A/N: Whew! It's been a while! I apologize for the lengthy wait between chapters, but I'll say it like I did in the last a/n in my other story...Life has been unkind in 2014, and it has taken a lot of time, effort, stress and more to deal with. I have had some amazing people in my life making it better, even here in the world of fan fiction, (thanks LiamG and Wiggles), but I am still working on getting my confidence back enough to give you guys and gals the best chapters I can. Thanks so much to those who take the time to review! I really appreciate it!

To answer a common question: NO! I will not be giving up on my stories. I may take longer to post, but I have grown quite attached to them, and will not be giving them up or abandoning them.

Ok, enough of all of that for the moment. There'll be another brief a/n at the bottom. You know the drill by now...Read, review, but most of all, enjoy!

World Of The Living, Urahara Shoten

Isshin groaned when he heard a small pop from rolling his neck as he walked towards the darkened shop. He had gotten only a few hours' worth of sleep, due to his efforts of settling the girls and making the necessary arrangements to close the clinic, not to mention his own anxiety. Taking in a deep breath, he tried to relax.

The air smelled fresh in the just pre-dawn morning. It had rained substantially during the night, only subsiding a few moments ago, yet the clean air was not enough to provide a sense of positivity about the day ahead.

Frowning as he sipped his coffee, he couldn't help but think,'Why does the name 'Kurosaki' always seem to translate into 'Fate's Favorite Plaything?'

Sighing, he shrugged off the frustrating thoughts. Yes, fate seemed to have fun messing with them, yet he couldn't say that they weren't blessed. He had a beautiful family, who seemed to inspire love and loyalty in anyone they met.

Knocking on the door to the shoten, Isshin couldn't contain his smirk as thoughts from the previous day resurfaced. 'I really hope we make it there to see your face when she releases, son. I'll probably laugh my ass off, and Yoruichi will probably kick your ass for not giving her a better reaction when she did it!'

A light came on and the door opened, revealing a smirking Kisuke. "Well good morning, sunshine! Nothing like another adventure to get you excited about the day, eh? OW!"

His head rocked forward and his hat flew off as a loud smacking sound was heard. "How in the hell are you so damn cheerful this early in the morning?", Yoruichi's grumpy voice could be heard asking from behind the jovial man.

Isshin chuckled as he began to enter the shop. The Shihoin princess had never been a happy early riser, even when she led the onmitsukido.

"Such a violent woman! I am simply excited to go and see how our favorite young shinigami is faring. Preparations have been made, and we are ready to go. The girls have settled in nicely, and Tessai is wonderful with children. Are you ready to go find Ichigo, Isshin?", the shopkeeper said as he replaced his hat.

"Yeah, let's go find my hard headed son. I swear, that boy gets into so much shit without even thinking about it, but once he puts his mind to it… Hell, he could probably find a way to make Shunsui stop drinking, if he had a mind to!", the elder Kurosaki replied with a grin, causing both Kisuke and Yoruichi to chuckle.

Once fully inside, Isshin moved to pull the door closed, yet felt his arm tug as the door met a firm resistance. Looking up, he was slightly surprised to see a large, brown hand holding the door in place. His surprise changed to a knowing smirk when he heard a deep voice say, "I see that I was right to assume that you would try to leave without us."

Opening the door once more, the lights within the shop revealed the determined, and somewhat perturbed faces of Chad, Uryuu and Orihime.

"Ahh, I was wondering if you would make it in time," Urahara said, now from behind his damnable fan.

"Next time, actually telling us what is going on would be preferable to catering to your omniscience," the young Quincy said flatly as he pushed his glasses up.

"Oh, such flattery!", Kisuke said. "I think you did just fine, this time, Uryuu. Now would you like to keep chatting, or would you actually like to get moving?"

"Why, you…", the bespectacled teen started, only to be cut off by Chad.

"Enough. We are wasting time. Mr. Urahara, we are ready to go…now."

The group gathered at the door all paused and looked up at the stoic giant. The hard set of his mouth, as well as the intensity visible in the eye that wasn't covered by his shaggy mane, made any retorts die on their lips. The adults in the group simply nodded, with Isshin patting his shoulder as he turned and walked further into the shop.

Letting both Orihime and Uryuu pass through ahead of him, Chad looked back once more at the world that was being slowly illuminated by the oncoming dawn. With a quiet grunt, he turned and went into the shoten, shutting the door behind him.

XXXXXX

Hueco Mundo

Rukia could easily feel that the tension of the entire group was thick as the strike team arrived in Hueco Mundo. Though she had been uneasy since hearing of the ludicrous orders, the moment her feet touched the cool sands of the desert she had left not so long ago, her sense of anxiety seemed to increase exponentially.

Neither her brother, nor Hitsugaya-taichou had said a word since entering the garganta. They had simply run ahead of the group at a blistering pace, putting distance between themselves and the subordinates. Looking forward at her brother, Rukia could only imagine what was going on in his mind as they went forward in this errand of madness.

Whatever it was, she could only pray that it was something to make him change his mind.

With Byakuya

Byakuya Kuchiki could not seem to run fast enough through the endless night as he led the group over the glowing sands of Hueco Mundo. He was trying to focus on simply moving, as he was still reeling from the turbulence of his thoughts that had only increased since departing the Soul Society.

'What does all of this mean? Ichigo Kurosaki has possession of the hogyoku? He has gained Kyoka Suigetsu? This makes no sense at all! How can one obtain the zanpakuto of another? Could this be one of Aizen's illusions? From what I have heard, they are impossible to see through. Or, could…could it be that Ichigo may have actually been corrupted so far as to take the spirits for his own? No…he wouldn't…would he? But, he sacrificed his own powers, his zanpakuto. The pain of that must have been unbearable. Could he have taken them in desperation?'

'What does your heart tell you, Master?', Senbonzakura's deep voice asked quietly. While neither he nor his wielder preferred to communicate in this manner, the doubt in his master's heart was something the spirit could not bear.

Pausing his thoughts for a moment in surprise, Byakuya considered the question. He had been so consumed by conjecture, that he had neglected to try and analyze the situation. What did he truly feel was going on?

'I do not know! That is what is so difficult,' he thought after a few moments.

'Why would it bother you so, should it be the case that Ichigo Kurosaki has indeed become corrupted by the lure of power? Why would it…'

'He has not become corrupted,' Byakuya's snapped inwardly. Though his words were stern, his thoughts trailed off. Even if he kept it inside, the grief that the possibility brought to his heart was immense.

In the short time that he had known him, Ichigo Kurosaki had become somewhat of a standard that Byakuya, though he would NEVER admit to it, strove for. Byakuya was a great noble, a tremendous captain, and a fierce warrior, and that was never in doubt.

However, Ichigo was something different. Something Byakuya had come to see as…more. Ichigo Kurosaki may be rude, but he was completely honest and transparent. He may be obnoxious, but he was thoroughly dependable, loyal to a fault. Ichigo was the fiercest of friends, the epitome of what it meant to be a protector, and the embodiment of what the elder Kuchiki had come to understand of 'family'.

Ichigo Kurosaki was the brother that he wished he could be for Rukia. A boy…no, a man who consistently put his body and soul on the line for others, and never strayed from what was right. That was what bothered him so deeply.

Byakuya Kuchiki could not comprehend, much less bear the thought of this crazy, maddening…admirable…man succumbing to the lure of powers such as the Hogyoku. It simply couldn't be possible, therefore it could not have been Ichigo. His mind actively rejected the thought, yet a seed of doubt remained unmovable in the face of his desperation.

'How do you think that you are going to obtain the truth?', the inner spirit asked, trying to lead his wielder just a little further in his thoughts so that they could catch up to what his heart already knew.

After a moment's pause, the stoic captain curtly responded, 'I do not know who or what it is that we will encounter on this mission. However, whomever or whatever it is that we find will have some questions to answer. Should I be dissatisfied with their answers, they will die a most painful death.'

With Toshiro

Toshiro ran alongside his fellow captain in silent frustration.

Rolling his eyes at his own thoughts, he knew that 'frustration' was a poor substitute for how he actually felt. He wasn't simply frustrated, he was pissed. Fury seemed to color everything he thought and saw, as every step closer to finding Ichigo appeared to increase his pure anger at so many aspects of his current predicament.

'What in the hell has Kurosaki gotten himself into, this time? Gaining the Hogyoku, and that damned Kyoka Suigetsu?! Not only that, but an Espada—the bloody Tercera!—took him away from right under the Soutaichou's own nose? Dammit, why can he never do things the easy way? Still…no matter what he has gained, he has sacrificed more. How many of our messes has he resolved? He has been introduced to the absolute worst of us, yet still comes back to help us. I cannot kill him. I simply cannot. Hopefully, a solution will present itself, as I cannot cut down Ichigo Kurosaki, nor the one who helped him in his time of need. Though she is an Espada…she seemed to be so much different than any of the others I had met…'

Frowning at the direction his thoughts were on, as well as the fact that—for the moment— he could do absolutely nothing about it, Hitsugaya turned slightly to his side to glance at the man running next to him.

Seeing the usual mask of indifference, Toshiro couldn't help but notice that Byakuya's pace was the same as his own: rigid, with apparent rage just boiling just beneath the surface. Having known the stoic captain for a while now, the actions spoke volumes.

'He must be uneasy as well. After Ichigo saved his sister, I noticed such a change in him. While he may be stoic and reserved, he hadn't shown as much life as I have seen since Hisana died. What is it that he is planning on doing? Will he actually kill Ichigo? Could I…could I actually allow that? But that would be treason…Dammit! I am probably going to punch Ichigo just for making me have to deal with this!', he thought with a growl.

Reining in his temper for the moment, Toshiro rolled his neck and calmed himself to where he could think objectively. Regardless of what they decided in the end, he had a feeling that yet another fight was on the horizon. Glancing once more at the elder Kuchiki, he steeled his mind and thought, 'This cannot be the only option. We will have to find a moment to speak of a plan soon.'

XXXXXX

Elsewhere in Hueco Mundo

While the others of the group rested, Ichigo opened his eyes to find himself once more in his inner world. Looking around, the stars seemed to be shining brighter, and the wisps of black and purple reiatsu were flowing much more gently than the last time he had been there.

As he turned to walk up a large flight of stairs, he quickly spun to face a presence that had appeared behind him. Coming face to face with the new, daunting form of Hogyoku, Ichigo yelped and fell to his rear on the stairs with a loud huff.

"Dammit, can't you ever approach normally?!", he shouted as he stood up, rubbing his backside.

"There is nothing wrong with my approach. You seem to be easily startled, Ichigo. Instead of worrying about my ability to move normally, you should try increasing your awareness. After so many mornings of your father making you look like a foolish weakling, one would think you would be more observant of your surroundings and not be forced to scream like a child," the normally stoic spirit said. Though his mask gave no indications to his attitude, Ichigo would later swear he had heard a smile in Hogyoku's voice.

'Did he just insult me?', he thought in amazement, again forgetting that his thoughts were able to be heard.

"It is quite clear that I did. Ever since I assimilated your hollow essence, I have found myself feeling slightly antagonistic. Going by your memories, the instinct that I absorbed has always needed to prod you into change. While I feel that my sense of self is not diminished, the instincts are difficult to ignore."

"Oh great, so you absorbed the part of him that was a total asshole!", Ichigo muttered as he rolled his eyes. When his eyes settled once again, he was stunned to see Hogyoku's fierce mask mere inches from his face.

