Author's Note: Oh god, the ANGST.
A/N2: It's impossible to know for sure (and will be, until Kubo Tite tells us concretely; something I live in hope of) just which of the Captains were already Captains 200 years ago in the story timeline, so these are clearly just my guesses – based partly on honest effort to work out a canonical timeline, and partly on wild imagination, which always wants to put people in the best place for good story possibilities.
A/N3: If my version of a certain former 10th Division Captain is never mentioned by surname, either here or in any chapter of "Facets," that would be because I have crack-brained… theories. Heh. So in the interest of remaining true to a possibility/theory that may or may not be proven right in the future as Kubo reveals more about said character's past, I am just carefully leaving a surname unmentioned.
A/N4: I hope the author alerts go out for this. Anyone (crazy enough to be) interested in more of my offerings of crack, and who may have been having as much trouble with author alerts lately as I have, might want to check profile pages for updates, as I've been doing.
Disclaimer: I own nothing. I don't even own my own sanity anymore; this damn story and the sick obsession it has created have stolen it from me entirely.
"The Quincy of two hundred years ago were destroyed by Shinigami hands." Kuchiki Rukia, manga chapter 45
"The Shinigami had to wipe out the Quincy. That was in order to prevent the destruction of the world." Urahara Kisuke, manga chapter 45
"Whether I like it or not, this is the name given to the man who has learned every technique formulated by the first Quincy, Ishida Souken…" Ishida Ryuuken, manga chapter 186
"My bankai is simply not the kind of bankai that can be used for training people or lending people power." Urahara Kisuke, manga chapter 224
"I swear on the pride of the Quincy, I will kill you." Ishida Uryuu, manga chapter 123
Her fingers were bleeding. That had never happened before. Sometimes the younger ones, in their training, still unsure of how to control their power, burned themselves with it, stripped away skin with every arrow let fly. But she was different. She had always been… better. Gifted. Her arrows always flew true. Her fingers never shook. They certainly never bled.
They were bleeding now.
The whole world seemed to be bleeding.
They waited, she thought. Over and over again. Her mind was stuck, even as her fingers closed around air and pulled forth arrow, even as her arm came back, over and over, her eyes darting ceaselessly in search of a new target. They waited until we were gathered all together.
Somewhere to her left, someone screamed. She thought she recognized the voice. She thought she had recognized them all, tonight. And maybe she had.
A flash of movement through the trees. If only they weren't all wearing black. White made such a better mark. She had learned that too well since this all began, an hour and a lifetime ago.
They waited. They knew. They knew where we would be. They knew we were gathering.
Another flash; light reflected on a sword blade. Not moonlight. The moonlight barely penetrated the dense tree cover here. It was light from another arrow, another bow about to shatter. She spun to meet the reflected flash, her hand already pulled back to her ear, bowstring sizzling with captured power. Done with whoever had screamed, the Shinigami came at her now, face hidden in shadow, steps soundless.
She let the arrow fly.
If only there could be some satisfaction in seeing it strike home, in seeing the body lifted into air, the sword fall from nerveless hands, the arrow pass through fabric and flesh like blue lightning.
But there was no time to be satisfied. Only time to keep fighting. To try to survive.
They ambushed us. They planned this. How long have they been planning this?
This time, when she heard the cry, there was no doubt at all that she recognized it.
"Rally! To me!"
She wasn't quite sure when she'd become separated from her cousin in the first place. Many of them had scattered under the first onslaught, but she was more steady than that. Or at least, she'd always thought of herself as steady. Unflappable. She'd killed more Hollows than anyone in her family, except her cousin. Even then, it was accepted that she was the better shot. A few more years, and she'd equal him.
Now, the only thing that mattered was finding him.
Trying to ignore the fear that whispered even rallying would be useless at this point, she charged off through the trees and undergrowth, following his voice. When she tripped, she did not look down. She knew it wasn't a root that had tripped her up. The ground was still warm with blood as she put her hand down to push herself back up again.
She didn't ask herself why this happening. She knew. They all knew. More than a few of them had been expecting it.
None of them had been expecting it tonight.
In retrospect, it seemed foolish to have felt so secure. Hadn't they been warned? Hadn't they been talking about preparing for this very battle?
She had never believed they should accede completely to the Shinigami's demands. A compromise, maybe, but the Shinigami were not interested in compromise. She saw their point. She did. But she wondered if the Shinigami saw the Quincy's.
Quincy pride, she thought, her teeth bared in a snarl, her breath coming in gasps. She had twisted her ankle at some point, but she ran on it nevertheless, lurching, swaying, her bow humming in her hand. It was too dangerous to let it fade, even for a moment.
Quincy pride had kept them defiant. Quincy pride kept them strong. Kept them adamant.
Maybe it had made them foolish.
But it kept her moving now, and it was all she had to go on.
"Together! Don't shoot blindly! Conserve your – "
A chorus of shouts drowned out her cousin's words, and a sound – a beautiful, terrible sound – like a hundred silver bells chiming at once – echoed through the trees. It was the sound of bowstrings being released in unison, spirit particles burning through the air.
But the spirit pressure which swept over her then was unmistakably not a Quincy's. So strong, it was like nothing she'd ever felt before. For a moment it stole her breath, and she felt as though she had been flattened, pressed bodily down into the loam of the forest floor. Several seconds – or was it hours? – passed while she struggled to breathe, simply to move, and all the while the shouts and the arrow whine and the voices were progressively silenced – like candle flames being snuffed in sequence.
By the time she could move again, a dreadful quiet had covered the forest around her. Sobbing soundlessly she stumbled forward again, though there was no doubt in her mind what she would find at the end of her journey.
Even unprepared, even caught off guard like this, the Quincy were a formidable enemy. They had known this about themselves. They had relied on it.
Where was the line between pride and arrogance?
Too late to draw that line now.
The Shinigami hadn't underestimated them, and perhaps that should be some comfort. A sop, of sorts, to pride, here at the end. Because even catching them unawares, even ambushing them in the night, even with the advantage of surprise and numbers on their side, the Shinigami had taken no chances.
There were Captains on the field tonight.
For the first time since the blood began to flow, her thoughts ceased their mad spin and became still and clear.
Tonight the Quincy die.
When she staggered at last into the clearing where her cousin made his last stand, she stopped, frozen by numb astonishment, even though she had been expecting this.
Seeing it was another matter.
One of those bodies was her cousin's. Most of them were face down, and for that she was grateful. She recognized too many faces as it was. And though she ought to walk among them, turning shoulders, lifting cloak hems, to find her cousin, to be sure that he was dead, she couldn't bring herself to move.
There was surprisingly little blood here. Blood showed up so clearly on white. Shinigami black hid it so much better. The Shinigami were meant for this, perhaps.
Perhaps the Quincy had been wrong all along.
"You shouldn't be here."
