Series: Winter War
Characters: Sasakibe, Soi Fong, Ganju, Kuukaku, Kuchiki Ginrei, Ikkanzaka Jidanbou
Rating/Warnings: PG-13, language and violence
Summery: The Seireitei crew gets to work after Gin leaves the city.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or its characters. I make no money from these writings.
Author's Notes: This is a chapter in the Bleach AU that sophiap, incandescens, and I are writing together. In this AU, Aizen won the war in Karakura, and it diverges from canon somewhere in the Hueco Mundo and Fake Karakua arcs.
"Nothing is sacred and no one is safe."
All the previous chapters.
27. Momo, Isane: We Have Met the Enemy
28. Iba: Defense
Sasakibe rode as he'd never ridden before.
The boar squealed and snaked about like a hell-be-damned lizard, the bristled body solid against Sasakibe's knees. The thing was about as responsive as a brick. He had to just hang on for dear life and pray that the pigs behind him wouldn't trample him if he fell off.
The running, screaming verbal fight between the Shiba siblings, Ganju and Kuukaku, didn't help his nerves in the least, but it was familiar. Roaring on one side, getting kicked to kingdom come by the other, and then a mildly quieter tone to the discussion seemed the pattern. What Sasakibe truly resented, however, was Soi Fong's one-armed grace on top of a sow nearly ten times her weight. She seemed to ride her mount nearly absentmindedly, not so much guiding as skimming over the brute force grunting beneath her. The contrast to his own discomfort could not have been more vivid.
Ahead of them Seireitei rose white-walled and serene under the clear blue of the late winter sky.
It was time. Ichimaru had left at about noon. For the last day and night they'd camped nearby, slipping into the city in ones or twos to prepare everyone for what they were about to do now.
The Kuchiki estate had been covered in snow, the green of the bamboo groves the only color. The gates were imposing, and the guards even more keenly watchful than Sasakibe remembered, but his bearing, clothing, and a guard that recognized him got him by the front gate. He heard the bell ring in the inner courtyard that announced his coming.
A girl appeared by the front door. She went gracefully to her knees, head bowed, dish of washing water by her side. He slipped off his shoes. She put them away and washed his feet before he could step onto tatami-matted dark wood floors, millennia old. The girl bowed down again, and a man appeared, bowed low and silently led Sasakibe to an unusual audience chamber.
There were no windows, no paper walls. Lit by torch, lamps, and the glow of coals in a mid-room heater, there was a throne set up on a dais and mats on the floor below. Sasakibe deduced his position, and went to kneel on the comfortably thick mat at the foot of the throne, head on the floor between his own hands. When he was situated, a door slid open in the wall to the house, and steady but slow footsteps ascended the steps. Sasakibe knew better than to glance up until the low voice, tired but still powerful, spoke up.
"Rise, Sasakibe-san, and speak."
Sasakibe looked up and rose to his feet. It was Kuchiki Ginrei, looking shockingly old and frail compared to when he'd last helped with the situation with Koga.
"We are ready," Sasakibe said softly.
"Ready for what?" The old man's eyes were steady, focusing on Sasakibe with a glare that comforted the old soldier in a way he couldn't explain.
"There is a plan in motion that should lure Ichimaru and his most powerful minions out into the field in the next day or two. We would like your promise for your clan to come out in force on that day and break the hold that he and Aizen have on the city." Grateful that the whole had come out steadily, Sasakibe watched the old man sit back and assess.
"There are many troops other than Ichimaru and his pets," Kuchiki-sama said thoughtfully.
"There are many clans and families still within the city and within hailing distance of the city walls." This play of words comforted Sasakibe as no direct verbal confrontation could. Simply set the pieces in place to see what his opponent would make of it. "And there are still many members of the Onmitsukidou active in the city."
Sasakibe nodded. Covert Ops, or the Onmitsukidou, had been the second largest force within the Shinigami forces. They had been decimated during the War, but so many were adept at hiding that those that could had blended into the woodwork, become part of the very society that they now spied upon. Kuchiki-sama knew how things were organized and what it meant that they were still active and a going concern in this fight.
