Characters: Momo, Isane, Ukitake, Kira, Hitsugaya, Gin
Rating/Warning: R in this section.
Word Count: c. 6,700
Notes: This is a dark (we're not kidding) AU co-plotted with incandescens and liralen. The war against Aizen's forces went very badly. Nothing is sacred and no one is safe.
Summary: For months, Hinamori Momo has wished she could see her lost friends again. She should have been more careful what she wished for.
23. Ensemble: First Contact
24. Byakuya: Necessity
25: Hanatarou: Signs of Life
26: Mad Science in Motion
"There's something else you should know."
She knew. Even as Ukitake spoke, Momo knew. Even before Kira entered the library, she felt him. She felt what he had become.
"Where is Matsumoto? I've come to kill her."
"Kira-san?" Momo tried to tell herself that this thing standing in front of them was not Kira--
(So much was the same. She saw the glint of a blue, blue eye through the slit in his mask, the blond of his hair, the angle of his jaw, the shape of his mouth, the way he stood, his hands. Funny, how she could recognize him by his hands, even now.)
--and wanted to cry when she realized it was easier to believe it was not him than to hope that it was.
"You've come to kill Matsumoto?" Ukitake-taichou asked, as calmly as he might ask if Kira had just stopped by to invite him to tea.
Kira cocked his head to one side as if unsure of what he had just heard. There was nothing but dim puzzlement in those blue eyes. "Yes," he said, after a moment's hesitation. "Where is she?"
And his reiatsu...
"Shattered and put back wrong," she whispered, earning a sharp glance from Ukitake. Oh, Kira. How could you let them do this to you?
And this had been done to him. She knew that. He had not chosen this. The truth was a shattered stone in her chest. She had wanted to see him again, him and Shiro-chan, but not like this. Never like this.
Why had she ever hoped that he had been forced to follow Ichimaru against his will? There was no hope in this.
"Really?" Ukitake raised his eyebrows so high he had to be doing it on purpose. "That surprises me, Kira-kun. I thought Ichimaru-taichou was looking forward to seeing her again. They were always quite close, weren't they?"
Hatred twisted Kira's mouth. Momo told Tobiume to be ready.
Wabisuke isn't there anymore, Tobiume said. He's there, but he's not there. It's all mixed up. It's all wrong.
Momo knew what the sword meant. She turned as much as she dared towards Isane, who looked desperately like she wanted to ask Momo if she was okay. Momo couldn't answer that. Not yet. She let her hand drop to Tobiume's hilt. This would have to be fast. And not just because of Wabisuke.
Any second now.
It would be a mercy, she pleaded to herself. But how could she do this?
She had to do this. And she would. She would think about later... later.
"Ichimaru-sama doesn't need her." Kira spat out the words.
"Oh? Then why did he come all the way out here?" Ukitake was innocence itself as a sweep of his hand indicated their secluded, decaying retreat. "If he simply wanted her dead, wouldn't he trust you enough to send you out here on your own? He does trust you, doesn't he?"
Kira stood silent, not knowing how to respond. But Momo saw the slight tension, the barest lowering of the hips, the bending of the knees. As she expected, his right shoulder dropped forward a fraction of an inch.
Ukitake smiled, kind as kind could be. "Perhaps you simply misunderstood your orders. Why don't we wait until Ichimaru-taichou comes inside, and we can check with him?"
Momo leapt before Ukitake had finished speaking. The tells were the same as they had been in the Academy. The old Kira, her Kira, had learned them and how to suppress them. This thing had become sloppy.
Momo didn't have time release her shikai. Kira went for Ukitake with his bare hands and Momo swung out and up with a stroke that should have removed both hands at the wrist.
Instead, her own hands stung as calluses ripped, and she thought her wrists would splinter as Tobiume nearly torqued out of her grasp. She had struck something much harder than flesh.
"It's not his zanpakutou! It's him!" she warned the others. Tobiume was much heavier than she should have been. Far more than twice as heavy. She adjusted her grip to compensate, ignoring the pain from the torn skin. "Look at his hands!"
