"Renji?" Kuchiki Byakuya said. His tone of voice was so dismissive, so casual, so utterly normal that for a moment Renji could believe that things were as they should be and that the glimpse of fangs had been nothing but his imagination. And maybe it did mean something. Maybe Kuchiki-taichou was more or less sane, and they could talk him into standing there till Orihime could fix him.
"Yeah, Captain," Renji said. He took a step forward. "We've got things under control."
Kuchiki-taichou frowned. "I was not aware that anything was out of control," he said. The wind played with the end of his sash. "I need to talk to you. There is . . ." He shook his head, as if he was trying to recollect something. "We need to talk. In private."
There was something in the dark hunger that filled Kuchiki-taichou's eyes at those words which went to somewhere in Renji's stomach, and simultaneously knotted his guts and weakened his knees. To be looked at like that, as if he was so important, so necessary to Kuchiki-taichou . . .
"Don't be a damn moron," Kurosaki said, grabbing Renji's shoulder. "You're not going anywhere private with him now he's a vampire."
"The Kurosaki brat," Kuchiki-taichou said. His hand fell to the hilt of his zanpakutou. "You again. Here. Trespassing. Disturbing. Threatening my sister --"
"She's been turned into a vampire, you moron!" Kurosaki yelled. "What the hell happened to you protecting her? Can't you see that she needs help, that you need help too?"
Kuchiki-taichou drew his sword in a single motion, holding it before his face in a dreadfully familiar posture. "Scatter --" he began.
"No!" Renji could imagine the lethal wave of blossoms striking across the field. He could dodge, sure, and so could Shihouin Yoruichi and Kurosaki and Yumichika, but he wouldn't give two yen for the others' chances. He desperately grabbed at the collar of his jacket, yanking it down to show the bite marks left by the other vampire. "Captain! Look here!"
"Keep his attention," Shihouin Yoruichi said in a soft mutter. "Ayasegawa, take Sado and Ishida, go on to Seiretai. We'll finish handling things here."
Out of the corner of his eye, Renji caught Yumichika's nod, and saw him vanish with the two other men. He'd have preferred it if they could have taken Orihime too, but she was needed here to fix his Captain.
"Renji," Kuchiki-taichou said, in a deep tone that went right to Renji's knees. "Come here."
Slowly, with halting steps, Renji approached his Captain.
"What the hell?" Ichigo decided that Renji must have been hypnotised. This must be part of the whole vampire powers shit and Urahara hadn't bothered to mention it or something. The whole glazed eyes, shuddering, ripping his clothes off, staggering towards Byakuya . . . well, so he'd just have to deal with Byakuya (he'd already done it once before, how hard could it be to do it again?) and accept Renji's apologies afterwards. Yeah. Something like that. He couldn't understand why Yoruichi wasn't already taking Byakuya down. She'd messed with him that time before and totally outrun him, after all. All this kid gloves treatment and trying to talk them down wasn't going to work.
"Ichigo?" a plaintive little voice said next to him.
Ichigo nearly jumped out of his skin. All his attention had been on Kuchiki Byakuya. He'd forgotten about Rukia: forgotten her entirely enough that she'd managed to get right up close to him.
She looked up at him with huge dark liquid eyes. She was so small. It was hard to think of her as his elder when she was like this; she was as tiny as Yuzu or Karin, and she needed protection so badly. Everyone was against her. Her brother. Her friends. Everyone. He was the only one who could protect her.
"Idiot," he said, and ruffled her hair. "Stay close to me now till we get this sorted out."
She nodded submissively (and why wasn't she snapping at him or calling him a fool, a part of his mind vaguely wondered but didn't quite get round to making itself heard) and pressed herself against his side (and she was so cold, there was something that he should have remembered about letting her get close to him, but she was Rukia and she was one of the most important people in his life, and . . .)
. . . and she was so cold.
And, Ichigo realised as he felt her hand brush his collar, she was right inside his guard.
And her hands were like skeletal pieces of ice as she forced his arm down and as she hooked her free arm round his neck and she got her teeth into his throat.
And Zangetsu was a thousand miles away and it was so dark and Rukia was there but Rukia was wrong and he couldn't think properly and it was so cold.
