Sophia Prester (sophiap) wrote in presterpress,
Sophia Prester

Winter War: Ikkaku: What Is, What Was [Bleach]

Title: Ikkaku: What Is, What Was
Arc: Winter War - an AU co-write with incandescens and liralen
Characters: Ikkaku, and a handful of others, canon and otherwise
Rating/Warning: PG-13 for language, references to character death
Summary: A lot has changed since the war--including Ikkaku.
Notes: This is a rather dark AU co-plotted with incandescens and liralen. The war against Aizen's forces went very badly. Nothing is sacred and no one is safe.

1. Nanao: Winter
2. Ukitake: Waking Up

The tavern was infested with bandits. Again.

"And so he goes back to the same place, and once again there's the same damn boar..."

Kouta could remember a time when bandits never disturbed his business. It was only three months ago, but it felt more like thirty years.

"So the guy shoots another arrow, and he misses again..."

Twelve of them, this time. Dangerous drunks, with enough alcohol in them to kick any inhibition straight out the door, but not so much that they were falling down. They were loud. They were quick to take insult, quicker to throw a punch, and their bald bastard of a leader was holding court in the center of the room like he knew no one was going to do a damned thing about it.

The bald guy's hands cut through the air, making unmistakeable gestures as he worked his way through an amazingly filthy joke.

"' this time, the boar taps the guy on the shoulder and says...heheh... he says, 'You ain't really coming here to hunt, are ya?'"

He roared with laughter at his own joke, and all of his friends followed suit. So did a few of the patrons. The owner's wife and the staff laughed nervously, because they'd had enough broken crockery already.

As for Kouta, he quickly turned a genuine belly laugh into a polite cough. Well, it was a funny joke. It just...

It just wasn't the sort of joke he was used to hearing here. Used to be, when people got drunk--never too drunk, not here--they'd start telling jokes. Slightly lewd jokes, yes, but it was the kind of lewd where you had to put two and two together to get the joke. Also, the jokes were all as familiar comfortable as old sandals.

Kouta missed his regulars. He especially missed the ones he knew could never come back.

He spared a quick glance over his shoulder, and thought about going back to check on his son, but there was no way he was going to leave his wife and the girl alone with--

"Oi! Who do I hafta beat up to get another drink?" Another of the bandits, this one a young man with floppy black hair and a spray of tattoos down the side of his face held up an empty shochu jug. Before anyone had a chance to answer, the jug exploded against the wall, right next to Michiko's head. If he'd been sober enough to aim properly, it would have hit her in the face. She shrieked and hunkered down to avoid another attack, covering her face with her serving tray. Then, as pottery shards pelted down on her head, she screamed as if they had set her on fire.

The bandits, of course, thought this was hilarious. Some of them crowed with laughter. A few brayed. One hooted like a rabid monkey.

The bald guy--the one who'd pulled down the tavern's noren when he arrived, kicking mud off his feet and swaggering into the place like he owned it--goaded them on, elbowing one of his companions when it didn't look like he was laughing hard enough. The young man blinked in confusion, then joined his compatriots.

Yuina looked at him, pleading without words, but Kouta had no idea what his wife expected him to do. This was the the twenty-third district of East Rukongai. This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen here. Or if it did, there would be someone around to take care of it.

Now, though, more and more bandits were coming through. Ever since winter began. This stupid, endless winter, still sitting on them weeks after the first flowers should have bloomed.

At least this group hadn't hurt anyone, Kouta thought, forcing himself not to look back over his shoulder. That said, it was probably only a matter of time before something happened. They'd gone through enough drink to knock each of them out three times over, but all it did was make them louder. It also resulted in more broken crockery. Yuina's cherished set of antique sake cups had been used as something like darts earlier in the evening.

It was only sheer luck that no one had lost an eye or been concussed. Part of that may have been that most of the usual crowd had already cleared out before the bandits' arrival. The ones who were still there had arrived after the previous party had left and were probably only staying because the bandits were between them and the door.

Kouta cleared his throat. Nothing happened.

Well, the bandits' leader seemed to focus his attention on him. His eyes narrowed a little, and the patches of red at their corners stood out sharp as new-spilled blood.

When Kouta stepped back with deliberate meekness, the leader tossed his hands in the air in disgust. As if on cue, more crockery took to the air. And shortly thereafter, took to the ground.

"Please..." His attempt to project his voice came out as a squeak.

"Hey--he's trying to say something." This was from the young man who'd needed to be encouraged to laugh. He pulled tentatively at the leader's sleeve and nodded towards Kouta.

"What the hell d'ya want?" the man slurred before letting out a belch. While he hadn't seemed impaired before, it was as if the alcohol he'd consumed had been lying in wait and had suddenly decided to gang up on him. "We're jes' havin' some fun, hey?"

"I... um... I think, that is... maybe you've had enough?" Kouta held his hands up in a gesture of conciliation that could also be read as 'please don't hit me.'

"We don't want any..." he licked his lips, looked around nervously. Yuina and Michiko were safely behind the counter, for all the good that would do them. "Any more trouble. There were some shinigami who were just here, and they left town maybe half an hour before you showed up..."

The veiled warning didn't seem to worry the bandits, but it did get their attention. In fact, it got the kind of attention a roast pig might get from a crowd of starving men.

