Series: Winter War
Characters: Ukitake, Shirogane, Iba, Gin, Hinamori, Takano Dan
Rating/Warnings: PG-13. Violence.
Summary: Gin has Hinamori pinned down, and Jyuushiro and his team are all willing to make a few sacrifices to meet their objective; but Jyuushiro refuses to make it easy.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or its characters, and I do not make money from these writings.
Author's Notes: This is a chapter in the dark Bleach AU that incandescens, sophiap, and I are writing. In this AU Aizen won the war in Karakura, and it diverges from canon somewhere in the Hueco Mundo and Fake Karakura arcs.
"Nothing is sacred and no one is safe."
All the previous chapters.
The two at the mansion, just before this chapter:
27. Momo, Isane: We Have Met the Enemy
28. Iba: Defense
What's happening at Seireitei:
29. Ensemble: Retaking Seireitei
What's happening in Hueco Mundo
30. Ensemble: Who Are You?
31. Orihime: Into First Gear
The plan fell apart like a week-old rose, as Hinamori now lay in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jyuushiro was used to plans that fell apart. Hinamori's reiatsu showed her exhaustion, helplessness, grief, pain for her friends, and hot rage. Ichimaru's intent was cruel as he kicked Hinamori in the stomach. Tobiume spun away into the wreckage.
All plans were perfect until they make contact with the enemy, but thankfully Gin started speaking to her. Jyuushiro coughed wetly to get an obstruction out of his lungs and spat. Blood stained the broken floor boards. He felt so tired, but there was only a little ways more to go.
"Isane, get Hinamori." Jyuushiro rasped a cough, then continued, "When he's distracted, pull her out."
Without a word, Isane fled Jyuushiro's side.
Takano's reiatsu signature glowed steady on the ground floor, a few dozen yards away and down. Getting Gin to follow Jyuushiro over that deadly ground would get him off Hinamori. Jyuushiro straightened, took two quick steps onto the fractured, hanging balcony. He felt it sway under his feet. It would hold long enough. He would hold long enough.
Gin slid a foot under Hinamori and rolled her over. Jyuushiro tensed when Shinsou's tip dipped forward, but the steel pulled up something that glinted gold.
Drawing Sogyo no Kotowari, Jyuushiro released his reiatsu like a wave through the house. He saw Ichimaru Gin flinch and glance up at him, away from the girl at his feet.
"All waves rise now and become my shield. Lightning, strike now and become my blade."
Sogyo no Kotowari split, the charms sang as they parted, and the red silk cord lengthened between them even as the hooks grew along the backs of the blades. Jyuushiro felt the called spirits as they came to him, and he invited them in. Their power flowed through him as potent as any drug or drink, and with an impulse of will, he fired one of Sogyo no Kotowari's lightning strikes at Gin's head.
Gin ducked, swearing.
When Gin bent toward Hinamori, Jyuushiro readied another blast. There was no killing intent, however, coming from the silver-haired man. For just an instant, all that spilled from Gin was a mixture of confusion, grief, and rage. Then the slender man grabbed something from around Hinamori's throat and pulled. The snap of chain made Hinamori gasp, and her rage spiked and burned hotter. Jyuushiro growled, and using the last of his reiatsu reserves, he fired another bolt at Gin.
This time it struck the distracted man on the shoulder, spinning him away from the girl. With a snarl, Ichimaru Gin raised his zanpakutou and bit out, "Shinsou, ikorose."
Jyuushiro spun aside, even as Gin's blade came up. Plaster and wood exploded behind him. He didn't bother with flash step. He didn't want to lose Gin. He ran for the library.
He burst into the ruined room, and, for an instant, Jyuushiro thought about just standing there in the library, next to the gaping hole Kira and Hinamori had made with the desk and the sliding avalanche of destroyed books, torn pages, and splintered, polished hardwoods. It would be fitting to die with the already desecrated knowledge in the midst of the remains of the high-minded past. Jyuushiro could think of no better way to follow Shunsui, to grab on to Gin and just make sure they died together, and just leave the rest to the youngsters.
Then through the ragged hole in the floor, Takano Dan gave Jyuushiro a thumbs-up when Gin's desert snake reiatsu flooded the library.
Ladies are clear. I got him, Takano mouthed. Get out, Taichou.
The implication that only when Jyuushiro left would Takano blow the room to Heaven's mercy, gave Jyuushiro no choice. He gave Takano the salute he knew he needed to give, and then he flash-stepped to the abused balcony. Gin came running, shouting and cursing, and when he caught a glimpse of Jyuushiro outside, he came charging out. Jyuushiro stopped. He didn't want Gin to go too far. Something in Jyuushiro's stillness gave Gin pause, and he stopped in the middle of the library, narrow eyes darting about the room.
