Arc: Twin Souls
Beta: incandescens, without her this wouldn't be possible.
Word Count: 3435
Summary: The tactics group comes back to Seireitei. Fast and under attack.
Disclaimer: I don't own or make money off of Bleach. It's all fictional. Really.
In the last four days, they’d changed campsites three times and gotten within a day’s travel of Seireitei. They’d managed getting Kenshin down the cliff by letting him down on a rope held by three of them at the bottom. Their weights counterbalanced his easily, so they could control his decent safely when he panicked. And he did panic, but he just bumped gently against a few rocks before he got low enough down for him to start thinking again. That helped a great deal in getting him the rest of the way down.
They were in the forests surrounding Seireitei when Kali disappeared that morning. The open nature of the campsite had prompted a discussion and rearrangement of the night watch. There were two watch stations, each alongside the trail they were traveling, and each pair in each shelter took their turns during the night. Since the visibility wasn’t nearly as good as it had been on the mountain, each watch also had trip lines placed along three or four paths of access a good 50 yards away. The trip lines were then laid to the watch shelter, so if anyone or anything tripped over the line, the person in the watch shelter would be alerted.
Kali’s trip lines were all exactly where they’d been earlier that morning when she’d taken over her watch from Kaoru. But Hayato had seen the trail where she’d walked out along one of the trip lines in her snowshoes that morning. Daisuke and Hayato carefully wound up the trip lines for later use.
Everyone packed, buried the fire, and ran. Kenshin took Kali's pack as well as his own. Daisuke handed out bonito shavings and the gelled remains of the rice pot from the previous night rolled in dried seaweed, and they ate while they hurried.
Hayato took point. He'd tracked deer, elk, and other game in the mountains before, and he could read the signs in the snow, even hours after Kali had left. Shunsui took flank. During hide and seek exercises, everyone had been surprised to find that Shunsui had the best range on reiatsu sensing. He privately thought that it was because of the play times Jyuushiro had organized with Yoruichi and Kisuke. Kisuke picked the damnedest places to hide. Shunsui also had the best endurance of them all, and could do the distance running necessary for a flank guard.
He felt alone back there, not quite sure what was happening with everyone else. But he kept them within sight and within the range of his reiatsu senses.
They went at a good pace. The snowshoes didn't hurt anymore, and he'd become fairly adept with them. Now he'd realized that he didn't have to lift his feet the whole way up, didn't have to exaggerate his stance too much, and had mastered how to just glide over the yard-thick snow with them when his weight would otherwise have pushed him knee-deep or even hip-deep into it.
An hour later, Shunsui felt everyone but Daisuke-san flare their reiatsu. He stopped, turned around, and sent his senses as far out as he could. His job wasn't to run to their rescue. His job was to make absolutely sure they weren't going to be surprised from behind.
A hungry, sick reiatsu tasting of old iron or dead blood lay waiting in front of the main group. Shunsui shuddered. It was easier to cleanse Hollows than to kill people. He shouldn't stay too far from the group. He could feel them sprinting away from him. He started moving faster to close the distance, but he kept his attention behind him.
The snow made everything even, made the footing all the same, and that was a blessing. There was the sudden flash of reiatsu that was a shunpo step being taken, coming from where the others were; then more bursts in quick succession. Then that unmistakable reek, in force, mixed amid the clean reiatsu. Shunsui swore softly. He flash-stepped as well, just to keep up with the group, knowing that if he needed backup or needed to back them up he would do well to close the gap now.
That was when he felt the onrush of Hollow reiatsu coming from behind him. Shunsui whirled, wondering if he'd looked like running prey. It was a normal sized Hollow, bone-masked head lowered, claws swinging. He remembered the high jump that Ryuu-sama had everyone practicing after that first tactics class, and he threw himself into it as he drew and flared his reiatsu.
It bellowed, swinging at him while he was in the air. He blocked the blow with his zanpakutou, but then it came at him with its teeth and other claws. He brought his feet up, spanning the gap of its maw with the wide webs of the snowshoes, trampling it down. He had to whip the sword all the way around his body to block the other set of claws, and he wished he had a blade in each hand. Neither block had needed his full strength. He used the impromptu support of his webs on its teeth to flip back out of the way.