"Really. Shinigami? And you say they just left?" This came from one of the other bandits, a thin, graying man with a convincingly aristocratic drawl. "Pity."

"They were probably scared when they heard we were coming?" This bandit had a scraggly moustache, and sounded strangely nervous for someone who'd been threatening would-be customers a few minutes ago. Like the thin would-be aristocrat, he wore the remains of a shinigami uniform.

More and more, it seemed that their former protectors were taking up a new profession. Or at least giving up the pretense that they were doing their old one.

The bald man slammed back a cup of shochu, spilling most of it in the process.

"Fuckin' shingami." He looked around at his crew. "We don't like shinigami, do we, boys?"

The boys--two of whom appeared to be women--greeted this with a hearty fuck no!.

"But some of you used to--" He shut his mouth quickly, knocking his teeth together.

"Used to, yeah." The bald man leaned forward over his cup, hands curled around it a little too tightly. The hem of a black gi could just be seen between the edge of his jacket and the ridiculous orange scarf around his neck. "Used to be a lot of things. But that outfit back there?"

Here he jerked a thumb over his shoulder, no doubt meaning to point towards Seireitei, but instead indicating the general direction of South Rukongai.

"Don't want no part of them no more." He lifted his cup again, but on finding it empty, simply dropped it on the floor. It didn't break. "We're gone. Outta here. C'mon, you idiots--les' go find ourselves a fight! Yeah!" He even jammed his fist up in the air.

The group of them charge-stumbled to the door, the leader and one other hung back. The bald man once again seemed unaccountably sober. His companion--a young man with a girlish face and dark, spiky hair that looked as if it had been barbered with a hunting knife, or possibly a blowtorch--looked around as if assessing the damage.

"You didn't happen to see which way these shinigami went, did you?" the bald man asked. For all that he'd been slurring his words to the point of being incomprehensible just a few minutes ago, he spoke clearly enough now.

"Um... north?"

"North." The man and boy exchanged looks, then turned their attention back to Kouta. "You sure about that?"

"The only road out of town runs north-south. It's eight miles to the next crossroads."

"Unless they cut through the forest," the boy said, making it almost a question.

"Go on, Peaches. Find Newbie and tell him to find 'em and stalk 'em, see if he can hear anything."

"See if he can hear anything?" 'Peaches,' or whatever his real name was, smirked.

The leader lifted a hand as if to smack the kid, but that only got a broader smile and a jutted chin by way of a silent I dare you. "Shut up. You know what I mean. I also want you to grab Four-eyes and the brat, and I want you and them to flash up thataway fast as you can," he said, pointing northwards, "just in case. Keep an eye on things, don't get yourselves seen unless you hafta stall 'em, and don't start anything 'til I get there, a'right?"


"And for the last time stop it with that 'sir' bullcrap!" he called out, but the boy was gone, gone so fast that Kouta didn't even see him leave.

"I don't want to miss a good fight," he said, as if Kouta gave a single solitary damn about what some bandit wanted or why. "And speaking of good fights, were those yahoos after some Hollows, or what?"

"Who knows?" The words were out before Kouta could stop himself. And once out, he couldn't hold back the anger. "We sent word to Seireitei weeks ago that we were attacked by a Hollow, and we get nothing. Nothing! If it weren't for some mercenaries, we'd be dead. And now, those so-called shinigami come through here..." He spared a glance to the back room, where his son lay unconscious with no sign of waking.

The bandits, at least, hadn't had a chance to hurt anyone.

"They went north," he said, with no sense of guilt at all. The shinigami and the bandits could all just wipe each other out and the world would probably be the better for it. "And they'll give you a fight if you want one. They were bragging about it. Bragging about being Eleventh Division--I don't know if you know what that mean, but..."

"Yeah." There was a look in the man's eyes that Kouta didn't even want to describe. "I know what that means."

He looked like he wanted to say something else, but between one breath and the next, he was gone, leaving Kouta to clean up the mess.

"Okay you bastards, what do we got?" Ikkaku caught up with the rest of his group about a mile out of town. He'd probably used shunpo more in the past three months than he had while in Zaraki's division. It still felt like cheating, though. "Anything good, or you been wasting your time primping and preening?"

This last was just a cheap shot at Ogidou and Hoshibana, and wasn't entirely fair. It wasn't their fault that they kept themselves presentable enough and knew enough useless formal crap to run jobs in the few civilized towns they passed through. Still, if Ikkaku didn't give them crap, they'd wonder what was wrong.

It didn't quite work. Instead of raising an eyebrow or treating Ikkaku to a polite sneer, Hoshibana gave him a considering look. Ogidou, on the other hand, turned on his best 'do you want to talk about it?' expression. Ikkaku ignored them and instead plowed through to the front of the group to find someone who'd actually tell him what he needed to know.

That someone was Maki-Maki. He and the others who'd come from Zaraki's division were leading the group, as usual.

"Any idea if the shinigami are after the same thing we're after?"

Two days before they'd gotten official word that some weird shit had gone down in this part of Rukongai, Peaches and Hoshibana had flipped their shit about a big reiatsu flare and said they should go see what the fuck was going on. Not in those words, exactly, though. Hoshibana wouldn't cuss even if he was on fire, and Peaches wasn't much better.