Where there had been bare flesh a moment before, spurs of bone (oh, what have they done to you?) jutted from Kira's wrists. He looked at them, puzzled, poking at the spot where they had not erupted fast enough to spare him a nasty gouge across his left wrist.
She heard Ukitake hurriedly whispering something to Isane, and Kira's head snapped up.
"Where is she? Why won't you tell me where she is?" The tells were there again. Momo was ready for him--or thought she was.
She got in front of him, but instead of striking straight out, he raised his fist for a downward blow that would snap her neck under the weight of her own bashed-in skull.
Someone--it had to be Takano--tried to push her out of the way and shield her, but it was too late. All he did was knock her flat across Ukitake's desk.
Too late, except that something happened. The blow didn't connect. For just a moment, the thing in front of her was Kira, and not some patched-together mockery of him.
Kira was moving too fast to pull the blow, but he wrenched himself to the side, his fist cratering the desk barely a hand's width from her head.
He scuttled back, whimpering in horror. He looked at her, Kira looked at her, eyes wide behind the mask.
Momo struggled to get up, but Takano was slow to get off her back. "Kira! Wait! If that's you, if that's really--oh no!"
A splintering creak came from the floor beneath the desk. The massive wooden desk that was now many, many times heavier than it had been a moment ago.
She and Takano tried to scramble away, but the floor gave way beneath them.
A painfully loud crash. Two successive jolts that nearly shook her to pieces. A few seconds of near-blackness. Then it was over and Momo sat up, trying to ignore the full-body ache and straining to see through the cloud of debris. She thought she had heard someone calling her name, but she couldn't be sure. She was pretty sure it wasn't Takano. The chivalrous idiot had the wind knocked out of him when he had tried to break her fall.
"Are you all right, Newbie?" she asked. She coughed to clear the dust from her lungs.
She got a groan by way of answer. Momo looked up. The dust still roiled above them, but she could see the hole left by the desk. Holes. They'd punched through two floors to the basement. A pale shape flashed across space above them, and she heard a thump and scuffle.
"We have to get back up there!" she said, but when she tried to stand up, Takano grabbed her arm.
"Don't move!" he rasped. He didn't point, but his gaze directed Momo's to the packet by her foot. "That's one of the charges we planted."
Momo inched her foot back, then stood up very carefully, hoping there weren't any other bombs hidden among the wreckage. "I guess we're lucky the desk wasn't any further back in the room." She felt the shake of a hysterical giggle in her voice. Why wasn't she huddled in a corner, screaming?
It didn't matter. She wasn't. Yet. She had a fleeting thought that Ikkaku would be pleased by that.
"No." Takano sat up slowly, and was in enough pain that he accepted when Momo held out her hand to help him to his feet. "Not lucky. Look," he groaned.
It took her a moment to realize the significance of all those tangled cords and the tattered strips of what looked like poetry hanging from the basement ceiling. For some reason, scraps of the destroyed incantations had started fluttering upwards, but that wasn't important. What was it Soi Fong-taichou had said, during one of their recent strategy sessions?
Ah, yes. No plan survives contact with the enemy.
"There are other fuses, right?" she asked. "And those weren't the only seals, were they?" She wiped her hands on her hakama, wincing when this pulled at the torn calluses.
"Dunno. Ichimaru's goons triggered a lot more of our mines than we planned for, and I think the cascade reaction Shiba set up for us is pretty well fucked. The big mothers will have to be triggered manually. You remember where they are, if you have to?"
She nodded, and hefted Tobiume. The sword was still far too heavy, but she could at least lift it well enough to aim. "I assume a fireball would set them off?"
"Good. I'm heading up to the foyer--that's the fastest way back up to Ukitake-taichou. Skip every third stair?"
Takano nodded. "The landing is unmined. I'd jump it if I were you. But I wouldn't try jumping from here to the ground floor just now. I have no idea what's been jostled. I'll see what I can do to fix the damage, but..." He shrugged.
"Thanks." She had been shown where the bombs were planted, but it was one thing to know something and another thing to remember it at the right moment in battle. "Can you be ready if Ichimaru or Shiro, I mean Hitsugaya-taichou come in here?"