"I absorbed much more than antagonistic feelings, Ichigo, however we can have a discussion in the way you and he used to, if that is what's necessary to—as he would put it—'pull your head out of your ass'", the expressionless spirit said in a tone that was eerily reminiscent of his former hollow.

"Now, now, boys, let's play nice," a clearly humored voice called out from behind them.

Turning, Ichigo's eyes went wide as he saw a somewhat different Kyoka than he was used to smoothly walking up to him with a mischievous smirk on her face. While watching her stride towards him, Ichigo took in her new look in a near daze.

Though he had been unable to be anything but a…fan…of her previous attire, what she wore now made his entire thought process pause. The first thing he noticed was the color, at least that was all that he knew to call it.

While she had worn black and white before, her clothing was now the deepest of blacks…until she moved. Her movements caused a slight shimmer, a disturbance in the consistency of what she wore that—for some reason—reminded Ichigo of sitting water that had gently been disturbed. Whenever this would occur, the shimmer would look a deep, almost-black metallic grey.

Looking more at what she now wore, Ichigo felt his mouth go slightly dry. Still wearing boots, they now came up slightly higher to just below her thighs, not quite meeting the ever short dress that hugged her body tightly. As his eyes couldn't help but continue upwards, he slightly blushed at the larger portion of skin that showed in the deep cut at the top of her dress. To top it all off, she now had a hooded cloak, just as he did.

Hers, however, was sleeveless, and did not fall dramatically over her face, as his did. Rather, it sat gently atop her rose-colored hair, resting in such a way as to still clearly show her face. Ichigo also saw that her left arm was covered up to her bicep with a fingerless, long black glove, and her right hand was also gloved in a fingerless fashion.

Once she was in front of him, Ichigo again met her deep sapphire, golden flecked eyes. Smiling up at him, she struck a pose and asked, "So, what do you think of my new look? I thought that, since I have a new aspect to my powers, I should have a new style."

Still wide-eyed, Ichigo could only mutter, "Um…uh…it's really…you…I mean…it looks amaz…", he cut himself off as he blushed in earnest.

Kyoka couldn't help but smile. She loved the fact that Ichigo could be so stunned at her appearance, yet still treat her with such respect as to not ogle her. Leaning up and placing yet another lingering kiss on the corner of his mouth, she winked and said, "Thank you, Ichigo. Somehow you always know just what to say to make me smile."

Giggling at the completely confused face that he made, the rose-haired spirit felt a wave of possessive affection for her wielder. Allowing the feeling to compel her, she roughly pulled him close by grabbing the back of his neck with one hand, and the front of his cloak with the other. Smirking again, she reached up to his ear and began whispering, which soon turned into a sultry growl, "I was right to choose you. You are my wielder, Ichigo Kurosaki."

Ichigo's heart began to beat incredibly fast, especially when he found his hands resting on the waist of the beautiful woman in front of him. Unable to speak, he could only think, 'I t-think you got a bit more than just a new aspect to your powers.'

Bringing her head back to meet his wide-eyed gaze, yet not releasing her hold, Kyoka whispered, "I am still myself, Ichigo. Our bond may be deeper, and hard to explain at the moment, but I have lost none of myself."

Returning her lips to his ear, she lowly whispered, "In fact, I would dare to say that I am more myself now than ever, my precious wielder." Feeling his hands tighten on her waist, Kyoka felt a thrill at the touch.

The moment his zanpakuto spirit had finished speaking, Ichigo felt teeth graze his earlobe, causing his breath to stop completely for a moment, before accelerating to an abnormal rate. Hearing a sultry laugh, he felt her release her hold on him and begin to lean back.

As she was leaning back and lowering her hand, something caught Ichigo's eye, snapping him out of his stupor and he reached out and grabbed it. Looking down at the top of the hand he now held, he noticed a white, ridged bar across her knuckles and asked, "What is this?"

'Uh oh, I wasn't ready for him to see that yet. Don't be mad, Ichigo…'

Kyoka suddenly couldn't meet his eyes, but said, "It is hollow bone covering. I…I thought it would be helpful in a fight, but…I also wanted to show that I accepted all parts of you…of us. I know you hated your inner hollow, but it's a part of both Hogyoku and myself now. We want you to know that we truly do accept it, and are happy to have shared so much with you."

Ichigo stood in stunned silence. Kyoka and Hogyoku…truly accepted that part of him? Knowing that they had both seen his memories, he was sure that they were fully aware of who his hollow had been, and what it had tried to do. Now he had two new spirits…and they openly accepted this as a part of themselves? Though they had said they did before, actually seeing evidence of it brought the gravity of their actions down upon him.

After a what seemed like an eternity of tense silence, Ichigo whispered, "Thank you." Turning to Hogyoku, he said slightly louder, "Sincerely," to which the fierce looking spirit paused before nodding.

"We are sincere in our desire to be bonded with you, Ichigo. Do not continue to doubt us. While I agree that we made the right choice, Kyoka, I think that it is time to show Ichigo what you wanted him to see."

"Huh? What did you want me to see?", their confused wielder asked.

Looking up at his face with a worried expression, Kyoka stepped forward, grasping both of Ichigo's hands in her own. Taking a deep breath, she asked, "Ichigo, do you trust me? I don't mean, 'do you believe that I won't try to take over like your hollow did?'. I am asking: do you trust in me, in my desire to be bonded to you as well as how deeply Hogyoku and I care about you? Do you trust that anything I do is to either protect you, or to make you stronger?"

Pausing at the wariness her words conjured, Ichigo met her gaze for a long moment and said, "Yes, I do. I believe that both you and Hogyoku are sincere in your desires to be bonded to me, and I believe you when you say that you care for me. What does—mmph…".

Cutting him off with her fingertips over his lips, Kyoka moved her other hand over his heart and quietly said, "Good. I want you to remember that beyond any shadow of a doubt from now on. After seeing all of your memories, your fights, and your battles, we have seen that you are truly a fierce warrior. You have many strengths, your heart being the greatest of them."

Pausing for a moment, she saw the young man's look of confusion. Sensing he was about to speak, she pressed her fingertips slightly more firmly against his lips and said, "However, your greatest strength also happens to be your greatest weakness. During your battles with Kariya, as well as Amagai, it had seemed that you had learned to control your heart, and to do what must be done. With things as they stand now, though, we cannot hope for that to still be true. It is a vulnerability that cannot and will not be allowed."

"With things as they stand now? What do you mean, 'vulnerability'? Of course I am in control of my heart! What the hell are you talking about?," Ichigo snapped, instantly irritated at the words he was hearing. He didn't know where this conversation was going, but he was sure that he was not going to like it.

"Quiet!", Hogyoku interjected in an uncharacteristically sharp manner. "This is vital to your survival, to the survival of your arrancar friends, and you refusing to be silent and to heed our words will endanger you all."

Jerking his head back to Kyoka, he heard her continue, "Ichigo, I have been in Soul Society for a long time, and know exactly what is to come. You are not ready for this confrontation. Do you remember what your first mentor told you?"

Touching Ichigo's temple, Kyoka replayed a specific memory…

"When you're dodging, you're "afraid of getting hit." When you're attacking, you're "afraid of hitting me." When you're protecting someone, you're "afraid of them dying."

It's pathetic! You can't give into fear in a fight!

When you're dodging, think "I won't let you hit me!" When you're protecting someone, think "I won't let you die!" When you're attacking, think "I will cut you!"

Unable to remain silent, Ichigo shouted, "What are you talking about?! What the hell does all of that have to do with anything? I may not have mastered your illusions completely, but we aren't helpless! Whoever comes is in for a major ass kicking! Why are you two doubting me now?!"

Looking between themselves, both spirits sighed. Speaking up, Kyoka said, "It has to do with fear, Ichigo. Do you not understand what you are up against…what you will be forced to face?"

Straightening his back, Ichigo snorted, "Yeah, they're gonna send somebody…"

Before he could get any further, the rose-haired zanpakuto spirit roughly grabbed grabbed his face and shouted, "WRONG! They are not going to send 'somebody'. Ichigo Kurosaki, I have been in Soul Society for many years, both with Sosuke as a captain, and as a traitor, and I can tell you one thing for certain: They will not send just 'somebody'. They will be your friends. Ichigo, they are going to force those closest to your heart to come and cut you down. They want your guard lowered so that they can turn their blades not only on you, but on the others…on Tier."

"This will be hard for you to grasp, Ichigo, however you must learn to steel your heart. You must be able to stay true to yourself, to what is right, regardless of who you face. This is what we meant by saying that your heart is your biggest weakness…it drives you to do extraordinary things, but it also highlights that which you hold most dear," Hogyoku added quietly, stepping closer to his stunned bearer.

"No…no, you're wrong. They would never…", Ichigo gasped, the images of all his shinigami friends running through his mind. They had been his friends. Fought with him. 'Surely not…not Rukia…or—'

His thoughts were again cut off as he felt a hand violently grasp his throat and lift him off of his feet. Grasping the arm that was holding him and looking down, Ichigo saw the menacing face of Hogyoku looking up at him, eyes glowing a deep purple. With a loud growl, the fearsome spirit used his grip to slam Ichigo into the ground, shattering the stone beneath him, yet he did not release his hold.

"The time for naiveté is over! Your heart is your enemies' best target…accept it. We are going to train you on how to protect your heart. This is not an option. You will learn, or you condemn yourself, us, your rescuer, and her fraccion to death. Do you want our deaths on your hands, Ichigo Kurosaki, or are you willing to actually do something about it?"

As the enraged spirit released his grip, he backed off a few paces, allowing Ichigo to get to his feet. Standing up, the now-furious shinigami rubbed his throat with one hand as he drew his blade with the other. "And what exactly did you have in mind? Am I going to have to fight you? I'll be honest, right now…I'm not going to have to work hard to shut off my emotions towards you."

"Of that, I am sure. However, it is not me that you will have to cut, Ichigo. And while you may think our methods extreme, or even cruel, they are done with your best interests in mind," Hogyoku said with a sigh.

Ichigo's response was lost, as he felt a slight pressure on the back of his head, then darkness as he lost consciousness.

When he awakened, he quickly took in the fact that he was standing with Tier in the middle of the ruined battleground he and Aizen had created. He had no idea of why he was here, nor of how he got here, yet those thoughts were inexplicably insignificant at the moment. His attention was being inextricably held in the present…the confusing…unclear present.

'What…what is going on? Ugh, my head is killing me…'

Getting to his feet, he felt a presence behind him and quickly spun, holding Kyoka's gleaming silver blade in front of him.

He paused in shock, however, as he saw all of his friends from Soul Society gathered around him, weapons drawn. Ichigo could only stare in confusion as Rukia, Urahara, and Renji stood at the center of the group.

Seeing Rukia step forward, his shock grew as she spat, "You bastard! You made us trust you, then you turn around and stab us all in the back?! You get what you want, then run off with an arrancar? Was that all we were to you…just means to an end, pawns in your search for power?!"

"I knew you always wanted more power, Ichigo, but for you to have fallen so far as to steal the hogyoku…even after knowing what it is, what it does…I have to say that I am disappointed in you, my former protege," a somber Kisuke said.

"Ichigo, how could you have been so corrupted that you would steal both the hogyoku and another's zanpakuto? You are not the Ichigo that I know, the one I fought alongside of so many times," Renji said, disappointment permeating his words and voice.

Ichigo couldn't believe what he was hearing. His friends, people so close that he considered them family, turned so easily on him. How could this be right? Even with their blades drawn, he couldn't do the same. Not to them.

