right that I couldn't be there with you."

"I meant those words, with all my heart," Ichigo confessed. "I don't know how to put it better. You're someone I want by my side, in battle and otherwise. I think you said it best when you called us kindred spirits. You and I both know that sometimes, we need someone who understands us, someone we can trust and confide in, someone we can just be us with. Someone who will set us straight when we're being stupid, and be there when we need them. Someone we can always come back to. Will you be that someone for me?"

Nelliel's launched herself into Ichigo's arms, pulling him into a tight hug. "Only if you'll be that someone for me too," she whispered into his ear.

Ichigo returned the embrace gladly. "Deal," he murmured back.

The next morning passed relatively quickly. Ichigo explained the current state of affairs to the Arrancar and Vizard. First and most importantly, Ayumu was sealed, and the Togabito held prisoner in Las Noches were to be gathered so Ichigo could take care of them all at once. Ulquiorra promised to handle that shortly after the meeting.

Second, Ichigo – and by proxy the rest of Hueco Mundo – were allies with Soul Society from there on out. No one held any illusions that it would be an easy alliance. Shinigami and Hollows had been long-time enemies, after all, and there was much residual fear and distrust from both sides. The fact that Hollows were mostly solitary creatures in order to prevent themselves from being eaten by other Hollows was also something of a problem.

After some discussion on the matter, it was agreed that as Arrancar had similar physiology to Shinigami, it was worth testing if they could regain reiryoku through similar methods – eating food made of reishi. The largest concern with that, however, was whether Arrancar were still susceptible to Hollow de-evolution. Adjuchas could de-evolve back to Gillian if they did not consume sufficient souls frequently enough, and it was for this reason that Adjuchas-class Hollows tended to hunt the majority of the time. When asked about Vasto Lorde-class Hollows, Ulquiorra stated that although he'd never heard of it happening to a Vasto Lorde, it was theoretically possible. "That is the reason I continue to hunt on occasion – as a precautionary measure."

Ichigo nodded thoughtfully. "And there's no data on whether Arrancar still have the need to eat Hollows? Nelliel, didn't you tell me that Aizen had a scientist Arrancar? One of the ones who attacked you?"

Nelliel nodded solemnly. "Szayel, yes."

"We have checked where his lab was," Harribel reported. "All the research and data was removed. I suspect that when he was killed by the Gotei 13, they took it as spoils."

Ichigo grunted, frowning a little harder than usual. "That means Kurotsuchi has it. I'll see what I can do about that. But back to the topic at hand. Do Adjuchas-class Hollows get any warning that they're approaching de-evolution?"

Nelliel grimaced. "Yes. The voices of the souls you've consumed start to be heard. Quiet, at first, like a small buzzing in your head. Then, over time, they get louder and louder, and if it progresses much further, you can feel them clawing at your mind, trying to tear you down." She shook her head, banishing what were obviously painful memories.

Well, didn't that sound terrifying. Ichigo repressed a shiver. "If you were to abandon Hollow hunting and try to live on food instead, how long would it take you to know that it was working?"

Nelliel thought about it for a minute. "Before I became an Arrancar, it would take a week or so without eating for the symptoms to become noticeable," she mused aloud. "I've gone longer than that since I became an Arrancar, though. So I would want... two months, just to be sure."

"There might be a difference if the Arrancar is Adjuchas or Vasto Lorde," Starrk pointed out. "So I'll join you in the attempt."

"OK. I'll talk to Soul Society and arrange for food to be delivered here," Ichigo promised.

With that settled, they moved on to the next topic – namely, what to do about the Vizard. Ichigo was interested in inviting them to stay in Las Noches, but Harribel pointed out that that could be something of a deterrent when trying to invite more Hollows into Las Noches, considering that prejudice and fear still ran deep. Ultimately, it was decided that the Vizard were to be allowed to come and go as they pleased, with their own rooms in Las Noches. However, very few "pure" Shinigami would be allowed in Hueco Mundo, and only while Ichigo was there to discourage conflict.