"I think so?" Maki-Maki always sounded doubtful, even when he was a hundred percent sure of something. He pointed to the northeast. "Shirogane-san came back, and said it looked as if the shinigami--um, there are six of them, she said to make sure to tell you that--were cutting across farmland to get to the woods. It's in the right direction. She said the others were going to go up the riverbed--it's dry, mostly--and try to cut them off before they got too far. She went to catch up with them. Looks like the shinigami aren't flash-stepping. She said it looks like they're looking for something. Fanned out, poking in bushes, that kind of thing."

Right. The question was, did those bums know what they were looking for? Given the timing of when the shinigami supposedly left Seireitei and when his own kidou experts had sensed the anomaly, someone in what called itself the Gotei 13 had gotten word of the energy flare from somewhere other than the field.

And, if they had started searching this far away from where Peaches said the flare came from, they were expecting whatever it was to be on the move.

"Let's hope they don't start searching the riverbed just yet." He looked over that way. There was enough tall grass and bramble that you wouldn't see the gully unless you were about to fall in it. Still, taking the low ground was a good way to get yourself ambushed. Peaches should have known better, and so should the brat. At least there was no sign of smoke or fire; he counted that as a big plus. "What about Newbie?"

"Takano-san is tailing them, just like you asked. Oh--he wanted to know if he should take a prisoner."

"What'd you tell him?"

Maki-Maki squinted nervously. "No?"

Ikkaku nodded. "Good answer." They'd have time for fun and games later.

"Should we try to catch up now?"

They were moving along at a decent pace, just like any other ordinary group of ruffians going about their business looting and pillaging.

Ikkaku looked around. No one to be seen, but that didn't mean a damn thing. More than a couple of people in his squad could be right on top of you before you knew they were there. It was creepy as hell, and there was no way bushwhacking counted as real fighting, but it was damned useful on occasion.

"Yeah..." he drawled. Best to get this over with.

Maki-Maki didn't ask what was wrong, but the way he didn't ask got right under Ikkaku's skin.

"The guy at the tavern?" Ikkaku paused for a moment and looked around, wondering if he should say something. "The guys we're chasing said they were from the Eleventh."

That got a full-body wince. "Oh."

"Yeah. 'Oh.' Should be interesting. Or pathetic." Now that he'd shared that little bit of news, it could now leave him alone and go bother someone else. Maki-Maki was a worry-wart anyhow, so it wouldn't hurt him to have something else to stew over for a while. Ikkaku now turned his attention to the others, jogging backwards so he could face the rest of the pack, Hoozukimaru slung across his shoulders.

"Okay, you mutts. We got six shinigami out lookin' for something, don't know what. It could be--"

"It's something unauthorized from Hueco Mundo, sir," someone interjected. Ikkaku nearly fell on his ass. Maki-Maki yelped in surprise.

"For fuck's sake, Newbie, let me know when you show up, you damn sneaky bastard. And stop with the sir, already. You learn anything else while you were off playing ninja? Like what it was?"

Newbie shook his head. "Only that the order to go track it down 'came from the top,' sir."

"Wonderful," Ikkaku snarled. He didn't mention the 'sir' again. He figured the only way he could get Newbie to stop saying it would be to cut his tongue out.

At least no one called him 'taichou.' That had happened once. Once. He hadn't had to say anything about it, then or anytime after. Making someone swallow three of his own teeth got the message across nice and clear.

"Okay, so they're looking for something, something that's maybe on the move, but they're gonna find us instead. Sparkles, take a few of the guys and go head 'em off to the north. Newbie, find Peaches and the others and have them run the bastards up from the south. I want them all in one place when we take them down."

Hoshibana sneered, but bowed and took off after signaling Maki-Maki and two more of Zaraki's men to follow him. Ikkaku didn't even see Newbie leave. He was just there one minute, not there the next. Typical.

The others didn't need any orders. He just took off and trusted they would follow.

They did. They always did.

Three of the shinigami came straight into the woods, not even trying to be stealthy. They stumbled to a sudden halt when they saw Ikkaku leaning on a snag in the middle of a clearing. Hoozukimaru rested across the back of his neck and his wrists draped lazily over the ends of the zanpakutou.

They couldn't have missed him if they tried. The forest was still winter-dead, with no sign of any new green for cover, and the orange of his scarf shone like a bonfire against all the gray and brown. The three people with him weren't exactly dressed for forest camouflage, neither.

Two of the mooks simply looked startled. Ikkaku had no idea who the hell they were. They'd joined up after his time, no doubt. Their uniforms were so new, the black would probably come off on your fingers.

The third, Ikkaku knew all too well. That stupid blond mohawk was just the same as it ever was.

And of course, the guy knew Ikkaku. He actually hissed in surprise, and might have said something totally clichéd, like you! or maybe something a bit more eloquent, like you bastard!, but Ikkaku cut him off with a cheerful, "He-ey! Looks like you finally got yourself that promotion, Ito. Who'd you have to blow to get it? Ichimaru?"

The two guys Ikkaku didn't know started to bluster, but Ito lifted a hand just barely, and they shut up. Ikkaku watched Ito carefully. His face had sure enough gone purple at the insult, but the way his eyes cut sharply down to the badge strapped to his arm and then skidded away from Ikkaku's gaze said a lot.

