Title: In Rain
Author: Kel (with a lot of help from Davan)
Summary: AU – Infected 'verse. The lines between enemy and ally are blurred, in ways neither Toushirou nor Rangiku could have predicted.
... without darkness
Nothing comes to birth,
As without light
Nothing flowers. -May Sarton
He was hailed as the best damned sniper the Army had seen in years, officer material, brilliant tactician, and all-around arrogant ass. The perfect little soldier, except for that quietly questioning orders thing when things just didn't make sense. Good thing the Army agreed on that front during that time and had his squadron leader drummed out with a dishonorable discharge. Something about using his authority in ways that were definitely not acceptable; Toushirou knew about it, knew the ins and outs. Never spoke of it except in the court martial. Didn't do any good at all if he did. And, contrary to what became popular belief, he didn't make Captain solely because of it. He did have other skills, what with the sniping and the leadership qualities they were always harping about.
And the Army was big on finding new blood, since the Threat had started coming closer and closer. They still didn't know what to call them or their nasty bug; the Threat worked just as well. Everyone knew what they were talking about and Toushirou was not exempt from the little stab of apprehension - he would not call it fear - in his heart when they were mentioned. Being a sniper, he'd seen them more often than the average Joe and, more often than not, through a scope. They were... almost shapeless. Shifting all the time; one moment they'd look like a man, the next like a pile of rubble, and then the next like a dog or cat, and he could honestly say he had never seen them change. They just... did. It was the most inexplicable thing he'd ever seen, and he hated inexplicable things. The best thing about what he did was that it was straight forward; get the target in the scope and shoot. The target didn't need to go and start changing shape while he was looking.
That's what got him; he was looking and still couldn't figure out how it was done. It almost bothered him, shooting them before he could figure it all out.
But it was better than getting sick. It was better than letting them near, letting them infect any of his men, or him, or anyone near. Not a one of his people were going to be Infected, thank you very much, and hell if he was going to see anybody in his platoon dying, or changing, or mindlessly waltz into the Threat's folds.
He saw that more and more every day: people dying. People hurting. Even people crawling through the rubble, foraging through what was left of the city to make their way. He'd tell them to leave this place, the Threat was close, but they already knew it and still didn't - or couldn't - leave.
They had come into the city - or what was left of it - weeks ago. Their orders were to clear it out, rid it of the Threat and of the Infected. Toushirou hated those orders and had specifically requested Threat-hunting duty. Infected were Infected, sure, but... they had once been human. He couldn't bring himself to hunt someone who'd been human, who still looked mostly human. It was beyond him. He wasn't sure, though, how much longer they'd let him get away with simply going after the Threat and not the Infected: they were losing this war.
It was clear they were losing, too. Cities destroyed in no time at all. More and more people dying, fleeing the cities, or disappearing into a Threat horde. Toushirou was seeing less and less victory and more of simply surviving and not doing it well.
Orders today had him leading a small squad of men into the northern sector; he wasn't so much on sniper duty as leading a hunting party. Find any Threat and kill them. Simple orders and Toushirou was determined to make it through not only alive, but with his squad intact. And with no more of a headache than he already had. He picked through the rubble, finding his footing carefully, and waiting until he could duck behind a free-standing wall - it had once been part of a fairly sturdy building, he thought - before he took off his helmet and ran a hand through blond hair. Rubbing his temple surreptitiously, he sighed. He felt like his head was going to explode - maybe implode; he couldn't tell - but he didn't have much of a choice here. Had to keep on trucking. He replaced the helmet, wishing he'd had the foresight to bring some of his aspirin.
Ito slipped up beside him, all nervous energy and finger practically twitching over his rifle's trigger. Toushirou glared at him. "Calm down." Ito wouldn't be any good to anyone this way; probably accidentally kill someone. Friendly fire. God, what Toushirou wouldn't give to erase that from existence. Might as well start with trying to get Ito to act like a soldier and not a nervous teenager.
"Right, sir," Ito replied, but didn't do a thing different.
Toushirou felt like kicking him. Might have if he wasn't absolutely sure that sort of movement would mess with his head. "That means take your finger off the trigger unless you see something worthy of shooting."