If there had been more anger in the voice, more surprise, more battle coldness, she would have turned instantly, hand on her bowstring, arrow launching into flight even as she moved.
But there was only calm in the voice, and a sad resignation.
She turned, still moving slowly, though no longer from the pressure of reiatsu – even though there was no doubt in her mind that this was the man whose power she had felt through the trees. The man who had killed her cousin, and the dozens of Quincy who rallied around him.
He, too, was wearing white. White over black. She had been present at one of the most recent failed negotiations, and seen another man wearing a similar garment. Captain.
But this wasn't the same man. This man looked… so human. Hair an earthy brown, long, and coming loose from its bindings. Chin shadowed by hints of an unkempt beard. Eyes that even now, even with the whole of the clearing between them, expressed emotion too clearly.
"You could have stayed hidden," he said.
She lifted her bow then, because she didn't want his pity. Not here. Not after all this. And because there was no other option, now.
"No," she said, too stricken to care that her voice sounded raw and torn by grief. She sighted on him, and summoned a bowstring. "I couldn't."
He sighed. "I know. Neither can I."
She pulled the string back, and called the spiritrons together, forming an arrow, probably her last, willing it to fly more true than any that had ever come before it.
"But I can do this, at least," he said softly.
Spiritrons faded away in her hand, only half-formed, like fireflies flitting off into the night. She would have fallen to the ground, but he was beside her now, though she hadn't seen him move. A warm and steady arm was around her back, and it lowered her gently, so gently that it took her several moments to begin to feel the pain. Even then, it wasn't as much as she had been expecting. Surely it should hurt more than this, to be run through with a sword?
She hadn't seen him move. She hadn't seen him draw his weapon. Hadn't seen him sheathe it. So quickly. No time for fear or regret.
The hands that had ended her life now settled her carefully on the ground, resting her body against his knee.
"You fought bravely," he said with a gentle smile, inexplicably comforting.
Warm eyes, she thought. How can they be so warm, like this, in this place?
He brushed her hair from her brow, and cupped the back of her head with one large hand, as a father would. "Rest, now. We have both done what we must."
She wanted to say something, but couldn't seem to breathe anymore. She couldn't look away from his face, his warm eyes, the crooked and comfortingly human smile. She didn't want to. Surely even her cousin could forgive her this, at the end? Was it so wrong to seek comfort? Even if the Quincy had been wrong, even if this was to be their end, surely they could try to find some warmth in it, as they went?
"I'm sorry," he said, and she could feel the sigh move his body as it shifted against her own. There was a smell about him that made even the slight pain in her chest seem fainter; flower fragrance and a musk like aged wine. "But I'll be here when it is done. No aimless sorrow, little one. Not for any of your people. Your deaths might have been dark, but you'll be sent on peacefully. That I can promise."
Even thought was fading now. She couldn't put words together, couldn't hold on to emotions or images. Her bow was gone; that thought alone remained. Her bow was gone. Her bow. Her bow. All that she was.
But his hands were warm, and he hummed… he hummed a gentle song… like a lullaby… voice as warm as his hands… it carried her on into the darkness, and beyond it.
"Tomorrow we act," Yamamoto Genryuusai Shigekuni says, and those gathered in his hall take the words in silently. They have known this moment was coming. There is no more debate to be had. So it surprises many of them when he continues to speak, justifying their actions.
Only a handful of the Captains present are not surprised to hear him do so. They have known him a very long time, and after so many centuries even Yamamoto Genryuusai can be anticipated.
This has not been an easy decision, and so he speaks.
"The soul imbalance has reached a critical point. As the Quincy continue to grow in number and strength, the damage they are inflicting also grows. There is no more time for debate or negotiation. We must act. We cannot hesitate."
They look only at him. Most of them have had this discussion amongst themselves as well as in this hall, more times than they can count. If they still have doubts it is past time to speak them, or even to convey them by silent exchange of glances. They have seen their own division records. The numbers do not lie. For the sake of two worlds, the decision must be made.
"We will be ruthless," Yamamoto says, his ancient voice almost a growl, his white eyebrows drawn low over eyes narrowed by age and determination. "However," he adds, and the softening change in his voice is again surprising to some, expected by others, "we also have a duty. We are Shinigami. Every Quincy who dies by our hands must be sent on by our hands. Thus, the balance can begin to be restored."
He does not say it, but most of them are wise enough to know what he does not say – that thus, too, will the weight of this act on their shoulders be eased.
They are Shinigami. They are balancers, not judges. Not free to choose compassion over necessity. As hard as it might sometimes be, they must always serve their purpose.
For all that they might be best suited to the task, 4th Division Shinigami did not often find themselves in the field to perform soul burials. Unohana Retsu had often found that mismatch of fate and inclination ironic, and somehow sad.
She did not find it sad tonight.
Tonight, the compassionate, often abused, always determined members of her division were working harder than she had ever seen them work, and she had seen them work under hails of scorn, under the weight of crippling exhaustion, through tears of grief or anger, their hands always sure in their healing even though they might not be as steady as her own. Tonight, the members of her division were laying hands on the dead more often than on the living. Tonight they were Shinigami in truth.
Unohana held a young boy's head in her lap, his blood on her fingers as she gently brushed his hair from his brow – while nearby her fourth seat officer, trembling with weariness and fear but still on her feet, ignored the body over which a newly freed soul was hovering in order to stamp the spirit with the mark of passage. It was the soul of an older man, and maybe because he was older, wiser, he said nothing as he went – no words of hate, no words of blame, no words of regret or sorrow. Unohana was glad of it, for her subordinate's sake.
The boy in her lap, on the other hand, was not so content to let his life go quietly.
"Why…" he rasped, a tiny bubble of blood bursting at the corner of his lips. He stared up at her, the moon reflected in his darkening eyes. "Why…"
"Rest," she murmured, injecting her voice and her touch with all the gentleness she could muster in this bloody night. She knew there would be no saving him. All she could do was use her power to ease the pain of his final moments. "Rest now."
"Why…" he whispered again, and she thought she could imagine all the possible forms of his question.
Why was she healing him? Why had her fellows attacked him? Why had it come to this, why had there been no other way? Why had pride brought them to this pass, why had duty found no chink in it for mercy, why must necessity weigh more in the balance than human desire?
As the final shudder passed through his body and she gently closed his eyes, Unohana added silent questions of her own.
With all the gifts their power gave them, why couldn't the Quincy have chosen compassion over vengeance? With all the understanding their power gave them, why couldn't the Shinigami find a better solution than slaughter?
But it was too late for questions now.
She set the boy's head aside on the damp ground and rose, taking the few steps necessary to bring her to the next body from which she could still feel the faint hint of life. Behind her, she could hear her fourth seat stumbling over to the boy she had just left behind, ready to perform the soul burial as soon as his spirit shook loose completely from the body.
"You'll exhaust yourself, trying to heal the enemy."
