Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
AN : The premise for this story is a different Ichigo going through the events of the Bleach storyline. I aim to make him more cool headed, logical and just generally not a brash teen that rushes mindlessly into things. I would say that he would not become over powered, but then again, in a world where beings redefine landscapes with the swing of a sword, what is overpowered? Anyway, BAMF Ichigo
He was adrift in a sea of darkness.
There was pain…oh god was there pain
Yet, it was not the pain that held his attention.
It was the emptiness.
In this place of darkness, where the world had ceased to exist, Ichigo relieved his last waking moments again and again.
His broad katana, barely managing to deflect the killing thrust of the lieutenant, followed by the most gut wrenching pain he had ever felt.
To describe it, it had been as though someone had taken the pain he had felt when his mother had died, made it a physical sensation, pumped it with steroids, and then multiplied it by a thousand.
He imagined that losing all his limbs simultaneously would have been heaven compared to what he had felt.
And, even as he tried not to think about it – as he actively tried not to realize what had happened, he knew.
One of his books had mentioned it vaguely; the method by which a Shinigami could be forcefully stripped of all his spiritual power.
Again, the flash of his sword deflecting the thrust from the second foe, then the soul searing pain as the captain's blade had pierced through his back twice.
His soul cried out in pain from the forceful removal of a part of it; from the ruthless extermination of his zanpakutō.
The ache…the loss…it left him…empty…feeling as though a hunger that could never be satisfied had awoken in him
Again, the flash of his sword deflecting the blow aimed at Chad, then the blinding pain of a part of his soul being removed from him, followed by the feeling of a blade piercing through his –
Stirring from the deathlike state he had existed in ever since he had woken into darkness, Ichigo mentally rewound the memory, and with a faint stirring in his chest which he was too scared to think about, he followed the events closely.
The clang of his sword turning aside the thrust aimed at his unconscious friend, then the pain in the depths of his soul, followed by the pain in his back.
The tiny feeling in his chest exploded into an inferno of hope as he realized what had happened.
The pain had occurred before the sword had entered into his back.
Clenching his eyes shut, Ichigo stilled as he prepared for what he was about to do next, simultaneously powerless to keep from hoping and at the same time hating himself for it.
Diving into his inner world, he felt his feet touchdown on a solid surface, and still he hesitated in opening his eyes.
It was the wind that decided it for him.
Snapping his eyes open as a powerful gust of wind almost tossed him off his feet, he looked around in stunned horror at the devastated landscape; trees lay uprooted all around the place, while buildings – what was left of them at least – littered the ground around him.
The building he currently stood on, which was the tallest one in this world, was the only thing left standing, and even then it sported an alarming number of spider webbed cracks in the glass covering most of it.
Dropping to his knees as the enormity and hopelessness of the situation finally hit home, his helpless gaze was drawn upwards to the churning skies where darkened clouds had gathered as far as the eyes could see, occasionally tossing out blinding flashes of lightning.
The very heavens themselves were crying out in fury at the absence of the steward of the broken kingdom.
Slamming his fists into the roof, Ichigo bowed his head as a great scream of pain pain pain was wrenched from him,
The cry echoed across the skies, managing to dwarf the continuous rolling thunder of the tumultuous heavens in sheer volume.
Ichigo remained there, kneeling in his broken world as despair slowly crept into his very being, seeming to fill in the space left behind by the absence of Zangetsu.
Ichigo stood on the precipice of sheer depression.
Unknown to him, darkness began to encroach on his inner world, creeping in from the outmost boundary, slowly swallowing up all the broken buildings and uprooted trees as it made its way towards the lone skyscraper in the center.
Suddenly, Ichigo's head snapped up, his body tensing as the breath froze in his lungs.
Straining his hearing to the limit, he wondered if he had just been imagining that –
Scrambling to his feet, noticing but not really paying attention to the darkness which had just halted in its approach, he spun around desperately trying to find the source of that voice.
Noticing that it was clearer, and so unmistakable, he shakily asked,
Hearing a flutter behind him, he froze in place as his eyes widened in desperate hope.
Slowly turning around, his breath hitched in his throat as his eyes picked up a trailing black cloak from the corner of his vision.
Raising his gaze, he locked eyes with the regal features of his older companion.
Hesitantly, his right arm came up, reaching for the older man as he took a small step forward, clearly afraid that Zangetsu would disappear if he moved too quickly.
When his hand was a scant inch from the black haired man's chest, Ichigo stilled as he felt the heat radiating from Zangetsu's body.
Moving his eyes upwards, he met Zangetsu's gaze behind his glasses, and after a second spent searching for who knows what, Ichigo flung himself forward, gripping Zangetsu in a fierce hug, which was returned just as strongly.
Suddenly, the ache, which had been a persistent pain in the depth of his heart, was gone.
The heaviness of his limbs, caused by being abruptly separated from a source of his power, vanished, leaving him just as strong…no…stronger than he had ever been before.
And as their connection – once violently severed – was forged anew, binding them much closer than they had ever been, Ichigo began to understand what Zangetsu had been forced to do in order to keep him from losing his powers when the captain had landed her double attack.
As he experienced the grief and desperation that had plagued Zangetsu in the instant before he had acted, he felt the last of his pain – and slight traces of resentment because Zangetsu had still chosen to tear them apart even if it was for their own good – disappear completely.
He merely hugged his companion tighter, vowing then and there, in a decision that he knew was mirrored perfectly by Zangetsu, that he would do all in his power to preserve their bond forever.
With their resolution made in unison, a soundless explosion of gentle light and cool breeze erupted around them, spreading across the inner world in a restoring wave of healing bliss, fixing the damaged structures and leaving them more magnificent that they had once been.
The once encroaching darkness was obliterated as the light burst through it, before vanishing to reveal a kingdom of taller and more magnificent glass buildings and trees at the height of vitality.
And as the last traces of the wave vanished, a small and barely-there presence, which was hidden in the basement of the very building the pair stood upon, stirred awake.
With a quiet sigh, Kisuke turned his eyes from the now closed door to the unconscious teen currently lying on a mat on the floor of his underground training room.
Once Isshin had heard about what had happened to his son – an unavoidable situation since Ichigo had refused to wake up and had thus missed the last day of school – he had wasted no time in hurrying over to his store while the girls were in school.
