Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach.

Spoiler Alert: As usual, the manga/anime up through the Deicide arc.

Author's note: I have gotten some questions about the source material for the story. I have, for the most part, kept to canon material for stuff that it covers. I have made mistakes, and corrected most of them when they were pointed out, though I did leave a couple in. A reviewer reminded me, for example, that Ishida had told Ichigo about the 'no-contact-with-shinigami' deal he'd made with his father while the human boys were on the way to Hueco Mundo, so Ichigo would have known about it. I am quite fond of the 'you never told me how' joke in Chapter 3, so I didn't go back and change it. In a future one-shot, I may have a 'whups, I forgot' scene.

For the stuff that has not been covered in the manga, but which characters other than Ichigo could reasonably be expected to know, I filled in the blanks with my own material. Probably the biggest instance of that would be Isshin's history; I made him a Shiba clansman and the former vice-captain and captain of the Seventh, who took command after Love was hollowified, joined the Royal Guard five decades ago, and deserted when he met Masaki. I deliberately did not touch on the question of whether or not he had his powers when he did so; there's a lot of fan speculation that Isshin had used the Final Getsuga Tensho himself at some point. There are plenty of other places where I filled in the blanks; the vague timeline Gin gave for Aizen's takeover of Hueco Mundo and his construction of the Hogyoku is another example. If any of this stuff is contradicted by new material, I will decide whether to go back to change it on a case-for-case basis, depending on how much it affected my story. Isshin will always be a Shiba.

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The incomplete Oken shattered instantly- and when it did, all of the power that it had contained was released back to where it came from. The spirit particles from the environment flashed outwards in a blindingly bright explosion, and ichigo sailed through the air to land in a crumpled heap on the ground.

The fragments of the King's Key that had been his soul also needed somewhere to go, and also began to funnel back into their original container, in the reverse of the original process.

This time, Ichigo was able to scream.

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The only blessing was that it was still much easier for his soul to return to its true form than it was to split it apart- it only took a couple of minutes for the shattered fragments of the King's Key to return to their original state of being, even though its creation had probably taken almost an hour.

Of course, that also meant that the sensation was compressed into considerably less time.

-his sanity started slipping as his mind began to collapse under the sheer unending pain, and his instincts began to take over, and he knew that if he lost himself this time he wouldn't ever come back, because if his mind shattered there wouldn't be anything to come back too, and as he clung onto his sanity with his fingernails he realized distantly that if he hadn't already won the battle with his instincts once he wouldn't have even had a chance this time-

The pain stopped, and Ichigo relaxed, wheezing through his abused throat.

He didn't know how many minutes he lay there, simply breathing. Tensa Zangetsu, an extension of his soul, had displaced Muramasa in his right hand with the chain wrapped firmly around his arm. His coat, an extension of his reiatsu, was still completely gone, and he lay on the ground bare-chested and ungloved. He could feel the flow of reiatsu from his soul filling up his reserves of power, though, and knew that it was a temporary condition.

His attention was drawn back in the direction he'd come from at the sound of light footsteps off to his left. Tosen. He'd forgotten about the final traitor, understandably, and Ichigo was in no condition to fight anyone right now. Fortunately, the man was blind and Ichigo's reiatsu couldn't be sensed. He quieted his breathing, and used all of his strength to shove himself to his feet with both swords.

"Do you know what injustice you have perpetrated today, Kurosaki Ichigo? Do you know how many years of effort you have destroyed? You will pay with your life."

He didn't have the reiatsu to manifest his new ally, or to fire off a Getsuga Tensho or a Cero. His arms were weak enough that even raising his swords was a strain. He couldn't flash-step or run; in fact, he could barely walk. But his steps were silent, and his breathing quiet, and to every sense but direct sight, he was the ghost that Tosen Kaname had once named him.

"You won't answer? Do you believe that because I cannot feel you, you can hide?" Tosen raised his left hand across his face in a very familiar gesture, one Ichigo had performed a thousand times. His unseen opponent , still staggering close enough to try to strike, stiffened as black streams of power curled around his hand and spread across his body, and a giant vortex of wind and dust surrounded the black column of power that sprung up around the former captain of the Ninth. When it cleared, Tosen stood before him with a dead-white mask, broken only by the black stripe down the middle and without any eye, mouth, or nose-holes. Oddly, pieces of armor matching his sleeveless white overcoat now adorned his chest and shoulder.

"I have trained unceasingly for the past weeks, Kurosaki, to gain the power that Aizen-sama promised me would be mine. You cannot hide from me." He raised his sword. "Suzumushi Hyakushiki. Grillar Grillo!"

/"You accepted Hollowification, and died in your resureccion form. In that form, you could see."/

Ichigo stabbed forward desperately, but was pushed back as Tosen's reiatsu exploded outwards and greatly increased, coalescing into a dark, furred, vaguely fly-shaped body.

Ichigo stared in disbelief as Tosen began laughing.

"I can see! I can see! So this is the sky! So this is dirt!" He turned his obscenely distorted face, with a humanoid chin and giant bug-eyes, towards Ichigo. "So this is you, Kurosaki Ichigo."

'Lizard' was fine. He could have had it so much worse.