She did not start or turn at the male voice; she had sensed his approach even in the chaos of clashing spirit pressures. And because she knew the voice and its owner well, she knew that the calm words were not spoken with anger or contempt. She knew how good he was at hiding his true feelings behind masks both congenial and cool.
"I work only within the limitations of my strength," she said, just as calm, just as conscious of the emotion beneath, and knelt again, placing one hand on the chest of a dying man over the spot where a zanpakutou had pierced him. It only took a few moments, a slight probing of reiatsu, to determine that there was no hope of saving him. Unlike the boy, he was no longer conscious of his surroundings, and so he could not feel it when she placed her hand on his forehead and smoothed the frown of pain there. But she smoothed it all the same.
"I didn't mean your strength. I meant your heart."
This time, when death took the body beneath her hand, she did not rise. For just a moment she let her hands fall, folded and pale, into her lap, and drew a deep breath before looking up into the face of the man who had come to stand beside her.
From this angle, 10th Division's Captain was only a black, angular shadow against the night sky, broad shoulders unbent, one elbow stuck out as his hand rested at the mouth of sword and saya, ready to break the seal and draw at a heartbeat's warning. The skin of his face was pale in the moonlight, dark hair sticking up in a jaunty disarray that defied even this night's grim mood. Unohana took comfort in that familiar silhouette.
"There is no defense strong enough that might spare my heart tonight," she said. "I merely do what I can."
He dropped his hand, large and warm, on her shoulder.
"Thank you, Retsu," Isshin said quietly. "In case no one else says it, I will."
"My subordinates are doing more work to heal the Shinigami than I," she said, even though she knew it was not what he'd meant. But tonight, she thought she would allow herself the desire to hear him speak the words openly. Her heart felt strained to its limit, and she would take any comfort he could offer.
"I didn't mean that either," he said, smiling. And even in the moonlit night, his smile was bright and wide. "You're the only person here tonight who hasn't lost their mind, I think. Thank you for that bit of sanity in this bloodbath."
With a groan, the soul of the man whose body lay at her knees finally shook itself free. Links of chain clinked as it rose and turned to look at them.
"Shinigami," the spirit hissed, lips pulling back over his teeth. "You would go this far to protect those monsters?"
Unohana sighed softly, dropping her gaze for a moment to her hands. She would have to send this one on immediately. The Quincy were strong, and it would not take long for them to learn how to harness their power in spirit form.
She was already reaching for Minazuki when Isshin's grip tightened on her shoulder, and she fell still.
He stepped to the side, putting enough distance between them to draw his sword; it slid free with a soft whisper of steel against wood. As he angled the tip of the blade away in preparation for the burial, Unohana got a clear look at the whole of him for the first time. Several Quincy arrows had come within a finger's width of hitting home; the white fabric which proclaimed his rank had been left in little more than tatters, and even the black sleeves of his kimono had been shredded in places. Whichever Quincy had faced him must have been a formidable opponent indeed, and an incredible marksman.
And though she knew it meant that the marksman in question was dead, she was nonetheless grateful that Isshin had emerged from the confrontation with only ruined clothing. She could see no blood on his skin, not even on the patches exposed by ripped fabric, and his movements were steady now as he stepped forward.
"Time for you to let go of your anger," Isshin told the Quincy soul calmly.
The spirit tried to dodge him, moving quickly even so soon after his death.
But Isshin was quicker.
He caught the dangling soul chain with his left hand, stopping the spirit's attempt at flight. With his right hand, he raised his sword.
"What will you do with me now, Shinigami?" the spirit shrieked, clawing at his own chain. "Killing us wasn't enough? What will you do now?"
"Just this," Isshin replied, giving a swift but almost gentle tug on the chain. It was enough, unexpected as it was, to snap the spirit forward, unable to avoid the impact of sword to forehead. The blue pool of light opened beneath him and the spirit stumbled back into it, chain suddenly released. A sob tore from his throat, and his hands scrabbled at his forehead as though he could scour away the mark even as he began to sink.
"Try to find peace on the other side," Isshin said grimly, sheathing his sword. "Life in Soul Society is too long to live it in bitterness, friend."
But the spirit's sobbing echoed unabated in the night until the pool of light had closed and darkness returned.
This time, when Unohana moved to rise, Isshin's hand was at her elbow to help her up. She didn't need the support, but she appreciated the touch all the same. Isshin had always been an unapologetically physical sort of man, and though she often touched people in the course of her work, few people seemed comfortable touching her. It was nice to have an exception to the rule, especially on a night like this.
"How are your squads faring?" she asked him, settling Minazuki's cord over her shoulder.
"A few injuries, nothing serious," he said, rubbing at the back of his neck. He sighed then, frowning up at the clouds which were scudding in to cover the moon. "Not yet, at least. I should probably go find my Vice Captain. Where's yours, anyway?"
"Healing 12th Division's squads."
"Hnh." He grinned, and from anyone else, Unohana would have thought the grin callously inappropriate for the circumstance. But not from him. "Having trouble keeping up with their Captain, are they?"
"Most likely. And now I should check in on my own people," she said, sweeping her gaze over the clearing to note that her fourth seat officer had moved on. "They will be letting their own wounds go untended, and must have the chance to heal themselves."
"Yeah, probably," Isshin agreed. Unlike others, he had always shown a good understanding of healers and healing arts both. "Command has moved to the southern escarpment. Relief teams have been bringing the wounded there, so you might want to check there later."
An explosion of reiatsu rocked the night, followed by a brilliant flash of blue light, shooting up like a line of flame from a spot far away in the distant trees. They both watched it flare, then die.
"If only they weren't so damn strong," Isshin sighed, rubbing again at his neck.
"They would have fought us, strong or weak. That is the way of pride."
"I killed a boy back there. He couldn't have been more than fifteen. Almost took my eye out at two hundred paces. Makings of a genius, if you ask me. Pride's poor consolation to a child's corpse, Retsu. Real poor consolation."
Poor consolation, too, she thought, for the man who had done the killing. But she did not say it. The killing was not yet over.
"But there's no time to rest, I guess," he said then, and touched her once more on the shoulder before walking off into the trees.
"Be cautious," she called softly after him. "I don't want my people to have to mend anything more than your clothes when this is done."
"That's a promise," he said, sticking one hand up in a parting salute.
Then, just as black clothing and black hair were fading into the forest shadows, his low voice came faintly back to her.
"Save them, Unohana. Save as many as you can."
And she knew that he didn't mean the Shinigami.
In the meeting hall under the 1st Division insignia, in the silence after the Commander General's words, it is Unohana Retsu who first speaks.
"I will lead the relief forces into the field," she says calmly. "But I must have free rein in my activities."
All present regard her somberly. Most of them, even those who do not know her well, can guess what she is implying. It sits easier with some than with others. But ultimately it is Yamamoto's decision, and when he gives a nod of assent, the issue is closed.
