Shinkiro

trevelyan1983

Well-Known Member
#1
Fic: Shinkiro

Author: Trevelyan1983


Rating: This. Is. Seireitei! Yeah, itÆs Bleach. Expect much violence, bloodletting and general Shounen awesomeness. LetÆs go with a mature audience and see what happens.

AuthorÆs Notes: A brief word of introduction; this fic was inspired by ZerohourÆs æIchigo û Lord of HellÆ thread in the Bleach Ideas forum. I say _inspired_ because IÆve adapted some of it in order to try and create an Ichigo who wouldnÆt pwn the Gotei 13 by sneezing at them, which is a pitfall of the challenge and of my story.

ItÆs also been in the making since æ300Æ came out. Yeah, me write long time, baby. Let me know if itÆs as ridiculously awesome and filled with GAR and Bromance as I wanted it to be.

ôBlahö signifies speech.

æBlahÆ signifies thoughts.

~Blah~ signifies a Zanpakuto communicating.

-

It was a stupid, stupid oversight. Not only was it amateurish of them, it was absolutely obvious even without the perfect clarity of hindsight.

Despite this, it had happened û theyÆd forgotten the most basic rule of combat. Kuchiki Rukia, despite several decades of experience as a Seated Shinigami of the Thirteenth Division of the Court Guardian Squad, despite growing up on the rough streets of Rukongai, had failed to watch her back. In doing so, sheÆd left herself open to attack from the nameless Hollow that had been chasing Shibata for an age.

Kurosaki Ichigo, although just a substitute Shinigami, was experienced in fighting against gangs, against punks with too much testosterone and too little sense and even against Arisawa Tatsuki, the single toughest tomboy heÆd ever met. But he too had been distracted, paying too much attention to the Gates of Hell and ignoring his exposed flank.

TheyÆd also underestimated the downright cowardly tactics of their Hollow prey, although they should have realized as soon as heÆd revealed his past as a deviant with a liking for killing women and children û he was weak, and preyed on the helpless to give himself a taste of power. Scum like that always need a trump card, a crutch, to soothe the weakness that gnaws relentlessly away at them.

So as the terrifying power of the Gates of Hell was revealed, and a mere instant before the Hollow was skewered upon a titanic blade, one of the small monsters that served as the malicious spiritÆs weapons obeyed a mental command of its master and hammered into the wide-open back of Kurosaki Ichigo.

-

ôYou little shinigami bastard! IÆll take you to hell with me!ö

Ichigo spread his legs, stabilizing himself against the pull of the spiritual vacuum from the other side of the Gate. Unfortunately, as he was widening his stance, something struck him with great force at the small of the back, knocking him forward.

ôEeyaagh!ö

The scream started out as an expression of shock and pain, but transmuted into fearful panic as he was caught in the undertow and sucked towards the gates. He felt something grasp the hem of his hakama, but RukiaÆs strength was nowhere near enough to allow her to pull him free û in fact, she was likely to get herself dragged in with him.

ôIdiot! Let me go before you get sucked in too!ö

Her only response was to shift her grip and try to yank him back, dark eyes practically glowing with stubborn determination.

Frowning, Ichigo did the only thing he could û he struck at the nerve on the inside of RukiaÆs wrist with the toes of his right foot, chambering his left leg at the same time. When RukiaÆs hand slid open in response, he slammed his left leg into her torso with all the strength that training, leverage and inertia would allow. Rukia was slammed backwards, freed from the Hell GateÆs suction, even as Ichigo was caught in it entirely.

Closing his eyes, Ichigo allowed the intense force to have its way with him û Hell might be his final resting place, but heÆd stopped Rukia from sharing the same fate. That would be enough.

æDid you see, Mother? I couldnÆt save you . . . but I saved her, and the boy, and Chad.Æ

And then he was within the gate, closed eyes seeing it slam shut on the mortal world and on everything he had ever known.

-

Absently rubbing her numb wrist, Kuchiki Rukia sat on abraded knees and screamed helplessly, watching the insolent brat sheÆd gifted her powers to trap himself behind the Gates of Hell.

ôIchigo! ICHIGO!ö

As the Gates disappeared, her carefully cultivated calm and poise shattered û the adopted daughter of the House of Kuchiki closed her eyes and began to cry. Ichigo had sacrificed himself to save her, and she had been unable to do a thing to stop him.

æJust like Kaien . . .Æ

Raising her left hand to her chest, she tried to massage away the pain that lanced deep in her heart at that thought.

æAgain . . . I could do nothing. Again, I watched as someone else sacrificed all to save me from doing so.Æ
Why? Why would Ichigo do that, for her of all people? She, who had changed his destiny, who had made him Shinigami? She, who had turned his life upside down? What kind of fool sacrifices himself for the sake of the person who caused their distress in the first place?

She was vaguely aware of a presence coming up behind her, the surprisingly strong spirit of the Sado boy. Judging by the *clink-clink* that accompanied his movement, he had the Plus, Shibata, with him.

ôTransfer Student! WhatÆs wrong!?ö

Wiping discretely at her eyes, Rukia pushed aside her emotion with the surety of a trained Shinigami and the determination of an adopted daughter of Clan Kuchiki. There was no choice in the matter û she would have to control herself long enough to get Shibata to Urahara for Konso, arrange for a soul candy with which to replace Ichigo for the foreseeable future, and . . .

. . . Tell Sado Yasutora that his best friend was now on the other side of the Gates of Hell.

-

Hefting his zanpakutou on his shoulder, Ichigo looked around.

æSo this is Hell, huh?Æ

For all his looking, he could see very little. The whole place was wrapped in a grey miasma that limited vision to a handful of meters.

ôIt isnÆt all that bad û some new drapes, a couple of throw pillows, lay down some tatami, itÆd be a nice place to get away from it all.ö

And get away from it all, he would û there was no way he was going to let some asshole Hollow and a dumbass gate keep him from going back home.

Taking a deep breath, he screamed out a challenge, combining it with kiai for impact.

ôCome on! Who wants a piece of this?ö

HeÆd give æem all more than they could handle, or his name wasnÆt Kurosaki Ichigo!

-

Several weeks passed quietly û if Sado Yasutora was quieter than was normal, no-one noticed û or at least, no-one dared to comment on it. If the transfer student was less animated than she had been, well, some people reacted strangely to the stress of moving home and school.

Perhaps she was simply growing settled. If Kurosaki IchigoÆs frown slipped once or twice, or his glare seemed a touch forced, many would have breathed a sigh of relief to see him thaw a little. If he flinched noticeably every time Asano yelled ôI-chi-go!ö most of the class was too polite to comment.

Only Chad and Rukia knew that Ichigo was, in fact the modsoul Kon, masquerading as Ichigo in order to keep the Kurosaki boyÆs disappearance quiet.

This became the norm for all involved, with Kon and Rukia helping Urahara and his
employees to protect Karakura from Hollow incursions. They were, on occasion, assisted by the Quincy Ishida Uryuu, who had first revealed himself to demand an explanation as to the changed state of IchigoÆs soul.

Of course, his manner of asking was such that Rukia had very nearly broken his jaw on principal. IshidaÆs innate politeness later forced him to apologise for his conduct when he finally understood the situation.

RukiaÆs sense of responsibility, the uncomfortable knowledge that she was to blame for this mess, kept her in Karakura even after she should have returned to Soul Society.

And on a dark, moonlit night, that caught up with her in the worst way possible, when her best friend and her older brother came to retrieve her for sentencing.

-

The reiatsu was almost as familiar to her as her own. Was this some kind of strategy to put her off-balance? If so, it was remarkably inept û she hadnÆt exchanged more than two words with him in five decades.

Stopping at the edge of a street lightÆs corona. She slipped into a loose stance, rolling her eyes in the way she knew had always irked him.

ôStop hiding, Renji û we both know you donÆt have the patience to play the hunter.ö

He did so, jumping from a nearby telephone pole to try and cleave her in two. Rukia leaped backwards, bringing her hands up in a basic Hakuda stance. Without her Zanpakuto and stuck in a Gigai, it would be next to useless against Renji, but it was all she had.

ôHmph. I guess you havenÆt lost your edge after living among humans for so long, Rukia. I was worried you might go down too easily.ö

Favouring her old friend with a hard glare, she flexed her muscles in an attempt to prepare herself for combat.

ôIÆm certainly not out of shape enough to be taken by surprise by someone as loud as you, Renji.ö

His face started to turn the familiar shade of red that meant she was getting under his skin.

æGood. Get angry, Renji û I need every advantage I can get!Æ

He came at her again, striking from a high stance with a two-handed grip on his zanpakuto. Spinning gracefully to the side, Rukia dodged his cut even as she moved to trap his right wrist. Securing a grip on it, she slammed her foot down on his instep and then pulled his arm into a circular twist, flipping him onto his back.

RenjiÆs lungs emptied almost immediately upon contact with the ground, his surprised noise of pain becoming a weak sigh.

æHn. Looks like IÆm not completely useless, then. ThatÆs nice.Æ

Rukia felt a controlled burst of reiatsu behind her, but it was the voice that spoke that truly grabbed her attention.

ôOh. How painfully amateurish, Renji û you are far too easily provoked.ö

Renji stood with no ill effect at the same time as Rukia turned to the voice with a horrified look on her face.

ôB-brother!ö

The frosty glance he gave her differed not at all from the one directed at Renji.

ôItÆs not important, Captain Kuchiki. In that gigai, she could hit me all day and it would mean nothing.ö

Byakuya ignored his fukutaichou, staring intently at Rukia instead, one hand already on the hilt of Senbonzakura.

ôKuchiki Rukia. By order of the Central Chambers, you are to return to Soul Society in order to face punishment for your crimes. Come with us, or resist and die. The choice is yours.ö

Rukia blinked rapidly. Although she knew that there really was but one choice, she tried to think of an alternative solution. After a few seconds, she was forced to admit that there were none û Byakuya would kill her without hesitation, should she try to resist. And, honestly, even had she carried Sode no Shirayuki on her person, Byakuya would barely notice it û the gap in power was simply too vast.

Bowing her head, she surrendered to the inevitable.

ôYes, brother. I will return to Seireitei with you to take responsibility for my actions.ö

Resistance was futile û especially when the choice was between dying now and dying later. And she _would_ die û SeireiteiÆs laws had been broken, and reparation was to be paid timeously and in full . . . with her soul.

None of the three Shinigami noticed the glint of moonlight from a distant pair of spectacles, which had taken in the entire fight.

æStrange û Kuchiki was winning, up until the Shinigami with the scarf made himself known. Then she just gave up.Æ

Ishida Uryuu straightened his glasses in thoughtful habit. Urahara would want to know about this immediately.

-

Ten days later, another visitor from the world of souls stood on almost the same location.

æItÆs amazing what can change in a century.Æ

Karakura looked no different. The same streets, the same people, the same world û even the season was the same, with the sun already having retired for the day, and the moon shining bright above his head.

A century was nothing to his kind.

After a momentÆs consideration, a calloused hand rose to scratch his scalp in confusion.

ôWait û it wasnÆt a century here, was it? The world of the living works on a different scale of time than we do.ö

In that caseà not much had changed in a few weeks.

Shaking his head ruefully, he pushed himself into a lazy flash step, heading down a familiar street. The world blurred around him, vague outlines of shapes whizzing past.

æShould be right about . . . here!Æ

Coming to a stop, he looked up at the sign that was as familiar as his own face, and yet so new to his hazy memory.

æHmph. Like IÆd forget my home!Æ

Kurosaki Ichigo was home. ItÆd taken a lot of hard work, and more than a few kicked asses along the way, but heÆd managed to do the impossible.

He just stood there looking at the faþade of the building, taking in the lines of the house heÆd grown up within. There had been times when heÆd given up hope of ever seeing it again. But he was here û he was home. HeÆd go back to his own body and sleep in his own bed. Then in the morning heÆd get the chance to pound the ever-loving hell out of his father, and eat YuzuÆs lovingly prepared breakfast, and watch KarinÆs surly, adorable expression.

ôHeh. IÆve gotten sappy in my old age.ö

It was fine as long as he didnÆt make a habit of it. Leaping easily to the roof, he landed on light feet and then contorted himself down and around the guttering. If his memory was right, a specific jiggle and a sharp tug shouldà

*Pop!*

ôSuccess. YouÆve still got it, Ichigo my boy.ö

The window slid open like a dream. And to him, it was the sweetest heÆd ever had. Right until it turned into a nightmare.

He met _his body_ packing a bag and readying to climb out of the window. Unfortunately û for IchigoÆs body, at least û the substitute Shinigami had learned the art of delivering a healthy dose of physical trauma before, during and after all interrogations.

In this specific instance, Ichigo flash stepped right up to his clone, hoisted him up with a single hand, and used the momentum of his movement technique to slam the teenaged body into a wall. The Shinigami was rewarded with the surreal image of his own face looking at him in abject terror while it scrabbled vainly to remove his hand from its throat.

Drawing his zanpakuto with a deliberately slow movement (because if heÆd truly been going for the kill, he was well aware that a spear-hand to the throat was the better choice), Ichigo hissed in his own ear:

ôListen up. IÆm about to let you put air in my lungs again, but if the first words out of your mouth arenÆt a freaking awesome explanation for why youÆre walking around in my body, IÆll send you to Seireitei the painful way. Got it?ö

A rapid nod of assent was the reply, so he eased his grip on his own throat.

*Cough! Wheeze! Cough!*

ôMy nameÆs . . . *cough* . . . IÆm Kon û Rukia *cough* put me in yer body to *cough hack wheeze* make it look like nothinÆ was wrong, until you could get back.ö

Releasing the hilt of his zanpakuto, Ichigo stepped away. Kon, guessing that heÆd just won a reprieve, started to massage his throat.

ôMaaan! You donÆt play around!ö

ôSorry. I learned to play rough. Where is Rukia, anyway?ö

Again he watched someone elseÆs emotions play out across his face. Which was weird.

ôShe . . . Soul Society came and took her back.ö

Ichigo frowned.

ôWhy do you look so heartbroken? Geez, if her people came and got her, then she can go back to doing her job. ThatÆs good, right?ö

Kon looked like he was about to explode.

ôNo! TheyÆre gonna kill her for giving _you_ her powers, and staying in the human world for longer than she was permitted!ö

IchigoÆs frowned carved deeper lines into his face.

ôUgh. Typical of them. Always clinging to the letter of the law.ö

The substitute Shinigami turned away - and for the first time since theyÆd met, Kon took in the fact that he had a blood-red haori over his Shinigami outfit. Then he realized that the Shinigami outfit (and the guy wearing it) was walking back to the window.

ôWh-where are you going?ö

Looking back over his shoulder, Ichigo lifted an eyebrow at him.

ôWhere do you think? Rukia doesnÆt get to die until I pay off my debts û and I have something that belongs to her. So IÆm going to Seireitei, for a friendly chat with the Gotei Thirteen. Look after my family, Soul-boy . . . or else.ö

A controlled flare of the most monstrous reiatsu Kon had ever felt marked IchigoÆs passage from the Kurosaki family home.

The brash mod-soul couldnÆt decide whether the Kurosaki Ichigo heÆd finally come face to face with was absolutely insane, or totally badass. By the time his mouth was unparalysed and he had written it off as a æboth/andÆ situation, the Shinigami was gone.

-

For people who were not Shinigami, the number of ways to enter Soul Society was limited. Not only that, what few ways that did exist were so exceedingly dangerous, that only a fool would dare to gamble on them.

What he was about to attempt was dangerous, costly and not guaranteed to succeed.

æThe barriers will be thinner in Hueco Mondo, given that itÆs more like No ManÆs Land than a world of its own. But getting from Hueco Mondo to Seireitei will be the tricky part. TheyÆll be monitoring for incursions from that direction.Æ

Still, he had the ability to form a gateway to Seireitei, just as he had formed a path for between Hell and Hueco Mundo, then from Hueco Mundo to Karakura. And he would register as a Shinigami, because he technically was one. It wasnÆt a massive stretch of probability to think that Seireitei would allow unseated Shinigami to come and go without great scrutiny.

Stretching out with his vast reserves, Ichigo began to distort the space in front of him, twisting it, warping it until it touched on the void that had long been called æhollow worldÆ. The world immediately in front of him broke into symmetrical squares, which were sucked into the void to allow him passage.

ôI got through . . . thatÆs half of the journey. If I can get to Seireitei . . . well, I have some unfinished business there.ö

He could enter the Dangai more easily from Hueco Mundo, which was closer to Soul Society than the human realm. This was going to be fun. Without a hint of trepidation, Kurosaki Ichigo walked into the beckoning darkness and did not look back.

-

Seireitei was as disgustingly pristine as heÆd expected, even when compared to the nearby slums of Rukongai. Much to his chagrin, there was none of the fine mist he was used to from the underworld that might have protected his eyes from the shiny white tower that dominated the skyline.

æThey have their execution grounds as their biggest landmark. For dead people, these folks sure do have the strangest obsession with death. YouÆd think once it was over they could forget about it.Æ

With a final tug to straighten his haori and shihakusho û a neat appearance was an important factor in creating a good first impression, after all û he set off.

æIf any of these fools playing their pathetic little games understand the significance of my haori, IÆll be impressed.Æ

No-one bar Yamamoto, and possibly Ukitake and Kyouraku (all three of whom were old enough and famous enough that even in Hell, heÆd heard of them) would have the faintest idea what the crimson haori meant û which was simultaneously an advantage and a drawback. Shinigami would vastly underestimate him, which suited him fine, but heÆd get tied up in fighting weaklings who didnÆt realize they should step aside. That was less to his taste.

Already itching to move away from his entry point, Ichigo chose a direction at random and began to walk û heÆd eventually hit an entrance, if Seireitei was anything like the Dark Court. The underworldÆs jet black palace was shaped like a massive circle, carved from spiritual stone that formed a barrier in the upper atmosphere, for the permanent defence of the Court grounds. Seireitei would, it was likely, have something similar in place û keeping the rabble out was important, after all.

-

æSometimes, I hate being right.Æ

Seireitei was built along exactly the same lines as Dark Courtû right down to the radius of the circular walls, and the barrier effect of the spirit stone it was constructed from. They might as well have shared a blueprint.

æShit. I can probably carve myself a hole with Zangetsu, but IÆll need Getsuga Tensho to do it û and thatÆll get me all sorts of unwanted attention from the Shinigami.Æ

Any idiot with basic reiatsu sensing ability would notice him unleashing that kind of power û it was like a solar flare in the comfort of your own home.

æWait a minute . . . IÆm Shinigami as well. If I can get a big enough group of them here, it shouldnÆt be too difficult to mingle with the crowd and sneak in that way. . . Æ

Shrugging off his haori, Ichigo folded it up into a neat square and slid it into his kimono.

Then he hefted Zangetsu and took a deep breath. Reiryoku burned blue around him for a split second, before he funneled it into his zanpakuto.

ôGetsuga . . . Tensho!ö

-

Dust swirling around their faces, a horde of Shinigami raced for the source of the explosion, zanpakuto drawn.

ôItÆs the Ryoka!ö

ôDidnÆt Captain Ichimaru kill them?ö

ôFind æem! Captain Mayuri wants new experimental subjects!ö

ôDamn, two incursions in the same century û whoÆd believe it?ö

A controlled Shunpo into the rearguard was a simple enough method of joining their ranks û and it sounded to Ichigo as if they were a mish-mash of various Shinigami from numerous divisions. That should give him another advantage û after all, what was a single stranger in a sea of unfamiliar faces?

The vicious smile that flashed across Kurosaki IchigoÆs features would have shocked any who had known him. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, though, and none around him noticed it. If they had, they would have been reminded uncomfortably of a wolf among the flock.

A wolf who was feeling quite ravenous, as it happened, thank-you for asking.

-

æI should think these things through more carefully.Æ

Sneaking into Seireitei by camouflaging himself among Shinigami was a fabulous idea, in his opinion. Escaping from the group when the time came for him to explore his surroundings, though, was something he had given no thought to.

æIÆve been running nowhere fast with these idiots for the past fifteen minutes. How do I get myself into these situations?Æ

Damn, if these people were the only opposition to the Hollows, he was surprised that Hueco Mundo hadnÆt taken over yet.

*Ka-booom!*

The entire writhing mass of Shinigami stopped as one, looking up at the sky. Then, almost in sync, their mouths opened in disbelief at what they were witness to.

High above Seireitei, where the barrier that covered the sky enmeshed the Court, a miniscule orb of blazing spirit energy was _pushing_ itÆs way through the invisible wall. Even Ichigo gaped for a moment.

æThatÆs insane! TheyÆre gonna get killed!Æ

He didnÆt know who they were, and he cared even less. The mere distraction they would offer the Gotei Thirteen was useful enough for his purposes. If they went splat before they could be useful, thatÆd be a waste.

