XXXXXX

A gentle breeze stirred coarse sands beneath the feet of those who remained in Hueco Mundo. The portal that Yoruichi had taken Ichigo, Nel and Gabriel through had just closed, leaving a quiet, almost painfully awkward tension in its wake.

"Well that was…interesting," Azazel murmured, looking at the equally gobsmacked Michael, Sirzechs, Serafall, Isshin and Kisuke.

Rubbing his forehead, Michael cut an exasperated look at the Fallen Angel.

"You have always had a talent for understatement, Azazel."

"We need to share this to the appropriate channels," Sirzechs added, concern on his face. Seeing looks of alarm pass between many of the ones gathered, he continued.

"Just to Falbium and Ajuka. We need to find some way to quietly prepare for…whatever he could decide to unleash. I admit that I do trust in Amaterasu's benevolence, and her desire for peace, maybe she can stabilize him. Perhaps this could be a good thing."

"Perhaps," Serafall replied soberly, looking lost in her thoughts.

"It's not that bad of an idea, Michael," Azazel interjected. Raising a brow, he added, "You could probably do with letting that tight-ass Uriel and the ever stoic Raphael know about what's going on."

"Yes, I am aware," Michael begrudgingly admitted, looking uneasy.

"You all know what to say, and who to say it to. Isshin Kurosaki, Kisuke Urahara," Michael continued, looking to the silently watching Shinigami pair. "I am fully confident that you will be discrete, however, if you run into any issues with Soul Society, or any other faction for that matter, let us know. We will help in whatever way we can."

Tipping his hat, Kisuke replied, "Thank you, Michael-san. We will be fine, but the offer is appreciated. However, if you receive any information, I ask that you pass it on."

"Agreed."

With nothing else to say, Sirzechs, Serafall, and Michael all quickly disappeared in flashes of gold and red.

Sighing heavily, Azazel turned to the Shinigami men.

"Whew, what a day! Is it usually like this for you guys?"

"You'd be surprised," Isshin grunted, his arms crossed lightly over his chest.

"I don't know about you two, but I could use a drink. I know a couple of good places in Tokyo—should you want to come—pretty exclusive, but you'll have…fun, and they have a nice selection of cures for what the lovely Yoruichi did to you, Kisuke."

"Fun? Cures? You mean a titty-bar?," Isshin asked, smirking at the indecently grinning Fallen Angel leader.

"Oh my," Kisuke said slyly, tapping his fan to his chin. "Cures don't sound too horrible."

"Hmm, well, the babysitter for the girls is good for at least another couple of days…"

"And I have an apartment in the city, should you need to sleep it off before returning," the Fallen added, doing his best to sweeten the deal. Drinking and getting crazy was fun, but when he could get others involved in it, the outings became far more entertaining.

Not to mention, these Shinigami seemed quite interesting to be around.

"Damn it, I could use a drink—or six," Isshin grunted. "We just need to pop by Karakura to pick up my body and a gigai for you, Kisuke."

"A gigai?"

"Ah, my Fallen friend," Kisuke sighed dramatically, patting Azazel's arm. "When we sober up tomorrow, you and I have much to talk about."

Dragging his cane across the sky, a dark tear appeared. "Let's go, gentlemen. We have so little time, yet so many things to forget tonight."

"You know, I think that I am going to really like you Shinigami," Azazel added, quietly laughing to himself as he stepped into the dark void.

XXXXXX

Kyoto.

A sprawling metropolis in which ancient met new, the capital of olden times. The city was a marvel, its weathered edifices telling a tale that many who looked upon it were simply far too young to understand.

Kyoto.

A city that wore a different face for nearly all who entered.

To some, it was a mystical town, a site where one could glimpse the Imperial facade. A city of learning, where history was within the very air one breathed, Kyoto was all but a pilgrimage for those born within Japan's shores.

To others, those sensitive to the world of the supernatural, the ancient city was quite a different place.

Yokai capital of Japan, and the tempestuous oscillator of the strongest leyline in the land. The ancient metropolis was a crowning jewel of the gods, one of the last sites still clinging to its purity from the pollution of modernity, of most that was other.

Yasaka, reigning Kyuubi of the city, leader of the Yokai faction and the appointed regulator of the enormous energies that converged so recklessly within her domain, breathed deeply in the warmth of the setting sun from her perch atop her balcony.

Today was the day, and the actual hour drew nigh for the event that she had been so nervously anticipating ever since the words left her Lady's lips.

Ichigo Kurosaki was already within the borders of Kyoto, and he would likely enter her court within the hour. This meant that, for the first time in history, Samael would be among the lords and guardians of the Shinto pantheon.

And here I was, thinking that just having the little sisters of two Maou's within my country would be stressful enough.

The supernatural world could be quite the vindictive bitch, sometimes.

Shaking her head before her thoughts could inspire any significant scorn from Lady Amaterasu, Yasaka turned her thoughts back to the phone call she had recently made to one of her oldest friends…

"Hello?"

"Yoruichi, it's me.."

"Me? Funny enough, I don't know anyone by that name."

Already with the catty games? Yasaka rolled her eyes. It's every time with her.

"Your ears can pick up footsteps nearly a mile away, Yoruichi Shihoin, recognizing a voice should be nothing for you. That is, unless old age has dulled your senses. Feline senility, who would have thought?"

"My my, testy, aren't we? I see that even measuring in dog years hasn't allowed you to age as gracefully as my youthful self."

She did not just say that! Centuries had passed, yet their nonsense persevered. Momentarily forgetting her purpose for calling, Yasaka snarked back.

"I see your propensity for petty bitchiness has only grown."

"Apropos, coming from a Kyuubi."

Caught short by the snide comment, Yasaka smiled slightly on her end. It was pleasant to occasionally escape the bonds of propriety, and her conversation partner at the moment was perfect for that.

However, a glance at the scorched floor of her throne room was enough to bring her attention back to the purpose of her call.

"Yoruichi, I—I need your help…"

Picking up on Yasaka's sudden drop in tone, Yoruichi became serious.

"What's going on? Are you and Kunou ok?"

"We are fine, for the moment. Honestly, I do not know where to begin. I suppose the first thing I should ask is, what can you tell me about Ichigo Kurosaki?"

"…"

"Yoruichi?"

"Do you know where he is?"

"Yoruichi, this is important. I need to know—from your own lips—"

"Do you know where he is?! Don't play games with me, Yasaka. Where is Ichigo?!"

The sudden turn in attitude from the shinigami was startling.

"Yoruichi! Calm yourself. I do not know exactly where he is, but I know where he is going to be soon. Clearly you are far closer to him than I expected. He is the reason I am calling you now."

"Do you know if he's safe?" The words were a whisper, a threat in their own right.

Just who is this boy to her?

"Here is all that I know to tell you…"

It had taken much less time than she had expected, yet Yasaka had relayed all she knew of recent events that had occurred to her friend of many, many years.

The moment she had finished, a several minute long tirade of curses, insults and shouts about Kisuke Urahara, Isshin Kurosaki, the Gotei Thirteen, and the biblical faction leaders spewed out of Yoruichi's mouth, raging loudly until she finally fell silent.

Knowing that she would need a moment to gather her thoughts, Yasaka remained silent. With a loud sigh, Yoruichi finally continued.

"That's not a name that I ever expected to hear from your lips. Ichigo is a treasured pupil of mine, almost like family. I helped him storm Soul Society, protect Karakura, and go traipsing off to Hueco Mundo. The boy is everything the word 'Hero' is supposed to mean. Trust me, no matter what the hell this 'Dragon Eater/Venom of God' asshole does, Ichigo Kurosaki is someone you'd be lucky to have in your domain. That boy was born to protect."

"I see that I was right in reaching out to you, Yoruichi. This has been an incredible day. Lady Amaterasu's wrath is still evident here in my throne room, and—though I am still quite unnerved about these developments—I am relieved at what you've told me."

"Yeah, well I am about to reach out to Kisuke and Isshin in a way that's going to make it hard to breathe for a few days."

That was no idle threat, coming from Yoruichi. However, the idea had potential…

Yasaka paused, recognizing opportunity.

"I see. I think I have a way to help with that. Did I mention that they are currently en route to Hueco Mundo? Our Mother informed me that she felt them entering a garganta just recently."

"You don't say…"

"Indeed. It would seem that both Kisuke and Isshin are with him, not to mention a cadre of biblical leaders."

"Hmm, I think I may just look into this."

"Yoruichi?"

"Hm?" she responded, clearly distracted.

"He needs to come to Kyoto. Lady Amaterasu would like nothing more than to see her Child, to show him the love of his Family. Her grief over his state is true, and deep. Bring him to Kyoto…to her."

"He'll come. He'll be grumpy as hell, but he'll come. Trust me."

"Yoruichi?"

"Hm?"

"I trust you to understand that I have to ask this. Is Kunou safe around this…this…"

"Young man, Yasaka. Ichigo is a young man, and though there will be times that you'll want to wring his neck in frustration, I've got a feeling that once he meets your little girl, there will be no one in any realm who would keep her safer."

…..

Looking out once more to the grand city that was her home, Yasaka felt much more confident, having spoken with someone so close to Ichigo.

Yoruichi's words had given her such relief.

Though, as she thought about it, relief seemed further and further from actuality. Perhaps it was simply confidence in the notion that neither Samael, nor Ichigo, would try to destroy her city with Yoruichi there to calm him?

Sighing at the thought, she glanced once more at the scorched file that her Lady had given her. Though certainly a handsome young man, the image of Ichigo that had been clipped to the file showed a boy who had clearly been forced to grow beyond his years.

Impossibly, it seemed, Kisuke Urahara had been able to obtain an image from Ichigo's fight with Sosuke Aizen.

Countless battles had helped define the tight lines around Ichigo's eyes, and Yasaka's own experiences allowed her to suss out what she would be willing to bet was a near-permanent scowl. Tracing her fingertip lightly over the image, she frowned, herself.

Poor boy. Mother is right, regardless of the fact that this whole venture scares me to death, he certainly deserves better than what he's received.

She could do this. She could welcome a scorned hero into her court, to allow him at least a moment of peace from the nightmare that had become his life. Her home could be his refuge, his sanctuary from what was to come.

Yes, I will just be welcoming the bearer of the Venom of God. The Dragon Eater. The very evil of the biblical God into my very presence. Nothing to worry about at all—

Pinching the bridge of her nose, she huffed a sharp breath.

This is what it had been coming down to ever since Amaterasu had uttered her judgment. A struggle between pity for a betrayed young man, and fear at the possibility of what could be unleashed within her domain—within her own home!

While fully confident in her own power, it was the city she was looking upon, the city where she raised her precious daughter, that she feared for.

"You will protect him until he can protect himself."

Such an ominous phrase her Lady had used, yet inescapable.

Protect? Just how am I supposed to look after the Venom of God?

Looking to the setting sun on the horizon once more, she frowned, her patience all but evaporated. Where were they? This was not something she wanted to stretch out, preferring to be done with as soon as possible.

Yasaka wanted to see this young man in person, to judge with her own eyes the one she was to protect. Knowing that her Lady was to arrive soon, as well, Yasaka once more retrieved her mobile phone from her robes.

Pressing the key to dial, she took a calming breath, trying simply to ease her tension.

Hearing the ringing through her line, she paused as her ears picked up another noise. The sound was muffled, clearly some kind of music playing, yet she had no music in her throne room, certainly nothing that—energetic.

With a loud creak, one large door swung slowly open, allowing the music to flow freely and clearly from the foyer, ringing out in the cavernous room. Recognizing the loud guitar music of the not so distant past—as well as seeing a head of violet hair and dark-skinned hand holding a silver device entering her presence—Yasaka's eyes rolled, her lips quirked slightly upward, and her fingers returned to the bridge of her nose as she heard a soulful voice sing two annoyingly appropriate words.

"…Foxy Lady…"

XXXXXX

Ichigo rolled his eyes as he watched the heavy, dark wooden door close behind Yoruichi.

It seemed that his mentors would never completely grow up. Whether it was vintage rock ringtones, head butting him in front of the leaders of religious factions, or busting his chops about how he was in front of pretty women, maturity seemed to fade from the adults in his life with each passing year.

Looking down to the purplish glow beneath the simple t-shirt he had been allowed to change into-after heavy insistence-he felt a pang of envy.

A rather sharp pang.