"So, what the hell are you pansies doing out here anyway?" Ikkaku rolled Hoozukimaru around so it was resting on his left shoulder, then he reached into his jacket to pull out an apple.

Taking out the two idiots flanking Ito would take maybe five seconds, tops. If those swords they were carrying were anything more than asauchi, Ikkaku would eat his own fundoshi. As for Ito, unless he'd gotten real good, real fast, he'd probably still only qualify for eighth seat at best. Not bad by any stretch, because you didn't get that far in Zaraki's division without being able to win a good fight, but it was nothing Ikkaku couldn't handle.

Still, the others weren't here just yet, so he had to fill the time. He took a bite of the apple and chewed loudly, mouth smacking open.

"So. Ichimaru send you out on a little field trip or something? Let you out into the big bad world to get some fresh air?"

"None of your business what Ichimaru-soutaichou sent us here for," one of the mooks yelled. He even put his hand on the hilt of his sword and tried to look threatening. It was kind of adorable.

So they were out here on an errand, and at the head psycho's request at that. This was pathetically easy.

Ito actually met Ikkaku's eye, the expression on his face clearly saying do you see what I have to deal with, here?

"So why the hell d'you stay there, anyway? Is it 'cause you finally get to outrank me?"

"Technically, you have no rank any more, Madarame. No rank, no division, no honor. All you have is... what the hell happened to you?" He actually sounded offended. Or maybe just confused. "Living as a bandit, with..."

He blinked a few times as he registered exactly who was standing behind Ikkaku.

Ogidou smiled. It was the kind of smile that made it clear why he was one of Shingami Women's Association's favorite pinups.

"He's from the Fourth," Ito squawked.

"So's she." Ikkaku pointed over his shoulder at Kaede. "Say hi to the nice man who thinks he fucking outranks me, Kaede. You know how it is," he said to Ito as Kaede waved and chirped a hello. "You gotta work with what you have."

At least Harada was from the Eleventh, but he was content to stand there and stay out of the conversation. He was also doing a damned good job of keeping whatever he was thinking off his face.

"You could have been a captain, if you wanted. I looked up to you..."

Ikkaku opened and closed his free hand in a blah-blah-blah motion while he finished his apple. He was not in the mood to listen to this shit. What the hell was taking the others?

"You led the best squad in the Eleventh division. And now you're out here in the wild with these three--"


"Huh?" Ito started to ask for clarification, but shut up real fast when he saw the rest of Ikkaku's squad coming through the forest.

Peaches, Four-eyes, Newbie and the brat had one of Ito's men with them, subdued and slung over Newbie's shoulder. His uniform was charred and wisps of smoke still trailed up from the small of his back. Ikkaku gave Peaches a look but only got a sheepish smile and a shrug by way of response.

The remaining two members of Ito's group were being frog-marched back by two of their former division-mates, with Hoshibana bringing up the rear. From the way they didn't struggle as much as they should have, they were still shaking off the effects of Hoshibana's shikai. Hoshibana held up two fingers. Two minutes left, maybe, before it wore off completely. Good.

Hoshibana looked like he wanted to say something else, but Ikkaku couldn't tell what.

Once they got a little closer, Ikkaku recognized the two shinigami as being at the upper level of the unseated members of the Eleventh. Probably single-digit officers by now, he thought. No wonder the former single-digit officers who were pushing them along seemed to be having a blast.

"That makes twelve of us, me included." Ikkaku said, pointing everyone out, and nearly losing stride when he realized Maki-Maki hadn't come back with the others. Well, that would explain why Sparkles looked worked up about something. Ikkaku raised an eyebrow, but the other man shook his head and mouthed 'later.'

"Okay, so someone's off taking a dump or something. Shit happens. Anyhow, there's six of you." A sharp nod, and the two who'd been rounded up by Hoshibana were unceremoniously shoved towards their fellows. There were a few threats and a few return jeers, and just for a moment it was like being home again.

Newbie dropped his cargo at Ito's feet. The kid--who looked even younger than Peaches--looked up and yelped when he saw who was looking down at him. Ikkaku recognized him as a fresh Academy grad who'd been recruited maybe a week before everything went to shit.

And clearly, the kid recognized Ikkaku.

Ikkaku smiled at him. The kid scooted as far away as he could.

Ito may have looked like a side of beef with an experimental haircut, but he was no idiot. It probably took him three seconds to size up what he saw.

Three high-ranking officers from Zaraki's division besides Ikkaku--sixth, seventh, and ninth seat. And Ikkaku knew Yoshino and Ito had been drinking buddies. Yeah, that could get awkward.

Ito already knew Ogidou and Kaede were from the Fourth, and Ikkaku could see him dismiss the pair out of hand.

Newbie got a long, puzzled look. Takano didn't look all that distinctive, but there'd been a fuss when Komamura recruited the foreign-born idiot who'd died while working for some group with a damned cutesy name.

Ito's lack of reaction meant Peaches had gone completely unrecognized. Thanks to that unplanned haircut--heh, more like hairburn--from the other day, Peaches was possibly classified as something picked up along the way.