As every other Shinigami in the rag-tag posse had eyes elsewhere, Ichigo took the opportunity to sneak away rapidly with a quick series of flash steps.

æEverything comes to he who waits, I guess. If the rest of this little invasion goes so smoothly, IÆll be pleasantly surprised.Æ

Snorting to himself, Ichigo rolled his eyes.

æRight. As if.Æ

-

æShit, why am I always right about bad stuff? Why canÆt I be right about whoÆs gonna win the lottery? At least that way, IÆd make a little money.Æ

HeÆd been trying to avoid any attention, but had ended up walking into two really weird upper-seat Shinigami. HeÆd played it cool, apologizing to them, but that hadnÆt been enough for their wounded egos. Ichigo had no idea what to do next, until heÆd caught the eager expression on their faces.

Madarame Ikkaku and Ayasegawa Yumichika, the Third and Fifth seated Shinigami of the Eleventh Division of the Gotei Thirteen, were deliberately picking a fight with him.

æSon of a bitch!Æ

If he fought them, there was no way to hide his overall level. He could hide his real capabilities, sure, but there was no way to hide the strength of his reitasu or his skill level.

And . . . by the looks on their faces, they were expecting something from him. . .

æAw, fuck me. Seat and Division, right? Damn it!Æ

When you donÆt have the answer, lie through your goddamn teeth.

ôKurosaki Ichigo, fifth seat of the Sixth Division.ö

Ikkaku nodded, smiling.

ôIÆll let you take him then, Yumi.ö

Ichigo pulled Zangetsu off of his back, quietly thanking whoever was responsible that his little bluff was believable. Then he stopped. Altering his stance slightly, the Ryoka allowed an expression of enormous violence to come over his face.

ôYouÆd better both come at me right now, or this fight wonÆt last long enough to make me sweat.ö

His arrogant comment got right under their skin, prickling the pride of both men. For a moment, it looked as though they would both charge at him. Then Yumichika ran a hand through his silky hair and smiled benevolently.

ôYou seem ignorant of the factsà the Eleventh Division does not permit interference in single combat by comrades. It is shameful, weak, and horrendously ugly. Much like you.ö

Ichigo chuckled at the barb.

ôThose are fighting words, little bishie. How about I show you how a real man does it?ö

Zangetsu unwound the bandages from his blade without being told to û it was an old ritual between them, even more familiar than his worn Karate-gi or the pressure of TatsukiÆs kiai.

Ichigo pulled the zanpakuto from his back and rested it on his shoulder, altering the position of his feet and hips slightly. Then, in keeping with the mind game heÆd started, he waved his free hand negligently at the Shinigami in a æcome hitherÆ motion.

In the first real success of the meeting, Ichigo succeeded in provoking the æprettyÆ fifth seat Shinigami into a charge.

From a technical point of view, YumichikaÆs opening gambit was almost perfect û he was fast, his blade was angled correctly, his opponent was standing stock-still. It was a lesson in how to perform a textbook flat thrust with a katana. But it just wasnÆt good enough for Kurosaki Ichigo. Taking a handful of steps, he deliberately walked into AyasegawaÆs range.

Whipping Zangetsu off his shoulder and around, he slammed the flat of his blade into the zanpakuto of the Eleventh DivisionÆs Fifth Seat. YumichikaÆs stance broke instantly, his forward motion veering away to the side.

Moving even closer, Ichigo entwined their arms together, bunched his fists into the fabric of YumichikaÆs kimono, then turned his back to his opponentÆs torso. Immediately after that, he followed through by bending at the hips and levering the Shinigami over his own back in a flawless shoulder throw.

Yumichika hit the ground û and the ground didnÆt give an inch. A second was all it took for the Ryoka to follow his victim to the ground and plant a knife-hand in his throat to keep him occupied with continued breathing.

ôWhooof!ö

Ichigo straightened, pointing Zangetsu at Ikkaku.

ôOne down. One to go. You thinking twice about that æmano-a-manoÆ thing, yet?ö

The sun overhead reflected off of MadarameÆs head as he shook it.

ôFifth Seat of the Sixth Division, my ass. Who the hell are you, and where the frick did ya learn to kick ass like that?ö

Ichigo shrugged carelessly.

ôThatÆs not something you need to know. Your buddy didnÆt even use Shikai. You wanna take this up a notch, or do you want to get bitchslapped too?ö

Madarame drew his blade, grinning like a loon. Raw reiatsu swirled around his feet, kicking up loose dust and making Ichigo blink.

ôIÆm always ready to kick things up a notch, kid: Grow, Hozukimaru!ö

The zanpakuto shone with inner light, painting the streets around them in crimson. When the light died down, the blade had become a spear, decorated with a single red tassel,

Ichigo whistled in admiration.

ôOi, nice zanpakuto û simple, but dangerous.ö

Ikkaku hefted the spear, casually sinking into a horse stance.

ôIf you donÆt unseal your zanpakuto, kid, IÆm gonna run over you roughshod.ö

Snorting rudely, the invader adopted a loose stance.

ôMy zanpakuto is a full-time release û thereÆs no way to seal it.ö

His brows rising in a mild form of shocked awe, IkkakuÆs mind noted that fact carefully. That meant a number of things, chiefly that this guy was packing some serious power.

As he ground his sandals into the dirt for a little more grip, the Third Seat of Division Eleven chuckled softly.

æHee, hee, hee, lucky! This is gonna be fun!Æ

The explosion of dust as he thrust himself forward was immense, forming a wake that flew behind him as he consumed the distance between himself and the blond. Drawing Hozukimaru back in order to impale Ichigo, Madarame screamed a taunting challenge.

ôIs that big knife just for show, or do ya know how to use it?ö

IchigoÆs response was unspoken, but also unmissable. As Hozukimaru rocketed within arms length of him, the blond slapped it aside in a foremarm block and brought Zangetsu up in a diagonal cut with his left hand at the exact same moment. Both combatants grinned in triumph, even as both felt the sticky warmth of hot blood running free.

Ichigo staggered back, his confusion written on his face.

ôHowàhow the fuck did you cut me? I redirected your blade and your momentumàI wasnÆt open at allàso how?ö

Ikakku draped Hozukimaru over his shoulders and grinned even wider, and Ichigo glared at him.

ôHozukimaru isnÆt a spear, dumbass. ItÆs a sansetsukon.ö

Hissing in a combination of pain and comprehension, the young Kurosaki breathed deeply to reassert his self-control.

æOK. So he cut you. Big deal. YouÆve been cut before. Think. If heÆs using a three-section staff, heÆs got good range and flexibility, and his best asset is his combination strikes. He can fight comfortably at mid-range, and closing in is no help û he can twist the sansetsukon æround to flank you.Æ

Range would seem to favour Ikkaku. But Ichigo had something up his sleeve that would turn the tables quite nicely.

ôNicely done. I wonder . . . does that little trick often give you the first blood?ö

Shrugging eloquently, Ikkaku grunted.

ôUn. It ainÆt my fault if somebody mislabels my zanpakuto in a fight. Assuming shit just makes an ass outta you, ya know?ö

Wrapping ZangetsuÆs hilt-bandages around one hand, Ichigo chuckled.

ôRight. How æbout I carve a new ass-crack down that shiny bald head of yours? Does that sound like fun, Ikkaku? IÆll make an ass out of you.ö

When IkkakuÆs tan skin began to darken and his face tighten in rage, Ichigo knew heÆd hit a nerve.

æCÆmon, get angry. The sloppier you get, the less I have to put into this fight to end it.Æ

Madarame IkkakuÆs odds of surviving with his life were inversely proportionate to how much effort Kurosaki Ichigo put into the next ninety seconds of this fight.

ôYou little shit! IÆm gonna make you the Eleventh DivisionsÆs official pincushion!ö

For the second time in as many minutes, Ichigo succeeded in provoking an attack from a member of the Eleventh Division. Ikkaku charged forward, his reiryoku blazing, boosting him well beyond the strength and speed of his first attack. Hozukimaru was whirling through a complex series of spins and rotations, practically leaping from one of IkkakuÆs hands to the other and then back.

Ichigo too began to spin his zanpakuto, holding it by the hilt-wrapping and giving it enough slack to miss his head, even as it blurred into motion. As Ikkaku approached, Ichigo pushed himself forward on the balls of his feet, adding a small push of reiatsu for instant acceleration. When he was only a heartbeat or two away from Ikkaku, the blond Shinigami shifted all of his weight down, falling onto his knees.

As he slid on the ground with only his hakama to insulate him from the friction, Ichigo continued to spin Zangetsu above his head, altering the angle of his wrist when it came into contact with IkkakuÆs flesh. He felt the rushing air of his dash and IkkakuÆs own slipstream clash, then blow outwards, spirit pressure adding to the maelstrom and multiplying the forces involved exponentially.

Planting a hand on the ground, Ichigo pushed himself out of his slide and back onto two feet, gripping Zangetsu by the hilt and arresting the motion of the blade in an instant. MadarameÆs charge had not ended so gracefully û he now lay on his back, blood pouring from three long gashes û two carved across his torso, as the third cut deep into his thighs.

Ichigo placed Zangetsu on his back, feeling the bandages secure his zanpakuto as was the norm. He walked slowly towards Ikkaku, kneeling down at his side to inspect the wounds.

ôHuh. The cuts are deep, but not fatal. Get yourself to a doctor and youÆll be fine in a couple of days.ö

Ikkaku started to chuckle, managing to do so only for a moment before he hissed in pain, the movement of his diaphragm aggravating his chest injuries.

ôThe hell? You cut me up, then you check IÆll live? YouÆre one crazy son of a bitch, Kurosaki Ichigo.ö

Ichigo shook his head.

ôI didnÆt come here to start busting open Shinigami skulls. IÆm just trying to settle an old debt.ö

That earned him curious stares from Ikkaku and the still-wheezing Yumichika. Ichigo sighed.

ôI donÆt have time to give you the whole story û lets just say a friend of mine is in trouble, and I want to make sure she gets out of it. The Gotei 13 disagree.ö

Thumbing in the direction of the Soukyoku, Ichigo nodded his head backwards.

ôBack there is the execution ground where Kuchiki Rukia is, right?ö

Ikkaku nodded, and YumichikaÆs eyes widened as he put the pieces together.

ôYou . . . *cough* . . . youÆre the human she gave her powers to, arenÆt you?ö

IchigoÆs whole face locked up for a second as he stared at the Fifth Seat.

ôHowÆd you guys know that?ö

Yumichika drew in a shuddering breath, coughing convulsively.

ô*Cough* She was apprehended for overstaying her permitted time period in the human world. *Wheeze* When she was examined, she was also found to have lost her Shinigami powers û the news spread like wildfire, especially *cough* when she confessed to all charges, and admitted to giving her power to some *wheeze* human boy.ö

Ichigo closed his eyes, gnashing his teeth in rage. His frame became rock hard, tense muscles responding to his emotions.

ôThat freaking idiot! I knew sheÆd do something stupid like that! What the hell is her problem?ö

In his rage, he lost the grip he usually kept on his reiatsu, flooding the street with dense, enormously powerful spirit pressure.

æI didnÆt save her goddamned life just so she could throw it away in a flood of angst. Son of a bitch, that pisses me off!Æ

It took him a moment to realize that his reiatsu was flooding the air unchecked û and even then, only because Ikkaku and Yumichika were paralysed.

æShit. Now every idiot in Seireitei with the vaguest talent in sensing spirit power knows where I am.Æ

Breathing deeply, Ichigo stood and began to walk away, putting his anger to good use û even his stride was deeply enraged. When he got to the corner of the street, he threw himself into Shunpo, hoping to clear as much space between the battleground and himself as quickly as he could.

When he had left, Ikkaku turned to Yumi and smiled.

ôOi, Yumieàyou realize that the Captain is gonna want to fight that guy.ö

Yumichika smiled slowly.

ôWhy yes. Yes I do.ö

Ikkaku chuckled quietly, holding his sides in pain.

æTypical Yumie. He gets mean after a loss.Æ

-

Considering that it was not an offensive technique, Shunpo was surely one of the most versatile abilities any Shinigami could ever be smart enough to learn. The variety of tactical applications of the technique was vast, as were the simple and more mundane uses it could be put to.

For example, one such use is running away from the scene of a fight with two Shinigami, when one is supposed to be keeping a low profile.

Pausing momentarily to gather his bearings, Kurosaki Ichigo reached into his kimono and unfolded his haori. Sliding it onto his shoulders with greater care than one would expect from someone with IchigoÆs reputation, he slid his arms into it and then straightened the red fabric so it enfolded him properly. Patting down the fabric fastidiously, he grinned.

ôNow they know IÆm here, I might as well ignore the whole stealth thing. ItÆs not really my style, anyway.ö

Not to mention that heÆd missed the familiar weight of the crimson cloth û fighting without it on just felt wrong, and walking around without the red mantle on his shoulders left him with the uncomfortable sensation of being naked.

Getting a hold of it in the first place had been hellish û heÆd come very close to losing his soul and his life at more than one point of that misadventure.

He looked up, seeing the tall white walls of the Senzaikyuu looming over Seireitei, taunting him with the knowledge that Rukia lay within, punished by her own superiors for being foolish enough to help him save his family.

Without conscious thought, his reiatsu spiked again. Now that he was paying attention, it was easy to subdue it, but the damage was already done.

æPatience, Ichigo. Patience. YouÆll have plenty of opportunities to put your point of view across with much violence, soon. No need to make it any easier for them to find you, though.Æ

Sending one last glower in the direction of the Shrine, he started to move toward the gleaming tower in earnest.

-

Finishing his last flash step, Ichigo paused before stepping into the next one. Something about the stairway in front of him was making the hairs on the back of his neck tingle. Casting his gaze around carefully, Ichigo tried to figure out what his instincts were telling him.

A flicker, like smoke obscuring a candle flame, was his only clue. But it was enough û there was another presence here. A Shinigami. His intuition was proved right when a dark form stepped out of the secretive shadows of the stairwell.

ôOi, Ryoka. ThereÆs only one way to get to Rukia û you gotta go through me.ö

Ichigo frowned û the Shinigami speaking to him was a pretty impressive specimen û he wasnÆt too far short of six feet, he was well-built, and he had a head of red hair so bright it put IchigoÆs haori to shame.

ôGo through you? And who the fuck are you, exactly?ö

Red loosened his zanpakuto from the confines of its saya, cocking his head arrogantly.

ôIÆm Abarai Renji, Vice-Captain of the Sixth Division. And IÆm where your little invasion stops.ö

The ryoka snorted in disbelief.

ôListen up, Vice-Captain. YouÆre a hundred years too late to stop me from doing anything. IÆd suggest getting the hell out of my way, while you can still walk.ö

The vice-captainÆs face tightened into a scowl.

ôYou got some balls, acting like IÆm no threat.ö

Shaking his head, Kurosaki sneered slightly.

ôWhether or not youÆre a threat, IÆll put you down if you donÆt _get the hell out of my way_!ö

Renji drew his sword, holding it high above his head. Unsure of what his response should be, Ichigo observed closely.

ôHowl, Zabimaru!ö

The sealed zanpakuto in RenjiÆs hands glowed neon green for a second, before the redhead whipped it around and forward. Then, across the fifteen or twenty feet that separated them, the impossible length of the unsealed blade _stretched_.

Ichigo, taken completely by surprise, barely interposed Zangetsu between himself and the onrushing blade.

æHoly Shi-!Æ

His mental expletive was cut short as the kinetic force of the blade, which was still extending, pushed him backwards with all the force he was attempting to block.

æFuck! I canÆt stop moving!Æ

He redoubled his efforts to dig into the ground with his heels, with the balls of his feet, with whatever was available. A moment later, his motion did stop û when he was slammed right through a nearby building.

æOhhhàthatÆs gonna hurt in the morning. Shit, this guy got an even bigger sucker punch in than Madarame.Æ

Coughing some dust out of his lungs, Ichigo stood and dusted himself off.

ôIÆm pissed off, Red. And now IÆm gonna show you one of ZangetsuÆs little tricks.ö

Closing his eyes, he concentrated on feeling the reiatsu around him, homing in immediately on the largest, closest source û the Vice-Captain whose Shikai was approaching his position. Allowing his controlled reiatsu to flare again, he fed it to the eagerly waiting Zangetsu, then brought the blade up. Dropping it like a guillotine, he screamed the name of his attack û more to give Renji a little warning than from any necessity.

ôGetsuga Tenshou!ö

A tendril of pale blue slashed outwards from the tip of Zangetsu, traveling at incredible speed û and as it traveled, it cut a crater for half a mile straight in front of him.

ôWhat the fuck!?ö

RenjiÆs shout from outside told him that heÆd missed, but that his distraction had worked perfectly. Right before Ichigo pushed himself into Shunpo, he allowed himself a nasty little smile.

Renji proved himself a skilled fighter, tracking IchigoÆs movement and blocking the incoming slash from Zangetsu. Sparks flashed where the two zanpakuto met, blades shaking in response to the pure power being funnelled through them.

Ichigo shifted his stance slightly, moving downward to gather his strength, before he drove Zangetsu up, pushing the blocking Zabimaru and Renji both into the air above him. ZangetsuÆs hilt-wrappings unwound and snaked out, wrapping the Shinigami in a crushing grip.

Ichigo secured the bandages in his hands before digging his heels firmly into the ground. Then, feet planted, he began to spin around, at first slowly, but then faster and faster as inertia took hold.

ôHeh. An object in motion tends to stay in motion, Renji. LetÆs see just how long it takes you to stop!ö

So saying, the ryoka shifted his grip and hauled RenjiÆs form from its flight, onto a new vector û one that intersected with the hard ground of Seireitei.

Renji, however, proved to be no slouch when it came to quick thinking. Instead of allowing Ichigo to do as he pleased, the Vice-Captain ripped through ZangtetsuÆs bindings with his zanpakuto. Then, as he fell through the air, he snapped the blade out and upwards, snaking the sharp tip into a nearby rooftop.

The zanpakuto then shortened itself, the action pulling Renji up to the safety of the rooftop alongside his sword.

Ichigo came to a halt, having slowed as soon as he felt the weight shift in his grip.

æClever bastard. I was about to put you down, too. Literally.Æ

Allowing a greater amount of his spirit energy to uncoil from his strictly controlled reservoir, he then pushed himself into a faster Shunpo, aiming to come in behind Renji.

Again, the Shinigami tracked the movement, turning to block as if it were telegraphed. He brought Zabimaru up into a middle guard across his torso, only to miss IchigoÆs attack completely.

The ryoka wasnÆt using Zanjutsu to press the attack û instead, one powerful hand grabbed Renji by the lapels of his uniform and pulled him forwards, breaking his already shaky stance from a defense that had been ignored. The other arm folded inward, creating a blade from IchigoÆs elbow. That elbow was then slammed into the oncoming throat of Abarai Renji.

Eyes bugging out comically, the Vice-Captain clutched at his throat in panic. Both of his hands now gripping the dark fabric of RenjiÆs kimono, Ichigo lifted his right leg, shifted his hips, and then uncoiled a vicious sidekick right into RenjiÆs stomach. As his foot impacted, Ichigo released his grip on the Shinigami and let his kick carry the bigger man right over the edge of the rooftop.

Watching the redhead fall, Ichigo frowned in thought.

æHe followed my first Shunpo, which is possible for an experienced Shinigami. But the second should have been too fast for anyone below Captain.Æ

This was starting to piss him off. First that Ikkaku guy, now this Renji dick. They gave their rank, then performed far beyond it. What the hell was the ranking system for, if Shinigami were all overperforming?

At this rate, anyone who said he was a Captain would be capable of beating a Vasto Lorde with one hand tied behind his back.

æYa knowà fighting someone like that that could be a lot of funà.Æ

There were one or two surprises up the wide sleeves of his shihakusho for just such an occasion.

Renji continued to fall downwards, but the first embers of reiatsu being stoked told Ichigo that the Shinigami was not yet out of tricks, either. Pushing himself into the white haze of Shunpo, the human Shinigami raised Zangetsu overhead as he approached his opponentÆs airborne form.

Finally reaching a speed that Renji couldnÆt track, Ichigo cleaved the hapless Vice-Captain with the wide blade of his zanpakuto. Driving himself into a spin with his shoulders and hips, the blond then came around and drove his foot into the redheadÆs sternum, sending Renji crashing down to the ground. All of the air in the Vice-CaptainÆs lungs burst out of him in one long gasp, as he slammed down on unforgiving terra firma.

Landing just after Renji, with none of the redheadÆs injured awkwardness, Ichigo replaced Zangetsu on his back and straightened his red haori once more. Walking forwards to the stairway, careful to skirt the edges of the canyon created by his Getsuga Tenshou, Kurosaki Ichigo allowed himself to feel a touch of awe.

