Chapter 32: Prelude to a Storm
"We got any homework in Lancer's?"
Sam gave her friend the most deadpan look she could muster. "Tuck, we have a seven-page essay on the themes of the Crucible. Due tomorrow."
Tucker had the grace to look sheepish. "Well, in my defense, I've been busy."
"Sexy time with your new PDA isn't a justifiable excuse."
Tucker smirked. "It is when you can make high-tech products and codes that'll make the heads at Microsoft salivate."
"Still have to get into a tech college."
Tucker clicked his tongue, shaking his head as if feeling sorry for the poor soul that was herself. "Shows what you know, my dear friend."
Sam rolled her eyes as she closed her locker. Her paper was already typed and secured inside her bag alongside her three textbooks and study notes for her other five classes. Because there was simply no rest for the weary. "Whatever, so I guess that means I'm gonna be alone on ghost duty."
Tucker winced as he shouldered his bag and followed her towards the exits. "Sorry about that."
"Yeah, don't worry about it. I'll still have help from our red, trigger-happy friend."
Tucker snorted at that.
Valerie wasn't someone that Sam trusted. She could be reckless, stubborn, and downright insufferable. However, she did help keep some of the ghosts out of Amity and in the Ghost Zone. She, Tuck, and Sam had encountered each other out in the field from time to time, but they'd mostly stayed out of each other's way. They could all agree that they were all better protection than the Guys in White, at least.
Thankfully, ghosts had started to frequent Amity less and less. Scratch that. Ghosts like Skulker and Cujo had shown up less and less (the latter wasn't evil, but he could be more than a handful). The other ghosts were practically jumping at the chance to lay siege to a Phantom-less Amity Park. The first week after the ghosts had clued in on Danny being gone was the worst. It was nothing but Ember attacks with a side of Spectra, 13, and Kitty followed by a Technus, Youngblood, and Desiree dessert (with a whole slew of other ghostly rogue entrees).
Between Valerie, Sam, and Tuck bumping up their ghost hunting patrols, they were able to slow down the waves of ghosts. Still, the ghosts weren't making it easy for them. Sam, Tuck, and Valerie had suffered many sleepless nights and detentions for their efforts. The only real bright side (if you could call it that) to all of the attacks was that the populace had begun to stop demonizing Danny. When the ghosts started to swarm seemingly fill the absence of Danny and cause mischief, it was almost as if he was protecting the city and not terrorizing it.
'Now if only we could get Valerie to see that,' the goth mused.
Sam winced slightly as she felt her backpack rub against a bruise on her shoulder. That one had been the courtesy of Johnny 13's Shadow. She knew that their friend was doing important things in Japan (when was he not?), but God did she miss him. . .
"Alright," Tucker said to Sam. "I'm going to try and see if I can hammer out this paper."
Sam snorted. "Good luck with that."
"Won't need it!"
Sam shouldered her bag, making sure to move it to her non-injured shoulder, as she started on her walk home. If she was quick about it, she might be able to get some poetry in before the next ghost attack.
Danny stuffed the last of his textbooks for the day into his backpack before he headed down for breakfast. He didn't have school until 7, and it was still dark as all get out at 5 am, but Vlad was trying to instill in him the merits of being an "early riser".
It was only half working.
He'd already long since taken his shower and gotten his hair thoroughly combed. Vlad was very particular about that. When he'd tried to refuse, Vlad threatened that he'd stop working on his prototype for returning Uryu's powers. So, Danny was finding himself yielding a lot more lately. It was beginning to feel like Vlad was changing him more than he was changing the elder halfa.
Vlad was changing a bit, though. Or maybe Danny was just getting to know the guy better. He was getting less irritable to be around and just all around more patient whether it be working through training, answering his questions, talking about-
"Daniel, where are you?! You were supposed to be here a minute ago!"
Just a little bit patient.
Danny sighed as he made his way down the stairs. He didn't bat an eye at the ghost vulture he passed up on the way to the dining room. He'd seen much weirder after all. Before and after he'd begun his stay with Vlad Masters.
Vlad smiled as he saw him approach. "You're beginning to look like quite the strapping young man, Daniel. It's hard to imagine that you are the same child that you were before my care."
Danny scowled as he dropped down into his chair. "How many times do I have to say it? I'm not "Daniel". I'm not your "Little Badger". I'm Danny. Got it, fruitloop?"
