Arc: Winter War -- An AU co-write with incandescens and sophiap that diverges from the point where Ichigo's party leaves for Hueco Mundo.
Characters: Sasakibe, Madarame, Ise, Hinamori, Ukitake, Kotetsu Isane, Iba, and Grimmjow.
Ratings/Warnings: PG-13 for language and references to character death
Word Count: 4353
Summary: What's left of the Resistance tries to get Grimmjow to tell them what he can about Hisagi's plan and the strength and state of their enemies.
A/N: This is a rather dark AU, plotted by all three of us, where the Gotei 13 lost rather badly against Aizen's forces. "Nothing is sacred and no one is safe."
Disclaimer: We do not own Bleach. We don't make any money off these writings.
Ukitake: Waking Up
Ikkaku: What Is, What Was
Kuukaku: Holding Ground
Nanao: Morning, Interrupted
"Tell the perimeter guard that Madarame should be shown here the moment he arrives. Ise-kun, please send a kido message to Kotetsu-kun and Iba-kun to join us, and have them bring water and what rations can be spared for both Hinamori-kun and her commander."
Nanao hurried off. Jyuushiro had the impression that the young fukutaichou was like a top, only balanced when she was in motion. He took advantage of her need because he was so desperate for someone effective. There would be time enough for breakdowns when they were done or buried.
When Isane showed up, Jyuushiro said, "I need you for a moment." To the others, he added, "Excuse us." He gave her a sign, and wordlessly Isane wheeled him to the infirmary.
"A stimulant, please. I need a bit more than tea for this," Jyuushiro said firmly.
"You won't be able to sleep," she said, looking worried. "You can't use the sleeping drugs after this is in your system."
"Well, I'll hope that will give me more time to think all this through." Jyuushiro smiled. "Isane, I need this for now."
It pained Jyuushiro to call Isane "Kotetsu". The name reminded him of her sister, his Third, who was no longer with them. That Isane accepted being called by her given name had eased their private interactions, and given how many of his weaknesses she'd had to deal with in his daily medical needs, it seemed an earned familiarity now.
She frowned, but nodded and injected something in his upper arm. He felt the drug move into his system, making his pulse flutter, and his breathing clear. Long practice made it easy to know that he still looked as calm as necessary. "Back to the briefing room, please."
Her lips tightened, but she took the handles of his wheelchair.
Madarame looked up at his entrance. His eyes flickered away from the wheelchair, but then back again, and this time he met Jyuushiro's gaze. Jyuushiro nodded, acknowledging both Madarame's discomfort with his weakness and the man's ability to work around it. Jyuushiro had wanted to give the man at least a vice-captaincy, but Madarame had reacted very badly to the suggestion, along with any usage of honorifics by Jyuushiro. Jyuushiro honored both requests.
"We stumbled on one of Gin's crews..."
Madarame's telling was terse, succinct; even so, Jyuushiro gave a deliberate wince at finding that the roaming squad had named itself part of the Eleventh. Madarame's expression calmed, smoothing out on seeing Jyuushiro's reaction, and his telling grew more detailed.
In combination with Hinamori-kun's report, the implications intrigued Jyuushiro even more than the straightforward facts: a Hollow who took care of a mortal soul, Inoue's newfound powers, and even the possibility of Hisagi being planted as a counter by Yamamoto-soutaichou.
"Shiba's willing to hold the idiot and feed him until we're ready for him. Do you really want to go through with it, Taichou? Bring him here?"
It was a measure of how far he'd recovered that every eye turned toward Jyuushiro at the end of that sentence. The old arguments, contests to see who might be most opinionated about a certain path of action, were no longer customary when discussing new information. That was an improvement.
He looked around the circle of faces, some uncertain, and then met Madarame's challenging gaze. "Yes. We need to wring every last bit of information out of him. Even beyond what Hisagi may or may not have told him, trustworthy or not, the fact that he lived in Hueco Mundo may have given him information we can use."
His usage of Hisagi's name without an honorific was deliberate. He saw Madarame relax. The interesting thing was that he saw Ise-kun and Iba-kun relax as well. More than one of them was aware of the fact that this could well be another trap.
"We have time. Let's prepare. Our objectives are to get what meat we can out of this nut, and to keep ourselves as safe as possible in the process, in that order. Let's go."
They came up with a suitable scenario to present to this Jeagerjaques, and worked together on several lines of questioning that Sasakibe could use. It was clear from the reports that Jyuushiro would not make the right first impression. The whole group joined in the planning, and when that was done, Jyuushiro sent Madarame and Hinamori-kun to escort the prisoner from Shiba Kuukaku's base.
