Ichigo's Strength V1

Slowly cracking his eyes open, Ichigo hesitantly looks at his surroundings. Seeing the familiar sideways skyscrapers that made up his inner world, he remembered the last time he was here. Wasn't he supposed to be falling like last time? But he could feel himself being held to the side of these buildings as if by gravity. This wasn't right. And where was Zangetsu?

"I see you noticed it." spoke a somber voice behind Ichigo.

Turning around in surprise, the orange haired teenager noticed Zangetsu standing there staring at him as if looking for something. "Zangetsu!" Ichigo said in surprise, "Yeah, something definitely feels different about this place. It feels almost like nothing can hurt me while I'm in here. Like I'm safe from the outside world." he said in wonder of his surroundings. "It's so different."

"Indeed Ichigo," Zangetsu said resolutely, " since overcoming the adversities laid out before you thus far, you have become much stronger. The strength of your inner world reflects just how much stronger you have become. Now, prepare yourself."

Curious about what his zanpakuto wanted, Ichigo tensed slightly, not knowing what to expect. He then saw a naked sword coming his way and stuggled for a moment to catch it without cutting off a finger. Finally happy with his grip on the blade and confident all his digits were still attached to his hand, he yelled at the one responsible. "What the hell old man! I could've lost a finger, or worse! What are you thinking!? And besides that, what do you expect me to do with some ordinary sword like this? Where's my sword?"

"You mean this sword?" Zangetsu asked, holding the long cleaver like sword Ichigo had become familiar with "What you hold in your hands is a nameless zanpakuto used by unranked soul reapers not even worthy of joining the 13 court guard squads. It will serve for this battle."

"Hey wait a minute," Ichigo said raising an eyebrow "just what are you trying to suggest?"

"I cannot allow you to have this one" Zangetsu said, ignoring his wielder in favor of throwing the blade he was holding behind him.

Widening his eyes in surprise at the unexpected action, Ichigo was about to speak up in protest of his zanpakuto's seemingly crazy behavior when a voice spoke up from behind him, causing his eyes to widen even further in shock. "Get out of my way!" the voice spoke excitedly.

The orange haired youth witnessed a white figure rush past him on his left side, heading for the discarded blade. Upon grabbing it, the figure spun in the air and landed facing away from Ichigo. Hearing the figure laugh maniacally Ichigo asked the obvious question of who they were. The figure turned around, revealing his appearance to the orange haired teen. The person wore an all white version of the normally black shinigami uniform with a black layer underneath where there would be a white layer. He had a black cloth tied around his waist where most shinigami had a white cloth. The most bizarre parts about him though were that his skin was white, his teeth black, and his eyes. Where a normal person's eye was white, his was black. and perhaps the creepiest part of this person's appearance was the color of his iris. Most people had blue, green or brown eyes but this person had hauntingly familiar yellow irises. Ichigo would recognize those eyes anywhere. The eyes of a hollow. After another moment of looking at the laughing man, Ichigo realized the man looked like a negative copy of himself! What could that mean? "Who am I you say? You should know me already, partner."

Taking advantage of his wielder's shocked silence, Zangetsu stepped up next to the man in white and addressed Ichigo. "Now begins the test to decide whether or not you deserve to wield me. If you want to use me in battle you will have to take my blade from yourself. This time, your enemy isyou."

The man wearing white spoke up then with an echo to his excited voice "Heh, you think you're going to take this sword from me? Good luck. Go ahead and do it partner, if you can!" The man in white said confidently as he lunged at Ichigo.

Ichigo held up his sword to block but was pushed back easily. As ichigo kept his sword locked against his opponent's, the man in white flew through the air and continued to push him back further and further before taking one long swipe and sending Ichigo sliding back helplessly. With distance now between him and his opponent, the orange haired young man lowered his sword in favor of looking on in awe at the massive aura of spiritual energy surrounding his opponent. 'Incredible. Has Zangetsu always been such a powerful sword?' Looking down at the featureless katana in his own hands, Ichigo couldn't help but think how worthless it was in comparison. 'It might as well be a broom handle. Dammit, how could I possibly be expected to fight this guy with such a worthless weapon!' Ichigo thought in desperation.

"What's the matter, partner? If all you're going to do is stand there looking stupid, I suppose you don't mind if I go ahead and kill you!" Ichigo's copy shouted as he began to spin Zangetsu around by it's cloth off to one side of himself, giving it the appearance of a massive saw blade. With a grunt of effort, he then threw the spinning sword at Ichigo. The orange haired teen was shocked by this, never having thought to use the large sword in such a way. Thankfully, he managed to jump to his right a few feet in order to dodge the blade coming at him. Ichigo's doppelganger then pulled the massive sword back to himself by the cloth and began spinning it again

Deciding to take a moment to address his look-alike, the man in white spoke condescendingly "What's wrong, scared? I simply can't understand how you had such an awesome sword as this and you still got bloodied fighting against an opponent who doesn't even know his own zanpakuto. Tell me, does a stranger become your best friend just because you asked for his name?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Don't you get it, partner? That's exactly what you've been doing. You think you mastered Zangetsu just because you called it's name? You're so arrogant, you haven't even tried to draw out your weapon's full power or even try to understand how. You think you only need to increase your own skill to get stronger don't you!? Heh." Deciding that was enough of a break, he took another shot at Ichigo. Dodging again, the teen frowned in thought about what the other man said.

'He's right. I've only been focusing on my own training and experience. After hearing his name, I didn't even bother making an effort to talk to Zangetsu again. Zanpakuto aren't just weapons to be used but that's exactly how I've been treating him. I'm no better than Kenpachi am I? Damn, how pathetic have I become that I don't even talk to my own zanpakuto? Well, it's time I change that.' Ichigo thought resolutely.

