incandescens (incandescens) wrote,
incandescens
incandescens

Winter War - Ichigo: No Hiding Place

Title: Winter War - Ichigo: No Hiding Place
Authors: incandescens
Characters: Ichigo, Ikkaku, others
Rating/Warning: PG-13.
Notes: This is a dark AU co-plotted with sophiap and liralen. The war against Aizen's forces went very badly. Nothing is sacred and no one is safe.

Summary: And I ran to the rock to hide my face, and the rock cried out, no hiding place.

Index of Links
[...]

33. Ensemble: Splitting The Party
34. Karin: At Bay
35. Retaking Seireitei, Part 2
36. Grimmjow: Trauma
37. Ensemble: Haste



NO HIDING PLACE

Ichigo wasn’t used to this way of doing things. He still found it hard to believe that Ikkaku was actually in favour of it, and that Grimmjow – Grimmjow cooperating with the shinigami, that was another unlikely thing – was going along with it. They were being quiet. Stealthy. Secretive. Positively sneaky.

(All right, so Yoruichi had wanted them to be sneaky right back when they were breaking into Soul Society to rescue Rukia, but she hadn’t seriously expected them to manage to stay quiet and avoid fights, had she?)

(That seemed like years ago.)

There were places in his memory like strained muscles or open wounds. He was afraid to touch them, to think about them, because some hidden line of knowledge told him that if he did, they would hurt very badly. He had never thought of himself as a coward before now, but he was afraid of what he might learn. What had happened to . . . to everyone except Inoue. Ikkaku had told him the bones of it, but he didn’t want to see more than that. He remembered the pieces of it like facts read in a book: pieces like Ikkaku said I left Chad to be broken rather than remembering Ikkaku saying that he’d left Chad to be broken.

There were questions that he knew he should want to ask, but he flinched away from them because of the answers.

Inoue and Nanao had done something to the door and got it open. He hadn’t met Nanao before, apart from seeing her standing around the place behind one of the Captains, but clearly she was the sort of shinigami who was good at kidou.

(Like Rukia.)

That was good. It was useful having someone on the team who was good at kidou, he thought with a desperate firmness. It meant they could sneak up on Aizen rather than have to break everything down to get at him. Even though he still wasn’t very keen on the sneaking option, he could at least be in favour of the get to close range first option.

Though all this was assuming that the sneaking option worked when there were a dozen of them trying to be sneaky. Seriously. Did they really think that Aizen wasn’t going to hear them coming when there were twelve of them marching down the corridor – well, ten of them tiptoeing down the corridor with Ikkaku out in front and Yumichika bringing up the rear, and . . .

A growl echoed down the corridor from somewhere ahead of them.

Ikkaku reappeared at Ichigo’s side, his sandalled feet silent on the smooth off-white floor, and gestured back, and to the right. His face was tense, and Ichigo knew better than to ask out loud, What is it? He nodded, picked up Inoue, and flash stepped back to the turning on the right that they’d just passed. Nanao and Lisa were half a step behind him, carrying Sora between them, and the others followed in silence.

Yumichika was standing there. His eyes narrowed as he saw them coming, but he waved them past him, waiting for Ikkaku to rejoin the group before retreating into the corridor with them. They ran perhaps fifty metres down it, till the corridor turned on itself in a hairpin bend, and paused to wait there. The stone which this place was built of cut down on all reaitsu-sensing anyhow, but Ichigo pulled his own reiatsu in even tighter than he already had been doing, and he guessed that the others were doing the same.

What was it? Ichigo tried to communicate to Ikkaku, with meaningful gestures and eyebrow waggling. He’d put Inoue down, but she stayed next to him, one hand on his shoulder as though she was afraid that he’d vanish.