"Oh." Ito grimaced and moved his hand, fingers cupping the outside of the trigger guard. "Yes, sir." Ito glanced at him, swallowed once and then spoke again. "You don't look so great, sir."
Toushirou grunted; they should quit "sir"-ing him. He was tired of it, in many ways. Sure, he was the superior officer, in charge of this expedition and what-not, but it wasted time, in his mind. Just follow the orders. He didn't need affirmation of his status. Ito looked at him, mouth pressed in a thin line and looking like he dearly wanted to say something else. Toushirou wasn't sure if encouraging him or ignoring him was the way to go.
Rhys - a dark-haired kid who contested authority every step of the way - wasn't quite as meek as Ito. He spoke up, saying what Toushirou was sure Ito - and half the squad - was thinking. "I'm not taking my finger off this trigger, sir. We don't know what any Threat will look like."
"Is that right, Rhys?" Toushirou asked, picking up his rifle. This was why he sometimes hated leading a squad. Everything became an object lesson and he was one hell of a horrible teacher when his head hurt.
"Always be prepared," Rhys parroted.
Toushirou half-expected him to start in on the rest of the rules they pounded into them during boot camp. "For what, Private?" he snapped. "That rock to be the Threat? What about that one? What about me? Or Ito? Who says they can't look like one of us." He speared Rhys with a hard glare, then turned it on every one of his men - all watching by now. "I won't have anyone here twitchy enough to start making mistakes. Not on my watch." He paused. "Fall in." He walked forward, rifle in hand, and glanced over his shoulder. "And don't shoot anything unless you're sure it's not friendly." He would not be a squad leader that lost anyone to friendly fire.
Hopefully, he wouldn't lose any to the Threat or Infection, either. Those prospects was no better.
They'd walked - stumbling over debris and with the occasional "hey look over there" echoing - for another fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes in which Toushirou grew increasingly nervous - and sick. His headache had become less of an annoyance and more of a migraine. He was almost glad it was late afternoon; the sun would dim soon and that meant less light cutting into his eyes. Less pain stabbing through his head. He wasn't sure, however, what he was going to do about his suddenly sick stomach, besides possibly hiding from his men and vomiting in a corner.
They were to spread out, heading out in three man teams across the sector, before meeting back up in the square in half an hour. It was standard procedure and one Toushirou had used time and time again; three-man teams, to him, worked infinitely better than two-man and definitely better than alone. They had reached the point - a T-intersection that Toushirou remembered had been one hell of a busy place not so long ago - and Toushirou started to give orders that they separate.
He was speaking to Totsohni, answering a quick question, when Totsohni's eyes widened and he stepped backward. Toushirou hadn't even turned when a gunshot echoed behind him. He whirled on his heel, spearing Ito with a questioning glare. "Ito?"
The kid glanced at him, rifle held to his shoulder, and more nervous than Toushirou had ever seen him. (And that was one hell of a feat.) "It moved."
Toushirou followed his gaze, eyes lighting on the pile of rocks Ito's rifle was pointed at. He didn't question it; he brought his own weapon to bear, absentmindedly wrapping the strap around his wrist as he did so. "Perimeter," he barked and his men scrambled to circle, to watch each other's backs. "Ito?"
"It wasn't the rocks, sir. Behind them."
Toushirou nodded, then motioned Totsohni, who had followed him, to follow.
This was their job, hunting the Threat. Had to get close sometimes. Totsohni followed in his footsteps while Ito covered from behind. Rocks shifted under Toushirou's feet and every beat of heart seemed to send stabbing pain behind his eyes, taking precious attention from the debris pile in front of him. Hopefully, Totsohni and Ito were paying enough attention to make up for it. He glanced at Totsohni, ready to tell him to split off and go right.
He didn't speak, however. Rhys' voice rang out, a desperate cry, and Toushirou turned, his ankle rolling on the loose rock. He didn't so much as catch himself as refuse to fall. A black thing leapt from the debris in front of Rhys, all claws and fangs and horrible noise. Toushirou squeezed off two shots, catching the thing in the air. Rhys ducked, its claws barely missing him, and whirled, popping off a few shots of his own. By the time the Threat was down, it was dead, it's body nothing more than a shapeless black mass.