Knowing he couldn't afford to be distracted in the middle of battle, Ichigo focused on his opponent again just in time to duck under a swipe that would have left him headless. He then ran forward with his sword held off to his side in an attempt to rush the other man. After running for only a moment, he saw Zangetsu being thrown at him again. Not having time to dodge due to it's speed, Ichigo brought his sword up to block and was knocked off his feet by the immense force behind the throw. Getting up shakily, he looked at his opponent right as he jumped in the air with a firm grip on Zangetsu intending to chop Ichigo in half. Knowing there wasn't much he could do with the plain katana in his hands, Ichigo experienced a stretched out moment where a person expects death. Panicking and desperate, the young man called out to his zanpakuto spirit for help. 'I know I haven't spoken or trained with you in the past. And I'm truly sorry for letting you down. But please master Zangetsu, let me fight with you again, even if it's only this one last time. I promise I'll make you proud!'

Having doubt that he would live but knowing he had to try anyway, Ichigo closed his eyes and held up his plain katana to block the much larger sword from bisecting him. As a metallic clang sounded, the orange haired young man hesitantly opened his eyes, confused why he didn't feel pain. Upon fully opening his eyes, he was shocked and stood still trying to process what just happened. He was holding Zangetsu! Quickly looking at the other man, he Ichigo noticed he was shocked as well. If neither of them knew what had happened then... Looking over at the quiet and dark figure of Zangetsu standing in the distance and observing the two battle, Ichigo realized the zanpakuto spirit must have heard his thoughts. If that was the case, did this mean the old man was giving his wielder another chance? 'Thank you, master', Ichigo thought with a new resolve blazing in his eyes. Having determined that his wielder once again had a strong resolve, Zangetsu allowed Ichigo to leave his inner world and return to finish his fight with Kenpachi.

"Well, he did a lot better than I thought he would. But you know, Zangetsu, if you keep suppressing his true power he'll only be cut down that much faster." the man in white said conversationally.

"Let me worry about Ichigo's well-being. You are merely here to supply him power when he needs it, don't overstep your authority in this matter. It's time for you to go back where you belong." spoke the zanpakuto not at all bothered by the other's sinister appearance.

"Tch, well in that case I suppose I'll just have to dominate you that much faster. I won't be cut down because of your mistakes you old fool." White said with a surprisingly serious expression on his face and a deadly glint in his eyes. There conversation finished, the hollow like entity began dissolving into black particles of spirit energy which were then absorbed into Zangetsu's cloak.

Looking up at the sky of the world he was in, Zangetsu spoke quietly to himself, "I hope you are ready for what lies ahead Ichigo. The strength you need is already within you, but I wonder if you are willing to fight for it."

***Within Ichigo's Inner World***

Ichigo woke with a start and a quick intake of air. Trying to get a grasp on reality he thought back to the last thing he remembered. With startled realization his eyes widened and he balled his hands into fists. Aizen! That bastard had shoved his hand through Rukia's chest and taken that purple thing he called the Hōgyoku. And was everything that man said about Urahara true? Despite Ichigo's hesitance to believe such a clearly evil man, things just added up too perfectly. He did indeed remember how Rukia had not regained any of her powers over the course of her time in the world of the living, despite her saying she would. Like that man had explained, she did seem to be getting weaker if anything. Add to that the near aura of mystery that surrounded Urahara and it was easy to come to the same conclusion Aizen had presented for all to hear. He'd be having an interesting conversation with hat 'n clogs when he got back.

Done collecting his thoughts, Ichigo finally acknowledged his surroundings. He was back in this place Zangetsu had called his "inner world". He'd have to ask somebody how this worked exactly as nobody had actually explained any of this. Not that he'd ever been of a mind to ask what with the constant idea of dying hanging over his head these past few days. Shaking his head to clear it of these thoughts that were going nowhere, the young man stood and looked around for Zangetsu, figuring someone had to have pulled him in here. Not finding anyone nearby, he decided to call out to the zanpakuto. "Zangetsu! You here?"

"Heheheheh. Nice to see you didn't forget about me after those lofty words last time you were here, king." spoke an echoed voice behind Ichigo, startling him and making him quickly turn around. Upon turning, he once again laid eyes upon the copy of himself that he'd fought the last time he was here. Tensing in response the other's voice, the teen thought about what to say and decided to reaffirm his earlier shout.

"I remember you from the last time I was here. And speaking of the last time I was here, why don't you tell me where Zangetsu is?"Ichigo asked, trying to be somewhat polite despite his previous experience with the person across from himself.

"Where's Zangetsu you say. Tell me, are you talking about that blade on your back or this one here?" the man asked while pulling a copy of the long cleaver off his own back. This sword sported inverted colors from the original however, having a black edge and a white spine. Shocked at seeing a negative copy of his own sword, Ichigo was about to ask the man in white about what kind of trick he was pulling but was interrupted by his copy reappearing above him with said sword held up, ready to swing. Quickly the orange haired teen pulled his own sword from his back and held it up to block. Their blades locked for a moment, the man in white sneered at his opposite while Ichigo grit his teeth in frustration. With a single swipe of his sword, the man forced Ichigo to slide back a few feet. Now angered due to being attacked for no reason he could understand, the young soul reaper glared at his opponent. "Oooh, that look suits you king. What are you so mad about Ichigo, isn't this what you wanted? To get stronger?"

Thoroughly confused and angry, Ichigo responded, "Now what the hell are you talking about!? Just tell me where Zangetsu is!"

With an echoed and way too excited laugh, his opponent answered, "I'll only say this once Ichigo so listen closely. I AM ZANGETSU!"

"What?" Ichigo whispered with wide eyes, having a few too many surprises recently for his liking. "But, if you're Zangetsu... Who was the old man?"

