[Bleach] Minutes to Midnight 36

Doomsday – Part One

The sense of eager anticipation that hung over them like an electrically-charged cloud seeped into Ichigo’s senses. The moment he stepped out of the Garganta – skillfully summoned by his lover – and onto the hardened dirt ground of the Soukyoku Hill, everything felt different. In a way, almost prematurely triumphant. Ichigo knew that was nothing but a culmination of the arrogance of everyone behind him, however. He knew far better than to think it was going to be simple.

“Everybody got yer orders, right?” Gin questioned, stepping beside his lover and looking down into the streets of Seireitei spread out before them.

For an instant, everything seemed perfectly peaceful and still. Tranquil. Unmarred and uncorrupted. But things that were diseased usually appeared fine on the outside until a bloody expulsion revealed the true nature beneath. And Ichigo felt no better at his second trip into Soul Society than on his first.

He had a home now, a place he belonged without question, but the feeling of their betrayal still rang deep. And he hated that it could still make him irrationally angry.

There was a murmur of agreement and consent from those gathered behind him. The sense of bloodlust and destruction-desire grew stronger, seeping into their reiatsu sweepingly. Seireitei had to know they were there, not that stealth and subtlety had been their intentions to begin with.

“Of course, boss,” Stark drawled, shoulders slung back as his sharp gaze carefully took in the vista before him. “We’ve been ready.”

Gin inclined his head, a gust of wind buffeting at his silvery hair and sending it fluttering about his face. “Then, get ta it.”

It was as much a command as some of Aizen’s more stirring orders, and the sense of glee that it produced was nearly stifling on the large hilltop. Ichigo turned and watched as his allies – his friends – all leapt into varying directions, heading for their own respective assignments.

This was it. Right here. This was the final battle, the apogee of Aizen’s plans to become god. There would be no other war but this moment. And for some reason, the thought was almost giddy.

“Bye-bye, Itsygo!” Nel called out, even in her adult form, glomping onto Ulquiorra’s arm as they left for the second division in a burst of sonido.

As always, the fourth Espada bore everything with incredible patience. That was one relationship Ichigo did not understand. And he doubted he ever would.

Beside Ichigo, Gin stirred, one hand dropping to briefly brush across Shinsou. He turned towards the teenager, expression unreadable. He hadn’t asked Ichigo not to take part in the battle, and for that, Ichigo was grateful. Nothing was keeping him from this fight, though he recognized that Gin was probably worried.

The older man looked at him for several seconds before he shook his head as if to clear some uncomfortable thought. “Stay safe, mi vida,” Gin finally said, his voice just a shade rough as he turned and headed towards the first division.

A scowl quickly replaced Ichigo’s bewildered expression. “I don’t speak Spanish, bastard!” he called after his lover. “What does that mean?”

Nearby, Stark snorted from his spot by Halibel, who’d also yet to leave. “You mean you haven’t figured it out yet?” he questioned, and when Ichigo just turned to stare at him, he had to bite back a chuckle. “It means he loves you, amigo.”

Ichigo blinked, and then, a red infusion took over his cheeks. He shifted his gaze to his lover’s departing form, thoughtful, and could only nod. He felt the same.

Behind him, Stark chuckled again and leaned in, placing a kiss on Halibel’s cheek. “Later then, querida,” he murmured and then promptly disappeared.

Halibel watched Ichigo for a moment more with a knowing gaze. And then, she too vanished. Leaving Ichigo alone on the hilltop.

“Ready, old man?” he asked, reaching up to curl his fingers around Zangetsu. He didn’t bother speaking inwardly. There was no one around to hear.

As always, Ichigo,’ the zanpakutou replied, a touch of amusement to his tone.

And in the background, Shirosaki cackled his readiness as well, cracking his knuckles in anticipation. Bloodthirsty bastard.

Smirking to himself, Ichigo turned towards the direction he anticipated the ninth division to be. That was his target, after all. There were others going after the fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, twelfth and thirteenth. And as for Aizen and Urahara… well, they were otherwise occupied. This invasion was nothing more than a large and elaborate distraction.

Soul Society would lose the war before they even knew they were fighting the final battle within it.

King! Behind you!’