Given what he'd experienced, what he'd gained—if it could even be called a gain— all he was allowed to do was travel the realms and be forced to try and gain the approval of beings he'd never known existed.

It was all a rather big pain in the ass, if he was honest with himself. What else could he do at the moment? Going home wasn't an option, not with Soul Society likely on high alert.

Tracing the cold chains encircling his neck, Ichigo shook his head. Such thoughts had been plaguing him ever since he'd awoken with his new—accessories?

At the very least, he had inadvertently discovered that the chains were somewhat sentient, responding to his unspoken desires when he sought to change their form.

It had been nothing more than a simple shape change, but it was something, he supposed.

Still…

Jealousy, anger, restlessness and more had been fluttering across his consciousness, like wisps of smoke trailing across his mind. Whispers of feelings, of memories now inexorably intertwined with his, never fully out of focus.

Sucking his teeth, Ichigo pushed away the train of thought. He had dealt with anger, guilt, and severe emotion for plenty of his life, what were a few more feelings to add to the list?

They'd be kept in check like all the others.

Surprisingly, he felt confident in that knowledge. For the moment. Samael had been strangely dormant since he had released their powers in the desert of Hueco Mundo, seeming to have withdrawn within himself. His presence was noticeable, but calm.

Fine by me, it's nice to have some damn peace and quiet for once.

Thinking of the quiet, he looked over to where Nel was sleeping soundly on a folded up jacket that they had purchased just for her. Her face was tranquil, a small smile giving him hope that she was having pleasant dreams.

At least she's happy.

Sensing movement beside him, Ichigo knew that the peace he had been experiencing lately could not be attributed solely to Samael finally shutting up. Turning to face the blonde seraph, a gentle warmth bloomed in his chest as their gazes met.

"Everything okay, Ichigo?" Gabriel asked, an innocent look adorning her face.

His scowl softened as he exhaled, his clothes rustling gently as he leaned against a luxuriously decorated plinth. In fact, luxurious felt a weak description of the grandeur that was the Yokai royal palace.

Exotic woods, tranquil ponds, and brilliant colors told only the beginnings of the splendor of Yasaka's dwelling. The palace had a supernatural feel, a distinguished presence that was most certainly not of human origin.

I really hope I don't break anything.

Placing his hands in his pockets, he returned his gaze to hers.

"Everything's fine."

"Fine?" she questioned, her innocent expression slowly clouding into a plea for trust.

Ichigo knew he was being distant, but it simply wasn't her problem. She had been so wonderful to him, protecting his life, coming to his defense, explaining what the hell was going on when he got lost…keeping the horrors that now haunted his soul at bay.

Seeing her gentle, trusting expression, it was clear that she held no judgment, only concern. Gabriel had expressed nothing more than a desire to befriend him, to help.

It still worried him, opening to her and allowing her past the emotional barriers he had erected around himself. He knew that her presence in his life was only temporary, that her soothing presence and calming touch would soon leave. Given the warmth in his chest every time he met her eyes, and the peace that came just from being near her, the potential for her absence was a thought too unbearable to dwell on for the moment.

Still, you can try not being a total asshole to her.

"I'm just ready to get this over with. It's getting pretty annoying, being shuffled from place to place, letting a bunch of 'leaders' feel like they can pass their own judgments on me."

Seeing understanding light her eyes, the kind smile that crossed her lips seemed to be tugging at the corners of his own.

"I can understand your frustration. Samael and Michael were never known to get along, as you well know, and I can only imagine the way it's affecting you. Still, you have been doing very well, given what's been expected of you."

"…Huh?"

It was all he could ask. Doing well? Well? How could being a living time-bomb be considered 'well'?

"I mean it, you have been doing very well under the circumstances."

"Angels aren't supposed to lie, you know. I may not have grown up with biblical teachings, but I think that's a pretty basic rule," he replied, a brow raised and the hints of a smirk on his lips.

Gabriel smiled, giggling prettily. Stepping forward, her white robes shuffling softly, she reached out and gently tapped the glowing orb in his chest.

"Now now, Ichigo, such modesty does not become you. I would expect a man who wore jeans, a t-shirt, a light jacket and boots to meet Amaterasu of all beings to be more sure of himself."

Looking down to his casual attire, Ichigo scoffed. He had been all too happy to change out of the robes Michael had lent him.

That's because I was tired of wearing a dress. Seriously, what's up with the Heavenly attire? Michael can call it a robe all he wants, it's a damn dress.

"I guess I'm not what you'd call formal, huh? Never been big on authority and all that, but I suppose she did demand nicer than the rest."

"You should not worry. While Amaterasu's temper may be legendary, so too is her love for her Children. Her love for her subjects is quite reminiscent of how God loved humans."

Ignoring the burn of indignation at the mention of the fallen deity, Ichigo raised a brow.

"You've met Amaterasu?"

"Oh yes. Part of my duties within Heaven is to act as liaison between factions. Michael has earned quite a bit of acclaim on the battlefield, so I take the lead in peacefully interacting with other pantheons for the majority of subjects. She is quite kind, and very humorous."

"That's good to know, actually."

Any information was good information, at this stage. Gods and goddesses, angels and devils, even yokai, there was so much going on in the spiritual world! He felt somewhat foolish for being as blind to it as he had been, but how could he have known?

There were no 'Life Outside of Mortality' manuals that he knew of.

Knowing that Yoruichi would soon be out to bring him into the court of the Yokai ruler, Ichigo shifted himself off of the plinth, turning quickly as the wood groaned loudly and balancing the exotic vase that had tipped perilously.

Breathing deeply as he caught it, he stepped carefully away, regarding the vase as though a wild animal, hoping not to break anything that was likely a priceless treasure.

"Good catch!" Gabriel said with a smile from behind him.

Her smile dimmed slightly, however, at the tension in Ichigo's eyes when he turned back around. It was far too easy to read him.

Anger, guilt, and not a little bit of frustration. How many have tortured themselves over what has happened before? Oh Ichigo, you must know that you are still you, that you still hold purpose in this world. You are not here for what you've done, you have been called because of who you are!

"Ichigo."

"Hm?"

"Ichigo."

Turning from his quagmire of thoughts, Ichigo looked to see Gabriel peering at him closely. Stepping even closer to him, she gently placed her hands on his cheeks.

"Ichigo, do not fear the future, nor should you fret over the past. Though you may not be exactly the same, can you honestly tell me that you have lost who you truly are? Have you, Ichigo Kurosaki, lost the young man who defied gods and protected his home?"

Her eyes were unflinching, a piercing, brilliant sapphire gaze. Seeing a glimpse of his own face reflected back at him, Ichigo sighed, breaking the gaze.

"No, I guess not."

Collecting his thoughts, Ichigo was stunned at the manner in which this Angel had come to know him so fast. He could see it in her eyes, hear it in her voice, she believed in him. The trust inherent in the notion was staggering.

And so damn comforting.

With all that had happened, with all that he'd had to tolerate, he could only be grateful for what he could claim he'd gained, if only for a brief moment. Taking her hands from his face, he held them gently within his own.

"Thanks."

Her answering smile was yet again blinding. Gripping his hands even tighter, she answered, "Do not thank me. All I ask is that you see what I see, that you know what I so clearly know."

Releasing his hands, Gabriel's drifted to her sides, her angelic power rising as she released her wings. Spreading them behind her in a beautiful arrangement of pristine white, she reached to her right, her fingers disappearing within the graceful plumage.

With a small tug, her hand reappeared, a darkened feather held tenderly in her fingertips.

Ichigo's mouth dropped, astonishment written clearly on his features. During the trek to Hueco Mundo, Azazel and Gabriel had given him plenty of insight as to what distinguished a Fallen Angel from an Angel, as well as what staining of their feathers meant.

This can't be happening.

"Gabriel… I…"

Placing a fingertip softly on his lips, Gabriel quietly spoke.

"Ichigo Kurosaki, I believe in who you are, who you've always been, and who you will always be. I believe it enough to fight for it, to protect it from any threat from the outside, or within."

Taking her free hand from his mouth, she grasped his hand, turning the palm upward. With a sweet, caring smile, she placed the feather in his hand, curling his fingers carefully around the silky vane.

"I want you to have this. Let it remind you that you are never alone. Let it remind you that you are the master of your heart, and that heart still beats to protect those around you."

Once more brushing the skin of his cheek, Gabriel looked up with a shy grin that was quickly answered.

"And let it remind you to smile, as you are doing now. Happiness has not been taken from your grasp. It may have taken a different form, and may feel elusive, but I believe that there is happiness, even for the bearer of The Venom of God."

Ichigo's breath caught in his throat, the gravity of what now rested in his hand weighing on his mind. A seraph of Heaven, one of the four Great Seraphim—a term that now held significance— gave him a stained feather that had only become so by her actions on his behalf?!

"Gabriel, I don't know what to—"

"Ah ah ah ah!" she tutted, playfully tapping his nose. "None of that, now! You have plenty to worry about in your life, and I want this to bring you happiness. Know that you are special, Ichigo Kurosaki. Not only in and of yourself, but to me. I can't say exactly why, but you have made a great impression upon my own existence. I would be happy to continue showing you the life, the experience, of being an angel. I can teach you to fly, to wield light, to manage your cards!"

Caught in the spell of her enthusiasm, a smile eased his expression. So welcome were her words, her spirit, that Ichigo could barely make out enough words to form a sentence.

"I think I'd like that."

Reaching up, he held the quill of her lustrous feather to his chained neck. Focusing hard he watched her eyes widen in surprise, then soften into a smile as the links quietly morphed, shifting to securely grasp the darkened feather.

Huh, it worked.

The moment was shattered, however, as a long, loud groan of straining wood alerted them to Yoruichi's reappearance in the foyer.

"Alright Ichigo, time to meet—oh…"

Seeing Ichigo smiling softly at the happy seraph, her brows rose quickly at the newest addition to his chain.

Wow… Just… Wow.

Had she misjudged the angel? Sure, she hadn't thought horribly of her, but her hackles had risen when seeing such looks on the woman's face. Yoruichi would always feel protective of Ichigo, especially his heart.

Though it looks like this pretty little seraph was able to get to it.

A stained feather from a seraph, something Yoruichi had heard of many years before only in the realm of those fallen.

This woman risked falling… For Ichigo?

She would wait, and watch. Maybe this was a good thing? Seeing the softening of Ichigo's face, what else could she do?

Still, not really the best time for a first-time love connection.

"Anyway," she began, choosing to ignore what she was seeing for the moment. "You're going to meet Yasaka first, then company will join us soon after."

Turning to go back into the throne room, Yoruichi spared him one last glance, "Oh, and Ichigo?"

"Yeah?" he replied, a fading dusting of his cheeks evidence to his prior thoughts.

"Yasaka's not Yamamoto. She is an old friend of mine, and you are my prized student. Be polite, and don't make me look bad."

"Ah, give me a break. When have I ever been ru—" he began, only to be cut off by a narrowed glare.

"Geez, fine!" he grumbled, rolling his eyes, gently picking Nel up and walking beside Gabriel into the Yokai leader's throne room.

He knew that he wasn't the best at the whole 'manners' thing, but did she really think that now was the time he was going to start? He had absolutely no patience left, was stressed about all that had happened, and now he had to meet the goddess of his homeland?

Biting his cheek, Ichigo agreed with himself that he would try. He would really really try.

XXXXXX

Yoruichi was silently thanking the heavens as Ichigo perfectly greeted Yasaka. She had certainly touted him as her prized pupil, the product of her innovative and meticulous teaching, and he was delivering.

Standing with pride, she watched as her student made her smile. Once he had set Nel down on one of many beautiful benches lining the room, he had spoken politely, even bowing and showing at least a modicum of deference to the Kyuubi's authority!

It couldn't have gone any—

"There, Yoruichi, are you happy now? I was polite, respectful and all that other crap. So where is Amaterasu? Wasn't I dragged all over creation to have some meet and greet with her?"

Shit. I knew that blockhead was laying it on too thick! And of course, there is that smug look on that damn fox's face! Stupid damn blonde bi—

SMACK

"Hey! Damn it, Yoruichi, what in the hell was that for?!"

SMACK

"What did I tell you?! Literally two seconds before you stepped in here, what did I tell you? Just how hard is it to make a good impression, you hard-headed jackass?!"

SMACK SMACK

"What is wrong with you?!" she growled, frowning at her strangely sore hand and his lack of physical reaction.