His grip tightens over the gnarled top of the staff before him. "We will begin analysis of our strategic options. Shihouin Yoruichi, your report."
The commander of the Onmitsukidou has donned a somber black coat over her uniform today, which all present, whether they know her well or not, recognize as further proof of the day's grim business. Shihouin Yoruichi is notorious for being anything but somber in personality, or modest in appearance. But today, she looks every inch the commander of Soul Society's execution militia.
"We've been tracking the movements of key figures in the Quincy's strongest families for some time now," Shihouin reports. "Our intelligence suggest that there will be a traditional gathering of the clan before the end of the year. There won't be a better time to strike."
"And how big a force do you think we'll need?" asks the Captain of 10th Division, one hand hooked into his obi where his sword hangs in armored style. Those who know him well are not fooled by the casual pose.
"To take on all of the Quincy families at once?" Shihouin says, slender eyebrows rising over shrewd, amber eyes. "At least forty elite combat squads and several division Captains to lead them, with an equal number held in reserve just to be sure."
They all let those words sink in. It takes some time. Ages have passed since any crisis this great called Soul Society's most powerful to action.
"Therefore," Yamamoto says, his gravel voice strong in its resolve, "we must have volunteers to lead this mission. Or I will designate those who will command."
"Volunteer, is it?" the Captain of 8th Division says softly, his head tilted down so that his eyes are obscured by the brim of his latest hat. Only those closest to him overhear, though the only person who might fully understand his feelings is standing in the opposite row, and cannot hear his words.
He was the fifth son of six siblings, and he had known his whole life that he was meant to serve the woman beside whom he now knelt in delivery of his report. He had expected to serve proudly, and with confidence, and after two missions in the field – free of the training grounds at last! – he had begun to feel almost cocky about the future.
But this, his third mission, had stripped even the desire for cockiness from him completely.
"The 3rd Division forces are finishing their sweep of the eastern forest," he said, concluding his report, one fist still touching the earth beside his lowered knee. "They should be joining up with 8th Division's forces any moment now."
It was the only sound of acknowledgment she had made since his arrival, and Wu Fong could not resist the urge to look up, to catch even a glimpse of expression that might reveal what his Commander was thinking.
Shihouin Yoruichi stood at the edge of the escarpment to which she had ordered command operations shifted, her arms crossed under her breasts. Wind ruffled the ends of her short hair, and moonlight limned the contours of the muscles beneath dark skin. Immune to the cold as she seemed immune to all else, she had gone into battle this night wearing the Keisen Shousoku and made no effort to ward herself against the chill.
Nor did she make any effort to join the actual battle, and Wu Fong was beginning to feel uneasy about the whole affair.
He wanted to add, in his report, And it's a slaughter down there, Commander. I've never seen so much death. Why are you just standing here?
But he knew better. His was not to question, only to serve. The Onmitsukidou were silent shadows, and they moved only as Shihouin Yoruichi directed them.
"You have a sister don't you, Wu Fong?"
With a start that he could not entirely conceal, Wu Fong looked away from his Commander's face and returned his gaze properly to the ground in front of him.
A flash of blue light, brighter even than the multitude of flashes which had filled the night since this battle began, rose suddenly from the ocean of trees below them. The Quincy were fighting ferociously, with more passion, and certainly more skill, than he had ever seen in even the most vicious and ancient of Hollows. He had not expected the Quincy to prove so formidable an enemy.
How could his Commander want to talk about his family at a time like this?
"She's already entered her advanced training for Keigun, hasn't she?"
Another flash of blue light, this time like a pillar of fire. It burned for several moments before finally subsiding. By its light, for the first time since the battle began, Wu Fong caught a glimpse of his Commander frowning.
"That's 9th's section," she said. "It's getting out of hand over there."
She raised a hand, and from the shadows to the other side of her Wu Fong saw one of the forward corps materialize out the darkness, their face obscured by a battle mask.
"Send a runner to make contact with Tousen and get his status report," she instructed. "Directly from Tousen, mind you. No flunkies."
A quick bow, and then the man was gone in a blur of fast movement.
Wu Fong understood her concern, but privately wondered if she wasn't worrying needlessly. Tousen Kaname had only recently assumed his rank, it was true, but Wu Fong had spent a great deal of time watching 9th Division's new Captain – all on his Commander's orders, of course; she liked to be kept well informed – and he thought the man both capable and strong.
"This isn't like other battles, Wu Fong," Shihouin said suddenly, as though she could sense the shift in his thoughts. "Don't make assumptions about the enemy's strength, and don't get cocky about your own."
"That's fine advice coming from you, Shihouin."
Wu Fong wasn't sure which was worse – being taken by surprise by the speaker who had managed to come up behind him unsensed, or the speaker's sarcastic tone in addressing his Commander. He dropped his hand instantly to the short sword tucked at his waist, springing to his feet.
But Shihouin Yoruichi stopped him with a single motion of her hand, a smile spreading over her face as she turned to face the woman behind her. "Sasaki," she said in greeting. "Decided to leave the final sweep to your Vice Captain, did you?"
"He's not as tired as I am," Sasaki Noriko replied, smiling as well, though the blood dripping down one side of her face made the expression more gruesome. She planted the tip of her sword – three pronged and elongated, in its released form – and leaned wearily on it. Her white haori was ripped and stained with blood.
"You look like shit," the Commander said, almost cheerfully.
"I feel like it, too. Your people probably already told you, but the eastern front is taken care of. I want to check on my wounded up here."
"Have you seen the others?" Shihouin asked, as casually as though she were asking after acquaintances on chance meeting.
Wu Fong had been raised to believe that the princes of Shihouin were different from other people. Greater. Above normal human weaknesses. But he hadn't really understood it, until now.
"Kyouraku, but only for a moment," the 3rd Division Captain replied. "That was some time ago. He was moving far in advance of his squads."
"Oh?" The Commander's eyebrows rose, but she did not seem truly surprised. For a moment she looked almost sad, and then the sharp smile returned. "Well, go look in on your people then. If you're going to be up here anyway, I might have you take over for me."
But this time the 3rd Division Captain did not smile. She pushed a strand of hair from her forehead with the back of one hand, leaving blood streaks behind. "Spare yourself, Shihouin. Let it be a bad memory for others."
"For others? What do you think the Keigun Brigade has been doing all this time, Sasaki? It would have been a battle even bloodier than it already is, if we'd been idle up till now."
"Then the shame is ours together," Sasaki said grimly, lifting her sword. It shimmered for a moment, almost liquid, and resumed its unreleased form. She sheathed it and turned away, limping slightly as she went to join her subordinates.
Shihouin Yoruichi returned to her inspection of the landscape below, her golden eyes unnaturally bright in the moonlight.
"Commander…" Wu Fong began hesitantly, marveling to hear himself speak, but unable to stop himself.
"What is it, Wu Fong?"