Shirosaki’s warning was obeyed instantly, Ichigo not even thinking to question the Hollow’s instincts. Especially when the verbal warning came with a sense of trepidation creeping up his spine. Ichigo whirled, drawing Zangetsu in the same instant and catching the full force of a kidoh attack on the flat of the blade. It sent him rocking back several paces, the flare of brightness nearly blinding, but he dug his heels into the dirt and held his ground.

He felt the jarring strength of the spell rattle along the blade, and as the initial flash faded, he caught sight of several opponents approaching. None of whom he recognized. The uniform they were wearing, however, he did. Aizen had shown him pictures. The Kidoushuu, Soul Society’s powerful unit focused on kidoh. The one Tessai had originally been head of, and Ichigo just knew that it was no coincidence that they sought him out.

As Gin and Urahara-san had explained, everyone knew how weak he was to kidoh. Well, they were about to find out just how faulty their intel was.

“Kurosaki Ichigo,” a woman intoned, stepping to the forefront of her little collection of subordinates; he could only assume that she was the head. “As head of the Kidoushuu, I, Kasumioji Leiko, will destroy you before you can cause more damage to Seireitei.”

Ichigo smirked as he slowly lowered his blade, looking over Zangetsu’s edge at the enemy, and his reiatsu gathered around him. “Glad to see that Soul Society is as honorable as ever,” he retorted, and without waiting for her to attack, he sprang forward in a flit of shunpo.

In front of him, the woman narrowed her eyes and gestured to the half-dozen or so subordinates behind her. One who was possibly her second-in-charge split to the side, moving quickly as he lifted his hands. His deep voice filled the air, summoning a high-level kidoh. Ichigo recognized the incantation – one of Urahara’s favorites in fact – and quickly threw himself to the side. The spell narrowly missed him, a sharp jolt of energy that ripped through the ground and sent huge shards of rocks at his body.

Growling low in his throat, Ichigo whipped Zangetsu in front of him. “Getsuga tenshou,” he called out and returned his own ripple of black and red at three standing in a cluster.

As the attack streaked through the air, he twisted to avoid a spray of flame-tipped daggers and thrust out his own hand. He summoned the most powerful byakurai he could think of and sent it flying towards a lone Kidoushuu member. Blue lightning rippled through the air, a larger streak than he had ever called, crackling against a hastily summoned barrier.

He felt their surprise an instant before he collided with Kasumioji, Zangetsu slamming against her shield. Her eyes were wide with shock.

“How…?” the woman gaped, clearly at a loss for words as his zanpakutou grated against her barrier with a crackling of reiatsu upon reiatsu; her shield rippled. “They said you don’t know kidoh!”

“They?” he mocked, his laughter taking a Hollow echo. “They know what they want to know and nothing else.” His reiatsu flared around him, a bright mix of blue edged with black-red.

Ichigo pressed forward and watched as she crumbled beneath the force of his strength. His fingers twitched around Zangetsu’s hilt, about to crack through her barrier, when suddenly his every sense shot to a red alert. And Shirosaki slammed a warning through his skull, loud enough to ache.

Cursing under his breath, Ichigo suddenly leapt back, barely missing the kusarigama-like weapon that abruptly sheared where his head had just been. The two wickedly curved blades were connected to a long end as Ichigo hit the ground, waraji skidding to a stop and sending billows of dust in the air. His gaze whipped in the direction of the retreating chain.

Hisagi Shuuhei, vice-captain of the ninth division stood there, backed by several of his men. His jaw was squared, expression grim as he twined what had to have been his zanpakutou around his hands.

The ninth division hadn’t waited for him to attack. They had come to him. Just fucking great. Like he needed two opponents at once.

He was reminded of the Kidoushuu then, still scattered around him. And the ninth division unseated, now beginning to spread into the area as Shuuhei stalked across the ground, an oncoming threat.

Ichigo knew he could have defeated any one of these opponents with great ease singularly. At the same time… well, that was tricky. He hadn’t wanted to resort to this so early, but he was left with little other choice.

And where the hell was Grimmjow? He was supposed to have taken out the Kidoushuu!

Gritting his teeth and cursing under his breath, Ichigo folded both hands around Zangetsu’s hilt, Shirosaki laughing eagerly within him. The flash of his reiatsu might as well have been an announcement to the whole of Seireitei, the breadth of his power flexing out around him.

Bankai!

———

He felt it when Ichigo’s reiatsu shot sky-high, a sure sign that the annoying kid was heading straight for bankai. Unfortunately, Grimmjow knew that sensation all too well. A cat-like growl echoing in his breath, he skidded to a halt atop one of the buildings, cracking shingles and sending them clacking to the ground below him.

