Ichigo went down on his knees next to his father, and grabbed what was left of Isshin's jacket. "Dad! You moron -- you idiot -- what the hell do you think you're doing, dressing up as a shinigami and --"
"He is a shinigami," Ukitake said. He was standing right behind Ichigo. Ichigo could feel the prickle of the Captain's reiatsu all the way up his back.
He could have sworn he'd heard that Rukia's Captain was one of the nicer ones. Ukitake wasn't sounding very nice and friendly at the moment.
"Papa!" Yuzu squeaked. She squirmed under Ichigo's arm and threw herself on top of Isshin, hugging him desperately hard.
Urahara sighed. "I am trying to apply first aid here. Ukitake-taichou, what a pleasure to see you, will you kindly remove the younger generation while I get Shiba-san here sorted out."
Ichigo blinked. He looked up at Ukitake.
Ukitake wasn't blinking. "So you knew?"
"I knew. Shihouin Yoruichi knew. Kurosaki-kun here was entirely ignorant."
Ukitake took a long breath, suppressed a cough, and reached down to touch Ichigo's shoulder. "I suggest we let Urahara work, Kurosaki-kun. We can ask your father for some more details when he's fitter. And your sister --"
"Oh." Ichigo put one arm around Yuzu, and cuddled her against him. He could feel her trembling. A moment later, he remembered to say, "Thank you, sir. For looking after my sister."
"My pleasure," Ukitake said. "Now. Situation reports, Kuchiki, Abarai-fukutaichou, Kurosaki-kun. If you please."
Renji stepped forward, tossing his hair back. "We came, we saw, we --"
Rukia kicked him in the ankle.
Renji swallowed. "That is, um, situation secure, Ukitake-taichou. Ichimaru Gin got away, but all the other Arrancar have been purified except for one of them who Shihouin Yoruichi's currently got under control and is holding in case we want to question it. Perimeter secure and no hostile reiatsu apparent. Casualties," he sneaked a glance at Isshin, "being treated."
Ukitake nodded. "Good." He turned to Ichigo. "Kurosaki-kun, is your friend Inoue-kun anywhere nearby?"
Ichigo tried to think where he'd last seen her. "I don't know," he admitted. "I think she was with Chad, but I don't know where he is, or Ishida either. Is it so she can patch up my father? Because it looks as if Urahara's got that under control --"
"More than that," Ukitake said patiently. "We all need to be checked for the disease, and healed, if it is possible for her to do such a thing. You have realised that we were all exposed?"
Ichigo looked around the group. In the excitement of the fight, and the shock of seeing his father like that (he wasn't going to go into exactly what the 'that' was, because that'd mean he'd have to actually think about it, and about the way that Urahara had said Shiba-san, and all of that) he'd lost track of that point. "Oh," he said.
"Precisely," Ukitake said, and coughed.
Ishida came up to consciousness with the feeling that he had been beaten all over by big sticks. Every part of him ached. Even the parts that he wouldn't usually admit existed in the presence of ladies.
"He's awake!" Orihime squealed, clasping his head against her bosom.
Maybe he'd died and gone to Heaven.
No. Heaven wouldn't have the particular sweat-and-mouldy-dried-goods of Urahara Kisuke's shop. Reluctantly, he pried himself out of Orihime's chest and looked around.
Then again, perhaps he was still hallucinating, because he seemed to be lying on a mat next to Kurosaki Isshin, and the older man was in shinigami robes. And bandages. A lot of bandages.
"Are you all right, Ishida-kun?" a gentle voice asked. Ishida looked across to see Ukitake-taichou from the Thirteenth Division (one of the few Captains who seemed relatively sane) sitting there with a cup of tea.
"I think so, sir," Ishida said. With Orihime's help, he managed to sit upright. "I feel a bit wobbly. I think I, um, had it. The thing."
"And yet Inoue-kun cured you," Ukitake said with an approving smile.
Ishida fought the automatic urge to distrust shinigami. Even ones who were smiling at him. "Well, yes, but --" Suddenly a horrifying thought came to him. "Sir, you can't tell Kurotsuchi Mayuri about this! He'd want to -- he'd --" He quite literally couldn't form the words; his mind was full of raw and bleeding images.
