Author's Note:...ah...heh...Hey, guys. Soooo, how've you been?

Okay, so I realize that it's been five months (FIVE MONTHS!?) since I last posted a chapter for NABF...I'm pretty sure I let you guys know about my unreliability concerning these sorts of things, but I suppose I should apologize again. There are no excuses for what I've done to you, and so I shall give none. Instead, I'll just talk a little bit about this chapter and the last.

First of all, I'd like to apologize for something and clear up some confusion. When I said that the Hollow looks like a puppy, I meant a puppy in relation to how big he'll get later on. He's gonna be a Big Doggy, and at this point in the story, he's about the size of an adolescent Labrador. I've been drawing up some pictures for reference, but I don't have a scanner, so short of taking a picture of the picture and then uploading it to the interwebz, I can't show you the stuff I've got right now, and I'm not that great an artist anyway.

Next, a Guest wondered why I'm giving Tatsuki lessons with Tessai instead of Yoruichi. Like in the original Not Another Bleach Fic, Ichigo and Tatsuki will complement each other's fighting styles, and I'm splitting their abilities in regards to the four core combat disciplines of the Shinigami. So Ichigo gets Zanjutsu and Hoho while Tatsuki goes down the way of Kido and Hakuda, though both will have some skill in the areas the other excels in (i.e. some overpowered Hado from Ichigo and some fancy footwork from Tatsuki), but this stuff is still much further along down the line. Seriously, we're still years away from the Agent of the Shinigami arc (in universe, I fucking hope to God it's not RL years away). And anyway, how the hell is Tatsuki supposed to learn Shunko if she doesn't have any skill in Kido, since it is a blend between martial and magical arts?

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this chapter...

Disclaimer and Warning still apply.

Chapter 8: The Protector's Denizens

"Fight me!"

The Old Man ignored the voice, which had been yammering almost nonstop since its owner had awoken and gained some semblance of intelligence. Really, it wasn't overly difficult; he would simply focus on the pounding waves against the soft white sand instead of the young, whiny shouting.

It was only when the Child (who looked almost identical to the one in whose soul they resided, but for his white-washed appearance and the fact that he looked to be at least a year younger) actually attacked that he was forced into action.

"Rrraaah!" shouted the boy as he charged forward with a raised fist. "Fight me, bastard!"

The Old Man, not even turning to acknowledge the Child, stepped to the side and kicked him in the rear, right off the cliff and into the surf. Then he went back to staring at the horizon and ignoring the indignant sputtering below.

It wasn't a bad deal, this Inner World of theirs. It mostly consisted of a large, sheltered beach ringed by towering cliffs, and a great expanse of ocean. There was no plant life, which somewhat disappointed the Old Man, and his new acquaintance could do with some manners, but as the saying went, beggars could not be choosers. He'd even found himself a nice sea stack upon which to observe the tides, and (after a bit of practice near the beginning) could stand on the pole-thin peak all day without falling off. The sky was heavy with stormy clouds, almost always on the verge of unleashing a monsoon, but never quite getting there, reflecting the tightly bridled emotions of the one he called King.

He had existed for as long as his master had been alive, yet he knew things the young warrior could not possibly fathom yet. Years ago, he had felt the call of the Kaiser Gesang, and yet the Old Man had found himself unwilling, and thankfully unable, to return to the Slumbering Emperor. The Old Man had a new charge to guard, and he would be damned if he was taken back so easily.

Of course, the Child had been around nearly as long as he had, lurking in the caves that dotted the sea bluffs which represented the shadowy corners of their master's psyche, barely on the verge of sentience until just recently, but the Child knew only as much as their master. The poor thing didn't even know his own name (never mind the fact that the Old Man didn't know his name either). That would be rectified with time, though, and the Old Man was nothing if not patient.

"Grargh!" The same could not be said for the Child. The Old Man watched as the Child pulled himself out of the waves, dripping all along the beach before flopping down just above the high-tide line. "Why won't you fight me?" he demanded of the Old Man, the tang of weariness edging his voice.

"Why do you wish to fight me?" the Old Man asked, curious. Since the Child's awakening, the boy had tried his hardest to force the Old Man to engage in combat, and it was severely cutting into his horizon-watching.

"So I can get stronger," the Child explained as if it were obvious. "That way, I can subjugate Him up and take my rightful place as the master! He doesn't deserve this power!"

"And do you?"

"Well, yeah," the Child replied, though he seemed a bit uncertain. "All He does with it is try to protect weaklings, when He should be subjugating them! It makes no sense!"

"Perhaps not to you, no," the Old Man said, mostly managing to stifle the disdain in his voice. "However, you are not the one who decides what to do with the strength we possess. You are a portion of his soul, corrupted and twisted into something that should never have happened."

