A/N: and we are back for chapter 17! Mixed reactions to the last chapter, as was expected, but damn! It is amazing to see how many people felt that chapter. While some expressed it much more reasonably than others, thank you all who favorited, followed, and took the time to review. Also thanks to all who read my little Ichigo/Yoruichi Christmas one-shot. I truly appreciate it. Without further adieu, Chapter 17!

read, review, and enjoy!

still don't own bleach...

Yoruichi woke up very warm, but very sore. Her body felt like it had been run over several times, and her head felt as if it were in a vice. Her eyes were swollen from a night of heavy crying, yet she couldn't find the willpower to open them.

As the grogginess of waking began to slowly fade, the events of the previous night began to replay through her mind.

Noburu's alive...

His words...he still loves me...

The kiss...

Ichigo's face...

His cries...

His pain...his...pain...

Yoruichi squeezed her eyes shut even tighter to combat the horrendous wave of nausea that accompanied the recollection of what she had done. Ichigo...her Ichigo...had been there to witness her mindlessly shattering his heart. 'Oh Kami, please just let it have been a dream...

When she had returned to the mansion, she could barely see straight as her tears and ripping sobs would not stop. For hours, it seemed, she had bitterly wept as the mass of conflicting feelings she was forced to face raged through her.

As she stirred, however, she noticed that she wasn't alone. Awareness of a pair of arms that were wrapped around her, as well as a scent that she was not familiar or comfortable with began to dawn on her.

'Ichigo?' ,she thought, still a little hazy from the early barrage.

Feeling a pair of lips kiss her shoulder, she heard a voice that was definitely not Ichigo's sleepily mutter, "Good morning, princess. It seems you were able to fall asleep after all."

Her eyes shot open, 'Noburu?! What is he doing in my bed?!' Sheer panic began to build in her mind. How did he get in here? What had happened between them?

'Surely not...I didn't...' Looking down, Yoruichi was instantly immensely glad to see she was still fully dressed in the same clothes that she had been in last night.

'Oh, sweet Kami, thank you.'

"Did you sleep in here?", she asked in a hoarse voice, already certain of the answer. She didn't pay much attention to his response, as her gaze to her clothing had revealed to her that she was wrapped in Ichigo's captain's haori.

"Yes," he replied quietly. "You were so distraught last night, I couldn't bear to leave you alone. What happened? I've never seen you so upset. Was it the boy?"

Yoruichi nodded. She fought the urge to speak, as the threat of the guilt and shame induced nausea came back stronger than ever as images of Ichigo's broken expression continued to plague her consciousness.

"He seemed quite taken with you. I know our reunion didn't sit too well with him, or the other bastards who were there," Noburu muttered, remembering Shiro catching him off guard. "Who is he?"

"Ichigo Kurosaki," Yoruichi whispered weakly.

She did not want to talk about Ichigo with Noburu. The pain of witnessing Ichigo's despair last night still haunted her viciously. His cries to the night reminded her of when she saw him when he was still human.

'I can't keep from hurting him. I am so sorry my Ichigo. I love you so much, though I didn't show it. No matter how caught up I was in the memories, I spat in the face of your love. Ichigo...I am so sorry... I would never intentionally hurt you...but I did...'

The pain she was feeling now was dull, an ache in her heart after the vicious pain of last night. She simply had no energy for that pain right now, though she was sure it would come back soon enough. No, at the moment she was filled with a self-loathing and revulsion that threatened to overwhelm her.

"That was Ichigo Kurosaki?! The Hero of the Winter War? A rude, arrogant boy? It's hard to match the legends that have been told about him with what I saw last night. And I can see that he managed to attain a captain's position," he said dismissively, interrupting her thoughts as he looked at the haori draped around her shoulders.

Yoruichi's eyes narrowed, "Do not speak of him that way. He has been my pupil for a long time, and I am quite proud of him."

'I have to tell him that I'm in love with Ichigo. But what am I supposed to do? Does he still expect to marry me after everything that has happened? Do I still want to marry him? I...but...Ichigo...'

Every train of thought continued to return to her berry-headed lover. Dear Kami, what she would give to be in his arms now, to forget last night ever occurred. How could this have happened? How could she have been caught so far off balance? Yes, Noburu is alive...but what about Ichigo?

"Are you now?", Noburu asked with a raised eyebrow. He was not happy with the protective tone she spoke with, and even less happy about seeing Yoruichi wrapped in the boy's haori. Last night, she hadn't acted as if the boy even existed, but now he seems to be the only thing on her mind.

'Even if he is your pupil, I was, and as far as I am concerned, still am your fiancé. He will soon have to go, as I will not allow any interferences with our wedding. Of course, after seeing his face last night, that shouldn't be too much of a problem.'

Changing tack, Noburu lightly brushed her cheek with his fingertips as he softly whispered, "I'm sorry you had to go through that, my love."

Noburu's touch seemed to be the last straw. Overwhelmed by her grief and her disgust with herself, Yoruichi quickly rolled over to clear the side of the bed and wretched violently.

"Yoruichi!", Noburu said, alarmed. Of all the responses he could have been expecting, this was not one of them. Leaning closer to her, he began to reach forward to hold the sickened woman when he heard another voice that claimed his attention.

"Noburu, I will take it from here", a woman's voice said. Looking up, he saw a worried Amaya quickly making her way to Yoruichi's side.

"While I am sure that your presence in her bed is because you were concerned for her last night, it is improper for you to be in here with her. You may get yourself cleaned up while you are here, then I ask that you return to your family's home until Yoruichi is better."

Noburu looked up in surprise. This is not how he had planned things to go. After last night, he had guessed that Yoruichi was still truly in love with him. He had been given every expectation that she would forget the world when she saw him, and their reunion would be seamless. Perhaps he had underestimated what he had been told...

"With all due respect, Lady Amaya, am I not her betrothed? I should be...", he started to reply before he was cut off by another loud wretch.

"Noburu," Amaya began in a tight voice, "You may get yourself cleaned up while here, but you will leave immediately after. Am I understood?"

Amaya's eyes narrowed. 'I will be watching you. You are not Ichigo. You are not the one who makes my daughter smile, and I will be damned if you are in her room without her openly choosing you. Kaito may have used you to catch her off guard, but it's clear as day that she loves Ichigo. She's never thrown up, not once, but now she is doing so out of guilt for what she has done to him. She will have to completely choose you over him before I let you near her when not in public.'

"Very well, Lady Shihoin," he replied, rolling off of the bed and onto the floor as Amaya attended to her daughter.

XXXXXXXXX

Soi Fon quickly made her way to the Shihoin mansion early this morning. She had heard rumors within a certain part of her division about what had happened last night, and knew that she had to find Lady Yoruichi as soon as possible.

'Noburu is alive? He is back, claiming to be Yoruichi-sama's betrothed? What about Ichigo? If what they said about him is true...'

She shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. There was not enough solid information, but she was certain that this had the potential to be a catastrophe.

Arriving at the main gate, she quickly gained entrance and made her way to where she felt Yoruichi's reiatsu. Pushing the door open, she was greeted with the sight of her mentor laying on her bed, wrapped in a captain's haori and groaning as her mother pressed a cloth to her head.

"Yoruichi-sama!", the dark-haired taichou exclaimed. Rushing to the side of the bed, she noticed Yoruichi's tear stained face, as well as the smell from where she had been sick. 'There must have been some truth to the rumors...'

Slightly panicking, she decided to not reveal her knowledge and simply asked, "What happened? Are you alright?"

Before Yoruichi could answer, Amaya looked up to Soi Fon and calmly said, "She is unharmed, Soi Fon-taichou. Last night was...difficult for her."

Amaya quickly decided to inform Yoruichi's former protege of the events that had occurred. The young captain was friends with both parties, and needed to be aware of the situation. While it would not be easy, Soi Fon deserved to know from a reliable source.

Lowering her voice, she said, "As you may have heard, Noburu is alive, and back. Last night, he...surprised Yoruichi. As events unfolded, he kissed her. She...she...Yoruichi kissed him back, but Ichigo had just arrived in time to witness it. He became upset, and his father and zanpakuto spirit had to take him away."

Soi Fon's eyes closed in disappointment. 'So it is true.' Looking down at her mentor, she saw grief and shame etched into every part of her face, confirming the worst.

She knew the history, and while Noburu's survival was a surprise, this situation was worse than she expected. While not having a relationship of her own, she knew for certain that both Ichigo and Yoruichi were deeply in love with each other. So how could this have happened? If Yoruichi-sama looks this badly, she could only imagine how the boy was doing.