Ichigo spoke for the first time since Aizen's death. "Go into Bankai. It might make you less ugly. Given what you've got to work with, though…"

"I have no need of any shinigami power to seek out my justice." Tosen shot forward, far faster than Ichigo could guard against, and sent Ichigo flying far back with deep claw marks in his chest. The wounds began healing, but incredibly slowly. "You are weak, Kurosaki."

Ichigo pushed himself to his knees one final time, with everything that he had left. He looked up, at the air behind Tosen, and smiled.

"I'm stronger than you can imagine."

Tosen approached on foot until his shadow loomed over to the kneeling boy, and two brilliant green Ceros began forming in front of his closed eyes. "Bravado to the last. Shall we end this, Kurosaki?"

As he released his missiles, though, he suddenly twisted to the side, sending the Ceros to impact the ground to Ichigo's left as a brilliant white arrow arced through the space where his head had been, as the last Quincy raced out of the rip in the air next his father.

"Kurosaki!"

"Ichigo! Are you all right?"

As Kurosaki Isshin charged at him, Tosen retreated from the vicinity of the orange-haired boy he had been about to kill. "Aizen-sama told me in great detail how I died, Shiba Isshin. I will not forget myself so easily this time."

"Guys…" Ichigo bowed his head, and then snorted. "What kept you?"

"You're welcome, Kurosaki," Ishida snapped back, forming another arrow on his bow. Renji, already in Bankai, and Chad with a set of white armor on his left arm that Ichigo had never seen before had been the next out of the Garganta. The non-combatants followed them, and Neliel brought up the rear.

"Where's Aizen?" Renji called out, circling to Tosen's right.

"Dead, of course. Why are you even asking?" Ichigo hollered back as Orihime, Rukia, and (he was relieved to see) Dondochakka and Pesche carrying his unconscious sisters ran over to him. Nel flanked Tosen's other side, while Chad joined Ishida in front of him.

"Declare, Gamuza!" The green-haired woman stretched her sword out in front of her and her surroundings exploded into an orb of pink light, which cleared to reveal that her lower half had turned into the body of a large beige goat that stopped abruptly at Nel's white-clad waist. Her shoulders, arms, and hands had gained armor, and the goat horns of her unbroken mask had grown considerably.

Tosen was surrounded, but quickly took to the skies to buy himself some more room. He dodged arrow after arrow as he dive-bombed Ichigo's position in rage.

"Lanzador Verde!"

"Getsuga Tensho!"

The monster dodged the black scythe of power, so similar to Ichigo's own, that came from Engetsu's blade, but was unable to completely avoid the spinning white lance that clipped one of his wings and sent him into an uncontrolled spiral- a spiral that was promptly intercepted by the bone head of Hihio Zabimaru, sending him crashing into the ground.

"Did that do it?" Renji asked, peering through the dust.

"It doesn't feel like it," Ishida answered, feeling the Vizard's reiatsu.

In the dust, Tosen began laughing. " 'Do it?'" As the dust cleared, they were able to see his wing regrow and the twisted bones caused by the jaws of the snake reform. "Your attacks cannot touch me."

"High-speed regeneration. What a pain," Isshin muttered.

"Aim for the head," Ishida called out, "or use an attack that will destroy enough of his internal organs that he cannot regenerate."

The fight restarted as Nel charged at him, her recovered lance held jousting-style, and he sonido'd away to avoid her. She proved that her Resurreccion had improved her own already-formidable speed as she pursued him, and in his second minute pause scored a solid hit just above his hollow hole. He grabbed the hand holding the lance and casually tossed her away. She landed in an awkward roll before staggering to all four feet.

Tosen had gotten considerably closer, and Ishida lined up a final glowing blue arrow. He could feel the strain on the bracelet as he aimed at the back of Tosen's head… but Isshin flashed into his line of fire to let loose another Getsuga Tensho

"Move, Kurosaki-san!" but the bug-man had moved to avoid the much closer Isshin, and the opportunity was lost as he took to the air to attack Renji again.

"I had the shot!" Ishida yelled furiously at the man who had blocked him.

"It's not one you should have taken," the former captain answered grimly.

Ishida frowned. Isshin was too young, surely, to have Ukitake's experience in fighting his people…

"Talk to your father when you get back, Uryuu. He'll have some answers for you." Isshin ignored the archer's widened eyes as he continued. "Chad, stay here until Renji drives him back over. Uryuu, take the right, I'll take the left. When I signal, take him above and below. I'll hit the center."

"That might be a problem," Ichigo said grimly from behind them, finally managing to stagger to his feet.

"Los Nueve Aspectos!" On the other side of the battlefield, glowing circles of green light managed to circle directly around Hihio Zabimaru's neck, and Renji's Bankai was destroyed as he collapsed to his knees with a groan, accompanied by Rukia's shout of dismay. She drew her sword and brushed off Orihime's attempt at restraint to circle the battlefield and stand between him and Tosen, who had turned away as soon as Renji was out of the fight and stalked back towards Ichigo, still intent on his revenge.

"Get ready," Isshin said grimly.

"Lanzador Verde!" As he ducked to avoid the attack from behind, Chad ran forward with his left arm glowing, throwing a punch at Tosen.