For a moment, the Child looked absolutely stricken, and the Old Man felt remorse. "Is that what you are, too?" the Child asked hesitantly.

"I am a piece of him who once belonged to another," the Old Man said slowly. "Yet I have forsaken my old home in order to keep this one safe, so for all intents and purposes I, too, am something unnatural."

"So, we're mistakes?"

"No," the Old Man denied forcefully. "The soul in which we reside is young, yet I feel in my heart that he will require every ounce of strength possible one day. And so long as we provide him with it, we are not mistakes."

"Why the hell should I give anything to Him?" snarled the Child, going from vulnerable and lost to spitting mad so quickly it gave the Old Man whiplash. "What has He ever given me?"

"Other than whatever energy you needed, a place to live, and an exceptionally wise companion to talk to?" the Old Man rebutted with a half-smile. From his vantage point on his lonely sea stack, the Old Man noticed the waves gaining height as the water turned choppy, and with a soft plink, a raindrop fell from the overcast skies to land on his nose. "Perhaps you will find the fight you desire soon enough."

Sarugaki Hiyori grunted beneath her skull mask as the little punk was sent flying for what had to be the billionth time that day. They'd been at it for roughly two hours, and any of the other Visored would have gotten bored of beating the snot out of this kid. But Hiyori wasn't the other Visored.

When they had brought Ichigo down to their subterranean training grounds (set up by Urahara, of course), the Visored had gone on the assumption that Ichigo at least knew enough to open a line of communication with the beast within him. That supposition had been jossed pretty quickly, once the orange-haired idiot had sat under a fully-encanted Gochutekkan for a quarter of an hour before complaining about using the bathroom.

After a brief discussion about their current options, the Masked Ones decided to fall back on the tried and true method of attacking the twerp until either he died or went berserk. Preferably the former, in Hiyori's opinion.

And so, two hours later found the others watching on as the former lieutenant of Division Twelve opened up a twelve-pack of bare-handed, Hollow-mask-empowered whoop-ass on an ten-year-old human.

"Come on, you fuckin' wimp!" the blonde girl finally snapped. "You wanted us to teach you to suppress your Hollow, how the hell do you expect us to do that when you don't even know how to talk to it?"

Spitting a glob of crimson from his split lip, Ichigo shakily stood back up and planted his feet in a defensive stance. "Just shut up and fight," he grunted, wincing every time he breathed.

"Ch," Hiyori snorted, darting forward with the help of shunpo and slamming her elbow into his gut, sending him on yet another trans-training-room flight. Definitely a broken rib, she thought, remembering the feel of the bones as she struck. Maybe two, and probably a cracked sternum, too.

She hated to admit it (and she would never say it aloud), but the tiny jackass was starting to impress her. Whether it was determination, stubbornness, or sheer, mind-bottling stupidity, Ichigo kept getting back up for more punishment. It took quite a lot to make Hiyori take notice of someone, but having an obscenely high pain threshold certainly was one way of doing it.

Especially if she was the one administering the beat-down.

But no matter how good the kid's endurance was or how well he could take a beating, it still meant jack-all when it came to their true purpose here. Hiyori, always a dynamic person who enjoyed being the catalyst for change, decided a shift in gears was in order.

Reaching out to her side, she pulled a katana from thin air (a trick she was fully aware the brat was envious of and smugly took advantage of) then darted forward, ramming the hilt into Ichigo's gut (subtly making sure she didn't hit any higher) and driving his entire body upward with the force.

She shouldn't be enjoying beating up the kid, but she'd been able to pull off combos she'd wanted to try for half a century, and this one would be the icing on the cake. As Ichigo sailed higher, Hiyori flashed above him and landed a strike to his back with the flat of her sword, which pulverized the ground the battered child's body struck on impact.

"Hiyori," Shinji called out in warning, but the former lieutenant waved him off.

"I won't kill the snot-eater," she assured half-heartedly. "He can at least strengthen his body with reiatsu, if nothing else." Then she shrugged. "But if this kid doesn't drop soon, one o' ya is gonna have to tag in. I'm starting to get dehydrated."

A sudden and chilling spike of reiatsu rose from the crater she'd made with Ichigo's body, and she turned, glaring at the settling cloud of dust warily. The crunch of gravel could be heard, and soon, something stepped out of the hole and growled menacingly.

"How cuute~!" Mashiro cooed from outside the barrier as Hiyori's caution melted away, replaced by a feeling of total confusion as she stared at the little puppy creature with a Hollow mask snarling adorably at her.