Once there, he had angrily demanded what had gone wrong, paling in slight fear once he learned the identity of the person who had been sent to retrieve Rukia.
When Kisuke had informed him that Ichigo's powers seemed to have been forcibly removed, Isshin had found himself vacillating between feeling relief that his son would no longer be part of that world, and sadness at the loss Ichigo would no doubt suffer through.
Now, Kisuke very carefully dropped to sit with his legs crossed beside the teen, wondering how Isshin was going to react once he learned of Kisuke's plan to restore Ichigo's true Shinigami powers.
Still, he thought to himself as he waved his fan in front of his face, it wasn't as though Isshin was not already suspicious. Indeed, the narrow eyed glare the father had sent his way when Kisuke had mentioned letting Ichigo rest in his store until he woke up, reminded the scientist that powers or no, Kurosaki Isshin was still someone he wouldn't want to be on the bad side of.
A groan pulled him from his thoughts and had his sharp gaze zeroing in on the orange haired teen just in time to watch him come to.
Ichigo's eyes opened to an unfamiliar place, but before his instincts could kick in and have him on the defensive, his senses picked up on a familiar presence sitting very close to him.
Slowly turning his head, he gazed upon the enigmatic blond shopkeeper who seemed to be involved with every crazy thing currently happening in his life lately.
Watching as said man suddenly beamed in his direction, he forced back a sigh as he prepared to deal with the annoyingly cheery man.
Orihime shifted in unease as her gaze once more landed on the seat by the window, which was currently empty of its usual orange haired occupant.
Chad, noticing her gaze, breathed in deeply as he fought down his own worry at the situation.
He had woken up that morning in his own room, with his wounds well cared for and well on the way to being healed.
A simple search had turned up a note telling him that Ichigo was fine and that he should go to school as he normally would, while later, someone would be by to explain things to him.
He had not liked it, but he had had no choice but to heed the mystery note.
However, turning up at school had been a trial.
Orihime had kept sending worried looks at Ichigo's desk, looks which only got more frequent once some kid sat at Rukia's desk and everyone, save the three of them, acted as if they had never known Rukia.
Sensing the handiwork of Shinigami, Chad had refrained from making a scene, somehow managing to subtly warn Orihime from doing so as well.
In front of the two, Ishida Uryū felt a dull ache behind his eyes.
Though he would deny it to the end of time, his heart had just about stopped when he had found Ichigo bleeding out on the floor last night.
He had wasted precious few seconds just gaping at the laid out teen, before noticing Chad's unconscious form nearby.
The sight of the two strongest people in his class felled before him had roused him from his stupor, lending haste to his actions as he hurried to staunch the bleeding while trying to figure out how to help the two.
The sudden sound of wooden sandals had had him whirling with a reishi bow so powerful it was fairly crackling with bloodlust.
Once he had registered the identity of the newcomer, he had wasted no time in co-opting the man into his attempt to help his classmates.
At the time, he had been too distracted to question the blond shopkeeper's willingness to help, merely grunting in agreement as he had vaguely registered the man's promise to get Ichigo help while Ishida tended to Chad.
Once Ishida had ensured that Chad would be fine, he had only then noticed the sudden absence of Ichigo as well as the green clad man.
Conflicted, he had been forced to see to Chad's safe return before tracking down the shopkeeper.
That plan had been shot to hell by a stern phone call from Ryūken, sounding faintly worried though Uryū believed he had been hearing things at the time. So, he had been forced to return home immediately, leaving him unable to find out if Ichigo was alright.
Now, as the empty seat by the window silently mocked him, he grit his teeth and swore that if that blond menace had done something to his…rival…he would turn him into a pin cushion. After all, being rivals, Uryū was clearly the only person allowed to harm Kurosaki, and anyone who said otherwise was asking for a headshot.
On silent feet, Suí-Fēng dropped out of her shunpō before the grand doors of the Captain Commander's meeting room. Walking passed the open door, she came to a stop before the assembled captains, facing the old man himself while her peers lined up on either side of her.
Inclining her head in a respectful bow, she commenced her report,
"As per your orders, I arrived in the Human World and immediately located the Shinigami, Kuchiki Rukia. My attempts to question her, regarding the human she had given her powers to, were met with resistance. Before I could proceed, another human showed up, and after determining that he could see us and had no intention of letting us pass without interference, I ordered my lieutenant to engage him."
Some of the gathered captains failed to hide their surprise at Suí-Fēng's words.
Continuing on and ignoring the sudden looks of interest, she kept a close eye on the faces of the other captains as she spoke,
"My lieutenant was evenly matched."
Now the surprise of the gathered captains exceeded mere looks and expressed itself as sounds of disbelief.
Waiting for them to quiet down, she resumed,
"After I realized that we were only just wasting time, I moved to disable the teen when I was interrupted by the human, Kurosaki Ichigo."
Here, Suí-Fēng paused as she remembered the lethal determination shining in the young man's face as she threatened the wellbeing of those he held dear. Snapping back to attention, she powered on, noticing but choosing not to comment on the looks of curiosity her lapse in concentration had garnered,
"We fought for some time, at which point I was convinced that in order to neutralize the boy, I would be forced to release my zanpakutō."
A small grunt of interest originated from the space occupied by the gargantuan captain of the eleventh division. Though the bloodthirsty grin spreading across his face had his fellow captains slightly exasperated, they could not deny their interest at the new bit of information.
The Captain Commander, voice completely disinterested, asked,
"Was he that good, Captain Suí-Fēng?"
As silence descended, she looked back with a serious gaze and said,
"Yes, Captain Commander"
Yamamoto Genryūsai Shigekuni maintained his calm demeanor on the outside, while within him, the faint stirring of interest, which had first flared into being when he had watched the incursion of the Menos Grandes, brightened as he took in his female captain's words. Internally relieved that his gambit in sending the female captain seemed to have paid off, he contemplated the implications of the report he was listening to.
Filing the new information away, he turned back to Suí-Fēng, silently indicating that she should proceed.
"Before I was forced to do so, however, the boy was distracted and left himself open to an attack."