He gave her a grim smile. "'Ready to lead. Ready to follow. Never quit.'" It was something he'd said on other occasions, and Momo now wished she had thought to ask him about it.
Right now, though, there wasn't time. She picked her way across the wreckage and towards the staircase leading up to the kitchen, only breaking into shunpo when the floor was clear.
She had to get back to the library before it was too late. It had only been for a second, but something of Kira had broken though his Hollow-self. Maybe it could again.
Momo stopped cold at the entrance to the foyer. Both staircases were gone. The bombs in them had either blown, or were buried under rubble, waiting to be set off by the slightest jostle. Well, she'd been planning on jumping it, anyway, but the sight of it slowed her down. She had noticed the approaching chill, but now she thought about it and what it meant.
Kira had recognized her. He had.
Instead of jumping for the landing, Momo turned to face the front door. She took a deep breath and pushed it open. She stood there in silence for a moment, staring out at the field of broken and bloody ice.
Maybe someone else would recognize her as well. She closed her eyes and felt a turbulent, storming reiatsu that was colder than winter itself.
She let her own reiatsu flare.
"Here I am," she whispered.
The crash deafened them, and the cloud of dust and debris blinded them. Isane heard Ukitake-taichou coughing wetly into his sleeve, but there was no time to get to him. Keeping him safe meant ignoring her duty as a healer for the moment. She shielded her eyes with her left hand, but that did nothing to make the dust seem any thinner. Kira should be right in front of her, but no--he was hunched down over the hole in the floor.
It sounded so much like the Kira she once knew, but she didn't dare hope.
He straightened up slowly, but it looked painful, and she thought his back was getting larger--something was shifting under his clothes. "Where is she?" he asked dully, and Isane had no idea if he meant Matsumoto or Hinamori. "What have you done with her?"
"He's not thinking clearly," Ukitake-taichou whispered rapidly. He pulled at her sleeve, urging her to bend down so she could hear him. "He can't. Not anymore. You can hear it in his voice. They broke his mind along with everything else. Whatever Aizen tried to do to him, it's not working. And it's not holding. You heard him just now, didn't you? He--"
Kira jumped across the hole, and Ukitake-taichou quickly uttered the incantation for Bakudo Sixty-one. The six beams of light stopped Kira, but only for a moment.
"What? That shouldn't be possible!" Ukitake-taichou said, but Isane didn't see what he was so startled by. Strong Hollows could break through that particular kidou, especially if it was hastily cast.
She barely had enough time to pull him out of range of Kira's reach. There was no good path to flee. Kira was between them and the window, them and the door, and even between then and the hole in the floor. She could probably get past him on her own, but that would mean leaving Ukitake-taichou behind.
And now he was breathing hard and in a cold sweat, exhausted from the effort of what should have been a simple kidou for him.
"Was that Hinamori?" Kira asked plaintively. "Ichimaru-sama didn't tell me she would be here."
"She is," Ukitake-taichou said. He did not mention that Kira himself was the one who had sent her plummeting through the floor. "Would you like to see her again, Kira-kun?"
Ukitake shifted so he could get his mouth closer to her ear. Again, he whispered so fast she could barely make out what he said. "Look at him. The kidou isn't broken. It's still around his waist, it's still got one arm trapped, but look at it."
She did. She could barely see what was left of the six bars of light. They had crumpled like foil, pressing tight in to Kira's body. As she watched, the kidou finally snapped and dissolved. Whatever had been growing on his back slid free, clattering out from beneath the hem of his robe and the cuffs of his sleeves. Chains. They were as white as bone.
"Now look at the dust," Ukitake said.
The clouds of dust were still swirling, but they were now swirling towards Kira, making his white clothes and blond hair as gray as stone.
"Give her to me, or I will crush you," Kira said, so simply it didn't seem like a threat. "I can do that now." Another chain hit the floor.
Isane heard a faint swishing sound as fragments of ruined books began to slide across the floor towards Kira.
