Characters: Nanao, Ikkaku, Grimmjow, Urahara, Kensei, others
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: Cellars, tea, and gates all the way down to where the wild things are.
Index of Links
16. Nanao: Looking For A Blonde
17. Hanatarou: Underground
18. Lisa: Prisoner's Dilemma
19. Hinamori, Takano, Ichimaru: Taking The Bait
20. Ensemble: The Day Before
NANAO: GOING DOWN
Nanao was prepared to admit that it was a very impressive cellar.
She had taken half a step back to look around the place. Madarame was handling the important details such as striding up and down, complaining about how long everything was taking, asking for the seventh time if Urahara had any ideas about where this gate of his would open, and ogling Shihouin Yoruichi out of the corner of one eye with a combined 'what a woman' and 'what a fighter' expression.
What Nanao would really have liked to do would be to approach Tsukabishi Tessai -- in a properly respectful manner, of course -- to ask him a few questions about kidou. Research applications. Constructs. That sort of thing. Why, the man was a legend. She could see his touch all over the place, in everything from the dimensions and wards on the cellar to the Gate that he and Urahara were currently working on. There were so many things she'd like to talk to him about. Perhaps, just perhaps, he might even consider her something of an . . . well, not an equal, of course, but someone else whose opinions on the subject were worthy of respect, and . . .
She chewed on her lower lip and forced herself to remember the current situation. She was just as tense as Madarame was. Daydreaming like this wasn't doing anything except making her feel a little better.
Inoue Sora was standing rigidly to attention, still looking uncomfortable in his new shinigami uniform. Of all of them, he was the least suited to be going down to Hueco Mundo and into battle. The fact that he was probably the sort of person who would try to infiltrate the place solo to rescue his sister was quite beside the point. She hoped, in an academic and distant way, that they would be able to keep him alive once the real fighting started.
Hoshibana Akira, in contrast, stood at parade ease, making the posture look dignified and graceful as opposed to Inoue Sora's stiff-shouldered discomfort. Ogidou stood next to him with folded arms, surveying the area with a gentle smile, fingers tapping the side of his arm thoughtfully.
Their new ally wasn't bothering to stand. Earlier he'd been pacing, just like Madarame (she supposed that she could call him Ikkaku, he was certainly informal enough not to care, but she had only been that close to a few people and he was not one of them), but now he was sprawled on his belly on the ground, chin propped on his elbows, heavy-lidded eyes staring in the direction of the Gate but not actually watching it. He was wearing his white Arrancar clothing again, and you couldn't even see the lack of a hole in this position. He might almost still have been an Espada . . .
. . . no. Not if you really looked at him. He was strong, certainly, but his reiatsu wasn't a Hollow's reiatsu any more.
(When they were at the Academy, they had been taught that they would be able to recognise a Hollow's reiatsu when they felt it. How do we know what it will be like, the students had asked. You'll know, the teachers said. Because Hollow reiatsu was always hunger-tainted, and the stronger it was, the more desperate it was. A Captain's reiatsu could pin you to the ground like the weight of a mountain, or the heat of a volcano, but a powerful Hollow's reiatsu held you like the suction of a whirlpool, or drew on you like a whirlwind, and the gnawing emptiness at its centre flavoured every pulse of its strength.)
Grimmjow's reiatsu was centered and full, powerful but ragged, like a tree in a windstorm with all its leaves and branches dragged awry. A single touch on that reiatsu and nobody in Hueco Mundo could possibly believe that he was an Arrancar, which would no doubt be a problem when they got there, but for the moment she found it a comfort. She had enough things to worry her as it was, without feeling a Hollow's constant gnawing hunger at her back.
Urahara turned away from the Gate construction, leaving Tsukabishi Tessai still working on it, and strolled across to their group. Nanao suppressed a momentary twitch of annoyance that it couldn't have been the other way round, and adjusted her glasses defensively.
"Well now!" Urahara announced, smiling brilliantly. "Everything seems to be under control, and we've got the basic kidou structure up and ready. The moment that Yoruichi gets word from Soifon that Ichimaru's made his move, we'll have the Gate running and you'll be through in a heartbeat. Or two. Certainly not more than three."