Then everything roared and heaved. The balcony broke and fell. Jyuushiro used shunpo to jump at the nearest tree, forty yards away. The powerful blast shoved him, and then the branches of a tree hit him hard enough to raise welts. The whole tree swayed and creaked with his weight, but better the giving branches than the hard ground. Jyuushiro slid and hit the next set of branches down with an impact that made him grunt. Carefully directed shunpo turned the fall into something more controlled, but his legs folded under him when he hit the ground.
All Jyuushiro could do was watch as the enormous old mansion, with holes blasted out the front and back, a fire roaring in the midst, and great cavernous gaps where one side used to be, began to fall down. Wood and stone, glass and metal, all screamed protest as the upper floor slumped down as gracefully as an old matron fainting on a hot summer day. Walls collapsed, windows burst, and tiles fell in a crash and clattered on the courtyard pavement.
Jyuushiro couldn't see anyone in the cloud of dust, but reiatsu signatures lay in all directions. He closed his eyes. Hinamori's fire and Isane's ice were together over there. Takano's sense of order was gone, his power and presence nowhere to be found. The loss of Takano bit at Jyuushiro, but the warrior had died striking at their enemy, and with that cold comfort, Jyuushiro had to let it go.
Jyuushiro felt a combination of frustration and pride at sensing Iba's and Shirogane's reiatsu approaching the house from the other side. He'd meant for them to go with the youngsters. But he became glad of their return when he sensed Gin, still alive in the midst of the wreckage. If Gin survived this encounter, there would be no safe place for anyone.
The niceties of combat had long gone by the wayside. The power discrepancy between Gin, what Aizen might have made of Gin, and what Jyuushiro and his people were defending led to traps and deceptions. Jyuushiro felt more like the leader of a pack of wolves going after a diseased and rampaging bull elk than a hero, but he didn't have to throw all his morals on the bonfire of necessity.
Then an image of the tattered, torn, and badly remade Hitsugaya came to Jyuushiro. That was why they fought the way they fought, to avoid having that done to them, to destroy the rotted fruit of Aizen's efforts. Jyuushiro bit his lip as his mind took the next logical step. Shunsui might have had something equally horrible done to him, but his power was such that Aizen would never have trusted the result to Gin. There might be no reunion with Shunsui if Jyuushiro lay down and died. Jyuushiro might have to survive to cleanse Shunsui, and that thought made him tremble even as it gave him the courage for this next step.
Tearing off one of his sleeves, Jyuushiro ripped open the seam, folded it in half, and wrapped the cloth about his face. It would be better if he could wet it, but he made do with what he had. He used Sogyo no Kotowari to get back onto his feet, both sword spirits murmuring quiet encouragement even as their edges bit into loam and dirt.
Facing Ichimaru directly was utter folly. Still, with four of his subordinates now on the field, and three wielding a Vice-Captain's strength, making Gin focus on him might give them a chance they otherwise would not have.
Jyuushiro staggered twice, coughed once, and then made his way back into the wreckage of the house.
The silence, the lack of movement, made him move all the more cautiously. Gin's reiatsu signature changed. Moving around crumbling pylons of plaster and wood, he found Gin bent over something on the ground. It glinted, as Gin stood up, his right side to Jyuushiro, narrow eyes focused on pale fingers. Within Gin's hand was a ring.
It was Matsumoto's ring.
Hinamori had kept it on the necklace, close to her heart. When Gin took the necklace, he must have not seen it the first time and let it slide from the broken chain. Now, he'd found it in the wreck of the house.
A scream of utter rage ripped from Gin's throat.
Jyuushiro jumped back behind the cover afforded by a pile of rock that had once been a fireplace. He heard scrambling, gasps, and rubble fall from at least two other positions about the crumbling house. Killing intent flooded the area like a blast of oven-hot air.
"I'm not just gonna kill you all, I'm gonna rip each'n every fuckin' one of you lot to shreds. You've kept me from her and kept me from her, and now... She'd have never given up this ring I gave her. If she did then she's fuckin' dead and if she ain't ever coming back, then you're not either." The low, cold voice was all the more terrifying in the wake of that raw scream.
A pebble fell on the far side of the house. Jyuushiro took a quick look around his rocks, but a fireball sizzled toward him, and he threw himself back behind the stone. The ball splashed against a tree, and it roared into flames. Gin laughed. Another fireball sizzled in the direction of a slide of debris, and someone cried out.