It was over in seconds and when Toushirou tried to straighten, his ankle rolled again. He went to a knee, grimacing. Not bad, but certainly had him off-balance.
That was when Totsohni screamed. It wasn't a cry for help or even to alert; it was a full-out, pained scream... and it ended abruptly. Toushirou tried to bring his weapon to bear, grunting when it was knocked from his hands.
Up. He needed up. Blood sprayed, splattering against his face and neck. Totsohni's body fell in front of him. Toushirou made a grab for Totsohni's rifle.
A clawed hand wrapped around his wrist, yanking him forward. He looked up, that stab of apprehension that always made itself known when the Threat were around sharpening into something akin to dread. All he saw were teeth, dripping with a venom he didn't want to think about. All he heard were shouts from his men and rifles going off.
And then the thing moved, teeth clamping around his shoulder and neck, and all he felt was pain.
The rest was a blur, one he couldn't quite figure out. He was breathing hard, a hand trying to clamp down on the bloody rows of wounds. The thing was there and then gone, moving so swiftly he wouldn't have been sure it had even been there were it not for the pain. He vision blurred in and out, a gray haze settling over him that had him frightening almost out of his mind.
Not that he was doing any thinking anyway.
Shots were fired. People were shouting and then... quiet. So quiet that Toushirou was almost afraid his panting would disrupt it. Two people appeared above him and one of them - Rhys - knelt by his side.
"Don't touch him," the other person snapped and Toushirou's eyes rolled toward him. Ito. He stood above him, nervous and scared, his rifle moving almost non-stop.
"He's hurt," Rhys returned.
Ito's face set into grim lines and his rifle came up, barrel pointed at Toushirou's forehead. Toushirou couldn't find it in himself to panic... or really even care. So he wanted to shoot him? Couldn't be worse than the teeth. "He's Infected. You saw him earlier."
Toushirou tried to swallow at that, tried to insist that, no, that wasn't it. He'd just been clawed and bitten and had a migraine and he could not be Infected. Rhys leaned back, brows furrowed. "But..."
"No," Ito responded. He took a step forward, rifle unwavering. "He's Infected. There's no way around it now."
Toushirou drew a harsh breath, breath escaping in a cough, then wheezing for air. Rhys swallowed gamely, then leaned back over him, putting himself between Ito's rifle and Toushirou. "You don't know that, Ito." Rhys stood and knocked Ito's rifle aside. "You're overreacting."
"I'm not. You know it too." Ito pulled his rifle back and sidestepped, obstensibly looking for a clear shot. "He was already sick."
"I won't let you just shoot him."
There was a moment when Toushirou wanted - oh he wanted - to tell them to quit arguing. What's done is done, a bullet couldn't make him feel any worse and he... he... He bit his lip against the sudden pain spreading through his chest. His vision grayed again and he barely remembered the argument. Through haze and through harsh panting, he heard voices; couldn't begin to say who was talking.
"Is just leaving him any better?"
"...can't just shoot."
"Say he's killed in action..."
"...will be, if we just leave..."
"Nothing we can..."
His throat closed - panic or pain or something in between or both, Toushirou didn't know - and pain blossomed behind his eyes. He blacked out there, in the rubble, and left for dead.
The clouds had rolled in quickly, dark and thick and heavy with rain. The sunset had given way to faint rumblings of thunder and flashes of lightning on the horizon. Now, hours later, the only light Rangiku could find was the ominous flash of lightning as the storm rolled in.
It had already started raining; she pulled her coat tight and glanced back at her shorter companion. Kiyone had said she'd seen Army activity out this way earlier and while most Infected Rangiku knew would turn tail and start running in the opposite direction, she and Kiyone subscribed to a different belief. If any one of the Threat had attacked the squad - which happened more often than not - there was almost bound to be things left behind they could use. Backpacks full of supplies, guns, ammunition... The Threat just killed; they didn't loot.
"See anything?" she called back over the rumble of thunder.
Kiyone shoved wet bangs from her eyes; her short hair was plastered to her face, thanks to the downpour. She shook her head. "They were around here," she said, gesturing with gloved hands. "This was as far as they went; if they were attacked, it was near here."