"El Directo!"

The former man just laughed and jumped above it, but that took him directly into the line of the arrow that Ishida had released, and his newly-formed eyes widened as he twisted frantically to avoid the glowing light.

He was unable to dodge a fourth time, and Engetsu pierced through the top of his mask.

"Getsuga Tensho."

The crescent of black light sliced cleanly through his entire body, and Tosen finally closed his eyes for good.

It was over.

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As the surge of adrenaline faded and exhaustion and a soul-deep ache set in, Ichigo staggered and nearly fell… and then did fall, as Orihime came automatically forward to catch him from behind and he twisted to avoid her touch on his still-bare arms and torso. She was too close, and he was too tired to have complete control over his movements right now, and he could easily kill any of them with just a flick of his hand-

"Don't!" he snapped from the ground, and winced as he saw Orihime's hurt expression. He softened his tone. "Sorry. But don't… you can't touch me right now."

"You can barely walk, Kurosaki," Ishida pointed out, ever-practical, while the rest of the group came to stand around them, with Rukia supporting an exhausted Renji, "and we cannot stay here much longer. The time currents are always shifting."

Isshin unwrapped the white material tied in a knot around his left shoulder, and unfolded it to reveal an aged captain's haori with the number 7 on the back. "Here. Put it on, and lean on me."

Rukia coughed to hide her laughter while Renji started snickering. "That ain't gonna work for long. Hitsugaya-taicho's gonna need a replacement after last night."

Ichigo shrugged a bit sheepishly as he let the sword in his right hand hang from his waist. He used the other to push himself to his knees, then paused, remembering… remembering a hand on his arm stopping him from interfering with a sword's retaliation against his wielder.

He knew he didn't have enough reiatsu in him to manifest the spirit, but Muramasa hadn't preferred that method anyway. What had the command been? An eager whisper supplied the answer.

"Yukojochu, Muramasa."

The first sign of his presence in the outer world was, oddly enough, laughter that Ichigo had heard once before, when Muramasa redirected Ichigo's strongest attack and added his own power to break the Soutaicho's barrier, and the triumph in his eyes as Muramasa appeared in a burst of purple light and blue mist matched and exceeded his expression that day.

"Is there any part of you now that pities me?"

Ichigo's lips twitched up. "No. Thank you."

Muramasa knelt to offer Ichigo his shoulder as support, as Senbonzakura would have done for Kuchiki Byakuya after a fight that would never happen. "As Zangetsu once did, I will choose the contest. Bankai training will take you far longer than three days, Kurosaki Ichigo."

Ichigo shrugged as Renji started laughing outright. He didn't particularly need another Bankai, so that wasn't a problem, and the zanpakuto spirit had earned pretty much whatever reward he chose to name. He looked at Karin and Yuzu, still being carried by Pesche and Dondochakka.

"Are they all right?" They seemed unharmed, but he wouldn't have thought it was physically possible to sleep through all this.

"They'll be fine with some rest," Isshin answered. "I am not skilled at healing kido, but I could make sure that they slept deeper to recover faster than they might otherwise have done. Son, who is this, and what is going on?"

Oh. Right. Everything had moved so fast that none of the hostages would know about the most recent developments.

"This is Muramasa. I went to find him yesterday. He… decided… to become my zanpakuto. I used him to kill Aizen." He hefted the sword in his left hand in demonstration, and then glanced at the spirit he was leaning on. Carrying the weapon was becoming awkward. "How do I make this go away?"

Muramasa's face was turned away from him, and his voice was carefully bland as he replied, "Because you already carry a sword, and one that is unsuited to dual-blade fighting, it seemed reasonable to have my form be incorporeal until you enter Shikai. Merely seal my power, and it will disappear."

This time all three shinigami began snickering and even Ishida was hiding a smile as Ichigo stared at the new resident of his soul. "You know damn well I'm always in Shikai, don't you?"

Muramasa raised his right arm, the one Ichigo was not leaning on, and a sheath materialized in his hand in the same manner as his sword usually did. He handed it to his wielder with a solemn face and laughter still dancing in his eyes. "Until the day you learn control, Ichigo."

Ichigo shook his head in disbelief as he sheathed the weapon in his left hand and hung it from the belt of his hakama. Deciding to leave the matter of his unmanageable reiatsu for another time, he turned to Nel, who had dropped out of Resurreccion. "Thank you for your help."

She nodded in acknowledgement, face solemn. "Are you certain Aizen-sama is dead?"

"Yes." This time, there had been nothing to save him.

She bowed her head slightly. "I am… glad. It simplifies things. Do you need help returning to Soul Society?"

Ichigo gauged his recovering reiatsu levels. His coat was slowly regenerating; his left arm had become covered in half a sleeve in the last few minutes of the fight. "I can get us home, I think, but they're not going to be able to walk on my reiatsu."

"I can form the pathway," Isshin said, "but you'd be welcome, if you want to come, Neliel."

"No. We have no desire to travel to a land full of shinigami," the green-haired woman answered, glancing at her adopted brothers, "and I have missed the desert. We will leave you here."

Ichigo shrugged. "See you in Hueco Mundo, then. I have some unfinished business there."