Shaking his head, Ichigo tried to tried to quell the rising anxiety he felt. Everything was happening so fast, and he was powerless to stop it. Some of his closest friends were threatening his rescuer, her fraccion, and the new spirits that he had bonded his soul with.

After another moment of building pressure, he had to find a way to release his anxiety before his mind ripped itself apart. Looking up, he began to shout at the top of his lungs.

"What are you talking about?! Betrayed you?! I GAVE EVERYTHING FOR YOU! I ripped my own soul apart to fix your mistakes, but when I find a way to keep protecting, to keep fighting for what's right, that makes me a betrayer?", Ichigo screamed in frustration. He was furious, he was frustrated, he was…hurt. Shifting his stance, he moved slightly ahead of Tier, trying to keep her behind him.

All of 'them' shifted into a battle ready stance, yet none moved further except Rukia, who pointed her blade at him and growled, "YOU'RE GOING TO PROTECT HER?! You betrayed us all, Ichigo. We trusted…I trusted you! You may have given up a lot, but I can see now that your claims of wanting to protect are really all just a bunch of shit. You did it all for more power, which makes you no better than Aizen, Ichigo, and it breaks my heart. Once we kill both of you, though, we'll make sure that the hogyoku can't corrupt anyone else."

The moment she finished speaking, the group who had spoke charged. Rukia and Renji headed for Ichigo, while Urahara went after Tier.

Dodging and blocking attacks from both Renji and Rukia, Ichigo was getting more and more frustrated with them, yet he could not avoid the fear he felt at seeing Tier facing his old mentor. "Why won't you listen?! Why won't you believe me?!", he shouted over and over, getting nothing but continued attacks as a response.

Losing his temper, Ichigo pushed Rukia away with a vicious slash, and quickly punched Renji in the face as hard as he could, sending him to the dirt. Turning, all of the air in his lungs left in a massive yell as he looked just in time to see Urahara's blade cut through Harribel's back.

His mind felt as if it were about to snap as he watched his rescuer…his friend…falling with a look of pain as blood erupted from her body. Ichigo was about to run to her, to try and save her, yet was prevented from doing so.

Feeling movement towards his front, his eyes turned and widened as he saw Rukia preparing to attack him. For some reason, he knew exactly what she was about to do, and knew what the result would be.

"Rukia, don't…", his words were lost as she leapt forward with her blade held high. Before he could stop himself, Ichigo felt himself brace his feet, hold out his blade, and with a loud, sickening squelch, he saw the blood-covered blade sticking out of Rukia's back.

Her momentum carrying her forward, Ichigo caught the wide-eyed girl who had started his whole life as a shinigami. Seeing tears pool in her surprised eyes, as well as blood dribble from her mouth, Ichigo felt tears filling his own eyes as his friend's blood began to quickly seep over his hands.

"Ich—Ichi…go…", she gasped, light quickly leaving her violet eyes.

Ichigo felt the world fall away from him as he let out a crazed roar before succumbing to the darkness once again.

Waking once more in his inner world, Ichigo heard loud, mad screams echoing throughout the ruins. It took a moment for him to realize that they were coming from him, and that he was on his knees, nearly tearing his hair out.

Feeling two pairs of hands grabbing his own and pulling them away, he heard Kyoka whispering into his ear, "Ichigo! Ichigo! Calm down, Ichigo, it wasn't real. Shhh, it was just an illusion, Ichigo."

"Calm yourself, Ichigo," Hogyoku added urgently, releasing his bearer's hand and gripping his shoulders. "You are safe, everyone is safe for the moment. Do not fear. Kyoka was telling you the truth, it was only an illusion."

Violently shrugging off both Hogyoku's and Kyoka's hands, he shakily got to his feet and bellowed, "WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?! YOU…YOU MAKE ME WATCH TIER DIE, AND THEN I…I KILLED…"

Trying to clear his mind, Ichigo raised his blade and viciously lunged at Hogyoku, who happened to be standing in his line of sight. He put all of his energy into shutting his mind off. Images of Tier falling, of Rukia dying played a sadistic loop in his mind, tugging at his very sanity as his body carried out mindless attacks against the two spirits in his inner world.

Yet, no matter how hard he tried, the images kept playing in vivid clarity. Over and over, they looped in his mind until he could take it no more.

Ichigo suddenly fell to his knees as he could only remember the horror of the vision. It hadn't been long, but it was so real, so vivid, so…terrifying. Gripping his clothes with trembling hands, he took deep breathes until he felt the rage and feeling of losing his touch with sanity fade, yet he couldn't get the image of Tier's and Rukia's blood out of his mind.

Feeling arms wrap tightly around him, he heard Kyoka's voice in his ear, "I am so sorry, my Ichigo. I know you may hate us, and may think us sadistic, but we're not. I am sorry that we had to teach you like this, but please believe me when I say that it was the only way to truly prepare you for what you may face."

Kneeling in front of the shaking shinigami that he had bound himself to, Hogyoku quietly said, "Do you understand what we were saying, Ichigo? Do you see what is likely to happen? Kyoka and I never wished for you to face such terrible choices and situations, but it seems that we may not have a choice. Soul Society will not send a random shinigami after you. They will be your friends, your comrades that you have fought with, and for. We are not going to soften this message just so it is easier to take. You are going to have a very hard fight in front of you, Ichigo."

Ichigo's shaking began to calm as he thought about their words, being replaced with a begrudging sense of acceptance. He couldn't deny the truth in them, no matter how desperately he wanted to. It was almost a definite that his friends would be the ones sent after him. Now that he actually thought about it, why wouldn't they be? Hell, they had sent Rukia's own brother and oldest friend after her, so why wouldn't they send friends after himself?

Turning to look at the two spirits standing before him, Ichigo forced himself to let go of his anger for what they had done. While it was something he never wanted to relive, he had to admit that it was the only way he would have ever grasped the point that they had been trying to make. His heart could—and would— be used against him, if he let it.

Stroking his hair, Kyoka said, "Hogyoku is right, you have a very hard fight ahead of you. They are pushing you to make a choice. A very difficult choice, as you must know that they will not simply let the arrancar go in peace. The Soutaichou would have most certainly ordered their execution for their involvement."

Ichigo nodded, he had suspected as much when he had first awakened in Hueco Mundo. Rubbing his face, he stood up. After taking a deep breath, he exhaled slowly and said, "I am not going to change who I am. Tier and the girls saved me, and I will never turn my back on them. If Soul Society sends my friends, I won't kill them…but if they try to take you and Hogyoku away from me…if they try to hurt Tier, or the rest, I am going to beat their asses worse than I did to Byakuya and send them limping back to the old man."

Smiling at his protective tone, Kyoka could not help herself as she felt a warmth in her chest as Ichigo had mentioned herself and Hogyoku first in who he wanted to protect. Was it something major? Maybe not, but hearing it after what had just happened only served as further proof that their bond was strong, and growing stronger.

She was incredibly grateful for the way that Ichigo was taking this. While she knew that it wouldn't make what was sure to come easy, it would certainly help prepare his heart for the burden of facing those he held dear.

"That is what I was wanting to hear. We are not going to leave you to face this on your own, however we could not have you ignorant to your reality any longer. Your life will continue to include challenges, and they will only get more difficult. However, if you can keep facing them head on, and do so without startling and crying like a little girl—as you are quite prone to do—then you shall have no problems in overcoming them," Hogyoku added, while imperceptibly gripping his newly formed blade tighter.

Knowing Ichigo as he now did, the spirit knew that his bearer was going to need to blow off some steam before heading out to spar with the fraccion, and he could feel the instincts he had absorbed urging him to push his wielder. Not only that, but the normally stoic spirit was finding that the same instincts had been allowing the prospect of battle to become more and more appealing.

The spirit's taunting words brought back his earlier actions, and the anger they had brought about. Looking down at the broken rock where Hogyoku had slammed him down, Ichigo gripped his own blade and held it up.

"Speaking of facing challenges head on, I think I still owe you for that nice little crater you made…", he growled, looking forward to releasing all of the aggression and pent up frustration he had just gained. Though understanding, he was still tense from such a horrible vision.

Before he could step forward to engage the fearsome spirit, a gleaming sword appeared at his neck. "Well now, my oh-so-handsome wielder, you wouldn't be trying to exclude me from this party, would you?", Kyoka growled excitedly, an eager glint in her golden-flecked eyes as she used the tip of her blade to guide Ichigo's chin around to her. All of the tension and pressure had built them up into something of a frenzy, and the excitement of the trio was growing.

Smiling in a way that clearly expressed his excitement for their battle, Ichigo also growled, "Not at all, Kyoka, not at all…", before launching into an attack.

XXXXXX

Elsewhere in Hueco Mundo

Stepping out of the garganta with the rest of the group, Kisuke whistled at the incredible view that they were greeted with, and nudged Isshin with his elbow. "Aizen made quite a big fortress. What could he have been compensating for?"

Chuckling at the cliched joke, both Isshin and Kisuke soon felt a sharp slap to the backs of their heads, courtesy of Yoruichi, as they heard Orihime try to discretely ask Uryu, "What are they talking about, Uryu? What would he be compensating for?"

Hearing an embarrassed sigh from the Quincy, Urahara couldn't help himself as he said, "Are you going to tell her?"

Before he could get any further, Yoruichi appeared in front of him, "I swear, Kisuke, if you keep pushing it, I am going to make you give her 'the talk'."

"Oh!", the young healer gasped as she caught onto the gist of the conversation. Blushing intensely, she said, "I remember, M-matsumoto-san told me that men would often compensate with big houses and cars because they have a sma—mmph!"

"Thaaaaat's ok, Orihime. I think we all get where they were going with that," Uryu quickly said, covering her mouth just in time to catch her from saying something that would fuel the-now laughing-two older perverts' jokes.

Following the group as they began to move forward, he couldn't help the grimace that came over his face as he realized just how close they were to the building he knew that he would have been content to never see again. Urahara had brought them quite close to Las Noches, giving little explanation other than he wanted to get good seats for the 'fireworks'.

This, of course, had set off fireworks before they had even left. Before the cryptic shopkeeper had been…encouraged…to more fully explained his plans, the younger trio had exploded in anger. Orihime and Uryu had shouted their displeasure, demanding to know if 'ol' hat n' clogs' was actually considering just going to watch Ichigo fight for his life, rather than help him.

The situation had nearly gotten out of control when Chad had walked up, arms trembling so badly that their form wasn't stable, and spoke with a voice that clearly showed his use of restraint, "We have always trusted you, and you have not led us astray. However, if our course of action in support of your plan brings Ichigo to harm, I will hold you personally responsible, and I will not be forgiving in the least."

It was good that Isshin had stepped in at that moment, calming everyone down. With so much having happened in such a brief time, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that Kisuke Urahara had never once led them astray. Into danger and the unknown, certainly, but he had definitely supported them and helped prepare them.

Shaking his head, Uryu knew that-even with that knowledge-it had been very close to a fight there in the store. Chad had always had Ichigo's back as a brother, yet he had been quite different since they initially had left to Hueco Mundo. His power had grown, that was for sure. Exponentially, in fact. Yet, what struck Uryu as most interesting was how…instinctual…the big man had been ever since.

Quicker to decisions, more brutal in his fights with hollows that showed up, and a much shorter temper seemed to become more and more frequent. Looking back, he saw that man following behind them, purpose in his step and a look of iron determination in his visible eye.

'I would hate to be on the wrong end of what he's feeling now.'

With Chad

Walking in silence behind the group, Chad was trying to control the sensations flowing through him. From the moment he had first stepped foot in Hueco Mundo, the powers he had been blessed with continued to surge throughout his being.