The iron-bar strength of Iba suddenly focused, solidified under Jyuushiro's senses just as Shirogane's quicksilver intent flowed. Jyuushiro's eyes widened, and he threw himself around the piled rock, despite his body's instinctive flinch against going back where a fireball had just been.
Seeing Gin turn toward him, Jyuushiro knew he was too tired, too overdrawn already on the accounts of his strength, will, and endurance. He couldn't hide the fact that he was weak, tired, and unable to breathe or center properly.
It was nearly all Jyuushiro could do to just stand there.
But because he stood, Jyuushiro saw what had happened to Gin. While Gin had survived Takano's blast, he'd taken terrible damage. Gin's robes hung like charred ribbons from the fire-eaten left side of his body, and bone shone white through charred and wrecked flesh. White hair had burned black against Gin's scalp. The ring glinted in his ruined left hand. His right side was still whole, and his right hand closed about Shinsou's hilt as he turned toward Jyuushiro.
Readying his stance, Jyuushiro felt Iba and Shirogane use the cover of his reiatsu to get closer to Gin.
Gin snarled and fired Shinsou directly at Jyuushiro's head.
Jyuushiro fell down.
It was the fastest way to escape the blade. He heard it hiss like an angry snake over his head as he rolled to the side. Jyuushiro got up, getting his feet firmly under him before he came up over a tumbled and burnt couch.
"Ikorose, Shinsou!" Gin gritted through clenched teeth.
Sogyo no Kotowari leapt into the way, dragging Jyuushiro's hands with him, and together they deflected the tip of the sword from the center of Jyuushiro's torso just barely to the side. The edge sliced deep, and Isane cried out, "Taichou!"
Jyuushiro staggered and fell to his right. He felt the edge of Shinsou catch and drag within his flesh, and he used his own wound to buy his people more time.
That was when the silver flash of Shirogane's zanpakutou filled the area with light, and right on the heels of the swell in her reiatsu, Iba released as well. Jyuushiro watched as Shirogane strode out from behind a smoldering mass of fallen wall hangings. She took two gliding steps toward Gin.
Gin gave a cry that almost sounded glad. Kido blasted from his fingertips. Iba shouted and a triangular shield flung itself in the way. Red fire splashed everywhere, as drapes and wood splinters caught. Shirogane flinched. Gin gave a yank on Shinsou's hilt, and Jyuushiro groaned as metal slid free. Shirogane didn't hesitate twice. Her blade sprang forward, hissing.
Two tongues of steel flashed. Blood flew.
A split second later, Iba rose from the shadows; and the huge, triangular metal falchion with the wicked tooth of a pick arced through the dust-filled air.
Shirogane fell, blood springing from her lips as a slash gaped open across her throat. With the surprise attack by Iba, Gin couldn't go for a deep stab, but with Shinsou's accuracy, he could get away with a slash and still be free for the second attack; however, Shirogane had left her mark, as a wound gaped along Gin's left shoulder and blackened chest.
Gin snarled, spun to Iba's weak side. Shinsou slashed from hip to shoulder, and Iba staggered. Gin stepped in close, making it personal. He pressed into Iba's back, and shot Shinsou through the big man.
Blood splattered against broken walls, Iba arched and cried out as Gin dragged Shinsou out of Iba's body just in time to block Shirogane, blood streaming from her throat. She gave a frustrated, choked sound and swung her sword around, and was blocked, again and again.
"I'm done playin' with you, little girl," Gin snarled. He pushed on their crossed blades, and both of them slid back three paces.
Jyuushiro saw Shirogane take two bubbling breaths, and then her focus sharpened, deepened. When she flew toward Gin, he said, "Ikorose, Shinsou."
Before Shirogane could reach Gin, Shinsou slammed through her chest, flinging her past scorched wood and burning furniture and into the remains of a wall. She slumped and fell in a boneless heap, hidden by broken wood and stone; and her intent and reiatsu were gone.
Gin's intent turned toward Jyuushiro.
Jyuushiro widened his stance, and let his body and spirit react. Shinsou's strikes were so fast he couldn't see them, but he could feel them. Between intent, reiatsu, trained reflex, and sheer luck, Jyuushiro managed to parry, block, or duck half a dozen strikes. Wood splinters from shattered beams sliced open his cheek, and a chip of rock ripped into his arm, slowing him enough that a parry allowed the tip of Shinsou to neatly pierce Jyuushiro's left thigh, just below his hip.
The withdrawn blade brought a snarling yelp of satisfaction from Gin that sounded more bestial than human. "Blood. I've hit you again. Yer gettin' tired. Yain't reactin' nearly as fast as I kin shoot, Taichou. You've got no chance."