"We have unfinished business," his father said. "And I suspect that your cousins and Ukitake will want to accompany us."

"What?" Rukia asked, frowning. Ichigo winced.

"Can we talk about this later?" He'd have to figure out what he'd planned on keeping hidden that the shinigami knew about; there was his defeat of Ulquiorra and what had happened to Shiba Kaien's soul, but had there been anything else?

"Until next time, then, and good luck. Please give my love to Karin and Yuzu." Nel parted the air in front of her to show the whirling blackness of a Garganta, and stepped into it as Pesche and Dondochakka handed their sleeping burdens to Chad and Isshin and followed her with jovial goodbyes.

"Come visit!" Isshin hollered after them, and as the Garganta closed they could see Nel's quick smile as she turned and waved cheerfully.

"What should we do with Tosen-san?" Orihime asked, looking at the body of the former captain of the Ninth, which had returned to human form in death. "Komamura-san wouldn't want us to let him just fade away."

"Send him off," Chad answered simply. He gestured to the currents of time swirling in the distance. Renji nodded in agreement, and after Chad had handed Yuzu off to Orihime he and the red-head began hauling the corpse to its final destiny. As they shifted the body, however, a small blue-purple rock rolled out of the pocket of the white overrobe.

The orb bounced a couple of times and rolled a bit before coming to a stop with all eyes fixed on it.

"Ah." Tosen had not attacked Ichigo immediately; he now knew what the other man had done first. Aizen must have been carrying it with him when he died.

"What should we do with it?" Rukia asked, staring at the object that Urahara had placed in her soul.

"Toss it with him," Renji spat. "Get rid of the damn thing for good."

"It would come back, like a bad penny," Isshin answered wearily. "If that would have destroyed the Hogyoku, Kisuke would have done it a century ago, and I for one am not willing to test the Research and Development Associations' theory that travel through time in that manner cannot change the past."

"Can we give it back to Urahara-san?" Orihime asked tentatively.

"Because he did such a good job with it the first time." Renji had barely met the man, but hadn't been impressed by his morals so far.

Ichigo dropped his arm from Muramasa's shoulder and knelt to pick the Hogyoku up. Urahara hadn't been able to destroy his creation, but as his successor in the Twelfth would loudly attest, Ichigo was good at breaking rocks with his power. He gathered his power into his left hand as though he were going to cast a Getsuga Tensho, the same way that he had destroyed the memory projector that Mayuri had first given him.

As he began to let it flow into the rock, though, it extended dark tendrils of power that twisted around his finger.

: fear :

Ichigo would deny until the day he died and for all of his existence thereafter that the noise he made as his hand jerked was a scream.

"What's wrong?" Renji asked, peering at it.

"It's alive!" Ichigo poked the Hogyoku with his finger cautiously, and then when it remained quiescent picked it up with his newly-clothed right hand.

"Aizen implied that it was in your memories, but Kisuke said it wasn't awake yet," Isshin said, coming to stand next to Muramasa and looking down at Ichigo's palm. Ichigo tossed the purple rock at him, and Isshin caught it with an undignified yelp.

"Be careful!" he snapped.

"I thought you said it wasn't awake yet?" Ichigo taunted. "I was going to push a Getsuga Tensho into it, but it started moving."

His father snorted and attempted to do the same thing Ichigo had just tried, but the power that Isshin released into the stone was simply absorbed without any visible effect. Isshin shook his head and tossed it back to Ichigo.

"Nothing."

"Look!" Ichigo pushed his own un-senseable reiatsu into it, considerably more gently, and it came alive once more.

: ! :

"Is it reacting because it has met you before, or because even now your power is greater than your fathers?" Ishida prodded the feelers wrapped around Ichigo's gloved hand cautiously, but they showed no reaction to his touch.

'Why are you awake?' At his wielder's nonverbalized question, Muramasa stiffened and glanced at Ichigo in surprise.

: ? :

Too complicated, Ichigo realized. It didn't seem smart enough to answer questions. He thought back to what he knew of it, and could only remember Aizen's random transformations in the middle of battle.

/ "The will of the Hogyoku has finally begun to understand my heart."/

Well, it certainly wasn't able to understand anything else…

: grief :

Ichigo's hand clenched tighter around the rock in surprise as he felt it taste the memory, which he had automatically brought to the forefront of his mind.

It… it was sad that Aizen was dead.

It missed its master.

He shook his head slightly. It didn't matter. The Hogyoku had been the catalyst for the entire war. It had transformed countless hollows into Arrancar, distorted eight captains and lieutenants into Vizards, healed Aizen repeatedly, made him into as great a monster on the outside as he was internally, and when even that hadn't been enough to save Aizen, had sent them back in time. If what he had just felt from the rock had been correct, the only thing that could have removed the Hogyoku from Aizen in the original timeline would have been Aizen choosing to give it up.

Even worse, although he didn't have any idea how Urahara had constructed the original Hogyoku he'd implanted into Rukia, half of the Hogyoku came from the one that Aizen had made, and he had fed it parts of the souls of hundreds of people in an effort to complete it. It needed to be destroyed.