Vlad just smiled as cut up a piece of his omelet.
With that his attention was quickly drawn back to the food. For some amorphous blobs, the ghosts Vlad found sure could cook. His mouth watered over the freshly baked rolls, some fluffy pancakes lathered in some of the sweetest syrup he'd ever smelled, scrambled eggs peppered with spices that he was sure he'd never had before, a wide tray of omelets, and a pitcher of orange juice. It was taking everything within his power not to start wolfing down everything. Despite this, he still ate at a brisk pace, eating as fast good table manners would allow.
Danny didn't even bother looking up as he shoveled a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth, pointedly. He tried not to let his grin show too much as he heard Vlad sigh. "Danny?"
Danny actually did smile this time as he swallowed his food. He wasn't going to make the same mistake twice when it came to talking with his mouth full. Not after last time. "Yes, Mr. Masters?"
"Did you remember to pack all of your school materials?"
"And did you study your upcoming material that your teacher's sent out over the summer?"
Vlad nodded with a smile. Not a smirk, Danny noted. "Good. Make sure you pay attention in your classes, today, young man. Preparing for a potential war between the realms isn't an excuse to slack off on your studies."
"As long as you keep working on Uryu's cure," Danny retorted, eating another bite of his meal.
"You needn't worry about that Danie-Danny. This case intrigues me and I'm certain that I am about to crack it."
Danny's eyebrows shot to his hairline. "So soon?"
"Your mother wasn't the only genius, now was she?"
"Tch. Yeah, my dad was there, too."
Vlad gave a non-committal grunt as he went back to his food. Danny couldn't let it rest though. "Are you still mad about it? At him, specifically?"
"Danny, Jack is the reason I have ghost powers," Vlad responded dryly. His eyes flashed red for a brief moment before returning to their regular dark blue. "Jack is the reason I went into a coma with deadly ecto-acne. He is the reason that I got the powers that would later result in my mother's death. This isn't some high school hatred, you know."
"You tried killing my dad," Danny retorted. "You've framed me, made my ex hate me, cloned me, gave my friends that same deadly ecto-acne on purpose, and tried to forcibly marry my mom. On top of other things. Yet here I am giving you a shot."
Vlad was silent for a moment as he sipped at his mug of orange juice. He lowered it back down to the table, giving Danny a pointed stare. "Are you saying that you don't hate me, Daniel?"
Danny's ears reddened at that. "I never said that I didn't understand you. All I'm saying is that you should try to get back together. After all, it was an accident. And for the millionth time don't call me Daniel!"
Vlad didn't speak for a while and Danny decided to let it be. They both returned to their meals in silence.
His mind quickly wandered to Aizen. That was where his thoughts went to the most, nowadays. Who could blame him? The man was the sole reason he was halfway across the world and got separated from his friends, fought the afterlife government, had a falling out with his parents, and was now rooming with his (former?) arch-nemesis. Not to mention, the idiot let his future self loose and put some type of link on him, Dani, and Dan. He'd spent more than a few nights worried about Aizen spying on him. It was starting to get exhausting.
"Something on your mind?"
Danny hesitated but only for a moment. He needed to get honest with Vlad if he ever wanted to form some kind of bond. "Aizen. He's so crafty that none of us can really touch him, but he seems like he has all the dirt on us. He can even spy on us with this link that he put on me and Dani. He's traumatized Momo. I wanna beat him, so bad for everything he's done, but I just don't know where to start."
"Hm. First order of business should definitely be destroying that link. I don't know why your parents allowed it to persist for so long."
Danny felt himself bristle at the man's words but forced himself to reign it in. "Yeah, but Urahara said that he didn't know if it would be possible to remove the link without the original hollow."
"Well, it's a good thing that I'm here, then. I'll see what I can do."
"But you're working on Uryu's cure right now. You should focus on that."
Vlad rolled his eyes. "Daniel, I am more than capable of multitasking."
"That's what I said, isn't it?"
A small group of brilliant minds (Shihōin Yoruichi, Maddie and Jack Fenton, Tsukabishi Tessai, and Urahara Kisuke) sat at a table ready to deliberate a new set of stratagems as they found themselves often doing nowadays.
"What should our next move be?" Maddie asked.