But now that he had begun, he realized there was no way he could ask what he wished without bringing shame on his family name. He wanted to ask why, if what she had implied in her conversation with Sasaki-taichou was true, he hadn't been part of the assassination teams that had gone out before the battle. This was his third mission. Perhaps it wasn't much, but surely it was good enough to merit a position on such a team. Had he not served her well?
"You look like you've eaten bad fish, Wu Fong," his Commander said dryly, her mercurial voice sliding up a purring scale. "What have you got to say that tastes so bad?"
"Nothing, Commander. Forgive my presumption."
She shrugged. "If that's how you want it."
A blur of movement and a soft whoosh of air announced the arrival of another masked messenger.
"Commander," the man said, hand to the ground as he knelt. "A message from – "
"That fool Isshin."
"Ah… y-yes, Commander."
"That's his handiwork if I've ever seen it," she said, gesturing airily at the bandage wrapped around the messenger's bleeding upper arm. He slapped a hand to the bandage in shame, and Wu Fong, peering at it, thought with a shock that he could make out a single black diamond at the tattered edge of the white cloth which had been made into makeshift field dressing.
"Well, what's he got to tell me, then?" Shihouin asked.
"He reports that the 12th Division forces have been ambushed by a powerful enemy contingent, Commander."
"He sent you here to tell me that? Specifically?"
Her frown sent a shiver of unease down Wu Fong's spine.
After a moment, she waved the messenger off. "Go get that thing properly dressed."
"Yes, Commander." And with a blur he was gone.
"Go to Sasaki and tell her that I'll be leaving things here to her after all."
He could still see Sasaki-taichou in the distance, a single white shape amongst the black, and he could have covered the ground running with ease. But even at such a short distance he used shunpo. He was filled with a sudden urgency he couldn't explain. If his Commander was going to leave this post, he wanted to be back at her side before she had gone. It would be a shame to be left behind, as he had apparently been left out of the Brigade's earlier missions. He had outlived all of his brothers, but that meant nothing if he was to serve in shame, never chosen for the important missions.
Sasaki received his message with a weary nod, then, taking one close look at his face, dismissed him with a quiet, "Go and do what you must in this madness."
He hastened back, but the Commander seemed not to have moved. She was staring out into the night with narrowed eyes, arms once again folded, hands holding her elbows. Her head was slightly cocked to one side, like a predator hearing messages on the wind.
This time, when the flare of light erupted below, even Wu Fong, who knew that he had always been lacking in high spirit sensitivity, could sense the accompanying explosion of reiatsu. The light had to be miles away, and yet the strength of the spirit pressure building to meet it hit him like a physical force.
She spoke so softly that he almost didn't hear it. But there was something so uncharacteristically quiet in her tone, a gentleness that had nothing to do with volume, that he couldn't help himself; he glanced out of the corner of his eye to see her face. Her brows were drawn low over shining eyes. Even the hair framing her face seemed to grow suddenly limp with an unmistakable sadness.
"Have they pressed you so far that you would release even that?" she murmured.
Wu Fong looked swiftly away. It would be dangerous, he suddenly felt, to be caught watching his Commander at this moment.
"You're to stay here and coordinate our forces with Sasaki-taichou."
"That's an order," she said, her voice dropping to a dangerous purr, and turned a narrow-eyed look on him that sent him down to his knees.
She took one step toward the escarpment's edge, then in a hiss of air she was gone. God of Flash Yoruichi. Many miles to the explosion, but Wu Fong knew she would arrive swifter than the wind.
And he was still standing there, thinking on his Commander, wondering how he would be able to prove himself on this mission, when hell descended on the escarpment in a storm of white and blue.
He dodged the first arrow, and the next, moving on pure instinct. He came up from an evasive roll with his short sword in hand, and launched himself at the first Quincy within his reach. His blade pierced cloth and flesh with ease, and the spiritual energy of the Quincy's bow, trapped between them, burned his skin as it flared and then died.
He turned, sword braced in both hands, to find another target – but he could not evade the third arrow.
It hit him in the shoulder, lifting him off his feet. The world turned; stars became earth, and earth sky. For just one moment before the end of his flight, he saw a line of white clad figures, standing like a row of alabaster statues, bowstrings drawn back in unison. The whole night was lit in blue.
And then he struck ground.
The pain flared like lightning in his chest where the spirit arrow now burned away to nothing.
There was a sudden, strange sound – like a flock of eagles crying, loud and clear. He heard Sasaki-taichou's voice raised briefly in command, and knew that she had released her zanpakutou.
But she's wounded, he thought hazily, trying to roll onto his stomach, up onto his feet. He had dropped his sword somewhere. His whole right side was agony.
The third arrow had hit its mark. Perhaps it was only fitting. It was his third mission too, and he knew now, with heavy certainty, that it would be his last.
You have a sister don't you, Wu Fong?
Shaolin would have to carry on the family tradition now.
Somehow, he got to his feet. Somehow, he found his sword. Somehow, he managed to sneak up behind another enemy, one hand darting out of the darkness to seize a face and turn it while his other hand brought blade up to meet it.
And then the fourth arrow came, and the fifth.
Time seemed to pass very slowly after that, and in the lingering pain he could not decide whether the agony itself was worse than the terrifying sensation of his spirit strength ebbing slowly away… away… like dripping water in a garden pool.
The best Quincy marksmen could sever spiritual pressure points, it was said. The best Quincy marksmen…
This isn't like other battles, Wu Fong.
A woman's pale face appeared suddenly in the narrowing field of his fading vision. He couldn't quite make out her expression; the pain made everything gray. But as she bent closer, one thing became clear. The color of her clothing. White.
A warm hand touched his face, pulling his mouth covering away.
"Qui…Quincy…" he breathed, pain rattling his voice.
"Shinigami," she said quietly, and her hand touched his face again, almost gentle. It was then he understood that her hand was warm because it was slicked in blood.
She smiled, a strained expression, and there was blood on her lips as well.
"And here at the end we all die together," she said. "What a sad final joke it is."
When the meeting comes to a close, they go their separate ways. Most return to their divisions, alone and in deep thought. Others walk in the company of those close to them, but not even trusted company is much comfort.
Outside 13th Division's compound, three figures watch the white-haired Captain retreat into his domain, shoulders bowed by foreboding as well as illness.
In the silence he leaves behind, meeting glances convey all that needs to be said. The grim set to Kyouraku Shunsui's features, especially, speak as clearly as any words: We can't let him go. Not to do this.
"Good luck making him understand," Shihouin Yoruichi says. Though she knows very well that he will understand, the moment requires breaking somehow.
"Oh, he'll understand," Shunsui says quietly, raising one hand to briefly cover his eyes, even under the shelter of his hat. "But he won't want to admit it."
"So I guess this means you'll be going in his place," Urahara Kisuke says, smiling faintly in that way of his that completely hides whatever he might be thinking.