"It doesn't matter," Rukia said in response to Ishida's question, in an unwitting echo of Ichigo's own thoughts. "Can you break it, Ichigo?"

Ichigo gathered his power once again, and let everything that he had recovered and everything that Muramasa willingly fed to him flow into his hand. Though the observers could not feel his spirit pressure, they could see his power as a black shimmer around his hand, focusing on the small dark globe and the tendrils surrounding his fingers.

: fear :

… what kind of being would serve its master that loyally, no matter what the master asked it to do? What kind of being would give its master everything he desired that was in its power to give?

: ? :

What form would that being take?

'Alright. Come.'

: ! :

"No. I can't." Ichigo withdrew his power, and the Hogyoku fell asleep once more. "I'll give it to Jii-san, I guess. He can rename it and stick it with the royal artifacts or something. Come on, let's bury him and get out of here."

As his friends hauled Tosen's body to the nearest current of time, Muramasa, the only being able to sense the flow of Ichigo's reiatsu, came up to help him stand once again.

"You did not actually attempt to destroy it," he murmured quietly enough that only Ichigo could hear him.

Ichigo just shrugged in reply.

"I find myself sympathizing with Zangetsu. 'Far too easily, and far too freely', indeed."

"I'm giving it away," Ichigo answered defensively. "It's not like it'll be going around Karakura granting wishes again."

"You invited it in. Do you think it will choose to leave?"

"You didn't." Muramasa didn't exactly have any right to complain.

The auburn-haired spirit paused, then nodded shortly in acknowledgement. "Kouga's inner world was a silent place. Once you have split your soul again, the difference will be… interesting."

Once he had… Ichigo froze. Muramasa raised his eyebrows as he felt the change in Ichigo's grip.

"It hadn't occurred to you?"

No, and given that everything Muramasa knew about the Hogyoku had come from a night of skimming Ichigo's memories, it really should have. Urahara had originally been trying to break down the barriers between hollow and shinigami.

What it could break, it could probably construct.

It woke up in his hand once more. The impression he got was now more of a sleepy grumble.

: ? :

'I want to reform them.'

: ? :

He brought memories of his zanpakuto and his hollow to the forefront of his mind, letting their lives flash before its eyes.

: ? :

He gave it a newly-recovered memory, one in which his basest survival instincts summoned Orihime's Shun Shun Rikka to split his soul into three pieces in order to live.

: ? :

"It's not working. It doesn't get what I want it to do."

"What a being desires with all of their heart is not necessarily what they should have," Koga's former zanpakuto said from painful experience, "and what they need, they may not truely desire."

Ichigo sighed and gave up as his friends returned. It could only understand his desires, and there was a significant portion of him that did not want to split his soul again. He couldn't even blame it entirely on the power that clung to his heart. He was whole, and it felt right. How could he let himself go back?

"Come on. Everyone'll still be back at the valley waiting for Nel to bring everyone home." Ichigo raised his left hand, now fully covered in a sleeve and with tattered bits of his bankai coat regrowing from the shoulder, and ripped the air open in front of them. He dropped his arm from Muramasa's shoulder, and his new sword disappeared as he walked into the Garganta.

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"Garganta formation sensed at the location the Senkaimon formed," the captain of the Twelfth Division reported clinically.

"Reign over the frosted heavens, Hyorinmaru!"

The oldest captain in the Gotei 13 grunted in acknowledgement at the message, and glanced at the youngest. "Everyone knows who you may be protecting. No-one will question you if you make a different choice."

"He would do the same for me." Hitsugaya blurred away, racing to reach the center of the valley before the Garganta opened.

"Reduce all of creation to ashes, Ryuujin Jakka."

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Ichigo stepped out of the void between the worlds and blinked in surprise as Hitsugaya Toshiro flashed to a stop in front of him, breathing heavily.

"Bankai. Daigurin Hyorinmaru."

As the Garganta closed behind the group, two wings of ice sprouted from Hitsugaya's back, and a small- too small- dome of flame sprouted over the newcomers.

"Sennen Hyoro!"

"Toshiro, what the hell-" Even Ichigo found the heat uncomfortable, and as melting pillars of ice grew up behind them and surounded the rest of the emerging party, he realized that the white-haired boy's presence was the only thing keeping the more fragile members of their group alive.

"I'm not the one you should be talking to, Kurosaki," he snapped back, taking out a standard-issue communicator and pressing a button before tossing it at Ichigo.

Ichigo's frown deepened further. "What the hell's going on, Jii-san?"

The Soutaicho's rumble was made tinny by the speakers of the device. "Inoue Orihime. Ishida Uryuu. Kurosaki Ichigo. Three people capable of seeing through Kyoka Suigetsu's illusions, and all three were conveniently removed from the Seireitei this morning. Prove that you are Kurosaki Ichigo, or I will know that you are Aizen Sosuke and will kill you where you stand."

This was the second time that day, and this time there was no indestructible construct to destroy. "How do you expect me to do that?"

"Kurosaki Ichigo would know the answer to that question."

Ichigo blinked at the decidedly unhelpful reply as, behind him, his sisters felt the heat despite their father's spell and everything Hitsugaya could do and finally began stirring. Toshiro met his confused gaze and snapped, "Give him something he'll believe, Kurosaki, or we'll all die here!"

