Characters: Iba, Shirogane, Rikichi, Rudobon, 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: Every battle counts, and so does every loss.
Index of Links
23. Ensemble: First Contact
24. Byakuya: Necessity
25. Hanatarou: Signs Of Life
26. Ensemble: Mad Science In Motion
27. Momo, Isane: We Have Met the Enemy
"Look at yourself!" Iba barked at the four Tower guards that were left. He didn't expect it to do much good, but it was worth a try. "You're fighting alongside Hollows! Is this really what you fucking signed up for?"
The guards didn't react. He'd have tried yelling at them some more, but there was a mess of incoming Hollows to deal with. But he was getting the rhythm of them better now. The bad thing about cookie-cutter Hollows was that you couldn't put them down for good until you got the main one, but the good thing was that all the offspring fought the same way.
"They've got a pattern!" he barked at Suzuki, who was waving her naginata round like she'd just heard it was going to be taken away from her and she wasn't going to let them near her. "Pay attention, watch for that dip --" He turned, leaning on his crutch, and was just in time to brace Kuroda with his shoulder as one of the Hollows shoulder-charged him. "You've got a fucking pike, boy, put it in his fucking face, do I need to draw you a map?"
With a garbled choke of apology, Kuroda got the head of his pike up where it was supposed to be and put it through the Hollow's mask. Suzuki feinted low and slashed high as her training finally came back to her, Rikichi took another Hollow down with a clean swipe, and Yoshino calmly took a Hollow's hand off, then its head with the back-stroke, and looked around for more. Shirogane was backing off, drawing a few more Hollows away from the main circle.
It should have looked good. Unfortunately, Iba was coming to the conclusion that this Hollow was just fucking playing with them. It could keep on throwing waves at them as long as it liked, and all it needed was for one of them to slip.
"Oi!" he shouted at the Tower guards. "Aren't you going to come play too? What do you think Ichimaru'll say if he hears you sat the fight out and let the Hollows do all the killing?" All right, so what Ichimaru would probably say would be along the lines of good strategy, men, why put yourselves in danger? followed by and now I'll kill you messily because I'm in that sort of mood, but it was worth a try.
The men exchanged what might be nervous glances under their hoods. Then one of them made a gesture which didn't require facial features or complicated linguistics to get the point across.
"Be like that, then," Iba muttered.
There was a loud explosion from back towards the mansion. Iba couldn't read the reiatsu well, it was too damn jumbled for that, but there were enough flares of it going off that he could guess the confrontation was in motion. Well, fine, so at least they'd drawn off a few of the goons. Damn marvellous.
He cut down another Hollow, barely thinking about it, while considering ways of handling the situation. What would a captain do?
Well, Komamura-taichou would have bankai'd on the spot, picked up the Hollow by its roots and used it to trash the forest all around. Zaraki-taichou would have charged in, cut it in half with one swing, and been picking his teeth with the remains before it hit the ground.
Try again. What would someone who wasn't a captain do?
Renji would have pulled out his shikai and used it to whip the thing down into the ground till it really was growing roots. Which was fine, but that needed Renji's shikai to work. Ikkaku would -- Iba was about to think, charged it head on, but that was being unfair to Ikkaku these days, he'd only probably charge it head on. Either way there wasn't anything there that Iba could use. And Yumichika would have used speed on it, moving round to get it from a good position and keep on cutting it down, which was a great idea, but it was about the last possible thing that Iba could do at the moment. Still. Worth a thought.
What would his mother have done?
His mother had told him stories -- had told all the family stories -- of how she'd been a shinigami, how she'd worked her way up to vice-captain, how she and her captain had faced all sorts of Hollows, and how she'd decided to retire while she still had a bit of life in her . . . At the time he'd thought it was just a perfectly natural reaction to having someone like Ichimaru Gin promoted in as Captain of the Division above her, and wanting to enjoy her old age in peace. Since the war, he'd had time to wonder about that. At least she was safe at the moment, hidden out on the Kuchiki estate.
But what would she have done?
Memory brought back the sensation of being beaten over the head with a walking stick. What do you think you're playing at, Iba?
"Give me something useful, Mom," Iba muttered to himself, then raised his voice. "Left, Suzuki, your fucking left, it's the one that's not your right!"
Didn't I always tell you, you're not necessarily going to have the chance to use that shikai of yours! And not everyone gets bankai! So what do you practice in your spare time, my boy?
