bloody Byakuya

Winter War: Ensemble: Making War

Title: Ensemble: Making War
Arc: Winter War
Characters Hanatarou, Byakuya, Shunsui, Nanao, Shuuhei, Ikkaku, Grimmjow, Lisa, Yumichika, uhm....
Rating/Warnings: PG, None other than hints of the violence to come.
Word Count: 5500
Summary: Those who have invaded Hueco Mundo are finally gaining the resources and resolution and leadership to do what they truly came to do.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or its characters, nor do I make any money from these writings.
Author's Notes: Apologies to those who have been awaiting more of this fanfic, the summer was a little rough. This is a chapter in the dark Bleach AU that sophiap and incandescens 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."

Complete Index
44. Yoruichi: Smokescreen
45. Nanao: Dark Songs



Hanatarou stood in the chill of sekkiseki stone. Ise-fukutaichou sat seiza on with a sword bare across her lap. Madarame-san leaned against iron bars, rather than touch the walls of the prison compound. Ayasegawa-san had gone back down the corridor to see if the others could come back where everyone else in order to do a little planning. The little medic fingered the collar about his throat and frowned.

"Hey, runt, what's got your fundoshi in a twist?"

Hanatarou looked up into eyes as blue as the empty sky above Hueco Mundo and was wordless. Grimmjow punched Hanatarou on the shoulder.

"Go on, tell me."

"The collars. They're activated by kidou. In here, kidou can't get to me... so..."

Grimmjow picked Hanatarou up by the collar with frightening ease, for all that Hanatarou wiggled and kicked when the thick band cut off his breathing. "Tr-trigger!! Must... unlockkkkkhk..."

Behind Grimmjow's big shoulder, Yadomaru-san strode up, an impatient frown on her face, and Hanatarou winced when she whapped Grimmjow across the back of the head.

"Hey!" Hanatarou dangled as Grimmjow automatically brought his hands up to protect his head.

"Let the mouse go," Yadomaru-san ordered, voice like iron.

"Fuck off, I just want to get this thing offa him."

"Without blowing his head off and us up as well, idiot." Yadomaru-san swept Hanatarou away from the monster's grip, and Hanatarou whooped for breath. "And without strangling him. What do you think with, Muscle Head, your biceps?"

"What the hell did you just call me?"

Hisagi-san's sigh was weary, but Hanatarou was glad when the dark fukutaichou stepped between Yadomaru-san and Grimmjow. "Enough. Let her look at it."

Grimmjow snarled but stepped back.

"I'm not as precise as Nanao-chan, but all kidou locks have some common bases..." Dark eyes squinted through dark-rimmed glasses, and Hanatarou just closed his eyes and let Yadomaru-san's light-fingered touch play along the edges of the death that had held him for far too long. Holding his breath, Hanatarou waited on the sword's edge of impatience. He squinted open his eyes enough to see that everyone else had stepped back. On seeing their fear, he had to close his eyes again. When he heard Yadomaru-san swear just as a loud click came from the collar, Hanatarou fainted.

Hanatarou came to with someone slapping his face.

Blearily, he opened his eyes. "Uh... huh?"

The light-handed slaps stopped. "Oh, good. You're back with us." Yadomaru-san looked very pleased with herself. To Hanatarou's alarm, a ring of curious faces watched them both. "It's off, dear, and no boom."

"N-no boom?" Hanatarou asked faintly and saw Madarame-san smirk. "Oh. Good."

Hanatarou shook when Yadomaru-san hauled him to his feet, and her hearty back slap pitched Hanatarou forward, right into the arms of Kyouraku-taichou. Hanatarou felt the sway in the big captain's stance at the impact of Hanatarou's slight frame. Kyouraku-taichou isn't well. Hanatarou filed away the instantaneous reaction, and he looked up into dark eyes that widened at his expression.