He stepped towards them, dragging his chains, and Isane thought she felt the floor slant down in his direction. She heard thump after thump as the few remaining books were pulled from the shelves. "What is this? What's he doing?"
"Resurreccion," Ukitake-taichou and Kira both said. Then, Ukitake-taichou alone. "He's become Wabisuke. He'll bring the entire building down around us, and with Ichimaru still outside. Are you ready?"
Isane did not have to ask ready for what? She knew. What she didn't know was if she could do what Mihane-san had taught her. And what if it didn't work? When Hinamori attacked Kira, those bone fragments had erupted to shield him. She had seen Hinamori's sword nearly wrenched from her grasp by its own weight.
"It will be all right, Isane-kun."
But Kira's wrist was bleeding, the drops falling a few inches before darting back up to splash against his arm. If she was fast enough, if she could strike hard enough, she could... but she didn't know if she could.
Shhhh... Itegumo's voice was like the hush of a wave.
It allowed her to be still even as everything was bending, flowing towards Kira. She was aware, so sharply aware of the fluttering paper, of the pinpoint of darkness forming in front of Kira's hollow-hole, of the way Ukitake's hair began to waft towards the center of the room.
Not yet, not yet. He would see her coming. Not yet, but soon. She heard a creaking from beneath them that boded no good, but Kira was watching her, waiting. Ukitake-taichou was plainly in no condition to attack, even with kidou, so Kira had to know it would come from her.
She was present, she was waiting, she was there, and when a surge of well-known reiatsu flared up and pulled Kira's attention from her, she was ready.
Everything was slow and fast and still and now. Intent and motion were as one.
Her hand went to Itegumo's hilt leisurely yet so quickly that Ukitake gasped in surprise as she let go of him. One, two, three strides carried her across to Kira so fast she might have been running down a steep hill.
His power pulled her in much faster than she expected, so fast the blow almost came too late. When it did come, Itegumo sprung free of the scabbard so fast and so hard she could barely hold on, and she couldn't complete the motion. She should have brought the sword back down, but instead, she kept falling forward, sending both her and Kira sprawling.
He shrieked, and she screamed and together they went tumbling to the floor. Isane tried to pull away, but he had hold of her left arm and he squeezed. She screamed again as the two bones of her forearm snapped.
A kidou shield kept them both from rolling through the hole in the floor, and the part of her mind that had detached wanted to scold Ukitake-taichou for exerting himself like that.
Isane wound up on top of Kira. She had no idea where Itegumo was--he'd flown from her hand when they hit the floor.
Kira still had hold of her arm and although he wasn't squeezing, he had no intention of letting go. She made herself count breaths so she would not vomit from the pain. She reached over to see if she could pry his hand loose. He resisted, but not much, eventually transferring his grip to her right hand. The chains had vanished.
Her left arm was free, but throbbing. Kira now held tight--uncomfortably, but not painfully--to her right hand. She sat up all the way and could now see that her blow had struck true, opening him up from abdomen to clavicle. His blood had soaked through her top.
She had a frantic desire to ask him if he was all right, but that had nothing to do with the wound she had given him.
He relaxed his grip on her hand, then gave a squeeze that was a little gentle, a little tentative. He did not let go and she could not pull free.
"Hinamori. That was her."
"Yes. It was." Isane had no idea what had caused Hinamori's reiatsu to flare, or what might be happening to her. All she could do was hope. Now she had to think of what to do for Kira. Itegumo had struck deep. She could see where ribs had been severed. She could see organs, exposed, and the damage done by a sword whose strike had been amplified by its victim's own power. She had no idea where to start.
It was so hard to think of what should I do now? when all that clanged through her brain was what have I just done?
"Isane-kun! What's going on? Are you all right?"
"Don't shout, taichou," she said. Her voice came out as a squeak. "Please... don't shout. It's not good for you."
She had to look at this as she would any other wound, even though it was one she had inflicted. She had seen worse.
But it was the worst she had ever done.
She would do what she could, she told herself firmly. She had to. But she couldn't stop crying. "Kira-san, I need you to let go of my hand. I can't heal you like this, and I can't use my left hand. Please let go."
