Sophia Prester (sophiap) wrote in presterpress,
Sophia Prester
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Winter War - Hisagi: In too Deep [Bleach]

Title: Winter War - Hisagi: In too Deep
Fandom: Bleach
Characters: Hisagi
Rating/Warning: PG-13.
Word Count: c. 7000
Notes: This is a 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.

Summary: Once upon a time, Hisagi Shuuhei was one of the most honorable and dependable officers in the Gotei 13.

Times have changed.


Index of Links
[...]
17. Hanatarou: Underground
18. Lisa: Prisoner's Dilemma
19. Hinamori, Takano, Ichimaru: Taking The Bait
20. Ensemble: The Day Before
21. Nanao: Going Down




It would be any moment now.

Or never.

He didn't know which possibility he feared more.

Shuuhei closed his eyes for the count of three breaths and tried to will the thought aside; what was done could not be undone.

Still, he stood atop the gate into Las Noches and waited. Nothing happened. Nothing happened for so long he almost forgot why he was waiting in the first place. Eventually, he stopped staring out at the road that led out into the deep desert and turned to look at the dome of Las Noches.

The moon rose.

From where he stood, the moon centered itself perfectly over the main gate of Las Noches and between two of its towers as if to mark the beginning of summer. Or winter. In truth, it meant nothing. The moon always rose in the same place every night, its transit never shifting with the seasons, never marking the passage of time.

How many days had it been, Hisagi wondered. Three?

Try five, asshole, Kazeshini said. He had been speaking up more and more often since they came to Hueco Mundo, and by now Hisagi knew better than to argue. He already had a bad enough headache as it was (he needed to stop by the lab, couldn't forget that). Besides, Kazeshini was probably right; Shuuhei's own sense of time passing had become skewed somewhere along the way, maybe because of the deadening sameness of this place, or maybe because he--

It didn't matter. Sometimes, it felt like entire days went missing before he knew what had happened. It had only been getting worse over the past few--

Seven.

--weeks.

Kazeshini had nothing more to say about that.

In fact, the zanpakutou said nothing else at all until Hisagi tried to picture how the horns of the moon would be reversed in Soul Society.

Kazeshini jumped in to point out gleefully that no, Shuuhei was being an idiot. He was supposed to remember that the moon was reversed here. It was the right way around in Soul Society.

What a moron, forgetting something so basic, so simple, Kazeshini laughed. Shuuhei was tempted to throw the sword off the wall and leave it there to rust in the desert. He might have, except that Kazeshini had a good point.

Everything was skewed and he was starting to forget.

He had already forgotten.

Five days, and nothing had happened aside from patrols being sent out to find a missing prisoner. There had been veiled hints from Kurotsuchi that Szayel had very likely done some unsanctioned experiments which had of course been flubbed, and vice-versa.

What little gossip he had been able to glean about the missing Espada suggested that so far everyone--everyone whose opinion mattered--was content to believe that Grimmjow was just being Grimmjow and would be duly punished when he returned. A few outliers wondered if he had run afoul of Kurosaki or whatever it was that was had taken up residence in the caves and tunnels, but no one had even come close to the truth or thought to connect the two events.

Three (five) days was enough time for something to have happened, wasn't it? Shuuhei rapped his knuckles on the parapet in a stuttering rhythm as he turned to stare back out into the desert and all the nothing happening out there. Shadows from the bare, crystalline trees spidered out in the moonlight, making the desert look as if it had been shattered. Having two escapees turn up like that would have lit a fire under someone like Ikkaku. He could also imagine Iba jumping at the bait. On the other hand, he could see Ise or Sasakibe urging caution. Rap-rap. If any of them were alive. They might not be. Rap. Information was scarce.

But something should happen soon, right? Unless Sado and Grimmjow had died out in the wilds of Rukongai and simply hadn't been found. Rap, rap, rap. If they had been found, there was no telling if the right people had found them. Rap, rap, rap-rap-rap. Or if the right people had found them and had known better than to trust a gift thrown to them by a traitor. No, Iba would know better than to jump, wouldn't he? And there were others whose reactions... no. Rap-rap, rap, rap. Or maybe they were just a bunch of cowards, Kazeshini said. Or maybe they were just all dead. Rap, rap, ow.