Whirling, he expanded his senses in the direction he had felt Ichigo’s reiatsu surge. In the distance, he could make out several forms standing atop the Soukyoku Hill. Only one of them was Ichigo and the rest were in varied uniforms. The familiar shihakushou of the Shinigami and then another similar outfit, accompanied by white masks. An uniform that Grimmjow unfortunately recognized because Aizen had shown him pictures.

“The fuck?” he cursed aloud, digging in his heels as he sprinted over to the next roof, completely back-tracking. “What’re the Kidoushuu doin’ over there?”

A burst of sonido sent him to another building, more curses spilling from his lips. Sure Kurosaki was pretty damn powerful. But even he could be outnumbered. And it looked like was facing off against too many foes for him to handle.

A feral grin split Grimmjow’s face as he pictured the look that Ichigo would have when he realized that the sixth Espada had come to rescue him. It would be a great sting to his pride, and he didn’t doubt that the brat would fuss about it.

More shingles shattered as they fell to the ground, Grimmjow racing across the rooftops back towards the hill. Damn Kidoushuu would never know what–

His foot stumbled beneath him, ankle twisting, and Grimmjow tumbled off the rooftop and slammed painfully to the ground. Every bone seemed to snap as he abruptly coughed up blood, mind spinning crazily. And then, the pain hit. Excruciating, making every nerve in his body cringe.

What… the hell? Had something hit him?

Warmth spilled from his body, seeping from his back and pooling on the ground beneath him. Shaky fingers reached down, touching the substance, and he brought it to his failing vision. Blood? He was injured?

The sound of footsteps on pavement as his body twitched, growing cold with terrifying speed. He couldn’t feel his legs. He couldn’t even move, and it took every effort to twist his head to the side. Blurry vision faded in and out, trying to focus on the approaching form.

Grimmjow groaned, hand flopping messily back to the street as the thick smell of copper filled his senses. He felt as if he were on fire, skin melting against an incredible heat. Body collapsing against a pressure of reiatsu that was so strong he couldn’t tell if it was less or equal to Aizen’s. He could literally hear his bones creaking, snapping in his chest and pushing in on his lungs. Breathing was no longer an option.

There was a clack, like wood over stone, and the sense of something old and powerful. His neck wobbled as he caught sight of an impossibly long beard, deeply inset eyes, and a bald head. The old man stood over him, gnarled fingers wrapped a thick wooden staff. His eyes held nothing, not even a flash of grief.

And then, Grimmjow knew nothing at all.

——–

Ikorose, Shinsou,” Gin hissed, fingers clenched tightly around his zanpakutou. He glared down at the old man beneath him, lips pressed firmly together as his blade expanded and ripped through the air.

Yamamoto looked up at him for all of a second before his reiatsu flared, and he was surrounded by intense heat, disappearing in a quick but not as fast as Gin flit of shunpo. Shinsou barely missed, screaming past where he had stood a millisecond too late. Which was fine by Gin as he hadn’t wanted to truly injure the old bastard immediately. He just wanted Yama-jii to know he was there.

As the captain-commander materialized on the rooftop across from him, Gin retracted Shinsou and sent out a small tendril of reiatsu, feeling for Grimmjow. He felt nothing, however, not a single stirring of life. The bastard had killed him, slaughtered him without a moment’s thought most likely.

“Ichimaru Gin,” Yamamoto’s growling voice crossed the distance, his gaze unyielding as he clasped both hands over the head of his staff. Shoulders were firm and set in their ways. “This is the second time you have returned since you betrayed us. What are your intentions?”

He was barely able to repress his snarl, a righteous anger stirring within him. “Coward,” he accused on the edge of a growl. “Grimmjow was nothin’ even close ta yer level. Where’s the honor in tha’?”

“Honor?” Yamamoto arched one aged brow, reiatsu rippling around him like the flames of a fire. “Traitors know no honor.”

Gin’s fingers tightened around Shinsou’s hilt so strongly that his knuckles were white. On the edge of his senses, he knew that Ichigo was in bankai already, and that worried him. He could tell that the ninth division was facing his lover, as were the Kidoushuu. It sent a treble of concern through him, but there was nothing he could do.

