A/N: In the Project Tatterdemalion AU. Follows "Project Asclepius", just a few days later. This ended up being more of a "slice of life" than a story complete in itself; it's what the bunnies wanted to come before people start tracking down Hollows and otherwise getting in trouble. Hope it's still entertaining.
The tent wall billowed, mottled green fabric wafting scents of cherries and popcorn.
Cherries could be anyone, Yoruichi thought, taking a deep sniff. Yamamoto's latest supply shipment had brought in fruit and vegetables as well as survival rations, and the shinigami had fallen on cherries like a pack of wolves on a wounded moose. Isshin and Masaki thought it might have to do with phytopigments, feeding some quirk of alien biology; tendril pigments, toxins, who knew what. Retsu was still getting up to speed on her first waking day as a shinigami, but she had speculations on iron and vitamin A. As for Yoruichi herself... the ideas she had, she wasn't keen on sharing.
Red, toothsome, and you can lick the stain off your fingers without feeling guilty about it, the ecologist thought, padding quietly around the corner to the main entryway. The iaido and aikido help, but... damn it. How can we tell Yamamoto we're a bunch of very bored predators? Without setting off a lynch mob?
She'd think about it later. Popcorn was more important. Not because she was hungry, though she wouldn't mind snatching a few pieces. Every shinigami was hungry; according to the medics' measurements, they were all inches shorter and several pounds lighter. The tentacle mass had to come from somewhere.
No. Because it was daylight. Popcorn at night meant a movie. Popcorn while the sun was still high...
Somebody wants to be distracted, Yoruichi concluded. That can't be good.
Given distracted meant potentially jumpy... she reached for the sense of the other shinigami before she pulled open the tent flap. :Looking at lab videos?:
:...Yes,: came the reluctant answer.
Shunsui was across the room inside, seated before a computer; Ryuuken, Nanao, and Masaki reading over his shoulders, shifting every once in a while to avoid stray brown tendrils that had escaped Shunsui's casual black hair-tie. Nanao's simple white scrunchie was a bit more effective, keeping the administrator's blue-black strands more-or-less contained. Ryuuken and Masaki's white and gold, growing more slowly, were still too short for ties; their tendrils tended to wander in any waft of wind, just enough to make the vaccinated survivors in Yamamoto's part of the camp want to run screaming. Several of them had. Yoruichi didn't want to think about how many people were sedated right now, unable to deal with the changes that had saved their lives. Poor bastards.
Shunsui without Juushirou. Interesting.
Though not entirely unexpected; Kisuke and Tessai had drawn watch duty, meaning someone had to be with them to break up the physics equations. Juushirou seemed to have a knack for it.
Almost automatically, Yoruichi reached farther, feeling for the rest of the :pack.: Kaien and the rest of the strikers were out with Sarge, stalking the bushes for Hollow-sign. Their three medics plus Isshin were helping Toushirou try to pick up his studies while they poked their own medical mystery: Shunsui, blasted by a Hollow back at the Project, had healed up fast enough that even the scar was almost gone by the time they'd broken out. While Hanatarou, who'd only been grazed by Hughes' bullet, had still been healing a day later when Retsu and the rest of their would-be rescuers had arrived.
At the moment, no one even had theories as to how that had worked. Quick access to calories? Shunsui had been carrying chocolate, while Hantarou and Yoruichi had had survival rations from their rescuers; that didn't seem to fit. Alkaloids? All the shinigami and no small number of the normal vaccinated seemed to crave caffeine and theobromine, almost as much as shinigami wanted cherries; to the point that Yamamoto had apparently had harsh words with whoever was supplying them when what was supposed to be coffee had turned out to be decaf. The cause of the injury? Isshin was flat-out refusing to let anyone poke his Squeakers with bits of lead, whether it led to a better weapon against the Hollows or not.
Frankly, Yoruichi had to agree with him. They'd only been able to rescue so many mice from the labs, and until the general gave the go-ahead, there wouldn't be any new specimens to work with. Gentle, noninvasive, harmless tests were in order.
And beyond the purely practical... like them, the mice had survived Tatterdemalion. No one wanted to hurt anyone who'd made it out of that hell.
Except Yamamoto, Yoruichi thought ruefully. I wonder. Is Toushirou only angry because of his parents? Or did we let slip more than we realized?
She'd been there when Isshin and Kisuke blasted the last door down. She'd seen the general look at that long swath of pure destruction... and smile.
Yamamoto has contacts in weapons R&D.
A fact they'd belatedly learned after they'd found out they'd been ghosted; names and files removed from official government records, and turned over to... someone else. Who else, even Tessai's hacking hadn't uncovered yet. But given PSWAT had sent Ryuuken in to uncover a covert diversion of funds, and yet didn't seem to be making any fuss after their investigator had disappeared...
Well. She almost wished Shunsui had let Toushirou at the general. Just so they could get some answers.
:Playing with food?: Her other-self's projection held a rotted-flesh whiff of distaste. :Bad habit. Wrong to teach cub bad habits.:
True enough. Humans aren't food, Yoruichi told the alien part of herself firmly.
:Wouldn't eat idiot-general,: her other sniffed. :Don't know where he's been.:
Heh. That was the problem, wasn't it? They couldn't get at most of Yamamoto's records, and what they could find had holes. It made them all touchy. Even if he didn't know what they suspected about the general's motives, Toushirou couldn't have missed that.
:Keep cub safe,: her other purred. :Keep pack together.:
Yes. They had to do that. Which meant even if they hadn't had Hanatarou's medical puzzle to figure out, the medics would have kept their eyes on Toushirou. Genes that would be expressed in an adult might be entirely silent in a child, and vice-versa. If anyone was going to suffer unexpected side-effects of the shinigami vaccine, Toushirou would.
So far, they'd been lucky. But it was far too soon to breathe easy.
Though with Hollows on the loose, no one might ever breathe easy again.
"The Squeakers all seem to be calm," Yoruichi reported, eyeing the image frozen on the computer screen. Looked like a view of one of the bio lab's walk-in freezers. Huh. "I'd guess the Hollows aren't going to come back when there's nothing here to infect. They'll be looking for fresh prey, they can go into torpor when they can't find any, and they've got a whole subcontinent to get lost in. Tracking them down is going to be a mess."
"So what we really need is bait." Shunsui frowned. "I doubt Yama-jii's going to like it if we ask for live animals."
"You should have seen his face when I warned him we had to ban bats from the planet," Yoruichi said wryly.
"Bats?" Nanao wondered, pushing up her glasses. No one was quite sure if the administrator needed the lenses anymore, and no one had asked. Their own worlds felt too fragile to tear at someone else's defenses.
"Flying mammals," Masaki pointed out. "Think about it."
"...Oh." Nanao took a steadying breath. "Yes. That would be... less than pleasant."
Shunsui grinned up at her. "I think the word you're looking for is nightmare, my lovely Nanao."
"I am not your lovely."
"Ah, again she breaks my heart." Shunsui waved a warm bowl Yoruichi's direction. "Popcorn?"
Trying not to think about it too hard, Yoruichi reached with purple-furred muscle.
That still feels so odd.
Mostly because it didn't feel odd. Reaching was reaching, whether she used fingers, toes, or tentacles. But the texture of salted puffs against tentacle hooks was definitely new.
"You're determined to act as if this is normal, aren't you?" Ryuuken grumbled. Brushing still-short white tendrils away from his own glasses, and reddening a little at the pulse of :amused tolerance of stubborn Quincy: that tingled from all sides. "Why in space were there cameras in the freezers?"
"Safety precaution," Shunsui and Masaki said at the same time; the major inclined his head, and waved at her to :go on:.
"Every once in a while, someone's unlucky enough to lock themselves into a cold room," Masaki continued. "So there's an intercom, a way to unlock it automatically from the inside - and a camera, in case neither of those works."
"Or in case they're sabotaged," Shunsui added, with a predatory humor Yoruichi was finding more and more familiar. "I could tell you stories... well." He shrugged, brown-furred tentacles shifting where he'd draped them over his chair. "If we ever want to get off this island, we need to be able to show the Hollows won't be getting off with us. Which means we need to know just how the virus got through Project security."
"People make mistakes," Nanao pointed out.
"That they do, my charming devil's advocate," Shunsui agreed. "But given what our mad scientists-"
"Mildly annoyed," Masaki put in, chuckling.
"So far, we hope," Shunsui nodded. "Given what we've turned up on how well-designed this monster is, I feel inclined to look for something a little more sinister than just a careless mistake."
"Good call," Yoruichi said grimly. "If just a mistake can let the Hollows loose, he'll never let us go." Not that we think the general will anyway... later. Tackle that later. When we know more.
"Yes," Masaki agreed, eyes a bit sad. "I hate to say it, but we have to hope there was some other factor involved. If there is, if we can take precautions against it... well. I hope we find something."
"Besides, the general's people are all over the careless angle," Shunsui added, almost lightly. "All those forms to fill out and t's to cross. Don't you love bureaucracy." He looked at Nanao directly. "You've read the evidence we have. Do you think he believes it?"
"Evil enemy aliens using a virus to attack mankind on a newly colonized planet?" Nanao said dryly, radiating near equal parts :irritation: and :amusement:. "Everyone knows that's science fiction."
"So were Quincys," Ryuuken observed. "And teleportation devices... Masaki?"
Frowning in concentration, the biologist scribbled a few quick notes. "Just a thought."
"We are rapt in anticipation," Shunsui grinned.
"Well, I'm not a physicist, but when you're stuck in a lab for days with Kisuke..."
"We need more closets in those labs." Yoruichi smiled at fond memories. "Soundproof ones."
Nanao blinked at them. Shook her head, as if to shake away the image. "What does physics have to do with Quincys? I thought no honest researcher would claim they had more than tentative theories of how psychokinesis works. Something about needing an entirely new branch of physics-" She stopped. Eyed them all.
"And now you know what Toushirou's parents did for a living," Shunsui said practically. "Of the folks who made it out alive, Tessai and Kisuke are the top of the field."
"And according to them, whatever it is that lets electrons be in two places at the same time, that's the toehold psychokinesis has in reality," Masaki stated.
"Toehold?" Nanao echoed, incredulous. "I take it that's the scientific term?"
"That's how Kisuke puts it," Masaki shrugged. "Somehow the physics of Quincy abilities are at... well, right angles to what we rely on in the ordinary world. And that's what the mass-transport has to tap into to work."
Yoruichi frowned, putting together pillow-talk and years of speculation. "I knew they were related, but... the mass-transport is that close to psychokinesis?"
"He theorized a lot while we were locked up testing the vaccine," Masaki nodded. "It seems to pull energy from the same subset of dimensions. And if Hollows use psychokinesis, and it's one of the few things they're vulnerable to..."
"Oh," Shunsui said, with a dry, bleak smile. "Joy."
"It could be a coincidence," Yoruichi stated. "We've had Quincys over a century. And this virus has never been seen before."
"I'd feel a lot better about that if I didn't think over a century sounds like just enough time to come up with something this nasty," Shunsui muttered.
"Yes," Masaki said, troubled, "and no. If this were a naturally occurring virus-"
"A spore inside a meteor perfectly adapted to Terran mammals," Ryuuken said sourly. "I think we can rule out Mother Nature."
"If it were," Masaki forged on, "then we should have seen one of two things happen. Either there should have been similar but less lethal viruses showing up in related species well before this, or if the virus suddenly jumped in from an unrelated species, we should have had a much higher fatality rate."
"Eighty percent's not high enough?" Yoruichi said skeptically.
"Not for something that tears your body apart from the inside," Nanao said clinically. "I helped mop up the Recluse Catarrh. Anything that can get past Panimmunity is usually ninety percent fatal. Or more."
"And if it were human designed... first, we don't have the technology," Masaki stated. "If we hadn't had a bunch of geniuses working on it, we wouldn't even have a vaccine. And yes, literal geniuses," she added at Nanao's disbelieving look. "I know we seem flighty. Especially Kisuke. But if Isshin and Tessai are top of the scale - and they are - Kisuke falls right over the edge."
"Immeasurable?" Nanao's tentacles twitched, like tapping fingers.
Masaki gave her an impish smile. "The last time the government tried, the test computer mysteriously dissolved."
"It was worth cleaning up that mess," Yoruichi chuckled. "You should have seen the look on their faces!"
"And you give this man explosive ether?" Nanao muttered. "So humans couldn't have designed it."
"Even more important, they wouldn't have designed it," Masaki stated. "Shunsui's right; it could take a hundred years or more to build something this perfect. Humans almost never work on that kind of timescale. Even with the longevity treatments we've had the past few decades, ten years is still a long time. Donate your whole life to a virus that might never be unleashed? People just don't do that."
Nanao raised a finger. "Almost never?"
Yoruichi cleared her throat. "Back in the pre-space Middle Ages, some cathedrals were built over a century or more. But I don't think anyone's that religious and that dead-set against Quincy mind tricks. Not in this era."
"So we're back to aliens," Shunsui concluded. "Ryuuken?"
"I'll put in an information request to PSWAT about odd incidents," the Quincy said, troubled. "Even if it has to go through the general - we might find something. Ms. Ise?"
"I think you're all paranoid," the administrator said plainly. "Then again, we've had ample demonstration that something is out to get us. Let me know if there's any way I can help." She paused. "Like watch the video...?"
"Ah. Yes. I suppose I am stalling." Shunsui sighed, and glanced at the screen. "'Shirou helped me put together a program to check the footage for anomalous movement and light. I think it's found something, but..." He winced. "From the timestamp on it - I have to admit, I'm not sure I want to know how the outbreak started."
That makes all of us. Yoruichi kept her voice steady. "We have to."
"I know," Shunsui admitted. "Better get it over with." Reaching out, he hit play.
There was no sound, but you could see frost shiver into the air as one of the specimen boxes suddenly thumped. As if something small, but immensely strong, had hit it from the inside.
"Sometimes, I hate being right," Shunsui breathed.
Thump. And thump. And thump, each blow bringing the box closer to, then on, the edge. One end nearly dipped down enough to slide, before the box righted itself.
