Disclaimer: No. Not now and certainly not ever. I don't own Epik High (who inspired me initially) or Tokio Hotel (who allowed me to complete this when it seemed as if I had just completely run out of inspiration).
Author's Note Part One: I am not a whore for reviews, but I'd appreciate it if more of the 1400+ people who read the first chapter would bother to leave a comment. It doesn't have to be insightful. I just want a little comment to tell me that I've written something worth reading. To those who did take the time to give me encouragement, thank you. As a future note, I see no point in writing stories when they obviously appear to impact no one. These are written with a purpose, to illustrate something about humanity. I don't write pointless or frivolous stories.
Note: Nothing I ever write is beta-ed, so forgive any mistakes. I really should find a beta for myself sometime soon.
"Die lichter fangen Dich nicht."
-Tokio Hotel, Spring Nicht
Confinement is going to kill her.
With her normally immaculate hair carelessly spread about her like a twisted halo and her glasses shattered into fragments at her feet, Eighth Colonel Nanao Ise has never felt such despair before. The room is sparse at best and all around her are nurses clad in the safest of bio-containment suits ready to clean up yet another gush of blood welling up from her body like fountains. There is pain, of course there is, but nothing is quite as painful as the knowledge that soon—inevitably, perhaps even today, she will die. There is no delusion whatsoever about her end. It will be painful and it will be bloody as the virus literally tears her apart inside out.
There won't be a body left to bury when she's dead.
"My dearest Nanao…" She looks up, barely able to see in the ensuing rush of blood from her mouth. She's heaving and doubled over on the bench, the liquid covering the walls next to her and the floor in front of her. Her throat spasms from the sheer effort of staying open to let the liquid pour out of her and her arms shake from where they hold her up on the surface of the bench. She thinks it's so unbelievably red that it can't possibly be real. But it's real and the fact that she's choking, gagging on her own virus-blackened and unrealistically crimson blood is proof enough.
"Go away," she rasps and watches Shunsui's saddened face as he looks at her from the other side of the glass wall. "I don't want you here," watching me in this sorry state.
He sighs and slides his identification card into the blinking security device. It lets him in and she screams from sheer horror. He can't be here; the virus particles are probably all over the damn place like maggots on a dead body her dead body. The nurses take one glance at his determined face and slowly evaporate away from the room like water off of a nearly empty glass. There is no one suicidal enough to confront General Shunsui in one of his more determined moods. He wordlessly fills up a container with distilled water from the sink and hands it over to her shaking hands. She can barely manage to swallow and gurgle the water back out in between her panic and weakened physique. Rinse. Repeat. She does this over and over again under his watchful gaze, waiting until the liquid that comes out if finally clear and devoid of all traces of blood. Six. Seven. Eight. She won't last much longer. Yesterday, it only took five tries before the water was clear. Today, staring down at the swirl of saliva and water slowly disappearing down the drain, she counts her sixteenth try.
"Does it hurt, Nanao?" He asks when she's done and seated back on the bench, her face pale and waxen from the day's struggles. A futile struggle as the virus overloads her immune responses and takes organ after organ in the bloody battlefield within her body. She turns to him and wipes away the sweat clinging to her forehead before replying—cold and impersonal as ever.
"Not so much the physical as the mental, sir."
He doesn't even bother to smile, lapsing into a solemn silence as he eyes her like a spectator at a funeral of a loved one. "Strong Nanao. My dear, sweet, strong Nanao." There is a ring of finality, of surrender, like one who has lost too many battles and gives in as a casualty to the war. His words scare her unlike the other millions of time he's uttered those very same words. Sweet Nanao, beautiful Nanao, dear Nanao…All a thousand lies in her world, for how can she—plain and boring Nanao ever be beautiful or addressed with such adoration?
"I'd prefer to die with my proper name having been said once from your lips, General. Surely you won't let me go to my grave with embarrassment and humiliation seared into the forefront of mind, would you?" She replies, fingers clenching the fabric of her patient uniform. Dressed all in white, mottled in some parts with red and black, she stares back at him defiantly, daring him to call her by those charlatan words one more time.
"There is no embarrassment in loving another," he answers calmly and takes a step closer to her. She moves away, a cruel sneer marring her sickly features. He follows, determined as ever, until she begins to doubt the truth of her own words.
"There is embarrassment in loving a dying woman," she spits back out at him and watches in masochistic satisfaction as he flinches from the hurtful words. She must be losing her mind.
"Nanao, I at least, suffer only through grief. Never for a moment think that I am ashamed to love and declare that love for such a strong and intelligent woman as you. I am not a good man, but I think I am better than you give me credit for." His smile is weary and bitter as he reaches for her. She doesn't bother to flinch away from him, allowing herself to fall limply (like a ragdoll, like a puppet with no strings left) into his arms. She has no more will left to fight him with. It's a hollow victory for him. He has her, but only for as long as the virus keeps her alive. And it is that horrible thought that drives him towards her. She turns to the side, coughing and coughing, feeling her lungs squelch from the blood overloading her poor, human body. He reaches for her and it seems as though time stops. Minutes, seconds, all frozen and suspended in the air between them. She can almost see the minute particles drifting in the atmosphere. He's breathing. She suddenly can't.
Ebola is transmittable by air.
He's killed them all now. He's killed their little war, sacrificed everything to the inevitable. And now he'll die just like her—a bloody, torturous end. Oh, why? Why? Why couldn't he have loved someone else, someone other than a bland and colorless Nanao? Someone other than Ebola-handling Nanao? Oh, why…why….
She shoves herself away from him and stumbles back to the bench, ghostly pale. Her hair is messy and raven black while her lips are coated a bright, garish red from a new upwelling of blood. She's beautiful. In that one moment of harsh emotion, of a love buried and now shattered into a million fragments, she is beautiful. She raises a single, shaking finger and points wordlessly to the sliding door. "G-Go." Finality rings around the confined space and his eyes are dulled from the sudden weight of what he's done.