Jyuushiro panted and nodded. Anything to keep his attention. Isane's reiatsu signature crawled amid the wreckage, flitting from Shirogane to Iba, and Hinamori's flickering fire grew steady. "Keep coming closer, Gin and you'll see how much I can take," Jyuushiro gasped.
"You can't even blast me, can you, Taichou? You're too worn out and fucked up to even freakin' hit me. An' I ain't stupid enough ta fire kido at your boomerang of a zanpakutou. Don't want it coming right back at me."
Gin was frighteningly correct, Jyuushiro thought. He'd used nearly everything he had, and so long as Gin didn't use energy blasts or kido, Jyuushiro would have nothing to throw back.
Jyuushiro walked toward Gin anyway.
Gin chuckled, and Shinsou shot toward Jyuushiro. Jyuushiro barely blocked the strike to his chest, but block it he did, just far enough that when the edge sliced his side, his ribs kept vital organs safe.
A high, defiant voice cried out, "Tobiume, hajike!"
Hinamori's shikai burst free, and it felt like a bonfire built too high and hot. A fireball snapped into being and exploded, but well over Gin's head.
Gin ducked and laughed nastily. "So much for not interferin' in other people's fights huh?"
For one instant, Jyuushiro thought about just rushing Gin, doing it by the rules of honor. Of a quick exchange that might leave him dead, but would allow him to rest.
"You don't deserve a fair fight!" Hinamori shouted. "After what you did to poor Kira and Shiro-chan! You deserve to burn."
Hinamori's reiatsu burst into a conflagration of rage and killing intent, and Jyuushiro cast away his doubts. His people's sacrifices were real, significant, even if they weren't by the old rules of conduct. Hitsugaya's horrible transformation weighed on him, especially in the light of what that might mean for the missing. Jyuushiro counted Kira's and Hitsugaya's deaths along with Takano's and Shirogane's. Jyuushiro had to honor what all of them had given. He had to stay alive, stay fighting, and do everything he could do.
After everything they'd been through, Jyuushiro knew his people would all attack as long as they were able. Their pride was a different thing now, even against the impossible odds Gin presented. He knew none of them were afraid of dying, but that was no longer the point. The point was that they had to kill Gin, not just for their own lives, but for the success of the Seireitei efforts and to provide cover for those in Hueco Mundo.
Near the seethe of energy Hinamori had become, Isane's voice chanted, "Ye lord! Mask of flesh and bone, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! Truth and temperance, upon this sinless wall of dreams unleash but slightly the wrath of your claws. Destructive Art 33: Blue Fire, Crash Down!"
When the bolt of blue came at Jyuushiro, it did not surprise him. It smashed through debris and cleared a path between himself and Hinamori, whose figure wavered and shimmered with heat. Jyuushiro caught the residuals of the blast in Sogyo no Kotowari left blade; the charms shone, one after the other, and he aimed the return at Gin, who swore and countered.
Desperate, Gin turned toward Hinamori and started shooting. The debris that had stopped Hinamori's fireball worked as cover for the girl. Three rapid-fired shots of steel gained Gin nothing. Then Hinamori shouted, the strain evident in her voice, "Tobiume, Comet Strike!"
Volcanic heat exploded toward Jyuushiro. He had no time for doubt, no room for worry as to what would happen if he couldn't handle all of that force. Jyuushiro braced into the wind of its coming, and held Sogyo no Kotowari aimed at the heart of it. He and his sword spirit caught it together, and this time he felt the energy burn through the connection of the charms. Each tag burst into flame as the blast touched them, and Jyuushiro accelerated and magnified the power through Sogyo no Kotowari's capabilities.
Jyuushiro flung the tip of his right sword at the staring Ichimaru Gin, and the enormous ball of molten fury came out five times bigger and five times faster than it had come at Jyuushiro.
It hit Gin.
The ex-Captain's reiatsu shielded him to the last moment. Then Gin's power bent and shattered. The flames roared while Gin screamed and crisped. The black shadow of the slender man jerked and writhed, and finally fell.
The heat shimmer of Hinamori's power blew out. The girl crumpled.
Jyuushiro ran to Gin, just in time to see Shinsou revert to its bound form, a simple sword with a burned clean hilt. The metal was warped and bent after the heat of the conflagration that had devoured its master. To Jyuushiro's horror, Gin's blackened form moved.
Dropping to his knees amid embers, Jyuushiro heard his own blood hit the ashes and hiss on the hot remains. Smoke wisped from Sogyo no Kotowari's blackened charms. Gin's eyes opened, glinted red before slitting closed again. Gin gave a rattling sigh, shifted, and whispered. "Come on here. Need ta..." He coughed and something broke off the charred man. Gin cursed.