Ikkaku glanced at Nanao and Hisagi and Yumichika, checking that he had their attention. He made a few quick gestures at the other shinigami, and they nodded as if they understood, then turned slightly towards Ichigo. Big, he gestured, spreading his arms. The next gesture might have been either Hairy or Crested or Crowned or Weird hat, but the final gesture was probably Teeth. Or possibly Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Nanao nodded to Ikkaku, looking dubious. She spread her hands in a what-do-we-do-now sort of way.

Ikkaku nodded back, and put his finger to his lips, then mimed violent action. Yumichika nodded.

Right. So if it didn’t come after them, then they were fine, and if it did, they jumped out on it and killed it. Ichigo could do that.

Killing it, something at the back of his mind suggested, in a definitely-not-your-inner-Hollow, don’t-look-at-me-like-that, I’m-just-saying way, would be a kindness to it. Whoops. I mean releasing it, don’t I? Releasing. That’s the right word. That’s what we do to Hollows and everything like them. Whatever they are. Whoever they are.

The urge to ask the others exactly what had happened when he was – when he wasn’t himself – came over him like a physical sickness, and he had to bite it back, his teeth clenching in his lower lip.

He felt Inoue’s hand tighten on his shoulder, and turned to smile at her reassuringly. There was a near-panic in her eyes as she looked at him, staring into his eyes searchingly.

Relax, he tried to communicate in the dead silence. I’ll be okay. He jerked his lips into a smile, tasting blood in his mouth. I’m all right, Inoue. Don’t cry.

But she wasn’t crying this time. She was watching him in deadly earnest, as if she thought she could stop him if he tried to do something that she disagreed with. It wasn’t Rukia’s air of I-will-slap-you-silly-if-you-do-something-stupid.

(He wouldn’t be seeing Rukia again.)

Finally Ikkaku moved again. He gestured unnecessarily for everyone to stay quiet, and ghosted to the bend in the corridor to peer around it.

Nothing.

They began to move again, creeping along the corridor, along the off-white floor, beside the off-white walls, a million miles from Karakura.

Ichigo had never been so desperate to be home.

Especially when he thought about what Ikkaku had told him a quarter of an hour ago.

---

“Can we talk?” Ichigo said to Ikkaku. He tried to make it subtle and quiet, he honestly did, but there was only so subtle and quiet you could be when there were a dozen people milling around in front of the doorway to Aizen’s labs and whispering to each other.

Grimmjow and Hanatarou and Hisagi had just got back from their bit of corridor. Hanatarou was helping that guy they’d said was from Sixth, and both of them were injured. The little Arrancar was trailing along behind Hisagi, looking at him half the time with big dubious eyes, and looking over her shoulder the rest of the time. There was no sign of the other Fourth Division shinigami.

“Just a moment,” Ikkaku said. He pushed forward. “Oi!” It was more of a hiss than a shout, but it got Hisagi’s attention. “Where’s Smiley?”

“Smiley?” Hisagi said, looking blank.

“Ogidou’s dead,” the Sixth Division man said, very flatly. He glanced at Hisagi, who had his mouth pressed together tighter than Ichigo had ever seen on him before, then back to Ikkaku. “He died in battle. But Kurotsuchi Nemu is dead as well.”

Ikkaku frowned. “What do you mean? Hanatarou said –“

Nanao turned away from what she’d been doing at the door to pay attention, and Hanatarou said something about clones and original sources, and the whole thing degenerated into a babble of argument and stuff about zanpakutou that Ichigo didn’t know about and didn’t care about. He felt a bit guilty about not feeling worse about Ogidou, but he hadn’t even known the man.

He was more worried about the people that he should be feeling guilty about. Rukia. Ishida. Renji. Chad. All of them.

“What did you want to ask him?” Inoue asked. She was still looking pale and sweaty, though not as bad as she had been. “If it’s...” She trailed off uncertainly. “I mean, if it’s about something that happened while you weren’t really here, I mean, not as you yourself –“

“Nothing like that,” Ichigo lied. Of all people, he couldn’t ask her. He couldn’t make her tell him what had happened to all the people who came to save her. He couldn’t bear the look in her eyes as she blamed herself. “It’s a fighting thing.”