He used shunpo to get a little more distance. It tried rushing him, but the extra distance gave him the time to pick his angle and gather his focus to himself.
Cut it, cut it, we will destroy it. Splinters of bone, ashes of regret, flowers of blood, reaped rewards, rending flesh.
His zanpakutou wailed and sang as Shunsui kiai'ed and swung at the mask. Seven hells, he'd misjudged the distance. He sliced just the edge of the mask off, and saw the woman beneath. When she snarled at him, his trained reflexes took the opportunity to turn his zanpakutou and, on the backswing, put the edge right through her mask.
His edge cut through the rest of the bone mask as if it were a china plate, shattering it and driving deep into the ghost beneath. Shunsui saw the woman behind the mask sigh in relief. She gave him a momentary smile, and then she scattered into ash.
She gave us her blessing. His zanpakutou sounded as awed as Shunsui felt.
Shunsui suddenly realized he had tears in his eyes. He wiped them away, and then ran toward the group again.
There might be more behind us.
Shunsui knew the sword was right, so he paused again, even as his heart wanted him to go as quickly as possible. He spread his reiatsu out again, and felt nothing. Responsibility satisfied, he ran as fast as he could towards the fighting.
When Shunsui got there, there were eight Hollows, and two of them were far larger than any he'd seen before. One of the big ones was holding something slender and slight in one clawed fist. They were up on a low hill, good ground for the Hollows to see them coming, but not too bad for the Academy students that would have to attack up the slight slope.
He tasted the hash of reiatsu in the air. Hayato's mountain-cold reiatsu flared high and Kenshin's earthquake depths rumbled low, and two figures charged the big Hollow. Hayato took a leap at the arm holding what must have been Kali. Kenshin struck at the creature's knees, going for the right leg.
Daisuke's grass-green reiatsu didn't just flare, it suddenly exploded, five times larger than before. All the other Hollows jumped back, given the crest of the hill. The one being attacked flinched at the flare. The two students hit it again while it was distracted. Kaoru caught what must have been Kali, as she fell limply from the creature's hand. Daisuke-san swung something that looked more like a naginata than a sword, and what looked like a thousand bamboo leaf-shaped blades leapt towards the Hollows. They screamed and bled and fell. The big one that had gone down burst into dust along with three of the smaller ones.
Shunsui caught up. He struck one of the smaller ones nearest him, took it from behind and just swung straight down through the head and mask. It burst into dust. Daisuke-san and Hayato took the other two smaller Hollows, and they fell as quickly. The last, larger Hollow looked at them, and turned to run.
Daisuke-san raised his naginata. Green ribbons fluttered in the air. He cried, "Wind Strike!" and brought it down; a brilliant green streak of power followed the blow, splitting the Hollow and the earth beneath it. It left a crack through the earth all the way through the Hollow and ten yards beyond. The Hollow fell to dust.
"What... what was that?" asked Kenshin in an awed voice. "What did you do, Daisuke-san?"
"I released Takekaze." Daisuke-san said shortly. "Kyouraku, are there any others coming?"
"No, sir. There was one along my path, but I didn't sense any others. Should I take up the flank again?"
"No reason to go back, right now. We need to see the extent of Ito-kun's injuries. Then you can stay back as flank when we do move out again." Daisuke-san went over to Kaoru. "How is she?"
"I... I cannot tell, sir. I..." Kaoru's voice shook. "There's so much blood."
"Lay her out on the snow, we have to see." Daisuke-san looked at his naginata and it shrunk back into katana form. He sheathed it. He went around Kaoru, and helped him put Kali down on the snow. Daisuke-san bent over Kali, and started pulling apart her coat and her hakama.
"Won't the cold kill her if she's already injured?" Asked Kenshin.
"It'll slow her bleeding, but there is a risk of chilling her too much," Daisuke-san said. "But we have to know whether or not we can move her fast and hard or if we have to go slow." He yanked Kali’s clothing opening, disregarding all proprieties. Shunsui had to look away and found Kenshin with him.
“Good. Thank the Emperor, it’s all just flesh wounds, no deep punctures." Daisuke sat back, "Trainees, I need bandages, pads for stemming the bleeding. Does anyone know field dressing kido, yet?"
Hayato raised his hand. "Hunting," he said. "Accidents happen."