Ichigo would never forgive him if he let the old bastard get away with killing Grimmjow like that. In an instant. The sixth Espada hadn’t even been able to go down fighting. Simply ripped apart before he even knew what was happening.

“What are you doing in my world?” Yamamoto continued, gaze completely unrepentant.

Straightening, Gin’s eyes slitted open and began to glow a faint blue behind his lids where there had once been amber-red. “I’m takin’ it back,” he replied, his own reiatsu rising in counter to the old man.

“Do you realize what you are doing?” the bastard countered, voice an obvious chastisement.

“Do you?” Gin countered, a wind beginning to build around them, whipping at their clothing. Their reiatsu was becoming a stifling presence, no doubt uncomfortable to any other Shinigami nearby. “Yer more than senile, old man, if ya think ya and everyone here ain’t corrupted. Yer blind, too.”

Yamamoto’s fingers twitched around his staff-disguised zanpakutou. “A child cannot be expected to understand. Everything is for the benefit of the balance. Without it, the whole world would crumble.”

“Ya call plots ta kill Ichigo beneficial?” Gin snarled, body shaking from the force of his anger. “And Hime-chan? And any others that were just fodder fer ya?”

The old bastard inclined his head. “Sacrifices must occasionally be made. For the good and safety of everyone. Those who would be a threat must be destroyed.”

The white-hot rage nearly blinded Gin, and were it not for Aizen-taichou’s words lingering in the back of his mind, he might have acted on them. But he couldn’t attack Yamamoto in a blind frenzy and expect to survive. No, he had to keep his wits about him.

“He fought fer ya, stupid geezer. And ya wanted ta kill him. Tell me who’s really the traitor! The real monster!” His Hollow stirred inside of him, hissing in agreement.

At the time, Ichigo’s plight had merely been a tool to gather him to their cause. Now, it infuriated Gin. The thought of possibly losing Ichigo before he could have ever had him sent his blood boiling. All because that senile old fool thought it was best. It literally made him sick to his stomach, and he wondered how he could have ever been a part of this farce of justice.

Yamamoto was undeterred. “Your accusations hold no fear for me. Aizen Sousuke is a fool, and you are even more for following him. We will crush you without a doubt, Ichimaru.”

Any retort Gin had planned faded as footsteps approached their position. Undaunted by the rising reiatsu that was spreading a thin layer of pressure over the surrounding area. Both men heard the noise and shifted their gazes, finding Ukitake Jyuushiro on approach. The look on his face was contemplative, though there was an almost angry set to his forehead.

“Are they true?” he demanded, his eyes on only the captain-commander and no one else. “Every rumor that I’ve heard about your plans for those children?”

Yamamoto shifted and for the first time showed a sense of unease. Gin, in the background, could only smirk triumphantly. Yoruichi had been right; Ukitake was questioning. And it appeared he was no longer able to blindly believe.

“Everything has been done for the better of Soul Society,” the old bastard evaded the question with a skill borne out of centuries of political maneuvering.

Gin watched as Ukitake hesitated, working his jaw for several long moments. A sense of uncertainty hung heavy in the air, like thick pollution.

“Sensei, you… you can’t possibly mean that.” Ukitake’s voice was soft but firm. “What about justice?”

The ex-captain snorted, a grin stretching his lips. “The old bastard has his own sense of it. Just like ‘is superiors.”

His comment, however, was ignored by Ukitake, who focused his attention on the captain-commander with narrowed eyes. “How long have we been in the business of murdering children?” he demanded, wind whipping his long hair around his face.

Yamamoto’s silence was very incriminating. He was obviously searching for the right answer without having to resort to a lie. And it was clear he was torn, hating to face such questions from someone he considered like a son to him. Someone he had never thought would doubt his reasoning.

“Doncha know?” Gin inserted, unable to help his triumphant smirk. “From the very beginnin’.”

It was becoming clear that Ukitake was starting to waver, his belief in his sensei cracking under the weight of an obvious, abominable truth. And the expression on his face wiped away any doubts Gin held.

“I…” The white-haired man shook his head, shoulders squaring. “Is that what happened to Hirako Shinji? And Muguruma Kensei? Shigure Sohma?” His hands tightened into fists. “What about Isshin? Was your son included, too? Did you order his execution?”

“That is preposterous!” Yamamoto immediately denied, rough voice spilling into the air with a vehement edge. “The fate of those captains was determined by Chamber 46. I had nothing to do with their decision.”

