"Nani?" Tobiume blinked slowly. "So that's why you're here?"

"Pretty much." Ichigo shrugged. "It's not because I want to be."

"Neh neh!" Sogyo no Kotwari asked eagerly. "What can your zanpakutou do, anyways? Is it shy? Is that why it won't come out, neh, neh?"

"Kumori controls shadow, Kajihimecontrols fire." Ichigo explained, giving his twin wazikashi an appreciative glance before returning his attention to the brothers. "And no, they really would come out if they wanted to, but they just don't feel like it right now."

"Show us! Show us!" The twins chanted.

Ichigo blinked.

"Well, I can't just force them to materialize if they don't want to."

"Then just show us your shikai."

"Alright alright. I'll give you a sneak peak."

Sogyo no Kotowari plopped down on the nearest seat they could find, which in this case, happened to be Katen Kyokotsu's lap. She scowled for a moment, and considered dislodging the little devils', but something told her that wasn't a wise idea. Everyone else just sat on either the ground, or a nearby boulder.

"Alright." Ichigo grunted, and opened his palms. "Here we go." An orange black glow illuminated him for a moment, his hands curling into claws as a low, continuous shout barreled itself out of his throat.

"Kasai Tama!"

With a sizzling pop, two perfectly shaped soccer ball sized spheres' of fire appeared in Ichigo hands. A few of the zanpakutou made sounds of approval, whilst the rest looked on spellbound. Tensing his shoulders, Ichigo whirled, and lobbed the first into the lake, where it created a small explosion, spraying everyone with a fine mist of water.

The second, he held between his hands, molding it and shapping it between his fingertips, lengthening, extending, forging an entirely new creation altogether. By the time he'd finished crafting it, Ichigo had made what looked like a blade of pure fire. He held it aloft, and made a few sweeping slashes with it, each time leaving a glowing after image in its wake. But before they could marvel at it any further, Ichigo tilted the blade of fire down towards his mouth, parted his lips, then abruptly swallowed it whole.

As everyone gasped, the vizard inhaled sharply and slapped both palms togther. Moments later, he whirled towards an unocupied boulder, and spoke a single sentence.

"Kisoku Kadou." (Breathing Vortex)

The unfortunate slab of stone never stood a chance. It shattered into a thousand tiny pieces as Ichigo spit the ball of fire at it.

As the fire gushed from his lips, even the ever silent Tenken was awed. This boy's ability to manipulate fire was absurd, yet here he was, wielding the element as if it were his very own.

"Sugoi!" Sogyo no Kotowari laughed, but Ichigo was not yet done.

"Kage Bunshin." At this command, he slashed at his own shadow. Moments later, said shadow seemingly detacheditself from Ichigo's feet and shuffled a few steps to the right, taking on ethereal solid form as it went, filling out and gaining mass, then shape. It was only a silhouette, and you couldn't really see it well in the dark, but as the fire illuminated it, everyone saw that it really was a clone made of shadows.

He was exactly like Ichigo, heck, he even had a shadow pair of wazikashi strapped to his side.

"Wow!" Sogy-chan and Koto-chan truly knew no fear as they bounded up to the shadow and summarily began to poke him to see if he was solid, which to their delight, he was. "Look! Another Ichigo! Ichigo made anotherIchigo!"

"Boys." Katen's voice called as the bunshin tapped its foot impatiently. "Don't poke the clone."

It, the shadow, mimed a laugh as they scrambled back towards Katen Kyokotsu, before giving a low, extravagant bow to a still relatively quiet Tobiume. Surprised, the girl bowed in kind, then suddenly whipped one of her bells at him, casting a ball of fire from the ornament towards the doppleganger.

The shadow tilted his head like a sparrow, then caught the proffered gift in his right palm, and began to twirl the sphere round and around on its pointer finger. Again, it bowed, and again, Tobiume tossed another sphere of fire at it. To everyone's amusement, the shadow caught this one as well, and actually began to juggle the flaming spheres, not seeming to care as the number eventually increased to five.

Finally, just as the sixth sphere was given to him, the shadow tossed all the flaming globules into the air, where they exploded beneath the ceiling, into a series of multi colored lights, ranging from orange to yellow, red, and even smattered with a touch pink.

Ichigo calmly slapped a high five with his shadow copy, which then once more attached itself to his feet and lay flat upon the ground.