What he was quickly coming to understand was that he was not actually 'gaining' power. No, what he realized was that he was discovering—seemingly 'unlocking'—something buried deep within. It wasn't just power, but instinct. Raw instinct that was surprisingly in tune with his conscious desires, his heart, yet it was certainly untamed.

This became clearest to him when he had nearly attacked Urahara. Hearing that they were going to treat Ichigo, whom they had no idea of his current condition, as a subject in one of the shopkeeper's theories was not good for his temperament. He had felt such a surge of anger towards the man, yet it had been sharp, specific, and he had—thankfully— been able to keep it under control. However, when he had arrived back in Hueco Mundo, he was slightly surprised at the surges he had felt.

He knew that his reiatsu would eagerly respond to the reishi-rich environment, but what he was experiencing with every step was far beyond what had expected. His arms were tingling, nearly giddy with the familiar energy. Flexing his hands, he could feel the reishi around him flexing with his movements.

In addition, he felt his mind sharpening slightly. While he had always been steadfast in his support of his best friend, his awakening instinct was supplementing that strength, that resolve. Thinking back on the decisions he had made before once again leaving for the hollow world, he knew he had chosen right. Subtly clutching his fists as he walked, Chad told himself again that he was going to allow the Ichigo the chance of 'being ok' before reacting.

Still, first thing was first…

'We are coming for you, Ichigo.'

XXXXXX

Apacci watched in a mixture of annoyance and awe as Ichigo opened his eyes and stood. The cuts that had been rapidly appearing on his skin as he had sat on the sand were just as quickly disappearing. With nothing more than a slight shimmer from the orb in his chest as an explanation, the heterochromatic arrancar could only shake her head.

She, as well as the other fraccion, had been waiting for the orange haired shinigami to wake up and spar. Shortly after realizing that she and her companions had fallen under Kyoka Suigetsu's powers, Apacci had demanded that Ichigo spar against them in order to give them a chance to possibly learn to defend against his powers.

Upon learning that they are absolute, she had then demanded regular spars in order to 'kick his ass for making them look at all of idiotic things his mind was sure to come up with'. Once the others had stopped laughing at the insults Ichigo had quickly passed on from his inner spirit, they all agreed that they wanted to spar with him as well.

Harribel-sama had said that she would only observe when they fought, and would spar with him one on one. This had, of course, caused quite a bit of private discussion amongst the girls, but Apacci pushed those thoughts from her head. She was ready to scrap, not gossip, and the idiot shinigami was taking too long.

"It's about damn time," the horned arrancar snapped when she saw his eyes finally open and he stood up. "I was beginning to think you were going to come out and say you broke a nail and couldn't fight."

Stretching his hands above his head, he was still feeling a bit of pent up aggression after his fight with his spirits, so Ichigo couldn't help the grin that came to his lips. Pulling his hood up and drawing his blade, he held it to the side and said, "I hear a lot of talking, but I see that those tiny little bracelets are still on. I know your head is harder than sekiseki stone, but you'll need more than that little nub of yours to take me on."

Apacci, furious at the insult to her horn and chakrams, quickly lost her temper as Sung-sun and Mila Rose burst out laughing at Ichigo's taunt. However, she soon found a fellow target for that anger as Mila Rose crossed her arms under her bust, lifting her chest and saying, "You hear that, Apacci? Ichi-kun likes things bigger than what you have to offer! He would rather face these, than have to square off against a washboard like you."

"YOU BITCH!", the enraged arrancar shouted. "Just because I don't have huge udders like a damn cow, it doesn't mean that I'm a washboard! And who gives a shit what he likes?! I am still not convinced that he didn't have a thing for Grimmjow!"

Cutting off the furious retort from their orange haired shinigami friend, Mila Rose added, "You can play ignorant all you'd like, but I saw your jaw drop with the rest of ours' when Ichi here took his cloak off for us! Just because he doesn't find your 'boyish charms' enticing doesn't mean that he's into other guys. You're just too butch for him."

Giggling at the sudden drop of their male companion's face, as well as his quick palm to the face and groans at their comments, Sung-sun joined in the antagonizing of their more hotheaded traveling companions.

"I agree with Mila Rose, as Ichigo clearly prefers females. With his obvious plans to seduce us, as well as his constant glances at Harribel-sama—especially her backside—, I think we can rule out the idea of him liking men."

Eyes widening to comical proportions, Ichigo stuttered, "What the…I never tried to…You're out of your…"

However, he quickly cut off mid thought, his hand moving to the side of his head the way it normally did when his inner spirits talked to him. Before any of the girls could comment, they heard him growl, "What the hell are you laughing at? What do you mean, 'busted'? I was not staring at her butt…dammit Kyoka! I wasn't staring at yours either! Shut up, Hogyoku, why don't you ever take my side…You ass! I am not a pu—argh!"

Turning quickly, the group all looked over to where Tier was standing. Seeing her eyes widen slightly, then her head quickly shake as she pinched the bridge of her nose, the girls smiled and returned their attention to the aggravated shinigami.

"Are you done talking to yourself, or are you wanting to comment more on how much you stare at our asses?", Apacci asked, eyebrow raised. Though annoyed, she couldn't help but enjoy the obvious discomfort their companion was facing.

"Ichigo, you should have told me you were into that! All this time I've been letting you look at my breasts, when you've really been wanting to look at my butt!", Mila Rose added with a smirk, turning and pushing her rear into a prominent position.

"Ahh, so this explains why you prefer to walk behind us most of the time, Ichigo," Sung-sun giggled behind her sleeve. "You are quite a naughty boy! Clever, but naughty."

Red faced and gritting his teeth, Ichigo tightened his grip on his blade and growled, "You are all out of your damn minds! There is literally no way to win with you."

"Ohhh, don't be such a poor sport, Ichi-kun!", Mila Rose said with a pout. However, it quickly turned into a grin when she said, "If you give us a good show with this spar, I might just let you 'win' with me afterwards."

Growling, Apacci snapped, "Enough of this crap! It's time to kick your ass!" Running forward, she released her weapons from her wrists and locked blades with Ichigo.

Looking at each other, both Mila Rose and Sung-sun snickered before drawing their weapons and rushing forward.

Ichigo rushed to meet the girls, glad of the chance to focus on fighting rather than their incessant teasing. And if they weren't bad enough, they seemed to inspire much of the same within Kyoka and Hogyoku.

"Aww, come on Ichigo. Don't be so grumpy! It's not like they didn't have some valid points…"

Growling in his mind, he said, 'Not now, Kyoka.' Hearing her fall silent after a small 'hmph', Ichigo returned his attention to the fight.

Blocking a series of quick slashes from a furious Apacci, he began to use his momentum and speed once again. Strike-swish-block-swish-dodge-swish

He quickly found that he would need to do more than that, as the girls began to work together, surrounding him and building off of each others' attacks. The moment he would dodge a swipe from Apacci, Sung-sun would be sending a jab with her sai-like weapon. When blocking her, Mila Rose would be swinging her large blade to try and get him off of his feet.

After several minutes of dashing around and trading blows, he realized that the fight wasn't really going anywhere. Deciding to draw them out a bit, Ichigo began to shunpo faster, scoring small hits which served to aggravate them as they couldn't keep up.

Finally having enough, Apacci growled, "Screw this! You wanna dance around? Let's dance, berry head. Thrust, Cierva!"

Once the enraged arrancar's transition was complete, Ichigo was stunned to hear Sung-sun say, "I suppose I should get serious as well. Strangle to death, Anaconda!"

"Well, it looks like the party is just getting started. Get ready Ichi-kun, it's time to have some fun! Devour, Leona!"

Feeling multiple massive waves of reiatsu, Ichigo leapt back in order to see what he was now up against. When the waves died down, the three fraccion were revealed in their Resurrecion states, each with a different grin.

Apacci stood, covered in brown fur with much longer antlers than before. The grin she now bore told Ichigo just how much she was wanting to take him on.

Sung-sun…stood? Seeing her snake-like bottom half, Ichigo saw a playful smirk on her lips, however, there was steel in her eyes as she prepared to increase the intensity of their battle.

Mila Rose…Ichigo clapped his hand over his face as a massive rush of blood warm up the skin underneath that hand. At first standing proudly, the dark skinned arrancar quickly winked and turned, giving him a view of most—almost all— of her backside, as her Resurrecion did little to cover…anything. Giggling, she called out, "You better be ready, Ichigo, now that you've seen what you're fighting for!"

Mila Rose was trying her hardest not to burst out laughing at the faces Ichigo was making. She knew full well that the young shinigami and her mistress were growing more and more fond of each other, and though she would never actually do anything to upset that—Ichigo was a little too innocent for her tastes, anyways—the opportunities for his astonishing blush were simply too tempting to pass up.

Muttering about perverts and women who needed to wear more clothing, Ichigo shifted into a battle ready stance. Raising his reiatsu as high as he could, he launched forward at the trio.

However, Ichigo very quickly discovered that he was in over his head. While he was fast enough to keep up with them in their next few exchanges, he was finding it almost impossible to land hits on them. Whether Apacci's ceros, Sung-suns snakes, or Mila Rose's large blade, each were able to keep him at a distance, preventing him from making any progress.

He acknowledged his handicap, as he knew that he wasn't going to be overly aggressive, staunchly refusing to hurt any of them, and it seemed to be the deciding factor in his fighting. Though he had learned his lesson with Kyoka, he knew he could hurt the girls if he pushed too hard. Frustrated, he continued to look for openings to score quick hits.

"Riiiiiiight, look for openings in their teamwork and stances. Great plan. I mean, it's not as if you are partnered with the most amazing, powerful, illusion-type zanpakuto, or the most powerful being in existence that can easily help you achieve any goal. You'll never impress your arrancar girlfriend with fighting like this," a very annoyed sounding Kyoka mumbled.

"I agree, as you have not even tried to call upon the hollow powers which are yours to begin with," Hogyoku added, also sounding perturbed as he observed his bearer continuously trading blows. "I find it most puzzling that you desired the power to continue protecting, yet you act like you only have the sword in your hands available to you. I would ask if you have always been this unobservant, yet we all know the answer to that question. It is very interesting to see how quickly you can learn things, yet only when someone hammers it past your overwhelming density and stubbornness."

'Will you two shut u…damn. Fine! I get it, geez, I'm sorry, ok? I just…I don't know how to actually use either of your powers. What happened with Grimmjow was a fluke. I didn't actually summon my hollow powers, and I didn't control what they saw.'

"I think you should focus on learning Kyoka's powers at the moment. I will allow access to your hollow powers as you knew them, however, your density is more offensive to her, so you should focus your efforts on getting out of the 'doghouse', as it were."

After hearing another 'hmph', Ichigo internally sighed, mentally rolling his eyes at them, yet smirking all the same. Dragging his fingers across his face, he felt the familiar, heavy reiatsu of his hollow essence flowing within him. Returning his attention to the issue at hand, he inwardly grumbled, 'You both love to drive me insane, you know that?.'

'Fine, Kyoka, would you teach me how to use your powers?'

'Your manners and capability for appropriate recognition leave much to be desired, dear wielder of mine. (sigh) I suppose I could instruct you in the use of my illusions…if I knew that you really wanted to learn them…'

Chuckling at the tone she was using, Ichigo could mentally see the pout on her face. Deciding to get back in her good graces, he thought in a slightly pompous tone, 'I would me most grateful for your unmatchable tutelage, dear zanpakuto of mine. You have never led me astray, and I would be honored to have you instruct me once again.'

