Characters: Yoruichi, Isshin, Ryuuken, Kon, Kensei
Word Count: c. 3,500
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: The battle in Karakura is not going well. Even the skies are turning against them.
41. Nanao: Prisoners
42. Ukitake: Falling
43. Nanao, Renji: Tunnel Vision
<“It’s over,” Isshin said once more, this time in a whisper. His hand still rested on Arisawa’s face after he had closed her eyes, and Yoruichi turned away because she could not bear to look him in the face just then. She could not bear to look up at all, not when she knew Arisawa would be standing there, a broken chain dangling from her heart. “Now, Tatsuki-cha--”
Isshin bolted to his feet, a curse matching the metallic hiss of Engetsu leaving its scabbard.
Yoruichi’s gaze snapped up automatically, just in time for her to see a bright swirl of spirit energy dissipating around Engetsu’s hilt. Isshin looked around frantically, tearing his glance away when it met hers.
“We can argue about it later,” he snapped before she could say a word. He shifted his zanpakutou from konso position back to a fighting grip. “Hospital roof. Now!”
She was mid-air before the last word left his mouth. She now felt the same thing he did, and knew why he would rather send Arisawa on to the madhouse Ichimaru had made of Soul Society than risk leaving her spirit here.
They landed a half-second apart. Ishida Ryuuken had an arrow trained on both of them, and Yoruichi wasn’t entirely certain he wouldn’t fire. Isshin slowly sheathed Engetsu and held up his hands, palms out. He said nothing.
Yoruichi didn’t bother adopting a conciliatory pose. She did, however, shift to hide the fact that her left arm was injured. Isshin’s old friendship might mean something to him, but it didn’t mean a damned thing to her. Friends, even old ones, couldn’t always be trusted.
A few flakes of snow drifted past. A flurry, or maybe another unseasonable snow shower, was on its way. The flakes puffed into steam where they hit Ryuuken’s bow and arrow; his control over his own energy was slipping.
“How many more?” Ryuuken’s voice rasped like an old man’s, worn down by grief and cigarettes and too much scotch.
Isshin shook his head. He ignored the arrow aimed at him and walked over and put his hand on Ryuuken’s shoulder, guiding him over to the edge of the roof. “I’m not sure that’s the right question. What d’you make of that?”
Ryuuken didn’t dismiss the arrow, but he did lower it as he looked down to the ground.
Yoruichi joined them. She saw what looked like oily smoke rising up from storm drains and through cracks in the pavement. If any of them had been younger, or less experienced, there might have been an exclamation of surprise or some dry gallows humor, but there was nothing but silence as the ground darkened and the flurries threatened to turn into something more. The few remaining humans out on the street hurried to get elsewhere as the smoke nipped at their heels.
She swallowed hard as the darkness oozed over Arisawa’s body. It swirled around the girl for a moment, then moved on, leaving her unaffected as far as Yoruichi could see.
“I felt it earlier, from over there.” Ryuuken nodded towards the center of town. Yoruichi remembered him firing arrow after arrow in that direction even though she had seen nothing there. “Very faint, but it was moving towards us. At first.”
Isshin scowled down at the thickening darkness. It started to converge, even though wisps remained scattered along the ground as far as they could see. “Right. And then it went down--and came up here.”
Ryuuken raised his bow and looked to Isshin.
Isshin looked to her.
Yoruichi thought for a moment--less than a second, in truth--then grabbed Ryuuken’s wrist. He glared at her, but there was more pain than anger there, and she thought maybe she could forgive him for how he had behaved during the battle.
Forgive, yes. Trust, no. The man had no love for shinigami, and she had no illusion of his current semblance of sanity remaining intact under pressure.
“Wait,” she said. “Whatever that is, it showed up down there after you stopped firing. When you sensed it far off, could your arrows reach that far?”
He thought for a moment. “No.”
And he had still fired. Wonderful. She revised her estimation of his utility downwards as she continued to puzzle through the best way to respond.
“Whatever came through the gate back at the Shoten--”
Isshin raised an eyebrow.
“Long story. The short version is ‘Kurotsuchi Mayuri.’ Also, those clones learned from whatever we hit them with.” While Isshin may have noticed that, she didn’t think Ryuuken had recognized anything other than target. “I want to know what we’re dealing with, first.”
“So we’ll watch,” Isshin said.