As for the Sixthies, Ito wouldn't have known Rikichi. Sparkles and Four-Eyes, yeah, Ito probably knew them. Or of them. Renji had had some choice words about Hoshibana Akira when he'd come back to the Eleventh to visit. 'Stick up his ass' was one of the nicer things he'd said. Shirogane Mihane they all knew because of her sunglasses shop. A pampered noble with a fancy-pants kidou shikai and a nice little shopkeeper with a stammer. Scary.

No wonder Ito seemed more contemptuous than concerned.

As for Ikkaku, he'd done his own sizing up. He knew how a fight between them would play out.

"So, what's it gonna be, Ito? Wanna have a round or two of dice, winner gets to go after whatever it is Ichimaru wants? Bound to be good if he sent the big, bad Eleventh after it." A flicker of movement drew his attention for a half-second. Sparkles was slowly sidling closer to Ikkaku. "Or maybe we should just have a few drinks and laugh about old times."

"You really think this is funny, don't you."

Ikkaku looked around. His gang was staying nice and quiet, waiting. "Yeah, I do. It's real funny."

Four idiots and someone who got shot in the back by someone who didn't do that sort of thing--unless the person was running away and needed to be brought down. What had happened to the Eleventh?

And here he was facing them with a bunch of losers who'd use kidou before they'd trust in their own arms and legs and blade. What had happened to him?

Yeah, it was all really fucking funny. All of it.

"I don't get it, Madarame. What's up with these guys? You think that's a good replacement for Ayasegawa," he said jabbing the end of his sword at Ogidou. "Gotta have something pretty around? Who'd you replace taichou with, then?"

Ikkaku's hand tightened around Hoozukimaru tight enough he thought he heard a distant growl. He kept his head down for a minute, waiting for the heat to pass, and for the throbbing at his temple to go away.

Hoshibana started to whisper something to him, but thought better of it.

"You might want to shut your fucking mouth," Ikkaku said with a calm that fooled absolutely no one. He gave himself another couple of seconds, then spoke, picking each word out carefully. "I do what I got to do, but least I'm not whorin' myself out to Ichimaru. You really think Zaraki would have put up with working for that guy? Or that fukutaichou would've?"

That got a gasp from Ito and one of his men. If they were going to play dirty, so would he. Four months ago, it wouldn't have been like this.

"You know what happened to them?"

Ikkaku shook his head. "They ain't here. And they sure as hell ain't there," he said, tilting Hoozukimaru towards Seireitei.

He wanted to tell Ito that he knew Zaraki had fallen in battle, laughing and having a grand old time of it. He wanted to give his old buddy at least that much. But then he'd have to explain how he knew that.

"And you're just going to live out here, like this?" Ito took another look at Ikkaku's squad. Most of them looked like they'd been born to the bandit life. A couple though...

Goddamn Newbie could spend three days in a swamp and still come out looking like he was about to report for inspection.

"Thought those guys," he said, looking at Hoshibana and Ogidou as if they were something a cat had hocked up, "would at least've gone with Ukitake's rebels rather than live rough with these bastards." This was said with a nod and a wry smile towards Yoshino and the others.

Well, look at that. Ito was trying to be clever. He wasn't half bad at it, but he just wasn't good enough.

"Ukitake?" Ikkaku all but shouted it, laughing and incredulous. He looked around, making sure everyone saw just how surprised he was. "You gotta be kidding me! That weakling's still alive? And leading a rebel army? After what happened in that massive clusterfuck? Looked to me like he'd puked up a lung."

He hacked a few times, just for effect. He heard a gasp from Kaede that sounded more like a sob, and when Hoshibana rested a hand on his shoulder, those bony fingers dug in, sharp, digging under his collarbone by way of warning.

"Oh, man, that's rich. Still alive, and still fighting. Don't it figure..." He shook his head as if laughing before returning his attention to Ito. "Nah, we're on our own. Ain't nobody left worth following anymore. Ain't nothing left."

Ito studied the ground for a moment. They should have been fighting right now, going at it all gung-ho, and egging each other on even if they were trying to kill each other. But Ito didn't seem like he wanted to be the one to start things.

Ikkaku couldn't blame him.

What the hell kind of world was it, where two members of the Eleventh were looking for an excuse not to fight?

While Ito was looking away, Hoshibana leaned forward, whispering quickly.

"We found the two they were seeking. Half a mile back." He reached past Ikkaku, pointing. "They were there. They saw."

Ikkaku looked up. Just as Hoshibana had taken advantage of Ito's distraction to talk to him, the two 'officers' who'd come back with Hoshibana's team had started telling Ito something. They weren't as efficient as Hoshibana, though.

"Sparkles, I am so glad you don't flail and shout like that when you gotta tell me something."

"I live to serve," Hoshibana said without even an attempt at sincerity. "At least we can talk while they're... mmm... speaking over each other. I have a feeling we have some time."

From the sound of things, there was a bit of an argy-bargy about which of them had screwed up and let Sparkles get the drop on them.

"Gotcha. And it's a 'them'? You sure about that?" There were so many ways that could be so very not good. "And where the hell's Maki-Maki?"

"He stayed with the... parties of interest," Hoshibana said. He kept a careful eye on the group of six. The story seemed to be winding down, and Ito had taken note of the other conversation going on.