"Well first, you're hitting me! Second…remember when I told you about falling into the Underworld?" Ichigo snapped, giving a meaningful look to Yoruichi.

"The river Styx…" she whispered, realization dawning on her face.

ZZZAP

"Ow! Damn it, you don't have to use kido!"

Musical laughter interrupted the spat, causing Ichigo to pause, looking to the source. Seated on her imposing throne, the Yokai woman who had been the epitome of royalty, one of the most poised, beautiful, graceful creatures he had ever met or imagined, was now doing her best to contain her mirth as his mentor continued hitting him.

Well that's different.

He couldn't recall ever seeing royalty or nobility smile, much less laugh. And it clearly pissed off the woman who was currently hitting him with a hand wrapped in sparking kido.

Hitting him rather hard.

"Okay okay, fine! Just quit hitting me, damn hellcat!"

Suddenly, all of Yasaka's attempts at containing her mirth and maintaining her dignified poise failed with a rather loud bark of laughter.

Looking to the ruler once more, who had now sunken into her throne and fallen into near hysterical laughter, Ichigo followed her gaze to the near-apoplectic-with-rage Yoruichi.

Uh oh…

Turning to Gabriel, who seemed quite entertained by the antics of the two women, Ichigo began to slowly back away from his mentor. Before he could move far, he found his ear painfully pinched in the viselike grip of said mentor's electrified fingertips.

"Ayayaya! That hurts, damn it!"

As he was processing the pain in his ear, a warm, enveloping aura began filling the room. The sensation was comforting, drawing his attention to the opening door of the throne room.

In quick succession, the orb in his chest thrummed excitedly, its energy churning throughout his form. His body felt warm, growing more so by the second. Even within the confines of his soul, he felt a dark stirring, a malevolent force rising to meet the new aura.

The aura that was expanding seemed to wrap around him, gently pressing against him from all sides. The warmth felt familiar, felt peaceful, felt right. Whatever it was, whoever it was, his soul recognized it—welcomed it.

Within the throne room, all paused as a melodious voice chuckled. Turning to the source, Ichigo froze when he witnessed a regal, unnaturally beautiful woman floating gracefully into the room. A kind, benevolent countenance adorning her features, her very presence overwhelmed the area.

"Ah, but such is the price for so thoroughly embarrassing your teacher, Ichigo Kurosaki."

Feeling the pressure on his ear immediately lessen, the same hand that had so roughly held him now gently guided him forward.

"Ichigo," Yoruichi said, her voice suddenly reverent. "I would like you to meet your homeland's goddess, our Mother, Amaterasu."

XXXXXX

This can't be real.

It was all Ichigo could think as he watched the one Yoruichi called Amaterasu glide into the throne room.

Fair. Beautiful. So many words flittered across his mind to describe the celestial goddess, with just as many discarded. There was no word for her, no term that could encapsulate what it was he was witnessing.

Hypnotically watching her approach, Ichigo's eyes began to burn slightly, moisture pooling as his body refused to blink.

Her smile was warm, intoxicating in the extreme. Her presence tugging at a part of his soul that welcomed her, welcomed her proximity. Within a moment that could have lasted a second, an hour, a lifetime—he'd never know—she was before him, peering into his eyes with her own golden orbs.

"My Son," she whispered, a blinding smile greeting him as her hand gently rose to stroke his cheek.

Ichigo instinctively leaned into the contact, the comforting touch sending a shudder through his frame, touching upon memories long locked away. Tongues of fire coursed through his veins, Amaterasu's love and warmth surging throughout his soul.

Within his chest, Hogyoku glistened and churned, seeming compelled to respond to the goddess of the land of its creation. No words came from the orb, simply a rush of emotion, a wave of content.

However, as rapidly as her touch was introduced, the darker aspect of his soul rose to greet her. Waves of anger, of hatred and jealousy devoured the warmth that had been so wonderfully close, leaving ashes of bitterness behind.

Lurching at the sensation, Ichigo steadied himself, grasping tightly to the chain that hung so heavily around his neck. Gasping slightly, he fought to clear his mind from the waves that felt so intimate to him.

"Oh, my Child," Amaterasu sighed ruefully, gently resting her hand atop his head.

Through strained eyes he slowly looked up, swallowing the harsh emotions that fought desperately for recognition. Resentment, frustration, and indignation roiled just beneath the surface, each doing their best to claw their way forward.

He was just so furious.

Why? He couldn't honestly say, but the rage would not fully subside. It was under control, now, but still lurking beneath the surface. Looking around the room, he angrily noticed the worried looks on the faces of those around him.

Seriously?

So he has a little trouble with Samael's emo-side and now everyone is back to thinking he's a time-bomb?

It was pretty crappy timing. Still, I'm sick of being looked at like this. Fuck it.

Standing tall, he rolled his shoulders, clenched his teeth, and viciously stomped down the swarming emotions as best he could. If he was going to make a scene, it would at least be on his terms, not Samael's.

Having met Yoruichi's stressed gaze, he grumbled, "Don't look at me like that, I'm fi-"

A long, elegant finger pressed softly against his lips. Meeting the face now inches from his own, Ichigo's heart skipped at the solitary tear that trickled down Amaterasu's cheek.

"Do not be troubled, Ichigo Kurosaki. You have become more than the Child I have watched over. You need not worry yourself for the curse inflicted upon you."

Ichigo bit his cheek at the wave of indignation that roared within him at the slight.

Really? That's what you're getting pissed about? Shut up, you know she's right. You said it yourself.

The surge of emotion calmed significantly when he felt a soft hand take his own. Turning to his left, he saw Gabriel standing by him, a worried countenance marring her face. How she always managed to calm him, he wished he knew, he only knew that he was beyond grateful for her presence and compassion.

Huffing loudly, Ichigo stood, keeping Gabriel's hand within his own. Taking a breath, he cleared his throat, shaking his head.

"Yeah, uh…sorry about that."

He was met with a look of sudden fondness from Amaterasu, her eyes alight with mirth. With a musical chuckle, she smiled. "I recall the first time you said that, when you first encountered the hollow Zangetsu. You fought bravely then, as you have done just now."

Turning to the seraph holding Ichigo's hand, Amaterasu raised a brow at the contact and continued, "Gabriel of Heaven, you are most welcome here. Word of your deeds has reached Takamagahara. I am glad to see you again, and I thank you for your kindness to my Child."

Gabriel bowed slightly, smiling. "Thank you for welcoming me, Lady Amaterasu. I am thankful that I have been able to help Ichigo."

"And help him, you have. I must admit—"

YAWN

"I-Itsygo?"

All present turned quickly, looking to the waking Nel, who was yawning cutely and stretching.

Looking back to Amaterasu, Ichigo received an encouraging smile and nod. With a nod of his own, he quickly walked to the bench where Nel sat looking around in growing awe.

"Itsygo!" she cried as he pulled her up to his shoulder. "This place is really big! It's so pretty!"

Nel continued looking around the room while Ichigo walked back to the center of the room, staring in wonder until she met Amaterasu's gaze. Her head cocking curiously, Ichigo felt the little arrancar begin to calm.

Once back to standing before the goddess, he noticed Nel lean forward, her hand outstretched as though in a trance.

"Greetings, Child. I have been eager to meet you, Neliel tu Oderschvank."

"Ooooh, you're a pretty lady! Really strong!" Nel responded, the trance seemingly broken.

With a toothy smile, she turned back to Ichigo. "Itsygo knows lotsa pretty ladies!"

Ichigo shook his head fondly as all present laughed. However, the humor quickly died down as Amaterasu spoke once more.

"My Son, before we may speak on what your future could hold, there is one more matter of business we must attend to. I ask your patience and understanding."

With a wave of her hand, a bright light flashed from just outside the throne room, and a familiar spiritual pressure emanating from the open doors. Ichigo's skin began to tingle, an uncertain warning pressing on his mind as the lid that he had been able to place on his anger became far more tentative.

Whatever it was that she had done, whatever she had conjured, was bad. Bad for his temper, bad for those around him, just…bad.

The white hot rage that was creeping through his nerves and boiling his blood was not solely Samael's response, this time. The ancient instinct that was now coiled along his spine had become his own, and was now baying for blood.

Yes, he recognized the spiritual pressure coming from the foyer. It was a pressure he had felt not long ago.

"Ichigo Kurosaki, it is good to see you doing well," a gravelly voice called, being quickly accompanied by the hulking figure of Genryusai Yamamoto.

"You've got to be kidding me," Ichigo groaned, his body tensing and his wings bursting into sight.

He turned, quickly handing Nel to Gabriel and shuffling them behind him. Feeling an instinctive surge of power, he flicked his hand, creating an angry purple beam of light that roughly fashioned itself into a blade.

"Ichigo!" Gabriel cried in surprise, a feeling mirrored by most gathered. "What are you doing?"

"This is not the time, nor is it the place for a confrontation, boy. Drawing blades here will bring nothing but harm," Yamamoto agreed gruffly.

"Ah shove it, old man! I'm sick of everyone else dictating the terms of my life. That crap stops now."

Stamping his cane once, the wood began to fall away from the shinigami captain commander's sword. "I will not warn you again. Discard your weapon, or I will be required to remove it by force."

"A warning, this time? That's pretty new for you, huh? If you want to show your blade, two can play that game," Ichigo growled in return, lowering his blade of light before it flickered and dispersed.

There were no words to describe his anger, no terms to capture the rage that coursed through him. The old bastard had been judge, jury, and executioner before, and now he wanted to talk? Yet even more than that, Ichigo felt an all consuming fire burn through him at the threat that was Genryusai Yamamoto.

A threat to Nel. To Gabriel. If he were to eliminate Ichigo as quickly as he must have wanted, what was to stop him from attacking the arrancar or angel who were with him? Amaterasu may have brought him here, but he knew the old man was capable of more destruction than he was willing to allow.

He knew it to be true, yet were he completely honest with himself, much of his anger boiled down to the simple fact that Yamamoto had it coming.

And then some.

His reiatsu climbed, surging through his body. Arms tingled, muscles pulled taut, and a dark scowl affixed itself to his face. The air around him began to shimmer, distorting the area and filling the room.

Feeling a foreign, yet increasingly intimate, spiritual sensation within his palm, Ichigo shot his arm out to his side. The atmosphere around his side began to stir, and he quickly pressed his hand forward, only to roughly yank it free—tightly gripping a gleaming silver blade.

The very stones of the room around them shuddered under the onslaught of power released by the blade. The atmosphere around Ichigo howled in anticipation, the supernatural world itself bending around him.

Several voices cried out in alarm, trying to appeal to his reason, yet there was no reason to be found. This old man had to feel hurt, had to bleed, and he only exacerbated this need when he spoke once more.

"It would seem that you hold me responsible for what happened to you. I am who you blame for your circumstances, so you are looking for revenge, yes?"

Scoffing, Ichigo flicked his blade to the side, causing a loud CRACK as his power gouged a deep rift in the floor of the throne room.

"Don't flatter yourself, you old bastard. Holding you responsible does nothing. No, at this point I just wanna give you another scar."

Without warning, Ichigo heaved himself forward, his wings pinned back and his blade rocketing forward—aimed for Yamamoto's chest.

CLANG

Belying his age, the head captain's unsheathed blade caught Ichigo's just before it struck. Yet, Ichigo pushed harder, channeling his fury into his blade. He couldn't stop now, his rage wouldn't allow it.

The anger was palpable, tinting his world red. The man who had sent him down the path that cursed his being, the man who could not even be bothered to try and understand what had happened, the man who's blood he just had to draw.

Reason was fantasy, practical thought a mere memory. Hatred flowed thickly within the blood in his veins, pumping heavily with each pulse of his heart. Ichigo had rarely felt this before, but it was intoxicating. The hate was seductive, pulling gently on his mind and promising him something…something just beyond his reach…

Pushing reiatsu and light into his blade, he quickly ground it against Yamamoto's, pulling it down with a sharp slice. The movement paid off, with a burst of energy crashing against Ryujin Jakka, yet it was wide enough that some slipped past, a sliver of energy catching the aged shinigami's scarred chest.

The room fell silent.

Stepping back, Ichigo paused, searching.

His eyes narrowed and a growl escaped him as he spied a small trickle of blood on Yamamoto's head.

A good start.

The old man looked far from angry, however. He looked worn, weary…rueful?