Furrowing his brow as he deciphered her words, Ukitake Jūshirō considered what he knew about the diminutive captain and the division she headed, and then he spared a moment of sympathy for poor Ichigo-kun. The short captain's frosty voice pulled him out of his thoughts,
"I severed his Saketsu (Chain Binding) and Hakusui (Soul Sleep), completely removing all traces of Shinigami powers from his soul. I have no doubt that the boy is dead by now."
In his place beside his colleague, Kyōraku let loose a sad sigh at the loss of such a young life. Yamamoto for his part was momentarily disappointed, before he reconsidered what he knew about the facts before him. Finally recalling that Urahara Kisuke seemed to have taken some vested interest in the happenings of the town, he determined that his plans were not yet unsalvageable.
Into the silence that had arrived with the end of Suí-Fēng's report, the gravelly voice of the Captain Commander issued,
"Very well, Captain Suí-Fēng, your handling of the issue is commendable. Now, the Council of 46 has reached a final decision on the fate of the Shinigami, Kuchiki Rukia."
No one missed how the frail silver haired captain perked up in interest at his teacher's words, only to slump in defeat as the pronouncement was given.
"She will be executed in ten days; at noon on the first day of the coming month."
Ichigo was forced to admit to some amazement at the sight of the nigh unbounded training ground hidden beneath Urahara's shop. Once he managed to get his expression under control, he turned to the blond shopkeeper and had to stifle a growl at the amused and knowing look barely hidden by his fan.
Taking a step forward, with a scowl unconsciously slipping onto his face, Ichigo asked,
"So, Urahara-san, what is this secret training method which is supposed to help me get back my powers?"
Snapping his fan shut in the face of Ichigo's serious demeanor, Kisuke hesitated for a split second as his conscience – long since atrophied from disuse – gave one last feeble twinge for the webs he intended to weave around the orange haired teen and his friends. Unknown to him, his internal conflict caused him to miss the odd tone in Ichigo's voice as he mentioned recovering his destroyed powers.
Putting on his usual façade of cheer, he suddenly struck forward with the end of his wooden cane, aiming to hit Ichigo's forehead, while saying
"Now Kurosaki-kun, you shouldn't be so impatient, I will just –"
Before he was forced to regain his footing as Ichigo took a sharp step to the left, deftly avoiding the blow.
For an instant, there was a tense silence as Kisuke, Tessai, Jinta, and Ururu all replayed the last few seconds in their minds.
Suddenly, the still tableau was shattered as Kisuke recovered from his surprise and pouted,
"Come now, Kurosaki-san, there's no need to be so suspicious of me."
Ichigo looked carefully at the man who had just conveniently had a gigai on hand for when Rukia needed one…who had also just been nearby when the mass of Hollows had attacked…the man who – thinking back – seemed to have been present on the night that he had first met Rukia…he took this all in and in lieu of a verbal response, merely raised a single eyebrow in disbelief.
Kisuke, easily reading the silent gesture, affected a hurt look and began wailing about how he was underappreciated and his good deeds looked upon with suspicion.
He only ceased his dramatic actions when Tessai cleared his throat, and then Ichigo found himself taking a single step back as suddenly serious gray eyes flashed at him.
Speaking in a solemn tone that nearly brought chills to Ichigo's back, Kisuke said,
"Your Saketsu and Hakusui have been destroyed, leaving you a normal human with not even an ounce of spiritual power. So, the first step will be to restore that lost spiritual energy. Then, we will make you rediscover your own Shinigami powers, before finally having you learn to use those powers properly; lessons one, two, and three, in that order."
Holding the shopkeeper's gaze, Ichigo made no move to dodge as he saw the end of the cane approaching.
However, he did elect to speak just as the cane met his forehead,
"In that case, Urahara-san, let's just skip to lesson three."
It was only Tessai's enviable reflexes which saved the gathered spectators as a sudden maelstrom of potent reiatsu exploded out of Ichigo the moment his soul was ejected from his body.
Behind the hastily erected barrier, Kisuke's eyes were wide with visible surprise as he felt Ichigo's reiatsu rising from the level of a normal plus soul to something hovering in the vicinity of a lieutenant.
Once the storm of energy died down, they all beheld Ichigo's form and gaped in amazement.
Clad in the usual black attire of a Shinigami, Ichigo's right hand came to rest gently on the hilt of the sword sheathed at his left. Grasping the blade's handle, he drew it out and the cool air rang with a single crystal clear note as the sword cleared its sheathe – the bell-like sound announcing the arrival of the blade before which the very heavens themselves were torn asunder.
Kisuke took in the teen's now revealed Zanpakutō and he noticed that he was getting a faint sense of familiarity as he stared at the sword, but for the life of him, he could not recognize why.
Shaking off his surprise, he stepped forward from his position, drawing the focused eyes of the orange haired teen, and using his fan to hide his expression, he spoke in a musing tone,
"My, my, my, Kurosaki-san, keeping secrets are we?"
Ichigo merely snorted in amusement and wryly said,
"I don't want to hear that from you, Mr. Hat and Clogs."
Blinking in bemusement at his words, Kisuke could do nothing but laugh as his observation was turned back on him.
Getting control of himself once more, he slowly put his fan away while allowing a sharp and very dangerous smile to curl upon his lips, enjoying the way Ichigo's shoulders began to tense.
Reaching for his cane, he grasped the handle and pulled out his own sword, observing the lack of surprise in Ichigo's brown eyes and wondering absently to himself, how long the teen had known some of his own secrets.
Moving to speak, he finally said,
"Very well Kurosaki-san, it would seem that you are right and we can indeed proceed to lesson three."
And as Kisuke flickered out of view, Ichigo could only curse in his head as he turned to block a thrust aimed at his back.
Chad could do nothing to stop his eyes from sliding once more to rest on the black cat nonchalantly having a discussion with Inoue as though it were a normal occurrence. Peripherally, he was aware that the cat was somewhat amused at his break from reality, but he found that he quite simply could not care.
Taking in a deep breath to center himself, he asked,
"How is Ichigo?"
Suppressing a twitch as unnaturally intelligent yellow eyes landed on him, Chad waited for a response,
"That concerns what I have come here for."
Noticing that the two students were now appropriately focused, Yoruichi continued,
"Ichigo has begun training to go to the Soul Society."
