I don't know if anyone will actually read this, anymore. I want to thank all of you who reviewed/scolded me for not updating over the last … oh my Lord, it's been a long time.
The only excuse I can offer is the truth: I've kind of been in a serious, work-related, probably chemical-imbalance-induced spiritual-crisis/family-intervention-level depression and I just could not write for a long while. Long story. Very boring. Quite unpleasant.
I kept my "alien abduction" rant up on my profile, aware of its profound hypocrisy, because I felt that if I ever took it down, or put up a HIATUS notice, I would be done. Finished. No more writing for me. So I kept it up and told myself: I'll write it when I'm better. Honestly, finishing this fic has weirdly become an important milestone in my head, a sign of my becoming me again.
I'm not all the way okay, but better. So I'm giving this a go. Please forgive me past laziness and present suckiness. This story may not be any good, but it will get done.
Once again, especially since I've been out of the game so long, any and all criticism, advice, grammar tweaks, lectures, recriminations, etc, very very welcome.
In the Land of Nod
"I don't know how you talked me into this," Ichigo grumbled, tugging again at the long mask that partially obscured his vision.
"Talked you into it?" his wife, nestled in his arms, craned her neck backwards to glare at him. There was a stir in the crowd around them as half-sleeping hollows shifted uncomfortably. There were too many of them in the transport; it was hard to breathe. Rukia bit back her next words, hissing through barely open lips. "I told you not to follow me!"
"Like I would let you try this #!% alone," Ichigo snarled under his breath. She could not hear him, but she could read his aura accurately enough.
"I told you," she repeated, letting her face fall into the folds of her robe. "I owe him."
For a long while they rode on in silence. Occasionally they would hear a rough laugh from the drivers in front of the caravan, or a muffled curse and brief scuffle among the passengers. For the most part it was too hot to fight, even this late at night. The wheels kicked up a constant cloud of sand, choking everything.
"Oh, God," Rukia's voice, audible only to him, trembled slightly, "I hope they're okay."
Ichigo cursed to himself. Damn that idiot scientist! He and Rukia were supposed to have met the rest of the party two days ago. The pair of them had meant to spy out the lay of the land a few days before the main attack.
But Urahara's portal hadn't sent them, as expected, into the familiar Las Noches desert. Instead they had stepped through to find themselves in mountainous country, on the shores of a dead ocean. On the farthest outskirts of the Hueco Mundo.
That was five days ago now. Five days of hard travel, of worry verging on panic. They had not brought a return portal (too easy to detect). All they knew was that they were deep in enemy territory - deeper than any shinigami had ventured before, and they had no choice but to keep moving.
"Well, now," Yachiru murmured, sipping at something that looked suspiciously like a cocktail, "This is different."
Ishida grunted. He didn't like clubs in general, and this one was particularly bad. The music thudded away at a volume calculated to drown out all thought, and the thrashing dancers left almost no room to breathe. Not, given the clientele's sanitary habits, that you would want to.
The petite shinigami twirled her tiny umbrella thoughtfully. "They can see us," she said, biting her lip.
"Not all of them," Ishida's attention was only half at the table; he was scanning the dark corners of the room for someone or something. "But most of them, yes. Urahara's caters to the Kankura Syndrome crowd. They tend to be socially isolated," he straightened, and waved at someone, "cliquish, paranoid, borderline suicidal …"
Hitsugaya's eyes narrowed. "They're not ... much interested in us." Limited as his human interactions had been, he would have expected pink hair, black kimonos and ancient weaponry to stand out in a crowd.
"This place boasts the weirdest of Japan's youth culture," Ishida gestured about him. "Enough said. Besides, while these people have seen unspeakable horrors in the spirit world," he tried to restrain the bitterness in his voice, "they've had very little experience with the shinigami."
Abruptly he stood, and started pushing his way to the opposite side of the club. Wordlessly - there was nothing to say - they followed.
The days had passed like fevered dreams. They had walked through weird villages, where market stalls bristled with teeth and empty-eyed hollow children played in the dust. The streets were filled with traders, dressed in bone armor and what looked horribly like skin. They would bellow out their wares as they walked, dragging dozens of human souls along the ground by their soul chains.