Brown eyes darkened as Ukitake tipped his head to the side, expression disbelieving. “As the most powerful man in Soul Society, you couldn’t protest? You couldn’t refuse? They could not have forced you. They can’t force you to do anything. That’s impossible!”

He was angry now, reiatsu rising and filling the air with the scent of an oncoming storm and crackling thunder. It joined with Gin’s in a whirlwind of fury, and Yama-jii’s own rose around him in defense. The buildings were cracking under the pressure, and the ground rumbled ominously.

Aged fingers curled tightly around his zanpakutou, outlining every wrinkle and fold. “There are situations, Jyuushiro, that cannot be simply explained. That are beyond your understanding.”

“That’s not an answer!” Ukitake gritted out fiercely, tone sharp and accusing. His power spiked, eyes flashing like a brief flare of lightning on a dark horizon.

Gin chuckled darkly, half-amused by the scene playing out before him. “It’s the only one ya’ll ever get.” He shifted his gaze to Yamamoto and smirked triumphantly at the old bastard. “The truth ‘urts, and ya can’t bear ta reveal it.”

Ukitake’s gaze flickered between Gin and Yamamoto, hands still clenched into fists at his side. “Sensei, please tell me it’s not true.” His eyes were almost pleading.

The old man’s silence was all too telling, his fierce grip on his zanpakutou self-explanatory. And Ukitake faltered. He swallowed thickly.

Gin forced his smirk to slide from his lips at the sight of his one-time friend’s distress, letting his moment of triumph vanish. “Ya know that he can’t, Jyuu-chan. The old bastard’s at least not a liar.”

Only a murderer and fraud,’ his Hollow silently added.

The sharp burn of Yamamoto’s reiatsu flared high. “Enough of this,” the captain-commander declared, a fire burning in his eyes. “We will speak of this later, Ukitake-taichou. For now, there is an invasion to deal with. Starting with this one.”

Twisting his attention towards the old man, Gin fingered Shinsou once more. He had lowered his zanpakutou as the conversation began, but the threat level had obviously been raised. There was no more time for chitchat.

Ukitake, whose gaze had fallen to the ground at the last revelation, slowly lifted his head. A sigh escaped him as he reached for his own zanpakutou, carefully drawing the blade. And inwardly, Gin wondered if his words had reached Ukitake at all. If he would have to fight both at the same time. He was therefore surprised when Ukitake’s next words addressed him, though his eyes were for the captain-commander alone.

“Ichimaru-kun… Gin, will you tell Sousuke that I’m sorry for ever doubting him?” he asked with a skillful draw Sougyo no Kotowari. “He was the best third-seat I ever had. Would’ve been my lieutenant if I’d had my way.”

Gin watched as Yamamoto stiffened, understanding in his age-lined face. “I think he’d rather hear it from ya,” the Vizard retorted, a sense of victory rising up within him.

The old man’s gaze hardened for his former student alone. “If this is the path you have chosen,” he began gruffly, but there was an edge of regret and a sense of loss in his tone. He slowly drew up his staff, power surging around him. “Then, so be it.”

———

She had never realized just how bad Seireitei was for self-defense. Crouching within the leaves of a tall tree, well-concealed, Yoruichi couldn’t help but it rather pathetic. It had been ridiculously easy to find this particular post within the eighth division, and honestly, she could be hidden indefinitely. How incredibly ironic.

On the edge of her awareness, she suddenly felt the captain-commander’s reiatsu as it nearly split the sky in a grotesque display of power. Immediately following, she detected Ichimaru and Ukitake both doing the same, their combined reiatsu so stifling that surely anyone in the general area would find it difficult to breathe. She shook her head.

“Either things have just gotten really bad or really good,” she murmured to herself and focused her attention through the leaves. She had a mission here, after all. There was no time to get distracted.

As if on cue, she watched as two forms emerged from an open doorway just within her line of sight. The familiar individuals were discussing something in low but obviously heated tones. Their steps were quick and hurried, and fellow division members were scattered around the courtyard, hurrying to do their duties.

Kyouraku Shunsui was in the midst of sliding his zanpakutou into his obi but in an obvious state of mid-dress. He must have just rolled out of the bed, having heard the warning clanks echoing through the city. Missing the infamous pink haori and straw hat, he was only recognizable by his familiar blue sash. Beside him, Ise Nanao looked perfectly poised as always, one hand reaching up to adjust her glasses. Her other hand clutched a thick, heavy book.

