Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction (obviously..) that I wrote for my own enjoyment and hopefully yours as well. I own nothing related to Bleach (except for a nifty keychain that I got with one of the dvds), and can only claim the plot as my own.

==Chapter 1==

The first sensations experienced as awareness returned to him were the feelings of the sun on his skin and the cool breeze against his skin. Opening his eyes, he could see small white clouds drifting across the blue sky, and the usual appearance of the sideways glass skyscrapers that were his inner world. Looking around for the familiar presence of his sword's spirit caused him to once again shake his head at how Zangetsu could stand perfectly balanced on a flagpole.

"It's been a while Zangetsu," Ichigo said calmly as he looked around. "How are you?"

"There is no rain," answered Zangetsu as if that explained everything. "You are moving forward."

"Not that I'm complaining but how come you brought me here?" Ichigo asked. "I know it's been a while since we've seen each other here, but things are better now, aren't they?"

"They are, Ichigo," replied Zangetsu, still not moving. "You are not standing still any more. You have a goal that you are working towards, and I would like to suggest something that might help you, if it is possible."

"With him you mean?" Ichigo spat, as he continued to look around. "Where is he anyways?"

"You should not be so hostile towards him Ichigo," chided Zangetsu lightly with a chuckle. "Have you not yet realized just what he is?"

"He's a Hollow," Ichigo replied quickly. "What else could he be?"

"I'm rather surprised at your quick answer Ichigo." Zangetsu chided again. "But I guess I should not be surprised. You are after all still only a teenager."

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath to calm himself, Ichigo decided to go along with his sword and thought about just what he was to him. Minutes went by as he contemplated this, and Zangetsu stood there giving him the time he needed.

"He isn't really a Hollow," Ichigo finally replied with a sigh. "He's not like the hollows that Shinji and the others have. Those were hollows that were forcefully placed in them. He is the hollow I would have become if I hadn't regained my Shinigami powers."

"You may still just be a teenager Ichigo," observed Zangetsu with what appeared to be a small smirk tugging at his mouth, "but you are not unintelligent when you actually do stop and really think about things."

"Thanks a lot, Zangetsu," Ichigo sarcastically replied. "So then he's more like my potential to become a hollow?"

"That.." began Zangetsu, "..is more correct than you know. What else?"

"He's a part of me." Ichigo continued. "My dark thoughts and impulses. My instincts. My enjoyment of fighting. A manifestation of my power."

With a sudden burst of movement, Zangetsu was off of the flagpole and behind Ichigo with his hand on his shoulder.

"Correct Ichigo. Now, thinking along the same lines, what does that suggest to you about me?" asked Zangetsu.

"You're my sword, my partner. The source of my Shinigami power." Ichigo answered without hesitation.

"Again, that is more correct than you know," said Zangetsu, causing Ichigo to blink in puzzlement. "So what does that make you, Ichigo?"

"Complicated," Ichigo replied with a bit of a grin. "So how is all of this going to potentially help, eh Zangetsu?"

"You need to think about what you just said Ichigo," continued Zangetsu. "He and I are both manifestations of your power. Do you know how that is different from a normal Shinigami?"

"Honestly, no I don't," answered Ichigo with a frown.

"Shinigami," began Zangetsu, "start as normal souls, but with higher than normal spiritual energy. Over time, they develop their power and form a bond with their sword's spirit and eventually when the two have reached a level of understanding and communication, their souls merge and more or less become one. The sword becomes an outlet for the Shinigami's power."

"How is that different from what you and I have?" a puzzled Ichigo asked.

"You have already answered your own question, but probably do not see the difference." Zangetsu continued. "In fact, there are a couple of significant differences. Firstly, as you said, I am the source of your Shinigami powers. More specifically, I am the manifestation of your own power given the form that a Shinigami would normally use. Much like he is the manifestation of your own power given the form that a hollow would normally use."

"My own power?" Ichigo asked. "Zangetsu, what do you mean?"

"Again, think about it Ichigo," coaxed Zangetsu. "Coming to your own understanding of this will allow you to accept it far easier than if you are just told."

"You're saying that I'm not really a Shinigami," Ichigo stated evenly, " just like I'm not a hollow?"

"You said it yourself before you ejected Muramasa from here Ichigo," said Zangetsu. "You are a human with a soul. You are not just a soul."

Puzzled, Ichigo turned around to face Zangetsu.

"Secondly, think about what you have been called," Zangetsu continued. "A substitute Shinigami. Doesn't that suggest something to you?"

"It's not something I really thought about before," voiced Ichigo. "I just accepted the substitute title because it makes sense, since I'm really only a Shinigami part of the time."

"But we have already established that you are not truly a Shinigami." Zangetsu stated.

"Yeah, but I probably would have become one after I died normally, right?" asked Ichigo. "So how is it that I become one when my soul is ejected from my body?"

"Ahh. Now we get to the heart of the matter Ichigo," a satisfied, yet sad sounding Zangetsu said. "Yes you most likely would have become a proper Shinigami after your natural death due to the abnormally large amount of spiritual energy you possess, but that does not mean you should have become one before your death."