"Aware enough not to fall," Yoruichi concluded, feeling the :tension: pulsing off all of them. :Over. Done,: she projected deliberately. :Not here. Not now.:
:Past,: whispered back from Masaki, mingled with :fear, pain, grief-for-lost.: And there was Ryuuken's :frustration at not stopping deaths: and Nanao's :standing in the dark-and-terror, feelings too close, too much, too inside walls-of-self-:
And the ripples just kept spreading. Toushirou's :alarm!: and Isshin's :where?: and Hanatarou's pure :panic: as Isane and Retsu tried :calm, wait-:
Shunsui, spreading calm like burn ointment. Yoruichi threw herself behind his projection, willing :calm, safe.: Isshin latched on almost in synch with them, adding to the sense of :under control: even if he wasn't quite in rhythm-
:Shunsui.: Juushirou, clear as a struck chime, with faint hints of Kisuke and Tessai behind him. :Alarm? Terror? Not-Hollow?:
:Image of Hollow,: Shunsui returned firmly, reaching them all. :Past. Over. Done. Looking for answers.:
:No Hollow now.: Juushirou radiated certainty.
:No.: Shunsui took a quiet breath, and slowly released it. "Okay," he muttered, "we need to add meditation training to the schedule." :Calm. No danger. Images of past...:
In that pulse, Yoruichi could feel the shape of the pictured room; chill dryness of air, cold hardness of shelves, the vibration of movement where nothing living should stir...
:Recognition: jumped at her like a mouse pressing against her hands. Toushirou felt :frost-crunch,: Isshin knew :shelves-laid-out-so,: Masaki remembered :door always sticks,: and a multi-braid of :steel-moving-takes-this-force: rolled over them nearby from Ryuuken, and farther from Kaien, Ikkaku, and Yumichika-
Shunsui and Juushirou, a matched rhythm of :images-from-past, done, no Hollow now. Shhh.:
Slowly, the near-panic ebbed.
Blinking the tent back into focus, Yoruichi wasn't surprised to find herself panting. "Not fun," she managed. "I've had fun before. That wasn't it."
"What is going on in here?"
Retsu, stalking in like a mother wolf, Isane and Hanatarou trailing like mismatched littermates in her wake. A low grumble of incoherent swearing marked Isshin and Toushirou behind them; Toushirou's stubborn wriggliness apparently got the upper hand over Isshin's creative grabs, as the white-tendriled youngster scooted into view.
"History lessons," Ryuuken said acerbically. "You don't want to see this, young man."
"It's a Hollow," their cub shot back. "It's a dead Hollow. Or one we're going to kill. I don't have a problem." :Need to see. Need to know the enemy!:
:Shh,: Shunsui repeated. "Let's try not to set that off again, hmm?"
"What did we set off?" Nanao asked practically, eyeing Yoruichi. "You're the behavioral expert."
So said her resume. Darn it. Argh, think...
Her other stirred, attention sharp as tentacle-hooks. :Threat to the pack.: As if it were obvious. :Threat, was-threat, will-be-threat.: A sense of puzzlement. :Threat - why? One, small. How too-many for my-Yoruichi alone?:
She tried not to let her jaw drop. "Did any of you :feel: that?"
Blank and questioning looks, faint trickles of :worry...:
"Wait." Toushirou had his head cocked, listening and :listening.: "Hyourinmaru says... you were talking to your other?" Green eyes half-closed. "He says she'd be easier to talk to if you gave her a name. They like names. It means they're whole. Enough. They don't have to-" He went dead white. :I am not going to eat anyone!:
Isshin caught him first, black wrapping ice-white. :Shh, trust you, know you won't.: "Easy. Easy, listen to it all before you jump. They know the Hollows aren't us. And they're young, remember? When you were days old, you'd put anything in your mouth."
"But - that's not-"
"This close, I can feel a little of him," Isshin said confidently, still tight-wrapped around coiling white. "He's upset, right? He knows it's wrong now. Like you do. Just like you, kid. Don't panic."
Toushirou relaxed a little. "Yeah." Blinked, and shook his head. "Did - did yours just-?"
"Engetsu," Isshin murmured. "Oh."
Something shifted in the air. Yoruichi held her breath.
"Mother of mercy." Isshin gulped air, and let go of Toushirou. "You're right. That makes things way easier." He shuddered a little, all over. "I think we're lucky Kisuke named Benihime already." Black brows rose at Yoruichi. "That give you any pieces for your puzzle?"
It did. She could almost feel it clicking together.
If we play the tape, I'll know. But if we play the tape first, I won't be predicting their behavior. Just observing it.
Observation was valid science; you couldn't do anything without it. But it was reactive, not proactive. They had to move beyond just dealing with the next crisis.
We're human. Humans win not because we've got better claws, or better poisons, or tougher DNA. We win by planning.
If aliens designed the virus, their technology's way beyond us. If we can't out-think this monster, we're all dead.
:My-Yoruichi has a plan?:
"Testable hypothesis," the ecologist said, trying not to quiver inside. This was scientific life or death here, and she hated being wrong. "The Hollow won't attack anyone in the freezer."
"Really." Shunsui looked intrigued. "Why?"
"Behavioral, or environmental?" Masaki asked.
"Both." Yoruichi had to grin, watching people's gazes bounce between them, looking dubious as only survivors could.
"I'll take behavior for two hundred." Isshin motioned, go on.
"The first thing a shinigami does when we wake up," Yoruichi obliged.
"What is - break out of the chrysalis?" Isane gulped.
"Exactly. We can't stand being locked up." Yoruichi tried not to wince at applying their instincts to monsters. "The first thing we do? Get out. Away. Break through the walls. Break down the doors. This virus is built to spread. The freezer is one huge cage, and its first priority will be to get out."
Shunsui must have sensed her twitch. "And?"
"And it's alone," Yoruichi stated reluctantly. "Alone, with what's going to be a much bigger :prey.: With no other Hollows to give it feedback on any details that would make it safer to tackle a human. That's... what we just did, I think. Threat assessment. Everyone tossed in what they knew. Anything that might help :feel: the situation."
"They didn't come out into the open until they had numbers on their side," Ryuuken said, half to himself. "They were talking to each other, you all felt it... I felt it, when they attacked here."
"The wisdom of crowds." Masaki shook her head. "I was thinking of a biochemical trigger. But no matter how alien the virus is, they're mammal-based. They're intelligent. At least as much as rats are. If the group's communicating, the group can decide to attack. Or not."
"The day just keeps getting better, doesn't it?" Shunsui sighed.
"You'd be bored if it were easy." Nanao nudged up her glasses. "So what's the environmental factor?"
"They like warm and wet," Yoruichi said firmly. "The freezer's cold and dry."
"Winter. Of course!" Retsu's eyes lit with interest. "It's secretion-spread. At least as spores. Why didn't I see that before? I was thinking about the bites, and the tentacles - I should have been looking at the tissue lysis!"
:Curiosity. Bewilderment. Huh?:
That, even from Isane and Hanatarou, Yoruichi realized. Though Nanao looked as if she'd remembered something gruesome. "It's like the Catarrh?" the administrator said, alarmed.
"It's working like a hemorrhagic fever," Retsu stated. "Of course it can spread by bite or injection; get the virus into the bloodstream, and you'll get a full-blown infection. But infective spores? They're meant to be breathed!" She flung up her hands. "Winter stopped a lot of the Black Death; slowed it down, at least. The virus couldn't handle being out in the cold. We should have gone to the arctic!"
"Jumping ahead of us, Doc," Shunsui said practically. Frowned at Isshin and Ryuuken, who were looking a bit green. "Though maybe not all of us."
"Quincys," Ryuuken said to that grim look, "are not assassins."
Which came with a touch of :remembered-death, needed to die, had to-!:
"Damn it," Ryuuken hissed. "We might as well be stuck here. We're classified information, and we can't keep secrets - broadcasting everything-"
Isane moved then, one of her tentacles flicking the back of the Quincy's head. "That's enough," the nurse said, surprisingly firm. "It's just feelings. So we know you killed someone. That's all we know."
"And if you think any of us is going to be upset that you had to - to take out someone messing with bio-weapons," Hanatarou gulped. "I think you need more coffee."
Ryuuken was shaking his head. "It's not just feelings. You knew it was bio-weapons."
"Oh, lucky guess," Isshin said wryly. "Come on, Ishida! What else would boil up in your paranoid little brain in this mess?"
"Like a mouse doctor would know anything about bio-weapons," Ryuuken muttered.
"Mice," Isshin said emphatically. "You better believe I know about 'em. What does every idiot bio-terrorist with a little history under their belt try to go for and weaponize? Black plague. Sheesh. I like my mice. I want 'em alive."
Shunsui gave him a look. "Bio-terrorists, and you'd be worried about your mice?"
"He should be," Retsu nodded. "Black plague - bubonic plague - is generally curable in humans with the right antibiotics and immune therapy. It's much more lethal in mice and lab rats."
"Antibiotics." The former security officer had to blink. "Are you saying it's just a bacteria?"
"No just about it. It is nasty, if someone doesn't recognize it," Masaki answered. "You'd think we'd have killed it off by now. But most rodent species are asymptomatic carriers. If you don't know your rodents are carrying it, you can't treat it. So it's still out there."
"Hold it!" Toushirou waved his hands across. "You're saying Black Plague is a bacteria, and she's saying it's a virus, and even I know those aren't the same thing!"
"Oh my, they still haven't fixed all the history books," Retsu tched. "Bubonic plague isn't the Black Death. It has some similar symptoms, and in the early spaceflight era most medical historians assumed they were the same disease. But then people went back and looked at the evidence. Do you know what quarantine originally meant?"
"Keeping infected people away from everybody?" Toushirou said skeptically.
"For forty days, to stop the Black Death," Retsu agreed. "It was a standard for hundreds of years, because it worked. If you kept anyone with the 'great plague' away from other people for forty days, it would burn out. No one else would be infected. And they did it on medieval Earth, with nothing but human guards, walls, and fences." She waved a hand at their tent. "How effective would those be against rats?"
"Oh," Retsu agreed, smiling a little. "It took people really reading the histories to realize that the Death was a hemorrhagic virus. Which, given you seem bloody-minded enough to handle it, basically dissolves you from the inside out." She winced, just a little. "Just like Madsen's Hollow. Only it doesn't build what's left into a monster afterward."
"Nope," Isshin said, obviously distracted. "That's what the psychokinesis is for."
The mass :stare: hummed down Yoruichi's spine. She tried not to add to it, simply arching a purple brow.
"I'm guessing," the geneticist obliged. "Madsen's Hollow breaks the laws of physics; there's no way you can squeeze that much energy out of a human system and leave anything alive. Heck, you couldn't get that much energy if you oxidized every molecule in the corpse. It's got to be coming from somewhere else. And they can fire psychokinetic blasts. So..."
Shunsui eyed him. Looked at Ryuuken. Who spread his hands in a frustrated shrug. "It sounds plausible," the Quincy said grudgingly. "But how would we test it? I don't think the general is about to allow more animals to be shipped in to become alien monsters."
Hanatarou paled. "We're not-!"
"We're not," Toushirou growled. "He doesn't see that."
"It's just going to take time to convince him," Retsu said firmly. She swept a calm gaze across the scientists. "After all, you want more time to go over the available data first. Before we ask for any more... potential test subjects."
Isshin inclined his head. "Good point."
"Especially if it is like a hemorrhagic fever," Retsu went on. "If so, you may have mistaken the primary means of infection entirely." She gave them a shadowed smile. "In short, it might be most infectious as an inhaled contagion during an asymptomatic incubation period."
"...Oh." Isshin looked as subdued as Yoruichi had ever seen him. "Um. You mean..."
"It's possible," Retsu said gently, "I could have been infected just by Kaien breathing near me, after he was stung. I may not agree with all the general's actions, and I certainly intend to have words with him about his attitude. But he may have been right." She crossed her arms, black-furred tentacles wrapping around her waist. "Until you can prove - prove - that it doesn't spread by droplet transmission during a long incubation period, you owe the general an apology."
:Like hell!: was the mass response to that one.
:Shh. Think.: Pulses gentle as Retsu's smile, but unyielding as steel. "If we tell General Yamamoto there are good, scientific reasons for the actions he's taken so far, he might be more inclined to believe us when we come up with a plausible scenario to avoid infecting more people. Don't you think?"
"We can prove it," Isane said suddenly. "I think we can... there isn't a long incubation period. You put the vaccine in the air supply, and... well, I don't remember after. But you do, Masaki. How long did it take any of us to start showing symptoms?"
"An hour for the shinigami and the Squeakers," Masaki answered. "But that's not proof we're not contagious in that hour. Especially the normal responses." She fluttered gold, subtle as a skirl of wind. "If these didn't show up for days... we could be contagious longer."
Isane slumped a little. Shunsui gave her an encouraging wink. "Hey, don't look so down. Sounds like that's somewhere to start, right?" He turned back to the monitor. "Let's get this over with."
For a moment, nothing happened. The specimen box trembled-
Red seared through steel, metal melting in its wake. Steam rose.
You could have heard a pin drop.
Shifting gray and bone-white eeled out of the gap. A squirm and push, and four tentacles spider-walked a wormy body across the shelf.
"Note to self," Isshin muttered, sounding as breathless as Yoruichi felt. "All infected tissue has to be sterilized immediately after tests are complete. Flash-freezing it does not work."
Masaki tapped the time on the screen. "Slows it down a little."
"I rest my case... oh, you sneaky bastard."
The mini-Hollow had waved a tentacle in the air, obviously :feeling: it. The beast twitched, and scampered into a dark corner.
Light shifted as a woman walked into view. Pale, made even paler by a white lab jacket and dark hair.
"Nellie Shank," Masaki identified her, while Yoruichi was trying to place the face. "One of the lab techs. I thought - I was hoping-" She winced, and shook her head.
The technician's shoulder blocked the corner from view as she took a container of cell media down from a shelf. Showing no hint of alarm, she turned and left.
The corner was empty.
"Mark one down for you, Yoruichi." Shunsui didn't sound at all happy about it.
Neither am I, Yoruichi admitted to herself. "Damn. We knew they were smart..."
"It always has more impact, seeing a symptom in the field." Retsu looked intent.
Not on the Hollow, Yoruichi realized. On us.
"You didn't know."
I do not feel guilty about what happened in the attack, Yoruichi told herself fiercely. I don't.
But it was Masaki who looked and :felt: a breath from weeping. "I know what day that was, Retsu. She walked right past me! And I didn't know, I didn't help..."