The hollow like man responded with a raised brow and an interested look in his eyes, "Really, you're gonna believe me just like that? I figured you'd put up a fight or say something stupid."

Relaxing for a moment the teen in question chose to explain himself, "Well I thought I'd give you the benefit of the doubt. Even though we fought last time I was here, considering the circumstances I can understand why you'd be pissed at me. On top of that, I'm assuming it was you who kept making that mask appear in time to save my life from Renji and Kenpachi. Even when I fought Byakuya, you took over when I was about to die and saved my life a third time. So I figured the least I can do is extend a little trust your way right? I'm curious myself though, how can you be a hollow and my zanpakuto at the same time?"

Zangetsu was surprised despite himself at Ichigo's insight and he couldn't help but say as much, "I gotta say I'm a little surprised partner. And here I thought you were a complete idiot. I guess I'll be honest with you though. I don't completely understand how this whole hollow zanpakuto thing works either. Maybe you should ask that hat 'n clogs guy when you get out of here since he seems to be keeping a lot of stuff secret. But enough with this boring crap. You promised to make me proud remember? Come and fight me then! Show me why I should lend you my strength and maybe I'll let you have it!"

With that, zanpakuto and wielder fought for what seemed like days. Not that either of them cared about how long the battle lasted. Ichigo was too focused on trying to stay alive and the man he now knew to be the real Zangetsu was too excited to have some good old bloodshed to pass the time. It was way to boring in here for the zanpakuto's tastes. He was a man who liked to live on the edge dammit! Preferably the edge of a sword. After a significant amount of time passed, the two combatants were forced to stop when, after being knocked on his back more times than he cared to admit, Ichigo simply had no more to give. Looking at the passed out form of his wielder and knowing they were done, Zangetsu forced the young man out of his inner world. All things considered, that was pretty fun. He'd have to make sure to pull his king back in here soon for another lengthy battle to pass the time.

Thinking back on the fight he just had, the hollowfied zanpakuto had to admit he was impressed. The progress his king made during that fight was nothing to laugh at. Not to mention Ichigo's use of his instincts. Once he was too exhausted to think, he'd finally stopped trying to fight with his head and just reacted on impulse. Finally the idiot was beginning enjoy himself in battle and just let loose. Not that Zangetsu would ever say it, but the smile on his face was actually happy for once. Maybe, just maybe, if they kept this up he could make Ichigo's body strong enough to handle his own power sooner than he dared hope. Indeed, if they kept this up for the next few months nothing alive would be able to touch them. To be the apex predator, to have no natural predators. Oooh just the thought of it sent pleasant shivers up Zangetsu's spine. That was what he longed for. It was every hollow's wet dream to be invincible and if he had his way the world would bow to them before long.

"I hope you understand just what a huge promise you've made Ichigo by saying you'll make me proud. And I'll make sure you keep it, even if it nearly kills you." he said half to himself as he looked up at the sky. 'Heh, I wonder if being around that fake has made me soft, talking to myself like this.' he thought to himself. 'Nah.'

***Soul Society***

Slowly opening his eyes and noticing the distinct lack of pain despite the lengthy battle he just had within himself, Ichigo took note of the orange glow that surrounded him. This must be Orihime's healing barrier. Just how long had he been out if the injury he received from Aizen didn't hurt anymore? Or was her ability always that powerful? "Kurosaki-kun you're awake!" a voice said from next to him, breaking him out of his thoughts and causing him to look to his right. There he spotted the orange hair, grey eyes and adorable face of his high school friend Orihime. Was she still calling him by his last name? She really was too kind for her own good, though he supposed they weren't quite close enough to go by first names yet. It just made him feel old.

Acknowledging her outburst, Ichigo spoke his mind. "Yeah, thanks for healing me. Say, Inoue, just how long was I out?" he asked while sitting up inside the orange energy dome.

Flustered at how calm he was after being nearly cut in half and passing out, she responded. "About a half hour I'd guess. Are you sure you're feeling good enough to be moving around already?" the young woman asked in concern.

"Actually I feel fine. Your healing ability really is amazing." Ichigo reassured her while thinking to himself. 'Has it really only been half an hour? It felt like days had passed while I was fighting that white bastard.'

Cheeks burning at the compliment she hid behind her hands so her crush wouldn't see their red color. Barely managing to form words, Orihime Inoue whispered through her hands in response. "T-thank you Kurosaki-kun. D-do you think we c-could maybe, um, talk later? A-alone?"

Hoping he heard her correctly he responded. "You want to talk in private later? I mean, sure I guess so. What about?"

Now especially embarrassed that this was really happening, she took a moment to compose herself. "I'd really prefer if we talked about it in private Kurosaki-kun. It's embarrassing to just say it with everyone else here."

Now having some clue of what his friend wanted to talk about (he wasn't that dense, c'mon) he decided to just humor her and get it over with. "Yeah Inoue, sure thing. As soon as things calm down I promise we'll talk."

Seeing that he was done healing she thanked him and went to help heal the other's that were hurt in an effort to calm her rapidly beating heart. Watching her walk away for a moment, Ichigo sighed at the conversation that he knew would come. He thought about how to tell her he didn't have time for those things in his life right now. He'd just gotten himself involved in a war if he understood how this stuff worked. He doubted a military organization would let a traitor as powerful as this Aizen guy just walk away without hunting them down. And now that Ichigo had shown himself to be a warrior capable of challenging captains, these people would likely want his help. Maybe they'd come up with some story of how if he didn't help them his family and friends would be in grave danger, despite it being Soul Society's responsibility to protect humans from this crap in the first place. Damn it all, this is why he didn't like authority figures. They always try to twist your arm into helping them without caring about the cost to the people they were asking.

