Sophia Prester (sophiap) wrote in presterpress,
Sophia Prester
sophiap
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Winter War: Ensemble - Tactics [Bleach]

Title: Winter War - Ensemble: Tactics
Authors for this section: incandescens, sophiap
Characters: Lisa, Shunsui, Nanao, Hisagi, Byakuya, Hanatarou, Grimmjow, Orihime, Ichigo, Ikkaku, Yumichika, Renji
Fandom: Bleach
Rating/Warning: PG-13
Word Count: c. 6,700
Notes: This is a dark (we're not kidding) AU co-plotted with incandescens and liralen. The war against Aizen's forces went very badly. Nothing is sacred and no one is safe.

Also, my (sophiap’s) apologies for the long lull in posting. RL has been kicking my tail for the past several months.

Chapter Index
[...]
44. Yoruichi: Smokescreen
45. Nanao: Dark Songs
46. Ensemble: Making War

Summary: The enemy advances, the battlefield shifts, and plans have to be made on the fly.


Kuchiki fastidiously did not brush past Lisa as he strode off to fetch his furry friend and the kids. She tried to match the image of that gaunt, careworn face with the boyish roundness of the coddled noblebrat she remembered from a century ago.

She failed.

“Do you really think we can rely on him?” She crouched down next to her captain as he gently patted his fingers against Nanao-chan’s cheek, urging her towards wakefulness.

“Are you referring to Byakuya-kun, or poor Renji-kun?”

“Kuchiki. If he gets too much time to think, he’ll figure out you’re lying about his sister’s death. What happens then?”

He shrugged off her concern. “It was a kindness he needed.”

“No, you needed him functional.”

“That, too,” he said curtly.

“I wasn’t disapproving. I’m just wondering if you have a plan in place for when he breaks.”

Rather than answering her, Kyouraku-taichou called out to Hoshibana, asking for a status on the enemy’s approach.

“They’re approaching from, ah... They’ll arrive at the door that’s just behind Hisagi... fukutaichou.” Lisa saw Hisagi forcibly not wince at the awkward pause before his rank. “You have perhaps ten minutes before they’re on top of you,” Hoshibana said with the sort of crispness that masked pants-crapping terror. “I suggest you move now if you’re going to reach those caves in time.”

“Ain’t gonna happen,” Grimmjow said just as Hanatarou said much the same thing (but a little more slowly due to using proper grammar).

“The caves you mentioned are too far away,” Hanatarou said. “And besides--”

“Only way to get there from here’ll drop us right in Aizen’s lap,” Grimmjow concluded.

Hanatarou nodded. “He’s right.”

Grimmjow looked pleased at the affirmation, then he blinked a couple of times before he and Hanatarou sidled a little further away from each other.

Now that would make for an interesting buddy-adventure movie, Lisa thought.

“Plus, we’d have to find the place. Also, if we did make it there, our reiatsu signatures would burst out like fireworks once we leave the area,” she said, stomping on the dampening stone by way of emphasis. “If we’re going to have any kind of element of surprise, we need to stay shielded until the last possible minute. All the close-by fighting space sucks, but we need to stay as close to here,” she said, jamming a finger towards the floor, “as possible until just before we make our attack.”

Kyouraku-taichou studied her through hooded eyes (deceptively sleepy, she thought, but then, ‘deceptively’ fits so much of what he does, and what else isn’t he telling us...) for what seemed like too much of the ten minutes they supposedly had left.

“Hisagi-kun, run tell Kuchiki-taichou to meet us back here. Akira-kun, tell us everything you can about the surrounding area. What choices do we have?” he said, almost bored from the sound of it. He was doing what he could to support a wobbly Nanao, but the only way he could get her arm slung around his shoulders was to stoop. Lisa rolled her eyes, then grabbed little Hanatarou and gave him a rough shove by way of a clue.

“Also, tell us more about the two Vastolorde who are with him,” Lisa said, exchanging a glance with Grimmjow. Grimmjow scowled but nodded. A quick description should allow them to identify who they would be facing.

There weren’t too many Vastolorde left, but out of those few, some were much, much worse than others. Lisa clutched at Tonbo’s hilt as she waited to hear how bad it was.

“There’s a huge one, ridged skull, at least at as tall as Komamura-taichou--”

“Yammi,” Grimmjow and Lisa said at once.

“Tough guy?” Ikkaku asked in a way that suggested he hoped the answer was ‘yes.’

