Galinda: "Elphie, listen to me. Just say you're sorry. You can still be with the Wizard, what you've worked and waited for. You can have all you ever wanted..."

Elphaba: "I know. But I don't want it... No. I can't want it anymore.

Something has changed within me.

Something is not the same.

I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game.

Too late for second-guessing,

Too late to go back to sleep.

It's time to trust my instincts,

Close my eyes,

And leap.

It's time to try defying gravity.

I think I'll try defying gravity.

And you can't pull me down..."

Galinda: "Can't I make you understand? You're having delusions of grandeur!"

Elphaba: "I'm through accepting limits

'Cause someone says they're so!

Some things I cannot change,

But till I try, I'll never know!

Too long I've been afraid of

Losing love I guess I've lost.

Well, if that's love,

It comes at much too high a cost!

I'd sooner buy defying gravity.

Kiss me goodbye, I'm defying gravity!

And you can't pull me down...

So if you care to find me,

Look to the western sky.

As someone told me lately,

Everyone deserves their chance to fly!

And if I'm flying solo,

At least I'm flying free.

To those who'd ground me,

Take a message back from me.

Tell them how I am

Defying gravity,

I'm flying high

Defying gravity!

And soon I'll match them in renown,

And nobody in all of Oz,

No wizard that there is or was

Is ever going to bring me down."

- "Defying Gravity" from Wicked

Chapter Twelve: Defying Gravity

The wheels in my head were spinning like mad as I hurried across Karakura.

All my life, I'd wanted to be normal. Completely normal and unburdened by worrying about the other world... And I had that chance in front of me now.

And I realized I didn't want to take it.

I realized, all in a moment, years' worth of revelations pulsing through me, that I'd never really wanted to be normal. I'd wanted to be free. And maybe... maybe my definition of "free and unburdened" had changed... and, and I wanted to be able to fight. At heart, I was a fighter, but I was also more than that. I wanted to be a Shinigami, wanted to go try my hardest to save Rukia. Because she was my friend and I cared about her and she'd saved me, and it wasn't right that she should die trying to protect me. I had promised myself a long time ago that would never happen to me again.

I had the power in my grasp now, to keep that promise. And, abruptly, letting go of it just because the alternative was easier... it seemed ludicrous. Pathetic. Worthy of immediate dismissal. And besides, fuck the odds that it would actually work. Since when had I ever let the odds stop me from succeeding, anyway?! I was going to save her! I could do this.

... I could do this.

It was like some sort of explosion had gone off in my mind, like my spirit was shooting sky-high. I really was going to take this chance. Free my power, against all the odds, and fight this. Fight a whole world, break all the rules, just because I refused to let them stop me, just because there was something fundamentally wrong with them. I was going to do it.

It was one of the most freeing realizations I'd ever had. I'd never felt better about a more insane decision.

It was time to unlock my zanpakutoh.

I ran home quickly, told my family I'd decided to celebrate summer break by sleeping over at a friend's house for a while - Dad was dramatically enthusiastic over the idea, Yuzu showed me a motherly kind of excitement, and Karin told me smirkingly not to do anything she wouldn't do - before hurrying upstairs to my room. I told Kon the truth of what I had decided, and that he'd have to lay low in my room for a while. He complained loudly about neglect, but in the end he was a lot less annoying than usual, which was his own way of letting me go on to save Rukia.

Five minutes later I was in normal clothes, a small pack of stay-over items slung over my shoulders, and hurrying across streets furtively again.

When I showed up in front of the Urahara Shouten, something, a new strength and wild determination in my expression, had the little boy and girl look up from the front stoop, widen their eyes... and hurry inside the shop. A second later, Sandal-Hat and Weird Dreadlock Guy came bustling out.

"Ah, welcome!" said Sandal-Hat Urahara, looking extremely pleased, as he bustled up to me from behind his wooden fan. "How are your wounds?"

In answer, I unbuttoned my shirt and showed him, my eyes steely. It was all healed. Barely any remnants of the attack showed on my skin. "Recovered," I said, clenching my jaw. "And I'm ready to do this. My answer is yes."

I swear, for a second the guy's eyes practically lit up. "Excellent!" he said, smirking and snapping his fan closed. He waved to me and I followed the other three inside the Shouten without another word.

"Did you tell your father?" Urahara asked as we walked through the front entrance with a tinkle of bells.

"I told him I'll be sleeping over at a friend's house for a while," I answered, slinging off my pack.

"Wow... that really sounds like an excuse to have sex... don't steel my innocence or anything, Kurosaki-san," he said with big eyes as he wandered into the back depths of the building.

Blushing furiously, I cursed myself as I shouted back, "You say anything like that again and 'violence' will be a lot higher priority on your risk meter!"

He snickered, and then his expression slowly became serious once more as he returned. "So," he said coolly, "shall we begin?"

I looked at him for a long moment... and then, my expression intense, I forced myself to bow for the first time in a long time - there was a difference between knowing good manners and polite speech and using them regularly, after all. But his training would be deciding whether I lived or died. It couldn't hurt to say, "Please teach me well - Sensei!"

I looked back up, my fists clenched in determination, to find him staring at me. "Kurosaki-san," he said slowly, sounding faintly amazed, "is something wrong?"

"Nope," I said firmly, shaking my head. "Nothing at all." My chin lifted.

He blinked at me for a moment. Then, slowly, he smiled a little. "Well," he said amiably, "aren't you interesting?

"Let's begin, then."

They had closed up shop, shuttered all the windows, and then, with the greatest secrecy, pulled up a loose slat in the floorboards to reveal a square hole in the floor that ran deep down into darkness below the ground. The boy had pointed me downward with short, flat rudeness, and I had begun climbing a stepladder set into the hole's wall to find myself - after a very long time climbing down the dark, claustrophobic tunnel - in a vast underground field, wide and flat and sandy, filled with boulders and occasional patches of weeds. To my surprise, it seemed to be lit with sunlight, and I gazed upward to find that all was now an almost blindingly blue sky above, with a stepladder pointed abruptly downward through it.

The other three had followed me down, and Urahara leaped up beside me and exclaimed in a deep tone I guessed was supposed to resemble me, "Whoa! What is this place?! I didn't know there was such a huge-ass cavity beneath this shop!"

His voice echoed out over the expanse and he grinned, proud of himself.

I raised my eyebrows at him. Brilliant and insane - I'd had him pegged. "You don't have to scream about it, you know," I informed him. "Trust me, it's impressive enough without."

He wasn't even listening to me. He had hidden himself mysteriously behind his fan again and gleefully started going on a proud rant about how he had created this training space. (I doubted half of it was true.) "This training space is my pride and joy! A masterpiece of creation! Created by a combination of reiatsu and hyper technology, I made it just for you, Kurosaki-san! In one day! How good is that?!"

"Does he do this a lot?" I muttered to the other three. Weird Dreadlock Guy sighed and nodded.

"I made the ceiling into a sky so you would feel less trapped!"

"I see you think the same way they do when making jails."

"I planted a line of trees for decorative decor!"

"All those trees look kind of... really dead."

Urahara was still ignoring me. "I did so well, building underneath all those shops and houses around me... I mean sure, I may have broken a thing or two, but it's all for a good cause, right?!"

"Isn't that... illegal?" Not that I thought he'd care or anything, but...

He turned to look at me, finally, lowering his hands and smirking. "Eh. Whatever," I decided, shrugging, after a few moments. "You're the one who said we're on a tight schedule. So let's hurry up and start training, yeah?"

"My, my," Urahara said smoothly, watching me idly out of the corner of his eye. He still looked darkly amused. "What admirable spirit. Well, in that case, you get your wish."

And all of a sudden he whipped up his cane, poked it into my forehead, I felt that painful tingling force... and out popped my soul. It had been pushed with so much force that I flew about ten feet and skidded on my ass. The ground, apparently, could be felt by spirits here.

"What the hell?" I shot back, sitting myself up indignantly. "What was that fo -"

But I couldn't continue. The air had left my lungs and I had to gasp in a breath. All of a sudden, it seemed so hard to breathe. It was like there was this huge weight pressing down on me from the atmosphere around, trying to force me in a certain direction. Back toward my body, I realized, looking around sharply to where it was lying on the ground, breathing heavily, perspiring faintly from the effort of keeping still and breathing. I was what Inoue had once been - a spirit, but a chain was hanging from my chest, still connected back to my still physical form. Keeping me alive.

"This is your first time, is it not?" Urahara asked, eyeing me with distant criticalness. "To be separated from your body without being in the form of a Shinigami? It's difficult, isn't it? To stay connected to your body, to move, to breathe? That is because you are still alive, and yet are no longer a Shinigami. Your hakusui, or power origin," I thought of my center, where that unnamed form resided, "and your saketsu, or power holder," I thought of the form around me that had always felt like Rukia's, keeping my reiatsu in line and molding it firmly into that of a Shinigami, "have both been taken from you by Kuchiki Byakuya. That is to say, you are now merely a normal human, no powers whatsoever. Unless we restore those things to you - in other words, unless we force you to once more discover your power, but unfettered and purely yours, on your own - you're not going to get anywhere." I was listening quietly. It made sense - obvious, in a way.

"Now," Urahara said pleasantly, "first let's teach you how to move and breathe with your form as it is now. Keep in mind, reiatsu, soul force, or spiritual power works upon and encourages the spirit itself. The two keep each other going, in a sort of cycle. Without spirit, desire, or willpower, the reiatsu stagnates, but without reiatsu, a spirit cannot grow to reach its full potential of honor and bravery, of inner fire, cannot truly channel the spirit of the warrior. Now, the more your reiatsu rises, the more your spirit will rise, and the more these two rise in tandem with each other, the more your soul's physical form will sharpen and strengthen. In other words, when you can move faster in your spiritual body than you can in your living body once more, that will mean you have recovered your spiritual powers."

This was all interesting enough - but I didn't see why it was relevant. "So, I don't get it," I said, shaking my head somewhat impatiently. "What am I actually supposed to do? Am I supposed to strengthen my form and hope my reiatsu follows? Do you want me to just do a bunch of gymnastic exercises or something?" I raised my arms hopelessly.

"Of course not," Urahara said brightly, and I gave him a flat, deadpan sort of look. Clearing his throat hurriedly, he said, "Well, perhaps it would be easier if I just showed it to you. It's hard to explain." He turned off to the side, where I suddenly realized the other three had disappeared off to. "Okay!" he called. "Get ready!"

And from behind a large boulder where the other two seemed to be sitting, preparing something, the shy little girl with dark pigtails came out. She walked up before us carrying a bunch of foamy head and hand gear for karate sparring in her skirt. She stopped and curtseyed to me. (Why did they all do that?) "H-hello," she said quietly, ducking her head. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Umm... hello?" I replied in bemusement from where I had slowly, with effort, gotten to my feet.

"Meet your first piece of training!" Urahara introduced brightly. "You'll be fighting her!"

My eyes widened and I whirled around to him (as quickly as I could). "What?!" He wanted me to punch a little girl?!

... I had issues with doing anything that might hurt little girls. They were just so - big eyed. And sneakily aware of it. It was endearing.

Urahara was ignoring me, to my frustrated anger. "The rules to this spar are simple," he said matter-of-factly. "Once one or the other can no longer move, the fight is over. So just make sure to knock her out before she knocks you out, and you'll be fine!" His tone was still bright and cheerful.

"Are you crazy?" I snapped heatedly. "You're asking me to beat the crap out of a little kid! Your little kid, actually! Do you have any idea how sick that is?!"

"Well, you know, Kurosaki-san, I wouldn't take your being able to do anything to little Ururu as a given. Not in the state you're in now." Urahara was smirking faintly, his eyebrows raised and his face calm.

I glared at him furiously, opening my mouth, but I was interrupted by a thump from behind me. I turned around, panting with the exertion of yelling at Urahara, my chest tight, to see that Ururu had put on her head and hand gear and thrown me the other pair. A lot of childhood memories of karate class were brought up. Most of them weren't good.

"Hey, now wait a minute," I said quickly, frowning and putting my hands in the air, "I haven't even agreed to do it yet, so just -"

"Please put them on first," Ururu sighed in a quiet voice, ignoring me and nodding to the head and hand gear. Then she got into a stance and raised a fist before her. "If you don't," she added matter-of-factly, "you will die."

When I just stared at her declaration, she suddenly moved. But certainly not in a way I'd ever seen a little girl move before.

She rocketed upward, leaving a cracking noise and a huge crater in the ground where she had jumped. I hadn't even had time to register that before she had suddenly propelled herself into my face, a fist raised toward me calmly...