"How long do you think it's going to be?" Madarame demanded again. "We've been here hours already. We can't afford to waste any more damn time. What the fuck's Ichimaru doing, anyhow? Stopping for choir practice?"
"It could be a good sign," Nanao said, trying to sound hopeful. "We know from Soifon-taichou's men that his grip on Seireitei is tenuous. If he's already pulling in his most loyal men to stage a raid, then he has to leave someone else in charge in his absence. You've seen the reports on how paranoid he is, Madarame. He's not the sort to leave his back undefended. I don't think he ever has been," she added thoughtfully.
Urahara nodded. Nanao almost wished that he wasn't agreeing with her. "Perfectly sound reasoning. In a way, it's positive news. The more people he strips from Seireitei, the easier the job is for Shiba-san and her group. And if it draws away some of the forces in Hueco Mundo -- well, all the better."
He must have caught the way that Nanao's lips pressed together at that thought, for he flashed a smile in her direction. "I've known Ukitake-taichou for a while, Ise-fukutaichou. I'd back him against Ichimaru and any number of followers, with or without injuries. And with the rest of your people helping him, well, Ichimaru thinks he's a smart fellow." He tipped his hat back and grinned with a bright bland merriment. "The problem with thinking you're a smart fellow in that way, just between the few of us, is that you can have an awfully unpleasant surprise when someone else does something clever."
Grimmjow looked up at Urahara, curling his feet under him. "You're the one they've been talking about," he said. "The one they say is a hot shit expert on weirdness."
Urahara doffed his hat and bowed. "Urahara Kisuke, at your service," he said. "Any particular sort of weirdness?"
Grimmjow turned to look at them -- Madarame, Nanao, the other shinigami -- and then back to Urahara. "Yeah. I just want a word about something. And since it's got nothing to do with where we're about to be going, I don't see any reason why this lot have to hear it."
"And why shouldn't we hear it?" Madarame demanded, his hands on his hips balling into fists. "Is there some sort of reason why we shouldn't?"
Nanao would have liked to knock their heads together, but that seemed impolite, not to mention impossible. Besides, they were already trusting Urahara, weren't they? Surely he'd be able to handle Grimmjow if the man tried anything stupid. And right here and now, on the verge of going down into Hueco Mundo, was not the time to start Grimmjow sulking, or to have him and Madarame squaring off for a fight. "Maybe it's a medical problem," she said.
"As a member of Fourth Division, I would be glad to --" Ogidou started from behind her.
Nanao turned and gave him her coldest stare. He shut up. She turned back to the others. "Maybe it's a medical problem," she said again, locking eyes with Madarame.
"Fuck this for a game of soldiers," Madarame muttered, and kicked at the ground. "Fine, sure, go huddle in corners, see if I care, just don't go getting your head stuck up your fucking ass when we need to be going through that gate, all right?"
"That's very helpful of you," Urahara said. "Thank you for understanding this gentleman's situation! Why don't you go and have some tea? I think my two young assistants over there have brought some."
Two children -- at least, they looked like children -- were just coming down the stairs into the cavern. The one that looked like a girl was carrying a tray far too big for her, while the one that looked like a boy was following behind her and scolding her continuously. Behind them were a man and a woman -- and now that Nanao looked at them, they were distinctly familiar.
"That's Muguruma-taichou," she said, hardly aware that she was speaking. "Muguruma-taichou as was, before he went missing, and Kuna-fukutaichou. I knew they were here, but --"
"But you want to speak with them yourself," Urahara said, making broad sweeping motions with his fan. "I'm sure you all do. Have a nice chat, catch up on the gossip, strategise, all that sort of thing, while I have a little talk with our honoured guest. Excellent idea, I thoroughly approve, have some tea, thank you very much . . ."
"Hey," Madarame muttered out of the corner of his mouth as they walked away, leaving Urahara sitting down next to Grimmjow. "Wouldn't it have made more sense for them to go somewhere else for their private chat?"
