*sigh* Why does Fanfiction hate strange marks? I mean the double forward slash...I need it! Why have you taken it from me? *cries in despair*

Ah well.

What REALLY ticks me off is how they're taking away the combined"?" "!" ! I mean some of the others I can see, but that one crosses the line! Anyone know where I can write about this? !

So this chapter gave me and Daricio quite the difficult time, but I am rather pleased with the result. :D Let me know what you think.

At first no one spoke, and a pregnant silence fell over the group.

"Ichigo? An arrancar?" Rukia-taichou finally spoke, her words strained.

Urahara shrugged. "Not so much Ichigo himself as his inner hollow, but it makes sense, don't you think?"

/It does,\\ Ichigo said, his thoughts slightly awed. /Did you know, Shiro?\\

/Shut up, I'm thinking.\\ Shiro shot back.

Ichigo shrank back mentally. /Sorry,\\ he thought, slightly hurt.

Shiro huffed and didn't respond, contemplating silently for several seconds. Ichigo could literally feel him thinking. After a few minutes, he looked up at Urahara and Ichigo began to feel a great deal of realization and anger from his other half. "It doesn't matter," he growled aloud.

"Of course it matters!" Rukia-taichou said angrily.

"It has nothing to do with what I was saying to you! My point was that you're all still so stuck in the past that you'll kill off this Ichigo to get the person from your memories back! You're deliberately distracting us!" he shot that last comment at Urahara.

Urahara's mouth twitched a little. Was that a smile? Rukia-taichou turned her attention to the shopkeeper for a moment before returning her gaze to Ichigo. She looked both aghast and more angry than Ichigo had ever seen her before as she glared up at the little-boy-turned-hollow.

"Then what do you suggest?" Urahara asked, still serious despite the touch of his normal, carefree tone that had creeped back into his voice.

Shiro shot a glare at the man, although it was hardly visible through the almost-complete mask. "What do you think, moron? Why don't you quit trying so hard to bring the idiot back! Every time you jerks flood his head with memories that aren't really his, you kill him just a little bit more!"

Another slight smile from Urahara gave Shiro pause. "So you want us to put him back in the Rukongai? Forget about ever seeing him again? When he's already made his own connections with the Soul Society?"

"Why not?" Shiro cut the air with his hand, "Sounds good to me! We were doing just fine in Rukongai before you idiots showed up, and we'll do just fine now. Just leave us alone!" A touch of insanity entered his tone, "Unless you'd rather I take us to Hueco Mundo where you can't reach us."

/Wait, what?\\ Ichigo asked, taken aback. His outburst coincided with several others from around the group.

The Shopkeeper glanced up and put a hand on his hat as he took a step forward, then another, slowly making his way towards the child. "Shiro-san," he said, "it seems you want to hurt Ichigo as much as you claim we do."

Ichigo didn't think Shiro's anger could get any worse. He was wrong. Shiro's voice lowered to a dangerous hiss. "You-" he started, but Urahara cut him off, seemingly unaware of the increasingly hostile situation.

"How much easier would it be for the Unmaker to find you in the Rukongai?" he asked, still advancing. "Far more easily than the Soul Society. Almost as easily as it would be here on Earth, if he can travel through time and dimensions as Akio-san suggests might be possible."

Shiro still said nothing, but Ichigo knew he was getting angrier. Mentally, he backed as far away from the hollow as he could to try and avoid the seething mass of anger that had begun to roll off of his other half.

"So that's it?" Shrio ground out, the multiple voice making the noise all the more menacing. "Because of the circumstances, we're just a sacrifice? Or more specifically, him?"

"Why do you care?" Hirako asked, his voice disbelieving but thoughtful. "You're not protecting him out of the goodness of your heart." Shiro shot him a look of pure hatred, and more than one person tightened their grips on their weapons, ready to defend. "Arrancar or not, you're still a hollow," Hirako continued warily, "and no matter how much reasoning you've regained, hollows don't work like that. So why? What's in it for you?"

