Sophia Prester (sophiap) wrote in presterpress,
Sophia Prester

Winter War: Momo: Trust No One [Bleach]

Title: Winter War - Momo: Trust No One
Fandom: Bleach
Characters: Hinamori, Karin, Kon, and the current residents of the Urahara Shoten
Rating/Warning: PG-13 for language, references to character death
Word Count: c. 9,300
Notes: This is a rather dark 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 apologies for the delay on this chapter - life has been a bit busier than I like of late.

Summary: She can't count on anyone anymore. Not even her allies.

1. Nanao: Winter
2. Ukitake: Waking Up
3. Ikkaku: What Is, What Was
4. Kuukaku: Holding Ground
5. Nanao: Morning, Interrupted
6. Ukitake: Chance
7. Karin: Keeping up Appearances
8. Yoruichi: Hunting

The snow hitting the back of her neck stung. Momo had thought that the spiritual shielding offered by the gigai might also mean temporary relief from the healing burn, but the gigai had manifested the burn along with her too-short hair.

Ah, well. She had more important things to worry about.

She fell to the back of the group as they headed out of the snow and into the shop. Yes, it put her at risk of being jumped when she went in, but at least she would be prepared and she would have a clear path of escape.

They don't seem like a threat.

It wasn't until Tobiume's hesitant comment that Momo realized what she had done. Or why.

Madarame-san's influence, I believe. Tobiume was as polite as ever, her words whisper-crackling like wind through branches, or like a distant fire. Then, after a brief pause, a gentle but reproachful: He isn't very trusting, is he?

No, Ikkaku wasn't. And neither was she. Not anymore. The two other visitors didn't seem like a threat, but Momo had learned the hard way that 'seems' and 'is' were two very different things.

These people were probably safe, she thought, or safe enough. Tobiume agreed. In the end, that didn't keep Momo from moving her hand further down and thumbing Tobiume's guard free of the scabbard.

Just in case.

The thought felt defensive, and Momo could almost imagine Shiro-chan giving her a look as she tried to explain herself. She could then see herself telling him to shut up even though he hadn't said anything, and from there it wound up as a spat when he made a sarcastic remark about her hair and how it got so short.

She didn't pull herself out of the daydream until a tart voice--her own--reminded her that she was supposed to be alert.

Momo pushed aside the impossible but comfortable conversation to revisit later--it didn't depart easily, but she needed to concentrate on the here and now, not the there and then.

Jinta barged into the shop, nearly knocking over the gloomy little girl who had just invited them in. Momo was fairly sure he had done so on purpose. Under cover of the ensuing squabble (Jinta was yelling at the girl for getting in his way even though she hadn't moved an inch) the child who'd introduced herself as Kurosaki Karin paused before going in, allowing the boy who was with her to go on ahead.

Karin didn't say anything. She did nothing more than look back over her shoulder for a scant second, barely making eye contact with Momo before turning away sharply and stalking in after the others. She may not have said anything, but Momo knew exactly what question was clanging through the girl's mind.

It was the same question she was still afraid to ask, even in the quiet of her own mind, where there was only Tobiume to hear.

Momo glanced quickly to the left and the right as she stepped into the shop's genkan, wondering if things were already spiraling out of control.

Control--like so many other things--was only an illusion, she reminded herself, but this didn't stop her heart from rocketing up into her throat when someone stepped out of nowhere and grabbed her by the shoulder.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa..." It was the boy with the shaggy orange hair. He stumbled back quickly, hands held up and his smile a little too broad. His voice was tight with fear. "Easy with the sword, okay, nee-san?"

Tobiume was already halfway out. Momo slid the sword back into its sheath, but kept her hand on the hilt.

"That wasn't very smart, you know," she pointed out calmly. Her old politeness, born of startlement, sounded strange to her. These days, it felt more natural to chew people out in much saltier language.

That wasn't the only strange thing. Momo had no idea what to make of this boy. Something about him struck her as off, but she couldn't tell what. He appeared perfectly human, and mortal, but something about him made her think 'gigai.' For one thing, how had he appeared in front of her so quickly? And without her noticing? She didn't think it was shunpo. Then there was the fact he had taken a three-story fall and landed without stumbling--or shattering both his legs.

"Sorry, sorry..." His words were broken with nervous laughter, and he kept an eye on her sword. Or at least, his eyes hit a bit lower than her own eye level. "It's just that... well, heheh, it sounds like you maybe know what happened to Karin's brother, right?"

This time, his eyes met hers, and they narrowed in a way that reminded her of something--someone--she had seen recently.

"Karin? That's the little girl you were carrying?"

That got her a wry grin that was halfway to a scowl. It looked... off. "Yeah, but don't call her that. Little, I mean. Not unless you want her to kick you in the shins--and she kicks hard." The wince said he spoke from experience.

He spared an anxious glance over his shoulder, but there was no one there. A thick curtain--actually a ratty green plaid blanket that had been nailed up against the persistent draft--hung between the genkan and the room beyond. Momo could hear voices rising and falling in conversation on the other side, but they were muffled by the cloth and by what sounded like a radio program that kept flaring into static.

"Anyhow, you are going to tell us what happened to Ichigo, right? No matter how bad it is? You're not going to keep quiet just 'cause there's something she might not want to hear?"

Momo started to answer, then snapped her mouth shut again. She had been preparing for him to ask her to sugar-coat or even avoid passing along what news she had.

"Not knowing what happened to her brother is driving her nuts, you know?" he pleaded, perhaps taking her silence as refusal. "She's never gonna admit it, but it is. I don't know if she's telling herself everything is okay, or if she's imagining the worst, but I gotta tell you..." He shrugged, and again his gaze slid away from hers.

Momo knew all too well what he meant. Living with a lie, whether pleasant or unpleasant, would eat and eat and eat away at you.