After a moment, Ryuuken nodded. “For a little while longer.”
He did not fire his arrow, but he did not dismiss it, either.
The smoke did nothing. Shortly after they had spotted it, it stopped increasing in volume. It simply hung like an uneven blanket over the ground below. It was only a few inches deep in parts, but some parts were almost a foot thick.
A few seconds after they started watching, a ghost drifted down from one of the buildings, seemingly drawn by Arisawa’s body. The little girl (she must have been only five or six when she died) spiraled slowly to the ground, her spirit chain hanging like a plumb-line from the center of her chest.
“Sorry about this,” Isshin said as he vaulted over the edge of the roof.
Yoruichi supposed this would have been a good time to yell ‘stop, you idiot!’ but it would have done her no good. She followed him and prayed that Ryuuken wouldn’t ‘help’ by sending a barrage of arrows down on them.
“Hey, little miss!” Isshin landed neatly on an awning a few feet away from the girl-ghost. Yoruichi touched down right behind him. “This isn’t a safe place! Get up there!” he said, pointing up to the hospital roof. “The nice doctor up there will take care of you.”
The girl looked up at him in surprise, and it was hard not to think of Yuzu with the way her eyes went wide. She kept drifting carelessly downward, and she was just about to say something in reply when her spirit chain finally brushed the smoke.
Yoruichi clapped her hands to her ears as the little girl let out a piercing shriek. A Hollow shriek. The links of her chain exploded one after the other like machine-gun fire.
“No!” Isshin grabbed for the girl as the last link burst and bone poured out of her mouth and covered her face.
Kon heard one Hollow after another shrieking behind him. Isshin was somewhere back there, but the girls were here. Yuzu clung even tighter to him and Karin yelled at him to put her down, (expletive deleted).
“That’s a mouthful of soap when we get home!” he snapped. As far as he could tell, there was nothing awful lurking in the direction of the family clinic. “Now shut up and let me run!”
Endurance wasn’t a problem. He could keep Ichigo’s legs moving even though there was something very wrong with the left Achilles tendon. The burning in his lungs didn’t matter, either. Right now, what mattered was the fact that he was moving at over sixty miles an hour, snow had started to fall, and he didn’t want to risk a spectacular (and possibly fatal to his passengers) wipeout because he got distracted yelling at one of his little sisters.
One of Ichigo’s little sisters, he reminded himself, but in the end that mattered as little as the give in his ankles or the sucktastic oxygen intake.
He had to keep them safe. The only problem was, he wasn’t sure safe existed anywhere any more.
So he just put as much distance behind him as he could and prayed it would be enough.
Shriek after shriek rose up into the swirling snow, and the sound of broken spirit links were like a barrage of artillery fire. Yoruichi and Isshin retreated to an apartment balcony opposite the hospital. Behind them, in the apartment proper, the young woman who lived there paced fretfully, hands clasped to her ears and fingers digging into her skull. Her pet cat dashed around madly, eyes dilated to full black. As they watched, it yowled and bit its owner’s ankles out of displaced aggression.
Mid-pace, the woman stopped by the balcony slider and stared out at the swirling snow. She was also staring straight at Isshin, but didn’t seem to notice him even when he pulled a face at her.
“She’s spiritually blind, but she’s still picking up on this,” he told Yoruichi. “I hate to think of what the more sensitive ones are feeling.”
He did not say that he hoped Kon had Karin and Yuzu far, far away by now, but Yoruichi knew he was thinking it.
Yoruichi nodded, grimacing when a downdraft brought with it enough snow to temporarily white out their view of the hospital roof. “Kisuke was afraid of this,” she said.
Isshin cocked his head to one side. “What’s he done?”
“What do you mean, what’s he done?” she snapped. “He’s been picking up--”
“The way you said his name. I’m surprised our hostess in there,” he jerked his thumb over towards the young woman, “didn’t pass out from your killing intent.”
“He’s the one who let Mayuri through,” she said, voice flat.
“Deliberately?” His voice was as sharp as she had ever heard it. He was smart enough to put things together and realize exactly what Yoruichi could no longer avoid thinking:
Kisuke’s obsession with proving himself superior to Kurotsuchi Mayuri had led to Arisawa Tatsuki’s death. Yes, she had died with honor, but it was a death that would not have happened if Kisuke had not been playing games and keeping secrets.