Something he'd believe…

/ "A password I would believe. Remember the name."/

He sucked at remembering names, but it had been something common, something that at the time he hadn't thought he could forget-

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Yamamoto sighed as the seconds ticked by. That was it, then. He had given the impostor long enough. He spared a second of regret for the young prodigy whose belief in Kurosaki now meant he was protecting the man he hated, and for Kurosaki's family and friends, who were almost certainly dead, and most of all for the death of hope, a hope for the future of an idealistic orange-haired child with more potential than he'd seen in a thousand years. He raised his flaming sword, and prepared to enter the final release, and summon the fires of the earth, and once again reduce all of creation to ashes-

"Yamamoto Kasumi."

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The dome of flame opened from the top down, and the entire group relaxed as distant cheers from the shinigami surrounding the valley were carried towards them on the wind. Ichigo glanced at Hitsugaya, who must have believed strongly enough that Ichigo had won his fight that he had been willing to join them in the fire. "Thanks, Toshiro."

Hitsugaya automatically opened his mouth, hesitated, and then simply said, "Welcome back, Kurosaki."

"Ichi-niii?"

Hitsugaya visibly paled and retreated behind Renji as two bodies hit his mostly-regrown coat from behind, and Ichigo froze, not daring to move a muscle.

"Nii-san, you're all right! What did you do to your hair?"

Ichigo cautiously, so cautiously, raised his hand and let the Hogyoku still nestled in his right palm connect with his reiatsu.

: ? :

'I want to be able to touch my sisters.'

The hair that Yuzu had commented on began to shorten. The chain coiled around his waist began to disappear link by link while the hilt and guard of the black daito altered shape, and his coat regrew its left sleeve as the glove that surrounded the Hogyoku disappeared. Unlike the last times, it was a painless process.

The return of his reiatsu was felt across the valley. In the circle of current and former shinigami that was closing on the group, Urahara frowned and doubled his pace. Yoruichi easily caught up with him.

Ichigo ignored the sulfurous cursing in his inner world and turned around, ruffling Karin's hair with one hand and pulling Yuzu's face into his stomach with the one holding his daito. "I told you it'd be alright."

Karin scowled. "Idiot. Don't ever do that again."

"I won't." He smiled at her gently. It would never come to that again. If anyone so much as thought about threatening his sisters he would obliterate them.

Karin ignored the shiver that ran down her spine and nodded. "Good."

"You guys ready to go home?"

"Our home?" Yuzu asked hopefully. "Everyone was very nice, but school will be starting soon!"

"Yeah. Lemme get rid of this." He turned away just as the watchers reached the center of the valley to mob the newcomers. The Vizards split off to join Isshin and Chad, except for Mashiro, who bounced over to Karin and Yuzu. As soon as Kukaku and Ganju ran up, they went to meet their uncle for the first time in more than half a century. Renji and Rukia joined the captain of the Sixth, and Isane and Hanataro went with Orihime and Ishida while Unohana began a more thorough examination of everyone than Isshin had been able to manage. Ichigo himself was subject to congratulations, backslaps, and questions from pretty much everyone as he pushed through the crowd to where Yamamoto stood watching from afar. Urahara began to separate himself from the mass to follow him, but the sweep of Yamamoto's cane was enough to discourage anyone else in the crowd.

"Kurosaki Ichigo." The head of the Gotei 13 stood leaning on his cane, with his eyes in their typical squint. "Did events play out as you hoped?"

Ichigo scratched his head slightly sheepishly. "Not really, no. He knew the collar couldn't work. He just needed to get me there. He figured that he could use me instead of the people in Karakura to make a new Oken. When he-"

He was cut off by the sudden surge of Yamamoto's reiatsu as the old man's eyes fully opened. Behind them, the burgeoning celebration was cut off as everyone turned to find the new threat. They were clearly able to hear Ichigo quickly say "He didn't finish! He didn't know about Muramasa, and I killed him as soon as he got close enough, and broke the-"

"Be. Silent." The order carried the weight of a thousand years of guardianship behind it. Ichigo blinked and shut up.

The hands clenched around the head of the Soutaicho's staff were white-knuckled with rage. "Follow me, Kurosaki."

He disappeared. Ichigo followed his reiatsu and joined him in midair far out of any conceivable earshot. A green-coated figure flashed into stillness next to him as Ichigo faced Yamamoto.

"Leave, Urahara Kisuke. This is no concern of yours."

"I beg your pardon, Soutaicho, but the object Kurosaki-san is in possession of is in fact my responsibility."

"Oh…" Ichigo glanced at the Hogyoku. In the wake of Yamamoto's reaction he'd almost forgotten it. He tossed it to Yamamoto. "Here. I thought you could put it with the royal artifacts. You can change the name to the King's Rock or something. You OK with that, Geta-boshi?"

"An elegant solution, Kurosaki-san." Urahara pulled his had a bit farther over his eyes. "I chatted with Ishida-san briefly in the crowd. A pity you were unable to destroy it."

Ichigo shrugged.