But then she remembered Ikkaku's shoulders tight to the point of muscles snapping, and how she thought she was going to get a left hook to the jaw when she grabbed his arm to get him out of the room after they heard what had happened to Ayasegawa-san.

The truth had some pretty sharp teeth of its own.

Before Momo could say anything Karin poked her head through the curtain. "What's taking you... Kon, I told you to stop perving!" She ducked back before either of them could answer, and Momo thought she could hear a muffled jeez...

Kon, if that's what his name was, rolled his eyes. Momo felt her cheeks grow hot, and she reflexively stroked at where her hair had been, yanking her hand away when she brushed against the still-healing burn on the back of her neck.

She could just barely remember the last time she wanted someone (a specific someone) to find her attractive, and wished she couldn't.

He held the curtain aside for her. "Look," he whispered, "Karin's got family--a father, a sister--they're close, and they're stronger than she knows. Whatever you say will suck for them, too, but she won't be facing it alone."

Momo chose not to respond, and he gave her a pleading look as she passed by.

She returned the look with a suspicious one of her own; something he had said had struck her as wrong, somehow. False. Incomplete. What, she couldn't tell, but like so many other things about this boy, things just didn't fit together the way they should.

All that was forgotten, though, when she walked into the room. Tobuime's hiss of dismay echoed her own.

When she had come here, it had been with the hope of quickly being taken to see Urahara Kisuke and perhaps Soi Fong-taichou. She'd deliver her news about the escapees and receive some advice, news, and maybe even the promise of some help in return.

She had not expected not to find Urahara there.

She also had not expected other people to show up as well.

And she certainly had not expected a... a tea party?

In the back of her mind, she heard Rangiku laughing her head off, and for some reason the sound was very hard to shut out.

A cluttered kotatsu sat in the middle of the small room, taking up a disproportionate amount of space. Jinta, Karin, Kon and the little girl alone would have made it seem overcrowded, but they were not the only ones there.

Momo didn't know any of these people. She knew the names of three of them, but that was hardly enough.

A very large man with a very large mustache took up one entire side of the kotatsu on his own. He looked up when Momo entered, but the shine on his glasses kept her from reading his expression. Of course, Nanao and Mihane aside, Momo had an instinctive distrust of anyone who wore glasses. She always assumed they were hiding--

Her heart sped up and her breath stopped in her chest when she noticed a silver-haired man fussing with a radio in the corner of the room, but the second he turned to look at her, she felt silly for even that brief flutter of panic. He was sharp featured, yes, but he was more burly than wiry, and it seemed natural for his features to settle in a scowl rather than a grin.

"Shinigami?" he demanded, not even bothering to be polite.

Momo nodded, but didn't say anything. For one thing, she had had at first guessed that half the people in the room were shinigami, but the longer she stood here, the less certain she was of that. For another, anything she might have said was drowned out by one of the other people in the room, a green-haired woman who burst out with a cheerful "Kon-ichi!" when she saw who had walked into the room.

"Mashiro!" Kon's pleading look had changed to a wide grin. "What's shaking?"

That got a frown from Karin, but Kon simply brushed past everyone and volunteered to help this Mashiro person make some more tea for the newcomers. As they headed out of the room, she gleefully showed off a new bracelet. Kon seemed duly impressed, but from what little Momo saw of it, it wasn't very pretty--just a dull and blocky metal band that looked far too big on her wrist. They were still talking as the door closed behind them, and from time to time, the sound of their conversation would rise and fall in the background.

"I appreciate the offer," Momo said, "but it's vital I speak to Urahara Kisuke as soon as possible."

"News about the resistance, right?" The man who'd been fussing with the radio gave up on getting a clear signal. He smacked the radio once, just because, then walked haltingly back to the kotatsu, as if unsure whether or not his left leg would bear his weight. When he sat down, it was with noticeable care, and Karin stopped staring balefully at Momo long enough to try to help him. Jinta rolled his eyes.

"Again, I came here to speak with Urahara Kisuke." The 'and not you' didn't have to be said.

"Kensei's okay! He's on our side!" Karin protested, as if Momo would take her word for it.

The large man sipped at his tea and added nothing to the conversation.

Kensei. The name rang a bell, but the man himself was not familiar--she liked to think she would have remembered the piercings. The silver hair bore some unfortunate associations, but he looked less and less like Gin the more she looked at him. Maybe if he were wearing a shihakushou instead of a heavy flannel shirt, or--

Yes. It was a few months ago, but she remembered the briefing she'd received shortly before heading off with Ikkaku and his squad. The odd, not-quite-a-shinigami feel now made a lot more sense.

"Kensei? Muguruma Kensei?"

Ukitake-taichou had wanted them to know about the Vizard, just in case. A few were allies, most were unaccounted for. And now, one might well be an enemy.

"Yeah," he growled. "And who the hell are you?"

Momo started to introduce herself, but then her mouth snapped shut when she realized that this person distrusted her just as much as she distrusted him.

"That's Hinamori Momo," came a familiar voice. "Hinamori-fukutaichou, you can speak in front of any of these people. You have my word on that."

Momo's first thought when she saw Soi Fong-taichou was surprise at how small she truly was. For the first time, it was obvious she was actually just a little bit shorter than Momo herself.

Rather than the billowing haori that filled space and carried a weight of authority larger than itself, Soi Fong wore nothing but a green satin robe that came down to just above her knees. It made Momo chilly just to look at it, but Soi Fong seemed comfortable enough.

Or maybe she was just that bullheaded. The acidity of the thought startled Momo.

As for Soi Fong's reaction to seeing Momo, a sharply raised eyebrow wasn't enough to tell Momo what the other woman was thinking. For her part, Momo did her best to school her own expression and to avoid too many surreptitious glances at the empty sleeve hanging loose from Soi Fong's left shoulder.