He leaves her, her arm around her waist and another stretched towards freedom beyond the doors.
He leaves her with the taste of her tears still on his tongue.
He leaves her, not as Ise Nanao, but as another casualty of war.
A week later, he begins to cough.
-Seven down, six to go-
There's an apocalypse coming.
Halibel can sense it, feel it. It's as if she needs only to hold out her hand for it to settle in her palm—unbearably heavy and real. The others wonder why she doesn't speak, her lieutenants wondering about her sanity and her reason. She doesn't tell them. This war is over. No one's going to win. She can't tell them. They wouldn't listen. There's something called pride and something else called foolishness. Every human possesses these two traits in large degrees, herself included.
The clock is winding down the hours and days. Soon, she knows, there will be only a barren wasteland where there was once civilization. Soon.
"You're too soft for this, Nel." Nnoitra sneers, one hand wrapped around his signature weapon. His lips are in his customary grin.
She should be alert. But she isn't. She thinks he might be right in that lewd, twisted mind of his. She's getting tired of fighting. "Clearly. You're too desperate. So where does that leave the both of us? Give it up, Nnoitra. We've come too far to keep petty arguments around." She tries to walk around him, but he won't let her—blocking her path like she'll have to kill him to get through. How strange, she wonders. Again, that weariness. The smile on his face is getting larger and larger and she doesn't want to know why.
"It leaves the both of us here, obviously. Why the hurry? We've got forever in this war. Forever, you get me?" She obviously doesn't and his wide smile gets darker and uglier. "I never understood the reason behind Aizen's ranking. What was it about you that made you superior to someone like me? Was it your body? Your face? How much of yourself did you have to give before you got here? You make me fucking sick."
Her fingers reach for the gun stashed in her uniform, but there's only air and she's swaying unsteadily. Drugged. She manages to cling onto that thought. But how? She stumbles over to the wall, eyelids coming down like shooting stars. It's a futile struggle…but she still tries. There's a part of her that says life would be better this way. No more fighting. The chaos would cease. Just nothing.
Nel is not a religious person.
"What," she pauses, willing herself to stay awake for just awhile longer. (But she's so, so tired and there is comfort in the darkness.) Her breaths come out forced, her grip on the wall slackening until she's sliding down and down and down. "What are you pla—nn—ing?" She crumples into a pile on the floor, long hair framing her face, eyes unfocused.
"Nothing that you don't know. You don't belong here. You're pathetic and weak and you shouldn't have been above me. Szayel ought to have fun experimenting on you when you're dead." His grin is jagged with too many teeth.
Szayel. Of course. That would explain the chemicals swirling in her bloodstream. It wouldn't have been hard for him. A tiny prick, a well-placed mixture in her breakfast. She had never thought to check, had trusted her comrades even though she hadn't trusted herself with being loyal to their cause. "Dead." She repeats, as if in a faraway dream of her own. Her eyes, minutes before so full of vibrancy, are dull pinpoints in her head. The stars come down. Covered. Black.
"Yes, dead. As in six feet underground with my foot rubbing in your face. Are you scared, Nel? Bet you're wishing you'd never came now." He takes out his gun, sleek and polished, winking in the light. The safety is off and he aims it (in between the eyes? Or perhaps the heart, where the soul of every human lives).
There is the slightest tilt of her lips as her head lolls forward, a glossy wave of hair brushing her shoulders and neck. Her reply is quiet and thoughtful, heavy with meaning. (she knows that they will be her last. She can't bring herself to care.) "You were always better."
Concession. Defeat. He can taste the victory of knowledge and understands a little bit of Szayel's delusional high. He raises the barrel of the gun and presses a finger gently on the trigger.
"You were always too soft."
The soul shatters in tendrils of ruby red.
-Eight down, five to go-
There's a quiet, hushed knock on the door.
Grimmjow rolls on his side, wincing from the ever-present burning sensation snaking through his veins. There's an ugly tinge to his arms, something not quite purple, not quite yellow, but alien and foreign all the same. Maybe it's the color of a dying man. He quirks his lips to the side in sardonic amusement and flicks his eyes over to Rukia. "Guess somebody's looking for you. Motherfuckers just don't give up, do they?" His voice is still sturdy, strangely ironic in this blank room with nothing but a cigarette mark on the floor to destroy its sheer whiteness.
She shrugs and walks over to the door, pulling it open just a fraction (because this is the only separation that she has between this world and the terrifying realms beyond). There's a robotic looking girl facing her and only a moment's worth of words to be said between them. "Commander Aizen wishes to see you in ten minutes at conference room number three. Please be prompt."
"Fine." They stand there like statues, staring at one another. It's Rukia who finally turns away and closes the door behind her. Grimmjow's animated eyes are softer now, an arm propping up his head.
"You'll be alright out there, kid?" He sounds a little worried, maybe a little apprehensive. She's going out there without an ally by her side—her only spot of silver in a cloud of gray sitting on a bed with a ticking time bomb inside of him. "Aizen's not too bad by himself. But Tousen's a quiet freak and Gin's well…Gin's just a madman. They probably just want to ask you some questions."
Questions. She gets the meaning well enough. Interrogations. Intimidation tactics. They wouldn't dare torture her in her current state (the human body is so frail), but they can damn well make her wish she'd be better off dead. She lifts her chin nobly and turns a pair of resolute eyes on her strange friend of an enemy. "I'm not a kid so don't you call me that. And I'll be fine. Dandy. I'm about to waltz in and have some tea and biscuits with these three insane assholes. Are you kidding?" She laughs a little. "I'm scared as shit, but it's a little too late for prayers."