Shuuhei flexed his hand and hissed at the sting of air on re-scuffed knuckles.

Enough of this. The only thing this kind of thinking would do for him was drive him crazy.

Crazier. Kazeshini yawned. You done moping and boo-hooing yet?

Shuuhei ignored him, although that was getting harder and harder to do. Sometimes, Kazeshini's voice was louder than his own in his mind.

He headed back down to the main courtyard. Even though his sense of time had come undone, the pounding headache reminded him it was time to swing by the labs. No, talk to Lisa first, and then the labs, and what the hell was he going to do about Lisa anyway?

("I want in...")

He shook his head roughly, sending the pain stabbing through his temples again. Lisa had found him out so easily. No, not so much found him out as found a crack and known where to pry to see what was inside.

That's because you pointed her right at the crack, lamebrain. And then you let it fall wide open. Did you even think about what you'd do next? Kazeshini chuckled, and Shuuhei could picture the knowing, hateful look in the spirit's eyes. You remember what happened the last time some--oi! Pay attention! What happened to being careful, asshole?

Hisagi looked down. Kazeshini retreated, muttering about being the one who had to do everything around here these days. The steps down from the main gate ran a long, long way across the face of the interior wall, and it gave him plenty of time to see who was down in the courtyard--just as it gave anyone plenty of time to see him making his descent.

An Arrancar stood there, obviously waiting for him. It was a female, young and slender with a lavender mohawk and a uniform that made Lisa's look modest. She looked like someone who was trying to look sexy and fierce but ended up being neither. She averted her gaze the instant he looked in her direction, then bowed low, clasped hands going down past her knees.

"Forgive me for the intrusion, Hisagi-sama, but Aizen-sama has requested your presence for tea this evening." She sounded as if she had a cold.

These invitations were not unexpected, but they never happened according to any pattern that Shuuhei could discern. Still, he wondered if there was any meaning to the timing of this invitation.

"Thank you, uh... what are you called, fraccion?"

He could hear Kazeshini muttering that her name didn't matter, that she'd probably just be pulped the next time Yammi got riled up about something and needed a nice, squishy target. Unless Aizen declared her 'surplus to needs' first.

Shuuhei was sorry he asked, but he had and after a moment's confusion, she answered.

"Pagally, sir," she said, still not looking up.

The name even sounded similar to the dozen or so low-ranked female Arrancar he'd met since he'd gotten there. It was his own thought, but it sounded too much like one of Kazeshini's.

"Thank you, Pagally-san. Please tell him I'll be there in... half an hour?"

She looked up at last, so scared her skin was as pale as the mask-fragment that swept across her nose and left cheek. "He's expecting you straightaway, sir," she shnuffled. "He was putting the water on to heat when I left."

No time for the lab, then. No time to tell Lisa he couldn't meet up with her.

Of course, he might show up in Aizen's chambers only to find her mounted on the wall along with Sado and Grimmjow.

Even before his stupid, heroic whim, he'd been expecting Aizen to surprise him with something like that for the past three--

Four.

--months.

Pagally led him to Aizen's rooms even though Shuuhei knew the way there already. She walked quickly, heels ticking on tile like a clock that had been wound too tight. Every few seconds, she glanced over her shoulder to make sure he was still following, but when he matched his pace to hers, she sped up to maintain her distance.

Wonder where her hole is? Kazeshini snickered, calling Shuuhei's attention to the Arrancar's relative lack of clothing and the slit in her short skirt that went all the way up to the crease of her hip. Hey, you were already looking, pal. I'm just adding commentary.

"Would you just shut up?" he hissed. Pagally looked back at him, seemingly caught between wanting to apologize and wanting to break into a run. "Not you. Uh... sorry about that."

Kazeshini thought the whole thing was hilarious, and would have made another comment, but Pagally stopped so short that Shuuhei only missed colliding with her by less than a hand's width.

"What's he doing here?" A touch of disgust rose above the fear, but she only closed the distance between them by a fraction.

Shuuhei didn't even have to ask who 'he' was. He could tell well enough.

Ayasegawa was unmistakable, even from a room away. Without Harribel around to confuse things, his reiatsu made itself clearly known. It wasn't a shinigami's reiatsu or a Hollow's; it ebbed and surged, pulling at him and then pressing on him in slow, strong waves.