Yoruichi had her response quite ready. "In conjunction with Sui-Feng-chan's Onmitsukidō, we've deduced that Aizen is likely not in the land of the living. Considering the fact that they are most definitely not in Seireitei or the Rukongai, the only logical conclusion we have reached is that he and his forces have retreated to Hueco Mundo."
"Forces?" Tessai asked. "Have you all found confirmation that Aizen now has an army, Yoruichi-sama?"
"We don't have confirmation on it, but it would only make sense. Aizen isn't an idiot. He knows that with only the help of Gin, Tosen, and Dan, his chances of defeating the combination of the Seireitei and our units are low."
"I wonder how they're hiding all of that manpower," Jack mused, scratching his chin. "That much Reiatsu and Reiryoku in one place should be like a beacon."
"You're correct, Jack-san. We fear that Aizen may have found a way to cloak himself."
"Darn," Maddie exclaimed. "I know the technology in that field has been ramping up, but why did he have to figure it out first and to this degree? Dampening his power would be one thing, but to completely mask it? I'd call it amazing if he wasn't such a maniac."
Yoruichi sighed as she leaned up against the wall. "Sui-Feng-chan and a small team of hers are hoping to scour a good section of Hueco Mundo by the end of the week. I'll be joining her to aid the process."
"That can't be an easy task. We don't even have the entirety of Hueco Mundo mapped out."
"True, but we'll have to make do. We cannot afford to wait around."
"How sure are you that they aren't in the Dangai?" Urahara asked.
Yoruichi paused for a moment as if considering before she gave her response. "The Twelfth Division has been checking interdimensional travel by the second. If there was some Garganta movement, they'd have seen it by now."
"By the Soul King," Jack grumbled. "Aizen can know where all of us are and live inside my boy's head, and there's nothing we can do about it! It's maddening!"
Yoruichi's gaze softened as she turned to the father. "We'll remove that hollow's influence, Jack-san. We just need to take everything one step at a time."
"I guess so."
Yoruichi moved away from the wall and began to make her way to the door. "Right. I'll be heading out now. I think it'd be best if you all returned to finding a way to break the link. It would be a huge plus if we could cut off Aizen's free source of intel."
Yoruichi and the group exchanged goodbyes as the rest returned their attention to the hollow link, ending the meeting.
Vlad may have been overbearing, but Danny was glad that he allowed him to fly to school. Anything beat getting dropped off in the Fenton RV with Ghostbusters announcing your arrival. Finding a good place to land, Danny morphed back into his human form. There wasn't much left for him to do besides looking for his friends. It didn't take long for him to find them all huddled by a corner already, seemingly in conversation.
Ichigo was the first to notice him (surprisingly). "Yo, Danny."
Danny gave him a simple wave as he stepped next to Uryu and Orihime. "Hey guys."
They all responded with various greetings before they continued their conversation. They asked each other about their upcoming classes and were glad to find that they each had a few classes with each other. Unfortunately, they didn't have a class where all of them were together. On the bright side, if Ichigo had to go fight a hollow, there would usually be someone who could cover for him. It would've been easier if Rukia or Urahara had just taught him the Soul Reaper mindwipe trick, Ichigo had grumbled.
The big lug may not have said it, but Danny couldn't help but think that Ichigo missed having Rukia around.
Weirdly enough, though, it was an easy consensus among them that it felt good to be back in school. For Danny, it may not have been home sweet home with all the constant ghost attacks, locker stuffing, and detentions, but it was simple. Funny how when you weren't being force fed a diet of swirlies and knuckle sandwiches, school felt a lot less like Hell.
Unfortunately, the good times didn't last forever as the shadow of the egomaniac reared his ugly head.
"What have Mr. Hat 'n Clogs and Yoruichi said about Aizen?" Ichigo asked.
Danny shrugged. "Beats me. I haven't talked to Yoruichi since we fought Jin. It's been even longer since I talked to Urahara."
"If they haven't talked to us yet, it could be that they don't have anything worth mentioning," said Chad.
"Or they don't want anything leaked," Uryu muttered.
The group quieted at that. Well, everyone except for Ichigo. He elbowed Uryu in the side with his permanent scowl marring his face. "Geez, man!"
"It's true." Uryu turned to Danny. "We need to figure out how to remove that link that the spider hollow placed on you, Dani-san, and Dan. It's a free line to Aizen and it doesn't go both ways. We're only at a disadvantage as long as that link is operating."