Nanao woke without hesitation or blurriness, with the simple opening of her eyes. There was a strange lassitude to her body: not the weariness of fighting or running, but a kind of complete relaxation that kept her still and calm. She was lying on the sofa in her Captain's office, her head in his lap. The moonlight came spilling in through the window, broken by the moving shadows of clouds, and as she looked up at him she could see despair in his face.
"Kyouraku-taichou," she said softly.
She was so hungry. She knew what it had to mean about her and what it had to imply about her Captain, and the implications spread outwards from that, but something stopped her from being afraid.
"Nanao-chan," he said. "I am so sorry. So very sorry."
"It wasn't . . ." The words turned to ash in her throat. She wanted to say it wasn't your fault, but it had to be someone's fault, and couldn't he have stopped himself, just for that one moment? Couldn't he have done something? "It was Aizen," she finally said. "It wasn't you. Not really."
He brushed a strand of hair away from her face. "My Nanao-chan is more forgiving than I deserve." She could sense the tension in his hands and body. "And now I have some last orders for her."
"I can't leave you now!" she burst out.
"You can. I order you to." He slid a hand under her shoulder. "Nanao-chan, Sousuke has told me to do something and I cannot fight it very much longer. Only the fact that you were here, that your blood --" He broke off. "Only you have let me hold on for so long. Listen. Sousuke's plan is to turn some of the Captains and Vice-Captains to vampires, as he has done with me, and then to set them on each other. He has also turned some of the younger shinigami, and will make them attack each other and run wild in Seireitai. It will be chaos. Yama-jii needs to establish order and set up quarantines, lock everyone down sector by sector. If we can hold out till dawn, then the vampires won't be able to abide the sunlight, and he can finish the job."
Some of the Captains and Vice-Captains . . . "Who else?" Nanao demanded.
Kyouraku-taichou sighed. "He didn't tell me. The only one I know that hasn't been affected is Jyuushirou, and that's because . . ." He bowed his head. "Because Sousuke told me to find him."
The simple elegance and cruelty of it twisted in Nanao's stomach. She rolled sideways, curling up around the hurt and the hunger in her guts as if she could block it away.
"Nanao." Her Captain's hand tightened on her shoulder. "Sousuke didn't think it through. I don't think he can control you. I . . . did this to you. So I'm the one who has authority over you."
"You always were, sir," she whispered.
He squeezed her shoulder. "Here are my orders. You will control your hunger. You can control your hunger. You won't listen to anything that Sousuke tells you. Get to Yama-jii, give him a report, follow his orders. And --" He took a deep breath. "Don't come near me again unless there is something that you must do."
She was able to look up at him again, but the words something that you must do nearly broke her resolve. "I understand, sir," she forced out. "I will obey. But --"
"But?" he said, touching her hair again.
"But there --" She was going to say, there is a cure, but memory cut in. If he met Aizen Sousuke again, could he be forced to tell about the possibility? About Inoue Orihime? The only hope, the best hope, was that he not know at all. And he must realise that himself. "But there is a chance," she finally said. "For both of us."
"Pray it comes quickly," her Captain said. "And now you must go. I'll stay here, Nanao-chan. As long as I can."
His hand shook as he stroked her hair, her neck, her shoulder. "Go," he said, and there was a desperation in his voice that she had never heard there before, and which set her running out into the streets faster than she had thought she could go.
Hitsugaya pushed open the door angrily. It rattled back on its rails to slam against the wall.
"Matsumoto!" he yelled, looking round the office. He knew that she'd been off-colour the last few days, but he'd put it down to a combination of alcohol and worrying about Ichimaru Gin. (The idiot.) But he had faith that she'd respond in an emergency, however many bottles she had to drag herself out of. And this was certainly an emergency. There were mobs running wild across Seireitai, some sort of wild stories about blood-drinking maniacs, the weather was appalling, other Captains were nowhere to be found, and if Ukitake-taichou chose this moment to come up behind him and offer him candy --
"Captain," Matsumoto murmured, draping herself over him from behind. He was torn between an urge to shout at her again and a simple sigh of relief that she was here at last. At least there was one dependable thing in Seireitai.
"Matsumoto," he muttered in what was only a moderately surly manner. "Get off me. That means both breasts."
"Captain," she sighed again, arms locking round him, and he barely had time to realise just how cold her flesh was before her teeth met in his neck.