“Oh. All right.” She frowned up at him, brows pressed together. “But if it’s a fighting thing, perhaps you could ask Yumichika?”

“Perhaps you could indeed,” Yumichika said, sliding his way into the conversation. He shook back his hair. “I assure you that I am at least as competent as Ikkaku on ‘fighting things’.”

“Bullshit,” Ikkaku said, stalking back to join them. “If you had been, then you’d have been third seat. Moron. Kurosaki, come walk with me a few steps down the corridor. That way we’re not going to ruffle the ears of any of these ‘experts’ who need to ‘concentrate on their kidou’.”

Nanao sniffed as she walked past them, back towards the door. Hanatarou trailed her limply. “Inoue, here, please,” she said crisply. “I need your attention. I think we almost have it.”

“Okay,” Ikkaku said when they were twenty yards or so down the corridor. Ichigo glanced back over his shoulder, but nobody seemed to be paying any attention to them. “What is it?”

“I...” Ichigo rubbed at his forehead. “Look. I don’t remember the last few months. Any of it. I remember fighting Zaraki, and then I remember waking up now when Orihime healed me. I don’t know what happened to the others. Look, call me whatever the hell you want, but just tell me. What happened?”

Ikkaku frowned at him. It wasn’t an unkind frown, not even as aggressive a frown as Ichigo remembered, but it didn’t make Ichigo feel any better. “Shit. You don’t remember anything at all? Not even, you know, bits of it?”

“No.” Ichigo’s voice fell to a hiss. He wanted to shout, to hammer his fist against the wall, but he knew that he had to, had to keep control. “Please. Just tell me, all right? Are they prisoners?”

“Sado was.” Ikkaku shifted his weight. “Hisagi smuggled him out, along with Grimmjow. Inoue Orihime healed his Hollow-ness or whatever. You know, like cleansing him with a good sword strike to the head, only no sword. Sado had been a prisoner here for months. He’s in Seireitei now, with Shiba Kuukaku. He’ll heal.”

Ichigo was beginning to nod, but then the fact that Ikkaku had only named one person hit him. “The others?” he said, his lips numb.

“Kuchiki Rukia died,” Ikkaku said. He didn’t try to soften it. “Hanatarou said that they did something to her, Aizen and his people. Warped her. He saw her brother –“ He frowned. “He saw Kuchiki-taichou cleanse her. And then he killed himself.”

Ichigo turned aside, unable to say anything. It didn’t make sense. Rukia couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be. Hadn’t her brother been able to save her? Was that why Byakuya had killed himself?

He could understand that, perhaps. Yes. He could understand that.

“The Quincy died, too,” Ikkaku said. “Sado heard as much. Inoue confirmed it. Renji... We don’t know about Renji. Aizen has prisoners, deeper in. Maybe he’s there.”

But the words had a hollowness to them, and Ichigo knew that Ikkaku didn’t really believe it. “Renji wouldn’t have been taken prisoner,” he said. It was easier to argue about it like that than to think about the corollary.

“Fuck, you don’t exactly get to pick and choose,” Ikkaku snarled. “You think I’d want him to be a prisoner here? For months? You think I’d wish that on anyone?”

Ichigo tried to think of names, any other names to ask about. He needed something to distract him from the growing thundercloud in his head, like a headache but warmer and softer, a hotness like an infected wound. “Yamamoto,” he said. “You know. The old guy.”

“Dead,” Ikkaku said. “He died at Karakura. A lot of them did.”

“Toushirou.”

“Missing. Dead, maybe. And Matsumoto too.” Ikkaku shook his head. “Shit. You really have been out of it.”

Ichigo wanted to snap back it wasn’t my choice, but he was horribly, dreadfully afraid that on some level it had been. He tried to think of other names. “That healer woman. Unohana.”