Yoruichi couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but they made it easier as their voices began to rise in volume. Clearly, all was not well between the two. And it wasn’t their usual disagreement where Shunsui flirted and Nanao rebuffed him. No, this was more serious. Each word was becoming clearer and clearer. And then, Kyouraku abruptly ceased walking as he whirled on his vice-captain.

“You know it’s the right thing to do!” he declared loudly, words audible for all to hear. Especially for the onlooking Yoruichi.

Intrigued, she listened and watched as everyone in the courtyard paused in the midst of their preparations. Members of the eighth division focused on their leaders, mouths agape and body language filled with confusion.

Ise stood her ground in the face of her captain’s statement. “But they are traitors, sir,” she responded ever-so-politely.

“And we’ve become little more than murderers and petty thieves,” he hissed, scraping fingers through his bearded chin. “You might not know anything different, but I remember when it was.”

The vice-captain reached up and adjusted her glasses again. “We kill to preserve. They do it for power,” she justified, sounding perfectly sure of herself. There wasn’t an inch of hesitation in her tone or uncertainty. Not like Kyouraku, who was obviously wavering.

Rather than taking this moment to strike, Yoruichi let her curiosity guide her. She held back on the anger she felt for having received the false information and continued to watch. Someone was going to pay for nearly killing Ichigo and Kisuke. And if it were one or both, she was fine with either.

“Preserve what?” Kyouraku demanded, the discussion taking precedence over wherever his initial destination had been. “A broken world? We’re dying, Nanao. You might not realize it, but we are. A hundred years from now, Hueco Mundo and the living world will be all that’s left.”

“That’s absurd,” Ise spat, incredulous.

Yoruichi lifted her brow. What was truly going on within the eighth division? A rift was definitely between the two leaders, and it grew wider by the moment. They disagreed on… well, something. And she could only believe that it had to do with the battle at hand.

“Is it?” Shunsui gestured wildly with one arm. “When’s the last time you went into Rukongai and looked around? And when’s the last time those corrupt bastards in Chamber 46 even gave a damn? Because it sure as hell didn’t look like that when I was a kid. There weren’t people dying in the streets. And you didn’t have to watch your back for fear someone would stick a knife in it.”

Ise straightened, lips pulling into a disapproving frown. “And anarchy is better? That man will kill us all without thinking twice about it.”

“I think I know my nephew a bit better than that,” Kyouraku retorted, a strange smile on his lips.

The vice-captain blinked and took an unconscious step backwards. “Your nephew?” she repeated.

“Where else would he get his charming good looks?” Kyouraku waved another vague hand. “Takes after my sister through and through.”

Very obviously stunned, Ise was momentarily speechless. Yoruichi lifted a brow. Obviously, Kyouraku hadn’t told very many people of that interesting little tidbit. She had known of course, which had been the reason she had chosen to trust Kyouraku’s information in the first place.

She watched as Ise lifted a disbelieving finger, pointing at her captain accusingly. “You… you’ve been in on this from the beginning?” she declared incredulously. “You’ve been planning to sell us out all along!”

Kyouraku abruptly dropped his teasing, eyes narrowing as he grew serious. “He might be my nephew, but that doesn’t mean I agree with him in everything.” He drew up straight and adjusted the folds of his shihakushou. “But it also doesn’t mean he isn’t right. Besides, my sister would kill me if I let anything happen to him.”

Which was strange because Yoruichi could have sworn that his sister had passed several centuries back.

“Then you’re just going to turn your back on everything? On us? On your loyal division?” Ise’s face twisted into a mixture of betrayal and anger, her glasses glinting oddly in the brightness of the sun. “On Ukitake-taichou? Aizen might be your nephew, but what about your brother?”

His gaze looked beyond her, as if focused on some far horizon, perhaps sensing the discord and revelation in Ukitake’s reiatsu. “I have no doubt that Jyuu-chan understands everything like I do.” His lips quirked into a thin smile. “Sousuke’s always been his favorite. And I’m not about to start killing my own subordinates.”

With that, Kyouraku turned and swept his gaze over his subordinates, including those that had been watching their leaders without coming to their own conclusions. Most were just waiting for their next orders.

“You’re all free to do as you want,” he declared, addressing them collectively. “But personally, I recommend sitting this one out.”