"Mayuri-sama," Nemu said.
"What is it?" Kurotsuchi Mayuri snarled. There was some sort of commotion going on outside, so in keeping with Twelfth Division's finest traditions, he had sent out some expendable minions to find out what was going on and locked the doors behind them. He hadn't been in the best of moods before that: the whole Aizen Sousuke mess was a drain on his valuable time which could be better spent in valuable research, and as for the whole Quincy debacle, Yamamoto-soutaichou had made it very clear that the way back to an isolation cell for the rest of eternity was very close and very specific and involved Yamamoto-soutaichou finding out that Kurotsuchi had performed one single unethical experiment more.
Nobody had any priorities, that was the problem with the world.
"Mayuri-sama," Nemu whispered, "may I drink your blood, please?"
Kurotsuchi turned and stared at her. He hadn't programmed that into her. Well, he didn't think he had. While it would offer certain advantages for conditioning, maybe, and there would be the convenience of direct viral transmission . . . "Why?" he demanded.
"Because I have turned into a vampire and need to make you one as well," she replied obediently.
Kurotsuchi sniffed. He put a finger under her chin and tilted her head, examining her. Skin pallor, absolutely no lividity, sunken eyes, enlarged canines . . . "When did this happen?" he demanded furiously. "Who dared experiment on you? You are my personal design!"
"Tousen Kaname did it," Nemu answered, her eyes fixed on the curve of his wrist. "Please, Mayuri-sama. I am very thirsty. And there are significant advantages to the vampiric state."
"Hm." He decided that she might conceivably have a useful point there. "Very well. I will investigate this. You!" He turned to the nearest minion. "Fetch Akon at once!"
As the minion scurried out, Kurotsuchi turned back to Nemu. "You will drink Akon's blood for the moment. I will observe the process before conducting further tests."
Nemu's features twitched, a struggle evident beneath her calmness. "But . . . I have to drink your blood, Mayuri-sama . . . he said so . . ."
"How dare you contradict me!" Kurotsuchi snarled, backhanding her. She collapsed to the ground like a broken doll. "You are my vice-captain! My creation! You will only drink my blood as and when I order you to drink my blood! Now get up and bite Akon!"
"Sir?" Akon began to say as he walked through the door.
Nemu leapt on Akon, hands clenching on his shoulders, and forced him to the ground. She ignored his screams and struggles, ripping back his lab coat and biting into his neck, lapping at his blood.
"Fascinating," Kurotsuchi muttered, leaning over to observe the process better. This could have very interesting implications. And of course he had plenty of other minions that he could feed to Nemu if necessary.
A stray thought made him wonder if this was one of those unethical acts that Yamamoto-soutaichou had mentioned. Possibly, he decided. But an unethical act done in private didn't really exist if nobody ever heard about it.
Besides, surely nobody could possibly object to him dissecting his own vice-captain.
Yumichika led the two young men towards Seireitai, cursing the necessity to move at a mere running pace. He could understand the reason for Yoruichi-san's orders: they had to get the news to Seireitai as fast as possible, and he had no doubt that she and the others could deal with Kuchiki-taichou and his little sister, vampirised or not. (After all, the man wasn't Eleventh. That said it all, really.)
But being forced to move at this pace in order to allow the two others to keep up with him was irritating. No, it was frustrating. It was irksome. It was --
"Ho, Ayasegawa!" Hisagi's voice interrupted his search for the perfect word. The man was standing some distance ahead, waving at them. "Thank goodness you're here!"
"And where else should I be?" Yumichika snapped. "We have urgent news for Seireitai, so if you don't mind --"
"Was that what Madarame tried to say?" Hisagi demanded.
Yumichika stopped. So did the other two. "What?" He could feel a trace of concern in his belly, no matter how much he knew that Ikkaku could take care of himself. "What do you mean? Tried?"
Hisagi frowned. The moonlight was pale on his face. "He staggered into our encampment -- we're on watch on this section, because of the recent patrol difficulties. He tried to say something but then he collapsed, and none of us have enough healing kidou to wake him. We were about to carry him in to Fourth, but if you know what's going on --"
"Let me see him," Yumichika demanded. "Which way are you camped?"
"This way," Hisagi said, jerking a thumb northwards. "About a quarter of a mile. I came out when I sensed your reiatsu coming this way."