Isshin wrapped his arms around her. "Ah, Masaki. I'm here, love." :I'm here.:
Ryuuken frowned. "She walked past you?" the Quincy said pointedly. Eyed Isshin. "Not you?"
"Nope." Isshin lifted his head away from his wife's just long enough to shake it. "I was in the physics lab, helping Kisuke and Tessai clean up something they'd... kind of squashed. Ugh."
The Quincy nodded once. "Do you have Ms. Shank's MHC profile?"
Shunsui whistled, minimizing the video and calling up files. "Are you having the same evil thoughts I am? Shank, Shank... oh, my. Will you look at that."
"That's one of the subset Kisuke marked." Isane's eyes were wide. "She was - it wanted..."
"Have to wonder if she's one of the ones I woke up to." Shunsui grimaced. "Not sure anymore I put those down for good... Relatives have close MHCs, you said? This thing didn't just want to infect her. It wanted her to take it home. To her family-" He cut himself off, stricken. "Oh, cub. I'm sorry."
"It doesn't matter." Toushirou looked away, white curled around him. "It wasn't my father anymore. That... thing... it wasn't him." He swallowed dryly. "Just something using what was left of him."
Brave words. But for a moment :blood: shivered in the air. :Yamamoto did this. Rip, tear, hurt him!:
"Toushirou." Shunsui's voice was firm.
"I won't," the youngster gritted out. "I want to. But I won't. Just - keep him away from me."
"I was going to say, you're half right."
Interest pricked, Yoruichi gave the major her full attention.
"It wasn't his fault." Shunsui kept each word clear, deliberate. "It's nobody's fault. None of us could have seen this coming. But he was the officer in charge. It was - it is - his responsibility." He shrugged. "You want to be mad at the general? Be mad at him. He's earned it. Just save the killing for the Hollows."
Yoruichi felt the :frustration: as if it prickled under her own skin. But Toushirou bit his lip, and nodded. "Okay." Frowning, he stared at shadows on the tent wall, :feeling: out toward the forest beyond. "So how do we find them?"
Heh. Nice to have an answer for once. "Reverse psychology," Yoruichi grinned.
"Oh no," Ryuuken muttered.
"They're ambush predators," Yoruichi said seriously. "They wait until their prey's off guard."
"We know when someone's lying to us," Retsu pointed out. "Only looking unprepared won't work." Dark tendrils drifted as she shook her head. "It's too risky."
"Maybe not," Shunsui said thoughtfully.
Light glinted off Nanao's glasses as she looked at him askance. "Now I know you've lost your mind."
"Nanao. Think about it," he said simply. "What's there to be afraid of?"
"Are you serious?" Nanao sputtered, beating what had to be half the room to the punch. "Infective, venomous, invisible-"
He held up a hand. :Listen.: "Everyone's been vaccinated. Every shinigami is resistant to the venom. Everyone with a good set of tendrils can :feel: them coming. What's left? Large, intelligent, heavily armed animals. Sure, they're dangerous." He crooked his fingers, ivory-white claws gleaming. "But tell me. Why should we be the ones afraid?"
Nanao, Yoruichi saw, wasn't the only one who paled at that.
:Hollows hunt alone, or swarm,: Shunsui went on, a curl of blood and eagerness around their senses. :Hunt alone, die alone. We hunt together. Live together. Play together. This territory is ours.
:Hollows will come. The pack will be waiting.:
:Good,: Yoruichi's other purred. :Will be a good hunt.:
Isshin looked half a breath from tearing through the tent wall. "Damn it, Shunsui!"
"They're going to be back," the major stated. "You didn't :feel: the one hunting Toushirou. They're human enough to be vindictive, and we hurt them. Worse, we stopped them." He waved the direction of Yamamoto's camp. "One scream, and almost everyone there is going to be helpless. We have to protect them. And we have to be sane to protect them. If that means a pack - damn it, Isshin, we are going to be a :pack.:"
Isshin's fingers bit into tendrils as if pulling hair in frustration; he yelped, and let go. "Son of a- argh. Shunsui. Just hear me out, okay?"
Brows raised, Shunsui leaned forward in his chair. Held out a beckoning hand, palm up. :Listening.:
"Sane is good," Isshin said, after an uneasy moment. "Don't tell Kisuke I said that, but it is. You can only be so crazy and still get viable results. But we can't - I don't-" He stopped, shaking his head.
Shunsui raised his hands before anyone could jump in. :Still listening. Will listen.:
"Oh boy." Isshin bent his head, obviously concentrating. :Strikers in the lab, heartrate jumping at shinigami, fingers on the trigger.:
Yoruichi tried not to shed her :surprise: into the air. The images were wavery; Isshin was fumbling his way through what she'd :felt: Shunsui :shape: for them.
But he's :talking: to us. This is serious.
:Hard for him,: her other noted. :Engetsu-to-Isshin, not as tight as I-to-my-Yoruichi. Not practiced. Needs purring.:
Purring? Yoruichi thought, incredulous.
:Warm, with-us, feels-us. Yes.:
:Listening,: Shunsui wrapped around them. :Strikers part-of-pack, pack-allies now. No danger.:
:Strikers in lab,: Isshin repeated, not soothed. :Toushirou in camp, claws-out, guards ready to shoot. Kisuke at the shuttles-:
-And she could taste Benihime's :lust-to-kill, lust-to-destroy!: Feel Kisuke's :fear, lust, craving - lost control, want Benihime to hunt; want the blood, want the death, want Yamamoto to feel terror-rage-pain!:
He told Isshin. He told Isshin, and not me.
Isshin let his breath sigh out. "He didn't want you to know, Yoruichi. He didn't want anyone to know. He's... scared."
"He has every right to be," Ryuuken said soberly. "I was in that mess. I know snipers. But I've never seen anyone slip into the killing mind so fast."
She wasn't wiping away tears. Of course not. "Idiot," Yoruichi cursed.
"Yeah," Shunsui admitted. "I guess I am."
"I wasn't talking about you," she growled.
"I know." Shunsui shrugged. Eyed Isshin. "You're right. You and Kisuke aren't as naturally violent as the rest of us maniacs-"
Hanatarou made a kind of strangled eep.
"Hush, you. You're a paramedic. You're used to the idea of blood." Shunsui shook his head. "Kisuke's always thought his way out of trouble, right? So he's got no clue how adrenaline plays with your mind. Even when you're human. If you don't know what you're doing, you feel like someone else is fighting for your life. It can't possibly be you gouging someone's eyes out. Or cutting their throat. Or... well, everything. It has to be someone else." He sighed. "And Benihime is someone else. Mostly. Yeah. That's a problem."
"A solvable one," Retsu put in. "The situation isn't quite in any of my medical training, but... this is avoidance behavior. We need to desensitize him. To get them both working together, on something that doesn't involve violence."
Masaki's brows drew down a moment. Fingers moved, counting off options. She smiled. "I have an idea."
:Not yet, my-Toushirou,: Hyourinmaru hummed happily. :Not yet...:
Running almost flat-out through the brush leading down to the pond they'd found north of camp, Toushirou grinned. Making this work was going to take timing, strategy, and more than a little luck.
"Shorter legs," Yoruichi was chuckling, loping up behind him, "make a difference, cub-"
A croon in his mind. A pulsed-pattern of where-Yoruichi-was, where-others-were that overlapped with brush and dirt and odd patterns of heat in the air-
He ducked and rolled, claws and tentacles catching and pushing to launch him away and up faster than he could think about it.
:Yes!: Hyourinmaru exulted, as Yoruichi crashed into Kisuke with a startled squawk. :Nyah nya nya nyah nyah!:
...At least, that was the best way Toushirou could translate what his other had just pulsed at the adults now it. There was snickering involved. And a sense of dangling a juicy bone just above reach.
"Oooh, that had to hurt," Isshin called, yards away in case he was the next target. "Anything broken?"
"Does my dignity count?" Yoruichi curled to her feet almost as fast as he had, pulling a still-coughing Kisuke up. "You alright?"
"Velocity is good," the blond gasped, thumping himself on his chest a little and raising a puff of dust and pollen; their scrubs were gaining an interesting assortment of plant stains. "Trajectory control might be better." He adjusted the sword through his belt. Shunsui had insisted everyone stay armed, which struck Toushirou as up there with oh, and by the way, remember to keep breathing. Rocked his head back and forth; Toushirou could almost feel the pop in his own neck. "I left guard duty for this?"
"Good question," Yoruichi said, half to herself. "Why did you leave?"
"...Juushirou said so."
Which made sense, Toushirou thought, rolling his eyes as the adults looked at each other again. Shunsui and Juushirou were the :pack-leaders, protecting pack from Yamamoto, leading hunt for Hollows.: Why did everybody have to act like things were complicated?
:Adults have loud-minds,: Hyourinmaru said thoughtfully. :Even pack-leader-Shunsui. Harder to hear their-others. Need to learn-to-listen. Like pack-leader-Juushirou.:
Toushirou blinked, sight overlain with :felt-images: for that moment. Hyourinmaru wasn't kidding. He could :feel: the - the rhythm of each adult and their other. Shunsui was steady but distant, taking news of what they'd found to the general with Nanao. Closer by, 'Shirou and Tessai felt kind of similar; steady with new-but-trying. Kaien, Ikkaku, and Yumichika were not-quite-steady, but more in sync than Retsu; she and the rest of the medics shaded from trying to wavery mismatch. Yoruichi was a bit better than Retsu, Isshin a little worse than Hanatarou. And Kisuke...
Uh-oh. Kisuke was looking at him. And shoving up his sleeves.
No fool, Toushirou took off.
In ordinary tag, ducking around the brush would have given him an edge. People chased what they could see. Following your ears took a second to react.
Following the :feel: - didn't.
Whipping fur around one of the thicker bushes, Toushirou bounced himself backwards, right under Kisuke's leap.
The look in gray eyes as the blond sailed over him was priceless.
There was a flurry of whispery thunks. A leafy crash. And a snarl that sounded like somebody's mouth ought to be washed out with soap.
Still running, Toushirou slowed. Stopped. Nah, he's got to be :faking: it-
"Not faking anything, you pixie out of H.R. Giger!" Kisuke growled, blond writhing without moving an inch. :Catch cub, dangle upside-down, Hollow-bait-:
":Kisuke.:" Yoruichi, :warm, wry smile, no harm meant...:
The blond went limp with a sigh. :Sorry. Really sorry.: "Um. I know you're not going to believe this, but... help."
"Kisuke?" Isshin eyed him, wary enough to only take one step closer.
They could :feel: more than see the scientist redden. "...I'm stuck," Kisuke muttered.
Toushirou bit his lip. He was not going to giggle.
"Caught by your own hooks. In a shrubbery." Ryuuken was fighting a smile. "No one would believe this without video."
Tentacles that had half-relaxed went taut again; Isshin swore as hooks caught him.
"Camera in the glasses," Kisuke said, almost calmly. "You were going to walk out of the Project with every secret we had, weren't you?"
Ryuuken scowled. "I was sent in to investigate potential embezzlement-"
Isshin and Yoruichi didn't have to trade looks. Just grabbed with everything they had, as Benihime :shrieked-:
Head high, Retsu marched up to the tangled scientist. Wove in between Isshin's grip on various limbs, reached in front of Kisuke's face-
Sunlight gleamed on bared claws.
"Do I have your attention?" Retsu said evenly.
Kisuke tensed. "Retsu, don't-"
"You are not going to hurt me." Retsu's gaze gleamed silver. "If you do, if you even try, we are going to flatten you. And Benihime." Breath hissed between her teeth. "I don't like threatening my patients, but given the situation with the general-"
Toushirou :felt: the edges of another scream starting, and wished covering his ears would do any good.
Retsu's arm blurred, and the shriek cut off like a razor.
Claws pricking his throat, Kisuke was very still.
"Do I have your attention?" Retsu repeated, very quietly. "Your attention, Kisuke. You control Benihime. Your other does not control you."
Kisuke winced. Somehow, Toushirou doubted it had anything to do with the crimson beading on his neck. "You don't know that, Doctor."
"As it happens, I do know that," Retsu contradicted him. "I can read a brain scan. And a nervous system scan. Yes, our brains have been affected by the vaccine. Yes, the tentacles have an impressive secondary neural cluster. Enough to create the impression of a second person in your head. But that's all it is, Kisuke. An impression. Isshin's mice are running their own bodies. Their tentacles aren't." She lifted her claws, just enough to graze skin. "You're having trouble with control. I know that. We all are. Even Juushirou. He stung me, remember?" Another fraction of an inch between claws and flesh. "When you've been drugged, you're not fully culpable for your actions. But you are responsible for them, if you're any kind of a decent man."
Gray eyes were shadowed. "Me? Decent? You've got the wrong guy. This is my fault." His voice dropped to a whisper. "This is all my fault."
"What, 'cause you were playing with mass-transport?" Isshin put in dryly. "Hate to burst your bubble, genius, but somebody would have. Eventually."
A little confidence seemed to seep back into Kisuke's stance. "Not in the next century."
"Yeah? And how would that be any better?" Isshin snarked back. "We'd end up beating off monsters while we were old and cranky, instead of young and good-looking."
Behind him, Toushirou heard a giggle. He dared a glance backward, reluctant to :feel: too loudly in case it broke Retsu's standoff into something that would never heal.
Isane had arms and silver fur wrapped around her, giggling as if her ribs might break. Or her heart. "Young and handsome! Like that's going to m-matter anymore, when we're all..." She swallowed the words, shaking her head as the tears started.
"Isane." Half a foot shorter, Hanatarou had to reach up to put a hand on the tall nurse's shoulder. "Isane, it's okay. You're pretty. You really are."
"I was g-going to leave the Project next year," Isane gulped. "I thought - Kiyone's in high school now. She's dating. And Mom sent me a letter that... I'm not going to be there! I'm her big sister, I'm supposed to help chase off the jerks and tell her about the good guys, a-and we're all-"
:No mate. No cubs. No future.:
Toushirou shivered, caught in that echo of :emptiness.: Girls were - well, he wasn't sure what girls were, besides confusing. But he'd thought having kids was just something grownups did.
From that :shared-sorrow, anger, determination,: it wasn't just anything. Not to Isane. Not to a lot of the people here.