Unlike with Abarai Renji, I didn't even have time to dodge. She hit my midsection with an explosion of pain and nausea and a whooshing out of air, and I was shoved back again to land on my ass on the ground.

A cloud of smoke had flown up around me where I impacted. Jesus, that was going to bruise.

It was then that I began to suspect, just as with the idea that Urahara's cane wasn't really a cane... his little girl? Yeah, she might not actually be a little girl. And somewhere deep down, she seemed to have some issues with being underestimated.

Well - I was fucked.

I could see Ururu standing calmly in wait through the haze of smoke, could hear Urahara and the other two talking quietly off to the side.

"I told him..." Urahara said, sounding faintly amused.

"He's not getting up, you know," the little boy (was he even really a little boy?) pointed out, sounding only mildly interested.

"Is he dead?" the big man asked, sounding faintly disturbed.

"Good question!" Urahara congratulated him brightly.

Which just confirmed it. Yup, I was fucked.

Well, they had also said the head and hand gear would save me from getting killed. Here went testing out that theory.

I pushed myself to my feet, ignored the nagging feeling to breathe, and just sprinted forward through all the weights confining me. It hurt like hell, the world was spinning, I still felt nauseous, and I felt slow and sluggish... but hey, at least I could still run.

I sprinted toward her, she tensed up but I moved past her so I wouldn't run into her. Sure enough, seeing my intention, she let me pass quietly. I grabbed up the head gear, breathing heavily, sweat running down my face... but it didn't work the same way the head gear in karate class always had! There was this pad thing and all these strings coming off of it; it didn't resemble a helmet at all. (Maybe that made sense; did they even have helmets in the Soul Society?)

"Hey!" I shouted backward. "How the hell do I put this on?!"

"Put the pad on your forehead like this with the strings behind your head," Urahara said, demonstrating, and I turned back to look at him, doing as he said. "Then shout, 'Take this! The powers of justice! Justice armor headband ATTACK!'"

I stared at him. He looked completely serious.

"Like fuck I'm doing that!" I finally yelled back to him, my face twisting. He had to be making a sarcastic joke. They couldn't be that cheesy, could they?

They name their swords, a sarcastic little voice in the back of my mind pointed out. Sometimes I hated that thing.

Then Ururu decided this was the opportune moment to come rocketing at me again, and I yelled in panic and dodged her punch, which made another huge crater in the ground, and started running with difficulty, trying not to die. I could hear that insane little girl chasing after me, making more craters in the ground as she tried to get at me.

"Now isn't the time to be embarrassed, Kurosaki-saaan!" Urahara called to me cheerfully from across the training chamber. "This is life or death, you know!"

He was serious?!

On the one hand, the call sounded like something from Power Rangers.

On the other hand, I really didn't want to die as a lame plus spirit at the hands of a little girl.

"Ugh, goddamnit, fine!" Gritting my teeth, I put the fucking thing to my forehead and called out that stupid chant, trying not to blush with humiliation the entire time... and nothing happened.

"... Wow," Urahara laughed after a moment, "you actually did it!"

"I HATE YOU!" I yelled back over my shoulder, but - well, I'd already been embarrassed beyond all reason. I didn't think how I wore the headband would make much of a difference at this point. So I sighed in frustration, put the pad to my forehead, tied the strings behind me, and something worked, because it didn't feel like it was about to fall off.

I skidded to a stop and whirled around to face her, both because my legs were shaking and my chest was burning with the effort of running, and because I didn't think I could do much more for the "not dying" thing at this point. I took a stance, pushing the long chain hanging from my chest out of the way as I did so... and I had to control a hiss of pain as it burned my fingers at the touch and hurt my chest to move. For some reason, despite the lazy way it lengthened and slunk after me as I moved farther away from my body, it felt hot and tight, like it was fit to burst and break away.

That probably wasn't a good sign, but with Ururu in front of me, I couldn't afford to concentrate on it.

... With Ururu in front of me. That's still weird to think about something that looks like a ten-year-old girl, I thought, staring at her.

She had stopped, eyeing me. I slid the gloves on. "Okay," I said quietly, lifting my head. "Come on." Might as well face the fight head-on. There had to be a point to it.

She rocketed forward, I dodged quickly, jumped away as she made a crater open up where I was standing... and we were off again. All I could do was dodge, run farther away, dodge, run farther away, dodge, run farther away... This was just more tiring. Wonderful.

"You seemed pretty confident back there for someone who's still running away!" Urahara called to me, like this was just one big entertainment to him.

I would have thought he was an asshole, but I was beginning to suspect the entire world was one big entertainment for Urahara.

"You were bullshitting me!" I yelled back at him instead. "What kind of gear could guard against attacks like these! Dodging's all that works!"

But then suddenly, something clicked in my mind. Wait a minute. A couple of minutes ago, I couldn't even yell while running, or dodge her attacks. So if each level of facing her was actually helping me improve... the next step was facing her head-on! Which seemed completely suicidal at first. But if I stopped, dodged around her directly, and then went in toward her... maybe it would lessen the huge impact of her attacks. Maybe I had a chance.

I stopped, turned around, and waited for her to come once more. She aimed, and I didn't dodge. I forced myself to duck my head only the slightest bit, older fighting instincts coming to my aid this time, and then pushed myself aggressively in toward her body. Her eyes widened in panic, but I ignored this as best I could, aimed my fist at her, and she had to duck her head and twist her whole body sideways to dodge.

It was a good thing, too, because I'd have hit her face. Calming down slightly, in control of the fight once more - this was more natural, I'd done it countless times - I reminded myself that I didn't have to do that. I just had to hit her headgear lightly, our weight difference would do the rest.

I tried to sweep her legs while she was unbalanced, but small and quick, she stepped neatly above me, and I went in aggressively close to her again and aimed my fist around her for her headgear instead.

But she dodged, slower than I'd thought she would, and I ended up punching her in the cheek instead. Her head went sideways completely, and she staggered back a few steps, that side of her face red, a cut across it.

Shit, I thought, immediately retracting my arm and taking one step back, paused.

She looked up at me... her eyes were wide... at first I felt a jolt of guilt at this.

Then I realized they were also completely blank, like my aggressive hit had triggered some sort of... automatic mode.

And, quite suddenly, she wasn't in front of me anymore.

There was a tap on my shoulder - I looked up just in time to see that she had leapt above me and used me as a kick-off point - and then there was a kick to my cheek that was so powerful, a rush of reiatsu came in to shield my face from the full impact of the blow. I was thrown into the air, straight across the field...

And into a huge pair of arms. I blinked my eyes open, my cheek throbbing with pain, to see that Big Dreadlock Guy had leaped in and caught me, and was now setting me slowly, carefully back down on the ground. I moved away from him quickly, not comfortable with being held by a man I'd caught lying on top of me while I was asleep to "check my reactions to sensory details" only this morning. Across the training area, Sandal-Hat was suddenly holding back Ururu, smiling broadly as his eyes were suspiciously blank.

"Safe!" he joked. Slowly, Ururu relaxed into his arms and then blinked, seeming to come back to herself. She looked up to me - and then, as if realizing what she had done, her expression became shy and expressionless again. Frowning, she gazed pointedly back down at the ground.

For a moment, whatever she was, I felt kind of bad for her.

Still, the point of the training exercise had been to be able to defeat her and I hadn't. "I lost, huh?" I realized morosely, glaring around the pockmarked, bulldozed field in frustration. "Damnit! Okay, one more time; I'll get it this time," I said firmly - because that was what you did in training, you kept going until you got it right.

But Urahara walked across to me and said clearly, "No, don't bother, you've already cleared lesson one!" He smiled at me cheerfully in congratulations.

"What?" I said, completely lost. "But... but I lost to her! You said -"

"I said to knock her out before she knocks you out. I never said to knock her out so you could pass the lesson," Urahara said, with Sandal-Hat logic, as though this should have been obvious.

"But wasn't I supposed to get better until I was good enough to defeat her?" I questioned, frowning.

"Oh, no, Kurosaki-san!" Urahara laughed. "This child's fighting skills are good enough to take on Shinigami! As a mere spirit, there's no way you could win against her, no matter how much you improved your physical form!" He put his hand on little Ururu's head; she continued to look away, quiet and sad and expressionless. "No, the point of the lesson has been fulfilled. Do you still have any trouble breathing?" he asked slyly.

I paused, and felt myself breathe for a few seconds. "No," I realized in slightly surprise. "None at all."

"Same thing with moving around, right? Since when?"

"Since... a while ago," I said slowly, wonderingly. Even my wall of reiatsu felt better... freer, somehow, moving more easily around me. Contrastingly, the chain connecting me to my body was hotter and tighter than ever.

"Lesson one was nothing more than an attempt to see if you could dodge when you thought your life was in danger!" Urahara said, shrugging, still smiling a little. "That's it. The reiatsu is at its highest and sharpest when a person is trying not to be injured. Even living humans can do incredible things sometimes under that kind of pressure. If your reiatsu could adapt itself under those circumstances, I knew you would be fine. You could free your soul from those constraints, despite being technically alive."

"And if I'd been unsuccessful?" I asked, raising my eyebrows flatly.

"Well, she'd probably have killed you," said Urahara simply, looking out at me from behind his fan.

I sighed and gave him a slight glare. "You're an asshole," I grumbled. "My life itself really is nothing to you, isn't it?" Nonetheless, I knew the drill - he'd said this had to be the most important thing to me; he'd said it would only get harder from here on out.

Urahara instantly became more ingratiating, however, to my bemusement. "Now, now, Kurosaki-saaan, don't be like that!" he said, smiling and waving a hand, clasping my shoulder warmly. "Everything worked out for the best, didn't it? I had it all under control; don't worry! Now let's celebrate your first pass, eh?"

"Oh, are we taking a break?" I asked, my relief showing through despite myself.

I tensed up, my train of thought ending quite abruptly, as a giant ax full of reistsu swung down from behind me. Urahara's huge assistant hacked it quickly into the ground... and cut right through my life chain.

I heard the distant snap, felt the tension and the heat leave, felt the sudden cold and stillness, stared down with numb horror at the chain hanging from my chest -

... They had just killed me.

"Not at all," said Urahara, smiling as the big guy hefted the ax back over his shoulder. "Now we're moving on to lesson two."






"Kurosaki-san!" I looked up from my the chain I'd been clutching, my eyes wild, to see Urahara standing there, looking exasperated. "You," he said, as if speaking an enormous piece of understanding, "are very loud."

"You just cut my Chain of Fate!" I snapped back. "I'm allowed! Do you realize that now that this thing is gone, I can't get back to my body?!"

"Of course I know that," said Urahara, looking mildly insulted at the implication that he didn't.

I saw red.

I flung myself at him, past all reason, ready to punch every inch of him I could reach, and the Big Guy had to hold me back, with his strength and his reiatsu, in order to stop my attack. (This just made me angrier.) "You knew?! You knew and you still murdered me?! What the hell is your problem?! What kind of training is this?!"

"But Kurosaki-san, don't you understand?!" Urahara called out over me, still looking mildly exasperated, as if there was some obvious answer I was missing. "Now that your Chain of Fate has been severed, all there is left for you is Death! The realm of the Shinigami!"

I stopped, breathing heavily... still looking at him suspiciously.

"We can preserve your body until you reach that level; then you can step back into it and, with a Shinigami's powers, live inside your body like a it's gigai. Since it's your original body, your soul will even age alongside it until your body dies or you decide to leave it! It'll be just like being alive! The only difference is that your heart won't beat when you've left your body temporarily, so for long periods of time you'll need to drop it off with us for preservation. See? No problem!" He beamed at me. Then he stopped and frowned. "Well, as long as you gain your Shinigami powers before your Chain of Fate decays completely," he added in an offhand tone. "If your Chain reaches all the way into your chest, it'll make a hole there, and then you won't have to worry about whether you're alive or dead, because you'll be a Hollow!" He laughed a little in a high, amused voice and added a winning smile at the end.

I felt like something cold had slammed into my gut. "I... I could become a Hollow?" I choked out in a hoarse voice, suddenly clutching tighter at the broken chain in my hands. It didn't feel like it was decaying yet... but how would I feel something like that?

"Oh my," said Urahara, blinking down at me with raised eyebrows. "Why, yes, of course. Had you not realized? However, there is one way," he raised his hand majestically, "to stop that from happening. Besides passing on. And that other way is, of course, to become a Shinigami."

I looked up to him, my hands tightening. Daring to hope. "That's right," Urahara said proudly. "That's what lesson two's all about. If you pass this lesson... you will have completely recovered your Shinigami powers."

