"The ones in the world with true strength aren't the ones who can stay forever in the light or forever in the dark, they are the ones who can step over the line into the shadows, and know when to step back." – James Chang

Kurosaki Ichigo closed his eyes as he remembered everything that had lead up to this point. He had gone through more than he had ever thought he would do in his life for this. Every battle, every single moment of training, every single bit of pain, it had all been for this moment. As Ichigo floated in front of Rukia with a grin, flashes of the past burned in his mind.

Madarame Ikkaku

Abarai Renji

Kenpachi Zaraki

Now,

Kuchiki Byakuya

Flashbacks

"SHIT! Shitshitshitshitshit!" yelled Ichigo as he looked down and saw the rest of his Chain of Fate being eaten away at once.

"Is he really going to turn into a Hollow?" asked Jinta as he turned to Urahara.

"Maybe, maybe not. Normally when a person turns into a Hollow their body explodes and reforms into the shape of their Hollow form however with Kurosaki-kun the mask is forming first. It's a symbol of his resistance. Let's wait and see if he really turns into a Hollow," said Urahara as he stared down at Ichigo's form.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

"Hello…King," said a chilling voice from Ichigo's left.

Ichigo sat up as he looked around. He was sitting on a skyscraper in the middle of an abandoned city. As he turned around Ichigo saw a mirror image of himself standing behind him with its arms crossed. The clone wasn't an exact replica though. Instead of orange hair, it had snow white hair. It wore the traditional uniform of a Shinigami dyed white and the whites of its eyes were pitch black. His iris' glinted gold with a hidden malice.

"About time you showed up King," said the copy in a cold, (pun intended) hollow voice.

"Who are you?" asked Ichigo as he raised his fists and settled into karate stance.

"You're going to fight me? Oh that's rich," shouted the weird version of himself as he bent down laughing. "You can't win against me. I'm going to consume you now. I'm your Inner Hollow," said the man with a sadistic grin. "Once I destroy you I'll be the King. I'll get your body."

"Sorry man, but that ain't going to happen!" roared Ichigo as he swung his right fist at the Hollow. To his surprise the Hollow caught it without even looking at his fist. "Che, you're pathetic you know that? I can't believe that you survived that encounter with Kuchiki Byakuya."

"You… you know about Byakuya?" asked Ichigo lowering his guard in surprise. His Hollow takes the chances to smash him in the face sending him tumbling backwards.

"Course I know about that bastard! I know everything! I know all of your moves, I have all of your memories, I have everything! In fact... I even have something you don't," said the Hollow as he grinned evilly at Ichigo. "I have a killer's instinct. I have it and you don't. That's why I'm going to kill you and take your throne."

Ichigo didn't even see the Hollow move. The next thing he felt was the Hollow's fist colliding with his stomach. Ichigo opened his eyes and saw that he was falling. He was falling down the side of the skyscraper he had been standing on and that sadistic copy of himself had actually jumped and was laughing as it tried to catch up to him.

"Ichigo… Ichigo… don't bother with him. He's trying to waste your time. If you look around you'll see that this world… your inner world is dissolving. If it completely dissolves then he will win regardless of whether or not he beats you," said a voice to his left. As Ichigo turned, he saw a tall man with unkempt facial hair and long ragged jet black hair. He was dressed in a long flowing black overcoat that ended in tatters.

"Who're you?" asked Ichigo.

"I've told you before, my name is ********," said the man.

"Huh?"

"I see you still can't hear me. After all this time I had hoped… It can't be helped. You must find your own powers. Find your own Shinigami powers, stand on your own, press forwards and survive Ichigo," said the man before Ichigo fell into darkness.

"Did you know? The color of a Shinigami's Reiraku is red." – Ishida Uryu

"Of course!"

Ichigo looked around as he saw all of the dissolved parts of his inner world. At first they seemed like blocks. Nothing more than white cubes. As he started concentrating on seeing their reiraku however, he saw that the majority of the flowing ribbons were white. All but one. In a corner of his crumbling world, Ichigo saw a box with a red ribbon. Moving quickly, he stopped as he stepped next to it.

"What are you doing? Hurry up and open it!" said the man in black.

Ichigo shot him an annoyed glance before he pulled the red ribbon flowing from the box. As it opened he saw the hilt of a sword inside. With a mighty heave, Ichigo pulled out the zanpakuto. With a flare of bright light Ichigo found himself standing on the side of the skyscraper again staring into the hateful eyes of his Inner Hollow except this time the man in black was at his side and his zanpakuto was in his hand.

"Now that I've got my zanpakuto I'm going to tear you apart. I can't waste time with you. I've got to go and save Rukia," said Ichigo as he raised his zanpakuto.

"Che, are you talking about the zanpakuto in your hands or mine?" asked the Hollow with a bloodthirsty grin as it raised an inverse version of Ichigo's zanpakuto. The blade was black instead of silver. "Let me tell you something King. Someone like you, someone who doesn't even know the name of their own zanpakuto can never beat me."

Ichigo was barely able to raise his zanpakuto in time to block the Hollow's slash. The second time he wasn't so lucky. Ichigo grit his teeth as he felt the Hollow reverse the swing of his blade as Ichigo blocked. Blood poured out of a gash on his left arm.