Well, there was nothing he could do now. He was thoroughly involved in this mess now. Standing up tenderly to make sure his wounds wouldn't act up, he was relieved to not feel any pain. Now that he thought about it, he actually felt a bit stronger. The closest comparison he could think of would be wearing a pack full of school books all day then taking it off when you get home and feeling light as a feather. Yeah, that was it. It was almost as if he was moving through syrup before in comparison. What had caused such a drastic change in his strength? Was it the fight with Zangetsu he just had? Remembering how much stronger he was after fighting Urahara for days on end, Ichigo concluded that must have been it. Well in that case he'd have to thank the crazy bastard next time he saw him. After having his bankai stopped with one finger, the teen knew he needed all the strength he could get his hands on. It seemed a new chapter was opening in his life and Ichigo couldn't help but wonder what sort of person he'd be after all the craziness ended. He wondered what price he'd have to pay for enough power to stop a man like Aizen.

Pulling him from his thoughts, the old bald man with a long white beard Ichigo recalled to be the military commander of this place walked over. " I see you have fully recovered from your injuries young Kurosaki. It is unfortunate you had to be involved in this incident. While you initially came here to free a prisoner, now that the truth has been revealed I hardly think we can rightly call you a criminal yourself. It would be greatly appreciated if you could lend us your assistance in the near future seeing as we are now three captains short. If the soul society were to fall, it would surely spell disaster for the living world where your friends and family reside." Yamamoto said, trying to be as convincing as possible.

'I knew it, what'd I say. They always pull this crap.' Ichigo thought before responding. "Sigh, I suppose I don't have a choice. I'd already made up my mind anyway, I'm too deep into this and that Aizen guy seemed to know me pretty well so it looks like there's no way out of this." He said reluctantly.

"Good, I'm glad we can count on your assistance in these difficult times. You are welcome to stay the next few days before returning to the world of the living. Showing a bit of hospitality to the people who helped uncover such a grandiose plot, it's the least we can do. Speak with captain Ukitake, Rukia Kuchiki's captain, if you need a place to stay for the duration of your visit." The head captain stated, pleased with the young man's decision.

"Yeah, thanks for everything." Ichigo said with a barely there sarcastic undertone. There wasn't much use fighting them on this. With a plan in mind, the young soul reaper headed off to find Rukia's captain to see about getting rooms for himself and his friends. He could really use some sleep after everything he'd just been through.

Ichigo was finally in front of the squad 13 barracks after running around for hours. He'd been fortunate enough to bump into a few shinigami on the way that could point him in the right direction. He had thought about asking Rukia to help him find the place, but she was in the hospital visiting her brother. They really aught to put signs up to help guests. Though he supposed they didn't receive any notable amount of friendly visitors in this place. Tradition probably played a part as well. Tradition seemed to have a hand in everything around here.

Asking a few more shinigami for directions, he managed to find his way to captain Ukitake's office. Knocking and receiving the go ahead to enter, Ichigo slid open the door and laid eyes on the captain of squad 13. He was a pale looking man with white hair, though didn't seem quite old enough to warrant the color. Now that he thought about it, Rukia said she was around 150 years old but she looked like a kid. Just how old did someone have to be around here before they got white hair? Did the man in front of him have thousands of years under his belt?

"Ah, what can I help you with Mr. Kurosaki?" The captain asked with a friendly smile, glad to have something distracting him from his work. It didn't hurt that he now had a chance to thank the young man who went through so much trouble to save his cherished subordinate. Even if she wasn't a seated officer, she was more dedicated to her work than some captains.

Focusing once again on the white haired captain he'd come to see, Ichigo brought up the issue of needing a place to stay. "Er, hello sir. I was told by the commander to ask you about rooms for myself and my friends." He said politely just to be safe.

"Yes, Yamamoto sensei did mention that. My third seats Sentaro and Kiyone will show you to the rooms prepared for your group." Upon hearing their names spoken, the two loyal shinigami appeared as if from nowhere, thoroughly scaring the crap out of Ichigo and making Ukitake chuckle lightly. That always got the new people. "Before you go, Kurosaki, I wanted to thank you for everything you and your friends did to rescue miss Kuchiki. She is a treasured member of this squad and it would have been a tragedy to lose her."

That made the teen scratch the back of his head, embarrassed at having such praise directed at him. He really wasn't used to people complimenting him. Most people at his school were either afraid of him or just avoided him altogether. "Well, despite all our effort I just barely made it in time. Besides, you and that other guy destroyed the phoenix thing. You even distracted the head captain. I don't think we could've done either of those. I should actually be thanking you, sir." He stated, trying to move the attention off himself.

Ukitake couldn't help but chuckle again, his friendly smile increasing a little. This young man was surprisingly polite for his age. "Well regardless of who did what, the fact remains you lent us your assistance. You'll let me thank you for that at least, I hope." With a rare and genuine smile, small as it was, Ichigo accepted the thanks and turned to follow the two people leading him to the rooms he and his friends would be staying in. A wistful look on his face, the captain turned his gaze from the now closed door to outside the window beside him. 'He looks so much like you Kaien it's hard to believe.' Sighing, he turned back to the paperwork on his desk. Had those two added to the pile when he wasn't looking?

***Squad 13 Barracks - The Next Day***

As Ichigo sat in his futon looking up at the ceiling, he couldn't help thinking back to what Inoue had said on Sokyoku hill. He really wasn't looking forward to that talk. While he hadn't known the girl as long as Tatsuki or Chad, he knew how kind she was and he felt like he owed her for coming along on this suicide mission. Still, Ichigo reaffirmed to himself that this wasn't a good time to try and date anyone. When you had an evil supernatural being that knew as much about you as Aizen seemed to, relaxing and looking for love simply wasn't an option. He had nothing against Inoue and admitted to himself that she was very beautiful. But he knew himself well enough to know how things would go if they started dating. He'd be distracted in the middle of some battle somewhere thinking of her, or some overambitious villain character would try and use her as a hostage. He didn't want to put that kind of weight on someone else's shoulders.

