Stay on Target
Note: This takes place in that little 'lull' after the Soul Society arc where everyone was just hanging around, things were a bit tense due to the overhanging threat but still pretty relaxed due to the Vizard/Arrancar stuff not having started happening yet. For instance, all the random everyday-antics mini-comics in 'Bleach Colors' are set in this period.
And please be kind, haha, I've never written anything romance-focused before...
"A unique Hollow?"
Mayuri indicated his scribbled notes. "Fascinating specimen. It can camouflage itself as a human—visible to other mortals and everything. It doesn't seem hostile yet, but…"
Soifon nodded. "Hollows are formed out of negative emotions. If it was benign, it would've been able to pass on already."
"Exactly. But in case it turns out it's not one of a kind…" He began to pace the laboratory chamber, fingers twitching. "A field study is required. A close examination of its behaviour, motives and methods. Shadowing an enemy in disguise is right up your alley, so I recommended you."
"There are many capable stealth operatives under my command," she said sharply. "Is there a reason this matter requires my personal attention?"
He leant back over to the table, shuffling through the papers and snatching one out from the bottom of the pile, waving it in her direction and tapping his finger on a hastily-scrawled chart. "Its Reiatsu levels are, quite frankly, insane. We don't know the extent of its detection abilities—if it notices it's being followed, it'd slaughter anyone below Captain-class."
"Understood. I'll head out right away." She turned and made for the door.
"Oh!" he called. "If it does catch you, do me a favour and get killed, will you? If you destroy it, I'll never get the chance to study it."
She snorted. "Keep up that wishful thinking, Captain Twelve. You might get lucky. Is there anything else?"
"Not that I can think of…your partner will fill you in on anything I've forgotten, anyway. Now get out of here! I have corpses to dissect." He paused. "I mean, I'm reasonably sure they're dead."
"I felt like that'd ruin the mood…"
"All right, all right…" Yoruichi leaned over backwards, removing several small knives from the rack behind her and concealing them about her person. "A century hasn't done much for your inflexibility. Check."
"You have eyes, don't you?" Yoruichi laughed. "But since you asked," she said, giving a spin, "I say check and mate."
Soifon failed to suppress a half-smile. "Well…about that…do mine, um, look good?"
Yoruichi grinned. "I picked them for you, didn't I? Of course they do!" She paused. "Are…you all right? I know it's an unfamiliar concept to you, but it's called a compliment."
Soifon shook her head rapidly. "I'm fine! Thank you! I mean, sorry! Yes? Or…thank you?"
"So you think they just put me on this assignment to be 'along for the ride' to ease me back in?" Yoruichi wondered aloud. "It has been a hundred years since I've done this." She meandered out of the storage room, Soifon following in a hurry.
"I was told this Hollow has enormous power…maybe they wanted someone as strong as you in case it attacks?" she suggested.
"Hey, what happened to all that boasting when we fought earlier? How much stronger you've got since last time?"
"Well…that was…" Soifon mumbled, looking away.
"Ah, don't worry about it. Heat of the moment. And you really did improve a lot—I'm impressed." She came to a halt, looking back at her momentarily-frozen companion. "There it is again. You really don't know how to deal with positive reinforcement, huh?"
"It's not just that, I—" Soifon stopped herself, trailing off into an unintelligible mumble and receiving another odd look. She'd honestly been on the verge of blurting out all her feelings out of nowhere; the urge had taken her entirely by surprise. Now—on the verge of a life-or-death mission—is not the time! For any distractions whatsoever! She saw that Yoruichi had apparently already forgotten this exchange and was rambling about something else; her attention span had always been hazy at best. Good. This is a mission like any other. And feelings do not enter into a mission. I am an assassin—
"Ah, just look at us!" Yoruichi exclaimed, inspecting their outfits again. "We'll fit in just fine on Earth! We look all ready for a date or something!"
—you have no damn idea, and you are not helping.
Yoruichi giggled. "Who are you talking to? We're not being monitored."
"Right…force of habit," Soifon muttered. Taking care not to move her head, she glanced over at the target—buying souvenirs at a roadside stall, acting perfectly civil and human. The disguise form he'd chosen was designed to attract, tall, dark and handsome. Maybe he was planning on seducing his prey first, vampire-style.
"Hey." Yoruichi pushed a soda bottle into her hand, donning a pair of sunglasses with a smile. "Lighten up, okay? We're here, might as well enjoy it."