Then, suddenly, he whipped around and pointed behind himself. "Now," he said, "GO!"

As I was squinting to see what he was pointing at, the Big Guy slammed his hand into the ground behind me, a huge hole suddenly opened up around the two of us, and we fell... down, down, down... down a dark shaft, to hit the sandy bottom of the hole with a soft thud.

I yelled as I saw the ground coming up before us, but I could feel the Big Guy's reiatsu fluctuate, we paused in the air... and then we hit the ground very softly. I got a face full of dirt, and Big Guy got up off of me.

Spitting it out and squinting up toward the light far above us, I turned around and tried to sit myself up... but then realized that my hands felt like they'd been tied together behind me. Confused, I looked around - and my eyes widened as I saw glowing blue reiatsu restraints snapping my arms together. Big Guy was sitting in a far corner, doing a seal silently, obviously keeping me restrained down here.

"Bakudou 99," he answered quietly to my angry, panicked glare. "Kin. I am truly sorry, but until this lesson ends, I must keep your arms useless down here."

I forcefully sat myself up, my arms still behind me, and cautiously pushed as much reiatsu as I could into the restraints... Big Guy made a slight noise, and then they merely tightened around me. Damn. He was obviously even better at kidou than Rukia.

I glared up toward the pinprick of light again, where Urahara was looking down into the hole toward me. The two "kids" had come up behind him. Not for the first time today, I reminded myself that these people were outlaws - to the Soul Society or not - and wondered just what I had gotten myself into.

"This is lesson two!" Urahara called down to me, still sounding bright and cheerful. "Climb back up here with those useless arms!"

I stared at the walls to the impossibly long, tunnel-like shaft. They were completely smooth. "That - what the hell?! That's impossible!" I yelled back up to him, bewildered.

"Oh my, well that's not very good for you then, is it Kurosaki-san?" Urahara said softly, with unusual seriousness. "Because we have made it so that your reiatsu is under an unusual amount of pressure down there. And the corrosion of your chain of fate has started to speed up considerably. Look."

I looked down at my chain of fate - and sucked in a sharp, uncharacteristically frightened breath.

Angry little mouths with sharp teeth had appeared on the ending links of my chain. They were twisting and writhing around, snapping and eating at each other angrily - destroying each other. And each time one died, another mouth higher on the chain began to take its place. Though I couldn't feel a thing, I could see the chain already beginning to shorten.

Forget the rest of this month, I realized in distant horror. If this kept up... I might only last a number of days.


I stood up, panicking, staring at the sharp, greedy little mouths eating away at my chain. I slammed my chest until the wall, attempting to kill a few of them, but it had no effect - if anything, they just ate faster.

"Get these things off of me!" I snarled, not able to remember the last time I'd been this... scared.

"I can't do that!" Urahara said clearly, of course. I slammed myself into the wall again - and stopped abruptly, bending over and crying out, as the bottom-most mouth snapped out and bit at me, making me bleed. Then they carried on snapping at each other. "If I try to interfere now, Kurosaki-san, even I will be eaten," I heard Urahara's voice echo down to me quietly.

I fell over, panting, silent and terrified despite myself. I just sat there, staring down at myself... at the things coming up to eat me. All was suffocatingly silent around me for a moment.

"This process usually takes much longer, of course," Urahara said, his voice quiet and in-control, almost calming, for a moment. "Months, even years. However, this Hole of Despair I have created is filled with a kind of invisible, undetectable gas that will speed up a Hollow process once it has begun. If my calculations are correct, you should have about three days left before you become a Hollow."

Three days... I looked up to stare up at him with sharp desperation, in a grim, furious, helpless kind of trance. "If you manage to turn into a Shinigami in this time, you will be able to jump back up to us," said Urahara quietly. "We will wait here above you. If you turn into a Hollow..." Urahara's face darkened, and he said simply, "We will destroy you."

"I... I hate you," I panted, glaring up at him. I was starting to feel hot and tight again, at the beginning of a new transformation. "Do you actually want to destroy me?"

"No, Kurosaki-san," Urahara sighed, stepping away from the hole. "But if you decide to give up, that is what I must do."

The two little kids stepped away too, to wait up above, and the Big Guy sat in the corner, his hands out in front of him - a constant reminder of his superior strength. Silent.

I was curled up on my side in the sand. My arms hurt from being held back behind me for so long. I was hot, panting, sweat pouring down my face... watching my shrinking chain slunk out in front of me grow shorter and shorter. I didn't know how long I'd been down here. No one said a thing to me, and no one came to help.

Well, of course they wouldn't. I had to do this alone, didn't I?

The mouths seemed to go through periods: eating, then dormant, eating, then dormant, eating, then dormant. The chain had gotten short enough that when they were feeding, I felt it now; I felt the pain, a full-body, awful pain with no origin that rendered me moaning, curled up, completely immobile - I had gone from embarrassment to simple apathy and desperation a while ago.

My reiatsu was mostly gone. I could feel it all being sucked into that chain... and I was unable to stop it...

Dormant. They were dormant right now. That meant I should try again, I registered distantly in the back of my mind.

I was exhausted, so it took me a while to heave myself up, shaking, without my arms to support me. But I forced myself, clenching my teeth determinedly, to my feet, and got a great running start, trying to run up the side of the shaft again... trying to put what little feeble reiatsu I had into helping me stay standing sideways on the sand...

It didn't work, of course; it never did. I just fell back with a flash of pain in my leg or side, not even having made it a quarter of the way back up the shaft. I didn't know what trying this over and over again was supposed to do. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered dully if Urahara was lying, if he really was just trying to kill me.

I'd never be able to save Rukia, or see my family and friends... or do anything ever again... not at this rate.

I told myself not to think like that. It wasn't working as well as it used to a few hours ago.

"HEY!" I shot my head up, my neck cricking, to see the two kids looking down into the hole from that speck of light up above. The rude, obnoxious boy was talking. "Are you hungry?!" he asked.

"No!" I snapped back. "I'm in the in-between state right now! I shouldn't even be able to get hungry!" Not according to Rukia, anyway. She'd always said that even a soul with reiatsu had to be completely passed on before they got feelings of hunger.

The boy snickered. "Well, that's good!" he called back jeeringly. "You've still got your mind, and you're not hungry yet! Want to know something interesting?! When you begin to get hungry in that state, it means you're close to transforming into a Hollow!" My eyes widened I went still, another bout of nervous fear panging through me at the prospect.

"Just thought I'd let you know!" the kid laughed, and I could have cursed him. "But if you're thirsty, I'll spit down to you and you can drink my drool, okay?! Hey, Ururu, do it do!"

"Uh, w-well -"

"Come on!" His tone was angry.

"Okay," Ururu said quietly.

They started spitting down at me in the shaft, and I really did begin to curse them out.

But - and this was what really got to me - that was all I could do.

An interminably long, hot, painful amount of time later, I had given up even on standing up. It obviously wasn't getting me anywhere. I wasn't sure what to do. It was a strange, hopeless feeling. I wondered if I'd been too hasty in thinking I could do this after all. I wondered if spiritually I just wasn't strong enough. I wondered what would happen to Rukia if I never showed up at the Soul Society.

What could I do to get out of here? What was Urahara looking for?

Suddenly, the obnoxious red-haired boy leaped down into the pit in a feat of superhuman strength and agility, landing smoothly on his feet. There was a platter of fruit in his hand.

"Hey," he said, smirking, slamming the plate down into the sand a few feet away from me. "Brought you some food. Figured you'd be hungry." He sneered.

"What are you talking about?" I panted defiantly up at him. "The chain of fate still has links in it. I still have time!"

He eyed the chain slunk out in front of me for a moment, and I thought I saw a faint surprise flicker in his eyes.

"Well, I'll leave the food here," he said finally, sounding less certain and more serious than he had before. "It has to happen soon. That's right," he added, returning to himself somewhat, at my expression. "You don't know what time it is in here, because the 'sun' is always lit." He tilted his head at me, his expression dry. "You've been down here about seventy hours, you know. Your three days is almost up."

I felt a wash of shock and cold. It had been almost three days?! But... but... I still had to figure a way out! He knows that, idiot, the little voice in the back of my mind snarled. Like you, they're starting to think you'll fail!

I couldn't - that couldn't happen. It just couldn't.

As I steeled myself, he added, "Oh yeah - and the last corrosion will be more painful than any of the others." Then he smirked and jumped out of the pit. I gritted my teeth and glared after him.

But I didn't have any time to focus on Urahara's screwed-up artificially created superhumans. I sat myself up forcefully and stared down at the chain links. They were pretty short now. But I couldn't see how...

Then, all of a sudden, there was an explosion of pain in my chest that made me sway, my vision fading, and cry out fully from where I sat.

All the links left in the chain had suddenly grown mouths. They were eating at each other, eating at me, eating at their center in my chest... revealing the hole behind it.

Through all the pain writhing through my body, I felt a sudden terror. "Stop! No!" I screamed at them uselessly, trying to stand up, failing, falling down. My entire body felt like it was on fire. "Stop it! Stop it! Someone help me! Please help me! Stop this! I don't care what you have to do, just stop it! Stop it!" My voice was hoarse, breaking, I writhed and tried to use my reiatsu to slow down the process, but my reiatsu was gone and this just made the pain increase, the mouths move faster. I turned to the corner where Urahara's assistant had sat, hands in front of him, watching silently, for all this time. "Help me!" I screamed - I sounded like I was crying, I sounded terrified and furious and pained, and I didn't even have it in me to care.

Something uncertain passed across the man's face, as if he wanted to, but he kept himself firm and silent where he sat.

There was a furious kind of hunger building up within me, mingling with the pain - I thought of something I'd wondered months ago, Is it really so easy for someone to just... lose their humanity? - and then I thought of Inoue's brother and his love for her. "No!" I snarled quietly, trying to fight off the pain and hunger, the empty heaviness growing within my chest. "No!" I had too much to live for; it couldn't all end here and now! There had to still be a way I could fight this!

A part of me wanted desperately to give in. Another part of me wanted just as desperately not to.

As I was locked in this internal struggle, white came up over my vision, suffocating me and choking me, in all my senses and my mouth, my nose, its scent awful, like plaster glued on... and then I blacked out.

The strangest thing happened - I began to flick through memories.

I was five years old and Mommy was reading me a bedtime story. She was the most loving, beautiful person I had ever known.

I was nine years old and cursing myself because I was too pathetic, too weak and emotional to save her.

I was eleven years old and turning that emotion into anger and hated, into a strength.

I was thirteen-almost-fourteen years old and lying in a clinic, fighting off the drug cravings coming from my strained and abused body, realizing just how far that anger and hatred had gotten me in the end. No Tatsuki-chan, no sisters, still no Mom, and a father who hated me more than he had before. And I hadn't proven anything to anyone.

I was fifteen years old, with that same determination, but I had learned strength and caution, I had recreated a life for myself, caring and as normal as possible, carefully structured.

I was fifteen years old and trying to just get by. Fifteen years old and hating it. Fifteen years old and brooding on the past. Fifteen years old and - though I'd never have admitted it - trapped and bored. Hiding. Hiding away. Afraid of myself. And yet bored.

At first, at this thought, at this final assessment, the part of me that wanted to become the Hollow felt a shot of triumph. It pushed forward with the vicious, selfish, careless eagerness that used to define me, once upon a time. That power, that possibility, said that I'd simply been afraid of my own potential for this. It promised an end to boredom, an end to feeling trapped, an end to weakness... an end to all of it. My power met and became one with the Hollow, and the other side of me felt a thrill of despair and dread...

But before the Hollow could come forward and crush the human, more memories pushed themselves to the forefront.

I was a Shinigami, and I had that freedom. Rukia's power pulsed into me, and I felt completely one with myself for a split second, I felt like I belonged here, like I always had - once when she made me a Shinigami, and once when I connected with the core of my power. Two times had I felt a world of infinite possibilities, of strength and heroism. The power to protect those I cared about, from everything I knew was out there, and the control to do alright with it. I could never have asked for anything more.

I had all I needed, my good side argued. I just needed to fight this off. I just needed to regain my Shinigami powers.

I was a Shinigami, and I was befriending Rukia.

I was a Shinigami, and I was saving people.

I was a Shinigami, and I was befriending Ishida, saving Kon.

I was a Shinigami, and I could fight, have adventures, have strength - and be a good person.

I was a Shinigami, and I felt good about myself, for the first time in ages, felt like this was what I was meant to do and who I was meant to be.

I was a Shinigami, and I was freeing myself from the chains holding me to my past, separating my mother in my mind from the mannequin in front of me.