Deciding to get the painful conversation done and over with, he finally rose from the futon. Spending the next few hours looking for the young woman who apparently had feelings for him, Ichigo finally ran into her in an alley between buildings. Calling out to her, he reminded her of the talk she wanted to have with him. "Oh, I almost forgot!" She said, trying to play it off as not a big deal to calm her own nerves. Tatsuke had given her tons of advice after school on how to handle this talk when it finally came up. "So how are you feeling Kurosaki-kun? You aren't still hurting are you?" Showing concern about the other person was a great way to get rid of the awkwardness.

"Actually, it doesn't hurt at all anymore. I know I told you already but that healing ability of yours really is incredible."

Forcing herself not to blush from his compliment, Orihime smiled brightly in response. "Thank you Kurosaki-kun, and I'm happy to hear you feel better."

"So, you said you had something private to tell me? I don't have anything I need to do right away, so if you're free we can talk like you wanted."

'Oh my god, this is really happening right now!' She couldn't help but think to herself. Making sure she was composed, she smiled back at her crush. "Yeah, I don't have anything going on right now."

'Oh man, this is gonna suck.' Ichigo held back a grimace. "Well there's nobody around us if you want to just talk here."

"O-ok. Um, it's just that. Well you see, uh." Come on, she could do this! Taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling, Orihime steeled herself and forced her stubborn mouth to work. "I, I love you Kurosaki-kun!" Yes! She did it! Wait, why was he looking at her like that? "Oh, I'm so sorry I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable. Are you ok?" What was going through his head?

Releasing a long sigh, Ichigo braced himself for the horror of having to ruin his friend's day. May as well get it over with. "Look, Inoue. I don't know how to put this lightly so I'll just be blunt. I can't afford to have a girlfriend right now. I don't know if you noticed, but a very powerful, very evil man is off doing his thing unopposed. By what he said, he seems to know me on a level that's pretty disturbing too. My focus needs to be on protecting you guys and my family. That guy stopped my bankai like it was nothing Inoue. I need to get a lot stronger if I'm gonna stop someone like that and I wouldn't have time for a girlfriend." Seeing the girl start to cry at having her hopes dashed, Ichigo said one more line with a small smile. "I uh, suppose if you still have these feelings after we stop this guy, well I guess we could try it out then."

Trying to be polite, Orihime returned the smile though she still had unreleased tears in her eyes. What he said made sense and she wouldn't want to get him killed by being a distraction. She took a shaky breath and sniffled a little. "Yeah, I'd like that." She didn't trust herself with anymore words at the moment and turned to walk around the corner. Once she was out of sight, she ran back to the room she'd been given and stuffed her face into her pillow, crying and screaming 'Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! What were you thinking? Of course it wouldn't work.' She spent another hour crying into her pillow and beating herself up over being so straightforward before she fell asleep.

Staring at where Orihime turned the corner, Ichigo had a sad look on his face. He didn't want to hurt her but knew at the same time she was strong enough to get past this. He sort of hoped she still felt that way after the fighting was done though. Maybe it was just his hormones talking, but he could see a future with someone as caring as her. Shaking his head to get rid of such troubling thoughts, he set off to find someone that could point him to the hospital around here. He needed to distract himself and visiting Rukia was bound to set his head strait.

***World of the Living***

As Ichigo and friends emerged from the dangai at top speed, trying to keep ahead of the Kototsu, the group once again found themselves high above the ground. Was this a bad attempt at comedy from some higher power? Struggling for a moment in midair, the orange haired teenager instinctively flooded spirit energy toward his feet. Normally, this would produce an invisible platform for the user to stand on. At the moment, however, landing on a solid surface was the furthest thing from his mind. Rather, he wanted to slow down before going splat. So, the energy responded to his instincts and without realizing exactly what he was doing, all the energy that'd normally be leaking out of him was instead projected downward. The result was a literal jet of energy propelling him upward. Startled and not able to control himself, Ichigo immediately stopped whatever he had been doing and began to fall once more.

Screaming along with his friends, he was surprised when he safely landed on a flying carpet of all things. "Good to see you back in one piece Ichigo." Said the far too happy voice of Urahara. The smile on his face however quickly vanished when he recalled what Yoruichi had told him about the events in Soul Society. "By now you've likely heard some things about me. I offer you my sincerest apologies please find it in your heart to forgive me." Urahara pleaded while bowing his head low in a show of submission.

Suddenly, a familiar voice called out in Ichigo's mind. "Tch. He thinks we can forgive him just like that? Hey partner, let me take over for a bit. I wanna give this bastard a piece of my mind."

'What? That's stupid, he'll probably attack us if you do!' Ichigo thought back. 'Look, I've accepted you as who you say you are but my friends would be terrified. They don't know that you're my zanpakuto.'

"Fine, have it your way. But I still don't want you to let that guy off the hook so easily. This is a great chance to make him owe us a favor. Do you know how much a favor from someone like him would be worth!?" Zangetsu insisted.

Thinking about it for a minute, Ichigo had to agree. A favor from someone like Hat 'N Clogs could amount to just about anything. "Fine Urahara, I'll forgive you. Before you get your hopes up though, I want you to know that you owe me." Seeing the surprised look on the man's face, Ichigo explained himself. "Even though you trained us to be stronger, you never explained the real danger behind the scenes. I don't care what your reasons were but the fact is you sent me and my friends on a suicide mission, because there's no way you expected us to be able to survive fighting against that Aizen character. And besides that, you were gonna take away Rukia's powers without ever asking for her permission."