She didn't do as well with that as she had hoped.

"I'm not always in this gigai--I don't want to get into trouble by learning to count on an arm that isn't there," she said. Her voice was sharp to the point of being rude, but Momo was less startled by that than she was by the idea that Soi Fong was going to the trouble of explaining herself.

"All right," Muguruma said, sparing a quick, poisonous glare at Soi Fong. "Enough yapping. You two know each other, and you've met Kurosaki, here. The kids there are Ururu and Jinta, and that's Tsukabishi Tessai."

The man nodded and Momo gaped. If only she had time to pick his brain about some kidou ideas she had... Her mind raced and she nearly lost the end of Muguruma's introduction.

"And obviously, you've heard about me."

He smiled at last, or at least it looked enough like a smile that Momo let her hand drop from Tobiume's hilt. She bowed, then sat down at last, pulling the kotatsu's blanket over her legs, grateful for the warmth despite the blanket's not-so-faint aroma of stale curry. "Yes, I have. I also heard about what Aizen-tai.. what Aizen Sousuke did to you and your friends."

Old habits, she thought, and she could picture Rangiku's disapproving and pitying look at the near-slip.

She decided not to tell Muguruma-san that she could probably match his stories with some of her own. Or tell him which division she'd been assigned to as fukutaichou.

"Should I go ahead and start?" she asked Soi Fong. The other woman still stood, back to the wall, as if deliberately choosing to be uncomfortable. "I can, but I'll need to start over once Urahara-san returns."

"Hold on." Karin spoke up before Soi Fong could answer. "If they went after the Hollows Kon and I saw, they might be a while. And you said something about Aizen, and how he was the guy who um..." she cut a quick glance to Kensei. He ignored her so completely it had to be deliberate.. "That's the guy my brother is fighting, right? The one who kidnapped Orihime-san?"

Tessai finally spoke up. "That is correct, Kurosaki-kun." He turned his attention to Momo, and while his voice and manner spoke of nothing but kindness, she knew better than to believe that. If anything, it put her even more on her guard. She tried to shift to a ready position, but only ended up getting part of the blanket pinned under her leg. "If our friends in Soul Society have sent a fukutaichou here, to the living world, then the news must be important, correct? You have news about Aizen?"

Karin's hands twisted at the blanket, but her eyes remained steady on Momo. Momo looked to Soi Fong for guidance, but all she got was a challenge.

In the background, she could hear Kon talking loudly, and Mashiro's laugh in response. It was the sound of nothing wrong in the world.

It was easy to hear the sound of how she had teased Kira, or Shiro-chan, once upon a time.

Grimmjow had not had news of them, or at least nothing that allowed anyone to identify more than a few people he'd mentioned. He'd almost seemed proud of his ignorance, and even more proud of the reaction he'd startled out of Ikkaku.

Momo wondered how Ikkaku would handle this situation, what he would say if he had been sent instead of her.

Her hand went to the back of her head, not feeling the still-tender burn or the absence of hair for a change, but instead imagining the slap Ikkaku delivered as he told her to just spit it out already.

"Before Urahara gets here, I can at least tell you what little I know about your brother, Kurosaki-san," Momo said, hoping she didn't sound blunt, hoping she didn't sound condescending.

She did notice that despite her earlier words, Soi Fong ordered Ururu and Jinta out of the room with a sharp gesture. Ururu headed into the kitchen obediently enough, but Jinta required an extra glare to get him moving.

"We did receive confirmation--good, solid confirmation--that he is alive."

Karin carefully did not react, no doubt bracing herself for the 'but' that was sure to follow. Soi Fong and Muguruma, on the other hand, were both quick to demand what Momo meant by 'good confirmation' and how had she gotten it and what else had she heard...

Momo ignored them and kept talking directly to Karin, even though she almost had to shout to do so. There was no good way to say this. "You do know what shinigami are, right? And that your brother is one?" Karin nodded. "And you also know about Hollows?"

"Karin knows what the Vizard are, if that's what you're getting at," Muguruma said. He didn't seem any friendlier, but it appeared he had decided to trust her for the moment. He shifted position, slightly, wincing and pulling in a hiss of breath as he did so. Karin looked at him, worried. "It's not Aizen's fault if Ichigo's one."

There was a derisive snort from Soi Fong, one that hinted at a very long story indeed.

From the kitchen, there was a splash, some outraged squawking, and another peal of laughter. They were sounds that belonged in some other place. Some other time. Karin was distracted by it, though, and missed what Muguruma had said about the Vizard. Her attention was back on him for his next comment, however.

"Are you trying to say that Aizen's pushed Ichigo out of control of his Hollow half?" Muguruma seemed uncomfortable, but it was not the subject matter. Not entirely, anyway.

"What? 'Hollow half'? What are you talking about?" Karin was confused, but the confusion was quickly being subsumed by anger. "You mean Ichi-nii's like you and Mashiro? And you didn't tell me?"

"It wasn't his story to tell," Soi Fong said, as if that was that.

"That's one possibility," Momo said, more to Muguruma than anyone else. "We only know that he's fully masked and that apparently he's in a position of, well, he's trusted. Apparently."

That disclaimer was very much needed where Aizen Sousuke was concerned.

"So Ichi-nii's being mind-controlled?" Karin chimed in. She was nearly drowned out by another burst from the radio.

"Someone get that, hey?" Muguruma said. "Can't get a decent signal anywhere anymore--shit! Tessai, isn't there something you can do to get rid of the static?"

"Certainly." And with that, the kidou master simply leaned over and unplugged the radio. "The television's even worse," he said, as if anyone cared.