“Wiped the floor with Sado and Ichigo way back when,” Grimmjow told him with a grin that Lisa did not like at all. “What about the other?”

“Short, very pale, with the left side of his head covered by what looks like half a horned helmet.”

Grimmjow cursed like a trucker raised by sailors, but Lisa just nodded. “Of course,” she said. “Ulquiorra. Yammi’s little buddy. He’s also real trouble. Our plans to take out Aizen won’t mean anything if we have to cut through the two of them first.”

Nanao was finally on her feet, feebly slapping away Kyouraku-taichou and Hanatarou’s attempts to steady her. “What if we trap them in the same darkness we catch Aizen in?” Her voice was too shaky for Lisa’s liking. Also, that ‘we’ fooled absolutely no one.

“It adds too many variables,” Kyouraku-taichou said. “That would be bad enough as it is, but now? With you not having any experience with your new zanpakutou? It could be nothing short of disastrous. And there’s no room. We may need to look at retreat as an option. How far do these sekki-sekki--”

“Hold on!” Hoshibana’s voice rang from the ceiling. “Aizen is still headed straight towards the sekki-sekki zone where you’re standing, but the other two took a branching corridor...” What he said faded off into mild squabbling as he and Pagally debated over how to use the controls.

“I guess that’s good,” Ikkaku said, but he did not look well pleased.

“Dessert?” Ayasegawa suggested with an arched brow.

Lisa could see Hanatarou’s face squinch up as he tried to picture just where that corridor might go.

“This... hmm. This may not be good,” Hoshibana said. “The hallway they headed down could take them back to what I assume is the main courtyard, but if they take another left...”

There was a moment of dead silence.

“Which is exactly what they just did,” he said, voice flat as the sekki-sekki stone beneath their feet. “The Vastolorde are coming up at you from the opposite direction. There’s no way you can get past them.”

They only had about two minutes at most, but it seemed that everyone spent much longer than that looking at each other and not doing anything.

Nanao still seemed halfway stuck in wherever it was she had been, her eyes not really focusing on anything. Ayasegawa simply unsheathed his zanpakutou with the same calm as a cat who had its paw on a no-longer-struggling canary. Grimmjow bared his teeth in a grin that made him look like Ikkaku’s long-lost and more hirsute brother. Hanatarou closed his eyes in the sort of dread that was close kin to relief.

As for Lisa, even after a hundred years’ separation, her first instinct was to look to her captain.

More times than she could count during that hundred years, in moments of weakness when she indulged in self pity and/or alcohol, she would invariably end up with the same misery-mantra going round and around in her brain:

If taichou was here, everything would be okay again.

He could be a complete idiot, their relationship had gone way past unprofessional in so many, many ways, and he allowed her to give him the kind of shit that would have gotten her put in the stockades if she had been another fukutaichou in another division. but he was her taichou, and there was nothing he couldn’t do.

Actually, there were plenty of things he couldn’t do (e.g. anything involving poetry), but there was still a part of her who was the precocious little kid who had joined the Gotei 13 way, way too early for her own good.

And so, sometimes, when she missed Soul Society so much she could cry, or she was so tired of restraining her inner Hollow that giving up was beginning to sound like the sanest option, she would let herself daydream about him showing up and making everything okay.

Even now, she wanted to believe it, but how could she when he stood there half-starved and so weakened in mind and body?

He looked as dazed as Nanao and as sleepily content as Yumichika. All that meant, though, was that he was thinking and rearranging ideas and strategies at unimaginable speed.

At least, she hoped that was what it meant.

“Aizen knows we’re here,” he said at last. “He means to trap us on this sekki-sekki stone, and prevent us from opening a gate and making off with the prisoners he has such high hopes for.”

Something about the cold, brittle way he said that last bit turned Lisa’s stomach. She tried not to think of what they might have found instead of their captain if they had been even just a day later than they had been. “Classic pincer attack,” she said, deciding she would freak the fuck out later if there was indeed a later.

Of course, that’s when there was a flurry of activity at the far door that led to every single zanpakutou leaving its sheath. Under other circumstances, it might have been funny, the way Kurosaki’s eyes went wide as he stepped through the door.

“Um... we’re back?” he squeaked. Lisa covered her mouth - there really was nothing to smile about just then.

“The plan has changed?” Kuchiki managed to make a simple question sound like a cutting accusation.

“Only in the details of its execution,” Kyouraku-taichou said, voice smooth as smoked glass. “We face Aizen as we discussed, only the field has changed - and multiplied.”

