Ichigo Kurosaki sighed.
All in all, he wasn't having a very good day. First there was the rowdier then usual wake-up call from the old man, then a particularly stressful shopping trip for Yuzu (not going into details), and last but not least old Hat'n'Clogs had dragged him to the shouten so that he could join a hunting party going after a Hollow that had been evading Soul Society for some time, with unknown abilities at that. And he didn't even know two of the members all that well. Sure, he had fought beside lieutenants Izuru Kira and Shuhei Hisagi plenty, but they never really talked or hung out.
The only bright spot was the last two members of the party; Uryu Ishida and Captain Toshiro Hitsugaya. But given the fact that one was humorless and the other a walking archive, it wasn't much of a positive.
So here he was, standing in the middle of a forest clearing while the rest of the group swept the area for the Hollow's reiatsu, wishing that it had been Rukia and Renji who were sent instead, just for old time's sake. Since he was and probably always would be bad at sensing these kinds of things, until they actually found the Hollow, he was useless.
Of course, staying in one spot was probably better for him. Ever since the three Shinigami had found out that Uryu was joining them, the tension in the air had been so thick, Ichigo was sure he could cut it with Zangetsu. The war with the Quincy still hung fresh in everyone's mind. Even if he had been something of a double agent, it would still be awhile before the rest of the Gotei 13 completely trusted Uryu.
Ichigo sighed again, watching the sun slowly set as time passed by, occasionally catching glimpses of someone either using shunpo or hirenkyaku as they circled the area they were sure the Hollow was currently hiding in.
He was starting to consider taking a nap when a telltale roar reached his ears, coming somewhere from the west. Above the forest, three figures in different directions could clearly be seen hovering above the trees before disappearing again, heading in the direction of the sound.
It didn't take long for Ichigo to catch up with the others. He wouldn't go so far as to say he could outrun Yoruichi, but he was one of the fastest in the Seiretei. If he wanted, he could leave them all in the dust.
The Hollow roared again, and a flash of something white appeared above another clearing. It wasn't long after that Ichigo felt the temperature drop dramatically, quickly followed by storm clouds and falling snow.
Uryu caught up to him, running by his side as they sped towards the clearing. "Looks like Captain Hitsugaya found it first."
Another flash of white and the air became even colder, if that was possible. Ichigo looked back at Uryu and smirked. "You think?"
The pair stopped above the outer trees of the clearing, observing the icy chaos below. Ice coated everything and fragments of it littered the ground, remnants of Toshiro's attacks. In the center of it all was a particularly ugly Hollow. Nothing about it was even remotely symmetrical, even the mask. Patches of fur, scales, and skin dotted the areas between it's mismatched exoskeleton, and it couldn't seem to decide on a color.
It wasn't long before they were joined by Izuru and Shuhei, who looked at the Hollow like it was the most revolting thing they'd ever seen.
"That is what's been killing Shinigami? I would have thought it would look a little scarier." Shuhei muttered, obviously having a hard time believing this thing was capable of doing anything besides looking ugly.
"Are you all going to stand there gaping, or are you going to actually help me with this?" Toshiro yelled from higher up, holding his released zanpakuto, hilt in one hand, coiled chain in the other.
Shuhei chuckled. "I don't know, Captain, it looks like you've got things handled from here."
Toshiro rolled his eyes and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "useless lieutenants", before diving back towards the Hollow in an attempt to split it's mask.
After watching the captain attempt to kill the Hollow four times and it became clear there was more to this Hollow then it seemed, the two lieutenants joined in, closely followed by Ichigo. Uryu, seeing the four taking on the single opponent, decided the battlefield was crowded enough and opted to watch from the sidelines.
It was because of this decision that he was the one to pick up on the hint that something was wrong.
What kind of reishi is this?, he thought, scanning through the memories he had obtained from Yhwach when he was killed, trying to place the unfamiliar "scent". It almost resembles a Senkaimon.
At that thought, his eyes widened as he realized exactly where the source was and what it would do. He opened his mouth, about to warn the others, when a black hole appeared in the air right where Ichigo was, pulling him in before he could even shout.
"Kurosaki!" Toshiro yelled, distracted and failing to notice the hole opening beneath him and Kira. A split-second later, they, too, were nowhere to be found.
"Hey! What was that?" Uryu looked to his right to see Shuhei had shunpoed beside him, eyes wide in shock.
"I'm still not entirely sure," Uryu answered, pushing his glasses up and pointing. "But I think he has something to do with it." Strangely, the asymmetrical mask of the Hollow seemed to grin at them through the extrusions covering it.
That was the last thing they saw before they were pulled into their own hole in reality.