Ukitake made calming motions with his free hand. "Don't worry, Ishida-kun. Any matters of healing go to Unohana-taichou, and she won't hand anyone over to Kurotsuchi-taichou. Besides, we've something here that we need to sort out first." His gaze shifted to Kurosaki Isshin.
"I'm unconscious," Kurosaki Isshin muttered, his eyes still shut. "Go away."
"What happened to reporting to a superior officer?" Ukitake asked mildly.
Kurosaki Isshin opened his eyes. "That would be the case if I were still part of the Gotei 13, which I'm not . . . Ukitake-san."
"Oh. Like that, is it, Shiba-fukutaichou?"
"Pretty much, Ukitake-san."
Ishida might or might not have his Quincy powers, but his sense for oncoming danger was still perfectly active, and it was currently firing off at about twice the rate it had earlier when he'd been trapped between Urahara Kisuke and an insane mutating Tousen Kaname. He squirmed away from the two men, with Orihime helping drag him.
"You are aware of what's going on?" Ukitake inquired.
Kurosaki Isshin's face closed up like a steel trap. "Urahara informed me."
"And what's there to be said? We failed once before." He levered himself up on one elbow. "Look. Last time this happened, they had to kill everyone who was affected. That was the only way to stop it. You think I wanted to get involved again? That I wanted to expose my daughters to it?"
"And so you ran away," Ukitake said flatly. A gust of wind plucked at his sleeves and stirred his hair; reiatsu rippled like a wave through the room.
Kurosaki Isshin paused, about to say something, then sighed. The energy went out of him with the breath, and his head sagged. "Ukitake-taichou. I was a healer, do you understand that? I was vice-captain of Fourth Division. That meant something. And for the best, the very best of reasons, I got involved in the project, and the subjects died, and the shinigami who'd been working on it died, and the healers who'd been working under me died, and I have no idea why I should have managed to live. And every time I looked at my patients after that, I knew I could fail them. And every time Unohana-taichou looked at me, I could see how I'd failed in her eyes. And every time my brother spoke to me -- he knew I'd done something wrong, and he didn't know what it was, but he and I both knew it was there. And so I ran away. I faked my own death and I ran away and I came to Kisuke for a gigai and I have not used healing kidou for decades, and I have managed to save some lives, and at least, at the very least I have not killed anyone else with my own damn stupidity and incompetence."
Ukitake leaned forward, holding Kurosaki Isshin's eyes with his own. "You talk as if you were the only leader who has managed to get his men killed."
Kurosaki Isshin snorted. "It's not like that."
"No?" Ukitake put down his cup. "Well, then, it is like this. We have all been in close proximity to this contagion -- you, me, your son and daughter, Kuchiki and Abarai and Shihouin Yoruichi and Urahara Kisuke -- and it is already spreading back in Soul Society. Aizen Sousuke thought you were important enough to kidnap or kill. I think that I . . . will trust his judgment."
Kurosaki Isshin didn't answer.
"Inoue-kun. Please do what you can with this man's injuries." Ukitake rose. "Ishida-kun, we should go downstairs. They're questioning the prisoner down there, and he may have something useful to say."
"I couldn't even save Masaki," Kurosaki Isshin said quietly. He didn't look up. "I couldn't save Ichigo from all this. I couldn't even protect my daughters. Ukitake-taichou, find someone else."
"There is nobody else," Ukitake said with a terrible gentleness. "Inoue-kun. Do what you can, please. We have very little time."
"You seem to be clear, Abarai-fukutaichou," Tessai said. He frowned down at Renji as though this was somehow a problem. "Of course, you'll have to stay here a little longer in quarantine until we're certain."
"I don't see why you can't just tell us if we're infected or not," Renji said. "Unohana-taichou just did this thing with her hands --" he gestured meaningfully, "-- and could do it."
Tessai glared at him. "Unohana-taichou is far more experienced in the healing arts than I am. It requires an expert healer to be able to assess the patient at that level, and even then it was probably a couple of hours after your exposure -- am I right? Yes, exactly. It takes that long for the disease to develop to a quantifiable level."
