Story: Winter War -- and AU co-authored by incandescens, sophiap, and I. It's a dark AU where the Gotei 13 lost the winter war but they find themselves one last chance. "Nothing is sacred and no one is safe."
Characters: Kotetsu Isane, Shiba Kuukaku, and Shirogane Mihane
Rating/Warnings: PG-13 for language
Word Count: 4414
Summery: Isane is challenged by both Shiba-sama and Shirogane to find her strength in the midst of the ruins that will be Ukitake's new base.
Author's Notes: Many thanks to both incandescens and sophiap for both the lovely and fun plotting as well as their great concrit and help in getting this good and solid. I'm putting this up now before I leave on a Thanksgiving trip.
13. Karakura: Waiting
14. Iba: Hurry Up and Wait
Kotetsu Isane hurried through the underground chambers of Shiba Kuukaku's latest work of explosive art. The low ceilings of the tunnels always made her feel like she was going to dash her brains out on an overhead beam if she didn't trip over one of the charges underfoot. Slender Shiba-sama slipped through the tunnels ahead of her with ease, and Isane cursed the fate that had made her so unseemly tall.
They reached the ladder in its pool of light, and Isane balked. "I thought I was supposed to help make sure Ukitake-taichou's chair could work down here?"
"It's going to take a few hours before we're ready for that. I've got something else for you to do from Ukitake-taichou. Need to wake up that perimeter guard, and give you some teeth," Shiba-sama said with a grin that didn't ease Isane's discomfort.
She followed her up the ladder, trying not to look like she wanted to catch the woman every time she raised her single hand for another rung. The slap of each firm grasp rang loud to her ears.
When they reached the ground level, Isane couldn't help the gasp as she came up into a huge hardwood floored room.
Some noble family had gone out into the living world a mere century ago, and they had come back with the strange need to build a Castle in the style of the foreigners of that time. The intricate ceilings laced with gold and an illusion of sky, the tall white pillars, the individual paintings all along the walls depicting a hunting scene with forests with animals both familiar and strange peeking out from the lushness, were all as strange as the polished floor, the stained glass windows, and the hinged glass doors.
Shiba-sama caught her looking at the doors. "Those are going to do some amazing damage when they blow," Shiba-sama said with satisfaction. "I'm glad Ukitake-taichou allowed us to go ahead with wiring this monstrosity."
Isane nodded mutely, and followed as Shiba-sama led the way to the front. The carved doorway was winged by two swept staircases. Overhead hung a huge, glittering crystal chandelier, each facet casting rainbows about the walls.
The right front door opened with a groan, hinges protesting even as Shiba-sama hauled on it with her one hand. "We should oil those," she said shortly. "Don't want to make them feel like this is too unused."
"I could reach the top ones if you need," Isane said and then blushed.
Shiba-sama looked up at her and grinned her pirate's grin. "That you could. Do it."
Shiba-sama strode across the now weed-pocked lawn toward the overgrown greenery that sprawled all about the old mansion. Two heads popped up, one mousey blond, the other dark.
"You!" Shiba-sama shouted. "Get in here!"
Both stood up. It turned out that the blond much shorter than the other. Both pointed at themselves with a look of question on their faces, and Shiba-sama snorted in disgust. She walked up to the blond, grabbed a dirty wrist, and started dragging them back to the house. The slender figure simply slumped, resigned.
Isane stared. Not a him but a her. She was shorter than herself, and Isane smothered her pang of envy.
"Shirogane Mihane, meet Kotetsu-fukutaichou, Kotetsu Isane, Shirogane Mihane. She's going to teach you iaijitsu."
Both women blinked at each other and then at Shiba-sama, and the fear and uncertainty in the air made Isane want to gag. All her protests boiled up and crowded Isane's throat: but I don't want to draw a sword, I can't cut anything, I wasn't supposed to be training here, what can she teach me, how am I supposed to fight. There were so many that none of them got out.
"Who? Her? Fukutaichou?" Shirogane peered up at Isane, pushed her glasses up and then looked again. Isane looked down at the ground and felt that churning in her gut. Grudgingly, the other woman conceded, "Well, she's tall, her reach should be good."
"I hate being tall," Isane mumbled.
"And I wish I were taller." Shirogane shrugged. "Well, it'll keep my mind off that other shit. So sure. But I can't teach her everything in just an afternoon."
Shiba-sama punched Isane's shoulder. "Don't tell me old Yamamoto didn't have all you kids learn some of the basics on drawing."