Nanao sighed. "Yes, it would, but is it really worth pressing the point?" A moment's thought made her add, "Thank you for letting Grimmjow have his way. I'm not really any happier about it than you are, but we'll be wanting his full cooperation very soon."
Madarame kicked more dirt up, and rubbed the back of his head. "Aw, not a problem. He probably just wants to ask Urahara 'bout how he can get himself fixed again. Can't say I really blame him. He just wants to be able to fight like he used to."
Nanao would have liked to say I'm sure you understand that, with a meaningful eye roll to show that she included the entirety of Eleventh in the comment, but she decided, again, to err in the direction of tact. They were all on edge, and she wasn't going to be the one who made it worse. Of course he was spoiling for a fight. She simply nodded.
Kuna-fukutaichou was shifting from foot to foot as they approached, a febrile excitement in her eyes. "I wish I could be going with you," was the first thing she said. "Of course Urahara-san says that it'd be just too risky, but I can't help thinking that some risks need to be taken, if you know what I mean? Come to think of it, if you were to actually tell him that I'm going with you --"
Muguruma-taichou rapped her casually across the back of the head. "We've been through this before, idiot. You'd be a liability. Like me." His tone was very sour. He looked the group over. "So you're the ones they're sending."
"Yeah," Madarame said. "You got a problem with that?"
Muguruma-taichou snorted. "Problem, no. You're all still alive, after all. That tells me something about your abilities. But when it comes to sending you into Hueco Mundo like this --"
"Tea," the little girl said, shoving a cup of it at him.
"I'm talking to these people," Muguruma snapped.
"Tea," the girl said again. "You must have tea."
"Is it a special tea?" Nanao asked curiously.
The girl blinked, oriented on her, and turned to walk towards her, still holding the cup. "You must have tea," she said very seriously.
Nanao seriously thought of backing away from the advancing teacup, but decided it would be unseemly in front of subordinates. "Is there something odd about the tea?" she hissed at Muguruma-taichou.
"No," Muguruma-taichou said firmly. "Just go ahead and drink it."
Nanao took the cup suspiciously and sniffed it. The little girl stood there, watching her with huge dark melancholy eyes, clearly waiting for her to taste the stuff.
It smelt like normal green tea.
Everyone was watching her.
She had to be firm and resolute. She took a sip.
She started choking.
"Yeah," Muguruma-taichou said, "I thought so." He leaned over awkwardly so that he was eye to eye with the girl. "Look, kid, you don't want to take the tea from Tessai's stock. It's always out of date."
"But he said that it's much cheaper that way," the girl droned, "and that we have to keep the expenses down, and --"
Kuna-fukutaichou took the cup off Nanao and patted her on the back. "You really look like someone I've seen before," she said thoughtfully. "Did we ever meet back then? It'd have been a hundred years ago, you know. Did we go shopping or anything?"
Nanao adjusted her glasses defensively. There was an obvious answer to this question, but it almost hurt to give it. "Perhaps you're thinking of Yadomaru-fukutaichou," she said. "I've been told I look a little bit like her."
"Oh, of course!" Kuna-fukutaichou said. She giggled. "I'm so forgetful. Yes, you've got glasses just like her! That must be it. We've been told she's in Hueco Mundo, so if you run into her down there you absolutely must tell her that we're all thinking about her." She picked at the heavy bracelet round one wrist distractedly, as if it was itching. "And you know, I've been putting some manga by for her, all her favourite series, because she'll have been missing them. I do wish I was going to Hueco Mundo with you. Maybe if you ask Kensei, he'll let me come as well. I don't see why he can't come too. It was only a leg, and it's not as if he was hurt as badly as Rose was. Have you met Rose?"
"Rose?" Nanao said blankly.
"Otoribashi Rojuro," Muguruma-taichou said curtly. "Mashiro, we need some more tea. Go help the kids get it, will you?"
"Of course, Captain!" the woman chirped. She led the girl and the sulky-looking boy back inside at a brisk trot.