“We’ll deal with it later.” It was what she kept telling herself. She looked across the street, up through the snow. The number of screams had tapered off somewhat--the smoke had a limited range, and no doubt any ghost that could had fled the area as soon as the others started being changed. “We need to get back up there before your friend gets trigger-happy again.”
Isshin looked like he was about to tell a joke (‘bows don’t have triggers,’ maybe), but she could see him biting it back: now was not the time. He dropped his hips in preparation for a jump, but she reached out and stopped him.
“I am going to tell both of you more about what we know and how we know it, but I am going to tell you right now that I am going to lie to him about part of it. I am going to tell him I don’t know what happened to his son.”
Isshin’s face went deliberately, carefully blank. “I see.”
“There’s still hope for Ichigo, but I don’t know much more than that.” Suggesting, of course that there was some more she did know but did not care to share. Isshin could cope with it, however. At least for a while. “You understand why I can’t tell Ryuuken his son is dead.”
“That’s what he already believes.” Isshin said, but he sounded uncertain.
He knew as well as she did that believing something to be true and having it confirmed were two very different things, and Ryuuken’s grasp on sanity wasn’t very sure as it was.
Isshin cast a wary look back up at the roof. “How did you find out about this?”
Yoruichi shook her head and leapt from the balcony. She only wanted to tell this story once.
Kensei wasn’t going to complain that all the shinigami clones had dropped dead at once, but maneuvering around the fallen bodies was a bitch.
It didn’t help that his missing leg was screaming at him. He braced against his good leg as best as he could so the blowback from Tachikaze wouldn’t knock him on his ass. Keeping that part of things controlled used to be easy. These days, not so much.
He skidded back ten feet with the next blast (fucking snow), and nearly tripped over one of the shinigami bodies. He stumbled sideways, only just keeping to his feet.
The blowback was getting even worse, and he hoped it didn’t have anything to do with the way he found it harder and harder to dismiss his Hollow mask.
You’ve got other things to worry about right now, shithead!
The barbed tongue that took a divot out of the pavement next to him only emphasized that point. If he hadn’t tripped, the thing would have ripped through his abdomen.
The chameleon-masked Hollow perched on top of a nearby phone booth. The bulging eyes swiveled in every direction but Kensei’s, but Kensei knew damn well that the freaky thing was looking at him. Kensei held Tachikaze at the ready, the glow of bakudantsuki gathering in the blade. All the thing had to do was open its mouth and he could send a directed blast right down its gullet.
The fucking thing had already taken out Mashiro. She was alive, but she was sprawled out on the sidewalk twenty yards away from him. He had no idea how badly she was hurt, she was struggling to get back to her feet, but there was a chunk taken out of her side, and--
The Hollow opened its mouth and flicked out its tongue. Kensei released his blast.
He braced himself against the blowback, but tensing his muscles only knocked him off balance because his gigai suddenly remembered one leg didn’t exist. His blast went wild and something ripped into his shoulder.
Kensei clenched his teeth against a scream as the Hollow drew back its tongue, the barbs catching and tearing bone and muscle.
Good thing Tachikaze was also a combat knife. It cut nice and cleanly through the hollow’s tongue, and the bit that was caught in his shoulder fell into dust. The only problem was, that had been the only thing keeping him on his feet.
He turned it into a controlled fall, left hand hitting the icy pavement hard enough to break skin while the right brought Tachikaze to the ready. The hollow shrieked in pain and anger, and this time it sprang from the phone booth in an arc that would bring it right down on Kensei’s back. He couldn’t aim in time.
A swath of blood-red energy cut across his line of sight, and the hollow was dust before it hit the ground.
“Nice timing Urahara!” Kensei called up to the Shoten roof, but Urahara paid him no mind. He stood there amidst the falling snow, poised and ready in front of the gate.
Kensei didn’t much care for the idea that his life had been saved as an afterthought. His eyes narrowed. Yoruichi had taken off after a group of hollows, Tessai had to concentrate on the kidou wards, so why the hell wasn’t Urahara doing his job and leading?
For that matter, why wasn’t he? Being down a leg (and now an arm, from the way everything from his shoulder down was throbbing) shouldn’t matter. He was a captain of the Gotei 13, damn it.
“Oi! Kids!” he called out to Jinta and Ururu. “One of you get over here pronto! I need to use you as a crutch!”