After that was decided, Harribel brought up an interesting question. "Kurosaki-sama, there have been rumors of what sounds like Quincy activity in some remote sections of Hueco Mundo. How do you wish to handle it?"

Ichigo frowned. "Quincy activity? That's odd. It was my understanding that Ishida Uryū and his father, Ishida Ryūken, were the last of the Quincy." He took a few seconds to think on it. "They might simply be Togabito who need to be returned to Hell… or there could be something more going on. Either way, we can't know for sure until we have more information."

"My liege, I suggest I scout the area," Ulquiorra stated calmly. "If they are Togabito, I can subdue them and return them to Las Noches. Otherwise, I will withdraw and report to you."

Ichigo nodded firmly. "That'll work. Do you want to take anyone with you?"


"Alright. I'll talk to the Ishida and Soul Society, see if they know something. Anybody else have something I should know about?" After a few moments of silence, Ichigo nodded and stood from the table. "Good. Let's get moving."

It was a short while later that Ichigo finally stepped foot in the living world again. Emerging from his Garganta just outside his home, Ichigo took a few seconds to sense his friends' and family's reiatsu. "Looks like everyone's ok," he muttered to himself. His friends were at school, while Isshin, Kon, Karin and Yuzu were at home, inside. That was reassuring.

Knowing he was putting off the inevitable, Ichigo still quickly peeked at his chest, where twin crescent moons stood once more, sealing a great deal of his power. Good. No sign of deterioration, not that he'd expected any.

After another few seconds of mentally verifying there was no reason not to go inside, Ichigo sighed and opened the door. Registering his father flying feet-first at him yelling a war cry, Ichigo merely stepped to one side, holding the door open to let Isshin's flight go unimpeded. "Hi Dad. Bye Dad." And then he closed the door.

A tiny snort of amusement brought Ichigo's attention to Karin, who merely rolled her eyes at her father's antics. "Welcome back, Ichigo. How's Mom?"

"Doing better back in Soul Society," Ichigo confirmed.

"That's good," Isshin said in a much calmer voice as he stepped back inside. "So, what's your plan now that Ayumu's been defeated?"

Ichigo shrugged. "It's gonna be busy for a little bit longer while things settle down in Hell, and there might be Quincy activity in Hueco Mundo. I've got someone looking into it, but I need to talk to Ishida later. But enough about that – how's everything here?"

Isshin visibly winced. "About that… there are some things you ought to know."

Ichigo blinked. "What's wrong?"

"It's Yuzu," Karin answered for her father. "She's… not doing well."

"What?" Ichigo's eyes were suddenly sharp with intent. "What happened?"

"She's not hurt," Isshin reassured him quickly. "Not physically at least. But surely you wondered how you could hear Yuzu and Karin while you were in Hell?" At Ichigo's nod, he continued. "Yuzu developed a new power, the ability to connect her heart with another's. After you used Segunda Etapa, she stayed connected to your heart, and was…" He paused, apparently trying to find the right way to word it. "…overwhelmed."

"She began to feel your emotions as her own," Karin finished.

Ichigo's eyes widened as he began to grasp what had happened. If Yuzu had had a direct line to his heart then, at that time when his blood pounded to the beat of war drums, when his mind was almost completely consumed with the desire to pay evil unto evil, to inflict unending torment to the one who had struck at his heart… Ichigo grimaced. "That had to play hell with her psyche. No pun intended," he added belatedly.

Isshin nodded solemnly.

A few seconds passed in silence. "Would it help if I went and talked to her?" Ichigo offered. "I mean, they were my emotions, so maybe I can address the problem directly."

"Worth a shot," Karin muttered, turning towards the stairs. Ichigo got up and followed her, and when they were a few feet away from the door to the girls' room, Karin stopped, keeping her back to Ichigo. Confused, Ichigo did the same.

"I have two things to say to you, Ichi-nii," Karin said calmly, but with a hint of steel. "First, if you so much as think that your life is worthless or meaningless ever again… remember that Mom died for you. Not because of you. For you. So don't you dare spit on her sacrifice."

Ichigo swallowed hard, stung. "I… Yeah, I deserved that," he admitted. "And the second thing?"