Watching the old man consider the new information, Sasakibe felt hope again for the first time in months.
"The fallen Shiba house is already in our camp, and we're sending envoys to Shihouin, Kyouraku, Yamamoto, Kasumioji, Kannogi, Omaeda. We are securing all our Rukongai contacts as well. The common signal will be when Ichimaru leaves, we will give them three hours to get far enough from the capitol to make it difficult for them to come back quickly. Then we will all attack."
The list of names made Kuchiki-sama's chin go up, as Sasakibe had hoped. It never hurt to invoke a little bit of clan rivalry when they were needed: that one clan might fall short of the others was shameful.
"What is the plan?"
Sasakibe didn't relax. If the plan didn't meet the old warhorse's approval, he would not risk his people to it. "Just before we attack, there will be fireworks and shells bombarding the North and East gates, to confuse all the guard stations before we hit the West Gate from the outside with its former gatekeeper. We will open that Gate and that Gate only and set off a blue display of fireworks to indicate that it is secured and open. We don't want Ichimaru Gin to be able to come back into any of the Gates, so we are keeping them closed and holding them as best we're able. We need you to have all the Clans at the West Gate before the green spear fireworks go off when we take the final Gate, as that is when we'll close the West Gate."
"Getting everyone through just one Gate?" Kuchiki-sama frowned. "We'll have to gather in advance, but the woods just outside the cleared zone are a good place to hide masses of troops. That should be possible, if we are organized." Finally, the craggy face nodded, gray eyes suddenly cold and fierce. "We will do what we can at that time. You may count on the Kuchiki clan."
"Thank you, sir." Sasakibe bowed low, head all the way to the mat, and moved backwards to the door.
For the next several hours Sasakibe was ushered into formal appointment rooms, winter gardens, and bare wooden halls the likes of which Yamamoto's Lieutenant hadn't seen in years. The quiet conversations and reasoned discourse soothed and reassured him that some of the old structures were still in place.
Even when the gist of most of the conversations was bloody rebellion.
What reassured him even more was the chorus of assent. Every family he spoke to agreed to the attack and was more than willing to help.
Soi Fong slipped through the shadows, mindful of the dogs, the garbage cans, and the smells that she couldn't avoid. The rooftops had been quiet, dry, and easy. There were a few traps by the most easily accessible points of the walls of the white city, but she'd avoided them without a sound. She'd put half of them there herself, so had no qualms.
Something disturbed her, but she couldn't put her finger on it, and that kept her all the more alert as she swung through the quieter, middle-class part of town. Going along one of the major boulevards, she suddenly realized what had been nagging at her instincts.
There were no stray cats.
Back at Ukitake's camp, Shirogane had asked Soi Fong why Shihouin-sama didn't go into Seireitei in her cat form to scout out what was happening there. Soi Fong had fobbed her off. Now, she realized that her once-mentor might well have had reasons other than distaste. On reaching the intersection of the thoroughfare with another of the wide, white streets, Soi Fong stopped, lips pursed and eyes narrowed.
Small furry bodies hung limp from the roof line of the police house: she didn't need to get any closer to know that they were the missing cats.
Slipping back onto the more minor roads, Soi Fong knew that she stood out on these less traveled ways, but she felt safer being able to see anyone that came at her. No one did. It wasn't quite the time for the city's curfew, but still people stayed safe in their houses rather than risk the night.
Finally, she reached her destination, a small house, unremarkable and blending into the modest neighborhood. Knocking at the shadowed doorway, Soi Fong stepped back when a small crack of light appeared.
"Kage?" Soi Fong whispered.
"After battle..." murmured the dry husk of a male voice.
Soi Fong answered, finishing the first stanza and going on into the next, "Many new ghosts cry. The solitary old man..."
"...worries and grieves." And then the dry as death voice continued softly, "To many places, communication is lost. I sit straight at my desk but cannot read my books for grief.*"
The door opened showing flickering firelight and the glint of light off glasses, as a white-haired old man pushed them up onto his nose. "Welcome, my captain."