“She surrendered.” Ikkaku shrugged. “I’ll make it quick, Kurosaki. She surrendered to save Seireitei. Ichimaru’s in charge there now. Ukitake-taichou and Soi Fong-taichou are still with us. They’re leading an attack on Seireitei now. Right now. We’re hitting Aizen while they hit Ichimaru, and Urahara and Yoruichi are holding Karakura. If we get this right, then their whole house of cards goes down.”

It was like reaching out for a support that he’d been expecting, and finding nothing there. Seireitei had been strange to him, and the Gotei 13 had been enemies before they were friends, and yet they’d been permanent. They’d been real.

“What happened to the Vizards?” he asked, forcing the words through numbness. “You know. Like Lisa.”

“Hnh. Not surprised you got to know them.” Ikkaku shrugged. “You could ask Yadomarou, I suppose, but -- Aizen attacked their place after he was finished in Karakura. Muguruma and Kuna, they’re still with us. They’re in Karakura with Urahara, at his shop. Otoribashi’s with them too, but he was badly hurt. Hirako and Sarugaki died.” The names came out like a fiction, like an impossibility. Ichigo knew these people. He’d trained with them. He’d learned from them. “Yadomaru got taken prisoner along with Aikawa and Ushoda. Ichimaru killed Aikawa. Ushoda’s still a prisoner, probably somewhere further in.”

“My dad. My sisters.” Ichigo shouldn’t have left them till last, he knew he shouldn’t have, but he’d thought that they would have to be all right, that nothing could touch them in Karakura, and now it was being thrown in his face that yes, Karakura could be touched, everything could be touched, and nothing was safe. “Tatsuki, Mizuiro, Keigo – you met Keigo, Ikkaku –“ Another name struck him. “Yachiru, that little girl, I remember she was there when I was fighting Zaraki –“

“Keep it together, Kurosaki.” Ikkaku reached out to grab his arm. His fingers hurt, but it helped, it was something to distract Ichigo. “Keep it together. Your family’s safe. Your dad’s looking after them. That mod soul’s there too. They’re safe, all of them. And Urahara’s in Karakura, him and Shihouin Yoruichi. Anything tries to poke around up there, they’ll take it to pieces. I need you focused here and now, Kurosaki. You hear me?”

He didn’t mention Yachiru, and Ichigo couldn’t bring himself to ask again.

“You hear me?” Ikkaku repeated. He pulled Ichigo closer, glaring at him. “Come on, Kurosaki, open your fucking mouth. The word I want is yes, all right?”

“I should be in Karakura,” Ichigo said. How could his father be expected to keep his sisters safe? And why should he trust Urahara or Yoruichi? He’d trusted the shinigami, and look what had happened to them all. ”There has to be some way –“

“Oh, screw that,” Ikkaku snarled. “The Inoue girl’s got more sense than you. You know something? She’s got more guts than you, too. She’s been here as a prisoner for months now, knowing exactly what was going on, but is she standing next to you going boo hoo I want to get back to Karakura? No, she’s over there with Ise getting the door open so we can go beat Aizen’s head in. You telling me that you’ve got less nerve than her, Kurosaki?”

There was a furious anger dancing in Ikkaku’s eyes, and Ichigo was about to answer just as rudely, just as viciously, but then he saw something else. A calculating turn to Ikkaku’s mouth. The fact that Ikkaku was standing in a half-defensive stance, ready to block an impulsive blow.

Ikkaku was deliberately trying to provoke him. And it wasn’t hard to guess why.

“Drop it,” he said bitterly. “I’m not going to – to do that again. And I’m not going to try and get out now. You don’t need to shame me into anything. I can do that just fine by myself.”

Ikkaku squeezed his arm and released him. “Yeah, well, that’s a good fucking thing, because next time I need to talk some sense into you, I’m going to let Boy Blue over there do it.” His nod towards Grimmjow made it clear who he was talking about.

“Him? No damn way. I’ve fought that guy.” Ichigo twitched at the memory.