Karin was quiet for a moment, but when she spoke again her voice was just as calm as before, if slightly quieter. "Did you go through with it? What you said to Ayumu?"

Ichigo blinked, unsure of what she meant for a second. Then he remembered:

"I will seal you with a technique of my own making, one that will leave you in eternal agony. Then I will leave you buried alive in the deepest level of this world. Your existence will be nothing. Blind, alone, in endless torment with no one to hear your screams."

"… Yes." Before he left Hell, Ichigo had taken the sealed Ayumu and been as good – or as bad, depending on the perspective – as his word. With Masaki, Urahara and Yamamoto at his side, Ichigo had retreated to a remote part of Hell. In the end, Ayumu had been buried more than a hundred meters down, his seal surrounded by some Kidō that Urahara said would conceal Ayumu's reiatsu. Sure enough, after they buried the seal, Ichigo couldn't sense Ayumu at all. Ichigo wasn't even sure he could find Ayumu again if he tried, which hopefully meant that anyone else who tried would fail entirely.

"Ah." Karin paused. "Good." And then she moved to the side, wordlessly telling Ichigo to go on, to see Yuzu, without her. Ichigo hesitated, but did so, gently opening Yuzu's door.

Yuzu was lying on her bed, facing towards the wall. "Go away," she whispered, and Ichigo's heart ached when he heard the tell-tale signs of crying.

"You know I can't do that, Yuzu," Ichigo replied, sitting down next to her. Yuzu stiffened, hearing Ichigo's voice, but said nothing.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, until Ichigo finally managed to find the words to what he wanted to say. "I understand if you don't want to talk about it, but it'll help if you do," he told her. "I mean, those were my emotions, so if anybody's qualified to talk about them…" he trailed off when Yuzu shifted, turning towards him.

"Why, onii-chan?"

After a moment of waiting for Yuzu to clarify, Ichigo hesitantly tried to fill in the blank himself. "Why did I let Ayumu stab me?"

"No. I get that." She reached up and touched Ichigo's chest. "I felt your heart. I knew your pain, and how much you hated yourself." She looked up and met Ichigo's eyes. "Do you still hate yourself?"


"That's good." Yuzu was quiet for a few seconds. "But onii-chan… why did it feel so good to hurt him? He hurt you, so you hurt him to make him understand your pain, but…"

"But every time I hurt him, I felt a malicious joy," Ichigo finished.

Yuzu nodded glumly. "Please, make me understand, onii-chan. Isn't it bad, to want to hurt someone? To like hurting someone?"

Ichigo was silent for a minute, trying to form the words. "Emotions… you can't usually call them right and wrong, good or bad, without context. Anger can be a good, healthy emotion, and happiness can be an utterly disturbing sign of mental illness, in the wrong circumstances.

"The same goes for wanting to hurt someone," he continued. "I think it was good that I wanted to hurt Ayumu. He killed Mom, which hurt me a lot emotionally. So I wanted him to hurt just as much, if not more than me. It was a good, healthy response. But before you hurt someone, there should be a good reason. For me, it didn't matter if I liked hurting him… because I needed to beat him anyway to keep him from hurting everyone else."

Yuzu nodded. "So, because you a good reason to hurt Ayumu, it's ok if you enjoyed hurting him," she said slowly.


"So… it's ok that I liked watching you hurt him? That I wanted him to hurt so badly he couldn't think of anything else? It doesn't make me bad?"

Ichigo reached over and gave her hug. "No, Yuzu. It doesn't make you bad."

It was a short while later when Ichigo came back downstairs alone. Yuzu seemed to be feeling better, and Karin had elected to stay with her and try to keep her in the good mood. Isshin was still sitting in the living room, quietly looking at the giant poster of Masaki, evidently deep in thought.

Seeing his son's return, Isshin smiled. "Things go well with Yuzu?"

Ichigo nodded. "Yeah. Think she's ok now."

"That's good. Sit down, Ichigo. There's stuff we've got to talk about."

"I figured there would be," the young man agreed, sitting down on the couch.