He didn't let go. His fingers hooked through hers. "I didn't mean to hurt Hinamori. I didn't want that."
She tried to pull her hand free, but his grip was still strong, even now. "I know that, Kira." Whatever the thing was that had come into this room, declaring its desire to kill Rangiku-san, it was gone. "Now please, let go of my hand. Let go, and I promise I'll tell her that for you."
She looked him in the eye as she made the promise. The mask was gone. She hadn't seen it fall off.
"Maybe... I think maybe she already knows," she said.
Kira blinked. "Oh. Good. That's good."
He let go of her hand, but there was nothing more she could do for him.
Momo heard a hoarse, anguished scream from inside the mansion.
Her first, panicked thought was for Ukitake-taichou, but then Tobiume went light in her hand so suddenly her arm lifted.
Kira was gone. And she hadn't been there for him.
Later, she told herself viciously. She would cry for him later.
She crouched into ready position, bracing herself for whatever might come. "Here I am," she said again, letting her reiatsu flare even brighter.
There was an answering surge, one that had her blinking ice crystals from her eyes.
It was foolish to try to prepare, but she did. Momo tried to picture what Shiro-chan would be like now, so she could be ready.
But all her imagination showed her was a small boy dressed in white, looking quite grumpy about wearing a mask, as if he had been coerced into attending a fancy-dress party.
Fine. It was a reminder of what she was fighting for. She would use it.
Whoever Shiro-chan was now, he was coming faster, faster. Her breath sparkled in the air.
Faster, faster, and closer, closer, and she still didn't see him.
Finally, she looked up.
Kira had not been Kira, but there had been a resemblance. An echo. Here, there was nothing but a jumble of icy wings, cruel claws, and a bitter, ravenous cold.
"AIZEN! WHAT DID YOU DO TO HIM?"
Her rage crackled through the frozen air, and Tobiume strained to release.
The creature flew as if it was in pain, jerking this way and that. A leash dangled from what must have been its neck.
Kira's spirit had been broken and put together wrong, but the pieces were recognizable as having been him. This resembled Shiro-chan the way a smear of blood and feathers resembled a bird.
Momo didn't know what to do. All she could do was burn with fury. She wanted to break someone the way Shiro-chan had been broken, to hurt someone--hurt Aizen--five, ten, a million times more. She hoped Ikkaku skinned Aizen alive, fed him to his Hollows piece by screaming piece.
If only she could be there to see it.
Ice melted and mud bubbled around her feet. Her anger cocooned her and steadied her, and so she did not tremble when a familiar voice rang out across the shattered ice field.
"Maaa... Now here I thought you'd be happy to see your old friend again, Hinamori-chan. An' after I went to all that trouble to have him sent here from Hueco Mundo. There's gratitude for ya."
"Ichimaru." It had no venom in it. He didn't matter any more, him and his slimy, slithering reiatsu like a bucket of worms. Her hand went to her chest, feeling for Matsumoto's necklace. She had meant to taunt him with it, to hurt him the way she had been hurt, but he wasn't worth what it would do to her.
Shiro-chan zigged back towards Ichimaru, then hesitated, hovering unsteadily and muttering to himself. After a moment, he started drifting warily towards Momo.
Ichimaru stayed well back, far enough he had to shout to be heard. Momo could see a number of shinigami behind him. They hung even further back, and the distance seemed to be increasing slightly.
"Aw, ain't you even gonna say hello?" he called out. He spread out his arms. "Don't I get a hug?"
The bastard was just out of Tobiume's range. Deliberately, no doubt. She nearly shot back with come here and get one!--that was probably Ikkaku's fault--but if Ichimaru knew they wanted him to come closer to the mansion, he wouldn't. No, he already knew. Tobiume wasn't the only reason he was staying so far back.
She had to draw him in. Had to get him to where she could roast him, or where a burst from Tobiume would set off a bomb that would rip him to shreds. But how? She was no temptation to him herself. She was just a joke to him--an also-ran who couldn't properly step into his place by Aizen's side.
Mihane-san was off with Iba's group. She could hear the sound of ongoing battle off in the distance. No help from that quarter, and the disguise probably wouldn't work a second time.
