A slender black blade was driven into the concrete floor, a number of cracks running out from the point of impact, a white mask hung haphazardly from its hilt. A young man sat opposite it, regarding it intently, a number of bandages crossing his torso, still healing burns hidden beneath.

An unseen wind rustled the folds of his black uniform as his focus double, and the blade quivered slightly, rattling the mask as it did so. There was a deep shuddering within his inner world, and then came the sound of chain links straining.

The man refused to let up, bending his will upon his task.

And then the mask began to warp, losing its stripes and gaining human features.

"What the fuck do you want, King?"

X x X

Kuchiki Rukia was unsure. Not confused, for she knew what she could do, nor indecisive, as she knew what she wanted to do. She was unsure because she wasn't sure if what she wanted was also what Ichigo wanted.

After Ichigo's awakening, many occupants of the infirmary had left quickly, not wanting to be seen fussing over their leader for various reasons. After the exodus, only Rukia, Renji, Ishida, Chad, Inoue, Tatsuki had remained, while Shinji lounged in the shadows of the infirmary. He took a deep breath to speak.

"What the fuck, Ichigo?" Tatsuki burst out, unable to stifle her questions any longer.

Ichigo rubbed his face tiredly, as Inoue looked slightly uncomfortable at her friend's outburst while the rest managed to look only mildly amused. Ichigo hefted the sheets off himself, swinging his legs out of the infirmary bed.

"Renji," he rasped. "Why don't you explain a few things to Tatsuki?"

Renji perked up at this. "Sure, Ichigo," he replied.

Ichigo rose to his feet, ignoring Inoue's quiet objections. "Chad, Ishida," he continued. "I want the two of you to go to Soul Society and find out how they're handling our raid."

The two exchanged a glance before nodding, but remained where they were.

"What happened after Yamamoto dealt with me?" Ichigo glanced around the room, waiting for an answer and expecting the worst.

Inoue had risen to her feet and come back with bandages which she was attempting to wrap around Ichigo. She knew he wasn't going to stay in one spot long enough for her to finish healing him.

Rukia took it upon herself to answer Ichigo's question. "He was driven off by Starrk and Shinji, with help from Hiyori and Lilnette." She swallowed, "there is now some sort of barrier covering Karakura Town and preventing it from harm."

Ichigo nodded once, absorbing the information. He stepped away from the bed abruptly, just as Inoue finished wrapping bandages around his torso. "You've all got something to do. I'm going to train." He began to walk out of the infirmary, before pausing near the door to call over his shoulder, "and someone bring me the bloody Hogyoku!"

As Ichigo stepped out of the infirmary, Shinji walked into step with him. "Once you've finished your light, easy going training, come see me," Shinji spoke with his eye blinding grin. "I've got a few things to tell you that you might find interesting."

Ichigo gave him a direct look, receiving only another grin for his troubles. Shaking his head, Ichigo made his way towards an empty room near his quarters, not quite fully taking notice of Rukia's presence following him.

Rukia watched as Ichigo entered what she knew to be an empty room, closing the door behind him without looking back. She felt a whisper of reiatsu as Ichigo slipped quietly into his Bankai, followed by the sound of a sword point driving into the unyielding stone floor. Her hand drifted towards the door handle of its own accord, before pausing just as she grasped it.

Kuchiki Rukia was unsure. And on the other side of the door, Ichigo began to focus his will upon the Hollow mask that rested atop the hilt of his blade.

X x X

Urahara Kisuke and Shihouin Yoruichi watched as Isshin placed his hand onto what appeared to be an unassuming chunk of rock, one of many littering the base of a sheer cliff they stood at, before channeling a small amount of his reiatsu into it. Before their eyes, part of the cliff seemed to shimmer, then melt away to reveal a winding, shadowed path carved into the rock face.

The two ex-captains exchanged a glance as their friend disappeared down the path in a flicker of Shunpo.

"Eager, isn't he," Yoruichi commented blandly, as they began to follow at a more sedate pace.

"Can you blame him?" Kisuke questioned as he drummed a tattoo against his leg with his fan.

"No..." Yoruichi mused, before a cat-like grin came over her face. "I've always wanted to train another Kurosaki anyway."

Urahara's eyes lit up in unholy glee as he gave in to the temptation to flick his fan over his mouth. "And this time we get one each."