"I don't have a lot of detail on that," Momo said. "I do know that at least one other shinigami also seems to have become a Vizard."

"Or something else." Soi Fong moved closer in. "Kensei and the others had the hollowfication process interrupted by Urahara, so the circumstances might not be the same. Who was it? Do you know?"

"Ayasegawa Yumichika."

Soi Fong pondered the information for a moment, then shrugged. As for Momo, she could still hear Ikkaku's ranting, and the awful sound as he slammed his fist into a wall.

"But what about Ichi-nii?" Karin pounded a fist on the kotatsu hard enough to make the dishes on it jump and clatter. "Kensei and Mashiro can be normal, right?"

"Most of the time," Muguruma muttered. He looked over his shoulder towards the kitchen.

"So even if Ichi-nii's a..." She looked at Muguruma then looked away again just as quickly, scowling. Something about the expression was familiar. "He can change back, right? Right?"

"We don't know that for sure, although it might be possible." In a very different time, in a very different place, Momo would have tried to reach out to comfort the girl, or cheer her up. She might have told Karin that everything was going to be fine, that her brother would be back with his family safe and sound in no time. "All I know is that he's alive and so..."

Her hand rested on Tobiume's hilt again, but it was a much gentler gesture than before.

"If we can get him here, I'm certain there's something that can be done," Tessai rumbled. Momo found herself wanting to trust him--and not just because of what she'd heard he could do with kidou.

Karin nodded and ducked her head. She didn't say anything for a moment, although she did look up with a pained expression when another burst of teasing and laughter came from the kitchen. Tessai waited patiently, Soi Fong a little less so. Muguruma kept shifting position as if trying to get comfortable.

"Are you..." Karin was practically speaking into the collar of her jacket, but that wasn't the only reason her voice sounded muffled. Then, she cleared her throat and looked up, looked straight at Momo. "Are you going to do that? Try to get him here?"

Her voice was gruff, and the startlingly direct gaze seemed steady enough, and Momo wondered if Karin was going to cry. Part of her wanted to pull the girl into a hug, and stroke her back and tell her just to let it all out...

Karin didn't cry--she was probably the sort of child who would rather die than cry in front of strangers, or anyone for that matter--but she was positively shedding wisps of power. She had so little control over it she probably didn't even know what she was doing, and Momo felt something twist in her chest at the thought of Shiro-chan, and what had happened after she had left for the Academy.

"Launch an attack on Hueco Mundo? Is that what you came here to suggest?" Muguruma smiled again, one of those smiles that seemed to be half-warning. "Have to say, the idea kinda appeals."

"We need to wait for Yoruichi-sama and Urahara to return," Soi Fong pointed out. The full weight of her attention then shifted back to Momo. "You didn't come just to tell us that Kurosaki is still alive. We were aware of the possibility that Aizen had prisoners."

"Possibly including two of our captains." Momo was able to enjoy the sight of Soi Fong's mouth dropping open in surprise.

"How the hell do you know that?" Muguruma leaned forward sharply, coming nearly halfway across the table. "You trying to tell us you got someone into Hueco Mundo?"

Momo shook her head. "Not in. Out."

It was hard not to feel just a little bit smug at the resulting commotion. She even heard a sharp outburst from the kitchen, but that might have been random noise.

"We weren't the ones who got them out," Momo admitted. "But they had help from the inside--help I'm not sure we can trust." She held up her hands to stave off the outbreak of competing demands to know who 'they' were, or who this mysterious help was.

"There's a lot to go over," she said, "and I don't want to leave out anything that might be important--I can't be entirely sure what is important. The escapees claim that Hisagi Shuuhei was the one who helped them get out, but I'm sure you understand why we have no idea if we can take that at face value or not."

"A double-agent, hmm?" Tessai pondered this possibility with many deep hmmms as if it were nothing more than a fascinating puzzle.

As for Momo, she remembered all too clearly those first, awful days, and how desperately angry Iba had been, taking it out on everyone and everything until Ikkaku had finally had enough. The resulting brawl had taken both of them out of commission for days.

"That's what it seems like," Momo said. Soi Fong's attention was visibly piqued by the slight emphasis on 'seems,' and Momo nodded. "We do know better than to be too quick to trust, though."

Her old comrades had been slow to trust her again, of course, and Hisagi's betrayal and Kira's disappearance hadn't done anything to help overcome the impression she'd left during her recovery.

There were days when Momo--the Momo who was as quick to respond to Ikkaku's stupid nickname as she was her own name--wanted to go back in time and give herself a swift kick.

Tobiume's quiet gentle, gentle... went unheeded.

"What about the escapees?" Soi Fong asked. "Who are they? Can they be trusted?"

Momo heard what she was not asking, and saw the same question in Muguruma's stare: Do we know them? Did we get anyone back?

"One of them is Sado Yasutora." That got a nod of recognition from Tessai, and a delighted gasp from Karin. "He was largely kept imprisoned, but he was able to vouch that it was Hisagi Shuuhei who helped him escape."

"The Sado boy spent some time with Hisagi Shuuhei when he was in Soul Society after Aizen's departure," Soi Fong told Kensei. Momo knew better than to be surprised that Soi Fong knew this. "Similar musical interests, apparently. So, it's possible Hisagi deliberately chose a prisoner who would already be inclined to think favorably of him in order to sell his story."

"Is he okay, though?" Karin asked. "Why didn't you bring him back over with you? Can't he come back home?"

"Bringing a human back through the senkaimon would draw too much attention." Soi Fong's explanation was curt at best, but it was still a level of helpfulness Momo was not used to seeing from her.

"He needs some rest, mostly," Momo added, as Soi Fong had not answered all of Karin's questions. "The other escapee... well, he's got good information, but he's a former Espada, so while his information could be good--"

"It's suspect," Muguruma finished. There'd been a flash of disappointment on his face when Momo said who the other escapee was, but he recovered quickly enough.