"We didn't sense an encampment there," the Quincy boy said, frowning.
Hisagi shrugged. "To be honest with you, most of my men aren't strong enough that you would sense them. But none of us have the manpower we'd like at the moment. If you want to see him before they take him to Fourth, Ayasegawa . . ."
"I'm coming," Yumichika said curtly. He let the Quincy and Sado follow, striding in the direction Hisagi had indicated, and felt the other shinigami drop into step beside him. "Tell me," he said, lowering his voice, "is he badly hurt?"
Hisagi shrugged again. "Well. Yes. You really think anything less would stop him? But he'll be all right if we can get him to a healer fast enough. I don't suppose you have any healing kidou, do you?"
Yumichika shook his head. "It's not a priority in Eleventh."
"No," Hisagi said dryly, "I'm sure it isn't."
Yumichika sniffed, and drew ahead. He could see the small encampment now: a couple of tents, a dozen men, one on watch saluting Hisagi as they approached. "Is he in one of the tents?"
"The smaller one," Hisagi said. "We can't afford a fire, on a night like this. Too obvious."
"I suppose that's sensible," Yumichika allowed. Of course, Eleventh would have had a fire, but for the weaker Divisions it would be more practical to stay unnoticed. "Do you mind --" He considered how to say it. "That is -- Ikkaku's an old friend, and if I can wake him up he won't be too embarrassed about me seeing him wounded, but for other people . . ."
"Of course," Hisagi said. "We'll wait outside. But he really does need to be moved back to Fourth as soon as possible, if we can't heal him out here."
Yumichika nodded. "Of course." He glanced back to his two followers. "Would you two please wait a moment? I won't be long."
The Quincy was frowning, but he nodded.
Yumichika turned away from Hisagi, heading towards the doorway of the tent. He was calm and controlled. He knew it. There was nothing in his pace that could betray any uncertainty, any undue concern, or all the gods forbid, any actual worry about Ikkaku, because none of that would have been graceful, but all the same --
Hisagi's right arm locked round him, trapping his right arm against his side. In the moonlight he could see the muscles of the other shinigami's bare arm clearly defined and flexed, as precise as an anatomy model. Hisagi's movements were as careful and exact, just the sort of thing that might be expected from an Academy-raised fighter rather than one of the more freestyle types of Eleventh, and Yumichika found himself admiring it in a distant sort of way even as he struggled to reach his zanpakutou's hilt. The punch to his kidneys. The kick to his ankle. The stamp to the back of the knee. The full weight of Hisagi on him as he went down, and the knee grinding into the small of his back. The hand trapping his wrists. The other hand in his hair, pulling back hard so that his head was wrenched back and he knew, with a fear as cold as the moonlight, just exactly why Hisagi was exposing his throat.
Ishida would have said that he was expecting Hisagi's move, but it wasn't exactly an expectation; it was a desperate hope that he was wrong. It had all been too obvious. The convenient meeting, the perfectly timed reason to distract Ayasegawa Yumichika (really, without having to make any dubious suggestions, it was quite obvious that he and Madarame were friends, of course he'd want to see him), the camp full of quiet unsmiling men all watching them, the way that it just happened to be along the nearest convenient route to Seireitai . . .
Even then, Hisagi's speed and precision took him by surprise. He was pounding Ayasegawa into the ground and wrenching at his neck before Ishida could even finish raising his hand. The other shinigami were leaping at him and at Chad, mouths open now to show fangs.
But really, Ishida reflected as he started firing arrows round in an arc, carefully calibrating his force to stun and knock back rather than to kill, if he hadn't been expecting something, the situation would have been even worse.
"Problem," Chad grunted. He slammed a burst of power in the other direction, back to back with Ishida. "You think Ayasegawa-san needs our help?"
Ishida glanced across. Hisagi had torn the elegant orange scarf off Ayasegawa's throat and was running his tongue over it. "Yes," he said succinctly.
"Right," Chad said. Another blow from his armoured hand knocked back a persistent vampire shinigami. He strode across the clearing towards the struggling pair, light gleaming round his fist as the force gathered.