X x X

Yamamoto sat in silence as his oldest friend gave him a severe look from across his desk. "You fought the Primera Espada and the two most powerful Vaizard with only your Shikai," his friend chided. "You ought to know better. Your condition would be much worse had they faced you at the same time without distractions, Yamamoto-kun."

Yamamoto gave a small sigh as he basked in the blue light of the healing Kido. He and his friend were alone in his office, the one place that they could address each other without formality, where she was healing the wounds he had received during the skirmish over Karakura Town before the formation of the strange golden barrier.

"You take entirely too much joy in your lectures, Retsu," Yamamoto observed dryly, sliding his shihakusho back over his shoulders as the healing Kido ended. "If not for your wondrous Kido, one might think that you were attempting to finish a wounded soldier whilst they are down."

Unohana Retsu smiled gently, having not moved from her chair from the commencement of her healing Kido to its end, before her expression became stern. "We must be wary of Hikifune. Communication between our realm and the Royal Dimension are anything but standard at this time. There is something off about the way this affair is being handled."

Yamamoto raised an eyebrow, gazing at Unohana with one partially lidded eye. "Oh?" his tone adding volumes to his simple response.

Unohana rose to her feet before giving a short bow. "Tilt your head a certain way and all that has occurred can be seen as a witch hunt aimed solely at the Kurosaki family and those who would stand beside them," she replied coolly.

"The Kurosaki Family? Not merely the Ichigo boy?" The Captain Commander asked in an amused tone.

Retsu smiled at her old friend's tone. It explained more to her about his knowledge of the situation than his words. Giving another bow, she gave one last piece of advice. "Rest well, Yamamoto-kun. I have a feeling you will need all of your strength soon," she finished mysteriously as she left the office.

Yamamoto ignored the paperwork on his desk to gaze out of his office and over Seireitei, a small frown on his face as he contemplated his next move.

X x X

Ishida frowned, his expression unpleasant. Beside him, his companion had the temerity to chuckle at him.

Ishida Uryuu was most displeased.

It wasn't the fact that he and Chad had been dispatched by Kurosaki ('As if he were my superior,' Ishida scoffed internally) to covertly investigate the after effects of the recent raid on Seireitei. Nor was it the fact that they were currently walking amidst a rabble of self proclaimed death gods.

No, it was the fact that the material used to weave the Shinigami uniform was absolutely insufferable.

How did Kurosaki endure it? The coarse fabric chafed against his skin and was not conducive to the body's cooling process. Ishida steadfastly ignored the small part of his mind that dryly pointed out that perhaps he was making just a bit too much fuss over the inferiority of Shinigami battle wear when opposed to Quincy uniforms.

Ishida sent another aggravated glance towards his companion, who seemed to have the ability to read his thoughts. Or at least guess what he was thinking based on the way he kept tugging at the shihakusho in irritation.

"Surely we have gathered the sort of information Kurosaki was looking for by this point?" Ishida queried in a controlled tone.

Chad sighed. They had gone to the trouble of knocking out two unsuspecting shinigami of roughly their own size (a task that had taken an understandably long time, having to locate two low level soul reapers off on their own, one of whom had to be at least close to Chad's size) and stolen their outfits, enabling them to blend in amongst the countless other squads running around somewhat haphazardly in the zone hit by Renji, Starrk, Shinji, Lilnette and Hiyori. It had taken several further hours of effort to slip into the damaged zone without arousing the least amount of suspicion. Needless to say, Chad was not willing to allow all of their effort to go to waste. And so, in a succinct, encompassing, not to mention final tone, Chad gave Ishida the reply he felt covered all of his thoughts.


Ishida twitched.

"Alright! Get over here, you lazy rabble!"

Ishida and Chad turned to face the direction of their most recent annoyance. The source of the shout appeared to be a large, boisterous man seemingly intent on shoving as many crackers down his throat as possible. Noticing the Vice Captain's badge on his arm, they bowed their heads in respect just several beats after the group of shinigami they had concealed themselves in.

The two friends tuned the pompous vice captain out as he began to shout further orders. By the end of it, Ishida had idly noted that he had managed to contradict himself twice without being noticed by any of their 'fellows'.

"Now get to work!"

Ishida and Chad moved mechanically, matching the distinct lack of enthusiasm shown by the other rank and file shinigami as they began to clear waste construction material from the beginnings of a new tower that was sprouting from the ground. They split up so as to cover more ground, Ishida decided to wander closer to the boorish lieutenant.