The two glared at each other for what seemed like an eternity before Shiro finally spoke, although he never broke eye contact. "You all convinced him I was evil," he said finally. "So he did what you suggested and locked me away." He began to walk forward, stepping onto the air, his white-knuckle grip on Zangetsu suddenly obvious as the hollow transformation continued past the now completed mask and Ichigo's nails suddenly began to grow longer.

"Do you have any idea what it's like? Can you possibly imagine being trapped inside your own mind? Unable to do anything? To see anything? To feel anything?" His eyes narrowed to slits, the golden pupils shining eerily through the mask for just a moment.

"I will not be locked away again!" His eyes widened again and he sprang forward, bringing Zangetsu around to crash down on the Visored's head. Hirako brought his sword up, but the motion was wasted as another sword blocked the boy's.

Shiro's eyes widened, then narrowed when he realized who had stopped his blade.

"Don't pretend like you're protecting me, Kisuke," Hirako said, although the tone in his voice sounded friendly.

Urahara ignored him. "Before you decide to attack everyone, I have a suggestion."

"I'm sick of your suggestions, you manipulating-"

"Prove it," Urahara interrupted.

"What?" Shiro paused for a moment.

"Prove that you and Ichigo are strong enough to protect yourselves from the Unmaker, and we'll let you go back to the Rukongai."

"What?" Several people burst in outrage.

"What do you mean by that, Urahara?" Rukia-taichou spoke louder than anyone else, looking downright furious. "How dare you-"

"It's obviously what they want," Urahara said calmly, never lowering his sword which still stopped Zangetsu's progress as Shiro stood in thin air. "Ichigo-kun no longer wishes to remember his past, and Shiro-san does not want Kurosaki-san to return either. He hasn't technically joined the Soul Society, so returning to the Rukongai shouldn't be a problem.

"However," he glanced up at the boy even though he continued to address Rukia-taichou, "he has to prove he's strong enough first. Until Akio-san is satisfied, he will remain in the Seireitei and continue to regain memories of his previous life."

"You son of a-" Shiro started again, but again, Urahara cut him off.

"Shiro-san," he said, his voice soft but stern, leaving no room for argument. "Despite what you think, we do not want to harm either of Ichigo-kun's personalities; his old one, or this new one. If Ichigo-kun is dying as you say he is, then I will put all of my effort into devising a way to stop this. You have my word."

Behind him, Hirako's eyes widened as he glanced between the shopkeeper and Shiro in surprise.

Shiro regarded him for several moments, cogs turning in his mind. Ichigo found himself too lost in his own thoughts to try and figure out or listen in on his other half's thoughts. This all seemed like so much for him to take. His brain felt like it would explode any second.

"Fine," Shiro finally said, drawing Ichigo out of his thoughts. "But if you fail, and the other Ichigo tries to take over again, I won't show mercy. I will consume him like the hollow you all thought I was, and then I will come after you."

"Very well," Urahara said, waving his hand in a nonchalant manner. "May we speak to Ichigo now?"

The hollow stood up and jumped back, landing on the ground gracefully. "Che," he muttered, and then the mask burst, falling to the ground along with the hard skin covering anything else that had been transformed by Shiro's extended use of Ichigo's body.

That suddenly, Ichigo found himself back in control, staring dully ahead as he tried to wrap his mind around everything that had just happened. For several seconds, everyone just stared at him. Then, he felt two hands on his shoulders. Turning around, he saw a sad-faced Rukia-taichou kneel down, bowing her head so that it touched his.

"Ichigo," she said softly. "I'm so sorry." When she looked up, her eyes had hardened with a resolve he hadn't seen since Hueco Mundo. Vaguely he realized that memory wasn't his, but at the moment he found himself a little too preoccupied to do anything about it. "We'll do everything we can to make sure you don't disappear. I promise."