"No longer," Soi Fong said coolly. "But I am grateful for what you have been able to send."
The man bowed gently in acknowledgement. "And you have come?"
"To muster what troops there are. Ukitake has made his move, and Ichimaru is likely to counter tomorrow. When he goes, we all wait three hours and then take the center points of the city itself."
"First we will overwhelm the four Gates and their keepers, in order to block anyone's entrance to the city. Then we will take the barracks of the Gotei 13, the Tower of Penitence, the Chambers of the Central 46, and the Palace that Gin has taken as his base of operations."
"Three of the four Keepers surrendered and were summarily executed, the fourth, Ikkanzaka Jidanbou, went into hiding. All should make your task easier. Shall I send a message to him to come back?"
"Please do. Are there other points we need to capture?"
"That seems a thorough enough list, but it is important that we completely clear the Gotei 13 barracks." The dry voice turned analytical. "Enlisting as many as possible to make it easy for everyone to turn against Ichimaru through sheer numbers."
Soi Fong nodded, lips pursed. "Ukitake would hate knowing that Ichimaru loyalists would hide under the chaos, but I see the reasoning. If those that are loyal to Ichimaru panic and change sides in the heat of battle, they'll remain ours if we win. Fewer to fight face to face and we can always take them in the back after."
"Far fewer deaths as well, which could be to our advantage afterward, too. People are tired of the killing." Kage's voice sounded tired to Soi Fong as well. Softer than he had been before, but then so was she.
She simply nodded. "All right. Can you take me to the first contacts to get the news down to all the lines of our people?"
Kage's eyes widened. "You will tell them yourself?"
"Yes. If this is going to be the Onmitsukidou's final battle, I wish for us to count and be counted, and I would like to thank them myself beforehand."
Kage stirred, his voice strengthening as he said, "I would be honored."
Soi Fong nodded. "Aye then, it is time for us to do what we can do," she said. "Take me to them."
"Go on, Brother. We have done the bulk of the work we need to do, and you should go see to Bonnie-chan and your friends," Kuukaku said, surveying the mass of armament they'd transported and put together on the fly.
Some of it Soi Fong had asked for, a good deal of which was to bring down guard stations or archery points, and a few were made just to bring down the random wall or two. There were also two enormous batteries of fireworks, shells and mortar, set up to confuse and dismay two of the gates. There were portable packs of fireworks in red, green, and blue for the signal flares. The artistry of the displays made Kuukaku happy; she hadn't been able to ply her trade in months, so she let herself truly enjoy her work while making these.
Bruised, bandaged, and sober for once, Ganju frowned. He looked tired, but Kuukaku wasn't about to give him any slack. It was too easy to go light on her younger brother, and now was not the time.
"Go on. You know that in order to have any chance of success, we have to get as many people as possible to turn at the same time. Your brawling buddies will fall over in glee at getting to do this," Kuukaku said firmly.
Rather than simply stomping off into the early morning light, Ganju frowned again, and to Kuukaku's frustration and dread, he asked, "Why did we get sent together?"
"Sometimes I think your head is made out of shell casing, little brother," she said, and refrained from kicking him into the neighbor's garden. "Why do you think?"
"I don't know, big sister. If I knew, I wouldn't be asking something you think is obviously a stupid question!" A big foot stomped down awfully close to a case of jelly explosives.
Kuukaku growled and stopped restraining herself. She kicked Ganju a good ten feet into the air; he landed on his feet and stomped back toward her. "I am not going to do all the thinking for you, idiot. Come on. Out with it!"
"We're not cowards," Ganju said with a dangerous angle to his broad chin.
"Why do you say that?" she asked, and leaned toward him until they were touching foreheads and breathing each other’s breath.
"'Cause the Seireitei crew has the most places to hide, but no one in the Shiba clan would hide!" Ganju said hotly.
"Maybe that's why the Shiba clan is left to only the two of us."