"We're waiting on two more people," Isshin told him. "But they shouldn't be much longer."

On cue, someone knocked on the door. Ichigo rose and answered it, then blinked. "Urahara? Yamamoto?"

"That's them," Isshin called out. "Let them in."

Utterly confused now, Ichigo did as he was bid, leading them into the living room, where Isshin motioned that they all take a seat, which they did. Isshin took a deep breath, and released it slowly. "Well, first thing's first, I guess. Yamamoto-sōtaicho, are you aware of the circumstances behind my abandonment from my post as taicho of the 10th Division?"

"No. After you failed to return, I had believed you had died in the living world. However, I now assume Urahara Kisuke was involved?"

The former taicho nodded. "He was. Here's what happened…" And with that, Isshin essentially went through the same story Ichigo had heard from his mother the previous day. Isshin glanced at him quizzically after he'd finished. "You don't look surprised at all, Ichigo."

"Mom told me everything yesterday," he explained. "She was surprised you hadn't told me before."

Isshin looked a little sheepish. "Well, I did mean to tell you earlier… it just never felt like the right time. How do you just come out and say, 'Oh, Ichigo, do you wanna hear how your Mom and I first met?'"

"Exactly like that," Ichigo retorted deadpan. Both Urahara and Yamamoto shared his expression, and Isshin held his hands up in the air in the universal gesture of surrender.

"In any case," Isshin continued, now turning his gaze towards Yamamoto. "I felt like I owed you an explanation. I would have gotten ahold of you earlier to let you know what was going on, but at the time you still thought that Urahara was a traitor…"

Yamamoto held up his hand, forestalling Isshin's speech. "I understand. You are aware, of course, that unless Hitsugaya-taicho decides to give up his position, I will not be restoring you to it?"

"Of course," Isshin agreed. "I don't even want the position. He can keep it – I need to stay here and finish raising my children."

Yamamoto nodded, accepting the position.

"That said," Isshin continued, "there's more. Some time after Masaki died, Ishida Ryūken approached me to let me know there was more to the story than met the eye. On the same day she died, Ryūken's wife, Ishida Uryū's mother… abruptly fell into a coma. Ryūken told me that all of her Quincy power had been ripped from her, and her body couldn't take the loss. She died three months later."

Despite hearing his heart thundering in his chest, Ichigo felt as though his veins had been filled with ice water, and when he spoke his voice sounded as though it were from far away. "You're saying that the reason Mom died against the Grand Fisher is because she lost her powers in the middle of the fight."

Isshin nodded soberly. "Ryūken told me about the father of the Quincy, the progenitor, Yhwach. There's a poem passed down through the Quincies, saying that after 900 years of being sealed, he would regain his pulse; after another 90; he would regain his intellect, and after 9 more years, he would regain his power. Ryūken believed that Yhwach had removed the powers of 'impure' Quincies. Honestly, I didn't believe it at the time. You and Uryū were by definition Gemischt – mixed-blood – Quincies, but neither of you had lost your powers. I chalked it up to unfortunate coincidence. But when you and Uryū uncovered the Quincy contract with Hell, signed by Yhwach…"

"It was too much of a coincidence," Ichigo finished. "So, how close are we to the deadline?"

"It has been 997 years since I fought Yhwach," Yamamoto answered quietly. "We have less than two years."

There was silence for several seconds as grim understanding filled them all.

"I received reports of Quincy activity in Hueco Mundo…" Ichigo told them all. "Would it be him?"

Yamamoto shook his head. "Unlikely. When he attempted invasion before, he had an army at his back. He is likely training another one."

"Then how do we do this?" Ichigo asked.

"There are three steps that must be taken," Yamamoto stated calmly. "First, we must locate Yhwach and his army. Second, we must train our forces once again in how to fight the Quincy. And third, we must defeat Yhwach before he regains his full power."

"The first is difficult, if not impossible," Urahara elaborated. "Shortly after I established the Shinigami Research & Development Institute, Yamamoto contacted me and had my machines looking for Quincies everywhere I could think of. I assume that once I was banished, you had Mayuri doing the same?"