"So why do I become one then?" questioned Ichigo.

"Your soul was shown one way to use the power it has access to when Rukia Kuchiki gave you her powers that night," Zangetsu explained. "If she had not done that, it is likely that given time or another life or death situation, your soul would have manifested some other means for you to defend yourself with your power."

"You mean like how Chad and Inoue do?" Ichigo asked. "What about Ishida then? From everything he's said, he was trained to do what he does."

"Indeed Ichigo, just like them," said Zangetsu. "Although Ishida was indeed trained as a Quincy, so his soul already had an outlet."

"So what does all of this have to do with potentially helping me?" a thoroughly perplexed Ichigo asked. "It's all interesting, but the only thing I can think of is that since I am a human, there are other ways that I could use my spiritual power instead of as a substitute Shinigami."

"That.. is a possibility, and not one I had thought of." Zangetsu muttered, more to himself than Ichigo. "But what I was going to suggest once you realized that you're not truly a Shinigami, was for you to actually become one properly."

"WHAT?!" shouted Ichigo in shock. "You want me to die?!"

"No Ichigo, that's not what I said," Zangetsu replied patiently. "I suggested that you could properly become a Shinigami, but did not say how. Remember we have established that I, like him, am just a manifestation of your human power. Also remember what I told you about how a Shinigami bonds with his sword's spirit?"

A look of comprehension flashed across Ichigo's face, quickly followed by confusion.

"You're suggesting that I take a Shinigami's sword and bond with the spirit of it?" asked Ichigo. "I would think that would be something that they'd object to?"

"And indeed they would," Zangetsu explained, "if you took a living Shinigami's sword. Think Ichigo, are there not any Shinigami who have died that you know of? Are there not any sword's spirits that you've made some sort of connection with.. that you've come to understand?"

"Muramasa.." muttered Ichigo.

"Ahh. Yes, Ichigo," Zangetsu nodded. "I do not know if it would work, since his blade was shattered by his original wielder, but I know you and he did make a connection. It is possible, that if the blade is reforged, you might be able to convince him to enter into a proper Shinigami bond with you."

"But what about you, Zangetsu?" asked Ichigo. "And what about him?"

"We will still be here, Ichigo, for we are manifestations of your power," Zangetsu explained. "As long as you accept us, we will always be here to help you. Just remember, a human's soul is mutable and highly adaptable. Adding something to it might be painful, but there can never be any positive gain without effort."

"Gain.. Effort.." Ichigo muttered again. "Does that mean that with effort, or training, I could also learn to use my spiritual energy in other ways too?"

"It.. might be possible Ichigo," replied Zangetsu, puzzled at the change of direction in Ichigo's thoughts. "What about Muramasa? I thought.."

"No, I agree with you about him as long as it doesn't bring harm to you. Or him too, I guess," Ichigo said with a shrug. "It's just that you got me thinking. There might not be too much time for any of that other stuff yet, but it would be something to consider for the future. As you pointed out, I am still just a teenager."

"Indeed," a pleased Zangetsu agreed. "Retreat and you will age."

"Hesitate and you will die.." Ichigo finished with a grin as he turned and started to head out. "Yeah. Thanks old man Zangetsu. You've given me a lot to think about."

"Gather the shattered pieces of his blade and bring them to Urahara," instructed Zangetsu, as Ichigo turned and headed away. "If anyone knows how to repair a broken sword and restore its spirit, he will be the one."

Nodding in acknowledgement as he sped away from Zangetsu, Ichigo once again closed his eyes as everything faded away to white, before opening them and sitting up in his bed at home.

Looking at his alarm clock showed that it was just about 5 am and he had about an hour before his crazy father came in and once again woke him up with some sort of attack. Glad that it was the weekend, and that he had it off from training with Shinji and the rest of the Vizards, Ichigo decided that he'd take care of securing the shattered remains of Muramasa's blade as soon as possible. In order to do that, he would have to make a quick trip to the Seireitei in Soul Society.

Getting up and gathering what was needed, he made his way around the house quietly, quickly finishing his morning routine and grabbing a quick bite to eat before leaving a note for his family saying he was going to be away for the weekend but should be back sometime on Sunday.

Slipping out of the house into the early morning sunlight, Ichigo didn't hesitate and made his way straight to Urahara's Candy Store. By his watch it was just after 7 am when he arrived. Seeing no signs of anyone outside, but noticing the open sign on the door, Ichigo entered the shop and upon hearing the ringing of a bell from somewhere further inside, figured he'd be seeing someone before too long.

His hunch was correct as a sleepy looking young girl with black hair entered from a door leading to the back. She didn't see him at first because of a yawn and the fact that she was still rubbing her eyes to wake up, but when she did notice him, a light blush colored her pale cheeks.

"Good morning Ururu," Ichigo said cheerfully with a small grin. "Is Urahara awake yet? I'd like to talk with him about something."

"I'll.. go check.. Ichigo," stuttered Ururu before she quickly turned around and headed back the way she had just come from.