With a shaky sigh, Hanatarou closed his eyes and bowed his head, feeling the lack of weight, the absence of something that had been omnipresent in every waking and sleeping hour. He ran his fingertips against damp, sore skin, and jumped when someone touched a sensitive spot on the back of his neck with the warmth of a healing kidou.

"It's open and raw," Yadomaru-san said sympathetically. "No use leaving it to get infected while we have the time."

No one contradicted her, and Hanatarou stared at the broken band of his collar on the floor.

It was Grimmjow that picked it up and held it out to Hanatarou. "You want it?"

"No." Hanatarou was surprised by how emphatically he said it. Grimmjow just grinned at him and tossed the collar right into the opening door of the cell.

Ayasegawa-san wrinkled his beautiful nose, as it bumped against his feet. "What in heaven's name are you throwing at me?" Ayasegawa-san picked up the collar pinched between thumb and forefinger, as if he were swinging a dead rat instead of a bit of leather and steel. "Shall I dispose of this?"

"No, wait." The look in Yadomaru-san's eye made Hanatarou squeak when she held her hand out for the thing. "I've got an idea," she said. "Give it here."

Ayasegawa-san gladly dropped it into her palm.

She frowned down at the thing. "Do you think Aizen will notice if you're not wearing this, Hanatarou?"

Hanatarou blinked. "He might. Especially if I heal anyone within his sight, since all of the Fourth Division wears these."

Lisa nodded. "That's what I thought."

Her quick fingers wove a kido spell that froze the collar and bulky package of explosives. "Here... let's do... this." Lisa pulled, pried, and yanked alarmingly hard at the explosives. Finally, it came free of the leather of the collar, and everyone stepped smartly aside when she rushed for the empty cell and threw it inside.

The instant she got the door closed, the entire frame and floor jumped with the boom of an explosion.

"Won't that bring someone?" Hanatarou asked timidly.

"Maybe..." Lisa said. "But the cell contained it, and I certainly didn't want it going off in here!"

There was hearty agreement from everyone else.

Lisa held up the empty collar for Hanatarou. "You want me to put it on?"

Mutely, Hanatarou nodded. He wanted nothing of the sort, but he could see the logic of the move. While she buckled the thing back onto his sore neck, Madarame-san walked up to Ayasegawa.

"Hey. Where are the Prince, the kids, and Renji? Did you just ditch 'em somewhere?"

"Renji was deeply asleep," Ayasegawa-san said primly. "And the poor dear really needed the rest. So I let the kids watch him in a quiet room right by where they'd stopped. The watchers can see how they are and will warn them and us if anyone comes, but I thought I brought..."

Kuchiki-sama pushed open the door to the outside hallway. Hanatarou had to look away to regain his composure. Kuchiki-sama was far too thin, scars roping wrist and throat where the noble had fought shackle and chain. He held himself so carefully straight that Hanatarou knew that the noble was more hurt than he wanted to appear, and Hanatarou ached to try and do something for the injuries. Kuchiki-sama stalked up to Kyouraku-taichou angrily.

"We must find Aizen and kill him, all of us," Kuchiki-sama demanded. "There is no time to waste on these games. What more do you need to decide?"

Kyouraku-taichou pursed his lips. "Nanao-chan needs a little more time, but with her success, we may make our chance."

"Chance. Who plays by chance?" Kuchiki-sama snorted.

"I'd prefer some kind of edge that would allow us to survive. Just rushing Sosuke-kun would be folly."

"No warrior should be afraid to die."

Hanatarou shivered at the icy-dead tone of Kuchiki-sama's voice, and he saw half the people in the room take a step back from a confrontation between the Captains. If they hadn't been surrounded by the reiatsu-deadening stone, Hanatarou thought, they could have flattened us all. While it was true that Hanatarou didn't mind dying in order to kill of Aizen and destroy all the evil Aizen had built, he was still afraid of death and even more afraid of dying without reason. Poor Kuchiki-sama sounded well on the other side of reason.