I was a Shinigami, and my father was telling me in surprise that he didn't hate me, that he never had.

I was a Shinigami, and for the first time I was not only content, but happy.

I was a Shinigami, and my life was changing more in three months than it had in the past two years.

I was a Shinigami.

That... changed things.

And underneath it all, under all the drugs and the heartache and the anger and the madness and the grief and the fighting, came an older instinct, one I had all but given up on... one I'd been trying to resurrect. The desire to save people. To be a hero. Not amazing, not perfect - but just a hero. Just me.

And the little boy who had foolishly wanted to be a hero met up in a rush with the angry teenager who had wanted to be strong... and the two melted and fused together. But for the first time in my life, the boy, who wanted to be a Shinigami, rose to the forefront. For the first time, the two were sized up, and that little boy who wanted to protect was stronger - the anger came up wanting.

When it came to matters of the spirit, that weak, heart-felt boy had been the stronger one all along.

And as I felt it pulse, that center within me, that heart and spirit, that desire to protect which fueled the anger, fueled the determination - something within me clicked. That vital difference that separated Shinigami from Hollows clicked into place. And the world exploded into a burst of released reiatsu once more.

This time, I stood from my center, and calmly felt it wash over me. Because this time, it was just my reiatsu. Only mine.

When I could open my eyes once more, I didn't end up where I thought I would be.

Ichigo? Ichigo? Can you hear me, Ichigo? The voice echoed through me, far away and yet strangely close, deep and smooth and new yet bizarrely familiar.

I blinked my eyes open, and discovered that I was dressed as an ordinary human. I was sitting there, a mere soul, in the middle of a... what was it? I stared around myself for a moment, realizing with a jolt that I was somehow sitting sideways on a skyscraper. There were more tall sideways buildings around me, just like any skyscraper all over Tokyo. Only these were a lot more... metallic. And cleaner, somehow. They were slightly farther apart, with more breathing room for the wide, paved avenues and smaller buildings and shops in the street below them. I was sitting sideways on a skyscraper, looking out over a vast, quiet city. Above me, the sky was not smoggy orange, but a soft clear grey with faint sunlight shining through it - the kind of morning grey where you didn't yet know if the day ahead was going to be sunny or rainy yet.

"Where am I?" I murmured in confusion. I liked this clean, softly grey, quirkily sideways ultramodern city - it felt, strangely, more peaceful and homelike than Karakura did - but I didn't know what it was or what I was doing here. Was this one of Urahara's tricks? Had the attempt to make me into a Shinigami not worked? I felt a sharp flash of confusion and disappointment.

"Ichigo," that deep, smooth voice said again, sounding faintly amused. "I'm over here."

I looked around, startled, to see a man standing, perched, on the wall behind me.

He was tall and middle-aged, with lines around his almond-shaped, unfathomable dark eyes. It was hard to look into them for too long - they just seemed to go in deeper and deeper, they didn't seem to have an end, and the feeling was chilling. I realized that, despite being a human, he didn't really look like a human at all. His pale features were sharp and emaciated and rugged, lined with hardship and age and steel; his inky black hair was a mess, and he looked like he hadn't shaved in a while; there were a quiet pair of glasses over his eyes, and yet somehow they didn't make him look weaker. He wore a pair of dark, scuffed-up boots underneath a long, tattered black cloak that seemed to consume him, his clothes becoming shadows and his shadows becoming clothes, and the clothes becoming his form. No beginning and no end, lines blurred softly around the edges, as if he wasn't real.

He stood there quietly, eyeing me with an unreadable expression, letting my gaze have its fill. Finally, I said in something like surprise and genuine wonder, "Who are you?"

To my surprise, the man snorted. "Who am I?" he asked, a hint of incredulity beneath his blunt, matter-of-fact tone. "What do you mean? It's me." He spread his arms wide, his eyes dark, flashing. "I've been here all the time."

He stared at me for a long moment, and I stared back at him, genuinely trying to remember seeing him before... and drawing a blank. Finally, the man sighed and walked toward me slowly, his stance lazy. "You still can't hear me, huh? That's sad - and sad in the pathetic way, too. How many times do I have to say it till you hear me?" His voice was calm, but beneath his tone there was rough impatience and genuine frustration. He was still walking around near me slowly, circling as he thought aloud. I gazed at him, frowning, my eyes narrowed in thought.

He waved his arms eccentrically and added blandly, his tone somewhat sarcastic, "I mean, we belong together. No one in this world knows me better than you. What does that say?" He eyed me with blank, angry demand, as if genuinely waiting for an answer.

He reminded me a little bit of myself, and I got where he was coming from. But, "I'm sorry," I admitted, shrugging, giving him blunt honesty back. "I can't remember ever being friends with someone as old and gloomy as you, so -"

I broke off, my eyes widening in surprise, as all of a sudden he leaped up and jumped with a simple smooth motion onto the roof of the building above me - suddenly standing himself upright instead of sideways.

"Hey," I said, caught off-guard, "how did you do that?"

The man leaned toward me, his eyes widening slightly behind his glasses. "Weird place to be sitting," he said with mock earnestness, eyeing me up and down. "Seems like you might fall to me."

And then the force tethering me to the wall came out from under me, and I fell.

So I was falling faster and faster toward the ground, yelling my fucking head off, staring at the pavement coming closer and closer in horror - but then I felt myself falling slower, and slower, and I finally looked over to realize the man was flying downward beside me. "You still have enough strength to yell!" he called to me. "Very good! Don't worry, the Shinigami control death; you'll be fine!"

"I am not a Shinigami right now!" I yelled back to him, still angry and panicking.

"Oh yes, there is that little problem, isn't there?" he said sarcastically, and I glared at him, not in the mood for games.

The man sighed. "Look," he said, "can you feel the energy on this plane around you?" I reached my senses out - and realized I now had enough reiatsu that I could. I nodded quickly. "Feel out into the spare reiatsu around you, and use your own reiatsu to come to a halt! Like you used to do when you were a Shinigami, stopping in midair!"

I thought back and remembered quickly, trying to slow myself down with my reiatsu. It felt - stronger than it had just a while earlier. It was easier to slow myself down than I thought it would be. "You could hear that," I heard the man say in an exasperated mutter, but as I slowed myself down, I was concentrating inward. Had my Shinigami powers come back after all? I could feel my two layers of reiatsu, the sharpness to my power... my center pulsing within me...

And as I touched my center inward, expecting to feel that moving form coiled up inside, suddenly I felt a pulse outward... and I looked up slowly. The man had glanced up quickly and was eyeing me with renewed hope and determination.

A suspicion formed in the back of my mind...

"Try to stop yourself!" he called to me suddenly beside me, as we were still falling slowly. "Reach out into the air around you, and use the power from that center within to stop yourself completely, just as a Shinigami would! Ichigo," he looked me directly in the eye, and somehow I felt an automatic kind of steel and respect there, a feeling I'd never usually had before. "you're more of a Shinigami than you think. In order to destroy Kuchiki Byakuya's hold on you, you have to find your own inner Shinigami instead of the fake 'Shinigami' he took from you."

I was confused. "What -?"

"Listen to me!" I snapped my mouth shut at the sharp, angry command. His fathomless eyes were flashing again. "Kuchiki Byakuya aimed for the powers you gained from his sister when he attacked you. He assumed that if he eliminated those, he would eliminate all the power there was. He assumed you had no power of your own; he assumed you were weak." For a moment, the man's steely expression fell to reveal an expression halfway between a sneer and a smirk of amusement, but then iron necessity fell back over him and he pushed on, "He assumed. He was a fool. He never took away your own Shinigami powers!" The man's tone was triumphant. "Don't stare at me like you're so surprised, Ichigo, you've known it all along! You felt it the day Kuchiki Rukia transferred her powers to you! Already, there was power of your own there; she put her power into your core, and you did not use her power! This is vital; any ordinary human would have had to rely entirely on her power, but you merely reached out to it and snatched it up, you used it to shape and boost your own! Your reiatsu is not just strong; it's actually been inclined toward being a Shinigami the entire time! Now you have to find your power for yourself, Ichigo, and bring it out entirely on your own; now you have to be your own master!"

His voice had risen, deep and grand and powerfully steely, emotional - and then there was a huge rumble, a rippling across the surface of the world, a horrible, disconcerting tear inside of me. And above the man's head, I watched the world begin to crumble.

Great blocks of falling stone were falling from the huge skyscraper, which was crumbling, caving in before my very eyes... "Our world is dying, Ichigo," the man said quietly, eyeing me, the blocks falling past us and around him. "You are dying. I don't know how else to say it to you; I don't know how else to try to make you see that you need to find your Shinigami power, now. There is no more time to waste! One of these boxes falling through the sky right now contains your Shinigami powers, and the name for your zanpakutoh. You must find this box in order to find your powers and use them to support your inner world before it is destroyed."

I stared up at his carefully blank-faced ultimatum. We were in my inner world... I had a sneaking feeling he was my zanpakutoh... and only one of those falling, crumbling boxes contained the Shinigami powers needed to save Rukia - and me?

"H-how the hell do you expect me to find just one -?!" I shot back incredulously, but he shook his head fiercely.

"Stop making excuses!" he said. "You have a chance now, but it is not a very long one! If you do not find your Shinigami powers before our world is destroyed..." His face suddenly became sorrowful, almost angry. "You will become a Hollow," he admitted.

Then he stopped, but I was still falling amid my decaying world, those little blocks falling all around me. I stared around myself, wondering how it had come to this - alone and lost. There were hundreds of them. How on earth was I supposed to find one? My sensing abilities, and my control along with that, had always been my weakest point as a Shinigami. Ishida had actually outright said so when we'd first met...

Wait. Ishida! He'd said something else during that same meeting. Something about an easy way to tell Shinigami reiatsu from other kinds of reiatsu...

And then it came back to me. Did you know? The color of a Shinigami's reiraku is crimson.

My eyes widened. "That's it!" I yelled aloud, in sudden, fierce excitement and relief, and I reached my arms out around me, concentrated...

And all the hundreds of little blocks of reiatsu in the decaying city around me suddenly grew a white reiraku ribbon.

I searched through hundreds of soft white ribbons, reaching desperately, reaching, reaching... And there it was!

I grabbed a single crimson ribbon, tugged, and pulled the box to me; it opened up... And I paused. And everything else seemed to pause along with me.

Poking out from the box, which seemed to have no end, was a zanpakutoh hilt.

"You finally found me." I looked around to see the man standing behind me, looking relieved. "I wasn't sure you would," he admitted. "Now, you can finally know my name." And, for the first time, he looked anticipatory of what lay ahead of him.

I stared at him, wondering, finally voicing my question. "Hey..." I said slowly, "are you really..."

But just then, there was a pulse through the air and the world around us began to crumble in earnest and I could feel a strange tugging at my soul.

"What the hell are you doing?! Hurry up and pull me out!" the man barked, glaring around himself intensely.

I gritted my teeth, grabbed the hilt, and pulled - just as the world dissolved in a flash of white light.

I came back to myself, dazed, surrounded by smoke and dust, distant yelling. It took me a few moments to register what had happened. I was standing in what felt like Urahara's training area once more. I was wearing the garb of a Shinigami... but it felt... different... It feels like me, I registered. Not Rukia. My zanpakutoh - or, at least, its broken bit, hilt, and sheath - was strapped to my back once more. There was dust all around me, as if some great explosion has happened, and I realized I was standing and no longer bound. My power must have released me. Maybe that had something to do with all the yelling out beyond me.

More than that, though... I could feel something dark and empty on my face, clinging to it and blocking my vision, as if trying to suck out my energy. I realized I was still wearing a Hollow's mask, an eerie reminder of how close I had come to transforming. Just in case, I reached up and felt my chest momentarily. No hole. Not even the hole there had been when I was a plus. I could breathe and move easier again now, too.

Deep down, something inside me relaxed with relief.

I stepped forward, reaching behind myself blindly for the hilt of my sword as I did so. I swung it out, smashed it into my face sharply, and slowly, the pieces fell away.

Then I was just Shinigami. And I could see again.

The two kids were standing in front of me, Urahara behind them. They had tensed up, but were now half-relaxed, eyeing me staringly. Clearly, they thought I'd been about to become a Hollow and attack them. Behind them was what looked like the charred remnants of the hole that had once been my prison. It seemed as if in my power I had exploded outward and ended up coming to land before Sandal-Hat Urahara, Ururu, and The Brat.

Urahara's big assistant was also getting out of the hole slowly, looking somewhat burned and pained, as if he'd tried to confine me and had his kidou rejected. Despite myself, I felt a brief, vindictive gratification.