"Whoo! I bet that smarts. You're not bad King, I'll give you that, but you'll never, ever kill little old me. I'm going to kill you and then I'm going to take your body. I'll be the king and you'll be the horse," yelled the Hollow as he laughed before pointing his sword at Ichigo.

"Get up. I want to see the look on your face when you die," said the Hollow. Ichigo's eyes widen as he realized that he had been done on one knee.

"When did that happen?"

"Get up Ichigo. You aren't this weak. Why are you afraid?" asked the man in Black as he stared down at Ichigo's kneeling form. "You still haven't called me. Look forward Ichigo. You should be able to hear now. The only thing covering your ears is the worthless emotion of fear. There is only one enemy and you are also alone. What are you afraid of? Forget that fear. Look forward. Walk forth. Never ever stop. Cowardice will only cause death! Say it. My name is…," said the man egging Ichigo on.

"Zangetsu!" roared Ichigo as he pointed his zankaputo at his hollow. With a burst of spiritual energy, Ichigo could fell his blade transform. When the light around his zanpakuto had faded, it had changed its shape. It now resembled a giant clever with the hilt wrapped in a long, white cloth. The blade of the sword was black while the edge was silver.

"Nice King. Very nice," said the Hollow as he held up an inverse version of Zangetsu. "Of course when you learned Shikai, I did too." The hollow's eyes widened however, as he saw Ichigo swung his sword down towards him and suddenly everything was engulfed in a bright flash of spiritual energy.

"Damn…it… How? How can you do that? I… I don't know… that attack…," grunted the Hollow as he glared up at Ichigo from the crater he was embedded in.

"Sorry man, I don't know what I did. I just did. Kinda like that Killer's Instinct you were talking about," said Ichigo with a bloodthirsty grin as he pointed Zangetsu at his Hollow's neck. At his words, his Inner Hollow began to laugh.

"Interesting! Looks like you have some after all. Alright, you win King. Looks like you can wield my power," said the Hollow as he slowly rose to his feet.

"No," said Ichigo.

"Wha?" asked the Hollow in surprise.

"I said No. I don't want to be the 'King' and I don't want you to be the 'Horse'. I want you to be my 'Partner'," said Ichigo as he held out his hand.

"Partner? Are you serious? Why the fuck would I want that?" asked the Hollow as he gave another ghoulish laugh.

"Because. We'll both get stronger. I guarantee that. I can also guarantee a lot of opponents in the near future. So, what do you say?" asked Ichigo as he stuck out his hand.

"You're interesting… Partner. Alright, we do things your way. I can't wait to kill some people," said his Inner Hollow with a bloodthirsty grin as he shook Ichigo's hand.

"You better wake up now, that crazy guy in the hat is probably preparing to kill us," said the Hollow.

"Will do. I'll call if I need you," said Ichigo as he felt himself come out of his Inner World.

The Hollow turned towards Zangetsu as Ichigo disappeared from his Inner World. "Did I really just shake hands with the Ki – I mean my Partner?" Zangetsu nodded.

"How do you feel?" asked Zangetsu.

"I feel… weird. My heart seems… at ease," said the Hollow as he put his hand over his heart.

"A Hollow with a heart? You and Ichigo are two of a kind. What you're feeling is called happiness. You're happy because Ichigo trusts you," said Zangetsu with a small smile.

"Yeah… this… this feels… good," said the Hollow with a smile.

"Now, let's watch what's happening," said Zangetsu as he turned and closed his eyes to experience what Ichigo was experiencing.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

"It seems… that I was wrong. Tessai, Jinta, Ururu it's time to finish it," said Urahara as he pulled his hat down to shadow his eyes. "I'm sorry Isshin. It seems we were wrong. Because of my mistake Kurosaki-kun has turned into a Hollow. To respect his memory I will cut him down myself Okiro… Benihime."

"Good bye Kurosaki-kun. I wish that we parted ways differently," said Tessai as he got up and bowed to Ichigo's 'Hollow' form.

"Shit! I gotta let them know that I'm back!" thought Ichigo as he regained control of his body.

"Wait Partner. You want to save Rukia right? It's a much quicker way to Soul Society if you let yourself get killed right now," said his Hollow.

"Are you insane? If I die I'll lose all of my memories, not to mention my abilities as a Shinigami!" retorted Ichigo.

"Relax. Since I'm with you I can keep your memories safe and your power as a Shinigami safe. It's much faster if you let them kill you. Trust me… I won't let you down… Partner," said his Inner Hollow.

"I hope you know what you're doing…," thought Ichigo as he closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable.

"Shibari, Benihime!" called out Urahara as Ichigo was bound by a net of crimson energy. As Ichigo stood still he felt a blade piercing through his chest and knew that Urahara had pierced his heart.

"Thanks for everything… Urahara," said Ichigo as his Hollow form melted off. Urahara's eyes widened.

"Shit! Tessai get over here! He need's emergency healing!" yelled Urahara as he whirled around to find Tessai. Tessai was next to Ichigo in a flash. After examining Ichigo for a couple seconds, he looked at Urahara and shook his head sadly.

"You pierced his heart. The wound is too grievous. I can only make the passing less painful," said Tessai sadly.