Hearing a light giggle, she only responded, 'Fine, smartass. You're lucky you're so cute, now get ready.'

As he was expecting her to actually speak her instructions, Ichigo was surprised at the utter silence that now came from his inner world. So surprised, in fact, that he barely reacted in time to a blade swinging by his head.

"Ah ah ahhhh, you have to pay attention, Ichi-kun. You'll never be able to seduce me if you're missing your head, even with that mask covering your pretty face!", the released Mila Rose taunted.

Engaging in the fight once more, Ichigo was about to ask Kyoka what was wrong when he felt a warm, slightly tingling sensation throughout his body. Hearing her take a deep breath, she slowly exhaled and said, "Release my shikai."

Not hesitating, Ichigo shunpoed back several paces, turned his blade upside down, and called out, "Shatter, Kyoka Suigetsu!" Once again hearing the shattering of glass, paired with a deep and satisfied groan within his mind, Ichigo felt a now familiar warmth spread, as well as a bit of a blush at what he had just heard.

"Oh, so you were sucking so bad that you needed to release your blade, huh? Gonna try to fool us with those ridiculous 'illusions'? What are you going to do, show us how you look in a nice pretty dress so we can laugh hard enough for you to beat us?", Apacci scoffed, though she was grinning in a way that showed she was glad things were starting to get serious.

"I think that would really hinder your chances of seducing us, Ichigo," Sung-sun giggled.

"I dunno, girls. I think if he showed enough leg, I might still give him a shot," Mila Rose added with a wink and a laugh.

Rolling his eyes as he fought off his blush, a growled idea, as well as instructions, from his inner world brought a smile quickly back to his face. "Just be ready, because this is going to be fun."

With that, he proceeded to attack the same as he had before, yet with much more speed. His hollow powers were giving him the same feeling of limitless power as they always did, yet he didn't press his advantage.

Speaking quietly in his mind with a slightly rougher voice, Kyoka said, "Alright, Ichigo, we are going to start with an illusion that will, in effect, allow you to be in two places at once. Now that their attention is fully on you, I want you to focus on your reiatsu. Feel it flowing through your body. Now, I want you to picture yourself exactly the way that they are seeing you now."

Seeing that he was following her instructions perfectly, Kyoka continued, "Now is the tricky part. I want you to focus all of your attention on containing your reiatsu within the shape of your body. Simply imagine painting within a picture that already has lines drawn. Very good. Now, step backwards."

The moment that Ichigo did as he was told, he felt a sensation similar to when he entered his spirit form and left his body. Hearing no 'pop' or any of the usual sounds to accompany leaving his body, Ichigo found himself stunned as he was looking at the back of…himself. Watching as…'he'…continued to fight with the girls, he couldn't understand why they didn't see him moving behind…himself.

"Remember, Ichigo, Kyoka's powers ensnare all of the senses. You have made yourself virtually invisible…so long as you continue to contain your reiatsu."

'Wow…this is amazing! The feeling is incredible. Kyoka, your powers are unbelievable!'

"I am quite please to hear you say that, my partner. However, this is only the beginning. When you truly master me…mmm, we will be so much more than you can imagine. For now, though, I think it's time to have some fun with our dear friends, particularly to teach a lesson to the little nubby deer," Kyoka said, a devious smile in her voice.

Apacci grit her teeth in excitement when Ichigo's smirk returned. He had obviously been holding back, but it looked as if he finally got his head in the fight.

After seeing the shimmer of his blade's release settle over the area, she noticed nothing different about his appearance or reiatsu, aside from an increase in the pressure. His mask was still intact, and his hood still up. Shrugging it off as him not being able to handle the illusions yet, she continued her assault.

Her ire was stoked again, however, as the much faster Ichigo commented, "What's the matter, Bambi? Can't you make those hooves go any faster? You'll never be able to catch me like this!" As he had explained the 'Bambi' reference to her earlier, she felt her anger surge at his basic dismissal of her Resurrecion powers.

Growling loudly, she, Mila Rose and Sung-sun pressed their attack. He was so fast, though. Every time she seemed to get close to a hit, he was gone. Her patience was wearing thin, especially with all of the taunts.

"Awww, does Bambi think she'll actually hurt me? Is that why you're acting so slow? Sung-sun and Mila Rose seem to be able to keep up better than you! Come on!"

Feeling her rage peak, Apacci began to see red. She launched forward, attacking indiscriminately, simply trying to hurt the man who was laughing at her. She wouldn't kill him, as that would clearly upset her mistress, so she decided on just drawing blood with her horns.

"I am going to kick your ass, you fucker! I'll be wearing you on my horns like an ornament!", she shouted, raising her reiatsu as high as she could when she saw a smile on his face.

As she pressed the attack, she began noticing an occasional falter in his step. He began to act slightly more wooden, stiff in his movements. Not taking the time to notice why, she pressed harder, solely focused on wiping that smug smile off of his face. Dodging a slash by kneeling, she finally found an opening and—squelch—

—felt her horn pierce through Ichigo's abdomen.

Apacci froze as her fellow fraccion gasped in horror and Ichigo grunted in pain. This was definitely not what she had had in mind. 'No…nononononononono! I didn't mean to…I mean…I didn't want to…Mistress Harribel, I am sorry…'

Her fear grew as she felt a large wave of incredibly familiar reiatsu moving quickly in their direction. Panicking, Apacci jerked her head roughly in the opposite direction, trying to get free but feeling a heavy resistance. Shaking her head again, she heard the beginnings of a noise.

A completely unexpected noise.

Freezing yet again, the sound of a balloon having air forced out of it began to get louder and louder. Adding to her confusion, the weight that she had felt resisting her pulls began to lessen, though it was accompanied by the sensation that Ichigo was collapsing onto her.

'This has to be an illusion…right?', she thought, becoming more and more confused and uncomfortable. Very little about what was happening made sense.

After another moment, she realized that he wasn't actually collapsing, rather he was…deflating? Her body tensed further as the sound continued, and Ichigo's deflating form was now settling onto her antlers and beginning to sink over her, causing her to struggle to keep herself calm.

However, when one of his emptied arms fell over her face and simply dangled there, Apacci lost her composure. Shaking her head violently, she tried every move she could think of to shake the deflated shinigami off of her horns.

"Getitoffgetitoffgetitoff! This is creepy as shit, GET IT OFF!", she bellowed, frantically trying to get free of…whatever it was that was on her. She stopped, suddenly, as she heard another sound. Sound that was coming from multiple sources.

Laughter. Growing, uncontrolled laughter. Peeking out from underneath the limp arm, Apacci saw Mila Rose and Sung-sun rolling on the ground in hysterics, and even Harribel-sama's eyes were wide and staring. Yet, there was a voice that she heard that was laughing louder than the rest…Ichigo.

Her fury returning, she quickly grabbed at the arm that was in front of her face, trying desperately to get whatever type of illusion this was off of her head. Unfortunately for her, the consistency was like rubber, making every effort futile. Hearing the laughter continue, she tried again to savagely remove the fake Ichigo, only to receive a smack in the face as the stretchy arm recoiled.

The laughter reached a peak as she suddenly saw several cracks spread throughout Ichigo's body, until he shattered into countless pieces, each disappearing as it hit the sand below. Turning to the source of the laughter, her blood began boiling in rage as she saw a completely unharmed Ichigo bent double in laughter.

"Your face…hahaha. Not such a crappy illusion, was it? I'd say that was better than a dress, but you were right…I made a good ornament!" Ichigo said between laughs. The look on the arrancar's face was priceless.

"YOU SONUVABITCH, I'LL KILL YOU FOR REAL!", she shouted, a red mist settling over her eyes at the deception. However, the moment she stood to go after the infuriating shinigami, a massive wave of reiatsu pressed onto the area, and a large wave of yellow energy obscured her view of their male companion.

As the group looked to the side, they were all stunned to see that Ichigo was knocked onto the sand by an infuriated Harribel.

"That was not funny, Ichigo Kurosaki," the blonde arrancar snarled. The panic she had felt when she saw him impaled by her fraccion's antler was something she was not prepared for, and her concern was far greater than she could have imagined.

However, seeing him unharmed…laughing…

Tier had been overwhelmed by the variety of feelings that she had experienced at the moment. Relief, surprise, confusion…rage. While she wanted terribly to laugh at the spectacle that Apacci had made, she had been too distracted by her previous worry. He was ok, and she could not have been more thankful, yet his laughter…when she had been so terribly concerned…

She couldn't help herself as she had launched an Ola Azul just in front of his face, sending the stunned shinigami to the sand, then moving to kneel beside him as he hit the ground.

Grabbing the edges of his cloak, Harribel roughly yanked him up to her face. "I do not appreciate you causing me such concern! I had thought you to be dying, and I…it made me…"

Shaking her head, Tier pushed the maelstrom of confusing thoughts aside. Gripping his cloak tighter, she pulled him close again and growled, "You will not do this to me again. Though I appreciate and understand your sense of sacrifice, you being wounded in such a way is unacceptable to me, even in the form of an illusion. Do you understand?"

'Uhhh…maybe that wasn't such a good idea, Kyoka. She is pretty pissed…'

Eyes wide, Ichigo nodded his head quickly. So quick were his movements, and close their proximity, that his nose brushed against Tier's through her jacket covering. His eyes widened further, and his heart began to pound furiously within his chest as he realized their proximity. The blonde arrancar was directly over him, holding him close enough for their noses to touch!

"Ichigo, you bad, bad man, you! You just cannot help your animal magnetism, can you?", Kyoka giggled in his mind.

"Well! I see that I am too late to claim Ichigo's heart, or his…well…ahem," Mila Rose started, trailing off nervously as her mistress' glare soon shifted to her.

Not wanting to let the moment be missed, a very excited Tiburon quickly interrupted, "Don't worry about them, Tier, we've finally got him where we want him! Oh, I wish we could kiss him now. I'd love to bite that cute little lip of his! Since we can't, let's go for next best…oh!…what should we touch first?! What should we make him touch?! Why are you still only by his side?! Get on him and let's take our Ichi-kun for a ride!"

In that moment, her glare quickly turned to a wide-eyed stare. Quickly jerking her head back to the shinigami that was…under her…in a very close position, his breath hitting her face…blushing a deep, deep red…

The group was barely able to keep her within their vision as she sonidoed away from the group. Appearing several meters away, Tier could barely form a coherent sentence, as she was dealing with all of the panic, anger, frustration, embarrassment…and fresh, unfamiliar hunger that she had just encountered.

"S-Spar amongst yourselves. Do not use such stressful illusions, Ichigo."

And with that, she disappeared in the soft static of a sonido.

XXXXXX

The massive fortress that was Las Noches towered over the shinigami as they stopped for a small break.

Having encountered no hollow opposition, or any life at all, the group was left with little to do other than focus on the task that lay before them. As no one was speaking, the tension that had been noticeable before was becoming nearly overwhelming.

The group had divided themselves up, with Byakuya stalking away the moment they had stopped, while Rukia, Renji and Rangiku huddled together far enough away to not be overheard.

Toshiro, after looking at both parties, turned and silently followed his fellow captain. His thoughts had gone no better since he had tried to force his mind into patience, but he hoped that talking to his counterpart could help to settle his growing unease.

Once he was sure that he and Byakuya were out of earshot of the subordinate shinigami, he walked up and stood next to him, staring out into the endless night, as was the raven-haired captain.

"It is a strange fate that such a peaceful place can so often be the setting of such violence," the elder Kuchiki said in a low, wistful tone.

