[Bleach] Minutes to Midnight 30

A Toppling Mistake – Part Three

‘King, something strange goin’ on in here. Even Zan’s a little worried.

Holding back a growl of frustration, Ichigo ignored Shirosaki for the second time in as many minutes. He didn’t know what his Hollow was talking about since he couldn’t feel anything unusual. Shirosaki probably just wanted some attention because he’d been cheated out of sparring Stark earlier that day.

In a minute,” Ichigo responded just a bit crossly. He was more concerned with the assassins and the mess they left behind than whatever crawled up Shirosaki’s ass. He would deal with the Hollow later.

Fine. But if it topples yer ass, don’ come cryin’ to me when I become king.’

“Ichigo?”

He shook his head, dismissing the unnecessary concern. “Nothing. Shiro’s acting up is all,” he answered as Gin squeezed his shoulder worriedly. “We’ve got other stuff to worry about.”

“If ya say so,” Gin replied, though he wasn’t entirely convinced. “Maybe ya just need ta let him out a bit.”

Ichigo’s lips curled into a smile. “Well, I had planned on doing that earlier, but someone wouldn’t let me spar with Stark.”

“I dunno who that could’ve been,” Gin replied with all innocence, not regretting his actions in the slightest.

Rolling his eyes, Ichigo’s prepared come-back, likely more teasing, was halted as they rounded the corner of the residential area for their guests. The hallway was rather crowded, of both Arrancar and Shinigami alike. A few bodies littered the floor, dressed in the familiar get-up of the Onmitsukidoh.

“Came after all,” Gin murmured, unable to help the surprise in his voice. “But it doesn’t really look like a failed rescue.”

He had a point. Byakuya didn’t look annoyed or angered by a failed attempt at saving him. In fact, he seemed uncomfortable, as though he had realized something he hadn’t wanted to admit to himself. He was hovering in the doorway to his room, leaning up against the doorjamb though trying to stand straight for the sake of appearances.

Nearby, Rukia remained within touching distance of her brother yet still kept a safe level of space between them. Byakuya’s dissatisfaction with both her and Renji had been a subject of some jokes amongst the Arrancar of Hueco Mundo. And Renji himself was also present, his expression a mixture of confusion and anger.

Stark and Halibel also stood in the hallway, the latter crouched over one of the fallen forms of the enemy. The first Espada was leaning against the wall, arm crossed nonchalantly over his chest as the other barely covered a dramatic yawn.

“Yo,” Stark greeted with a flip of his wrist, “mis amigos.”

Gin lifted a brow. “What happened ‘ere?” he questioned and swept his gaze over the circumstances. He could pretty much guess but wanted to hear it from their mouths instead.

As if on cue, Halibel’s fingers pried off the mask covering the corpse in front of her, revealing an assassin’s face that slackened by death. At the sight, Byakuya’s whole countenance hardened. His hands, hanging down by his sides, curled into white-knuckled fists.

“Those are Kuchiki ensigns,” he admitted in a cold tone, though it was unclear if he was being purposefully assistive or if he was speaking to himself out of sheer shock.

Gin smiled in Byakuya’s direction, like one would a dog that was behaving particularly well. “Well, lookee here. Kuchiki-hime is actually helpin’,” he commented sarcastically. He still wasn’t too fond of the Kuchiki noble, though he did prefer Byakuya over Rukia. At least the brother didn’t have designs on Ichigo like the midget.

He was given a cool look of disdain, but Byakuya kept his mouth shut. He had nothing more to say. It was clear that he hadn’t intended to be heard, but that his shock had proven louder than his restraint.

“They weren’t here to rescue nii-sama,” Rukia whispered, her voice carrying loudly in the contemplative silence. Her face was drained of color, disbelief etched into her features. “They were here to kill him.”

“You sound surprised,” Stark added in a lazy drawl, though his eyes still watched her sharply. “You really shouldn’t be. Having learned what they had planned for Ichigo, after all.”

Rukia’s mouth opened, gaze narrowing at the obvious familiarity that the Espada took with Ichigo, before she seemed to sense her location and thought better of it. She shook her head, choosing a different approach.

“But nii-sama is the head of the house–”

“Not any longer,” Byakuya inserted quietly, his words met for her ears alone. In these close quarters, however, everyone heard. “One disgrace too many, it seems.”