Rangiku cursed. If this turned into nothing but a snipe hunt in this storm... With a growl, she hopped over a pile of rubble. At least the rain was good for something: it cleaned up this mess better than any human had done for years.
But then who thought of picking up after yourself when you were fighting for your life?
They were nearing the intersection, a T-junction that used to be bustling with activity. Rangiku remembered it well; she spent a lot of time here as a kid. "You got your flashlight?"
Kiyone tossed the flashlight to Rangiku, who immediately turned it on. The bright light swept over the cobblestones, the broken walls. It played over the low wall in the southwest corner; Rangiku's lip quirked. She'd played in that fountain once. All that was left was one low concrete wall, and yet she could see it clear as day.
"Hey, looks like they left a backpack or something," Kiyone called out, jogging past Rangiku. "Told you we'd find something," she said, glancing over her shoulder and grinning.
Despite the rain, Rangiku found herself smiling back. Their small camp would certainly benefit from anything Kiyone found out here. She started forward at a more sedate pace, keeping an eye and ear open for any trouble. Kiyone was a smart girl, but she had a tendency to just jump in, with no thought to her own safety. Someone had to go with her on these expeditions Kiyone loved so much and Rangiku found herself volunteering more and more often.
She had to get out once in awhile.
Rangiku found herself scanning the area, her gaze lingering a little more often on the fountain than was particularly useful, and didn't realize how lost in thought she was until Kiyone called her name. She started, turning and sweeping the flashlight toward her companion. Concern replaced a questioning look as the light caught Kiyone; the girl was pale, brow furrowed and... Rangiku frowned, letting the light drop a bit. There was blood on her gloves. "Kiyone?"
Kiyone's voice was tremulous. "I found something." She pointed toward her feet, into a small hollow Rangiku couldn't see into.
That was all the impetus Rangiku needed to dart forward. She stopped next to Kiyone, light following Kiyone's finger. "Oh..." she trailed off, lip firmed between her teeth. Her light wavered a bit, but never strayed from the young man's slack face. He wore Army greens, stained with copious amounts of blood but that wasn't what struck Rangiku; it was the high spots of color on his cheeks, the flushed face, the soft, uneven breathing.
"Is he alive?"
Rangiku's gaze flitted to Kiyone; the girl had a strange look, somewhere between absolutely terrified and worried beyond belief. She nodded once before taking the two steps forward to crouch at his side. "He's breathing." Kiyone had never seen this; Rangiku forgot that sometimes. Lived through it, sure, but that was different than seeing it from this side. Rangiku touched the back of her hand to the man's cheek and hissed. Even through cold rain, his skin burned with fever. She glanced upward; he could thank the rain for keeping his fever from being lethal.
"What do we do?"
Rangiku pressed her lips together. Her quick answer to Kiyone wanted to be 'help the poor bastard' but this wasn't an ideal world. There was risk in generosity. Her fingers pressed against his throat, taking in the thready pulse. He was hovering over death anyway; it wouldn't take much. Hell, moving him could do it and he was Army. Being taken in by Infected would destroy him if he survived.
If, however, this fever was what Rangiku suspected... She sat back and held the flashlight up to Kiyone. "Hold this." She barely waited for Kiyone to grab the light before reaching back toward the young man. She pried his lids open. Dilated, unresponsive pupils. She picked up his hand, running her fingers along his and frowning; swollen and stiff. So far, so good. She motioned Kiyone to hold the flashlight close to his face and pried his eyelids open once again. Bright flecks of color decorated otherwise dark blue irises. Rangiku sat back and absentmindedly tapped her fingers against her knee.
"He's got the Infection," she told Kiyone.
Suddenly Kiyone's fear melted away, replaced with a sad concerned expression. "Will he survive?"
Rangiku shook her head. "He's been hurt too," she said, nodded toward his shoulder. "Probably been out here since that squad came through this morning."
Kiyone repeated her question.
"Hard telling," Rangiku answered. "Gather up what you can find. We'll know better once we get him settled at camp."
Kiyone nodded and immediately turned to scavenge through the rubble.