"Do you want me to go with you to the room?" Grimmjow asks, ignoring her kid comment. He swings his legs over the side of the bed, locks his jaw and reaches casually for the discarded firearm by his side. "I won't be able to take you inside, but I'll be able to make sure no one will attempt to do some nasty things to you." Rape. Murder. Unspeakable war crimes.
She doesn't answer immediately. He's injured. He's dying from poison. More movement means a faster rate of spread and ultimately an earlier death. But she won't deny that she needs someone familiar to see in her lonely journey to the hellish trio awaiting her. She's selfish. She doesn't give a damn about it either. "Do what you want." She replies briskly as if it actually doesn't matter to her even though it does.
He smiles a little bit—not his usual ass-kicking, I-don't-give-a-fuck grin, but an honest-to-god smile. "C'mon then. Let's go." He doesn't ask for a reason why she clearly wants him to go but won't tell him to. He doesn't ask why she seems to value her need for security over the length of his life. Grimmjow's someone who doesn't stop to think about the useless things. The reasons don't matter.
They're barely eight or ten feet away from the door before they run into Szayel and Nnoitra.
"Well, well. Would you look at that?" Nnoitra drawls out slowly, a lingering dark glance burning over Rukia's body. She refuses to shiver and thinks about ripping his intestines out one by one instead.
"She looks different. We could perhaps attempt to analyze that color in her eyes. It's a magnificent, simply magnificent shade of lilac purple. Would you mind letting me take out her eyes when she's dead? My laboratory could use a specimen like that." Szayel comments mildly, peering from behind his glasses to get a closer look at her irises. She takes an unwilling step backwards. Madmen. She's in a mental asylum here.
She's surprised to see Grimmjow's gun drawn and the safety already nudged off. The clear teal of his eyes is steely now, sharpened like diamonds in the hottest fires. "She's under Aizen's protection for the moment, so don't even think about stuffing her body in your sick laboratory or whisking her away for your pleasure. So if you could move your useless asses over to the side, I'd be pleased as punch."
"Getting involved with a prisoner of war, Grimmjow? That's not very becoming of you." Szayel admonishes gently, inspecting his nails. "We'll have to see what's decaying your brain later. Do stop by so I can do a full check-up." He smiles (not at all pleasantly) and withdraws a little scalpel by his side.
"I'll stop by for a check up when you stop acting like a nutcase. Deal?" Grimmjow retorts, fingers never leaving the trigger. His eyes are entirely on Nnoitra. Szayel is a useless freak, well known for never carrying around a firearm because it's too "unscientific".
"Now, now. That's not nice of you, Grimmjow. You really ought to brush up on your manners next time."
"Fuck you." The response is spat out, like he's talking to someone absolutely revolting. "C'mon Rukia, we'll be late if we stay around for any longer." He takes a step forward, but Nnoitra intercedes smoothly in front of him—a looming and twisted barrier.
"We've got time. Why hurry through the finer pleasures of life?" The tone is sleazy, greasy and completely vile. It's enough to make Rukia take a couple steps backwards from his smile with too many teeth, enough to make her heart speed up double time. Grimmjow is injured and she's not sure if he can see what she sees, that Szayel is casually reaching into his pocket with far from innocent intentions.
"Move, asshole." Angry and impatient. He's getting sick of this.
"Give me the girl and I'll move." Snide.
"Over my dead body."
The shot echoes down the corridor like the sharp crack of lighting as it splits the sky. In that same instant, Rukia spins around and grabs the tranquilizer gun from Szayel's grip. She brings him into a chokehold, arms around his neck in a bruising grip. Nnoitra is down on his knees, watching in disbelief as the blood gushes from his torso, right by his heart. His breathing is labored and sickly with the squelch of blood in his left lung. He gasps for another breath, eyes rolling in the back of his head, one hand trying in vain to stem the flow of red.
"G-Godd-damn you…" More of that disturbing breathing. "G-Goddamn."
Grimmjow's expression is neutral as he stands, looking down on his dying comrade. "I told you to move." He shrugs and walks over to Szayel, delivering a solid punch to his stomach. It's enough for Szayel to pass out—limp but otherwise unharmed. "Let's go. It's already been seven minutes."
Rukia nods, dusting off nothing in particular from her outfit, and follows him through the winding hallways until they arrive in front of an imposing oak door. "Is this where they are?" She asks hesitantly, looking up at him for confirmation. She finds it in the shape of a wry grin and it's hard to believe (so hard to believe) that he won't be alive in a matter of days, maybe hours. She wonders how he's holding up, what can keep him holding on to his rakish smiles and tough attitude.
"Guess I'll be going, then." He says and turns.
She wants to ask him to wait for her, wants him to stay, but she's too proud to bring herself to beg like that and he's too cynical to believe that she would want him to stay anyways. She takes a breath to steady herself and presses down on the elaborate golden handle to open the door (they don't deserve the courtesy of having her knock).
"Oh, would ya look at that!" Gin exclaims first thing when she finally steps into the room, wearing defiance across her face like it'll protect her (even though it won't). "She decided to come 'ere after all!" His eyes are closed, but she knows it's a malevolent pair of pupils nestled within his head, so maybe it's better this way.
"Shut up." She bites out, still feeling the raw pain from his careless statements. This is the man who killed Byakuya. "What do you want from me?"
"Just a few moments of your precious time." Aizen says gently, leaning forward in his chair with his fingers clasped together thoughtfully. "Don't look so alarmed. To put you at ease, I'll even tell you why we had Grimmjow and Ulquiorra retrieve you instead of…" He coughs delicately. "Well, eliminating you."
"Go on." She says impassively. She'll never be at ease here, not with her deceased lover's murderer smiling at her like she's a beautiful, little fool. "Just get it over with, already."