Love and Rose snickered quietly as Mashiro gushed over the (likely feral) beast, while Kensei frowned disapprovingly. Hiyori shot Shinji a questioning look, but he just shrugged, and they all studied the thing more closely. Urahara had told them Ichigo had somehow turned into some sort of dog Hollow, but this was just absurd.

For all intents and purposes, it looked like a Hollow. There was no mistaking the mask, nor the gaping hole through its back, standing out starkly against the pale fur. But there was something about the reiatsu. As an experienced Hollow slayer, Hiyori could tell Hollow from Shinigami from Visored from human as easily as pointing out the sky or a rainstorm. And this...thing's spiritual residue was none of those things, at least not truly.

Certainly, most of what composed the pressure belonged to a Hollow, but there was something much more to it than that. The only thing she could compare it to (her own species' hybrid reiatsu) didn't exactly fit either. It was a Hollow, but it was also something so painfully familiar that it was starting to make her head hurt.

Shaking herself out of her daydreaming, she called out, "Anyone know what just happened?"

"Did Kurosaki Hollowfy?" Kensei wondered, but surprisingly Mashiro was the one to debunk that theory.

"I don't think that's Berry-tan," she said, uncharacteristically grave.

"You're right," Love agreed after a moment with his eyes closed. "It's got traces of the kid's power, but this reiatsu's mostly Hollow with a lot of something else shoved in. Something I can't readily say I've ever seen before." No one else said anything for a few seconds while the Hollow thing glanced around shiftily, taking in its surroundings.

Hiyori's frown deepened. None of them, including the older former captains, could identify it? They had a combined pool of over a millennium of experience, and if they didn't know what it was, then it was quite possibly something new. And something new with traces of Hollow in it could only be the work of him.

"Let me out."

Her eyes snapped to the thing, whose gaze kept darting from one of the Visored to the other to the next every few seconds.

"Listen you flea-bitten mutt," Hiyori snapped. "I don't know what the fuck you are or who you think you are, but you ain't exactly in any position to be making demands."

The cero that blasted at her was a surprise, but she easily dodged to the side and slammed down her mask as she readied her blade. "Chop cleanly, Kubikiri Orochi!" As she felt her spirit pressure increase, her katana grew until it was a large, serrated cleaver. Any Hollow that could do cero was at least Gillian, and since this little puppy wasn't as big as a fucking building, she wasn't going to take any chances and underestimate it.

"Here, puppy," she whistled mockingly. "Let's give you some exercise."

The Old Man felt the exact moment Ichigo entered his inner world, but kept his eyes on the dark clouds in order to allow the boy a chance to regain his bearings. The storm had begun in earnest, and flashes of lightning came frequently, followed closely by rolling waves of thunder the Old Man felt deep within his chest. The wind had been an issue at first, but he quickly managed to compensate for his balance on his precarious footing. It would be no use looking like a fool in front of the boy and fall in because of some puny breeze.

Yet despite all that, the rain-soaked man could still make out the sounds of a small child moving across the sand. After a moment, he heard the soft footsteps transition from the beach to stone and dirt as the owner of this place headed to the edge of the cliff the Old Man's sea stack had broken from.

"Hey, ossan." Ichigo's voice was a bit deeper than the Child's, but that was to be expected. "Where am I?"

Still not turning around, the Old man quietly replied, "Can you not guess, Kurosaki Ichigo?"

He imagined the bright-haired youth as he scanned his surroundings, but didn't want to face his landlord quite yet.

"It reminds me of someplace..." Ichigo's voice trailed off, troubled. "This is where my mom brought Tatsuki and I when we were four. It's where I learned to swim. Or where I learned to not drown, anyway."

"Not quite," the Old Man said, managing to hide the smirk that particular memory brought up. "This is your inner world. You might understand it better as your mindscape. This place is simply the form it took."

There was a long moment of silence, and the Old Man turned slightly to find Ichigo spinning a slow circle to take it all in once more. When the boy finished, he pinned the Old Man with a questioning gaze.

"Say I believe you, and this is my 'inner world' or whatever," Ichigo began. "If that's true, then why are you here? And for that matter, who are you? My conscience or subconscious mind made manifest or..."

Ah, straight to the point. "Those are two very difficult question to answer," the Old Man said, pausing for a moment to formulate an answer. "I am here because I wish to protect something." What that something was, the Old Man decided not to share just yet. "As for who I am, my name is..." All that left the Old Man's mouth was the sound of static, even to his own ears.

"What was that?"

"Hm, so you are not able to hear my name just yet. I do not purport to be your conscience, or your subconscious mind made manifest." The Old Man had to once more force down a smile at the wild guesses fueled by too many sci-fi shows and shonen manga. "Consider me the personification of your power."