He allowed himself to relax into her and brought his arms up around her, fingers clutching at the captains robe she wore.



"This is as good as it's going to get! ?" Human voice's tone rose several notches.

"It is to be expected," the fourth voice said calmly.

"How is this to be expected! ?" Apparently, whatever had affected their appearance had finally worn off, or 'stabilized', as the fourth voice had said.

Hollow snorted, but it was Soul that spoke up.

"It's all of us combined." They stared at themselves in the mirror of a shop vendor.

Human voice sighed. "This sucks. Our skin is so light it's practically see through, the whites of our eyes will probably stay gray indefinitely and that is the ugliest hair color I've ever seen on anyone."

"At least it's not green," Soul voice pointed out.

"Yeah," Hollow voice sneered. "I thought you didn't care about appearances."

Human voice twisted their face into another scowl.

"We do look funny," Soul voice commented, pulling at a strand of the muddy, light brownish-red color. "Although I don't think our hair is that ugly. And hey, at least we have brown eyes, and the gray isn't too dark."

"Why do we care?" Hollow voice snapped. "Weren't we in the middle of training?"

The other voices didn't answer.

"I feel another one," Soul voice finally broke the silence.

"The Shinigami are going to get suspicious if they all keep disappearing," Human voice muttered.

"Who cares?" Hollow growled again.

Human voice's next words sounded drier than a Hueco Mundo desert. "Isn't hunting them down like cannibalism for you?"

An insane smile crossed their face. "It would be, if we ate them."

"EW!" Soul voice exclaimed, sounding thoroughly disgusted.

"We really need a zanpaktou," Human continued, choosing to pass that particular train of thought by.

The Soul's voice interrupted, now confused. "But we have one..."

"One that we can use, brat," Hollow shot.

No one responded for several moments as Soul's surprise widened their eyes. "Hey, old man," he whispered, knowing there was no real reason to do so. "Is it just me, or did those two just agree?"

Two voices in unison shouted back: "Shut up!"


Rukia hadn't felt this miserable since the Repentance Tower imprisonment. Sighing, she looked out the window of Urahara's shop and stared up at the clouds as they passed lazily by. Had she really been so blind? So caught up in getting the old Ichigo back that she'd completely overlooked his new personality? His new being? And didn't he have just as much (or more) right to exist as the old Ichigo did?

The thought that bringing the old Ichigo back would kill the new one had never even crossed her mind, but was that because she'd been too biased to even try and see it?

Now Ichigo had almost died, again, and it was all her fault. Because she'd been too blind. Ironic that it was his inner hollow—arrancar, she reminded herself—that had had to talk sense into her. Well, yell it, really. And scream. And threaten. But the fact was, he'd been the one to to get her to see reason. Why was she so thick? Was she really so obsessed with Ichigo? With bringing him back? Why?

She knew, really. He'd gone against the world to save her life, and she couldn't even manage to save him from a stupid fire. She'd seen it as her chance to repay the debt she owed him...the debt she knew inside her heart that she could never truly repay. Over the years, it had grown from an inkling to full-out knowledge that she really owed him her life. Or more.

"Rukia-san," a soft voice from the door interrupted her thoughts. She looked up to see Ururu standing apologetically in the doorway. "Akio-san says they're ready to leave."

"Of course," Rukia replied, steeling her face. She was a Kuchiki after all. She didn't even sigh as she stood, trying to bring about an air of stoicism.

All the while, she could only think, /This time, I'll protect you, Ichigo, whether it's really you or not.\\


It felt good to have so many sad to see him go, but it felt horrible at the same time. Ichigo couldn't quite wrap his mind around both extremes of the feeling at the same time. It made his head hurt.

"Here's a bento for you," Yuzu said, obviously trying to hold back tears, and not succeeding very well. "I don't know if you can eat it in the Soul Society, but I wanted to make something for you anyway."