æZangetsu . . . you are freaking scary when you get going.Æ

He felt the Old Man chuckle softly in the back of his head, and a slow smirk spread across his own features.

æThen again, so am I.Æ

As he passed by AbaraiÆs injured form, a curious thing happened. The Vice-CaptainÆs hand flashed out and grabbed the bottom of IchigoÆs hakama. His breath was coming in gasps, just regular enough to allow him to speak broken sentences.

ôOi . . . ryoka . . . whatÆs your . . . name?ö

Ichigo raised an eyebrow û what a strange time to ask that question.

ôIÆm Kurosaki Ichigo.ö

Renji drew another shaky breath.

ôKurosaki. . . ? So . . . youÆre the guy . . . Rukia gave . . . her power?ö

IchigoÆs expression showed something resembling sorrow for a moment, before it found middle ground blank of emotion.

ôYeah. IÆm the guy.ö

Renji shifted his position, staring hard at IchigoÆs face.

ôYou have to . . . save her. Please . . . thereÆs no-one . . . no-one else who will.ö

Ichigo smiled softly, shaking his head.

ôThatÆs why IÆm here, Red. No-oneÆs gonna get to kill Rukia while IÆm around. Especially not her own superiors.ö

RenjiÆs eyes widened as something else dawned on him:

ôCaptain Kuchiki! Watch out for-ö

He couldnÆt finish the warning. Against his will, regardless of his intense alarm, the Vice-CaptainÆs injured body slipped into unconsciousness, freeing IchigoÆs hakama from the strong grip.

Ichigo couldnÆt help but frown deeper at the frantic warning.

æKuchiki? ThatÆs RukiaÆs family name, but . . . sheÆs nowhere near Captain level. Is it her father or something?Æ

SheÆd never talked of family or friends û and heÆd never asked. Why would Abarai try to warn him of this mysterious Kuchiki?

Before he could think the conundrum over, a tingling at the back of his neck warned him of an incoming presence.

æShit. I took too long to finish the fight! TheyÆre coming up behind me!Æ

Spinning around to face the new threat even as he cursed his own slow endgame with Renji, Ichigo lifted Zangetsu off of his shoulder with his right hand and began summoning up reiryoku in his left. Not his usual tempered, controlled energy û no, this was pure, blazing spirit power, tainted by energies no sane Shinigami would dare to tamper with.

Taking the raw power in his hand, he compressed it into the shape he desired, and waited for the approaching target to come into range.

æNot yet . . . hold it . . . hold it . . . a little further . . . now!Æ

Thrusting his hand out, he let fly the compressed ball of pure spiritual power. Faster than something that size should have been able to move, it streaked through the air towards his target. Right before it reached the Shingami following him, there was a flash of bright blue power in response. The intensity of the attacks as they met was almost blinding, and the explosion that followed was even greater.

Staring for a moment, Ichigo shook his head to try and clear his vision, obscured as it was by dancing spots of light and darkness.

æDamn. The explosion isnÆt usually that powerful û did some fool try to neutralise it with Kido?Æ

Best to go and check it out û if they were conscious, they might be able to warn other units where he was, or which direction he had left in. If the Shinigami were unconscious, that wouldnÆt be a problem. Complicating his decision was the fact that he could also feel several upper seat reiatsu signatures pushing onto the edges of his ability to sense them.

æMake it quick, Ichigo û you have incoming Shinigami.Æ

Sliding into Shunpo, Ichigo crossed the distance between him and his hapless opponent in one bound. Then he stopped, and the whole world stopped with him. Lying in a pool of red blood, dark skin growing pale, was the heavily injured form of Sado Yasutora.

The incoming enemy hadnÆt been Shinigami at all û he hadnÆt even been an enemy.

ôChadà ohà fuck. Fuck. FUCK! What the _hell_ are you _doing_ here? What the _fucking hell_ are you doing in Seireitei?ö

Kneeling down, Ichigo checked ChadÆs carotid artery for a pulse, years of living in a medical clinic showing through.

æOk. Pulse is a go. Breathing is a go. HeÆs injured, but heÆs not dying û not yet, anyway.Æ

The Shinigami on the edge of his awareness were coming closer, approaching his position quickly. Thinking quickly, Ichigo pointed the hilt of his zanpakuto towards Chad, as if to perform the Soul Burial. Instead of that happening, though, ZangetsuÆs bandages shot out in a disturbingly serpentine fashion and wrapped themselves around the Mexican teen.

Hefting his mummified friend in one arm, the other swept Zangetsu back. Deliberately flaring his reiatsu for a handful of seconds longer than he needed to, Ichigo then slashed out with a weak Getsuga Tenshou, sending a horizontal cutting wave in the direction of his pursuers.

Then, throwing himself into the liquid speed of Shunpo so quickly it gave him vertigo, Kurosaki Ichigo headed for the sewers under Seireitei in the hope of avoiding pursuit.

æDonÆt die, Chad. If you die, IÆm gonna make your life Hell.Æ

-

æFor people with enough ego to call their home The Court of Pure Soulsà their sewer doesnÆt smell very pure.Æ

Ichigo had taken one whiff of the underground passage and almost decided to turn around and take on the Gotei 13 rather than head down there. Only ChadÆs weight on his back made him reconsider.

So down he had climbed, his enormous Mexican friend on his back, and Zangetsu playing the physician. The darkness had welcomed him, and he had relaxed marginally into its embrace.

Running along the walkway at the side of the sewer, Ichigo kept an eye open for a place to hide out, even as he kept his spiritual senses focused on the presences approaching up above. There had been several muted reiatsu flares, which (hopefully) meant that theyÆd found Renji. Getting him to a healer would be the priority, if these guys had any kind of humanity left.

æHmph. ThatÆs questionable û but IÆd prefer it if that Renji guy didnÆt die. HeÆs got guts, anÆ Seireitei needs more people like that.Æ

More to the point, he had to see to Chad.

æOi, Old Man û howÆs he doing?Æ

~HeÆs a strong one, Ichigo. HeÆll live.~

æTrust ChadÆs inhuman toughness to transfer over to his soul, too. Crazy bastard.Æ

Despite his words, Ichigo couldnÆt help but breath a sigh of relief. Chad was his best friend in the world, right up there with Tatsuki û the idea of having caught him in some kind of friendly fire incident was enough to make the blonde want to heave.

æTake as much power as you need to heal him up, Zangetsu. I wonÆt be moving on until IÆve had a cat nap and heÆs stable.Æ

~Understood, Ichigo.~

So busy was he with seeing to ChadÆs welfare, Ichigo almost missed the alcove hidden away in the wall of the sewer. Screeching to a halt, he looked from side to side in some kind of furtive instinct, before peering deep into the alcove.

æIt looks empty. I donÆt feel any kind of spiritual energy in the area, either. I guess weÆre safe.Æ

Placing Chad down gently to avoid jostling him and aggravating his wounds any further, Ichigo then sat himself against the opposite wall of the alcove and closed his eyes, reaching for a state of rest.

-

It wasnÆt much, on the face of things. The merest rustling of cloth against cloth. In the murky orange light of the candle-lit sewer, however, it was more than enough to wake Kurosaki Ichigo. Forgoing Zangetsu instinctively, his hands came up in a ready position, hardened into spears of flesh and bone.

It proved to be unnecessary û Chad was merely moving into wakefulness, straining against the bandages constricting him.

Wordlessly, Ichigo checked up on the patientÆs status, relaxing his defensive stance as he did so.

æHow is he, old man?Æ

~He has healed almost completely. StrangeàÆ~

æWhat?Æ

~The boy is highly compatible with your reiatsu, for some reason. His healing advanced more quickly that I had expected.~

æGood. Killing my best friend would be some fucking bad karma.Æ

ZangetsuÆs wrapping unwound from ChadÆs bulk, and wrapped around the blade instead.

~Be careful, Ichigo û healing like that takes a lot of energy to accomplish.~

æDonÆt worry. Even if it took half of my reiatsu, halfÆs still more than anyone else in Seireitei can deal with.Æ

~It wasnÆt quite as severe a drain as thatà~

æWhatever. Hey, I think heÆs waking up!Æ

The groan that reverberated around the sewer wall was proof enough.

ôUggghhhh.ö

ôHeh. Sleeping beauty wakes at last, huh?ö

ôà Uhhà cinco mas minutos, Abueloàö

Ichigo chuckled, recognizing ChadÆs other language easily enough û it clearly wasnÆt Japanese. Chad sat up abruptly, his expression panicked. When he saw that he was enclosed with a strangely-dressed Shinigami, his massive fists balled up into sledgehammers and he moved fluidly into a left straight.

Having expected this, Kurosaki batted the incoming fist away with ZangetsuÆs blunt side. Then he smiled and rotated his stinging wrist û Chad packed a punch, even as a spirit.

ôHeh. If thatÆs how you react to seeing me again, I wonder what youÆll do when we save Rukia? SheÆll snap like a twig, Chad.ö

The haze of adrenaline and sleep quickly burned away from Sado YasutoraÆs mind, leaving him in the lucid, thoughtful frame of mind that was typical of him.

ôI-Ichigo!?ö

Waving lazily, the substitute Shinigami smirked.

ôYeah. Good to see ya, Chad.ö

Folding the tree-trunks he called arms across the mountain he called a chest, Sado smiled slowly.

ôYou too, Ichigo.ö

Ichigo laughed, throwing his head back and letting his mirth echo along the walls.

ôMan, IÆm glad you didnÆt pull that teary reunion shit. IÆd hate to have to put you down.ö

Shrugging, Chad quirked a little smirk of his own. They both knew it wasnÆt his style.

ôYou did it well enough last night û what was that attack, anyway?ö

Scratching the back of his head, Ichigo laughed nervously.

ôItÆs called Bala; the fastest attack I can pull off. Sorry about that û I thought you were a Shinigami, and I wasnÆt ready for another fight that soon.ö

IchigoÆs nervous expression shifted slowly into a frown.

ôAnd, for the record, it wouldnÆt have injured you half as badly if you hadnÆt tried to cancel it with such a similar attack. The backlash doubled the force of the explosion.ö

Chad shrugged.

ôWhen youÆve only got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.ö

Ichigo snorted, translating the Chad-speak into a real language; æWhoops. ThatÆs my _only_ attack.Æ

ôWeÆll work on that later. Right now, I want to get out of this sewer and head to the Shrine of Penitence.ö

Nodding, Chad stood û and a second later, he ducked his head - sporting a new dent in his skull.

ôNot fair. Even the spirits in Japan are short.ö

Ichigo couldnÆt help it û he started laughing helplessly.

-

When they cleared the sewer, Ichigo and Chad stepped into a disaster zone. Ichigo paid it no mind, but Chad stared silently at the panorama of property destruction û paying particular attention to the long, deep gouge that marred the pristine ground of the courtyard.

Turning, Ichigo walked to the stairway that Renji had kept him from ascending the evening before.

ôLetÆs go, Chad. I want this idiocy finished as quickly as possible.ö

Leaving behind his awe, the Mexican-Japanese youth turned and jogged to catch up with his old friend. Accepting that this kind of power, this kind of damage was possible would take no small effort. But that was the world they now lived in, and dealing with that truth was a necessity; if only because his greater power gave him a greater responsibility.

æIchigo . . . my fist for your cause, and your fist for mine. Now that you have returned, I will hold to that promise û as I did when you were gone.Æ

Unconsciously stroking the old Mexican coin hanging around his neck, Sado made his resolution. Taking the steps in front of him three at a time, he quickly caught up with the teen in front of him.

Exchanging a look, they both smiled, a competitive edge sharpening their grins û then they began to run up the stairs, IchigoÆs greater speed competing against ChadÆs longer stride. The long, quick stride of the taller boy was too much for IchigoÆs feet to compete with, and Chad pulled ahead with a single stone step to spare.

Instead of slowing down, they both continued to run towards the ivory-white tower that dominated the skyline, choosing speed over any other course of action. So they ran, speed against stride, onwards to the looming Shrine of Penitence.

And they ran headlong into the spider waiting for them at the center of his chosen web.
 

trevelyan1983

Well-Known Member
#2
-

They had entered the spiritual miasma before Ichigo had even thought to double-check the strange feeling of the landscape. Afterwards, it would make sense to him that an entire swathe of Seireitei was enveloped in KenpachiÆs reiatsu, just by the manÆs very presence.

But only afterwards.

In the here and now, Kurosaki Ichigo only knew that heÆd made some kind of miscalculation, feeling the nagging suspicion that heÆd missed some vital piece of information. Beside him, Chad slowed to a walk, looking pale.

ôIchigo . . . do you feel that?ö

The unauthorized Shinigami came to a halt, inclining himself to face Chad.

ôUn. Like a sword at your throat, right? The airÆs heavy with spiritual pressure.ö

Chad looked around surreptitiously.

ôFight or run?ö

Ichigo smiled slightly.

ôYou run for the Shrine of Penitence. IÆll hold this one off long enough for you to get away, and then put æem down.ö

Ichigo couldnÆt tell from the other boyÆs expression, given that it was half covered in long, thick hair, but ChadÆs body language was suggesting he didnÆt like that idea.

ôI donÆt like that idea. Not only would I be leaving you to take the heat, it would also be difficult for me to travel through this reiatsu.ö

Drawing Zangetsu from his back, IchigoÆs small smile became a vicious smirk.

ôRukiaÆs the priority, Chad. SheÆs on the block, and I have no idea how much time she has left until Seireitei execute her. So, go save her. IÆll give you a path to get there.ö

Gritting his teeth, the blonde teen allowed his own reiatsu to flood the area, pushing away the pressure against himself and Chad with an equal amount of power.

ôNow Chad, GO!ö

Chad, realizing that IchigoÆs power had surpassed any measure he was capable of understanding, turned and sprinted for the Senzaikyuu.

Raising his zanpakuto, Kurosaki Ichigo shouted out his challenge:

ôOi! LetÆs not play hide and seek, eh? Come out and fight me. I donÆt have time to waste!ö

Resting Zangetsu on his shoulder, he waited for a response.

ôSo youÆre Kurosaki Ichigo, eh?ö

The voice was deep and rough, spoken with an aggressive, hard tone. It was behind him, but Ichigo didnÆt bother to turn around.

ôYeah. ThatÆs me. What do they call you?ö

ôZaraki Kenpachi. Captain, Eleventh Division.ö

Looking over his shoulder nonchalantly, Ichigo took in his opponent. Tall, built like a brick wall, wearing an eyepatch and a ragged white haori. His wide, arrogant mouth sneered its way into a sharkÆs grin.

ôInteresting outifit youÆve got, there. Never seen that kinda haori before.ö

Turning despite himself, Ichigo smirked.

ôItÆs pretty cool, right? TheyÆre kinda rare, though û the last owner was literally dying to keep his hands on this one.ö

Laughing uproariously, Kenpachi straightened his own silken emblem.

ôYou too, huh? I became a Captain by killing the pussy who owned this before me.ö

There was silence, for a time, as both men sized each other up. Finally, Kenpachi spoke again.

ôUsually I give my opponent a free hit. I donÆt think you need it, though.ö

A little pink head popped up behind him, a shocked squeak announcing her.

ôEh? What, Ken?ö

The Captain turned his head to growl something at her. Ichigo couldnÆt quite make it out, but he thought it was something like æmove yer ass, stupidÆ.

The little pink thing shot off like a bullet, shifting into a speed just beneath the threshold of Shunpo from a standing start.

ôSure, Ken! Have fun, neh?ö

Wrapping his massive hands around his zanpakuto, Kenpachi began to slide the blade from its bandage-covered sheath.

ôOh, thatÆs gonna be no problem, Yachiru. No problem at all.ö

Lifting Zangetsu off of his shoulder, Ichigo placed both hands on the hilt and dropped into a middle stance, legs spread and blade pointed outwards from his center. It was a zanjutsu stance that was similar to kenjutsuÆs chuudan no kamae, although neither warrior gave much of a damn about such facts.

ôNice stance, kid. Very nice. I donÆt see any openings . . . ô

Kenpachi, on the other hand, merely held his blade in a single-hand, leaving it by his side. It was, contrary to IchigoÆs stance, totally open. Indeed, that was its strength û the Shinigami Captain could respond to an attack from any direction with no extra effort.

ôTry not to die too quickly, eh? My boys said you were about as strong as a Captain. If you ainÆt, IÆm gonna be real disappointed.ö

Laughing to himself, Ichigo dug his feet into the ground.

ôCaptain strength? TheyÆre smarter than I thought.ö

Deciding to leave the pre-battle conversation there, Ichigo pushed himself forward into an attack. Raising his hands above his head, he lifted Zangetsu high and then brought it down in an enormously powerful overhand strike.

Kenpachi proved himself more than capable of dealing with the assault. Taking several steps forward, he lifted his own sword to block the oncoming blade, bracing the spine of the katana with his off-hand.

Ichigo brought Zangetsu down a second later, smashing it into KenpachiÆs chipped, serrated blade and sending shocking amounts of force vibrating up their arms.

Recoiling slightly, blades still locked, Ichigo pushed against Kenpachi. Kenpachi responded by using his greater height and mass to press Ichigo back again. Then, as one, they both withdrew from the deadlock, blurring into cuts that whistled through the air.

Sparks flashed from spirit-hardened steel as they came together, drew apart, struck again.

Kenpachi drew his blade back, then flashed forward in a flat-thrust. Ichigo side-stepped the stab, bringing his own blade in and across KenpachiÆs stomach. At the same time, the Shinigami Captain twisted his thrust into a sidewards slash.

Ichigo struck home with his own cut, but was denied the opportunity to savour first blood û Kenpachi opened up the blondeÆs side a second later.

Stepping back from their exchange, Ichigo and Zaraki took stock of their injuries.

Kenpachi, realizing he had been cut, began to laugh madly.

ôEh hah hah hah ha ha haaa! You cut me. You actually cut me. ItÆs been too long since IÆve felt that sensation.ö

Leering in a way that made Ichigo momentarily consider retreat, the Eleventh DivisionÆs Captain waved him forward.

ôDo it again, boy. Make me bleed. A fight this good needs blood and pain to celebrate!ö

Frowning in distaste, Ichigo probed the depth of his wound. Finding it to be shallow, if longer than heÆd prefer, the teen ignored it and concentrated on the fight.

ôYouÆve got a creepy idea of combat, Kenpachi. But if you really wanna bleed, IÆll make it happen.ö

Without a word from Ichigo, ZangetsuÆs hilt-wrapping began to snake around his fist. Taking advantage of that fact, the teenaged Shinigami began to spin the zanpakuto above his head. Splitting his attention between the blade and his opponent, Kurosaki spoke for a moment.

ôWatch carefully, now. This one is tricky.ö

As the sword passed around the back of his head, red haori undulating from the force his body was projecting, Ichigo snapped his arm out, rolling his shoulders to add as much power to the strike as possible.

Zangetsu flew straight for Kenpachi, slicing through the air more like a harpoon than a sword. The air itself shimmered, split by the speed of the bladeÆs passage and the reiatsu it released in its wake.

Kenpachi, a veteran of more fights than even he could count, barely paused. He angled his sword across his body and braced his offhand against the spine of the zanpakuto. Then, as
Zangetsu drove relentlessly at him, the Gotei Thirteen Captain slammed his own sword into the oncoming cleaver. Sparks crashed as the chipped, serrated soul blade vied for dominance against the immense moon cutter.

The deflection worked, sending Zangetsu spiraling out wildly to the side. IchigoÆs eyes widened, as he desperately began trying to reel in the inertia of his uncontrolled blade.

Having created his opportunity, Zaraki Kenpachi didnÆt hesitate to grasp it. Dashing forward, raw reiryoku fuelling his charge and exponentially increasing his speed, he drew his sword back, flipped it onto a horizontal plane and came at Ichigo with a vicious thrust.

Ichigo, tightening ZangetsuÆs bandaging around his wrists even as he spun the sword behind his back. He started channelling more power through the bandage and the blade, allowing him to exert greater control over them.

Just as he succeeded in bringing the sword into line, Kenpachi pierced him. A flash of blue passed between them, before Kenpachi grimaced. Blood ran like water down their dark robes, pooling on the ground.

ôYouÆre pretty good, you little shit. CuttinÆ me after I stabbed you - that takes balls.ö

Reaching his left hand between them, Ichigo slowly pulled KenpachiÆs sword from his chest, blood spilling out of his mouth with every movement. His breathing was labored and pained û the flat thrust had evidently pierced a lung.

ôI . . . donÆt have time . . . for this crap.ö

Focussing his reiatsu into a cocoon around him, Ichigo forcefully stemmed his bleeding and began knitting his inner organs back together. Able to breathe properly again, he spoke up once more.

ôI need to get to the Shrine and save Rukia. Enough games û show me your Bankai, and IÆll grind it into dust.ö

Kenpachi seemed nonplussed.