Renji nodded briefly and turned away. He supposed that was why they were all having to sit around here with nothing to do except question the prisoner. There was the side-option of questioning Urahara Kisuke or Shihouin Yoruichi, but he didn't think they'd talk. The two Kurosaki girls had been left upstairs with the kids who lived here with Urahara (Renji was curious about that as well, but it could wait till later) and reassured that their father was okay and Ichigo was okay and everything was going to be all right. Renji wasn't sure about the last point, but for the moment they were safe where they were.
"I don't know nothing," the prisoner growled, "and you can't make me tell it anyhow. Bunch of wimps. Let me out of these chains and I'll give you a proper fight."
That was pretty much all he'd said so far. He was hung around with chains and kidou contraptions that Urahara said he'd thought should block any risk of contagion, and was sitting in the middle of an open area of Urahara's private training ground area. (Renji wanted one of those. He wondered if Urahara did requests.) So far all that they'd found out was that his name was Grimmjow Jaggerjack, and that he thought they were all wimps, "except for that guy with the white hair".
Renji's considered opinion was that this Grimmjow fellow should join up with Eleventh. He wondered if they could get Madarame or Yumichika to come down and help with the interrogation. Maybe some information would slip from brawler to brawler via some sort of mental osmosis.
A spiral of black butterflies came drifting down from above, just as Ukitake-taichou and Ishida entered the training area. One of them made directly for Ukitake-taichou. Another headed for Renji.
"Huh?" Renji said, extending a bemused finger.
"I sent messages to your Captain and anyone else relevant," Tessai said from behind him. "Since I hadn't been involved in the fight, I was definitely not contaminated, so there was no risk of contagion."
Renji hadn't even begun to reason through that chain of thought. "Thanks," he said, and lifted the butterfly to his ear.
"Renji," the butterfly intoned in his Captain's voice. "I am told that you cannot report directly because of the risk of contagion, but that you have stopped an attack by Ichimaru Gin, driven him and his forces off, and taken a prisoner, and that you are now working under Ukitake-taichou's direction."
Renji turned around, and gave Tessai a deep bow of gratitude. He wondered if he could get the guy to write up his next few reports as well. This all sounded so much better than just got into fight towards end of fight, now working out what the hell to do next.
"In any case," Kuchiki-taichou's voice continued, "you are to keep on working with Ukitake-taichou. Do not engage with Urahara Kisuke unless strictly necessary."
Well, Renji reflected, it probably wasn't important to tell Kuchiki-taichou that right now they were all hanging out in Urahara's place. And he'd be very careful how he talked to Urahara. Right.
"Continue to gather information," Kuchiki-taichou instructed. "Ensure the safety of your colleagues. Make sure that any possible risks of infection are treated with extreme caution. Remain where you are in the world of the living until you are cleared of all possible danger of infection; notify me and Fourth Division at once if you are infected."
Renji's eyes strayed to where Rukia was arguing with Ichigo. No way he wasn't going to ensure her safety.
"I await more information." The butterfly fell silent.
Renji walked over to Tessai. "Can you take charge of this thing?" he asked. "I'm guessing that if I try and send any message by it, if I'm infected then the reiatsu might infect it too. Or whatever. You know."
"Of course," Tessai said. He gently removed the butterfly from Renji's finger.
Renji glanced across to Ukitake-taichou. For some reason he was holding his own butterfly a good foot away from his ear, and his hair was drifting out in the opposite direction from the volume of whatever message he was getting. "Do I want to know?" he asked.
Tessai eyed the situation. "Probably not," he decided.
Ukitake passed his butterfly over to Tessai to look after, and flexed his hand tenderly. He could swear that the volume of Shunsui's complaints had gone all the way down to the bone.
Really, it wasn't as if Ukitake had tried to get into a fight, or to deal with Ichimaru Gin, or run the risk of infection. It wasn't anything that Shunsui wouldn't have done himself if he'd been here. It was most unfair.