“Yeah, well, you have all the fucking luck,” Ikkaku said, cheerfully ignoring Ichigo’s glare. “Now next step is, we go through that door, and we see if we can find any prisoners before we go kick Aizen’s head in. You with us, Kurosaki?”

This isn’t cleansing Hollows. This isn’t fighting to protect someone in front of me who needs protecting. This is agreeing to go and kill someone.

“Yes,” Ichigo said. “I’m with you.”

---

The next encounter was different.

They’d retreated back around another corner at Ikkaku’s signal, and waited there while he checked. A few moments later, he returned, and beckoned Nanao to come with him, and then Hanatarou as well.

There was a faint, distant murmuring.

Ichigo gave it five minutes, then inched back out into the corridor to see what was going on. After all, there hadn’t been anything to suggest it was an Arrancar about to attack.

He blinked to see a perfectly normal shinigami. The woman – a stranger, not someone he knew – was moving down the corridor at a steady pace, calm and blank, her face distracted. Her hair was clipped short and brushed harshly back, and her uniform wasn’t quite right. It looked as if she’d put it on but only bothered to make sure that the front crossed and that it was all tied in place, but without the normal touches of someone who wants to look smart or even tidy. There was a collar round her neck like the one round Hanatarou’s.

Ikkaku and Nanao and Hanatarou were following a few steps behind her, talking quietly. Hanatarou made a pleading gesture, extending his hands.

“Today I have to give the vaccinations,” the woman said.

Ichigo flinched, not sure how to reply, but then he realised she wasn’t speaking to him. She wasn’t speaking to anyone. She didn’t even pause in her progress down the corridor.

“Yeah,” Ikkaku muttered, keeping his voice down. “Look, Hanatarou, I agree with you that it’s a fucking atrocity, but if we try to stop her, what if she gives an alarm?”

“It wouldn’t be her choice,” Nanao put in. “She’s clearly suffering from some sort of programming.”

“But we have to try,” Hanatarou said. He looked on the brink of tears. “Inoue Orihime can try to do something, can’t she?” He looked between Ikkaku and Nanao, “Please, even if isn’t just a matter of simple healing, just think of what she might know about Aizen’s layout here –“

Nanao frowned. “Inoue might know her own capacities better than we would.” She glanced at Ichigo. “Kurosaki, please will you fetch Inoue? And please tell the rest to stay where they are for the moment? Just to move out of the way if Madoka here walks past. She doesn’t seem to recognise anything or any of us.”

Ichigo felt just a twitch of annoyance at being treated as a convenient errand-boy, but suppressed it. He whisked back in a couple of flash steps to find the others all about to follow him around the corner.

“What’s going on?” Grimmjow hissed.

“It’s a shinigami,” Ichigo reported. “I think she’s been brainwashed somehow – Nanao said her name was Madoka,” he quickly added, seeing Yumichika and Hisagi and the guy from Sixth all about to say something. “Hanatarou knows her, I think. Nanao wants me to fetch Inoue to look at her. She says everyone else is please to stay here –“ The please was an afterthought. “And if this woman walks past, don’t interfere, she doesn’t seem to be noticing us.”

Looking pale, Inoue stepped forward. “I’ll do what I can,” she said softly. “But...”

“If you can do anything, I know you will,” Ichigo said reassuringly. He picked her up, and skimmed down the corridor back to where the others were. They’d only advanced twenty yards or so. Madoka walked slowly.

“Oh!” Inoue’s hand went to her mouth. “The poor thing! Let me look at her.” She scrambled out of Ichigo’s grasp, running forward to peer at Madoka, walking alongside her.

Several paces later, she said, “I can’t see anything that’s been done to her physically, but I suppose that if it’s mental brainwashing, it wouldn’t necessarily show, would it?”