ôEh?ö

Flushing in anger, Ichigo raised his voice angrily.

ôI wonÆt waste my time on this shit! Unleash everything you got, and then I can leave!ö

Hefting his zanpakuto, Kenpachi looked at it as if seeing it for the first time.

ôBankai? DonÆt make me laugh, kid.ö

Resting the battered blade on his shoulder, Kenpachi aimed a piercing glare at Ichigo with his single eye.

ôMy zanpakutoÆs just a fucking sword. It cuts, nothinÆ else û a strong man donÆt need none of that fancy shit like _names_ and _releases_. Just a sharp blade and an enemy to cut.ö

Paling in horror, Ichigo stepped back, his hand tightening on Zangetsu unconsciously.

ôWhat *the fuck* did you just say?ö

Kenpachi grinned savagely.

ôHuh. And here I thought you understood û all that shit, itÆs just meant to distract weaklings from their weakness. I donÆt believe it û talkinÆ swords, fer fuckÆs sake. I donÆt need my sword to tell me its name. I just need it to be sharp.ö

IchigoÆs reiatsu began to pulse wildly around them, reacting to his growing rage. Kenpachi studied the phenomenon with interest, his grin growing wider by the second.

ôEh-hah! YouÆre gettingÆ pissed, hm? Are you one of those fags who needs to fight side-by-side with yer sword? You need that crutch to prop up yer own power?ö

IchigoÆs reiatsu flared into an incandescent blaze of blue, blinding Kenpachi and even the distant Yachiru, who was observing from the rooftops.

ôShut your mouth! IÆve had it with you û first you waste my time with your big talk, then you ainÆt got the power to back it up. As if that wasnÆt enough of a pain in the ass, you then go and preach about Zanpakuto, something you obviously know nothing about!ö

IchigoÆs reiatsu calmed, leaving him visible once again.

ôFine. IÆll show you how much stronger a Shinigami can become by working with his Zanpakuto. IÆll kill you in one blow.ö

Kenpachi threw his head back and bellowed with laughter.

ôBwa hah ha haa! One blow? That ainÆt enough! That ainÆt nearly enough! Why should the fun stop that quickly? LetÆs make this last, Kurosaki Ichigo!ö

Ichigo didnÆt respond. He just raised Zangetsu over his head and began to rapidly swirl reiatsu around him, picking up dust and dirt from the ground and making an unnatural cyclone from it all.

Then, as suddenly as the wind had appeared, it died down. Ichigo didnÆt scream the name of his attack, didnÆt give any kind of warning û he merely slashed his zanpakuto in a vertical arc and let his reiatsu follow the path of the sword.

Zangetsu blurred, and Kenpachi was forced to push himself to the side so quickly he almost reached Shunpo by accident. An enormous wave of power cleaved past him, leaving a deep gash scored into the ground.

Ichigo blurred into an attack right in front of him, and all Kenpachi could do was step backwards hastily. It was enough to keep him from being bisected, but only just. Zaraki chuckled in glee.

ôShunpo too, eh? Shit, you just get better and better!ö

As one second and then another passed, a wide cut opened on KenpachiÆs torso, bleeding heavily. Looking at his own body incredulously, the Captain couldnÆt help but be slightly awed.

ôFuck. No-oneÆs scored a hit on me like that in decades. And with, what, the spiritual pressure on the tip of your sword? YouÆre the best opponent IÆve had in a fucking century.ö

Idly using his haori to mop up the wound with one hand, Kenpachi shifted his other hand on his sword and lifted it onto his shoulder. Then, lifting his free hand, he hooked his fingers under the eyepatch over his right eye and pulled it over his head.

As soon as he had done so, the entire are exploded in a conflagration of raw, pulsing spiritual power. KenpachiÆs killing intent and battle lust soaked everything, burnishing the world around them in a horrifying shade of amber.

Ichigo just stared, unable to comprehend that one man could produce so much power with no assistance from any other source.

ôW-what the fuck was that eyepatch?ö

Casting his arms wide, Kenpachi reveled in his true power for a moment. Then, chuckling maliciously, he quirked an insane grin at Ichigo.

ôMayuriÆs little bitches put it together for me. The eyepatch is a parasite that feeds on spirit power, eternally hungry and infinitely empty. It cuts my reiryoku down to half. Means I can fight for longer against weaklings.ö

His smile disappeared, and he pointed his katana at Ichigo.

ôAll of that power is now going to be devoted to killing you.ö

Ichigo frowned, no response coming to him.

ôSo be it. I told you to lay all your cards on the fucking table, asshole. And now IÆll show you why.ö

Placing both hands on ZangetsuÆs hilt, Ichigo held the blade in front of him and breathed deeply.

~Ichigo, you canÆt match that much raw power in your condition!~

æI know that, Zangetsu! IÆm going to need your help!Æ

Channeling his power into the zanpakuto, Ichigo felt the sword respond in kind. Quickly, the sword and the Shinigami pooled their reserves into one body and allowed it to envelop them. As seconds passed, a bright blue glow pushed back the intense amber of ZarakiÆs spiritual power.

Screaming in rage at the fact that a Shinigami lacking even the most basic understanding of his own zanpakuto could force him, Kurosaki Ichigo of the Twelve Demon Kings, to the very limits of his Shikai, he pushed his power as high as he could, then leveled out his shared reserves. Then the red Shinigami flashed forward in Shunpo.

Kenpachi, having fought Shunpo users before, struck for where Ichigo was going to appear, right as the black and red blur began to coalesce into a solid form. Rushing straight into the trap, Ichigo was slashed from hip to shoulder. A torrent of blood burst out of the wound, but Kenpachi only had eyes for IchigoÆs expression of disbelief.

Then, IchigoÆs form wavered and disappeared, the image fading away in the blur of Shunpo. IchigoÆs voice echoed from all around, as Zaraki spun around to watch his back.

ôDid you like it, Kenpachi? ItÆs called Shunzou û flash image. ItÆs an incredibly high level technique. Although if your ignorance extended to movement techniques too, I wouldnÆt be surprised.ö

When Ichigo did reform, he was on the left side of the now wide-open Captain. Slashing once with Zangetsu, Ichigo re-entered the molten speed of Shunpo again, cutting across ZarakiÆs exposed back. Blurring again, Ichigo finished the complex routine of strikes and steps with a slice along KenpachiÆs right side.

When he reappeared, Zangetsu balanced on his shoulders, Ichigo clearly felt the fight to be over. A second later it was; Kenpachi fell unsteadily to his knees, his zanpakuto the only thing holding him upright.

ôThat donÆt prove anything. You beat me, but it was your skills that got you the victory. Not yer sword.ö

Ichigo frowned, already looking ahead to the Senzaikyuu.

ôWrong. We worked together to beat you û without Zangetsu, I couldnÆt have gotten anywhere near your level of spiritual power. But even without that, ZangetsuÆs the one who taught me to flash step. If you ever get to see my Bankai, perhaps youÆll understand that.ö

ZarakiÆs laughter at the irony implicit in that statement echoed around the walls as Ichigo walked away. He was still laughing when Yachiru came to pick his bleeding body up and take it away from the battleground.

æDamn freak Shinigami. You took more time to lose than I had to give. YouÆd better be OK, Chad.Æ

-

Meanwhile, at the bridge that governed access to the Senzaikyuu, Sado Yasutora was far from OK. Fetching Rukia had been easy enough û the guards had been no match for his fists. Rukia herself was mobile, despite being weak as a newborn kitten, which meant that he didnÆt have to carry her.

The trouble reared its head when a Shinigami captain came to investigate the reiatsu present at the Shrine of Penitence, and found Chad trying to escape with Rukia in tow.

ôOh? It seems you ryoka have some unusually strong spiritual power, for mere humans. Fighting your way to the Shrine of Penitence alone . . . it is truly remarkable.ö

Chad tensed as the Captain drew his blade.

ôUnfortunately, your interference in affairs beyond your ken has now brought you to this. Were we anywhere else, I might offer quarter. IÆm afraid, however, that all I can offer you is a swift death.ö

Drawing back his GiantÆs Right Arm, Chad started to gather his power in preparation for a blast of reiryoku.

In response, the white clad captain pointed with his left index finger.

ôBinding Art Sixty-One: Six Rods Light Prison.ö

All of the energy Chad had gathered burst free of his grasp in an unfettered maelstrom, blue fire dissipating. Bound by a spiritual construct of six golden rods, Chad fell to his knees, groaning out loud.

ôGuuuhh!ö

Then the Shinigami was infront of him, blurry form coalescing into a killing strike. Chad looked down at his hands, unable to watch his death coming û not when heÆd failed to uphold his promise to Ichigo.

æSorry, old friend. I suppose these hands werenÆt strong enough after all.Æ

The blow didnÆt strike home, and Chad opened his eyes to see white cloth fluttering before him. At first he thought it was the CaptainÆs haori, but there was no black to it whatsoever.

æK . . . Kuchiki!?Æ

Rukia was standing in front of him, arms splayed wide û as if to ward off the CaptainÆs sword with her body. The fact that a kneeling Chad still dwarfed her merely made it more poignant.

ôBrother! Please, donÆt kill him. I will voluntarily return to the Senzaikyuu with you, if you will merely allow him to live.ö

Chad stared hard at the Shinigami Captain, seeing a certain resemblance to Rukia in his bearing, his poise. Straining to stand under the binding, the child of two cultures grit his teeth.

ôI-impossible. I have made an oath, to fight with these fists for IchigoÆs cause. I will not break it. I *refuse* to break it! ö

He stood, the six-rod-prison shattering into a thousand fragments as the resting tigerÆs remaining spiritual power was stirred by his iron will.

Rukia turned, face ashen at IchigoÆs name and body frozen by ChadÆs actions.

Byakuya shoved her aside, Senbonzakura already blurring into motion, even as his expression began to show something akin to respect.

ôI admire your resolve, human. I will not disrespect it by insulting your strength.ö

Closing his eyes, the noble raised his zanpakuto in a quasi-salute.

ôScatter . . . ö

ôBrother! NO!ö

ô . . . Senbonzakura.ö

Sado Yasutora exploded in a cloud of blood, toppling backwards like a bear cut off at the knees.

ôSorry . . . Ichigo . . . ö

Senbonzakura floated back together, sealing itself back into the form of a katana. Sheathing his sword, Byakuya observed a respectful silence.

æHow strange . . . yet how fitting. You know the burden of upholding an oath, young vagrant.Æ

A strong hand clasped his shoulder reproachfully.

ôUnsealing a Zanpakuto on the very doorstep of the Senzaikyuu is a serious offence, Kuchiki.ö

Looking over his shoulder, Byakuya observed his old sempai with an icy reserve.

ôThe Commander-General passed down the order yesterday, Ukitake. Such actions are permitted under the wartime laws.ö

Releasing his grip on Byakuya, Ukitake looked sadly at the bleeding form before him.

ôWell, it wasnÆt to be helped. Perhaps this fellow will know about Aize-ö

The air came alive with spiritual energy of such weight that Ukitake bit off his sentence, he and Byakuya both turning to look behind them. Ukitake focused his senses on the approaching power

ôEnormous reiatsu û easily Captain-level! Not to mention the approach speed û thatÆs a high-level Shunpo!ö

Byakuya drew his zanpakuto again.

ôReturn Rukia to the shrine of penitence, Ukitake. I shall deal with this.ö

The prisoner could barely breathe, so overwhelmed was she by the spiritual pressure. Ukitake had to lift her bodily and carry her to the Senzaikyuu.

As he entered the doorway of the shrine, he saw a flash of red and black appear before Byakuya. Turning, he and Rukia watched the proceedings from a comfortable distance.

-

Kurosaki Ichigo was pissed. It would even be accurate to describe him as incensed. Homicidal, in fact.

HeÆd felt a CaptainÆs reiatsu spike into Shikai from the direction of the death row they were keeping Rukia in, so heÆd pushed his ability to the fullest in order to arrive in time.

In the end, though, it hadnÆt made the slightest bit of difference. ChadÆs reiatsu was rapidly dissipating, even as his blood spattered onto the ground from a thousand cuts. Forcing every scrap of reiatsu out from underneath the hard-won control that was usually his, Ichigo wrapped the entire sector in pure power.

Then he disappeared. Byakuya followed, meeting him halfway across the bridge. They crashed together, reiatsu clashing in waves. IchigoÆs rage and ZangetsuÆs Shikai won against ByakuyaÆs icy calm and sealed zanpakuto, forcing the Captain to reposition himself farther along the bridge with Shunpo. Ichigo blurred into a flash step, coalescing beside Chad.

He smirked as he felt an all-too familiar hunger surge within ChadÆs bleeding form. Keeping his reiatsu released, Ichigo turned away from his friend, facing the Sixth DivisionÆs Captain.

ôLooks like I wonÆt have to feed you your own balls, Shinigami. My friend will live. Lucky for you.ö

Resting Zangetsu on his shoulder, Ichigo cracked his neck to the left and then to the right. The Shinigami looked at him with a regal kind of distaste. Ichigo had the feeling that such an expression was rarely far from this prissy bastardÆs face. The air of condescending superiority reignited his temper.

ôOi, asshat û whatÆs your name?ö

ôIs it not customary for the enquirer to offer his own name first, invader?ö

ôHeh. Sorry û IÆm so used to people falling over dead at the first whiff of my reiatsu, I forgot the social niceties shit. My bad.ö

Shifting his zanpakuto off of his shoulder, Ichigo sketched a mocking bow.

ôKurosaki Ichigo, one of the Twelve Demon Kings of the Dark Court.ö

Ignoring the mockery, Byakuya inclined his head slightly.

ôI am Kuchiki Byakuya, Captain of the Sixth Division of the Thirteen Guardian Squads.ö

Bringing his wide blade back up, Ichigo grabbed a fistful of bandaging and began to spin the blade.

ôThen have at you, Kuchiki Byakuya!ö

Zangetsu flicked out, the massive sword responding like a puppet to IchigoÆs manipulations of the hilt-wrap. Byakuya, calm and unruffled, waited for it to come into range and then deflected it, striking SenbonzakuraÆs hilt against the accumulated motion of IchigoÆs weapon.

The curved monster was pushed back, deterred for a moment until Ichigo flicked his wrist and sent it arcing around in an impossible slash. Byakuya stepped backwards, unable to twist his sword to deflect the incoming blade this time.

æVery well. If I cannot defend, then I must force him to break off his offense.Æ

Raising his blade, the Kuchiki scion gave his zanpakuto free rein.

ôScatter . . . Senbonzakura!ö

A thousand blades scattered freely, becoming a cloud of razors. Ichigo flashed backwards, hoping to gain enough distance for Getsuga Tenshou û then he leapt upwards, realizing that the moon fang would destroy the bridge û killing Chad for real. That would be a useless victory.

Standing on a platform of spirit particles, Ichigo watched the cherry blossoms come for him. They closed in, commanded by ByakuyaÆs will.

Leaping backwards, Ichigo scraped his way down the Senzaikyuu, sandals sliding over white stone. Senbonzakura followed, closing the distance again. As he reached the halfway point of the facade, Ichigo tensed his legs. Sliding further, he counted down.

æ5 à 4 à 3 à 2 à 1 à Go!Æ

Using the Shrine of Penitence as a springboard, he pushed himself into a Shunpo that echoed around the grounds like a crack of thunder.

Landing in front of the spe¼¼¼ctators, appearing as nothing more than a hazy red mirage, he pushed himself into another flash step. Now standing on the guard-rail of the Senzaikyuu, he blurred again, zig-zagging his way closer to Byakuya û cherry blossom blades unrelenting in pursuit.

Stepping off of the rail in one last push, Ichigo raised Zangetsu and moved in for a killing blow. Byakuya, his blade concentrated wholly on attack, was forced to move around the blow.

Though his sword missed Byakuya by the narrowest of margins, Ichigo smirked. A second passed in silence, until Byakuya hissed in surprise - a tendril of blood snaking down his uniform

ôYou cut me, boy . . . impressive. Most impressive.ö

Ichigo chucked, already moving to enter Shunpo. Byakuya waved his hand at the red-cloaked shinigami.

ôBinding Art Nine: Strike.ö

IchigoÆs body locked up, frozen in a red haze. Summoning his spiritual power, he tried to break the binding by overpowering it û he would have succeeded momentarily, if not for Senbonzakura engulfing him in a pink tide.

The pink cloud dissipated, returning to ByakuyaÆs hand. Bleeding, shredded, Ichigo was held up only by ZangetsuÆs support.

ôUnfortunately, drawing first blood left you open to a decisive strike.ö

ôEh-hehàheh heh, ha ha haa! Is that what you think, you prissy little faggot? Decisive strike? Who the fuck do you think youÆre dealing with, some rookie Vice-captain with delusions of grandeur?ö

The spiritual pressure vibrating in the air doubled in intensity over the course of a single second. Byakuya stepped back, shock widening his eyes in an outright display of emotion.

ôW-what . . . what is this?ö

Ichigo stood, ZangetsuÆs bandages wrapping around him, stained crimson even as they touched him. A hateful, wicked expression twisted his face, before it too was wrapped in bandages û all that remained visible were his seething amber eyes.

ôIÆm a Demon King, bitch. You trying to kill me with Shikai just proves what a stupid fuck you are. Next time we meet, IÆll show you my real power. Until then, write a will or something û IÆm gonna put your ass in the ground.ö

Then, golden energy beginning to shimmer around his form, he added parenthetically:

ôYou dumb fuck, Kurosaki. I havenÆt had to pull your ass out of a fuck-up like this in decades. You better be grateful, bitch.ö

Shining like a summer dawn, gold light streaming from him, he disappeared in a swirl of bandages and reiryoku. The spiritual pressure in the air died down slowly, sheer saturation slowing the process considerably.

Sheathing his zanpakuto, Byakuya projected his voice to the other end of the bridge.

ôI leave the prisoners in your care, Ukitake. This no longer interests me.ö

Turning, he walked away, mind consumed in thought.

æKurosaki Ichigo, was it? We shall see what the family records say of these . . . Twelve Demon Kings.Æ

As he left, UkitakeÆs simpering underlings ran past him, looking to curry favour with their Captain. Byakuya would have disposed of such nuisances at the earliest opportunity, were he their commanding officer.

But even they could not turn his thoughts from the opponent who had shown himself today.

-

The darkness of the underworld embraced him like a son returned after a long absence. Looking around, he saw familiar shades beckoning him from the darkness û the muted shimmer of EstebanÆs white uniform, the immense form of La Manto hulking in the mist, KyoichiÆs human frame dwarfed by his inhuman comrades.

æWhy am I here?Æ

A voice responded, echoing as if from far away.

~You are not.~

He was, though. He knew this place like the back of his hand û HellÆs Dark Court. The home of the Twelve Demon Kinds, the bastion of terror that kept the worst scum of the underworld obedient through overwhelming power, perpetual fear and very bad language.

Standing, Kurosaki Ichigo held Zangetsu in a deathgrip.

ôEsteban! Manto! Kyoichi! Come out, you bastards!ö
The shades shifted, moving out of range of his restrained vision.

Something white caught his peripheral vision. Turning, he struck out with Zangetsu, sending the blade whistling through the air.

ôThe fuckÆs your problem Esteban?ö

His blade clashed with another, deflected by monstrous power. A thick white blade had met his own dark sword, driving him back.

æThat . . . whatever that is, itÆs not Relampago. ItÆs not EstebanÆs sword!Æ
Spinning with the momentum of the deflection, Ichigo stepped back and wrapped a handful of bandages around his wrist. Then, coming back to face his mysterious opponent, he released Zangetsu in a whirling slash.

Cloth wrapped around his zanpakuto, pulling it off course and away into the darkness. Planting his feet, Ichigo hauled on his end of the bandages.

Something hauled back. Hard.

Sliding forward, Ichigo summoned up spiritual power to his free hand and pointed it in the direction the interference was coming from.

ôPale Fire Crash!ö

Blue fire raced forward, burning at the mist and illuminating the darkness momentarily. And Ichigo saw the face of his opponent û not Esteban at all, but a twisted version of himself. Zangetsu, wrapped up in its own bandages, held in his hand.

ôTook ya long enough, ya fuckinÆ retard.ö

Taking a long look at the white outfit, the insane leer and glittering amber eyes, Ichigo raised an eyebrow.

ôOi. WhatÆs your game?ö

Putting on an innocent act that was patently false, the Hollow Ichigo placed a theatrical palm on his heart.

ôGame? Me? Would I dare to interfere with the mighty Kurosaki Ichigo, darling of the Dark Court, prodigy of the Twelve Kings?ö

ôOf course you would, you pale freak. YouÆre me. IÆll take on anyone. Hence, youÆll take on anyone. Now get to the point, bitch.ö

Pulling on the cloth wrapped around his hand, Ichigo yanked Zangetsu out of the HollowÆs hand.