"Hmph!" Ganju said, and stuck his chin out even further than she thought possible. It was such a tempting target that she just hit it with her one fist, as hard as she could. His head snapped around. He grunted and tried to kick her back, but she caught his leg and pulled him off-balance and ended up throwing him on the ground and sitting on him.
"Yes. That is why they sent us," Kuukaku said, with a wry tilt to her smile. "Ukitake-taichou is no fool, but he is sentimental. After having seen Kaien killed, he would protect those of us left to him."
"But we are the ones that should protect the commoners, to be brave in the face of tyranny!" Ganju grumped, his voice muffled in the dirt.
"That is what I am telling you to do, idiot! Raise the countryside, get everyone together so that they can stand together rather than fall apart alone! Go get the commoners together and we'll stomp all over Gin's bullyboys and the pigs can eat them for lunch! But..." She grabbed Ganju's ear so that he howled. "But you have to remember, no actual fighting until the fireworks go off. And if everyone around you dies, you get to decide if you want to come back to me in mostly one piece or if you want me to hunt you down in the next life and give you a thrashing you'll remember every time you reincarnate."
The tears in Ganju's eyes, she wrote off as being from the ear twist. The ones in hers...well, it must have been the gunpowder.
When Gin rode out of the salt-white walls of Seireitei with the broken Hitsugaya and the nearly as badly broken Kira, Soi Fong grimaced at being limited to just the smallest of messages, just enough to warn Ukitake's crew. The parallel path for the sending made it far too easy to spot if there was more to it.
Besides, Soi Fong figured they'd understand what they were facing soon enough.
Three hours later, Kuukaku lit a single, lone rocket on a stand. The yellow fire trailed up into the sky and exploded with a whistle and a bang and then a burst that rivaled the sun that it shone under. Other, less beautiful and far more destructive salvos, lit by two of Soi Fong's operatives, fired on the North and East gates at the same time, so the guard within collided and ran in confusion as to which gate to protect.
On their porcine steeds, they approached the West Gate at a dead run. The huge shadow of Ikkanzaka Jidanbou loped easily beside them. The giant was so fast, only the boars could keep up with him.
When they arrived at the vast expanse of white stone, stretching almost beyond view to the right and the left, Jidanbou walked to the wall.
"Protect him! But try not to kill anyone! Many of these people are only doing this because Ichimaru threatened them or their families!" Soi Fong ordered, in a crisp, hard voice. She saw Sasakibe look at her and then nod.
Kuukaku was with her. Ganju and a number of his buddies had snuck into the walls the night before as pig herders, and would come into play later.
The fireworks specialist started firing kidou blasts at anything that appeared above the walls. Jidanbou widened his stance, and bent to take the lower edge of the West Gate. Soi Fong unsheathed Suzumebachi and stood to the right of the pillars of Jidanbou's legs. Sasakibe went to the left. The others that had come with them from Ukitake's camp spread out behind, a little uncertainly.
"When the gate goes up, protect Jidanbou's hands and feet!"
"Hai!" the others chorused.
Jidanbou howled and lifted. The guards on the other side of the wall came through with pikes. Firecrackers, strings and strings of them, popped in their faces, making them swear and wince back, blinded. Soi Fong took the opportunity to slide under the trembling gap Jidanbou made, and came up face-to-face with three opponents who gaped at her long enough for her to cut them.
She released her reiatsu in a flood, and saw another dozen guards just fall in their tracks. Those that were strong enough or foolish enough to face her she cut in the shoulders, arms, or legs, trying to stay away from torso and back. It all made her grimace. Nearly all her training was to take down someone fast and easy with as little cost to herself or her companions as possible. These tactics were more difficult and opened her to more possible attacks from her opponents, especially since she was fighting one-handed. Still, the training with Kuukaku, with Ukitake watching and giving her pointers on how to use her non-dominant hand and arm to its advantage, helped.
Sasakibe seemed to have no problem, once Jidanbou had gotten the Gate far enough up that he could roll under it. He spun, pivoted, danced, and his slender blade touched each of his opponents with deft precision, and they fell groaning and grasping at various bleeding limbs.