He explained the situation succinctly and calmly, but Lisa saw him tense partway through, his attention suddenly shifting to a particular member of the group surrounding them.

Lisa followed his gaze without turning her head, and... damn. Kurosaki had gone from looking poleaxed to looking like he would start crashing about like a loose cannon.

“You’ll be needed here, Kurosaki-kun,” Kyouraku-taichou said, cutting off Kurosaki almost before the boy’s mouth had evened opened to say anything. “You haven’t seen Aizen’s shikai. That’s more important than whatever quarrel you have with those two Vastolorde, hm?”

Lisa remembered Grimmjow gleefully reporting how one of the Vastolorde had handed Kurosaki’s ass to him. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Inoue had gone ghastly pale, and Kurosaki kept looking to her, guilt and anger warring for ascendance.

“Kurosaki does have a point,” Kuchiki said, and everyone tacitly agreed to ignore Kurosaki’s startled ‘I do?’ “We cannot fight Aizen if our attention is divided. We need to keep the Vastolorde from engaging us here. Besides...” here he looked around the space they were in with undisguised disdain. “This is hardly an adequate space for a fight.”

“Well, shit,” Ikkaku drawled. His grin went wide and sharp. “Guess that means some of us gotta take the fight to those two assholes and keep them out of your hair.”

Kuchiki gave him a look that would have made most men wither with shame, but Ikkaku dismissed it with a sneer and a shrug. “The fight with Aizen’s gonna be all about kidou and illusions and crap. Sounds to me like you need ranged attacks and fancy tricks, not real fighting.” Another shrug. “What can I say? Ain’t my kind of brawl.”

“I suppose that’s fair,” Kuchiki said. Lisa could tell that Kyouraku-taichou was fighting back a smile. She wondered if Kuchiki knew how well his sempai could manipulate people into acting as he wanted them to by merely sitting back and shutting up at the right times.

No one even bothered to comment when Ayasegawa fell into step alongside his old division-mate, but Kyouraku-taichou gave Lisa a look.

She nodded her understanding and followed the two Eleventh-division veterans. Someone had to keep an eye on those two knuckleheads. Grimmjow turned and stepped forward with a predatory grin, but then he stopped short and cocked his head as if listening to something.

“I got more of a beef with Aizen than with those two clowns,” he said with a dismissive air that fooled exactly no one. “I’m stayin’ here.”

“I’m sure the two of us can handle this ourselves,” Ayasegawa said, giving Lisa a look that wasn’t quite a glare.

Ikkaku grinned and his zanpakutou shifted from sealed form to its shikai without him having to say a word.

Lisa got the implication at once, and revised her estimate of his success upwards several notches. She didn’t have quite as good a party trick as that, but telling Tonbo to ‘smash’ was pretty impressive in and of itself.

Ikkaku’s eyes went wide.

“Mine’s bigger,” she said brightly. “Nice and long, and hard...”

As expected, Nanao went bright pink.

“So tell me, Lisa-san. Just what kind of books did you read to Ise-fukutaichou when she was young and so very impressionable?” Ayasegawa drawled.

She caught the spark of mischief in his eye and she leaned close to whisper in his ear.

“Look her way and laugh knowingly, all right?”

He did as instructed, practically tittering, and pink turned to red as Nanao growled with mortification and frustration.

Then, she and the two Eleventh-division shinigami headed out the door. “We’ll be sure to catch up on our reading when I get back, Nanao-chan,” she called back over her shoulder. “I have some very... stimulating books I think you’ll enjoy.”

The growl turned to a shriek that was drowned out by her taichou’s laughter. She didn’t say goodbye to them, but at least this time, they were parting in laughter, not in sorrow and fear.




“But –“ Kurosaki still seemed to feel the urge to say something, even if he didn’t have anything useful to contribute to the discussion, as Madarame and Ayasegawa and Yadomarou-sempai vanished round the corner.

“No time,” Kyouraku-taichou said. He raised his eyes to glare at the ceiling. “Hoshibana, can you hear us up there?”

“Yes, Kyouraku-taichou,” Hoshibana said. His voice was firm. Nanao wondered if his hands were shaking, or if he was gripping the arms of his chair. She knew that her knuckles were white, and she forced herself to relax her hands before anyone else could notice.

Soon, soon, Suzumushi whispered at the back of her mind in a rising susurration of eagerness.

I need to listen! she snapped at it. Don’t distract me!