ôAnd gimme back Zangetsu, you pilfering asswipe.ö

The innocent act was dropped almost immediately.

ôThatÆs a fine way to thank someone who just saved your life, Kurosaki Ichigo.ö

ôWho asked for your help? I didnÆt need it. I couldÆve escaped on my own, if IÆd wanted to.ö

The white form snorted in disbelief. Ichigo leveled an unfriendly glare at him.

ôYou left Chad behind, anyway. Why the hell would I thank you for that, you albino fucker?ö

ôCuz your momma raised you right?ö

Ichigo gave the Hollow a look that sent a shiver down the monsterÆs spine. ZangetsuÆs bandages began to ripple in an unseen wind, stretching out menacingly.

ôRemember who holds the power here, scum û this is my soul. I call the shots here. And my mother is most definitely. Off. Fucking. Limits. You hear me?ö

The HollowÆs amber eyes flashed with utter loathing for a second, before he bowed his head slightly.

ôUnderstood, my King.ö

Mollified, ZangetsuÆs bandages retreated and wrapped around the blade once again. The negative Ichigo suppressed a sight of relief, aware of just how close heÆd been to overstepping his boundaries.

Shrugging, the Hollow decided to make a token peace offering.

ôIt wonÆt be too hard to find Chad, anyway û just use the Kouzennoki, and tune into his spiritual pressure.ö

Ichigo actually paused to think that over.

ôHuh. That . . . could work. ItÆs times like these that make me realize that youÆre not entirely useless, after all.ö

His Hollow self raised a finger in his direction.

ôI salute the esteemed Devil King. With my middle finger.ö

Ichigo smirked, raising his own middle finger in return.

ôI return the gesture, lowly peon.ö

Rolling his shoulders, Ichigo closed his eyes and dismissed his inner world.

When he returned to consciousness, he found himself lying on his back and wrapped in ZangetsuÆs bandages. The sound of rushing water and the smell of stale faeces told him where he was.

ôIÆll fucking kill him û he dumped me in the sewers deliberately, the son of a bitch.ö

ZangetsuÆs bandages tightened slightly.

ôOkay, okay û IÆll kill him later, after youÆre done healing me.ö

The constriction eased, and Ichigo rolled his eyes û the old man was such a mother hen at times.

Forcing his thoughts back to the matter of Chad, Ichigo stretched his mind out, sending threads of spiritual energy out from himself, he formed strands of power into a web, entwining his awareness from the sewers to the streets of Seireitei, and from there outward in a widening net of spiritual power.

Paying particular attention for the unusual feeling of ChadÆs reiatsu, Ichigo finally hit paydirt. ChadÆs spiritual power, dampened though it was, responded to a questing strand of reiatsu. Firming up the link with his spirit power, Ichigo cut the rest of the threads and opened his eyes.

The spiritual particles that made up Seireitei were every bit as compatible as the particles found in the Dark Court, the Devil King discovered. Using them as conduits for his senses, he observed ChadÆs surroundings with his eyes and ears.

The walls were white, the room free of all extraneous clutter, the remnants of healing kido floating through the air, various signatures and strengths marking them like fingerprints.

æLooks like an infirmary. I guess they patched him up.Æ

Changing his angle of view slightly, Ichigo looked around himself. His educated guess was confirmed when he saw Sado YasutoraÆs immense form wrapped from head to toe in bandages, huge frame balanced precariously along a bed meant for smaller men.

æGood. HeÆs going to be fine. Now I can concentrate on healing up.Æ

Dispelling the Kouzennoki, the red-robed Shinigami felt his awareness slip away û and only when he was too far gone to rouse himself did he hear the inquisitive æmeowÆ of a cat reach his ears.

æAw shi-Æ

-

Light shone through his bandages, irritating eyes that wished to remain closed.

æIÆm gonna find whoever switched on the light and gut them with my fingernails. ItÆs too early for this shit.Æ

Groaning, he relaxed and allowed Zangetsu to unwrap bandage from body.

æHowÆm I doing, Old Man?Æ

~YouÆre fully healed, Ichigo. Your spiritual energy is at two thirds of full capacity . . . and there appears to be a cat nibbling on your finger.~

Frowning, Ichigo looked down to find that, yes, there was a cat biting his finger.

ôSorry kitty. IÆm not food. IÆm people.ö

The cat favoured him with an arch look. He ignored it.

Looking around, he saw that the light that had awoken him was not from the sewers. In fact, he was apparently in some kind of canyon û a canyon with no sun overhead, despite a warm, bright environment.

ôWhat . . . the . . . hell?ö

Preening itself, the cat looked up at him slyly.

ôSo you noticed, eh? It was quite the journey, dragging your mummified body here.ö

Ichigo stared incredulously for a second, before grinning.

ôHeh. A talking cat. ThatÆs pretty fucking cool. Did you dwag me all the way here, wittle puddy-tat?ö

The cat bestowed him with a highly displeased glare û which had been IchigoÆs intention all along.

Then, tail blurring into a speed so fast he had trouble discerning its movement, the cat smacked him in the nose with its appendage. Ichigo reeled backwards, eyes tearing up as he grasped his face

ôOw. Sonubaditch! You bwoke by dose!ö

Pausing only to lick at a paw, the cat looked as if nothing had happened. Not a single strand of dark fur was out of place.

ôAs I was saying, Kurosaki, this location is one of the best-kept secrets in Seireitei. Remaining here while you heal is much less hazardous than skulking around in the sewers, hoping some Fourth Division waif wonÆt stumble upon your helpless form.ö

Rubbing his nose idly, Ichigo observed the cat with no small amount of suspicion.

ôOh really? And what on earth would motivate you, a Soul Society cat, to help one of the Twelve Demon Kings? WhatÆs your angle?ö

Stretching languidly, the cat lay down on her stomach, resting her head on her forepaws.

ôAt the request of an old friend, I accompanied a group of young humans here to stop the execution of Kuchiki Rukia. I am the only member of the group who originally entered not to have been caught by the Gotei Thirteen. And you are the only person within Seireitei who can rival the Thirteen Captains. I donÆt think you need me to draw a diagram, do you?ö

IchigoÆs frown slowly relaxed into a smirk.

ôAh. You canÆt take them on your own, hm? OK, kitty-cat. IÆll help you out û I came here to settle up with Rukia, and IÆll be damned if I let those white cloaked assholes get in the way.ö

The cat couldnÆt smirk, he knew . . . but she had a twinkle in her eyes that was more than adequate.

ôExcellent. We have a day left until the newest date for RukiaÆs execution. Until that time, you ought to make yourself useful.ö

Padding over to his side, the cat butted her head against his hand.

ôScratch behind my ears, will you?ö

Shrugging, Ichigo did as he was asked. Not without grumbling about it, though.

ôIf you were a dog, youÆd be a bitch. WhatÆs your name anyway, talking cat?ö

Pleaning her head into his fingers, the cat grinned in pleasure at his ministrations.

ôNya~, Yoruichi.ö

ôWell Yoruichi, I guess youÆve got yourself an ally of convenience.ö

The catÆs rumbling purr was the only noise for some time afterwards.

-

Straightening his haori, Ichigo concentrated carefully on the spiritual presences above his head.

ôAlmost showtime, kitty-cat.ö

Looking up at him with the haughty demeanor that only a cat could possibly portray, his strange benefactor studied him intently.

ôAre you sure youÆre ready? This is your last chance to save the girl. DonÆt rush headlong into it.ö

ôIÆm not rushing into anything. IÆve planned my entrance, IÆve got my strategy planned out, and-ö

Cocking his head to the side, Ichigo broke off his sentence with a slow grin. Yoruichi made a feline expression of disdainful curiosity.

ôAnd what?ö

Shaking his head, Ichigo allowed his amusement to show.

ôAnd . . . IÆm not the only one out to stop RukiaÆs execution.ö

Double-checking Zangetsu more out of habit than necessity, the red Shingami began to walk towards the exit to the training ground.

He had two debts to pay off, this day û one to Rukia, and one for Chad. If anyone got in his way û Kuchiki Byakuya, Zaraki Kenpachi, even the legendary Yamamoto Shigekuni Genryuusai. . . heÆd kill them.

That was his resolution.

-

He was halfway up the mountain path that lead to the Soukyoku when he felt RenjiÆs spiritual pressure explode into Bankai. Turning around quickly enough to make his brain rattle, Ichigo whistled to himself.

ôSon of a bitch! He was that close to Captain level? No wonder I had to put some effort into beating him.ö

Who was his opponent, though? RenjiÆs power was pulsating wildly, making the sealed power that he was pressing against harder to identify.

Concentrating, Ichigo narrowed his focus onto the fight taking place mere moments away from the executionerÆs block.

æWho are you? Come on, show me who you are . . . Come on . . . Æ

The spiritual energy shattered into a thousand fragments, doubling in power and pushing against RenjiÆs spirit pressure. And with that development, Ichigo knew exactly whom Renji was facing off against. His own Captain.

ôFucker! I knew it!ö

He needed Byakuya to be at the Soukyoku in order for his plan to go smoothly. But he had also been counting on the approaching RenjiÆs help to get Rukia away from the execution ground. And judging from the way RenjiÆs spiritual pressure was rapidly waning, that was not going to be a possibility.

Resuming his trek up towards the Soukyoku, Ichigo began to work around the latest development.

æI might just have to reveal all of my cards and wipe out the Captains all at once.Æ

He could do so only if he took Yamamoto by surprise. The other Captains were nowhere near as dangerous as that one man, and their effectiveness would be hampered if he killed the Commander right in front of them. Pulling out every dirty trick he knew, he might just take Yamamoto in a one-on-one battle.

But if it was him against Yamamoto and a gaggle of Captains? For all of his power, Ichigo knew he would be put down like a dog.

No, that was a last-ditch plan, only to be used if he had nothing better. He didnÆt particularly want to cripple Seireitei and give Hollows an easy time of things in the human world, either, which made that plan doubly unpleasant.

Coming to the top of the pathway, he entered the small copse of trees that decorated the hill, just before the execution grounds. Veering off to the side, the Devil King moved away from the pathway and deeper into the trees.

æIÆll hide here until Byakuya passes by, then IÆll get the proceedings started.Æ

Controlling his spiritual pressure and forcing it to fade slowly, he reached out to the spiritual particles around him and spread his awareness, building a picture in his mind of the number of Shinigami in the area, and the positions of each. Then, building from that foundation, he spread his mind outwards, taking information from every particle of reishi in the area.

æOK, there.Æs . . . one, two, three Captains at the Senzaikyuu, a handful of Vice-Captains. ThatÆs acceptable . . .Æ

He felt it - Kuchiki Byakuya was walking up the hill with a measured gait, bringing things closer and closer to the moment of truth with every step.

Releasing the Kouzennoki, Ichigo leaned against a nearby tree and began to wait.

He was almost there. He had but one more battle, and then he could pay off his debts in one fell swoop. And then, home beckoned. His warm, soft bed. YuzuÆs cooking.

æI can almost taste her onigiri. Ohh . . . IÆm gonna trounce these fuckers and go home.Æ

A twig snapped, drawing him back to the here and now. Keeping his spiritual pressure controlled and even, he made no sudden movements û Byakuya was walking right past him, and alerting the Captain to his presence would be a really stupid move, at this point: when he was so close to having his targets in one place, like fish in a barrel.

Soon enough, the noble Kuchiki passed Ichigo by, unaware of the enemy waiting in the wings. Giving the Captain a few minutes to pass through the boundary of the forest, the teenager then returned to the well-trodden path and traced it through the gloomy copse.

Enjoying the anticipation of the moment, Ichigo walked at a measured pace. This would be worth savouring. As he came to the edge of the treeline, finally gazing upon the enormous form of the Soukyoku, Kurosaki Ichigo unleashed the full force of his spiritual pressure on the unwitting Captains and Vice-Captains assembled there.

-

The world exploded into a maelstrom of terror. Kuchiki Rukia, fastened to the execution frame and awaiting the purification of the Soukyoku, observed as the assembled Captains turned as one to view the incoming threat. The Vice-Captains who were present, however began to waver and wilt in the oppressive power.

Ignoring the fact that the immense spiritual pressure was having practically no effect on her, despite her weakened tolerance for it, Rukia squinted, trying to take in the details of the ryoka.

æItÆs that man with the red haori again! Wh-who is he?Æ

All she could see was black and crimson, and even that was made almost impossible by the way the air around him wavered and twisted in response to his enormous power. He walked into view from the shaded pathway, calm and collected despite the fact that he was in the presence of four different captains û one of whom was the Supreme Commander of the Gotei Thirteen.

æEither heÆs supremely confident in his own abilities, or heÆs an utter fool.Æ

His power suggested the former, and his actions the latter. Rukia couldnÆt quite tell which would be the better option.

-

The four Shinigami Captains observed, too, the man who was approaching them.

Yamamoto, inscrutable as always, ran a hand down his long white beard and pondered to himself, sharing his counsel with none of his subordinates.

Unohana, preferring to heal rather than to fight, watched with no particular interest. Her own thoughts were consumed by the nagging sensation that she was missing something about the autopsy she had performed on Aizen SousukeÆs corpse.

Soifon, Captain of the Second Division and leader of the Onmitsukido, also regarded the young warrior with no small amount of ire û to walk so brazenly into the sacred courts was to invite death, but to do so with such arrogance, such unmitigated gall . . . she was tempted to kill him personally.

Last of all, Kuchiki Byakuya considered the boy in light of the Kuchiki famiy records on the Twelve Demon Kings. Sparse as they were, they had been edifying. To think that this wretch, his powers borrowed from a foolish slip of a girl, could stand before him as an equal from the darkness . . . it was obscene. And he would end the obscenity with Senbonzakura, as was his duty.

Ichigo, of course, knew nothing of this. He merely moved inexorably forward, Zangetsu pressed up against his spine, thrumming with power. If he had divined their thoughts, he would have cared not one whit. The Captains were an irrelevancy, a mere obstacle. HeÆd carve his way through them if it proved necessary.

As he stepped within hailing distance of the assembled Shinigami, Ichigo couldnÆt help but compare his uniform to theirs. The basic shihakusho was the same, denoting his origin as a Shinigami. But the little details, such as his dark tabi and red sandals, made him subtly different. Most obvious of all, the blood-red haori that clung to his shoulders made it plain that he was not of their ranks.

ôWhat news do you bring from the Dark Court, young King?ö

Smirking, Ichigo rested Zangetsu lightly on his shoulder and watched the Shinigami all turn to stare at Yamamoto.

ôGreetings, Commander-General. I bring the words of The Twelve Kings to you pure souls.ö

Inclining his head at the traditional exchange, the ancient Shinigami spoke once more:

ôThe pure souls send their greetings out to the darkness.ö

The Demon King allowed his spiritual pressure to drop, sheathing the proverbial naked blade.

ôIt has been a very long time since Seireitei and the Dark Court were last in contact, young warrior. I wonder . . . for what reason have you come to the Court of Pure Souls?ö

IchigoÆs eyes flickered over to Rukia, before returning to Yamamoto.

ôI have an old debt to pay off to Kuchiki Rukia. Saving her life seems an appropriate way of discharging my duty.ö

The elder Shinigami nodded sagely.

ôHmm . . . I see. Unfortunately, unlike the Demon Kings, we Shinigami are bound by the laws given to us by our leaders in the Chamber of Forty-Six. And Kuchiki-kun has broken those laws . . . Kurosaki Ichigo.ö

IchigoÆs amused veneer vanished as though it had never existed.

ôLaws exist to serve us. We donÆt exist to serve the law. Nor should we hide behind it, Commander-General.ö

Two of the CaptainsÆ reiatsuÆs spiked with killing intent, and Ichigo flared his in return, filtered through his rage for an added intensity. This time, only Yamamoto remained unruffled by the spiritual pressure being brought to bear.

ôThose who enforce the law cannot be above it, Kurosaki. For that reason alone, Kuchiki Rukia will be purified by the Soukyoku.ö

The Commander-General opened his eyes, the weight of his ancient spirit coming to rest on Ichigo for a single instant.

ôNow, we will rectify her mistake . . . by stripping you of the power she bestowed upon you.ö

The wizened Commander waved his hand, his silent signal spurring Byakuya and Soifon into action. Both Captains stepped into Shunpo.

The female, lithe and small, reached Ichigo first. Striking out with a knife-hand, she was already twisting her hips for a follow-up kick. Deflecting her initial strike with his wrist, Ichigo countered with a palm-strike to her torso, driving the breath right out of her. His power combined with her position to drive her backwards, tumbling head over feet.

Byakuya blurred in behind him, Senbonzakura already seeking IchigoÆs vitals. Lifting Zangetsu from his shoulder, Ichigo angled the blade down across his spine. The zanpakuto clashed, ZangetsuÆs width giving Ichigo the advantage in defense.

Spinning with the inertia of the strike, Ichigo brought Zangetsu over his shoulder and drove the bandaged hilt into ByakuyaÆs jaw. The nobleÆs head snapped backwards, as his body was lifted into the air, hanging there for a second while SeireiteiÆs gravity warred for dominance with IchigoÆs overwhelming strength.

A flare of reiatsu behind him kept Ichigo from capitalizing on the elder KuchikiÆs vulnerability. Priming his hand with spirit power, he turned to face the incoming Captain and released a wave of blue fire from his palm.

ôPale Fire Crash!ö

She crossed her arms in front of her face, left with no option but to weather the Demon ArtÆs power. Ichigo stepped in towards her, accelerating himself into a roundhouse that smashed into the female Shinigami like a wrecking ball. She flew backwards, bouncing off of the ground twice before she could redirect her momentum into a more graceful landing.

Reorienting himself, he spread his arms and guffawed loudly.

ôIs this your strength, Seireitei? Are these your legendary Captains, whose very mention strikes fear into the blackened hearts of Hueco Mondo?ö

Soifon and Byakuya stood, both glaring at him with venomous expressions.

ôThis is nothing! What have you been doing, ensconced in your ivory walls? Your strength has waxed and waned, while mine has been honed on a path of endless battle.ö

As if to answer the impudent challenge . . . the Soukyoku finally roused itself.

-
 

trevelyan1983

Well-Known Member
#3
-

æOh my. What a large bird.Æ

It was the first thought that came to mind. Most likely just the shock of realizing that an enormous flaming zanpakuto was about to completely and utterly annihilate her.

On reflection, she still preferred rabbits. Especially Chappy.

A sizeable part of Kuchiki RukiaÆs mind was quite embarrassed at her reaction to finally seeing the method of her execution.

æDamn it, is a little composure too much to ask? Comport yourself with a little dignity, woman!Æ

Yes. Quite right. Rabbits were entirely irrelevant.

æIs it hot in here, or is it just me?Æ

The Soukyoku stared at her û Rukia had the uncomfortable sensation that she was being sized up as a snack.

æOh-ho, no, no, no! IÆm quite unsuitable as a snack food, milord Kikou! Far too little meat on these bones, donÆt you agree?Æ

The huge, unsealed form of the Soukyoku reared its head back and called out, before its head slashed forward with a speed unbecoming of such size.

Eyes barely registering the sight through tears that evaporated almost as quickly as they fell, Rukia gave a gentle smile and surrendered herself to death.

æIchigo . . . I hope this last wish from a guilty soul reaches you. Be well, wherever you are.Æ

She awaited her final end, even as her executioner closed in. Although it seemed to take some time for anything to happen . . .

ôOi. YouÆre thinking something morbid, arenÆt you?ö

Turning slowly, Rukia looked up to see who was addressing her. KikouÆs burning presence kept her from making out anything but the vaguest impressions of red and black.

ôNot at all. And you would be . . . who, precisely?ö

ôSomeone who wonÆt let you die yet, Kuchiki Rukia.ö

As she gathered her thoughts, Rukia noted that this strange benefactor was holding the Soukyoku at bay with his zanpakuto.

ôExcuse me, but . . . I think heÆd like to finish up, now.ö

A huge storm of spirit power surged around her, shaking the foundations of her execution stand. It took her a moment to realize that it belonged to the man who was attempting (rather inconsiderately, in her opinion) to save her life. And as she realized that, she was shocked by the familiarity of the power that was saturating her.

ôHeh. No fucking chance, sweetness.ö

A blinding flash of spiritual power stole her sight for a moment. When it returned, Kikou was hovering some distance away, watching them almost warily. A long mark was carved into its abdomen, dark and smoking with the power of the attack. From beneath them, the assembled officers shared her shock.

ôWh-what did you do? Kikou is . . . itÆs wounded!ö

ôThat? That was Getsuga Tenshou. I wanted to give the big bastard a warning shot. Next time, IÆll put enough power into it to drop a fucking Vasto Lorde.ö

Now that her sight was unimpeded by waves of burning reiatsu, Rukia finally saw the form of her benefactor. Clad in black and red . . . was Kurosaki Ichigo. Unable to believe her eyes, the young woman stared for a long moment before hesitantly whispering:

ôI . . . Ichigo!?ö

Smiling down at her, zanpakuto on his shoulder as always, he certainly looked the part.