She might be right… Soifon realised, staring down at the drink. As long as he doesn't notice us, it's fine…in fact, we need to act natural. Just a couple of humans on a day out…
…in other words…it almost is like a date. Too good to be true, no? But then…what she said earlier… Did she know?! Surely not (the captain thought, quite incorrectly).
Soifon's eyes flicked back up to her companion. Speaking of tall, dark and handsome…considerably flustered and hoping she wasn't too red-faced, she strode off down the street, drinking in silence.
It was important to stay with the target at all times, keeping constant tabs on him, waiting for some sign of aggression. That meant the whole day, so when he stopped by a café, so did they. Yoruichi ordered two loaded plates, then when it became apparent she'd overestimated her companion's appetite, began digging into both.
"Anything yet?" she asked between mouthfuls.
Soifon gave a slight shake of the head, eyes flicking back over to the target—still oblivious to their presence, as far as she could tell. "It's strange how polite he's being."
"All part of the act," Yoruichi explained, licking her spoon clean. "See, that kind of look—which he designed, remember—goes well with a nice-guy attitude. He'll have girls falling all over him. Seduction route's looking more likely, I guess he's choosy about his prey." Her golden eyes gleamed, a playful smile crossing her face. "What do you think, Captain? How d'you rate him?"
Soifon frowned. "I wouldn't know." Why ask me that? You know I'm not— Her face froze as she realised the importance Yoruichi's next response might carry. Concurring or disagreeing would be all but stating her own preferences, a topic she'd always managed to skirt around in the past.
Yoruichi saw this expression and instantly deciphered its meaning—she had, after all, set up this exchange as a little game. Oh, you'd love to know, wouldn't you? Sorry, little hornet, not that easy. Besides, probably not a good idea to raise or dash your hopes at a time like this. Bad for concentration.
She smiled a little wider, going for the infuriatingly neutral, "Ah, sorry, of course you wouldn't." She indicated another customer. "Her, then?"
"Please don't just point out random people," Soifon replied, much less shakily than she'd feared. "We're on a mission."
Yoruichi nodded. Oh, nice recovery, very quick. Deflected the surprise follow-up without hesitation, very nice indeed. "You're right." Still, I can't just let you rest easy, so trump card time… "I apologise. I never was very disciplined."
"W-Wha—" Soifon's head snapped up, her eyes wide. "Uh, no, don't apologise! I'm sorry! I shouldn't be telling you how to—I—forgive me!"
"It's all right, forget about it." You're always going to lose this little game, you know…I know how to push all your buttons, and you don't even know I have any.
They sat in silence for a while, observing the target—who remained completely oblivious to them, eating with gusto and making an almost-successful pass on a waitress (they tensed up at this point, but nothing came of it).
Once he'd finished and paid (one of them left slightly before and one slightly after, to allay any possible suspicion), he managed to surprise them: They'd expected him to get serious in his human-hunting. Instead he decided to go see a movie.
"This is garbage," Soifon said flatly.
"I think it's adorable," Yoruichi giggled.
Soifon shook her head as cliché after cliché rolled by on the screen. "It's an offense to the craft of storytelling."
"Ooh." Yoruichi was genuinely taken aback. "There are limits to how far you'll agree with me? I'm impressed."
"Apparently so." The Captain paused. "Um. If that's okay," she added quietly.
"Of course! I always did like my subordinates to show some spirit." Yoruichi tapped a finger to her chin. "Though I guess you're my superior now."
"Only technically!" Soifon replied instantly.
Yoruichi gave a sly grin. "So you'd obey orders, if I gave them?"
"I suppose so."
"What if I ordered you to make passionate love to Captain Kenpachi?" Yoruichi was almost falling out of her chair in laughter by the time she was halfway through the sentence.
"No. That would be another of my limits."
"Interesting!" The older soul's voice dropped all of a sudden, growing serious. "How about if I ordered you to fight him?"
"To the death?"
"To protect you?"
"…let's say yes."
"Without hesitation. My lady."
Yoruichi sat back, seeming satisfied. I admit I was worried about how this past century had treated you, when we first fought…but you know, you turned out all right.
The target seemed tired—feigning it, naturally, upon closer inspection—and made a great show of yawning. Something about it seemed to bother the girl he was sitting next to, and she shoved his arm away. Soifon frowned, not understanding.