Aizen chooses not to comment on her reaction, ignoring her words completely. "You will direct your attention to the man sitting on my left and no doubt, I am sure that you recognize him. Is that not correct?" Of course she recognizes him. Former Ninth General Tousen of the Allied Forces and the only man to have ever turned traitor. Blind, but gifted with extraordinary insight. She wonders how he could have missed sensing Aizen's true nature.
Aizen takes her silence to be an affirmative answer and smiles cordially. "He informed me several days after General Kuchiki's death of a rather ordinary military recruit training under the 13th squad. Her name, as I understood it at that time, was Kuchiki Rukia and she was noticeable only for her fierce loyalty and ability to take suicidal missions yet return alive. These qualities made her the prime subject of a rather important task." He pauses as if to ask if she understands. She doesn't even blink. "Normally, I would have disregarded this piece of information, but I remembered a former General who went by the name of Isshin Kurosaki. He had disappeared, presumably because he had fallen in love. He had been on friendly terms with Kuchiki Byakuya and the both of them were talented snipers. Now, I was not so foolish as to assume that General Kuchiki would just die quietly. Of course not. He was an intelligent man. He would have arranged something in the event of his most deplorable death. Imagine my surprise when I saw this Kuchiki Rukia transfer to Karakura, a city she had no connections to and so no reason to come to, barely a week after General Kuchiki's death." He smiles.
She listens on, horrified by the extent of his knowledge.
"It became clear to me that she was attempting to convince Isshin to replace Kuchiki, on the deceased's orders of course. So I sent Ulquiorra and Grimmjow to extinguish the family beforehand…but it didn't quite go according to plan, now did it? You see, I hadn't counted on this Kuchiki Rukia to be so quick and efficient. She intercepted my Colonels before they could complete their task and so they had no choice but to take her prisoner and leave the Kurosaki family alive." He clears his throat and fixes his look on her face. "What else did your brother ask you to do?" There is none of the fake nicety in his voice anymore. It's a cold and harsh question, more of a demand than a request for an answer.
She stares at him blankly. "I'm afraid I don't understand. Why would my brother-in-law ask for me to do anything? As you said before, I was only of average skill."
He frowns imperceptibly and reaches for a glass of champagne. "Because he trusted you. Now stop playing stupid and tell me his other commands to you. If you do, I will be sure to treat you as an esteemed guest. There will be no manhandling of you, Tousen will guarantee that."
She laughs, loudly with a hint of hysteria in it. As if she would spill her lover's orders to him just for a little bit of physical comfort. A fool. She looks at him through cold, unblinking eyes (imagines where the bullet would go if it hit him, right behind his eyes, through the skull and the brain and out through the other side). "I'm sure. You will never find anything out from me. Better to have me dead than to have me waste your precious resources. The end result will be the same. You will never get his words. I will not tell you now, standing alive and breathing in front of you and I will not tell you later, when I'm lying in a pool of my rotten blood, choking on my life and swallowing in the bitter brew of death."
Gin whistles in the background, surprised by her venomous response. Her amethyst eyes flick over to him in thinly veiled hatred before returning to Aizen. He knows that look well. She'll kill him—or so she says to herself. It's a promise she's made between her heart and her hands. She will kill him. He can't wait to see her try.
"I see." Aizen sighs, rubbing his temple with his right hand fingers. "I suppose I will have to wait until you are more…worn down, shall we say? You are understandably unhappy right now given your current state of health, but I am sure that you will be more amiable to my questions once your wounds have healed." She scoffs at that, as if she couldn't tell what he was really trying to say. Wait until you get better and then I'll be able to torture the answers out of you without killing you. That's the true meaning. She quirks her lips into a half-smile and walks out the door, refusing to bother with answering.
She'll never tell them. They'll never know.
-Nine down, four to go-
"You, son of a bitch, wake up."
Ichigo brushes the sleep from his eyes and squints as the light reflects off of Kenpachi's massive helmet. "What is it now?" He asks, wincing as a muscle twinges in protest against the sudden movement as he stands up. "I thought you were going to train me at night this week."
"Change of plans." The massive general says, one hand reaching down to secure a gun in its holster. "We ran out of time. Soi Fong was killed two days ago and Nanao's in fucking quarantine." The names are unfamiliar to Ichigo, but he supposes it doesn't matter because the point is that they're dead or dying and there's no time left to prepare him for his suicidal mission. "Urahara, that bastard, is taking you to the old man to get you supplies and permission to act." Kenpachi grunts and takes a swig of water from his battered canteen. "Good luck, you sad little fuck. It was nice knowing you."
"I'm going to die." Ichigo says quietly, but the Eleventh General hears anyways. "I'm actually going to die." He looks up, cranes his head up to look at the imposing figure in the eye, and gives a shit-eating grin. "In that case, I'll be sure to drag a couple of them down with me." A moment of silence follows his statement before Kenpachi steps forward to slap his back with bone-breaking force fit more for a bear than a man.
"You do that, kid. You go on ahead and do that for me."
"Absolutely not." Resounding. Final.
"But she was trying to help you. She went to try and get my dad for you because she knew somehow that he was the only person left with any chance to kill anyone of importance on the other side!" He's frustrated and angry, wearing his pulsating heart on his sleeve for a girl who saved his life. "Why the fuck not? I'll do it by myself. I don't need your generals or lieutenants. Just Chad and Ishida. Why won't you let us go save her? Do you want her to die?"
Yamamoto's expression is forbidding and stern, wrinkled from too many years of hardship and not enough minutes of joy. "Kuchiki Rukia is expendable, young man. But Urahara says that you are a most capable young soldier and that your friends are excellent marksmen. We need new recruits to do missions we designate for them, not to run off pursuing futile interests. My answer remains as it was when I first issued it. There will be no rescue operation and Kuchiki Rukia is effectively now a missing person. Enough of this. I will not tolerate any more attempts to change my mind or overrule my decision. You are excused. Please show yourself out."