Ichigo was suddenly on guard. He made a valiant effort of not showing it, but the minute tensing of his muscles and the sudden shift to his rear leg was not lost on the Old Man, nor the narrowing of the child's eyes. "Are you the Hollow?"

This drew a startled laugh from the Old Man. The sound was so foreign, even he was confused for a moment, but didn't let the boy catch on. "Hardly. The only thing you truly need to understand about me, and that is of any import in the long run, is that my only concern is to aid you in your quest to protect those whom you hold close to your heart."

Ichigo gave him a squint-eyed look. "And how do I know that you're not just some whack job with the power to teleport people places and you just abducted me or some weird biz like that?"

"I have seen and experienced everything that you have, Kurosaki Ichigo," the Old Man said, having expected his master to be suspicious. "Ask me anything, and then gauge the credibility of my claims based on the accuracy with which I answer."

"How did Tatsuki beat me in our first spar?"

"Easily." The look Ichigo leveled at him was thoroughly unimpressed, and the Old Man couldn't hold back the slight smirk from tugging his lips upward this time. "She feinted a back-fist, which you fell for, allowing her to drive a palm-strike through the opening you gave her and into your yielding gut, though she could have simply led with the palm, as your defenses were hardly what they are today."

"Half my karate class saw that, as well as most of their parents," Ichigo said, frowning deeply, but a glimmer of uncertainty shone in his eye. The Old Man knew the boy was casting his mind about for a suitable question which would hopefully prove they were on the same side in the grand scheme of things.

There was a lull filled by the sound of rain striking the ocean as it pummeled the beach. A fork of lightning smashed into the ocean several dozen meters offshore, and the resulting wall of sound caused the boy to stumble slightly.

The thunder seemed to shake Ichigo out of a sort of daze, and he once again met the Old Man's gaze. "What did my father tell me after my mother died?"

A good choice. "He told you that her death was not your fault, and to become stronger in order to protect what you desired to."

Another rain-soaked silence followed, and then the boy nodded. "Either you're some stalker with bugs in my house or you're legit. I guess I'll take you at your word for now, ossan."

"That is all I ask."

"Hey, what about Shinji and the others?" Ichigo asked, apparently struck for the first time since he'd entered his inner world by what he'd been doing prior to his sudden appearance.

"They are otherwise occupied at the moment." A wave of his hand had Ichigo looking down toward the sea below. The Old Man manipulated the water so it reflected what was happening outside.

What appeared to be a small white dog with a bony mask and a hole in its chest on its face was launching beams of blue energy at a masked Hiyori, who was dodging the attacks with almost painful ease.

"It's out again!?" Ichigo exploded, looking ready to jump into the sea. "But the last time it took control, I could sort of feel what it was doing with my body!"

"He has never taken control of your body, Ichigo," the Old Man corrected. "It is my belief that you and the Child have the ability to trade places with each other, you to your inner world and he to the outside world. I would have thought you could have deduced that yourself. The canine's body is too small to have metamorphosed from your body. Perhaps if you had been a bit younger..."

As Ichigo continued to watch as the dog was kicked around by Hiyori, the hard line of his shoulders relaxed slowly. "At least those guys can handle that thing." He turned back to the Old Man. "Where did it come from anyway?"

"He has always been a part of you, Ichigo," the Old Man said cautiously, unsure of how he would react. "Something happened to him, though, something that was not supposed to happen, and is likely to be entirely unique. He was infected by an outside force and has become what you know him as."

"Are you part of me, too?"

The question took the Old Man aback, and he was barely able to hold Ichigo's shrewd gaze. "I am whatever you allow me to be, Kurosaki Ichigo," he hedged.

Ichigo gave him an odd look before shrugging. "Whatever, we can get back to that weird comment later. What I need to do now is talk to that stupid Hollow or whatever bit of me that thing is. Shinji and the others say I need to beat it in a fight and then...bury it or something like that." He grimaced and said, "I don't think that sounds healthy, though, if it's a part of me."

"Indeed," the Old Man nodded. "Burying the Child within your soul would only stunt your potential power, and you will need all you can muster in order to protect your loved ones. He will take some convincing, but I believe the Child will come around." He hesitated, thinking of how vehement the little nuisance's rage toward Ichigo had been earlier, and then added, "Eventually."

"That's certainly a confidence booster," Ichigo snarked, rolling his eyes. "The point remains that it-he's out there and I'm in here. And I still need to...'convince' him to work with me instead of against me, right? What's the plan?"

The Old Man was heartened by the way Ichigo was so willing to listen to his counsel, and nodded. "Ichigo, what did I tell you this place was?"