Yoruichi caught this, whispering an explanation. "It's a very cliché trick humans have. It works like this: A man makes a big deal of yawning—" Here she mimed this, stretching her arms high above her head and looking extremely catlike for a moment. "—then when he lowers them, one goes around his date—" She silently lowered them, spreading them out as if adopting a natural relaxed pose, then curling her right arm in around Soifon's opposite shoulder.
Soifon barely suppressed a shiver at the touch, managing a mostly-calm nod of comprehension.
"—and bam, contact made, completely smooth," Yoruichi finished. "That's the idea, anyway."
"Um…okay," Soifon stammered. "A-Anyway, it looks like he hasn't found a victim yet."
"Yeah, he didn't have any luck with her. We'll have to wait and see what he does after the movie."
Soifon was going to drop another acidic comment comparing the film to a form of audio-visual torture…but on the other hand, Yoruichi hadn't moved her arm away yet (and she at least seemed to be enjoying the crap on-screen well enough).
Perhaps it would be bearable after all.
They exited the cinema just over two hours later, keeping their distance from the target as usual.
"Was, ah…" Soifon began, attempting something approaching a joke—not her strong suit. "Was my shoulder really all that comfortable?"
"Whatever do you mean?" Yoruichi was clearly playing dumb. She had to be. They both knew it. But her face was a flawless mask of innocence.
"You, well, kept your arm around it for the entire movie…"
"Oh, was that a problem?"
"N-No! I mean—well, I was just wondering—"
The response was preceded by a playful grin. "Because you never asked me to move it."
Soifon raised her head, confidence suddenly filling her. "Lady Yoruichi, I do believe you're toying with me."
Yoruichi froze, taken aback by the directness of this. She spent a few seconds formulating a reply, finally coming to a conclusion. "Well…you see…" Her head jerked around in mock-surprise—this 'interruption' had been her plan from the start. "He's on the move! Come on!"
They were, after all, professionals, so all thoughts of the conversation were shoved aside as they scurried over towards the building the target was heading for with intent: A nightclub. From the sounds coming from within, there was evidently much dancing and…assorted revelry, would be the mission report's euphemism of choice.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that one of the two stealth operatives was internally giggling at this turn of events, and the other was hit by a sudden wave of dread.
They leaned against the bar, Yoruichi knocking back drinks with terrifying speed, Soifon standing with her arms folded defensively, trying to block out the barrage of light and noise, keeping one eye on the target.
"I'm surprised you didn't jump at the chance to go dancing," she said.
Yoruichi gave a slight nod. "You'd think so, but I never learned how. I'd just look foolish."
"I can't imagine that."
"Oh, I'm aware. You could wax lyrical for hours about my 'flawless grace'. Like in that diary I found back when—"
"I was very young."
Yoruichi giggled. "It's amazing how I can almost hear you blush."
Eager to get off this topic, Soifon rapidly backpedalled. "In any case, you should've pretended to be thrilled about dancing, really strung me along."
Yoruichi paused. Do I detect sass? Dare I say it—snark? Oh, you are learning! "You're right," she replied, as evenly as possible. "I can just imagine your reaction."
"Oh yes, I would've been pleading desperately—just pitiful." Soifon flashed a grin. "Too late!"
After another moment of surprise, Yoruichi threw back her head and laughed. "There it is! Don't get me wrong, I adore your usual hero-worship, but you have such fantastic spirit when you really want to!"
Soifon took a deep breath, suddenly possessed with the resolve to just go for it. "When you say that…do you—" Her eyes widened at a movement from the opposite side of the crowded room, and she cursed internally as the target's timing once again thwarted her. "Trouble," she hissed.
'Trouble' was right; an object of his affections had finally returned the sentiment, and they were spinning in rapid, fluid circles, one or both of them clearly an expert. The operatives' trained eyes picked out his incisors lengthening into fangs, and as he and his victim drew gradually closer and closer together, it was clear that he was subtly making a beeline for her neck.
"He doesn't want to cause a huge scene," Yoruichi whispered, craning to look over the bobbing crowd, "so if we stop him 'by accident' without blowing our cover, he'll probably give it up."
Soifon sighed. "If I understand correctly, you've just ruled out barging through the crowd, leaping over their heads, or doing anything that would reveal us as at all out of the ordinary."
"You got it." That playful, and slightly terrifying, gleam entered Yoruichi's eyes again. "In other words, there's only one way across that dancefloor."
"Time's ticking." She took a step back, holding out one hand.
"I could almost swear you planned this."