Kidou. Flame. Wood.
"Thanks, Mom." Iba grinned.
And when are you going to get married? How long am I going to have to wait for some grandchildren --
Iba made a solemn vow to his mother's memory that he'd get married within the year, or the decade, or the century at the very most, assuming that he survived the next ten minutes, and focused on the details of the current situation.
What he needed was an opening on the original Hollow, rather than all the duplicates. If he kidou-blasted them first, the Hollow would figure out what he had in mind and might even be able to use some sort of defence against it. Okay. So he needed to get round behind the Hollow. But he could barely move.
So in that case, he needed to get the Hollow to move for him.
He gestured Shirogane to move closer. Once she was near enough, he leaned in. "I need an opening. I'm going to fake taking a hit and go down. You grab the kids and take them in a controlled retreat away from me so that the big Hollow follows and shows me his back. Then I'm gonna fry it. Okay?" He wished Momo was here. Her zanpakutou would have been just what they needed for this situation.
Shirogane's eyes narrowed, then she nodded in quick comprehension. "Good luck, sir," she said, turning back to the fight to bring down another Hollow-copy.
The Tower guards were moving in again. All right. He could use that. "Suzuki! Fall back, I'll take your position!"
The girl rolled her eyes like a nervous horse, but she did as she was told. He stomped forward, doing his best to look even more unsteady than he was, and waited for them to come at him.
They did. They were well-enough trained that they knew to go for a weak link, and they also knew that with him down, the others wouldn't have a chance. Two of them spread out to take him from the side, while the others charged head on, points forward, steel shining as it came at his chest.
He shifted to one side, putting his weight on the crutch, and put his weight on his blade as he hacked down, taking one spearhead off at the neck of the spear. The other grazed his collarbone and along the side of his chest, leaving a track of blood. He leaned backwards as the other two men lunged at him, letting their blades pass above his face and turning to bring his own blade round in a cut -- the man to his right had overextended, leaning too far into the blow, so Iba took his hand off at the wrist before pulling back in again.
They were good, but they weren't that good. Two of them still fully armed, one of them with a staff now rather than a spear, the last down and clutching his wrist and screaming. Right. If he'd had his usual speed, he could have taken them all down easily. If he'd been wanting to use kidou on them, they were bunched up nice and close now, all convenient for a wide blast. Nobody in Seventh would have been that careless. But they were good enough to damage the kids, and maybe Shirogane, so he needed to do as much damage here as he could before he faked his injury.
This time the one with the staff charged him straight on, trying to get in close to keep him busy while the other two pinned him from either side.
"Iba-fukutaichou!" Suzuki screamed from behind him.
He took the rush and brought his tanto in low and close, swiped it across the guy's belly and gutted him. He went down in a spray of blood, dropping his staff and trying to hold his guts in. But it had given the other two time to make their thrusts. Iba managed to avoid most of the first one, and it just tore his right sleeve from elbow to wrist, but the other spear took him along the ribs, punching up and into his left shoulder.
That'd have to be it. He gave as realistic a cry of pain as he could, went down on his good knee, and grabbed the spear in his left hand. It was kind of sweet to see the shock in that guard's eyes as he realised he wasn't going to be able to just pull it loose, and he was stupid enough to move in closer and try for more leverage. Iba showed him how that was a mistake, pulling him in enough to slash his throat.
Then he let go of the spear, staged a last despairing cry of, "Run, Shirogane!" and drooped slowly to the ground, muffling his reiatsu down as hard as he could.
He heard the kids screaming, and Rikichi yelling in denial, and Shirogane's voice on top of it all telling them to run, now, like Iba-fukutaichou had told them. The big Hollow was laughing, and all its duplicates were rustling along in hoarse amusement, like rain on leaves in autumn. The remaining guard who was still standing didn't bother to stick Iba with his spear and make sure he was dead -- moron, good moron -- but instead he took off after them, jumping over Iba's body like it was some sort of race.
"Iba-fukutaichou!" Suzuki was louder this time. He glanced sideways from under his shades, and saw with a sick horror that the idiot girl was running straight for him, away from where Shirogane was shepherding the others, as if she could help him or pull him away from there. And he didn't blame her, he'd have done the same for anyone else, but if he moved now or showed any signs of life, then it was going to wreck the ambush.