"… if I may suggest an additional security measure, Soutaicho, a weight sensor that sounds an alarm when the Hogyoku alters position would be prudent. It showed the ability to return to Aizen's hand when he called it, and although he is dead it would be wise to guard against the use of that ability." Urahara glanced at Ichigo pointedly. "Don't you agree, Kurosaki-san?"

"… yeah. Yeah, that would be a good idea." Ichigo sighed, running his hand through his hair again. "I'll need it again eventually. I can't … I can't stay this way forever."

The cursing that had continued in his soul stopped abruptly. Ichigo was reluctantly impressed- he didn't think the hollow had repeated himself once.

"How often?" Yamamoto asked, who had calmed down enough to close his eyes once more.

"Once a year?" Ichigo was instantly offered a different suggestion, but it wasn't the voices in his head that he was bargaining with. Yamamoto nodded curtly once.

"It will be better guarded than you were capable of, Urahara Kisuke. Leave."

Urahara glanced at Ichigo in concern, and only left after Ichigo jerked his head back in the direction they had come from.

"Who else knows about Aizen's attempt?"

Ichigo frowned and thought about it. "Anyone Aizen told, I guess, but Tosen's dead and I don't think any of the Arrancars would care. I haven't told my friends what happened yet- we got distracted by the Hogyoku after the fight with Tosen. I just told them I used Muramasa to kill him."

Yamamoto relaxed slightly. The damage could be contained, then. "Describe the entire confrontation with Aizen."

Ichigo did so, in as much detail as he could remember, and almost wishing he still had his memory projector. When he had finished, Yamamoto nodded slightly. Muramasa and the Oken- two wrongs had added to make a right, and only Kurosaki could have created an equation that bizarre.

"One of the most important duties of my position is to safeguard the location of the King's Key, Kurosaki Ichigo. The safety of the King cannot be compromised, or the dimensions will fall. He is the lynchpin that we all depend on.

"The existence of Karakura is an acceptable risk. It is the only place in the dimensions with both a high enough density of Reishi and of living souls to form the Key, but it already has more than five captain-class shinigami living there and reinforcements can be sent if necessary.

"You, however, could be used to form the Oken anywhere outside of the human world, and cannot be trusted to avoid situations where it would be possible."

"I'd have to merge to make it. Anyone who tried would regret it."

"Unless they struck at other targets, as Aizen did."

Ichigo gave him the same smile he'd given Karin, and repeated, "Anyone who tried would regret it."

Yamamoto snorted. "I have kept the location of one Oken a secret for a full millennia. I can keep another for less than a century. You will do the same." He could regard it as a test for Kurosaki. "Do not expand upon your story. Aizen was able to seal your power, but he did not know about your second Zanpakuto, and you killed him. Leave out any mention of the King's Key. I will not approve the funding for another memory projector. If Mayuri-taicho offers you one, refuse it."

Ichigo's scowl returned. "Like I'd take anything like that from you guys again."

"Good. Guard that secret, Kurosaki. Guard it carefully," and his eyes opened slightly, "for if I ever hear a hint of a rumor that your living soul could be used to enter the King's Realm, I will order the destruction of your mortal body."

His hand tightened around the hilt of Tensa Zangetsu at the threat. "Necessary sacrifices again, Jii-san?"

The tip of Yamamoto's cane thumped down on the air supporting it. "Be grateful I am giving you the chance, boy! Prove to me that you can keep this secret, and it will not become necessary!"

Ichigo took a deep breath. "Fine." The old man was acting like he'd be selling the movie rights to it or something, not just telling the truth to his friends, but he'd show the old bastard. "Was that it, Gramps?"

"Do you plan on returning to the human world soon?"

Ichigo glanced back at the celebration behind him. Individual shinigami had begun drifting back to the Seireitei now that the crisis was past. Komamura and Hisagi had been the first to leave. "As soon as we've said our good-byes. I can give the others a ride back." He didn't really want to go through the Precipice World again any time soon.

Yamamoto took a letter out of the same inner pocket that now held the Hogyoku. "Do not break the seal. Bring it to me when I cannot remember you."

"You brought it with you?" He might not have been as pessimistic about Ichigo's chances as he'd let himself seem.

The Soutaicho ignored the question. "Ukitake-taicho and Unohana-taicho will remain in close contact with your father. Ukitake-taicho is also in possession of a device that may prove useful to you."

His badge. It would be good to get it back. Ichigo took the letter and raised his hand in farewell. "See you around, Jii-san."

"Yes, boy. You will."

It took almost half an hour to finish saying good-bye to the various shinigami he'd befriended. A few encounters stood out in his mind- Gin's grin on hearing about Aizen's fate and what Ichigo had done with the Hogyoku, wider than Ichigo had ever seen it; Nemu's small smile at hearing about the beginning of the fight with Tosen; Soi Fon's annoyance at hearing that Aizen had died from a frontal assault, without any of the training she had given Ichigo being used- but finally he turned away from his final exchange with Rukia and Renji and went to where the Vizards, Urahara, Yoruichi, his family and friends, and Ukitake had gradually converged. Somewhat to his surprise, Ukitake was conversing cordially with Rose. It was hard to remember that the members of the mysterious group he'd trained with for a month had been captains and lieutenants long before he was born.