Daisuke nodded. "Then please make an attempt, I want the bleeding stopped before we drag her through the brush."
Hayato knelt in the snow. Everyone else stood around him and, as a tribute to Daisuke-san's training of the last week, they all turned to look at surrounding landscape. The low hill allowed them good sight lines in all directions. Shunsui sent his reiatsu questing out in all directions and felt the others doing the same.
"Daisuke-san, another group of Hollows is coming down along our path," Shunsui said.
"Uhm..." Shunsui squinted, trying to feel them out.
They all tasted the same. "Half a dozen? Nearly as big a group as you met up with to start."
"What the fuck are they all doing out here?" Kenshin asked in frustration.
"Tracking our powerful souls," Kaoru said, looking at the blood that stained his arms, his coat, and his white-gloved hands. "Now that one of us is wounded, we attract them like blood attracts wolves."
"Especially now that we're out on the trail rather than holed up in a defensible position, but it is unusual for them to be traveling in such large groups. We need to report this back to Yamamoto-sama," Daisuke-san said. "All right. Shunsui, you, and I will cover our threatened flank as the rest of you get Ito-kun back to the academy as quickly as you can. Take turns carrying her and defending the carrier. We'll try and catch up after we've finished here."
Everyone nodded. Hayato finished what he could, and Kali's bandages didn't grow much redder. They wrapped her back up, and added another layer of quilted kimono.
Shunsui waited with Daisuke-san. He could feel the Hollows hesitating.
"We haven't run, yet: is that why they're not attacking?" Shunsui asked.
"Perhaps. I don't know, but that's as good a guess as any," Daisuke-san said quietly.
Once Kali was wrapped up, Kaoru, Kenshin, and Hayato started off towards the Academy, using the navigation skills that Daisuke-san had taught them to find their way through the snowy woods.
That, of course, was when the Hollows rushed Shunsui and Daisuke-san.
Daisuke-san's zanpakutou grew into the naginata with green ribbons that Shunsui had seen earlier. It fit Daisuke-san's wiry build, extending his reach, and the old man swung it with practiced grace.
Shunsui went back to back with Daisuke-san. He gave the old man the room to maneuver that wicked pole arm, but watched his flank. He heard the old man go to work. The howls and cracks and snaps of reiatsu were easy enough to follow even without eyes in the back of his head. One of the Hollows did swing around them, coming at Shunsui, and his zanpakutou just howled wordless regret as it split the mask and head beneath.
Rest, rest, rest... his zanpakutou whispered, and the Hollow blew away into dust.
Then there were no more. They stood there for a moment, and then Daisuke-san swayed. "Is there food in your pack, Kyouraku-kun?"
"Aye. Just a minute," Shunsui said. He dropped his pack and rummaged through it for the packs of dried fruit or fish. They'd used a number of them for meals, and he'd almost left the remaining two at their campsite when he'd grabbed his pack. "Here."
Daisuke-san nearly grabbed the food from Shunsui's hands, and then wolfed it down. A mouthful or two of water followed, and then Daisuke-san nodded, looking more solid. "Let us follow them."
And they did.
Knowing Daisuke-san's weakness, Shunsui stayed close to the man. They weren't going quite as quickly as Shunsui would have on his own, but the company was comforting after that other stretch alone. They followed the tracks of the other three, and Shunsui kept his senses as far-flung as possible.
They started catching up to the carriers, when Shunsui felt the bloody reiatsu of more Hollows. "Oh, gods, no."
"They're coming from the right side, sir," Shunsui said, feeling a lump in his throat.
"You run, I'll shunpo alongside," Daisuke-san said, matter-of-fact.
"Aye," Shunsui said and took off.
Daisuke-san appeared by Shunsui's side, time and time again, as Shunsui ran to try and outflank the attacking Hollows. They caught up just as two Hollows burst out from a thick stand of trees and ran, howling, at the four students.
Just two. Hayato was running alongside Kenshin, who was carrying Kali. Kaoru was on the far side. Hayato turned to meet the Hollow that reached him first. Shunsui took one solid shunpo step and went above the second Hollow. It was looking at Hayato when Shunsui hit it from behind. He couldn't see who it was when the mask cracked, and he was nearly as grateful as he was regretful.