"I'm a jerk," Kisuke admitted, relaxing under his friends' hands. "Easy, I'm not going to do anything stupid... well, anything else stupid." He winced. "Isane. I'm sorry. I get wrapped up in my own head. Works good when you're juggling multidimensional physical effects on matter so things don't go squish. Not so well with people. I've... never really been good with people." He sighed. "I wish... I wish I thought we could fix this. But yanking alien DNA out of every cell in our bodies..."
"We don't have to yank it out of every cell." Stepping around Isane's huddle, Masaki offered her a bottle of ice water. "Just one. Two, if it comes down to that."
Taking a swallow, Isane's eyes widened. She capped the bottle with shaking hands. "Masaki, that's-"
"Massive in vitro germ cell modification and fertilization, yes," Masaki nodded.
"Isshin and I do it with mice all the time," Masaki said firmly. "It will take time to trace all the gene insertions from the vaccine. We definitely want to practice on the Squeakers first, before we even think about trying for a human zygote. It could take years." She smiled wryly. "And I wouldn't want to do it at all while we still have Hollows running around infecting people. But it is possible." She hesitated. "Unless you have other objections? I've seen you in the chapel, but I never asked..."
The Project just has government chapels, nondenominational, they'll let anyone in, Toushirou remembered his mother complaining - was it just a few weeks ago? It felt like so much longer.
Mom had been serious about that kind of thing. But as far as Toushirou was concerned? If there was a God, He had a hell of a lot of explaining to do.
"It's just... I thought that was the kind of thing you needed specialists for," Isane said, starting to uncurl a little. "Licenses, a-and counselors, and lawyers..."
"Ah, yes. Amazing how far the lawyers got into it after Quincys were proven to breed true," Ryuuken said sourly. "All those old arguments about eugenics, and creating warrior races, and... nonsense. As if people didn't try to have children better than themselves just by picking who they married." He rolled his eyes - and stopped mid-sneer, a very peculiar expression dawning on his face. "Oh, damn. That's how he's covering this mess!"
:What?: pulsed from a half-dozen different directions. :Who?:
"The general. Legally speaking," Ryuuken looked like he'd bitten into a wormy apple, "we're all unlicensed genetic alterants."
A chill went down Toushirou's spine. That wasn't funny. That wasn't even funny in the movies, where the mad scientists messed with Things Nobody Should, and made...
Monsters. Yamamoto's calling us monsters.
Damn it. He should have gutted the bastard.
:Pack-leader-Shunsui said no,: Hyourinmaru reminded him. :Said wait. Hollows first.:
Yeah. The Hollows wanted to eat them. But in the long run - this was going to be bad.
"That's insane!" Yoruichi burst out. "We used the vaccine to stay alive! No one knew this was going to happen!"
"The laws were written around making zygotes," Isshin said reluctantly. "Don't think there are any exceptions for accidents." At her startled look, he added, "We're licensed to make mice. You wouldn't believe the hoops you have to go through to get that piece of paper. All you've seen us do is renew it."
"I know the laws. It's part of my job," Ryuuken said grimly. "Isshin's right. We don't have the technology to alter adults - didn't have the technology, damn it - so the laws aren't written to handle it. They're specifically written not to allow for accidents. Or alterations 'necessary for survival'. The prevailing opinion is that if it requires massive modification to create the organism, it can't be an accident."
"Nanao says genetic surgery is a legitimate treatment in a disaster," Masaki pointed out.
"Rebuilding organs, or repairing radiation damage? Yes," Ryuuken nodded. "Specific techniques meant to produce a known, acceptable, human result. I can quote you chapter and verse if you like. There are at least thirteen references in the legislation to xenografts, all of which boil down to don't. Ask Juushirou. He probably knows the laws to the letter. They don't allow a medical waiver."
Juushirou? Toushirou narrowed his eyes at the Quincy. "What are you talking about?"
"Strickland's is an autoimmune response to human lung tissue." Isane swallowed more water and used a handful to wipe away tearstains. "Theoretically, xenografts wouldn't be attacked. But they're not human tissue."
His hearts clenched, tentacles wanting something to grab and shred. He'd known 'Shirou had been sick, yeah, but... 'Shirou would have died?
No. Focus. 'Shirou was not dying on them. Definitely not. But he'd been dying, when he didn't even have to be sick, and that was just... "That's stupid!"
"No. It's human." Ryuuken sighed. "Once people found out about Quincys and most of the rioting died down... The Republic had a long and noisy debate about human gengineering. Some of the noise is still going on today, helped along by justified paranoia about the things that come out of the Satrapy. To boil a lot of history down, our people decided that as an interplanetary system and a culture, we were going to stay human. Quincys were grandfathered in, but further exotic improvements aren't allowed. You can use genetic surgery to correct defective genes. You can select for specific genes - though given how many are involved in all the different types of intelligence, you're taking your chances. But you cannot wander outside the human genome." He kneaded his temples with his fingertips. "No wonder he was able to get the authority to ghost us. He doesn't have to worry about humans with rights. Just illegal experimental tissue." Lips lifted in a snarl. "Kisuke? If by some chance you ever end up inventing a time machine... there are legislators I need to hurt."
Retsu sighed in bemused exasperation. "Keep this up, and I'm going to add paranoia to the list of symptoms."
"You think so?" Isshin tapped the communicator Sergeant Petrillo had left them. "Let's get a second opinion."
Kaien Shiba stared down at his communicator, Ryuuken Ishida's speculations sitting like lead in his gut. Bad enough to have :heard: Benihime's shrieking when they were already in the middle of looking for Hollows who didn't want to be found. This...
"Nice touch, adding the Doc's bit about the paranoia," Sarge said wryly. Gun in hand, but finger away from the trigger. Sarge trusted them to warn him if they :felt: a Hollow in shooting range.
Which was a hell of a lot better than General Yamamoto was doing.
"Your cousin," Ikkaku pointed out, magenta tentacles stretching to read the wind. They were all still struggling to get used to the senses, to find out what worked and what just gave you a headache. "You think he's paranoid?"
"Give him a minute." Yumichika was fourth in their defensive diamond, dark purple tendrils just as eager for the breeze. "He knows his cousin. Not the Quincy."
"Yeah," Kaien nodded. "But Isshin would be arguing if he really thought Ryuuken was wrong."
"And?" Sarge said pointedly.
And. Oh boy, that was a tricky one. Kaien grimaced, missing the weight of the gun and armor Yamamoto wouldn't let shinigami have, damn him.
Granted, the armor wouldn't fit anymore. But they ought to be able to pull off something. And relying on a sharp hunk of metal-
:Will be enough,: his other murmured; like waves, like the sea. :Will be more than enough.:
To deal with the general? I don't think so. Idly, he brushed fingers over one of the twisting white blossoms sprouting in the forest shade. People thought of soldiers stomping stuff into mud, and that was fair enough. But strikers learned to tread a little more lightly.
:Too much fear,: his other hissed at the image of Yamamoto. :Too much greed.: A sense of a shrug, and interest. :Pretty flowers!:
His other liked flowers. Who'd have thought? "And... I think I don't know enough about the general," Kaien said reluctantly. "And what I know, I don't like."
"Decorated in action against the Confederacy about a dozen years back," Sarge pointed out.
"Yeah, I read the official file," Kaien nodded. "And it's my cousin he tried to hang out to dry, so I know I'm biased."
Sarge shot him a wry look. "But?"
"Ishida wouldn't be here if the Project hadn't been sneaking money out of PSWAT's cookie jar," Kaien said bluntly. "Now, we all know generals might not care where the money comes from, so long as it helps the troops. But can you think of any general who wouldn't know where it came from? Not just who writes the checks."
Sarge gave him a considering eye. "If your cousin's got your brains, this is going to be a fun tour."
Sarge's idea of fun could get a little bloody. "They could be wrong about this, Sarge."
"Yeah. Because up until now, the general hasn't done anything stupid," Sarge said flatly. "Pushy, maybe. And a little too by-the-book. But not stupid."
"Or, they could be right and wrong," Yumichika mused. "Any scenario this stupidly ugly isn't likely to be military at all." At their looks askance, he smiled. "When you're looking at a mess bound up in legal loopholes? I smell politicians."
There was a short, and very manly, mass shudder of horror.
"Damn," Ikakku said, almost reverently. "I'd rather be up against the goddamn Hollows."
I'd rather be back at the Project, Shunsui thought, sitting in one of the chairs that had survived grenades in Yama-jii's office. He kept a grip on his temper by sheer effort of will; yelling would not solve anything. No matter how good it'd feel. "Sir. Please tell me I did not hear what I thought you just said. Please, please tell me the Senate subcommittee in charge of the Project is not that stupid."
Behind his battered desk, Yamamoto didn't flinch. "It's a complicated situation, Major."
Perched in her own chair, Nanao stirred, not quite able to find a position that didn't pinch a tentacle. "I fail to see the complication, sir. We need to remain under quarantine, no one disputes that-"
The general snorted.
"Sir," Nanao persisted. "Everyone here has been traumatized. They need hope. Not to be told our government considers us criminals with no rights just for staying alive!"
"What about carriers of a disease that could destroy all humanity?" the general bit out. "You do carry the Hollow virus, Ms. Ise. All the shinigami do. We have only your word you can't transmit it. Do you know what lengths I've had to go to simply to keep you all alive?"
:Fury: rolled off Yamamoto; faint as mist, but no less present. Shunsui's eyes narrowed.
:Angry,: his other judged, all but tasting the air. :Not lying.:
"We've all been treated with the same vaccine. We should all be subject to the same conditions," Yamamoto said grimly. "And so we are." A dark smile creased his face. "It may have helped that I reminded them that if they disliked my command decisions... well, it's very hard to command an encampment from a hostile environment suit. Especially when one breach would require us to take precautions. Hollows, after all."
"Got down to blackmail that fast, did it?" Shunsui sighed, depressed. "And the day was going so well."
It had been, too. He and Nanao had successfully gotten into camp without more than a few gasps and twitches from the residents. Mostly by looking harmless, harmless, harmless; pay no attention to the knife up the pretty lady's sleeve...
They'd made it to the general, and Shunsui had apologized on behalf of his whole camp. Soberly, respectfully, and with full kudos to the general for bringing in Retsu and her experience with epidemics. Nobody wanted Madsen's Hollow loose anywhere. Dr. Unohana was a good, sober voice of reason. And so on.
And then Yama-jii had dropped his bombshell. Damn.
:Not the enemy,: his other sighed. :Shredding won't help.:
Um. No. No, it wouldn't. Diplomacy, Shunsui, he told himself. You used to be pretty good at it. "Well. Nobody's going to be happy to hear this, sir... but I can tell you right now, they'll appreciate the fact that you gave them a straight answer."
The general seemed to relax a little. "How are things going in your camp, Major?"
"Could be better, could be worse," Shunsui said judiciously. "Bad news first?"
Yamamoto nodded, grim.
Shunsui set a data disk on the desk. "Here's the information and speculation we have on the original outbreak at the Project. Which looks a lot more like a break-out."
The general took it, one brow raised.
"On that vid, some tissue Isshin thought was safely dead and stored - he flash-froze it, for heaven's sake! - breaks out of a sealed specimen box as a tiny Hollow," Shunsui summed up. "It hid, it hitched a ride on a susceptible lab tech, and it kept hiding while she walked right past Masaki and a bunch of other people who wouldn't have ended up Hollows." He grimaced. "We haven't been able to track it any further yet, but it looks like it let itself be carried right out of containment."
"An intelligent disease." Yamamoto shook his head. "And you wonder why Project overseers are reacting this harshly?"
"Sir, no one wants to breach the quarantine," Shunsui stated yet again. What did he have to say to convince the old warhorse? "Yes, people are angry. They want this over. They wish they could go home. But we know what the virus does to people, and nobody in my camp wants to see that happen to anybody else."
The general hmphed. "You have a great deal of faith in human nature, Major."
"Justified by history, sir," Nanao spoke up. "Dr. Unohana has several examples of voluntary quarantines in the case of deadly diseases. I've dealt with cleanup of a few myself, in the Recluse Catarrh. If people know they're likely to die, and that going out for help may only infect more people..." She swallowed dryly. "Sir. You don't know what it's like, to walk up to apartments and find a note on the door, warning people to stay away. And there was always a body inside." She glanced away.
:Over now,: Shunsui murmured. :Safe.:
:Not over. Grief. Pain. Nowhere to get away.: "This isn't the common cold, or even a pre-space flu. People who catch this aren't going to be fine. They're going to die. If they're lucky. The vast majority of people don't want to murder their fellow man." Nanao adjusted her glasses. "I would, of course, advise active security measures to prevent anyone trying to leave the subcontinent. Just as a precaution. The Hollows will be trying to escape."
Yamamoto looked mildly gratified. "And do you have plans to account for all the Hollows here?"
"Second piece of bad news," Shunsui admitted. "We don't know when rats got here, or how far they might have spread over the island. Isshin and Masaki are trying to tease the rat genes out of our dead Hollows to see if they can track it down to species. That'll give us an idea how far they could have gotten and how many there might be." He hesitated. Should I say it? Think I'd better. "Honestly, sir? It's not looking good for the good guys. If we've got Norway rats, and our geneticists think we do... well, they usually stick near people. Our trash, their food. But they'll eat anything, they're smart enough to move away from predators, and Hollows are one heck of a predator. They breed at three months, they can have more than five litters a year, those rats can breed at three months old..." Shunsui sighed. "Cold, hard fact, sir? This subcontinent is going to have to be under permanent quarantine. The odds that we'll ever get all of the Hollows out of it - no. Not likely." He frowned. "Speaking of which, sir... where are we, exactly?"
Which was a subtle test all by itself. After all, it was hard to get away when you didn't know where away was.
"Ezo," Yamamoto answered. "You won't find it on most maps. When Satoyama was first explored, certain wealthy personages decided they would acquire some amount of potentially lucrative privacy."
Shunsui stared. "A whole island?"
"The entire subcontinent, and all associated islands," Yamamoto corrected, smiling wryly. "You have heard of the Matsumae Corporation."
Who hadn't? Wealthy, honest but ruthless, always quick to turn an alien exotic into useful cash... oh boy. "Matsumae owns this place?"