Rangiku laid a hand on the young man's uninjured shoulder, eying the injury and shaking her head. Infected and attacked by the Threat, it looked like. She wondered if he was normally that unlucky. "You can quit worrying," she told him, knowing full well he wasn't hearing her. Despite any misgivings, she couldn't let another Infected try to make the transition alone.
He wouldn't survive, and she wouldn't have that on her conscience.
Army uniform or not.
He wasn't going to survive. That didn't surprise Rangiku in the least. It saddened her in a way she could never really explain, but there was no surprise. At first, she thought the Army kid actually had a chance. He was young and strong – that much was obvious by the lean muscle she'd exposed when she'd gotten rid of the bloody clothes and bandaged his shoulder – but that wasn't going to be enough. In the few days he'd been with her and Kiyone, he'd taken quite the turn for the worse.
Rangiku sat in her rickety chair, next to the cot he'd taken over. (Her cot; she'd been curling up in a sleeping bag on the floor for the past three days.) The sun was going down again. It would be the fourth night since she and Kiyone had brought him back to the old house; Rangiku never would have thought he would have lasted this long.
It didn't give her any hope, though. His fever had spiked and, despite Rangiku's best efforts, it didn't seem to be breaking anytime soon. She kept a cool cloth on his forehead simply because he was calmer with it. He didn't toss and turn or mutter inane things she couldn't understand as long as she kept that cloth cool and damp. She rubbed his hands and forced tea spiked with painkillers down his throat; she remembered how horribly her joints had ached when she'd been sick.
She might not expect him to live, but that didn't mean she wasn't going to make sure he was comfortable.
"I hope you appreciate all this," she told him as she took the cloth from his forehead. It was drying out and soon he'd be pawing at it, brow furrowing.
His answer was a small grunt – almost a moan. Rangiku tried to pretend it was actually an answer and not a mostly unconscious reaction to his much-loved washcloth being taken away. In all honesty, she didn't know how much he was hearing or seeing. It just seemed more lonely if she believed he was completely out of it.
So she talked to him.
She dipped the cloth into the basin on the old nightstand. "I have a lot of other things I could be doing, you know." She wrung it out, the soft sound of the water splashing seeming almost too loud for the room. "Gathering supplies. Meeting up with neighbors. Drinking." The cloth was laid on his forehead again. "So much drinking. I've a lot to make up for, you know."
Rangiku peeled back his eyelids, sighing. Bloodshot, but the Infection was certainly settling in, doing what it did best. Dark blue irises had lightened to a striking teal. If Rangiku wasn't mistaken – the light in here was dim even during the brightest part of the day – incredibly light hair to begin with was turning even lighter. That would take longer, she knew, but... She frowned. She'd never see it through that far, if he didn't start breaking through this fever.
She swallowed and let her hand linger over his hair. Some weren't meant to live.
She shook her head and banished that particular line of thought. The absolute last thing she needed to start doing was thinking. She looked up when the door creaked and met Kiyone's questioning look with a tired grin – it was the best she could muster, losing sleep like she had.
"How's our guest?" Kiyone asked, slipping inside and closing the door behind her.
Kiyone nodded and handed off a small bag. "I got some medicine from my sister."
Rangiku nodded, the corner of her lip pulling downward. "Isane all right? I hate dragging her in like this."
"Don't worry about it." Kiyone shrugged. "Isane's smart. She won't get caught."
That wasn't the point, but Rangiku smiled anyway. There was no point in pursuing it; Isane wouldn't ever stop stealing medicine and supplies for Kiyone, Infected or not. Despite Kiyone's constant assurance that Isane would never get caught, Rangiku braced herself for the worst kind of news every time they asked for anything from Isane.
But, Isane – an Army nurse who defied authority to help out family – was her reminder that not everyone involved with the Army was bad, and that was part of the reason she hadn't left the kid behind. Rangiku set the pouch down and pulled out a neatly labeled syringe. A fever reducer first, then perhaps painkillers. If he woke, she had sedatives ready.
Sighing, Rangiku turned his arm and pressed her fingers against the skin inside his elbow. If he woke indeed.
"Need anything else?" Kiyone asked.
Rangiku shook her head as she depressed the plunger. "I'm okay. Might want a drink later, huh?" she said, giving Kiyone a grin and a wink as she put the syringe aside.