It left Shuuhei teetering on the edge of motion sickness.

He suspected it might not be so bad if only the pulling didn't sometimes seem directed at him, personally.

Seems? laughed Kazeshini. It is directed at you. Pretty-boy got a taste of us. Feels to me like maybe he wants another.

Push and pull and the reiatsu drew closer and closer still. Pagally tensed, either trying to make herself smaller or getting ready to spring. Shuuhei kept his hands at his sides, deliberately not reaching for Kazeshini. The sword's voice would only grow louder if he gripped its hilt.

"My, my... I haven't seen you in a while, Hisagi-fukutaichou." Ayasegawa rounded the corner, hands held casually behind his back, showing off arms only slightly less pale than his clothing. He was clad all in white as usual. Even the feathers at the corners of his right eye were white, as were the wrappings and scabbard of his sword. His hair was dark as ever, but it was a black utterly devoid of any other color. The only color left was in his eyes, but Shuuhei didn't think they were the right color anymore.

"I no longer hold that rank," Shuuhei said quietly. He clenched his fists so he would not grasp Kazeshini. "I gave that up when I followed Aizen-sama."

"We are on our way to see Aizen-sama right now." Pagally tried for stern, but it came out shrill and with an unfortunate sniffle at the end.

"Mmm..." Ayasegawa smiled without parting his lips. "I wonder what he wants with two such lovely things."

He walked up to them, and Pagally was now pressed back so hard against Shuuhei he could feel her hollow-hole behind the strips of fabric crossing her back.

"I've been invited to tea." Shuuhei had even less patience with Ayasegawa now than he did before, but he forced himself to remain polite and not pick the fight Ayasegawa no doubt wanted. The man's sneakiness and his devotion to the Eleventh's bloody ideal had never set well with him, and there was a small part of him (echoed strongly by Kazeshini) that felt what had happened to Ayasegawa was in some small way quite deserved. "Now if you'll excuse us, I would prefer not to be late."

The smile grew an edge, though Ayasegawa's gaze remained as sleepily blissful as always. "Oh, we can't have that. Is this lovely little lady going with you as well?"

Pagally no longer pressed back against him. She was shivering.

"Or perhaps you would rather come along with me? My lady Harribel does miss having fraccion of her own. I have no idea why. She has me, after all." His shrug was a barely visible, perfectly elegant ripple.

"That's enough, Ayasegawa. Come on, Pagally." He put a hand between her shoulders to give her a little shove forward, but Ayasegawa blocked their path. "Look--don't be a dick, okay? You don't want to get on my bad side. Not here. This isn't Seireitei."

"Mmmm... no. It isn't. I am quite aware of that." Ayasegawa reached out to touch Pagally's cheek. Shuuhei could see the strain of her not flinching. "You heard what the man said, my dear. You don't want to be on his 'bad side.' You'd be much better off with Harribel. Except-- Hold on."

Ayasegawa lifted his hand to Pagally's mohawk. He teased the foremost lock away from the others and worked out its stiffness so that it fell in a loose curl that balanced and softened the contours of her mask. He stepped back to admire her from a different angle. As he turned, the light played off his cheek so that skin appeared to become bone, like the echo of a mask. But when Shuuhei tried to focus on it, it was gone again.

"There! That's a much better look for you. Quite fetching. Now are you sure you won't come with me? I'm sure Hisagi-fukutaichou can find his way to Aizen-sama's chambers without your help."

"I was ordered to bring him--"

"She's not going with you." Shuuhei gave Pagally a push. She dug in her heels at first, but then stumbled forward, getting a few frantic strides between them before he followed. He gave Ayasegawa a sharp nod of farewell, but that was it. There was a long sigh and a murmur of well, I tried..., but he paid it no mind.

Maybe you shoulda let her go with him, Kazeshini said.

No. Even though she was just a Hollow, the girl had been terrified. Was still terrified.

Well, she's got damned good reason, pal. Kazeshini sounded more concerned than amused for a change. Shuuhei barely kept himself from telling the zanpakutou to shut the fuck up.