"Yes, but Grimmjow seems motivated to help us out--he's not a Hollow anymore, and he's not happy about it. He's helping us out on the assumption we're going to help him get his power back."

"Not a Hollow any more?" Muguruma demanded. "Then what the hell is he?"

"Was it Inoue-san's doing?" Tessai's question was gentler than Muguruma's, but it commanded more attention.

"So, Orihime's okay, too?" Karin didn't seem as happy about hearing that another of her brother's friends was alive as she should have been, and once Momo confirmed that yes, Inoue Orihime was apparently imprisoned but alive, Karin tucked her chin into her collar and pulled her hat low over her forehead, shutting the others out as she lost herself in thought. She said nothing about the fact that Orihime might be able to cure Ichigo.

"That's what he said. It was an accident, or so he says. There's no remnant of a mask, no Hollow hole, no sense that he ever was a Hollow. His reiatsu seems more like a shinigami's than Muguruma-san's does."

"Let me guess what else was said." Soi Fong was looking at nothing in particular, but her eyes flickered to and fro slightly as if watching things play out where the others could not see. As she spoke, she didn't even bother to mask the sarcastic drawl. "Hisagi just happened to be around for this 'accident,' and he had the presence of mind to get this Grimmjow person out of Hueco Mundo along with one other 'random' prisoner as proof of his good intentions. He then asked for an attack squad to be sent to a specific location at a specific time because he had finally found a way to defeat Aizen."

Momo nodded, surprised at the sudden lump in her throat. Soi Fong's thoughts echoed ones she'd had, but still... It hurt more than expected to find that there might be more to them than her own fancy.

Hisagi had been her friend. And she didn't have many of those left.

"Wait a minute..." Karin had been paying more attention than Momo had assumed. "Kon and I saw some hollows--they were kinda human-like, can't remember what he called them--hanging around outside Chad's apartment. I mean, Sado's. Chad's what Ichi-nii calls him," she explained for Momo's benefit. "They were looking for something."

Soi Fong tapped her knuckles against her lip as she thought. "Tricky. This is tricky. They couldn't have known how Grimmjow might react to being changed. And did he say who the prisoners were?"

Momo shook her head. "He didn't remember names until prompted, mostly."

She went on to explain what they had pieced together about Unohana-taichou, and also about someone named Lisa.

Muguruma slammed a hand down on the table, then looked away, muttering obscenities.

"Do you know what condition she was in?" Soi Fong asked, as Muguruma clearly was not about to.

"In control of her faculties, from what little he was able--or willing--to tell us. It didn't sound like she was a prisoner."

That startled a harsh laugh from Muguruma. "Good for her," he said, getting wide-eyed looks from the others in the room.

He just gave them a crooked smile and a shrug. "It sounds like she's in good shape. That's good. That's real good. So, knowing Lisa, unless Aizen's whammied her, she's probably playing her own game. She's smart. And patient. And I know she wouldn't betray us," he said with no trace of defensiveness or denial. "I can trust my people."

Neither Soi Fong nor Momo chose to respond to that remark.

"So, if this Lisa's okay, then why isn't Ichi-nii? What's wrong with him?" Karin's hands rested on top of the blanket, clenching and unclenching over and over again. "It's bad, isn't it? Really bad. Chad's his best friend and Orihime... I know she's important to him, too. Four months? Are you telling me he'd go for four months and not do anything to help them?"

Her entire body was tense, her fists tight in a way that must have driven her fingernails deep into the palms of her hand. It seemed to keep every bit of her strength to keep from screaming, and yet she couldn't keep her voice from rising to a squeak.

"What about your other missing friends?" Soi Fong was quick to turn to Muguruma. "If they were imprisoned by Aizen, is Lisa the sort to leave them to his mercies?"

"If she thought it was the best way to help them in the long run, yes," he shot back. "But I don't--"

Whatever he was going to say was interrupted by a crash and yell from the kitchen.

The door opened and Ururu poked her head back into the room. "Excuse me, but there's a problem."

From her tone of voice, it could have been anything from a backed up sink to the world ending. There was the sound of something arrhythmically thumping against the floor, and the occasional sharp oof of pain, but nothing else to tell Momo what was going on.

The others, on the other hand, did not seem surprised.

"Not again..." Muguruma started to get up, but was having some difficulty. Soi Fong shifted subtly into a 'ready' position, while Tessai merely hrrmmed and adjusted his glasses.

As for Momo, she was just starting to stand up when the kitchen door exploded out of its frame.

Ururu shrieked and ducked out of the way, and a chunk of wood caught Muguruma across the back of the head. He lost his balance and was knocked forward face-first onto the table as Mashiro leapt into the center of the room.

Momo quickly found out why Soi Fong had avoided the kotatsu--when she tried to leap to her feet, her legs tangled in the blanket and fell right back down on her rear. Soi Fong tried to tackle Mashiro, but the other woman was faster, and stronger. Soi Fong hit the opposite wall, hard, before Momo knew what had happened.

"She said you guys had this fixed!" Kon came pelting out of the kitchen. Blood trickled down from under one eyebrow.

Tessai was mid-incantation when Mashiro lashed out with one foot, breaking his concentration. "We thought we might have, this time."

He formed the seal for what Momo recognized as Hakudo Ninety-Nine, but before the light had even begun to draw itself around his hand, Mashiro knocked him to the ground. Soi Fong was there in a second, doing her best to one-handedly pull Mashiro off him.

Mashiro shrieked over and over, and in the chaos, Momo saw traces of bone advancing and retreating over her face and along her back.

The incantation sped through her mind faster than she could ever say it, and Momo raised her hand, palm out. "Way of Binding Sixty Three--Sajo Sabaku!"