Inoue frowned in confusion, while Chad remained unflinching, thus confirming a theory that Kisuke had shared prior to the meeting – a theory concerning Ichigo's knowledge, and by proxy, Chad's about the afterlife.
Focusing once more on the teens, Yoruichi continued,
"Your choices are clear: you can either forget about whatever powers you have just come into and go about living normal lives, or you can receive training in them and help Ichigo with his task. Though I would like to tell you to take your time, I can't…you must decide now."
With merely a grunt, Chad stepped forward in silent indication of his choice.
Inoue fidgeted in place for a moment, before raising her eyes and fixing the black cat with a determined look, which brought a pleased smirk to Yoruichi's face, which in turn caused Chad to once more twitch in agitation at the un-cat-like behavior.
Kisuke panted lightly as he gave his orange haired opponent time to recover from their latest bout, though the teen didn't seem to need that much time.
He spared a short moment to bemoan the loss of his youth before his sharp gaze refocused on the now recollected teenager. Simultaneously cursing and praising Isshin for allowing Ichigo formal instruction in the art of fighting, Kisuke considered how to proceed.
They had been battling for almost three hours at that point, and though Ichigo was clearly the more banged up of the two, Kisuke himself was not without his own scrapes and cuts. That observation, added to the fact that Ichigo seemed nowhere near the end of his endurance, made Kisuke realize that he would have to step things up, but before then,
He called out, and when he saw that he had Ichigo's attention, he continued,
"Would I be right in assuming that you didn't fight with your full power against the captain who came to retrieve Kuchiki-san?"
Taking Ichigo's sudden stillness as confirmation, he asked,
"In particular, would I be right in assuming that you only used the part of your powers that originated from Kuchiki-san?"
Ichigo simply gazed at the blond haired shopkeeper for a moment before he inclined his head in silent confirmation. As he watched the enigmatic older man's eyes light up in interest, he recalled the discussion he had had with Zangetsu concerning the recent change in his powers.
"Ichigo, it seems that there was another side effect of hosting Kuchiki Rukia's reiatsu in your soul."
Stirring out of his state of contentment, Ichigo dragged his attention back to the here and now, and listened to Zangetsu.
"When one speaks of reiatsu, it is easy to assume that it is energy produced by the soul and used directly from there. This is not entirely correct. It is more that the soul produces reiatsu and then stores it in a container, like a well, from which the user can then draw energy for whatever they are doing. That is why it is possible to exhaust your reiatsu and then recover given time. However, the soul is constantly producing reiatsu at a rate that depends on the individual, even if the container is full. This surplus is not usually noticeable and so doesn't really affect the person…in the short run. What that means is that after decades – centuries even, the container will be packed with more energy than it can hold, so it will expand under the pressure, thereby increasing the person's store of reiatsu. Still, in a few people, the soul produces reiatsu faster than the container can expand, and the soul's solution is to make the reiatsu denser…more potent. The result is that as time goes by, the older Shinigami continue to grow in strength as their reiatsu stores increase and in some, become more potent."
Ichigo took a few seconds to digest what he had just heard; flashing back to a mention of the Captain Commander in one of the books his dad had given him. Finally nodding at Zangetsu to continue, he waited for the older man's conclusions.
"I am not surprised that you are one of the few whose soul produces reiatsu faster than the container can grow. The main difference between you and everyone else though, is that you are still human. I say this because I believe that by virtue of the fact that you are still alive, your soul is more susceptible to change than that of a Shinigami, meaning that changes that would have taken centuries in a Shinigami, happen in months and years for you. For instance, it takes a human soul only eighteen years to go from an infant to an adult, while a plus/Shinigami takes centuries. Now, why did I just explain all this? When Kuchiki Rukia injected some of her powers into you, she merely injected energy into your container…a container that was already full and expanding slower than the energy constantly flowing into it. Because of this, she essentially reduced the size of your container since her energy took up the space that your energy would have used for itself, making it seem like you had a container that was two-thirds of its actual size."
Ichigo's eyes widened as his quick mind began to connect the dots.
With a pleased hum at his wielder's perception, Zangetsu continued,
"This act caused your container to come under more strain, forcefully expanding it and making your reiatsu denser that it should have been at the end of two months. Not only that, because the new energy displaced your own which had already been there, some of your reiatsu inevitably tried to flow out from the entrance to relieve some of the pressure. This forced your soul to increase the rate of flow of reiatsu entering the container, in order to overcome the reiatsu trying to force its way out of it. In essence Ichigo, your soul adapted to pump in more potent reiatsu, in greater quantities, which forced the reiatsu in your container to become denser, which forced your soul to pump harder to counteract the denser reiatsu trying to force itself back the way it came, and so on and so forth."
Ichigo was frozen silent as his mind conjured up the image of the feedback loop just explained to him. With a shaky voice, he asked,
In solemn tones, Zangetsu replied,
"Now that Kuchiki Rukia's powers have been removed, your reiatsu has expanded to fill in the new space, but your soul continues to produce reiatsu at the speed and potency it did before the removal of the foreign energy. Ichigo, whereas before your rate of improvement was already staggering, now…now, it will be astronomical."
Ichigo's eyes glazed over as he fought to assimilate the recent earth shattering revelations. He wondered about what the changes could mean for him. And, if he was being honest with himself, he was a little afraid.
"It is alright Ichigo; you are not alone in this. I have sealed off a large portion of your new reiatsu, leaving you with just more than you had before the fight with the captain. However, this means that when you release my Shikai, your jump in power will be far higher than you are used to."
Taking comfort in the older man's words, Ichigo took a deep breath, held it in, and released it along with all his tension and worries.
He rose to his feet and with his eyes blazing blue with determination, he turned to the other part of his soul and said,
"There's no reason why I can't start adapting to it now."
Now, as Ichigo stared back at the mysterious shopkeeper, he fought back a smirk as he felt the man's reiatsu rising in preparation for something – instinctively sensing that the battle was about to be kicked into high gear.
Kisuke held his sword out, and making sure that he was meeting Ichigo's eyes with his own, he intoned,
With a piercing and haunting tune, the blade he was holding glowed red as it fluidly shifted forms.
Once the light dimmed away, Ichigo beheld the now released Zanpakutō.