“A noble of no use?” Halibel posed, rising to her feet and making a vague gesture. “It is no surprise that they would choose assassination over the chance of you spilling some secret that they can’t risk the enemy knowing.”

Renji growled, offended by her lack of respect. “Kuchiki-taichou’s not–”

“I am not your captain anymore,” Byakuya interjected in a tone so cold that everyone present felt a flare of ice crept up their spines. Barely repressed fury and perhaps a touch of humiliation gleamed in his grey eyes. “And it would do you well to remember that.”

Byakuya said nothing further, turning back into the room that had been designated for him and closing the door sharply behind him. Somehow, he avoided the loud noise of a slam.

Those remaining in the hall were left staring at his exit. Though there was a smile of indulgence on Stark’s face, as though secretly amused by the Kuchiki noble’s behavior.

Gin snorted, entirely unimpressed. “As theatrical as always,” he drawled. “Kuchiki-hime can’t help but make an exit.”

Blue eyes glanced at her brother’s door before again falling to the body of the assassin who might have succeeded in killing Byakuya were it not for Stark. Her brother wasn’t completely helpless without his Shinigami abilities, but he might as well have been. She swallowed thickly, realizing that she was even more indebted to Aizen and the others than she had been before.

“They were here as well,” A familiar voice interjected, accompanying the sound of feet stepping near silently over the floor. “Not that I’m surprised.”

All of those present turned to see Ishida, pushing up his glasses and giving them a gleam that hid his eyes. He stood on the outer fringes of the gathered group. The edges of his clothing were spattered with blood.

“That they also failed is likewise not unexpected.”

“Here?” Ichigo repeated. “You mean–”

“I mean,” he began, stepping around some of the curious Arrancar and looking down at the fallen Onmitsukidoh, “that though the unskilled louts tried to kill Aizen-san and Urahara-san, they failed. Well… almost.”

“Dammit, Ishida!” Renji snarled. “Quit bein’ mysterious. Just say what ya came here ta say.”

With a high and mighty huff, Ishida glanced down at the corpse. “These do appear different than the ones who attacked Aizen-san,” he murmured to himself, ignoring Renji’s annoyed growl. He lifted his head finally and met Ichigo’s gaze. “Urahara-san was struck by a dart tipped with some poison.”

Ichigo’s eyes widened in shock. “What? What do you mean? You said they failed!” Worry stuttered through him for both his teacher and a man who was becoming like another father to him. A real father at that. Not some crazed psychopath.

“And they did,” Ishida replied coolly, the perfect picture of poise. “I didn’t say he was dead, just fighting off the poison.”

Gin twisted his jaw. “Ki-kun’s immune ta th’ Onmitsukidoh’s poison,” he pointed out, hating the twisting concern that was curling in his gut.

“Not this one,” the Quincy replied with a shake of his head. “Aizen-san said for you to bring Szayel to laboratory five.”

A wave of nausea suddenly swept through Ichigo, and he blinked, swallowing down an abrupt onslaught of saliva. His stomach was churning quite unpleasantly, and Ishida’s words didn’t really register with him. It became that much harder to focus.

Yo! King!

It felt like he heard Shirosaki’s voice but only on the very edge of his mind, as though his inner ears were stuffed with cotton. And then, the ground suddenly seemed so far away. He blinked, but it didn’t clear the dancing dots from in front of his eyes. He swayed on his feet.

“Whoa…” One hand lifted to his head, which felt as if it were floating on a frayed string, only vaguely attached to his neck.

Gin’s concerned voice was an echo in his ear. “Ichigo?”

Amigo,” Stark added, suddenly sounding closer, “are you alright?”

“I… really don’t feel so good,” he managed to choke out, and it felt like the ground was trying to swallow him. He could hear both Shirosaki and Zangetsu yelling for him, but it was coming through a far tunnel.

Thin fingers grasped his shoulders, digging in tightly. It hurt far more than it should have.

“Were you hit by a dart?” Ishida’s voice demanded, and it was a shade too loud and frantic for Ichigo’s spinning senses.

Ichigo shook his head and nearly vomited when it made his stomach lurch. “No,” he managed, and it sounded more like a moan. “He… just scraped me.”

And then, Gin was there, prying Ishida’s fingers off and shoving the Quincy away. His hands fell on Ichigo’s arms, far more gently. The blackness was trying to swallow him, and Ichigo fought valiantly against it. Warmth crept up his throat and into his face, but it wasn’t a blush. It was the heat of a fever. He was a doctor’s son; he knew the difference.