Muguruma-taichou was scowling. "We all got injured," he said. "Or we'd be there with you. I don't like this any more than you do."
Somehow that seemed to penetrate to Madarame. "Yeah," he said, and sighed. "Point taken."
There was a question that Nanao wanted to ask. She wished that there weren't so many people listening in, but it wasn't as if she could ask them to walk away in yet another direction. The cavern would start running out of corners to have private conversations in at that rate. "Muguruma-taichou," she started uncertainly, then wished she hadn't called him captain as he glared at her. "Sir -- how is Yadomaru-fukutaichou? That is, when you last saw her --" Oh dear, she just couldn't say the right thing.
Muguruma-taichou frowned at her, his eyes narrowing. "Probably about as good as can be expected, if she's a prisoner down there. You knew her, right?"
"I was younger," Nanao said. "Very much younger." And she was everything I wanted to be. "I'd be surprised if she remembered me."
That was a lie, of course. She was sure that Lisa must remember her. It might have been a hundred years ago, but wouldn't Yadomaru-fukutaichou remember that little girl she used to read to? Shouldn't she?
Muguruma-taichou shrugged. "Eh. If she does remember you, it'll be that much easier to get her to cooperate. I mean, how do you think she's going to react if you show up there just like that?"
Madarame rubbed at his head. "Well, fuck, I was hoping she'd do a 'here come the big damn heroes, let me cooperate'. You're telling me she's going to be awkward?"
"Aizen's a twisty bastard," Muguruma-taichou said, with what was probably patience for him. "Sure, she might think that you're backup at first, but she's going to wonder if you're some sort of trick of his to test her loyalty."
"You sound like you know a lot about how Aizen thinks," Madarame said suspiciously.
Muguruma-taichou sighed. "Look, for one hundred damn years we've had nothing to talk about but why the hell he did what he did. You know what we do on rainy days? We try to work out what the hell he was thinking. You know what we do when the newspaper's got lost? We try to work out what the hell he was up to. You know what we do when the baseball's late?"
"Or if the Hanshin Tigers are losing?" Kuna-fukutaichou said, reappearing with a new tray of teacups. She jittered from foot to foot, somehow not quite spilling the cups. The light danced on the surface of the liquid.
"It's just a temporary streak," Muguruma-taichou snarled, grabbing one of the cups. "Wait and see, they'll be back in the league any day now."
Nanao pondered the possibilities of getting Eleventh Division interested in professional sports rather than all-out maiming (their usual favourite pasttime), and came to the depressing conclusion that they'd probably just declare all-out maiming a professional sport. This degenerated into images of Zaraki-taichou using Yachiru as a baseball. She sipped her tea -- drinkable, this time -- and decided that she needed a vacation.
A pity there was absolutely no possibility of that in the near future.
And there she was, letting herself get diverted from the current situation again. Avoiding the subject. Thinking of anything else. She had no right to blame Madarame for wanting to pick an argument, no right at all.
"Mind, I was as surprised as anyone else to hear she was still alive," Muguruma-taichou said. He sipped the tea cautiously. "The way things had ended up, we thought that the others were dead. Never figured Aizen would be taking prisoners."
"Hardly surprising," Urahara said, stepping up from nowhere in particular to take a teacup for himself. "The situation for the Gotei 13 was much the same, I believe. After Yamamoto-soutaichou loosed that strike on the battlefield -- well." He gestured expressively. "And things were already confused enough beforehand. It was a rational assumption that anyone still there would have died instantly. And that there wouldn't be any bodies left to retrieve."
"Yes," Nanao said, working to keep her voice neutral, wishing that he would just go away.
He patted her on the shoulder, and she glared at his hand and wished that she could make it spontaneously combust. "You shouldn't blame yourself, Ise-fukutaichou. Besides, things may not be as bad as they've seemed, right? Now that we know that Aizen has prisoners --"
"We still don't know what is in his private area," Nanao said quickly. Some possibilities she didn't want to think about. She'd deal with events as and when she had to, but she wasn't going to waste her time on fears that might be useless -- or, worse, might be justified. "For all we know, they might be powerful Hollows that he's working on, trying to create new Espada." She didn't believe that, but at least saying it was better than letting Urahara try to be sympathetic at her.