"Volunteering are you, Kisuke-kun?" Shunsui replies, his returning smile a bit wan.
"Me? I wouldn't presume to put myself forward, you know. But I rather suspect I won't be given much of a choice."
"No," Yoruichi agrees, with a hint of wicked satisfaction. "I don't think you will. Make too big a name for yourself and it'll just strangle you in the end. Didn't I warn you?"
"I make it a habit never to listen to beautiful women with names like God of Flash Yoruichi, you know. It keeps me humble."
"You wouldn't know humble if it had you by the balls, Kisuke."
"You words wound me terribly."
"Good. Sometimes blood is all you understand."
The forest passed by in blurs, interrupted by tiny moments of clarity as she stepped into a new shunpo. Here and there she caught glimpses of fighting in the trees around her, but did not stop to interfere. It was not her concern. She couldn't be responsible for cleaning up every skirmish. The Shinigami on this mission were the most competent the Gotei 13 had to boast of and they had best take care of themselves.
She had other things to worry about, and the course of the overall battle no longer mattered to her as much as what she could sense happening just ahead of her… just a few more steps ahead…
Kisuke hadn't wanted to come any more than she had. They had known it would be a massacre. They had known the affect it would have on the soul, to slay these people. People. Human. Not Hollows. These were lives they were destroying, and even to the most hardened of Shinigami there was some core of anathema in it.
But she had done it. She had done what was required of her, as Commander of the Onmitsukidou, as leader of Keigun, as a Shinigami maintaining the balance of the world.
Just as Sasaki Noriko had done her part. And Shunsui. Isshin.
And Urahara Kisuke, a genius unrivaled in Gotei 13 history, his skill absolutely indispensable in a battle this important, had now done his. Yoruichi understood what had happened just by what she could sense as she approached.
The Quincy had superb spirit sensitivity. If they could conquer confusion and pull together after the ambush, they could focus collectively on the most prominent threats; she had anticipated that, and so taken great care to ensure that the Quincy had no chance to recover or gather.
But even the best laid plans could go wrong, and clearly some of the enemy had shaken free of shock and fear long enough to mount a concerted counter-assault. An effective one. She could still feel the lingering echo of the strength which had been brought to bear here; reiatsu so thick and pure that the air still vibrated with it.
And over all of it, like a heavy curtain, smothering in its intensity, she could sense the pressure of Urahara's power mingled with the distinctive feel of Benihime's.
Yoruichi stepped out of her final shunpo at the edge of what had once been dense forest, but was now a wide swath of broken land. Trees lay like snapped kindling all around; some had been uprooted entirely. The undergrowth had been crushed, bruised black and flattened into the ground. Dozens of bodies lay scattered, as broken as their surroundings, limbs twisted around wood and sometimes crushed entirely into the earth.
And above all, from soil and wood and flesh, a red mist like smoke was slowly rising.
"Kisuke," she said, her voice steady, calling him back.
He turned – the only thing still standing in the wasteland he had created – just enough to give her a small smile over his shoulder, and Yoruichi knew she might be the only one who could recognize it for the expression of pain that it was. She wanted take a step forward, over the perimeter marked by still living undergrowth and into that circle of death. But she knew better. She was certainly the only person alive who knew exactly how foolish that would be.
Benihime had marked that circle, and everything within its boundary, Benihime owned.
"It would have been significantly easier," Kisuke said, the usual lilt to his voice still present, though skewed just a bit by how quietly he spoke, "if they hadn't all attacked simultaneously. The bloodmist shield can't block all directions at once."
"I know," Yoruichi replied, folding her arms and planting her feet more firmly, still outside the perimeter; just a few inches in front of her toes, the earth steamed red. She didn't bother injecting sympathy into her voice, or regret. Neither would do any good. She only made herself as still as possible, as passionless as necessary, to be the normalcy he could return to.
It wasn't as easy as she would have liked.
Over the course of many, many long years, she had seen more of Benihime's attacks than anyone else could dream existed; he used them so rarely in the presence of others that most people couldn't even begin to guess where Benihime's true strength lay.
Though if they'd stopped to think about it, the zanpakutou's name gave much of it away.
Yoruichi was anything but squeamish. When Kisuke first cut himself on his sword's blade to summon the bloodmist shield, she grinned and told him it was all very dramatic. When he managed to cut her in sparring, and his sword reacted to the taste of an opponent's blood with a marked increased in power, she snorted and told him the thing was as devious as its owner. When the dark blood of several slain Hollows slicked Benihime's length, right down to the paper tassels, and the sword screamed; when the sword's shrill cry had reached such a fevered pitch that the last Hollow trying to attack them had exploded under the pressure, its blood drifting into a garnet whirlwind of half-crystallized shapes around Urahara's body… that was the day Yoruichi truly came to understand what it meant to be the man who would wield the Crimson Princess.
Urahara rarely needed to resort to cutting the enemy. He focused and manipulated his own reiatsu like an artist with clay, using it in countless ways to fit his need - and he could do the same with Benihime's latent power, when he wished to. He analyzed the enemy, and exploited their weaknesses. He chose the tactic they would least expect, whether that meant hakuda, shunpo, kidou, or whatever else was necessary. He brought his latest toys and experiments into every available battlefield, and tested mind and body to the limit whenever he could.
He called on Benihime's nature as infrequently as possible.
Yoruichi remembered the day he had shown her the tenshintai doll and announced his mad intention to acquire bankai through its use. Even then, she'd understood enough about him, and about his sword, to be able to imagine just what sort of bankai form Benihime would take. She'd found the thought disquieting enough – truly worried for his safety for the first time in all their lives together – that she had dared to say as much aloud.
The thing wants your blood just for a shield, Kisuke. How much is it going to want for bankai?
He'd just grinned, his eyes shining through tousled hair. I guess I'm going to find out.
She hadn't been surprised, on entering their hidden sanctuary after the three days, to find the place nearly destroyed; Kisuke never did anything by halves. But they could rebuild it. It wasn't a shock, nor an issue.
She had been surprised to find him looking nearly unscathed. Yes, there were weary shadows under his eyes even deeper than normal, but he spent so much time in experimentation when he should have been sleeping that it wasn't much of a significant change. Yes, the hand he put on her shoulder when she pulled him to his feet had been heavy with uncharacteristic weariness. But not a scratch could she see.
Not one drop of blood.
So then, she'd said after several moments in which he remained silent, leaning on her. Do I get to see it eventually or not?
His hand tightened on her shoulder. I hope not.
But he'd told her about it, later. They told each other everything. Always.
She wasn't sure, now, in this forest filled with the dead and dying, whether or not to feel grateful for having arrived only in time to witness the aftermath of his bankai and not its execution.
Lifting his sword-hand palm up, Kisuke stared down the blade. The red mist still rising all around him licked along the silver edge. Only one long rivulet of liquid blood still snaked down its length.