Both Hollows went to dust, and they continued.
Daisuke-san joined the main group again. Shunsui took up the flank position, and waited as the others ran past him before following them.
There was a good, long stretch where they met nothing, saw no one. Shunsui wondered if the dust of Hollows left any trace, any warning to others, or, perhaps, the reiatsu of the students had somehow hardened, warning them off?
It was less likely they would be attacked from behind now that they were moving at a good clip, but Shunsui stayed back in his position. Gradually he began to believe that they would make it. Soon they were within sight of the city, of the walls, of the ramshackle Rukongai sheds. And then they were in among the staring poor, the mud and ruin and filth.
"Halt," Daisuke-san called. "Take off your snow shoes. It'll be easier going from here."
He waved Shunsui back into the group. Shunsui joined the others immediately, this was District 72; it would be foolish to be the loner here. They all stripped off the snowshoes and tied them onto each others' backs.
"Kyouraku-kun, you're the freshest of us all, please carry Ito-kun." Daisuke-san requested.
Shunsui went to Kaoru who looked up at him. Kaoru was cradling Kali close to his heart, but with the look Kaoru gently let Kali's legs down. He helped Shunsui turn her, and Shunsui took her upper body up with his right arm and then reached down to pick up her knees with his left. Shunsui shifted her up and Kaoru tucked Kali's head so that she rested against Shunsui's shoulder and throat, rather than flopping any which way.
"Thank you, Kuchiki."
"You are both welcome," Kaoru said and then joined the others surrounding the burdened Shunsui to watch the alleys, darkened doorways, and people listlessly watching them from their hovels.
When they reached the gate Daisuke-san nodded at the guard, who waved them through without a word, and they headed to the quiet, white infirmary.
It was almost anticlimactic. It would have been if it weren't such a relief.
They delivered Kali to the infirmary, and got her into the emergency ward that burst into activity like a kicked wasp's nest. It was Sasaki Osamu's watch.
"Good work, Ryuu-kun," Osamu said grudgingly once he'd finished his first application of reiatsu and handed Kali over to his assistants. "You stopped the worst of it. But I'm glad you got her here. What the hell was she doing to get these kinds of injuries? They look like Hollow claw marks."
"They are," Hayato said shortly, and glanced at Daisuke-san.
Daisuke-san nodded. "Well, we don't actually know exactly what it was she was doing, and if you would be so kind as to allow her to recover from her injuries, we can ask."
"Is he hurt?" Osamu nodded in Kaoru's direction, eyeing the bloodstains that marked his clothing.
"No. I am not." Kaoru's tone was terse. "This is Ito-kun's blood. How long is it going to take?"
Osamu blinked. "She won't wake up until at least tomorrow. Too much blood loss, and even if we managed to heal up those wounds, she'll probably sleep a while. We'll have her in room 135 so we can observe her."
Kaoru turned to Daisuke-san. "If I might be dismissed from this... exercise... I would like to go cleanse myself and then come back?"
Daisuke-san nodded and addressed all the young men. "That is entirely reasonable. Everyone is dismissed from this winter exercise to do as they see fit."
"Oh," Osamu said, absentmindedly. "Ukitake-kun is in room 129. He's just broken his fever, so any of you can visit now. He... he's a little fragile at the moment, though, he hasn't been able to get a decent night's sleep for the last two nights. Breathing problems. But he should be safe, now."
"Safe?" asked Shunsui.
"Well, he should be improving soon." Osamu's tone was dismissive.
Shunsui ached from the efforts of the day. He reeked of a week without bathing, and was gummy with the stickiness of sweat all over his skin. He was starving from all the reiatsu use and felt hollow himself from all the fear of the day. He realized that if Jyuushiro was safe, he could wait for at least the time it took to take a bath and get a meal from the school kitchens.
He followed the other students out the door and really, really enjoyed the first hot bath and first multi-course meal he'd had in more than a week. He felt as if he should be worried about Jyuushiro, but, instead, his mind gnawed at the problem of what Kali had found that had nearly killed her.
Then, in the dark, crunching through the old snow, he walked back to the infirmary to check on his friend.
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Thanks to summer_queen for helping with the name of Daisuke's zanpakutou. take = bamboo kaze = wind.