The expression only served to stoke the fires of Ichigo's abhorrence. Yamamoto's elevated reiatsu and gravelly voice gave a stark reminder of the 'flap of a butterfly's wings' that sent his entire existence into turmoil.

His temper's limit had been reached. Ichigo wanted to hurt him, to show him exactly what he thought of his idiotic decrees and—

Releasing a hand from his sword, Ichigo drew it back and snapped it forward into Yamamoto's cheek.

The elder shinigami, the strongest shinigami in existence, grunted quietly as his head was forced slightly to the side.

Damn, that was satisfying.

Sword heating quickly, and with a tired sigh, Yamamoto spoke, "So be it. Reduce all creation—"

With each word, Ichigo's hand crept perilously closer to the chain surrounding his neck. The hatred within him whispered quietly, insistently, more…

"Enough!"

A loud cry was sharp, powerful, oppressing the senses of all present. The shout a precursor to an enormous wave of heat that—though it only lasted moments—inescapably caught the attention of everyone present.

"I will not stand idly by while two of my most favored Sons fight before my very eyes!"

Ichigo's hand froze, mere inches away from the cool metal resting against his chest. Snapping his attention to the woman who's very skin was throwing off bursts of flames, his focus faltered.

This woman…

I don't want her to be sad.

The heartbroken expression marring the face of the flaming goddess doused the fires of his own fury and pulled violently against his reason.

"Ichigo, please!" another voice called, it's plaintive cry cutting through the fog of hatred and anger.

"He started it," he grumbled sulkily, rolling his eyes at the myriad of worried glances cast his way.

Feeling a soft hand caress his cheek, he looked down to see a distressed Gabriel still holding Nel in her other arm.

"Ichigo, stop this. It's alright, everything is alright."

Sighing loudly, he met her gaze. No judgment clouded her eyes even now, only concern.

It's not like I was gonna kill him…

Ichigo couldn't deny that he felt slightly shaken. The burning hatred, the searing anger that had been his existence mere moments was the single most terrifying sensation he had ever felt. It had been suffocating, stifling…

No, more than that, it had been breathtaking.

The feelings had been seductive, encompassing all that he was, yet bending to his will and funneling into…something. Yet, the strangest part was that he was no longer out of control. The sensation of Samael overwhelming him and pulling on his hate as if it were a string had not been present.

Weirdly enough, it was his own anger, just intensified.

My own spiritual turbocharger, he thought wryly to himself.

Gabriel seemed to sense his inner musing, as she turned to stand beside him, gently grasping his free hand. Ichigo's own eyes jumped back to Yamamoto, who's cut was being tended to by Amaterasu.

Seeing a burst of flames that consumed the shed blood, Ichigo felt a sharp pang of jealousy flare within him, leaving him disgruntled.

You could have at least left a bruise on his face, or something.

Before the feelings could grow, the elegant goddess turned to him.

"Ichigo Kurosaki, please, put away your blade."

He looked quickly down at the pulsating sword still gripped tightly in his fist, then around to those in the throne room. Gabriel and Nel's worry nearly matched Amaterasu's sadness, while Yamamoto himself looked weary. Yoruichi looked upset, which was mirrored by Yasaka, who was glaring accusingly between him and her destroyed court.

"Um… I don't really know how to do that," Ichigo muttered, rubbing the back of his head.

Damn, this is pretty awkward.

He may have forced down the hatred that was tempting him, but he couldn't say that he regretted his actions. Yamamoto deserved a whole hell of a lot worse.

Revenge had never been his style, as he'd usually rather understand his opponent.

Well, not exactly. When Ulquiorra said that he dragged Orihime to Hueco Mundo, I did kinda lose it. Still, this was just a little too easy to go for, and I have a feeling that it's just the tip of a nasty iceberg. Looks like you've helped screw things up pretty badly, he thought to Samael in annoyance.

Ichigo's Sacred Gear's response was lost as he noticed Amaterasu gliding gracefully toward him. The darkness within him still roiled at her presence, yet he suppressed the feelings, focusing on the kind smile that was crossing the sun goddess' face.

"How curious that you would be the one to bear this blade. I suppose that it would only make sense."

"Huh?"

The smile warmed, Amaterasu's countenance becoming one of maternal pride. Stroking his cheek gently, her hand fell to the gleaming blade gripped tightly in his own hand. It quickly grew warm, humming in resonance with her touch.

"This blade is quite familiar to me. The God that created Kusanagi-no-tsurugi—the biblical God— came to me when crafting it, seeking quiet assistance in it's design. He wanted to create something other, something apart from the holy swords that he had constructed. This sword was meant to be divine, something containing the parts of himself that he would bear no more. To create a fitting blade for the— For…"

Amaterasu paused, her eyes dropping slightly as she recounted the memory.

"For Samael," Ichigo finished, stunned at the revelation.

"Indeed," she agreed. "I confess I did not know it's intended destination at that moment. I had my suspicions, however. In the times I would speak with him, I could see his dissatisfaction with his less than holy nature, with Samael. Regardless, I provided a measure of my power to balance the sword, to provide a method of making it 'divine', thus allowing it to be distanced from his own presence."

Waving her hands over the sword, her powers coalesced around the blade, swirling with brilliant flames that eventually died out to reveal a dark black sheath now housing Kusanagi-no-tsurugi.

"My gift to you, Ichigo Kurosaki. A gift to assist you in controlling the darkness within you. This is no instinct, as Zangetsu was. You have the negative powers and essence of the biblical god within you. Your potential is beyond measure, both for good and evil."

Ichigo frowned at her words. He knew that what she said was true, yet having them thrown in his face was frustrating. He wouldn't be evil. He'd never be one to hurt the innocent, to add to the evils that plagued his world.

It simply wasn't going to happen.

Amaterasu's hand drifted upward to his chest, stopping to caress the glimmering Hogyoku.

"So many of my Children, so many hopes and dreams bound within a favored Son. I have allowed you control over the monstrous blade you now bear, and I will do what I can to give you dominion over the powers within."

When her words ended, Ichigo's eyes widened in astonishment. The world around him suddenly stood still, freezing in time and the goddess before him quickly faded into the orb within his chest.

XXXXXX

Amaterasu's gaze was intrigued, piercing the smoke, flame, and falling ash as she ventured about the inner structures of Ichigo's soul.

It looked far more akin to a war zone than a soul.

Crumbling towers, flaming high-rises and ashen structures told the sad and horrific story of a world torn asunder. What was this place? What was his heart holding onto that made it appear so?

Sparkling tears trailed down her cheeks, each a crystalline tribute to the loss of her beloved Son. Her fingers ghosting over the jagged edges of the demolished aspects of Ichigo's soul, her chest tightened at the realization of just how deeply Samael's spirit was entrenched within Ichigo's.

Following a long, straight thoroughfare among the once towering structures, she paused as she came alongside one almost completely lost to ash and flame.

Atop the smoldering remains of the unknown aspect, a lone, pale figure sat upon a crude, throne-like chair of broken ruins. The figure's arms resting outwards on shards that served as armrests were joined by a myriad of ominous, outstretched, grey-feathered wings, as well as a larger pair of featherless wings.

Yet, what held her attention were it's eyes. Cold, obsidian, reptilian orbs stared at her, no discernible emotion held within. Barely moving to follow her own steps, the eyes quickly gained and held her own.

Samael.

So this was he, the Dragon Eater. The Angel of Death. The Venom of God and a hundred other names that had been attributed to him and his deeds.

Stepping even closer to the seated monster, Amaterasu avoided flinching at the stifling aura of anger, resentment and wrath that endlessly emanated from it. So cold, so different from what she had ever felt before…yet there was something about his presence, the tenor of his energy that lightly touched upon long forgotten memories.

Still, there was no mistaking the being before her.

"Samael."

Though hardly more than a whisper, the word weighed down upon the area, breaking the unseen wall that had formed the moment she had caught sight of him. It seemed to have worked, as Samael slowly, and quietly spoke.

"Merely a name, Shinto goddess. One of many that I seem to have inspired."

Raising a curious brow, she closely studied the fair face of the man before her. Though a stark amalgam of angel, fallen, and dragon, Samael carried an air of tightly maintained composure, a tentative lid atop a fount of untold fury.

Her curiosity grew. These were not the words she expected from the Angel of Death. The being that destroyed much of Heaven was supposed to be crazed, aggressive beyond reason. He was to be the embodiment of the wrath he had unleashed, yet his unconcerned remark on his name seemed the antithesis of all she had heard.

"Goddess or no, I will not be looked upon as material for study," he suddenly growled, straightening within his makeshift throne and breaking her thought process.

And thus the serpent rears its head.

Nodding slightly in acuquiecense, she carefully replied, "Very well, I shall respect your wishes. However, I ask the same courtesy concerning my own. I merely wish to speak with you regarding your status as Ichigo's Sacred Gear, and your role in the future. I believe that, if given proper thought, you would find—"

"If given proper thought? Do you think me some fool? Do you think me a mere trinket the boy has discovered? Though bound for ages, I have lived no fewer years than you. Spew your wit and wile elsewhere, goddess! Speak your thoughts plainly," he spat venomously, hands gripping the edges of the broken 'arms' of his throne as he cut her off.

Amaterasu's eyes narrowed dangerously, her mouth set in a hard line and her aura flared wildly. Though his lifespan was a fact often overlooked, her pride would not stand for such blatant disrespect.

Especially with Ichigo's future hanging so delicately in the balance.

"Understand this, Samael, and understand well. Ichigo, regardless of what has occurred, will always be a beloved Son of these lands. You will not break him, nor will I allow your hatred to hold sway. He is a protector, a warrior, and his life will continue to be lived as he wishes."

Oh, how she wished that she fully believed those words! Falling somewhere between a hopeful promise and nervous threat, Amaterasu knew that Ichigo would not emerge unscathed from his exposure to Samael. Her only hope was in Ichigo's own ability to affect the minds of those he encountered.

"The truth of life is the embrace of death."

Eyes narrowing coldly, Amaterasu snapped, "If you are to demand plain speech, you would do well to offer it."

A cruel sneer curled Samael's lip. The expression changed his entire countenance, making him harder, colder, wilder. Rising to his feet, his position allowed him to tower over the sun goddess, his imposing form wraithlike in the falling ash.

"You are as blind as he. You say 'my hatred' as if it were simply an emotion. Do you, a goddess, truly not understand what or who I am? I am hatred! I am the scorned half of a pompous god, cast aside in pursuit of holiness, glory and praise. Break him? Allow me to hold sway? Take note of where it is you stand. I am a part of Ichigo Kurosaki, and your protector will no longer be allowed to martyr himself as a pawn for the masses. Protector? Not with my power. I would just as soon have him tear the tyrant gods from their lofty thrones."

"Is that so?" Amaterasu asked quietly. As she looked up, Samael was stunned to see a slightly supercilious look darken the goddess' face.

A single, incredulous brow lifted, with him staring in surprise. Giving no answer, he only continued to stare.

"Ichigo is a protector, he always has been. Yet, he has now been brought into a far larger world. Samael, given your blind and willful aversion to his overriding passion, I will ask: From whom do you think Ichigo will be required to protect not only the masses, but the ones he loves? Against whom do you think he—and by extension you—will stand? Our world is treacherous, as you have always known. There are many who seek to destroy this peace we have wrought. Gods, their servants, devils, fallen angels…dragons."

Her expression became passive as she watched her words slowly sinking in, the towering creature's own countenance one of stunned incredulity.

She knew what it was she had placed within the mind of the most dangerous amalgam to walk the earth since Trihexa, yet she held no compunctions about her words. The supernatural world was a gilded wild land, a shadowed battlefield embroiled in what many humans called a 'Cold War.'

And what an appropriate title it was. Across countless faction lines warriors, believers, dissidents and more waited with baited breath, each daring the other to make the first move. There were more than a few sparks amongst the powder kegs of beings called gods and goddesses, each held only just in check by the hell that would be unleashed should someone misstep.

Yet now, an unaffiliated juggernaut appears, bearing beings of unfathomable power within a Son—one with a rare, pure heart.

Perhaps the tides of the world could finally shift?

Saving the thought for further contemplation, she returned her attentions to the being before her.

She could almost see her words clattering within Samael's mind. The options, the purpose that could be his were playing clearly across his face. It looked to be a debate, a struggle to determine just what he would be required to give.

As if to prove her point, with his brow remaining peaked, Samael slowly murmured, "Wit and wile, indeed."