Chuckling a bit to himself at her behavior, Ichigo took the time while he was waiting to take a look around the store front and actually see just what Urahara sold there. He was flipping through a rack of comics and manga when she returned.

"Mr. Urahara is down in the underground training area Ichigo," Ururu said, this time without the stuttering, but still sporting the blush. "Follow me please."

"Thank you, Ururu. And sorry about being here so early," apologized Ichigo as he followed the girl into the back of the store. "I wouldn't have come in except that the sign out front said that the store was open."

"Jinta.." Ururu muttered quietly, but Ichigo still caught it and chuckled.

With a slight bow and a slightly brighter blush, Ururu quickly left Ichigo in the very back room standing at by the open trap door over the ladder down into Urahara's underground training area. With a small grin and a shrug, he started down the ladder into the enormous space under the store.

"Ahh! Kurosaki," called out Urahara as he watched the orange haired teen slide down the ladder, "how are you this morning? Ururu said that you wanted to talk to me about something?"

"If you're not busy, yes," Ichigo answered as he finally reached the bottom of the ladder.

"Well then Kurosaki, what can I do for you?" asked Urahara as he set something down on a rock and placed his green and white striped bucket hat over top of it.

"I need to learn how to open a senkaimon," Ichigo replied, causing Urahara to raise an eyebrow in surprise. "Or I need you to open one for me. There's something I have to do in the Seireitei."

"Oh? As far as I know, there are no Kuchiki's in need of saving at this time," a surprised Urahara exclaimed with a grin as he mentioned Rukia. "Or are you just wanting to go visit a certain someone?"

"Actually yes," Ichigo answered with a smirk, "but not the Kuchiki you're thinking of."

That response caused Ichigo to laugh as Urahara just stood there and blinked in surprise.

"Well, that's a surprising start to the weekend," commented Urahara to himself.

"So, will you help me out Urahara?" Ichigo asked. "I know that you're probably curious, and I promise to explain when I return, so if you can wait until then for me to tell you, I'll tell you everything."

"You know me too well Kurosaki," laughed Urahara. "With a promise like that, how can I not teach you something so simple."

Motioning Ichigo to come over, Urahara picked up his cane from where it was resting and with a quiet "Awaken, Benihime" his simple concealed blade was transformed into its first release.

"Now, Kurosaki," Urahara began as he extended his sword out in front of him. "The process of opening a senkaimon is relatively simple. You extend your sword out in front of you while releasing some spiritual pressure into it. The trick is that you have to have the intent of opening a senkaimon firmly in mind. Then you turn your blade like it is a key unlocking a door, and if you did it correctly the senkaimon will appear and open. Just remember to stay ahead of the cleaner as you make your way through to Soul Society."

"I remember," replied Ichigo with a grin as he recalled his first trip through a senkaimon. "Now to try it out."

Pulling his Shinigami representative badge out of his pocket and striking his chest with it caused Ichigo's soul in full Shinigami garb to appear. Wincing as he heard his body fall to the ground, he was about to pick it up to move it when Urahara beat him to it.

"Don't worry about your body, Kurosaki. I'll move it upstairs after you've gone and ask Ururu to look after it," Urahara said with a smirk as he noticed Ichigo roll his eyes.

"Fine, whatever," agreed Ichigo with a shrug. "Now, let's see if I can do this."

Reaching back he grasped the hilt of his oversized, permanently released sword and as he drew it, the white cloth wrapping it unraveled as he brought the blade to the same position that Urahara had shown him. Closing his eyes for a second to consider what he was about to attempt along with where he wanted to go, Ichigo let his spiritual power flare a bit as he channeled some into his blade and let his intent guide his actions.

Urahara's eyes widened a bit as he watched and felt the spiritual pressure generated by the teen in front of him. His eyes widened further as he saw Ichigo copy his movements and have the senkaimon appear in front of him.

"That.. was actually pretty easy," Ichigo said in surprise, seeing the gate appear and open in front of him. "Thank you, Urahara. I should be back a bit later."

And, as soon as he had thanked him, Ichigo flashed forward through the gate.

"Well, let's get your body upstairs Kurosaki," said Urahara out loud to the empty training room. "I'm sure Ururu won't mind at all."

A/N: This started out as an idea that I posted as a one shot. It had sat written for like a year before I got some motivation to work on it. I'm English speaking so I'm not going to add all of the Japanese honorifics after names like –san or –kun as I get really tired of reading them in other fics. I'll stick with people being addressed by their last names, except by close friends/family/idiots, as it wouldn't seem right otherwise. I'll have a more informative a/n after the next chapter to go over the unfamiliar words and terms used for those not familiar with the anime/manga. And, as far as where in the timeline this goes, let's say that it happens after Ichigo has completed his initial training with the Vizards and after the first few fights with the Arancar in Karakura Town. But it is also before Inoue was kidnapped and taken to Hecuo Mundo. I'm also going to say that the Zanpakuto Rebellion anime filler arc took place immediately after he completed his Vizard training and in the middle of the Arancar attacks.