ôYeah. ItÆs me, Rukia. Nice to see ya.ö

No other words passed between them û there was neither the time nor the opportunity. The immense phoenix swooped in, finally aware that it had been wounded û and very, very unhappy about that fact.

Staring it right in the eyes, Ichigo frowned.

ôLook at you û five seconds without any attention and you get pissed off. No wonder they seal you up when they donÆt want you around, you moody little bitch.ö

Holding his left hand out, Ichigo began to gather spirit power there, incanting a Demon Art as he did so.

ôSprinkled on the bones of the beast! Sharp tower, red crystal, steel ring. Move and become the wind, stop and become the calm. The sound of warring spea-ö

Man and Bird both stopped û one in disbelief, the other bound against its will.

Enormous bands of cloth wrapped around the neck of the great executioner. What happened next, neither Ichigo or Rukia saw particularly clearly. What they did see, though, was the immense, towering form at the center of Kikou, the Soukyoku spear itself . . . snap cleanly in two.

There was a moment of shocked silence as Rukia and Ichigo both digested that occurrence. Then, irritated, the Demon King spoke up.

ôSonuvabitch. You couldnÆt have waited for me to finish my sentence?.ö

Looking down , Rukia saw Captains Ukitake and Kyouraku standing together beside a large slab of some kind. Then Ichigo stabbed his zanpakuto into the execution stand, and the whole world seemed to shake in response.

æWh-what on earth? We donÆt have earthquakes in Seireitei!Æ

Again, shock dulled her wits and it took her a moment to realize that she was falling, caught in gravityÆs embrace once again.

æOh, this is really going to hurt.Æ

Something grabbed her around the waist and yanked her backwards. To be quite honest, she was growing irritated by the numerous indignities visited on her person. Most of them by Kurosaki Ichigo, it seemed.

-

Reeling Rukia in like a fish on the line, Ichigo reached his unoccupied hand out and grabbed onto the back of RukiaÆs kimono. Setting her down beside him, he then started to rifle through the insides of his uniform. Finally laying hands on what he was looking for, Ichigo turned slightly to face Rukia fully.

Only to turn around to a smack in the mouth.

ôOw! The hell!?ö

ôYou barbarian! How dare you haul me in like some kind of foodstuff!ö

ôYou should be grateful I caught you at all, you fucking shrew!ö

Grumbling, Ichigo massaged his jaw, pushing something towards Rukia as he did so.

ôOi, take this. ItÆs something you lent me, a while back.ö

It was a sword. Not just any sword, though û a very specific sword, one that Rukia had never thought to see again. Eyes wide, IchigoÆs crass behaviour forgotten, the condemned Shinigami took the blade in hand as thought it were the most delicate treasure. Perhaps to her, it was.

ôThatÆs . . . Shirayuki . . . ö

ôYeah. I got into a bit of a crisis, had to find my own Shinigami powers. Then once I had Zangetsu, there was no need for me to keep using your zanpakuto.ö

The blade slowly crumbled into a scatter of snowflakes, whirling around RukiaÆs hands and up her arms to melt into her body. She closed her eyes and savoured the feeling of Sode no Shirayuki being with her again.

Rukia looked up at him over the last few flakes of snow, tears brimming in her eyes.

ôThank-you so much, Ichigo.ö

He scratched the back of his head, looking away nervously.

æThis heartfelt thanks shit isnÆt my scene.Æ

Sparing IchigoÆs blushes, a certain Shinigami chose that moment to make his grand entrance.

ôWhoof!ö

ôUgggh!ö

ôUwaah!ö

ôHuff. Huff. Onmitsukidou pussies.ö

Raising an eyebrow, Ichigo scoffed.

æSomeone breathing that hard shouldnÆt be calling anyone else a pussy.Æ

Rukia recognized the guy, though.

ôRenji! YouÆre alive!? Oh, IÆm so glad!ö

The red-haired Vice-Captain looked up, nodding his head in a way that was probably supposed to look cool and aloof. Ichigo decided that he needed to make the little Shinigami useful. And given that Renji was standing on the other side of the execution grounds, right next to the entrance . . .

ôOi! Renji! Special delivery!ö

Rukia glanced at him.

ôSpecial what?ö

Rather than answer, Ichigo lifted her by the back of her kimono, pulled his arm back and sent her flying to Renji with a massive heave of his upper body.

ôOh Shiiiiiiiii-ö

*Thump*.

Giving them a minute to stop tumbling backwards, Ichigo cupped his hands against his mouth and shouted to the fugitives:

ôRun, you dumb fucks! IÆll hold off the Captains, you get the hell out of here!ö

Not needing to be told twice, Renji jumped to his feet and started to sprint down the hill, away from Soukyoku; Rukia cradled protectively against his chest all the while.

Taking a second to congratulate himself on a job well done, Kurosaki Ichigo smiled.

ôPart one; success. Now I can get down to the fun part û kicking the shit out of the Gotei Thirteen.ö

A familiar pressure smashed against his senses, offering a wordless challenge.

Looking down from the Soukyoku, Ichigo saw Byakuya waiting for him, blade unsheathed. In the middle distance, he also noticed several Vice-Captains were starting to pursue Renji.

æIÆll be with you in a second, Kuchiki Byakuya.Æ

Pushing himself off of the crossbar, he pressurized his step with reiryoku, making a simple movement into a powerful flash step. If his mental calculations were right, his height and speed would allow him to cover the distance between the execution stand and the vice-captains with a single movement, gravity pulling him downwards even as his explosive speed propelled him forward.

If his maths was wrong, though, heÆd break something. Even more importantly, heÆd lose the psychological advantage heÆd painstakingly constructed to intimidate the Captains.

The ground approached, and Ichigo put aside his concerns in favour of cushioning his landing with a reishi platform. His impact cracked the ground, sending dust up into the air and blinding him. Extending his spiritual senses, he found the small band of Vice-Captains had stopped moving.

æOK, that could be æcos theyÆre blinded, theyÆre pissing their pants, or their waiting to try and ambush me. Or all of the above.Æ

That was fine with him. He didnÆt need vision to locate them, or to strike them down. Closing his eyes, Ichigo visualized the spirit threads of his soon-to-be-victims, followed them back to the source and fixed their locations in his mind.

Appearing among them was easily accomplished with Shunpo, and the first target û a rotund male - went down with a punch to the solar plexus, followed up with a ridge-hand that broke his jaw and sent him into darkness.

Pivoting to the right, Ichigo turned his recovery from the ridge-hand into a knife-hand, chopping downwards on the collarbone of the silver-haired vice-captain who was aiming to pierce him with a rapier-form zanpakuto. Then he casually lifted his knee into the older manÆs midriff. As the Shinigami bent in two, Ichigo struck the back of his neck with an elbow, taking him out of the fight.

Then only a red blur remained.

For the Fourth DivisionÆs Vice-Captain, realization that she was about to be struck came at the exact same moment as she was caught with a front kick that knocked her senseless, stealing all of the air from her lungs in a pained gasp.

Dusting his hands off, the substitute Shinigami straightened his haori and drew Zangetsu from his back.

ôI really hate having to break Vice-Captains like that. The power gap makes it feel like IÆm beating up old people or something.ö

Looking straight ahead, he addressed his most promising opponent.

ôWouldnÆt you agree, Kuchiki Byakuya?ö

The Shinigami Captain observed him stoically for a moment, before responding.

ôI tend not to enjoy soiling my hands with weaklings. Unfortunately, with a subordinate as inept as Renji, such happens to be the case all too often.ö

Smirking, Ichigo raised an eyebrow curiously.

ôReally? HeÆs already achieved Bankai. Maybe heÆs not ready to play with the big boys, but heÆs not exactly an average Vice-Captain.ö

Drawing Senbonzakura, Byakuya drew an end to the pleasantries as well.

ôEnough. This idle chatter is not what either of us came here for. Since you insist on interfering with RukiaÆs execution, I shall put an end to you myself. Then I will execute the criminal in accordance with the orders of the Central Chamber.ö

IchigoÆs expression became murderous on hearing that.

ôYouÆd cut down your own sister? ThatÆs repulsive. An elder brother should never say such a thing.ö

Byakuya merely continued to look bored.

ôI doubt you could understand my motivations, so I shall decline to explain them. In fact, IÆd rather we begin the fight proper, without such needless posturing.ö

Securing his grip on Zangetsu, Ichigo released all of his rage in a wave of spiritual pressure.

ôSounds good to me! Eat moon-fang, motherfucker!ö

The world exploded in blue and the conflict began.

Indeed, several conflagrations erupted within SeireiteiÆs walls û Onmitsukido against their former commander, Zaraki Kenpachi against the rest of the world, Yamamoto against his prized pupils and numerous fights below the Captain benchmark. Ichigo could, for a moment, feel them all.

And then he closed off his mind to them, concentrating on the defeat of Kuchiki Byakuya instead.

ôImpressive. Yes, the strength of your Zanpakuto is not inconsiderable. Still, you speak beyond your ability û no matter the cloth you wear, you are merely human. Borrowed power
from Rukia and some small experience of Hell could never compensate for that.ö

IchigoÆs frown flowed smoothly onto his face as he realized that Byakuya had dodged the Getsuga Tenshou.

ôYouÆd be right, if that was all I was depending on. But allow me to enlighten you.ö

Holding Zangetsu before him in his right hand, Ichigo placed his left on the flat of the blade.

ôThis zanpakuto is mine. This uniform is mine. This haori is mine. RukiaÆs power was returned to her alongside her sword: I havenÆt been able to make use of either for almost a century. What you face now is not Kurosaki Ichigo, temporary Shinigami. You face Kurosaki Ichigo, Demon King of the Dark Court.ö

Zangetsu thrust forward. Byakuya, half expecting this, drove it off course with Senbonzakura.

IchigoÆs figure blurred, taking advantage of the CaptainÆs distraction to close in behind him. Wasting no time, the red blur was already chambering a strike when he finished his flash step. Unleashing a vicious palm strike to the small of ByakuyaÆs back with one hand, Ichigo then gathered reiryoku into his still-outstretched arm.

Byakuya, driven forward by IchigoÆs strike, tried to spin around and deflect the building spirit power he felt. Ichigo didnÆt give him the time to do so, hand already smouldering with flame.

ôRed Fire Cannon!ö

ByakuyaÆs spiritual pressure spiked, but there was little he could do to protect himself. The crimson fire of the destruction art closed around him, detonating spectacularly. Ichigo protected his eyes by closing them for a second.

When he opened them, a cocoon of pink petals obscured his opponent.

ôOh? Your zanpakuto can be used for defense as well as attack, eh? ThatÆs pretty cool.ö

The pink encampment released its guard, revealing Byakuya once more.

ôIndeed. Senbonzakura is the most versatile of zanpakuto. Now that I have released her, however, you are done for.ö

Ichigo leapt forward, Zangetsu coming up into a bastardized high stance. Senbonzakura swept out to capture him with unbelievable swiftness. As he was caught up in the tide, a spray of blood stained the petals with crimson.

Then it all dispelled, a shimmering mirage that had fooled even ByakuyaÆs senses.

ôWhat!?ö

Zangetsu struck home, slashing across ByakuyaÆs torso just as Ichigo dropped out of ShunpoÆs raw speed. ByakuyaÆs response was to flash backwards, stemming the flow of blood with his uniform.

ôImpossible! IÆve not seen that kind of skill with Shunpo since Yoruichi.ö

Ichigo didnÆt respond to Byakuya at all. He merely pointed two fingers at him and began to focus power in his digits.

ôWhite Lightning.ö

A spear of lightning lanced out from IchigoÆs fingers, careening straight for Byakuya. The Kuchiki scion side-stepped it with Shunpo û only to step straight into an onrushing Getsuga Tensho. It was all that the Captain could do to push himself away from the thick wave of spirit energy.

Staring at the canyon that had been carved along the ground by the blast, Byakuya felt a stirring of something akin to awe at the sheer power he was witnessing.

ôIs that the moon-fang you spoke of? That huge wave of power?ö

Zangetsu once again on his shoulder, Ichigo ran a hand through his hair.

ôYeah. ItÆs called Getsuga Tensho. With it, thereÆs nothing that I canÆt cut. Hollow, Shinigami, Arrancar, Vizard. . . everything that stands before Zangetsu and I falls.ö

As he spoke, they both stared, spiritual pressure rising to a crescendo around them. Ichigo scowled, speaking again:

ôLetÆs cut to the chase, Kuchiki. Use your full power. Unleash your Bankai and try to defeat me. IÆll do the same. Whoever wins decides RukiaÆs fate û life or death.ö

Brushing off his haori, Byakuya was clearly considering the option.

ôHmph. I underestimated you, Kurosaki Ichigo. To think that a human like you could possibly require me to let loose SenbonzakuraÆs full power. Very well. I shall show you the final scene of this tragedy û provided you can perform Bankai, of course.ö

ôYou think IÆm bluffing, eh? Well, that suits me. IÆm a big fan of raising the stakes.ö

Ichigo held Zangetsu in front of him, bracing his swordarm with his left hand. Zangetsu responded in kind, hilt-wrap entwining around IchigoÆs arm. His spiritual power whirled around him, finally released from all restraint. Loose dirt and pebbles were kicked up in the backwash of his raw power, spiralling into a maelstrom that rose above the execution grounds.

ôBan! Kai!ö

Then, in a sudden reversal, all trace of the building power just disappeared. One final burst of spirit pressure destroyed the whirling tornado and scattered the dust to the four winds. The clearing dust revealed Ichigo, standing in the center of a large circle of compressed, compacted earth. His zanpakuto was now a long black blade, both longer and narrower than the normal form of Zangetsu. A black chain rang gently in the wind.

ôThis is my Bankai, Kuchiki Byakuya. Tensa Zangetsu. With it, IÆll destroy the chains that bind Rukia to her sentence. And IÆll cut down whoever dares to interfere.ö

The noble stared for a long moment at the sleek blade, assessing it.

ôYou take me for a fool, Kurosaki Ichigo. Such a blade could never be a zanpakutoÆs final form. However, I will show you a true Bankai, as I have promised. Perhaps, before death claims you, you will find the wisdom to recant your foolishness.ö

Closing his eyes, Byakuya reformed Senbonzakura into a blade. Then he dropped it û and it passed into the ground with the merest ripple to mark its passing.

ôBankai.ö

A row of blades erupted from the ground, ByakuyaÆs spirit power exploding to new heights as his sword released all of its latent potential.

ôScatter . . . Senbonzakura Kageyoshi.ö

As one, the giant blades dispersed into a shimmering cloud of cherry blossoms. Ichigo, half expecting something of the sort, was still utterly astounded by the sight.

ôFuck me. That many blades will sting like a bitch if I get careless.ö

HeÆd trust in his speed, and in ZangetsuÆs cutting ability. There was nothing that could stand up to his blade, when he decided to cut it. Nothing in Hell, nothing in Hueco Mundo and nothing in Seireitei. That fact would see him through everything Kuchiki Byakuya could throw at him.

ôYouÆve mastered your Bankai, then? I donÆt see any change in your uniform.ö

ByakuyaÆs assessment of him rose a notch at that û Ichigo was starting to infer meaning to the various temperatures of ByakuyaÆs icy mien. All told, it was cause for concern.

It was something of a loose secret among Captains that a Zanpakuto improperly dominated tended to leave little marks on its master, until such time as the Shinigami in question truly controlled the zanpakutoÆs power. A cloak or a mantle, a bracer or a sash, some other form of accoutrement. ByakuyaÆs own gift from Senbonzakura had been a pink scarf that was entirely too reminiscent of Kyouraku Shunsui for comfort.

The single biggest indication of a BankaiÆs development and the wielderÆs mastery of it. A lack of extra accessories was compelling evidence that you were facing a true master of the soul blade.

ôJust so. Senbonzakura has revealed her secrets to me, and I have made them my own.ö

Ichigo entered into a zanjutsu stance, something distantly related to Gedan û feet together, blade low, coiled and loose in all the right places.

ôIÆll warn you once, Kuchiki û donÆt underestimate my power. If you donÆt take my Bankai absolutely seriously, youÆll be dead before you realize your mistake.ö

ByakuyaÆs response was to close his Bankai in for the kill. As Senbonzakura obscured his target in her lethal embrace, a voice spoke up in his ear.

ôMaaan, if youÆd caught me with that, IÆd be dead . . . ya know?ö

Whirling, ByakuyaÆs eyes widened as he saw Kurosaki Ichigo standing directly behind him, sword aimed for the Kuchiki heirÆs heart.

ôSuch speed û impossible! To close the distance between us without my noticing would require speed beyond Shunpo.ö

This time, Byakuya saw the merest hint of a red flicker.

ôYeah. YouÆre preaching to the choir, genius.ö

æThat damnably arrogant tone from behind, once again. Intolerable!Æ

Senbonzakura responded to his mental command with alacrity, swirling around him in a wide circle, clearly directed to scour flesh from bone.

ôWow, thatÆs so pretty! What a vibrant display we have this year, eh Kuchiki-san?ö

Senbonzakura stopped, moving from lethal frenzy to dead calm in the span of one breath.

Kurosaki Ichigo now stood on the opposite side of the execution ground, his face a smirking insult to the pride of the Kuchiki clan head.

ôThis speed of yours . . . it is truly impressive. I have never seen the like. But you presume too much, Kurosaki Ichigo. You presume far too much, and it tries my patience.ö

Byakuya raised his hands, and a thousand deadly petals accelerated towards Ichigo, easily twice the speed they had been moving at before.

There was another red flash, and Ichigo was skyward bound. Byakuya gestured once more, causing another group of pink blades closed in from behind him, still moving at an increased pace.

ôTheyÆre even faster than before, Byakuya! Is using your hands to direct them really so much more efficient?ö

ôAllow me to show you, Kurosaki Ichigo.ö

Placing Tensa Zangetsu on his shoulder, Ichigo stood on a platform of spirit particles and waited for the other manÆs Bankai to reach him.

ôThereÆs something IÆve been meaning to show you, Byakuya. Now seems as good a time as any!ö

There was a single instant where nothing happened û a gust of wind ruffled IchigoÆs haori, even as Senbonzakura devoured the distance as she sought to devour him. Then the pink tide was upon him, surrounding him and attacking from every angle imaginable.

Tensa Zangetsu responded in kind, individual blocks and slashes moving out at such speed that the blade became a net of blurred black strands, stretching out to capture each and every blade of Senbonzakura Kageyoshi with inhuman speed. Then, impossibly slowly, each cherry blossom rained down onto the earth below, deflected perfectly,

-

Byakuya felt his own incredulity overtake his preferred stoic calm, gawking openly at the speed that had defeated SenbonzakuraÆs countless blades.

ôNot just his footwork . . . his whole body can move at such speed û even his sword arm.ö

Even when he controlled it by hand, Senbonzakura Kageyoshi was not fast enough to catch up to this manÆs speed.

æVery well. I must trap him within another battleground, it seems. How extraordinary û to have my hand forced in such a manner. I never thought to see the day.Æ

The Demon King appeared again, moving from sky to earth in the blink of an eye.

ôNow youÆve seen it, Kuchiki Byakuya. The speed that no man can match, be he of the Twelve Demon Kings or the Thirteen Captains.ö

There was no boasting, no arrogance in IchigoÆs statement û merely fact. It was this, alongside his witnessing the impossible, that convinced Byakuya of the truth of the young manÆs claim.

ôI see it, Kurosaki Ichigo. I see it all too clearly û your speed is beyond Senbonzakura. This power . . . I must destroy it. I must wipe it from existence, as though it had never been. You step all over the pride of the Gotei Thirteen û and that, I cannot tolerate.ö

Senbonzakura rushed upwards, swarming upwards to dance in the sky.

ôI will now show you something only one other has witnessed. Pay close attention, Kurosaki Ichigo û this is SenbonzakuraÆs true form.ö

The air darkened as ByakuyaÆs spiritual presence filled the entire hilltop, encircling Ichigo in the focused power of a CaptainÆs Bankai. Slowly, inexorably, the cherry blossoms floating in the air rearranged themselves, compressing into floating blades of vibrant pink energy.

ôSenbonzakura Kageyoshi - Senkei. I long ago swore to show this scene only to the enemy I desired to slay with my own hands.ö

Ichigo tightened his grip on Tensa Zangetsu, pushing back ByakuyaÆs spirit pressure with a pressurized burst of his own energy. This fight, it seemed, would be on two fronts û blades and spirits clashing at the same time.