Ayasegawa was off-putting enough to him. What would he seem like to a Hollow? His reiatsu felt nothing like Lisa's, where the lines between her Hollow-self and shinigami-self were bright and sharp. With Ayasegawa, the nature of his reiatsu mixed and melded and never settled. Today wasn't the first time he had seen that flash of bone--the thing that wasn't a mask the way the suggestion of shadow at the base of Ayasegawa's throat wasn't a hole.

"Don't worry," some impulse made him say. "I wouldn't have let him take you."

Pagally looked back at him again. Her face was so tight and pinched that she seemed haggard despite her youth. "I never wanted to come here. I just want to be out in the desert again," she whispered.

He wanted to ask what she meant by that, but they were at Aizen's chambers now. Not his private labs--no one went there, and Hisagi didn't even like to go near them for very long--but the rooms he had set aside for himself and his own entertainments.

The first time Aizen had invited him for tea, Hisagi had been convinced that his cover had been blown, that Aizen had somehow found out that Yamamoto-soutaichou and Komamura-taichou had ordered him to go in and go deep as a last resort if things got bad.

Well, things got bad. Very bad. And now there was no one left in Soul Society to know why he had done what he had done, why he had pretended to be loyal to Tousen after everything.

In the end, the tea had just been tea. Tousen was dead, Ichimaru was damaged and in disfavor, and Aizen was bored and in need of some congenial company. And besides, Shuuhei's inaction when it came to preventing the Vizard's murder had pleased Aizen enough that Shuuhei wondered if the whole thing had simply been some sort of test.

If it was a test, it was only the first of many.

As far as Shuuhei knew, he had passed them all. There were no second chances here, let alone third and fourth. This wasn't like the Academy, where he could just keep trying and trying until he got it right and made it in.

Look sharp, Kazeshini said as they were bade to enter. Stop woolgathering, already!

The warning was hardly necessary. Shuuhei would do what he needed to do to keep his cover, to pass the tests.

A western-style table was set up in the middle of the room. The curves of the chairs and the warmth of the wood were not as out of place as they should have been, even though they were very small in the middle of a very large room. Perhaps they took on something of Aizen's presence. He was already seated, and did not bother to stand as Shuuhei entered.

"Ah, there you are. I was beginning to worry that the tea would grow cold," he said even though steam still rolled upwards from the teapot's spout.

Aizen's hands and attention were on the tea set. He was only one flash step away. He wouldn't be expecting an attack. Shuuhei had passed his tests, all of them, every last bloody one. One slash, just one slash, and Aizen's head would be off his neck, blood on the white floor, all over the tea-set, sprayed across that ridiculous table--

Shuuhei told Kazeshini to shut the hell up. All he got by way of response was a wave of affronted and not very plausible innocence.

"I apologize for the delay, Aizen-sama." He bowed, out of habit.

"No matter." Aizen waved one hand through the air to dismiss the very offense he had just called attention to. "I know you would not purposefully delay."

"No. Of course not." He very carefully did not look behind him, to see if Pagally had stayed to await further orders or if she had slipped out while she had the chance.

"I do wish everyone here was equally as reliable." Aizen's gaze cut past Shuuhei as his voice sharpened, and there was a faint, snuffly gasp. Again, Shuuhei forced himself not to turn. He did, however, put his hand on Kazeshini's hilt and hear a soft growling.

"It's a shame--I had been thinking about giving her to Harribel. She's had the hardest time finding suitable replacements for the three fraccion she lost." He sighed. "But then again, she does have the delightful Ayasegawa to play with, and I don't think this little one here would meet her exacting standards. Harribel tolerates failure about as well as I do."

"I understand." Similar dramas had played out here before, so many he was starting to lose exact count. Shuuhei knew what would happen next. He didn't like it, but he was resigned to it; he would maintain cover. One stroke, and it would be over. If he did this quickly, she wouldn't even have time to be scared. Any more scared. "Would you like me to take care of it?"

Aizen sat back, smiling, hands folded in front of him. "That would be wonderful. I knew I could count on you."

She... it was just a Hollow. He was a shinigami. By rights, he should kill her anyway. The fact that it was in cold blood (and she was so scared, so very scared...) made no difference. And he'd make it fast. Compared to other tests he'd passed, this one was easy. Still, he fought back the urge to apologize, to say he was sorry she wouldn't have a chance to go back to the desert.