"C'mon. I know how agile and flexible you are. You can pull off backflips like nobody's business, this is nothing."
On one hand, an assassin did not dance. On the other, Yoruichi had just offered her hand. If there was any hesitation, it wasn't long.
"The important thing is to relax," her long-time mentor said firmly. "I'll lead. If you're stuck, copy the people around us. And keep moving. We have, I'd say, ten to twenty seconds to save that human."
It was a unique experience.
There was, of course, the urgency, and the threat should they be discovered—not just the two of them, but everyone in the building would be in mortal danger. The apprehension that stretched out each agonising second. If either of them slipped up, they could be too late.
But…they were dancing. Successfully, like any normal pair of humans. And jokes aside, she was of the opinion that Lady Yoruichi was all manner of words like 'flawless' and 'graceful', and she wasn't far wrong. It was quite something to behold at such close quarters.
That was the other thing, of course. They were so close…
And then it was over, and they were directly in front of the target and his target, and she'd thrown her head back, and his mouth was sprouting more and more fangs, closing in on the exposed neck—
—and so the Shinigami duo turned their dance into a deliberate stumble, coming apart and crashing into him, sending the Hollow and his new friend tumbling to the floor.
The woman just staggered away, yelling abuse—it wasn't clear who it was directed at, and she probably had little idea herself.
Their target took longer to stand, the movements slow and careful. He locked eyes with each of them in turn as he rose, having restored his appearance to fully human, though his eyes burned with barely-repressed fury.
"You should be more careful in future," he said. His voice was low, quiet but trembling, just piercing enough to be audible over the crowd.
Then, without warning, he lunged. One arm drew back, fingernails extending into claws, his face twisting into a vicious grin for an instant.
Yoruichi saw all of this, processing the scenario in the tiniest fraction of a second. That's beyond human strength and speed he's using…brief enough it'd normally go unnoticed, but it could do lethal damage to these Gigai. And he was aiming straight for her companion, who hadn't yet reacted.
Without thinking, Yoruichi's hand dipped into a pocket, taking hold of something small.
When Soifon's vision stopped spinning from the rapid acceleration and just-as-sudden stop, Yoruichi's true soul-form had her in both arms, having just leapt across the room to get them both clear; her Gigai was vanishing into the crowd.
The target, meanwhile, was glaring across the room at them. Yoruichi was invisible to the humans surrounding them, but he, of course, could see. Their cover was blown.
"You shouldn't have done that," Soifon said weakly. "The mission comes first."
"Maybe." Yoruichi set her down. "Depends on the alternative. Talk later—game face time, girl."
Soifon nodded, popping her portable backup soul into her physical shell's mouth and letting her true self emerge. "Yes'm."
The predator bared his fangs once again, his body shaking, beginning to split apart in places. Before long, it burst asunder, spiritual pressure pouring out as his own true form coalesced, rising and rising in height, its head and shoulders grinding against the roof and finally pushing through it.
The human crowd couldn't see the Hollow itself, but from their perspective, a man had just exploded and the ceiling had started to collapse, so they rapidly cleared out, leaving the monster alone with its hunters.
"Break in two," Yoruichi said casually, rolling her shoulders to warm up; her estimate proved correct, and they leapt away in opposite directions as an enormous clawed limb smashed down where they'd been standing.
The Hollow's torso burst open, dozens of spiked tentacles flailing out and swiping at them. The Shinigami duo moved with practiced grace—it was fast and unrelenting, and it took their full focus to evade its attacks, but they found it was quite easy to fall back into their old patterns of teamwork.
"On my mark!"
In this manner they ran their opponent ragged, dancing around its attacks and landing light blows every few seconds, wearing it down and driving it back into a corner.
Screeching in frustration, it retracted its writhing mass of tentacles, returning to a mostly-humanoid, if still monstrous, shape. Its power surged for a moment, before emerging from its mouth in an explosive cone of destructive light; a cero.
Soifon found herself caught off-guard again, the Hollow's ability to gather power at speed nothing less than astounding. Before the beam could make contact, Yoruichi leapt in, shoving her out of the way and channelling spiritual energy down her arm, swinging it straight forwards and into the oncoming blast.
The enormous clash of reiatsu dissipated the attack, but the recoil sent Yoruichi flying back across the spacious room and into the wall, cracking it with her impact. The Hollow surged after her, pinning her against the wall with one scaled arm before she could recover her bearings.