With a sad look on his face, Urahara turned to the ground once again. "Looks like I've been caught. Very well, I suppose I can trust you to use this favor wisely." He said seriously. He didn't think Ichigo was the kind of person to ask for something too ridiculous or selfish. If anything, the kid would be more likely to ask for something that would help his friends or sisters.

It was during the trip to their individual homes that the group noticed how unusually silent things were. It wasn't until Orihime got off the carpet at her apartment that her friends noticed she had been quiet the entire trip back. Uryuu, sensing the tension in the air, asked if something was wrong. Ichigo being the only one who knew about the discussion they'd shared, decided to tell them as much. "We had a talk in Soul Society and it didn't turn out so well. It's not my place to say what we talked about so if you want to know more you'll have to ask her." Ichigo wasn't going to hurt the poor girl more by spreading rumors.

Once back at his own house, Zangetsu spoke up again. "Hey partner, how about you come in here tonight for some more training eh? What'ya say?"

"Yeah, that's a good idea. School doesn't start again for almost 3 weeks so I can sleep in if I need to." Ichigo agreed. With that, he said hello to his family and after enduring his dad's craziness eventually went to sleep. Though it took some time for him to finally succumb to sweet unconsciousness, waking up within himself was an odd experience. It felt like he never passed out in the first place, but instead was just suddenly there.

***Ichigo's Inner World***

Ichigo was eager to get started. If the improvement he'd already seen was anything to go by, he couldn't wait to see how strong he could become after this visit. "So Zangetsu, what are we going to do this time? Since that Aizen guy stopped my bankai so effortlessly, I've known I'd have to become stronger then ever just to have a chance at standing up to him. I'm ready for whatever you have planned?"

"Not so fast partner, our little training session last time was a freebie. If you want all the strength your soul has to offer, and even grow past it's current limits, you'll have to dedicate yourself completely to training with me. The time for kid stuff is over Ichigo. Forget about your friends and family. In order to wield the entirety of our combined power, you can't afford to be distracted, and you're gonna be in here a long time. But don't worry. When I'm done with you, you'll be unstoppable." Zangetsu spoke giddily, ecstatic at thoughts of what the future would hold.

Shocked by the steep price being asked of him, Ichigo voiced his concerns. "You can't be serious, there must be another way! What you're saying is just too extreme! Maybe if we space out my training, we can get just as much done without pushing for it so hard?" He asked hopefully.

With a frown on his face at the mere suggestion of going easy, Zangetsu decided to teach his wielder a valuable lesson. "Come here Ichigo, I want to show you something I think will help make up your mind." Cautiously walking over to the other man, Ichigo was taken completely by surprise when his own zanpakuto grabbed him by the throat and began choking him. He began desperately clawing and kicking to get free but the other's grip was just too tight. Continuing to tighten his grip further, haunting yellow eyes looked at the one being held in disgust. "'Another way', 'Too extreme'? Ichigo you need to get something through that thick skull of yours. This isn't some game, this is real life and you're fighting to live! Understand? There are no shortcuts to the top, no easy path to power. If you want to hold my true strength in your hands, you need to fight for it just as hard as you're fighting to breath!"(*) He said while squeezing his grip one last time for emphasis.

His piece said, Zangetsu let go of the teens neck and allowed him to breath while dropping him to the ground. Coughing and wheezing, the full weight of the situation hit Ichigo for the first time with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. What his sword spirit was saying... 'So, this is the price for power then.' After taking a few minutes to gather himself somewhat, he looked up to the scrutinizing gaze of his zanpakuto. "Are you absolutely sure *cough* this is the only way?" He asked one last time, already knowing the answer.

"Yes. Maybe you need a little taste of what you're missing?" The hollow asked in a further effort to convince Ichigo. Holding his hand out to the young man still breathing heavily on his knees, he waited while Ichigo looked at the hand as if it would bite. After a few moments passed and there was no sign of danger, Ichigo hesitantly grabbed the hand offered to him. The instant he grabbed it, power flowed through him. Oh the power. If he had power like this at his disposal, he could do anything. But, behind the blinding wall of power, there was something else. Something, ancient and raw. Before Ichigo could examine it further the hand was taken away. Catching himself from reaching out to it like a baby looking for milk, he listened to Zangetsu. "That, Ichigo, is what you are missing out on. And that wasn't anywhere near all of it either. Just imagine what we can do together. Aizen wouldn't stand a chance against us." 'Heh. Hook, line and sinker.' the zanpakuto thought sinisterly.

Thinking seriously for a moment, Ichigo considered what would likely turn out to be the most important choice of his young life. On one hand, if what Zangetsu was saying was true and that was only a fraction of the zanpakuto's full power... He could only imagine what that kind of power could accomplish. But more importantly to the young man, with such strength in his hands he could protect his sisters from anything. On the other hand though, the heavy cost was that he'd have to put them out of his mind and essentially abandon them for an indeterminate amount of time. So the real question boiled down to weather he would abandon them for a while, but have the power to fight off the whole world. Or if he would stay with them now and possibly not be strong enough to protect them later on. For Ichigo, the answer was clear. "Let me say goodbye. Give me a few hours at least to say goodbye to my friends and family. Then I need Hat 'n Clogs to set up a way for us to be left alone. Let me do that and then I'm yours." He said, looking at his zanpakuto resolutely.

"Tch, fine. Make peace however you need to. At least this way you won't have anything else on your mind. Be ready when you come back though, because with what I'm gonna put you through Hell should take notes." Zangetsu said in response. He wanted to start immediately, but knew at the same time that if he wanted the young man's full attention, he'd have to let the pansy settle things outside first.