Jyuushiro ignored the thousand small details of Gin's dying, and concentrated on Gin's killing intent. His intent remained strong, and that made Jyuushiro wary.
Gin coughed a laugh. "That's right. Treat me like the snake in the grass I am. Biting anyone that comes close enough. It's all I've ever been." He drew a difficult breath. "All I've ever been to everyone... 'cept her." The gold ring rolled gleaming and bright from ash-blackened hands.
"Jus'... jus' wanted her to never cry 'gain," Gin whispered. "Woulda taken on the world fer her, won it, and handed it over like a locket onna chain. But..."
The tone changed, and Jyuushiro, warned by the whisper of rage that trickled from the dying man, got off his knees. The cut in his leg and side made Jyuushiro hesitate and sway, but he managed to move back a pace, and then another. To his relief he felt Iba, Isane, and Hinamori behind him. All but Isane were low and flickering, but they weren't out. Not yet.
"But you've killed me, Ukitake. Killed me and her. Might get ta see her in the next life, but I'll never know. So I gotta present for you and your tasty underlings. Some little thang Aizen-sama gave me. Too bad it's gonna eat you first, as it jus' loves power, but you won't haveta watch yer sweet underlings die first."
Rasping another chuckle, Gin said, "Wawl, at least you'll know you gave it the power ta eat the resta your people. That'll have to be good 'nuff for me."
Skin cracked and fell off, as Gin reached into a pocket to pull a glass vial out. Gin's breathing sobbed, but then he growled as he raised a cracked and bleeding hand and smashed it down on the tiles beneath him.
At first it was impossible to see that anything had changed. Jyuushiro opened his senses, and he felt an emptiness that was somehow terribly familiar. Something he'd felt on the field of the faked Karakura, deadly and cold and absolute.
Gin screamed as blackened fingers went from char to eaten bone to floating ash. Then, against the gray of stone and white of fallen plaster, Jyuushiro saw the creeping blackness. He remembered: Barragan.
The shadow doubled in size, and engulfed Gin's arm and shoulder. Gin twisted, flopped, and screamed in agony again, as the shard of the impossibly old Arrancar devoured the dying man, growing as it went. Jyuushiro stumbled back another three paces, and strong arms caught him.
Iba growled in Jyuushiro's ear. "It's growing, Taichou."
"It's getting faster," Isane's voice was soft, coming from where she crouched by Shirogane's body, nearer Gin than Jyuushiro liked.
"All of you run, take Hinamori with you. I can hold it," Jyuushiro said.
Isane dropped her medical kit on the ground by Shirogane, and ran over to Jyuushiro. "Iba, help him on my back?"
"What?" Jyuushiro asked in shock; but even as he said it, he sheathed Sogyo no Kotowari. "You can't."
"She can. She's the only one that can run," Iba said gruffly. The big man limped over, picked Jyuushiro bodily from the ground. Iba made a sound of agony at the effort. Humbled, Jyuushiro clasped Isane's hips with his legs, her shoulders and neck with his arms, and felt twelve again as he rode piggy-back.
"You're so light, Taichou," Isane scolded. Jyuushiro smiled into her hair. If she could do that, then she couldn't be too terrified.
The screaming suddenly fell silent. They all watched as a shadow nearly as big as a man slowly flowed toward Jyuushiro. Everything crumbled into dust in its wake: stone turned to sand, wood to cinder, thread to ash, and as everything died and scattered the shadow grew. Jyuushiro sighed in relief as it went within a foot of Shirogane's still form and didn't turn aside. It headed directly for him and Isane.
As Isane started off, Jyuushiro cried out, "Call the Seireitei team, tell them about Gin, and ask for help!"
Iba waved in acknowledgement, and stepped back away from the shadow.
Jyuushiro thought about what would happen if Soi Fong and her people failed, and he grimly put it from his mind. If they'd died trying to do their job, then everyone would be dead soon enough. Best to play it as if they would survive, concentrate on what they could do, keep to the possibility until it played out. Worry then about what to do next, and Jyuushiro instantly started to work through a plan to get Isane to leave him in the forest. It was a far trickier problem than Jyuushiro liked.
"Isane," Jyuushiro husked, as his own exhaustion crashed in on him. "Run parallel to the walls of Seireitei. We don't want to bring that thing where there are people, and we don't want to go too far away from their help."
"Do you really think help will come?" Isane asked breathlessly.
"Yes," Jyuushiro said, lying between his teeth, but knowing that it was the only way he and his charge could believe enough to save themselves. "Yes. They will come."
Next Chapter: Ensemble -- Splitting the Party >>