"Don't worry Urahara. This is fine. It's quicker for me to go to Soul Society this way," said Ichigo with a grin as blood trickled down his chest.

"You idiot! You'll lose your memories and your powers as a Shinigami! You'll never be able to rescue Kuchiki-san!" yelled Urahara as he frantically tried to stem the tide of blood. Ichigo shook his head.

"Nah, my Inner Hollow, my Partner can protect my memories and my powers as a Shinigami. I'll arrive in Soul Society with both of those, and I will rescue Rukia," said Ichigo with his arrogant smirk.

"Your… Hollow?" asked Urahara incredulously. Ichigo nodded.

"See you on the other side old man," said Ichigo as his body disappeared.

"Tessai, get my Yoruichi and Shinji. Now. We're going to Soul Society," said Urahara seriously.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

"Told you it would work out Partner. Entering Soul Society would wipe your mind but since I'm here and I have all of your memories I just had to share them with you again," said his Inner Hollow with a grin.

"Thanks. Do you… do you have a name?" asked Ichigo.

"No. But I don't need one. After all, I only exist inside of you," said the Hollow with a shrug.

"Well then I'm just going to cal you Shiro. Kurosaki Shiro," replied Ichigo.

"Watch out, you got to hide you reiatsu better Ichigo otherwise Shinigami will be swarming over our location in a bit," chastised Shiro.

"Alright. We'll hide out and wait for Urahara," continued Ichigo.

"That crazy guy? Why?"

"I have a feeling he's going to be here, and I have a feeling that he know's more than he told us. Besides this is just a chance for us to get stronger," explained Ichigo.

"Alright, but you had better be right," grumbled Shiro.

"Let's go. I want to learn more about these powers of yours," said Ichigo as he walked away from the shabby Edo-period 'village' he had appeared in, and towards the forest that was outside of the town.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

"Oh hoho that's quite a feat. To subdue his Hollow without our help, and to even convince it to become partners with him. Who is this guy Urahara-san?" asked a straight haired blonde man.

"His name, is Kurosaki Ichigo. Son of Kurosaki Isshin. He has gone to Soul Society to stop the execution of Kuchiki Rukia and we're going to help him. I hid the Hougyoku inside of Kuchiki-san's soul," said Urahara softly.

"So then…," continued the blonde haired man.

"Correct Shinji. Aizen is on the move," said Urahara.

"If Aizen is moving why shouldn't I bring the rest of the Vizards? It'll go much more smoothly this way," said Shinji.

"No, we have to keep the fact that you guys are still alive from Aizen. You must stay hidden until the time is right. Aizen always keeps his cards close to his chest. Like I said before, 'My only miscalculation was that there was no miscalculation.' Therefore only Yoruichi will go to Soul Society," said Urahara.

"What? You can't expect two people to take on all of Soul Society and win! Yoruichi is strong for sure but it's not possible unless there are diversions!" protested Shinji.

"That's where Kurosaki-kun's friends come into play. They've been training for the past couple of days to prepare for battle. I can personally vouch for every single one of them. They will accompany me to Soul Society and with three other fighters, we can do this," said Yoruichi in cat form.

"Then why'd you bother bringing me here in the first place Urahara-san?" asked Shinji in frustration.

"Because Aizen is on the move. He's on the move for the first time in a hundred years. We must be careful. We can't afford mistakes like last time. I believe I finally know what Aizen's goal is," said Urahara seriously.

"What is it?"

"The Oken. Aizen wants the Spirit King's Throne. I haven't discovered how he plans to do this but I have no doubt it involves the Hougyoku," said Urahara seriously.

"Alright, I'll tell the rest of the Vizards. Good luck Urahara-san, Yoruichi-san. I hope this Ichigo kid survives. I want to meet him," said Shinji with a lazy grin before he disappeared with Shunpo.

"You should gather Ishidan-kun, Sado-kun, and Inoue-kun. The longer we wait, the more likely Ichigo is to decide to move without us," said Urahara as Yoruichi nodded and left in cat form.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

"How many times do I have to tell you idiot? Don't fucking lose your concentration!" screamed Shiro in irritation.

"I'm trying bastard! It's harder than you said it'd be!" yelled Ichigo.

"Maybe you're just a talentless piece of shit that can't fucking control his own fucking reiatsu," muttered Shiro in annoyance.

Ichigo groaned as his Hollow mask dissipated after only eleven seconds. He had been working on it for five days and he only had one more day left. In the five days he had been working with his mask, his time had increased from three seconds… to eleven.

"Oh my fucking god. Why? Why am I so crappy at reiatsu control?" moaned Ichigo internally as his mask broke. Again.

"Ichigo. Instead of trying to force your reiatsu to calm down, let it guide you instead. You cannot control you reiatsu simply because there is too much of it to be controlled. Do not try to force things the other way. In the storm the tree that bends is the tree that does not break. Be the tree that bends Ichigo. Let you reiatsu guide you and you will find the answers you seek," this time it was Zangetsu that spoke out.

Ichigo decided that since he was doing horrible already he had nothing to lose if he tried Zangetsu's method. As he closed his eyes and ripped his hollow mask onto his face, he could feel his Inner Hollow's reiatsu being released. Instead of trying to force it to obey him, Ichigo allowed it to roam free and realized that instead of dissipating into the air around him, his Hollow's reiatse gradually flowed outwards and formed an aura around him.