"One of the family does, yes," Yamamoto said firmly. "Ginrei Kuchiki is a very reasonable man. And fortunately for us, inclined to listen as much to a fellow member of his former service as to politicians."
Nanao's eyebrows were almost up in her tendrils. "You know Ginrei Kuchiki, sir? I'd heard he turned over most of the company decades ago."
"He still keeps a hand in certain areas," the general informed her. Eyed Shunsui. "We failed in the decontamination. But given the situation with the vaccine... I knew from the moment those in the shelter started showing obvious symptoms that any survivors would not be allowed back into an unsuspecting population. We had days locked up to think while the rescue was organized. I assure you, I took advantage of it." He folded his hands together, looking subtly satisfied. "Ezo still belongs to Kuchiki. But he's granted us certain use rights. Especially given we have the Project's key components with us. Ginrei is very interested in the potential of mass-transport."
"I imagine so," Nanao said dryly. "Instantaneous transport of matter, even over distances as short as a continent..."
"Would make Hollows getting out way too easy," Shunsui muttered. The more he thought about Masaki's theory on mass-transport and Hollows, the less he liked it. "Which leads us to problem number three." He shrugged at Yamamoto. "Kisuke and Isshin. They're trying, but they're not handling things as well as the rest of us." He held up a hand before the general could jump to conclusions. "I think we can fix that. But it's going to take some time. You can't yank a guy off the street, dump him in boot camp, and expect him to snap to in just a few days. We're working on them. They're doing better than they were when we broke out, and better now than a few days ago. If we can give them some peace and quiet and routine, Juushirou and I can get them settled."
"Ukitake. The data analyst." Skepticism didn't quite drip from Yamamoto's tone. But it seethed there.
"So far, he's got the best grip on this of all of us," Shunsui replied. "I'd like to give him command training."
"You... what?" Yamamoto eyed him in disbelief.
Shunsui shrugged again. "Kisuke listens to him, sir."
The general shook his head, as if the very thought pained him. "Any more bad news, Major?"
"Just one more thing, mostly." Shunsui grinned. "We're bored."
The general's jaw dropped. He sputtered.
"Seriously, sir. This is a problem." Shunsui held Yamamoto's gaze. "I'm no doc, but Dr. Unohana is. And she says we've got enough funny neurochemicals buzzing in our brains to keep a squadron of fighter pilots up and peppy." He spread empty hands. "Sir. Have you ever tried to keep the lid on a squadron of bored fighter pilots?"
Blood drained from Yamamoto's face. "Oh. My. God."
"It's that bad?" Nanao asked in an undertone.
"Ever have to catch and arrest a guy doing two hundred on a hoverbike down a runway?" Shunsui said dryly. "While said runway was being used?"
Nanao blinked. "Not yet."
What a lady. Can I keep her? Please? "So, based on past experience that tired men are usually good men, Juushirou and I are going to try and keep people a little worn out," Shunsui stated. "They'll do the scientific work as we get equipment for it, and we're going to keep patrolling for Hollows, but when we're not doing either... I'd like at least limited access to the planetary 'Net, sir. The aikido helps. We'd like to do more of it."
Yamamoto crossed his arms. "Do you really expect me to believe Drs. Urahara and Tsukabishi haven't already hacked their way into the satellite system?"
Shunsui didn't twitch. "Sir. I've been asked if we could have official access to the 'Net, whatever restrictions you want to put on. Science doesn't happen in a vacuum. Even if you don't let us send anything out - and that's your call, sir - they need access to scientific databases." He paused, deliberately. "General, may I point out that none of the video we have has hit the 'Net? You don't like Urahara. I understand that. He's not real fond of you right now, either. But he signed the same nondisclosure agreement as everyone else. He keeps his word."
Yamamoto studied him through narrowed eyes. Glanced at Nanao. "Do you have an opinion, Ms. Ise?"
"I think secrecy will eventually be counterproductive, sir," Nanao said frankly. "If our theories are right, and this is an alien attack, eventually it will happen again. Very likely, somewhere there aren't as many safeguards, or as quick a response. Then we'll all be trying to bail a rowboat in a hurricane."
The general waved a hand, indicating the camp. "So you would just post it all to the 'Net if you could? Shout it to the galaxy?"
"No, General." Nanao's voice was level, even as :irritation: shimmered around her. "Our people need to grieve. They can't do that with reporters in their faces asking them how they really feel about almost being eaten alive. And if any of the usual brainless thrill-seekers touched down here or at the Project site..." She shuddered. "We need to hold both affected areas quarantined. Right now, keeping it off the radar is part of that. But we should think about how we will present our situation when the information is released." Behind glass, dark blue eyes were sober. "Eventually, it will get out. And no one wants a repeat of what happened to the Quincys."
The general frowned-
:Shunsui!: Juushirou, clear even from this distance. :We've got one!:
Toushirou rolled for the lake, tentacles splashing the water's edge to scoop up cool liquid. Damn, dust in your eyes hurt!
One minute Kisuke and Yoruichi had been circling a tall tree near shore, each trying to tag the other in ever more dizzying twists and turns. The next, Kisuke had misjudged a leap, knocked into bark with a thunk-
And a snarl of writhing, shifting-gray tentacles the size of a small dog had fallen with a :my-prey!: yelp, bloody remnants of a yellow-winged frog still crunching between its teeth.
After that, things had gotten messy. There had been blasts. There had been steel swung. There had been dirt kicked up; a lot of dirt kicked up, hence his current problem. And there was yelling.
That from Hanatarou, who'd shown the best sense Toushirou had seen all day by ducking when fangs and hooks arced for his face.
Unfortunately, Isshin had just dodged the same way.
Still blinking away dirt, Toushirou groaned. Would anyone believe me if I said I never saw these idiots before in my life?
Hyourinmaru snapped alert. :It comes!:
Oh come on, it couldn't have gotten past everybody-
It had; he :felt: the distraction and scrambling of everyone else. And his eyes still hurt.
:Trust,: Hyourinmaru willed him.
Stinging eyes still closed, Toushirou launched himself to intercept the monster.
Too big for a rat. Too small for a human.
He'd worry about what it had been later. What it was, was a Hollow, and it was not getting away-
The :feel: of it shifted, almost dancing over the water's surface a moment before it plunged through and swam.
Too fast to stop, and he had a dragon in his head, not a basilisk lizard. There was no way he could move fast and light enough to run over the water-
Hyourinmaru seized that image, with :glee, yes, trust!: that clutched his hearts. His foot came down...
:Push,: Hyourinmaru urged. :Shape and push!:
Wet became cold became ice; a breath-thin layer just enough to find with toes and step-
:Shock: echoed behind him, loudest from Kisuke and Yoruichi. :Wonder, glee, want!:
And right under his feet blazed a :little-death - wha-?:
Okay... not the best idea ever...
Teeth, fangs, tentacles. Sparks of pain and poison. It was going for his throat, trying to pull him under-
Toushirou went limp in Juushirou's grasp, letting the older shinigami swim them both to shore. Behind them was snarling, a whistle of steel that surged into a roar of water-
"Wow." Looking past them as they sloshed ashore, Isshin grinned, impressed. "Kaien? That was cool."
"Ow," Kaien managed, yards away with Yumichika standing guard behind him. "You guys didn't say... how much that takes out of you."
"Eh, it gets easier."
"Okay," Sarge grumbled, hauling in a half-shredded Hollow while Ikkaku watched the water for anything else. "Somebody want to explain? I know you guys fight better than this."
And that was Yoruichi who looked shifty. Toushirou shook his head, incredulous.
"We were trying to take it alive?" Isshin put in.
Sarge stared at them. "Why?"
Juushirou's shoulders were shaking; Toushirou could feel it as the pack-leader put him down. :Giggles: were a faint shimmer around him, with :should have known.:
"Why?" Kisuke stabbed the air with a finger. "For science!"
At which point, Juushirou couldn't stifle it anymore, and snickered.
"Damn it, 'Shirou, that's not..." Sarge let the sodden corpse thump down, and eyed them all. Stained, sweaty, and various degrees of dripping wet.
But none of us is :scared,: Toushirou realized. Not even Hanatarou. Not now.
Reluctantly, Sarge cracked a smile. "Okay. I guess it is funny."
"Yeah," Ikakku smirked. "But you should've been a little smarter about it. Where the heck were you gonna put it?"
"Um..." Almost as one, a bunch of scientists glanced sheepishly at each other. Kisuke started whistling softly.
Toushirou buried his head in his hands. :Don't know you. Any of you.:
"He's got a point," Isshin admitted. "First we need to figure out how to keep a Hollow contained." He paused. "Oh boy."
"Can we help, Sarge?" Yumichika smiled a little. "It sounds like fun."
Sarge rolled his eyes. "And again, why?"
"In case what we saw at the Project isn't everything they can do," Kisuke stated. "Did you see Toushirou just now?"
Toushirou braced himself against the weight of all those eyes. "I just... ran."
"Like Yoruichi ran, back at the Project." Kisuke's eyes were almost glowing, and his smirk was enough to make everyone raise an eyebrow. "I didn't know what I was looking at then. But now-" Facing the lake, he blurred.
Soaking wet, blond surfaced about ten yards out. "Okay," Kisuke gasped, swimming. "That's not as easy as it looks."
Quiet, broken only by Kisuke splashing his way back to shore. Even the strikers looked like they'd just been hit with a board.
I did that? Toushirou wondered, stunned.
:We stepped better,: Hyourinmaru smirked. :Feel. Pattern is this...:
Latching onto energy. Moving through space, without ever quite being in the spaces between. Electrons twisting in the strength of pure will-
"Mass-transport," Toushirou got out. He'd lived with the equations at the dinner table. He knew. "What we did, but... it was like running. You had to have something to run on. I needed the ice."
:For now,: Hyourinmaru commented. :Learn what-water-is. Will see.:
Oh. Great. "Hyourinmaru thinks we could do it with just water," Toushirou reported. "Maybe."
...And that was definitely a wincing silence.
"We have to tell the general."
Retsu, coming up with everyone else who'd stayed out of the way when tag turned into :hunting.: "You know we have to." She gave Isshin and Kisuke a look that made Toushirou uneasy. "We can't let the Hollows break quarantine."
"Go easy on them," Yoruichi said firmly. "You didn't have to argue the general out of a kinetic strike on the whole Project. Telling Yamamoto anything - well. It grates."
Retsu's eyes went a little wide. "You were serious about that."
:Yes.: Juushirou's projection left no room for doubt. :Respect Yamamoto. Understand why. But...:
And it wasn't just Juushirou anymore; it was everyone, the same rolling cascade of :felt-images: that had pulled them under before-
:Quiet day at the Project, laughter around water cooler, drunk prospector yelling about monsters in Madsen's Hollow-:
:Incoherent phone message to security, someone raving about rocks that changed things-:
:Colonel Hughes' pale face, biohazard-suited team bringing back rocks and writhing creatures; no one left in Madsen's Hollow, no one at all-:
:Furry mouse bodies twitching in gruesome death; horror and sorrow - dread as something hatched-:
:Yamamoto's eyes, listening to Hughes' report on the destruction. Calculating. Intrigued.:
:Virus. Crazy, can't be a virus. Micrographs, DNA analysis - it is a virus. Tear genes apart, find the killer, stop it-:
:People disappearing. In the Project.:
:Yamamoto's eyes as he heard Isshin's frantic report; cool contempt for one who would shun death.:
:Must work faster must work faster must test it - god forgive us, we have to know-:
:Mice lived. It worked - the alarm!:
:Tell them to go, leave me - can't breathe, can't run-:
:Doors slamming. Thick doors. No way to hear stragglers crying outside the shelter. Only Shunsui and Hughes' faces, as they made sure the videos from the corridors were cut off...:
:Duct pried open, squirmed in, trying not to hear the screaming-:
:Checking everyone for bites. Praying to find them. Praying there's none to be found...:
:No! Was a spore in rock, was a meteor - don't bomb us, General, might not work-!:
:Fever. Falling apart inside. Can't think. Black...:
:Weeping by Isshin's chrysalis. Afraid of a monster. Afraid of not-a-monster, not-Isshin, what have we done?:
:Blinking. Cleaning glasses. Something moving in the mouse cage, but the mice weren't afraid...:
:Crackle, and Isshin's grip on his wrists, too strong - but human eyes, dazed, not a predator's. Hope, just maybe-:
Toushirou shook himself, pulling back from the images. Leaned against Juushirou as the rest of the :evasion, betrayal, escape!: poured over Retsu. That part, he knew already. Except-
:Yamamoto, studying the destruction before the shuttles lifted off; satisfaction glowing in his stance.:
"That part, I didn't see," Sarge put in as images faded. "But I know what I've seen since we got here, Doc. The shinigami needed a medic, and Captain Rollefson didn't want you going. You think he would have tried that if the general didn't make it seem okay? We ask for equipment, we get it. We ask for supplies, ditto. But here we are, fences between us and everybody else, and the general thinking he can order Major Kyouraku to keep the shinigami away from 'normal people'." One hand shaped the quotes in the air. "I've been in refugee camps, Doc. And in testing facilities for stuff that goes boom. Guess which one this feels like?"
"So you're right." Kisuke sounded breathless. "We've got to report this. But we don't trust the general."
Wordless, the doctor nodded.
"We will report it," Juushirou affirmed. "Tomorrow. After we have a better idea of its limitations." He met Retsu's gaze. "The Project was specifically placed on a subcontinent thousands of miles from any inhabited land. The prospectors were unlucky enough to move in later, and they're gone. Shunsui tells me we're on Ezo, and it's also isolated. Even if the Hollows could walk on water, it would take them months to get anywhere. Let's get a firmer grip on the problem before we spark another... overreaction."
Retsu glanced away. "I suppose that makes sense."
"Aha," Yoruichi murmured. "I thought so."
Juushirou raised an eyebrow. :What?:
"After dinner," she said firmly. "We're going to need a cushion for this."
Holding the glass of pale amber up toward the light, Isshin stared suspiciously at the liquid. Set it down on the kitchen table, and crouched to eye level with it.
Around the table, the rest of their camp watched his antics. The strikers only looked half as dubious. But then, they didn't know Masaki very well. "Honey?" Sergeant Petrillo said skeptically.
Yumichika took a delicate sniff of his own cup. "Interesting undertone. Almost floral."