Still, for a moment it had distracted him from his current set of worries, and perhaps that in itself had been Shunsui's idea. Or maybe that was simply giving Shunsui too much credit.
Settling calm on his shoulders like a mantle, he strolled over to where Urahara was waving complicated instruments at the captive Hollow, who was in turn trying to reach Urahara and rip vital organs out of him. "Can I help?" he asked.
Urahara glanced up at him from under his hat. And that hat was new, as well. Ukitake remembered Urahara without the hat, without the constant shadow over his eyes, from the days when they had both been Captains together. Urahara had always seemed so open and pleasant.
As had Aizen.
Maybe, Ukitake reflected, he wasn't the world's best judge of people.
"How are you at interrogations?" Urahara asked idly. "Nothing more to tell you at the moment, Ukitake-taichou." The quick flick of his eyes around the others in the practice area made it quite clear that he was watching them as much as Ukitake was.
Urahara knew the situation as well as Ukitake did. If any of them were infected and lost control, then matters went from simply bad to potentially catastrophic. Kuchiki or Abarai -- or even Kurosaki, if they caught him off guard -- could probably be subdued and confined, and maybe even healed. But if Ukitake himself, or Urahara, or Shihouin Yoruichi, was infected and lost control, then it wouldn't be a question of subdual; it'd be a question of killing, and collateral damage, and spreading the infection even wider. That was why none of them could go back to Seireitai for the moment. It would destroy any hopes of maintaining Unohana's current quarantine, stretched as that was in any case.
Ukitake knew, as well, that he couldn't afford to show his concern. It would only alarm the younger ones. For the moment, they would just have to believe that their Captain had everything under control. That was, after all, part of a Captain's job.
He looked at the blue-haired prisoner. His style of dress was rather dramatic -- swinging open white jacket and white trousers, almost as if he was trying to display the black hole that went through his stomach. He looked a ruffian of the sort that usually gravitated to Eleventh.
"Scared of me?" the captive snarled. "Let me go and I'll show you that you ought to be!"
"Not at all," Ukitake said, with his most pleasant smile. "I'm just considering how much information to demand in return for letting you go."
The captive stared blankly for a moment. "You'd let me go?"
Ignoring the expressions on the faces of Kuchiki and Kurosaki and Abarai and Ishida, which suggested that they'd decided he'd gone insane and were working out how to sneak round behind him and jump him, Ukitake shrugged. "Why not?" he said blandly. "But I'd like the answers to a few questions first."
"Huh." The captive folded his arms. "How do I know you won't just cheat me and leave me in these damn chains?"
Ukitake leaned forward a little, and let his reiatsu rise. "Because," he said, "I have already beaten you. I struck you down. I have absolutely no reason to worry about you. I don't care if I release you or not. So I'm the only person here who will consider releasing you."
"You damn bastard!" the captive yelled, wrenching at his chains. "Let me out of here and I'll show you who'd win! You fucking tight-assed long-haired pansy wimp shinigami coward --"
Ukitake twitched a shoulder and began to turn away.
"What the fuck do you want to know, anyway?" the captive snarled. "You want to know if Aizen-sama's in charge? Fine. Aizen-sama's in charge."
Ukitake paused. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Kurosaki Ichigo slipping off to the room where they'd left Shiba Isshin. "Well," he said thoughtfully. "Perhaps a couple of questions."
"Like how many of you there are," Ukitake said, signalling to Kuchiki Rukia to fetch him a chair. "For a start."
Ichigo stalked into the room and kicked his father in the butt.
Isshin shot upright with a yelp, clutching at his rear with one hand and his bandaged chest with the other. "Ungrateful son!" he wailed. "If poor Masaki could see you now . . ."
"Yeah," Ichigo said. "If she could. Tell me, dad, did you ever tell her the truth?"
Isshin took his hand away from his tailbone and looked at Ichigo. Layers of casual idiocy seemed to fall away from him as he straightened his shoulders. "Parts," he said quietly.
"That I wasn't human."
"And how did she take that?"