"Maki-Maki? You're shitting me, Sparkles." Maki-Maki wasn't a coward, but he wasn't the sort who'd just up and volunteer to babysit for two somethings that came out of Aizen's lair, neither.

Hoshibana leaned in even closer. "He knew one of them. The recognition was... ah, mutual. Aramaki said his presence might be... helpful."

"Hooooly shit..." Ikkaku whispered.

"Indeed." Pause. "I suppose our two teams passing like ships in the night is no longer an option?"

Ikkaku jerked free of Hoshibana's grasp. "Who ever said it was one to start with?"

It could have been, though. He'd even thought about it, had even gone to the trouble to keep things under wraps, just in case. But Ito's two officers knew too much, and now so did Ito. Shit.

"They are your former teammates." Hoshibana might have been pointing out that Ikkaku's scarf had a run in it.

"Some of 'em, yeah." Ikkaku knew he sounded tired. But he didn't much care. "And like you said, former."

Ito wasn't a bad guy, though. Ikkaku had fought alongside him dozens of times. Gone out drinking with him hundreds of times. Yoshino would've been happy as hell to have him on the team. Not that they were going to open themselves up to that kind of mistake again. Not after what happened to Iba.

Ikkaku looked over his shoulder. Yoshino's sunglasses kept his expression unreadable, but he just shook his head slowly when Ikkaku turned.

Ito had left his group and walked towards Ikkaku. He didn't look happy.

"Guess you're not coming up here to tell me we're going to all go out and get drinks, are you?" Ikkaku straightened and casually fell into a ready stance.

"Nope." Four of Ito's men followed after him, swords already drawn.

One of Ito's men was leering at Kaede, and headed straight towards her and Ogidou, figuring the two pretty little Fourthies would be easy pickings. Ogidou just smiled and smiled, and his eyes flickered hungrily as he cataloged the man's scars.

One of the veterans--Matsuda, was it?--looked like he was getting ready to challenge Harada. Harada ignored him.

Two others looked to Ito, waiting for his direction.

The kid Peaches had brought down staggered to his feet a little more slowly than needed, and kept looking over his shoulder. He was ready to bolt, and he'd overheard the whole conversation about Ukitake.

Ikkaku waved Rikichi over. "When it starts, go after short-britches down there," he whispered, indicating the target with a twitch of one shoulder. "I think he'll run. Let him get away, but keep it real. Give him something to remember it by. Make him feel lucky."

"Gotcha." Rikichi faded back and waited for it all to begin.

"You against me, how about it, Ito?" Ikkaku shifted Hoozukumaru's scabbard to his right hand, and curled his left hand in front of the hilt, ready to draw.

"Wouldn't have it any other way." Ito turned to his men, but before he could give any orders, Ikkaku beat him to it.

"Newbie, Sparkles, Four-Eyes, Smiley, Riki, you're up," he called out. He didn't look back to see how those he'd brought with him from Zaraki's division reacted. If they were pissed, well, they'd sort it out later, the old-fashioned way.

Rikichi took off on cue, heels flying up in the air as he sprinted after his target. The target in question shrieked and scrambled into the woods. Rikichi had to pretend to get hung up on a bramble to give the guy a decent enough lead.

The rest of the so-called Eleventh paused as they tried to figure out who the hell Ikkaku was talking about. Their confusion turned to something else when they saw Zaraki's guys fall back and a bunch of primped yahoos--including one from the Fourth--come forward.

"Madarame! The fuck? What is--this supposed to be an insult?" Ito was so angry his words tangled round themselves.

"That's 'bout the size of it." And with that, he leapt at Ito, and there wasn't any more time to talk.

It was a good fight. Ito wasn't near as good as Ikkaku, but he'd had decent rest and regular meals for the past three months, and that leveled things off enough to keep it interesting.

But Ito couldn't help looking to see what happened to his men in those insultingly easy fights. Maybe he was going to tell them to go after Maki-Maki once they'd finished what they were doing. More likely, he just didn't trust them. Either way, what he saw distracted him enough for Ikkaku to land a vicious blow on his right shoulder. No one was going running off after anyone. Not now.

The guy who went after Mihane must've thought he had it made as he charged at a slender, bespectacled woman who stood frozen and crouched, one hand on the hilt of her zanpakutou, not even drawing. The idiot released his zanpakutou as he lifted it nice and high, thinking he'd crush Mihane with a mace twice the size of her head.

Too bad for him she was an expert at iaido. At just the right moment, she drew, and as her zanpakutou pulled free of its scabbard, the sudden release of pressure gave the blade a burst of speed and power that carried it through rib and muscle like they were nothing. After that, it was just a matter of finishing him off.

Ito pushed back hard, laying on a rapid fire series of blows Ikkaku could only just parry. Ikkaku jumped back up on the snag as if meaning to take the high ground, but instead used it as a springboard, coming down with a strike that would have flayed Ito's back wide open if Ito hadn't been quick to turn and lift his scabbard to deflect the blow. He lost a fingertip for his trouble, but shook it off as no big deal.

Ikkaku smiled.