That was when they evacuated all but the lieutenants from the old house, moving them on to a hunters' lodge in the mountains owned by the elders of the Kuchiki family. The Great Families didn't mind taking advantage of the trained shinigami in keeping Hollow incursions down, so the benefits were mutual. There was no use risking more than had to be risked.
He sent Iba-kun with them as the commanding officer. While the vice-captain had been physically crippled, his thinking was clear, and everyone respected him and his courage. A single look between them, and a smile on Iba-kun's part made it all right that Jyuushiro would be the only one to slow the lieutenants down if a trap were sprung.
Jyuushiro settled against his cushions in the window bay at the edge of the room. When he felt comfortable, he reached over to the paper screen next to him and put a fingertip through the paper at his eye level.
They'd put screens all around the room, making a neat octagon in the center. Sasakibe sat seiza with his back to the fireplace, the sole visible person, with a clear space for the prisoner before him. He wore his own uniform. No one believed the prisoner would know enough to respect a captain's haori or even understand what it was. There were no refreshments, no sign of softness. No need to give this Grimmjow Jeagerjaques any handholds.
Hinamori-kun slid into the room, gave Sasakibe a quick nod, and then slipped behind one of the panels.
The door slid open. A decent level of reiatsu rolled in, belligerent, angry. Following it was a blindfolded, blue-haired man who stumbled over the threshold. For just an instant, Jyuushiro envied the power, the grace of that body. Then that mouth opened. "Fuck you, asshole, at least warn me."
The shove Madarame gave the well-muscled figure sent him sprawling to the floor in front of Sasakibe. Sasakibe sighed, reached forward and plucked the blindfold away, revealing bright blue eyes that quickly narrowed in calculation under Sasakibe's steady gaze.
"You're the man, huh?" There was a hesitation, and the moment passed when the young man should have bowed or introduced himself. Then the next moment passed when Sasakibe-san, if he were to bend to the younger man's will, should have bowed or introduced himself.
Sasakibe didn't move, simply staring down at the young man. Madarame stepped into the room, closed the door, and leaned silently against the doorjamb, watching: the unseen weight of his reiatsu was added to the energy seething about the room.
After five minutes, Jeagerjaques shifted, and his eyes dropped. "Shit. I'm..." He took a deep breath and growled, "You can call me Grimmjow Jeagerjaques, and I've got a message for you from Hisagi Shuuhei."
"Then give it."
The lack of courtesy made Grimmjow's head go up. He opened his mouth as if on reflex, and then suddenly closed it again, swallowing. "Why the hell should I?"
Sasakibe cocked his head. "I haven't killed you, yet. And I've had to let my men kill half a dozen of others in order to get you and Sado-kun safely here."
Grimmjow snorted. "You shoulda done that anyway."
Madarame tensed at that phrasing. The spike to his reiatsu made Grimmjow look over his shoulder.
"I've had a really bad day," Madarame drawled. "I don't need even half a reason to beat the shit outta you."
Sasakibe cut in, "At your present strength, he could put your spine through your skull, Jaegerjaques. Stop fucking around."
The curse word coming off those strictly formal lips, above that strictly formal uniform, gave Grimmjow pause. Jyuushiro nodded: this was going along one of the conversational branches they'd hoped for.
Those perfectly even white teeth gritted on themselves as Grimmjow ground his jaw. "How the hell do I know ya won't do that after I tell ya?"
"What do you know about Hueco Mundo?" Sasakibe asked evenly. "Numbers of Hollows at each level? What is Aizen doing? What plans are in motion? What orders have you gotten in the last month? We're interested in all those things, and you are valuable so long as you tell us things we don't know."
Jyuushiro saw Grimmjow's shoulders relax. "Whatcha gonna do about my powers? My strength?"
"We will give you whatever training you need, and whatever partners you want to spar against. That's the only way you'll build your capabilities here."
Grimmjow's lips curled in a snarl of disdain. "So you don't got anyone as smart as Szayel or Kurotsuchi here?"
Sasakibe hid the flinch well. He laughed, a huff of breath. "No. We simply find that strengths won through achievement aren't quite as... fleeting as those engineered by other means. As you now well know."
Grimmjow shook his head once and then sighed. "All right, you got me."
"So what was Hisagi's message?"
"He said that if there's half a dozen shinigami with shikai, he needs them to go a way he knows through the palace to kill Aizen. Said you gotta act now, and he'll be lookin' for you when you come. He especially wanted someone that's never seen Aizen release his zanpakutou, and said that it's gotta be before Aizen's done."
"Done with what?"