Kyouraku-taichou went still. "Are you saying that I'm delaying because I'm afraid?" The tone was utterly mild, but it terrified Hanatarou into backing up until he bumped into one of the walls.

Kuchiki-sama raised his gaze to meet Kyouraku-taichou's look. "Yes. I am."

"Well. It's good to clear the air, then," Kyouraku-taichou continued, to Hanatarou's incredulity. "Because I wish to be equally blunt and say that you're rushing in so that you can die."

"I have a debt to pay," Kuchiki-sama replied flatly.

"Rukia-kun didn't die by your hand, Byakuya."

Hanatarou blinked hurriedly, remembering the aching beauty and heartbreak of what he'd seen in the caves. To the little medic, it was clear that Byakuya had killed Rukia. Kyouraku-taichou's eyes flickered to Hanatarou and the warning in them was so apparent that Hanatarou flattened even further against the wall. His small nod must have been enough, because Kyouraku-taichou's intent swung back to Kuchiki-sama.

"You are mistaken." Kuchiki-sama's voice was as clear, smooth, and hard as glacial ice.

"She died on Szayel's tables," Kyouraku-taichou's voice shook. "They strapped me to a sekkiseki stone table, used various elements of torture to test my limits, and decided that I might be better broken through other means, through her. I refused to be so persuaded, and they killed her."

Hanatarou shivered at the anguish that threaded through those words and curled up even further into his corner.

Kuchiki-sama's dark eyes closed. "But I saw..."

"An illusion by the master of lies."

"She called me ni-sama."

"Which everyone knew was her means of expressing respect."

"I felt her die."

"His illusions are reiatsu-rich and emulate all..."

Everyone jumped when Kuchiki-sama flash-stepped, appearing chest-to-chest with Kyouraku-taichou, and Sebonzakura nicked the scruffy Captain's throat. A bead of red formed, paused, as frozen as the tableau, and then trickled unsteadily over skin still dark even after months in underground depths.

"You killed her," Kuchiki-sama whispered.

Dark eyes met pewter, unblinking. Kaiten Kyokotsu remained sheathed. Kyouraku-taichou's big hands remained clear of the hilts, even as Kuchiki-sama's slender hands trembled and the nick grew longer. Blood welled over rough stubble.

"No. Szayel killed her. Or if you must say that I killed her, then it becomes patently true that you had nothing to do with it, Byakuya." Kyouraku-taichou's smooth tones grew weighty, deliberate. "You cannot kill a ghost, my friend. You were given a figment of Sosuke-kun's cruel humor. He did it in order to break you, render you incompetent and blind. Just as he worked to do the same to me by making my refusal to give in the trigger for her death." Kyouraku-taichou drew another shaking breath. "Will you give Sosuke-kun his victory?"

It was like watching porcelain shatter; Kuchiki-sama suddenly sagged, staggered into a wall, to slide down it into a heap on the floor. Hanatarou expected tears, but there were none, just shudders that racked the thin scar-laced frame.

Kuchiki-sama shook his head emphatically. "No. I will give him no more."

"Good. We will need you in this fight, and to think of how best to win this fight." Kyouraku-taichou's long-fingered hand laid on dark hair for an instant, as if imparting a benediction.

To Hanatarou's horror, when Kyouraku-taichou got up, his dark eyes turned on Hanatarou. "Yamada-kun, I have need of your services. I have a wound that is bothering me."

"Of course, sir!" Hanatarou scrambled away from the wall and the puddle of distraught noble. He followed Kyouraku-taichou into a room further down the hallway.

When the door closed behind Hanatarou, Kyouraku-taichou pounced and Hanatarou squeaked.

"You saw." Kyouraku-taichou's dark eyes were anything but sleepy now.

Hanatarou nodded, mute and dumb from the ache and sorrow that returned at remembering that terrible fight in the caves. The despair was enough to make his knees tremble, and he knelt on the cold floor. "Every bit of it."