Yamamoto nodded. "He has had no better luck than you."

"Then obviously the Quincy are hiding somewhere beyond our ability to find. Most likely a secret dimension somewhere, but those are almost impossible to find unless you know where to look," Urahara concluded.

"Wherever they're hiding, it has to be able to access Hueco Mundo," Ichigo pointed out. "I have Ulquiorra scouting out where the Quincy activity was reported. Maybe once we have more information, we'll be able to get a little further on the subject. While we're sharing, my mother told me that Quincies have an innate weakness to Hollow reiatsu. Maybe Urahara can do something with that."

The scientist nodded at him seriously, while Yamamoto looked at Urahara for several seconds, before finally speaking his thoughts. "Do not Hollowify my Shinigami unless it is absolutely necessary," Yamamoto said simply.

"Understood," Urahara acknowledged easily.

Nodding in acceptance, Yamamoto returned his gaze to Ichigo. "It appears that your allies in Hueco Mundo are proving most useful."

"They are," he agreed. "Oh, and speaking of them…" Ichigo quickly filled him in regarding the experiment to see if Arrancar still needed to consume souls. Yamamoto instantly agreed to have food sent to Hueco Mundo on a daily basis, much to Ichigo's relief.

"Anything else we need to discuss?" Urahara asked.

"A couple more things," Ichigo answered. "The Kasumiōji situation. I assume that Byakuya's told you everything?"

"Yes. Amagai-taicho is already in a position of trust within the Kasumiōji, and is currently using it to secure sufficient evidence of Bakkōto. It should be resolved within the next few days."

"Excellent. And what of the Berean conspirators, the ones who sent my mother to Hell?"

Yamamoto's eyes opened slightly, fixing a gauging look at Ichigo. "The Central 46 has tried them and rendered judgment. The head of the conspiracy was executed, and the Berean clan was forced to pay a hefty fine. As the servants seemed to simply be following orders and had no idea that it was not officially sanctioned, they were released without punishment."

Ichigo nodded, satisfied with the result. "Last question, and purely curiosity: what about your Zanpakutō?" he asked, directing the question at both Urahara and Yamamoto. "Why haven't you reformed them?"

Yamamoto stared at him oddly while Urahara coughed discretely. "Ichigo, all Zanpakutō require an asauchi - a nameless, template Zanpakutō – to form from. Each student who enters the Shinigami Academy receives an asauchi, and over time the Shinigami's soul imprints onto the asauchi, forming their Zanpakutō."

"But… I never got an asauchi…" Ichigo muttered, confused. Yamamoto continued to stare at Ichigo.

"Ah, well… honestly, it didn't look like you needed one," Urahara confessed. "As soon as you acquired Shinigami powers, you were wielding a sword, and it certainly acted like a Zanpakutō. I did a couple of discrete tests on Zangetsu while you were asleep after the Shattered Shaft, and everything tested fine. I told Yoruichi about it, and she kept an eye on you and Zangetsu during your mission to save Kuchiki Rukia. She didn't find anything out of place, and the Bankai training went without a hitch, so there didn't seem to be anything wrong. Since I don't know how Nimaiya-sama makes asauchi, I could only guess that somehow you instinctively made your own."

"Who's Nimaiya?" Ichigo couldn't help but ask.

"Nimaiya Ōetsu," Yamamoto intoned, "is a member of the Royal Guard, and the creator of the asauchi. I have already put in a request to consult with him regarding the destruction of our Zanpakutō. If you desire, I will see if he will see you as well. If your Zanpakutō was not formed from an asauchi, there might be problems in the future. Your situation is certainly… unique."

Not wanting to be blindsided by something later, Ichigo readily agreed. With that settled, the meeting ended shortly thereafter, and Ichigo went up to his room to lie down. He was only momentarily startled to himself already there, realizing an instant later that it was Kon. He cleared his throat.

Kon turned around. "You're back!"

Ichigo gave him a sort of half-smile. "Yeah. Thanks for taking care of everyone while I was gone." He extended his hand to shake, and Kon took it with a grin.