"Good, now feel the reiatsu around you, see that it protects you. Now try to draw the reiatsu back into you. Don't do it too fast or your mask will break again. The more you practice the quicker you will be able to pull his reiatsu back, and your mask will last longer in combat," said Zangetsu gently guiding Ichigo in the right direction.

Ichigo took Zangetsu's word and started to pull the Hollow Reiatsu around him back into himself. As he drew the energy back into himself he unconsciously grinned giving himself an evil look as his mask grew more stable. After what seemed like ages to Ichigo he finally felt his concentration waiver and his mask shattered.

"Well Shiro, how long was that?" asked Ichigo curiously.

"Not bad. Zangetsu's a better teacher than I am. It lasted about half an hour, which means in a fight against a stronger opponent it'll last about ten minutes. While this should be good enough, you constantly try to be more aware of your surroundings. The longer you can keep my mask on the more power and experience you'll gain with it. I have more to teach you but it looks like that crazy hat guy finally sent people," said Shiro motioning for Ichigo to return to his body.

"Chad! Inoue! Ishida! What're doing he – " said Ichigo before a black cat took a deep swipe at his face. Ichigo screamed and fell forwards clutching his face.

"What was that for?" he screamed as he rocked back and forth clutching his maimed face.

"That was for being an idiot and coming without back up," said the cat as it gave Ichigo an annoyed glance. "My name is Yoruichi; I'm here to help you rescue Kuchiki Rukia."

"H-hai," said Ichigo looking wearily at the cat. Man did his face sting.

"Good. Let's go," said Yoruichi as the cat walked away, its tail swaying slowly in the air.

"Kurosaki-san what type of training have you been doing here?" asked Ishida as they followed Yoruichi.

"It's a secret man. Let's just say I'm pretty confident about my combat abilities right now," said Ichigo with a grin. "Also, take a look, I've learned how to mask the majority of my reiatsu."

"Congratulations, I never would have thought someone as dense as you would have learned how to do it. I must reevaluate my first impression of you. You're no longer a hopeless idiot, you've been promoted to hopeless idiot," said Ishida.

"Why you little – " started Ichigo.

"Quiet! We should try to enter Seireitei as quickly as possible," said Yoruichi as she pointed her tail in the direction of the inner city.

"Anyways, where are we? When I got here it looks like some poor village from the Edo era. Then there are those fancy buildings over there," said Ichigo pointing towards Seireitei.

"We are currently in Rukongai. It is a compilation of the outer districts of the Soul Society. It is the poorest and freest area of the Soul Society, it also houses the most souls. The inner city; Seireitei, is where all of the Shinigami reside. It's also where Rukia's being held," said Yoruichi as the cat pointed towards the inner city.

"What are you waiting for then? Let's go!" yelled Ichigo as he took off running towards the city.

"Ichigo! Stop!" yelled Yoruichi as Ichigo charged towards Seireitei.

Ichigo leapt back the moment he heard Yoruichi's warning and just barely avoided being crushed by a massive circular wall that dropped out of the sky. As he leapt back Ichigo saw an equally enormous door in the wall.

"What the hell is that?" asked Ichigo.

"It's been such a long time… since someone tried to enter Seireitei without a pass," came a sudden voice in front of Ichigo. "I finally have something to do. I'll treat you real nice kid!" As the dust cleared, Ichigo saw a gigantic man with a long black ponytail in a shinigami outfit looming over him. "Jidanbou is always on duty!" The man slammed the end of a gigantic hand axe right next to Ichigo.

"Bring it on! Attack from whatever angle you want, kid!" said the man with a smirk.

"I see. You think that I am below you. Very well, thank you for the attack Jidanbou. I promise that you won't be able to retaliate afterwards," said Ichigo as he readied Zangetsu. With a mighty horizontal swung, he shattered Jidanbou's axe and the force of the swung caused the giant to fly backwards onto his back.

"I told you Jidanbou. You wouldn't be able to retaliate," said Ichigo as he placed Zangetsu back on his back.

"Che, that guy wasn't worth fighting at all. I hope there are more challenging opponents Ichigo," said Shiro in boredom.

"It's not over yet!" yelled Jidanbou as he whipped out another hand axe and swung it down towards Ichigo.

"Kurosaki!" yelled Ishida in warning.

"I told you… you wouldn't be able to retaliate," said Ichigo as he whirled around and smashed Jidanbou's second hand axe. "It's over. I win."

"Yes… I was wrong about you kid. It's your win. I'll open the gate," said Jidanbou as he turned around and slipped his hands underneath the gigantic door and slowly brought it up. As Jidanbou opened the gate Ichigo saw his face contort into a mask of pure terror. Ichigo looked inside to see a man with a creepy smile and silver hair tinted purple wearing a white Haori over the standard black Shinigami uniform.

"Who is this guy?" asked Ichigo, instantly weary of the man.

"The Captain of the Third Division… Ichimaru… Gin," breathed Jidanbou in fear.

"Yo Partner! This guy's worth killing," said Shiro his eyes wild with bloodlust and excitement. Ichigo couldn't deny that the same anticipation was building up inside him.