To his dismay, Kyouraku-taichou gracefully knelt before Hanatarou. "Tell me."

Haltingly, Hanatarou recounted the errand, the standard path through the caves, the unexpected reiatsu, and the crash of rock as a cave was cleared by power. The two combatants facing each other on a field of white, and then the clash and dance of snow and sakura.

"He did kill her, though she'd run him through." Hanatarou finished, watching his hands on his knees, wondering why they didn't shake when the rest of him trembled like a leaf. "He did."

"And so he will remember, but he need not believe," Kyouraku-taichou said.

"But it's..."

"True?"

Hanatarou nodded.

"You are a physician. What is your first rule?"

"Do no harm," Hanatarou answered automatically. He frowned in thought.

"What harm is there in Byakuya believing as he now does?"

Slowly, Hanatarou looked up at Kyouraku-taichou. "None," he whispered.

"And if he believed the truth?" The words were sharper than any blade.

"He would do his best to die." Hanatarou had never been one for self-delusion. He had to see clearly to see what could or couldn't be done for a patient, and now he saw.

"So will you hold your tongue?"

"Aye, sir."

"Good." Kyouraku-taichou gave a deep sigh and closed his eyes in a grimace of pain.

"Uhm, sir?"

"Yes?"

"Was there actually a wound you wanted me to..."

"Oh. Yes. It would help our little story here if I actually showed them to you, yes?"

"Aye, sir."

Kyouraku-taichou undid his sash, unfolded his black robes that didn't show the stains, and Hanatarou had to swallow on seeing the network of bruises, badly knit systematic cuts, and patches of hastily sealed burnt skin underneath. "Sir..." he whispered, remembering the hitch, the minute withdrawal when Kyouraku-taichou caught Hanatarou. The Captain was indeed hurt.

"Do what you can," Kyouraku-taichou said wearily and lay back against the stones. "I will be grateful for anything. Ignoring the pain has grown tiresome."

~*~*~*~


Byakuya sat with his back against a wall, his eyes closed to the chatter all around him. Everything was shattered, scattered, and he wasn't sure he could put the pieces back together yet again. Rukia's broken body, Renji's horrible transformation, his own walk through madness were all too much. Senbonzakura lay across his lap, sheathed and silent, and Byakuya wasn't sure if he was in an icy rage or cold terror at the spirit's absence. Emotions swirled about him, too many to name, too hard to hold onto. He didn't have a handle on himself anymore. How could he have any chance of handling his blade?

"Not talkin' to ya?"

It was the blue-haired one. The man who had obviously been an Arrancar, but without the bone, or the hole, or the innate hunger that lurked in the reiatsu of anything Hollow. The vulgar stranger crouched by Byakuya and looked at him as if he were some equal.

"Mine won't shut up."

Byakuya looked into preternatural blue eyes. "You have a zanpakutou?"

"Yeah." The stranger held up what, by all rights, should have been nothing more than a blank asauchi. It was, instead, a full blown katana with a sheath and handle wrappings in turquoise:, the tsuba was a crooked "S", and even with the draining of the stone all around them, the feral taste of the power coming from it was musky and hot. "I kinda want to see what it does when I call it. You know the name a' yours?"

"Of course!" Byakuya snapped. The idiot smirked at Byakuya.

"Show me."

"I cannot. I am..." Byakuya saw the trap just as he teetered on the edge of it.

"What? What are you?"

"Back off. Now," Byakuya growled.

The stranger snarled and showed white teeth in return. "Make me."

Everyone else in the room slowed down, as if they were moving through water, when they both drew. Reiatsu sprang to the will, fueled by reflexive confidence that it would be there, had always been there for Byakuya. Power poured out like water, was sucked into the stones around them, but true rage and will brought up more. It was like remembering how to breathe or how to walk, thinking only got in the way, analysis missed everything important.