Power flowed down her arm and emerged as a chain of golden light. It pinned Mashiro's arms to her sides, but she still thrashed and kicked, flopping around on the table like a landed fish.

Muguruma tried to hold her down, but got a kick to his ribs for his trouble. His face was already bloodied from its encounter with the table. "Pull yourself together, fukutaichou!" he barked, but instead of following the order, Mashiro simply started keening as fragments of an insect-like mask covered more and more of her face and neck, erupting through her skin until only flashes of her face were actually visible.

"That won't hold her long!" Tessai had several gashes down the side of his neck, and a dark stain spreading inexorably over the front of his apron. His glasses were askew and one lens was cracked.

"The best I can do is eighty-one, but that won't work here!" Momo looked for an opening, but the space was small, too small, and everyone was getting in the way. Soi Fong nearly knocked her over as Mashiro bucked hard enough to fling her aside. As predicted, the bindings snapped, and Mashiro leaped up to the ceiling, clinging there like a gecko, breathing hard, and still keening in pain.

Muguruma leapt to his feet, only to have but his leg buckle beneath him. He fell, roaring in pain. Karin tried to catch him, but only ended up making the two of them fall to the ground in an undignified heap.

Tessai was still pulling himself together, and Momo knew that something as complex as a level ninety kidou needed concentration, no matter how good you were.

"Sajo Sabaku." The chain of light snaked up to the ceiling. Momo knew it wouldn't hold Mashiro for long, but it might hold her just long enough for Tessai to do what he needed.

Mashiro shrieked, and dropped from the ceiling. Kon was there in a flash, and caught her neatly enough, or would have if Mashiro hadn't been trying to thrash free of her bonds. Kon stumbled back, tripping over Kensei and Karin. Karin yelped, and Kon rolled away from Mashiro as they hit the table, hissing in pain and cradling his wrist to his chest. The chains of light wrapped around Mashiro snapped again just as Tessai finished the kidou. In less than a second, Mashiro's arms were bound in strong cloth, iron spikes driven through the ends of the cloth to pin her in place.

"My, my, my. What did I miss here?"

Now that the confusion had finally settled somewhat (Kon was complaining at length about his wrist, and Karin and Muguruma were trying to get untangled) Momo saw that someone was standing in the door, holding aside the old plaid blanket.

Soi Fong let out a curse that gave Momo a brief pang of homesickness for the recon squad. Obviously, she had just noticed the new arrival--a scruffy blond man clad in black. Snow clumped in his hair and covered one shoulder.

On the other shoulder a black cat perched as if it had every right to be there, diligently pawing snow away from its ears and whiskers.

"It's really coming down out there--ah, thank you Ururu." The little girl reappeared and handed the man a green and white striped hat. He shook his head to rid himself of most of the snow, then plopped the hat atop his head. The cat flowed neatly off his shoulder and trotted over to Soi Fong, tail held high. "I gather Mashiro's new bracelet didn't work?"

One step brought him right up to the table--or what was left of it. Three of the iron spikes had broken it neatly in two, and sparks spit and sputtered from where one had driven straight through the heating element of the kotatsu. He hunched down beside Mashiro and gingerly pulled a portion of the kidou bindings to one side, hissing and shaking his fingers as power crackled in response to the intrusion.

Muguruma finally got to his feet, aided by a dazed and disgruntled Karin. "It worked for a while, but it crapped out without warning." He took a step forward, and nearly collapsed again. "Shit!"

Soi Fong rolled her eyes, then scooped up the black cat. "We'll be back once this is cleaned up. Hinamori-fukutaichou, that idiot there is Urahara Kisuke," she said, nodding towards the scruffy blond. "You can fill him in on what you've told me and Kensei-san."

The cat peered over her shoulder. "Kon, let's get you seen to," it said in a gruff voice that seemed too large for the tiny black body. "Make it quick--we've come across a situation that needs seeing to. All hands on deck, I'm afraid. Soi Fong, I'll want your take on this, first..."

Momo stared, but none of the others acted as if this was anything at all out of the ordinary. Instead, Tessai simply ushered Kon out of the room. Kon looked back over his shoulder as he left, only turning away when Karin called out that he needed to take better care of her brother's body.

Either everyone here was insane, Momo thought, or she was.

"What happened?" While she wasn't about to attack, Momo kept a hand on Tobiume's hilt.

Muguruma was still sitting on the floor. He kneaded at his left thigh, wincing in pain. "Fucking Barragan happened."

"I thought Barragan caused things to decay," Momo said. Again, as she had in so many nightmares, she saw Oomaeda running desperately towards her and Kira even as he fell apart into bone and dust.

"Yeah. That, too," Muguruma growled. He left off massaging his leg, and instead punched it hard, just above the knee. If he felt anything, it didn't show on his face.

"This is a form of decay, actually. Spiritual, rather than physical." Urahara was concentrating on the ugly metal bracelet he'd pulled off Mashiro. A glowing purple crystal seemed to hold most of his attention. He prodded at it with a needle, and the glow shifted to blue. "Ah! There we go! Anyhow, whatever Barragan did in that attack... now where is that wire?... did something to age the bonds the victims had over their hollow side--hmm, I'll have to replace that circuit altogether, I think. It's like what happens to a rubberband when it gets old. Instead of stretching and snapping back, it simply frays and breaks," he said, illustrating with a merry snap of his fingers.

"I see." Momo glanced furtively over at Muguruma, and noted the set of his jaw. He, too, must have picked up the implication of what Urahara had said. What Mashiro was now, he would become one day if he lived long enough. "Can it be controlled enough where she can be trusted in the field?"

Yes, what she had just seen was horrible, but if they had someone like that on their side...