Masaki's smile looked so innocent. "Rhododendron honey. Hard to find in your average bar... but we biologists have ways of sniffing out sources."
Isshin eyed Kisuke. Who was eyeing him right back, mouth curved in a smirk of, so who goes first?
And 'Shirou was looking at them both with deep, deep suspicion. Smart guy.
Kaien stared at his own glass. Shook his head. "You really think this will work?"
"It's my best guess, based on our research," Masaki said firmly.
"I don't know if it will produce intoxication," Retsu added, "but at least, based on the enzymes we have now, it shouldn't do any harm." Her eyes narrowed at Shunsui. "Start with small doses."
"Yes, ma'am." Shunsui sniffed his own glass. "So what's really in here? If alcohol's not going to do it, I don't think honey-water will help."
"Try neurotoxic honey-water," Kaien said wryly. "Some crazy idiots put a few drops in vodka to get a buzz. Like fugu."
Ikakku tried to look harmless, and failed badly. "What, like azalea honey?"
"Azaleas are rhododendrons, buddy."
Sarge whistled, a low note of respect. "Wax buzz? That's serious stuff." He arched thick brows. "How's a nice married geneticist like you know about it?"
"Historical curiosity," Masaki answered, leaning a bit closer to Isshin. Which he didn't mind at all, thank you. "And research. We have to make it so mass-transport doesn't damage your brain before we can ever consider making it viable for living things instead of inanimate objects."
"The device we have is not safe, currently," Tessai nodded. "But we found that altering the activity of neurons seemed to protect them. We were investigating various methods, shortly before the... infestation."
"So, neurotoxins," Isshin summed up. "We've played with a lot of witches' brews the past year, trying to see if we were on the right track. The trick is finding something that cushions the nerves without killing them."
"Apparently, we were closer than we realized." Kisuke was studying Toushirou. Who had his own mug of hot cocoa, no honey in sight. "Now we have a new set of chemicals to look at."
"You, stay out of my head," Toushirou grumbled, sipping his chocolate. "My brain stays right where it is."
"He has a point." Retsu's smile at Kisuke was a little sharp. "I wouldn't even think of signing off on a test on a minor that you wouldn't be willing to do on Yoruichi."
Kisuke had to think twice, before he could get words out. "You fight dirty."
The doctor grinned. "Oh, yes."
Kaien was staring at his glass again. "Ladies, I appreciate the thought, but... rhododendron honey?"
"It should work," Retsu affirmed. "We've tried it on a few Squeakers. And the vaccinated mice." She gestured toward the bottle on the table. "Treated humans probably react a little differently, but this should be just enough to get you tipsy." Her smile was bittersweet. "You can work up from there."
"Doc?" Ikakku ventured.
"The day I met your sergeant, he said he wanted his team to drink for those who didn't make it," Retsu said simply. "I left a note for the science team before I was vaccinated. They've all been working on it since."
Sarge glanced over them all, face softened out of its usual grim scowl. "You figured out a way to get us drunk." He switched his gaze to the blushing medics. "You helped, huh?"
"You came in to get us, when no one else would," Hanatarou dared. "We owe you. A lot."
"What the hell." Petrillo slugged his back like the last gulp of a beer. Waited a minute, lips pursed. "Huh. Not bad. Not bad at all."
Retsu was watching him. "We might want to wait a few minutes to observe-"
With shared shrugs, the rest of the strikers downed their glasses.
Isshin sipped his, rolling it on his tongue; Masaki had cut some of the sweet with a little lemon juice. Nice, but it kind of reminded him of days as a kid, trying to treat a sore throat himself rather than get dragged to the doctor's office for another Panimmunity booster...
Ooooh. Fuzzy. And sparkly at the edges.
He didn't know who'd started that, but it was nice. All Engetsu's prickly edges seemed to smooth out, lulled by :sleepy-safe.:
"You know," Yoruichi observed, pronouncing her words with more than usual care, "that kind of makes sense. A little bit of neurotoxins means we're not trying to kill you. 'Cause we want you ours. Yep. Makes sense. Part of the pack." Gold eyes slid almost shut. "Nice stuff."
Weaving arms and tentacles around her, Kisuke gently pried the rest of the glass out of her hands. "I think we're cushioned. There was something you wanted to tell us?"
"Oh. Yeah." Yoruichi smiled, and waved tentacles at Shunsui and 'Shirou. "You wanted a :pack.: You got one. This is going to be interesting."
'Shirou blinked. "Could you explain?"
"Pack," Yoruichi said again. "Needs a :pack-leader.: Or two. And that's you guys. Interesting." Her smile was a little lopsided. "General doesn't know he doesn't have to worry. None of us are going to cross you. Not unless things go really bad."
Shunsui was gaping at her, wordless. 'Shirou straightened, glass still untouched. "We'd never let him hurt you."
"See?" Tears shone in gold eyes. "You're already there."
Isshin clutched Masaki's hand, as Shunsui and Juushirou looked even more alarmed. He had a pretty good idea what was wrong. He just wasn't sure what he should do about it. Speak up, and poke more at Yoruichi's shredded privacy? Ouch.
:Cat who walks by herself.: Kisuke hugged the ecologist gently. :Used to alone, outside-of-pack. Needs time alone.:
Shunsui uncurled a bit, looking less alarmed and more concerned. "This is a problem?"
"If we want to do creative work - and believe me, research is creative if you're doing it right - yes. It is." Kisuke kept an arm around Yoruichi, carefully placed so she could shrug it off any time she wanted. "You need time alone to follow odd trains of thought. As long as we keep - pulling each other under, we're not getting it. Add that to effectively living under siege..." He lifted his free hand. "Frankly, we're going a little bit crazy." He shot a gray glance at Isshin. "No comments from the cheap seats."
:Who, me?: Isshin grinned.
"You can't just go off alone," Sarge pointed out, not sounding at all slurred.
"I know," Kisuke grumbled. "Hollows."
"Hollows, hell," Petrillo snorted. "You've got those down. Long as you keep your heads on straight and just kill it. But you wander off out of sight? Take it from a guy who knows. Cranky generals make for a world of hurt."
And now the mood was going :bleak: again. Better head that off. Isshin hesitated. Help me, partner?
Engetsu nestled against him, pleased. :Only had to ask. Partner.:
"We'll figure something out," Isshin said confidently. "It's what we do." He raised his glass. "To Thompson, Cournoyer, and Nell. And every other poor soul who didn't make it out. We're going to find what did this, people. I promise."
:And then, we will destroy!:
"To lost souls!"
The bottle didn't last long. Thankfully Retsu, in her infinite mercy, had another. Or maybe two; Isshin wasn't quite sure.
What he was sure of, was that with everyone distracted, a cot, a tent corner, and a few blankets were enough to get a little privacy. As long as he and Masaki were quiet.
...Engetsu, it turned out, liked to giggle. Lucky for his dignity, Masaki giggled right back.
Cradling his wife against his chest, tentacles wrapped in a hug, Isshin gave her a goofy grin. I am the luckiest man in the world.
Ow. Oh, ow.
Squinting against the morning light, Kaien typed away on a computer, sipping water with grim determination and wincing at every click of keys. Masaki's devil's brew worked, all right. Every striker had gotten well and truly plastered.
So now he was paying for it. Every light had a funny little stabbing halo around it, and sound just hurt.
His heart felt better, though. Hearts, had to remember that... he felt lighter. Cleaned out. They'd mourned their dead. They'd done it right, secrecy and weirdness be damned. Those they'd lost could rest now. Rest - and wait to be avenged.
Another painful click, and he had the flower he was looking for. A familiar twisting spike of ivory-white flowerlets; some native equivalent of an orchid, apparently. "There's your flower, buddy."
:Pretty.: Tentative. :Mine?:
Kaien blinked at the screen, trying to figure out the layers of feeling in that. "Nobody would mind if we took some..."
:No.: Frustration; again, the image of the twisted flowers, like a ghost around the twist of will and water that had killed the Hollow. :Mine!:
Kaien shook his head, skimming down the entry. Discoverer of record... Ginrei Kuchiki. And wasn't that interesting, given what Shunsui had told them about Ezo? "It's called a nejibana."
:Mine,: purred through him. A sense of separation, twinning-
Kaien gripped the edge of the desk, deeply aware of something else looking out through his eyes. Nejibana.
:Me,: his other radiated, warm and happy. :My-Kaien. Together.:
Isshin and Toushirou were right; it was so much easier. Those feelings were Nejibana, and these were Kaien - and if they weren't exactly separate, at least it wasn't so noisy in his head anymore.
"Oof." Shunsui shaded his eyes, weaving his way around various :sleepy-happy: and snoring cuddle-piles. "Up early?"
"Nejibana wanted his name." Even with one of the oddest after-mission headaches Kaien could remember, the day was looking up. "So... what's yours?"
"She's still working on it." At Kaien's startled look, Shunsui elaborated, "Yes, she. Don't ask me how that happens. Benihime feels like a she. Isane's feels kind of like it might be a he but isn't sure yet. Who knows? I keep asking her, and I keep getting the weirdest images..."
Kaien pointed to the screen.
Frowning, Shunsui stepped closer to read. Scanned down. "He wanted a flower?"
"It's the twist." Kaien mimicked that curling shape with a tentacle. "It's like what we used to move the water."
"Huh." Shunsui looked intrigued. "So not the flower, but the movement..." Gray eyes widened. :Yoruichi?:
The blond and purple tangle yards away unraveled, Yoruichi pulling a bathrobe around herself with casual disdain for watching eyes. Yawned, and padded over barefoot. "Found something?"
"Maybe. Hyourinmaru." Shunsui made a circling motion with one arm, like Toushirou calling up ice. "Ice ring."
Kaien sat up, intrigued.
"Benihime." Shunsui flicked his tentacles, like-
:A veil in the wind,: Kaien realized. :The Crimson Princess.:
"Engetsu." Shunsui's hand made the half-circle slash Isshin used to unleash red-black fire. "Scathing moon."
"Movement," Yoruichi concluded. "Movement and energy. We can't see in the chrysalis. We :feel.: It's the Hollows' dominant sensory mode."
"And our others'," Kaien whispered, chilled. "Maybe the general's right. We're... Hollows, with a person attached..."
:No!: Nejibana was adamant. :They are other. Not-pack. Not ours!
:Hunt them. Make them go away. Keep those-we-guard safe.:
"And there's the difference." Purple fur was twined around black, Yoruichi :feeling: what Nejibana shared. "Hollows swarm. They infect. They kill. They don't care about other Hollows. They hate anything that's not them. Our others don't. They care. Yes, they want to hunt - but they stop. When someone's in trouble, they stop. And help. No matter how much they want to kill." She gave them both a sober look. "They may think Yamamoto is :not-trusted,: and a lot of our neighbors who scream seeing us are :silly,: but they still care."
"We're human," Shunsui said firmly. "Maybe with extras. But we are not Hollows."
Kaien spread his hands. "So how do we tell the general that?"
A touch soft as :snow falling: came just before Isane's shy smile. "I have an idea."
Deep breath, Isane told herself, as the four of them walked toward the dubious guards behind the main camp gate. Keep smiling. "Good morning! We're here to see Dr. Wilson. Dr. Unohana sent him a file, he's expecting us."
The young soldiers looked even more dubious. Isane couldn't really blame them. Hanatarou might look harmless, but they were all armed, she was as tall as half the soldiers, everyone knew Ryuuken was a Quincy, and Tessai was just... well, solid. And his current black sunglasses made him even more inscrutable than usual.
"We'll call the general," one offered.
"Thank you, Corporal Bostone." And she was going to keep smiling, even if it slipped a little. This wasn't right.
Right or not, you've got to deal with it. First we talk to Dr. Wilson. Then I give the general a piece of my mind.
The thought itself still made her knees a little shaky. General Yamamoto was terrifying.
But so were Hollows. And Major Kyouraku and everybody was backing her. Even if they couldn't be here right now for this to work. If it would work.
Here they come. The general in front of a rumpled Dr. James Wilson, and that was annoying.
Deep breath. Deal with it.
"Major Kyouraku did not clear this visit," Yamamoto stated through the wire.
:Sting him,: her other decided. :A lot.:
Tempting. Really tempting. "It's for a medical consultation, General," Isane explained, trying to keep her voice steady. "The major doesn't need to clear that."
"So long as you're under his command, he does."
Isane saw red. Why that- that-!
:Sting now?: Very hopeful. :Freeze?:
"I begin to see where Kisuke gets his charming attitude toward authority," Ryuuken said under his breath.
Behind the glasses holding off his hangover, Tessai gave her a speaking glance. :Need help?:
She wanted it, she really did. But she had to make her point. "General." She pointed at herself. "Nurse." At Hanatarou. "Paramedic." At Ryuuken. "PSWAT." Let her hand fall. "The only one of us under your command is Lieutenant Tsukabishi. Who is accompanying us on Major Kyouraku's orders to, and I quote, 'Keep the noise down'. If I take orders from anyone, they come from a more experienced medical professional in the field. Currently, the only person who fits that bill is Dr. Unohana. Who asked me to consult, medically, with Dr. Wilson on a matter of concern to all of us. Who is also not under your command. Sir."
It was probably meant to be under his breath. But Isane caught it, with :distaste, annoyance at challenge, determination to end this-:
:No right!: her other keened at her, longing to pull frost from the air. :Pack-leader Shunsui! Juushirou! Not him!:
Keep a lid on it, Isane. "We only need a half-hour of your time, Doctor," she told Wilson earnestly. "I think you'll find this very interesting."
His smile back was tired and hesitant, but it looked real. "If the general doesn't want you disturbing our more fragile patients, I can understand that," he said, fingers straying to lingering brown hair before he determinedly lowered his hand. "But we have things as well in hand as they're going to get for the moment. I could come visit."
:Gives the general an out,: Ryuuken whispered to her. :Good idea.:
General Yamamoto looked over them all, and grimaced. "On your own heads be it. Corporal. Open the gate."
That was easy. She didn't have to glance at Hanatarou to know he looked as dubious as she felt.
:Stay on guard. This isn't over,: Ryuuken warned her. :The general is picking his battles.:
That made a depressing amount of sense. Isane sighed, but held her head up and walked through.
Give him credit, Dr. Wilson tried not to look like he was staying just out of tentacle-reach. "So how's Toushirou? We haven't seen him since he helped us clean up after the Hollows in the hospital."