The four of them were staring at me.

"Hey," I said, staring back. I was out, and I was a Shinigami instead of a Hollow. Clearly, it had worked - I could even feel my two layers of energy out around me once more, and my soul center there in the middle of it all, that man shifting restlessly within my renewed soul world. I felt great. In fact, I was ready for phase three - which, hopefully, had something to do with finally learning my zanpakutoh spirit's goddamn name.

They were still staring at me. "... He... stopped a Hollow transformation," the boy finally murmured, still gaping incredulously. "And... he threw off Tessai's kidou..."

A bit slow on the up-take, weren't they? Now that I thought about it, I seemed to do an awful lot of things that weren't supposed to be possible. I wondered vaguely exactly how much more reiatsu I had than everyone else. Then I realized I didn't care, and the moment was over. As long as I was strong enough, that was good enough for me.

"Well!" Urahara finally said, beaming and coming forward like he hadn't just promised me a training session, sort of murdered me, stored my body somewhere, and then made it so that the only way I could get back to my body was by going through a process that almost made me into a Hollow but somehow happened to end up on Shinigami instead. "Congratulations! You're now a complete Shinigami and you pass test number two!"

I swung the hilt of my broken sword into his face and he swore stumbling back and clutching his eye. "Ow! Jesus! Hey!"

"I. Am going. To kill you," I said, with all the angry fervency that had built up inside me in the past three days.

He looked up. "Okay," he finally said brightly. "Well, with that kind of attitude, we can just move right onto phase three! How convenient!"

... What the hell.

"Test three is simply. No limits or rules. Just cut my hat away from me and you win!" he continued, shrugging happily and pointing at the hat on his head.

I had started moving before he'd even finished talking. Because by God, after the past three days I'd had, something was going to suffer.

I moved in front of him with my best speed, made up for the fact that my sword was dull and broken by pushing a roughly similar amount of my reiatsu into a sharp edge on its end, and swung. He only just managed to move back in time to avoid a huge cut down his whole body.

"Pretty good," he called once he was a safe few steps back, recovering. "For a broken sword to hold that much power is rather impressive."

"Of course!" I shouted back, my eyes narrowed and my confidence returning quickly. "Unfettered and serious, I can do just about anything if I put enough of myself into it! No limits?" I smirked viciously, letting myself float on an even, morally backed, razor-sharp edge of adrenaline. "Give me five minutes."

He tilted his head at me consideringly, his face suddenly quiet. "Is that so?" he asked softly. Then he lifted up his cane - the one he'd threatened me with just a few days ago, the one that had felt so strange - and began drawing a long sword out of it with its top. My eyes widened as I realized what I was feeling as he unsheathed it.

Its signature hidden by that strange piece of wood, a zanpakutoh had been within his cane the entire time.

... Just who was this Soul Society exile I'd asked to train me?

"Very well then," Urahara said evenly, a smirk of his own growing slowly over his face as he nodded to me. "Five minutes. Let's see you try to finish me off."

The first thing I registered was that he was a hell of a lot faster than I was, and he was still moving lazily and self-contained enough to be going easy on me.

Having learned my lesson with Abarai Renji, I stayed cautiously back, assessing him and backstepping quickly, as he swung that thin, sharp sword at me further and further, pushing me backward, tearing up the ground between us, and then leaping right over it agilely to come at me again. His eyes weren't bored anymore, but focused - calmly intent.

He had a zanpakutoh and I had a broken sword and a lot of reiatsu; he moved better than I did. It didn't take a genius to realize this wouldn't be as easy as I had bluffed. Then again, what was new?

"You're pretty good with that sword," I finally shot toward him, eyeing it with sardonic amusement.

"Aww, thanks," he said brightly, never taking his eyes off his target. Then, suddenly, he shot toward me and swung viciously and I just barely got out of the way in time. "But don't think that means I'm going easy on you!"

"Shit!" I swore outright as his attacks suddenly increased in speed, strength, and urgency, all at the same time. Giving up all pretense, I turned and started running, dodging the assaults on my back. It felt like the Ururu fight all over again, and I was getting really fucking sick of this.

Running as fast as I could, my face hard and set, trying to keep my senses out and think what to do to attack him back at the same time, I thought fast. His zanpakutoh would injure me if it actually hit, so whatever I did, I couldn't - but wait, was it really a zanpakutoh? It was obvious Urahara was not, or was not still, a Shinigami. Did he still even have a zanpakutoh, with the same power and abilities that a full-fledged Shinigami's did? Or was it just a sword with a lot of reiatsu?

Deciding to test this tentatively, figure out its properties, I paused, turned around, and only half-dodged away from his next attack - but, sure enough, a thin slice of blood and a flash of pain grazed across one side of my face. I took a couple of steps back, staring at him with cautious dread. It sure as hell felt like a zanpakutoh, which probably wasn't a good sign.

"You know," Urahara said, looking at me with wide-eyed thoughtfulness, "I don't think this bothers you enough. This whole fight. You're not as worried as you should be, because you think I'm not really a Shinigami, and a part of you even still believes I'm not really out to kill you. You know, Kurosaki-san... you really are very naive."

I blinked. Well, damn. It had been a while since I'd been called that.

Urahara glared at me icily and lifted his sword. "This is a one hundred percent real zanpakutoh - like I'd ever let go of my spirit sword. And, on top of that, I have all the high-level Shinigami training I need to defeat you."

I swallowed and took a step back, despite myself. I remembered Renji, and Rukia's asshole older brother Byakuya. I knew what that meant.

I'd have to learn my zanpakutoh's name in order to gain the power I needed to even compete with Urahara.

"The name," I whispered.

"That's right," Urahara said evenly, lifting up his thin blade. "Every zanpakutoh has a name. And this is hers." He pointed it at me, and I tensed, my eyes widening in panic. "Awaken, Benihime."

There was a split second's pause - and then an explosion outward that passed through the barrier of reiatsu I'd hastily erected in front of myself, knocked me off of my feet, and completely leveled the entire area around where the zanpakutoh had released. I shot to my feet just in time to block with my feeble sword remnants an impossibly fast, impossibly hard attack by the more reiatsu-intensive weapon Urahara now wielded: a small, sleek, slim silver sword with a razor-sharp edge, a strangely U-shaped cross-guard with a flower design in silver steel above it, and a hilt decorated with crimson cloth tassels. Even as I pushed back against it, I heard the small remnants of the sword at the end of my guard began to crack. I gritted my teeth and widened my stance, not able to duck away without Benihime swinging down on me.

"Instead of running away, you use even those small pieces to block," Urahara murmured, eyeing me with a focused lack of emotion. "I should compliment you. However... a broken sword is no match for Benihime."

He suddenly shoved against the blade and broke right through it - my eyes widened and I swore inwardly, stretching my arm out and bending to the side so that he pushed right over me - then he and Benihime were behind me, and I took off running, but he was suddenly in front of me, blocking me.

"Didn't I tell you," he asked, smirking, "that you're not strong enough yet?"

He was so close that I lashed out at him with the broken piece of sword, more on reflex than anything, and he dodged easily, still talking. "You have your Shinigami power back, but it is not solidified," he emphasized calmly. "That is why I can break your power so easily."

He slashed upward at my outstretched blade and crushed the remnants of the blade, slashing upward through half of the crossguard.

I retreated back, and then stared down at the remnants of my sword. There was barely anything to hold onto now. I was running out of anything - options had run out a while ago. But how did I ask my sword its name?

"What are you going to do?" Urahara asked me quietly, echoing my thoughts. "Do you still want to use that to beat me? Do you really think that's going to work, even to take off my hat? What was all your talk earlier - about how you can do anything?"

I could - in theory. But how...? When I tried to direct a thought toward that broken thing, I just felt stupid. The spirit was still moving restlessly within me, but it was like that strange block was up between us again; every time I tried to direct a thought, it didn't even seem to go anywhere.

"You can't just solve this with guts and intuition, Kurosaki-san." I looked up at Urahara's quiet voice to find him staring at me matter-of-factly. "And if you continue fighting with that broken sword, I am afraid I'm really going to have to kill you."

The way he said it was so brutally honest that once more, I had to face the fact that I was probably actually going to die.

And it was because the man who had promised to train me thought I was too weak to be useful for anything after all.

Swearing inwardly, my mind stunned and stuttering, I took off running on reflex - not because I thought it would do anything at this point, but because it was all I could think of to do. Sure enough, he appeared in front of me again - he swung at me - I ducked and stumbled backward -

This was humiliating. Frustrating. Infuriating. But what else could I do? Helpless. I hated this.

I took off running again. I probably looked like a moron. It was like I wasn't even thinking anymore. What the hell would running do? But what else was I going to do? Stand there and let him get me?

Why was I always running from something - whether it was expectations, people tougher than me, memories, or myself? Why the constant running in circles, knowing I wasn't getting anywhere? What was the point?

There were so many things I wanted to do, but I didn't know how to get there to do them.

Was I really just... stupid? Weak? Never giving up, and never getting anywhere? Was this what all the fighting, all the trying, all the realizations and revelations and hopes had come down to? This?

Was there nothing else I could do to push past this?

Was this it?

And as the question echoed down to the deepest depths of my soul - the deepest parts of who I was - finally, something answered me.

A voice echoed within my mind, No... you... but you... It was staticky, fading in and out, this vital answer, this deep smooth voice - a very familiar voice.

I looked up, and stopped completely, stunned.

It was the blurry-edged, black-cloaked, bespectacled, steely-faced middle-aged man with the dark hair. The one from my soul world. He was standing right there in front of me, eyeing with that same repressedly angry frustration and longing to be out there.

The same frustration that I finally realized was echoing within me.

"You... you're that old guy..." I murmured.

He cut across me, as usual. "Why are you running, Ichigo?" he asked me with blunt hardness. "I am you. I have your memories. And I, for one, am tired of walking away, tired of hiding in the shadows, tired of running. With me, you don't need to run anymore. So why haven't you called on me yet?"

I stared at him - this was his offer, my zanpakutoh's spirit. And this was what I had needed to ask him for to see him here with me all along. I had been running from something, or fighting someone stronger than me, for my entire life in one way or another. Sometimes I'd run from one thing just to fall, willingly, straight into the arms of another, pushing my way through it all with sheer determination and a lost head, pushed past the point of being able to care - just from all the running. Just from all the hating fear. But this was my power's offer: that I wouldn't have to run around in frustrating, pointless circles any longer. That I wouldn't have to run from things stronger than me anymore.

"Listen, Ichigo. You should be able to hear me now," the old man counseled, watching me with careful intentness. "The things that have been blocking your ears are those worthless emotions of uncertainty and fear. But as long as you have confidence in me - as long as you stop running - you should be able to hear me. You should be fine."

Stop running. Stop worrying, fuck all the consequences, and just... stop and wait. Trust in my attack, and attack. It was - extremely simple. Almost too much so.

But I had seen what the spirit could do once before. So, slowly, I relaxed. I stopped the hectic rush and I just waited. Listening - trusting - letting my desire to fight fill me.

I felt, rather than heard, the spirit creep up behind me and lay a hand on my shoulder. "There is only one of the enemy," he whispered into my ear, sibilant and suddenly less human, indistinct, "and there is only one of you. Which is quite a thing, since we are the stronger, you and I." There was the kind of arrogance in his tone that came from one stating a satisfying fact. "Forget that fear. Forget that former life. You have a new life as a warrior ahead of you now - as a fighter. Walk forward, never stop. Look only ahead at the path you walk, for I am walking it with you. Turning back makes one sick and old and frustrated! Cowardice causes death! Ichigo, you know this to be true!"

And - right there at the fundamental part of my soul that made me who I was - I did. I felt a rush of fire suddenly lit within me. Steeling myself, wondering why I hadn't done this ages ago, I heard him whisper, heard him clearly, "Say it! My name is...!"

And I heard it. Just me, the only person in the world who could - I heard it. It made sense, fit perfectly, all the pieces fell into place, my two reiatsus suddenly wielded together into one giant, expanded, heavy force, and I...

I did not feel high. Not unstable. There was strength there, and honest simplicity, and the knowledge that I could do this, that I could do anything I wanted to do, that I was a fighter and perhaps always had been, and that I was going to save Rukia.

It was natural; it had always been there. I was the strongest, or if not I was able to make it so, and that was simply all there was to it. Strong... yet stable.

I whirled around as if I'd been doing it all my life - the spirit was nowhere to be seen, but I could feel him inside the blade, waiting in eager anticipation - I lifted my chin to the paused, assessing Urahara, and I said with fierce firmness, "Zangetsu!"