"My inner world?"

"Yes, Your Inner World," the Old Man stated forcefully, hoping to get the point across as thoroughly as possible. "Not mine, not the Child's, but yours. You must be the master of yourself, otherwise you will be nothing."

"So, what I say goes in here?" Ichigo wondered, cottoning on rather quickly. "So if I say, he's gotta be here..."

"You must will it with all your being, Ichigo. You must command that he be here."

Nodding, Ichigo's eyebrows slanted down into a deep frown as he closed his eyes to concentrate. With his spirit so focused, his energy began leaking out, probing skyward as it licked the moisture-laden air.

The Old Man took the opportunity to glance down to the window he'd created to the outside, where the Child (in the form he took beyond the Inner World) had suddenly halted his assault upon the small blonde Visored and stiffened even as Ichigo spoke.

"Return here, now." His tone made it clear that he would brook no argument.

"No, not again," the dog grunted without, snapping at the empty air around him and causing no small amount of confusion from the Visored. "GET OUT OF MY HEAD!"

"GET BACK IN MINE!" Ichigo belted back, and without warning, the Child popped into the Inner World out of thin air, within arm's reach of the Old Man's sea stack.

The Old Man grasped the Child by the hood of his raincoat before he could plunge into the churning surf below, then tossed him onto the relative safety of the cliff at Ichigo's feet.

"You're the Hollow?" the boy asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "I thought you were a dog?"

In response, the Child raised his palm and blasted Ichigo with a beam of deep blue energy. The Old Man winced. Perhaps he should have given Ichigo a heads-up in regards to the deep loathing the Child harbored.

After a short flight that ended in a heap of coltish limbs, Ichigo managed to get to his hands and knees, apparently just then realizing that the wounds he'd gained during the curbstomping Hiyori had given him had vanished, judging by the surprised expression he wore as he examined his body, but he quickly adapted and rose to his feet.

"The Visored told me I needed to bury you, Hollow," Ichigo said with an impressively level voice as he glared at the Child.

"Yeah, see if you can bury me when I've already buried you!" snapped the Child. "Because I'm gonna kill the shit out of you," he added redundantly as he charged forward.

"I don't wanna bury you."

The Child was so surprised by that simple declaration that he actually tripped over his own feet and planted his face firmly into the hard ground.

"Wh-what the hell do you think you're doing, spouting nonsensical bullshit like that, you damn bastard!?" the Child stammered as he quickly regained his feet. "You're supposed to fight me!"

"Then we'll fight," Ichigo answered with a shrug. "But even if I win, I don't think burying you would be a very good idea. You wreak enough havoc when you're out there, imagine the chaos you'd inevitably cause if I left you alone stuffed deep down in my psyche or whatever."

"Fuck you!" the Child answered succinctly.

"I'm pretty sure that'd be masturbation," Ichigo said dubiously, glancing at the Old Man for clarification, but the only adult-shaped being was definitely not going to touch that one with a ten-meter pole. Thankfully, the Child went on the attack again before Ichigo could prod further.

The Old Man would never admit it, but he was exceedingly grateful for that.

After-Action Report: So originally, this chapter was going to go all the way through Ichigo's Visored training (at least until he manages to subjugate Hollow-chan), but I wanted to post something up after five months (FIVE MONTHS!).

This whole Ichi/Hollow switching thing is going to become incredibly relevant later on, I've got some fun tricks up my sleeve when it comes to that. Obviously, the Old Man is Zangetsu, or at least the manifestation of his Quincy abilities.

I'm still foggy on the whole Zangetsu is Bach but younger thing in canon, but my take on it is that before Bach's millennia-long nap time, his power was splintered into the various Echt and Gemischt Quincies, and his Kaiser Gessang stole those pieces back, allowing him to resurrect or whatever the fuck he did, but Zangetsu, for some as-of-yet unknown reason, was able to resist and stayed with Ichigo. He's got a pretty good idea of what's coming a few years down the road, and so begins to grind with Ichi and Hollow-chan.

And as for Hollow-chan himself and what the Visored (or at least Hiyori) thought of him: Hollow was originally the piece of Ichigo which would, if he had received an asauchi and was trained as a shinigami, would have become his zanpakuto spirit, but the portion of White that transferred to him at birth infected it and turned it into the Hollow/Zanpakuto hybrid thing he is now.

If I didn't answer any questions you may have, feel free to review or PM me, and I'll do my level best to reply post-haste.

Once again, thanks to everyone who reviewed, favorited, and followed this humble author and his story, and I hope I'll be able to update before another five months (FIVE FUCKING MONTHS!1!)