Ichigo had exploded with rage the first time they encountered one of these. It took all of his strength (and Rukia's strongest binding kidou) to stop him from obliterating the village and freeing the ghosts. She was right, of course. Putting aside their broken cover, it was doubtful he could have saved any of the humans - most were unconscious already, half-devoured, not enough heart left even for a soul burial.
"It was never like this before," Rukia whispered to him, holding him out of sight in the shadow of a crude building. She stroked his arm, trying to calm him down. "Before Aizen, I mean. The hollows used to be nomadic hunters - they moved about trying to find dead souls that the shinigami missed. There was never enough food, and half the time they ended up cannibalizing each other."
He closed his eyes and shook his head, repulsed but she plowed on mercilessly. "Stop it. That was ... that is their nature. That is the nature of all living things. To eat. To survive."
"That," he snarled, "is not natural." He glared out onto the street, where a particularly hideous slug-creature was waving a translucent old man above its head.
"No," as ever, the emotion in Rukia's eyes did not touch her quiet voice. "The war has effectively stopped shinigami from protecting the humans. You have to understand, for the hollow, it was as if food started to fall from the sky. Their numbers have skyrocketed. In the last ten years, they've settled in spirit areas tied to large human populations, like, like farmers." She swallowed, aware of how callous it all sounded. "We're beginning to see stratified societies, specialized occupations…," she nodded towards the monstrosity, "…barter."
He swallowed, suddenly overcome by nausea. "Let's get out of here," he had murmured, pulling his wife deeper into the shadow of the alley and towards the open road. "I don't want to be around when they work out the concept of fast food."
Luckily, the country hollow seemed to revere the arrancar, especially those, like Ishar and Rocha, who were traveling to the palace to offer their services to Aizen-sama. Ichigo's short temper and obvious disgust fit their disguises perfectly, and very few creatures of any type had dared to challenge them.
Letting the steady rocking motion of the vehicle lull him, Ichigo settled back in the transport. He half-lifted one hand to the hole in his chest, but then he forced himself to be still. The illusion would hold - portal screw-up aside, Urahara knew his work. Ichigo would only draw attention if he kept picking at it.
His wife sat still and bolt-upright. The hole in her body was only too real, her familiarity with this place all too natural. He had to repress a shudder whenever she spoke to a native. After her long service here, she could imitate the accent of some of the country hollows. She could even speak a little of the old Hueco Mundo dialect.
I trust her, he told himself. Then he told himself again: I trust her. It wasn't her idea to come back to this place. It doesn't matter how her disappearance looks to Soul Society, a month after being released from prison and a week after her wedding. It doesn't matter what they think. I trust her.
Why did we agree to this? he wondered for the thousandth time. A suicide mission to rescue a girl that he, Ichigo, had never met, that Hitsugaya hadn't seen in ten years, a girl who may not even still be alive. Hell of a way to spend a honeymoon.
He sighed, and quietly sought Rukia's hand. They both knew why. He recalled Matsumoto's face, while she had explained the plan to them. She had never spoken it, but there was no mistaking the plea in her voice. If you don't come, he'll go alone. He'll go and he'll be killed. Aizen's waiting for him.
The moon rose, spilling light through the grating in the walls of the truck. Grateful for a break in the murkiness, he turned to look out. Over the seemingly endless sea of sand, they saw for the first time the tiny pale towers of Las Noches on the horizon. A chill settled on their hearts. They both knew it, deep inside: Aizen was waiting for them, too.
"They're waiting for us," Yachiru's voice was level and calm, which never boded well. "Because, see, we said we'd meet them."
Urahara had always looked, well, a little disreputable. Ten years of warfare had not particularly improved him. His kimono still hung loose to the navel, and his ridiculous hat still shielded his eyes. He had lost the wooden shoes, though, and no longer bothered with the captain's overcoat.
The man laughed a little nervously. That also was a bad sign. Urahara Kisuke did not, as a rule, get nervous. "Why, Lieutenant Kusajishi! Welcome to my Kyoto headquarters! Such a pleasure…."