"Time in this world moves quickly, keeping the future in motion. We shall speak further, when the time is right. You have much to consider, Samael," Amaterasu replied quietly.

Turning from the Angel of Death, she called out, "Hogyoku, I would speak with you."

XXXXXX

"What was that?" Ichigo groaned as time resumed its natural pace. Looking around, he saw that the rest of the room's inhabitants were just as perplexed as he was.

It felt as though he had been dreaming. His inner world had been as Samael had left it, but Amaterasu had…been there? Given that she had basically dissolved into his chest, he supposed that it made sense.

Things were incredibly fuzzy within the memory, his lens a thick haze. Whatever had happened, however, had made Samael silent.

Completely silent. No waves of emotion, no grumbling…nothing.

It was an ominous feeling, and Ichigo was nervous as to what his sacred gear could possibly be up to. Not only that, but the Hogyoku was tingling oddly within his chest.

"I needed an opportunity to speak with the being bound in your sacred gear," Amaterasu said as she slowly manifested back into the room.

"I thought it was just a dream," he whispered, the brief, hazy glimpses that he had seen being confirmed.

"No, I am afraid not. There is much for the both of you to consider, to discover of one another, my Son. How are you going to cope with the life you have attained? How will you face the loneliness that is the life of the Angel of Death? What will you do to move forward, Ichigo Kurosaki?"

"Uh…" Ichigo hedged. What was he supposed to say? He was just going to be himself. He'd find somewhere to go to figure out how to deal with Samael and—

"Might I offer a solution?"

Standing mere inches away, Amaterasu gently placed her hands atop his shoulders.

"Remain in Kyoto, at least for a time. Japan is your home. You will be safe, you will be guarded, you will be loved. Discover what it means to be the bearer of not only the Angel of Death, but of the Hogyoku. I am aware of the deck of cards that Seraphs possess, as well. You would do well to explore the options that can give you, and I am certain that Gabriel would be willing to instruct you in their use. You are not alone."

"But I am, I have to be," Ichigo countered. Everyone thought he was just being dramatic, but did they really not understand the situation? He wasn't going to hurt anyone, but he wasn't stupid, either.

"Don't you see the floor? Remember healing the old man? That's me. It wasn't Samael who did that, it was me. That hatred is mine now, but just because the old man got a small taste of what he deserved, it doesn't mean that I'm going to destroy the world. I'm really grateful that you've given me the chance to catch my breath, and I will, but I'm not dragging anyone else into this. I'll figure it out, and find some way to go forward."

The look that crossed her face formed a pit in his gut. If he had to guess, she had expected that answer, and seemed all the more disappointed by it. Dropping a hand, she left one still resting against him.

"I must depart, but I leave you with these words, my beloved Son: Do not wall off your heart. There is great hatred within your soul, but there is also great love. Be the boy that I have delighted in watching grow into a fine young man. Never forget, you are the only one who can choose your destiny. We will speak again, and soon about possible paths, Ichigo Kurosaki. Until then, rest safely within Kyoto. My priestess will look after you, farewell."

With a burst of brilliant light, the Shinto sun goddess disappeared.

"I too shall be taking my leave," Yamamoto said abruptly, turning to face Ichigo.

"Ichigo Kurosaki, I wish to express my regret at this turn of events. Consider yourself welcome within the Seireitei once more. Should you ever require assistance, Soul Society will proudly stand beside you."

"Tch", Ichigo scoffed, rubbing the back of his head.

That's one hell of a turnaround.

What was he supposed to say?

"Whatever you say, gramps. I'll believe it when I see it, but thanks anyway."

The shinigami head captain sighed, almost imperceptibly shaking his head. "My hope is to regain your trust, boy. You did a tremendous service for Soul Society, and I will not forget it. Perhaps one day you will be able to forgive."

Ichigo's eyes narrowed. The words sounded good, but his trust in the goodwill of Genryusai Yamamoto had been shaken. Still, perhaps there was one thing that he could do that could at least begin repairing the damage that had been done.

"It'd go a long way if you'd tell Rukia and the others that I'm okay."

After a long pause, Yamamoto responded. "Very well."

With a heavy tap of his cane, a senkaimon appeared and, just as quickly, disappeared along with the form of the head captain.

The silence that followed his departure was stifling, full of awkward tension.

"That could have gone worse, I suppose," Yoruichi grumbled, shifting her weight onto one hip and her hands to both.

"Right," Yasaka drawled, dropping into her throne with a huff.

Raising a brow, she continued sardonically, "It was only my throne room that was all but ruined. We are so fortunate that they decided to stop before destroying my whole palace."

"If you're looking for an apology from the head captain, I'm afraid you're barking up the wrong tree," Yoruichi replied, raising a brow herself.

"Is that so? Perhaps I'll get one from your most recent scratching post," the Kyuubi pondered, resting her chin on her fist with a tired glance at Ichigo.

After a moment of silence in which both women smirked at the clueless Ichigo, he muttered, "Oh, um…Sorry about your floor?"

"Damn, he actually said it," Yoruichi chuckled.

"I take it that this is a rare thing?" Yasaka asked.

"Indeed."

Feeling a tightening on his hand, and hearing a giggle to his side, Ichigo turned to see Gabriel smiling at the antics of the other two women.

Turning back to him, she released his hand, bringing hers up to gently touch the feather clasped by his chains. With a nod and a giggle, she once more cutely tapped his nose.

"Ichigo, do not forget what I told you. You are not alone, nor will you be. You have friends, and people that care about you, so no more of this lonely talk! We will help you figure this out, and find a path for you."

Ichigo sighed, a small smile crossing his lips. He was coming to understand the difficulty in maintaining a scowl around Gabriel. Her energy and positivity were somewhat infectious, and her presence was a soothing balm for the chaos of his life.

She's definitely going to ruin my rep.

"Now come on!", she cried, grabbing his hand and suddenly dragging him toward the door of the throne room. "I have your deck with me, and I can show you how it works!"

His protests went unheeded as the bubbly seraph dragged him from the room, Nel in tow.

Within the room, the remaining two women stared at the doorway in disbelief.

"Is this what I can expect, having him living in my house?" Yasaka asked, her tone a mix of astonishment and worry.

"I wish I could tell you that this was rare, Yasaka. All I can say is, at least it won't be boring."

XXXXXX

Blinking lights painted the decadently designed room, with loud, thumping music drowning out the mindless chatter of many of the relaxing businessmen present.

Odin smirked as he sipped on the—who knows how many this made—drink in his hand. While he often enjoyed coming here with Azazel, not to mention the wonderfully never-ending supply of lovely and 'friendly' women, the shinigami that he had shown up with tonight were just as entertaining.

"…you can't be serious! Tell me it isn't true!" the one named Isshin wailed, draining his drink before falling back with his arm over his face.

"She told me, herself. Apparently, they were alone in a cave just outside the Seireitei right after he beat Kenpachi, she pulls off one of her transformations, and the first thing he does is blushes and tells her to put her clothes on!" the man who revealed himself to be Kisuke Urahara chuckled, patting his friend on the back.

"No! He get's to see Yoruichi completely naked and wimps out?! What kind of son did I raise?!"

"Wait," Azazel slurred, holding his hands out for emphasis. "You mean to tell me that Ichigo got to see that total babe of a woman, and he just told her to put her clothes on?! Damn, I think I feel a little less sorry for him, now."

"Well, I thought so too until I saw who he has worrying over him. Most beautiful woman in Heaven my ass, she could probably claim the title for most dimensions!" Isshin muttered.

"Given that he could actually pull his head out of his ass long enough to see that," Kisuke added, the liquor freeing his speech.

Chuckling to himself, Odin raised his glass to the group. "Your boy sounds just like my Rosseweisse. That girl is going to die a virgin unless she actually shows a little—"

"Ahem."

His brows rose in surprise at the timid clearing of the throat just behind him. Turning to look, he chuckled at the heavily blushing Valkyrie in question that had come to stand behind him.

"My my, dear, your ears must have been burning!"

"Lord Odin, please do not say such things! Especially to these men that we have never met!"

"You wish for me to lie to them? I've told you before! You'll never get a boyfriend unless you start loosening up and going for them."

"Lord Odiiiiiiin!" she whined, burying her face in her hands. Murmuring to herself, she continued, "I do not know how to attract a man! I shall be alone as long as I am alive!"

Winking to the men around him, he turned back to her and asked, "Would you like to practice here? I'm sure these fine men would be glad to give you some pointers on flirting with men. In fact, you could be our entertainer for the night, should you be willing to show a little—"

"Lord Odin!" she cried scandalously, wrapping her arms over herself. "You should not say these things, nor should you be in such a place! Think about your status!"

Rolling his eye at the chastisement, he grumbled, "Then what does my little valkyrie want, other than to ruin my good time?"

Straightening to attention, Rosseweisse's arm snapped forward, a sheet of paper held in her hand.

"A missive from Takagamahara."

Odin sobered slightly. Taking the paper from the girl, he quickly dismissed her.

A missive from the Shinto? Given what he had just heard from the men around him, this could only be related.

How interesting.

It had to be from Amaterasu. That woman was the only one of the Shinto pantheon that he actually got on with, the others quite lacking in social graces—as was the case with most gods, it seemed. Still, she knew he would be here.

He always was, whenever he visited Japan. Amaterasu was all too aware of the fondness he held for the Daughters of Japan. So soft, so lovely, and always so friendly.

Not to mention the sensual wiles of the sun goddess herself.

My my, what a fine rear on that one! So, he thought as he shook his head from the digression and opened the paper, So, what part will the Norse play in this most interesting of tales?

His brow rose slightly as his mind processed what he read.

Oho…well, now. How could she possibly know that I had tracked it down? Quite a clever little vixen, she is.

"Something good, old man?" Azazel called out, peering over his own glass at the opened missive.

"Mmm."

"If it's from Takagamahara, I can only imagine what it entails. I am curious as to the Norse involvement in our little drama," Kisuke added, a knowing look on his face.

Chuckling at the wit of the brainy brats that sat around him, Odin nodded and passed the paper to the shinigami. It took a moment for their alcohol addled eyes to read it through, but when they did, each man's gaze widened considerably.

I love it when these youngsters begin to see things in a new light.

"Is this actually saying what I am thinking it is saying? Or have I really had that much to drink?" Isshin grumbled.

"Indeed it is. An interesting proposal, I must admit. I would be most curious to see the Venom of God in such a situation, not to mention what it would mean should he succeed."

"Pandora's box was quite the curiosity too, look where that got us," Azazel muttered, finishing his current drink.

Odin shook his head. He knew that they would be reluctant to consider it. Hell, had he not known his own strength, it would have worried him as well.

Still, from all he had heard of the boy—and that was quite the dossier—this would be a fine test of his skill and control over the monster that now resided within him.

Samael, who would have thought? That vanity came with a price, Holy One. Even so, this is an opportunity that would suit nicely, and it could give the kid a chance to actually survive the shitstorm that will follow him for the rest of his existence. That, and my brat could do with a decent ass kicking.

"Why you?" Isshin asked, his eyes narrowed quizzically. "No offense, of course, but why would the Shinto sun goddess be talking to the Norse Allfather about my boy?"

"Simple enough, son! Friends are hard to come by in the upper echelons of the supernatural world. Amaterasu knows that she can trust me, and knows that I'm far more, shall we say—open minded, than many of my counterparts. We've known each other longer than all your lives put together, and with that comes a certain level of friendship. That, or she's just madly in love with me."

The quip earned a round of boisterous laughter. Settling back in his seat, the Allfather continued, "I'll make some arrangements, then we can talk on it further."

"Who knows? It could be good for him," Kisuke sighed after a long moment, leaning back with another loud sigh.

"Ugh, I'll talk to him soon. For tonight, we need some more drinks, and I think a few of these oh-so-lovely ladies to come and listen to a selection of our more heroic tales," Isshin muttered, setting his empty glass down with a sharp chink.

Chuckling once more, Odin grinned. These shinigami were fun. Good men were hard to come by these days, and he'd have to thank Azazel for finding some decent drinking partners.

Still, first thing's first.

With a sharp snap of his fingers, a beautiful woman dressed in revealing attire appeared at his side. Smiling wickedly, she sat on the arm of his chair, playing gently with his beard.

"How may I assist you, you dirty old man?"

Slipping his arm around her, Odin grinned lasciviously, "We are going to need quite a few more drinks, as well as some lovely company for my friends."