"Now, why'd you all have to go an' drag poor Rangiku off to a place like this?" he said, looking around as if the churned-up ice and scattered body parts had merely been an unfortunate decorating decision.
"Who said we had to drag her?" Momo smiled, trying to think of what Ichimaru looked like when he was being cruel for his own amusement.
It had no effect. But then, she was an amateur at this game.
"Aw, you gonna pretend like you know her better than I do? This ain't her kind of place. This is the kind of place I helped her get out of. An' now I'm gonna help her again," he said pleasantly.
"She doesn't want your help." Momo took a step back towards the door. Shiro-chan drifted closer. She kept glancing between him and Ichimaru, not knowing which would make a move first. In a way, she was surprised Ichimaru hadn't skewered her out of hand.
"Oh?" He was all surprised innocence, mouth forming a perfect circle. He had been moving closer, but still not close enough. "That so? Then whyn't you bring her out here and have her tell me herself?"
She tried to come up with something clever, but she couldn't. It was getting so cold... And she was so stupid. There was nothing left of Shiro-chan after all, and Ichimaru was just stringing her along. Maybe he wasn't expecting a direct attack from her, she thought. Maybe the element of surprise--
"Oh, I got it!" He slapped a fist against his palm with a surprising tentativeness, as if afraid of hurting himself. "Maybe she ain't really in there! You know what? I bet she ain't. I bet you all were tryin' to be clever, an' you got her stashed somewhere else. So maybe I should just have your pal here freeze the place solid an' then maybe I'll have Aizen-taichou send another of your friends on over to say hi."
Her grip on Tobiume began to shake. Another? Who else?
"Now, who should I send over?" He was grinning, and she knew that grin---she had seen it in nightmares. "Howsa bout Abarai? That'll make it a nice class reunion with you an' Kira."
She steadied her grip, even though it deepened the cuts in her hands. The pain helped center her. Overhead, the thing that used to be her best friend began snarling and muttering. In another minute, he would swoop down and kill her and she could do nothing about it.
"Or maybe Ukitake would like to see his ol' pal again, huh? Or maybe his sweet Rukia-chan. Now wouldn't that be a sight?"
If she went after Ichimaru now, she would be killed, no question. But then there would be no one for him to taunt, and he'd have to go inside. No, he'd just send in Shiro-chan to get blown up. There was only one thing she could do.
He could be lying about the others, but she didn't know that. And he thought she was lying about Rangiku, but he didn't know for sure. And that was why she was still alive.
"I'll go in and get her," she stammered. Ichimaru put a hand to his ear--he hadn't heard her. This time she shouted. "Rangiku-san is inside! I'll go get her! Right now!"
Ichimaru smiled, and it was the worst smile she'd ever seen on him because it was a truly happy smile.
She had no idea what she would do once she got inside, but she now had a few seconds--maybe even a few minutes--she hadn't had before.
It was enough. She stepped back towards the door, not daring to turn her back on either monster, and the world fell apart in a million fragments of red, blue, and green.
Bits of brightly colored glass shattered around her and she crouched down, instinctively shielding herself. She had no idea what had broken one of the stained glass windows above. There was no explosion, so it couldn't be one of Shiba-sama's bombs.
In the time it took for the glass to fall and for her to stand up again, Shiro-chan had swooped down impossibly fast, landing so close she had to step back.
Shiro-chan had hold of her sword-arm, and it burned with cold even though there were three layers of fabric between his skin and hers. She looked down at the gray, icy claw rather than look him in the face. She didn't dare look him in the face and see what wasn't there.
A claw pulled at her hand, prying it away from Tobiume. She allowed this, thinking it was better than having her fingers broken, but he was gentle, so gentle. Even the cold didn't bite.
She opened her right hand, bracing Tobiume's hilt with her left. The cold air stung where the hilt had made her bleed. Her hiss of pain was echoed by Shiro-chan.
Momo looked down at him. There was nothing there she recognized, but something here had affected him. Her bloody palm fascinated him. He didn't touch the cuts, but a crooked claw ran just a hair's breadth over them as he hummed querulously.