"Pantera, grind." Grimmjow snarled. He transformed into something sleek and visored, sword turning into a curved fang of a blade.

Holding his zanpakutou before his face, Byakuya intoned, "Senbonzakura, scatter."

Nothing happened.

In that frozen instant of true Hell, Byakuya only had enough time to see the surprise on everyone's face, before he dropped into his inner world.

It was winter where it had always been spring. The enormous, centuries old sakura tree stood girded with a kami rope. It had always dominated his mindscape, but it was now black and empty of blossoms and leaves. The gnarled roots spread wide and sank deep into the stone, loam, and moss of the hillside; however, when Byakuya walked to the other side of the ancient tree, he gasped in shock.

Half the tree had been blasted by winter freeze and the blaze of a lightning fire. Ice caked the exposed roots, grew where water and snow fell, until there was a glittering fall of crystalline water that fell into the hole the lightning must have made. Twisted wreckage was blackened and broken, wood and earth flung in all directions. In the bottom of the hole was a simple samurai burial mound, with no marker, just a neat stack of empty armor and a single katana stuck in the earth.

For an instant, Byakuya's mind went white. Terror, rage, and a flash of guilt so deep it was like to crack the foundations of his soul. He had, somehow killed his zanpakutou spirit with that last order, when it wasn't supposed to be possible with Byakuya alive. Senbonzakura had been ordered to kill Byakuya and then kill himself, and now Byakuya wondered if the faithful spirit had done the second even after the first had failed.

A spirit. Senbonzakura was a spirit, not an embodied creature. That had been one of Byakuya's first lessons. Here it could appear anywhere, take either form of sword or spirit being. Frowning, Byakuya sat seiza before the grave. He wished he had incense or a cleansing bowl of water. Bowing to the earth, his forehead touching the winter-seared grass before him, Byakuya kowtowed three times, and on rising, clapped sharply three times. That was supposed to call the attention of the spirit, the kami of this place.

Pale purple flames flickered and then rose above the grave site.

Master.

"Sebonzakura, what are you doing?"

Being dead, sir, as you commanded.

"I..." Byakuya hesitated, fell silent. Theory had it that this was a part of his own soul. There would be dire consequences for lying to oneself, for hiding away from the truth as one knew it. "I did order you to do so. I am..." The words were far more difficult to say than it should have been, but he shaped his mouth about them. Regret and sorrow welled up. "I am sorry. I was wrong in ordering you do what I told you to do."

The fire flickered brighter. You were?

"I was wrong," Byakuya said firmly, driving the point home through the backbone of his own pride.

What would you have me do, master?

"Come back to me, Senbonzakura," Byakuya said softly. "I have need of your strength."

The entire world shuddered. The earth heaved, cracked as it might have during one of the mighty earthquakes of Byakuya's land, matching the horror of seeing his spirit dead, of realizing what he'd done to himself and to his strength of intent. He'd crippled himself. The old tree above him groaned and trembled, branches shaking in a bitter wind. Black clouds scudded in from the East. The soft dirt crumbled back into the maw of darkness that opened at the broken foot of the tree, running zigzag through the heart of the stark grave.

The body that dragged itself up from the softened earth was not pretty. Senbonzakura had done a thorough job of eviscerating himself, and his torso was ripped to ribbons. Sword spirits could be hurt, and this one was now torn and suffering, the rust of old blood splashing its fundoshi to the knees.

"Put on your armor," Byakuya said softly.

Dutifully and stiffly, the broken spirit set each piece of armor back onto his body. The lacquer was destroyed about its middle, and blood matted the joints and plates of the skirts. The sky rumbled, growled, protested, and a wind picked up, whistling through bare branches. Rain spattered and then slashed down on the wind.

Byakuya ignored all of that and contemplated his ravaged sword spirit. His apology had brought it back to life: what would it need to be whole?

"What do you need to be whole?" The cadaver asked Byakuya, reasonably. It fell to its knees before Byakuya, mirroring him in a way that felt right.