It echoed across the arena, my zanpakutoh's name.

And then the world exploded once more, the greatest of all times.

(But within my hand, I could feel my sword growing. Changing.)

As I felt it becoming bigger and bigger (how large was it?) I had to tilt it blade-end down, standing it upright before me and keeping a hand on the handle. My reiatsu was flowing with new strength, new control and efficiency, as a single universal force within me. I could feel the walls that had been erected around my soul world falling down, the spirit of Zangetsu connecting intimately with my own; an incredible feeling, a rush of rightness had filled me.

I was the first to see my zanpakutoh's released form, and it made a smirk grow over my face, though as the smoke that had risen around me cleared, I saw Urahara - who'd had to stick Benihime into the ground to keep himself where he was through my zanpakutoh's explosion - and Tessai, Ururu, and Bratty Kid - who seemed to have been bowled over and tossed away by the force of my release - start and stare at its form as well.

It was an oversized, elegantly curved cleaver - as tall and wide as me - sleek, sharp edged, and silver. As I tilted it slightly, I saw that when the light shone on it, it almost seemed to darken toward black instead of refract the light from the fake "sun" of the training room above. It had no sheath - the one on my back had dissolved away into nothing - and no guard or cross-guard at all, which, along with the long handle sticking out of it, made it look a bit like a life-sized knife. The handle itself was wrapped in white cloth, like the bandages my Dad used at his hospital, except it was a single long strip of soft white silk that was long enough to wrap around the handle so many times the metal beneath it was no longer visible. The end of the white cloth came out and hung down from the end of the handle, swaying elegantly. I wondered if I used it to strap this... Zangetsu, he had a name... to my back once a fight was over - just tying the wrap in front of me and hauling the sword around from behind.

As if in response to my thought, the wrap got longer. Curious, I concentrated - it shortened again. I reached up and tugged on it; it didn't budge. I tugged on it again, this time with the intent of tearing it - it tore off, and then the remaining ribbon grew to its usual length.

Huh, I thought. Handy.

I... liked it. A lot. Elegant, yet simple and almost blunt. More unique the longer you looked at it. Strong. Practical. (Well, mostly - it was also almost boastfully and quite distinctly humongous.) I'd been worried, somewhere in the back of my mind where I had time to worry about anything these days, that my zanpakutoh release would be something strange or complicated or difficult or unrecognizable. I felt a touch of ironic, dry amusement from my link to Zangetsu, startling me faintly... and I realized that really was kind of ridiculous. This thing was supposed to be a part of me, wasn't it? Something even Urahara had never let go of in his exile from his former life as a powerful Shinigami, as important as his secret political connections to his former world, or perhaps even moreso. It was a part of who he was, a part of his power. And Zangetsu was a part of my own power. The thought was... strangely comforting.

Never having to run again, indeed, I thought, noticing the way my reiatsu was thrumming through me with new strength and happiness despite its recent ordeal.

I had picked the blade up slightly, but I realized that the reiatsu flowing cleanly and ironly through it was still shimmering, connected, to the earth faintly. This whole chamber must be made of reiatsu. I pulled Zangetsu up further, curious, and it disconnected - simply mine now. I looked it over once more, strangely amused by the possessive thought, but doing my best not to show it.

I knew I was being watched carefully by the other four, and it irritated me.

"Compared with the last sword, this one doesn't look nearly as impressive. It has no guard, you can't even see the handle... and look at that blade, nothing traditional or special about it. Just big and brawny. The last one really was better," I distinctly heard Tessai mutter uncertainly to Brat One and Brat Two.

I felt Zangetsu stir within my soul, both darkly, ironly angry and viciously eager to prove them wrong - I imagined him sharpening his claws like a cat would, preparing himself for an all-out assault. But beneath my own indignation, I had to resist the urge to snort at the narrow-minded elitism.

Tessai had no idea how much stronger I was now than I had been a few minutes ago.

Maybe it was time to acknowledge that.

My expression unreadable and considering, I looked up at Urahara. He immediately smiled brightly, his eyes completely blank - same old routine, I was starting to recognize. He was about to announce the next phase of his 'training.' "Well!" he said. "That's very good! Now that your own zanpakutoh has also appeared, let's restart phase three, officially this time!"

... Really? He still wanted us to fight? I tilted my head at him curiously. Fine by me. Zangetsu seemed to agree.

"My apologies, Urahara-san," I said sincerely, lifting Zangetsu up before me - it was easy and natural in my grasp. I lifted my eyebrows frankly, my expression serious, more at ease and confident than I had been in a few months. "But this time you're the one who will have to retreat."

"Eh?" Urahara said, still beaming brightly, his eyes watching me with blank analysis.

"I think," I said simply, steeling myself, "it's time for me to stop holding back."

My reiatsu soared, exploding out from within me, as I leaped suddenly from the ground, impossibly fast, and shot toward him, Zangetsu in hand. I saw his eyes widen in panic; I'd managed to startle even him with my newfound speed - I saw him, surprisingly slow, raising Benihime and yelling out, "Chikasumi no Tate!" - but it was too late, Zangetsu was coming down on him -

I ripped through his hat and knocked it clean off his head, but before Zangetsu could go further and cut down through his arm (I deviated away from his head; no reason to kill him) a crimson wall of reiatsu shot up, glowing, from Benihime's blood-colored guard strings. I was knocked away, but I landed easily on my feet and slid just a few paces away, Zangetsu calm and distinctly more smug in my hand. Not too much, though - There's no point in getting so arrogant you lose sight of what's in front of you, and I was startled at the realization that we'd both just had the same thought.

Back in the real world - well, relatively speaking - I saw that Urahara was just lowering his sword slowly, the transparent wall of crimson reiatsu still guarding him. I had cracked it from the force of Zangetsu, I realized.

"... Well," Urahara said slowly, and there was a faint note of impressment in his voice; his tone was no longer fake, blank, and cheerful. "If it weren't for her Blood Mist Shield," he gestured to Benihime and then nodded at the red energy shield before him, "I might have lost an arm just now. That surpassed even my expectations."

He said this honestly, as if considering the implications. Then he looked down at his hat, made a face, and bent down to pick it up.

"Really," he said in a slightly miffed tone, the energy shield dissipating into nothingness before him, "you even managed to put a tear in my hat." He dusted it off before putting it back on his head, nonetheless.

As he did so, I noticed a sudden jarring in my vision - it went double, then single, then double again; my ears began ringing. I swayed on my feet slightly and then dropped to my knees. Distantly, wondering what was going on but almost used to this by now, I stuck Zangetsu into the ground and leaned against him to stay upright for support. I registered my reiatsu overwhelming my body. Stretching itself out, needing time to regularize itself once more with its incredibly sudden new make-up and environment. My body seemed to be shutting down in response. It wasn't nearly as bad a sensation as it used to be. As long as you went with the flow instead of struggling against it, I realized, it was actually warm and kind of nice...

"Really, Kurosaki-san," I heard Urahara sigh as I passed out, "you are one scary kid."

I woke up a few hours later, to the hardest week of training I had ever had. And that was saying something.

For the rest of the week, during which Urahara put me through basic battle training with Zangetsu and my Shinigami form, I trained almost nonstop. Our only pauses were to eat or to sleep, which I now needed even in my soul form. The rest of the time, we were constantly at work in the training chamber. I got to know the other members of the Urahara Shouten as they sat back and watched, or sometimes assisted us, though I was always a little leery of the big weird one, Tessai, and the obnoxious bratty kid, Jinta. Meanwhile, time passed in the world outside as well - though, strangely, I noticed that time seemed to work differently in Urahara's training chamber. Only a week passed outside, but inside we actually seemed able to train for a long time. I wondered privately if Urahara had somehow given us more time to train than we would have ordinarily had when he made his most recent "invention."

I also found out during the subsequent week that I had too much reiatsu to fit Zangetsu back into an unreleased form. (I found, too, that Zangetsu disliked the idea of being "put away", anyway, which could have had something to do with my inability to turn my zanpakutoh back into an unreleased form.) So I just kept it out and released all the time, which felt much less confining; I strapped it to my back with that white ribbon tie and then pulled it out like it was sheathed when I wanted to use it. (Both the kids just shook their heads and stared at me incredulously when I told them this in response to their know-it-all questioning; apparently, both my ability to keep my released form out all the time and my quick learning capacity were "amazing" - whatever that meant.)

But I didn't have much time or energy to spare focusing on things such as this. Most of my time was spent training like crazy with Sandal-Hat Urahara, who ran me through the mill: He taught me how to expand on the basics of my original swordsmanship training (and how to utilize my ambidextrousness with a blade). He taught me to work with my specific zanpakutoh and utilize what its form was naturally inclined to do, and about the importance of ki, ki summoning, and willpower to win. Most of all, he taught me how to fight other Shinigami, the training they went through and how I should respond. It all had a stylized, rigidly traditional air that still managed to surprise me, though at this point it probably shouldn't have. At the same time all this was going on, I was re-establishing at least the old control I'd once had over my reiatsu and sensing abilities.

I trained particularly hard, because in spite of people telling me I was "amazing", I was about to go try to fight a bunch of high-level Shinigami like the ones who had kicked my ass just a few weeks ago. (I didn't have any illusions they'd send the weaklings out after me if I managed to invade.) I had to be more than "amazing" by the standards of a human with special abilities or a low-level Shinigami with lost powers; I had to be "amazing" by the standards of Shinigami like Sandal-Hat Urahara, Abarai Renji, and Rukia's brother Captain Byakuya. And as far as I could tell, by the standards of those Shinigami who actually mattered power-wise, I hadn't been doing that great so far. So I just tried to gauge myself against Urahara and keep up with him - and that guy could be calm, powerful, focused, and deadly serious when he wanted to be. Then when I got to the Soul Society, I figured I'd just have to do the same thing for every strong opponent I fought - judge how good they seemed, and then get better accordingly. Kinesthetic learning. I'd done it in the streets; I could do it again.

But finally came the day when my training was over. I asked Urahara, slightly anxiously, if this would be good enough to save Rukia, as they brought my preserved body back out to me. Urahara told me simply, "That's up to you, Kurosaki-san," and I realized that my training really was over. And he was probably right.

I fit back into my form, woke up... it was surreal after all this time to feel like a human again. Even more surreal to realize that despite having a body and a soul that fit in conjunction with each other perfectly, I was still, technically, dead. My body felt unchanged; though my soul adjusted to its confines after a moment, Ifelt irrevocably different.

As I was led back up the ladder, to the strangely normal interior of the Urahara Shouten... and then back out into the city street of outer Karakura once more... Urahara told me to go back home; they'd send me a message when he was finished creating the back door to Soul Society. He got an excited, proud, slightly crazed light in his eyes when he declared this. I supposed it happened to Urahara whenever he broke the laws of the universe. Despite myself, I could kind of see why the guy was exiled, especially from a place as rule-savvy as the Soul Society.

So I walked slowly back home. There was again that bizarre sense of normality when I walked inside my house and Yuzu exploded in excited, cheerful relief, hugging me; Karin asked me with raised eyebrows if my friend lived in China, I'd really been gone for a whole week. (I didn't usually do the whole sleepover thing, so I could see why she thought my excuse was weird, even as her sharp observation made me uncomfortable.)

I went up to my room, and there was Kon, leaping out from under my bed and clinging completely to my leg as only a stuffed animal probably could. I looked down at him with raised eyebrows as he told me he'd been so lonely he'd wandered out of the room and almost been attacked by Yuzu again. To my bemused amusement, Kon really did seem to qualify the frilly way Yuzu dressed her dolls and stuffed animals as torture.

Out of idle curiosity, I asked him what he was going to do when I left to the Soul Society for the summer. He shuddered, shook his head blankly, and said, "I have no idea. Take a trip, maybe. How likely do you think it would be that I could make it out of the house and sneak onto a bus without anyone noticing?"

Blinking, I told him I wasn't sure.

And, for a few days, life was just... like that. Just summer vacation. I got up late (a far cry from my time training), spent the day with my sisters, or called my friends and spent the day with them. I even did Konsoh on a few ghosts I came across. I experienced once more that strange sense that life moved on, no matter what happened. I had never dealt with such a phenomenon before, especially not so calmly, and inwardly I wasn't quite sure how to take it.

One night a few days after I had gotten back home, the summer fireworks festival was happening in Karakura. Between Keigo, Mizuiro, and my family, it was inevitable that everyone - everyone meaning myself, Tatsuki, Inoue, Chad, and all of them - would be dragged out to it. I tried to seem annoyed, but mostly I was just exasperated and relieved. I had wondered if I'd get to spend time with all of them again before I had to leave for the Soul Society.