Ichigo woke with a startled gasp. He didn't think he could ever get used to the feeling of emerging from himself like that, it was just too bizarre. With a resigned sigh, he rose from his bed and stripped from his night clothes, donning his casual wear. Walking across the hall, he cracked open the door to peer sadly at his sisters, whispering a goodnight before turning around and closing the door behind him. He looked toward the room at the end of the hallway and thought about checking on his dad, but thought better of it, for risk of waking the idiot and the whole neighborhood by extension. Slowly creeping down the stairs, avoiding all the spots he knew were prone to creaking, Ichigo went to the kitchen counter and wrote a note to his family which he then put under a magnet on the refrigerator. Slipping on his shoes, Ichigo grabbed his house keys on the way out and quietly left the house for Urahara's 'candy' shop. While walking down the street, the adolescent failed to notice his father gazing at him from the master bedroom window.

Isshin Kurosaki knew his son well, and hoped the kid would let go of the burdens weighing him down. Ichigo seemed to beat himself up over his mother's death more so than any of the rest of his family. Yes it was a tragedy, but it wasn't his fault, he was only nine what could he possibly have done? Still, after many failed attempts to get the idea through his son's thick skull, Isshin eventually gave up and let Ichigo be, attempting to provide more subtle support in his own unique way. His worst fears were realized when his child finally summoned the powers he was born with. Isshin didn't want the life of a shinigami for anyone, especially not his beloved family. 'Be careful Ichigo, don't do anything stupid out of some sense of obligation.'

Upon arriving at Urahara's undercover spiritual supply store, Ichigo knocked loudly on the door, despite it being almost midnight. After a few more attempts, the shop owner finally appeared in the doorway with a tired expression on his face, though it was difficult to tell with the hat he wore. "Ah, Ichigo what can I do for you this late? Shouldn't you be at home sleeping after the adventurous week you've had?" He asked with a loud yawn.

Not letting up from his serious expression for even a moment, said teen explained the situation. " I won't beat around the bush with this, I need to use your underground training area. I know it's late but you won't even know I'm here. In fact, I'm going to be meditating the whole time. And no, this doesn't count as the favor you owe me." Ichigo made sure to mention the last part upon seeing the other man's shamelessly hopeful expression.

"Ahaha, you got me again Ichigo. Though I really am curious why you want to train so soon, I assume with your zanpakuto. How long do you think you'll be here? Wouldn't want someone to come looking for you thinking I snatched you up." Urahara said, only half joking. Apparently 'some' people thought he looked creepy enough to go around abducting children. How rude.

With a sigh Ichigo looked off to the side trying to avoid eye contact. "Well, starting tomorrow I have 18 days until school starts so I'd appreciate it if you could break me out of meditation by the end of the day before school." God, he hated asking people to do stuff for him like this. It rubbed him the wrong way, made him feel weak even if the feeling was baseless.

"Well I suppose that's not asking too much now is it? Sure, why not. Come on in." With the conversation over, Ichigo followed the man inside and went straight for the trapdoor he knew concealed a massive empty space perfect for throwing around power without need for concern. Exactly why it was called training grounds. As the teen started to descend the massive ladder, Urahara waved down at him. "Be safe Ichigo! Just holler if you need anything and I'll see you in 18 days!" He said while at the same time thinking about resuming what he was doing before the teen arrived. 'I'm going back to bed.'

Ichigo just ignored the enthusiastic remark and continued descending the ladder. Damn this thing was long. About two minutes later he finally reached the bottom and looked around for a good spot to get into position. 'So Zangetsu, how are we gonna do this? Do I need to sit a certain way or something? Because every other time we've met I was either asleep or about to die.'

"Tch, it's nothing so complicated. Just get comfortable and clear your mind. I'll do the rest." Following his zanpakuto's advise, Ichigo found a medium sized boulder to lean his back against as he sat. Once he was reasonably comfortable the next ten minutes were spent emptying his head. He never stopped to think about just how much went through his mind was at any given time, but apparently it was pretty active. Finally he was devoid of thought just like Zangetsu instructed and immediately felt the familiar blurring sensation before suddenly he was simply in another, very familiar setting.

***Ichigo's Inner World***

Ichigo was scared for his life. In his eagerness to achieve the power that Zangetsu offered, the young man had failed to consider the zanpakuto using that power in their fight. It was now two weeks in and if he had a chance, Ichigo would have passed out long ago. That was just it though, the other man never let up from his onslaught for a moment. Determination alone simply wasn't enough to keep someone alive, and at this point the only thing keeping the adolescent on his feet at all was the will to live. His limbs felt heavy from the strain of such a prolonged engagement, and he wasn't sure how much longer this could go on before he finally caved in and died just for the sake of sleep.

When Zangetsu suddenly disappeared, Ichigo automatically swung his bankai over his shoulder to block. Even if he was slowing down from exhaustion, the teen had adapted to his zanpakuto's aggressive tendencies, now being able to predict with some amount of accuracy what move was coming next. He always did seem to perform at peek ability when he felt threatened. This far in though, Ichigo could clearly see what he was fighting for. His friends and family were safe, at least for the time being, and he doubted very much whether a part of his own soul could go through with killing him. There were no lives on the line this time. Rather, this was a battle between a man and a monster, where the real goal was to gain the monster's respect. Ichigo needed to somehow grab power he didn't seem to have and make Zangetsu proud to call the teen an equal.

Clearly this wasn't an issue that could be solved with force. Zangetsu was leagues above Ichigo's level both in skill and power, there was no denying it. Surrendering and begging for mercy wouldn't work, he'd lose what little respect he already had. Trying to look tough and demanding his zanpakuto's power wasn't an option either. He'd probably be laughed at and bloodied some more. With no other options presenting themselves, the young man took what he believed to be the only choice left. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Letting go of all inhibitions, Ichigo reached into the darker part of himself he tended to keep buried deep. Those thoughts he'd have at night when it would take hours to fall asleep. The regret of not having done more to save his mom. The fear of losing what was left of his family to the dangers of the spiritual world he was now a part of. The doubt he had in his own abilities. Ichigo gripped these emotions tightly in his mind's eye until they were reduced to their most basic form.