Yumichika was aware of the noise elsewhere in the clearing. He hoped that the two others could hold off Hisagi's men. The situation was depressingly obvious now that he was having his nose rubbed in it. He hoped that nobody else would suffer for the minor mistake that he had made. (He'd never personally have rated Hisagi as so wily or devious. Maybe someone else had given him the plan to carry out.)
Hisagi's fingers raked against the side of his neck as he ripped Yumichika's scarf away. For a moment, white-hot wrath overrode the black panic that was fermenting in Yumichika's stomach, and he managed to half-wrench one of his arms loose.
"Not so fast," Hisagi breathed, getting a grip on Yumichika's wrist again. He leaned forward and ran his tongue along Yumichika's throat. His breath was as cold as his hands. "Remember when we were in this position before? When you got me down on the ground and just Isucked/I all the life out of me? This time it's my turn, Fourth Seat Ayasegawa, and I'm so very hungry."
"Shut up!" Yumichika snapped. He tried to push the other man off, but unfortunately physical strength and weight and leverage and simple gravity were all against him. This couldn't be happening. This couldn't. Not to him. It couldn't. "Don't be an idiot, Hisagi! We can help you --"
"You can't even help yourself," Hisagi growled, and bit.
His teeth went in so slowly.
The ground in front of Yumichika was white and black in the moonlight, barred with shadows from the clouds overhead. He could count the blades of grass, the fragments of earth. Hisagi's hand in his hair, Hisagi's hand on his wrists, Hisagi's weight on his back, Hisagi's teeth in his neck. Control. Loss of control. Breathing. Breathe in, breathe out, try to think of anything, anything at all but the mouth on his neck, the way that he somehow knew that Hisagi was enjoying the tenseness of his bowed body, the straining of his muscles, that Hisagi's mouth on his neck felt like something so much more intimate. The screams in the background so distant now, the way that the peacock spread its blue wings in his mind and shrieked in affronted scorn, each separate beat of his heart.
"No," Sado said. His armoured fist took Hisagi in the side of the body, breaking his grip on Yumichika and throwing him across the clearing in a a white blur that left aftertrails of glimmering power behind it.
Yumichika came to his feet, coughing and gasping for breath, moving with the reflexes that had been trained into him and without any sort of conscious thought. Fujikujaku leapt into his hand without a moment's hesitation, the hilt nestling into his palm and soothing his fingers. He could feel the blood running thick and hot down his neck. He moved for Hisagi smoothly, leading with his left side, as he brought his zanpakutou round and up in an arc that was going to take Hisagi's head off his shoulders.
Hisagi came up from where he'd been thrown, pulling his own zanpakutou from its sheath as he did, and the blade came up in time to meet Yumichika's own, a fraction of an inch from Hisagi's neck.
Hisagi grinned like a wolf, the blood still black on his lips, and leaned forward. "You first," he said, "and then --"
Yumichika hissed between his teeth, and retreated a pace, disengaging his blade. He didn't have time to invoke shikai, as Hisagi pressed the attack at once, and the two of them darted across the clearing, attacking and blocking.
"Do you think we should interfere?" Chad asked. The other shinigami vampires had run away or were unconscious.
"Well." Ishida thought about it. Frankly, he wasn't certain which way the fight was going to go. Both of the men seemed more or less equal in terms of speed and strength, and neither of them was pausing long enough to let the other fire off any kidou or release their zanpakutou. There was something unpleasantly personal about the way that they were trying to kill each other. "Ayasegawa-san is Eleventh. He'd probably object."
"We don't have the time to wait, though," Chad pointed out. "We've got to get the message through."
"If one of them got Hisagi-fukutaichou, then they're already there," Ishida said weakly. But he could understand Chad's point of view. He was just grateful that it wasn't him fighting. He knew how he'd feel if someone like Kurosaki broke in on a fight of his. "But we can't let Hisagi get away. If he reports to someone --"
Chad nodded. "Right."
Ishida nodded in return. The two of them separated, moving to bracket the pair of shinigami.
Yumichika was being uncomfortably reminded of the last time that he'd fought Hisagi Shuuhei -- except, unfortunately, for the bit where he invoked Fujikujaku and utterly devastated the petty-minded idiot. He was losing. Short of a miracle, he honestly didn't think he was going to win this fight. It was clear that Hisagi remembered the fight as well; that was why he kept on rushing Yumichika, forcing him to keep the battle hand-to-hand and sword-to-sword, and not giving him a chance to invoke his zanpakutou.