Raking his eyes down the average length blade, he took in the u-shaped guard and the crimson adorned handle, and also took the time to gauge the amount of reiatsu now being put off by his opponent.
Raising his eyes to meet Kisuke's grey orbs, Ichigo easily read the challenge in them, and with an internally murmured question – "Ready, Zangetsu?" – Which was in turn answered by a steady baritone – "Always, Ichigo" – he responded,
"Go forth and tear the heavens asunder, Zangetsu!"
Before his sight vanished under the light which the sudden storm of reiatsu was giving off, Ichigo was able to savor the surprise reflected in pale gray eyes.
Once the light show died down, the jaws of the spectators dropped in surprise as the elegant cleaver like blade was revealed. For Kisuke though, it wasn't only the revelation that Ichigo knew Shikai that threw him; the amount of reiatsu he was now sensing left him confused.
Ichigo was about three times as powerful as he had been.
Taking into consideration the fact that Ichigo had been at about the level of a lieutenant in his sealed state, it meant that he now had slightly more reiatsu than an average captain of Soul Society.
It boggled the mind.
Still, before Kisuke could lose himself in his speculations about why that was so, he was forced to dodge out of the way of a sudden attack, unusually finding himself surprised by the speed now being displayed by the orange haired teenager.
Recovering his equilibrium, he spun to face the now approaching boy and used his sword to deflect a strike aimed at his chest.
Grimacing slightly as his arm twinged from the blow, he disengaged and leapt back to now carefully consider Ichigo.
Seeing a slightly bloodthirsty smile spreading slowly across the boy's face, he absently noticed that there was an answering one on his own lips, before he rushed back into battle, forgetting all about the lesson and losing himself in the deadly dance of steel and potent energy.
Chad raised his fists as he prepared to reenter the battle against the no-longer-harmless black cat. Beside him, Inoue panted as she struggled to recover from her recent expenditure of energy. For the past two hours, the two teens had been engaged in a demented game of keep away with Yoruichi, where failure was measured in scratches deep enough to draw blood.
At the start of it, a day before, Yoruichi had turned to Chad and simply said,
"Monstrous strength is nothing if you are too slow to hit your opponent."
Chad recalled the brief surprise that had shown in the feline's yellow eyes as his fist narrowly missed the cat's head mere moments later, his training with Ichigo shining through.
Though it was tough, one immediate benefit of their efforts was that they had quickly determined what role Orihime would be most comfortable with.
Orihime had discovered that the strength of her fairies relied on the strength of her determination when tackling whatever task she was focused on – be it healing, defending, or even attacking.
However, because she was a pacifist at heart, she had found her niche in a barrier/support role, where she helped provide momentary diversionary attacks whenever Chad left himself open, while simultaneously maintaining a shield around her body to keep her from being taken out in the process.
Dividing her attention in such a way was forcing her to quickly adapt to wielding her powers as well as increasing her stamina in continuous channeling.
It was only the second day of their training, but already, the changes were startlingly clear.
Inoue had succeeded in getting her powers to manifest without verbalization about half the time, making her defenses significantly faster than before. Also the amount of damage her shield could sustain before shattering was increasing with each successive use. She had also gotten the hang of maintaining a shield around herself while also watching out for openings in Chad's guard where she could intervene before Yoruichi struck, though it was not easy to split her focus so.
Chad, for his part, had increased his reactions time significantly, ensuring that now, the black cat had to actually expend some effort to breach his defenses. In addition to that, he had slowly, but surely, been increasing his overall speed, further allowing him to better perceive high speed movement and even to move faster when attacking or dodging.
Having already mastered how to use his armored arm, he had sought to increase his overall endurance and the size of his reiatsu pool, hoping that in a battle of attrition, he would not be the loser.
Yoruichi landed on silent paws as her feline gaze observed the two tired teens.
Though she wasn't showing it, she was greatly impressed…perhaps alarmingly so.
Still, whatever reservations she might have once had about involving children in the upcoming situation fled from her mind once she thought about the price of failure. So, steeling her heart, she prepared to push them even more.
Suddenly dashing in to engage Chad, she began to weave with impossible grace, deftly avoiding the blurred punches aimed at her, absently noticing that as time went on, they were getting closer and closer to actually hitting her – at her current speed anyway.
With a patience born from decades of existence, she waited for the opening she needed.
Immediately, she was practically nose to nose with a now wide-eyed Chad. Smirking at the sudden alarm on the teen's face, she abruptly flickered out of view an instant before a blue beam of destructive force tore through the air where she had just been.
Continuing the motion, Chad spun with his missed punch and dove forward to land another on the flicker of black he had just spotted in the periphery of his vision.
He halted in surprise the moment he noticed that the object was not a cat, but a short black ribbon.
Knowing that he had just been had, he still tried to turn to meet the incoming attack from his blind spot, but he knew that he would be too late.
He needn't have worried.
With a hiss of surprise, Yoruichi was forced to abort her attack as a golden yellow shield suddenly sprung up in front of her face.
Before he could let loose his breath of relief, Chad noticed the panic cast on the cat's face, and that was when he realized what had just happened.
Turning with a shout, his eyes took in the blast of energy he had loosed when Yoruichi had surprised him.
It was seconds away from Orihime's position.
Yoruichi, who had expected the girl to use the shield for herself and let Chad get clawed, now realized how foolish she had been in expecting Orihime to let one of her friends get hurt, even if it was to save herself.
As she dashed to tackle the girl out of the way, she knew that she would be too slow in her current body.
Just as she resigned herself to transforming, Orihime raised her crossed hands and screamed moments before impact.
Uryū readjusted his glasses as he once more prepared to unleash a rain of arrows. Ever since Inoue, Chad, and the black cat had visited him the day before, bringing with them, news of Kurosaki's intentions to invade Soul Society, he had been in constant training. Currently, he was doing endurance training as he attempted to maintain a steady rain of arrows for as long as possible, while trying to get them to hit the designated circles on the floor.
It was not easy, but he was noticeably improving.
After he ended the current volley, he turned to make use of the towel he had set aside, when he was forced to leap out of the way of an attack.
He had an arrow in the air and another one nocked by the time his eyes focused on his attacker, only for them to widen in surprise as he watched his airborne arrow get absorbed by the other man.