He turned, and the wide-eyed and open fear on Pagally's face didn't slow him down. In fact, Kazeshini was already out of its sheath and shouting at him before Aizen's next words registered.

"I believe she would do well under your tutelage. I think you take after poor Tousen--always so patient with those who just need a little more help to flourish, who need that extra push to conquer their fears."

Shuuhei didn't move at all for a few seconds, and when he finally turned away and resheathed Kazeshini, he still saw the blank resignation that had replaced the little Arrancar's terror the instant he drew his sword.

Aizen laughed softly. "Once upon a time, you would have hesitated if I had ordered you to kill her. Did you know, there were even times when I wondered if I made a mistake, bringing you in?"

Bullshit. If Aizen ever made a mistake, he'd never admit to it. He'd find a way to turn it to his advantage first.

"But you've proven yourself time and again, Hisagi-kun. I always thought you had a good deal of potential, but I'll admit that I've been pleasantly surprised."

"So, I'm getting my own fraccion?" he asked, more cross than he intended. This could complicate things. He did not address Aizen's other comments, although Kazeshini had plenty to say on the matter.

"Consider it a reward for the initiative you've demonstrated." Shuuhei did not look up to see the smile he knew was on Aizen's face. "You've come quite a long way, Hisagi-kun. What happens to her from here on out is up to you entirely. Although I would appreciate it if you would order her to serve us our tea."

Shuuhei did as he was bidden, although he did wonder if he should have told her to wipe her face and blow her nose first. Instead of seeming delighted at her reprieve, Pagally had developed a full-blown case of the shakes, nearly spilling the tea she poured for him and rattling the plates of cucumber sandwiches horribly.

"I know it's a shock, my dear," Aizen told her, resting his hand over hers as she set down the sandwiches. "Such mercies are rare, aren't they? I'm sure you'll demonstrate your gratitude in full later."

The smile Aizen turned in Shuuhei's direction was so innocent that the implications of what he had said were as clear as clear could be.

Again, Shuuhei told Kazeshini to keep the vivid images of blood on the tea table to himself. Again, Kazeshini pretended ignorance.

"I think it's time I trusted you with some more authority around here." Aizen sipped at his tea. "Losing Tousen was... well, that left a larger gap than I had imagined it would."

Again, bullshit. Tousen was expendable. He'd been used as a laboratory subject, no matter that he had volunteered for it. Shuuhei's guts still twisted into knots at the thought of what his captain had become, even as Kazeshini daydreamed about what it would have been like to take Tousen apart. But Tousen and Komamura had fallen together, and in the short time it had taken for Shuuhei to run to Komamura's aid, the tide of the battle had shifted hard and he had had very little time in which to make a very big choice.

Komamura had given him one last look, pleading. Shuuhei had said nothing, he had simply nodded and hoped Komamura and Yamamoto would understand. Instead of going to Komamura, he had helped the dying Tousen to his feet and taken him towards the gate to Hueco Mundo. He had even released Kazeshini against Iba. It was a plausibly close miss and a believable gesture of false loyalty that had damned him in the eyes of his friends. Damned him, but also given him the one chance that might help him save them.

"You've demonstrated your loyalty admirably--far beyond my expectations."

"I know where your loyalties lie." The voice in his head was not Kazeshini's, but it was just as unwelcome for all that it was an unchanging echo. "I know you. I know what you're doing."

"I'm glad to hear I've earned your trust." The tea was quite good. He sipped at it, and while he could hear himself engaging with Aizen's pleasantries, he also faded back so it was as if someone else was talking and even joking with Aizen. That was good. He wasn't sure he could keep up the façade any more.

He couldn't say which was more dangerous: the idea that Aizen could tell what he was thinking, or that he had started to believe that what Aizen was saying was true. The man was a liar (or so he'd been told), but the lies always seemed more plausible than the truth (what was the truth, anyway?). How could he think to win against a man who could turn even bad luck to his advantage? And what he said about some of the flaws of Soul Society--the very things that had driven Tousen to betrayal--were hard not to believe. The place was flawed, horribly so. Growing up in Rukongai, he had seen for himself how broken things were, had barely survived the brokenness.

But then he had had a vision of how he could become someone who fixed things. No, not a vision, an epiphany. He had even marked his own face so that he could not forget.

He saw that mark in the mirror every morning, even now. He wondered if without it, he would forget. If he would have already forgotten.