"I need to kill Aizen," Byakuya said, but it sounded wrong. Thunder pealed in the distance. Senbonzakura sat seiza dutifully, but looked no more whole.

Byakuya growled.

"What have you lost?" The spirit asked.

"Lost?" Byakuya was taken aback, but the spirit was silent, the black slits of its visor still. Byakuya closed his eyes and realized that the list was far longer than he'd thought it could be. "I've lost my Division. I've lost my sister. I've lost most of the other Captains."

"Why do you live?"

"What?" Byakuya startled. "I am alive because Aizen gave me no choice."

"I did not ask you why you happen to be alive." The deep voice of Senbonzakura was patient, the old voice of the Spirit teaching the young, fiery, angry heir to the Kuchiki Clan. "Master, I asked you why do you live?"

"I said it before, to kill Aizen."

The silence that met that answer angered Byakuya, made him feel like he had as a child, somehow guilty of something self-serving, narrow of view, or without the good of the Clan at stake.

Good of the Clan. "Is there something left of my clan?" The possessive pronoun anchored Byakuya.

"There is, Master. Hunted and beleaguered, but they still exist."

Byakuya closed his eyes and breathed deep. "Do they have a leader?"

"Your grandfather is still alive."

"But older still." Byakuya opened his eyes.

"Aye, sir."

Tentatively, Byakuya tasted the words as they left his mouth. "I would live for the good of the Kuchiki Clan."

The sigh of relief from Senbonzakura was soft enough to be the sough of the wind, but before Byakuya's eyes, the spirit sat up straighter.

"I would live to fight with..." Byakuya struggled to group the hodgepodge of people who had burst into his cell and the ragtag remains of Renji. "... my... allies..." Nothing happened, and Byakuya took his courage into his hands. "... my friends and companions."

Senbonzakura groaned this time, and Byakuya could hear the snapping into place of bone and sinew, see the knitting of blood-edged wounds and the closing of gaping holes in the armor.

"To defeat Aizen if it is at all possible, in order to restore justice and balance to the worlds. If I should die in the attempt, it will not dismay me, but I believe that, like Shunsui, I would also prefer to live."

Lightning flashed, the sky roared, and a deluge of rain poured from the sky. Warm rain, a full tilt spring thunderstorm opened up at exactly the same moment that Senbonzakura sprang from where he sat, sword flashing forward.

Byakuya drew on reflex, after thousands of training sessions with his sword spirit, he knew how Senbonzakura fought. Bankai had not been easy, it had turned into an on-going struggle against the traditional warrior spirit, demanding constant practice, vigilance, and every bit of confidence Byakuya could muster. It was a struggle that had lasted decades.

In all that time, Byakuya came to know his zanpakutou even better than he knew himself. When Senbonzakura struck, Byakuya swung in perfect synchronization. Steel met steel, both sacrificing edge to do it, and both standing their ground, meeting strength with strength. This was not mastery, and Byakuya knew that if he tried to call on bankai now, he would be lost. But shikai -- knowing that he needed his sword's strength to win, that could be done.

"You are whole again, my Master," murmured the sword spirit.

"As are you, Senbonzakura," Byakuya stated. "Now, I ask you. Scatter."

Byakuya's inner world fractured into ten thousand fluttering edges that rustled and flurried into the air about him, and the metal of the sword before him flaked away into petals. Each petal, while pink, was now edged in blood, as red as arterial spray.

"Oh, yeah, game's on now!" Grimmjow growled. "Bring it."

Shadow bred shadow, elongated and snapped, and Shunsui stepped from the darkness to stand between the two combatants. "No." Shunsui braced, in strong stance, with both his swords drawn and the thrum of shikai in the air.

Byakuya took half a step back. Shunsui had just done the barely possible, activating shikai without invocation. Shunsui's swords were always capable of the Shadow Game, but to see such power pulled out so casually... Byakuya shuddered. Shunsui was whole and wielding all his power as Captain.