“Hoshibana – or anyone else who’s in that room with him – if you see Aizen within eyeshot of our group,” Kyouraku-taichou said quickly, “then say ‘Green’ and give the approximate distance from whoever he’s closest to. If he moves to within striking distance, then the word is ‘Amber’, and whoever he’s closest to. If he engages with one of us – probably me – then say ‘Red’ and whoever it is. And give Nanao-chan here a bearing and distance for where he is, if you have had to call red, as she’ll need it. Do you have that?” He glanced around at the rest of the group. “Does everyone have that?”

Everyone was nodding. Kuchiki-taichou gave a sharp inclination of his head. Inoue Orihime chewed on her lower lip, furrowing her forehead in the sort of ‘I am honestly trying to concentrate’ look that she probably gave her teachers at school. Grimmjow rolled his shoulders, but grunted in acknowledgement, while Kurosaki and Hisagi both simply nodded, and Abarai gave a low grunt that might have been acceptance. Hanatarou swallowed, then ducked his head, his jaw clenched.

“Then let’s move. The sooner we engage him, the less chance that Aizen and the Espada will be able to combine forces.”

It wasn’t like running to battle in Soul Society, or in the alleys of Seireitei, or across the wild reaches of the outer lands. There was no fresh, moving air in this place, no natural light: there were no living smells except their own, and no sounds, no sounds at all. The air pressed around them like the tension of a drumhead.

Kyouraku-taichou and Kuchiki-taichou led the way. Nanao would have carried Inoue-kun, but Hisagi was already sweeping her up in his arms and running with her, ignoring her failed protest and Kurosaki’s attempt to be the one to carry her. Sensible. Kurosaki was a more immediate target for Aizen, and might need his hands free.

Kurosaki-kun ran with them, together with them and yet not quite part of the group, and a connection at the back of Nanao’s mind clicked over. All of them – all of the shinigami, that is – had learned to fight in a group when they were younger and less powerful. Even though every man of the Thirteen Divisions had to swing his own blade, they had been trained to cooperate when they were fighting a Hollow (or an instructor) more powerful than them. They knew how to fight together. Even Eleventh Division – and probably Grimmjow – with their very definite and totally ridiculous views and perspectives on what was “proper” in a fight, were aware of how to work with each other.

Of course, Kurosaki had fought together with his friends before. She hoped that was an indication of experience. He’d trained under Urahara Kisuke and Shihouin Yoruichi. The thought reassured her.

The corridor ahead broadened out to a heavily warded doorway. It was the way that they’d come into this area. Nanao winced at the thought of having to unpick all the locks again.

Kyouraku-taichou shot a glance over his shoulder at the group, then came to a decision. “No time,” he said briefly. “Ichigo-kun? Open that door, please.”

Kurosaki blinked. “But I don’t have any kidou or any of that –“

“You don’t need kidou for what I would like you to do to that door,” Kyouraku-taichou said. “And closing it behind us again will not be necessary.”

“Oh,” Kurosaki said in tones of slow enlightenment. “Um . . . right. Right.” He drew the oversized blade from its sheath on his back, and took a deep breath, pointing it towards the door. ”Getsuga Tenshou!”

Shrapnel sprayed in all directions. Little pieces of the door and the frame bounced off into the far distance.

“Now that’s more like it,” Kyouraku-taichou said, and led the charge forward into the open space ahead.

The abrupt restoration of her normal senses, away from the constant surroundings of killing stone, hit Nanao like a dose of tea. She was abruptly more alert, more clear-thinking, more aware of what was around her. Her mind seemed to uncoil and relax. Perhaps they really did have a chance –

“Red!” Hoshibana screamed, his voice shaking with fury and panic. “Red, Kyouraku-taichou! Two o’clock, 50 paces!”

Nanao’s heart thumped in her chest as she brought herself to a stop, her hand already closing around Suzumushi’s hilt. Half of her mind was protesting that she could see Kyouraku-taichou ahead of her and already halfway down the corridor, but the other half was as cold as ice, as cold as the voices of crickets at midnight, as cold as people had always accused her of being, because right now she needed to be cold and to execute her part of the plan.

She turned to face the point that Hoshibana had given her, and set her feet. Her right hand moved in front of her, holding Suzumushi upright, and her left hand moved without automatic thought, on the prompting of another mind, a remembrance of a dead man, snapping her bare palm against the ring on Suzumushi’s hilt.

“Bankai!” she said, and Suzumushi spoke with her, through her, as the weight of it rang through her body.