Hoshibana's fight went almost as quickly as Mihane's. He actually released his shikai, which didn't seem to do much other than making his zanpakutou glisten as if faceted. His opponent kept looking away, no doubt knowing what would happen if Hoshibana really let things rip. Too bad that kept him from seeing Hoshibana palm one of the knives he'd taken to keeping up his left sleeve. For someone who professed to loathe dirty fighting, Hoshibana had taken it to it like a natural.

Ito and Ikkaku clashed, passed, stopped about ten paces apart.

"Damn. Kuchiki'd shit himself if he saw his third pulling a stunt like that," Ito said between ragged breaths. He was grinning like an idiot, even though his left arm was soaked in his own blood.

"What can I say. I'm a bad influence," Ikkaku said, laughing. Now that they'd taken each other's measure, they released their shikai. "Now you going to watch, or you going to fight?"

And with that, they started again.

Ito probably missed Newbie's fight, but then, it lasted maybe four seconds. Ikkaku only saw it because he was facing the right direction at the right time. As soon as Ikkaku said his name, Newbie drew his sword. The draw looked clumsy as hell, but a whispered command released sword and scabbard into as pretty a set of tonfa as you ever saw. Three strides, and a sharp backhand, and one of those tonfa hit Newbie's target right across the bridge of the nose. The return swing clocked him square in the temple even though the poor slob was probably already dead.

Soi Fong had about blown a gasket when she found out that Komamura had known exactly what Newbie's background was. She'd bitched up and down to everyone that he'd scooped her. Komamura hadn't lied, though. He'd been honest, and if people thought 'cute widdle white fwuffy cuddwy baby' when he said 'SEAL' that was their problem.

Ikkaku just wished there'd been a chance to see the guy go up against Zaraki. That would have been something.

So was his fight with Ito. He hadn't had a tangle like this in months. It was a fight to remember. Spear versus double-bitted battleaxe. Didn't get much better than that. They had never actually sparred with their released shikai before, so it was all new, and all brilliant, making up strategies as they went. It would get even more interesting when he got around to telling Hoozukimaru to split. No point in rushing it, though.

Not until the last fight was over. Course, Ikkaku wouldn't call that abomination a fight.

Goddamn Smiley. Zaraki might have given Newbie a single-digit rank to get him the hell out of the Seventh, but he would have drowned Ogidou.

And then he would have drowned Ikkaku for putting up with Ogidou's particular brand of horseshit.

Ogidou didn't even pretend to draw his sword. The stupid bastard just kept up that 'photograph me now!' smile of his as he dodged strike after strike. He had a gash across the back of his forearm, but he kept moving like it had never happened.

"What's he doing?" Ito asked when they'd broken apart after another clash. "Dancing?"

Ogidou got inside the other guy's guard just then, one hand on the poor bastard's chest, the other right under his ribs. He was still smiling, but it was too bright, too brittle. His victim's scars began to glow a sickly white.

"Watch," Ikkaku said, not bothering to hide his disgust. He attacked again, though, forcing Ito into a position where he'd get a good look as Ogidou used healing kidou in a way it was never meant to be used.

The sick, smiling bastard had found a way to turn the kidou inside out. The short, sharp scream and wet, tearing sound made it sound like he'd done the same to his opponent. No, there was no way he'd consider that a fight.

Ikkaku could have put Hoozukimaru through Ito's throat just then, but that wasn't fair. It was for the best, though, because when Ito got his shit back together, he came after Ikkaku with a vengeance.

"Who the hell are you! That's not playing by our rules!" Ito came after him, not like a friend, but in a rage that made him sloppy. Ikkaku ducked the next strike without any trouble.

He didn't even bother to return the blow. Or the next one, or the one after that. It would be like fighting a raw recruit. A drunk recruit.

"Rules? You bastards shat on the rules when you started kissing up to Aizen's toady! You think taichou would've stood for that?"

There was a flicker of hesitation, and then Ito finally launched an attack that was up to standard--a vicious downward arc meant to force Ikkaku to jump to avoid it and put himself in a tough spot to block the backswing. Instead, Ikkaku ducked forward, inside Ito's guard and then past him with a lazy flick of Hoozukimaru's blade. He didn't draw blood, but Ito's armband fell to the ground.

"Least I'm fighting for something that matters," Ikkaku panted. His men had regrouped, and Yoshino had Sparkles by the shoulder, holding him back from joining in the fight. "That's more'n you can say, ain't it?"

There wasn't an answer. Ito looked blank for a second, then grinned, and came after Ikkaku again.

"'Bout time." It was all Ikkaku had time or breath to say before he had to go into an aggressive, all-out defense, dodging swings that would remove limbs or crush bone while looking for any opening he could.

Ikkaku sidestepped into a blow he couldn't avoid, turning what he meant to be a jab to the chest into a deep slice between a couple of Ito's ribs and letting the flat of Tetsugarou's glance off his shoulder. Hurt like hell, but it was better than losing an arm, and that was a bloody beautiful move on Ito's part. He let the impact help him roll out of range of the return swing, pain surging in his shoulder as it hit the ground. When he came back up, Hoozukimaru snapped into its three parts so fast Ito didn't even notice until the shaft hinged around his neck and the edge laid his cheek wide open.

"You can do better than that, asshole! You shoulda been able to block that!" Ikkaku snapped Hoozukimaru back into its straight form. His left arm wouldn't lift more than shoulder-height, and he needed soemthing where he could fight single-handed. Right-handed, too, putting them back on even footing. Better than even, since Ito barely seemed to be trying any more. "I've seen you do better!"