How easy would it be to tell himself that Aizen would win, that his friends were already lost. He himself was already far beyond lost, so maybe he should just cut his losses and do what he could to survive.

There was honor, yes, but how much of that did he have left? Not much, not anymore. Just scraps. Maybe not even that.

The first strip had been torn away when he did nothing and watched Ichimaru murder a man (just a Vizard, just an abomination, and what could he have done anyway, and besides, he got someone in there before Lisa could be killed), and even more when Aizen ordered him to kill a rebellious fraccion (just a Hollow who would have been just as glad to kill him, and he had no choice). And then another fraccion, simply because Aizen was displeased with it (he loathed raising his sword against someone who was not armed, but he had to maintain cover, and it was just an Arrancar) and was happy to have his implied orders followed so swiftly.

He maintained his cover. He kept Aizen's trust. He was in a position to strike when the time was right.

Whenever that was.

It certainly wasn't three--

Seven.

--weeks ago. That wasn't the time. He'd even said as much.

It wasn't time. It wasn't, but he'd said that and therefore implied that there would be a time.

A time.

Time.

("It's not time.")

For a long time, as long as he could, he had avoided the Fourth Division members who had been brought here as Aizen's guests. He knew he was one of the more recognizable fukutaichou in the Gotei 13, and he didn't care to deal with any accusations he couldn't refute. The few sidelong glances were bad enough. At first, they'd filled him with the urge to explain everything, but over time he had learned simply to ignore them, just as he had learned to ignore the twist in his gut when he passed along a request from Kurotsuchi to have ten more guests from the Fourth transferred to his care.

There was nothing to be done for them, he told himself. How could he throw away his mission in an undoubtedly futile attempt to save ten people? When the lives of so many more were possibly at stake? They would understand, if he could explain. Wouldn't they?

Iemura had not understood. He'd broken curfew and seventeen different rules to track down Shuuhei. He'd risked having his head blown clean from his neck. Shuuhei had never seen the collars in action, but he had been informed of their purpose.

"Ten of my people are going to have unspeakable things done to them. Do you have any idea what Kurotsuchi has been doing in there?"

Shuuhei leaned back, fingers pressed to the bridge of his nose. The man had been annoying as hell back when he'd been vice-president of the Men's Association, and now... the flood of memories of other, better times struck deeper than he would have expected. "You shouldn't be here. You really shouldn't."

"I think you do know. Or you can guess, can't you? I heard that you saw for yourself what had been done to Tousen. Did you hear about Kuchiki Rukia? Yamada-nanaseki saw her himself before she was killed, did you know that?"

He had heard. It was safer not to think about that, or about how she and Kuchiki-taichou had died. "I think you should leave now."

"Or what about Kira-fukutaichou? Your kohai?" Iemura leaned over Shuuhei's desk, hands only a few inches from Kazeshini's sheath. Shuuhei pulled the sword closer to him, just in case.

"I didn't hear about it until they sent him off to Ichimaru. It was already too late!" What would he have done if he'd known Kira was alive, and imprisoned? Would it have changed anything? He suspected that would be the next question, but Iemura surprised him.

"What makes you think that that same thing won't happen to you once Aizen gets tired of you?"

"It won't. He won't."

I'll kill us, first, Kazeshini said, just as he did any time the topic came up. You and me, fused like that? Forever?

Well, not forever. Sword and man had separated once Tousen died, and while Tousen's body did not merit any further regard from Aizen, Aizen had brought Suzumushi back to Las Noches with him.

I will fucking kill us before I let that happen, Shuuhei.

"I've lost twenty-three people since we got here, Hisagi-fukutaichou." Iemura said this as if it would make some difference.

"That's not my title." Iemura had no right to put those kinds of expectations on him. "Not anymore."

"I know that's not true. You know that's not true. I saw what you were like after Tousen defected."

That was true. They--him and Iemura and Iba and Kira and half the Men's association--had gone out drinking once all the dust had settled. Shuuhei didn't remember much of what happened in those days, but he did remember the hangover.