Stuttering in surprise, he blurted out,
Letting loose a derisive sniff, Ishida Ryūken inquired,
"Is that anyway to address your own father, Uryū?"
Swiftly gathering his scattered composure, Uryū lowered his eyes with a smirk on his face, and readjusting his glasses, he said,
"I don't want to hear that from you, Ryūken."
Chuckling lowly at his son's response, the white haired young doctor's demeanor abruptly became serious, causing his son to tense up slightly.
Ryūken slowly began circling Uryū as his critical gaze took in the results of his boy's training, while his ever stoic face refused to refused to reveal the fact that he was impressed, even if only a little bit.
Finally coming to a stop after a half circle, he merely raised his hand and, taking some small delight in the widening of Uryū's eyes as he more clearly revealed his one-handed reishi bow, he loosed a veritable shower of deadly blue arrows.
With a startled curse, Uryū leapt back and immediately returned fire, focusing to make sure that his own arrows intercepted the ones aimed at him. Because he was so focused on his counterattack, he did not see the small pleased smile that flashed across Ryūken's face for an instant.
Kisuke easily kept pace with Ichigo as their swords flashed across the intervening distance between them, continuing their lethal melody of steel on steel.
Grinding to an abrupt halt, Kisuke pivoted on his left foot and suddenly lashed out with a thrust at the teen's chest.
Seeing the attack coming, Ichigo angled his cleaver like sword, deflecting the hit and leaving Kisuke open for a split second.
He wasted no time.
"Byakurai" (Pale Lightning)
Kisuke was forced to shunpō at his fastest speed to evade the attack aimed at his chest.
Without its target in sight, the bolt of supercharged lightning continued on to obliterate one of the numerous rocks lying around the place.
Once the dust had cleared up, Ichigo saw Kisuke fairly gaping at him, which in turn caused him to smirk slightly at the man's visible surprise.
Shaking off his shock, Kisuke pulled his bucket hat down, casting his glinting silver eyes into shadow, and then he spoke, slowly,
"My…my…my, Kurosaki-san…you are just full of surprises aren't you?"
If he expected Ichigo to react defensively, he was sorely disappointed as he watched the orange haired teen throw back his head and laugh in genuine amusement.
As his laughter finally died down, Ichigo's face gained an expression that Kisuke could never have expected to see on the usually stoic boy's face. Ichigo finally said,
"You're one to talk…Captain-san"
So great was Kisuke's surprise that his usual cheerful calm failed him, leaving him spluttering in shock.
Ichigo, seeing his reaction, internally relaxed as his gambit paid off. He had taken into consideration the relative levels of power of the short captain that had injured him and the blond swordsman before him. Adding to that the knowledge that Rukia had shared with him concerning Urahara Kisuke, Ichigo felt almost certain that he was right about the man's identity. Still, it was nice to have his suspicions confirmed.
Quickly regaining his composure, Kisuke snapped his fan in front of his face, madly fanning away as the neurons in his brain fired rapidly in order to make sense of Ichigo's words.
Finally arriving at a conclusion, Kisuke looked up with a too innocent expression and said,
"Isshin never was good at keeping his mouth shut, was he?"
With a snort, Ichigo shook his head instead of confirming/denying his words, before retaking his stance and preparing to reengage the shopkeeper.
Though he did not show it, he was not ignorant of the fact that his use of Kidō would draw his opponent's interest, leading the man to try to get him to really fight to his fullest.
No, Ichigo was not ignorant of this fact, rather, he was hopeful.
The quicksilver flash of a smile, followed by the potent flare of reiatsu, was Ichigo's only warning before the now-captain-level shopkeeper appeared beside him, sword already on a course to slice through his neck.
And the fight was on.
Kisuke looked down at the teen that was snoring lightly on his floor.
He finally allowed his body to do as it had wanted to for the past day and collapsed backwards in bone deep fatigue. He spent a few seconds just allowing himself to breathe before even contemplated getting back up.
Taking a moment to marshal his flagging energy reserves, he struggled back into a seating position and resumed his observation of the orange haired shinigami passed out next to him.
A flash of black in the corner of his eye had him turning to meet the startled gaze of his longest companion.
Easily deducing that the cause for her surprise was his disheveled state, he offered her a rueful smile and simply said,
"He is one scary kid, Yoruichi."
As Yoruichi tried to understand the real meaning behind his words, he turned his gaze back to the boy who had fought him constantly for the past six days.
He wasn't one to blow his own horn, but when it came to power rankings among the captains of soul society, he was no slouch. Certainly, he could not compare to the likes of Kyōraku, to say nothing of the Captain Commander, but amongst the others, well, there was a reason Aizen had not wasted time in getting him out of the picture.
Regardless, he could not stop the feeling of amazement welling up within him as he recalled the nearly week long battle he had just finished, and in particular, the realization he had come to while he had been clashing swords with Isshin's son.
Ichigo fought on a level just below that of a master swordsman.
It was clear to see that Ichigo's strengths did not lie in formalized katas or moves, no, Ichigo fought as though he was not swinging a sword, but his own arm. He and his blade possessed a oneness that only existed in those who had mastered swordsmanship to the point that their very heartbeat sounded like the clash of two swords.
Another thing that had struck him as peculiar about Ichigo's style was that it was familiar. Well, not as a whole, but there were parts of it that made him think that he was fighting Isshin and not his son. Those flares of familiarity weren't so common, however they were distinguishable. In fact, at some point during their bout, he had found himself almost falling into repeated movements that would have cost him as long ingrained muscle memories of sparring with Isshin – who had still wanted to keep his skills sharp even if he had lost most of his powers – threatened to throw off his rhythm. Still, that could be explained away as something Ichigo might have picked up from his father. After all, for all that Isshin acted otherwise, his constant attacks on his son were a way to train him.
Intellectually, he knew – given the circumstances of Ichigo's birth – that Ichigo was practically born to fight. But knowing something was different from experiencing it. Ichigo's aptitude and ability to better himself had caught him flat footed in the earlier phases of their battle, before he had adapted to seeing Ichigo correct himself between one sword stroke and the next. Though he knew it was perhaps unreasonable of him, he firmly believed that Ichigo had gone up in power over the six days of continuous battle.