Isane winced and then shook her head. "No... uhm... yes? Uhm. We learned a few kata in Academy, but I haven't had a reason to study the forms for years."
Shiba-sama tsked as Shirogane nodded. "Few do," Shirogane said. "Though we call them waza, not kata... Let's go."
Isane uncertainly began to line up in opposition to Shirogane right there on the lawn, then stopped as Shiba-sama shook her head. "No. Not here. In the places you and Ukitake-taichou are likely to be attacked together." She held up three fingers and ticked them off. "Office. Eating area. Bedroom."
The speculative look from Shirogane left Isane bright red.
Shiba-sama rolled her eyes. "She's his nurse, Four-eyes."
The relief in the other woman's reiatsu made Isane blush even hotter. She ducked her head and hunched her shoulders, and followed the other two back into the grand house. They had to go up the sweeping staircase to the enormous library. The dark wood shelves sat half-empty of books, many of which were scattered and thrown down in heaps that the mice and spiders had made nests in, and dust coated everything. A massive desk no thief had managed to make off with still squatted by the curtained window.
Shiba-sama threw back the heavy drapes, now holed by moths and ragged at the ends, and let the light shine on the dark wood desk. Isane trailed her hand through the dust, revealing a gleaming glossy surface that she could see herself in. "Ukitake-taichou is going to hate losing this."
"With any luck it's going to be good armor for him, if they come when he's here." Shiba-sama said, matter-of-factly. "It's good and solid."
"It's beautiful," Isane said forlornly, and felt very out of place as both women just looked at her.
Shiba-sama turned away and headed for the door.
Shirogane just stood there for an awkward moment, and Isane realized that the other woman was as uncomfortable as she was. Then the slender blonde pushed up her glasses and walked over to Isane. "Do you know which forms you learned?"
Isane shook her head. "Uhm... two were standing forms and one was from seiza, and they were pretty simple, just the straight horizontal cut, a vertical cut, and then the cleaning and sheathing. My instructors didn't think too much of the need to cut on drawing, in most battles there's time to draw and assess."
"No chairs here..." Shirogane sounded a little distant. "You'd be behind your own desk here?"
Isane looked around the tattered library. There was a smaller, short secretary's desk that to Isane's relief looked as if she could kneel behind it properly, shoved against one of the corners nearer the door. "Can you help me move that to a more defensible position?"
Isane picked her way through the debris. Silverfish scuttled away from books that fell apart at her feet and she coughed in the dust. "We're going to have to get a lot of this dust up before Ukitake-taichou comes, or he won't be able to breathe, much less study in here."
They exchanged a glance as they got to either end of the small desk, and together they lifted. The small desk was heavier than it looked, and they both gasped as their uncertain footing slid underneath them with the additional weight.
"Uh... oh... Woah.... Hey!" They both collapsed in a cloud of dust and pages flying everywhere.
They both sneezed explosively several times, and then helplessly started to giggle. Shirogane took her glasses off and tried to wipe them off on one sleeve, and giggled even more as the effort only smeared things around even worse.
"There's..." Isane stopped for another sneeze which made them both giggle again. She floundered to her feet, and put her arms out for balance. "Must clear some of this... " Sneeze. "... before we do this..." Sneeze. "Water in kitchen..."
Shirogane giggled and nodded, the smile on her face suddenly making her look much younger as Isane suddenly noticed freckles and mild brown eyes. For just that moment, she looked so much like Kiyone that Isane's heart ached even as she wanted to wrap the other up in a far too familiar hug. Isane finally smiled a smile that wasn't timid at all, as the two of them picked their way back out of the room.
"Do you think there are shovels somewhere? Or brooms, so we could just shove all that crap off that balcony or something?" Shirogane asked. "I can't stay for too long, but we might have the time to at least clear a portion of the place out so it's usable for practice and we don't trip over our own damned feet."
"Off the balcony?" Isane asked, shocked for a moment by the idea and Shirogane's language. She remembered the other girl had been on a much rougher assignment than she. Also, the books were already ruined and Ise-kun wasn't going to be seeing any of this. Ukitake-taichou on the other hand... well, he wouldn't mourn what he couldn't see... maybe... It would be a lot easier to practice in a cleared area, and she'd have her work cut out for her clearing that dust on her own. She nodded. "That's a good idea, I think."
Shirogane grinned. "Good."