Steve Rogers was a happy man.
And why wouldn't he be? He was finally starting to become accustomed to the time he had woken up in, the Chitauri were gone, New York was still in one piece, the Tesseract was soon to be gone forever, and he had just signed a contract with SHEILD, meaning he would be working for them in the near future. Everything was going great.
Until he got the call.
Now he was standing on the bridge of the helicarrier with the Avengers minus Banner or Hulk, wondering about the crater on the helicarrier's deck he had caught a glimpse of before landing, waiting for Fury to finish startup procedures to get them into the air.
And trying to drown out Tony.
"C'mon, guys, somebody's gotta know what's going on! Anyone, please?" He had been going on like that ever since he landed. As a genius who usually knew everything, it was hard for him to accept that there were things he didn't know.
Steve sighed. They had finished the battle of New York two days ago now, and it felt like things were going back to normal. Thor was assisting in some of the reconstruction until he was cleared to take Loki with him back to Asgard. Tony and Pepper had been busy trying to stabilize their company. Bruce was somewhere in South America, and who knows what Clint and Natasha have been up to.
So what had happened? What was so urgent that all of the Avengers except Banner had been called in?
Just when Tony and Thor started to launch into an argument, Fury stepped down from his platform and cut them off.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, but I would have thought you would like to know what's going on."
The pair immediately forgot about their disagreement and fixed their eyes on the director, clearly dying to know.
Fury's mouth almost twitched into a smile before he quelled the impulse and proceeded with his briefing. "About three hours ago, our spectrometers picked up on energy reminiscent of the Tesseract, only instead of in one place, it was spaced out in three different areas."
"Impossible! There is only one Tesseract and it is directly below us!" Thor said, looking indignant.
"Yes, I am aware of that." Fury said dryly. "But like I said, the signature was similar, not the same. Anyways, when agents were sent to investigate the locations, they found something strange."
Tony sat back with a groan and covered his face with his hands. "Don't tell me."
But Fury kept going. "In the craters left behind at the three sights, we found people. Five people, to be exact."
Tony didn't move, but his voice was notably louder. "I said don't tell me!"
Thor was looking thoughtful for once. "Can you describe the people?"
"I can do better than that." Fury said with a sly grin. "They arrived unconscious. We have them in custody as we speak."
With that, he transferred command to Hill and led the team off the bridge and towards the actual brig, not the Hulk containment unit, which was new for them.
Entering the large hall, Fury headed straight for a line of five locked cells, each of them occupied. Looking at Thor, he gestured towards the figures. "Recognize anyone this time?"
Looking inside the first one, Steve had to try hard not to gasp. The person was a boy, possibly in his pre-teens, wearing strange black robes and a white overcoat. If it hadn't been for the odd spiky white hair, he would have accused Fury of imprisoning children.
The next occupant was closer to normal, with blond hair that hung over his left eye. He wore the same thing as the boy, minus the white coat.
The individual next to him was another boy, this one possibly in his late teens, wearing a white military-looking uniform of some sort, with glasses and black hair that hung over the right side of his face and tucked behind his left ear.
After him was another man, with spiky hair that almost looked indigo that was combed over to the right side of his face, partially covering the three scars that ran from his forehead, across his eye, and down to the bottom of his face, looking to be made by claws of some sort. He also sported a blue line tattooed over his left cheek and the bridge of his nose, below which was a 69. He had the same black robes as the first two, only without sleeves, and a choker on his neck with two armbands of the same style on each arm.
The last one was another teen, with spiky, bright orange hair and the same black uniform with x-shaped white shoulder plates and a white cloak with black markings tied around his waist. X-shaped, band-like tattoos were visible on his forearms and chest.
Drawing his attention away from the knocked-out prisoners, he watched as Thor observed them and shook his head. "Their attire is not of any of the nine realms. I have not seen them before."
Fury sighed and gestured for them to follow him again. They left the brig and entered a forensics room. Placed in the center was a table. On that table lay three Japanese katanas, two overgrown trench and Khyber knives, and a belt with several metal rods placed beside it and several tube-like containers.
"These were found on each of the subjects. The katanas may look ordinary, but their metal is nothing we've ever seen before." Fury said, looking annoyed.
Clint chose this moment to speak. "Soo, they're aliens?"
Tony looked curious, brain obviously working to solve the mystery. "Have you run DNA tests?"
Fury nodded. "Completely human, believe it or not."
Natasha looked perplexed. "So where did they come from, then?"
At that moment, the sound of an explosion came from the direction of the brig, soon followed by an alarm and someone over the intercom stating that they had a prisoner loose.
Steve looked back at his team, specifically Natasha. "How 'bout we go ask them?"