"Soi Fon-taichou, may I speak with you in the hallway?", Amaya asked, getting up and walking to the doorway. The shorter captain quickly followed.

Once in the hallway, Amaya quickly turned and sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "As you can see, this is not an ideal situation, and Yoruichi needs some time to herself to get cleaned up and sorted. However, can I ask a favor of you?"

"Of course, Lady Shihoin! How may I help?" Soi Fon wasn't about to disagree with the obvious necessity for Yoruichi to have some alone time, and something to do would help her to not fret over her idol so much.

"Like you just heard, Ichigo was there to see the kiss last night. It was...it was truly painful to see him. Will you please go and check on him? I know his father is with him, but I really would like to know how he is."

The taichou nodded silently. She had to confess to herself that she had developed something of a soft spot for the orange-haired jackass that was Ichigo Kurosaki. They often fought and ranted at one another, yet it seemed to be an unspoken agreement that it was never serious and that they were more often on the same page than not.

Also, though she would never admit it out loud, she approved of the boy for Yoruichi-sama. His clear love and devotion to her, as well as who he was as a person, gave him success in each and every silent test that Soi Fon had put him through in her mind.

"In all honesty, I would like to know as well. I will go now, Amaya-sama, and will return shortly." The moment she finished speaking, Soi Fon shunpoed away in the direction of the fifth division barracks.

XXXXXXXX

Ichigo woke up to the first rays of sunlight coming through his window. His body felt fine, except for the taste of blood in his mouth. Snapping his eyes open, he noticed his bloodstained clothes and skin. Feeling no injuries, a quick mental nudge from Shiro clarified, 'regeneration.'

Ichigo's mind was another matter. While mentally exhausted, his mind still felt like a open wound with a steady supply of salt rubbed in. All he could think of was the kiss. That horrible, agonizing, returned kiss.

'Goddammit, why?', he asked himself yet again.

He could have taken it if someone had simply kissed her, as he could have torn the man apart where he stood. He still wanted to, yet her reaching back...her kissing him back made all the difference. No matter how mad he was, no matter how badly he hurt...he could never intentionally do anything to hurt Yoruichi. The smug bastard got a pass on her graces.

"Kami, I hate myself sometimes," he mumbled to himself. This is the first time in his life that he could remember that he'd regretted who and how he was. Why could he not simply worry about himself? He wanted so badly to release the rage and fury inside, to let it out on that stuck up piece of shit that was all over his Yoruichi.

'My Yoruichi?'

The implications of the thought hit him like he was being doused with a bucket of icy water. How could she be 'his' after last night? He didn't hear any disagreements when the man he had never seen before had claimed to be her fiancé, nor did he see any attempt to halt her arms encircling his neck as she..."Fuck!"

Quickly standing up from his bed, he rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes, trying to will the images away. The constant replay was driving him mad.

"Mornin, son, you're up awfully early. You look like shit," Isshin called out from the doorway.

Removing his hands from his eyes, Ichigo looked over at his dad who was leaning against the frame of the entry to his room. The look on the old man's face told him what he needed to know about the day. There would be no piteous looks, no over the top attempts at consolation or anything like that, however...it was clear that this wasn't something he would be able to just sweep away.

Ichigo couldn't be more thankful. The last thing he wanted was for people to feel sorry for him. He quickly learned, after his mother's death, that pity was as annoying as it was useless. It only served to bring the painful memories to the surface and keep them there. His father's gesture was incredibly appreciated, and Ichigo would do his absolute best to go along with it.

Stretching his muscles slightly with a groan, he looked to his dad and scoffed, "Yeah, I had kind of a rough night. You should see the other guys, though. I was kicking ass."

Isshin chuckled, he couldn't help it. His son was the epitome of toughness. He had been beaten, bloodied, and broken both inward and outward for most of his life, but the kid just kept on coming.

Now, the older shinigami was not stupid. He is simply trying to distract the boy while he tries to find some way to pick up the pieces of his heart. Ichigo was likely in for more grief, once he had a chance to actually talk to Yoruichi. Heartbreak is never pretty, but if her reaction last night was any indicator, this story was nowhere near finished.

'Yoruichi, you've got your work cut out for you if you want him. You're going to have to EARN my boy back. I love you to death, but I'm a dad first, and he has more than earned the right to be first.'

Isshin still cared deeply about her, as she was one of his oldest friends, and he knew that last night must have caught her completely by surprise. Hell, he was often the one whose shoulder she would cry herself to sleep on as she battled her depression. He knew that she had to have been repressing her memories, as it was the only thing that could explain the major shift in behavior over the years, and that no one could have predicted Noburu still being alive.

Still, she had it all to do. While he understood her side, he was on Ichigo's. He had been forced to watch his son coming apart at the seams last night, and that wasn't something that he would easily forget. Isshin was choosing to remain optimistic with how this would end, though. The looks on both of their faces had screamed what they wanted, and he would do what he could to help.

"Go get cleaned up son. It's still early, so we can grab some breakfast and see what's on the agenda for the day." As Ichigo nodded in agreement and walked to the bathroom, Isshin left the room to find Shinji and Rukia to see what actually was on the agenda.

XXXXXXXX

Soi Fon quietly slipped into the squad five barracks, using her abilities in stealth to make it to Ichigo's door without being seen. She wanted to see him without having others notice in hopes of preventing questions from arising.

When she arrived, she quietly knocked. Hearing no reply, she gently pushed the door open, slipping in. The sound of a shower running provided her an answer to where Ichigo was and what he was doing, so she decided to wait for him to finish and return to his room.

Glancing around the room, she searched for clues as to what actually happened last night after Ichigo left the mansion. There were plenty of rumors about massive amounts of reiatsu close to Sokyoku hill, and it seemed to her to be a likely place to go if Ichigo had needed to blow off some steam.

Seeing his clothes on the ground, Soi Fon was about to continue looking around until she saw their state. Most of the clothes were simply in tatters, yet when she lifted his shirt, she noticed bloodstains on the floor.

'Bloodstains? What the hell happened last night?'

Following the line of a dried pool of blood, she lifted his bloodied hakama to see where the pool ended. Standing up with the pants in her hands, her attention was drawn to a small box that clattered on the floor after it fell from the hakama in her hand. Her curiosity peaked, she picked the box up and studied it for a moment before opening it.

'What the hell? What was he carrying...oh dear Kami...oh, Ichigo...'

The normally stoic captain found herself choking up slightly as she was looking at a diamond ring. He was going to propose to Yoruichi-sama, only to find them kissing and figure out that she had a former fiancé that was still alive.

"Yeah, he had a pretty rough night. Be careful with that, it was his mother's," a deep voice called out from the doorway. Spinning quickly, Soi Fon was mildly surprised to see Isshin Kurosaki standing before her.

"I didn't...I had no idea...", she started, trying to complete a sentence. She was still too stunned by what she held in her hands. She knew the way Ichigo felt about his late mother, and the gravity of what had happened last night weighed heavily on her.

'Yoruichi-sama, why did this have to happen? Ichigo must be absolutely crushed.'

Holding up a hand, Isshin stopped her. "Don't worry about it. Nobody saw it coming. As I'm sure you have guessed, he is not in a good place right now. I'm sure Amaya is worried about him, which is why you're here, right?"

Nodding, she replied, "I wished to see how he is, as well. He and I have become friends as of late. I have already seen Yoruichi-sama this morning, and have heard what had happened."

"How is she?", Isshin quietly asked, taking note of the immediate drop of the smaller taichou's face.

"She is not well. I have never seen her so...so...I cannot explain it. She has been physically ill, and looks worse than I have ever seen before," Soi Fon answered quietly. She had no problems talking to this man about her, as Yoruichi had informed her of their relationship.

Nodding, Isshin sighed. "I thought so. Well, we've got quite a large mess on our hands, ne? I will let you stay here and talk to Ichigo when he's out of his shower. If you don't mind, just bring him to the mess hall when you're done so he can get something to eat."

As he turned to leave, he added, "Just treat him like you normally would. He doesn't need pity now, just friends."

Nodding, Soi Fon turned away from the door and sat on the edge of Ichigo's bed, still holding the small box in her hand. If Yoruichi-sama's condition was anything to go by, Ichigo was going to be in poor shape.