In fact, Kisuke was fully convinced of that fact.
In the beginning, he had gotten the impression that Ichigo was trying to adjust to his strength, almost as if the cleansing of Kuchiki Rukia's reiatsu from his system had left him off kilter. His rapid increase in ability a few days into their bout lent further support to his conclusion. Still, whatever the cause, the irrefutable fact was that at the beginning of their marathon fight, Ichigo was – ability wise – somewhere in between a lieutenant and a captain, though his reiatsu alone put him out of reach of the lieutenant class. At the end, however, well, Kisuke could say with confidence that as long as he stayed away from any final releases, and the four oldest captains – including one or two traitors, he could at least hold his own, if not win outright, in any battle he got into in soul society.
It was a scary thought, but the fifteen year old boy drooling beside him was a match for just about half of the captains in soul society.
Feeling a surge of reiatsu from beside him, he merely reached his hand out, grasped a sheet and passed it to the naked woman who was suddenly sitting beside him.
Raising his eyes to her golden orbs, he allowed the full weight of his doubts, reservations, guilt, and even fear to shine through.
They are just children…what am I doing…how can I ever forgive myself…
Yoruichi, reading him with the ease of long practice, simply offered a smile that held in it a declaration of her undying support and love,
It will be alright…they are strong…you are doing the right thing…you are not alone…
Bowing his head as he greedily grabbed onto her unspoken words, Kisuke took in a deep breath, and on exhale, felt the tension easing out of his body; all his doubts, being dispelled in the face of Yoruichi's unyielding belief in him.
Nodding his head in determination, and valiantly ignoring his wounds, he turned to her and said,
"They will have to leave tomorrow."
Closing her eyes with a grimace, Yoruichi nodded her head as she saw the logic behind his statement, she replied,
"Then I will get in touch with Kūkaku today."
Pausing for a moment as a sudden idea flashed into his mind, Kisuke gained a mischievous glint in his eyes as he said to a suddenly wary Yoruichi,
"Ah, Yoruichi my dear, I don't think that will be necessary."
Startled, Yoruichi cast a shrewd look at her childhood friend, before the meaning of his words dawned on her, leaving her open-mouthed in shock.
Yuzu cast a worried glance at Ichigo, her eyes falling once more upon the Band-Aid on his face. His story of being jumped by some blond haired thug with a bucket hat had placated her a little, but she still couldn't shake the feeling that it was more than that.
On Ichigo's other side, Karin scowled as she noticed the worry in her twin's eyes, fighting down the temptation to kick her stupid brother for making them worry about him.
Ichigo for his part was not ignorant of the mood his sisters were in. He had to fight the urge to sigh in weariness as he lead them back home from Karin's last soccer match of the school year.
It was at times like this that he found his determination to keep his sisters innocent tried and tested.
Finally pausing in his steps, he waited for the twins to turn back to him with identical expressions of confusion on their faces.
Karin, seeing the wry smile on her brother's face, was the first to get it.
Dropping to one knee so that he could better look them in the eyes, Ichigo said,
"Rukia is in some trouble with some of her friends. Chad, Inoue, Ishida, and I are going to help her out."
After saying that, he simply waited for their reactions.
It didn't take long.
With teary eyes, Yuzu launched herself at her precious big brother, seconds before Karin was there beside her, similarly trying to squeeze him to death.
Trembling slightly, and with an almost unnoticeable waver in her voice, Yuzu said,
"I know you will always help your friends Onii-chan, but, please…please make sure you come back."
And Karin, grumbling in agreement added,
"You better not get yourself hurt or you'll be just like stupid goat face."
With a slightly choked off laugh, Ichigo tightly hugged his sisters back as he was reminded of the one reason he continued to grow stronger; he was a big brother, it was written into the very fabric of his existence that his sisters could never come to harm while he still breathed.
Getting over the moment, Ichigo rose to his feet and took his sisters' hands, and together, they continued their journey home.
Once they arrived, Yuzu opened door but before she could call out a greeting, her eyes landed on the face of her father who had clearly been awaiting their return.
Ichigo met his father's steely gaze with one of unruffled determination, and after a few seconds of silence, Isshin relaxed with a smile on his face that was one part sorrow and two parts pride.
It was a testament to how serious Isshin was taking things that throughout the rest of the day, he dispensed with his usual boisterous antics and instead acted as normal father.
He knew that Ichigo would be departing tomorrow, but he never even entertained the thought that he would not be coming back. Perhaps his confidence in his son could have been called overly optimistic given what he was about to go up against, but he knew that Yuzu and Karin would have told Ichigo to come back safe; no matter what his son might be, he has always, first and foremost, been an older brother.
And so, it was with a smile on his face that Isshin bid his son good night in a loud voice, followed softly by a much more heartfelt see you soon.
Rukia kept her head down as her ears picked up the approach of a steady gait. For as long as she lived, she could never forget who those footsteps belonged to.
With a wish of cloth, the approaching figure halted before the bars of her temporary cell.
Taking in a deep fortifying breath, Rukia raised her head to meet the eyes of her visitor. And because she was looking for it, she was able to pick up on his brief flash of surprise before it was masked away. She knew that her experiences in the World of the Living had changed her – made her stronger where it truly mattered. Now, having spent time in the presence of another older brother and getting a taste of a special brand of sibling love, she was able to meet her own brother's eyes with a confidence she had lacked mere months before.
After a few seconds spent staring, she finally inclined her head and said,
The only reason Byakuya did not visibly react to the change in address was because he had already steeled himself to whatever subsequent surprise might come from his sister.
Still, it was a near thing.
Letting his eyes take in the full image before him, he realized that his little sister had gone to the Living World and returned a grown up. He easily read the quiet confidence in her posture and the calm assurance in her violet gaze that let him know that she did not regret what she had done. In that moment, the resemblance she bore to his late wife had never been more apparent.
Inclining his head so slightly that Rukia would have missed it if she weren't so focused on him, Byakuya solemnly stated,
"Rukia, the date of your execution has been decided. Today, you will be moved to the Senzaikyū where you will wait until the first of the next month."
For an instant, Rukia's hands gained a faint tremor, before she clasped them together in her lap and took in a deep and slow breath.