Ichigo could sense Stark move in closer ,even as Gin’s fingers beginning to pat him down carefully, concern in their nearly frantic motion. He was searching for the telling wound, and Ichigo’s consciousness was fading too rapidly for him to point it out for his lover.

And then, Gin’s fingers skittered across a smear of dampness on Ichigo’s bare skin. It really was just a scratch on his arm. It hadn’t even cut the fabric, and it had barely bled. But sharp eyes could already see the edges blackening like a burn. If so much blood hadn’t already been in the air, Gin might have smelled it earlier. But as it were, he could barely make it out above the stench of death.

I am sorry, Ichigo. We are trying. Please, bear with it.’ Ossan’s voice again.

What did he mean? Why was he apologizing?

“Why didn’t ya tell me ya were injured?” Gin demanded, cold fingers cupping Ichigo’s face and turning his lover’s head so that he could look at him.

Brown eyes lifted towards him, unfocused, pupils rapidly shrinking and expanding. He was fighting, but it was a losing battle.

“It was just a scratch,” he muttered, trying for indignant and failing when his tongue tripped over the words. “It didn’t even… hurt.”

Ichigo?

King!

His fingers felt so numb, and the grasp he had on Gin’s nemaki loosened, sliding to the side. “Tired…” he slurred and dropped, Gin’s hold the only thing that kept Ichigo from sliding painfully to the floor. Barely hearing the voices on the edge of the peripheral.

“Kurosaki?”

“Stay with us, amigo?”

“What’s happening to him?”

“His pupils shouldn’t look like this, Stark.”

“What kinda poison acts this fast?”

“Ichigo!”

When his lover failed to respond, Gin hurriedly checked his pulse, fear creeping down his spine. Ichigo’s heartbeat was a rapid and frightened thing beneath his fingertips, and Gin was too preoccupied by it to really notice Stark and Halibel kneel down next to him. The former inspected the still blackening scratch, which was spreading at an alarming rate. The latter searched Ichigo’s eyes, his irises golden, though the rest remained white. And she could clearly the blood vessels darkening to a deep and unhealthy shade of red.

As if to further scare them, Ichigo’s reiatsu chose that moment to drop to a dire level, only to surge highly enough to rattle the walls. Gin felt the edges of Shirosaki in the rippling reiatsu and just knew that somehow the Hollow was helping Ichigo.

Nearby, Rukia gave a sharp cry of pain, the sudden press of reiatsu stealing her breath. She wobbled and had to grab onto Renji’s arm to keep her balance, though the taller man wasn’t doing much better than she.

Though unable to speak, Gin could tell that Ichigo was clinging to the faintest edges of his consciousness. Against his fingers, his skin was growing noticeably warmer with each passing moment, and he knew that he had to hurry. Taking Ichigo was his first priority.

His head snapped up, being one of the few who weren’t suffering under Ichigo’s out of control reiatsu. “Stark!” he practically barked out, despite the fact that the man was right next to him. “Bring Szayel ta Lab Five. I don’ care what he says ’bout his damned beauty sleep.” There was no teasing in his tone.

Stark rose to feet, posture long having lost all sense of indifference. “Sure thing,” he responded crisply and then vanished to the surprise of the Shinigami still standing in the corridor.

Gin scooped Ichigo into his arms, a faint moan escaping his lover’s lips at the sudden change in position. “Halibel, get this mess cleaned up ‘nd make sure th’ guests’re well guarded.”

“Yes, sir.” Her green eyes were narrowed, but something a lot like concern gleamed in their depths.

Orders therefore given, Gin turned, his movements carrying the fearful edge of agitation. Laboratory five seemed too far away for his comfort as everything he had been trying to prevent crashed over him. Some protector he had been.

Footsteps followed him, Rukia slipping by Halibel even as Renji was grabbed by the busty Espada. “Is he going to be alright?” she asked with worry.

Gin glanced at her, finding her forehead pinched. Her hand was out, as though she had planned to grab him but later thought better of it. Smart woman.

“As soon as I get my lover ta the lab, he will be,” Gin growled under his breath, refusing to even look at her.

“You were supposed to protect him,” Rukia snapped, seemingly forgetting herself. The sight of Ichigo, paling and shaking with each passing moment, seemed to bypass her effort at self-restraint.