Of course, if Muguruma and his people had been there when they were fighting in the false Karakura, maybe everything would be different now.

Urahara only smiled faintly by way of answer. He pulled off his hat and fished around inside the inner band until he found some tiny bit of metal. He slipped it into the bracelet. "This should fix things for now. Unfortunately, I don't have time to work on a more permanent solution just now. Meanwhile... Hinamori, was it?... You can tell me why you're here. Afterwards, you may be able to help us out with a particularly nasty batch of Hollows."

Her orders had been to request help, not take the time to give it, but at the same time, she didn't think she could--or should--refuse. But that decision could wait.

As Urahara continued to tinker, Momo told him what she'd said to the others about Kurosaki Ichigo and Ayasegawa Yumichika, and about Hisagi Shuuhei's apparent role in their escape. Given that Soi Fong had guessed at Hisagi's message to them, Momo told him about that as well, and how much they didn't know. Urahara just nodded here and there, attention more on the bracelet than on her. For a while, she wasn't entirely certain he was listening, although he did let out a soft ha! when Karin interrupted to mention what she and Kon had seen outside Sado Yasutora's apartment.

"I see." A spark shot up from the bracelet, and Momo smelled ozone. Mashiro had given up struggling against her bonds, and was wheezing faintly through her mask. Urahara smiled and patted her on the head. "Almost done, almost done. I'll admit--I would very much like to take a look at this Grimmjow person and see what might have been done to him and if we can duplicate it. I have to say, it could be very helpful..."

Here, he reached out and snapped the bracelet back around Mashiro's wrist. Momo couldn't swear to it, but she thought she heard a faint hum as the bracelet clicked shut.

"...but I'm afraid that's absolutely impossible right now."

"Impossible! How can it be impossible?" Muguruma was shouting, and Momo followed suit.

"Aren't you going to help us? Are you telling me I came here for nothing?" She had been the one to say that perhaps Urahara--the man no one seemed willing to trust entirely--remembered his duty as a shinigami. Momo thought she had become used to being proven wrong about such things, but the disappointment struck deeper than she had expected. "If you can figure out what happened to Grimmjow, you might be able to help Ayasegawa-san and Karin's brother and--"

"And Mashiro. And--" Muguruma looked away sharply and didn't say anything else, just as Momo didn't add anyone to her own list.

"Why isn't it working?" Karin asked. She had not taken her eyes off Mashiro, had not even reacted to Urahara's refusal to look at Grimmjow. "I thought you said the bracelet would help her?"

"It will take a moment or two." Urahara didn't sound at all worried. And sure enough, Mashiro's mask began to crumble away as if on cue. "Hinamori-fukutaichou, did your former Hollow say anything about how long it took for his transformation to take place?"

Momo shook her head. "No, but I got the idea it happened all at once." Why was he being curious, now, after saying he wouldn't help? "Again, if you could only take a look at him, you could--"

"Everything back to normal?" It was someone new.

Momo turned. Soi Fong and Kon had come back in the room, Soi Fong now in her old uniform (minus the haori, of course) and Kon with a makeshift splint on his wrist. The third person was a dark-skinned woman was unhurriedly--and with no attention to modesty--pulling on the last pieces of a close-fitting black outfit.

"What's normal?" Karin snarled. She scowled as Kon crouched next to Mashiro, and his own frown of concentration looked so much like Karin's that Momo knew what had struck her as odd before.

"Wait--you're an artificial soul, aren't you?"

Kon's attention was on Mashiro (her mask was gone, but her face was clammy and pale, and she shook her head in response to something he said) but he tensed at Momo's question.

"He's supposed to be looking after my brother's body." Karin didn't have to say any more than that to make it clear how she thought he was doing at that particular job.

"And you and Yuzu," he said, short to the point of rudeness.

Momo stared, and didn't bother hiding it. In a way, she was looking at the boy who had all but turned Soul Society upside down less than a year ago.

He didn't look nearly as fearsome as the stories had led her to believe. Well, that might have something to do with the fact that it was only a piece of soul candy in there, not...

Not someone who had gone out of his way to make sure she remembered she was talking to a girl whose heart was breaking over the news about her brother.

The kidou bindings around Mashiro were falling away into smoke and desultory sparks. Kensei had regained his feet, although he was limping badly, and he helped Kon (who could only do so much with one working hand) get Mashiro up out of the wreckage of the table and the remains of the kidou.

"It only took her a day to burn through that circuit. That's something else that's getting worse, Kisuke," said the dark-skinned woman.

Urahara nodded, but he was now preoccupied by the unplugged radio. "Yes, yes... Say, weren't your Hanshin Carp supposed to be playing today? Season opener?"

"Hanshin Tigers," Kensei snapped. "And it's still pre-season."

Kon unsuccessfully used his injured hand to stifle a cough that sounded a great deal like losers.

"Static problems again, I take it?" Urahara seemed more perturbed by this than by walking in on a rampaging half-Hollow in the middle of his living room.

"Worse than ever. Don't know why I even bother anymore--you got her okay over there, Kon?"

Kon nodded, and stepped back a bit so more of Mashiro's weight fell against him. "Yeah. You?"

"I don't mean to be rude," Momo said, even though the temptation to let fly with a string of curses that would have made Hoshibana go pale with shock was growing stronger every second, "but we're getting away from what I came here to talk about. I didn't risk my life sneaking into the living world for... this." She circled one hand to indicate the chaos that pushed to the edges of the small room.

Ururu came back into the room just then. "Excuse me, honored customers, but the tea is ready."

Momo counted to ten.

"I told Yoruichi-sama what you told me about Hisagi's news," Soi Fong said.