She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she missed the water cutting off in the bathroom. She heard the door opening, though, and turned to see a naked, dripping Ichigo walking into the room with a dazed, mask-like face. While she could recognize the pain in his face, it was momentarily overridden by the fact that she could see his...

"Kurosaki! Where are your clothes?!", she shouted in her mind, panicking slightly as blood filled her face.

Walking back into his room, Ichigo was forcing himself to put one foot in front of the other and propel himself forward. The distraction his father had provided had been nice, but merely a fleeting thing. The moment he had looked away, memories of the previous night had resumed their relentless replay in his mind.

With his focus on simply functioning, Ichigo missed the extra presence in his room. Turning, he saw Soi Fon standing by his bed, his mother's ring in her hand. His attention was drawn away from that, though, as he saw her heavily blushing face and gaze on something obviously below his eyes.

Looking down, he faintly realized that he was standing in front of her without a stitch of clothing on, merely the tattoo-like links of his seal on his arm. Somewhere in his mind, a tiny voice screamed for him to cover himself, however his consciousness was too bogged down to clearly operate.

Moving slowly, and awkwardly, Ichigo found some fresh clothes and dressed. Moments later, Ichigo turned around while scratching the back of his head. He looked anywhere but at Soi Fon's face as he mumbled, "Um...so...what are you doing in my room?"

Still blushing heavily, Soi Fon brought it back under control as she was reminded of why she was here. Though Ichigo was not aware of his surroundings enough to be embarrassed, she could easily see the pain in his eyes. Not sure how to begin, she simply said, "I heard about last night. I just wanted to...I came to see how you were."

Ichigo paused. While it could be considered pity, this was Soi Fon actually checking up on him. He was sure she had already seen Yoruichi, but the fact that she was here to check on him was...well...it meant a lot to him.

Looking down, he realized that she was still holding his mother's ring. Sighing, Ichigo forced himself to answer. The words were going to explode out of him sooner or later, so why not now?

"Going by what you're holding, I'm sure you can guess. I don't really have any answer other than that. I...I don't know really have any answers, actually. Last night, I saw the woman I love more than my own life...the woman I was going to propose to, kissing a man who claimed to be her fiancé. I have no idea who he is, why he just showed up now, or what any of this means, and I have to just take it on the chin without a fucking word of explanation and...," Ichigo broke off as he was getting progressively louder and faster as he talked.

Taking a deep breath, Ichigo pinched his nose. "Look, I appreciate you coming to check on me. I really do. As far as how I am...", Ichigo waved his arm outward, "I am still breathing. That's about the best I can give you."

Soi Fon nodded silently. She couldn't speak as she processed the young man's attempt to hold himself together. His face was blank, holding a steady, emotionless look but his eyes were something else entirely. His eyes seemed to be screaming in pain, and the dark-haired taichou knew that she needed to take action. When she had been heartbroken by Yoruichi's departure so long ago, keeping herself busy was the only thing that even remotely helped.

"Alright, Ichigo. Come on, let's go get something to eat, then you can check on your squad. They haven't seen you in a few days, and would benefit from having their captain around," Soi Fon said, closing the ring box and placing it onto the small table next to his bed.

Turning, she marched up to him, spun him around and began to push him out the door. "Now that you don't stink like you usually do, you can go get some food. I will join you before I have to attend the Central 46 session today."

As he felt himself be pushed into the hallway, Ichigo quickly caught onto the distraction effort. Gladly going with it, he turned his head and shouted, "What the hell? I don't stink! Just because you're so close to the ground that you can smell everyone's feet, it doesn't mean that I smell bad! Maybe you're smelling your own...OWWW!"

Grabbing his side where he had just been punched, he spun to the sound of several voices chuckling. Seeing Shinji standing there with Isshin and Rukia, Ichigo stood up straight and tried to downplay it.

"You never seem to learn, jackass," his dad said with a grin.

Before Ichigo could respond, Shinji gestured to Rukia with his thumb and added, "Yeah. You would think by how much this one kicks your ass, that you would stop messing with short people! All of these midgets that you know don't like to be...OWWW! Dammit, Rukia!"

The fukutaichou in question merely raised a brow, "It seems that you have a bit to learn as well, dumbass."

A round of chuckles erupted after her comment, lowering the tension in the hallway. As the group turned to walk to the mess hall, Isshin fell into step beside Ichigo, who was walking behind everyone else. After a few moments of silence, they arrived at the dining area.

Shinji, who was leading the group, walked into the mess hall only to be met in the face by a flying sandal. Falling flat on his rear, he yelled, "Dammit, Hiyori! What the hell was that for?!"

The younger visored gave him a deadpan stare and muttered, "I just had a feeling that you needed it. You're welcome." Everyone in the room erupted in laughter at her comment as the group made its way in.

Motioning for the others to enter ahead, the elder Kurosaki turned to his son whom he had held back. "Now, I was never one for following the rules when I was a captain, but I would recommend wearing your captain's haori. Your squad hasn't seen you in a while, so it would be good for morale. Do you want me to go grab it for...what is it, son?"

The moment Isshin mentioned the haori, Ichigo completely froze, a faint look of anxiety crossing his features. Seeing his hands become fists, Isshin asked again, "What is it, son?" Hearing a low mutter come from his son, he grabbed his shoulder and shook it, saying, "Speak up."

"It's at Yoru...it's at her house. I left it there before I went to the world of the living," Ichigo said in a low voice. He couldn't say the name, yet. He wasn't scared, but the tightness that gripped his heart every time he thought of it made it difficult to complete the word that was so important to his life.

'Damn,' Isshin sighed to himself, keeping his hand on Ichigo's shoulder. "Do you want me to go..."

"No," Ichigo said, more strength in his voice. "I am not going to simply run away from this. I will go get it, and that will be the end of it. You've done an incredible amount to help me, Oyaji, and I'm not about to ask you to be my errand runner."

Isshin didn't know whether to proudly slap his son's back, or just hug the kid. The fearlessness he was exhibiting in the face of what was happening was something that stoked his paternal pride. His boy was down, but by-Kami he was soldering on.

'But...'

The effort that it was taking his son to hold his head high was nearly sickening to watch. The look in his eyes was far too reminiscent of how it was when he had been without his powers. Isshin swore inwardly as he saw all of the progress Ichigo had made was threatening to collapse.

Squeezing his son's shoulder, he simply said, "Alright."

XXXXXXXX

Just outside of the Shihoin mansion, Noburu slipped behind a hedge. Waiting only a moment, he turned when he felt a presence close to him.

"Kaito," he growled in a low voice, "things are not exactly as they were explained to me. She has been crying and vomiting all morning! You said she would easily reconnect with me, yet she is consumed by guilt and grief!"

'Perhaps she did truly love the brat,' Kaito thought to himself. It was of no concern, either way. However, he needed to make sure that Noburu kept a clear head, and didn't do anything rash to upset his plans.

"She kissed you back, did she not? I told you that she thought that she was in love with another. She simply needs a little time to forget him."

"With Ichigo Kurosaki? The war hero? That would have been helpful information to have beforehand. He must have made an impression on her parents, as Amaya has all but kicked me out, once I've showered. I was barely able to slip out here."

Kaito frowned. The only way to have something done right was to do it yourself, it seemed. "Having you know would have threatened everything last night. He's also a descendant of the Shiba clan. Don't you see? He was simply using her to elevate his clan's status, which would explain his reaction last night. As far as you being kicked out, that is unfortunate. You need to keep them apart. You are still legally betrothed to her, so getting the wedding finished needs to be top priority...at least, if you want to still want to marry her."

"Do not patronize me," Noburu snarled. "We will be married, period. No one, not even some punk war hero, will keep me from marrying into the clan. That bitch tried to kill me just to run off with her freaks, and in doing so robbed me of the future I had arranged. Now, this little bastard is trying to come between me and my position within high nobility and seat within Central 46."

Kaito had to hold in his grin. Petty people were so easy to manipulate. Throw in a few empty promises, a veiled threat or two, and they do the rest for you. "Then stick to the plan. We break his heart, then his name, then the rest of him. The next phase will be starting as soon as Central 46's session finishes today, so be prepared."

Before Noburu could reply, a hell butterfly landed on Kaito's finger. Pausing for a second, he frowned. "It seems that the boy is on his way here. He is walking, so you have some time. Go shower, and be ready to interrupt them. Make it good, so he will lose control."

Simply nodding, the younger man slipped away, back into the mansion.