The ring spun with a high ringing tone, swelling outwards – no, it wasn’t the ring that was expanding, it was a projection of the ring, an illusion that was as much an illusion as anything else that she could see, because nothing that could be seen was real . . .

Is this Suzumushi, or is it an echo of Tousen, or both of them? Nanao thought, then upbraided herself for her lack of concentration. If he escapes --

There is no escape now that it is begun, Suzumushi answered her.

The ring split into more rings that swung out to encircle her. Without having to look, she knew that they formed a perfect circumference around her. ”Suzumushi Tsuishiki: Enma Korogi!” she called out, and brought the sword down and across in a cut that sent the rings flying out in all directions.

And there was darkness.

It was a heavy darkness. It weighed on Nanao and made her bones ache and her eyes burn. Suzumushi’s earlier comment, as long as your flesh will endure it, came back to her, and she knew that she could not sustain the bankai for very long.

She just had to hold it for long enough to kill Aizen. That was all. She promised herself, as if the act of making the oath could give her some additional strength. Just for long enough.

She still saw only what she had seen before. There was no change to her vision, no sudden appearance of Aizen or Kyouraku-taichou where she had been told that they were. She could see the others of the group, some of them caught in the darkness as well (so much for the plan about being able to stand outside it and move in, they should have got more detail on exactly how the bankai worked, but there had been no time), others outside it, and more to the point, she could see Kuchiki-taichou and Kurosaki. Kuchiki-taichou was only a pace away from her. He must have moved in close when he saw her activating the bankai. Kurosaki was further away, shaking his head as if he was trying to clear his vision. Abarai-fukutaichou was further out, crouched against the ground, clawlike hands digging against his eyes. She reached out with her free hand and caught Kuchiki-taichou’s left wrist, dragging his hand until it touched Suzumushi’s hilt.

He gasped as his fingers grazed the hilt, his eyes focusing as he seized it firmly, his hand clamping over hers. “Do you see him?” he demanded. There was no need to ask who the he referred to.

“No,” Nanao said. “Kurosaki might –“

Kuchiki-taichou grabbed her round the waist and dragged her across to Kurosaki. She caught Kurosaki’s wrist, ducked his instinctive swing at her head, and forced Suzumushi’s hilt against his hand.

Kurosaki’s eyes focused on the pair of them. “So this is –“ he started.

“Yes,” Kuchiki-taichou answered. “A shame that its owner should have been so misguided. Had Tousen truly been loyal –“

Nanao was trembling with the strain of sustaining the darkness. It felt as if strength was running out of her like water. She already had to lean on Kuchiki-taichou far more than she wanted to. And her eyes, her eyes were like coals in her head, worse than the worst case of eye-strain she’d ever given herself from squinting at old texts late at night and in a bad light. “Gentlemen,” she broke in, giving her words the snap that she’d have given a particularly well-deserved rebuke to Kyouraku-taichou. (Please, please let him still be alive.) “I cannot sustain this as long as Tousen Kaname would have –“

No, indeed you cannot, Suzumushi said, and it sounded disappointed. A little longer, just a little longer . . .

Kuchiki-taichou drew his zanpakutou. “Kurosaki Ichigo, strike first,” he ordered. “Show me where to attack.”

“Be careful to keep it high,” Kurosaki said, “Kyouraku’s lying at his feet. I think he took a back wound. There’s a lot of blood. I think –“

“Is he alive?” Nanao demanded.

“Think so,” Kurosaki said. “But he’s not moving.”

“He knew the strategy,” Kuchiki-taichou said flatly. “He will be staying out of the line of fire.”

Nanao chose to believe that. It was a deliberate choice, because it left her a little more focus and a little more strength to hold the bankai with. It felt as if she was bleeding her life out through her hand and into the zanpakutou. Her breathing rattled in her ears. Everything was in black and white. She jerked a nod, setting her teeth.

“Bankai!” Kurosaki shouted, drawing his zanpakutou. “Tensa Zangetsu!” Reiatsu beat around him in a silent thunder. For a moment Nanao was afraid that Aizen might be able to sense it, but common sense reassured her that the bankai must deafen those within it to reiatsu just as it did to everything else; it would be of little use otherwise. His blade was smaller now, and even in the darkness, it gleamed an intense black.

Kuchiki-taichou frowned. “Scatter, Senbonzakura,” he murmured. The blade dissolved in his hand into a flutter of petals, a swirl of motion that flickered around them, tiny and edged. The level of reiatsu around Nanao rose higher, and she had to work to control her breathing, caught between the two of them.