"So, back to the lion plush!" Kon said with an enthusiasm that surprised Ichigo. Something must have shown on his face, because Kon chuckled. "Your body's nice and all, Ichigo, but to be honest, it'll be nice not to have to worry about eating too much or not enough, or accidentally overdoing it. Besides, I've gotten used to that thing, and as a plush Soul Society doesn't look too close at me."

Ichigo grimaced slightly at the reminder that Kon was still, technically, an illegal being who could be ordered terminated on sight by Soul Society. But as he'd said, there had been no trouble as long as the ranking members of Soul Society believed he was just a normal gikon. Picking up the Shinigami Substitute badge, he pressed it against Kon's forehead and caught the pill as it emerged.

Letting his body slump over for a moment, he placed the pill back into the lion plush that had been sitting on his desk, and Kon promptly leapt out of the room, calling for Yuzu. Shaking his head slightly, Ichigo reentered his body, then lay down on his bed and stared at the ceiling.

Ayumu was sealed. His family and friends were safe. Things in Hueco Mundo were developing nicely, and if things worked out then perhaps he could start terraforming the dimension into something a bit more hospitable. Soul Society was now an ally, and there was a sense of mutual respect between himself and Yamamoto now. As soon as the Kasumiōji situation finished working itself out, then the only big problem left would be Yhwach. And even on that front, there was still some time. Not as much as he would like, but some.

The only thing left to do was to return to his human life… if he wanted to. But that was the question: did he want to? He ruled as a king of Hueco Mundo. He could be respected, perhaps even revered as a savior, in Soul Society. But in the living world… he was just an intelligent young man, with a history of fighting gangs and absences from school.

What was there for him, if he returned to life in the human world? He'd finish school… get a job… maybe go traveling, or maybe buy a house? Ichigo thought about it for a minute, before deciding that he liked the idea. Yeah, a big house, open and spacious. Somewhere a little remote from the rest of society, but not so far removed that it was inconvenient. A private respite from the troubles of the dead. A place he could build with his own two hands.

Ichigo blinked. That thought had come out of nowhere. A place he could build with his own two hands…? While it was an unexpected thought, he had to admit it did appeal to him. All of the skills he was proud of were about fighting and destruction, and the thought of actually constructing something, making something new, was one he found unexpectedly appealing.

"What do you want to do when you graduate high school? Do you want to go to a university? Do you want to be a writer, a fireman, an actor? A police officer, a baker? A doctor, an astronaut? What do you want to be?"

"I dream of a world where those I want to protect are safe and happy, of a time where I can put down the sword without fear. And when that happens, I want to create something beautiful."

Ichigo remembered Zen'i's question, and his own answer. For a long time, he'd been coasting through his life without a real goal, not knowing what he wanted to be. But now he knew what he wanted to do with his life. Sure, he was good at fighting, and could probably go pro if he wanted. But now Ichigo realized, what he truly wanted to do… was to build a home for himself and eventually his family.

Abruptly, Ichigo realized he was smiling. But he didn't mind – in his soul, he knew that Cazador and Zangetsu were also smiling under the rays of a hopeful sun. And despite the looming threat of Yhwach, Ichigo was confident that one day he would build the home he saw in his mind's eye.

He was Kurosaki Ichigo. For as long as he could remember, he could see spirits of the dead. But for the first time in many years, Ichigo could see a dream for his life.

And that's it, A Protector's Pride is officially over.

This chapter was just trying to wrap up the loose ends. The Kasumioji situation will be ended off-screen, the Berean conspiracy did end off-screen. Masaki is safe, with her powers restored. Yuzu isn't completely better yet, but she'll get there. Ichigo's working on improving the situation in Hueco Mundo, and everyone's working together to try to handle the Yhwach threat before it becomes too big.

And yes, I did finally set up Nelliel and Ichigo to be an item. After all that time saying I had no pairings planned... Sigh. It just kind of happened that way, in the end.

Thank you all so much for reading this through to the end. I hope you all enjoyed the story. I'll be sure to let you know when I finish my novel, or if I decide to make a sequel. But for now, this is goodbye.