"Then it is made even more strange by our mission," Toshiro muttered, gaining a soft grunt of agreement from the other man.

Not knowing how to broach the subject in a way that he could keep his true fears from being revealed, the white-haired captain paused to collect his thoughts.

After a few moments of silence, Hitsugaya finally said, "I am concerned about our mission, Kuchiki-taichou. Though you were not present for the release of Kyoka Suigetsu, I do not know how long that fortune will hold."

"I know. This will certainly be a difficult fight. I will have to act quickly, if I am to avoid falling to it's powers. I understand that they are quite potent," the stoic captain said in his usual monotone. Frowning, Toshiro couldn't stop the growl that escaped at the memories conjured by the statement.

Raising a brow and turning to the tenth division captain, Byakuya asked, "Am I to take that as an agreement with my assessment?"

The words snapped Toshiro out of his thoughts. Looking again into the distance, he said, "You could say that. Kyoka Suigetsu's powers of illusion are far more potent than I had ever imagined. They allowed Aizen to cut me down in one strike without seeing him…even when in bankai. They even…"

Pausing for a second, Hitsugaya pinched the bridge of his nose as he gathered his nerve. "They even caused me to almost kill my closest friend. In the battle with Aizen…we all thought that we were fighting him. It was him, down to the last detail…even the way he moved. Finally, I had gotten close enough, and I forced my blade through his chest. But it all went to hell after that. In an instant, the illusion shattered, and I saw that I had…I…I had run Momo through."

Looking up at the stunned looking Kuchiki, Toshiro said, "That blade will show us whatever the wielder wants. The illusions are absolute, impenetrable. I can only wonder…"

As the younger captain trailed off, Byakuya understood what he was saying. He was fully aware of the powers within that blade, and Hitsugaya was clearly wanting a straw to grasp at, something that meant that they were not hunting down a friend, without resorting to flat out treason.

The potency of the illusions meant that there was a possibility that the one they were hunting was not Ichigo Kurosaki, at all, rather it was yet another of Aizen's illusions.

The elder captain could not help the hope that he held in that thought. Though his mind wouldn't fully let him accept it, it gave a point of focus, a glimmer of hope that made continuing the hunt something actually feasible.

"Potent or not, nothing is truly impenetrable, Hitsugaya-taichou. We will have to think creatively to discover the whole truth of this mystery, and we will resolve the situation in whatever manner is necessary once we know what it is that we are facing."

'We will give this person a chance to be Ichigo. If it is him, we will have hard decisions to make, made even more so because I know how I will choose. However, they will have to prove themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt to be the Ichigo Kurosaki that I know…or they die.'

XXXXXX

As she watched Ichigo wrapping up his spar and banter with the girls, Tier couldn't help but think on her earlier feelings. Her growing attachment to the unique shinigami was something that she was completely unfamiliar, and therefore completely uncomfortable, with.

'I detest this…confusion. What does this sense of attachment mean? It is unnerving, so powerful, yet I cannot say that it is only in a negative way. He is someone in whom I find many similarities to myself, as well as aspects that are admirable, desirable, and intriguing. He is also…', the arrancar pondered, until she was cut off in her thoughts by Tiburon.

"He is also soooo deliciously strong, handsome, and perfect that you want to be close enough to him that he begins and ends every day by throwing you down, stripping your clothes, tasting every inch of you, and giving you a nice, long…"

'TIBURON! You have gone completely mad. He hasn't even kis…I mean...damn you, I was not going to say that!', Tier inwardly shouted, her voice in her mind echoing her surprise and mortification at how intriguing the thoughts her inner spirit brought up actually were.

She could not remember ever even kissing a man, much less what Tiburon was suggesting, however she could not deny that her more primal instincts seemed to be in full agreement with the perverted spirit. A byproduct of Ichigo treating her like a woman was that she was beginning to see herself and to feel as a woman, creating even more feelings for her to deal with.

"'He hasn't even kissed you, yet', is that what you were going to say? Why should you wait on him?! You are never going to get anywhere with Ichi-kun by being such a coward! Have you forgotten how it felt to have his hands, his breath on your skin? Have you forgotten what we felt?! I am sure that the girls would make him feel much more wanted. Look at Mila Rose, she gets closer to him every day, and would no doubt have already made a man out of my Ichigo had she been the one to have been held like you were! Hell, she pretty much offered to give him all he could handle since he gave a good show in the spar!", the aggravated spirit snapped. While she shared Tier's fondness for the fraccion, she wasn't about to let her wielder be outdone, not when she knew it was something that was truly desired.

Before she could respond, Tier paused. The memories of his touch, paired with the closeness he seemed to have with her fraccion made her frown in thought. Shaking her head in frustration, she snapped back, 'I am not in competition with my fraccion, nor will I become so! It is the height of idiocy to interrupt their closeness with him, just because of petty jealousy over something that does not even exist.'

After a loud huff echoed in her mind, silence settled for a few moments, until Harribel quietly thought, 'And I am no coward, I simply do not know where to begin. But…if I did wish to get closer to Ichigo, to explore what this growing sense of attachment could actually mean…where might I start?'

From within her mind, Tier could hear a sharp intake of breath, followed by, "Say it."

'It? Say what?', the blonde arrancar asked in confusion.

"Say it! Say you want Ichi-kun! Say that you finally want something for yourself!", Tiburon demanded hotly. This could be a massive step forward for her wielder, and she would not be denied hearing what she had always wanted to hear.

Stopping herself from simply blurting out the words that seemed to come all too easily, Tier tried to organize her thoughts. 'I…I wish to know him better. I cannot say I fully understand what it is to 'want' him, as you say. While I find him quite appealing—and cannot deny that he awakens new feelings within me—I wish to know more about him. He has told me much of himself, yet I want to speak with him normally…not as his rescuer…but as his equal…'

A loud, aggrieved sigh echoed in the arrancar's mind, followed by Tiburon muttering, "Fiiiiiiiiiine. You know, you really are hopeless. I know that what you have just said is a major leap for you, but I am getting tired of waiting for you to finally realize what is inside you. Now, this may be difficult for you to understand, but to get to know him better—to be closer to him—you have to actually…TALK TO HIM, YOU MORON!"

Grimacing at the loud shouting in her mind, and instantly annoyed at the shouting, insulting spirit, Tier started growl, 'Now listen…'

However, she was instantly interrupted by a loud, "SHUT UP! Open your eyes! Look at how the girls interact with him. Do they seem to be struggling? Do they seem to have a hard time having a simple conversation with him? Get off of your ass and take the initiative! Both of you have heads like bricks, so someone has to get this thing moving."

'Thing? What thing?! You act as if you can see not only my desires, but his! What is it that you see that I do not? You fail to consider the fact that Ichigo has a choice. He could easily decide to rejoin his family in the world of the living, or want to simply leave m…', Tier cut off the thought with a scowl.

"What do I see?! Does your jacket cover your eyes, as well? You are so dense, Tier. I mean, you could give Ichi-kun a run for his money in blindness. Have you paid the least bit of attention at how he lights up whenever you speak to him? How cute he is when he tries to be sneaky and peek at you from underneath his hood? How his body tensed and warmed when he touched you? Fate is pretty damn funny, because it has the two most dense beings in the universe dancing around the issue that they are drawn to the other."

'You are incredibly irritating,' the arrancar huffed. It was all she could say, as she realized that Tiburon was…partially…right. Her fraccion seemed to have no trouble at all conversing with the shinigami. Neither party seemed to have any discomfort or difficulty, aside from Ichigo's intense blushes at their teasing.

However, Tier could not deny a sense of excitement over the idea of Tiburon's latter words. Could Ichigo see her as a woman? It was outlandish in the extreme—should he know the actual truth—as there was no way Ichigo could be interested in a woman with a bone fragment over her face, as well as a hole that robbed her of what many considered an essential part of 'womanhood'.

Pushing those thoughts to the side, however, the blonde arrancar allowed herself a brief moment of excitement over something so foreign to her. Surely there could be no harm in idly entertaining the possibilities if they weren't real.

As her inner spirit's words repeated in her mind, she decided to try and see what it was that Ichigo did in reaction to her presence. Standing up, she quietly followed the orange haired shinigami as he walked to the edge of their makeshift encampment.

Coming up behind him as he was stretching his arms to the sky, Tier commented in a low voice, "The girls certainly seem to be warming up to you."

She was caught by surprise, though, as he quickly spun while saying, "Holy shit!" Raising a brow, she quickly realized from his body language and sudden stuttering that she had startled him. For reasons unknown to her, Harribel found this incredibly amusing, and his reaction endearing.

Giving an almost silent chuckle, Tier was surprised yet again as she watched Ichigo's eyes widen at the sound, then soften as a small smile crossed his lips.

"I told you so," a voice quietly echoed in her mind.

Ichigo couldn't help the smile that came at the sound of Tier's laugh. It was such a lovely sound, deep and rich with a feeling of innocent amusement. It was strange, he found, as he couldn't help but be drawn to the sound of her voice ever since he had first heard it.

Shrugging the embarrassment off, he rubbed the back of his head and said, "Uh, hey. You kinda startled me, there. I was just…uh…"

"Yet again, you screech like a little child. I cannot help but wonder if this is what your hollow meant when he would call you a 'puss…'"

'SHUT UP! What the hell is wrong with you?! She just spooked me, is all. Damn, get off my ass,' Ichigo shouted in his mind, cutting off what had been his hollow side's favorite insult.

"Yeah, Hogyoku! Get off of Ichigo's perfectly shaped ass! That's MY ass!", Kyoka chimed in, causing her to giggle and Hogyoku to chuckle in his deep baritone.

Ichigo couldn't help it as he slapped his hand to his face. While he deeply cared for each of his inner spirits, they had quickly learned exactly how to work his last nerve. 'You guys are going to drive me insane.'

"Something troubling you?", Tier asked, breaking his inner conversation.

Looking up, Ichigo realized that he had most likely been making faces and slapping his face with no external context. Sighing, he tapped his temple and said, "Sorry about that, I have a couple of voices in my head that sometimes like to see how crazy they can make me."

Nodding, the blonde arrancar quickly agreed. "I can certainly understand. Tiburon quite often prefers to test the limits of my patience."

Shock was clear on Ichigo's face as he exclaimed, "You can talk to your zanpakuto spirit as well?! I thought that only shinigami could communicate with the spirits of their blades. That is amazing. Tiburon, huh? I haven't seen you really fight, but I am sure that the name is appropriate."

Stunned at the unexpected compliment, Tier quietly said, "Yes, I am able to communicate with her. Quite often, it is an enjoyable and helpful experience, however she can also make my mind feel as if it were about to implode in frustration, and chooses to just as often."

"I guess that it makes sense", Ichigo began. "I mean, they are supposed to be a part of our souls, a part of us, so they would have the best ideas on how to be a pain in the ass."

Tier and Ichigo chuckled at the point made, followed quickly by both grabbing the sides of their heads and grimacing. Looking up again at each other and realizing what had happened, neither could help the laughter that erupted between them.

After a moment of laughing, Tier gave a quick glance at the ever closer Las Noches. They were getting close, but still had some time before they arrived…before decisions had to be made. Pushing the thought from her mind, she looked to Ichigo and said, "Come, we are less than a day from Las Noches. We can talk more as we walk…if you wish."

Giving his arrancar companion another small smile, Ichigo said, "Y-yeah, I'd like that."

Tiburon was conflicted. While she wanted to continue ranting and raving at Tier for agreeing that she was a 'pain in the ass', she had been caught short by a sound that was almost indescribably wonderful.