"And we know they ain't Zaraki-taichou," Madarame put in, "'cause we know he's dead."
"Ah yes," Urahara said. "We have Kotetsu-fukutaichou's eye-witness testimony for that, don't we." He let that hang in the air for just a moment too long, to remind everyone of how much eye-witness testimony was worth at the moment, then went on before Madarame could actually form a reply. "I wanted to check a couple of points about the plan, if I may."
"Of course," Nanao said. She was aware of the rest of the team gathering round her and Madarame, and the sudden rise in attention.
Hoshibana had been giving everyone frosty looks for the last few minutes, even if he thought he was hiding it: maybe he'd expected better from the secret hideout of two ex-Captains. While Nanao herself would have expected a little better, long experience in Eighth had given her experience in tolerating apparent disorder which Hoshibana apparently lacked. Inoue Sora was being very quiet, and very attentive, and very tense. Ogidou was just smiling, a sparkling happy smile which, Nanao had to admit, did not make her entirely comfortable. It reminded her a little too much of Ichimaru Gin on a sunny day.
"Firstly." Urahara held up a finger. "How do you plan to kill Aizen?"
There was a painfully long silence.
"We're hoping that Hisagi's got some ideas on that one," Madarame said. "The way I understood his message, he's got some sort of plan in mind, but he couldn't tell it to Boy Blue here --"
Grimmjow growled deep in his throat.
"-- or to the Yasutora kid," Madarame went on, looking that much happier for having managed to annoy someone. "So once we get to him, we can hear what he's got to say and consider our options. It also depends on if we manage to get Kurosaki's head round the right way again." He made descriptive screwing motions with the hand that wasn't holding a cup of tea. "And on who else we can find. Maybe including Yadomaru. We'll have to see."
Nanao nodded. "We plan on being flexible," she said.
"And of course there is the possibility of rescuing some of the Captains," Hoshibana added. He didn't actually say who will of course then take over the command, but it was hardly necessary. Nanao suspected that he hadn't considered some of the less appealing possibilities.
She couldn't really blame him. She didn't want to consider them herself. But she and Madarame were in command, and it was their job to recognise that the world might not turn out in the way that they hoped it would.
"Of course," she said. "But otherwise, that is where we stand for the moment. Have you anything to suggest?"
Urahara shook his head. "If I did, I'd have done so by now, Ise-fukutaichou. For what it's worth, I think you're doing the right thing. You can't know what the situation is till you get there. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and so on."
Madarame nodded. "Fuck it," he said (and Hoshibana suppressed a twitch), "I'd like to have a good plan before we go down there. But we don't know what we're going to find. We'll just have to go in slick and smooth and kick ass before they realise how much they're hanging out of their pants."
"Yeah," Grimmjow agreed. "The less time we waste the better. Nothing wrong with using the element of surprise, right?" He glared round at everyone, as if expecting them to suggest something was wrong with him for thinking it.
"Of course not," Urahara agreed. "However, let's assume that things actually go well, and you need to get back. Soifon-taichou suggested that we arrange some sort of message?"
Nanao nodded. "Ukitake-taichou discussed this," she said, and ignored Madarame, who was apparently trying and failing to remember what had been said. "It'd be far too easy for Aizen to counterfeit an open message from us and try to get you to open a gate through to him so that he could launch an attack. He suggested some sort of code word or words to make it clear that it's one of our group."
Urahara rubbed his nose thoughtfully. "And perhaps another code word, to make it clear that any message that goes with it is false and should be disbelieved, mm?"
"But why should we -- oh," Madarame said, thinking it through. "Right. So what do you want for the words?"
"Mm," Urahara said. "If the mission was a success, then the word is chrysanthemum. If the mission's having problems and you need a gate to escape by as fast as possible, then the word is thistle. And if the mission has failed and you're being forced to send the message, and we should automatically disbelieve what you say and write you off . . ." He shrugged. "Then the word is lily of the valley."