"How the hell am I supposed ta know? He didn't say."
"What was Aizen working on?" Sasakibe prodded.
Grimmjow shrugged. "I dunno. I'm no ass-kissin' foot sitter. Didn't really need to listen, just whack anything I was pointed at." At an exasperated sigh from Sasakibe-san, Grimmjow shrugged again. "Well, he's havin' the mad scientists doin' a lotta experiments. I remember them shouting at each other all the time, and it only got interestin' once when they both drew."
"Experiments? What kind of experiments?"
"How am I supposed ta know? It's not like I like watchin' that kinda shit." Grimmjow shifted uncomfortably. "I'm a fighter, not someone that fucks around with...well... you know...."
"Do you know the subjects of the experiments?"
"Mostly folks Ichimaru ships him, and some of the folks he'd locked up after that fake Karakura fell over and broke."
Jyuushiro closed his eyes as the shock in everyone's reiatsu went through the room. Some of the missing had been captured? They hadn't even discussed that possibility.
Grimmjow's eyes narrowed. He was still reiatsu-gifted, so he must have felt that change in the atmosphere of the room. "Huh. Rats in hiding, huh? You know that place broke up.... oh, the prisoners. Well, you all know about that big reiatsu woman tradin' herself in, right? Well, they started on her..."
There was a gasp of horror from the screen Isane hid behind, and Jyuushiro half wished he'd kept her by his side. But now the grim surprise was palpable from everyone.
Grimmjow smirked. "But she went crazy, broke outta the place, and ran off. Ain't no one can get her back, either. Ya wouldn'ta thought she'd get so fierce."
Sasakibe reluctantly asked, "Are there others as well?"
"There's two big juicy ones deep in the cellars, but they wouldn't let me fight 'em, and I think he's savin' 'em for something."
"He caught just the two?"
"Nah. There were more, but little fry."
"Some?" Grimmjow shrugged. "I dunno. Seemed like a few got thrown in the cells; but we didn't see any on the way out behind Hisagi."
Even Sasakibe took a moment to absorb that. His hands gripped and then relaxed on the hilt of his zanpakutou. Then he went on. "What of your Arrancar ranks? Do you know how many fell?"
"Oh, yeah. Tons of Fraccions, and you got Nnoitra, Stark, Barragan, Zommari, and Aarioniero. Barragan was a real motherfucker of a destroyer. The rest, eh, not much of a loss. Never did see why such a lazy ass got to be number one, even if he did beat the hell outta me that one time. Aizen's gettin' some new ones to fill in. Harribel lost her whole Fraccion, but she's got a pretty one taggin' along behind her now, feathers on his eye, slender and pretty enough to be a girl."
Killing intent flooded the room, as hot and fiery as a dragon's breath.
Grimmjow spun around. "Huh?"
Hinamori-kun popped back out from behind her screen, and tried to bodily 'help' Madarame out of the room. Ise-kun had to step out from behind her own screen before Madarame finally looked away from Grimmjow, and paid attention to the women and headed out the door before he did something he'd regret.
Grimmjow, on seeing Ise-kun, started.
Jyuushiro, screened away from his subordinates, away from anyone that might see, leaned back, feeling hollowed out himself by the implications of what the boy was saying. If that really had been Ayasegawa-kun, then they were turning captured high-level Shinigami into Hollows. Making them part of their ranks, and somehow getting them to obey Aizen's will just as all the other Hollows did.
"What other new Hollows have you seen around?" Sasakibe resumed.
Grimmjow shrugged as he turned away from the closing door. "Shit, I would have sworn she was there."
Grimmjow pointed at a startled Ise-kun, caught on the way back to her screen. "That girl with the glasses and the black hair, but she doesn't feel like a Hollow and she doesn’t... she doesn't quite move like the one in Hueco Mundo. But I woulda sworn..."
Sasakibe swallowed, and looked in the direction of Jyuushiro's screen. This was going much further than any of them had anticipated.
"What was her name?" Jyuushiro asked in his roughened voice, pushing back the screen even as he let his reiatsu loose. He saw those impossibly blue eyes widen under the weight of his power. "It was not Lisa, was it?"
"It.... it was." Grimmjow turned to look at him.
Sasakibe and Ise-kun both moved between Jyuushiro and Grimmjow.
Jyuushiro watched the blue-haired man for a long moment. If there was going to be an attack it would be now, but it almost didn't matter. Knowing that there were also Hollowfied captains and vice-captains on Aizen's side made Jyuushiro feel very tired indeed. Yoruichi and Urahara had salvaged a few of the Vizards, but now they knew that Aizen had what seemed like fully functional ones. And not just 'functional' ones, but Lisa and colleagues they'd thought completely lost... He gathered his thoughts, and remembered a most dangerous loose end.