Ichigo looked down at the small, tied handkerchief wrapped around a fairly large, square box and took it gingerly. Then he looked back up at the woman who was forcing a smile for him.

"Thank you, nee-chan," he said with as much sincerity as he could muster. Apparently it paid off, because the woman sniffed and nodded, then bent down and gave him a hug. "You'll always have a home with us," she said softly.

Karin was right behind her, an annoyed expression crossing her features. "Ichigo," she said firmly, "If you die again, I won't forgive you." Ichigo gulped as she turned and walked away. Just as Yuzu opened her mouth about to reprimand her sister, Karin paused, and didn't look over her shoulder. "Stay safe."

Then, of course, he had to dodge the human bullet. That goodbye didn't last long, and ended in a fair amount of pain for the older Kurosaki.

After that, Neliel came over and picked him up, squeezing him into her chest so hard he saw stars. "If you have any Arrancar questions, like how to release a Resurreccion or anything at all, have Urahara-san get in touch with me. I'll do my best to answer them all!"

"Uh, thanks," Ichigo gasped, holding his chest as he sucked in precious air. Urahara had been the one to suggest that he try and train to a point where he could release some sort of Resurreccion form. Of course, he had no idea how that was supposed to happen. Zangetsu was a Shinigami zanpaktou, not an Arrancar zanpaktou.

Shiro hadn't said much of anything on the matter. Actually, he hadn't really said anything at all.

"Come, Ichigo," Rukia-taichou put a hand on his shoulder. He nodded and followed, continuing to force a smile until the others were out of sight and the door to the Soul Society closed. After that, he couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief.

The dark-haired captain noticed, apparently. "Are you alright, Ichigo?" she asked.

Ichigo nodded, but didn't answer or look up at her, instead staying quietly by her side.

"Ichigo," she said reproachfully, then her voice softened. "Did they make you uncomfortable?"

When he answered, it was a slow nod. "Is that okay?" he asked, his voice sounding pitifully weak even to him.

This time it took her several moments to answer. "It's natural for you to not like someone if they remind you of something painful, but if you let feelings like that cloud your judgment for people you know are good and who care for you, you will end up hurting them, and robbing yourself of a valuable ally.

"That's one thing I always admired Ichigo for," she said softly. Her tone of voice caused Ichigo to look up at her. It didn't sound like she was referring to him. Her eyes had gotten dim, and she looked up as if remembering something from the distant past. "No matter how much he denied it, he always cared for people. Whether they were his friends or not, he saw them as potential friends. He always claimed not to be a nice person, but I'll bet he even thought that way about the street thugs that used to gang up on him before I met him.

"If he cared for someone, he protected them. If he fought someone, he cared for them. If he saw someone protecting someone else, he respected them. And he valued life deeply..."

Ichigo looked down again, frowning. "You want him back, don't you?"

Rukia-taichou let out an exasperated sigh. "Yes," she said. Ichigo felt his heart sink. Yet another person he couldn't trust because they cared for the person he used to be over- "But not if it means sacrificing another. I don't want that, and he wouldn't want that."

The carrot-top blinked, feeling surprised. "So...you won't let me die? Even if it means seeing him again?"

Rukia-taichou's eyes hardened and she knelt down, taking Ichigo by the shoulders and looking him in the face like she had when he first met her.

"Listen to me," she said, her voice dangerous and firm. "I will give my life to protect you, and not because you used to be Kurosaki Ichigo. I will protect you because you are Kuchiki Ichigo, my little brother." A sad smile touched her lips. "And older siblings always protect the younger ones."

And for just a moment, Ichigo wasn't anyone but an 8-year-old child. So he did what a child would do, rushing forward and giving his older sister a large hug.

"Thank you, Nee-san," he said softly.

Behind him, he heard Akio clear his throat. "We need to keep moving," the court guard said callously. "It's always the most dangerous traveling between worlds."

Rukia-taichou stood and nodded at him, then smiled down at Ichigo, who took her hand and followed.