He couldn't speak, but it was as if he was asking who had done this to her. She couldn't blame Kira, as Kira was not to blame for what he had become, but there was someone else. She looked up at Ichimaru without thinking.
Ichimaru didn't notice. He was gawping up at the broken window.
Kira was gone, but Isane was still frantically trying to undo the damage she had done. His blood was all over her hand, and her hand kept flying to her face, and she knew he had his blood in her hair, and what had she done, what had she done?
At first she thought his hollow hole might have been sealing itself, but it was just crumbling. He was falling to dust and she didn't know how to stop it.
"Isane, stop. That is an order, fukutaichou!"
Isane sat back on her haunches, trembling with mortification. How could she have forgotten her primary patient?
Ukitake was sprawled on the floor. She'd pulled him out of his chair to get him away from Kira, then she had to let him go, and he hadn't moved since.
"Listen to me, fukutaichou." There was not even a hint of sympathy in his face. "Here is what I need you to do. First, splint your arm. Numb it if you have to. You know the kidou, correct? That will be faster than healing, and we don't have the luxury of time."
He kept talking, despite the flecks of blood that began to stain his lips. "Help me up. I need to be standing for this, and you need to get me out there, to the hallway."
"You're not well! You need to rest, and--"
"I need to get out there, and..." He paused, maybe for breath or maybe to rethink what he was going to say. When he spoke again, his usual kindness was there. "I haven't been well for a very long time, Isane-kun. I have no illusions about my surviving this battle."
"Please don't say that!"
"But some of us still may, and for that to happen we need to get Ichimaru in close. I have no idea what Hinamori-kun thinks she's doing out there, but we need to remind Ichimaru why he came here in the first place."
She was grateful for the orders, grateful for something to do. Takano came running back in just as she was trying to set her arm. He saw what was going on, and plunked himself right by her side and took hold of her wrist and elbow.
"I guess I don't have to tell you this is gonna hurt," he said. "On the count of three?"
"Okay. One--" He yanked hard.
"Gahh! Oh, that was..." She checked the set. It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad, either. They'd gotten to it before it had too much chance to swell. It hurt, but nothing felt out of place, so she went ahead and numbed it. "Thank you."
He shrugged. "People always tense on 'two.' Where's Hinamori? She said she was coming back up here. I need her help with getting the bombs re-set. This guy," his eyes cut to Kira, "trashed things good on his way in. The big booms are still intact, but most of the triggers are shot."
"She's outside," Ukitake-taichou said with no other explanation. "Can someone still trigger the bombs manually when Ichimaru enters, if it comes to that?"
"Yes," Takano said without hesitation. The next bit was slightly hesitant. "Good chance whoever did it wouldn't survive, unless they could do it from a distance. It's not a milk run."
Ukitake closed his eyes. "Of course it isn't. Takano, I'm not giving this order lightly--"
"I volunteer, sir," he said.
"No!" Isane said. "I could use kidou blasts to trigger them. I--"
"And I need you with me, Isane-kun. I'm not giving that order lightly, either. Takano, before you leave, there should be a pink scarf near the balcony. Shirogane-kun left it here when she debriefed after your mission. Bring it to me."
He did, then left to go get in position to trigger the huge charges that could bring half the mansion down on their heads.
"Come here, Isane-kun. You can't splint that one-handed." He sliced the front cover off of a large book, and bent it. After a moment's thought, he ripped a narrow strip off the length of the pink scarf. She held out her arm so he could wrap it. "That should do for now. Why didn't you numb before you set?"
"I needed to be able to feel that things were in place." She looked at the pink fabric as it wound round and round her arm. "You're going to have me pretend to be Matsumoto-san? But I--"
"But you have similar builds, and you can scream loudly, and if we do this right, Ichimaru will only catch a brief glimpse of something he is very much hoping to see," he said gently. He reached up and rested a hand on her cheek. "Whatever Hinamori is doing, it is buying us time, so let's use that gift wisely, shall we? Now help me to my feet."