After she had regained her composure, she raised her eyes and felt a small smile spread across her face, visibly baffling her brother – and herself, to be honest. With a serenity she never knew she possessed, she replied,
"Then, I am glad that I have the chance to see you now, Byakuya-nii."
Byakuya stilled completely as his mind registered her words, while within him, his carefully constructed world was falling apart.
I swear, as a Captain of the Gotei 13, to uphold all its Laws and Mandates.
I swear to you Hisana, I will protect your sister.
He wanted to clench his fist and rage against the world and the unfairness of it all, but he was Lord Kuchiki; he was incapable of displaying such a loss in control.
Maintaining his customary calm look, Byakuya spun on his heels and smoothly made his way out of the room which housed his sister, looking for all the world as though he was merely taking a stroll, while inside him, he felt his heart dying.
Back in her cell, Rukia's eyes were fixed on the hands clasped in her lap as she waited for tears that didn't seem to be coming. She couldn't understand it, but somehow, she was not afraid of her approaching death. The two months she had spent with Ichigo had changed her in ways she could never possibly have imagined.
Before her assignment to the World of the Living, she would never have found herself as comfortable in her brother's presence as she had just now. When she thought about it, she could only conclude that watching Ichigo, in his capacity as big brother, interact with his sisters – and, after a few weeks, with her as well – had soothed a part of her that she hadn't known was hurting. Ichigo had shown her, through his words and actions, what the relationship between an older brother and his younger sister could be. And with time, he had even included her.
In her heart, she knew that that was the reason why she could face her coming death with a smile on her face and a song in her heart. Even if she were to go back and do it all again, she could never choose not to save the family that possessed such love; to save the boy who was such a loving older brother.
No, she had no regrets.
And the tears flowing down her cheeks were not ones of sadness or fear, but of joy and contentment. For two months, she had had friends…family.
She had no regrets.
Ichigo's footsteps were completely silent as he ran alongside his friends…oh, and a black cat.
He had delegated the movement of his legs to the back of his mind, while his conscious mind focused on another matter.
Something was wrong with Zangetsu.
Well, maybe wrong was not the right word, but something was definitely amiss.
He had gotten the first inkling after his fight with Urahara Kisuke. During their spectacular six day long battle, Ichigo had felt himself improve a lot as the amount of attacks Kisuke managed to slip through his defenses got smaller and smaller, while the amount of damage Ichigo managed to do increased in turn. At the end, Ichigo had been both completely spent and curiously able to continue. His body had practically begun shutting down as over 120 hours of nigh uninterrupted battle – they had paused for four hours every night to rest – began to take its toll on him. Yet, as he had collapsed bonelessly on the floor, he had felt some part of himself still rearing to go. If anything, the near emptiness of his reserves had better enabled him to sense the hidden well of energy within him.
After thinking about it, he had finally concluded that he must have been sensing the part of his new power which Zangetsu was still keeping under lock and key.
Focusing back on the matter at hand, he wondered what had caused the sudden change in Zangetsu. Granted, it wasn't anything too drastic, after all, it wasn't like the old man was suddenly not talking to him anymore.
No, it still bothered him though.
Last night, while Ichigo's body had rested from all the strain it had been put under over the past week, Ichigo had meditated with his companion in his inner world. The recent strengthening of their bond in addition to the fact that the inner world was as much Zangetsu's domain as it was Ichigo's meant that Ichigo was able to achieve a level of connection with his older companion that opened up their feelings and thoughts to one another. In fact, their connection was so strong – and so new – that the first time they had sparred after the incident, Ichigo had felt as though he were fighting his own body. He had found himself moving to block attacks a scant second before they were even launched. It had made sparring difficult until they had figured out how to shield off their thoughts from one another.
So, as Ichigo had found peace and serenity in the calmness of his inner world, he had sensed some faint stirrings of unrest in his companion before the trickle of unease had been swiftly dammed up, leaving Ichigo just about convinced that he had imagined the entire thing.
If it had not happened again while they had spoken about the upcoming journey to soul society, Ichigo had no doubt that he would have dismissed the entire thing. Yet, as Ichigo had listened to Zangetsu's advice concerning his upcoming battles, he had felt a part of his spirit companion's attention wandering to something else. Before he had been able to call the older man out on it, the sensation of distraction had abruptly vanished, leaving Ichigo once more the full focus of Zangetsu's truly intense gaze.
Ichigo's attention was suddenly wrenched back into the present as he felt a wave of reiatsu slam into him, leaving him confused at the peculiar feeling behind the reiatsu.
For an energy that embodied life itself, the reiatsu currently washing over him felt oddly, empty. It took him a moment to realized that he was sensing the background reiatsu present in every single particle in Soul Society, indicating that they were about to arrive.
Indeed, up ahead, he could see a doorway in the long dark tunnel, affording him a glimpse of the world outside.
A glimpse that looked disturbingly familiar.
With a swish of fabric, they were through the door, and falling dozens of feet towards the floor.
Just as Ichigo prepared to use his reiatsu to cushion their fall, a golden shield sprang up underneath the group, catching them and lowering them safely to the floor.
Nodding in appreciation to Orihime, he cast his gaze about the place he suddenly found himself standing in, and couldn't suppress his surprise.
It was an exact replica of the training ground under Urahara's store.
Turning to the now smirking black cat, he was just in time to hear,
"Welcome to Soul Society."
Well then, there you have it.
A few notes. No, I have not abandoned Little Things…it is just honestly difficult to write a worthy last chapter with so many heavy hitters lined up to duke it out. I am trying to avoid taking the easy way out by not giving enough attention to each of the battles taking place. That said, I honestly can't give you an estimate of when I will update the last chapter. It will happen when it happens.
Now, about this chapter, what can I say but Thank God! We have finally gotten to Soul Society and now I can go wild. All the little changes that I had been making (and after all the accusations that I was following canon too closely), will finally begin to have noticeable results on the story.
Finally, someone asked about Ichigo's inner Hollow, and about how I would incorporate the recent revelations from the manga, if at all...hmmm...well, to be honest, I had already worked that out in my head a while ago and instead of making promises, I shall merely let my actions speak for me.
That should be it. Have a nice day/night…
Please leave a comment if you can. Thank you for taking the time to read and review my story.