"They had so much hate," he said, sighing. "If it had made them just a little bit smarter instead of merely stronger, they might have gotten in some fatal blows."
Yoruichi passed her gaze critically over the sprawled bodies. There were many of them, but she hadn't truly imagined that even a large group could have forced Urahara into so tight a corner that he would make this choice. She had underestimated the Quincy, it would seem. Perhaps they all had.
Benihime still in hand – there was no point sheathing her, not yet, with blood still on the blade – Urahara walked slowly between broken trees and broken bodies, stopping by the only body which still remained even partially upright, slumped against a shattered tree stump. One arm had been completely sliced from the body; the left, which the Quincy used in defiance of all convention to form their arrows. The arm itself was nowhere to be seen. The body was that of an elderly man, hair almost as white as his now soiled clothing, beard stained with blood. As Urahara and Benihime drew near, the blood began to peel away from beard and dead skin in wisps of red vapor.
"Ojii-san," Urahara said, kneeling beside the body. He sighed again, and reached out to lift the limp hand of the remaining arm. From its wrist dangled a five-pointed cross, and with that Yoruichi understood at last how this particular group of Quincy had managed to push Urahara to call on Benihime's bloodlust.
"Ishida Souken," she said, gaze caught by the reflection of moonlight and bloodmist on the silver and gold of the Quincy cross.
"Third in the line to carry the name," Kisuke said calmly, his fingers slipping around the dead man's wrist and under the silver chain. "Isn't that what you said, Yoruichi?"
"Yes. We'd been led to believe that he was already dead. They obviously suspected something, and put us off the scent somehow. We gave you bad information, then. I'm sorry, Kisuke. The failure is mine."
"I'd sooner blame my own mother."
"You don't even know who she is."
"See? So much neater that way."
Yoruichi smiled grimly. His attempt at his usual levity had fallen painfully flat, but at least the attempt itself was a good sign. The red fog was finally beginning to clear; the echo of Benihime's power beginning to fade. Soon the lingering effects of the zanpakutou's bankai would weaken enough that she would be able to step into the circle of death and stand by his side. But not quite yet.
Urahara hooked his fingers around the Quincy cross and removed it from the old man's arm, then set the arm down in the bloodied lap.
"I suspect you'd want this passed on to the living, Ojii-san," he said, patting the bowed silver head almost affectionately, like a gentle owner with an ailing pet. But he was wearing his painful smile again. "You showed me an amazing display of power that I won't soon forget. The least I can do in return is find a survivor of your clan and tell them how magnificent it was."
He stood then, closing the cross in his hand, the torn fabric of his 12th Division haori sweeping about him. When he gave Benihime the sharp sweep through air traditionally meant to flick blood from the blade before sheathing it at last, it was all Yoruichi could manage not to snort at the irony.
But Kisuke seemed, as usual, to hear the unuttered all the same.
"Did you come all the way over here just to check in on me? I'm touched."
"I just wanted to be sure that you hadn't unintentionally killed all of your subordinates."
Which would have been quite likely, had any of them been nearby when he unleashed his bankai, though of course she'd never really expected to find them here. He would never have unleashed his bankai in the first place, had any of them been close enough to fall under its power.
But Kisuke, in all his mad glory, never liked to hide from the truth. He much preferred to laugh at it, especially when its uglier aspects had been avoided. And sometimes even when they hadn't.
"I'm afraid I run a bit too fast for them," he said, with almost his usual brightness.
Then he lifted his hand into air only slightly tinged now with mist, and snapped his fingers. Yoruichi arched her eyebrows at the drama of the display, but when the remaining red vapor swirled in toward him at the sound, leaking through his fingers and disappearing at last into his closed fist, she did not hesitate to step forward over the perimeter at last.
The earth crunched faintly beneath her feet, as though parched by drought. Sucked dry of all life. She frowned, glaring downward. "What a wretched side effect, Kisuke."
"Insulting to your sense of stealth, is it? Never fear, my dear. There's no one alive here to notice your unusual lack of grace."
"Mm. No there isn't."
No one living.
She was no coward, but she understood what it meant to be cautious; when she reached him at last, she stood to his right, on the opposite side from his sword.
"You know," she said, frowning up at the sky, "you never did tell me what Yamamoto said when you showed him your bankai."
"Oh, you know him. It wasn't anything anyone younger than four thousand would be interested in remembering. I'm afraid I've quite forgotten." And then his voice suddenly changed. For the first time since her arrival, it lost even the faintest hint of lilting tone. "Some of us had no choice about volunteering, Shihouin. That old man knew exactly what he was sending into the field."
After a moment of silence, she tilted her head to the side and gave him a cat's curious glance.
"Do you feel that?"
"Of course," he said, though he seemed busy staring at his hand as he rubbed the fingers together; specks of glimmering red dust rained down from his skin. "Isshin and Shunsui are both nearly there. Not even the God of Flash could get there faster. I think it might be too late for our help now. But."
"We'd better go anyway," she concluded the sentence, sighing heavily. "Are you ready?"
"Certainly. It's nearly over, you know. I don't think much strength will be needed to end it. Which is a good thing, really, since I think Benihime has had her fill of blood for one night."
And so have you, Yoruichi thought, watching him.
He met her eyes and smiled. "And so have I."
And with merely a look to decide the moment, they stepped off together, perfectly synchronized after so many years. With Kisuke, she knew just how much to slow her shunpo to keep them perfectly in time, doing so on instinct alone, in the same way that he always knew the precise moment to erect a shield over her in combat, giving her the moment of cover she would need in order to come around it for a stealthy counter-attack.
She knew how to move with him, and she knew how to make him move, and she did both now – running at his side, pulling him away from the field of death that would, even if he never spoke a word about it, stay in his thoughts for a very long time.
And when they arrived at the escarpment to find Noriko dead, Shunsui standing with both swords of Katen Kyoukotsu red in the moonlight, and Isshin on his knees healing the wounded right alongside 4th Division's officers while Unohana walked among the Quincy bodies in hope, it was Urahara Kisuke's turn to match his heart and body to Shihouin Yoruichi's.
She knelt beside Wu Fong's corpse and closed his eyes with a sigh. He lay, inexplicably, with a young Quincy draped over his chest like two lovers in sleep. His mask was gone. She wondered how many members of the Fong family had died in her service, and felt a moment of sharp shame to realize that she truly couldn't remember.
"If you'd been here," Kisuke said calmly, standing at her shoulder, "some of them might have died faster. But it wouldn't have changed the outcome."
Details might have been different. The overall outcome the same.
It was, she knew, the same thing he would be telling himself, as the years wore on from this day.
The day before the Shinigami go forth to destroy the Quincy, the wind blows soft and cool through the Seireitei, and nowhere cooler or sweeter than over the lake at the heart of the 13th Division grounds, where two men sit on a veranda to watch sakura blooms drift across the surface of the water.