XXXXXXXXX

The tension in Ichigo's shoulders seemed to grow with every step. Though he had made this journey dozens of times, he had never been in the position he currently was.

'What the Hell do I even say? 'Don't mind me, just coming by to get my clothes. You know, the ones I left when I stayed the night? Back when I was the man you kissed.'

Ichigo shook his head. He had been fluctuating between murderous anger and severe depression all morning, and was simply trying to keep a level head. Why had this happened? What did it mean? Who the fuck is this man that kissed the love of his life? He had fully believed Yoruichi when she had told him that she loved him. Each touch, each kiss had been so special...so loving...but then she returned this other man's kiss?

Ichigo continued fighting his mind as he walked along. Thankfully, Shiro and Zangetsu had been silent, leaving him to his thoughts. Normally, he would have been glad of their company, yet the smoldering fury he felt from each was not something he wanted to deal with at the moment.

In what felt like no time at all, Ichigo arrived at the Shihoin mansion. It was still very early in the morning, so he was slightly optimistic that he would be able to get in and out without any issues. The guards, familiar with his presence, let him pass and soon, Ichigo was through the front door.

Walking silently, he quickly made his way toward the room he always slept in. He could feel Yoruichi's reiatsu, as well as Amaya's, but he couldn't pinpoint exactly where.

Pausing outside of the room, he took a deep breath. He couldn't tell if they were in this room, but he needed his haori. Steeling his nerve, he opened the door and stepped in.

XXXXXXXX

Yoruichi finally stopped dry heaving. Having long-since expelled the contents of her stomach, she could only wait for the tremors and tears to cease. 'What am I going to do? I love Ichigo so much, but his face...he must truly hate me now. And what of Noburu? He clearly expects us to still get married. What am I supposed to do about that? It's legally binding, and I almost killed him over a century ago...yet he still loves me? Do I still love him?'

Feeling her mother lightly brushing her hair, her entirety froze when she felt a familiar reiatsu. 'I-Ichigo?! He came back?!'

Sitting up, she braced herself against her mother as she saw the door open. Seeing the man she was sure that she loved standing there, she couldn't help herself as she stood and cried out, "Ichigo!"

The addressed man stood in shock. Yoruichi looked in terrible shape. She had heavy bags under her bloodshot eyes, and he could smell faint traces of vomit. His eyes went wide, though, as he saw what she was wearing. 'She slept in my haori? What does that mean?'

Schooling his face, Ichigo said as neutrally as he could muster, "I had left my haori here. I apologize for my intrusion, but once I retrieve it, I will be out of your way."

Eyes widening in horror at his words, Yoruichi wanted to tell him that he was never in her way. However, seeing the look in his eyes, her tears came back in earnest. Talking as fast as she could, she started, "Ichigo, I am so sorry. Please, Ichigo, please let me explain. Noburu was my fiancé before I was exiled. A year after I had left with Kisuke, I came back to tell him what had happened. We ended up fighting, and I...I thought I had killed him. I had no idea he was alive before last night. I...Ichigo, I am so sorry. The reason I didn't tell you was because I had repressed the memories. I don't know what came over me, last night, but I swear I never meant to hurt you."

Ichigo stood there in stunned silence. Whatever he had been expecting to hear, it most certainly wasn't that. 'What?! She thought she had killed her fiancé? Repressed memories?'

Ichigo couldn't deny a level of begrudging understanding. He knew that she was not lying to him at the moment, and that she truly meant what she was saying. However, that understanding was in a fierce battle with a sense of burning rage at the betrayal and insecurity about the future. The image of her returning the kiss still tore at his mind, and while he could logically understand what she was saying, his heart still screamed in pain.

Yet, under it all, there was the nearly unbearable urge to run to her and hold her, to forget everything that had happened. As mad as he was...as much as his heart ached within his chest...it was still Yoruichi. Ichigo couldn't deny that his heart beat solely for this woman, and that he desired nothing more than to wipe away the horrible memories that were relentlessly replaying and replace them with new ones of themselves.

Before he could act on any of these urges, several things happened within a matter of seconds. Grabbing his haori, he suddenly felt a presence enter the room and heard a voice that set his nerves on edge.

"Do you have any clean clothes I could wear? It would seem that my hakama were ripped when that bastard caught me off guard last night. Oh, who is...wait...what are you doing here, boy?!"

Recognizing the voice, and the scent that matched, Ichigo's eyes closed. Gripping his haori tightly in his hand, it stirred the air, bringing a scent to his nose. Eyes snapping open, he lifted the garment and sniffed. 'I smell her, but...I smell him all over this. Wait...she slept in this...and his scent,'.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," Ichigo muttered as his fists clenched tightly.

Rage began to build in earnest. Images of what could...what might have happened...here, in the bed they had so often shared...in his own haori...

"I asked you a question, son, and you better have a damn good answer. What the hell are you doing in my fiancé's room? Some punk like you that thinks that he can constantly intrude on our lives, obviously needs to be taught a lesson about his proper place," Noburu growled.

Turning slowly, Ichigo wondered if it was possible to be any more furious than he was at the moment. When his eyes came to rest on the new occupant in the room, he discovered that yes, yes he could. Standing there with a look of utter contempt was a snarling man wearing nothing but a bath towel.

Yoruichi immediately decided that she was beyond sick and tired of these poorly timed entrances. Having heard her mother earlier quite clearly tell Noburu to leave after he cleaned up, she knew that this interruption was quite intentional. The look on Ichigo's face provided all the answers necessary as to whether or not it worked.

When he turned, she knew that this was going to get ugly fast, however her primary concern was finding someway to resume talking with Ichigo. He had seemed to be listening, and she wanted to continue expressing her regret and remorse for the previous night.

Her chance would never come, though, as she felt a large pulse of reiatsu, followed by heavy, guttural breathing. Moving around to his side, she found Ichigo groaning and clutching the side of his head and breathing deeply as his eyes began bleeding to black.

The groaning intensified, as within Ichigo's mind, voices were raging, bellowing out in anger.

"LET ME OUT! I WILL RIP HIM APART AND SPIT ON THE PIECES! I WILL PUT HIS HEAD ON DISPLAY SO EVERYONE WOULD KNOW NOT TO EVER FUCK WITH US! I SWEAR, ICHIGO, IF YOU DONT LET ME OUT I WILL TAKE OVER!", Shiro shouted, furious beyond reason.

Even Zangetsu, often the calm voice of reason, was livid, "Give us his blood, Ichigo! He dares to mock us?! I will teach him respect before Shiro and I test the limits of his mortality. LET US OUT!"

'No. She...she obviously chose him. There is no way to change that. Killing him will serve no purpose. I admit that I want to...no...dammit, I am no murderer...I have to get out of here!' Though Ichigo said this to the two spirits, he was having a harder time convincing himself. Shiro wasn't about to let it drop, though.

"BULLSHIT! LET ME OUT! NOW! THIS IS THE LAST CHANCE BEFORE I TAKE OVER!"

"He does not get away with this unscathed, Ichigo! I am in agreement with Shiro on this, and will not ask again, LET US OUT!"

"No!", Ichigo shouted out loud, surprising everyone in the room. The heavy breathing became layered as he continued to hold his head.

"Last chance to answer, son. You've got five seconds before I throw you out myself," Noburu said, stepping towards the struggling shinigami.

Before he could get more than one step, Ichigo yelled in pain as a white, liquid substance exploded from his mouth, quickly falling back to cover his face. Noburu froze as the younger man turned to him, a hollow mask covering half of his face and a bright blue eye glaring at him from the other half.

"You filthy half-breed! Get your disgusting, hollow-tainted..."

"ENOUGH!", the voices of Ichigo, Shiro, and Zangetsu bellowed as Ichigo's arm savagely backhanded Noburu. Multiple crashes could be heard as the half-dressed man was sent through several walls.

"Ichigo, please...", Yoruichi started.

"PLEASE?!", the layered voice interrupted, with Ichigo's head whipping around to glare at her. "PLEASE?! What could you POSSIBLY have to ask of him?! What more could he possibly give you?! We trusted you with his heart, his soul, and you spat on his love! Then, he comes in today and you not only reek of another man, but while wearing Ichigo's own clothes?! How can you even...AAAACK!"

The voice broke off as Ichigo's hand came to his face and gripped the mask. Struggling for a moment, the sound of breaking glass and a loud yell signified its successful removal. Looking around the room like a cornered wild animal, his heavy breathing and Yoruichi's sobs were the only sounds to be heard.