"It's Captain Kusajishi, actually," the girl flashed him her brightest and most terrifying smile. "I guess Big Boobies didn't tell you. Maybe she didn't tell you about the plan, either? The one that involved you sending Ichi and Ruki over, and then you NOT splitting town before sending Snowball and me after them."
"I assure you, my dear..."
"Maybe she didn't mention to you that we were supposed to rendezvous two days ago? I bet that's it." Urahara backed away from the menace in her voice, but froze when he felt Hitsugaya's aura behind him.
Yachiru continued, gesturing with one hand as she advanced on him. "Matsumoto's such an airhead. Probably she said, 'oh, Kisuke darling, here's the plan. We'll send one team over on a reconnaissance mission. Then the other team will spend five days searching the world for your sorry untrustworthy ass.' "
"Hold on!" Ishida burst out, unable to contain himself. He had quite enjoyed watching the scientist squirm, but this revelation took precedent. "Are you saying Rukia's been THERE all that time? What the hell is going on!? You said she was all right!"
"She's fine." Hitsugaya said quietly. "It's almost impossible to communicate across the dimensions, but Division 12 has managed to create a small tracking device. We'd know if they had been killed."
"And if they were captured?" Ishida spat. This - this is why he didn't deal with shinigami anymore.
"They would have destroyed the device," the ice wielder answered. "It's tied to their reiatsu, so they can do it with a thought. They're still free," he turned back to the shopkeeper, "and that's the one and only reason you're still breathing, Urahara."
The man straightened and beamed, dusting off his kimono and straightening his absurd hat. "I do apologize for the inconvenience. But I have to keep moving, you know," his face took on a martyred air, "such is my tragic fate."
The young shinigami watched him narrowly. It was true, Urahara's operations were always jumping about. Aizen needed a million strong souls to re-forge the King's Key and storm the gates of Heaven. After the Seige of Karakura, Urahara had been moving from city to city, dispersing pockets of reiatsu that bubbled up in the human population. Without concentrated centers of spirit power, Hueco Mundo's no longer had to take over one city - they had to conquer the world.
All the same, it wouldn't have been hard to leave a forwarding address. Dispassionately, he watched Yachiru seize the older man and shake him like a rag doll, screaming something much along those same lines. Urahara wasn't nearly the flake he pretended to be. If they couldn't find him five days ago, it was because he didn't want to be found.
By the same token, if Urahara had truly wanted to disappear, they wouldn't be standing here now, threatening to disembowel him. He wanted to delay us, Hitsugaya thought, clenching his fists. Probably by exactly five days. And there was absolutely no point in asking him why.
"Put him down," he ordered, and Yachiru reluctantly complied, though she kicked the scientist once more in the shins for good measure.
After Urahara regained his balance (and his breath), he made a grateful bow in the ice-spirit's direction. "Ah," he gasped, his hands still on his knees, "Hitsugaya-taichou. The Celestial Guardian."
Yachiru shivered as the temperature fell a few degrees. She had heard this title before, of course. The Rukongai villagers had believed little Toushiro to be some sort of reincarnate Heavenly spirit. It was nonsense, but what could you expect? When a four-year-old beats up Jidanbou, then gives him a lecture on manners, that sort of story gets around.
They had teased him about it at the Academy - he had been far more sensitive to that sort of thing back then. It wouldn't matter anymore, except… she was pretty sure that the last person to taunt him with it had been Ichimaru Gin. As deeply as Hitsugaya repressed most of his memories, some things he simply did not forget.
Yachiru swiftly decided to change the subject. "Hey, where are …" a sudden premonition pulled her up short. For the first time she took in the griminess of the place, the empty ramen bowls, the general air of neglect. She had been about to ask after Monkey-boy and Android girl. "… Jinta and Ururu?"
Urahara bent his head, so that only a brief, sad smile was visible. "Oh, long since gone. Did Matsumoto-san not tell you?"