Danny groaned. "You don't need to tell me twice."
Everyone turned to Orihime in surprise. She didn't wilt in the slightest. "Couldn't Danny-kun and Dani-chan train their links to block out Aizen and Dan?"
"It's possible," Uryu admitted, "but first we'd have to understand it. We only know how it works in the barest sense. That's hardly enough to try and train it. Especially with all the pain it can inflict. All in all, it just isn't worth wasting the effort trying to train it when we could be figuring out how to break it."
The bell rang and the group went their separate ways. Everyone aside from Ichigo, it seemed, as the man gripped his shoulder. "Hey, Danny," Ichigo started, "if you ever start feeling anything strange from the hollow, let us know."
Danny froze in shock. It only lasted for a moment thanks to Vlad's constant meditation tutelage allowing him to find his calm, but Danny couldn't help but feel slightly suspicious. 'Well, it does make sense. It would be reasonable to guess that the hollow had done something to me considering the link that it left. But still. . . it almost felt like he was searching for some type of confirmation.'
Danny gave him a nod, finally. "Yeah, will do."
Ichigo and Danny said their goodbyes as they headed off to their classes.
The day started off much like any other first day back to school. The teachers called for the summer assignments to be submitted, the students could hardly keep in their stories of what they did over the summer while the teachers taught, and there was the occasional hollow attack. OK that one was different, but you get the point.
Danny now found himself sitting on the school's roof with Chad, Ichigo, Uryu, and Jazz (Orihime had decided to eat with Tatsuki for the day) eating their lunch. Thankfully, it seemed that lunch in Karakura was a step above Casper High's slop. He didn't have to eat it any time soon with how Vlad was insistent that he eat "only the best cuisine" with his school lunches, but it was nice to know that he'd have that luxury at least. Plus, Karakura High had a killer view from atop its roof. He silently vowed to eat lunch with Sam and Tuck on their school's roof more often.
Unfortunately, it didn't do much to keep his mind off of Uryu's previous statements. It wasn't like the Quincy was wrong or that Danny had never thought about the facts before; it was just frustrating to see the problem so plainly without a solution in sight. It didn't help that he could see Uryu, Jazz, and Chad looking at him when they thought he couldn't see him. He really felt like the freak Dash always claimed he was. Especially with Jazz not so subtly psychoanalyzing him from a distance.
Being as blunt and fearless as he was, Uryu was the first to break the silence. "Danny, can I speak to you privately about something?"
Not bothering to catch everyone else's reactions, Danny simply nodded and headed towards the door to the stairs. He and Uryu were standing on the steps with the door shut behind them when Uryu spoke.
"Has Vlad-san been able to find a way to get my powers back?"
"He says he's getting close. I don't know how much of that is him saving his reputation or legitimate though."
"Do you have an idea at least?"
Danny shrugged. "It isn't like I don't ask. He just won't tell me anything."
Uryu was quiet for a moment. Danny felt the need to speak up. "Look, you'll get your powers back in no time. And even without powers, you're still one of the smartest and resourceful people I know. So, don't get too down on yourself."
Uryu looked at Danny with wide eyes before he nodded with a small smile. "Thank you, Danny-san. I truly appreciate that."
Danny felt a genuine grin come on. "Don't worry about it. That's what friends are for."
Toshiro let his eyes carry themselves over his fellow Captains, searching their expressions. He could find nothing other than stoic focus, even the normally lackadaisical Shunsui was completely stone-faced. He knew he wasn't the only one watching everyone a little more closely. Although he was quite certain that there weren't any other defectors amongst the Captain ranks, he couldn't call himself absolutely certain. Secretly, he hoped that he would find another traitor, if only to get rid of some of the anger he had been feeling for the past couple of weeks.
He didn't have much more time to ponder as Captain-Commander Yamamoto cleared his throat. "Today, I have gathered you all to properly determine our next set of movements regarding Aizen."
Toshiro inwardly took note that this wasn't a simple briefing meeting. Usually, the Captain-Commander would lay down the law of the land and all of their assignments. 'Not this time' Toshiro mused. 'Things truly are serious.'
"Sui-Feng," Yamamoto continued, "what have you and your division been able to find?"