It’s not as bad as Yamamoto-soutaichou was, she told herself. I just have to hold it. Just a bit longer. Just long enough. I swear it -

“Getsuga Tenshou!” Kurosaki declared. His blade cut through the air, and a black bolt of energy drove along its path, coming to an abrupt halt perhaps thirty paces away, towards the far side of the open space formed by the intersection of the wide corridors. Try as Nanao might, she could see nothing there. Nothing at all. But the bolt of energy struck something, for it went no further.

“Ah. Now I have it.” Kuchiki-taichou gestured with his free hand, and Senbonzakura’s petals drove towards that spot in a bone-pale sweep. He frowned a little, twisting his fingers, and the petals curved back and forth, patterning through the air. “Kurosaki Ichigo, are they affecting him?”

“He –“ Kurosaki frowned. “He shrugged off my blast, I think. Mostly. He’s got some sort of power kidou shield around him.”

“What, in this?” Kuchiki-taichou turned to give Nanao a coldly accusing look.

“He must know what this bankai does,” Nanao said. Her mouth was dry, and she had to speak carefully so as not to stumble on her words. “He could put up a shield through the standard forms, even if he couldn’t sense it activating. You must – must cut through it.” She blinked. Her eyes were burning now, hot and painful, and she wanted to bring her free hand up to rub them, but something told her that giving way to it would only make it worse.

“Use your bankai, Byakuya!” Kurosaki demanded. “If we combine it –“

“I cannot,” Kuchiki-taichou said, and his voice was as close to killing as Nanao had ever heard it. “We must keep hammering at him. Use what strength you have. If he gets out of this untouched . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence.

Kurosaki hesitated, his throat working as he swallowed dryly. “I – the only way I can get more strength is to do that.” He gestured at his face. “But if I do, then – if I lose control again –“

“Then do not lose control,” Kuchiki-taichou said. He turned from Kurosaki and Nanao to gesture again, and his blades fell through the air in a killing spiral of light against the darkness.

“Shit. Shit! Getsuga Tenshou!” Kurosaki threw another blast of black fire towards where Aizen must be. His hand was trembling where it lay across Nanao’s hand on Suzumushi’s hilt. “Shit! I can’t do this!”

“Then we are all dead, or worse,” Kuchiki-taichou said. “But if you will not hazard yourself for your own life, then consider Inoue Orihime. Of all the people here, she at least deserves better.”

“You bastard!” Kurosaki shouted. “How can you say that when your own sister –“

Kuchiki-taichou’s reiatsu rose even higher. “And what of your sisters, Kurosaki Ichigo? If Aizen lives?”

“I cannot hold the bankai for very much longer!” Nanao gasped, forcing the words out of her mouth. There was a distant roaring in her ears, like hourglasses running down to emptiness, dry sand thundering. She closed her eyes, unable to bear the strain of keeping them open. They were like live coals in her head, and she was burning away. “In the name of all the gods, do it!” Or Kyouraku-taichou may have died for nothing . . . “The middle of a fight is no time to argue standards and ethics! Bring him down and finish it!”




The Hollow was dancing at the back of Ichigo’s mind, jeering and stamping loud enough that it seemed strange that Byakuya and Ise couldn’t hear him. See? You’re no use to them. They’d rather have me than you!

Shut up, Ichigo thought desperately. Stop fighting me! If we don’t beat Aizen, then you’re just as dead as I am? Do you really think he’ll want you back now?

You really are the most useless wielder of a sword ever, the Hollow sneered. Do you think I even care if he wants me back?

Then what do you want?

Right at this minute? I want you to fight, moron! What do you think I want?

Then you won’t fight me?

You still don’t get it, “King”, and I’m not sure you’re ever going to get it, but for the moment let’s just kill this asshole. Trust me. I’ll only interfere if you look like losing. Do you want to lose?

No. Ichigo felt the certainty of the word curdle like spoiled milk in his stomach. It was true. He couldn’t afford to lose. Whatever it cost. No. I don’t want to lose.

Ichigo touched his right hand to his forehead, the metal of his zanpakutou hilt cool against his skin, then moved his hand down across his face. The mask came spilling down across his flesh, familiar and almost comforting, and he felt his reiatsu jump with it until it seemed to be burning in his veins. Next to him, Ise moaned, her whole body trembling and her hand fever-hot where it touched his.