Smirking at the wide-eyed men around him, he winked, "Welcome to the club, gentlemen."

XXXXXX

Pacing the floor of what had been revealed as his room, Ichigo gazed at the cards in his hand, distaste evident on his face.

Gabriel had told him quite a lot about his deck, from power levels to combinations, ways to maximize their effectiveness. She had even planted the idea of him being actually being able to live with and near his friends, should he give them a card.

An idea that caused his chest to tighten with intense want every time it crossed his mind.

He couldn't help it. As much as he wanted to protect the ones he loved, his soul's newest acquisitions brought with them a loneliness that was inherently bitter. A separation from that which was even remotely human, and an introduction into a life of no peace, no security.

Not that it was sunshine and roses to begin with.

The deck in his hand thrummed with so much potential. Wasted, unusable potential.

Yet, all of his disgust with the system, his anger at the shimmering blue stars on each card boiled down to one simple fact: They would have to be reincarnated as angels.

Reincarnate someone as a Heavenly angel? Bullshit, more like dragging them to Hell with me… Or at least it would be Hell if the devils weren't scared of me.

There was no way that he'd ever drag his friends into the insanity that was this world. Gods, dragons, and more political nonsense than he'd ever been exposed to were not things that he would want to subject those dearest to him to.

Not even Nel, who had followed him so willingly. She was innocent, and still possessed a choice of whether or not she stayed.

No, he would never take that from her.

Seeing Nel smiling in her silly, heartwarming manner as she ran to greet him only increased his ill will towards the cards.

How could he even remotely consider taking away her innocence? She was pure, her presence and naïveté something of a gift in the midst of so many supernatural beings, each seemingly with their own agenda.

"I'm fairly certain that you can't stare a hole through those, even though it's a pretty impressive stare," Yoruichi chuckled.

His eyes flicking from the cards to his mentor, he could only huff his agreement.

"Worth a shot."

"I know what you're thinking, Ichigo, but is it really such a bad idea? It could mean a lot of things, this deck, and not all of them bad."

Feeling a thrum of energy in his palm, he quickly returned his attention to the glowing blue deck. Ichigo immediately knew that he hated not only the cards, but the entire system behind them.

He hated what they meant to those who were unlucky enough to receive them, and utterly loathed the fact that the bridge to connecting with someone-anyone-would mean more than subjecting them to an eternity of servitude, but trapping them in a world that seemed to know less peace than the damned Soul Society!

Loosing a frustrated growl, he flung the offending cards violently across the room. With a series of loud shick's, the deck scattered—some fluttering to the floor, while others flew fast enough to embed themselves firmly within the wall.

"How could it possibly not be bad, Yoruichi?!" he snapped, rounding on her. "I'm not making anyone a slave, and I'm not pulling anyone else into this shit! No one I would want by my side deserves that fate, and I sure as hell don't want some random assholes tied to me for the rest of eternity, so what could make you think this is good?!"

Giving clear warning through a sharply raised brow, the violet-haired princess met his gaze with a hard one of her own.

"Yeah! We'll show those cards, Itsygo!" Nel cried, interrupting the moment as she jumped down from the luxurious settee and landed with a loud thud, collecting the attention of the room. Running over to where a majority of the cards had landed, she began stomping on them, cutely trying to inflict further punishment.

Brow still raised, Yoruichi bit down the smirk that had arisen and turned her hard gaze back upon Ichigo.

"Ichigo Kurosaki, I know you are stressed, but if you snap at me like that again, I'm going to spread your teeth around this room far better than you did your cards. I'm on your side, if you couldn't tell by now, and I am not going to be spoken to that way simply because your definition of morality was offended. I swear, sometimes you're more emotional than girls your age."

"I—"

"You're stretched thin, I get it. I can understand, somewhat, the loneliness that must be staring you in the face after what you've gone through, but are you really so alone? Even if you don't want to use those cards, Gabriel can't take her eyes off of you, Nel is as close as she could be, Yasaka has accepted you into her own home, and I'm here graciously trying to pull your head out of your ass. Life could be worse."

Meeting her piercing gaze, much of the fire that fueled Ichigo's fight began to fade. He knew she wasn't trying to agitate him, and that she was trying to help. Her motive wasn't really in question.

It was just the idea, the thought that incessantly played through his mind, that someone he loved could have their lives turned upside down just for him through one little card—

Not to mention the fact that the idea was so appealing, so tempting, that he had half a mind to find his friends now.

It was too much. It angered him far more than was reasonable, a fact that—in and of itself—pissed him off even further.

"I know."

Sighing, he ran his hand through his hair.

"Okay, so I didn't mean to snap like that, but you being right all of the time is getting kind of annoying. I also know that—"

"Grrrr!"

Turning, both Ichigo and Yoruichi watched as Nel hopped up and down, her hands trying vigorously to pull at the opposite end of a card that was pinched tightly between her teeth.

Before the thought of how adorable her loyalty to helping him could fully cross his mind, the card began to glow a brilliant sapphire. He could feel a sharp rise of spiritual pressure building within him, almost as if in response to the card.

"Nel, no!"

Whatever caused that glow could not be good. He felt something growing, some aura pulling at him from the card. Nel paused, turning to look at him worriedly.

POOF!

A flash of blue and gold nearly blinded them all, and a cloud of pink smoke erupted in the room, filling the entire space.

Coughing as it tried to enter his lungs, Ichigo waved his hands to clear the air before him to try and see something, anything.

"Nel?"

"Nel?!"

The smoke quickly cleared, revealing a fully grown Nel laying on her side, unmoving. Aside from the torn clothing and tumbling teal hair, multiple pairs of brilliant, white-feathered wings stretched outward from her back, their color contrasting sharply with the dark stain of the flooring.

"Nel!" Ichigo shouted, racing across the room to kneel and take her into his lap.

Getting no response, Ichigo brushed strands of hair from her face, continuously shaking her gently and calling her name.

This couldn't be happening, it simply couldn't! The wings, the form, it could only mean that she was reincarnated.

Growling in barely restrained fury, Ichigo turned and met an understanding glance from Yoruichi.

It seemed that she knew that her prior statement was all too true…

Things certainly could get worse.

XXXXXX

An hour later, Ichigo stalked the hallways of Yasaka's palace, angrily muttering to himself.

It was ridiculous! First, Nel—innocent, naive Nel—bit into and absorbed what turned out to be the most powerful card in his deck. Then, Yoruichi had shouted at him to stop being such a drama-queen, and Gabriel had all but kicked him out, urging him to calm himself while she tended to the newly transformed Nel.

How am I supposed to calm down when she's been reincarnated as an Angel? As a servant in my deck! She's been dragged from one world of unending struggle to another. And all because I threw those damned cards across the room?!

Gritting his teeth, he froze in shock as he felt many of his wings burst forth from his back, loudly shredding his shirt.

"Shiiiit," he groaned, stretching the word as his head tilted backward.

Great, so his powers fluctuated with his emotions. Another addition to the repertoire of annoyances piling up within his mind.

And another damn shirt ruined, ugh, he grumbled within his mind, noting the cool breeze floating through the tatters of his clothes.

Ichigo was furious, frustrated, and agitated as he marched onward. Both hearing and feeling his wings brushing the walls on either side, he knew that they were just another example of him not controlling himself.

How could he do this to Nel? He had promised himself that he would never—

"A foolish promise, predicated upon bullheadedness and naïveté."

Samael's voice was calm, a soft timbre that only served to agitate Ichigo further.

Shut up! No one asked you!

"Nor is anyone required to, child. Your perceptions of my nature blind you to the basic truth of my words."

My perceptions aren't the problem, asshole. They're based off of the facts that you took my body over and attacked Heaven, almost killed Gabriel, and proclaim yourself to be hatred itself. Not only that, but you've turned my hatred into some kind of weapon. I can feel the pull, the strain of it. That's why I have a hard time listening to anything you say.

"So my words contain no value? Because I am the hatred of God, I have no truth within me? Have you realized that I have not deceived you since leaving Cocytus, and even then, that I spoke no lie?"

What possible reason could you give for me to believe you? Seriously. You have done nothing to earn even the smallest bit of my trust, in fact you've actively tried to destroy it! Yet now you want to tell me that I'm wrong in being pissed about Nel? Screw you.

A soft, exasperated sigh whispered within Ichigo's mind. He could feel Samael's annoyance with his stubbornness, giving him a twisted sense of pleasure. The creature deserved to feel as pissed as he did.

Misery loving company was quite the appropriate adage.

"Child, you are aware of our situation, no? We are bound together for eternity. With my power, your own power, and the mysteries of this Hogyoku, mortality is something that you will not easily face. Our bindings are strong, this last episode tying us together more deeply than either of us truly know."

And whose fault is that?

"Hold your tongue, boy!" Samael snarled, his patient tone slipping. Clearly struggling to keep his composure, he took a calming breath.

"My being an embodiment of hatred does not fully eliminate my reason, nor my practicality. As I have told you before, my survival and my existence are now dependent upon you. Bound as a cursed Sacred Gear I might be, yet I refuse to be fettered to a fool that is blind to the workings of the supernatural. The world you lived in before falling into the Underworld is no longer your world. You are now more of a target than you've ever been. An asset to some, a liability to others, and a challenge to others still, you can no longer afford to blind yourself to the nuances of your new life."

Ichigo paused, stunned at the uncharacteristic—rationality—of his soul's newest acquisition. Though he knew Samael made some insightful points, he was still feeling less than willing to concede his agreement.

What makes you say that my promise concerning Nel was foolish?

"Because it is impossible to keep such an oath in this world. She chose to follow you into a life more dangerous than her previous one, and you allowed her to. Her very proximity to you places her in grave danger. Given her choice—as well as your acceptance—would you truly deny her the chance to protect herself?"

Why are you trying to make this ok? What are you trying to pull?

"You were not the only one affected by our binding. I find myself feeling quite…possessive…of the child."

Ichigo's steps faltered, his arm reaching out to brace himself on a nearby wall to prevent him from falling.

What did you just say?

Moments passed, yet nothing more came from Samael.

Ichigo's lip curled in frustrated annoyance. Turning his attention, he noticed an alcove, leading to a small terrace. He quickly stomped over to it, gripping the wide, ornate railing that served as a guard.

So what, the Angel of Death was now possessive?! He was supposed to trust the incarnation of God's hatred just because it was practical and he felt 'possessive' of Nel?

"What a crock of shit," he muttered, running a hand through his hair as he breathed in the evening air.

Calming himself, he studied the beautiful, timeless edifice of the Yokai portion of Kyoto. He knew that it wouldn't do for him to lose his head now. Nel needed him to keep it together, and he had to keep his head straight for her.

I can do this.

And yes. Maybe— maybe— he was overreacting to what was occurring around him.

Maybe.

Sighing in annoyance, he felt his wings shudder.

"You do have wings!" an excited, high-pitched voice whispered, accompanied by the soft shuffling of wood sliding across stone.

Quickly looking over his shoulder, Ichigo could see nothing, only the opening he had come through. Turning and watching for a moment, his brow raised as a golden, pointed ear as well as a bright golden eye peeked around the frame of the door.

"Eep!"

Though the ear and eye disappeared just as suddenly as they had appeared, the soft shuffling noises continued. Raising a brow, Ichigo huffed in amusement. Strange as it was, this was a welcome distraction, a break from the insufferable nonsense that had been his day.

Hearing the shuffling persist, he knew that whomever it was that was watching him, they were clearly not an adult.

What children would be here, of all places?

"You don't have to hide, you know. I don't bite."

Slowly, the original ear and eye peeked back around the edge of the doorway, eventually accompanied by their respective twins.

The child, a young girl, was dressed in the attire of a shrine maiden. A white hoari, adorned with crimson pentacles floated atop hakama that matched the color of the stars. Tall geta completed the adorable ensemble of the Kyuubi before him. A Kyuubi just like…

Just like Yasaka?!

No way. This must be…

"W-Who are you?" the child asked, her voice nervous, yet filled with wonder.

Bending down slightly, a small smile crossed Ichigo's lips. This little girl was such a darling sight, her long golden locks atop her head and her—one, two three…nine—fluffy tails, and her wide, excited golden eyes—

"My name is Ichigo. Ichigo Kurosaki."

Her eyes widening, Ichigo watched as realization dawned in her mind. Clearly, she had heard of him.