Ryuuken still stood exactly where he had been when Ishhin had gone after the ghost girl. His bow was gone and he stared up at the sky, not seeming to mind the snow that now half-covered his glasses.
“There won’t be a spring,” he said when Yoruichi and Isshin landed beside him.
“That’s rather poetic,” Isshin said. His voice sounded a bit strained, possibly thanks to what he now knew.
“And possibly literally true,” Yoruichi countered, getting a startled look from Isshin and no appreciable reaction from Ryuuken. “Aizen has created an imbalance with what he’s done to Soul Society and Hueco Mundo--and here of course--and we’re reaching a tipping point fast.”
Isshin’s eyes went wide. “He’s actually so arrogant that he would just--” He shook his head. “No. Unless he’s gone completely insane, he’d have to realize what was happening. He’s smarter than that.”
“Unless it’s on purpose,” Ryuuken said, almost dreamily. “Perhaps he wants this. Wants to see it all fall apart.”
Yoruichi felt a chill that had nothing to do with the falling snow. “His intentions mean nothing. What matters is that we stop him and reverse this.” Here, she waved her uninjured arm out towards the world in general. “Before it’s too late. And by we, I mean not just you two, but the resistance in Seireitei and the group we’ve sent into Hueco Mundo.”
She took a moment to savor their twin looks of shock.
“Several days ago, two of Aizen’s prisoners escaped,” she told them. Then, before Ryuuken could have time to wonder or hope, she told him who they were along with a carefully redacted version of the story that had been passed along to her.
“The immediate problem is that Kurotsuchi Mayuri did something to take control of the gate we used to send Ise and Madarame’s team into Hueco Mundo. The Hollows and clones started coming through fifteen minutes ago back at the shoten,” she said, "and--” She paused. “What’s that look for, Isshin?”
“They also came through over there, right on top of the middle school.” Isshin pointed westwards, and Ryuuken nodded to confirm. “I felt it slightly before the incursion at Urahara’s.”
She did not ask him if he was sure. Instead she looked down at the newly-minted Hollows that were starting to gather in the streets. Whenever one stood still, at least one duplicate rose out of the smoke to join it. It was hard to distinguish one low-level Hollow from another--corruption was corruption.
“They’re not like the ones you led here,” Isshin said. “Do you see it?” he asked Ryuuken.
“See what? No. They’re Hollows.” Ryuuken had re-summoned his bow, but she did not disapprove. They would have to go on the offensive sooner rather than later.
“I don’t think I would have noticed if we hadn’t stopped up here, but the bones are wrong.”
Ryuuken pushed his glasses up and peered over the edge. “Ah, yes. I see what you mean. Interesting.”
“One of you needs to explain and soon.” Yoruichi tried not to snap at them, she really did. “They’re starting to move with intent right now, and I don’t like the way they’re gathering together. The last thing we need right now is a Mayuri-grade Menos Grande. Ryuuken, you’ll to provide covering fire to the north. Isshin and I will take the south flank.”
“Hollow masks are bone, but they’re dead bone,” Isshin said quickly. Engetsu was unsheathed again, and he was in a ready stance even as he lectured. “Look there, at the edges--the bone is more pink than ivory in tone. And see that bit between bone and skin? Where it’s shiny like satin?”
“Tendons and fascia,” Ryuuken said. He had shifted northwards as ordered, and his eyes flicked back and forth as he selected his targets. Yoruichi hoped that having some purpose now would keep him from firing too wildly. “A Hollow mask is more like armor, or laminate. This is part of the organism. I haven’t seen Hollows like these before.”
“Great.” Yoruichi could practically hear Urahara exclaiming about how interesting these Hollows were, and it didn’t sound like these two idiots were much better themselves. What did this mean? Now that they had pointed things out, she could see these Hollows weren’t normal. They weren’t grandiose enough to be Aizen’s design. Perhaps Mayuri... Ah. Yes.
Or more to the point: oh, fuck.
“We move out on three,” she ordered. “Keep your eye out for an Arrancar. Male. Pink hair. Small mask resembling glasses. Do not--I repeat, do not--let him make physical contact with you. If you see him, kill him.”
Even second-hand, Sado’s reports about the Espada scientist had made her stomach rebel against its contents. If half of what he said about Szayel Aporro Granz was true, they were in a lot of trouble.