"Ah. This is not allowed," said Gin, his smile widening. With a blur Gin had cut off Jidanbou's arm with his own. "That's really such a shame. You are the gatekeeper. Opening the door is not your duty."

"The guardian opens the gate when he loses. It's only natural!" said Jidanbou through gritted teeth as the weight of the door fell upon his shoulders.

"What're talking about? When the guardian loses he still doesn't open the door. If the guardian loses then that means. He. Must. Be. Executed," said Gin with an even wider grin. At his words Ichigo leapt towards Gin putting all of his reiatsu into Zangetsu.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" asked Ichigo in a deadly quiet voice.

"Rip him into fucking shreds partner. I can't wait to see the bloodworks begin," said Shiro with a sadistic grin as he rubbed his hands together in anticipation .Zangetsu rolled his eyes at the sight.

"We beat Jidanbou fair and square and then you come in and start randomly attacking people? If you really want to fight that bad, I'll be your opponent," muttered Ichigo as he settled into an offensive sword position.

"Heh, you're such an interesting guy. Aren't you afraid of me?" asked Gin as he raised his wakazashi.

"Stop messing around Ichigo! Get out of there!" yelled Yoruichi.

"So… you're Kurosaki Ichigo?" asked Gin.

"You know me?" asked Ichigo as he raised Zangetsu into a defensive position while moving his left hand over his face.

"Yeah… Ikorose, Shinso," said Gin as his wakazashi suddenly extended towards Ichigo at lighting speeds. Before Ichigo could react the wakazashi had slammed into Ichigo and pushed him into Jidanbou, throwing both of them back out into Rukongai.

"Bye bye?" said Gin with a creepy wave as the door dropped back down.

"You idiot! What'd I tell you about using Hollowification during a real fight?" screamed Shiro.

"That you should never let the enemy get a shot on you because Hollowification makes you vulnerable the moment you try to do it," said Ichigo as he rolled his eyes.

"Bastard! I saw that," shouted Shiro as Zangetsu forcibly restrained his Inner Hollow.

"Great, I guess I'm just going to have to break the wall instead," muttered Ichigo as he raised Zangetsu over his head with both hands.

"Ichigo! Jidanbou's still missing an arm you impulsive idiot!" yelled Yoruichi as Chad, Ishida, and Orihime gathered around Jidanbou's wound.

"Oh, right," said Ichigo, lowering his sword. He felt very stupid at the moment, he had just been thrown into a giant without an arm and he had completely forgotten about it already.

"Whose on your list of people to kill right now?" asked Shiro as Ichigo walked over to Jidanbou.

"Kuchiki Byakuya, Abarai Renji, Ichimaru Gin, Hollows, some Shinigami…," said Ichigo as he mentally checked off his list.

"Then we should get going…," said Shiro.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

Then there was that fight with Ikkaku. The man sure knew how to fight. Ichigo had even picked up a couple new moves just by fighting with the guy. Next time he was going to break into Seireitei though, he was not going anywhere near the 11th Division.

"If you really are stronger than me what would have been the point in running away, when you would have caught up to me anyways," said Ichigo as he brushed sand off his robes. "However, if you're just a weakling, I can simply kick your ass and promptly move forwards. That's my logic anyways."

"I see… I apologize, you're not as dumb as I first thought," said the Shinigami with the SHAVED (not bald) head.

With that, the shinigami swung down towards Ichigo with his zanpakuto. Only his reflexes saved Ichigo from being split in two. Ichigo retaliated by swinging Zangetsu down on his opponent while the other Shinigami blocked with his sheath. As he tried unsuccessfully to push forwards with Zangetsu, his opponent swung at him with his zanpakuto. Ichigo used the man's sheath as a spring and leapt into the air to avoid the strike. As Ichigo was falling both fighters saw an opening and swung their zanpakuto forwards without hesitation.

"One question… what's your name?" said the Shinigami as both of them landed.

"Kurosaki Ichigo."

"Ichigo… is it? That's a nice name."

"Yeah? You're the first person to ever say that."

"Men with word "Ichi" in their names are often powerful and talented," said the Shinigami as he gave a bloody grin. "I am Captain of Squad 3, 11th Division, Madarame Ikkaku! Since we both have "Ichi" in our names, let's make this a great fight!"

"Whatever," said Ichigo with a smile. Both of them had a gash over their eyes.

"I like this guy Partner. This should be fun," said Shiro in anticipation. Ichigo nodded in agreement. This was a fight he could savor. Ichigo rubbed some of the blood out of his eye.

"Hey, you shouldn't do that in a fight. Only a rookie would take his hand off his sword," said Ikkaku.

"Ah? The blood was getting into my eye."

"The wound shouldn't have been that deep. Instead of constantly trying to keep the blood from your eyes, you should just find a way to stop it," said Ikkaku as he brought some paste out of his sheath and rubbed it over the wound on his face. "I can't tell if you're a real warrior or not. You're actions say that you're a rookie but the way you fight suggests otherwise. Who's your teacher?"

"Ah? He didn't teach me to much but I guess he's the one that gave me my Shinigami powers back. Urahara Kisuke," said Ichigo.

"I see… That means it would be rude of me to kill you too quickly," said Ikkaku as he slammed the hilt of his zanpakuto into his sheath. "Nobiro, Hozukimaru!" The sheath and sword transformed into a naginata with a wax wood shaft. The pommel also had a red horsehair tassle.