She was doing the right thing, the honourable thing, and --
Three of the Hollow-duplicates came rushing down on her, their long branch arms moving quickly now that they'd given up on playing and were fighting seriously. Suzuki probably didn't get more than a moment to realise that she didn't have a chance. She brought her naginata up to parry, but it was too late, and Iba saw them beat her down to the ground and break her neck.
Like so many of the dead, she looked a little surprised, like she was trying to work out what was going on, mouth open to ask a question, blood running in a slow thread from the corner of it as the Hollows moved on after the others. He heard the single remaining Tower guard yell in the distance, then fall silent again. Shirogane or one of the others must have got him.
Sorry, kid, he thought. Captain, if you can hear me, look after her.
Duplicate Hollow after duplicate Hollow streamed past him, their motion shaking the ground and tossing him around as he lay there. They left deep tracks in the mud and dead leaves, long trails of dragged-out roots. Then finally the big one, the central Hollow -- he could feel its reiatsu harsh and hungry, and he pulled his own in even tighter, not wanting to give it any hint that he was still alive, even unconscious. He began to repeat the words of the Sokatsui kidou to himself at the back of his throat, lips barely moving.
The central Hollow was past him now. Its minions were clustered in front of it, bearing down on the others to finish them off before heading back to the mansion.
Blood ran hotly down Iba's shoulder and over his arm as he jerked himself up on his knees again, propping himself up on his crutch. Suzuki was watching him with those still empty eyes, like she was just waiting for him to demonstrate something. Okay, kid. You didn't die for nothing. This is how you do it.
". . . the wrath of your claws," he finished. Light like the heart of a forge blossomed round his right hand, and he pointed it at the Hollow's back. "Blue fire, crash down!"
The shot went right through the Hollow, punching a hole a foot across, and blasting flaming fragments out the other side onto its duplicates. The fire took on it like the creature was dry wood -- yeah, he'd been right about that -- and ran along the lines of bone and sinew as the thing screamed. Its branches waved frantically in the air, thrashing as it turned to focus on Iba. It was staggering, but it was still moving.
Well, damn, he'd been hoping that the one shot would be enough to take it down. Pity to have got it wrong. He'd just have to give it another blast close up and hope that he could do it before he got taken apart . . .
Through the flames and the stampeding duplicates, he saw the others, clear and distinct in their black uniforms. Shirogane was the first to move as she darted for it, her blade like a ray of light in a perfect strike that cut through half the base trunk, slicing through tendons or wood or whatever, and making it pause and shudder. Kuroda and Yoshino were next to her a moment later, Kuroda standing back and using his pike like he'd been taught to do, while Yoshino got in close and hacked away. And Rikichi was running up its tilting back like a rabbit, tears streaming down his face and cutting runnels in the smears of smoke, sharper than any tattoos. He got to its shoulder, and as it raised its flaming hands to grope for him, he brought his zanpakutou down hard into its mask.
The Hollow screamed. It went down to its knees, and then it simply blew apart into dust, in a flaming concussion that tossed Rikichi through the air and against a nearby tree like a Shiba cannonball. All the smaller duplicates surrounding it fell apart at the same moment, vanishing into the smoke with a long drifting sigh that sounded almost like relief.
Iba coughed on smoke and spat. Kuroda and Yoshino were next to him now, supporting him. "Where's Shirogane?" he demanded.
"Right here," Shirogane said, appearing with Rikichi slung over her shoulder. Blood was staining her uniform down her left side. She wasn't looking at Suzuki's body, but it probably wasn't coincidence that she'd picked a place to stand where she didn't have to look at Suzuki's body.
Iba could understand that. He jerked a thumb at Rikichi. "What's his condition?"
"Unconscious but doesn't have any obvious injuries," Shirogane reported. "Must have hit the tree head first."
"Good tactics," Iba said. When the others stared at him, he expanded on it. "We always get told to hit the ground with an unimportant body part, right?"
Shirogane snorted. The two kids just blinked at him.
"Okay." He was hurting bad, but they might be needed back at the mansion. At least there probably wouldn't be anyone else coming out here. "Yoshino, Kuroda, you two are going to strap me up, then you're staying here with Rikichi to guard him. Anything comes after you, you run. Shirogane, you and I are going back to the mansion. Any questions?"
"What about . . ." Kuroda's eyes strayed to Suzuki.
"Close her eyes for her and leave her for the moment," Iba said, deliberately brutal. "She died fighting, and she died well. It's up to the rest of us to make sure she didn't die for nothing."