"He misses his parents," Isane answered, walking beside him as if this were any ordinary chat between a nurse and doctor. She kept her tentacles wrapped around her waist, looking as harmless as any six-foot silver-haired Amazon with a sword and a medical bag could. Ryuuken and Tessai would handle trouble, if it happened. "He doesn't blame Shunsui and Juushirou, which helps... but that's got to be rough on him."
"I'm sorry, blame them?" Wilson frowned at her.
"Toushirou's father Hollowed," Hanatarou said sadly. "He was pretty close when Toushirou woke up, and... well, you can guess what happened next."
"I wish I couldn't." Wilson looked a little pale. "Wait. You said, his father..."
"His mother didn't change," Tessai said quietly. "Toushirou was hiding in an air duct. What happened... we don't know. But the Hollow didn't leave much of her."
"God," Wilson said faintly. "And I thought I was having nightmares."
"He's a tough kid," Isane agreed. Trying not to sweat, as they walked deeper into camp and more and more faces turned their way. We're attracting attention.
Then again, that was the point.
"I think the cherries helped a lot," Hanatarou put in. "I wonder if that's why aspirin still works... um, anti-inflammatories," he added at Wilson's and Isane's curious looks. "Retsu - Dr. Unohana - said our immune systems are acting more aggressively. If that's what's happening, then..."
"Inflammation is more likely, and going to last longer," Wilson finished. "I was wondering if my patients taking antioxidants were doing better... good. Wonderful. Anything we can do will help."
Following behind them, the general looked less than impressed.
Just you wait, Yamamoto. "We also brought something to prescribe at your discretion," Isane offered, patting her bag. "Just start with low doses. The only normal responses we've tested this on are mice, Quincy Ishida, Dr. Masaki Shiba, and Sergeant Petrillo."
"None of us have had serious side-effects so far," Ryuuken offered. "I wouldn't use it on a daily basis, but a moderate dose was very therapeutic."
"Therapeutic," Wilson repeated carefully. "This wouldn't have anything to do with some odd reports we had from your direction last night, would it?"
"Odd reports?" Isane said, wide-eyed. Oh no.
"Mostly that things seemed very peaceful in that direction," the doctor said carefully. "And - ah - happy. A few people swore they heard purring."
Tessai had a faint smile. "We should tell Ms. Shihouin she may wish to be quieter in the future."
Isane thought about that, and how much Yoruichi hadn't been wearing, and wanted to sink straight into the ground. Oh, god.
:Cuddling with our-Hanatarou nice,: her other protested.
But that was just sleeping, Isane tried to explain. And it's private, and... oh, boy.
Yamamoto looked as though he could chew nails and spit tacks. "I fail to see how off-duty escapades are reason enough for a medical consultation."
:Nyah!: Isane's other buzzed at him.
Fed up with everything, Isane took the boxed jar of honey out of her bag and plunked it into Wilson's grasp. "Here. We sent you our observations on dosage. We don't have much more right now, and I think you'd probably rather get a lot of people a little drunk than a few people a lot drunk. So prescribe it at your discretion."
For a moment, Wilson looked as if he wanted to set off fireworks of pure joy... and then use them for cover, given the wary glance he gave the general.
Who looked as though steam were about to shoot from his ears. "You spent valuable time and resources finding a way to get drunk?" Yamamoto growled.
"We need to know how our biochemistry works," Isane shot back. "From some of the digestive enzymes the lab's dug out of our systems? We may need the neurotoxins. When- when a Hollow eats you..." Her throat closed up, remembering pain.
"They go for the tentacles first," Ryuuken finished for her. "The Hollow we killed yesterday? Our necropsy indicates it probably started out as a rat, before it ate a few of its fellow Hollows."
"So Hollows may be a self-limiting problem?" Yamamoto raised a shrewd brow.
Wilson winced. "General. We're talking about people."
"Animals that were people." Anger clipped the general's words. "Anything that engages in cannibalism on my watch no longer deserves the title of person." He swept a look over them. "Is that all, Nurse Kotetsu?"
"Not quite," Isane said steadily. "But the rest is more Quincy Ishida's line of expertise."
Ryuuken accepted the battle with a nod. "Some of your patients' distress may be from developing psychokinetic abilities."
Wilson stared. Shook his head. "I'm sorry. What?"
"It seems to take some time to show up; those most recently vaccinated probably aren't feeling those effects yet. But this morning, well..." Ryuuken cupped his hands together, left thumb over right.
In the bowl of his fingers, arctic light bloomed.
"I've worked with my Quincy abilities as long as I can remember," Ryuuken said quietly, holding the glow steady. "This is new." He let the light fade, and dropped his hands. "Masaki can't hold it for more than a few seconds. But she can shape this energy."
Yamamoto, Isane realized, looked like a pointer about to flush quail.
"Oh, no," Wilson groaned. "Oh... this is going to be bad."
"Bad?" the general exclaimed. "When we can finally show there are benefits to balance the unexpected effects-"
"Excuse me, sir? Benefits?" For once, Dr. Wilson had a gleam of battle in his eyes. "How, exactly, is finding out that we're even more freakish than we thought supposed to be a good thing? No offense," he added belatedly, shrugging at Ryuuken.
"Given the circumstances, none taken." The Quincy's smile was wry. "My father was very honest about how freakish much of the Republic thought we were. He wanted me to be a doctor. I should have listened." He nudged up his glasses. "But how can you use reason on a young man out to save the world?"
"Or an old one," Hanatarou said under his breath. "What part of trauma does he not get?"
"Mr. Yamada?" Yamamoto said darkly.
"W-well it's true!" Hanatarou got out, knees almost knocking together. "Everybody's already had about as much as they can take. What Toushirou figured out is fun, but... people need to have things stop changing on them. Or they'll just - shut down."
Tessai cleared his throat. "Sir. Sergeant Petrillo has expressed that this mess was enough to earn a team a year's furlough. If even a special forces assault team, who thrive on overwhelming odds, are feeling stressed... I would respectfully suggest that the rest of us could use some time to come to grips with the situation."
Yamamoto was looking at Tessai, and his sunglasses, very oddly. "Lieutenant. Are you hung over?"
"We aren't sure of the exact dosage yet. And I wanted to be sure Dr. Urahara relaxed." Tessai didn't quite crack a smile. "Don't worry, sir. Neither of us built anything while we were drunk. This time."
Ryuuken shot him an odd look, as everyone but Wilson cringed. "What happened last time?"
"Do you know what happens when you mix caramel popcorn, superglue, and remote-controlled robots?" Hanatarou shuddered.
"At least no one's teeth got glued together," Isane said practically.
Ryuuken sputtered. "No one could possibly be that-"
"Yes, they can," Hanatarou and Isane chorused.
"We may indeed be Homo, but some of us could use a bit more sapiens," Tessai added.
"Superglued teeth." Wilson looked bemused. "I think you were all locked in that Project too long."
"And thank god for that," Yamamoto said bluntly. "Think what would have happened if it were easy to get to the mainland." He eyed the curious bystanders edging nearer to their group. "If this consultation is over, I believe you should go."
"Why? They don't look like they want trouble." Isane tried not to smirk as Yamamoto steamed. Smiled, and walked toward the braver onlookers. Calm; keep it calm, and soft. The Hollows hurt them when they screamed. We don't want to do that. "Hi! I'm Isane." :Curiosity. Greeting!:
Even gentle, it was enough to spook some of them backwards. But a small knot held together, a black-haired young man who'd corralled his short tendrils with a white headband ending up in front by default. "Nurse Kotetsu? Um - Sentarou Kotsubaki, Data Analysis..."
Yamamoto muttered something under his breath; Isane did her best not to hear it. "So you are okay!" She could really smile, now; this might just work. "You have no idea how worried Juushirou was before we saw your name on the list of survivors. He was afraid you'd left too late."
"He was worried?" Sentarou looked relieved and guilty. "He's the one who told us to leave him! To- to-"
"Die," Hanatarou stepped in bluntly. "We know. He knew. It's okay."
"Do not drown yourself to save a dying man," Tessai rumbled. "Ask him yourself."
Glancing at an apoplectic general, Isane held her breath.
They want to talk to Ukitake.
Yamamoto paced the confines of his office, thinking furiously. Outside, he knew the others were waiting; he might not have the authority to prevent medical consultations, but he could certainly prevent civilians from leaving his camp to deal with armed, predatory...
People. They want to be seen as people.
Which, on the surface, was understandable. Even laudable. But look a little deeper, with a commander's suspicious eye-
What if it's another trap? A subtler one.
If aliens could design a virus to transform humans into cannibalistic monsters, they could certainly design in safeguards against tampering. What were the odds that even geniuses like Urahara and the Shibas, working with gengineering technology centuries ahead of any humans had seen, could disarm the weapon entirely?
Well. Our vaccinated results are proof they didn't.
Even so, it wasn't the obvious fact of tendrils, or claws, or even tentacles that truly concerned him. Such aberrations were stomach-churning, yes - but not nearly as much as the thought that the vaccine might have affected his mind.
All of our minds. Theirs especially. You can... feel... the way they group together.
And yet. Nurse Kotetsu had come here, apparently as one good neighbor to another. Tentacles or not.
They might believe they weren't compromised. They might act perfectly normal - relatively, in Urahara's case - for days. Weeks. Months. Who knew when their altered DNA might betray everything human?
There's no way to know.
Send the virus structure to other researchers? Yamamoto knew scientists. It'd be a slightly less fast path to an outbreak than dropping a vial in the capital square at high noon. Slightly.
Send the vaccine structure elsewhere for study? That was a marginally acceptable option. But if someone thought it really was safe, and decided to use it themselves - or worse, smuggle it to someone not in the government, who wanted all the obvious military advantages shinigami would bring... He shuddered.
Worse still, any real study of the vaccine would have to include the scientists' notes on their alterations. Meaning some damn crazy suicidal fool might try to reverse-engineer the Hollows.
And there goes the human race.
In war, Murphy was always waiting for you to slip. And if the Hollow virus wasn't a declaration of war, he'd eat Urahara's List of Things Not to Do With Grim Squeakers. Without salt.
We can't break quarantine. Yamamoto scowled, thinking. Normal responses are those who would have died when the Hollow virus hit their system. It's possible - possible - that the enemy didn't bother with any hidden mental alterations. Why go to the effort of suborning people meant to die within minutes?
That, at least, was plausible. And reason to hope. Meaning the least biased observers on the island, those most likely to notice if the shinigami went off the rails... were the people in this camp.
But they won't see it. Not if they never interact with them.
Sighing, he headed for the door.
"If anyone starts singing Tangled up in You, I am not going to be responsible for my actions," Shunsui grumbled.
Tentacles wrapped around his friend's as they stood behind the supply tent, Juushirou chuckled. "I think they'd understand. Yoruichi and Isshin showed us this works."
It was working, which was interesting. He could feel his other, close as a downdraft of storm. And he could feel Shunsui's, if fainter; a crazy-quilt of fluttering and odd, polished angles. "You said you had part of her name? Let's try again."
"Okay," Shunsui sighed. "One more time..."
:Softness scattered in wind. Rattle of polished hardness, falling in a tangle...:
Juushirou kept his eyes closed, not trying to match vision to :felt-images.: "You may be trying too hard. Just breathe. Let her tell you."
"Breathe. Meditate. Argh." Shunsui leaned against him, :frustrated: brown tendrils interweaving with white. "Maybe if I run a kata in my head." :Sitting, rising, striking - all one flow of sharp steel-:
:Striking! Glee!: Shunsui's other lunged for that image, shifting the slice of steel through air to something harder, more organic.
"Bones," Shunsui blurted out. "Bones clashing... no, bones falling..."
"I don't think it's the fall." Juushirou frowned. "It feels like the pattern of the fall."
"What pattern?" Shunsui growled. "It's different every time! It's crazy-"
:Yes!: Shunsui's other purred. :Not-easily-pounced. Enemy thinks, strikes; we are not there.:
"Augh." Shunsui's claws caught in Juushirou's scrubs; he worked them loose. "Why do you have to be so damn hard?"
:Balance,: Juushirou's other poked at them. :Leaning-toward-humans. Leaning-toward-Hollows. Need the hunt. Need to protect. Need the pack; pack needs us.:
"We're in charge," Juushirou tried to translate. "Everyone else is just trying to strike a balance between the instincts, and who we were. We're holding everyone together." And there was something in that image of balancing scales of judgment...
Soft as shadow, his other sketched :lightning striking,: and waited.
Not just lightning. Down and up and jagged, like a line of stars... oh. It'd been years since his family had headed toward the rim, but he had been born on Earth. He knew those stars. "Pisces."
Something more, then. Juushirou frowned. She wants balance. For us to choose what's right for the pack. Judgment-
:Sougyo no Kotowari.:
It was starlight, and swinging in the balance, and finally finding home. Juushirou breathed in, accepting what she offered.
And almost laughed. :You're the ones teaching everyone Japanese!:
:Ninja pounce!: she smirked back at him. :Iaido, strike! Aikido, tentacle-twist, grapple the foe to flee, kill, live!: Softer, :Wanted to live.:
:Yes.: Reluctantly, he opened his eyes, meeting Shunsui's gray. "You're afraid we're not human."
Shunsui pulled back, tendrils a wild brown halo. "'Shirou-"
"Listen to me." Juushirou refused to let go. "You can't pin her down because you're afraid. That Kaien was more right than you want to think. That we aren't human. That we know the enemy, because part of us is the enemy."
"No." A heartfelt plea. "No, 'Shirou. We can't be. These are our people. We're protecting them."
"Guard dogs protect the flock. It doesn't make them sheep." Juushirou kept his voice steady, even if :grief: shivered down his tentacles. "That's what you're afraid of. But you're wrong. We won't hurt them, Shunsui. We can't ever hurt them. We're protectors, not predators. We are human. No matter what we look like. Believe it. Don't be like Yamamoto. He only trusts his eyes; that's why he doesn't trust us. Trust what you :feel.:"
Shunsui made a hurt sound, not quite a whimper.
"You're thinking about what we did when it rained," Juushirou forged on. "How it makes us lonely, and we want. If we'd been contagious... but we're not, Shunsui. We're safe."