”Getsuga Tenshou!” he roared. The power scythed through the air towards Aizen, and rebounded from his shield, but was that –

Yes. Aizen had frowned.

He threw bolt after bolt of power at Aizen, till the air was thick and choking with it. He would have run in to strike at Aizen directly, dragging the other two with him, but some instinctive caution kept him back.

Afraid, “King”? the Hollow taunted.

Let’s get that shield down first, he answered it.

“Can’t – I can’t . . .” Ise gasped. She was sagging at the knees, and there was something wrong with her eyes, but he didn’t have the time to work out what.

Byakuya shifted his grip on the strange zanpakutou to his other hand, and threw his arm round her waist, holding her upright. “Kurosaki Ichigo!” he barked. “Is he vulnerable yet?”

Ichigo took a deep breath. ”Getsuga Tenshou!”

And the bolt ripped through Aizen’s shield, washing across his body in black fire. Aizen staggered. There was an expression on his face now. Anger.

“Yes!” Ichigo exulted, his Hollow screaming in delighted echo. “Move your blades in, we’ve got him!”

Byakuya nodded. Senbonzakura’s blades sliced in at Aizen, and Ichigo threw another Getsuga Tenshou strike at him. For the moment, he was in control. Completely in control.




It had worked. The damn thing had actually worked. Hisagi lowered Inoue-kun to the ground, and took a deep breath of relief when she was no longer pressed against him.

“So how long’s it going to last?” Grimmjow demanded. He took a half-pace forward. “You think we should go in there and head for the centre? That’s where Aizen will be, right?”

“If you do, you won’t be able to see a thing,” Hisagi said. The darkness seemed to ripple in front of them, like the surface of a bubble. Half of him expected to see Tousen-taichou come striding out, blade naked in his hand . . .

And what the fuck would you do then? Kazeshini demanded. Ask for orders?

“Don’t be stupid,” he muttered. The other two looked at him, and even Hanatarou, well in the rear, gave him a nervous glance. He raised his voice. “Be on your guard. This may go down at any minute, and then we’ll have Aizen to deal with.” He drew Kazeshini from its sheath, ready to invoke shikai.

And fuck-all of a plan as to how to deal with him, Kazeshini put in. His mental tone was sharp and even nagging, but Hisagi could taste something behind it now. Fear. Kazeshini was afraid.

Inoue-kun was fretting, chewing her lower lip, her fingers moving nervously. “I wish there was some way I could reject his hypnosis on you,” she said. “But nothing special happened when I was healing people earlier. And I can’t just – reject him.” She turned away, eyes shadowed.

“Why not?” Grimmjow demanded. “You changed me, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but I was healing you!” Orihime protested. “I was rejecting your Hollowness! I can’t reject a human being!”

Hisagi held up a hand to stop Grimmjow before he could shatter the girl’s confidence any further. “Right. It’s okay. We know you don’t have a zanpakutou like we do.”

Inoue-kun’s jaw dropped. She turned to look fully at Hisagi, and it was as if someone had lit a fire behind her eyes. She bounced up onto her toes, clasping her hands. “Yes! Yes, that’s it!”

You are not giving me to her, Kazeshini snarled. I don’t care what the fuck she thinks she can do if someone gives her a sword. She can go borrow Hanatarou’s or something.

“Inoue-kun –“ Hisagi started, trying to think of a way to talk her out of it.

“I can reject his zanpakutou!” She jumped up and down again. “Hisagi-san! Grimmjow-san! I know I can do it! If you can get it for me, I can reject his zanpakutou! And then –“

Could it work? Hisagi demanded furiously.

. . . it might, Kazeshini answered. Hisagi felt the zanpakutou shudder under his hand. It might.

Grimmjow grabbed the girl’s shoulder, forcing her to stay still. “You serious about this? You can actually destroy the bastard’s hypnosis?”

“Well – it should work!” She paused, then said hopefully, “Shouldn’t it?”

“Right,” Hisagi said. “We can’t tell the others till they’re out of there, and we can’t say this where Aizen can hear it. But the moment we get the chance, Grimmjow, we go for that sword and we give it to Inoue-kun, and then we hold Aizen back till she can blow the damned thing back to the hells it came from. I’ll try and entangle him with my zanpakutou. You go for the snatch. Right?”

“Right,” Grimmjow said. “If we can see him.”

“We’ll just have to see him. Pagally, you hear me?”

“Yes, Hisagi-sama,” her voice floated down. “But we can’t see inside that dark space!”