"Fucking flowers," Grimmjow snarled.
It only took a moment for Nanao to catch Urahara's reference. The flower symbols for the Gotei 13. Chrysanthemum for First Division, thistle for Twelfth, lily of the valley for Fifth. She glanced sideways at Madarame and the others, and saw that they knew it too. Even Muguruma-taichou had winced a little.
"That will do," she said crisply, and hoped that her voice was steady. "Does everyone have that?"
There were nods and murmurs of agreement from the others.
"And as soon as I get a message," Urahara said cheerfully, "I'll use it to pinpoint your coordinates and drop a gate to where you are - we'll have kept the one here on standby, so we should be able to get it running again fast if you need it." He looked round at them all. "There isn't much I can say, is there? I won't go telling you to be brave or to be clever. There isn't much point in saying the obvious, however much I enjoy it . . . oh, yes. Try to be lucky. That's it. We could all use a bit of that."
"And tell Yadomaru Lisa to get off her arse and back on the job," Muguruma-taichou growled. "I need someone else up here to talk sense to."
"I'm hurt, truly hurt," Urahara said, waving his fan at Muguruma-taichou. "But now, if we --"
He stopped and turned, as if he'd heard something that the rest of them couldn't. Shihouin Yoruichi was sitting bolt upright, head cocked in a gesture of listening. Then she nodded briefly to the air, and a moment later she was standing next to the group, having passed across the cellar so swiftly that Nanao hadn't even been able to see the start of her movement.
"Do we have news?" Urahara asked. He'd stopped playing with his fan.
"Ichimaru's moved," Shihouin Yoruichi said. "Our agent inside Seireitei has just confirmed it to both Soifon and me. The message was coded to prevent interception: we only know that he has both shinigami and Arrancar with him. But he left the walls two minutes ago. Soifon's moving. Time to open the gate."
Nanao swallowed, her mouth suddenly gone dry, and put her cup down on the tray that the little girl was still holding. "Thank you," she said to the child, nodded to Muguruma-taichou and Kuna-fukutaichou, then turned to her team. "Moving out now, gentlemen."
"Make sure you've got your zanpakutou, people," Madarame said. "Wouldn't want to have to go back to fetch them." They were both walking together, with Grimmjow a tense pace ahead, and the others following them, across to the Gate. Tsukabishi was feeding more energy into it now, and a faint shimmer of light had begun to ripple between the pillars and lintel, like oil on water or light on the surface of a moving stream.
Nanao kept her shoulders straight and her pace even. Half of her wanted to rush forward and throw herself through the gate, and into danger or darkness or whatever lay beyond: to find Kyouraku-taichou, or to stop Aizen, or perhaps just to have it done with and the waiting over. The other half would have preferred to stay behind, or to do anything other than the blatantly, obviously stupid thing of going into the depths of Hueco Mundo, facing the Hollows in their own home, and confronting the greatest enemy that Soul Society had ever fought.
This time she wasn't following Kyouraku-taichou, one step behind him, her head not even level with his shoulder, conscious of his reiatsu, his presence, and even his consciousness of her. This time she was in joint command, and everything was different, and if they failed, there would be no rescue.
With a little private click of her tongue, she put such thoughts out of her mind. She had always felt that a person should get things right the first time. Then they wouldn't need rescuing.
Urahara flicked across to stand next to the pillar opposite from Tsukabishi, and put his hand against it. More power began to flow into the Gate. It stabilised, and the rippling sheets of power drew apart from each other to become a hole in space, a devouring rip with serrated edges like jaws that seemed to tear at the air, an opening on darkness.
Madarame glanced sideways to Nanao, and she caught his message in the jerk of his head towards Grimmjow. We need to go through first.
She nodded in response, and quickened her pace to match Madarame's step.
They passed through the Gate together, and the last thing she heard was Grimmjow snarling, "Hey, you bastards, wait for me --"
And then they were in a place of white corridors, and paved floors where the cracks were black with old bloodstains, and a dreadful hungry silence.