"Quite well," Isshin said. He grinned for a moment. "In fact, she insisted on checking me all over for signs of non-humanness, in the nude --"
"Arrgh!" Ichigo put his hands over his ears. "I didn't need to know that!"
"You asked," Isshin said, serious again. "Other parts I didn't tell her, because she didn't need to know them. Why should I have thought that the shinigami would ever come scratching at our door? I'd have told you when you were older. When the girls were older."
"How old?" Ichigo demanded suspiciously.
Isshin ran a hand through his hair. "Older. Idiot son. Look, if we could have lived through all this without you having to become a shinigami, without any of this happening, would you have wanted to know? Wouldn't you rather just have got through school and university and lived without all of this?"
Ichigo was just going to say Of course, but something cut him off. To have lived without the power to protect the people he cared about? Never to have known Rukia, or met that moron Ishida, or seen Zangetsu, or kicked Zaraki Kenpachi's gorilla ass, or beaten Kuchiki Byakuya, or been healed by Orihime, or seen the sun rise over Seireitai, or any of it --
"Forget it," he finally said. "Just tell me the truth, dad. Are you a Shiba?"
Ichigo sighed. "So that's why everyone said I looked like Shiba Kaien -- oh, crap." He went white. "That means that Shiba Kuukaku's my aunt. Oh god. I'm dead."
"Did you see little Kuukaku-chan?" Isshin asked eagerly. "How did she grow up?"
Ichigo tried to square little Kuukaku-chan with the figure in his memory. "A one-armed fiend from hell who likes blasting people up in firework cannons," he reported.
Isshin smiled. "That's my little Kuukaku-chan."
Ichigo slapped his forehead. "So you're a Shiba and you were a shinigami. Which Division were you with, dad?"
"Fourth," Isshin said, more soberly. "I was vice-captain. I think pretty Isane-kun would have taken my place; she was third seat at the time."
Ichigo vaguely remembered a tall, nervous-looking, graceful woman following Unohana-taichou around. He nodded. "I think so, yeah. But -- dad -- why? What happened?"
Isshin sat down again on his pallet. He waved Ichigo to the other one. "It's a long story."
"Talk," Ichigo said, seating himself.
A yell drifted in from outside. "I'm only 6th Espada because I haven't had the fucking time to challenge the others yet! When I do I'll be first!"
Isshin ignored it. "Urahara-taichou," he said, "was one of the most gifted Twelfth Division captains in history. Everyone agreed on that. When he came up with an idea to treat Hollow pathology as a set of symptoms rather than a causal aetiology, it was a whole new way of looking at it. If his theory held water, then we could not only excise or cure the Hollow symptoms, we could also graft useful abilities onto shinigami volunteers -- the battle shapeshifting, for instance, or the ability to fire bolts of force."
Ichigo nodded. "Sort of like treating pneumonia by treating the coughs and temperature and everything separately, rather than an antibiotic for the whole disease?"
"Fairly close," Isshin said. "Though you have to bear in mind that we really know far less about Hollow pathology than we do about pneumonia. It's partly a question of ethics -- we always wanted to purify Hollows and send them on, rather than force them to stay in their state of pain and hunger. A lot of what we know about them comes from observation on the battlefield. Only lunatics want to go and study them in Hueco Mundo."
"Did you ever do that, dad?"
Isshin coughed. "Anyhow, so, Urahara-taichou had this plan. He'd created a focusing tool which he called the Hougyoukou, which was supposed to be able to work on the structure of the soul. He'd got me helping him -- both as vice-captain of Fourth, and with some of the Shiba documentation on alchemy. Unohana-taichou had partly released me from my duties to help in the project. She wasn't fully aware of the details. She trusted my judgment." He looked down at his hands. "Not many people were aware of the full scope of the thing. Urahara-taichou wasn't entirely sure they'd approve. He was always a great believer in it being easier to get forgiveness than approval. He still is."
"It went wrong," Ichigo guessed.
Isshin nodded. "At first it seemed to be working. We were succesfully modifying the structure of the Hollows. Reducing them to ordinary souls. They became -- almost plastic. And the shinigami who'd volunteered to be part of it were showing abilities usually only seen in Hollows. The only odd thing was that some of them began finding odd bony outgrowths on their faces, or left in places where they'd been sleeping like cast-off shells."