Kiyone returned the smile. "You got it."
Rangiku rested her hand on the kid's forehead, her smile falling as the door closed behind Kiyone. "See?" she told him quietly. "People are risking their lives for you. Maybe you should repay 'em by surviving, huh?"
He didn't answer, though, and Rangiku wasn't surprised.
It was raining again when Rangiku saw him open his eyes. For two days, it had rained almost without end. Fog hung low and heavy along the valley floor and clung to the river well into the morning. The nights had been cold and the days gray, but Rangiku had tried not to let it get her down. There was no use in letting the weather dictate her mood, even if she did enjoy a sunny day more than a gray one. The days were getting shorter, though, and the nights colder.
Afraid that it would chill him, Rangiku had taken the damp washcloth away and bundled her houseguest in thick blankets. She was surprised; he was still alive. She had thought, only a day after Kiyone had brought the medicine that it had been a fruitless venture and he wouldn't last night. His breathing had been ragged and irregular, his pulse thready. She'd taken to talking to him through that night, not wanting to go to sleep. No one should die in silence and no one should die without a hand holding their own. She believed that wholeheartedly; hell if she wouldn't give that to someone who needed it.
But halfway through the night, her gentle reassurances had turned to an almost pleading coaxing as his breathing evened out. She'd gone from telling him it was all right, not to worry to telling him he could take another breath, it wasn't that hard. Just one more. And then another, a little deeper this time. He could do it. That was when she actually started hoping and thinking that, just maybe, this kid could survive.
Rangiku had leaned against the wall next to the cot, her elbows resting near the kid's head. Two nights of sleeplessness had her well on her way to crashing; Kiyone had come in and spelled her a few times, but Rangiku had taken the majority of the caretaking upon herself. She didn't even try to explain why, not even to herself. Especially not to herself; who wanted to acknowledge a connection of some sort to a dead man? She'd spent some time half-asleep, stirring just long enough every once in awhile to force water down his throat.
He opened his eyes in mid-morning, when the fog was lifting and the rain was starting. Rangiku sat up straight, surprise coloring her features when she saw his eyes clear and focused.
Or, well, as clear and focused as they get after four days of being nearly comatose.
He blinked at her, his brow furrowing a bit and she smiled. He must be confused; she knew she would be if someone she'd never seen before was there when she woke up.
"You're confused. I can tell." She waved a hand in front of his face, pointing vaguely at his eyes. "I can see it in your face. Don't worry, all right? I'll explain everything when you're more awake." She was aware she was rambling a bit, but when the person you expected to die just woke you, you had to talk. Just... had to. She squeezed his shoulder through the blankets. "I'm glad you're awake. I mean, I really worried when Kiyone found you out in the rain."
He blinked again, mouth opening.
She shushed him with a finger to his lips. "Save your questions, all right? You're tired, I can tell. It's better if we just wait until you're more awake before we start with the question and answer, right?" He looked like he was about to bite her finger; she tapped his cheek lightly instead. "Get some sleep."
He gave her a long look before his eyes drifted closed.
She snapped her fingers. "I forgot to ask your name, damn it." She patted his shoulder again. "I'm glad you woke up. I really am. Try to believe that, all right? I know it's all strange right now and it'll get a bit stranger before you're done, trust me, but I think..."
Rangiku blinked and drew back. His voice was just a croak, a rough whisper that barely had anything behind it. Even so, he had spoken. She laughed and ruffled his hair. "Don't be grumpy. You're alive."
She watched him until he fell asleep. She smoothed his hair and sat back; he'd have questions soon. Maybe she'd have answers for him.
//the end. But not really.
Just a taste of the new 'verse? LOTS of help from Davan. Thank you, lovely, and it was a joy bouncing ideas off of you. This is just a taste of what's to come – I've begun work on something much bigger set in this 'verse (but not directly related to this particular one-shot). Consider this a prologue of sorts. XD
I hope you've enjoyed and, as always, feel free to point out any glaring (or otherwise) errors. I need all the help I can get sometimes.
(Just a note: This has been up and hosted on my writing LJ for some time now. I realized I never uploaded here but this is another good opportunity to say that if you want to see all the writing, head for taegan_kel on LJ.)