Amaya rushed in, getting close to Ichigo. Her heart was breaking for him all over again as she watched him falling apart. Seeing his still-discolored eyes, she lightly grasped his face in her hands and raised her reiatsu high enough to get his attention. "Ichigo," she whispered, "Ichigo!"

When he met her eyes, she wanted to sob as well. One had returned to his usual brown, and carried such a heavy sadness that she couldn't speak for a moment. Regaining her composure, she realized what he needed. Softly, she simply whispered, "Go."

She was proven right as he briefly nodded, then disappeared in the soft swish of a shunpo. Looking up, she met the grief-stricken face of her daughter. Suddenly, all of the pain, the sadness, and the anger that had been brought about in the past several hours exceeded her capacity.

Frowning, she wiped a tear away as she shouted, "Fix this! I don't care how you do it, but you will fix this! Look at yourself! This is not the Yoruichi Shihoin I raised! You have lost yourself, but understand that you will not simply bow to this fate. Where is your heart? Do you even know? You will make your choice and end this suffering."

Stepping closer to her daughter, Amaya sighed as she gently lifted her chin to meet the still-teary eyes. "I know that this is an incredibly difficult situation. I love you, and believe in you, Yoruichi. Look into your soul and simply be the woman I know you to be."

Yoruichi stood in stunned silence. Her mother was right. Where was her heart? She knew she only had one choice. She had to look into her soul and talk to the only other being in existence who knew her better than Ichigo: it was time to talk to her zanpakuto.

XXXXXXXXX

Ichigo staggered out to the main street in front of the mansion, still clutching his head. Shiro kept trying to reform the mask, but Ichigo was ripping it off each time before it could fully form. This did not stop the two spirits from making their thoughts known, though.

"WHERE ARE YOU GOING?! GET BACK IN THERE AND FINISH HIM! LET ME OUT!", Shiro bellowed. The hollow spirit was having trouble taking over as Ichigo was fighting back as well as the fact that Shiro's own rage was hampering his focus.

"This man has gladly helped to bring the worst weather I have ever experienced, Ichigo. We will not let this rest until we have shed his blood," Zangetsu said, much more calmly. The quiet, icy demeanor made Ichigo more apprehensive than any bellow could.

Shaking his head violently, Ichigo knew that he would have to find a way to release the pressure building up within him. Though he had 'escaped', the bloodlust building within him was not solely Zangetsu's or Shiro's, and he knew that he had to...fight...or at least hit...something before he actually gave into his inner spirits' demands.

So many things were bombarding his consciousness: the kiss, Yoruichi's explanation, the state she had been in...the scent...the man...the man's scent on his haori...'AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!'

Knowing that their fury, as well as his own, would not be easily sated, Ichigo wracked his mind for anything to help distract him from going back after that man's head. After a silent moment and another mask shattered, only one word came to mind, one name that could possibly survive the coming storm: 'Kenpachi'. Without another word, Ichigo disappeared in the direction of the squad eleven barracks.

Appearing mere moments later, Ichigo was again forced to break an encroaching mask. 'Dammit, Shiro! We are about to get some blood, and a damn good bit of it, I'm sure. Back off and wait til we get somewhere private!'

"Fuck you, you coward! You are just a weak little pus..."

Shiro's rant was cut off as an explosion of reiatsu signaled the arrival of the eleventh squad's captain. Ichigo looked up to see the bloodthirsty captain eyeing him speculatively.

Before he could speak, Ichigo asked, "You busy, right now? I remember that I had promised to fight you." Groaning, Ichigo held the side of his head as Shiro continued his tirade. Ichigo was quickly losing his temper, and began to grit his teeth.

Continuing in a growl, he said, "But I have to say, there will be no holding back. I swear, Kenpachi, if you hold back like you tried to last night, I will beat you within an inch of your life and then only ever fight Ikkaku."

Laughing like the madman that he was, Kenpachi said, "Sounds like a good time, Ichigo! I've been looking forward to facing your shiny bankai alone for a while now. And don't worry about me holding back, because I've been waiting for a one on one ever since our last fight. You just better make sure that you bring more than I saw last night, because if that's all you've got, I will kill you pretty easily."

Shiro paused mid-rant within Ichigo's mind. "Yeah right! You're going to get yourself killed. You obviously have no problem being everyone's bitch, and he's going to end it all. You may as well, you fucking coward."

Again gritting his teeth, Ichigo stepped forward and snarled, "Lets go. I know a place where we won't be disturbed." With that, he shunpoed off in the direction of the training area beneath Sokyoku hill.

When they arrived, Kenpachi wasted no time in attacking Ichigo. Loud clangs began to ring throughout the large cavern as the two traded blows.

After a few moments of trading hits, Ichigo scored a large cut across the larger man's chest. "Is this the best I get from you? I thought you've been waiting for this?"

'Come on, dammit! I need you to make me pay attention! I can't keep thinking about her kissing him...or being wrapped in his arms all...GRRRAAAAHHHHHH!'

Smiling, Kenpachi chuckled, "I just had to make sure you still had it in you. It took ages for you to cut me the first time, so I just needed to see how much I had to hold your hand this time."

Before Ichigo could give an angry reply, Zaraki ripped off his eyepatch and went on the offensive. Brutal slashes and thrusts came in earnest, keeping Ichigo off balance. Taking a note from the younger shinigami's style the prior night, Kenpachi mixed in some kicks and punches that threatened to level him.

Allowing Ichigo another hit on his abdomen, the bloodthirsty taichou smiled as he found his first opening. Bringing his blade down quickly, he was rewarded with a loud grunt as he opened a nasty, albeit shallow, gash along the younger captain's back. As he turned back after being staggered from the force of the blow, Ichigo was sent tumbling as a massive fist connected with his jaw.

"Come on, Ichigo! I have high hopes for this fight, and you better not let me down. I'd hate to kill you without a good fight." He knew that taunting always seemed to work on the kid. Last night hadn't been the right time for it, but he said that today he wanted an all out fight, right?

Shunpoing back, Ichigo growled. He knew that Kenpachi had simply allowed him to cut him so that he could get in closer. Internally fighting Shiro and Zangetsu's constant stream of fury, his clouded mind was preventing him from reading the fight, but it was no excuse.

Ichigo felt that he had an answer for that, though. Thrusting his blade forward, his scowl shifted to a grin as he called out, "Better get ready, Kenpachi. Bankai!"

"Tensa Zangetsu," Ichigo quietly muttered as the massive wave of reiatsu died down. A small smirk was the only indicator he gave as he suddenly vanished.

Looking around, Kenpachi searched for his orange haired opponent. Raising his blade to a ready position, he was stunned to suddenly hear multiple jingles. Risking a quick peek, he saw the small bells that he had attached to his hair bouncing around at his feet He couldn't help the large grin that broke out on his face, even when he felt a blade slice down the length of his back.

"I don't think we'll be needing these, do you?", Ichigo asked smugly. The feeling was soon discarded as a blade whistled past his ear, his quick reflexes being the only reason that his head was still attached to the rest of his body.

"THAT'S MORE LIKE IT!", Kenpachi bellowed. Turning around, he continued slashing at his opponent. "Don't stop now! Keep it coming! Haha! Yes, this is definitely more like it!"

'This bastard is still laughing? I'll have to show him what my bankai can really do.'

"You want it? You got it", was all Ichigo said before he disappeared again. Flashing around so quickly that even the well trained eye could not follow, he began cutting Kenpachi from every direction. Chest, back, arm, calf, face, were mercilessly slashed over and over again until the brutish captain was covered in blood and panting for air.

"Was that what you were wanting?", Ichigo asked in a deadpan voice. The bravado was wearing thin, though, as his attention was constantly being drawn to what he had seen this morning.

"HA...HAHA...HAHA! YES! This is much closer to what I've been waiting for, Ichigo! It's time...it's finally time!" Gripping his zanpakuto tightly, he held it low and shouted, "Judge, Yushoreppai!" (Survival of the Fittest).

Ichigo's eyes widened as a massive wave of reiatsu shook the entire cavern. When the dust settled, he saw an uninjured Kenpachi grinning widely at him. His blade looked much the same, with the exception of a smooth edge instead of the chipped, badly serrated sealed form.

"Don't look so surprised, jackass. Did you really think that I would sit on my ass after our last battle? I trained for days on end until he awoke. Now, in honor of our first fight, I'll give you a free shot again. Go ahead, do your best."