Gin paused for a moment, stiffening at his shoulders and then over his entire body. He had an acid-laced response to give, and it hovered at the tip of his tongue. But so did the knowledge that she was right, and that burned more than anything. His fingers tightened, perhaps a bit too uncomfortably. It took several breaths before he managed to grit the words out.

“An’ that’s exactly what I’m gonna do,” he responded sharply, and with a flit of shunpo, he put distance between them that she could never hope to follow. And he doubted she could find her way to the proper laboratory.

The guilt that swelled in his stomach, however, wasn’t so easy to escape.

– – –

The lab would have been silent were it not for the sound of Szayel humming under his breath. Some tune from the real world, rather distracting and dark. It helped that his voice was at least somewhat pleasant, but still, Gin had no interest in hearing the Espada perform his more favorite tunes. What he really wanted was silence, where he could hear and count each and every one of Ichigo’s breaths. Listen to that proof of life.

Perched by his lover’s bed, he hadn’t moved from Ichigo’s side since he had brought the teen in. He had only been able to watch helplessly as Ichigo’s condition began to slowly worsen over the last few days. His usually tanned skin was pale, ashen in color. Every breath was a laborious task, and though he burned with fever, his hands felt clammy to the touch. It frightened Gin more than anything he had ever felt, including the one time he had experienced the breadth of the soutaichou’s reiatsu and those rare occasions when his captain was feeling truly angry.

Aizen-taichou and Szayel were working tirelessly with very little sleep and round the clock to try and find an antidote. But first, they had to identify the substance, which was proving difficult to pin down. The dart that had been used to strike Kisuke and the blade which had struck Ichigo had both been retrieved. Research had proven that the poisons had been applied freshly and were only active for a limited period of time unless introduced to the bloodstream. There was little active sample to harvest.

“This poison is really quite fascinating,” Szayel practically sang from where he stood across the room, hovering over his vials of bubbling liquid like a child in a candy store or Yachiru when there was fresh blood. The look of glee on his face was nearly orgasmic. “I’m jealous I didn’t create it myself.”

Gin growled low in his throat, unable to appreciate the Espada’s comments when that very poison had been used against Ichigo. He wasn’t amused by Szayel’s enthusiasm. Neither it seemed was Aizen.

“Not to use against my allies, of course,” Szayel quickly amended, disliking the anger that was radiating from Gin’s reiatsu and knowing that it was wiser if he watched his words. “The scientist in me can’t help but be amazed.”

“Just find th’ damn antidote,” Gin demanded, his every nerve wrung tight. The stress of the past couple of days had taken their toll on him, as well as the lack of sleep and meals. “Or we’ll be needin’ a new eighth Espada. Perhaps I’ll just let Stark and Nel take ya out ta play fer a while. Let ya explain ta them what happened ta their amigo.”

The pink-haired man huffed and squared his shoulders indignantly. “I’m working on it,” Szayel stated and placed a hand on his hip, gesturing freely with the other hand. “Arrancar, I know. Shinigami, I know. Hollow, I know. But part-human, part-Vizard, part-whatever-the-hell Ichigo-kun is… well, that I don’t know. It will take some time.”

“He doesn’t have time,” Gin reminded him stiffly, despising that part of his hope was placed on the shoulders of the more-than-slightly deranged Espada.

“And I can’t work any faster,” the Arrancar countered with a vague gesture, a faintly girly motion that never failed to make Gin doubt his true gender. “Unless you’d rather I kill him with an antidote that I rushed to create?”

Gin’s brows twitched, but from which emotion he wasn’t sure. “Just stop admirin’ the poison and get ta work, Grantz.”

Holding up his hands, Szayel agreed. “Whatever you say, Ichimaru-sama.” He turned back towards his beakers and test tubes and burbling liquids of questionable substances. And then, he sighed an almost lovelorn sound. “Though I do wonder when the lovely Ishida-kun will visit again.”

Gin rolled his eyes and promptly focused on ignoring anything further the Espada planned to say. He returned his attention to Ichigo, who was shivering once more, despite the sweat racking his body. Gin frowned and lifted the wet rag again, dotting at Ichigo’s forehead. Stark’s idea, but it certainly seemed to lower the young Vizard’s temperature, even if only temporarily.

The teenager murmured something then that Gin didn’t quite catch. His head lolled towards the relieving coolness, and his eyes fluttered, bleary and unfocused. Iris still gold with the rest bloodshot. He was hovering on the edge of consciousness, fading in and out at infrequent intervals.