“I don’t think so,” Hanatarou said. “Madoka-san... she was one of the people who got taken away for experiments.” His glance down the corridor, towards where all the others were waiting, was too casual and mild to be an accident. “But if she’s alive –“

“I can try to heal her,” Inoue said slowly. “I can try.” Her face brightened. “And then –“

“Just a moment.” Ikkaku was scowling. “Inoue-kun, if you do this, how big a production’s it going to be?”

“Er... I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t usually keep track of things like that.”

“Which means it might alert someone if we do it right here in the middle of the corridor, and we don’t know how she’ll react if we move her somewhere else.” Ikkaku turned to Hanatarou. “Look, I fucking swear we’ll come back after we’ve taken Aizen down, all right? I understand, I really do understand –“

Hanatarou was shrinking in on himself, eyes wide and dark, nodding gently, so gently. “Yes, Third Seat Madarame, I understand.”

Ikkaku grabbed him and slammed him against the wall. “Will you damn well swear at me or try to hit me or something, don’t just look at me like that! You know why we can’t risk it!”

“Please don’t do that to me, Third Seat Madarame,” Hanatarou whispered. His hands came up to bat at Ikkaku’s, feebly trying to push him away. “I do understand, really I do.”

“I –“ Ikkaku started.

“It’s not as if we could save Kurotsuchi-fukutaichou, either.” Hanatarou said. He took a deep breath. “We’ll come back later. Fourth Division doesn’t abandon its own.”

Ikkaku let go of him, turned, and slammed his fist into the wall. His knuckles left a streak of red against the off-white.

“Kurosaki,” Nanao said sharply. “Go and tell the others they can join us. Avoid Madoka. Madarame, please get back on point. Madoka must have been coming from somewhere: there may be danger close ahead. Inoue-kun, wait with me for the others. Now. “ She clapped her hands together sharply, but the noise didn’t carry in the corridor, it died and was lost.

Ichigo didn’t want to get involved in the confrontation. He could see the logic behind leaving the woman alone for the moment, even if he didn’t like it. He nodded to Nanao, and dashed back (why was he running all the errands, again?) to tell the others.

The group crept on. White corridors. They coiled around on each other, and the whole place buzzed with killing stone. The metaphysical stink of it crept into Ichigo’s lungs and stomach until he wanted to spit.

Then Ikkaku reappeared. The blood on his knuckles had dried, and he had that crazy grin of his that Ichigo hadn’t seen for what felt like months. “Hey, Ise, people. Guess what I’ve found?”

Nanao gave him a frosty glare. “Do tell us, Madarame.”

“I’ve found a spy-room.” He sing-songed the words, bouncing from foot to foot. “And you know what? It’s where Ichimaru used to hang out.”

The little female Arrancar twitched nervously, stepping behind Hisagi.

“How do you know that?” Ise demanded.

“Because there’s a bowl of dried-up persimmons right next to the big chair with all the screens in front of it.” Ikkaku smirked. “You tell me who else down here would eat them.”

“And you’re sure it’s clear?” Nanao probed.

“Unless you-know-who’s already diddled my eyes and is convincing me that I’m talking to you and telling you all this,” Ikkaku said. “In which case we’re already screwed.”

Everyone looked at each other nervously.

“You’re not,” Ichigo said confidently. “I mean, I can hear you saying that – that is, you can hear me saying that to you, right? I mean ...” He trailed off, trying to think of some sort of one hundred per cent way of getting around the problem of Aizen’s shikai.

“As a reliable third party, there has been no sign of Aizen yet,” the shinigami from Sixth said. He folded his arms and sniffed. “Assuming you can hear me say that.”

“Let’s just assume that it’s real and go look,” Hisagi said, shouldering through the group. “I never got to see it, but I know Ichimaru had some sort of spying room. That’d be it.”

After a little bit of undignified shuffling around in the doorway while deciding who was going in first, the whole group piled into the room. It was very bland. There was indeed a bowl of persimmons. There were a couple of chairs, huge padded things, and a wall of screens, and a lot of controls. The screens seemed to be active, but were all showing bare corridors.