"How much longer are you going to do nothing?" Iemura's glasses tipped down the side of his face, and he adjusted them as best he could. One of the temple pieces was missing, and he had clearly not had the opportunity or resources for repair. "You're planning something. You're not that good of an actor. If you really wanted to turn traitor, you could have done so much more damage before you left."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." He should call for help, but any help would likely be terminal for Iemura. But he had to get Iemura out of there. He had to shut him up. He'd maintained cover so far, but if someone overheard...

"I know where your loyalties lie."

...it would mess everything up. Everything he had worked for.

"You don't know anything about me," he said, the words flat and false even to his own ears.

And what was it he had worked for, in the end? What good had he done? Was he doing?

"I know you. I know what you're doing. I want in."

Shuuhei blinked at him a few times, as if that would make him go away. But Iemura remained there, shabby and desperate and grinning as if he'd done something very clever. Which, of course, he had. Damn him.

"Want in to what?"

"Ending this, damn it!" Iemura snapped his hands into the air and his glasses fell to the ground. He didn't even try to retrieve them. "It's gone on long enough. How long are you going to continue letting it go on? When are you going to do something? Do you have any idea how many of us are ready to act?"

No. But he knew how many of them were fitted with explosive collars. He rubbed at his temples and tried to wish the headache away. He stared down at Kurotsuchi's request and all the other papers on his desk (paperwork, even here... it seemed unfair). There was nothing he could do about the test subjects Kurotsuchi had ordered. There was nothing he could do with a bunch of demoralized medics who were wired as fucking weapons, nothing to do against a man who seemed to predict their every move, nothing to do when he didn't know if he had any hope of backup...

Shuuhei stood up and paced away from the table, then back again. He did not sit down. "Not... not now!" he snapped. "You can't--It's not time, damn it!"

Three--

Seven

--weeks later, he wasn't sure what made him speak out loud. Carelessness, maybe, or fatigue.

Or maybe it was being desperate to talk to someone on his side that wasn't a foul-mouthed zanpakutou, and Iemura had been a friend of sorts.

"'If not now, when?'" It was said as if it was a quote, but Shuuhei couldn't place it. He still couldn't, but he could imagine Unohana-taichou saying it. And look what had happened to her. Iemura stepped forward, backing Shuuhei up against the table, leaning close. Shuuhei could imagine the collar taking out both of them at this range, but Iemura had only come in close to whisper to him. "Then you are with us. I--I'm sorry, but I had begun to doubt. Help us. Please."

He couldn't see Iemura's face at this angle, but his memory showed him someone else, someone who could only mouth the words at him, not say them.

"I've only started planning, but we're going to act, and act soon, before there are none of us left. If you help us, this could work. Can you promise me that you'll help? If I tell the others you'll help... can you imagine what that would do?"

He still remembered the moist heat of Iemura's words against his ear. He still remembered trying to back away, only to stumble when he bumped the edge of the table, reaching back to find balance and finding something else instead.

"Do something for a change, Hisagi-fukutaichou. You've been sitting here, having it easy. All you've had to do is keep your mouth shut, keep a low profile. Lead us. You have no idea what my people have been through. You have no idea--"

He still remembered the warmth of Iemura's blood on his hand.

He still remembered Kazeshini's outraged shouts, demanding to know what the hell he thought he was doing.

"You have no idea what I've been through." His hand remained steady on Kazeshini's hilt. The tsuba remained flush against Iemura's chest. "All the things I've had to do. All the things I've had to stand by and watch."

All the things he didn't do.

In a novel, there would have been a carefully described moment where Iemura looked at him in reproachful shock, but instead the man had doubled over with the force of the blow. He'd already been leaning forward, and now he just slumped against Shuuhei, head resting on his shoulder as if in trustful slumber.

"Don't you see, Yasochika-san?" he asked after far too long. He put a hand on Iemura's back, steadying him. "I'm saving them. I am. You'd only get them killed. Don't you see that?" He didn't expect an answer, nor did he expect belief. It sounded all so plausible, in retrospect. As plausible as any of Aizen's lies.

Kazeshini was oddly silent as he was eased free of Iemura's body.

Shuuhei wasn't sure what happened next. He had vague memories of Aizen doing... something... to put matters to rights. Well, as to rights as they could be. He thought he remembered explaining the situation, calmly, and with a gallows humor that seemed to please Aizen.

He couldn't really be sure. It all seemed to happen from a distance, and besides, it was time. It was when time started to act funny on him, to slip past without him noticing.