“…Gin?”

“I’m here, mi vida,” the former captain responded softly, knowing that loud noises were quick to inspire a fierce headache in his current state.

Despite the lack of focus in his senses, Ichigo managed the smallest smile of recognition. “I know that. Urahara-san?”

“Ki-kun will be fine,” he assured his lover. “And you, too. Aizen-taichou’ll fix both of ya.” He adjusted their fingers before again twining them.

A cough in the background reminded him of a certain Espada’s presence, his ego never one to allow being forgotten or unmentioned.

“And if Szayel gets offa his lazy ass, he’ll help, too,” Gin added with the faint traces of a smirk.

Gin didn’t know if Ichigo caught the last bit, however. When he dared lift his eyes to his lover’s flaxen face, Ichigo was already fading back into sleep. His breathing took on a more ragged edge, rattling in his lungs. But despite all, that he at least looked alive. Especially when compared to Urahara Kisuke.

Dotting at Ichigo’s forehead, Gin stole a glance at the geta-boushi. Urahara lay as still as death on his own bed, face pale and body sunk into the covers. He barely twitched, though the same fever must be raging in his body. Aizen-taichou had called it a type of suspended animation, something Kisuke had learned to do in the second division that was helping to delay the effects of the poison. The only problem was knowing if the symptoms were getting worse or not since his body didn’t respond. And the fluctuations in his reiatsu couldn’t be detected because the suspension kept it at the lowest possible level for survival.

Gin could only hope that in the end when Aizen found the antidote, Kisuke could be woken from the suspension.

Worry again filled his heart and, he returned his attention to his lover, feeling every inch of helpless. He couldn’t do anything to fight this. It wasn’t a battle; there wasn’t an enemy. He could only wait and trust and hope and chase away the nightmares – the fever dreams – when they came. He didn’t know what Ichigo saw because the teenager only muttered incoherently, but the fear and concern that spiked his fluctuating reiatsu was enough to worry Gin.

The more he sat there tending to Ichigo, the angrier he grew. Until it was a white-hot and yet cold fury in the pit of his belly. It took every effort not to grab Shinsou and storm into Soul Society, specifically to hunt Kurotsuchi down. This poison had to have been that bastard’s work. And he just knew that the sick freak was probably in his laboratory, salivating over the possible outcome. Most of all, however, Gin felt a hatred beginning to cultivate itself.

He had despised Seireitei, its rulers and its law. He had detested many of those in charge and abhorred many of his fellow Shinigami. He wanted to see Chamber 46 burned to the ground and a new leader set in place. He looked forward to the day Aizen-taichou took the throne. But he hadn’t hated, hadn’t loathed, hadn’t wasted his breath on the darkest of emotions.

Gin had carefully primed his anger and all the varying shades of it. Had used the fury to his advantage, had let it shape his strength and his training. Had let it drive him in conquering his Hollow. But he had never let it control him. Now, however, a hatred was growing. And he was hard pressed to stop it.

By all rights, it should have been him. He should have been the one to be poisoned. He and Aizen-taichou and Tousen, who ironically enough Seireitei hadn’t bothered to attack, should have been the ones to suffer since they had started everything. Yet, the cowards had attacked Ichigo. And Kisuke. Admittedly, the two were traitors, but Soul Society had struck first in their case. The stupid bastards were just trying to fix their mistakes in the same way they always did. By destroying the accidental results.

It burned his blood, set his fingers to twitching. And even his Hollow was beginning to cackle with a mad glee, a lust for death.

He felt a presence on the edge of his reiatsu moments before a hand settled on his own. If it weren’t for the voice filtering through, easily familiar to him. He would have reacted violently. As it were, it took every effort to rein himself in.

“Gin,” Aizen-taichou reprimanded gently. “You will hurt them.” His fingers were calm and soothing though firm.

As if to punctuate his words, the sound of glass breaking filled the room, snapping Gin from his reverie. He blinked and focused, realizing belatedly that his reiatsu was snapping around the room violently. The shattering sound had been Szayel dropping one of his beakers as he gasped for breath, one hand clamped onto a table as he struggled to remain standing. And to the two poisoned men, whose reiatsu flickered on a minute-by-minute basis, it must have felt like an immense pressure had settled on their chests. Though Ichigo appeared to have weathered it better than Kisuke. To be perfectly honest, Ichigo almost seemed to be leaning into the power as he would Gin himself, perhaps recognizing his lover unconsciously.