Sogyo no Kotowari was beyond thrilled.

"WAI!" The twins let out a cry of delight at the end of display. "Again! Again! Do it again! We wanna see your bankai this time!"

"Sorry," Ichigo shook his head. "I can't let anyone see it."

"Waaaaah?" Sogy-chan whined.

"Why not?" Koto-chan begged. "We won't tell anyone, promise!"

"Yeah!" Sogy-chan seconded. "Pinky swear!"

"Sorry, but I just can't." Now there was a trace of sadness in those chestnut brown eyes as Ichigo sheathed his wazikashi. "If I were to release it, here, with everyone around....you'd all be dead in less than ten seconds."

A dismal mood fell over the zanpakutou. Ten seconds? Was his bankai really that powerful? Sogyo no Kotowari remembered Jushi-chan saying that Ichigo's bankai was scary, but now they were even more curious as to what it was. Katen Kyokotsu had likely been the only one to really have seen it during the Battle of Karakura, but even she seemed perplexed by this declaration.

"Maaaaan." Haienko whined, a bored and disinterested expression on her face as she curled up to go back to sleep, "What a tease."

"Aha!" Sogyo no Kotowari's sudden cry surprised everyone and nearly knocked the human/cat hybrid clear off her precarious perch. "We know why! Strawberry-san's a vizard-thingy!"

"It's not a thingy." Ichigo tried to keep a straight face, but upon failing to do so, allowed himself a small grin. "It's a dangerous power that I only use when I absolutely have to."

"Oh, you mean he's one of those guys that wear a mask?" Haineko all but purred. She'd barely been conscious after Allon tore out Matsumoto's hip, but she hadgotten a glimpse of those other mask wearing guys, the one's who had arrived to mop up the rest of the espada.

"Can we see it?" Tobiume asked politely

Ichigo hesitated, then reached up to his face.

"Brace yourself. You'll only be able to see it for a second."

"A second should be more than enough."

Ichigo said nothing more as he lifted his left hand up to the exposed side of his face. With a swift movement, the mask began to grow as he waved his palm over it, the white bone moving like milk as it molded itself into a ghastly skull

Black light gathered into his hand, then molded itself across the rest his face. Now, Kurosaki wore the infamous mask, its twin black stripes the only source of color on the otherwise white porcelain. His gold and black eyes were still burning on the zanpakutou ahead of him, all of whom were struck speechless but just how sinister his reaitsu had become.

"Satisfied?" Ichigo's voice came, distorted behind the surge of hollow reaitsu that came from the mask. "I told you you'll only see it for a second." As Ichigo finished, he whisked a palm over the mask dispelling itself with a flick of his wrist, his reaitsu dropping back down to that of a shinigami's, rather than that of a hollows.

For a moment, the zanpakutou remained silent.

"We want a mask too!"

"It's not that simple!"

"Well then," Sode no Shirayuki finally spoke, "I suppose we'll be able to see your bankai once we attack the shinigami?"

"Not likely." Ichigo's tone darkened. "The only way you'll see my bankai...is if you're about to be killed by it."

Sode no Shirayuki stiffened slightly. Was that a spike of killer intent she'd just felt from Ichigo? Surely he was less than thrilled that she'd abandoned Rukia, but after the winter war had left her bedridden and comatose, she held no regrets about leaving someone whom she doubter would ever wake up.

"Alright," Hozukimaru yawned loudly, breaking the impasse. "I don't know about you chibi's, but I'm taking a nap. It's too damn late for me to still be awake."

Hyourinmaru nodded silently and walked off to a corner to be by himself.

"I agree. I suggest we all rest while we still can."

--

(That night)

"Ichigo-san."

"Huh?" The shinigami opened his eyes blearily, still drowsy from sleep. He nearly fell out of the hamock he'd made himself. He started in surprise, but then recognized Tobiume staring down at him, standing on a boulder, to be level with him. "Whuzzat?"

"I had a bad dream."

The girl hugged both arms to herself, trying to hold back a shiver, but he could hear her teeth chattering, and the thin mist that came from her breath. The temperature had dropped several degrees as the night dragged on, but he hadn't even noticed. Kumori-Kajihime was always a constant source of warmth for him, so he hadn't even been affected by the fact that Hyourinmaru had pretty much made the entire cave an icebox. Now, as he glanced around, he saw that nearly everyone had snuggled up to someone for warmth this night.