Tier was laughing. Not a little chuckle, not a quiet giggle, but laughing!

There was simply no way that the spirit could interrupt such a thing. Tier Harribel did not laugh or smile, yet she had been doing both since meeting Ichigo. Payback could wait, as her wielder seemed to be on the verge of discovering something important.

'I'll give you a break for now. Tier, don't you dare let him slip away.'

Kyoka stood, looking out over the starry expanse of the inner world that she had come to love so much, with a look of contemplation. Seeing what her wielder had just experienced, she tried to sort through the multiple emotions running through her.

Though a variety, there was one thing all of her feelings had in common. The emotions were strong. Very strong. Ever since she had absorbed some of Ichigo's hollow essence, she felt things much more deeply than she ever recalled doing so before.

It also seemed that her wielder triggered the most intense of these, and compulsions were becoming more and more frequent, yet they never clouded her sense of self. Rather, her emotions simply felt much more potent, as was the case at the moment.

First, she was pissed. Ichigo had called her a 'pain in the ass'?! While she knew what he truly meant by his words, and that she MAY have—only in the very slightest of manners—deserved it, he still had obviously not learned how to deal with the fairer sex.

However, that lesson would have to wait, as the next emotion she felt was trepidation, bordering on…jealousy. Kyoka Suigetsu had become incredibly fond of Ichigo and their bond in the time they had been bonded. Thinking about him never failed to bring it all to the surface, and she had quickly realized that she would do anything to protect that bond.

Every day she realized even more that her wielder was such a good man, and she was undeniably proud to be his zanpakuto…and…she couldn't help but love the way that he reacted to her. When his heart would race at her whispers, or blushes and how his eyes would widen at her form, or how he let her touch him-even going so far as to touch her back- she felt even happier.

He accepted and returned her touches!

The touches, though infrequent, were increasing and so very special to her, so meaningful, that she could not help but be protective of them.

Kyoka was not 'in love', per say. She couldn't see it working that way for a zanpakuto spirit. Yet, she knew that she and Ichigo were bonded in a way that was impossible for any other to be with him, and that that bond would get only stronger…deeper.

But at its core, at the very base, what caused her feelings—her jealousy—was that Ichigo made her feel special. She felt trusted, appreciated, and even adored, in her wielder's own weird way. Kyoka had never felt this with Sosuke. She had been a means to an end, nothing more, yet Ichigo would always treat her like —his memories showed he viewed as how—a woman should be treated.

Seeing another receive the same kind of attention would of course bother her, but the realization of this brought about her most troubling emotion: fondness. She liked Tier. Kyoka couldn't help it. After her blade had been held by the former espada, the spirit had come to know her inside and out and couldn't help but truly like what she saw. From a purely objective point of view, the blonde arrancar was a perfect match for Ichigo.

Not only that, but she made him smile…made him laugh. Tapping her chin as she contemplated, Kyoka also realized that Ichigo—not that he had a real clue—certainly liked his arrancar companion.

However, Kyoka Suigetsu was not about to let the wielder she adored be taken so easily. No, whomever Ichigo chose would have to gain her's and Hogyoku's approval, as well. Smirking deviously, she knew that there was only one thing to do.

'Prepare yourself, Tier Harribel. You will have to openly prove to me that you are worthy of my Ichigo.'

XXXXXX

"So, what are they like?", Harribel asked, turning to look at her orange-haired companion as they walked along.

Taking in a deep breath, Ichigo puffed out his cheeks as he loudly exhaled. "What are they like? That is an interesting question. They are two of the more…unique…beings I have ever encountered before."

Tier's brow raised, though, as she saw him clutch at his chest and give a loud gasp followed by a loud shout of, "OW. Dammit, there's nothing wrong with 'unique'! Since when did you get so sensitive, anyways?! Geez, you're touchier than the midget was about her height."

The arrancar's amusement increased as, after a brief pause, she saw him roll his eyes and heard him begrudgingly say, "Yes, Kyoka, I do know that I am damn lucky to have you both. No, I don't wish that you were someone different than you are. Ok, now you are just being stubborn. Ha. Ha. Laugh it up, you two. I don't see why I have to…"

After watching him seemingly apologize to thin air, Harribel couldn't help the light laugh that escaped her. The looks on his face, as well as the begrudging, almost appeasing tone that he used were incredibly amusing to her. However, when she did laugh, she noticed that he instantly stopped speaking, and turned to look at her with wide eyes, followed quickly again by that same small smile that she had seen before.

"Uhhh huh. I see that I am being proven right yet again. Look at him, he is smiling his sweet smile at you yet again. How are you going to explain it away this time, since you'll never ask? Who knows? Maybe it wasn't even about you, and he was thinking of Mila Rose or one of the other girls instead…"

The blonde arrancar frowned. She knew that Tiburon was trying to get a rise out of her, but the seed of doubt had been planted. Before she could stop herself, Tier asked, "Why do you smile that way when I laugh?"

Seeing his eyes widen, her confusion grew as he quickly blushed and looked away while mumbling something unintelligible. After asking him to repeat his answer, yet receiving the same blush and mumble, she began to get frustrated.

'Was it really about one of the girls? Why would he smile when I laughed, though? He makes no…'

Her thoughts were interrupted as she saw his head turn slightly and heard him mutter, "Fine! I'll tell her. Damn, you are so pushy sometimes."

Seeing him grimace slightly and turn to her, she noticed that he wouldn't meet her eyes, and that he was still blushing. After stammering for a moment, Tier's eyes went wide as she heard him quickly say, "Because…becauseyouhaveareallynicevoice".

"What?", she asked as a mixture of a stunned and an unfamiliar warmth welled up within her. Surely she misheard him. Before she could think on it too much, she heard him sigh in resignation.

"I said that it was because you have a really nice voice," Ichigo said as his face turned an even deeper red. This was mortifying for him, as he had absolutely no idea on how to give compliments. Also, he had to wonder how it would be taken. As him coming on too strong? As a fool? Feeling lost, he was inwardly cursing himself for tuning out all of those sappy movies Yuzu and Rukia had forced him to sit through.

'Why does this have to be so confusing and complicated?!'

Stunned, Tier had no idea how to respond to what she had just heard. Her mind was sorely confused, as her experiences told her to be wary of what he could want from her, but everything about him screamed sincerity.

It wasn't as if he could gain anything else from her, could he? She had already rescued him from death, and had protected him ever since…so what more could there be? Fortunately, she was momentarily saved from this line of thought as she heard a loud shout in her mind.

"I TOLD YOU SO! YOU ACTED LIKE I WAS CRAZY, YET WHO IS RIGHT?!," Tiburon exclaimed.

Getting quickly frustrated with her wielder standing there like a stone, the spirit snapped, "Don't just stand there like an idiot, at least thank him for saying something so sweet! You're going to make him think he said something wrong and he won't say things like that to you anymore. I swear, I will find a way to kick your ass if you screw this up!"

'Will you ever be quiet?! And I was going to thank him…it's just…no one has ever said anything like that to me before…'

"I know, Tier, I know," the spirit said softly, quickly relenting…for the moment. While she was incredibly eager to have her wielder take the initiative, she knew that this was uncharted territory, as well as the fact of the former Espada's rising insecurities now that she was being forced to look at herself as a woman. "Ichigo is unlike anyone you've ever met. Be brave, and talk to him."

Returning her attention to the man beside her, as well as fighting the incredible heat on her face, the blonde arrancarquietly said, "Thank you, Ichigo. While I certainly do not deserve such praise, you are very kind to do so."

Hearing a smack in her mind, a muffled voice said, "You have got to be kidding me. A gorgeous, god of a man is complimenting you, and you try to make him stop and chase him off. You are killing me, Tier."

'What? No, I am not trying to chase him off! I simply do not see how I deserve to have such things said about me. I do not…'

Breaking up her internal conversation, Ichigo asked, "What do you mean, 'you certainly don't deserve praise'?"

Looking up, Tier noticed a rather stern look on the young shinigami's face. Thinking through her words, she wondered just what he would have to be upset about.

Expressing her confusion, she said, "I do not understand your anger. I simply meant that I have done nothing to deserve such attention or words of kindness. I am a warrior, Ichigo, a protector. Sacrifice is a way of life for me, and hearing you speak of me as a…as…as a woman…it is something I am quite unfamiliar with, and therefore unable to see the validity of. While I am grateful for you saying such kind things, I do not understand what I have done to deserve them. In my experience, acts of kindness are never without strings and expectations attached. You have not demanded or expected anything more of me, which I find confusing."

Ichigo couldn't believe his ears. He had heard plenty of girls in the living world who would say that they didn't deserve praise and point out flaws just to get attention, using 'reverse psychology' to prod boys to say things that they wanted to hear.

This was different. This was completely different to anything Ichigo had experienced before. Tier was not being manipulative, rather…she was innocent, as inexperienced in receiving compliments as Ichigo was at giving them. Still, as he thought about it, it began to make sense to him. Harribel had lived in an environment where survival was the top priority, and everything came with a price.

"She is also clearly unused to the idea of a man being interested in her for more than a tool or conquest," Kyoka added. "Though she is clearly beautiful, she has been in an environment in which she has been seen as a thing, not a woman. You're going to have to be patient if you want her to fall for you, my handsome loverboy," she finished with a giggle.

'Woah, I didn't say I was trying to make her fall for me! I didn't…I mean, it wouldn't be so ba…well…dammit, Kyoka! This is getting so confusing!'

"And what, pray tell, is 'so confusing'? She is a beautiful woman. A man your age should be definitely interested in her," the spirit offered, her brow raised inside the world she was in. She knew that her wielder's density and naiveté was mostly down to inexperience and his sole focus of protection. However, if she could get him to start saying these things aloud, maybe he would start to think about relationships and romance in a more mature way.

Sighing in his mind, Ichigo knew he couldn't lie to his inner spirits, even if he had wanted to. Still, what was the truth? He wasn't sure he could articulate it, because he hadn't consciously thought about it.

'Ok, fine, she is beautiful. But, there's more to her! She's smart, brave, a protector…she's…she is something else,'Ichigo thought in an attempt to express what he thought of his blonde rescuer.

Smiling at how adorable his innocence and naiveté was, Kyoka decided to take it easy on him. "High praise, coming from the world's most dense man. You should talk to her, get to know her better. Do not worry, Ichigo, I know that you like her for the right reasons. Though, I would work on talking without stuttering like a fool every time you talk to her or think about her."

Unable to make a coherent argument, as if on cue, Ichigo inwardly stammered, 'What do you…I never said that I…how in the hell did you…'

Still looking at the arrancar in question with his mouth opened, she met his gaze as he stared. Closing his eyes and shaking his head, he returned his attention to the conversation he had been having and said, "You don't have to do anything, Tier. I simply said that you have a nice voice, because…because you do. I didn't say that because I expected anything from you or wanted anything from you."

"Well," he amended, blushing yet again, "I…I wouldn't mind hearing your voice more…but that's just a request…I wasn't saying…damn…I mean…sorry," he finished, looking rather annoyed with himself. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he took in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Looking back at her, he sighed and tried again.

"I just mean, I really enjoy talking to you. You do have a lovely voice, but what I really like about it is how it always lets me know more about you. I don't know many people like you…actually…I don't know any people like you."

Eyes widening, Tier was trying to think of how to respond when her thoughts were interrupted by Tiburon nearly squealing.