Wincing, Gin quickly reined in the lashing tendrils of his reiatsu, allowing the eighth Espada to breathe again. He looked into his former captain’s concerned eyes and realized that Aizen’s hand had stopped his own from clenching around the washcloth too tightly. He had already squeezed a few drops of water onto Ichigo’s face, splashing his cheek.

“Sorry,” he murmured, dropping his head as he lightened his death drip on the wet rag.

Aizen withdrew his hold and straightened, gaze both understanding and carefully guarded. “I understand your anger,” he explained, his other hand occupied by a collection of test tubes in a rack that rattled softly in the lingering remnants of Gin’s scattered rage. “But the hatred will only cloud your judgment. Ichigo needs you now. Not your anger, Gin.”

Feeling every bit the chastised child, Gin nodded and carefully uncoiled the clenched rag, ever-so-gently dotting the droplets of water from his lover’s face. He drew in a breath and prided himself on managing one that wasn’t ragged or sharp.

“Any luck?”

Behind them, Szayel was regaining his senses, muttering curses under his breath that were carefully devoid of any names. He began to sweep up the mess, though his body still felt weakened by the onslaught.

Gin watched as a bevy of emotions crossed his captain’s face and for a moment betraying the helpless feeling he too harbored. “Perhaps,” Aizen conceded and set aside the test tubes momentarily as he paused by Kisuke’s bed.

One hand flitted out, the back of his pressing against the shopkeeper’s forehead. Urahara didn’t even flinch, didn’t move at the touch. Still, he felt almost blazing hot to the touch, causing Aizen to wince.

“I’ve at least identified the poison’s main purpose,” Aizen continued as he withdrew his hand. “For lack of a better explanation, it is trying to turn them human.”

Surprise flickered across Gin’s expression. “Human?”

Nodding, Aizen picked up the rack again and headed to one of the many tables in the room. Brown eyes watched a gurgling liquid as it shifted colors from blue to colorless and back again.

“Bit by bit, it is eating their reiatsu.” He paused then, face unreadable. “Were they in a gigai, they would become human at the end. But because they are in spirit form, they will eventually disappear. Permanently.”

Gin tried to grasp this concept. By disappear did Aizen mean…

“They won’t reappear in th’ livin’ world?” he asked, voice taking on a hoarse edge, one rippling with fear. “That’s wha’ ya mean by disappear?” Something inside of him cracked and shattered then, heart squeezing painfully in his chest. Throat tight and burning. Eyes prickling like they hadn’t since he was a child in Rukongai.

No more Ichigo. Gone forever. Lost to him for eternity. Bright and fiery Ichigo. Who asked for little and gave so much. Who said he loved Gin and actually meant it.

“Yes.” Aizen exhaled heavily and laid his hands down flat on the table. “And unfortunately, we don’t have any convenient gigai to put them in.” His shoulders were hunched and weary as he stared at the test tubes and beakers, none of which were spontaneously offering a solution.

Gin took in a shuddery breath as reality dawned on him in all its horrible and brutal glory. A desperate part of him wished for Inoue Orihime’s power in that moment. He would sacrifice Shinsou and his Hollow, every kidoh spell and shunpo itself to have the ability to heal Ichigo. To be able to reject this poison right out of him. To make things better. As they were. As they should be.

“Taichou–” he began in a choked whisper but was interrupted.

“It’s really quite unique,” Szayel thoughtlessly offered, despite the glares thrust his direction. “But I’m confident we can come up with an antidote.”

Gin wanted to shake his head but couldn’t find the energy. And a murmur drew his attention back to Ichigo then, and he automatically dipped the washcloth in the nearby basin and wrung it out. He wiped the cold cloth over Ichigo’s forehead and neck, hoping to cool his feverish lover.

“Will it be ‘n enough time?” he asked himself, frantic but terrified of the answer.

Gin trusted Aizen-taichou completely, but he also knew the man wasn’t infallible. They didn’t have all the time in the world.

And for all his assurance, Aizen simply didn’t know.

– – –

“There weren’t any others,” Yoruichi explained tiredly, fingers rubbing over her forehead as she paced back and forth across the front of the room. “I checked the entire perimeter.”

Sousuke inclined his head, chin resting on his knuckles as he balanced his arm on the table. “I figured as much,” he replied aloud, features appearing drawn and stressed. It was obvious that he had gotten very little sleep in the last few days. “The poison was their real intention.”