The cries of "Medic!" started sounding everywhere.
Soi Fong was gratified to realize that the number of men and women running on to the field with the rectangular "four" on their uniforms were far too few to treat the number of wounds they were dealing out. The information she'd gotten from her people about the dearth of trained medical personnel within the City walls was all too true.
Kuukaku came through in a burst of fire, and the other one-armed woman pin-wheeled through the oncoming troops with a cackle of mad glee. People fell in all directions, singed, gasping, or knocked out completely. Kuukaku had on her prosthetic, and used it indiscriminately for strikes that landed more like a cudgel than anything else.
Soi Fong didn't exactly regret not having Kuukaku fit her with one of those, but she did sigh at seeing the easy grace that the other woman used in acrobatic stunts which Soi Fong used to be able to do without thinking. The rest of their small troop came tumbling in after, and they not only held against the guards of the West Gate, they drove them back. Jidanbou grunted, groaned, and the West Gate lifted and locked open.
"There," Jidanbou roared. He took two earth-shaking steps into Seireitei, and the guard broke and ran.
"Light the signal, Shiba-sama," Soi Fong said.
Kuukaku grinned, gave her a thumbs up, and grabbed a pack of fireworks wrapped in blue ribbons. She set them against the wall to prop them up, and lit them. Blue trails of fire blossomed in the sky. It was a signal for Ganju and his buddies to attack the Southern gate. And Soi Fong suddenly saw people coming out of the forest. The Clans had been ready. Gratified by their promptness, Soi Fong sought out Sasakibe and Jidanbou.
"Leave a detail here, let the Clan members in and when the green fireworks streak across the sky, close this Gate, Jidanbou."
"Close it?" the giant asked. "But why? Aren't there going to be more troops?"
"None that are not already within these walls, and we must stop Ichimaru Gin from returning to browbeat his troops into order."
"Ah...all right." The big man saluted, which annoyed Soi Fong as it reminded her too much of the long-dead Omaeda, and he strode off.
Soi Fong and Sasakibe flash stepped for the North gate, and she let all her reiatsu spread about her as a signal to her people. When she arrived at the North gate, a red flower shell went off from the South. She nodded in satisfaction.
When she arrived, she cried like a crow three times, and the shadows congealed behind panicked guardsmen not looking for an attack from within the mighty Wall.
Soi Fong motioned Sasakibe back: their reiatsu would only confuse the situation. The shadows slid onto the walls and into the guardrooms. Everyone not in ninja garb dropped within minutes.
"Now that is how it should be done," Soi Fong murmured, toeing one snoring form.
Sasakibe gave her an uncomfortable look.
"No losses, complete control of the Gate." She sighed happily. "That is satisfying. All right, Kage, set up a team here to hold this Gate closed from all comers. I hope that the Shiba and the other Clans did as well with the East."
Sadly, the East Gate didn't go nearly as well. The squealing of pigs, the screaming, and the clash of blades was apparent blocks away, and Soi Fong sighed.
Stepping quickly forward to the Gate guardroom, she nearly ran herself onto a sword, but tumbled at the last instant, avoiding the edge. She gained a few bruises on the stone pavement, even as she threw her blade out to strike across tendons. The attacker fell with a cry. Several others fell soundlessly as the combined reiatsu of Soi Fong, Kuukaku, Sasakibe, and Clan nobles flooded the confined area of the Gate barracks. The next few moments were a scrum of sweating, bleeding, yelling bodies, kidou flying about, and finally it went silent.
Soi Fong now stood within her city.
Panting, she eyed her allies, and found one of the Clansmen cut down and being tended by one of her regulars. Sasakibe had a light cut along one high-boned cheek, and another slash across his left arm. The Shiba siblings were bruised, singed, and smiling, so they were fine.
They all looked at her.
"Light the signal to close the Gate," Soi Fong growled. Spears of green light rose to the Heavens behind her, and she added, "Let's go. It's time to retake the Gotei 13 barracks."
* From Facing Snow by Du Fu. Here is the poem in translation.