There was water in the kitchen. Shirogane cleaned her glasses, and they found two huge push brooms in the kitchen. They tied cloths over nose and mouth, and worked around each other pushing huge mounds of tattered pages and covers out through the broken balcony out the back of the office. The rotted, broken structure creaked and moaned with each load they pushed through the hole in the fencing. With someone that didn't stop to mourn every page, Isane found that she didn't have to, either, and they cleared the worst of it out in less than an hour. The effort warmed her body up, and she found herself wiping sweat from her brow when they stopped to survey the now cleared floor.
Without a word, they moved over to the smaller desk and each lifted one end. Isane followed Shirogane's lead as they placed the front right corner of it against the front left corner of the big desk and out to the side.
"It'll help delay them getting around the desks if they come in from the front."
"What if they come through the balcony?" asked Isane.
"That rotted thing? I don't think I'd want to stand on it. As much as it just protested over what we just pushed over it, I'm thinking it'll go sooner rather than later. Maybe ask Shiba-sama to add a surprise there?"
When they went down to the kitchen, Isane added that to the list of things that should be done to the house as they fetched one chair and a thick tatami mat. They took them upstairs, placed them, and hung back a bit to look at the results.
"Now I should just run around this place with a wet cloth to get the dust down..."
"I don't think I have the time for that," Shirogane said. "I think I should get your lessons in before I have to leave."
Isane was brought up short. She'd forgotten about the lessons in the flurry of cleaning. "Oh. Right."
"Right. Do you even know which school your instructor was from?"
Isane shook her head mutely.
"How about you show me your first standing waza?"
Isane bit her lower lip, but went to stand in the center of the room. She wasn't sure why Shirogane sounded so distant, so harsh all of a sudden. Her hand trembled when she wrapped her hand around Itegumo, and she felt the cool caress of her zanpakutou against her mind.
"I don't need to release, do I?" she asked nervously.
"No. It would flag our presence here like a bonfire, and we don't need that kind of attention, yet."
Finding herself desperate for any kind of distraction from what she was about to try, she asked, "Which Division were you in?"
"Huh?" Shirogane looked at her, opened-mouthed.
"Which Division? Who did you serve?"
A faint frown creased the blond's brow. "The Sixth, Kuchiki-taichou."
Isane felt that familiar pang she always felt when one of the missing Captains was mentioned, but she plowed on. "Did his Division have extra iaijutsu..."
"Iaido. Shiba-sama had that wrong, I didn't learn in an iaijutsu school, I'm a follower of the Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū’s iaido, and while Kuchiki-sama encouraged..." Shirogane's face grew wry. "As much as he encouraged anyone, he supported, paid for, and attended my testings in that particular discipline. It was not a Division-wide thing. It simply drew me."
"Why?' Isane asked.
Shirogane paused and tilted her head. "You're stalling, aren't you?"
Isane felt the heat of a blush go to her cheeks. She heard Itegumo laughing gently as well and her blush only grew hotter.
Shirogane chuckled and shook her head. "Why don’t you want to practice?"
"I'm Fourth Division," she said as if that should explain it, but she only saw Shirogane shrug. "I'm supposed to just heal."
Shirogane snorted. "You'll get yourself and your Captain killed if you stick to that."
The pain that statement caused was so intense Isane doubled up, choking back tears.
The punch to her shoulder was entirely unexpected. When Shirogane hit her again, she ducked behind her hands and cowered. The profanity that came in lieu of another blow sounded more tired than angry, and when Isane stopped panicking enough to peek from between her fingers she saw Shirogane cleaning her glasses and looking very, very tired.
"It always worked for Madarame... sorry... damnit, but I feel like I'm wasting our time. Do you want this lesson or not?"
Isane's voice shook when she said, "Not. I don't... I don't want it..." Shirogane turned away. "But..." She paused cocking her head back to listen to Isane's final rush of words. "But if it will help Ukitake-taichou survive another minute to do what's necessary..." Her voice dropped, out of her control. "... if that's what it takes I guess I will."
She saw Shirogane give a short, tight nod, and then turn back to her, offering her a hand up. She took it and got to her feet again, taking Itegumo's grip in her right hand and shifting her left went to her sheath. Trying to remember the sequence of the motions, she drew the blade at a diagonal and then moved it in front of her in a horizontal sweep.
"Woah. Stop. Oh, kami, what are you doing?" Shirogane had her head in her hands.
"Uhm... the form?"
"No no... gah. What did they tell you iai means?"
"Huh?" Startled, Isane put her blade back into her scabbard, feeling Itegumo's interest in the other girl's words overriding her eagerness to be in Isane's hand.