"Not much, Yamamoto-sama," she admitted. "Aizen and his forces have been like ghosts. They haven't been spotted in the human world, the Seireitei, the Rukongai, or the Dangai. Neither the Fentons nor the Twelfth Division have been able to spot any significant breaches to the Ghost Zone. It is still possible that they took refuge in the Zone, but it is unlikely."
"You bet your ass they aren't there," Mayuri grumbled. "To even consider the possibility is an insult to my capabilities."
"Mayuri, control yourself," Yamamoto snapped.
Mayuri just grumbled some more to himself but stayed relatively silent. Even he had the presence of mind to not disobey his superior.
"As I was saying," Sui-Feng started, shooting Mayuri a look, "we haven't found them in any realm that we have checked thus far. That seems to only leave Hueco Mundo."
"You think they'd venture into Hollow territory?" Shunsui asked.
"Why not? It isn't like Hell is taking any of the traitors."
"Well, I suppose it could," Mayuri hummed to himself. "It wouldn't take any mortals, but I would assume that Aizen doesn't have any under his employment."
Sui-Feng looked disturbed at the thought, but she nodded. "I can head to Hell as soon as possible with Yoruichi and a scouting team, if Yamamoto-sama would wish it so. However, I am almost certain that we will find them in Hueco Mundo."
"I agree," Komamura said. "I will never claim to be as informed as Sui-Feng-san is on these topics, but I believe that it is possible. The fact that they were able to open a Garganta without any equipment reeks of hollow influence."
"Yes, we also suspected similar actions as well. Especially after investigating Aizen's particular research."
Toshiro barely resisted the urge to scoff. The "investigation" was finding out that Urahara and Tessai hadn't been responsible for experimenting on their fellow shinigami and that it was all Aizen's doing. It was starting to seem like Aizen was behind every shady action that had ever taken place over the last hundred or so years. Sure, he had had everyone fooled, including Toshiro himself, but he had always thought that the scenario behind the infamous hollowfication experiments weren't Urahara and Tessai's doing.
"We should go down there and smoke them out!" Kenpachi said with a wide grin. "They'll come out eventually!"
This time Toshiro did scoff. "Kenpachi-san, if you could kindly rein in your bloodlust for once in your life that would be appreciated. That plan will not work against someone as cunning as Aizen."
"Toshiro-san is correct," Byakuya monotoned. "There would not be much to gain from brute force assault into potential enemy territory yet much to lose."
"Bunch of fucking pansies," Kenpachi grumbled.
Byakuya decidedly ignored the quip as he continued on. "We should consider bolstering our defenses in the meantime. I have no doubt that Aizen will try his hand at attacking the Seireitei in the future, if for no other reason than the fact that we will be hunting him."
"I'm working on it," Mayuri drawled, rolling his eyes. "I'd get them done faster if I was summoned to useless meetings."
"Watch your tone, Kurotsuchi."
The two's mouths shut immediately.
Yamamoto scowled at both of them. Toshiro even felt himself stiffen as he felt the Captain-Commander's crushing Reiatsu spread over the room. It only lasted for a few moments, but he felt like he'd been carrying the Seireitei on his back. "If I have to remind one more of you to stop acting like children, you will be swiftly disciplined."
"My apologies, Captain-Commander."
Yamamoto shot a glare at Mayuri before turning back to Sui-Feng. "Now, Sui-Feng, has your Onmitsukidō found any notable intel on Aizen's-"
Toshiro frowned as his brows furrowed. Yamamoto trailed off for no foreseeable reason. The man was as far from senile as one could get, so there would have to be something pressing to divert his attention at such an inconvenient time. Following his gaze, Toshiro spotted a Hell Butterfly fluttering over to the Captain-Commander. He held out his index finger, letting the insect perch upon it. There were no words exchanged as no one in the room even dared to breathe, lest they missed something.
Suddenly, the Captain-Commander fixed them with sharp stares. Thankfully, he didn't leak his Reiatsu this time, but Toshiro still found himself rooted in place as Yamamoto-sama relayed the message. "Aizen's forces have launched an attack on Karakura Town."
A/N: Feels good to have this finished! As always, please lemme know what you thought of it and/or point out any problems or errors you may have spotted. Feel free to leave any suggestions you may have as well.
Have a good one, y'all
Uploaded: November 6th, 2022