We all met at 6:30, around sunset, before the front steps leading up to the riverside pavilion where the festival was being held. Keigo was his usual enthusiastic self. "The long-awaited festival is here!" he cheered, throwing up his hands and attempting to inject a party-like atmosphere.

"Well, you're very excited tonight," Mizuiro commented with blank, smiling cheerfulness, as if this was anything new.

"Of course! How could I not be?!" Keigo called, grinning. He looked around to the rest of us. "Right?!"

I raised my eyebrows in dry amusement, Yuzu and Karin nodded willingly enough gazing eagerly behind him to the lights and distant music above, Chad was his usual reticent self but he didn't seem unhappy to be here, and Inoue and Tatsuki were already standing off to the side, chatting. "Absolutely!" Dad said, as if he were personally proud of Keigo's enthusiasm.

Reminding myself about my promise never to let these two meet, I told myself I'd have to keep an eye on them during the festival.

"Also, I have seats that we've been saving since seven in the morning! We had another family watch them while we came back and got dressed!" Dad announced, grinning, putting an arm around each kimono'd daughter. They smiled and nodded eagerly. I stared at the three of them. That was where they'd been this morning?

... Wasn't that a little extreme for an annual fireworks festival?

My friends and my family all excitedly made plans (with me and Chad, who stood quietly back and watched the whole thing, included) to head over to the seats in front of the show and set down our stuff; from there, we could go look through the different stalls. To my mild embarrassment, Dad cheerfully asked Tatsuki and Inoue if they wanted to come along too - he even called them "you lovely young ladies" - but they looked mildly amused and uncertain, and Tatsuki said they'd be around later. As everyone else charged off toward the steps and the festival, I hung back for a moment to talk with the two girls.

"I'd better go after them and make sure they don't hurt themselves," I joked dryly. Inoue smiled and Tatsuki raised her eyebrows and shook her head. "Hey, sorry it's always like this, Tatsuki," I added - she'd known my father, Keigo, and Mizuiro long enough now that it had probably stopped being funny ages ago. Tatsuki got just as drained by people who were both overenthusiastic and really bizarre as I did. "You don't actually have to hang around my Dad and my elementary school aged sisters if you don't want to." I realized I was concerned, despite myself, about what she thought, even after we'd been friends again for all this time. The thought surprised me briefly.

Tatsuki blinked at me, and then her expression formed into one of wry amusement. "It's fine," she said, shooing me away in gentle exasperation. "I can handle your Dad, and you know I like your sisters; we'll be along in a while. We just want to hang out first." You worry too much, her tone said easily, the old line, and I smiled a little despite myself as she waved me away.

The festival was as it was every year. We saved our places - they were good seats, I could admit to myself privately, even if it was insane to have woken up at six in the morning just to get them - and then went out to look around the stalls amid all the other dressed up people and the snatches of music that came from lit up stores along the avenue. Then in late evening, we came back with Tatsuki and Orihime in tow to sit and watch the huge bursts of fireworks that marked the end of the festival. Everyone clapped at the end, and people around me were cheering like crazy.

But it was important to me this year for another reason. I'd had the realization - with a strange mixture of gentle sadness and bittersweetness - that this might be the last time in my life I was ever normal like this. It might even be the last time any of them saw me alive, or I saw them. If I did die, Urahara would probably just fix memories and scenes to make it look like some sort of living-world sickness or accident. The realization that came alongside this was that I couldn't tell any of them this information; it would get them too involved in my own dangerous mess and that wouldn't be fair to them.

So, in my own quiet way, I just tried to act normal, enjoy this time. And, as I had during the last few days, I tried to say or do honest things to people that I might not ordinarily have said. I tried, subtly, to show my exasperated amusement and quiet, genuine care toward Keigo and Mizuiro. My camaraderie with Chad. My apologetic, but closer and understanding friendship, even my admiration in certain ways, with Tatsuki. My newly found, distant, but kind friendship with Inoue, who met my eye a few times during the festival and opened her mouth, looking torn and curious, but then smiled and shook her head bittersweetly, as if reminding herself; I always gives her a silently grateful look in return for that, because she really was one of the nicest and most patient people I knew. My child/irritating little brother relationship with Kon. My distant exasperation and understanding of a sort with Don Kanonji, who came around often because he was now teaching Yuzu and Karin the basics of how to control their spirit power, which I figured couldn't be a bad thing. I spent time with and took care of my sisters - especially at the festival tonight, where I took them around to the stalls and put up with all their hyperactivity as they ate too much sugar and Dad tried to yank them enthusiastically toward different exhibits.

I even tried to be nicer toward my father with our new understanding, though Dad was still so naturally exasperating that I lost my temper with him a lot. Dad never seemed to care much, laughing it off more easily and understandingly than he used to be able to, and maybe that was normal too.

I tried to look for Ishida at one point, but Ishida was never around and Inoue told me in quiet concern that Ishida wasn't showing up for any handicraft club meetings and seemed to have been mostly confined to his apartment in the past week or two. Then again, that didn't surprise me terribly; Ishida needed to heal from Abarai Renji almost killing him.

And Ishida, of all people, knew the fight I had ahead of me.

It was dawn by the time Dad and I were walking back to our house from the festival. Dad was a little tipsy and had a stupid-looking mask hanging off of his head, his kimono sloppy below it. I was carrying Karin and Yuzu home on my back; they were both carrying balloons, and had fallen asleep a while ago.

"Why the hell is it always me who ends up carrying them?" I muttered to myself, but then I looked over at Dad grinning and swaying along happily beside me and I remembered. Oh yeah. Because he's too irresponsible. The thought was irritating.

"It's okay!" he cheered beside me. "You can enjoy the feeling of your little sisters clinging close to you! You know, they didn't wear any underwear under their kimono..." He began giggling uncontrollably, and then backed away quickly, shouting that it had just been a joke, as I started coming at him in a flash of sudden fury.

I took a deep breath, a tick going under my right eye, and forced myself to look away and burst off down the street. That old man was going to be the death of me. My blood pressure had to be about five times higher than was normal just from living with him!

"You're a sick freak!" I called over my shoulder after him. "And I can't believe you let them try that sake at the festival! What the hell are you trying to do to your daughters?!"

There was no answer behind me, and Dad began humming drunkenly to himself again after a few moments. I swore, the older I got, the worse he got. For a moment, I wondered if he felt less responsible the more I could look after them... Shitty excuse. It sounded like him.

Then I sighed and puffed out a breath as I realized soberingly that soon I might not be around to look after Karin and Yuzu anymore. In some ways, I wasn't much better than Dad. And, my own inner guilt at this thought aside, it also reminded me of what I'd been (uselessly) putting off announcing.

"Dad... I'm going to visit one of my friends from school again... We'll be going on a trip... I don't know if I'll be back before summer ends this time," I forced myself to admit.

I kept looking straight at the road ahead of me as his humming stopped. Then he said loudly, "Well, if you meet any cute girls, remember to introduce them to me, okay?!" and I relaxed, a strange sort of relief running through me at his obliviousness.

Then again, he was still the drunken idiot who might have to look after my sisters until they were old enough to be independent, thinking adults. I looked at him sideways dubiously. It wasn't exactly an impressive sight.

"What?" he said, grinning as he caught me watching him. "Don't worry so much, Ichigo! I'll take care of everything at the house!" He lifted his hands triumphantly. "Nothing will harm my family whilst I am here!" Drama... usually meant he was actually being genuine. That was... slightly better.

"Don't be ridiculous," I murmured, looking away and off down the street, sad for a moment. "I'm not worried," I lied.

I wouldn't miss my world. Of course not.

The next evening, I was sitting on my bed next to the open window, eyeing the outside with tense expectation and some amount of suspicion. Urahara had said that seven days from when I left, I should keep the window open at one AM and "wait for his message." I had my doubts about Urahara, of all people, sending a message that needed to be lobbed through an open window. My senses were out and wary...

I looked over as I felt something with reiatsu suddenly speeding toward my window. I ducked out of the way, and a huge ball of something went splat! against the wall of my closet. The reiatsu-infested paint twisted itself into dripping, creepy-looking crimson words.

Please meet me at the Urahara Shop immediately...

"What the hell?!" I had gotten to my feet, glaring at it, mildly freaked out. "It looks like it's written in blood! Will that shit even wash off?!"

Then, suddenly, another message appeared below the first. Kurosaki-san, it said, you have no sense of humor.

I glared in exasperation and threw a pillow at the message. Christ.

A few minutes later, I had my night bag over my shoulder and was creeping quietly through the silent house in my socks. I put my shoes on in the entryway, then paused and looked back once at the house, as if trying to memorize it. Maybe, in some way, I was.

"Goodbye, Yuzu, Karin, Dad," I murmured. "I'm off."

I slipped out of the house and into the night.

I had just made it to the front fence, however, when I heard Dad's voice boom out suddenly behind me. "Good morning, Ichigo!" he called with pointed cheerfulness, and I whirled around and dodged just in time to see him try to give me one last good "father son bonding" martial arts attack.

I stared at him as he stumbled around and then turned to grin at me. "Well!" he said dramatically. "You are my son!" Then quickly, as if forcing it all out before he could stop himself, he added, "I wanted to give you this before you left," and shoved something into my hand, looking away, beaming determinedly.

I stared down at it with raised eyebrows. "A cheap little safety charm... on a chain?" I asked, blinking at it in the light of the lamp posts behind me in bewilderment.

"Don't call it cheap!" I looked up, surprised at his indignant vehemence. "You mother gave that to me!" he defended himself, frowning.

My eyes widened and my hand tightened around the charm involuntarily. Then, determinedly, I shoved it back toward him. "W-w-well then, what the hell are you talking about? You can't give me this!" I insisted, strangely angry.

"Of course I'm not giving it to you!" Dad boomed, glaring right back at me in a way he hadn't done in a while. "I'm only giving it to you while you're gone! Make sure to return it when you come back!"

I gazed at him for a moment, holding it, my eyes wide and unusually open in a way they hadn't been for a long time. Then, clearing my throat gruffly, I looked away. There was a moment of silence. Once the yelling was past, neither of us had been very good with words, but for a moment it was almost as if we were on the same page and the charm was saying something important between us.

Dad finally snapped, "Well, answer me already! If you lose it, I'll have to shave my beard; I promised!" And for a moment he sounded like his old self.

Strangely, I had to resist the urge to smile for a moment, sad and happy at the same time in a way I couldn't quite explain.

"... Oh," I replied. "Well then..." What should I say? "I promise not to lose this," I said first, because that was easiest, and I hung it around my neck under my shirt for emphasis. "And I promise to return it to you," I worded carefully after a while, which was true. Somehow, I'd find a way to get it back to him... and even if it wouldn't be directly from my hands that it was given, that return would be from me.

Hopefully it would be directly from me. But I couldn't at all guarantee that.

Unable to look at him or say anything more, I turned, walked through the gate, and hurried off down the street. Glad, for a moment, that Kurosaki Isshin was my father.

I was only running for a little while when I met up with, of all people, Inoue. She was running from another street, sprinted out from behind an alley, and we almost ran into each other in surprise, there in the middle of the dark, silent intersection.

"Inoue!" I said in surprise.

"Kurosaki-kun! Uhh... hi," she said, smiling with determined serenity. Beneath her smile, she seemed troubled.

"What's wrong?" I blurted out stupidly, the first thing that popped into my head - but really, what else was one supposed to say in a situation like this?

"Oh, i-it's nothing, I was just..." She looked away and sighed, "I was told I have no sense of humor."

She sounded so downcast that I had to resist the urge to laugh. "You too, huh? So, wait, you got a message from -?" My surprised mind was finally catching up to me.

"Urahara-san." She nodded, looking at me nervously. "... Yeah."

"But how -? You've been in contact with him," I realized, my eyes widening. "You want to come with me." There was no other reason he would have contacted her now.

I stared at her, for a moment touched beyond words that she would be willing to give up everything... just for me and Rukia. She looked down and blushed.

"Yes," she confirmed, clenching her hands in her skirt. "I am coming with you."

"Are you sure? B-but how would you...?" I trailed off awkwardly, not sure how to tell her she didn't have any Shinigami powers to fight with.