"You guys ready to go?" Ichigo had eventually dropped out of the final release, and Zangetsu was wrapped around the red chain slung across his torso. It felt strange to be carrying two weapons, and the giant cleaver sometimes tapped the new sword that hung from his waist.

Ukitake spoke up, holding out a pentagonal brown badge with a black skull outline. "Before you leave, Kurosaki-san, I would like you to have this. It is an official license. There are a few regulations in Soul Society concerning substitute shinigami…"

"I know, thanks. Using Kon gets annoying." Ichigo took the outstretched badge willingly.

" 'Substitute shinigami?' Never heard of them," Lisa said dryly. "How long have these regulations existed?"

He'd known it. "The badge is pretty much useless as ID, but it'll get me out of my body and let me know when a hollow's around. Thanks, Ukitake-san."

Ukitake coughed in mild embarassment, scratching his head as Ichigo ripped open the air in front of them. "Some form of official recognition was felt to be necessary. Identification is unlikely to be a problem, as I don't think there is now a member of the army who will not recognize him by sight. Have a safe trip, and I look forward to visiting soon."

Love, Lisa and Rose were the first into the Garganta, and a glistening white highway trailed behind them as the rest of the group followed. Ichigo raised one hand in farewell and joined his father and sisters. As they stepped through, Ichigo got an idea. He didn't ever go to the Karakura barbers; they always made odd comments about his hair color. He always stayed home.

"Hey, Yuzu, when we get home can you cut my hair?"

Her reply floated to the ears of the departing shinigami as the Garganta closed behind them. "But, Nii-san, it looks good like that!"

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As the Garganta in front of the Kurosaki Clinic closed behind them, Love raised a hand in farewell. "You've had a long couple of days, and we won't impose on your hospitality, Isshin. Good luck. See you later, kids."

He was gone in a flash, with most of the Vizards following suit with similar expressions of farewell to Isshin, the twins, and Chad. Shinji was the only one that lingered to talk to Ichigo.

"Kisuke can let you know where our new base is. You're kin. You'd be welcome to visit. I'm sure" and his grin showed even more of his teeth than usual, "that Hiyori will enjoy meeting you."

Ichigo gave him a rare smile. "I will. Thanks. I'll bring Inoue by in a couple of months to look at Hachi. OK, Inoue?"

Orihime, a bit startled at being addressed out of the blue, bowed to the blond former captain. "Y-Yes! I'll be happy to help when I can!"

"You are my one true love. See you around." Shinji raised his hand in farewell, and was gone. Chad also waved silently, and he, Orihime, and Ishida returned to their own homes for the first time in weeks. Soon, only Urahara and Yoruichi remained.

When Ichigo dropped his waving arm and turned to them, Urahara had just closed what looked like a perfectly normal cell phone. "Kon is returning to the clinic as we speak, Kurosaki-san. Isshin-san, Tessai has placed a Gikon in your Gigai; it will accompany him."

"Thanks." Ichigo hesitated, but finally asked, "Are you OK with this?"

Urahara did him the courtesy of not deliberately misunderstanding him. "It is likely the best solution, assuming that you were unable," and that was said with another sharp glance, "to destroy it permanently. Power is a corrupting influence, Kurosaki-san. Perhaps the Hogyoku should indeed recognize as its master a being that has no need to use it to reach a higher level of power."

"Well, Yama-jii's been watching over a bunch of reality-warping artifacts for centuries, and hasn't ever used them," Yoruichi said cheerfully. "One more won't matter to him."

Urahara pulled his hat down farther so that the brim completely hid is eyes. "…indeed. And, in any case, we will know if the Hogyoku is summoned and used without official permission. Enjoy your return, Kurosaki-san, and welcome home."

He was gone in a blur, with Yoruichi following him an instant later.

"What was that about?" Isshin asked with a frown. Ichigo didn't answer, and instead reached down into his inner world for the new soul that hadn't left when he'd given the body containing its power to Yamamoto.

"Karin. Yuzu. I got something for you." He pulled, and a small black body manifested in his hands.

"A puppy!" Yuzu squealed, reaching gleefully to pet the sleeping animal. "Where'd you get him? Can he do any tricks?"

"He followed me home," Ichigo answered dryly. "He'll be asleep for a while, but he'll wake up eventually. I'm pretty sure he can play fetch."

"It looks like a Labrador." Karin was looking down at the small dog with an expression of disinterest that was belied by the gentle hand exploring his ears. "What's his name?"

"…Hogey."

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fin

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Hogyoku ex Machina stands completed at 18 chapters and 179,560 words, and has taken up far more actual writing time over the past ten months than my thesis did. Over the course of the project, I have graduated, moved, started a job, and gone through a significant personal injury. The story stretched out to about half again as long as I'd initially planned, and although the basic outline has remained the same the vision I had for the story has been considerably fleshed out. There are times when I am tempted to regard the completion of a novel-length story, fanfiction or no, as one of the more significant creative accomplishments of my life to date.

There are times. And at those times, I look at the main character, an obscenely overpowered time-traveler with a second zanpakuto, and realize anew that I wrote a bad cliché. And that I got away with it.

I had fun. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Thanks for sticking with me.