"Let's go Ichigo!" yelled Ikkaku as he started a complex serious of thrusts and slashes with both ends of Hozukimaru.

"Careful Ichigo. Just cause he's turned his sword into a spear doesn't mean that he has any more tricks up his sleeves," commented Shiro.

As Ichigo blocked a strike from the pommel of Hozukimaru Ikkaku smiled as he said, "Sakero, Hozukimaru." Ichigo's eyes widened as he saw the blade of the naginata swing around slash at him. As the two fighers broke apart Ichigo noticed a deep gash on his right arm.

"Remind me to teach you how to tap into my High-speed Regeneration abilities next," said Shiro knowing that Ichigo was not doing too well against Ikkaku.

"I don't think you'll be able to use your sword arm anymore and you're wrong about Hozukimaru's true form. Hozukimaru's true form is a three part staff," commented Ikkaku.

Ichigo started to wrap the cloth from Zangetsu's hilt around his sword arm, tying a knot when he was finished. "You're the one that won't be able to hold on to their sword after this next round," said Ichigo as he leapt towards Ikkaku. As quick as Ikkaku was, he was taken aback by Ichigo's surprise attack and didn't have time to do anything but raise Hozukimaru up in defense. Ichigo felt the wax wood shaft give way as he slashed Ikkaku.

"Give up Ikkaku. Your zanpakuto's broken. It's over," said Ichigo as he leapt back.

"Heh… you're strong Ichigo. I'm glad no one important is around. Watch closely… and don't tell a soul," said Ikkaku as he held out the broken halves of Hozukimaru in front of him. "Ban – "

"Sorry, I can't have you show me anything else. I've wasted too much time already," said Ichigo as he ripped his Hollow Mask over his face. "Bye bye," said Ichigo as he brought Zangetsu down over his head, unleashing a huge wave of reiatsu at the Third Seat.

"Oi, Partner! You don't have enough experience to use my techniques yet. Let me show you how to do stuff," said Shiro as Ichigo acquiesced and allowed Shiro control of his body.

Ikkaku was gasping heavily as he barely managed to get out of the way of the wave of spiritual energy. He knew that he was in over his head. That single attack had more reiatsu in it than he had left. Ikkaku looked up and saw Ichigo with a Hollow Mask, raising his left hand and pointing at him with his index finger, middle finger and thumb. Ichigo was pouring reiatsu into those fingers and it wasn't Shinigami reiatsu.

"Cero."

The crimson blast from the Cero missed him by centimeters. Ikkaku didn't know it but Ichigo's body still wasn't too accustomed to the large amount of Hollow reiatsu that a Cero required. The result was that the Cero wasn't as accurate as it should have been and Ikkaku was still alive. However, the movement from dodging Ichigo's first attack and caused Ikkaku's wounds to open up even more and the pain was enough to send him into the depths of unconsciousness. The last thing he saw was Ichigo advancing towards him with his Hollow Mask.

"Hey! I was about to finish him off! Why'd you suddenly take control again? Answer me damn it!" asked Shiro in annoyance.

"Shut up Shiro! We need information. I can't just randomly wander around Seireitei and hope to find Rukia. We must get information. I need you to give me some lessons on the fly. First, I want to know how to do that High-speed Regeneration thing you were talking about. Second, I need you to teach me how to use Cero," said Ichigo.

"Well, I already healed us when I was in control but if you really want to know how to use High-speed Regeneration…"

Ikkaku was good guy, if a little battle hungry. At least he had gotten the location of Rukia's prison from him.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

Then there was the fight with Renji. The guy was good no doubt about it. Anyone that could take a Cero head on and live was good in his books. He was glad that they had sorted out their differences; Renji was a good guy after he had gotten to know him. Bankai training really did break a lot of barriers between two former enemies.

"Abarai Renji," said Ichigo through a bloodthirsty grin as he looked at the 6th squad Vice-Captain blocking his way.

"Who is he?" asked Ganju pointing at Renji.

"That's Abarai Renji, Vice-Captain of the 6th Squad," stuttered Hanataro.

"I think I've finally got a hand on how to use Cero," said Ichigo to Shiro as he raised Zangetsu towards Renji.

"If you think you've mastered Cero then prove it. Destroy the Shinigami before. Show me your power Ichigo. Show him our power," said Shiro.

"Let's do this Zangetsu…,"

"I thought you'd never ask Ichigo," said Zangetsu with a small smile.

"Hoero, Zabimaru!" called Renji as his zanpakuto transformed.

"Sorry Renji, I can't waste any time on you," said Ichigo as he placed his left hand over his face.

"You can't waste time on me? You bast – " The rest of Renji's words were drowned out by the huge spike in reiatsu as Ichigo donned his Hollow Mask.

"Watch closely… and don't tell anyone else," said Ichigo as his voice echoed with Shiro's. He raised his left hand. "Cero."