He sighed. Now that she looked closer she saw black shadows under his eyes. "Please excuse the mess. To be honest, I didn't expect you until tomorrow." He sighed. "Well, I suppose we should get started. I'm so glad Ishida-san has decided to join you! It's always good to have variety on these little expeditions!"
The Quincy nearly choked on his tongue. "No, wait ... what? I ..." But the shopkeeper was sweeping out the door, gesturing for them to follow.
Ishida stared wildly after him, gaping. Then he rounded on the shinigami, intending to say something nasty and storm out., but - there was only the one exit. No way to go but their way.
"Yay!" Yachiru grabbed one of his hands. "This'll be fun! We'll bond; I'll do your nails!" She made a face. "These are filthy. You just can't kill people with nails like that."
Hitsugaya simply shrugged. "You can come if you like."
The archer slumped, defeated, and walked after Urahara.
The more she heard the snake's impossible voice, the clearer it sounded to Hinamori. Indeed, surreal as it was, its very presence seemed to sharpen her mind. It was as if the weird contours of its stark white body sent the rest of her world out of focus. As if only she and the snake existed.
"Why have you resolved to leave?" it asked her.
The question sounded formal, like the words of some priest sending a hero on a sacred quest. It also sounded comical, hissed through the serpent's immobile lips with an ever so slight country accent.
Hinamori did not smile. She had never been what you would call a humorous person. "There is someone I have to kill."
"Ah. And who would that be?"
Hinamori found herself grateful for this bizarre little encounter. It felt right, somehow, to declare her new purpose before setting off. To name her enemy. "Hitsugaya Toushirou."
Normally, these hero-sending ceremonies run fairly fluid. The inquisitor, after all, knows the answers in advance. At this, however, the serpent paused, seemingly surprised. "Why?" it whispered.
"He killed my children."
Again the strange not quite silent laughter. "Ah. Is that what your lord and master told you? Heh." The white snake swayed and bobbed, radiating amusement. "Jealous after all. That's the kind of big kid he is, I guess - even if he don't like his toy, he ain't about to share."
"My ... my husband didn't tell me," she choked, confused. "I saw it."
"Same difference." Hinamori did a quick double-take. She could have sworn that the snake shrugged, but ... how can a snake shrug?
Oblivious, the creature continued. " 'Course, those l'il munchkins took a heck of a lot of concentration, an' he ain't got the time. Or … " a long, drawn out hiss followed, chilling her to he bones, "has he figured it out? Surely not…."
Hinamori did not understand, and didn't bother trying. "It wasn't because Shirou was jealous; he never felt that way about me. I don't know why he did it." Because her husband wouldn't support his rebellion? To cut off ties to his former life? Maybe he was worried that our children would be too powerful. "I don't know," she repeated, her face hardening. "I don't care."
"Well, well. If this ain't the new and improved H. Momo," the serpent murmured sardonically. "The door is this way."
They had stopped at the edge of the meadow, and Hinamori stood eying the dark wood before her. She raised slim fingers to her lips, as if to stop herself from betraying fear.
"What's the matter?" the dry voice mocked, beside her. The snake circled slowly about her in the dry grass; the rustling sounded like soft applause. "We were so confident a moment ago!"
"There are wolves in the forest," she whispered.
"There are indeed," it replied, more seriously, "and worse beyond that. What is your plan, exactly?"
She did not answer at first, quietly chewing a fingernail. What was she thinking? She had never been a match for Shirou, not even at her height, and now she was ten years out of practice.
Then she straightened and banished the doubt from her mind, replacing it with a single image. She moved her hand, watching the tendons ripple, willing strength into her fingers.
"Where," she said, "is my sword?"
The trio pushed through the boisterous crowd, squeezing past the bar, trying in vain to keep up with Urahara. Halfway to the door, Yachiru felt a hand on her arm. She tried to brush it off – there was no avoiding contact in this throng, after all – but the grip only tightened.
She turned to see two girls, apparently in their teens, draped over the bar furniture. Their postures were no doubt intended to signal their sexual availability, but in fact suggested something closer to muscular atrophy, or at least extreme discomfort.