Gin muttered a curse under his breath, sinking further into his seat and feeling every drain on his exhausted body. “Cowards,” he hissed, the bloodlust still simmering beneath the surface. “Yer informant had nothin’ ta say ’bout any of this?”

The Shihouin heir shook her head and paused in the middle of her pacing to stare angrily out the window. “The information I was given has proven to be fabricated. I was betrayed.”

“Who was it?” Tousen inserted, leaning forward in his chair and looking the healthiest of those present. Of course, he wasn’t nearly as concerned for the two patients in laboratory five as the rest sitting in the meeting room. He only cared as far as he did because they were allies and loyal to his lord.

Still, it was a necessary sacrifice, leaving Ichigo and Kisuke’s side for the moment to have this discussion. And unluckily, Gin had to leave their care to Renji and Rukia for the time being, though Halibel and her Fraccion were there to keep an eye on all of them. Since Yoruichi had returned from her scouting, it was the perfect chance to compare notes and see if anything could emerge. Unfortunately, the ninja knew nothing of the new poison and could offer nothing for the antidote. Which meant that it was up to Szayel and Aizen’s genius. That was their only hope.

Yoruichi rolled her shoulders, dragging Gin’s attention away from his thoughts and back to the conversation at hand. “I won’t say,” she responded, and there was a hint of fury in her tone. “I prefer to deal with the traitor myself.”

“Soul Society is closing ranks,” Sousuke mused aloud, the fake information all the proof he needed. “I do not think it is wise for you to step foot there again, Yoruichi. All of your spies are suspect.”

Dropping down into one of the empty chairs, Yoruichi let her head hang back against it. “No, you’re probably right. Looks like I’m taking up residence here.”

“Won’t Ki-kun be pleased ta hear it?” Gin remarked dryly, a restless emotion curling inside of him. He didn’t want to be too long from Ichigo’s side, worried that something might happen in his absence and needing to feel his heartbeat just to be certain.

Tousen drummed several fingers against the table, boredom evident in his usually placid expression. “Then what are our next actions? I can assume that you have already made some sort of plan?”

“Of course.” Aizen rose to his feet, a sense of agitated unease circling around him as well. “We have no choice. If Szayel and I cannot find the antidote within the next twenty-four hours, we must execute a raid on Seireitei.”

“They’ll be expecting that,” Yoruichi reminded him, though it wasn’t so much to protest as it was to inform him of the risk. “It might as well be a trap.”

The blind man inclined his head. “They will be better prepared this time. I don’t think we can take them by surprise.”

“I don’ care,” Gin growled to the surprise of everyone, his usual cheery and somewhat taunting character gone. “I’m goin’ if I need ta, and ain’t none of ya gonna stop me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Aizen replied, and his eyes were just as hard. A very dangerous anger was beginning to glint in his gaze, one that did not bode well for Soul Society’s safety.

They had gotten away easily with the last flash-invasion. The loss of two captains and a variety of random buildings aside. Gin and Ichigo could have done so much more. But that hadn’t been their mission, and so they had utilized some element of restraint. It had served as a warning of their power, just as much as it had served a purpose.

Yoruichi chewed on her lip, uncertain she liked the hazardous aura that was beginning to fill the walls of the room. “Well, that determination is all well and good, but what exactly do you plan on doing? Tearing down the twelfth division until you find the cure? Or worse, dragging Kurotsuchi back here? I can’t see either as being particularly successful.”

“Then lucky fer us, we ain’t gotta do either,” a voice announced from the doorway, making all heads whip around.

Renji was standing there, looking just a shade uncomfortable. “Err,” he began intelligently and scratched his chin with one finger. “That pink-haired fruit says he found it. The antidote, I mean.”

It took several seconds for his words to sink into the minds of those gathered around the table. And then, Gin was on his feet and following after Aizen-taichou, who had already shoved Renji into the hallway.

“Tell me,” Aizen demanded impatiently as Renji hurried to catch up.

A scowl fixed on his face as he obviously despised having to play the errand boy. But since it meant that Ichigo wasn’t going to be dying anytime soon, Renji was willing to put up with it for the moment.

The vice-captain noisily cleared his throat. “I dunno much. He was working on somethin’. And then, he started cacklin’ like crazy.” The frown on Renji’s face deepened, probably recalling an unfortunate memory. “He said ta get ya, and he was already in the midst of putting the stuff into syringes. Don’t think Rukia or that busty chick’ll let him put it in Ichigo yet though.”