“That’s all right. It shows it’s working.” He kept his voice calm, reassuring. “Did you hear the plan?”

“Yes, Hisagi-sama. Do you want me to tell you and Grimmjow where Aizen is? When we can see him again?”

“Yes,” Hisagi said. “Wait for a moment when he’s holding still, then give me a location and distance. You have that?”

“Yes, Hisagi-sama,” she said, her voice trembling. “Will you be able to hear us?”

“We can hear you now, can’t we?” Grimmjow snapped. “Just do it.”

A pattern of light flickered across the edge of the dark bubble, in long streaks like rays of moonlight. No sound came past its boundaries, no reiatsu, no force, nothing.

Let it be working, Hisagi prayed. Let them manage to weaken them enough that we can spot him. Let it work.

Less prayers, more action, Kazeshini growled. Call me up, Shuuhei. Call me out.

“Reap, Kazeshini!” he called, and the two scythes stood in his hands, the blades singing to him in hunger and readiness.

The darkness shattered like a glass lantern, immaterial pieces scattering outwards in all directions, and Hisagi flinched before he could stop the motion. He could see Ise and Kuchiki-taichou and Kurosaki all standing together, as if they were partnered in some clumsy dance: Ise was collapsing, with streaks of blood down her face, her hand clenched in a white-knuckled death grip on Tousen-taichou’s zanpakutou, and Kuchiki-taichou was holding her upright, while Kurosaki was mid-pose with his zanpakutou extended, a white bone mask across his face as it had been for all the past months. Kyouraku-taichou lay on the floor in a disarray of black clothing and blood. He wasn’t moving.

There was no sign of Aizen.

“He’s standing by – no, he’s moving! –“ Pagally began, her voice shaking.

Kurosaki howled like a madman and flung himself across the open space towards where Kyouraku-taichou lay sprawled. Then he vanished, like a ghost in daylight, but his reiatsu still pulsed in the air. Part of a wall went flying.

“The fuck?” Grimmjow exclaimed.

It was obvious enough to Hisagi. “Kurosaki can see Aizen, so Aizen doesn’t want us to see where Kurosaki’s attacking. Inoue-san, can you –“

“Right there,” Inoue said, pointing at an empty space of floor. Large chunks of ceiling came down with a crash. “But they’re moving,” she added unhelpfully. “They’ve both got their swords drawn.“

Hisagi did not want to jump into the middle of a fight between Kurosaki and Aizen when he couldn’t see either of them. Especially when he couldn’t see either of them. “Pagally,” he said to the air, “get ready to give me a location the moment they stay still.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.” Aizen’s voice drifted across the battlefield like a curse. Both Inoue and Hanatarou shuddered. “I had hoped to avoid this –“ For a moment his breath caught, and Hisagi wondered if Kurosaki had chosen that moment to strike. “But ultimately I must discard you, after all. Kyouka Suigetsu –“

Hisagi knew, he knew what Aizen was about to do, and despair struck him like a blade in the guts. If Aizen invoked his shikai in front of Kurosaki and Inoue, and all the others watching them from the spy-room, then they would have no chance at all. Ise-fukutaichou was on her knees now; she wouldn’t have the strength to use Suzumushi again. He couldn’t see Aizen now. He could throw himself at him, but that might just mean he was throwing himself between Kurosaki and Aizen so they’d both end up stabbing him at the same time. And maybe that would even be the best way to go. With no hope left at all, a simple death might be a fate that some people would envy, that a sane person would choose. Perhaps . . .

Lackwit! Kazeshini screamed inside him. The zanpakutou’s voice shook with fury. Moron! Fucking imbecile! It’s not over! If you give up on me now, I swear I’m going to tear your head off your shoulders!

What do you want me to do? he demanded as Aizen’s voice caressed the air. A bolt of power with Kurosaki’s taste to it thundered into existence and smashed the far wall. I can’t see him! I thought – but it didn’t work, it’s not going to work. We’ve wasted everything!

You may not be able to see him, Kazeshini hissed, but with him using it for shikai, I can see Kyouka Suigetsu! I see him! I SEE HIM!

“Shatter . . .“

No time to think about it. Be my strength, Hisagi breathed in the centre of his mind to Kazeshini. Reap, Kazeshini!

As the air filled with blue and green, Hisagi heard himself laughing – like a stranger, but in his own voice – and he leapt at Aizen, Kazeshini’s chains spilling out from between his hands.

Tags: *index: winter war, bleach
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