Ichigo frowned. Just like the first battle, Zaraki was underestimating him and just like the first time, Ichigo was going to have to show him his true strength. Flashing forward, he swung downwards and carved a deep line into his opponent's chest. He was surprised, though, as he could see a distinct increase in Kenpachi's smile with each inch that his blade passed through.

The moment his swing was completed, Ichigo was forced to block an immensely strong strike. Shifting his stance, he soon found himself on the defensive against increasingly hard hits. He quickly flashed behind Zaraki, leaving yet another long cut. Yet again, the man's happiness seemed to rapidly increase as Ichigo's blade slid through his skin.

Spinning to face him, Ichigo raised his sword just in time to catch a strike that felt like it rattled his bones. "Figured it out yet?", Kenpachi asked, still grinning. "Every time you cut me, Yushoreppai increases my swing strength. Something or another about absorbing and redirecting kinetic energy, I wasn't really paying attention. Now, it's just a question of what happens first: your body breaking, or me dying of blood loss. My money is on your bones shattering!", he yelled as he swung yet another devastating strike.

'Come on, kid, get pissed. I know you've got more than you're showing me. Why do you always make me drag it out of you?'

Ichigo was finding the fight more and more difficult. Just like Kenpachi has said, every strike against the man was rewarded with an evermore crushing blow in response. His arms and legs were burning with the strain of holding him off, and each strike received created a small crater underneath his feet.

"Shut up! You're still gonna get your ass handed to you. Getsuga Tensho!" The massive energy attack surged towards Kenpachi at an incredibly fast rate. Though he was able to bring his sword up to block, a large portion of the Getsuga made it past the man's defenses and slammed into his chest.

Ichigo was taken aback as the insane captain began laughing as he was able to get back to his feet. "Heh...heh...better, Ichigo. Keep it coming, because I'm starting to have some fun!"

He frowned as he felt an abnormally dense reiatsu emanate from the newly released blade. That frown grew as Kenpachi swung down so incredibly hard that Ichigo was forced to a knee, and a small crater was created beneath that knee.

'Son of a bitch! I can't keep this up. These swings are brutal!'

"Dammit, you are such a pansy! You make me sick, sometimes. 'Boo hoo, she left me and he hits hard, I'm just going to break into pieces!", Shiro mocked.

"Why are you backing down again, Ichigo? You've faced stronger swings than these."

'Yeah, but things had been different then. You guys keep my powers locked up now. And what do you mean, 'again'? I didn't back down earlier. I just can't help it that she chose someone else...', Ichigo thought with a pang of sadness.

"THAT'S IT! GET YOUR ASS IN HERE NOW!", Shiro snarled as Ichigo felt a heavy force pull him into his inner world.

Watching, Kenpachi stared at the blank-faced Ichigo. He was about to kick the kid in the face when another young man with long black hair appeared next to him.

"Zaraki Kenpachi, your battle with Ichigo is being paused for the moment."

"What?! Did that little bastard run away?! And who the hell are you?", the captain yelled. He was by no means finished with this fight, and would drag Ichigo back by whatever means necessary.

"I said your battle with Ichigo was paused. My name is Tensa Zangetsu, and I will be your opponent for the time being. Once he is ready, Ichigo will resume his fight with you."

Stunned, Kenpachi simply stared at the dark haired zanpakuto spirit for a moment. "What do you mean, when he is ready? Where did he go?"

"Shiro has a few things to sort out with him before he will be allowed to resume. Do you really wish to continue speaking, or would you prefer to let our blades do the talking?"

A smile reformed on Zaraki's face as Zangetsu flashed forward, clashing their blades together. "Not a bad way to pass the time at all."

XXXXXXXX

Ichigo quickly became aware of the weather as Shiro dragged him down. Heavy rain pelted him as brilliant strikes of lightning illuminated his darkened inner world, and incredible rumbles of thunder were accompanied by the sound of large roars and crashes.

Slamming into the side of a skyscraper, Ichigo groaned as the impact jarred him. After he crawled to his feet, Ichigo glanced around at what had become of his inner world. The hurricane-like weather above was lost on the horizon due to massive waves of water crashing against and between the buildings. Looking over the side of the building, he saw a raging ocean battering everything in sight.

"Like it?", a voice called out over the roar. Turning, Ichigo saw Shiro standing several meters away in his Resurrecion form. The random lightning strikes gave him an incredibly ominous appearance.

"This is what happens when your heart is in despair, pretty shitty, huh?"

"Why the hell did you bring me here, Shiro? I was already fighting Kenpachi. You wanted blood, and we were getting plenty of it!", Ichigo shouted, quite tired of being the last to know what's going on. Yes, it was bad in here for his spirits, but he wasn't exactly facing a gentle stroll.

"I wanted? I WANTED? Are you even listening to yourself? Since when did you become everybody's bitch?! Is this really all it takes? Your woman gets some tongue from an old flame, and you fall apart? WHERE ARE YOUR BALLS? WHERE IS YOUR RESOLVE?!"

Ichigo's eyes widened as he heard his hollow spirit, however they quickly dropped. "Balls and resolve have nothing to do with it. She chose him, and that's all there is to it. I mean, he even slept by her last night...", his voice broke on the last word.

Any trace of hope that he had possessed this morning was shattered as he saw the undressed man and smelled him on his haori, leaving him devastated and broken. His heart seemed to break all over again, and Ichigo knew that he couldn't continue on with this pain.

The moment his thoughts completed, a deafening symphony of shattering glass and severely straining metal distracted both Shiro and Ichigo. Looking to his right, Ichigo saw the top half of the skyscraper next to the one they were on be snapped off by the raging waves, as well as a few other buildings beside it. The massive, broken pieces slammed repeatedly into the side of the pair's still-standing battleground as the waves grew in intensity. .

Shiro's eyes widened under the mask. He knew that each building actually represented a part of Ichigo's heart, and the fact that not only one, but several had broken in half could only mean one thing...

'That son of a bitch. He actually did it. He fell so far that he actually gave up? Ichigo...King...My King...no...no...NO!'

"THERE IT IS! YOU ACTUALLY GAVE UP! AAAAHHHHHH," Shiro bellowed as he charged at Ichigo. When he got close, he reared back and punched the shinigami in the face as hard as he possibly could. Flashing over to where he landed, the hollow spirit pinned Ichigo to the ground, viciously and repeatedly punching him, shouting "Shut up!" with every strike. When blood was flowing feely, Shiro got up and stomped back a few paces.

"Get up...get up...GET UP!"

Staggering to his feet, Ichigo spat out a large glob of blood. "What the hell is your problem?! You wanted blood, I gave you blood. You wanted to fight, and we were fighting! WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!"

Flashing forward again, Shiro savagely backhanded him, knocking him to his back. "SHUT UP, YOU WEAK LITTLE IMPOSTER! I will rip your head from your shoulders if you don't shut the hell up! Get up! I won't allow some unknown look-alike imposter into this soul, because it belongs to Ichigo Kurosaki!"

Yet again staggering to his feet, Ichigo shouted back, "What in the hell are you talking about?! Imposter? Are you insane? Unknown? I am Ichigo and you know that this is my soul! Why are you..."

Ichigo was cut off as Shiro drew his blade and flashed forward at an unimaginable speed. Slashing across his wielder's chest, Shiro continued slashing as he bellowed, "DON'T YOU DARE SPEAK THAT NAME HERE, IMPOSTER! YOU ARE NOT THE KING! MY king would NEVER accept defeat! MY king would NEVER let himself be anyone's doormat! MY KING WOULD FIGHT FOR WHAT IS HIS, AND MY KING WOULD DIE BEFORE HE EVER GAVE UP!"

Standing in the rain like a wraith from Hell, Shiro looked down on his battered and broken wielder. Changing to a low monotone, he said, "Do you see now? There is no way that you could be Ichigo Kurosaki. You fell into despair, and when you hit what you thought was the lowest you could, you gave up and ran away. I could never accept that from my king. It's why an imposter like you could never attain my Resurrecion, because it's not about having incredible power...it's about having the balls to use it."

Ichigo glared at the demonic-looking hollow. Thinking through his words, he could only agree. 'He's right. I fell into despair, and...gave up. But...what can I do? She chose him...didn't she?'

Images from that morning flashed through his mind. The haunted look she carried, the smell of sickness, the way she lit up when he came in...