"What does iai mean?" The tone from the slender girl forcibly reminded Isane of Kuchiki-taichou's icy demeanor.
Isane closed her eyes. "Uhm... to be present?"
"And the other part?"
"There's another part?"
This time Shirogane collapsed onto the hardwood floor. "Yes, there's another part. I know that kendo is nearly all what they teach, but a fukutaichou should know the other part."
Isane searched her memories for what iaido really was. Sword play in the middle of a fight had been the main emphasis of the instructors. They had practiced cuts and blocks, gives and takes all in the flow of the battle. They'd trained strength into all their muscles and reactions for during sword play. The single draw and cut of iaido seemed too focused and refined a moment to have merited that much attention. The word itself was less familiar to her, now, than she wanted it to be, but iaido itself was... "Oh... to be present and to react to what happens."
Shirogane breathed a sigh of relief and climbed to her feet. "Were you actually present when you put your hand on your zanpakutou?"
"I'm right here," Isane said, exasperated by Shirogane's tone.
"No. Were you present? Your reiatsu didn't feel like it was all here, it's not focused. You had no intent."
Isane blinked at that and tried to not laugh. "You mean like a meditative presence? Just... being?"
"No, kinda... Yes." The slender, mousy girl stood there looking at her. "Like this," she said, taking a slow breath, and suddenly Isane stepped back half a step. "You feel it."
Isane nodded. It wasn't like the power that the Captains could bring to bear, or what she, herself even was able to carry. Not a heightening of power, but a sudden sharpening of it, like a view through a telescope suddenly brought into focus.
She frowned at how to do such a thing and got distracted by worrying about how Ukitake-taichou was going to possibly even get into the house with this much dust all over, what she was going to do with this knowledge when Gin's troops came, would she even....
"Just focus on being right here and now. Not wherever your memories, thoughts, or speculations are," Shirogane said evenly.
Isane tried to get a grip on all her thoughts and worries, but like tiny silver fish scattering from her hands, they kept popping up. She groaned.
"Try thinking about your breathing, or how your body feels, or the texture of the floor." Shirogane's voice was low and soothing.
Isane frowned and started to close her eyes.
"No. Open your eyes. Meditate on what you see, not what you imagine you should see."
Isane blinked her eyes open and took the beginning stance, feeling the pull of her shoulders, the strength of her back, and the way her hips, legs, and feet connected her to the ground.
"That's it... you're getting there."
Isane took a deep, slow breath, feeling the way the air flowed through her body and fed her strength. She shifted, settling, and her hands moved deliberately to Itegumo's hilt and to her scabbard. This time she should feel her zanpakutou's eagerness, and it flowed into her like a redirected stream into a rice field, soaking in and bringing all of her to life.
It was Shirogane who took a step back this time. "Be careful not to release," she warned quietly.
Isane grinned at that; she was no newbie to shikai, drunk on her reiatsu. She nodded and this time her concentration was completely on what she was doing. She started at a standing stance with her feet only as far apart as her shoulders. She took three quick steps forward as her hands moved with one accord. The smoothness of the thin wood scabbard in her left hand, which she pulled forward and tilted at an angle. She held the rough hardness of Itegumo's hilt in her right hand, careful of the angle to both allow the nukitsuki -- the extra spring and jump from the release from the scabbard -- and to make sure that she wouldn't cut right through the thin wooden scabbard, not to mention her left hand, with the very same forces she hoped to use.
She forcibly suppressed as much of her reiatsu as she could when she unlocked her blade from the scabbard; the click was loud in the empty area. The hiss of steel against wood, and as the tip came free the strike arced like a fish jumping from the sea, flashing up and then down and to the right, smooth and fast. A quick flick to lose all the loose blood, and back up, drawn through the sleeve to clean the blade, and then sliding back with a soft snick into the scabbard. Isane paused and then glanced over at Shirogane, who nodded back, eyes shining.
"Nicely done, Kotetsu-fukutaichou."
Isane straightened at the formal use of her title and name, and she felt a blush heat her cheeks, and realized that the other had not truly addressed her directly before this moment.
"Your powers are considerable," Shirogane said, eyes shining. "I think you would do even better with surprise on your side. You said that you've learned both standing and seated positions; has anyone taught you one of the half-seated forms?"
Isane shook her head.
"And you've been taught the follow up furikamuri, yes?"