“There is a lock on the door,” Nanao said, investigating. “But why leave it unlocked? It doesn’t fit the usual paranoia-security pattern.

“I suspect it’s because nobody else would have come here, Ise-fukutaichou,” Yumichika said. He was looking around, but with a reserved, judging air, as though he was about to declare the whole decor inartistic and positively tacky. “If only Aizen, Tousen, and Ichimaru had access to this part of Las Noches, and if any of them could use this room – and we know that Ichimaru did – then why bother to lock this particular room? Aizen’s own private workrooms might be different, but this room is probably common ground.”

Nanao thought about that for a moment, then nodded. “I believe you’re right, Ayasegawa. Thank you.”

Yumichika nodded, with a casually gratified air. “I can tell you that even Harribel –“ He bit back something. “She was never permitted in here.”

“And I sure as dammit wasn’t,” Hisagi snapped. He prowled up and down in front of the controls. “Anyone got any sort of idea how to use these?”

“If this area was common ground to the three of them, and it was left unlocked, then it stands to reason that the controls should be basic and straightforward,” Nanao said firmly. “Let me try.”

While she was fiddling with the controls, with Lisa and Yumichika hovering over her shoulders to offer advice, Inoue pressing several buttons ‘because they looked like they would do focusing things’, and even Grimmjow, of all people, making suggestions, Ikkaku beckoned Ichigo and Hisagi aside. “Look, I’ve had a thought.”

“What’s that?” Hisagi said. “That we’re taking too long? Because I’ve had that one too.”

Ikkaku turned to glare at Hisagi. “Keep it under control, man. But yes, that’s part of it. I’m thinking there’s too many of us. And this is a nice tidy room with a door that can be locked, where nobody’s going to come looking without a reason.”

Ichigo looked around at the rest of the group, trying to make it non-obvious. “But is it sensible to split up?”

“Hell yes,” Hisagi said, before Ikkaku could do it. “It’s safer than taking some of these people further into enemy territory. Hoshibana, he’s hurt, and the more energy Inoue Orihime spends healing everyone now, the less she’ll have later. Pagally’s going to get cut down the first time we meet anyone who’s serious about killing her. And the Inoue boy – don’t make me laugh. They’d all be safer in here than they would out there with us.”

Ichigo had to agree with that. “And if we leave Inoue Orihime with them –“ he started.

“Oh fuck no,” Ikkaku said. “Don’t give me that. We need her out with us. And what even makes you think that she’d stay here if you told her to?”

“I’m not taking her into danger!” Ichigo nearly shouted. “All of this in the first place –“

“All of what?” Inoue said, coming up behind him and making him choke and bite his tongue.

“Inoue, you’d like to stay back here and guard the others, wouldn’t you?” He gave her an encouraging look. Go on, go on, say it and make it obvious to the others...

“Well, of course I’d like to.” She put her fists on her hips. “But you’re going to need me to help stop Aizen, aren’t you?”

“Ten out of ten for the bloody obvious,” Hisagi said. “Now we’ve got that settled –“

“No we haven’t,” Ichigo said desperately. He’d already lost Rukia, Renji, Ishida, nearly lost Chad... He couldn’t lose Inoue as well. “If we leave people behind here then they won’t be safe.”

“It may have escaped your notice, Kurosaki, but nowhere here is safe.” Lisa strolled over to join the group. “And can I suggest that next time you want to have a secret discussion about leaving people behind, you do it more than ten feet away from everyone else?”

Ikkaku muttered something in which the word “Kurosaki” was audible.

“Now.” Lisa pointed a finger at Ichigo. “Inoue wants to come with us. We want Inoue to come with us. What part of this is not clear?”

Ichigo looked around for someone who must surely see his point of view. “Sora –“ he started.

Inoue Sora wouldn’t look at him. “You’ll take care of her, sir?” he said to Ikkaku.

“Like she was my own baby sister,” Ikkaku promised. His mouth twisted as if he’d bitten into something sour.