“And what are you going to do, sir?” Ise demanded, fingers tightening around the weight of her usual baggage, that huge tome.

She should have seen the answer in his eyes, which were more than determined. They were prepared.

“I’m going to do the right thing,” her captain replied, leaning towards her and lowering his tone significantly; it was still clear enough for Yoruichi to hear, however. “Because he’s my nephew and they’re my friends.”

Ise’s eyes twitched, widening for a fraction of a second as Kyouraku drew back, his shoulders set. He turned away from her, discussion ended, and Yoruichi almost missed what happened next. Ise’s back had obscured most of her motions, but she could plainly see the vice-captain take a step forward.

Kyouraku half-smiled, as though he had already won some small battle. “Coming alo–”

His words died on a choke as he abruptly lurched forward, and Yoruichi rose in her surprise, rustling the branches of her tree. Kyouraku dropped to his knees, legs crumpling beneath him as though they were made of jelly. Then, Yoruichi noticed Ise drop her arm to her side, fingers clutched around the hilt of her zanpakutou. Little more than a tanto really, the short blade dripping blood to the ground.

Brown eyes filled with pain tried to focus on his much beloved vice-captain. “Nanao?” he called in complete disbelief, a shudder rocking through his body as blood seeped from his body in an ever-widening puddle.

Yoruichi felt frozen with her surprise and watched blankly as the third-seat, Enjouji Tatsufusa, stepped forward. He obviously intended to help his captain, glare accusing as he looked at Ise. But before he could even crouch, a kidoh was flying his direction, and he was forced dive away else he risked being scorched to mere cinders. The fire spell flew past and slammed into the wall of one of the buildings as other Shinigami scrambled to avoid it.

“You heard him,” Ise announced icily, her tone absolute. “He was going to betray us all.” Her face twisted with intention as she lifted her zanpakutou again, preparing for the final strike.

The Shihouin heir had enough of being the impartial witness. She moved quickly enough to give proof to her nickname, and within a half-second, Yoruichi placed herself between Ise and Kyouraku before the vice-captain could complete the attack.

“Now, now, Nanao-chan,” she reprimanded, a smile on her face but anger in her eyes. “Attacking a superior officer? That’s an executionable offense.”

Ise didn’t seem too surprised by her abrupt appearance, dropping back into a defensive stance without making it obvious. “He’s no longer an officer.”

“But he is superior,” Yoruichi countered as her hand clenched into a fist.

And behind her, she could sense Enjouji moving back to his captain’s side, Shunsui’s pained gasps loud in the still silence. Ise had struck him in the lower back, and the blow must have severed his spinal cord, judging from the way he had simply crumbled. Who knew what else she had damaged?

Golden eyes watched the vice-captain. “It was you, wasn’t it?”

“Do you honestly think that he was smart enough for something like that?” Ise retorted, making no pains to hide her involvement. “It didn’t take much to figure out he was helping you. I just used that to my advantage.”

Yoruichi felt her hands clench into fists, reiatsu vibrating from the force of her cold fury. “Ki-chan and Ichigo almost died because of you,” she hissed, eyes flashing. And yet, Ise seemed unperturbed in the face of the obvious threat. “You should just be glad it’s me here and not Gin. I, at least, promise to make it quick.”

——–

Clang!

The sound was that of blades meeting, grinding together in obvious dissonance. Both opponents were already breathing hard, faces flushed and bodies covered in sweat behind their weapons. Wounds were many and superficial, blood seeping and clothes ripped and torn.

No one bore witness to this fight, as they had long ago battled away from the tenth division. Which strangely enough was currently under attack by the eleventh division, who had suddenly gone wild on all of Seireitei. And the captain-commander was too busy with his own battle to rein them in.

Unare,” Matsumoto Rangiku hissed, her blade bore heavily to the ground by several strikes by Izuru’s zanpakutou.

In an instant, Haineko dissolved into ash, and her smile was triumphant. However, it quickly faded when her zanpakutou floated for all of a millisecond before abruptly crashing to the ground. Too heavy for the air to bear. Light, almost silvery eyes looked up in shock.

Izuru simply watched her. “You didn’t think that trick would work twice, did you?” he asked tonelessly. “I haven’t exactly been idle in my absence.”