"Senbonzakura," Byakuya commanded, and the sword reformed. He sheathed it deliberately, and Grimmjow snarled. "I will bow to your command, Kyouraku."

Finally, Grimmjow took a step back and sheathed, muttering.

"Come on, let's sit down and figure out who is going to do what," Shunsui said, reasonably.

"Figure it out?" Grimmjow growled. "Don't you mean you get to tell us what to do?"

It was Shuuhei who clipped Grimmjow on the head, and there was a glint in Shuuhei's dark eyes that Byakuya found unsettling. "Get used to it. It's how things work. Captains command, we do what they say." The dark-haired fukutaichou grinned into the teeth of Grimmjow's snarl, before sobering, the glint disappearing, to bow toward Shunsui. "What do you wish for us to do, sir?"

People gathered around. Byakuya stood there and didn't flinch or walk away. He thought about the half-ragged Renji, and the two human children who were not here, and realized that it might be easier to without them to plan in the ways of the Gotei 13, the means of coordinated work between divisions and people. They would be a factor, but more in the ways of pointing powerful weapons and loosing them than in figuring out when and where they should be released.

"How many people here have never seen Sosuke-kun's release?" Shunsui asked.

Little Hanatarou tentatively waved his hand, and Grimmjow cocked his blue-haired head.

"The humans haven't seen it, either," Ikkaku said gruffly. "They've said as much."

"What does not seein' it do?" Grimmjow asked.

"If you've seen it, then you can be fooled by it." Shunsui looked pensive.

Grimmjow grunted and then frowned. "That's why that bastard..."

"All of the Espada have seen it then?"

Grimmjow nodded. "First week he was here, said he had somethin' ta show us. Queer thing was that it was different for everyone, and most of 'em were ready to kill folks 'steada talkin' about it."

It was Ikkaku who growled, "Worst nightmare, huh?"

Grimmjow nodded with an unconscious snarl. "Made it easy to roll right over everyone."

"That's how it's supposed to work," Shuuhei said grimly.

"Well," Lisa said briskly. "Now we know whom it won't work on and who must duck when it seems that Sosuke-kun is about to release either his shikai or his bankai. Just don't look at him until we tell you."

"A-all right," Hanatarou said. "Should Orihime-san and I hang back anyway?"

"Yes," Lisa said immediately and got a glance from her former captain. "They're both healers, and they're both..."

"Fragile?" Ikkaku drawled.

"Right." Lisa pushed her glasses up, and Byakuya was fascinated by how similar she was to the girl in the corner, and still how different with that taint of Hollow on her. He remembered this one from a hundred year's distance, and to see her again like this was surreal.

"Speakin' of releases..." Ikkaku frowned. "What in hell is Ise going to get if she gets through to that thing?"

All eyes turned toward the still unresponsive Ise-fukutaichou, who held Tousen's sword across her lap.

Shuuhei cleared his throat. "She's Suzumushi. Don't you know what she can do?"

"I don't," Grimmjow and Lisa said simultaneously and looked daggers at each other.

"Somethin' about blindin' people?" Ikkaku said, dubiously. "Doesn't seem that nasty."

"She's got almost the opposite of Aizen's capabilities," Shuuhei said.

"The opposite? How so?" Shunsui's interest seemed to motivate the young fukutaichou, as Shuuhei actually smiled in return and relaxed a very defensive stance. Byakuya kept silent the thought that Shunsui actually knew the capabilities of Tousen's sword, but wanted to bring Hisagi back into a group that was obviously wary of the young fukutaichou. It didn't hurt that Hisagi might know more than the Captains knew of each other.

"She takes away all the senses but touch. Scent, sound, sight, and taste all disappear. With a full release her opponents are trapped in just themselves," Shuuhei answered steadily. "We've all had to fight with a blindfold on, or figure out what a difference it makes if we can't hear. But few try to fight without multiple senses. It's nigh on impossible."