ôAs I said, the cherry blossoms are beautiful this year. I almost envy you û sheÆs elegant and deadly. But a hundred thousand blades wonÆt protect you from ZangetsuÆs power.ö

ôMeaningless talk, Kurosaki. Prove your words with your blade . . . if you can.ö

Byakuya held out an open hand, and one of the pink swords dropped into it immediately. Before his hand had closed completely around the blade, the Captain thrust himself into Shunpo. It was an excellent flash step, Ichigo couldnÆt deny û but the attack coming in simultaneously was what truly impressed the red-cloaked warrior.

Ichigo caught the horizontal slash on the base of ZangetsuÆs hilt, knocking it up and away from his shoulder while pivoting out of the zanpakutoÆs path.

Then, using his built-up momentum, he shifted his weight onto his back foot and sent his leading leg shin first into ByakuyaÆs floating ribs. Shifting his balance on the ball on his grounded foot, Ichigo re-chambered his extended leg and thrust his heel into ByakuyaÆs sternum.

The noble slid backwards, IchigoÆs leg speed and power driving him across the dusty ground at a ridiculous speed, even as pain blossomed in his torso.

ôNgh. That was no Hakuda style I know of, Kurosaki . . . what was that form?ö

ôYou wouldnÆt know about it û itÆs a human martial art.ö

Ichigo blurred, crimson cloth leaving a faint red haze in the air. Byakuya then moved into a flash step, strafing sideways. They reappeared, staring at each other across the battleground. Then, as one, they faded into high-speed motion.

Senbonzakura met Tensa Zangetsu, black clashing against pink in a cut that sent shockwaves of spirit pressure into the air, blasting out from the hill of Soukyoku and making Seireitei tremble.

Ichigo cut downwards, meeting ByakuyaÆs blade in a block that he couldnÆt push through. Stepping backwards, the Demon King moved into a spin, slicing towards the ShinigamiÆs open side. Byakuya waved his hand, and a pink blade thrust downwards from the menacing display, deflecting Zangetsu before it lanced into IchigoÆs foot.

ôUgh! Son of a bitch!ö

Byakuya lifted his left hand, aiming quite precisely for the socket of IchigoÆs left shoulder.

ôDestruction Art Four: Byakurai.ö

White lightning blasted out from the end of ByakuyaÆs extended finger, piercing IchigoÆs shoulder and travelling off into the distance.

ôGrrrrgh! Shit! That hurt, you fucking bastard.ö

Blood seeped down his arm, running out of his sleeve in rivulets and splashing onto the ground.

ôIt was supposed to, Kurosaki Ichigo.ö

The blade in IchigoÆs foot dissolved into petals, floating away on the wind.

Ichigo scowled, swinging Zangetsu up between him and his opponent. Byakuya moved backwards, dancing out of range of the blade. Ichigo, hand on ZangetsuÆs chain, swung the blade with his single mobile arm. Black reiryoku surged out of ZangetsuÆs tip.

The extra range from the spirit energy and the chain gave Ichigo just enough room to cut Byakuya again. Just a shallow gash, scored across the CaptainÆs torso, but enough to switch the momentum in IchigoÆs favour once again.

Moving his left hand with great difficulty, the red-clad warrior grimaced, even as he launched a Demon Art at Byakuya. A swift sphere of burning energy sped straight for the Shinigami target.

ôAbolishing Flames!ö

Byakuya didnÆt even twitch û three of SenbonzakuraÆs swords interposed themselves between him and the Hado, two blades crossed and one a spine behind them.

The abolishing flame smashed into the cherry-blossom swords, immolating them even as it burned itself out.

Ichigo smirked, standing with Zangetsu on his shoulder, injured arm hanging limply by his side. Byakuya ignored him, turning to face the onslaught of reiryoku that he felt closing in behind him. Slamming himself into a Flash Step, the Shinigami evaded the black Getsuga Tensho. Rather than carry on mindlessly, though, it altered course to follow him.

He set himself to parry it with the sword in his hand û which is when Ichigo appeared at ByakuyaÆs flank, moving with such speed that not even a blurry image marked his passage.

ôGetsuga Tensho!ö

Byakuya turned, wide-eyed, before dashing backwards in another desperate flash step. Again the Getsuga Tensho homed in on his position. Even worse, black chains wrapped around his legs and up his torso, trapping him between the onrushing energy waves.

ôDonÆt worry, Kuchiki! I wonÆt kill you! If you die, I wonÆt be able to make you beg RukiaÆs forgiveness!ö

A handful of pink blades descended on Ichigo, guided unerringly by ByakuyaÆs spiritual perception and IchigoÆs gloating voice.

ôUnfortunately, Kurosaki Ichigo, I have no such compunction in destroying you.ö

The twin moonfangs struck home, even as Ichigo was pierced by Senbonzakura.

A black wave exploded into being over the execution grounds, rushing outwards to become a black cloud over the court of pure souls.

When the tidal wave of spirit power had stilled, Kuchiki Byakuya and Kurosaki Ichigo stood within spitting distance of each other. Byakuya bore two deep gashes from the double Getsuga impact, blood spilling freely from cuts both major and minor.

His hairpiece shattered, falling in pieces to the ground.

ôYou have great power, Demon King. I must concede to the fact that your blade is a Bankai - though it follows none of the traditions or customs of such. Much like yourself.ö

Ichigo smirked, although his body was not in any shape for more energetic response. Senbonzakura had stabbed him through the arms and into the torso, puncturing a lung and rupturing his spleen, as well as generally injuring several other vital organs, and one or two arteries.

ôMy apologies, Kuchiki Byakuya. It seems I underestimated SenbonzakuraÆs killing power û IÆd planned on keeping one last secret from the Gotei Thirteen. I guess, now that IÆm about to die, I donÆt have that luxury.ö

Ichigo closed his eyes, breathing as deeply as his injured body would allow. Opening his eyes again, he gazed on Byakuya with amber eyes.

ôItÆs tasteless from a Shinigami point of view, I supposeà but I had to embrace certain powers in order to survive in Hell. The Twelve are a mixture of many powers û Adjuchas, Shingami, Vizard, Quincy, Arrancar û the source of our power is irrelevant, as long as it is sufficient.ö

Ichigo took a deep breath again, then a deeper one - and Byakuya finally understood what was taking place.

ôIt seems . . . you are absorbing the spiritual energy weÆve unleashed, are you not?ö

The younger man smiled, an unkind edge to his expression.

ôYeah. Exactly right û all the power weÆve been throwing about will be enough to heal up the mortal wounds.ö

Ichigo breathed in once more, white motes floating around his face. His eyes darkened again, sclera becoming closer and closer to black.

ôThis is stepping closer to the line than IÆd wanted to do inside Seireitei . . . but IÆd rather live as a monster than be dead as a secret-keeper.ö

One last inhalation, sucking up great swathes of spiritual power released by two Captain-class Shinigami, stemmed the bleeding from IchigoÆs innards.

ôI will not enquire as to the nature of this other power, Kurosaki Ichigo . . . however, if you are now going to live more than a handful of moments, we have a battle to decide.ö

Ichigo assumed another Zanjutsu stance. Both hands grasped his zanpakuto, holding it level with his shoulders. His body slid effortlessly into a sideways form, offering Byakuya only the left side of his body as a target.

ôNot a problem. IÆll finish this in one last strike û RukiaÆs life depends on it.ö

ôIndeed, one last strike is all either of us can sustain. So be it.ö

Senbonzakura began to rain down around Byakuya again, swords scattering into free blades once more. Forming a halo around their master, the blades lightened and became a pure shade of white.

ôSenbonzakura Kageyoshi Shuukei û Hakuteiken.ö

Ichigo closed his eyes, smiling softly.

ôYouÆve compressed all of the blades into one sword, hm? How interesting . . .ö

Zangetsu began to vibrate. Quickly, the sword began to glow, throwing off waves of black power. The blade of the sword was soon eclipsed by the black energy it was unleashing.

That same energy crawled up IchigoÆs arm, wrapping around the whole length of it and then curling up and around his shoulder. As he concentrated the power into his sword-arm, the black energy extended outwards from his shoulder like a dark wing. The released spirit power discharged in a dark flare, lancing upwards into the sky and obscuring the red-robed warrior for a handful of seconds.

As the darkness cleared, IchigoÆs transformed Bankai was revealed û his entire arm had become an enormous, swirling blade of darkness, making the whole world seem dim.

ôGetsuga Yaiba. It expands all of the power that was compressed to form my Bankai, creating a peerless blade.ö

Ichigo stared over the dark sword, eyes a clear brown once again.

ôWeÆre mirror images, Byakuya û letÆs see who cracks first!ö

They moved, reiatsu clashing, shaking the very foundations of the Seireitei. Before theyÆd even crossed blades, the ground was beginning to crack under the pressure.

Byakuya thrust forward, Hakuteiken poised to skewer Ichigo, the cutting power and speed of SenbonzakuraÆs Final Scene beyond anything heÆd displayed thus far.

Ichigo, eager to test himself against his polar opposite, also raced forward. He led with his left side, right side poised to drive forward with his final strike, also choosing a thrust as his finishing technique.

Black and White collided, blades speaking of intent to utterly defeat the enemy, one last strike all either warrior could dredge up from deep inside, all reserves spent. One single strike, one single thrust, honed and perfected by training, experience and determination û both blades bearing vows that would not, could not be abandoned.

Black and White clashed, a whirling vortex of impossible power, Bankai against Bankai, Captain against Demon King, Scion of SeireiteiÆs noble line against the unknown prodigy of the Dark Court.

And when Black and White came to rest, energy spent, blades aglow, they had the answer. Kuchiki blood ran freely, crimson hidden within folds of black.

ôI see. Even my Hakuteiken could not pierce your determination, Kurosaki Ichigo.ö

The Demon King was also bleeding, although his crimson haori would never reveal it.

ôI went to Hell in her place, once. Why would I surrender the life I saved then to SeireiteiÆs whim now?ö

Noble eyes narrowed in anger.

ôIt is not whim. It is the law û a law which she has broken.ö

Turning, Ichigo rounded on the Shinigami.

ôIs that why youÆd see her dead, rather than help her? You put your position as a Shinigami above your duty as an elder brother?ö

Facing the incensed Kurosaki Ichigo, Byakuya remained as cold and aloof as ever.

ôAs a Kuchiki and as a Captain, there is no choice in the matter û I must provide an example for others to follow. No matter the reason, those who break the law must be punished. In light of that, such things as personal feelings and familial bonds . . . are irrelevant.ö

Ichigo trembled, rage twisting his face.

ôYou mislead even yourself! DonÆt you get it? Laws are created to serve our needs û we donÆt exist for the sake of serving them!ö

Byakuya looked down at his hand, a scattering of SenbonzakuraÆs petals blowing around him.

ôRegardless . . . you have shattered my sword. Even were I to pursue Rukia, I could not enforce the execution.ö

Looking up again, the Shinigami noble observed the Demon King of the Dark Court dispassionately.

ôYou have won this battle, Kurosaki Ichigo - and with it, RukiaÆs life.ö

Then he was gone, only the hiss of Shunpo remaining to mark his passage. Momentarily, even that passed; leaving Kurosaki Ichigo alone with his thoughts.

Looking down at his hand, Ichigo gazed at Tensa Zangetsu.

ôWhat do you think, old man? Time to stop taking it easy on these Shinigami weaklings?ö

~I think you should take it easy on yourself, boy. ~

ôHa! Why break the habit of a lifetime?ö

~You may find your life shortened by your propensity to get yourself injured.~

ôPfft. Right. IÆm fucking immortal, Old Man.ö

~You say that after every life or death battle, young one.~

ôThen itÆll keep on getting said, until I donÆt make it out of a life or death battle. Does compressing my power cut off the circulation to your brain or something?ö

~My IQ drops to match the intelligence of the idiot using my powers, if thatÆs what you mean.~

Ichigo stared at his blade, unable to figure out quite how heÆd just been beaten in verbal combat by a sword.

ôSon of a bitch!ö

~The prosecution rests.~

ôAre we interrupting something?ö

ôNo, Chad. In fact, youÆve just saved my zanpakuto from getting the worst ass-kicking of his sorry life.ö

Ichigo turned to face Chad, and found he had an entourage. A redhead, a thin young man and a couple of shinigami escorts.

ôHuh. Nice crew, Chad. A couple of pluses, a no-name, no-seat Shingami and . . . oi, pinky. WerenÆt you with Kenpachi a couple days back?ö

The little girl with the neon pink hair nodded, leaping from her perch on Chad to take up space on IchigoÆs own form.

ôDamage the haori and you die.ö

ôOK, Ichi.ö

ôDonÆt shorten my name like that either, brat.ö

ôOK, Ichi.ö

ôDamn. This is just not my day.ö

It had taken a few moments for that last exchange to sink in. But now that it had, Maki-Maki was frothing at the mouth on behalf of his vice-captain.

ôWho do you think youÆre talking to, vagrant? Show the Vice-Captain some respect!ö

Ichigo raised an eyebrow, wondering why this aforementioned nameless, seatless weakling was suddenly brave enough to test his mettle against a Juunimaou. Yachiru, on the other hand, leapt across the intervening space and booted the moustached man in the face with both sandals. Then, landing on his face as his head met the ground, she jumped up to IchigoÆs shoulder again.

ôShut-up, Maki-maki! IchiÆs the best! HeÆs KennyÆs favourite fighter in, like, ever!ö

Ichigo, feeling strangely grateful, patted the girl on the head.

ôThanks, kid. Just for that, you can stay. As for the rest of you? LetÆs go and find Rukia. SoukyokuÆs been sealed, and I stopped Byakuya from going after her. ItÆs over.ö

-

TheyÆd made it almost to the bottom of the trail when all hell broke loose. A kidou that Ichigo had never bothered to learn announced to all present that a supposedly dead captain had actually betrayed Soul Society and killed the Central Chamber.

Ichigo plucked Yachiru off of his shoulder.

ôTake these guys to Kenpachi. Tell him, if anything happens to them, IÆll make him cry blood.ö

A rumble of displeasure came from ChadÆs chest.

ôIchigo!ö

Shaking his head, Ichigo passed the Vice-Captain off to his best friend.

ôNo arguments, Chad. None of you are ready to take on a Captain, yet. Gimme time, IÆll make it possible. But not now.ö

ôIÆll hold you to that, Ichigo.ö

Ichigo nodded, then disappeared, heading for the spiritual presences at the top of the execution grounds.

-

ôReally, Mister Abarai. Shikai is insufficient to defend yourself, let alone damage me.ö

Aizen ripped Zabimaru in half with the barest effort, ending RenjiÆs resistence.

ôIÆd prefer not to injure a former subordinate. Consider it sentimentality on my part. If you donÆt hand over Kuchiki immediately, however, IÆm afraid Gin will become most disagreeable.ö

Gin waved at Renji, sickening smile firmly in place û seemingly at odds with AizenÆs statement.

Renji knew better, however.

ôNo. I wonÆt hand her over to any of you treasonous fucks.ö

Aizen sighed, shaking his head sadly.

ôVery well, Renji û I shall divest you of your hands as well.ö

Before Aizen could make good his threat, Ichigo materialized on the edge of the hill, behind Renji.

ôSo, youÆre the traitors, huh? Interesting mixture. Pretty boy schoolmaster, creepy fox-face and blind black dude.ö

Aizen chuckled, amused by the appellations.

ôCrude, but not inaccurate. Kurosaki Ichigo, I presume?ö

ôYup. And youÆre dead.ö

Ichigo was there. Right in front of Aizen, Tensa Zangetsu already swinging in to slash the renegade in half. Suddenly, though, the air around Ichigo exploded in a whirling maelstrom of spiritual pressure.

ôAll things must die, Kurosaki. However, my time is not today.ö

Ichigo couldnÆt even move. That close to AizenÆs overwhelming power, it was like being sucked into a black hole. He couldnÆt even offer token resistence.

ôWounded by Byakuya at the Senzaikyuu, fighting head to head within his Bankai today, sustaining it while you sought us. YouÆve pushed yourself beyond any measure of sense.ö

Kyoka Suigetsu bit deep into IchigoÆs side, bisecting him in one swift, fluid cut.

ôWhereas I, on the other hand, am fresh and unspent, ready to unleash whatever power I deem necessary.ö

Aizen shook blood from his blade, holding it by his side once more.

ôHm. Difficult to cut. That resistance almost felt like iron skin. . . if so, then the rumours about the Twelve Demon Kings might have some merit.ö

Stepping around the fallen, bleeding boy, Aizen Sousuke went to claim his prize.

Renji pushed Rukia behind him, squaring up to his former Captain once again.

ôRenji, IÆve been very patient with you. Enough is enough. Stand aside, or I shall kill you.ö

ôFucking die, Aizen. Higa Zekko!ö

ZabimaruÆs broken segments suddenly leapt into the air, forming a sphere around Aizen. The captain merely chuckled softly, eyes hidden behind glinting glasses.

ôWell played, Renji.ö

The broken baboonÆs fang shot at him, kicking up dust and billowing smoke across the execution grounds.

There was a flash, a soft white fluttering of cloth behind Renji. And there Aizen stood, blade already slashed across RenjiÆs back.

ôBut not well enough, IÆm afraid.ö

Rukia shuffled backwards, desperately trying to get away from Aizen. He stepped forward, long strides eating up the distance between them faster than she could create it.

There was a pulse of spiritual energy behind them û Aizen turned, battle-honed instincts recognizing a building Hado.

Ichigo was lying on the ground, still bleeding û and bracing his right arm at the elbow with the palm of his left hand. Spiritual pressure surging, Ichigo intoned the name of his chosen destruction art.

ôThunder Cannon.ö

Already summoning his own power in response, Aizen began to incant his defence.

ôBinding Art Eighty-ô

A shaft of silver light skewered Ichigo right through the torso, cutting off his spell before it could finish its buildup.

AizenÆs own defence was made unnecessary. Pushing up his glasses, he nodded to his silent defender.

ôMy thanks, Gin. I was not expecting such an advanced Demon Art from a man who ought to be dead. Neglecting even the style and number of the spell . . . remarkable.ö

Retracting Shinso, the white-haired captain just grinned.

ôNo problem, CapÆn.ö

Turning back to his delayed victim, Aizen gave a small smile of his own.

ôMy apologies for the delay, Kuchiki. It seems I am a man in high demand, this day.ö

Faster than a man his size had any right, his arm shot out and gripped the white fabric of her yukata.

Lifting her all the way to eye-level, the Captain allowed his grin to widen û becoming something entirely unfriendly.

In the same way, his hand shifted into something green and wooden, even as he created a small copse of wooden spikes in the ground around himself and his captive.

ôUrahara Kisuke . . . what a remarkable mind. Not only did he create a method for planting objects within a soul, he even created a method to reverse the process. And now, the Hougyoku is finally mine. Absolute power is within my grasp. Truly exhilirating.ö

Rukia squeezed her eyes shut, hoping desperately to block out AizenÆs voice along with the sight of him.

She felt something pull her apart and reach deep within her, seeking about like a hunting dog. Then, abruptly, a weight on her soul vanished entirely. There was the sensation of falling, before her mind caught up with her body û and her backside connected with the execution ground.

She opened her eyes warily. Aizen stared down at her, astonished.

ôHow splendid. The container survives the process unharmed.ö

His right hand was, she noted, back to normal. And the execution ground showed no sign of having been invaded by killer bark.

Aizen turned, walking away from her. At the same time, he was placing something within the folds of his black robes.

ôUnfortunately, however, I have no need of an empty container. Gin û dispose of her.ö

Ichimaru looked almost surprised, for a second. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he flipped Shinsou casually in his hand and released the blade.

ôShoot to kill, Shinso.ö

It was then that two equally unlikely things happened. Firstly, the mortally wounded Kurosaki Ichigo propelled himself into a blur, bracing Tensa Zangetsu against his arm and hammering into Shinso. Simulaneously, something white blocked RukiaÆs view, the scent of blood and cherry blossoms stifling her.

Shinso cut a huge furrow in the ground, IchigoÆs red-clad body skidding across the plain.

ôAre you injured, Rukia?

Byakuya looked down on her, holding her securely against his chest.

ôB . . . brother?ö

Ichigo stood slowly, observed by four equally speechless captains. Gin was the first to speak up.

ôHey now! DonÆt go touchinÆ another manÆs zanpakuto without permission, yÆhear? ThatÆs just plain rude.ö

Ichigo, blood pooling at his feet, stared at the three traitorous captains like a viper about to strike.

ôByakuya. Take Rukia and get out of here.ö

Byakuya did no such thing.

ôUnfortunately, I cannot allow three traitors to meet their comeuppance at the hand of a Ryoka. Seireitei has been betrayed, and Seireitei must administer their punishment.ö

IchigoÆs head swivelled around, something disturbingly predatory in the motion. Baleful amber eyes stared at Byakuya, duly unimpressed by his refusal.