He stands there, defiance shining bright in amber eyes, some wild beast howling behind a cage made of rib bones and skin. He won't leave her there—abandon her because there is something in life called sacrifice and well, what's her life worth when compared to the greater cause? It's a stupid excuse in a stupid war, but what the hell, he only gets to live once and he'd rather die doing something he wants to do. "I understand." He responds even though he doesn't understand, doesn't want to bother to understand.
"In one week, we will be infecting his camps with our last viral agent. There will be no survivors." Yamamoto warns right as Ichigo's hands hit the doorknob, poised to turn and step out of the Allied Camp forever. "It's transmittable by air." For an instant, he doesn't understand why he's being told this. Why should he care? And then it hits him, confusion still on his brow and hesitance wearing in the lightness of his eyes.
He has a week to save her.
Until then, Yamamoto won't directly attack Aizen's base, which gives him a week to get in, save her, and get out. The Commander General has a reputation to live up to, unable to show favoritism in the ravages of war. But he's a new recruit, headstrong, maybe asinine to others, but he can act however he wants and it's a small price to pay. His future reputation as a deserter for her freedom and life. "Yes, sir." He smiles slightly and pushes the door open, walking out with a silent nod of approval trailing his footsteps.
"What did he say?" Ishida asks, fingers pushing up a pair of new glasses (courtesy of Urahara), anticipation flickering in his dark eyes. "Are we going or are we not?" There's a note of urgency in his voice that doesn't escape Chad's notice, but Ichigo's too drunk off of his exhilaration to catch it. It's a note of suicidal tendencies, more of a can I die with honor now? And it makes Chad think, looking up at the ceiling with questions circling his head like so many vultures around rotting corpses.
"Yeah. We're going. You guys ready?" Ichigo's never looked more alive than now, brimming with self-confidence and he would have become a great leader, if the world weren't so fucked up, if they weren't all going to die. He would have been a great leader. "C'mon, Ishida. Chad. Urahara's going to take us as far as ten miles out from their base. We'll go in at night and take out some of the guards. They don't know that we have their base already identified, so their security is pretty lax."
"What are we waiting for then?" Ishida asks, desperation bleeding into his question. "Let's go."
Chad doesn't want to say that they're already dead, gone to a place where they'll never be able to return from.
The place is depression and sorrow marks their graves.
Urahara orders a helicopter to get them over there. When asked why, the former general just smiles mysteriously and laughs. "Time, you know. It's rather important, you never know when the unexpected may happen." He says and ushers them aboard, closing the hatch with a small, satisfactory click. Their pilot is a young man, not much older than themselves, with three jagged lines running past one of his eyes and a loud '69' tattoo burned into his skin underneath the other. Curt introductions are made and they find out that the guy's name is Hisagi Shuuhei, currently 9th Lieutenant, and that the scars were a product of trusting someone too much.
"Get as comfortable as you can, this should take about three or four hours. I'll be letting you guys parachute down among some trees so you'll have cover going for you. Personally, I'd get some sleep if I were you. God knows you won't be getting any once you've landed." Shuuhei pauses, digs in a ratty backpack and retrieves a slightly crinkled chocolate bar. Jumbo size, the cheap Hershey brand. It's been a long time since Ichigo's seen something quite so normal. "Here. You guys can split it. Rations taste like shit mixed with soggy noodles."
They all laugh at that and Ichigo pockets the candy with some degree of relief. "Thanks, man."
Shuuhei waves off the gratitude like he's swatting away a bothersome fly. "Whatever. I'm going to get this up and running, make sure you've got the parachutes by your side. I'll holler ten minutes before landing and if you guys sleep like the dead, I'll scream like a banshee. Just don't get a heart attack when you wake up. I don't want to deal with the paperwork that would cause."
Ichigo grins and sits watching from the small window as the helicopter passes trees and buildings, rising to a magnificent height. Chad and Ishida fall asleep within the first hour, but he stays awake, partially because he wants to keep Shuuhei company and partially because the outside world looks so peaceful even though it isn't. They sit in relative silence as minute passes minute to turn in hours. It's only when they're about twenty minutes from the landing point that Shuuhei finally speaks, eyes never leaving the path and hands firmly on the controls. This is a man who knows what he's doing.
"I have a favor to ask of you." There's a heavy silence before Shuuhei continues speaking, clearly perturbed though his features are smooth. "My General, Tousen, was a traitor to the cause. If you encounter him on your rescue mission, promise me this." Inhale. Exhale. His hand trembles a little. "Promise me that you'll kill him. Because I could not save him from himself or from Aizen and because I blindly followed him. Promise me that you'll end his disgrace by ending his life. Do what I did not have the courage to do at the beginning of the year. I lost my chance at redemption years ago."
Ichigo nods once, placing a hand on the lieutenant's shoulder. "I promise and you can be sure that I will do everything within my power to carry this promise through." His tone carries with it conviction and Shuuhei shows his thankfulness with a brief, weary smile.
It's time to go. With a final nod of determination, Ichigo goes to wake Chad and Ishida up. Shuuhei watches them prepare their parachutes with trepidation and turns away as they open the hatch to jump out, falling amongst the trees under the cover of the moonless night. His job is done, but theirs has only just begun.
Ichigo doesn't bother to look up as the helicopter flies away, blades beating against the sky like a massive mechanical bird. Untangling himself, he nods at Chad and Ishida, more likely than not, the sound's already attracted some attention from the stationed guard. They're smart enough to know that the guard won't be some lame lackey with shaky fingers on an out-of-date gun. He'll be active, talented, and more than likely someone higher ranking than a mere private.