Uh oh.

"You're the one Okaa-sama spoke of! Are you really staying with us? Do you really eat dragons? Did you really meet Amaterasu-sama? Did you really come here with an angel and Yoruichi-obasan? What about your wings?! They're angel wings…but grey…"

"Woah woah, there! That's really quite a few questions, huh?" Grinning at her excitement, Ichigo knelt down to face the young kyuubi.

"I'll answer your questions, but could you tell me your name, first?"

"Kunou! My name is Kunou, daughter of Yasaka of the Kyuubi Clan!"

"Kunou? Well, Kunou-hime, I'm honored to meet the lovely princess of Kyoto."

"Kyah!" she cried, her cheeks flushing cutely as she struggled to meet his eye. After a moment, she gave a well-practiced bow, replying, "W-Well met, Ichigo Kurosaki."

He chuckled, his cares momentarily forgotten as he smiled warmly at the young yokai. Taking a deep breath, he readied an answer for her many questions.

"Well, Kunou, I have never eaten a dragon—I don't think they'd be very tasty. I did meet with Amaterasu—that is one interesting woman— and I really did come here with an angel and Yoruichi. As for my wings…um, well…"

How could he explain everything that had been a part of making his wings as they were? How could he make a child aware and understanding of the complexities and aggravations that now plagued his life and determined his standing?

"They're pretty! Can you fly?"

Thank whatever's out there for a child's attention span.

"I haven't tried it just yet, but I think so. I've only—"

"Kunou? Kunou?!"

Interrupting his answer, a worried voice echoed throughout the hallway that their balcony adjoined.

"I am here, Okaa-sama!" the young girl called in response, her curious grin still beaming at Ichigo.

"Okaa-sama said that you had dragon wings, too! Can I see them?!" Kunou questioned, returning her full attention to Ichigo and ignoring the increasingly louder wooden clack's that rang out with every step. Yet before she could receive her answer, her mother arrived.

"Kunou! It is rude to ask someone to see—" Yasaka called, coming into view and stopping with a sharp gasp. Grabbing her daughter's shoulders, the Kyuubi leader quickly drew her back to her, holding the child tightly to her front.

"Okaa-samaaaaa!" Kunou whined, struggling to get free, only to be shuffled around to her mother's side.

Looking to the woman's face, Ichigo sighed softly, his head falling forward. The woman's eyes were wide and her tails swished feverishly behind her, fear and anger pouring from her gaze and protective stance.

Glancing often at his outstretched wings, her eyes flickered between them, his hands, his face… She was afraid.

Of me. Afraid that I would…that I would harm her child.

The thought burned.

He could understand it, hell, he'd almost encourage it, given what he'd done earlier. But children? He'd never hurt a child! Their innocence and wonder were wonderful, small lights of hope in the crapholes that his life often found.

"I am sorry if my daughter has offended you, Ichigo Kurosaki. She is but a curious child," Yasaka strained, smoothing her clothes and subtly shifting herself in front of Kunou as her ingrained manners took over.

His shoulders falling slightly, Ichigo ran a hand through his hair. With a resigned sigh, he replied, "No offense, at all. Kunou's been very kind to me. You've raised a great kid."

Ichigo's brow raised slightly as his gaze came back to the yokai leader. Her hand brushing long strands of gold from her stunning face, he was surprised to hear a short huff of air.

"Kunou, it is time for bed," she said quietly, her voice falling slightly, a slight flush on her cheeks.

"But Okaa-sama, he was going to tell me about flying, and how he came here with an angel and Yoruichi-obasan, and how his feathers are grey, and I was going to ask him more about eating dragons, and—"

With no further words spoken, Yasaka turned a stern eye upon her daughter. After a brief battle of wills, a gilded brow raised sharply atop the mother's brow.

Kunou's ears quickly flattened atop her head, and she unhappily turned to Ichigo. Bowing politely, she muttered, "It was a pleasure to meet you, Kurosaki-san."

The Kyuubi leader looked somewhat pleased at her departing daughter's sense of decorum, at least until the girl peeked back around the doorway and chirped, "And thank you for showing me your wings!"

"Kunou!"

Fading giggles and clacking wood were all that could be heard as the young princess disappeared down the hallway.

Turning back to see Yasaka's fingertips pinching the bridge of her nose, Ichigo chuckled to himself, rolling his eyes. A playful fox yokai, who'd have thought?

However, an awkward tension soon fell upon the balcony and its occupants, with Kyuubi and… spiritual amalgam…struggling to do more than stare at the floor.

Ichigo stood for a moment, curious as to why Yasaka had yet to leave the small space. Yet, the uncomfortable atmosphere soon became too much. Clearing his throat, he finally broke the silence.

"Sorry that I scared you. I don't know if it helps—and I don't care what's happened to me—but I'd never hurt a child, especially one as sweet as her. I have siblings of my own, and I know what it's like to feel protective. Again, uh… yeah…"

Not knowing what else to say, he shuffled awkwardly towards the doorway, his wings still extended.

Gotta figure out how to put these things up.

Before he could leave, a slender hand quickly, but gently, grabbed his arm. Looking back, he noticed a more pronounced flush of embarrassment on Yasaka's face.

"Ichigo, I—"

Pausing mid-sentence, the Kyuubi took a deep breath and exhaled sharply.

"I apologize for my behavior, Ichigo Kurosaki. It was unfair of me to judge you thusly."

Faltering at the sudden switch to formality, Ichigo stammered, "Oh, uh—no problem, I guess… I mean, I suppose. I— ah damn it, I'm no good at this formal stuff!"

As he spoke, he threw his hands up in exasperation, twitching his back and causing his wings to flap erratically—accidentally bombarding Yasaka with large gusts of wind.

Frantically trying to gain control of her chaotically shifting hair, the Kyuubi grumbled, "I can see that!"

"Crap! Sorry!" Ichigo groaned, stepping back to the railing and glaring at the offending appendages.

"I can't figure these damn things out. They're always popping out or flapping at the most random times."

Incredulous. That would be the way he would describe the look that came across her face. Staring wide-eyed at each other for a matter of moments, it was she who broke the glance as humor filled her eyes.

Relaxing slightly, the golden haired woman smirked and chuckled. With a small grin, she gently flipped a strand of hair behind her shoulder and sighed.

"One must learn to control oneself, Ichigo. It's not proper, losing yourself around a lovely woman."

Wait… What the hell?

It was painfully obvious she was trying to break the tension, and it seemed that her sense of humor matched his mentor's all too well.

Wonderful.

Ah, screw it.

"Ugh," Ichigo groaned, rolling his eyes . "No wonder you and Yoruichi are so friendly. You're both pervs."

A scandalized look crossed Yasaka's face, though humor still played on her lips. Coming forward to stand by the railings as well, she smirked at him.

"Touche."

At a loss, Ichigo stood rubbing the back of his head. What more could he say? Sure, they had made a joke, but the tension from her—episode—still lingered heavily over them.

"So…uh… Thanks for letting me stay here for a while. I am going to go check on Nel."

"She's fine. Gabriel informed me before I sought to find Kunou. You're not great at conversation, are you?"

Before the indignant Ichigo could speak, Yasaka waved her hands, summoning a recognizable bottle and a pair of saucers. Setting the pair upon the wide-topped barrier, she poured a generous portion within each and passed one to him.

"Hey, just because you—"

"Drink."

"I don't need a—"

"Drink," she urged, a kind expression on her face, yet steel in her voice.

Huffing loudly at being interrupted, Ichigo was about to argue when she gently lifted the saucer to him.

"It is sake, Ichigo, nothing sinister. You and I have now met twice under rather stressful circumstances, and I daresay that your last week has been less than relaxing. I believe I can safely say that we could both do with a little unwinding."

Caught short, he found that he could make no sound counterargument. Though still a teen, his life had been more than trying lately, and the stress only seemed to compound itself. He couldn't deny that he was wound tight…too tight.

Maybe a drink would help?

Accepting the sake, he quickly drank it all, coughing loudly as it burned a hot, scratchy trail down his throat.

Musical laughter pierced his loud hacking, and with watery eyes he turned to face the again-smiling Kyuubi.

She looks even more mischievous than Yoruichi.

She patted him on the back, still giggling lightly to herself. "Oh Ichigo, was this your first drink?"

"I'm sixteen, what do you think?" he rasped, focusing on returning his voice back to normal.

Seeing Yasaka wince slightly, he had no time to think as she smiled ruefully and whispered, "Do you truly believe that you are still a teenager?"

Ichigo frowned. He wanted so badly to ask her what she meant. He wanted to demand that she clarify, to ask why she would make such a ridiculous claim.

He knew that he couldn't. Ichigo Kurosaki wasn't a teen. He didn't exactly know what he was, but it certainly wasn't a sixteen year old boy. Not anymore. That…kind of sucked.

Damn it.

"Another drink?" she asked, only to receive an outstretched saucer as an answer.

Sighing loudly, the Yokai monarch leaned against the guard, visibly relaxing. Matching her posture, Ichigo downed his second serving, this time coughing slightly less.

"I am sorry, you know."

Raising a brow, he muttered, "I know. It's fine. I've gotten a lotta looks in my life, few of them friendly."

"Ah, but when you come to a balustrade where your young daughter is talking to the partially unveiled Angel of Death—who only hours ago nearly destroyed my palace—it is not exactly an easy situation to respond to."

"And here I thought it was just my hair color."

Yasaka paused at the sarcastic jab. Could it be? The alcohol seemed to be working, as the perpetual scowl that marred Ichigo's face had transformed into a slight smirk.

"I cannot express how glad I am that Yoruichi taught you. I hate having to always deal with nobility and dignitaries. You are quite a relief, given my usual company."

"I get it. Nobles are pains in the ass. Usually. You're not too bad, so far."

"So far? Why Ichigo, I think you may have stumbled your way through a compliment."

He looked at her own smirk, and laughed. How ridiculous was his life? Meeting goddesses, laughing, drinking, and smarting off with royalty?

Life's never dull.

"Ichigo?"

"Hm?" he hummed, a content expression gracing his face as he looked to the night sky.

"I have heard much of you throughout your life. Reports from staff, word from Amaterasu, even stories from Yoruichi. If it is alright with you, I would very much like to hear of your life from your own perspective."

Turning a curious gaze, Ichigo watched Yasaka for a moment. Her gaze was kind, seemingly authentic in her curiosity. Snorting softly in amusement, he agreed.

"Okay. Life really got interesting a little over a year ago."

XXXXXX

Yasaka watched with slightly lidded eyes as Ichigo stumbled through the doorway of the balcony.

Chuckling to herself as he mumbled in offense at the archway's pillar that had so rudely 'jumped into his path', she couldn't contain the smile that crossed her lips. While not absolutely drunk, the pleasant effects of the alcohol they had consumed naturally held far firmer sway with him.

How cute.

Brushing a loose tendril of her flaxen hair behind her ear, Yasaka turned back to Kyoto's secret night sky.

So that was Ichigo Kurosaki, unassuming, unguarded.

Not exactly what I was expecting, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The boy was nice, clearly a product of his father. It had been some time since she had spoken with the energetic Isshin Shiba—Kurosaki, yet the boisterous shinigami made an impression that was unlikely to fade.

Though, his son—while clearly his father's child—was something different. While the elder Kurosaki had been nearly overwhelming, a beacon of silliness and life, Ichigo had been quite another being altogether.

There was life in his eyes, a hunger for…something… Yet, Ichigo's eyes held a weight, a sadness that was far too old for someone his age. Sure, he had a moment or two of melodrama, but Yasaka knew too well what it was she saw within the mahogany depths of his eyes—experience.

Experience of life, of war, of years not all known by him alone. Experience of responsibility.

Poor boy.

Well, no…'poor boy' wasn't quite accurate. Yes, his life had accrued more than his fair share of misfortune, yes he had experienced pain. But the person she had just spoken with for the last—oh my—several hours was something more than 'unfortunate'.

There was clearly a maelstrom of chaos churning within his soul, yet what he showed was an inherent humanity. Care for his friends and loved ones, concern over his young arrancar charge and the seraph watching over her, even humor when describing Yoruichi's teachings.

Conversing with him had been a thoroughly pleasant experience. He had shown that he was rather intelligent, as well as slightly boorish, but never directly disrespectful to her or her position. Ichigo Kurosaki was simply not a well-mannered noble.

It was one of the things she found that she liked most about him.