'Is he not the most adorable man you've ever seen?! How can he seem so dense, yet say something that sweet? Oh, don't you just want to pinch his cheeks and kiss him senseless… then strip him down and tie him up, watching the look on his face when we take his big…'

Ichigo watched as Tier's eyes went from slightly wider at his comment, to nearly bulging out of her sockets mere moments later, accompanied by a darkening of her skin.

He was about to panic, thinking that he had overstepped his bounds, when he saw her slap her hand to her face and mutter, "Where do you come up with these things? I cannot understand how you can be a part of me…No…n-no, I did not say that it wasn't an intriguing thou—" Her words were cut off as her eyes widened yet again and her hand now slapped over her mouth.

"They can be a handful, can't they?", Ichigo said, interrupting her current embarrassment. Seeing the look on her face, he knew that the spirit of her blade had said something that he probably didn't want to hear.

Sighing, the arrancar gently pressed her fingertips to her forehead and grunted, "Indeed, they can. Tiburon can be especially difficult if she finds something that she wants. It is in moments like those that she lives up to her namesake, becoming single-minded in her focus and desire."

"Oh? Does she want something now? I only ask because your expressions say that she seems to be giving you plenty to think about," Ichigo said, fascinated by the chance to 'get to know' Harribel's zanpakuto, and by extension, her.

Gasping lightly at what she had just been asked, as well as Tiburon's incredibly direct response, Tier averted her gaze for a moment, eager to change the topic of discussion. She tuned out her inner spirit as she said, "Nothing of importance, Ichigo. She is just being difficult. As we were discussing earlier—before they interrupted us—what about Kyoka Suigetsu and Hogyoku, what are they like?"

Noticing, with a small bit of help from Kyoka, her apparent discomfort, Ichigo decided to go along with the topic shift. "That is a bit of an involved answer, but I guess I can start with Hogyoku. He is…well, it's hard to describe him. He's usually pretty dry, always talking in a monotone and being really precise in what he says. He's insanely protective of Kyoka and me, but you'd never want to push him far enough to actually find out what that's like, trust me."

Making a 'tch' sound as he thought about the normally stoic spirit, he continued, "Also, he has gotten a bit more lively ever since we…um…fought Grimmjow. Whatever had happened while I was unconscious seemed to unlock my hollow nature, which ended up affecting both Hogyoku and Kyoka. Hogyoku ended up taking on the most, absorbing the essence and taking it as part of himself. He's still 'himself', just with my most basic, raw instincts within him."

Looking at her traveling companion, the blonde arrancar asked, "So that is what we saw during your fight, your hollow aspect? I must admit, the form that we were able to glimpse was quite fearsome. I cannot say that I have ever seen a hollow like that, even from before I was an arrancar."

Scratching the back of his head, Ichigo answered, "Yeah, that was what you were seeing. That was the form I seemed to have taken when I fought Ulquiorra, but I mentioned that before. Hogyoku liked the look of it, and kept it, along with some other aspects that I am sure will turn up sooner or later either here, or maybe only in my inner world. Who knows? I never know what to…"

Cutting him off, Harribel could not help herself as she asked, "Your inner world? What are you talking about?"

Looking back, Ichigo replied, "My inner world is a place within my soul where both Kyoka and Hogyoku reside. It is a world for them to be able to take shape and form, as well as...express themselves," he finished with a chuckle.

"So you can actually see them? How strange…I thought when you spoke to them, or even sparred internally, that it was simply an illusion conjured by your zanpakuto. But you're saying that you can see them? Interact with them in person?", she asked, eyes going wide, but soon narrowing with a speculative look.

"Yeah, that's how I first met Zangetsu. My inner world is a lot different now than it was then, but I like it, and it makes them happy."

Tier was fascinated. An 'inner world'? Could it really be possible? The possibilities were most exciting, and she could tell that Tiburon was excited about them as well. However, she curbed her eagerness in learning about her chances in favor of learning more about Ichigo's inner world. Hearing that he not only had one, but that it had apparently undergone a drastic change was such an intriguing thought.

"What is it like? Please tell me about your inner world," she said, unable to keep all of the excitement out of her voice.

Grinning at the question, as well as the smug auras radiating out of said inner world, Ichigo said, "It's a place unlike anything I can imagine on my own…"

Tier's eyes were wide with awe. For the past half hour, Ichigo had told her of such a wondrous place that resided within his soul. Not only did he have a stone oasis in the midst of a vast cosmos, but it was a place in which he could actually interact with the spirits within his soul in a way that was deeper than speaking.

When he finished speaking, she asked, "Do you think that it is possible for me to be able to communicate with Tiburon in this way? Could I…could I possibly have an 'inner world' of my own?"

After a moment of silence, in which she could tell that he was conferring with his own spirits, Ichigo said, "They both think so. Hogyoku said that when he had been used to evolve all of the arrancar into your current status, he noticed that the connection between yourselves and your powers were similar to those of a shinigami. Kyoka said that it would take a bit of work, but it should be possible. I'd be more than happy to help you all…you know…if you wanted…"

The blonde arrancar could not hide her excitement at the news. A chance to discover her own inner world! Not to mention, it was something that would require Ichigo to remain with them for an indefinite amount of time. Thinking that he could not be aware of the possible time needed for this, she steeled herself for her reply.

"That is good news! A bit of work? I am not deterred by the effort required to be able to commune with Tiburon. I certainly appreciate your offer to help us, however I would not want to impose or for us to make ourselves a burden. If it is going to take a lot of effort, it will likely take even more time, and…I know that your powers are nearly returned to their peak, so you will likely want to pursue your own interests…"

Tier found that her excitement had quickly turned to trepidation as she realized that time was rapidly running out for Ichigo to actually have a reason to be with them. Once he was recovered, why would he want to remain? The thought was unpleasant, far more so than she had anticipated.

"It wouldn't be imposing, at all! I'd love to…I mean, I'd be honored…I mean, I would be more than happy to…I…ugh! What I mean is, helping you communicate with your inner spirits would never be a burden", Ichigo blurted at first, then finally calmed enough to articulate what he actually wanted to say.

'Kami, will I ever be able to talk to her without sounding like a complete moron?'

Hearing her words, Ichigo couldn't help but respond almost instantly as he was introduced to the thought that he hadn't encountered in what felt like ages…leaving. Though he still had much to learn about his powers, his level of strength was high and growing with each passing moment.

But, the idea of leaving was…not one that he found particularly enjoyable. Though he missed his family, as well as his shinigami friends, he couldn't deny that he had formed bonds with each of the arrancar that had helped to rescue him. Bonds that were not as shallow as he may have initially thought.

With the fraccion, he felt the beginnings of a sort of sibling kinship. Not in the way that he felt with Karin and Yuzu, rather more like the relationship that he had with Tatsuki and Rukia. They were friends that he was beginning to believe he could trust to kick his ass into line if needed, as well as give him hell just like he did them.

He also felt himself becoming protective of the girls, especially after hearing about their days as adjuchas. During their long, often uneventful trip, all that there was to do was talk. Sure, there was plenty of teasing, yet there were often times when he would get to learn more about the fraccion known as the Tres Bestias.

Though he had made fledgling bonds with the three girls, the bond that truly mystified him was one that seemed to inevitably grow with every conversation…Tier.

He could not even begin to explain it. For some reason, he found himself inexorably drawn to the blonde arrancar. It wasn't just her beauty, either. The way she spoke, what she actually said, even the manner in which she interacted with her fraccion was something he found utterly beguiling…and it was something Ichigo would never have expected.

Snorting internally, Ichigo knew that nothing that had happened in the past several days was something he would have expected. He had bonded with the most powerful being he had ever encountered, as well as the most astonishing and captivating zanpakuto spirit in existence. He had been labeled a traitor, nearly killed by those he had tried to save, and rescued by a high ranking espada, whom he would befriend and find himself inexplicably drawn to.

Still, there were questions that he would have to answer. Could his human body handle the massive amount of reiatsu he now possessed? Did he want to go home? Did he still even have a home to go to? Though he knew his family would welcome him back, he would rather die than to put them into such a dangerous position with the Soul Society.

Sighing softly, he snapped out of his reverie just in time to hear Tier quietly say, "I…I thank you, Ichigo. That is an incredibly kind offer for you to make. However, let us put off such talk until we are at Las Noches and are able to assess the situation within Hueco Mundo. Such knowledge will make it easier to decide on any plan of action."

Before he could respond, Kyoka whispered in his mind, "Ichigo, my dear Ichigo…shut up. It's obvious that she doesn't like talking about you leaving. I think our dear espada may like you, and wants to enjoy the time she has left with you, as she has made it clear that she thinks that you're leaving them soon."

The thought brought Ichigo up short. Tier…liked him? Surely not in the manner that he was thinking. Still, the idea of remaining with her and the fraccion was not something that he could call 'unappealing'.

'Damn, this just gets more and more confusing.'

"Things usually are when you have your head so firmly planted up your backside," Hogyoku commented idly. "Should you actually choose to use your brain and think, you may just end up making sense of most of it."

Interrupting his heated reply, Tier said, "You were speaking of your inner spirits, before we got off onto a tangent. I would like to hear more about them, if you are still willing to share."

Smiling at the return to their original topic, Ichigo replied, "Of course. I've told you about Hogyoku. Aside from his tendency to be a royal pain—sometimes literally—he's pretty cool. Then there's Kyoka. Where do I even begin to tell you about her?"

"Oh, why there are so many places! You could talk about my incredible powers, my wonderful sense of decorum, how damn hot I look in my new style…the list is endless, my dear wielder," Kyoka giggled. Shaking his head, Ichigo tried to ignore the images that her words conjured. While he knew that she was—somewhat—joking, Ichigo decided to be brave.

"Well, the first thing to know about Kyoka is that she is fully aware of her…grandeur."

Gasping in mock outrage, Kyoka playfully growled, "Ohhh, my dear sweet Ichigo, that is going to come back and bite you soon…"

Weighing the option of continuing on and risking Kyoka's wrath, his decision was made as he heard another quiet chuckle from Tier as she said, "She must be an incredibly interesting character."

Smiling, Ichigo continued on, telling his blonde haired companion about his inner spirits as they ventured ever closer to the towering fortress.

XXXXXX

Leading the group onto the balcony of the throne room of Las Noches, Kisuke Urahara could only shake his head at the sheer arrogance required to ever dream of a place such as this. Still, he couldn't say he was unhappy, as this would make a perfect setting for the fireworks he had been hoping to see, and something told him that this was the right place to be.

Actually, the situation had been close to getting out of control when he had first brought up his idea, yet when he had fully explained what he had wanted, the group was quick to comply. Smirking, he knew it was simply because they all knew the young man that they had come to find. They knew who he was, and how he was, and that his idea was really the only way to find a solution to the current issue.

'I hope you're ready, Byakuya. He's not going to be in a good mood when he sees you.'

Turning to the group, the shopkeeper whipped his fan out and said, "Ahhh, it's so lovely here! I think that this is a perfect place to stay and rest, wouldn't you agree?"

Getting eye rolls from most of the group, Yoruichi came up to him and said, "I don't think that they're going to be happy with you until they see Ichigo alive and well."

Chuckling lightly, he replied, "If my theory is correct, they will be getting quite the show soon enough."

a/n: I quite enjoyed this chapter. I will say, I did hear many of you loud and clear after last chapter about the fights and action. My response to that is...it will definitely happen, in time. I really want to make a story where the characters are true to their natures, and see how that plays out as they get to know one another. Marathon vs sprint mentality, I guess you could say, and I am still learning what that looks like for my style of writing. Still, should be a fun trip either way, and I really hope you enjoyed, and continue to do so!