This is quite intolerable, he decided. If Ikkaku hears about me being defeated like this, I'll never live it down . . .
He dimly felt the prickle of growing reiatsu in the background, but the blasts of force took him by surprise: one huge pulse of energy that struck the ground between him and Hisagi, making them both skip backwards, and then a rain of shining white arrows behind Hisagi, knocking him off his feet and leaving him sprawling on the ground for a crucial moment.
It was enough. "Bloom, Fujikujaku!" he commanded, and if his voice was just a little shaky, a little bit cracked, then there was nobody here from Eleventh to hear it.
But as the blade split and curved in his hand, a new dread struck him. What if the same thing happened that had happened before with Urahara? What if, along with Hisagi's energy, he drank in the other man's vampirism? What if he became a thing like Hisagi or Urahara?
"Quick!" the Quincy shouted. Hisagi was scrambling to his feet again. "We can get Inoue to heal him --"
Hisagi turned his head, quick as a snake, to glance at the Quincy, who shut his mouth with a snap as though he had just realised how unwise, how utterly stupid, it had been to say such a thing in the presence of a vampire who wasn't showing any signs whatever of wanting to be healed, or indeed of wanting to do anything except drink blood.
Yumichika sighed. As usual, it was up to him to sort things out. He reached, letting Fujikujaku's tendrils float out like feathers to ensnare Hisagi, and ignored Hisagi's screaming and flailing as he drank in his life like wine. (He'd tried thinking of it as tea once, for the sake of the experiment, but he had to conclude that tea didn't quite have the emphatic sting that this sort of energy did.) And this time it was safe enough: Hisagi collapsed and lay there, staring at the clouded sky, his lips moving in whispered curses, and Yumichika was well, even healed, and there was nothing to worry about at all.
He touched the tips of his canine teeth with his tongue. No. Not pointed. No more than usual. Nothing to worry about.
Wait. There was something to worry about. He turned to the two young men. "Thank you for your assistance," he said icily, courtesy driving him to say the words, however little he meant them. "However, I would be grateful if you would refrain from mentioning my zanpakutou to anyone else. Anyone. At all."
Sado shrugged. "All right," he said. "But are we going to take him with us?"
"We could leave him here," the Quincy said. "And tie him to a tree . . ." He trailed off. "No, one of his men would come back and untie him. But . . ."
"We are not going to kill him," Yumichika said firmly.
"Bastard," Hisagi hissed, barely audible.
Yumichika smiled down at him benignly. He now realised what true victory was. It was having Hisagi healed and then letting Hisagi apologise to him later. Preferably in fulsome detail and in front of other people. That would do nicely. Just killing Hisagi here and now wasn't any sort of victory at all: it was merely an end to the fight, and a fight that had been interfered in at that. True victory would be saving Hisagi in spite of Hisagi himself.
"We'll tie him and bring him along," Yumichika said. He brushed at the healing wounds on the side of his neck and spared a bitter thought for his scarf. "He can give us valuable information on Aizen and his plans."
"But if they managed to get him," Sado said, "that means they're already in Seireitai."
"So?" Yumichika sniffed. "I have no doubt that Zaraki-taichou will be leading the resistance."
"And they've planted people along our route," Sado said patiently. "First there was Kuchiki Rukia and her brother, and then there was Hisagi-san here. Aizen must have known we'd be coming and that we'd be coming this way. How many other people could be waiting for us?"
Yumichika paused to think that over for a moment. "We can't split up," he decided. "But we can take a route off the beaten track. That should let us avoid any further ambushes."
"But won't that slow us down?" the Quincy demanded nervously.
Yumichika tossed his hair back. "As Sado-kun has just said, they're there already. We can't stop them from arriving. Our job now is to --" He paused, trying to work out exactly what their job was. "Our task is to save what we can. All the Captains must be informed. We can only hope that Ikkaku and that Ise-fukutaichou made it through. Yamamoto-soutaichou needs the most up-to-date report from our prisoner and anything else we know. There are hours of the night yet to go. It may be bad. We need to stop it from getting worse."
"You're all doomed anyhow," Hisagi whispered, and licked his lips.
"Not yet," Yumichika answered.