While he was thinking, Shiro began to stalk forward. "It's alright, imposter. I can easily see what your weakness is. It's your heart. Your heart is everyone's doormat. You let anyone tread on it, use it, and break it at their own whims. It makes you soft, and exposes your weakness. Your heart made you give up, and that is unacceptable. Don't worry, though, because I will relieve you of your this problem. I will rip that weak heart from your chest and eat it."

As he watched Shiro coming towards him, Ichigo felt something within him changing. His sadness was quickly overtaken by a burning fury that was consuming everything in his consciousness. More images flashed through his head. The kiss, the man's words, his facial expressions...his scent...his mere presence in his Yoruichi's life...

Then there was Yoruichi's silence. Kisuke's and Amaya's pity. Soi Fon's worry. Kenpachi's taunting. Shiro and Zangetsu's ordering him around.

Ichigo began breathing even more heavily, yet this was layered as it was in Yoruichi's room, and a blue light began emanating from him as his reiatsu climbed.

'Who the fuck do they think they are? It is MY heart. It is MY soul. I will be damned if someone else tries to rule my soul. I don't need their pity, and if she wants to choose someone over me, she's going to have to do it to my fucking face! And him. HIM. If that bastard so much as breathes near me in a way that I don't like, Kami itself won't be able to stop me. I don't know how, but I'm taking my life back!'

Noticing Shiro's right arm shooting forward towards his heart, Ichigo's left-almost of its own accord-quickly snapped up and violently grabbed it, causing a loud crunching sound as he broke the wrist. Standing up, Ichigo twisted the crushed appendage, forcing a surprised Shiro to his knees.

His voice layered with his raised reiatsu, Ichigo began, "ENOUGH! I am beyond sick and tired of everyone thinking that they can dictate MY life and MY soul! I don't need anyone's pity. If she wants away from me, she is going to have to say it! And HE will forever regret the day he crossed my path!"

Turning to face Shiro, Ichigo growled, "And you. You will not TOUCH my heart. Do not forget, this is MY soul. You are the horse, I am Ichigo Kurosaki, AND I AM KING HERE!"

Staring into the black eyeholes of the mask, Ichigo made a decision. Raising his right hand, he slammed his palm forward as hard as he could between the horns and into Shiro's mask, causing a loud, shattering sound. Using his fingertips to grip, he violently ripped the mask away.

Now without a mask, Shiro grinned maniacally up at Ichigo. "Are you finally getting your balls back? Do you really have what it takes to handle that mask?"

Looking at his hand, Ichigo stared at the mask in his hands. The back of it was solid black, with wisps of reiatsu reaching out like tentacles towards him. He felt a draw to it that was almost primal, and he felt thrills of energy shooting through his hand and I to his body. This was far different than anything he'd experienced previously. Instead of pain, the sensations were what he could only describe as...intense, intoxicating pleasure.

Turning back to his hugely smiling hollow, Ichigo simply said, "Just don't forget who's king, horse."

When he finished, he brought his right hand up to his face, allowing the reiatsu tentacles to attach to his head as he placed the mask on. The reiatsu explosion that followed was cataclysmic. Every window of the skyscrapers around him shattered and water was sent flying. Yet, with all of the commotion, Shiro's insane laughter could be heard above it all.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Out in the cavern, Zangetsu and Kenpachi broke apart as they felt the massive spike in reiatsu from Ichigo.

"It would appear that they have finished what needed to be done. Prepare yourself, Zaraki Kenpachi, or you will not survive what is to come," the spirit said as he began to fade back into Ichigo. Before Kenpachi could respond, Ichigo's body rose, but was doubled over. He watched with interest as his opponent began to straighten himself.

However, as the bloodthirsty captain took in the new form and heard the supernatural bellow that came from it, he felt a shiver run down his spine that he had not felt since he had battled her. It was a shiver that caused a smile so wide that his face began to hurt. It was a shiver of pure...elation.

XXXXXXXXX

Central 46 Chambers

"...and now to other business. It has been recommended that we attain a report on the status and activity of arrancar within Hueco Mundo. This council agrees, and will send a squadron to make an assessment. However, this will be reconnaissance only. As the arrancar have made no move against Soul Society since the war, there is no cause for aggressive action. If possible, we would prefer to make peaceful contact with them, as a lack of knowledge and communication led to our war. Soi Fon-taichou, you will select a squadron within the onmitsukido to depart by tomorrow morning," the chamber's chairman said.

Nodding, the dark-haired taichou began to speak her agreement when she was interrupted.

"Might I make a suggestion?," a voice asked. All attention turned to the man who stood and walked to the center of the chambers.

"This council recognizes you, Kaito. You may speak," the chairman called out.

"Thank you, sir. If this is to be a peaceful mission, I would suggest sending a squadron much more likely to make contact. Not that the onmitsukido is unskilled, but we happen to have an untapped resource within our very own Gotei 13!", Kaito said enthusiastically.

"And this resource would be?", a council member asked.

"Why, Kurosaki-taichou and his team of Visoreds, of course. Their hybrid status makes them much more likely to be received peacefully by the arrancar, and they should be strong enough to deal with any threat that arises."

A quiet murmuring began throughout the chambers. While they debated, Soi Fon glared over at Kaito. 'What is he up to? I have heard his many rants against Ichigo, and now he volunteers him for a peaceful recon mission? Something is amiss, and I will find out what it is.'

"The council agrees with your recommendation, Kaito. Orders will be sent to Kurosaki-taichou immediately. Is there any further business?" After a moment of silence, the chairman banged a gavel and said, "Then this session is now concluded. Issue written orders for both Kurosaki-taichou as well as Soutaichou Yamamoto and have them delivered within the hour."

As the council's messengers spoke their understanding of his instructions and walked out of the chambers behind the council members, Soi Fon noticed Kaito quietly slip out as well. Making a decision, she quickly made her way to find Ichigo and warn him to be wary of the man.

Leaving Central 46, she quickly made her way to where she figured he would be. After returning to briefly tell Amaya-sama about Ichigo's current situation, she had encountered several broken walls, an infuriated Noburu, a tense Amaya-sama and suddenly determined Yoruichi-sama. Hearing what had happened, she was pretty sure that Ichigo had gone to again relieve his frustration and anger, but knew that she'd have to wait until after the council's session before she could find him.

However, as she quietly appeared outside of the training ground Yoruichi-sama had shown her, she was surprised to see that it was actually her mentor slipping into the entrance with her black battle suit on and a short wakizashi in hand.

Eyes wide, Soi Fon could not help but to move closer to see what was actually happening.

XXXXXXXX

Kaito watched as the messengers accepted the orders from the council member. 'This will have to be timed perfectly,' he thought as he gripped an envelope nearly identical to the one being held by the messengers.

Letting the messenger who moved towards the squad five barracks get a slight head start, Kaito took off in pursuit. Drawing on all his years of experience in stealth operations, covert training and reiatsu suppression, the man silently made it to where he was keeping pace a mere meter behind the messenger.

Reaching forward, Kaito quickly slid his hand into the messenger's satchel, dropping his envelope into it while extracting the one from Central 46. Once he was sure that he had possession of the envelope, he immediately stopped running and turned down a side street.

Panting, he smiled as he stared at the document in his hand and thought of how his plan was coming along nicely. Even with Noburu's failure by getting kicked out of the Shihoin mansion, he still considered himself to have the upper hand. Once the boy followed his orders, he was finished as a taichou, and probably even as a citizen of Soul Society.

Kaito smirked. Even if the brat didn't follow the orders, he still had his ace in the hole. Noburu may act like he is the one calling the shots, but the truth was that he was just as easily manipulated as the Kurosaki boy. If he failed or denied his orders, all Kaito had to do was send Noburu on the warpath and he would still achieve the same result: Ichigo's banishment, imprisonment, or even death.

Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that. While Noburu was ultimately disposable, Kaito would prefer to keep him under his thumb in order to control the Shihoin clan. If he married Yoruichi, Kaito would be the shadow clan leader, and that was the ultimate goal. Still, he would take his victories as they came.

'You should have thought about who you were putting your hands on before you defended your whore, Kurosaki. Now you will die broken hearted, but hopefully you'll play along and ruin your name first.'

After catching his breath, Kaito quickly made his way back to his home.

XXXXXXXXX

Yoruichi grimaced as she entered the underground training area. Between her zanpakuto crying out incredibly loudly and the state of the grounds, she was incredibly saddened.

'Ichigo...'