The whole room went silent.

"It's nearly the perfect counter to Aizen's full-sensory illusions," Shunsui breathed.

"But how the hell do we fight if we can't..." Grimmjow growled. "Can't figure out where the hell he is?"

Byakuya frowned, remembering training accidents when he had less control over Senbonzakura's blades, and the spirit that was back in his heart nodded in agreement. Ask, Master. "And even more importantly, how we will know where each other are in such a bell jar of denial?"

Shuuhei grinned. "There's an out. It's her hilt. Touch it and all the restrictions fall off."

"So we'd be able to sense Aizen when he can't sense us," Lisa asked.

"Yes."

"But what the fuck good is it if we're attached to the damned hilt?" Grimmjow asked, brow furrowed.

"Someone's gotta stand there and throw attacks at Aizen, stupid." Ikkaku finally pushed off from the wall he'd been leaning against. "Leave some of us blind, especially those that haven't seen the bastard's release, and keep 'em around the edge in case Ise and whomever else is in there falls."

"And I and any others who have a distance attack will stand by Ise-fukutaichou and be able to see and hit Aizen," Byakuya said firmly. He saw the assessment in a few of the gazes now turned on him, and he smiled his old smile, the assured cold one that would get anything through family meetings. "Once he is down, Ise may bring down the effect, and everyone can..."

"Dog pile on the bastard," Ikkaku finished with satisfaction.

"But how in the world are we going to buy Ise-fukutaichou the time to call shikai?" Hanatarou asked in bewilderment.

"I will engage Sosuke-kun personally," Shunsui said mildly.

"What?!" Lisa sprang up to her feet. "You can't do that!"

Grimmjow leaned toward Shuuhei. "What did you say about everyone always doing what the Captains say?"

"You'll get yourself killed! For no good reason at all!" Lisa sputtered. "At least have the rest of us hit him as best we're able while you do your damned fool stunt!"

"Yare yare," Shunsui murmured. "Such a big fuss over such a small thing. Someone has to catch Sosuke-kun's attention and keep it. I am best suited because of the one thing you and Nanao-chan tell me constantly."

"What is that?"

"I am annoying." Shunsui gave a placid, lazy-eyed smile in the teeth of Lisa's disbelieving snort. "My games will frustrate Sosuke-kun because he hates playing them when he could be destroying worlds, so let us make him very angry indeed."

Lisa growled and stomped up to Shunsui. "You're just looking to get killed."

"I am not." Shunsui looked indignant, but Byakuya wondered if anyone could ever tell what Shunsui was really thinking. "Jyuushiro would have my hide if I did that."

The name of the white-haired Captain deflated Lisa. "Yes, sir. Yes, he would. Remember he's..."

"Waiting for me to get back?" Shunsui sighed. "Yes. I remember. And that is why I'm proposing this strategy. It is the best we have."

Ise-fukutaichou gave a soft sigh. Byakuya saw Shunsui spin on one heel and leap to be at her side. He nodded, thinking of Renji, with a twist of heart and mouth. He headed toward the door, thinking to bring Renji and the humans back with him. He ignored the whispered, urgent conference between Captain and Lieutenant, thinking to give them some privacy. Then, all around them, came the voice of Hoshibana.

"Sir, someone is heading your way."

Byakuya straightened. "Who?"

"Not sure yet... there seem to be two Vastolorde heading in your direction. One matches the description we received of..." Hoshibana hesitated, and then the all heard the quick gasp. "Oh. King of Heaven... Aizen's with them."

Byakuya ran for the door. "I must get Renji."

"Do that. We'll meet in the caves." Shunsui's decision was swift and clear. "Near where you met the illusion of Rukia. That should give us the space we need."

Byakuya snarled, not truly wanting to ever see that place again, but he acknowledged the order from the only one left worthy. "Aye."

TBC