Momo looked up. So did Shiro-chan. The bottom half of one of the stained glass windows was gone and she had a brief glimpse of a woman in a pink scarf. She couldn't see the face or hair from this angle.
"Rangiku!" Ichimaru's shout held surprise, delight, triumph.
It was the first time Momo had ever felt anything like pity for Ichimaru. After the first leap of her heart, she knew who it had to be at the window, and it was not who either of them would have given anything to see.
Ichimaru laughed, but he stayed right where he was, hugging himself lightly. "An' here I thought you all were just having me on. You really were going to go in an' bring her out, weren't you?"
No. They still had to get him inside. And if Isane stayed in the window much longer, Gin would have to notice it wasn't really Rangiku.
Shiro whined. He was still looking at her hand when a scream drew his attention. Isane was gone, and Ukitake-taichou was at the window for just a second, grim-faced and with his sword out.
"What! No! You let her out here, y'hear me! Y'all ain't got no right, holding her prisoner like that!" The sudden shift of mood was as frightening as the expression twisting his face.
There was no answer from the window. After a brief growl at the flaring of Ichimaru's killing intent, Shiro-chan had returned to investigating her hand.
A memory swam up from somwhere, barely visible in the murk. It felt like something that might have happened while she was half awake, half dreaming. A memory of her hands, hurting very much like this, and Shiro-chan's cold anger. His claws grew colder and colder, but she didn't dare say anything, no matter how much it hurt.
"Maaa... Hitsugaya." The words slithered out. Gin's amused, contemptuous calm had returned as suddenly as it had left.
Shiro-chan turned, hissing low. Momo had all but said her wounds were Ichimaru's fault. She pulled her hand away and rested it on one of Shiro's wings. It was softer than she would have thought. "Shiro-chan, don't! Wait!"
"Go on up there an' find Rangiku for me, will ya? You remember Rangiku, dontcha? Course you do. Well, you're gonna get to hang out together again. Just like old times." He chuckled. "Sorta-kinda. Anyhow, watcha waitin' for? Go on."
Momo saw what was going to happen next, but she couldn't stop it. Shiro-chan roared and leapt straight at Ichimaru.
Shiro-chan's leap carried him another dozen yards before he collapsed, Shinsou tearing free of him as he fell. He was already crumbling to dust.
There was nothing left but rage, burning rage. It carried her forward. Her scream became Tobiume's release command and the fire burning in her was the fire burning in her sword. And still, Ichimaru stood his ground, grinning at her like she was a joke. He hadn't even retracted his sword for another strike.
"Heya, Hinamori-chan." He waved.
The kidou hit her square on, lifting her clean off her feet and blasting her towards the house. She clipped the side of the door hard on the way through, hard enough that she felt the frame (and some ribs) crack. The impact slowed her flight, but she still skidded all the way across the foyer hall, plowing up debris.
Everything hurt, but she had to get up. Miracle of miracles, she had not let go of Tobiume. She could still aim at one of the bombs and blow them all up, right here, right now. She started to lift Tobiume, but a foot pressed the flat of the blade against the floor.
"Nope, none o' that, now. Gotta say, I'm surprised I caught you like that. Thought you were some sort of kidou 'expert' or something, and here you can't even block a simple energy blast." He laughed. "You really thought you had what it took to replace me, huh? And your pal out there--oh, he always thought he was better'n me. You know he did."
She tried to get up, but Ichimaru kicked her in the stomach and she went down again, retching. He picked up Tobiume and tossed the sword into the wreckage.
"Guess I showed you. Both of you. Now, lemme take care of you real fast--can't have you poppin' up to stab me in the back, can I?--and then I can go see Rangiku. Sorry, but you lost, I won. That's how it goes, Hinamori-chan."
He slid his foot under her shoulder and rolled her over on her back. Shinsou was at the hollow of her throat before she had time to react. She was about to die, and there was nothing she could do.
But Ichimaru did not drive the sword through her neck. His eyes went as wide as she'd ever seen them, and she felt only the slightest prick as he used Shinsou's tip to lift up the end of Rangiku's necklace.
Next Chapter: Iba - Defense