Her thoughts had been unable to leave the man she loved so dearly. She had experienced such a rush of irrational hope when she had seen Ichigo first thing in the morning. He had remained calm and had listened to her explanation without shouting or raging at her, which he had been completely within his rights to do.

Then, Noburu had to interrupt it. Though Yoruichi still felt tremendous guilt for nearly killing him all those years ago, she was feeling a growing fury at the man for his violent intrusion into their lives. She did not deny her guilt in the matter, however, as she would not consider even her repressed memories as an excuse for what she did.

Shaking her head, the violet haired woman grasped her zanpakuto and unsheathed it. She would never get any answers unless she looked inwards, and what was more inward than part of her soul? Frowning as she got into a meditative position, she knew that this was not going to be pleasant. After more than a hundred years of no contact at all...'Kami, this is going to hurt...'

As Yoruichi opened her eyes, she took in the environment that she had not seen in ages. A rich, grassy expanse was covered by scores of bare trees with countless branches. She quickly recalled the many times she and her zanpakuto spirit had trained by flashing after each other throughout the branches.

Sighing, she quickly looked around for her zanpakuto spirit. If the cries she had heard had been any indication, she had one hell of a beating coming. Sure enough, the moment Yoruichi landed on a branch, she saw a quick flash and felt a brutal hit to her face, knocking her to the ground.

Pulling her face from the dirt, Yoruichi looked up at the fuming woman who rivaled her in beauty and grace. Her long, blood red hair was tied into a ponytail similar to Yoruichi's as it reached her waist. Her skin complexion mirrored her wielder's, as well as her build, and her eyes were large red orbs that seemed to be able to pierce granite.

"Hello Juryoku," Yoruichi groaned, shaking her head to clear it after the heavy impact. 'This is going to be rough, indeed.'

XXXXXXXXX

Ichigo steadily made his way to the squad four barracks. He was drawing a lot of attention, as he had the massive, bleeding form of Zaraki Kenpachi hanging over his bare shoulder. His shihakksho had been utterly destroyed in the fight, and his haori was draped over the other shoulder.

Stepping through the doorway, he was quickly intercepted by a wide-eyed Retsu Unohana. Raising a delicate looking brow as she took in just who was hanging over his shoulder, she said, "Oh my, Ichigo, there must be an interesting story behind this."

Ichigo smirked at the 'friendly' way that she was basically saying, "Tell me what happened, now."

"Kenpachi was helping me...vent," Ichigo said, looking away slightly. Though he had come to terms with his inner spirits, as well as his will to control his power, he couldn't help the pain that gripped his heart whenever he thought of what had happened. He wasn't giving up, but Kami, did those images hurt.

Unohana's eyes softened at his words. She had heard what had happened last night, as well as this morning from Isshin, who had received word from Amaya. The fact that this young man was still standing after everything life had thrown at him was nothing short of miraculous.

"Very well, Ichigo. Bring him in and we will patch him up."

Carrying him back to a room, Ichigo rolled the man off of his shoulder and onto the bed. Hearing him stir, the younger shinigami turned to look down at the man he had battled so hard for so long this morning. He saw that Kenpachi had regained consciousness and was chuckling.

"Ichigo...you've been...holding back on...me."

Frowning slightly, Ichigo said, "I guess I have, huh? Keeping it to yourself will get you another round after a while, if you want it."

Seeing the weak smile spread across his face, Ichigo chuckled as Kenpachi said, "Deal."

Leaving the medical barracks, Ichigo flashed to his own squad. After a quick shower, he dressed and made his way to his office where Rukia and Shinji were waiting for him.

"Hey cap'n, welcome back!", Shinji called out. Raising a brow, Ichigo simply smirked and walked to his desk. Before he could sit down, a messenger appeared at the doorway to his office.

"Kurosaki-taichou, I have orders from Central 46. The Soutaichou has been informed of these orders as well."

Receiving the envelope, Ichigo dismissed the messenger and opened the orders. "This should be interesting."

Reading the document, Ichigo's temper and reiatsu began to rise. Crumpling the paper in his hand, he slammed the wad onto his desk as he stormed towards the door.

Pausing for a moment, he turned and shouted, "This is bullshit! Rukia, come to my quarters once you've read the orders, because you'll be in charge while we are gone and I have orders for you. Shinji, get the rest ready to leave in two hours."

"Yes sir," both said seriously. Seeing his face, they were not about to argue. Once he had left the room, Rukia smoothed out the paper that Ichigo had crumpled up and held it so that Shinji could watch.

From the Chambers of Central 46

Kurosaki-taichou,

You will take a squadron consisting of Visoreds to Hueco Mundo to address the arrancar threat that has arisen. You and your team will locate and eliminate any and all arrancar, as well as any serious hollow threat present.

Do not attempt to communicate with any hostile force aside from engagement in battle. To do so will be considered treason against Soul Society, and punished accordingly.

You will leave at dusk today, as Kurotsuchi-taichou will have a garganta prepared for your travels. Once your task is completed, return to Central 46 chambers to present your report.

-Central 46 High Council'

"No fucking way," Shinji muttered. This was...insane. There was no other word for it. Central 46 was randomly ordering what amounted to just shy of genocide? No wonder Ichigo was so pissed.

"There's no way he will go along with this. What they hell are they thinking?!", Rukia said. "I'm going to go find out what his orders are. We will meet you back here once you've gathered the rest of the crew."

Turning, she shunpoed off to Ichigo's room. Upon arriving, she knocked on the door and was quickly granted entrance.

"Rukia, I need you to take care of some things while we are gone," Ichigo said before she could speak, looking at her intently.

"Of course, Ichigo. What do you need?" She waited to question him, trusting his character for the moment.

"I need you to, very discreetly, deliver an urgent message to Kukkaku. These orders are bullshit, and there is no way in hell that we are going to go to Hueco Mundo and kill a bunch of beings who haven't even provoked us. If possible, I want to bring a representative envoy back. To do that without any grief, they'll need noble protection and support. I need you to tell her exactly what's going on, and get her on board. If possible, I'd love Byakuya backing me on this, but I won't hold my breath on that. I need you on this Rukia, don't let me down. I know that it's a lot of pressure, but if I bring back any arrancar, they will be under my protection, and you know what that means."

Rukia nodded quickly as she fully grasped the gravity of Ichigo's words. His protection meant that he would fight with all his might to protect them, which could easily lead to a civil war within the Seireitei. She couldn't deny her relief at his words though. Ichigo was no murderer, and would fight to prevent a senseless slaughter.

"I won't fail, Ichigo, you have my word. I will talk to Kukkaku, and will also try to feel out Nii-sama's take on this."

She didn't mention that she would also be talking to Yoruichi. As the future head of one of the four great clans, she would be a heady ally. Not to mention, she owed Ichigo, and Rukia had no problems reminding her of that fact. Soi Fon-taichou would be another ally she would try to obtain. She was friendly with Ichigo, and could certainly help.

"Good. We have to leave almost immediately, so I am counting on you. Now, I have to go and explain the same to the gang. They definitely have the right to know."

Rukia nodded, following Ichigo to meet the rest of the Visoreds. When they had met up, Shinji had obviously explained the situation to them. "We're not going to go slaughter a bunch of arrancar, Ichigo," Hiyori said.

"Of course we aren't, idiot!", Ichigo replied. "We're going to try to make contact and assess the situation. The ideal would be to find an envoy to bring back as representatives. Rukia will be contacting the Shiba clan, as well as her brother-possibly-to get them protected under noble laws."

"However," Ichigo said, looking around at the nodding squad members, "you've seen the orders. Doing this means that we are committing treason. Anyone uncomfortable with this is excused from this mission."

"Fuck them!", Kensei spat. "I have no love lost between me and hollows, but the arrancar are obviously different. They can choose, and they've left us alone. There is no chance in hell that we'll wipe out anyone who doesn't bother anyone."

Smirking, Ichigo said, "Then let's go ignore orders. Move out!"

His smirk was short lived, though. Shortly after, as the group entered the garganta, Ichigo's mind was again bombarded with all that had happened in the past few days. All of the pain, the hurt, the battles, and now these revolting orders...Ichigo was quickly nearing 'enough.'

His nerves were beginning to fray as his he felt pressures building from all sides. Yoruichi's betrayal, Noburu's mindset that he could dictate when and if Ichigo could talk to the woman he still loved, Shiro calling him out on his weakness-which he was actually becoming more and more thankful for-, and Central 46 trying to turn him into a murderer...

Yes, 'enough' was coming soon. Very...very...soon.