“Kurosaki...” Inoue put her hand on Ichigo’s arm. “Please. I’m not doing this because I want to. I’m doing this because we have to stop Aizen, and because if I want to save you, if I want to save anyone, then we have to get to the root of this. I’m not trying to be proud and saying that you can’t go out to fight without me. But if you do go out to fight, and if you lose because there was something which I could have done, and I wasn’t there to do it, well, won’t you feel ...” She chewed on her bottom lip thoughtfully, looking for the right words. “Rather stupid?”

“Yeah,” Hisagi said. “That’s a pretty fucking good way of putting it. We’d feel rather stupid.” He looked at Ichigo, a challenge in his eyes. “Well?”

Ichigo felt a rising, responding fury burning in his stomach. Slap him down, it suggested. All of them. How dare they stop you protecting her? You ought to –

Cool. Calm. He had to stay calm. He looked inside him for the source of that little voice, and found a suspicious emptiness, as if the speaker had sidled away quietly and taken the actual root of the anger with it.

He took a long breath. “All right,” he said. “Then who stays here?”

“Hoshibana,” Ikkaku said, ticking the names off on his fingers. “Pagally. Inoue Sora. I want Hanatarou with us in case we need a healer, and because he knows the Fourth Division business – sorry, Hanatarou, that’s how it blows.”

“That’s all right,” Hanatarou said quietly. “If Inoue-san can just look at my arm before we leave the room –“

“Sure, sure, see to it.” Ikkaku waved at Inoue. “Do your thing, girl, but make it quick and don’t use more energy than you have to. Right. Everyone else goes on.”

“There’s a problem,” Hisagi said. “If you leave them here, Hoshibana and Inoue Sora, then everyone here otherwise has seen Aizen’s shikai.”

“I haven’t,” Ichigo said firmly.

“Well, you don’t think you have,” Hisagi said, as if this was something that only a toddler would need to have pointed out to them.

“I think I have a solution,” Nanao said.

Everyone turned to look at her.

She dusted off her fingers needlessly. “The controls are fairly simple. Probably to make allowance for Ichimaru’s lack of kidou expertise. It was never one of his stronger points, theoretically, or at least that was what Kira used to say when we were discussing kidou: he was more of a brute force practitioner... In any case, whoever gets left here will be able to follow our progress on the screens, and there are facilities to allow remote-voice broadcast and topographical adjustment. Anyhow, if Hoshibana and Inoue use the visuals to follow our progress, and they see Aizen in our vicinity, they can immediately broadcast some sort of pre-agreed code to tell us that Aizen is nearby. Since Aizen will not know to expect that, we should at least have that warning before our perceptions are affected. And let us be honest, please. If Aizen was present and attacking us, the first thing that he would do would be to take out the people who hadn’t seen his shikai, and then convince us that they were still present.”

“This doesn’t look good for us fighting Aizen in the long term anyhow,” Lisa said with a sigh. “Nanao-chan, you’ve gotten cynical in your old age.”

“I’m making plans for the moment,” Nanao said, her voice very definite, so definite that you could have used it to strip paint or put an edge on a sword. “If we can find prisoners or more information, then we can make better plans. For the moment, this is the most efficient plan that I have. Madarame, do you agree?”

Ikkaku nodded. “Pretty good logic. So who works the controls?”

“Pagally,” Nanao said. “She has a good grasp of how to use them. I’ve just been showing her how to adjust the focussing and engage the auto-tracker remote... oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t look at me like that, it’s perfectly straightforward once you work from the basics.”

“Have you been able to see anywhere interesting?” Yumichika asked.

Nanao adjusted her glasses. “While we can’t scan the entire complex, two corridors along from here is a set of holding cells and a locked door. If I may suggest...”

“Hell yeah,” Ikkaku said. “Right! Everyone in order, we’re moving out in five minutes.”

---
Tags: bleach, winter war
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