With unbridled fury taking the place of any fear or regret he held, Ichigo tilted his head back and screamed at the power that surged from within himself. It was initially painful to force such incredible power through a body that wasn't used to it, but as the pain subsided, he forced himself to gaze back down at his curiously happy opponent. After taking a second to marvel at his newfound emotional freedom, Ichigo adopted a hard look and used a speed technique he wasn't familiar with to reach Zangetsu instantly. With a mere swing of his ebony blade, the furious teen all at once broke the sound barrier and cut a deep wound on the left side of his opponent's chest while also nearly removing the man's arm. Even after such a decisive blow, the zanpakuto merely twisted around to land on his feet and looked up at Ichigo with an overjoyed smile splitting his face.

Not fazed in the slightest by the otherwise life threatening injury, Zangetsu congratulated his wielder. "That's right Ichigo! Let loose and enjoy yourself! It's in our nature to kill and destroy, so you might as well have fun doing it!" The wound from a moment ago healed in a matter of seconds and the battle continued anew. After the first strike though, Ichigo realized he still wasn't strong enough to overpower his sword spirit outright. Even so, the adolescent couldn't help the light smile that replaced his determined look. He was having fun in spite of himself, trading blows back and forth like this. Although he wasn't getting cut nearly as much now, the cuts that did appear across his person didn't seem to hurt anymore. If ever there was a term to describe the euphoria he was feeling, it had to be freedom. Now that he'd let go of his fear, regret and doubt, and once the momentary burst of anger wore off, there was nothing left to hold him back.

And so the battle went on. What was once a man fighting a monster for his life, had become two monsters -kindred spirits in blood and adrenaline- fighting for the love of it. Within the next 3 days, Ichigo learned more about himself than he ever thought possible. He was at peace with being a monster because that's what he was, plain and simple. He learned that he didn't have hollow powers and shinigami powers, because he was neither of them. Rather, Zangetsu revealed to the teen that he'd always had these powers in him and because his zanpakuto was his hollow side, as well as his humanity playing the part of a catalyst, there was no distinction to be made between the two. Yes, Ichigo could don a hollow mask at will and even take the form of a hollow wielding a sword, but it was more for the sake of intimidation than to boost his abilities. This power was his to do with as he wished, even more so now that Zangetsu respected him as a fellow monster. Still, there was this feeling that something was missing despite such wild revelations, though Zangetsu resolutely stated it was nothing to concern himself with.

At first there was debate in Ichigo's mind over accepting these wild and beastly powers. While it was true he would one day hold enough strength to rule the world and do as he wished, it scared him that he might turn on those he loved in some fit of blind rage. With time though, the conclusion was reached that all would be well. After all, even wild and savage animals protected their pack. Ichigo knew who his pack was. Dad, Yuzu, Karin, Ishida, Chad, Tatsuki, Orihime, Rukia, and perhaps less so his casual friends at school but he supposed they counted as well. If anyone dared bring his pack to harm, they'd better find a god and pray for their lives, because even that may not be enough to save the fool from his wrath.

***World of the Living - Subterranean Training Grounds***

Slowly, the orange haired young man woke up, though opted to keep his eyes closed for a moment. Getting a feel for himself and his surroundings, he was surprised to note that his body felt much stronger that he remembered it being. Hmm, apparently being in contact with his soul during such a drastic swell in power had caused it to be more in tune with his spiritual side. Well, he wasn't going to complain about it. For all he knew this meant he could use some of his abilities without needing to leave his body at all. Deciding to test the theory, Ichigo opened his eyes and held his hand out as if to grab something while also mentally reaching for the vast power held within himself. Black energy pooled in his palm and extended in the shape of a long rod before coalescing and taking the form of a simple but deadly looking ebony short sword with a red cutting edge. While it didn't even begin to compare to his full power in spirit form, it should work well enough for emergency situations to prevent him being caught off guard. Not to mention he liked the shape*.

"Oh, you're awake already I see. I was just coming to wake you up myself Ichigo." Looking up from his examination of the blade in his hand, Ichigo viewed Urahara walking toward him from the base of the extensive ladder. "Interesting sword you have there, I can't help but notice it doesn't look anything like the zanpakuto you used before."

Noticing the not so subtle question in the statement, Ichigo stood up and curtly spoke back. "Yeah, that's because it's not the sword I was using before. I'm not going to answer whatever stupid question you have like 'what does it do'. Instead of talking, why don't you come here and find out for yourself what it can do?"

Growing nervous at the bloodthirsty aura surrounding the teen, Urahara put up his hands in a placating gesture and took a step back. "That's quite alright Ichigo, I don't want to watch another hat die. So, moving on, I assume your training went well?" He said in an effort to change the topic.

Ichigo chuckled and looked down at the sword in his hand before swiping it at the boulder he'd been resting on. After a moment a line appeared on the large rock and it split cleanly in two with one half falling over. "Heh. Yeah, I suppose you could say my training went well. It's too bad you don't want to fight, I could've done with a test to see just how much these two weeks have paid off." His piece said, Ichigo flexed his power more and suddenly he was at the base of the ladder leading out of the training grounds. A wide eyed Urahara watched on in silence as the unusually adept adolescent disappeared once more and ascended the ladder in one move. While Ichigo wasn't anywhere near as fast as someone like Yoruichi, the fact that he could achieve that kind of speed while hindered by a human body was nothing short of amazing. Urahara had to wonder exactly what kind of creature he'd just let leave his shop, because there was no way somebody could get that strong that fast. Well, Ichigo was a good kid. The shop keeper was certain nothing too bad could come from this.