Renji's mouth dropped as he saw the crimson Cero coming towards him. As he dodged it he felt the reiatsu in the air around him change and he knew that Ichigo had fired another Cero towards him. This time he had no choice but to raise Zabimaru and stand his ground and try to survive the blast. As the Cero engulfed him, Renji pour every last ounce of reiatsu into Zabimaru and actually started to slice into the Cero. With a mighty heave, Renji managed to deflect part of the blast. He was blown backwards when the rest of the Cero hit him. Renji screamed in pain as pure agony exploded over every inch of his body. As he looked down, Renji saw that Zabimaru had been shattered from the strain of trying to contain all of his reiatsu while meeting a Cero head on. When the Cero finally dissipated, Renji looked up to see Ichigo swinging Zangetsu down.

"Shit."

Renji silently cursed as he felt Zangetsu tear through the muscles in his left shoulder and torso. He was losing blood fast from the wounds the Cero and Ichigo himself had inflicted. The strange spiritual pressure coming from Ichigo with his mask on wasn't helping much either.

"Damn… it…," panted Renji as he grabbed onto Ichigo's robes for support. Ichigo pulled his mask off and the strange spiritual pressure that was preventing Renji from breathing disappeared. "I'm going to sound pathetic… but please, please save… Rukia!" gasped Renji as he let go of Ichigo's robes and fell to the ground.

"Yeah… I'll definitely save her. For you and me both," said Ichigo to Renji's unconscious form as Hanataro told them people were coming.

"Should we bring him with us?" asked Hanataro with a worried glance at Renji's broken and bleeding form.

"Nah, if we bring him with us they'd just trace his reiatsu. He's a Vice-Captain so it's probably really familiar to others," said Ichigo.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

Then, there was Kenpachi Zaraki. If ther was anyone Ichigo never wanted to fight again, it was him. The man was a monster, it was the only logical explanation. Ichigo swore the guy couldn't feel pain. He still didn't understand how he had walked; no, crawled away with a win.

"Not bad. Your stance looks good. There are a lot of openings but it's high in spiritual pressure. No wonder Ikkaku lost. Our Vice-Captains should be no match for you. I'd say you're currently at 70 – 80% of my own reiatsu," said Zaraki with a demonic glint in his eye.

"This guy ain't joking partner. You'll have to use the mask this time. It won't be for show like with Ikkaku and Renji. You'll need the mask just to survive. Don't waste your reiatsu with flashy stuff like Cero. Only use those moves when you're sure they'll hit. From the scars he's got, I'd say he's a berserker. He's probably learned to ignore pain so don't go for petty injuries. Save your strength and wait for an opening and go for major hits," said Shiro as Ichigo tightened his grip on Zangetsu.

"Sorry Shiro, but this time I'm not going to be borrowing your power," said Ichigo.

"Are you insane? Do you have a death wish? This guy will murder you. Murder!"

"If I'm always borrowing your power how will I get stronger? How will we get stronger? Your strength is a reflection of mine. If I'm always borrowing your power, I'll never get stronger and you'll never get stronger. We'll stagnate and then one day we'll meet someone we can't beat even with our combined powers and we'll die. I have to this so we surivive."

"Fine… but if I sense that we're about to die then I won't hesitate to take control."

"I wouldn't expect anything else."

"Are you ready? You've been standing there without talking for a minute now," said Zaraki with an amused tone.

"Ganju, Hanataro! Get out of here and find Rukia. I'll hold him off," barked Ichigo as he readied Zangetsu.

"That's more like it! Killing and being killed, they are just a way to pass the time," said Zaraki as his reiatsu sharpened instantly.

"Let's go wild," said Ichigo as licked his lips in anticipation.

"Zangetsu, I'm really going to need your help with this one."

"Don't worry Ichigo. I'm right beside you. Don't think that you are alone in this fight. When you fight we me and Shiro, you are never alone."

Ichigo grinned as he leapt towards Kenpachi and swung at his torso. Zangetsu and the reiatsu that Kenpachi released battling to see who was stronger finally the reiatsu released by Zaraki failed and Zangetsu nicked the battle hungry Captain's side.

"What the hell? I put everything into that attack and I barely got him!"

"Calm down Ichigo! Feel the reiatsu around you! Draw it into yourself. Let it flow into every fiber of your being. Then… strike him down," said Zangetsu as Ichigo panicked. Ichigo immediately forced himself to calm down and drew the latent spirit particles in the air into himself as he focused.

"Thanks for the wakeup call Zangetsu. I needed it."

"Partner, don't think of Zangetsu as only a sword. What did you think the cloth part was for? Decoration? Use the cloth part of the sword as well. Think of Zangetsu as a sickle with a chain attached. Zangetsu can be used for close or mid range combat," said Shiro adding whatever advice he could.

Ichigo heeded Shiro's advice and started using Zangetsu as a sickle and chain forcing Zaraki to dodge and slowly move backwards to avoid the deadly attacks. When Kenpachi was close, enough to a dead end without him realizing into Ichigo decided that this was the time to finish it. Ichigo threw Zangetsu one last time and watched as Kenpachi realized that he had been backed into a corner without realizing it. At that moment Ichigo charged forwards and yanked Zangetsu back. As he grasped Zangetsu's hilt he leapt into the air prepared to bring Zangetsu down on Kenpachi's head.

Kenpachi grinned as he realized Ichigo's strategy. It was clever, he'll give the kid that. "Kid fight's like Ikkaku. No wonder he liked fighting this guy so much." Kenpachi just grinned as he thrust his own zanpakuto upwards towards Ichigo as hard as he could.