"Kurosaki-kun..." she began, and then took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. "I haven't been entirely honest with you," she admitted. "It is true that for a while now, around the time you became a Shinigami, I have begun to be able to see spirits... Spirits like you in your Shinigami form. So have Sado-kun and Tatsuki-chan," she revealed, and my eyes widened in something like shock. "Urahara-san thinks it's all the close contact you had with us while your Shinigami powers were forming, that it unlocked some sort of dormant reiatsu within us as well, power that should only have shown up after we'd died. I... don't really understand it very well. But anyway, Tatsuki-chan and I were talking about the fact that we could see these things - we didn't know yet that Sado-kun could too - but we didn't know what to do about it and didn't know if we should ask you anything about what we'd seen. Having reiatsu irritated Tatsuki-chan; she said ghosts were really annoying in the way they popped up everywhere," she added, giggling, and I resisted the urge to laugh incredulously along with her, just because that was so Tatsuki and this was completely impossible. My life was virtually turned on its head in every possible way now - nothing normal was left. I couldn't believe all three of them had seen me in the skies over Karakura all that time, and had enough faith in me not to say anything.

"Then there was this one day... you and Ishida-kun were fighting; Urahara-san told us about that later... and all these Hollows had begun to fall from the sky," Inoue continued. "I was attacked by one and I unlocked a sort of... power... with my reiatsu while I was trying to defend myself. Sado-kun was attacked, too; he unlocked a sort of set of reiatsu powers at the same time I did. We weren't together, though. He was trying to protect your sister Karin, who was playing at the nearby park, and I..." She looked down and bit her lip. "I was trying to protect Tatsuki-chan.

"Tatsuki-chan and your sister don't have the kind of natural reiatsu levels that me and Sado-kun do... or something like that. But anyway, when we were attacked and wanted desperately to defend someone, something inside our reiatsu... activated. For me, it was on campus. Tatsuki-chan and I and one of our girlfriends Chizuru were still at school. We'd gotten in trouble because Chizuru, well, she's a lesbian and she's always flirting with me, and Tatsuki got angry with her because she invaded my personal space, and they made such a big noise that the teacher gave us detention after school," Inoue revealed sheepishly, and I raised my eyebrows in bewilderment. She turned a little red and continued, "Uh, well anyway! A Hollow appeared on the rooftop, and I knew those were dangerous monsters, but Tatsuki-chan didn't have enough reiatsu to see it, and Chizuru couldn't sense it at all. I tried to get them to ditch and all get away and go to my apartment together, quickly, but they were bickering like they always do, and Tatsuki had to go to the bathroom and we were dawdling and then I looked over and the Hollow was gone!"

Inoue looked troubled, and I felt helpless and angry and frightened that I hadn't known about any of this, but she said, "Then it was above us and it attacked the school and it had this... power... where it could force things into people's bodies and control them. Even Chizuru. And the Hollow sent everyone around the school to attack me since I was the strongest! But then Tatsuki-chan came out of the bathroom and she stood in front of me and defended me from them - she knew something weird and spiritual was going on, she just didn't know what - and Tatsuki-chan was so great! She used her martial arts moves to take out each of them super-fast, and even when she was tired, she just kept grinning determinedly and calling out, 'Next! Next! Next! Why can't you give me stronger opponents?!'"

I snorted despite myself, torn between pain and pride because I could picture that, and Inoue smiled gently. "Tatsuki-chan was great... but then... there finally became too many of them and they dragged us apart. Tatsuki-chan became one of them, too, the Hollow put the thing in her forehead and she was bleeding... And as it made her attack me, she managed to pause herself. She managed to push back at the Hollow's control and she told me to run away and she looked so scared and upset... And I thought... 'Tatsuki-chan is always protecting me. For once, I am going to protect Tatsuki-chan.'"

Inoue smiled a small, wavering smile at my expression. "And then... it was like my powers answered me. Through these." And, to my surprise, she waved to the hair clips her brother had given her.

"They can become these little fairy people... others just see them as lights... and there are ones to make shields and ones to heal and one to attack. I just have to call their names. And I saved Tatsuki-chan! I destroyed the Hollow! But then Urahara-san came and wiped everyone's memories, fixed all the damage... and he pulled me away. I met up with Sado-kun, who he'd also pulled away after Sado-kun unlocked his own powers against the Hollow trying to attack your sister." So that was where Urahara had been before Rukia had run to get him during my fight with Ishida. "He told us in his little shop about what was going on, and that he had a sort of cat with a human personality and reiatsu abilities... Its name is Yoruichi." She looked bewildered, but I was less surprised. Urahara Sandal-Hat would know a sentient spirit-training cat. "And that Yoruichi could train us. And then, when the time came for that, he came to us again where we were training with Yoruichi-san one day after school, and told us we could help you fight when you get to the Soul Society. We agreed to come help you save Rukia... and so did Ishida-kun..." She gave a small, shy smile at my further surprise. "But Ishida-kun insisted his own training had to be private. That's why he hasn't been around.

"Because we all want to come with you and help you fight the Soul Society," she finished, looking at me and giving a small, determined smile.

They had all agreed to risk everything... thrown aside all their life's logic and adapted to this incredible story... just for me? Just for Rukia? I was still lost for words; I couldn't get over it. And then Tatsuki's fighting, and how chillingly close the Hollows had been to Karin, who I now couldn't believe had noticed nothing, and how - even with those memories of the day of the Menos Grande gone - I had to believe both of them must have been wondering secretly about me, somewhere in the back of their minds, for so long, and still they'd had faith, still said nothing... Even at the festival just yesterday... Chad and Inoue, too, had been training secretly in their powers all that time in their personal lives, and had never said a word because I was obviously busy with other things.

I was honored, for a moment, to have the family and friends that I did. It was a strange, sappy feeling, and I rushed away from it.

"So... when you encouraged me that afternoon after our last day of school..." I remembered distantly.

Inoue smiled with sheepish apology. "I wanted to help you," she confirmed. "I just... didn't want to give away too much." She shrugged.

I just stared at her wordlessly for a moment, realizing that what I was feeling now... it was respect. "And you're sure?" I confirmed one last time. "You're sure you want to do this? You know the risks?"

I'd never have let her before, not really... But after that explanation, I almost felt like she deserved to. If she really wanted to go.

"Of course," she confirmed, and she lifted her head and smiled at me with that same indomitable, strong cheerfulness that characterized her. "I decided all by myself, after all!"

I smiled slightly, half a smirk at the wording, and nodded her onward. "Alright," I said. "Then let's hurry!" It felt good, I realized. Having a friend with reiatsu and powers running beside me.

As if to add to this thought, it wasn't long before we came upon Chad, already waiting in front of the Urahara Shouten.

"Wow! You're fast, Sado-kun!" Inoue panted as she saw him, but then she quieted as she saw us looking at each other.

Chad seemed surprised and hesitant to see me at first, but I just shrugged. "Inoue's already explained," I told him, and he relaxed. Amusedly, and still worriedly, the prospect of a long explanation seemed to have been what had concerned him most. "So you got powers too, huh?"

He nodded. "While trying to protect Karin. She yelled to me where the monster was and I punched. Then I grew this long red and black right arm... a huge arm... the kind you only see in comics... and it could punch Hollows with huge strength and destroy them," he summarized. That... sounded like it suited him, actually. "Urahara-san says we're unusual, that people don't usually grow extra reiatsu abilities, no matter what kind of reiatsu or willpower they have. He says we're anomalies, and it's because we were affected by you," Chad added, eyeing me sideways under his mop of hair.

"My reiatsu... does seem to do impossible things a lot," I admitted, smirking dryly. Chad nodded with his usual quiet acceptance. Then I couldn't help but add, "You're su -?"

"I am fighting with you," he said simply, and looked me directly in the eye. As he said it, I was suddenly flashed back to something... something I hadn't thought about in years.

Shortly after the incident in which Chad and I had first met, where he'd saved me and then made sure I was okay, I had come upon him getting into a similar street fight with the same thugs, plus reinforcements. Infuriatingly, they appeared to have been trying to abduct him in retaliation for the way he had helped me. I had jumped into the fight, distracting the gang's attention onto me. I had grabbed the leader, Yokochini's, phone, and used it icily to call an ambulance. They started asking me incredulously if I was worrying about my friend's injuries before I worried about them, when I turned to them, smirking, and counted out, "One, two, three, four, five. Yeah, I need enough emergency medical care here for five people. Thanks." As they'd charged at me, furious, I'd hung up, thrown the phone to the ground, and then attacked them with vicious anger.

It was no problem taking them out once I'd had the advantage, which was probably one of the reasons the cowards hadn't tried to attack me in revenge instead of Chad. Afterward, unusually emotional - looking back in retrospect, it was kind of embarrassing, but probably because I'd never come upon a fellow street fighter who'd had my sense of honor before - I'd made a pact with him. We had promised each other that we would fight for and protect each other, side by side, as two fighters. That if one had to put himself on the line for something, it would be the same for the other.

... And that was really how we had become friends.

That was why he was doing this, I realized, as we looked each other directly in the eye for a moment. Because he had promised, and that was good enough for him.

"... Okay," I said in acceptance, nodding sharply. Then I looked away, attempting to find something to break the sudden awkward, tense silence.

"Hey, where's Ishida?" I asked, for want of anything else to say. "I heard he's supposed to be here too..."

"Oh, I'm sure he'll be along in just a minute," said Inoue cheerfully, nodding.

"He's not coming," Chad deadpanned almost simultaneously.

Inoue looked sideways at him. "Sado-kun!" she scolded him, her expression becoming downcast. I raised an eyebrow at them.

"It's okay, Inoue," Chad was murmuring quietly, unusually serious. "It's better if he doesn't come. He is the most complex and mysterious of all of us... and those are always the weakest link in the chain. So it's better that he not come." Chad's tone and expression were distrustful, as they usually were toward people he didn't know well.

I kept silent, tightening my lips. I disagreed with him, but I knew that was just how Chad was. Despite everything, I trusted Ishida, and he had innate strategy and experience that the other two didn't possess.

Suddenly, a voice sounded from behind us: "Who did you say isn't coming?" All three of us looked around and, sure enough, there was Ishida. He was in his long white and blue Quincy outfit, the shining blue reiatsu bow and arrow carried evenly beside him. He was gazing at us all through his glasses with cold expressionlessness, but there was tenacity behind it.

"I told you, I can never forgive myself for losing to the Shinigami," he spoke to me directly, lifting his chin ever so slightly. "How could I deny myself this opportunity to fight them?"

And that, I realized in bemusement, watching him discerningly, really was that.

Then Inoue bounced up in front of Ishida. "Thank you for coming, Ishida-kun," she said happily, beaming warmly at him, and to my amusement he flushed, his cool facade vanishing instantly and a shy nerd revealed to be hidden underneath it.

"Y-you misunderstand me. This is not for Kuchiki..." he began in embarrassed protest, but then trailed off as she just continued to smile at him. He sighed and seemed to give up.

Then he turned to me and, to my surprise, he smirked - a genuinely friendly smirk. "Besides," he added, raising an eyebrow. "I want to see how far you have come, Kurosaki."

I scowled at his challenging tone, crossing my arms. "Hmph. Did you really walk all the way here in that weird outfit?" I shot back in return. I smirked as his face became indignant.

"It is not weird! It is traditional! How can you call i -?"

"Ah, everyone is here now! That's great!" We looked around to the shop suddenly... and standing there before us, smiling blankly, was Urahara.

The tension rose several notches in the air again, as if the sight impressed upon us all what we were about to face together.

"Come in," he said. "And listen carefully as I tell you how you are going to sneak into the Soul Society." His eyes sparked. "Otherwise," he said, with mysterious relish, "you might die before you even get there. And that would render the past week rather obsolete for all four of you, wouldn't it?"

He opened his doors... and stepped aside to let us enter.

Author's Notes: Holy shit I finished.

Okay, first things first, please alert me because the SS arc is going to be a different story, Guardian Rising. (And then, if you want, you can... unalert me again, I guess?) That should be up... well, at least in the next couple of months or so. Ish. Not too long from now, is what I'm saying.

Now, other notes: It really irritated me that Kubo completely skipped the part where Inoue explained to Ichigo just how she and Chad got powers in the manga. I mean, not only does it come up in relation to them, but Tatsuki and Karin were endangered too, and we didn't even get to see him learning about it. It was just, "By the way, I can throw fairies at people." "Oh, well okay. As long as you're sure you want to come and help me try to defeat a society of all-powerful Death Masters with some fairies, it's all cool."

I mean, really.

So I put that in. Also, I have an opinion poll: if I do any more characterization/psychology spare stuff for Ichigo, I'm probably just going to put it up in the interlude to this story again. If I do that, do you guys want me to leave a little note/chapter thingie up here telling you I've updated that page? Do you not want me to? Do you care? Let me know in a review if you have an opinion.

Anyway... see you guys at the next story. I can't promise any more than that, but I know I'll at least be able to finish the SS arc.