"What of an orange-haired boy? We know he bested you in battle, but after that we know very little."
"Oh, Ichigo, huh? He's got a full-on mask, now. He argues with Aizen nearly every day. But after beatin' pretty much everyone else to a pulp, he's the new Number 0, even Yami won't cross him. Don't know why the hell Aizen lets him get away with it; but it seems to make him do what Aizen wants."
"Were there others with him?"
"Nah. He doesn't have anyone around him. Even that Orihime chick seems to dig Ulquiorra more than him, now. He doesn't even have a Fraccion, the bastard's too stuck up for anyone now." Grimmjow looked a little distant at that, gaze dropping.
Jyuushiro took a breath and coughed into a cloth. "Was there more to Hisagi's message for us? A place or a time or date to meet him?"
Grimmjow shook his head. "No, he just said to be back fast, with as many people as could be spared." He ran one hand through his hair. "Didn't even give Sado or me any names or any particular place to get to, said we'd figure it out."
"How did he come across to you?"
Grimmjow shrugged. "Rushed, in a hurry, more high than scared, but that bastard's got balls with that act o' his."
"If it is an act," muttered Sasakibe.
"Do all you guys do this crazy shit?" Grimmjow asked, skeptically. "I mean, go in pretending that you..." He pointed at Sasakibe. "Are you..." He pointed at Jyuushiro. "... and then you fuck it all up by just giving it away? You're the real guy, aren't you?"
Jyuushiro bowed his head. "By that I assume you mean that Hisagi having given himself away is reverting to how you see our methods?" The blue-haired man nodded a jerky, quick nod. "There might be hope for us all yet." Jyuushiro then added, "You may call me Ukitake Jyuushiro, Captain of... one of the Captains of the Gotei 13. Did the two juicy ones have powers equivalent to mine?"
Grimmjow had to think a little, eyes shifting away in a manner remarkably like Madarame's first look, and then he nodded. "Yeah... but you wouldn't be no fun in a fight."
Jyuushiro had to laugh at that. "You have me there, Jeagerjaques."
He coughed hard on the heels of his laughter, and the coughing went on long enough that Grimmjow shifted again, looking away. Neither of Jyuushiro's vice-captains relaxed their stances, he noticed approvingly.
Jyuushiro continued after his coughing stopped. "We have much to discuss and some reckoning to be done on your account. I'm afraid we're not entirely through questioning you, but I must discuss a few things with my staff before we can be sure we have what we need. In return, there's more that I can give you as an incentive for all this. There's an acquaintance of mine who taught Kurotsuchi everything he knows and kept the rest for himself. He made the Hōgyoku."
Grimmjow started up at the last.
Jyuushiro gave him a steady look. "He'd be fascinated by you, and might be able to help you."
Grimmjow showed his teeth in an expression that held no humor to it. "He'd better."
The meeting started with Madarame putting his fist through one of the walls. "Why the fuck aren't we just going? Inoue Orihime can change people back, we've seen that. Just go, kill Aizen, get her, and get them all back."
The anger masked an anguish that bit deep.
"What if he's lying?" Ise-kun started. "What if this is all just a setup?"
Madarame snorted. "Do you honestly think that idiot could lie?"
Sasakibe added, "He certain didn't seem the type to be able to make up complex stories or wish to tell them."
"Aizen could have made him see anything he wanted him to see." Ise-kun said softly. "It could all be a trap."
"And even if it is for real, how can we act on it? Those who have achieved shikai can't even walk in groups without getting spotted by Ichimaru's people." Hinamori-kun waved her hands about. "How are we going to get half a dozen of us off at once without them knowing and coming after us?"
"It may help us all if Urahara-kun can take a good look at the changed young man," Jyuushiro interjected. "To verify his story, and maybe figure out a mechanism we can use to reverse the affects of his creation."
"He fucking caused all this in the first place by making that thing!" Madarame yelled. "Why the hell are we trusting him now?"
Sasakibe's crisp tones cut in. "He has not gone to Aizen. He helped us time and again. He has kept down Hollows and moved the dead on from the living world. He's cooperated with us in every way when it has put him in jeopardy with the effective rulers of Soul Society. Why shouldn’t we trust Urahara?"
"Because he was branded a traitor before our eyes, and sent into exile for an experiment that has been the key to Aizen's success," Jyuushiro said quietly. "We don't know what his agenda is for the long term. Knowing that they'd torture his secrets from him if they caught him may be all that keeps him expediently on our side."