"It would be hard to think that you considered me weak."
"It would be foolish to think so. You know better, Juu-chan."
Ukitake sighs. "Yes. I do."
In the silence that stretches between them, fish come briefly to the surface of the water, nipping at the petals skimming above them. The sun has shifted several degrees closer to the horizon before the men speak again. They have lived long enough to be comfortable with silences.
"It will be easier for me to do this," Kyouraku Shunsui says, a depth of solemnity in his tone that no one but the man beside him now has ever heard, "if I know that not all of us must carry away the memory of it."
Ukitake Juushiro frowns, a deep frown that for once has nothing to do with pains of the body. "It will be dark, Shunsui. Very dark."
"Are we right to do this?"
With a deep sigh, Kyouraku closes his eyes, letting the wind blow across his skin, soaking in the flower fragrance it carries. "Can we afford to doubt it?"
After another silence, Ukitake sets the tea cup he has been carrying down with a soft, resolute click of ceramic against wood.
"Do not underestimate them. I'll be very angry if I prepare a welcome home for which the rest of you don't return."
"Now that truly would be a shame." Kyouraku smiles without opening his eyes. "I wouldn't dream of being so inconsiderate as to miss a good party."
Word of success came back to the Seireitei many hours before the returning forces did.
Ukitake received the report in silence, then dismissed the Onmitsukidou messenger with a nod. He got up, put away all of the paperwork he had been doing in a futile effort to distract himself, and drank an entire pot of the most potent restorative tea Unohana had mixed for him. Then he removed his Captain's haori and black shihakushou, replacing them with plain blue kimono and casual gray haori, because the last thing he wanted was to provide any further reminder of rank and responsibility. He had stayed behind – to his lingering shame, and lingering relief – and so, all he could do was create a small oasis of peace against memory.
They had joked about a party, but the truth was he had no intention of inviting anyone else to join them. Not yet, at least. Later, he would seek out Urahara. Shihouin would appear if and whenever she wished, as usual. Unohana would come to him soon enough, on a pretense of tea if nothing else. Ukitake expected to see all of them soon, as well as Isshin, and quite possibly young Kaname as well.
But today, there was only one man whose arrival he was truly expecting.
When the battle squads returned, Ukitake knew he was not alone in freezing where he stood, turning his head toward the Senkaimon which had been constructed in the Central Court especially to accommodate this unusually large movement of forces, feeling the alteration in the air of Seireitei as so many strong spirit presences returned.
But even with the reiatsu of numerous Captains nearly obscuring all the rest, there was no way to miss the fact that the overall pressure of spiritual power was greatly reduced.
The report had said as much. Heavy casualties. Decimated squads.
Sasaki Noriko lost.
That was a wound that was going to hurt for a long time, but Ukitake buried it deeply for now.
Several hours passed, during which Ukitake was sure Yamamoto was debriefing the surviving battle commanders. He was not surprised not to receive a summons to hear their report in a general Captains' meeting; Yamamoto, for all his uncompromising severity, knew the after-affects of battle well, and would spare his Captains the need to put on a strong face before their unscarred comrades. Days later, Ukitake would hear Unohana's official casualty report, would catch a glimpse of untold bloodshed in Urahara's smile and Yoruichi's silence, and would frown, saddened in a way he himself could not quite understand, by the steady monotone of Tousen Kaname's voice as he said, "So much death could have been avoided if only someone had had the strength to stop the madness before it began."
But on the day of their return, it was deep dusk when Shunsui arrived. Ukitake was waiting on the veranda beside the lake, two cushions set out, a tray of dumplings between, and a large jar of sake with two drinking bowls beside it.
Shunsui, who had entered 13th Division unannounced, quite likely unseen, settled himself on the waiting cushion with a faint smile. He too had foregone Shinigami black, wearing only a plain white yukata, his feet completely bare, pink kimono over all. The pattern of flowers on the pink silk looked different to Ukitake, and he raised his eyebrows as he poured the sake.
"A new kimono?"
"So good of you to notice, Juu-chan. You're usually so bad about fashionable things!"
Sunset light rippled golden on the surface of the lake, and though the air was still the fragrance of late spring blossoms was still strong enough to carry to them.
Shunsui finished the first bowl, and Ukitake refilled it.
He finished the second, and Ukitake refilled.
The third, he held suspended near his lips, and closed his eyes.
"They will hate us forever for this," he said.
Ukitake set the sake jar aside and took up his own bowl. Normally he did not drink alcohol; it typically only made him feel worse. But today, he would not let his friend drink alone.
"I am glad there are some left to hate us," was his reply.
"Aa," Shunsui said; soft agreement.
As the sun slipped finally over the horizon, leaving them sitting in violet shadows and waiting for the moon to climb, Ukitake asked, "What will it take for you to forgive yourself?"
"Mm. Forgiveness. I am very afraid, Juu-chan, that time alone will be enough. That is the sad thing about living so long, isn't it?"
The moon rose. White. White was so often seen as a pure color. Ukitake, for his own reasons, had learned to find that perception ironic, but he recognized the power of symbolism all the same. He wondered for what reasons the Quincy had chosen white to wrap themselves in. He wondered what the color would come to mean, now, to those who had survived.
"It's good sake," Shunsui said, setting down his empty bowl. "But I have to say I am overcome by a most unusual urge tonight."
"What about tea?"
"Tea?" Ukitake laughed. "Now I know you're just saying that to ruin all my careful planning."
"I think I'd rather avoid sleep tonight, face down in my cups or otherwise. Hasn't Unohana whipped up something magical to keep you awake and alive on work nights?" Shunsui asked airily.
"She has. Give me a moment."
"I don't intend to move from this spot for quite some time, Juushiro. I'm weary beyond imagining."
Ukitake left, and returned shortly with the tea which he had, in fact, half-prepared already. He had known Kyouraku Shunsui for millennia, and few things were ever as surprising as they liked to pretend.
When he had sat and poured for both of them, he raised his steaming cup. "To a sleepless night," he said wryly.
"To a sleepless night." Shunsui saluted him back.
Much later, Ukitake asked if he had suffered any significant injuries. There would be time later, on other sleepless nights, to ask about Noriko.
"No. But those arrows hit a target, Juushiro. They hit it clean and sure," he said sadly, and Ukitake read the truth of it in his friend's eyes.
The Shinigami at large might forget the Quincy, and the living world might forget that it had once been defended by their bows, but here they would not be forgotten.
Protecting the few survivors through the generations, drinking the occasional toast to a sleepless night… it would not bring back the dead. It did not earn forgiveness. In the balance of things, it wasn't much.
But the Shinigami were balancers above all. Balance was something they could believe in, and Ukitake did. One way or another, the world would bring even this back to them, probably in unexpected ways. Somehow, it would balance.
For now, he kept his companion's cup full, and kept him company until the morning cleared the memory of bright arrows in the night away.