Ichigo could literally feel his blood turn to ice. His hand moved to touch the part of his face where that mask thing had manifested.
"And then it went to hell." Isshin didn't look at Ichigo. "The Hollows started mutating. Some of them partly tore off their masks. Their power grew exponentially. Some of the affected shinigami turned into fullgrown Hollows themselves. Others manifested bone masks and went mad. They had to be stopped. We managed to heal a few, but then the healers were affected. Unohana-taichou had to be brought in. With her help, we used multi-healer groups to work on them, with some of the healers shielding and others applying the healing reiatsu. Even so, we lost more; they had to be purified and sent on. By the time we had finished -- Ichigo, I want you to understand this -- almost the entire group was dead."
Ichigo swallowed. He could feel fear in his throat like a crawling insect.
"Yamamoto-soutaichou had to be given the full details," Isshin went on, monotone. "He and the Chamber of 46 agreed that it wouldn't be a good idea to let everyone know about it. Even the other Captains didn't get the full details, just that Urahara-taichou had stepped over the line and was being exiled. His vice-captain hadn't been involved in the project at all. He'd never approved of it. About the one time in Kurotsuchi-fukutaichou's life that he actually did the ethical thing." He snorted a dry laugh. "I wasn't blamed. Not formally. Urahara-taichou himself insisted that I'd just been led astray. A tool. A fool. They let me return to my duties. But it wasn't over. Every time I tried to heal a patient, I saw those damn bone masks, that crawling flesh. I saw it in Unohana-taichou's face when she spoke to me. She was never less than perfectly polite. Do you understand? She knew and I knew and there was nothing more to be said."
Ichigo would have reached out to his father, but he didn't know how. This wasn't the father that he knew, the one who he was used to fighting with, arguing with, insulting, ignoring . . . this was a different person. There was a note of hopelessness in Isshin's voice that he didn't know how to cope with. He didn't know how to protect his father from this.
"Kaien was a bright boy, but even then he knew that something was wrong." Isshin looked up at last. "Kaien was like you, Ichigo. I know he's dead. Urahara passed on that he'd died. He'd fought bravely and he'd died doing the right thing. He would never have understood what I tried to do. But he did understand that I'd done something wrong and shamed our House and . . ." He trailed off. "I faked my death. I couldn't stand their eyes any longer. I was on a solo mission; I left traces to suggest I'd died, and I ran. I eventually found Urahara and I told him that he owed me something. He gave me a gigai and I lived as a human. And then later there was Masaki, and you, but . . ."
Ichigo kicked his father in the face.
Isshin went over like a sack of potatoes.
Ichigo stood over him. "You know," he said, his conversational tone somehow distinct from the anger and fear that wrestled inside him, "dad, I don't care whether it was Urahara's fault or your fault or whoever's fault, but right now, I need your help."
Isshin pulled himself upright again and rubbed his cheek. "Yes," he said flatly. "You all do."
"No." Ichigo stepped forward, and grabbed Isshin's hand, pulling it up to touch his cheek. "Dad, you don't understand. Urahara did something to make me a shinigami again, that time earlier, and ever since then --" He could barely get the words out. "I haven't told anyone about this, dad, because what the hell was I supposed to say? There is this bone mask thing, dad, and there is a voice which talks to me and tries to take me over. It almost did it once and I nearly killed someone." Because whatever he'd wanted that time, and however much he'd wanted to hammer Kuchiki Byakuya's sneering face into the dust, it hadn't been to kill the man. "Dad, please. What you're saying -- if it's happening to me, too -- dad, please." The words had to be forced out, like hard dry stones. "If I -- if I hurt someone, Rukia, Karin, Yuzu . . ."
There was a long silence. Then Isshin said, "Idiot son," and cuffed him across the ears.
"Ow," Ichigo said, and punched back.
"This whole affair has been badly handled," Isshin said. He pulled himself to his feet. "Right. I need to talk to Urahara-taichou. And then I have some experiments I need to run."