The busty woman cursed at him and sucked in a tired breath. Her normally bright and vibrant eyes were dull, lacking their cheerful sparkle. And her hair hung in ragged clumps around her face, missing the usual spunky curl and bounce. In short, Matsumoto looked terrible, no doubt the loss of her captain weighing heavily on her shoulders.

Funny how Izuru couldn’t find a whit of remorse within him, though he did feel some sympathy for the woman. He hadn’t set out initially to harm her.

“You don’t need to keep doing this,” he said as she circled around him, her anger the only sign of life.

The fact that she nearly resembled Hinamori Momo after Aizen’s departure was somewhat disheartening.

“And you just need to die,” Matsumoto snarled, and her face wrenched into something ugly and hateful. Shoulders heaving, she pushed a hand his direction, shoving several kidoh at him.

Izuru easily slipped aside to avoid the first and hastily brought up Wabisuke, the flat of his zanpakutou batting away the second. Matsumoto was clearly out for his blood, and he wondered if there was any way to put an end to this without ending in the death of either of them.

He took a breath, firming his grip. “Please be reasonable,” Izuru requested able to feel the discord in her reiatsu.

“Reasonable?” she repeated, voice nearing a shrill shriek. “Tell that to taichou.”

Izuru’s own patience was running thin. “The little bastard deserved it, and you know it,” he spat before he could entirely contain himself.

She snorted. “Yeah, right. For what?” Matsumoto scoffed degradingly. “Because he picked on you?”

While that might have had a part of his anger, it wasn’t Izuru’s sole reason. No, his anger with Hitsugaya-taichou started before the taunting and accusations became too painful.

“He was going to kill a girl, a child,” Izuru reminded her, wondering if she had forgotten that little fact or if the old man hadn’t bothered to inform her of the reason behind the message. The latter was most likely.

“Liar!” And Matsumoto sprinted forward, slipping into hakudo aiming a kick at his side that he shifted into shunpo to avoid. She moved fast for someone with such a weight on her chest. “Did Gin tell you that?”

He blocked the next attack with Wabisuke, her kick rattling against the blade. “He didn’t need to. Someone else beat him to it.”

Someone by the name of Yamada Hanatarou. The tiny seventh-seat had come to him with the information because Hanatarou hadn’t known what to do with it. And he had thought that out of everyone in the Gotei-13, Kira would understand. After all, Izuru was everybody’s whipping boy at the moment. Not to mention Hanatarou would have needed the help of a vice-captain or higher to open the Seikaimon.

After assisting the gentle-mannered healer, Izuru had heard that Ichigo-kun and the others had vanished. Hanatarou had never returned. He had initially believed that they had been too late to warn the humans and that Hanatarou had fallen as collateral damage. Until Ichigo-kun and Ichimaru-taichou had appeared in his quarters several months later, and even then, he had thought he was merely dreaming.

“What made you believe them?” Matsumoto demanded, angry words breaking through his recollection as he dodged a harsh punch and swung out to drive her back several paces. “What made you torture him?”

Izuru fully intended to answer, but before he could even speak a word, she threw herself at him again. Madness dictating her actions now with little regard to her own safety. She had discarded her useless zanpakutou, reverting to the other arts in her desire to do him damage.

“You just did it because you wanted to, bastard,” she accused furiously, her kick shattering a wall behind him as he stepped out of the way. “You were just looking for an excuse!”

His patience, already stretched thin, vanished. “Like I needed one!”

Her breath was coming in sharp, staccato bursts now. Ragged. “Don’t be smug, you self-righteous asshole. You tortured him to death.”

Izuru looked at her and realized that he would never be able to reason with her. She could no longer hear any rational thought. He hadn’t come to kill her; that wasn’t his purpose here. It was just meant to be a distraction, but she wouldn’t rest until his death or hers. And he had no doubt that if she succeeded, she would blindly throw herself at Ichigo-kun and possibly even Ichimaru-taichou.

His fingers curled around Wabisuke, an unfortunate resolve beginning to form. He watched her as she crouched and eyed him maliciously. Her nails scraped against the ground as though she were preparing to launch herself at him. He tried to speak, to attempt reason one more time. But she wouldn’t even give him the moment to voice his words.

“Go to hell,” Matsumoto snarled, her tone hoarse and final. Her lips curled into a twisted, malevolent grin. “Or how ’bout I just send you there.” She sprang forward, throwing herself into battle.

And what could Izuru do but honor her wish?

 

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