The shot catches them entirely by surprise.
It is soundless, bullet passing through air passing through skin effortlessly as a knife going into warm butter. It expands within the head, carves a niche for itself between the two eyes, firmly nestled by white and gray matter. A perfect shot. A perfect kill. Instantaneous. There isn't even enough time to cry over Chad's broken face in the dirt, blood spraying across the dried grass.
Survival. They're flat on the ground now, ears sharp and listening to the rustle of trees and the nearly silent tread of feet. Ichigo tries to ignore the sharp thudding of his heart, knowing full well that it might stop and stutter and give out at any time. Ishida pinpoints the location first, years of being out of school not having the slightest impact on his intelligence. A subtle twitch of the fingers lets Ichigo know that the unknown killer is to his right, roughly fifty feet away and moving rapidly closer. By the time he gets his gun out, Ishida's already shot.
The footsteps stop and though there isn't the thud of a body, there's the sound of labored breathing. They get up hesitantly from their positions, quick strides bringing them to the place where their enemy is still alive, but wounded. It's a face that Ichigo knows well. Green eyes, cold and unforgiving even now with a bullet lodged in his thigh, pale skin like he's never seen the light of day before and never will. Ulquiorra, the name comes unbidden to his mind. One of the two who took her away.
"Get back, Ishida." It's a matter of personal revenge.
"If we stay any longer, people will come and find us." Ishida warns, eyes already scanning the surroundings. But Ichigo doesn't want to listen even though he knows this to be true. His only response is to nudge the safety off of his gun and point the muzzle at the kneeling Fourth Colonel. He aims it carefully at the uninjured leg, steering clear of the major arteries (there's something despicable about killing a man who cannot defend himself) and pulls the trigger back. The bullet leaves Ulquiorra crippled—but alive.
"Okay." Ichigo says calmly, ignoring Ishida's horrified expression. "Now we can go."
-Ten down, three to go-
Grimmjow is waiting for her when she gets back to their room. His feet are propped up on the metal bar of the bed, eyes closed, and if it weren't for the too noticeable breathing, she would have thought him to be sleeping. He isn't, of course not. He wants to spend the rest of his time awake. When he dies, there will be plenty of time for sleeping. "How did it go?" He asks quietly, never opening his eyes and she misses their color. She's going to miss him soon enough. It's been two days and four hours since Soi Fong's death. He'll have, at most, twenty hours left. She doesn't want him to go.
"Peachy." She replies without meaning to, sliding down the wall with despair on her face. She buries her head in her arms and tries to push the inevitable away from her mind. When he's gone, there will be no one left to turn to. Just a long, drawn out ending. Her life is forfeit anyways. Sooner or later, Aizen will realize that nothing will induce her to talk, and when that moment comes, she'll be killed. She wonders if he knows that he's her last link to sanity. He probably does, she decides with a ghost of a smile on her lips. "I don't want to stay here." She admits finally and even though he hasn't said anything, she knows that he's listening. "They're going to start interrogation soon and I—I don't really care about the pain. They can do whatever the hell they want to do to me, but…" She bites her lip.
"Then don't stay." Grimmjow interrupts her and raises himself to a sitting position, back turned towards her. "Leave. I know a friend who will take you in and keep you under wraps for at least a week or two, at least until you're ready to make it back to your side." She can't see the expression on his face right now, but she imagines it to be something with confidence and pensiveness mixed into one.
"How?" She asks. "I don't want to leave you here. You shouldn't die alone." Her words are muffled by the fabric of her shirt and it's a pathetic picture they make right now. A soldier, too young to be immune to emotions and too old to act upon them, and a girl caught in a war that's made her another victim. They're a mess.
"I'll go with you. Take you out of here. Tell any curious people that I'm just letting you get some air." He turns around to look at her, teal eyes flickering with a million unnamed things. "Chin up, kid. It's rude to bury your head in your arms when someone's talking to you." He grins lightly and watches as she reluctantly raises her head, violet eyes too bright. But he doesn't want to ask questions and she doesn't want to answer them anyways.
"Rukia." She corrects him without any anger. "My name is Rukia."
He nods. "I know, but you'll always be that midget kid who lodged a dagger in between my ribs. So how about it?"
She stands up and lets him lead her outside. They make their way past winding corridors and empty hallways. The place is carved like a maze, but Grimmjow is steady in his path and she trusts him to lead her to freedom, memorizing twists and turns like they're the secret to the universe. It's dark when they make it outside at last, a moonless night makes it difficult to see and she takes his hand soundlessly. He squeezes it reassuringly and moves into a patch of woods off to the side, stopping for a bit to whisper to her. Later on, she'll wonder if he knew that this would be the ultimate result. If he knew that he wouldn't live past those twenty hours of mercy.
"I'm going to go on ahead and make sure that Ulquiorra's pre-occupied. With Nnoitra's death, he's the new guard. If I don't come back in ten minutes, you can follow me. But if you hear something that's not supposed to be happening, stay here." He holds onto her shoulders tightly, almost shaking her with the force of his conviction. "Stay right here and don't you fucking move. Got me?" She takes too long to answer and he grips her thin shoulders harder. "For the love of god, Rukia. Promise me you won't stick your neck out."
She nods, swallows past an unknown emotion in her throat and watches him leave, choking on a bitter aftertaste.
It's the second guard that throws them both off. They're getting close and adrenaline is pumping through Ichigo's veins like a shot of cocaine—that briefly tangible high. Knee-deep in enemy territory and he's so caught up with the thought of it that he doesn't notice the second guard until it's too late to do anything and Ishida's behind him murmuring prayers to a God that doesn't exist.
Teal eyes. Grimmjow. The knowledge barely has any time to sink in before the voice, rough and uncultured, reaches their ears.