And now, sitting and having tea with Aizen, two pots of tea and an entire plate of cucumber sandwiches and a handful of little biscuits had disappeared along with the minutes.

Funny, but he couldn't remember the last time he ate. His stomach grumbled, letting him know that he still had a way to go before the lack of attention would be forgiven. But he waved Pagally off when she held the tray of biscuits out to him again.

He was here again, and Aizen was looking at him, eyes narrowed and head tilted.

"Are you feeling well, Hisagi-kun?" The concern seemed genuine enough.

Shuuhei rubbed his eyes. "Just tired all of a sudden."

Damn, he needed to get to the labs. He didn't want to sleep. He didn't want to dream. But he was so tired he could feel the dead weight of Iemura's body pulling him down.

"Didn't sleep well last night," he muttered.

Aizen inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement, but offered no more sympathy. "I suggest you get some rest tonight, then. I had been hoping to continue this discussion--but I need you focused and alert."

With that, Shuuhei felt very awake. What had they been talking about? He couldn't remember. In the back of his mind, Kazeshini let out a tempest of profanity.

Aizen's planning something, he snarled. You picked a great time to punk out on us, asshole.

He muddled through the thank yous and the good nights, and he kept his attention firmly on an empty corner of the room when Aizen told Pagally to be sure to attend to Shuuhei's needs.

Whatever he's got planned, whatever's going on, we better hope that help you sent for gets here soon. I got no idea what he's gonna try, but if something doesn't happen soon, we're screwed. All of us.

He did not look back to see if Pagally was following him. The tick-tick-tick of her heels told him that. He wanted to tell her not to be scared, but that would be cruel.

They all had very good reason to be scared.

Being scared is one thing, pal. Being a coward's another.

Shuuhei had nothing to say to that. He wondered if Kazeshini had overheard his thoughts about how he hoped the help would never arrive, that he wouldn't have to make another desperate choice if they did arrive.

When the Inoue girl had changed Grimmjow, he should have gone straight to Aizen. Maybe, if he hadn't known that Sado was in the holding area just outside the labs right then, that's what he would have done.

Once again, he could have shown how much he could be trusted. He would have maintained cover. Just as he had when Iemura had offered him another crazy, impossible chance to demonstrate that he remembered what he was maintaining cover for.

Look, maybe they'll get here. Maybe we'll win.

The dread he felt just thinking about that made him stumble.

But then, he thought, perhaps a good death while fighting a good fight was the best he could hope for.

In the back of Shuuhei's mind, Kazeshini rolled his eyes.

When they got to his rooms, Shuuhei walked straight in. The tick-tick-tick behind him stopped abruptly. He turned to look, and as he did, Pagally visibly steeled herself. He could see herself telling herself to be brave.

It was strange, feeling this kind of sympathy for a Hollow.

He crouched down slightly, so she could look him in the eye without having to crane her neck. She flinched, but in the end met his gaze.

"I need you to run an errand for me, Pagally. And then you're free for the rest of the night."

"You do not wish me to come in?" She didn't even try to hide her relief.

"No. I need you to go to the labs--no, not into the actual labs themselves," he said quickly, when her eyes went wide with fear. "Just to the supply rooms. There's something I need."

He told her how the pills he was looking for would be labeled, and where she could find them. No one had noticed them going missing--yet--but one of the Nemus had said something having seen him in the area rather frequently. For whatever reason, he had assumed it wasn't the same Nemu he kept bumping into over and over again. Or maybe they just talked among themselves.

"I've been having trouble staying awake," he explained, even though she'd shown no curiosity. She started to ask him something, then thought better of it. "And while you're at it, pick up something for, um..."

He wiped at his own nose by way of illustration.

"Oh, and if you see Yadomaru Lisa, tell her Aizen-sama invited me to tea. That's all she needs to know."

Pagally nodded, then took off down the hallway at a dead run before he had even finished dismissing her.

If she was smart, she'd get out of this place before it warped her. And she was smart--he'd figured that one out quickly. Even though she was a Hollow, she knew right away which of them was the monster.

Shuuhei rested a hand on his belly, in part to try to quell the constant churning, in part to make sure that the flesh there was still solid.

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Tags: *index: winter war, bleach, co-write
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