Ichigo coughed up blood as he stopped suddenly. He was impaled upon Kenpachi's zanpakuto. Ichigo's vision started to blacken as he saw that his attack had been partially successful. Zangetsu was firmly imbedded in the right side of Kenpachi's torso.

"Shit," breathed Ichigo as he felt both Kenpachi and himself fall to the ground.

"Shit," muttere Shiro as Ichigo's Inner World began to darken.

"What… the hell… you cursing for? You… won…," said Kenpachi between breaths before he fainted from the loss of blood.

"Fuck… I can't die like this," grunted Ichigo as he slowly pulled Kenpachi's zanpakuto out of himself. When the blade was out of his torso Ichigo ripped part of Zangetsu's cloth of and wrapped it around his wound. As he finished he tried to get up and failed. "Damn it! Looks like… I'll have to crawl…," grunted Ichigo as he slowly crawled away from Kenpachi's bloodied form and towards the solitary white tower in the horizon.

~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~#~##~#~#~#~#~#

"I wish I could have told him how I really felt…"Kuchiki Rukia, Soukyoku Hill

Ichigo shuddered. That fight with Kenpachi had been the closest thing to a near death experience he had ever ha – correction, it was the second closest thing to a near death experience he had ever had. Nothing beats the real thing. Still he had to than Kenpachi if he ever got out of this alive, he had gotten stronger from that fight. Much, much stronger. A sharp echoing cry brought Ichigo's mind out of the past. Ichigo felt something hit Zangetsu.

"Yo, Rukia," said Ichigo as he looked down ath the person that had changed his life.

"Idiot! Why did you come back? You know you can't win against my brother. You'll really die this time. Go back!" yelled Rukia in frustration.

"You haven't changed a bit. That's exactly what I thought you'd say when I showed up," said Ichigo with a chuckle. If Rukia wasn't forcibly restrained she would've kicked him in the shin. Hard. A sharp cry brought both of them out of their minds and back into the present situation. Kikou was backing up for a second charge.

"I hope it tastes like chicken!" said Shiro his golden eyes practically shinning with excitement. He looked exactly like a five year old boy with a new toy. Well… a five year old boy that also happened to be able to scare the living daylights out of most people.

"Ah? You're attacking again? Good, let's see what you've got," said Ichigo as he readied Zangetsu with a small smile. Ichigo ignored Rukia's cries for him to get out of the way. As Ichigo was about to charge the phoenix he saw a thick string of 'rope' restrain the phoenix. He looked down and saw two captains standing near what looked like a tower shield. One of the captains was from the bridge where he had faced Kuchiki Byakuya for the second time. Suddenly the rope around the phoenix tightened and the flames disappeared as the gigantic halberd was shattered. Ichigo shrugged as he leapt onto the Arbor of Soukyoku.

"Wow, you're actually acting like a warrior today. My blood's getting excited," said Shiro.

"I wonder why you put up with him Ichig," said Zangetsu with a sigh as he tried to block out the battle hungry Hollow.

"Let's destroy this thing," said Ichigo as he looked down at the execution stand with a discerning eye.

"Ichigo you can't do that. This is made of – ," started Rukia.

"Just be quiet and watch. You'll miss it if you blink," said Ichigo as he stabbed Zangetsu into the execution stand. "Getsuga… Tenshou!"

With a loud bang and a flash of light the Arbor of Soukyoku would never see another execution.

"Stop telling me to leave you here and run away. I'm not going to do that. You know it and I know it," said Ichigo as he caught Rukia by the waist before she could fall.

"Ichigo… what do you plan to do from here? There's no way we can get out of this safely…," said Rukia starting to think about the consequences of Ichigo's actions.

"We kill. I'll kill anyone that tries to hurt you. Then I'm going to get everyone out of here safely. A lot of my, our friends risked their lives for you. I'm going to get all of them out of here," said Ichigo confidently. A sudden cry from down below announced the arrival of none other than Abarai Renji. With a single Flash Step Ichigo was next to him.

"Get out of here. Don't let go of her even if you die. I'll hold them off," said Ichigo as he turned around. As Renji carried Rukia and ran, three Vice-Captains charged towards him. They released at the same time. Ichigo grinned as he dodged their blows and knocked them out without Zangetsu. As he knocked out the last Vice-Captain, he grabbed Zangetsu and stabbed behind him. A surprised gasp told him he had reacted correctly. As he turned around, a surprised Kuchiki Byakuya had been stabbed by Zangetsu.

"I told you, I can see your every step Kuchiki Byakuya!" said Ichigo as he saw the noble's blood running off of Zangetsu.

"Why? Why do you so persistently try to save Rukia?" asked Byakuya as he pressed his free hand to the wound in his side.

"Because she changed my life. Because she was the one who gave me the power to protect the people I care about. She's given me everything. This is the least I can do. You ask me why I want to save Rukia? It's because I love her, unlike you," said Ichigo as he leapt backwards.

"I see. No wonder you try to save her. Then you'll forgive her for trying to dissuade you. If your conviction is this strong then that means that neither of us is willing to back down," said Byakuya as he raised his zanpakuto.

"I've been waiting for this for a long time Byakuya!"