"You're that Kurosaki kid, aren't you?" It's not meant as a threat, not meant to be a snide comment, but Ichigo's too angry to bother with interpreting the words as they're meant. This is the man who kidnapped his family, bound them together, and left them there to die. This is the man who picked her up and carried her away as if she were no more than some discarded piece of trash by the side of the road. Ignorance breeds regret. And there is no way for him to know that Grimmjow's trying to free her. No way for him to know.
"You…you fucking bastard." Ichigo manages to get out as his vision flashes red. "I'll kill you." He shoots, but Grimmjow isn't unaware of the murderous intent and rolls out of the bullet's path, drawing his own gun out in the process even though it hurts to move right now. Liquid fire is in his veins, setting nerves and muscles and tissue aflame. Soi Fong's poison. His body is shutting down.
He manages to get a shot out, but Ichigo remembers Kenpachi's advice and hides behind the trees. Ishida is nowhere to be found, but that's the least of his worries. He stalks his way through the leaves silently, aiming for Grimmjow's spot. It's not honorable in the least, but this is a fucking war and he doesn't want to die. He can hear the sound of bullets missing in the dark, hampered by human imperfection and the cover of night.
There's the click of an empty chamber. It's his signal to launch himself, and he does, ignoring the branches scratching at his skin to pin the Sixth Colonel down. But even with the poison acting against his body and flashing messages in his brain damage, damage, shutting down, shutting down, Grimmjow manages to push himself away. There's a desperate scramble for Ichigo's gun, the two of them wrestling for it like a head or tails game. It dislodges a bullet harmlessly into the ground. Slippery fingers grasping for the shining metal and there's a timer in the background, twenty hours becoming minutes becoming seconds as the fight forces faster blood flow.
The vessels carry the poison all the way to his heart.
He freezes in that one instant, desperation lending his eyes a feverish light, his mouth open in a silent scream. Too much life in that one body and it's going now, running out through his skin, leaving him bare and empty. Lifeless.
This is how Grimmjow dies, in a moment when he's never been more alive.
-Eleven down, two to go-
She walks as if in a nightmare.
She can see his body on the ground, eyes blank and staring up at the vast canvas of the sky. That vivid teal color sears itself into her mind and she's telling herself that she can't cry. He wouldn't want her to do that. So she bites her lip instead, bites through the soft flesh and bites and bites until it feels like she's going to bite all the way down to her heart and then bite that in half. The orange-haired kid from days before is looking at her as if she's a ghost (and who knows, maybe she is. Maybe she's dead right now, looking at the world she's left behind.)
Her knees give out when she reaches Grimmjow's body. It happens with a shudder and an inaudible sigh, as if her body has just realized that it can't be bothered to work anymore. She reaches out a hand to his still-warm fingers and reflects on the past and the present, as she interlaces them together. She wants so desperately to believe that he's only pretending to catch his enemy off guard or that she's dreaming this entire ordeal up out of nothing. Maybe it's a produce of fatigue and hysteria.
Delusion makes for an ugly mask.
Seconds pass. Minutes. The coldness settles into his corpse and she lets go of his hand (their connection) like it's a release—her own way of saying goodbye. Blindly, she searches in the dark until the touch of metal kisses her skin. Grimmjow's gun is cold in her hands, even colder than her old rifle's handle. Strangely enough though, her heart is filled with fire and the warmth is spreading through her veins, choking her, spurring her onwards. She stands up slowly and turns to her would-be savior, violet eyes shadowed with grief and resolute determination.
"Don't think you're a hero, boy. None of us are heroes in the end."
He opens his mouth, as if to protest against something, but she shakes her head. Casual fingers reach into her pocket for spare ammunition and in front of this orange-haired novice, she reloads the gun. This is all she has left of Grimmjow and she'll be damned if she lets it go to waste. She's a dead person walking. The instant Aizen truly realizes that she has no intention of divulging the information (he's smart, she knows it won't take long), he'll have her killed. She refuses to let him control her fate.
"But, wait." The boy sounds desperate, disbelieving as though he doesn't quite understand why she's not thanking him. "What are you doing? Come back with us." She quirks a smile at that, slipping the gun into her pockets. He really doesn't know. "Say something!" He demands, urgency flashing like sirens across her vision. He looks so confused and lost and angry. Pity. She pities him.
"I have something I need to take care of first. Stay here." She knows that he wants to accompany her, but that's out of the question. Needless deaths are the saddest things of all and she doesn't want a guilty conscience to haunt her if she dies tonight. No, these two boys are better off waiting here. "Don't bother following me."
She leaves before the orange-haired soldier can object, her small form blending easily into the night. Her feet take her past the tree where she was bidden to stay by he who is no longer of this world, past the edge of the woods to a quiet encampment, and then past a threshold that she knows is the separation of good from evil. In her pocket, the gun is a heavy weight to carry, a potential to carry out a promise to herself residing in a chamber of bullets. She navigates the twists and turns easily, almost as if guided by a shadow of a man who had laughing teal eyes and an immortal cloak of confidence. Her face is schooled into an impermeable expression, as if made by the touch of a man who had his own stoic façade to carry and was vulnerable without the whisper of legends to follow him.
She carries their ghosts with her on this journey.
The door that she stops in front of is familiar, but no longer foreboding. She hesitates before entering, one hand splayed against the oaken frame. Voices echo in her mind, a reminder of those whom she had loved and who had loved her in return. "Hey, kid. Remember to do it right, got that? Send that beauty through the forehead and get that motherfucker good." Grimmjow, sardonic even after death. She almost replies aloud. There's a part of her that can't believe he's gone. "Rukia. Act with honor and die with dignity." Byakuya, always wise. Her heart freezes at the words her mind conjures up for him to say. It hurts to remember. Numb fingers draw out the gun. It hurts.