They crashed past each other, and Ikkaku took a slice out of Ito's hip. Too easy. Ito was remembering past fights, not this one--he was still guarding against a lefty. He was getting sloppy. And tired, from the way he missed his next two blows.

He was vaguely aware of Peaches piping up cheerfully that he should wait for Rikichi and the two of them could catch up later. He could almost hear a little heart at the end of the sentence.

Then she did him proud by screeching at the others like the little harpy he knew she was, telling them to go go go you lazy maggots now now now!

"This is how it should be. Just you an' me. Just like old times."

He released Hoozukimaru again, silently, and caught Tetsugarou's haft in Hoozukimaru's upper hinge. His shoulder flared in pain, but if he couldn't stand that, what was he? A vicious twist, and Ito went stumbling off to the side. Stumbling a little too much, making a joke of Ikkaku's words.

Hell, Ito was even laughing now.

"Yeah. Just the way it used to be." He'd gone gray, but he was smiling, smiling even as he slowly fell to his knees, Tetsugarou going back to it sealed form before he fell all the way.

The hell? All Ikkaku had done was block on that last exchange, and now Ito was struggling to stay upright.

It took him a moment but then he saw the dark patch on Ito's right side and remembered the best part of the fight and Hoozukimaru sliding right in between a couple of ribs.

"Got you good, didn't I," Ikkaku said quietly. He let Hoozukimaru fall back into its sealed form, then slid the blade back into its sheath. There wasn't as much blood on the ground as there should have been, but somewhere inside, Ito was bleeding out fast.

Ito nodded. His jaw was slack and his lips were going gray, but he looked like he was trying to smile. Even so, it was a lot less creepy than Ogidou's picture-perfect grin struck him these days.

"You're really working for Ukitake, aren't you?"

Ikkaku started to splutter and deny, but that was just hard-won habit.

"Y'said you were fighting for something that mattered. Didn't mean to say that, did you?"

It didn't take him long to pin down the slip of the tongue that had confirmed things for Ito. That was a stupid, amateur move. He hadn't been thinking right. Or something.

Ah, well. It wasn't like Ito was going to go anywhere or tell anyone. The kid Rikichi had chased away would tell the right sort of story to help 'keep their cover,' as Newbie would say.

"Heh. Always said you weren't as dumb as you looked, Ito. Yeah, we're doing recon, playing spy, causing trouble to keep attention away from Ukitake-taichou, going after Hollows 'cause Ichimaru won't do shit against 'em, which you damn well know. Been doing this gig ever since it all went to hell." He shook his head, laughing under his breath. "I've had a time of it. Especially with the crew I'm stuck with."

"Not like working with Taichou, right?"

Ikkaku was pretty sure Ito wasn't just talking about him taking orders from Ukitake.


But they'd had one good fight, one good day, and Ito wasn't going to die clinging to that sham of a rank. No, he'd be going out of this life holding onto something a lot better than that.

And Ikkaku was going to come away from this with something, too. A good fight, against someone who didn't fight too pretty or too dirty, who didn't go into a fight only looking for a way to make the fastest kill or the messiest kill.

"Y'know, I think Taichou would've liked this. Least, he wouldn't have cussed us out as a couple of weaklings."

There was a sound from Ito that might have been a laugh, but it was hard to tell. Didn't matter, because a couple of seconds later, he fell over. Ikkaku didn't bother to check to see if he was dead. Ito wouldn't have fallen, otherwise.

Ikkaku stretched, yawn turning into a curse as his left shoulder flared hot with pain, then found a place to sit and wait for Rikichi.

A quick message came from Peaches in the meantime. Just a burst of information using a variation she'd come up with based on Bakudou 77, something she swore was so fast it couldn't be traced, even if it did get the wrong someone's attention. Instead of words, it was just an image, there and gone in seconds.

Two men, both unconscious. One was in rough shape--all bony and beat up and shit--and his hair had gone long and shaggy enough to mask his face. Even so, Ikkaku recognized him at once. The other... not so much, even though something pinged him as familiar. Probably the blue hair, but other than that the guy looked completely ordinary. Built like a fighter, but no scars that he could see--and other than Yumichika, Ikkaku'd never met anyone who was built like that who didn't have a few. Course, it was only a brief image.

Brief, and yet there was an instinctive do not trust this guy that rose up from somewhere the instant Ikkaku saw the guy. Heading back to Ukitake's base camp with these two wasn't an option. They'd have to find another place to take their friends.

Well, one friend and an unknown.

Ikkaku found a nice log to lean up against, and sat down to take a nap. It hadn't taken him long to realize that he didn't want to waste time trying to figure out who the other guy in the image was. For one thing, he'd find out soon enough.

For another, every time he tried to think of who the other guy was, Ikkaku always wound up thinking of all the people he wasn't.

4. Kuukaku: Holding Ground
5. Nanao: Morning, Interrupted
6. Ukitake: Chance
7. Karin: Keeping up Appearances
8. Yoruichi: Hunting
9. Momo: Trust No One
10. Soi Fong: En Garde
Tags: *index: winter war, bleach, co-write

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