"Or he may be a shinigami who simply remembers his first duty," Hinamori-kun said, "even when the Chamber of 46 turned against him."
Jyuushiro nodded and sighed.
Isane's tentative tones broke into the silence. "It's... it is good, isn't it, to know that there might be two Captains still alive?"
Jyuushiro saw Ise-kun's eyes close for a moment. He turned his attention to Isane. "If one thinks about what they're going through, it's not helpful. We know Aizen's people are far more brutal than we are about extracting information and they must know about the experiments, it could be very bad for someone in their hands. It is oddly encouraging to understand that even after being changed and possibly deranged, Unohana-taichou still managed to break free of Aizen's control."
Isane's face went pale.
Jyuushiro touched the healer's hand gently. "Even so, my own recent experiences with death leads me to add that, yes, they may well lend us hope simply by their existence. The living can effect changes that the dead no longer have the choice to pursue." He took a deep breath and looked around the ring about him. "I believe we must pursue this chance."
Everyone looked back at him, Madarame with a quick, hard nod. Ise-kun folded her arms before her, and Sasakibe leaned back, away from the center of the circle.
"But Hinamori-kun brings up a very good objection, and I need all the good objections you can find right now so that we can best increase our chances of obtaining the objectives Madarame here has outlined. Kill Aizen. Return our people to themselves."
"What if the real purpose is to lure the strongest of us from being around you, and then try to kill you when we're away?" Sasakibe asked.
"What can we do?" Isane asked, looking troubled.
"Let's use that," Jyuushiro said quietly, even as he began to feel his pulse quicken. "We know that they wish to capture me, ne?" Everyone around him nodded. "Then why don't we give me to them? Use me as the distraction for the team that hits Aizen."
The whole room erupted.
Jyuushiro had to smile as they all started giving reasons why it would or wouldn't work. He carefully kept them on the track to figuring out how to make it work, and if there were things that were wrong or too risky, how to either mitigate the risk or work around the problem. This was much better than dwelling on the whole of the situation, and the misgivings within his heart.
It was later that evening, after a rough ride out to the hunters' lodge, and all the things that went with moving again, when Isane came to put him to bed, that she spoke to that heart of his.
"You're trying to die, aren't you?" Isane stated.
"Whatever gave you that idea?" Jyuushiro said, as he washed his brush out. He watched the black ink spread through the water like clouds. He carefully swirled it through, got another measure of water and cleaned it again. Good brushes were hard to find now.
"Making yourself bait with just myself and Hinamori with you: you've kept all the cripples and would spare yourself not at all."
"Do you believe Hinamori-kun is a cripple?" Jyuushiro looked up in surprise.
Isane blushed. "I take it that you agree with my assessment of myself, then?"
Jyuushiro nodded quietly, and saw her fists close for a moment before her hands opened again. Gently he said, "You are crippled. You know it as well, and if I said otherwise, you'd know I was lying, just as I'd know you were lying if you said I was whole. You've been wounded in heart and soul and courage, Isane. When your captain forced you to leave her, she didn't let you fight the fight you needed to fight for your own pride. I want you by my side so that you can have that fight."
"Even if that means you'll lose?"
Jyuushiro nodded, composed. "I would differ with you over your wording. While I am not afraid of dying, I am no longer seeking it out. I honestly believe this is our best chance. I do not believe we will lose, and we may win for everyone by taking out a very large portion of Gin's forces. I am playing for bigger stakes than just our lives."
"So you do think we have a chance of having a direct fight with them, of dying ourselves," Isane said accusingly. "You should keep one of the fighters with you, Sasakibe-san or Madarame-san."
"Sasakibe needs to lead everyone else, and do you really think I could keep Madarame from going after Ayasegawa-kun?"
Isane's gaze dropped.
"That said, he'd be useless here, knowing what he could be doing there, ne?"
"Then, we shall have to make use of what we have. You need to train. I need to do some research."
"What of Ise-san? She could stay, and she's... she's much stronger than I am and she loves researching things for you."
Jyuushiro sighed. "Which Captains do we know went missing? The ones we did not see die before our own eyes or have a report to that effect?"
Isane paused, counted. He could see her going through the numbers, the list in her mind and then her eyes went wide. "Oh."
He nodded sadly. "Oh."
"I..." Isane paused, swallowed, tears suddenly springing to her eyes. "I guess she has to go because you can't."
Jyuushiro closed his eyes, took a breath around that pain, and then nodded. "Yes." He took another breath and then added, "And if Hisagi is a liar, intent on destroying everyone that goes, I may also lose her."
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