It proved to be a good decision, as their supervisor was soon joined by another Vice Captain—one Ishida recognised as Matsumoto something-rather by her long, strawberry blonde hair.

"Heeey! Omaeda!" Matsumoto greeted her comrade cheerfully, although her mind was clearly somewhere else.

"Matsumoto," Omaeda grinned in reply, shoving another fistful of crackers into his mouth.

"You're disgusting, you know that?" Matsumoto asked absently.

Omaeda stared at Matsumoto in affront, his mouth hanging open to reveal the soggy mass of half eaten crackers within.

"How's things going at your squad?" Rangiku asked brightly, ignoring the apparent offence she had caused.

Omaeda puffed himself up, his face taking on a smug appearance. "The Captain will be keeping her rank!" he declared proudly.

"Really?" Rangiku asked, gaining interest. "I thought her injury interfered with her combat ability."

"Not anymore," Omaeda crowed.

Ishida scowled to himself as he toiled at a barrel of mortar. He had heard the story of Ichigo's maiming of the 2nd Squad Captain, and from the conversation he surmised that this 'Omaeda' was the 2nd Squad Vice Captain. Ichigo had maimed the woman for a reason and would not be pleased when he heard of her recovery. The Quincy began to drift towards the area where he could see Chad towering over the rest of their 'comrades', handing out large building blocks to pairs of waiting shinigami.

Several metres away, Matsumoto narrowed her eyes at the back of a retreating figure. She had noticed the recruit listening in on their conversation, even as subtly as he had managed, but had though little of it. The fact that he was now attempting to move away in such a calm fashion—too calm a fashion—and after such a conversation, only made her suspicious. There was also the faint sense that she should recognise him from somewhere, despite the fact that she could only see his back. The man glanced back, making eye contact through a gap in his hair and Rangiku could see clearly enough to see his eyes tighten as they stared at each other for the barest of seconds. She felt her own eyes widen slightly in response.

Ishida cursed internally. He had been made. He continued on his way without pause, noting that Chad had somehow disappeared in the last few seconds.

"Identify yourself," came a hard voice from behind him.

Ishida paused, before turning to stare at his challenger with a smirk. Matsumoto Rangiku stared back, a hand on her zanpukutou.

"It's good to see you, Rangiku-san," Ishida drawled.

"Why are you here?" the woman questioned, possibilities assumed and discarded in her mind.

"What, I can't visit old friends?" Ishida queried innocently. "Perchance I merely wanted to see what ruckus my friends had wrought in Seireitei compared to the last few times we've visited."

Their confrontation was beginning to draw stares, even more so as Matsumoto's blade began to slide from it's sheath. "You will be coming with me now, Quincy-san, as an enemy of Soul Society," she stated in a detached voice.

Ishida reached out with his senses, confident that his friend was ready. He decided to behave just a little bit recklessly, taking a page or two from the books of a pair of red and orange haired shinigami.

"You've got me," Ishida declared in a mocking tone, his hands held out before him. "Take me to your leader."

Rangiku's stance tightened as she prepared to deal with whatever scheme her foe had—only to be distracted by an explosion at the centre of the partially rebuilt tower. Her attention wavered for the barest of seconds as her head turned to take in the dying embers of the detonation caused by a blast of blue energy. She heard the sound of metal dangling on a chain and cursed her mistake as she turned back to the Quincy only to find herself facing nothing.


X x X

"What the fuck do you want, King?"

"I want what is mine," Ichigo replied coldly.

The mask-turned-face of his Inner Hollow smirked. "And what might that be, oh mighty ruler?" he taunted.

"I want your Bankai. I want more access to my Resureccion form. And I want your help with both."

"Not asking for much, are we King?" the Hollow asked in a condescending tone. "Tell you what—you strike a deal with me, and I might just help you out."

"No deals," Ichigo answered in a tone that brooked no argument. "You will give me access to the power aspect of your Bankai to combine with the speed aspect of mine, and you will show me how to fight at more than an instinctual level in your advanced form."

Ichigo snarled and nearly hissed at the impending refusal that was already building in his Hollow's throat. "Or so help me, I will lock you deeper within my psyche than you have ever seen and leave you in the dark for the rest of your miserable existence."

His Inner Hollow hissed in rage at the guttural tone, the Hollow tone that Ichigo's voice had taken on as his King leaned back, expecting his acquiescence.

"I'm waiting."