“He’d better not,” Gin muttered, not wanting Szayel to go sticking any questionable substances into Ichigo until Aizen had verified its authenticity. For the moment, he was thanking Rukia internally. But only a little.

They made it to the laboratory in record time, a group of former Shinigami trailing along behind Aizen as he stepped inside and made a beeline for Szayel, who was in the middle of an argument with Rukia. The eighth Espada held two syringes in one hand and had the other balanced on his hip, lips firmed into a displeased pout that vaguely resembled Yumichika’s look of vexation. Halibel, in the meantime, was standing in between the two beds of the room, arms crossed as she looked on.

“What is this I hear about an antidote?” Aizen demanded as he swept into the room, interrupting the argument between Espada and Shinigami.

Rukia, who had placed herself between Ichigo and Szayel with a hand firmly clenched around her still-sheathed zanpakutou, flickered her gaze towards Aizen. “He says he found one,” she explained and only relaxed her guard when Gin stepped out of the crowd and made a beeline for his lover’s side, tossing Szayel a warning glare. “I wanted to wait for you to at least look at his formula.”

The eighth Espada rolled his eyes. “I would not be so plebian as to make a mistake!” he argued with a hint of anger, not liking his abilities to be questioned. “And I’m not interested in a death sentence either, so I wouldn’t try to kill them.”

“Even so,” Rukia replied, jaw clenched tight with tension, “I don’t trust you.”

Faintly orange eyes narrowed. “Nobody said you have to, Shinigami,” he hissed. And it was a tone laced with disgust for the very word. “You’re in our world now, and–”

“Enough,” Aizen inserted calmly, cutting into their argument with a subtle pulse of reiatsu that further hammered his point. “Szayel, let me see what you have discovered. I will decide if it is safe.”

Squaring his jaw, Szayel jerked his head into a nod and whirled away from Rukia, steps tight and composed. “As you wish, Aizen-sama,” he declared as he handed over the vial of supposed antidote.

Taking it in hand, Aizen lowered his eyes thoughtfully and walked away, mumbling under his breath as he moved to analyze the strange, clear liquid. He left the others behind, tension and anticipation running high in the room.

As he fiddled with vials and microscopes and other scientific instruments with Szayel muttering alongside him, Gin moved to Ichigo’s side. His lover didn’t look any better, face so ashen it was hard to believe that he had once been tanned. His lips were moving in a constant murmur, and there was rapid-fire movement behind his eyelids. But he was still alive, and that was all that mattered.

Taking Ichigo’s hand in his, Gin was again alarmed by the clamminess to his lover’s skin. The fever was rising again; its cycles usually following the same path as the constant flux in his reiatsu. He chanced a glance over at Urahara, the shopkeeper continuing to be as still as death. He could tell that Kisuke was breathing, his chest rising and falling in a slow and steady motion. But otherwise, he showed no signs of life.

Gin absolutely hated feeling this helpless.

Movement on the corner of his vision and he caught sight of Aizen-taichou approaching, grim with determination. “As far as I can tell, this is the best option we have,” his captain stated, two syringes in hand. “Let us hope to see some improvement.”

He passed one to Gin to hold as he sat on the edge of Urahara’s bed. Carefully rolling up the man’s sleeve, he injected the antidote into Kisuke’s veins.

Behind them, Szayel sniffed. “As if I would make a mistake. I assure you, Aizen-sama, the formula is perfect.”

“We shall see,” Aizen acquiesced as he applied a small bandage over the tiny puncture in Kisuke’s arm. He then turned towards Gin. “Do you trust me?”

Though hesitant, Gin realized that there really was little else they could do. It was either try the antidote, instigate full on war by invading Seireitei and hunting down the true cure, or sit around and wait for Ichigo to succumb to the poison. And there was no way Gin was going to allow the last.

He sighed and shifted his gaze back to Ichigo. “Ya know I do,” he mumbled and made a point to show it by pushing up the sleeve of Ichigo’s nemaki, baring his arm.

After all, if he didn’t trust Aizen, what the hell was he doing here?

“This will work,” Aizen stated firmly as he efficiently emptied the contents of the syringe into Ichigo’s veins. A bandage was gently pressed over the small wound. “It has to work.”

Gin couldn’t help but agree

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