Perhaps this would not be as terrible a thing as she had feared. Perhaps Ichigo Kurosaki could be an asset, a productive addition to the Yokai society of Kyoto—at least while present. He was certainly pleasant company, and undeniably charming within his own right.

Not to mention, unquestionably handsome, she thought playfully, smirking in the moonlight at the notion.

Why not?, she asked herself, scoffing and crossing her arms as she leaned forward onto the veranda railing. She had perfectly working eyes, and just slightly less apprehension at the moment. No harm ever came from noticing a good looking young man.

A good looking young man who was incredibly innocent, astronomically powerful, not to mention quite good with children.

The moon is bright tonight, she noticed offhandedly as she glanced upward.

Unnaturally bright.

Squinting at the near glare, Yasaka frowned. She was no fool. Having lived under the directives of the Shinto pantheon for centuries, she had learned of their moods—glimpses of their personalities, as it were.

Tsukuyomi was being rather smug tonight, it seemed. The least aggressive of the siblings, the moon god dealt more through allusion and innuendo, giving knowing signs and subtle remarks that were often far more frustrating than was tolerable.

Given that she had just unknowingly passed the night away chatting with her newest charge, the Kyuubi was under no illusions as to Tsukuyomi's implications.

Rolling her eyes at the glowing satellite, she huffed and turned away, leaning her back against the rail.

"Feeling like a good howl at the moon?" a wry voice hummed.

Immediately recognizing the voice, Yasaka glanced to her right, noticing Yoruichi sitting on the railing with her legs crossed, clearly relaxed as she rested against the connected doorframe. A saucer and bottle of Yoruichi's own beside her, the infamous flash goddess was watching her closely.

"You're as funny as ever, Yoruichi. Lord Tsukuyomi seems to share your humor."

"They can be pretty smug when they're onto something, can't they?"

Raising a brow at the quiet tone Yoruichi was using, Yasaka frowned. This brief conversation was teetering on the edge of something she wasn't in the mood to think on.

Better to steer the topic of discussion to more reasonable things.

"I have already apologized for my earlier assumptions to Ichigo. I admitted to being unfair, but having his wings out around Kunou was pretty hard to take with a reasonable mind."

Mirroring the expression, Yoruichi replied, "I know. I've been watching over him since he left the throne room. Not that he would have ever done anything, but I'd have made sure Kunou was safe."

"Ninjas", Yasaka scoffed, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms. Giving a small nod in her friend's direction, she grumbled, "Thank you."

Yoruichi smirked, chuckling at the sour tone her friend used. Taking another sip, she kept her eyes locked onto those of the yokai ruler.

"Kunou is dear to me, you know that. We've been friends for so long now, I think of her as a niece—"

A gentle smile crossed the Kyuubi's lips. Yoruichi really was good with Kunou. Her daughter loved her 'Yoruichi-obasan' dearly, looking up to the the violet haired woman.

A good role model, I'll admit… Well, never to her face.

"—and Ichigo as all but family."

And now we're back to this.

Looking closely, Yasaka watched as Yoruichi glanced up at the moon, gently brushing strands of her violet hair aside.

"The moon really is bright tonight, huh?"

With a noncommittal hum, she turned herself back to the mocking moon, it's pale beams washing over her.

"He means a lot to me, Yasaka. He means a lot to more people than he knows."

With a huff, she remained facing outward and replied, "I apologized already, Yoruichi. That should be the end of it."

"Tsukuyomi-sama seems to think differently."

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

"Ichigo is special," Yoruichi answered calmly, taking another small sip. "He has a strange effect on people. His personality, his will draw others to him. It doesn't matter the race, the gender, the living or dying. He inspires loyalty, courage, love…"

Alright, this is getting ridiculous, Yasaka thought with a chuckle.

She knew where this was going. She was going to make Yoruichi spell it out, if for nothing else but to make her friend hear the nonsense she was saying.

Yes, the time had gotten away from her tonight. Yes, she had very much enjoyed getting to know more of the enigmatic young man who had all but literally been dropped into her lap. Yes, she saw him as an appealing specimen of his gender.

In what possible way did that imply anything more?

She just met the boy, for goodness sake! Not to mention the fact that she was a priestess for Amaterasu, or her observation of the near constant looks that Gabriel had been giving her newest subject.

"Yoruichi Shihoin, are you seriously attempting to imply that I am falling in love with the young man I met for the first time today? That I, a priestess of Amaterasu, am searching for a potential suitor? Particularly one with a great Seraph that has stained a feather just for him?"

"Not at all," Yoruichi responded nonchalantly, hopping down gracefully from her perch. Striding up to the amused Kyuubi, Yoruichi stopped just before her.

"Then what is it that you're trying to say? Plainly, if you please."

Placing a gentle hand on Yasaka's shoulder, Yoruichi murmured, "I told you, I've been watching Ichigo since he left the throne room. I am saying nothing more than the fact that he touches the hearts of all he meets. Even those without hearts cannot be immune to him. You've seen that Kunou has taken a liking to him already. You're going to be seeing a lot more of him yourself…so be ready."

"Ready?! Yoruichi, don't be ridiculous!"

"I'm not trying to get you riled up, just please, remember what I said," she replied, turning and leaving the veranda. Pausing at the doorway, she looked over her shoulder.

"And also remember that if you hurt him, I'll tear off one of those tails and wear it as a scarf."

With a smirk and a wink, the flash goddess disappeared around the corner of the door.

Chuckling to herself, Yasaka shook her head. The ideas people conceived! She truly considered Yoruichi to be akin to a sister, but the thought that she would not only fall for—but be allowed—to fall for any man was laughable.

Amaterasu kept her priestesses pure, allowing the touch of a man only when providing an heir to the yokai throne.

Shaking her head again, she knew that even if that weren't the case and if she were actually interested in a young man merely a fraction of her age, the fabled 'Most Beautiful Woman in Heaven' already seemed to have an eye for the young Kurosaki.

What a scandal that could create! She's already blemished one of her feathers over him, Heaven could not afford the loss of one such as her.

Maybe there was something to Ichigo's nature, his ability to draw others together.

Maybe…for others, at least.

XXXXXX

The following morning, Ichigo groaned as he stumbled down the ornate hallways of Yasaka's palace.

Walking past an open doorway, he growled angrily at the searing sunlight that burned through the window and door.

So, I guess this is a hangover? Not as bad as I'd expected, but not exactly what I'd call 'something to look forward to'.

His head throbbed, his mouth was dry, and damn did direct sunlight hurt his eyes.

Shaking his head, he continued making his way back to his room. It was still early, but nature's call had been incredibly strong this morning, waking him rather abruptly. Now that he had satisfied his body's needs, he wanted to check on Nel.

He hadn't seen her since Gabriel had pushed him out of her room yesterday, and he was worried. Striding as quickly as he could down the hallway, he soon made it back to his room. Approaching the slightly ajar door, he heard a voice excitedly chatting.

"… and then he caught Grimmjow's arm, refusing to allow him to fall like that! He's such a good man, and I—"

The voice cut off suddenly as he opened the door, only to be replaced by a loud cry of "Ichigo!"

CRASH

The door was suddenly in splinters beneath him, the shards trying in vain to poke and prod his skin. He was unable to move as a large, teal blur was hugging him tightly, repeating his name over and over.

My head…

"Nel—" he croaked, straining for air. He couldn't deny the relief flowing through him at her antics, regardless of how it diminished his air supply.

She's okay. She's okay!

Finding himself pulled to his feet, he smiled as the full formed Nel grabbed his hands and jumped, exclaiming, "Ichigo! I am an angel like you! I can protect you and we can be friends forever now!"

Caught in her excitement, he smiled back. "I am glad to see you smiling and well, Nel. Though, I am sorry that—mmph!"

"Gabriel said you would try to take the blame for this," Nel huffed with a fond roll of her eyes and a kind smile as she placed her hand over Ichigo's mouth.

"I'll say this once, so you had better hear me now: Thank you."

"Wha—" was all that Ichigo could get out before her hand found its way back to his mouth.

"No, Ichigo, no apologies, no guilt. Don't you understand?! I can stand with you now, as your friend forever! I am the queen of your deck, and I could not be happier. You've changed so much in my life, and I will not allow you to spoil my re-birthday with your misplaced guilt!"

Ichigo stood in stunned silence.

Damn.

Chuckling once, Ichigo shook his head fondly. "You got it, Nel."

The answering smile was blinding, and she hugged him tightly again.

"Did he blame himself?" an amused voice called out from behind him.

"Of course, or at least he tried. That's Ichigo, for you."

Turning to see the smiling Gabriel, Ichigo huffed, "I'm not that predictable, am I?"

Giggles and kindly pitying looks were his only responses, eliciting another huff from him.

"Worry not, Ichigo," Gabriel cooed, patting his cheek fondly. "It only serves to make you that much more endearing."

Fighting the blush that threatened to stain his cheeks, Ichigo stammered slightly before remembering something that Nel said.

"Wait, you said your re-birthday, Nel. Is that because you're technically an angel now?"

Smiling widely, Nel shook her head.

"Not completely. There's something you should see."

Raising her hands to her mask, she gently pulled on the hardened bone. Ichigo frowned, wondering why she was showing him her hollow h—

What?!

"I no longer have a hollow hole, Ichigo. You've made me whole again."

XXXXXX

The morning air smelled sweet as Vali strode along a deserted sidewalk.

Actually, it smells like shit, he thought, his nose wrinkling at the stench of Tokyo's back streets.

Still, his mood was impossible to sway. It was a fine day, after all.

Shoving his hands further into his pockets, the current Hakuryuuku felt like whistling. The day had actually started off as it had many times before, dull. Azazel nowhere to be found, nothing planned for the day, and a strict 'Don't be a bad dragon' order.

And then it all came together. Oh, how it came together!

He had arrived back at Azazel's apartment around nine that morning. That in itself was nothing special. Vali was a devil, and the night was his natural time to prowl.

Yet another common find in Azazel's luxurious apartment was present this morning.

Vali was used to seeing Azazel passed out drunk on the couch of his apartment, surrounded by either a gaggle of naked women, or that old fart Odin. This time, it was both men, as well as a couple of random guys, but from the looks of things there was nothing to be excited about.

Sure, they clearly had to have some kind of connection to the supernatural world, but if they were passed out and drooling as they were, he just couldn't see the potential for excitement.

Still, with what had happened so recently, the men were of possible note.

'Of note' was right, he thought, remembering the morning clearly.

Seeing the unconscious group and sensing an opportunity, Vali quietly moved about the room, checking the pockets of the men strewn about the floor. The results had grown more and more interesting.

The blonde man, Vito Corleone of New York City by his ID—Vali rolled his eyes at the ridiculousness—had wads of cash in his pants pockets and multiple gadgets within his jacket.

Raising a brow, he carefully placed each back where they belonged. Interesting? Sure, but nothing of interest for him.

The dark haired man with the goatee, however, had been a goldmine of information.

Dr. Isshin Kurosaki of Karakura Town. His pockets also containing crumpled wads of cash, there was a small device in his pocket that looked like a newer mobile phone.

This couldn't be a coincidence. Azazel disappears after searching for the source of a massive energy spike, only to reappear passed out drunk with a man that just happened to bear the same name as the potential source of that spike?

Not a chance.

Perhaps this was his opportunity to find information about the Kurosaki he had heard about in his investigations.

Flipping the device open, Vali noticed an alert of a missed message. Swiping across on the screen, his lips shifted into an excited grin.

Received at 18:23

From: Hellcat

To: The Handsomest of Kurosaki's

Arrived safely in Kyoto. Meeting with Yasaka in an hour. Ichigo stressed, but ok.

This was it! It had to be. Vali felt the rightness in his gut, a strong compulsion, an instinctual approval of what he was seeing. The Hakuryuuku was back on the hunt, and now his focus had a name.

Ichigo Kurosaki.

Putting the device to sleep, he slipped it gently back into Isshin's pocket. Patting the old man's unconscious head, he whispered, "Thanks, old man. You saved me a lot of time, and a lot of searching. I think it's high time that this Ichigo and I meet."

Standing silently, Vali slowly made his way out of the room, slipping silently out of the front door.

….

Finally making his way to the outskirts of town, Vali pushed thoughts of his investigative prowess aside. Quickly judging that he was alone, he activated a magic circle beneath his feet.

Kyoto, here I come.