Shunsui slumped. "Maybe it would have been better if we weren't. All those people, all those Hollows... they came to help. And now we have to kill them."
"Such long faces," Yoruichi teased, stepping out of afternoon shadows. "You'd think you didn't believe in miracles anymore."
:Didn't hear you!: Juushirou lashed at her.
She held up empty hands. :Calm. Sorry.: "I've been practicing sneaking. It's the only way I'll tag Toushirou." She glanced at Shunsui. "He's right, you know."
Gray eyes narrowed. :Go on.:
"Genetically, none of us are human-standard anymore," Yoruichi said bluntly. "Not you, not me, not Yamamoto. I'd bet that's why Hughes took the easy way out. He couldn't stand the idea that he could be as different from Homo sapiens sapiens as a Neanderthal." She smirked. "Want to guess how much of your DNA is Neanderthal, Shunsui? It's a bigger chunk than you'd think."
"No games," Juushirou said, deadly soft. "This is too important for games."
"It is," Yoruichi agreed, meeting his gaze. "And I'm not playing. Evolution's not as nice and neat as people think. This isn't the first virus to jump into the human genome, and it won't be the last. I grant you this is the first one designed by a hostile species, but Shunsui... there are hundreds of viruses in human DNA. One more doesn't make us other." She splayed violet tentacles wide, ivory hooks gleaming. "Even these don't. They're not normal. They're not comfortable. But they're not the problem."
"Walk into Yamamoto's camp and say that," Shunsui challenged.
Yoruichi rolled golden eyes. "The problem," she stated clearly, "is behavior. Is a serial killer human? Is a cannibal? Sane, moral people would tell you no. And that has nothing to do with DNA, and everything to do with what you're willing to do. And what you'd rather die than do. Finding people who'd make good members of your tribe and kidnapping them? Historically, that's very human behavior."
"But," Juushirou floundered, "that's not-"
"Read some history of the North American continent," Yoruichi shrugged. "Pre-space tribes may not have had transforming viruses, but social pressure can be just as final. Once one culture says you are not one of us - you're stuck. Forever." Wrapping purple fur close, she planted her hands on her hips. "Quincys get by. We will, too. If we learn to behave."
"Now who's asking for miracles?" Shunsui said wryly. "We'd have better luck trying to catch a Hollow."
Yoruichi looked demure. "We are going to have to catch Hollows, one of these days."
Juushirou looked into gold, and felt an eerie chill. "Why?"
"Why else?" She gave him a cat's eye-creased smile. "To try for a miracle."
For a moment, he couldn't breathe.
Shunsui was :afraid and worried,: and that was never good. Juushirou made himself breathe. "In the shuttle. Isshin said it was impossible."
"There's no way to get something pure human back with current technology. Yes." Yoruichi gestured at herself. "What's in our cells right now is beyond every piece of human gengineering to date. And we've already used it to our advantage. That's what the vaccine is."
"For unmodified humans," Juushirou pointed out, stunned. "The Hollows-"
"They're already modified," Yoruichi acknowledged. "This isn't going to be easy. If it's possible at all. But if the Hollow virus works like ordinary transposons - and to some extent, it has to - then the DNA sites it attacks are sites we can attack. If we're lucky." She glanced down, obviously studying the scenario in her head. "It could take decades, if we can do it at all. But we have to try."
"For their sake?" Jusuhirou wondered. "Or for Kisuke's?"
Yoruichi's jaw dropped. "You - of all people - these are human beings, and-"
"Were," Shunsui bit out. "Were human beings, Yoruichi. Now they're monsters that want to kill and eat us. And make other people monsters." He winced. "If it were me, I'd want someone to kill me. Quick and clean."
"I can't believe you!" Yoruichi sputtered. "I know your ancient samurai believed in death before dishonor, but-"
"Would you want to remember killing and eating your own wife?" Juushirou made his voice hard, even as his heart hurt. "That's what Toushirou's father would have remembered, if we'd been able to save him. Do you think he would have wanted to live with that?" He lowered his voice. "Do you think we could have trusted that he was actually human, if he could?"
Yoruichi blanched, like cream swirled into coffee.
"On the other hand," Juushirou turned his gaze on Shunsui, "what if we'd been minutes too late with Yumichika? What if he had transformed into a Hollow, but we were able to keep him from eating anyone? I'd save him, if I could."
"Point," Shunsui allowed. Glanced at Yoruichi. "But we've got to be sure. If you get something you think might work - we've got to be sure, Yoruichi. We have to get back people. Not just things that look human."
"I didn't think of that." Yoruichi hugged herself, chilled. "And I thought the Hollows were nightmares."
"There's always something worse," Juushirou said quietly.
Shunsui folded his arms, considering them both. "You're thinking about the Hollow-makers."
"Aren't we all?" Juushirou spread empty hands. "I keep trying to think of why. What did we do, or not do? How could we possibly have offended a species we haven't ever seen, that they would try to wipe out an entire planet?"
Sougyo no Kotowari - and not just to him. Juushirou :felt: her reaching out to Yoruichi and Shunsui.
:Silly,: his other repeated gently. :My-Juushirou remembers pain, scorn, idiot-humans-being-cruel. Because they can.:
Well, yes, but-
:Isshin, other learners-of-pack - Hollow virus "too advanced",: his other went on. :"Too perfect." If those-who-shaped-virus can - then they do.:
"Oh, that's a thought I really didn't need," Shunsui grimaced. "If they have really advanced gengineering - we could have been hit by a kiddie hacker." He stopped at Yoruichi's frown. "No?"
"We have no way to know," the ecologist admitted. "It doesn't feel like something that casually malicious. We need more data." She took a deep breath. "And the only way I can think of to get it is observing Hollows. One way or another."
"That's going to be a tough sell." Shunsui lifted a hand before she could protest. "Hey, I agree with you. We have to know more about what we're fighting. But we need a plan. A way to deal with creatures that can burn through steel."
"We should ask Ryuuken," Juushirou observed. "If their abilities are psychokinetic, Quincys might know a way to block them... what is that?" Something odd :tickled: the edge of his senses, like a dozen of Masaki and Ryuuken put together.
:Bringing guests!: Isane caroled at them.
"Sentarou." Juushirou smiled as the eager young analyst hurried out of a mismatched group of shinigami and survivors. And tried not to blink in confusion. Yamamoto let them out of camp? "I've told you, it's just Juushirou..."
:Misery,: like a film of smoke as Sentarou jerked to a halt in front of him. "I'm so sorry!"
Sorry about what, was clear as a rainbow in mist, if just as intangible. The young man's images of :leaving you behind: were whispers next to shinigami shouts, but he could still :feel: them.
Impulsively, he pulled Sentarou into a hug.
But the young man didn't sound frightened. Juushirou breathed a sigh of relief, and let go. "It's good to see you. All of you."
Shunsui was grinning, open and amiable as a lion in the sun. "Come on in! We've got coffee." Hands waving, he delicately shepherded their visitors into the kitchen tent. Leaving one scowling general behind.
Oh dear. "You shouldn't stay in the open without security, sir," Juushirou said earnestly. "We're good at sensing the Hollows if they're actively hunting, but we don't know our range yet if they're not hungry. One fell out of a tree on top of Kisuke."
"Hmph." Yamamoto snorted. "If they are hungry, most of my security team will be casualties the moment they scream." He glanced toward the tent. "Why does he trust you?"
He could only be Shunsui. Juushirou had spent sleepless hours asking himself the same question.
:You know,: Sougyo no Kotowari murmured.
Yes. He did, damn his dark imagination. "Because I was dying."
The general's eyes narrowed.
"Anyone can say they'd rather die than be a monster," Juushirou said steadily. "Shunsui knows I would. And here I am, alive. So I'm not a monster. Which means he's not a monster. So no matter what you do to him, or to us, we're still fighting the real monsters."
"Hmm." Some of the steel seemed to go out of the general's gaze. "Major Kyouraku claims Urahara listens to you. Why?"
Ah. That was easier. "Because I listen to him," Juushirou replied. "He's not a soldier. Most of us aren't. But in his field, he is the best. And he listens to people he respects in their fields. If he feels they'll tell him the truth." He kept his tone even, uncompromising. "You haven't. Not to us, and not to the rest of the survivors. You're not looking at us as victims. You're treating us as weapons research."
That earned him Yamamoto's grim smile. "Would you rather be victims? Damn it, man! You have advantages a special ops team would kill to possess! Expanded senses. Accelerated healing. Lethal weapons at your very fingertips, unbreakable communications-"
"We're not soldiers."
"You may not have a better option," Yamamoto warned. "You don't know what's shown up when the Confederacy gets cute." He paused, deliberately. "You're not the only monsters out there."
Juushirou didn't try to hide his chill. "Worse than Hollows."
"No, thank god. But bad enough." The general rubbed at the back of his neck, carefully avoiding short white tendrils. "Chimeras. Gengineered composite things, smart enough to train and lethal enough to be a rat-Hollow's younger brother. Not infectious. But most of them are mammal-based."
Juushirou's eyes narrowed. "You think they'd be Hollow fodder."
"Of course they would!" Yamamoto scowled at him. "Wake up, man! You claim this virus was created by aliens? Then why in space do you think they can tell the Republic from any other humans?"
Juushirou stared, mind racing. "You think the aliens will try again. But not here."
"Of course not here!" Yamamoto snorted. "Minor escapes or not, we stopped the infection. It's confined. Quarantined, here on this planet. If they attack the Republic again, we'll know, and we'll be prepared. But if they struck the Satrapy? The Confederacy? Any one of a hundred little worlds we don't even know about yet, colonized by the coldsleep ships? They were intelligent enough to try to operate the mass-transport; what if they can operate a starship? A fleet of starships?"
A Satrapy pirate raid, landing to disgorge Hollows instead. Juushirou shuddered. "Why haven't you told us this before?"
"Told you?" Yamamoto exclaimed. "My god, man! It's obvious!"
"To you." I will not tear his throat out. It would be messy. And Shunsui would be disappointed; he :felt: his friend :listening,: even in the middle of a party. "I told you. We're not soldiers!"
"You've said that, yes, but..." The general frowned. "This never occurred to any of you?"
"We've been busy," Juushirou pointed out. "Trying to stay alive. Trying to keep the camp alive. Trying not to be seen as monsters, when the leader of the project made it clear he wanted us isolated and contained."
To his credit, the general blinked. And looked slightly sheepish.
"So." Juushirou brought his hands soundlessly together, deliberately taking a meditative stance. "You want us to be soldiers against the Hollows. To train, and endure being confined until we are needed. Because you believe we will be needed."
"Precisely." Yamamoto gave him a searching look. "And if I need your support to solidify Major Kyoraku's... so be it."
:Feels like truth,: Sougyo no Kotowari murmured.
:So it does.: Prickly and bitter, but truth all the same. :What do I do?:
:Protect the pack,: his other said serenely. :Play human.:
It wasn't playing. But he didn't feel up to arguing. Not with Shunsui's other tickling images at them again; the crazed fall of bones, petals on a wind soft and sweet as heaven...
Juushirou saw Yamamoto flinch as the name rang through them. And did not bare his teeth in a grin. Shunsui was settling, now; the pack knitting itself stronger-
"I think your argument will work," Juushirou said plainly. "I don't say everyone will be happy with the idea. But we want to help. To keep a disaster like the Project from happening again. For that... yes, I think even Isshin would learn to fight."
"I've seen him fight," the general argued.
Juushirou shook his head. "You've seen him defend himself, or us. It's not the same."
Yamamoto sighed. "True. And you know that... my god, man, why didn't you aim for the military?"
"There was a little matter of imminent death," Juushirou said wryly. Had that only been days ago? "I'm still getting used to the idea of not dying."
"And now?" the general challenged.
I want to live. I've never wanted to live so much in my life. "You don't trust us," Juushirou shot back. "Tell me why. What have we done? Ever?"
Yamamoto stared at him. Juushirou stared back.
I will not let this go, General. These are my people. My cub. My pack. :My pack!:
Yamamoto nodded once, sharply. "That, is why I don't trust you."
Juushirou almost took a step back. "I don't-"
"If you tell me you don't understand, we'll both know you're lying."
Juushirou stayed silent.
"The transformation affected how you think," Yamamoto said, more quietly. "How much, none of us knows. Sergeant Petrillo is of the opinion you're no farther from the human norm than strikers. If that's so - and I pray he's right - you are still very dangerous people. If he's wrong..."
Juushirou's blood ran cold. God. How do we fix this? "The Squeakers," he blurted out.
"Watch the Squeakers, General," Juushirou said, intense. "See how they behave. They've had the same vaccine, but they're mice. They're not intelligent enough to hide alien plots."
"Hmm." Yamamoto shifted his weight foot to foot, thinking. "And they age faster. So if there were something set off after some time..."
"It should hit the mice first," Juushirou agreed, trying not to shiver. "You have a very scary imagination, sir."
Yamamoto let out a slow breath. "You say that as though you mean it."
Juushirou shrugged, hoping he didn't wriggle too much. "You make a convincing argument." He tilted his head. "Coffee?"
Yamamoto glanced briefly skyward. "Why is everyone on this island suddenly obsessed with caffeine?"
"Retsu thinks it makes us feel more normal."
The general stared at him, eyes narrowed.
Juushirou smiled a little, wry. "On some level, we keep expecting to have a human heartbeat. But... we don't. Even Ryuuken's and Masaki's have slowed down. So if we want to feel human... caffeine. A lot of it." He grinned ruefully. "For the moment, I'm afraid, you'll have to deal with caffeinated monster-slaying ninjas."
"Monster-slaying ninjas?" Yamamoto choked out.
"I always wanted to be a ninja," Juushirou said wistfully. "Sneak in, sneak out; no one knows you were there until they count the dead bodies in the morning?"
"Hmm." Face creased in a thoughtful scowl, Yamamoto headed toward the scent of coffee.
"After all," Juushirou said impishly, "we're going to have to be very sneaky, to catch live Hollows."
A/N: Return of the Black Death, by Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan, makes compelling arguments for the disease having possibly been a hemorrhagic virus instead of bubonic plague. In this AU, that's how it was. (In real life, it's still being wrangled.)
This AU is in the future with advanced medicine, so "normal" human lifespan has been extended. Isshin wasn't joking about potentially being around a century later.