Momo nodded, confirming to Soi Fong that she'd filled Urahara in as well. She noted that the dark-skinned woman was the infamous Shihouin Yoruichi (goodness, she was meeting all sorts of people today...) and put that together with the fact that she'd supposedly been out hunting with Urahara and that Urahara had come back in with a little black cat--a little black cat who had followed Soi Fong into the back...

This was going to be a fun story to tell Ikkaku, Hoshibana, Mihane, Maki-Maki and the others. But fun would have to wait.

"What's your take?" Momo addressed the disgraced Shihouin heir without thought of courtesy or protocol. This conversation should have been over long before now, and she should be on her way back with information and the promise of assistance.

Yoruichi shrugged. "It's an opportunity. We take it."

"You mean you think you should look at Grimmjow and see what you can learn?"

Soi Fong was shaking her head slowly even before Momo had finished talking. "No. She's saying that we take Hisagi Shuuhei up on his offer."

There was no mention of any objection she had raised earlier, nothing about all the ways it could be a setup. The thought of Soi Fong of all people trusting someone that much was something Momo could barely get her head around.

"You shitting me?" Muguruma asked. "Just like that? We trust that bastard?"

Soi Fong gave him the sort of look she used to give Oomaeda. "Of course not. I say we send Tessai out to monitor the Arrancar that came after Sado and see what he can learn--one way or another. Ideally, the rest of us would press a brief attack and see if they 'accidentally' let anything slip when they know they have an audience, but I'm not sure we have enough manpower to make the risk worthwhile."

Momo was relieved at this brief return to normality, but Muguruma was by no means mollified.

"C'mon Kensei. Let's get her downstairs." Kon was now supporting most of Mashiro's weight, as Muguruma was clearly in need of some help himself.

The attempt at defusing the situation did nothing.

"Mashiro's getting worse, Rose is beyond fucked up, and you three are just going to throw away an opportunity to find out something that could help them? And instead, you're just going to waltz into what any idiot could see is a death trap?" Muguruma's face was boiled-red, and Momo could feel the heat in her own cheeks and throbbing in the hilt of her sword and in the burn in the back of her neck.

"The tea is getting cold," Ururu said plaintively.

"Would someone just say why?"

Everyone stopped cold at Karin's outburst.

"I'm tired of this. I'm tired of not knowing what's going on, I'm tired of everyone talking around me. All I know is that I want my brother back, and I want all this to stop." From the way she flung out her arms, 'all this' could have been everything to the horizon and beyond.

Mashiro murmured something.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry 'bout that." Kon stepped back, pulling Mashiro with him towards the door. Muguruma let go of his old fukutaichou reluctantly, giving her hand a quick squeeze just as she stepped out of reach. "A'right, let's get you down into your hidey-hole so you can take a nice nap, 'shiro-chan. You're gonna be okay, okay?"

Momo closed her eyes and focused on the pain that stabbed at the back of her neck. It anchored her to now and what next, and kept her from drifting off and becoming lost in a vast sea of back then and if only.

Shortly after Kon and Mashiro left the room, Momo heard a door open, and a distant, horrible keening. Then, the door closed and the noise stopped.

Momo knew that Karin was refusing to cry. She also knew the flavor of Muguruma's anger, and the sort of thing it hid.

There was far more to this fight than defeating Aizen. She forgot that more often than she should. She had almost forgotten what it was like to want to weep for someone else's sorrow.

Tobiume flicker-whispered something, and Momo squeezed her hilt in acknowledgement and in thanks for the reminder of something she had almost missed.

"Hold on. Urahara-san, you said it was impossible to look at Grimmjow right now."

She was rewarded for her insight with a too-cheerful smile. "Exactly! I'd dearly love to take a look at him, but the problem is, there's no time. Karin-chan, just the other day you were complaining about all of the ghosts you saw, and how there are more of them than people, right?"

Karin nodded, but she looked puzzled.

"More suicides than there should be, statistically speaking, too," Urahara said. "Plus, ghosts going hollow on us faster than normal, but I have to say I'm not sure if sending them into Ichimaru's loving care is a better fate or worse."

"There are worse hollows, too." Yoruichi gave a theatrical shudder. "Even before we felt the ones outside of Sado's apartment, we'd been given quite a run."

"Oh, yes. You nearly slid off that roof," Urahara said gleefully. Momo had to wonder if the two of them were always like this, and if Soi Fong always ground her teeth quite so loudly.

"I'd like to see you keep traction in this weather. Speaking of which, the way it's coming down now, I imagine your game would have been called on account of snow, Kensei," Yoruichi said.

"Not that he could have listened, anyhow, given the rise in static, disruptions to phone service, poor television reception. It's getting worse by the day. Everything is."

"'Things fall apart,'" Yoruichi intoned.

"'The center cannot hold.' Or, in other words," he said brightly, "we no longer have the luxury of time. We barely even have time to wait for Tessai's report as it is. The balance between the worlds is shifting, and the effect on this one... Well, it's not good and it's not getting any better on its own."

An image slid into Momo's mind without prompting. A delicate plate, sitting at the edge of an uneven shelf, gradually shifting and shifting until between one breath and the next it had fallen and shattered into countless pieces.

"I'm still operating under the assumption that this is a setup and will plan accordingly," Soi Fong said, "but if what Yoruichi-sama says is correct, by the next time we get another chance to take down Aizen, it might be too late. If we weren't given this opportunity, we would have had to make one for ourselves."

"So, Hinamori-fukutaichou..." Urahara smiled, but there was something about the way his hat shadowed his eyes that took any warmth away from it. "Unless you have another suggestion for how to get into Hueco Mundo and defeat Aizen in, say, the next week, you have no choice but to trust Hisagi Shuuhei. Do you think you can do that?"

Momo thought for only a second.

"Yes," she lied.

10. Soi Fong: En Garde
Tags: *index: winter war, bleach, co-write

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