Gonryomaru lay at the feet of Tenken, propped against the back of the giant zanpakutou. Ruiro Kujaku had wrapped himself in his feathers for warmth, but the fact remained that Hozukimaru was laying nearby surely kept them both warm.

Suzemabachi slumbered quietly on the shoulder of Wabisuke, who looked suprisingly undisturbed by the cold, even though he didn't have anything more than a ragged pair of hakama pants to wear.

Ichigo was slightly amused to see that even Kazeshini had found someone to snuggled up to, though his companion still wore a slight frown as she slept fitfully. Again, Ichigo doubted it was just Haineko's fur coat that was keeping the black demon warm. Poor Haineko. She'd probably have nightmares when she woke up in the morning.

Sogyo no Kotowari, were huddled around Katen Kyokotsu, both of them, to stay warm, and both dual zanpakutou looked to be quite content in the chilly night. Only Hyourinmaru and Sode no Shirayuki slept close to one another, and that was likely because they were both ice zanpakuto.

And this left little Tobiume all by her lonesome and in the cold.

"A-And I'm...c-cold." Tobiume sputtered at last. "A-Achoo!" A small sneeze now, and she sniffled pitifully. "Sorry."

'Oh.' This Ichigo could understand. This sorta thing had happened once or twice after mom died. Yuzu or sometimes even Karin would have a nightmare, and wouldn't be able to go back to sleep.

"Huh." He sat up, rubbing at his eyes once more, then giving Tobiume an inquisitive glance. "I didn't know zanpaktou could catch cold?"

"J-Just b-because I used to b-be a sword doesn't mean I can't get s-sick-Achoo!"

"Shame on you!" Kajihime and Kumori, sounded just as tired as he was, if not more, did not sound the slightest bit pleased.

'Eh?'

"She's only a little girl! And freezing to death! Put two and two together, baka!"

'Wha?!'

"Huh?" Tobiume blinked in surprise at the question, her cheeks flushing a deep, rosy red, or perhaps that was due to the frigid chill in the air, or something else altogether. "Is...that okay?"

"Yeah, sure, I guess." Ichigo reluctantly patted the space beside him. "C'mon, look at you, you're freezing."

"Mmm...okay." She relented at last and sat down beside him.

Ichigo muttered something incomprehensible and turned over to go back to sleep.

Apparently, Tobiume had chosen to trust him wholeheartedly, for no sooner had he laid back down, then she snuggled up against him, burying her head in his chest, falling fast asleep, comforted by his protective arm around her.

Ichigo blinked, thought about moving her, sighed, then decided against it. Closing his eyes, he tried to force himself back into slumber, and tried not to think about his betrayal.

But sleep did not come so readily for Ichigo Kurosaki. His eyes popped open after fifteen seconds, accompanied by a frustrated snarl.

"Damnit."

He remained distracted by Katen's words, that and the latest idea that had occurred to him, during Muramasa's refusal to answer any of his questions. True, he had originally come here in order to guarantee Rukia's safety, but now he was actually starting to get attached to the zanpakutou here. Sure, they each had their own little quirks and flaws, and yeah, they bickered and argued half the time, but still...

They kinda felt family. He felt his animosity for the Soul Society beginning to grow. If the zanpakutou had really been treated as badly as he'd been told, then maybe they did deserve to rebel, at least some of them did.

'Shit.' He sighed, staring up at the ceiling and began to convince himself that he was in the right. 'No, I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm here to keep Rukia safe. That's all. That's all I came here to do. I'm not hurting anyone, and its not like they won't understand once I tell them. Besides, Muramasa's bound to let his guard down sooner or later. Then I'll get him.

"And what then?" A small part of him asked. "You'll go back to being the Sereitei's lapdog?"

'No, its not like that-

"Don't lie to yourself. Win or lose, you know what they'll do to you, once they realize you've stabbed them in the back.'

'No! You're wrong!'

"You'll be their little servant boy forever, on beck and call!"

'I SAID NO! I'm not their servant, godamnit!'

"Yes you are! Good little Ichigo, always following the rules, always-

'Urusai! I'm not listening to you!'

"Suit yourself."

'I'm not...Ichigo breathed. 'I'm not...I wont...I wont. I wont be their servant...ever.'

And finally, blessed sleep took him.

Next time: Meeting the other's, making plans.