She pushes the door open and presses the trigger.
"Yeah, just like that, kid. You're a damned good shot."
In his seat, Gin lies with his final smile frozen permanently on the remnants of his face.
-twelve down, one to go-
Aizen doesn't even bother to flinch as his right hand man's blood sprays over his skin and uniform, droplets flying into the half-filled champagne glass in front of him. Rukia is standing beside the door, hands shaking with some unidentifiable emotion. "I really must congratulate you." He says mildly, knowing that she won't shoot—that she can't. She's paralyzed. Absolutely paralyzed. "You truly are worthy of carrying the Kuchiki name. It's not easy to kill a man like Ichimaru. But you succeeded where so many others before you had failed." He smiles serenely and gives her a warm round of applause, as though she's finished a positively marvelous performance.
There is a vague horror to her expression now and it takes the healthy flush of life from her skin, that rosy tinge.
"But, I am afraid…" His voice dips into a mock tragic tone. "That the time has come for all your wonderful acts to end." He withdraws his own pistol, a small thing, quiet and lethal. It's a new make from Szayel's laboratory and the best model he's seen by far. "Any last words? All good actors and actresses ought to have inspiring last words." He smiles as he levels the gun at her heart, almost crooning his words.
She can't breathe. It feels like the air is choking her and she knows that she can't die like this—go out quietly. It would be an insult. "So don't. Stop standing there like some jackass and say something, goddammit." She inhales and swears that there's a scent of gunpowder and cigarette smoke in the atmosphere. "Never die in submission." There is a warm touch on her shoulder that wasn't there before and her next breath of air brings with it hints of green tea and spicy foods.
"Go to hell, you son of a bitch."
Back straight, eyes flashing, and she ducks to avoid the first shot. It grazes her shoulder and she doesn't need to look to realize that there's blood pouring from her side. The wounds from earlier have opened again, but there's no time to care. She's still alive and fuck it if she won't make it at least a little bit difficult for him.
The next two bullets go into the wall, but her movements are getting slower. Too much blood loss. It's over. She's done the best that she can and when Aizen pulls the trigger for the fourth time, she turns to meet it, violet eyes intensely bright with the aura of her life.
Her body crumples soundlessly to the floor.
-Thirteen down, none to go-
Ichigo waits and waits and waits. But a part of him knows that he's ultimately waiting for nothing. She isn't coming back. He looks down at Colonel Jeagerjaques' body and wonders what was in him that could have made her so reluctant to leave. If there was something irreplaceable that the man could have taken from her. He thinks that ultimately, it might be the same thing that she had taken from him when she'd saved his life and his family.
"We should bury him." He says suddenly, turning away from the cold body on the ground. "He meant something to her."
Ishida doesn't question why, just nods silently. They pass the rest of the night digging a grave for him—crude and ugly, but a grave just the same. Morning rises slowly and by noon, there's a downpour of rain. Ichigo radios for Shuuhei to come back, tasting bitter defeat. He supposes that on some level, he hates her now, hates her for going back and sacrificing her life. He might hate her because her death means that Chad's sacrifice had no purpose behind it.
But he doesn't. He can't hate her.
He might have pitied her and hated himself if he'd known what would become of her body. But he has no way of knowing and so he proceeds in ignorance, blissfully unaware of the cold laboratory, the scalpels and Szayel's manic face staring down at her corpse's precious eyes. The subtle scraping of instruments on flesh, the whispered I told you so, Grimmjow, didn't I that echoes in the empty operating room. Her macabre ending beyond her ending.
His mind focuses only on Chad as they bring him onto the helicopter with Shuuhei watching, features tightening into an expression of grief. They place him gently in the back and close their eyes for the rest of the flight back to base. Ichigo dreams of a girl who couldn't be saved and Ishida dreams of a girl who was too delicate to survive.
Neither of them sleeps well.
"So she's dead." Yamamoto says hollowly when they come back empty-handed, wizened features wearing on the precipice of time. The old Commander doesn't dare say his true thoughts, that he's tired and that right now, they're all dying on the inside. He doesn't mention that their best general, Shunsui, has taken ill. He doesn't mention that he's about to give orders for their last offensive attack. There are too many things that he just can't say and too little time for him to live. "Her body hasn't been recovered, either, has it?"
Ichigo looks to the side, amber eyes closed. "No, sir. We left when we realized that she wouldn't be coming back alive."
"I see." There's something hanging in the atmosphere, heavy and pressing down on the both of them. It's a disease, particles swarming into lungs and tissues as they speak and breathe. It's the product of mankind's never-ending need to destroy and to love.
The sound of a door opening breaks the quiet.
"S-Sir." Matsumoto's voice is weak in the background, gray eyes lackluster.
"We…We think it's Ebola."
It ends slowly, creeping and crawling through cells, latching onto new victims like a ticking time bomb. Camps are wiped out and there aren't enough people left alive to bury the dead…so the bodies rot where they fall. It's an infestation that no one can fight. It's a fear that no one, no matter how brave, can stand up to. And so, in the end...
Nobody wins the war.
Author's Note Part Two: So there you have it, roughly one year later. I'm sorry for the delay, but I was really disheartened when I saw that three or four months after my story, less than ten people had reviewed. I just lost all inspiration for writing and so took a long hiatus from that wasn't broken until just recently. I'm not particularly pleased with the way that this turned out, but I just don't have the energy to go back and edit it right now. Maybe later. On another note, now that this is done, I can start a new story. I'm leaning towards either an Ulquiorra/Rukia or a Grimmjow/Rukia one, but I haven't made up my mind. It will probably debut sometime in the fall, so keep your eyes peeled. In the meantime, I will be faithfully working on Tension and the Spark, Eros and Psyche, as well as The Taker. Until next time guys, see you!