It leant in, jaw unhinging, row upon row of vicious, barbed teeth creeping outwards—
—then recoiled in pain as Soifon landed between them, shoving them apart, her sword drawn.
The cut had, in fact, been so quick the Hollow didn't realise it had lost its arm until it looked down and saw the stump; so clean it took a few seconds to even start bleeding.
It roared in pain and fury, rearing up before throwing itself down at the diminutive Captain in its path, its arm already starting to regenerate at a fearsome rate.
Soifon glanced back for a second, saw Yoruichi still not recovered and clearly in pain, and faced forwards again, steeling herself for the behemoth's charge. It rammed into her, and she slid back almost to the wall, feet digging into the floor, teeth grinding together, sweat beads breaking out across her strained face, every muscle screaming for relief—but, incredibly, she stopped it, mere inches from Yoruichi.
A low growl echoed from the depths of Soifon's throat as she dug deeper, pushing against the gargantuan creature and now moving forwards, pushing its enormous bulk back despite its best efforts. She shifted her weight to free up her right hand, drawing her sword back.
"Sting all enemies to death…Suzumebachi." The blade condensed, forming into its true released appearance as a finger-mounted stinger, gold on black.
She began to speed up, driving the Hollow further back across the floor, its great clawed feet tearing up the concrete as it scrabbled for traction. Eyes narrowing, she thrust her Shikai into its abdomen, drawing a spurt of blood and leaving a stylised four-pointed mark; a second hit on the same spot would activate the poison, causing death in seconds.
As she drew back to strike again, however, it finally found purchase and brought them to a halt again, lashing out with both hands and gripping her wrist, stopping her from delivering the killing blow.
She was beginning to lose strength in her arm—until Yoruichi appeared beside her, placing both hands on her arm and shoving forwards, their combined strength overpowering the beast and plunging Suzumebachi into the already-marked point, the weapon flashing once as if rejoicing in the kill.
They sprung back, watching as the creature took one stumbling step forwards, let out a final scream of rage, and then seemed to fold in on itself, vanishing, the last remnant of its existence Suzumebachi's rapidly-fading butterfly emblem hanging in the air.
They took a few seconds to catch their breath, smiling a little when they assessed the situation; no serious injuries, no civilian casualties.
Yoruichi shook her head, tutting. "Mayuri's not gonna be happy with us…"
"I really don't give a damn," Soifon said off-handedly. "He doesn't intimidate me."
They fell silent for a while.
"So," said Yoruichi.
"So?" said Soifon.
Yoruichi shrugged, declining to elaborate. C'mon, nothing's gonna interrupt you this time. I know what's been on your mind. If you really want this, show me that confidence one more time; come on out with it.
"You really shouldn't have blown our cover like that…" Soifon eventually said. "Regardless of the mission, it's unprofessional."
Yoruichi sighed. "You've learned a lot in the last hundred years. I can tell you've trained hard, but…there are things you'll never learn if you only ever walk the assassin's path. I know I'm probably just being sentimental, but…the joy of life…the value of a good companion…I think those things are important too." She gave a warm look. "We're not machines, y'know. I like you too much to let you go on that creepy bastard's say-so."
She expected another long pause after that; truth be told, so did Soifon. She'd been preparing for the breath to catch in her throat, for the reluctant awkwardness to return. But in that moment, all the flashes of confidence that had surfaced throughout the day coalesced stronger than ever, and she swung around without missing a beat, looking up into her old friend's face.
"M'lady. I keep trying to ask—I mean, all day I've been getting the impression—" She calmed herself, taking a deep breath and going for it. "When you say you like me…?"
Yoruichi almost ruined the moment by bursting out with, Finally! She put a hand on Soifon's shoulder, responding almost jovially.
"Listen, I don't think I know anyone who can fall in love as hard as you can—and yeah, you are that obvious, I'm afraid." This aside came with a brief mischievous grin. "So I can't promise I can give you back everything you put in. But yes, to answer your question, I do mean like that. So, if you're sure you want this—" She was cut off by a sudden embrace, lifting her off her feet.
Oh…wow, there are…actual tears on her face, she realised, looking down. I mean, I knew, but I never really processed just how much this means to her. I can't bear thinking about what would happen if I ever let her down…
All right. I promise, just this once, I'm gonna work for this.
And that, more or less, was that.
"We should do this again sometime."
"Maybe without the life-or-death mission next time, though?"
"Actually, I think…that kind of makes it interesting…"
"Oh, now we're talking."