Yachiru had seen the two of them earlier from across the room - they had been eyeing Hitsugaya with undisguised lust. He hadn't noticed, which was a good thing. Snowball interpreted close attention as the prelude to attack, and he tended to be pre-emptive in such matters.
"Nice katana," Yachiru heard one of them say, "We don't get enough cosplay down here."
The taller of the two released Yachiru's sleeve and nodded indolently at her companion. "Yuri and I were just wondering about your friend. Are you two, you know?" She leered a little, and her fingers wandered unwisely towards the pink-framed face. "Even if you are, it's cool. You'd be more than welcome to join in."
Yachiru stepped back. She looked after Hitsugaya, who had shouldered his way ahead. "We're not," she said shortly. "But you're wasting your time."
"He's gay?" Yuri gave a crooked half smile. "No problem. They can be turned if you know how." Her hands smoothed her skirt in a particularly suggestive manner. "For a while, anyway."
The other gave a low chuckle. "Long enough."
Yachiru's slim eyebrow twitched. "No, he's … he's waiting," she explained, rather lamely. She felt uncomfortable. Her upbringing had been, in some bizarre ways, deeply conservative.
The taller girl was scrawny and pimpled; her blue-streaked hair hung limply in her eyes. She sported black fingernails and wore a combat jacket over something tight and mesh-y. A child of the modern age, evidently, with nothing but scorn for outworn conventions.
"Waiting for marriage?" she smirked, "Even less of a problem. These born-again types are so sheltered, you know." She winked at her friend. "They break easy."
Bright pink eyes turned in her direction and the girl swallowed, disconcerted. She had assumed Yachiru to be of her own age and mindset. Under the Soul Reaper's unblinking gaze, she suddenly felt very, very young - for all her rebellion, no different from countless long-dead generations.
These impressions fled, however, at a soft sound - half snap, half hiss. The stranger had thumbed the hilt of her sword, exposing a few inches of very real blade.
"He's waiting for me." Her voice was level and her face, uncharacteristically, was unsmiling. "He just doesn't know it yet."
They stepped out of the club onto an urban rooftop. On all sides, countless late-night office windows twinkled iridescent, reflected in streaks on the Kamo River. The oceanic sound of traffic wafted up and around them like a gentle breeze.
Yachiru wrinkled her nose. "I don't wanna tell you your business, Mad Science," she said, clutching her kimono tighter against the wind, "but this isn't a great place for an ID portal. Too much turbulence."
"Well," Urahara drawled, "to be honest, that wasn't exactly what I had in mind."
Without warning, she felt a familiar prickling at the back of her neck. Her hackles rose and she spun, her katana unsheathing as if by its own accord. From the corner of her eye she saw Hitsugaya, too, drop into a defensive position. "What's going on?" Ishida's demanded, a little shrilly. He had pulled out his bow.
"I am sorry about the mix-up," the scientist said airily, as if he hadn't noticed anything. "I was rude of me to leave you hanging like that. Something came up, and I had to ponder on it a while. Now, don't be that way," he held out his hands in a soothing manner as the two captains stepped towards him, "Let's be frank, I ponder well and naturally I've come up with a brilliant plan."
His long thin smile twisted a little wryly. "It's just, well, I don't think you'll like it very much."
From the shadows behind him a figure stepped out of nothingness. It was tall and lanky, and it emanated power like a strong stench. "Let me introduce you:" Kisuke continued, though even he sounded strained, "to Senor Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez."
Notes: So, after all of that time, this is a pretty paltry offering, and I know it. Sorry. To try to make up for it, (and to try to get my head back into the story) I've drawn a couple of pictures of the main characters. If you're interested, they should be accessible from my profile.
ARG, this is frustrating. Three chapters in and we haven't even met everyone yet. Please be patient. Since this is a wrap-up story, and there's um .. a cosmic war to wrap up, it's a little … complex. A lot of groundwork needs to be laid, a lots of questions need to be asked about the nature of the cosmos being fought over. It's going to be different from the first two.
Here's hoping I don't screw it up too badly.
(Oh, and hey, in the interest of not sucking so much... I've never tried this beta thing and I'm not sure how it works, but um... how does one go about trying to do that?)