ôDonÆt blame me if you get caught in the crossfire. I fucking warned you.ö

All present shivered at the hateful resonance within the Demon KingÆs voice.

Then his spiritual power broke free of restraint and made the execution grounds tremble. The blood pooling at his feet evaporated into black smoke. And his free hand made a slow, inexorable journey to his forehead.

IchigoÆs preparation for killing three captains simultaneously was interrupted, however, by something blocking out the sun. He looked up, eyes fading back to brown.

ôWhat the fuck?ö

ôTOUSEN!ö

A huge blade smashed into the ground where the traitors were standing, forcing them all to flash step away to safety. The blind captain was looking vaguely in the direction of his former comrade.

ôKomamura . . .ö

Ichigo stopped his transformation, content to let the Gotei clean up their own mess. Stepping back from the huge collateral damage about to take place, he flashed closer to Byakuya and RukiaÆs slightly more distant position.

The sight that greeted his return from the white world of pure speed was mind-boggling. Aizen had somehow crossed twenty metres, prepared a level ninety Destruction Art and successfully caught his opponent in the trap û all in the space of two seconds.

He felt a handful of other dense, powerful spirit signatures flash onto the battleground. The Commander-General and his two star pupils observed the scene, taking in their fallen comrade and the three renegade shinigami.

Said renegades took a moment to gloat, sharing significant looks with each other. And at that point, their plan was complicated considerably by the naked blades pressed against their throats.

Gin was held at blade-point by Matsumoto. TousenÆs own Vice-Captain was keeping the blind man in check, and Aizen had the distinct pleasure of having Shihouin Yoruichi and Soifon wrapped around him, keeping his blade sheathed and his jugular caressed by naked steel.

The mild-mannered captain actually had the audacity to laugh, amusement written all over his face.

ôWell, well. ThereÆs a face IÆve not seen in a very long time. How do you do, Lady Yoruichi?ö

She gave him a wicked smile.

ôAll the better for ruining your day, Sousuke.ö

His amusement only grew.

ôOh really? Besides finally laying hands on UraharaÆs hougyoku, this is undoubtedly the highlight of my day so far.ö

Unbeknownst to any of them, the sky began to crack.

ôBut do tell, my dear Shinigami û how do you think I had planned to escape from this place? Soukyoku is the most exposed area in all of Soul Society. There is no stealth, no secrecy here - it can be seen for miles. Only a fool would make his last stand at such a place.ö

Ichigo felt the world shudder, his inner hollow screaming out a warning. Understanding slowly dawning on him, he screamed his own caution.

ôFall back! Everyone, fall back! Let go of the traitors and get out of there!ö

They all turned at him, the expressions on their faces clearly wondering about his mental health. All, that was, bar Gin and Aizen. The formerÆs smile dropped a degree, and he cocked his head to the side. The latter, though, inclined his head, a teacher congratulating a particularly impressive pupil.

Then the sky shattered, revealing the hollow world that lay behind it û and the swarming presence of the most enormous of Hollows û the Menos Grande. Spotting their targets, the huge Hollows immediately began to take steps to save their new comrades.

Ichigo, recognising the spiritual patterns being woven, screamed once again.

ôFucking move! TheyÆre creating Negacion! Get back!ö

This time, every single one of the Shinigami restraining the criminals pushed away from them as if burned. They all flickered into flash steps, none particularly enamoured of visiting Hueco Mundo with the renegades as tour guides.

Some of the Vice-Captains didnÆt quite grasp what they were dealing with û Ichigo saw one of them start to move towards the golden light.

ôRunning away? Get back down here, you-ô

The Commander-General spoke in a voice that was like tectonic plates rubbing together.

ôStop! That golden light is Negacion û an impenetrable barrier that Menos use to save their comrades. There is no means by which we can lay hands on Aizen now û that light signalled the end of this particular battle.ö

The Captain of the Thirteenth Squad stepped forward, shading his eyes from the bright golden light.

ôAizen, what are you playing at?ö

ôIÆm ascending, of course.ö

ôBy sinking to such depths?ö

ôHow naive of you, Ukitake. Of course no-one begins the journey in the highest place û all beings must climb. Hollows, Shinigami, even Gods.ö

Aizen swept a hand through his hair, breaking his glasses with the other.

ôThe unbearable vacancy in the heavens will soon be filled û by me.ö

The traitorous Death GodÆs journey into Hueco Mundo continued unabated û in fact, the Menos Grand and various Gillian actually looked eager to welcome him.

ôFare thee well, Shinigami û and you too, young Demon King. I look forward to crossing swords with you again, some day.ö

And then he was gone, the tear in the sky vanishing along with him, as if it had never been.

-

Taking in the sight of his friends and his former opponents in the Gotei Thirteen once again, Ichigo breathed a sigh of relief.

æHow we managed to pull that off with no-one dying, IÆm still not sure. But we did it.Æ

The sun was shining, a cool wind was blowing and bright green grass was rustling underfoot. It was the kind of day you write poems about.

*Rustle, rustle*

The short steps were Rukia, coming up beside him as he looked elsewhere. There was a sense of restrained energy about her, like calm seas.

Ichigo turned around to find Rukia and Ukitake walking towards him, both giving him a friendly wave.

æHuh. Her spiritual pressure is totally at ease in the flow and ebb of his. Guy must be one hell of a Captain to set his peopleÆs spirits at peace like that.Æ

HeÆd commanded a squad of ruffians in the Dark Court, but geting them in line had been more a case of beating them until morale improved û not kindness and sympathy.

ôGood afternoon, Miss Kuchiki, Captain Ukitake.ö

RukiaÆs eyes narrowed at his tone, as if she sensed his politeness to her was insincere.

æClever girl.Æ

Ukitake just smiled a little wider, enjoying the by-play.

ôKurosaki. Before you go, there was one thing I wanted to discuss with you.ö

He pulled a badge out of his robes with a flourish, offering it to Ichigo.

ôWhen a substitute Shinigami is judged to be a benefit to Soul Society, they are given this badge as a symbol of the authority we place in them.ö

Ichigo took the badge from Ukitake and immediately felt static shock prickle against his fingers.

æDid this thing just attune itself to my reiatsu?Æ

Ukitake offered a slightly embarrassed grin.
ôWell, youÆre not actually a Substitute Shinigami, and the badge isnÆt all itÆs cracked up to be û itÆs a tool to remove your spiritual body from a physical container and a limiter for your spiritual power.ö

Ichigo nodded û that was pretty useful.

UkitakeÆs smile dropped from his face.

ôThe last substitute shinigami we had, unfortunately became unstable û he murdered a fellow Shinigami and formed a group of spiritually powered humans to do his bidding.ö

Giving a nervous glance to his friends, Ichigo sucked in a nervous gulp of air.

ôUh . . . this is starting to sound like the prelude to an ambush to take us out before we can turn evil.ö

The senior captain laughed at him.

ôHah, no, not exactly. Shunsui and I got a good idea of how much power youÆve been keeping hidden when we were returning to the execution grounds to face Aizen. WeÆre quite aware of how easily you could have killed everyone you fought while you were in Seireitei. You chose not to do so û thatÆs not something Kujo Ginjo could have done, in the same position. Being on par with a Third Seat gave him delusions of grandeur.ö

Ichigo nodded û that kind of thing happened all the time in hell. Some serial killer ate a couple of hollows and thought they were hot shit, started causing trouble and gathering followers even dumber than they were. That was why the Twelve Demon Kings had been necessary in the first place û peace in Hell through overwhelming power and absolute fear.

ôWant me to lure him out with the Substitute badge and kill him for you?ö

Ukitake tugged slightly on a strand of hair.

ôIÆd rather not order you to kill him, but heÆs so out of touch with reality, I doubt heÆd surrender. To be frank, weÆre concerned that heÆll try something stupid when he hears of AizenÆs defection û or when weÆre busy mobilizing for the eventual war.ö

Ichigo nodded his head.

ôNo problem. I canÆt have former shingami traitors running around my town playing god anyway, whether itÆs a Captain or an unseated substitute.ö

Considering the matter closed, Ichigo put the badge inside his uniform and gave a short bow to Ukitake.

ôThanks for your hospitality. IÆll be in Karakura town if you need me for anything.ö

Ukitake gave him a polite bow in return, smiling sheepishly.

ôThank-you for your help.ö

Turning slightly Ichigo and Rukia shared a moment of quiet understanding.

æThanks for giving me strength.Æ

æThanks for saving me.Æ

æThanks for coming back.Æ

Their souls had touched, once, in the middle of a ruined Karakura street. They had sacrificed and gained in equal measure. Words couldnÆt convey that, but it was communicated anyway.

Then the moment was over.

Ichigo turned and walked to the official, designated spirit gate for his return home. Turning to his friends, he gave them all a relaxed grin.

ôIf I donÆt get to eat YuzuÆs cooking within the next hour, I am going to go on a rampage that ends with me beating the shit out of Mothra and Godzilla. LetÆs go home.ö

His companions nodded, laughing at him.

YoruichiÆs scratchy feline voice rumbled from somewhere down by his feet.

ôLike you could take Godzilla, kid. YouÆre a hundred years too early.ö

Ichigo wiggled a finger in his ear, as if cleaning it out.

ôWhat was that, puddy-tat? I couldnÆt hear you over the sound of YuzuÆs teriyaki beef calling my name.ö

A set of claws glinted ominously in the light of the precipice world, but Ichigo relished the short-lived victory.

Home was right around the corner û nothing could spoil his good mood.
 

Python453

Well-Known Member
#4
<s>An interesting start. I wouldn't mind knowing how Ichigo learnt all the stuff he learnt in Hell. The red haori is interesting as well- does Hell have it's own version of the Gotei 13 that Ichigo is apart of?</s>

All in all, a good read, if a bit long. <s>I'd like to see more.</s>

EDIT: Please note that I had only read Chapter 1 before posting this review and most questions have since been answered.
 

Coelacanth

Well-Known Member
#6
This was well done. I liked how you wrote around explaining exactly everything that happened in hell.

Being able to write less and convey more is something I would like to see.
 

bmsattler

Well-Known Member
#7
I enjoyed reading it. You managed to keep Ichigo from feeling like he was too overpowered and kept the story interesting.
 

raedric

Well-Known Member
#8
bmsattler said:
I enjoyed reading it. You managed to keep Ichigo from feeling like he was too overpowered and kept the story interesting.
Managed to keep him from looking overpowered? How so? I thought he was overpowered throughout the whole thing, without much actual setback. It didn't keep me from reading it, but still.
 

wingthesword

Well-Known Member
#9
I actually liked the new Tensa Zangetsu so I was dissapointed to not see him show up.

But good job.
 

Steel

Well-Known Member
#10
raedric said:
bmsattler said:
I enjoyed reading it.? You managed to keep Ichigo from feeling like he was too overpowered and kept the story interesting.
Managed to keep him from looking overpowered? How so? I thought he was overpowered throughout the whole thing, without much actual setback. It didn't keep me from reading it, but still.
You mean the part where he only marginally came out better than canon, with 100 years more experience?
 

zeebee1

Well-Known Member
#11
A hundred years in Hell and we get a rehash of season 3?

*Respect has benn downgraded.*
 

trevelyan1983

Well-Known Member
#12
Is this what butthurt feels like?

Anyway, yeah, it ends up being Soul Society arc. Sorry if that disappoints, but I was going for Ridiculous Awesomeness over Originality. Aizen's got Soul Society so completely under his thumb at this point in the storyline that I'm not sure divergence is even possible - or plausible.

As for you, Steel - good call. Dunno if you caught the implications that Ichigo was pulling a Kenpachi or not, but the build I've got in my head can go a lot further.
 

~NGD OMEGA~

Well-Known Member
#13
It's entirely possible, you just have to get off the canon rails and try making your own tracks. You can have drastically different events ultimately lead up to the same end result. It's not remotely as hard as you make it sound, you have to be creative about it is all. And dude has a point, in this scenario it makes zero sense to bother with Renji, much less Ikkaku. At all. As a matter of fact, doing so without the setup that made the fight mater even remotely makes the entire thing feel like you're just going through the motions because that's how it happened in canon. A rehash of canon with none of the necessary buildup that made the events matter just makes for an inferior result, and most of the time just ends up being a waste of time and effort.

Kenpachi makes more sense, dude was essentially waiting there for the strong guy to come so them ultimately fighting flies (Renji who also was waiting there mind would not have been waiting had he had no idea who Ichigo was). Byakuya also makes sense, but ultimately loses the third time's the charm quality though.

You want epic, why not shake things up a bit. Instead of giving us the same exact order of Ikkaku->Renji->Kenpachi->Byakuya, how about use different people? Different match ups? Shake the rosters up a bit, plan ahead so you can build it up properly at least. You can do a lot as long as you loosen the shackles you're ultimately strangling yourself with. You have at least 7 viable captain levels to use with varying degrees of possibilities for a completely different sequence of events or possible battle scenarios. Why not go for one of them.

Ichigo's a massive powerhouse and clearly an interesting specimen, why not have a runin with Mayuri. Sure, that takes Ishida's fight, but you can just as easily have him take on someone else (Quincy puppet strings spread through an area for example make an intriguing potential counter to something that takes away all your senses, ala Tousen's bankai).

Ichigo's wrecking shit, and there's someone investigating the events that are going on, the rascally Ryouka being prime targets, why not have a showdown with ol' Captain Shota.

Bitches be breaking rules, Yamamoto no like this. While Yamamoto would kick his ass seven ways to Sunday, Yamamoto's Dog Komamura would have a few things to say about this. All sorts of fun along the lines of the Kenpachi fight, only with a bit more to bring to the table, could be had facing that guy.

Ichigo's being a miscreant and drawing attention to the wrong places. Aizen Xanatos speed chesses his plans in order to draw Ichigo away from where he doesn't want shit to be seen, using his ol' favorite treacherous agent Gin.

Just throwing a few potential ideas out there. Hell, in one potential idea I had a while back, I did pretty much this, take the canon events and characters, goddamn equalize them so that the entire home team is formidable, beefed up goddamn Kon, brought down some Kanonji epic and set them loose on SS. Kon Vs. Mayuri, Chad vs. Kenpachi, Ishida vs. Gin, Ichigo vs. First Use Bankai Renji, the works. All that purely to add interesting alterations and potentially fun fighting mechanics to the table. Granted in a few cases I had to significantly beef up a few with some lesser battles along the way, and had a few losses to inter-space it, particularly Kanonji vs. Kyoraku but the idea was to have fun and let lose. Give yourself some room to breathe and you'll be surprised what you'll be allowed to do within the actual structure of cannon.

Hell, another idea I had was a small rewrite of a simple scene to spin off into big changes into the arrancar arc. Remember that bit where Rukia's all like "We cannot follow that order." when ordered by Yamamoto to ignore Orihime and go back. Dude sends Byakuya and Kenpachi to take them all in. Well let's "We cannot follow that order." the hell up in there. Ichigo's right there, he could take at least one of the two, Renji's there too and would easily be able to hold his own against Kenpachi if he kept his distance. And hell if Matsumoto's attached enough to Orihime to be annoying about it, Hitsugaya might just have to be drawn into that shit, after a considerable amount of convincing/whining. They got that shit. Arrancar arc starts off beefed the hell up with the Hitsugaya rescue squad now, and Hitsugaya starts off miserable because Matsumoto roped him into all kinds of bullshit this time, and now he's probably lost his job and she isn't appropriately sorry about it. It's win win.

Cut off the rails, theorize potential new ground you might want to explore, find out if there's ways to make it happen without drastically screwing things up, iron out any potential kinks that arise, then roll with it. Not that hard if you leave yourself open to new potential scenarios. If ultimately what you end up with is not going to be all that different from the original product, there's little point in rehashing it.
 

Coelacanth

Well-Known Member
#15
knight504 said:
Write, Omega. Make the fandom a better place.
Those who snark can't always write as well. :p

Myself included.
 

zeebee1

Well-Known Member
#16
One major problem is that despite however long Ichigo was away he is still basically the same person with basically the same power. I know he probably lacked trainers, but surviving in dangerous territory is one of the main way he improves. Even if he was only away for a couple of years he should be up their with the strongest of the captains. And as far as melee goes Aizen was not one of the strongest.

If Ichigo was gone for even one year I would expect him to plow right through Aizen unless he was put under an illusion.

The problem seems to be that you want to open the way to a sequel that will likely never come. And even then sometimes the story needs to end believably more than it needs to be continued.
 

~NGD OMEGA~

Well-Known Member
#17
Eh, I'd argue that for various reasons. I wouldn't technically say adverse conditions are a main source of his growth, he tends to have a lot of them based on various factors, no real 'main theme' tends to be present other than rushing it in brief spurts and shortcuts, both of which are shonen staples.

You get your fights he 'wins' because he gets resolve at the critical moment, your fights he 'wins' because his ideals are stronger than those of the other person, and your fights he 'wins' because he simply turned into a monster at the right moment and let his far better half out to play. And other times you get your fights that he couldn't have 'won' if he hadn't been pushed to the point of death and kept swinging, or because he trained to get some new form or whatever.

Hell, most of the time, particularly the best of them, it tends to be a giant mix of those. Byakuya for instance. Though the absolute best is when he wins because he does something amazing and dirt stupid yet simplistically brilliant, but that Ichigo went off somewhere a LONG time ago.

I mean when you think of his biggest jumps in power, three come to mind, Bankai, the transformation against Pat, and Dangai. Two of those were specialized training with special conditions required directly from someone who knew their shit. The new hollow form was possibly along the lines you're talking, but honestly that form was so out of the blue that I've seen very convincing arguments that Orihime's Rejection Barrier while undergoing a mental breakdown was the cause.

Granted there are points that are definitely more along those lines, hell the Kenpachi fight succeeds mainly because it was about exactly that (And Kenpachi is a badass), but I wouldn't expect him to have reached anywhere near the heights he did were Urahara, Yoruichi, and Isshin (and possibly Orihime) not involved in significant points along the way. Hell even him reaching those same heights I still call bullshit on.
 

Python453

Well-Known Member
#18
zeebee1 said:
One major problem is that despite however long Ichigo was away he is still basically the same person with basically the same power. I know he probably lacked trainers, but surviving in dangerous territory is one of the main way he improves. Even if he was only away for a couple of years he should be up their with the strongest of the captains. And as far as melee goes Aizen was not one of the strongest.

If Ichigo was gone for even one year I would expect him to plow right through Aizen unless he was put under an illusion.

The problem seems to be that you want to open the way to a sequel that will likely never come. And even then sometimes the story needs to end believably more than it needs to be continued.
:huh:

I agree with most of your post, except the bolded part. Did you READ the Fake Karakura Town Arc where Aizen took down almost the entire Gotei 13 AND the Vizards without ever releasing Shikai?
 

~NGD OMEGA~

Well-Known Member
#19
He released it at least twice, three times if the Shinji bit counts, though that's debatable. Hell, the reason that arc was so asinine is that he released it at a point where it doesn't make sense for him to be able to release it, because apparently somehow the thoughts only the reader can see happened to be an illusion. Friggin gag me. :sweat2:
 

zeebee1

Well-Known Member
#20
He didn't need to release shikai. Once you see it once you are always under its effects. yet an a basic melee Isshin was winning. The only time he fought against a captain or former captain without his shikai and won was by transforming.

To summarize, his shikia has no time limit. He casually beat captains by trapping them in illusions. He lost to Isshin in melee.
 
#21
So far, apart from Ichigo going to hell and having a slightly easier time of it in the Seiretei, there hasn't been a significant divergence from canon. Despite it being a rehash, it's been really enjoyable. Getting inside the combatant's heads and plotting out the reasoning for each action, particularly in the sword fights, has given me a new sense of appreciation for the time-honored Ichigo/Byakuya matchup. I'm looking forward to seeing where you go with this.

Also, you managed to kill one of the arcs before it got off the ground. Yay for not having to deal with Ginjo.
 

Avider

Well-Known Member
#22
If I wanted to read canon, I'd go read canon.
 

zeebee1

Well-Known Member
#23
I just noticed that Kon wasn't surprised that Ichigo was back.
 

DhampyrX2

Well-Known Member
#24
Ichigo came off way too nice here. At the very least, two or three named Shinigami should have been killed or maimed irrevocably. I get that he's stronger than he's letting on and he probably left Byakuya alive to save Rukia-angst, but this is a guy that fought non-stop for over a century until he became someone called a king of Hell. He would not be spamming second chances or leading with his heart at that point. Hell, I don't even see how he could relate to his own family for more than a few days before needed to get away. A situation like that screams PTSD.

I just don't see this Ichigo, who has lived five times longer in Hell than he did in the living world, acting anything close to the Ichigo we all know.
 

Python453

Well-Known Member
#25
Is there going to be more? I'd really like to see where the Arrancar Arc is going to go at this point.
 
Top