Isane mutely shook her head again, and Shirogane groaned. "We have to do at least that, in both the standard positions, as follow through for the first shot, and I have to show you at least one of the half-sitting positions. It might be more useful for you if you're caught behind the desk or in a chair, and I think I can add a nasty surprise for someone not expecting to be hit at that level."
"We have time for all that?"
"You have good kendo skills, right? It shows in your footwork and your intent."
Isane nodded mutely, blushing again.
"It should be fast enough."
Together, they walked through three different standing kata, no waza, that started with the things Isane knew, and then added some of the same cuts she'd learned from kendo. They talked through scenarios, and then walked through them in the library, the imposing main bedroom, and then down in the closer confines of the kitchen. The bedroom and library seemed shaped for the sitting and half-sitting waza, though the entry areas worked well with the standing ones. The kitchen proved a problem with its close confines, and Shirogane took the opportunity to show Isane a few underhand cuts that could use the visual shielding of both the desk and the countertops in the kitchen to hide their launching from an enemy.
What struck Isane the most was that in everything Shirogane showed her, there were no blocks, not even a token attempt at defense. This training form for violence was nothing but "see the opening and cut it".
It reminded her, a long time ago, of seeing Unohana-taichou unexpectedly caught in a swarm of Hollow. The slender Captain had surprised her by not backing down in the least. Instead she had cut them down with a precision and brutal speed unlike anything Isane had seen in the sparring grounds, attempted violence met with an uncompromising violence that ended it all quickly.
Afterward, she'd asked Unohana-taichou about the incident and the woman had thought a moment before answering her. "I simply wanted it over quickly. Once violence begins I simply do not wish to be hurt or for those around me to be hurt, so I end it by any means possible."
With the constant physical reminder, she realized that iaido was a means by which to end a one-on-one confrontation as quickly as possible. Still, Isane couldn't help but get caught up in the grace of the motions themselves. Their pared-down economy was beautiful in its own right, and the meditative aspects of the art soothed her tired heart like a balm.
At the end, when Kuukaku shouted from the main entrance that they had to be done as Shirogane had an appointment, both of them were covered in sweat, though they'd never raised sword against each other. They bowed their mutual respect.
"Does your school have sparring or ways to practice against each other?" Isane asked, doubtfully. She didn't see how it could be done safely, and nearly every other school of martial arts she'd partaken in had had some form of sparring.
Shirogane shook her head emphatically. "No, there is no such thing. Even cutting through objects is prohibited."
"How useful is it then?" Isane asked, frowning, even as her heart leapt at the idea of never having to draw her sword against a friend.
Shirogane's face stilled. "I've killed a few people with it. I think you could, easily, with your reach and how you hide your reiatsu most of the time."
Isane's eyes widened. "I hide my reiatsu?"
"Yeah, most of the time you seem like some mouse trying to find a hole to hide in. Your spiritual strength seems broken by all the things that have happened, but you shone when you really got it together. I..." Shirogane sighed. "I just don't like being noticed too much, so I look like some bookish mousy girl with glasses so no one thinks I'm worth fighting. So I kind of sympathize, but you really have the full power of a fukutaichou, Kotetsu, so use it. You'll do fine."
That was when Isane realized what had been bothering her the whole time.
"You'll do fine, too," she suddenly said, leaping in with the comment as if she were talking to her sister.
Shirogane took half a step back. "Is it really that obvious?"
Isane smiled shyly, glad that she'd been right. She shook her head. "No, it isn't at all obvious. I just... your reiatsu... you're as shaky about something as I am about this."
Pursed lips met her assessment. "Yeah. This helps though. Helping you with your problem, I think got my mind off of mine. I really liked working with you."
"Can you talk about it?"
Shirogane shook her head. "Better that you don’t know, I think, though that just might be Madarame's rules rubbing off on me, but what you don't know can't be gotten out of you."
Isane nodded again, and this time she bowed low. "Thank you, senpai, for the lesson not only in sword work, but in how important it is for me to simply be present, right here and now."
Shirogane blushed and bowed back. "Just... just survive what you have to do, so I can teach you again, all right?"
"Yes. I'll do my best," Isane answered. "You too, right?"
Shirogane turned to leave, but then suddenly turned back to Isane, who opened her arms. Both women hugged each other tight, before Shirogane squared her shoulders and left. Taking her new lessons to heart, Isane watched her go, refusing to let the despair that had always crashed down on her get the best of her. Instead, she gripped the hilt of Itegumo and replayed in her mind the flashing arc of her own strike.