Dedication: To XxKuragari no KagexX I dedicate this chapter. Thank you for all the support you've offered me over the past months...almost a year...since the first chapter of Returning Home and Yoriena's debut here on. I really appreciate everything, and of course, a dedication was long overdue. And I'll write something nice for your birthday next year. Promise. Do forgive me for being such a horrid friend, and hope you like this!

Acknowledgment: Special thanks to my dearest friend, Monkey, for offering me valued critics while proof-reading my works when all seem terribly wrong. I got myself beta-readers (to alleviate her task), but it was a lot easier to let her do the proof-reading. We do see each other every single day...And for putting up with me when I send her emergency mails, hysterically asking her to beta my fics, simply 'cause I got a bad bout of writer's block. And for laughing with me over stupid things in my fic, things you all would never get to see...

*Huggles* I love you! (Though, rest assure, there's nothing going on between us...We just come from a very...vocal...girls' school.)

Artworks: I got Monkey to do a few pictures of Yoriena, Hikatori in sealed form, and an Autumn Fire Omake. You can link to it from my FanFiction profile page, or go to my deviantArt gallery (username's Shadow-Countess).

Disclaimer: Bleach and all related concepts belong to Tite Kubo. I own nothing save this plot and my character, Soroki Yoriena and her zanpakutou, Hikatori.


Autumn Fire
A Soroki Yoriena & Hirako Shinji Novel

Chapter V
Shattered World

By Shadow Countess

~.~.~.~

Together, the vizards had protected the town against the hollow. Hirako Shinji had won his inner hollow, though not in time to protect his hime like he had hoped to do. Soroki Yoriena had lived up to her reputation, had not let her pride down, but all was done at the price of her life. Soifon, through methods strange and unknown, had finally realized that her fukutaichou was in danger, yet it was too late, was it not?

Just what was the price paid that day?

~.~.~.~

"What happened, Bee?" Yoruichi questioned as she raced after her protégée with Urahara half a step behind. Soifon was scaring her. After nearly passing out during the meeting with Yamamoto and many others, she had asked to leave on account that Yoriena was in danger, and had demanded that Kisuke tagged along. Yoruichi had followed out of concern: Soifon never wanted Kisuke in the near vicinity. "Tell me."

"Yoriena's reiatsu vanished," was the curt reply.

Locks of dark purpled flounced as she shook her head, full lips parting to heave a sigh of stark exasperation. "Look, Bee, Yoriena's a fukutaichou. You have to show her the basic faith and respect, not speculate and freak over every little thing."

Even Rukia could handle such an easy mission," Urahara added, only to regret when an icy glare was tossed his way.

"Kuchiki messed up big time, and Aizen wasn't on the move then," came the harsh reminder. I'm not speculating: I know. And she's hurt." Brows drew into a tight frown. Why did her reiatsu vanish? It made no sense whatsoever.

The older shinigamis exchanged fleeting glances of resignation and mild amusement. It was futile arguing with Soifon when her mind was set, no matter how insane and absurd her theory was. All they could do was to follow, keep her out of trouble, and hope that she would come to her senses soon.

Never once did they expect that Soifon was right, especially since the truth went beyond their wildest imaginations.

~.~.~.~

Her inner world was destroyed, shattered, and in tatters. An utter mess. No...Teeth chewed on lips as smoky eyes of green flickered to take in her surroundings. A mess was an understatement; a severe understatement.

Everything adorning the abundant land that was her inner world had either vanished, or was about to do so, lingering at the border separating life and death. Most creatures had disappeared, and the scene of nature was in shambles.

With shivers of heavy apprehension crawling through her flesh, Yoriena knelt beside the fawn lying on the ground, its feeble form resting on a parch of withered grass. Its fur was skeletal and dull, lacking the usual shine of the line it was crafted from. Mournful eyes of dark liquid gazed at the shinigami, life and light slowly seeping from its very soul.

Deeply unnerved and disconcerted, she reached out a hand to brush its side, only for...Eyes narrowed dangerously as her fingers passed through its fur, skin, and sank into its hollow, fleshless body.

What was going on?

~.~.~.~

A low groan, and he forced his eyelids to part. Disorientated eyes of brown stared up at the whitewashed ceiling, only to shut with a hard squeeze when the lights and walls began to spin and close in on him. So he was back in his room...

"You're awake," a voice sounded somewhere on his far right.

"Nah, I'm Shinji." Lips grimaced at the dry croak that was his gruff voice. With painful slowness, he lifted his head off his pillow and probed his body into a sitting stance, leaning heavily against the pillows. Hiyori would have moved forward and helped him up had there not been an unspoken rule amongst the vizards. With that rule set in place, doing so would have been a clear insult on his pride. "Who else can I be?"

"A dickhead."

Sepia-hued eyes rolled, yet a single brow arched with clear incomprehension, for the reply lacked her usual mockery and disgust. Instead, it was almost teasing with an uncharacteristic hint of gentleness. And of course, he couldn't help but let slip a comment. "Did you hit your head somewhere?"

Those orbs of pale blue narrowed in his direction, only to flicker away a mere moment later. "God, one moment awake, and you're already making an ass outta yourself." A quick breath, and when she next spoke, her tone was lowered and much more somber. "You scared us, Shinji. One moment, everything was fine. The skies were blue and the birds were chirping, and the next, you were going crazy...wild..."

Thin shoulders drooped into a slump at the memory. He had lost control of his hollow and had gone on a wild, uncontrolled rampage because of—Shinji sat up straight, his movements so abrupt that Hiyori jumped back with an involuntary yelp of shock. "Where is she?"

"She?"

"Yoriena. She was there, and I..." Guilt and hatred twisted his guts as the sensation of claws—his claws—sinking into flesh, drawing massive amount of blood, came to mind. "I hurt her."

"Soroki, she..." Hiyori started cautiously and halted, nervously watching him.

"What happened?"

A single hand rested on his arm as she posed the soft, hesitant question. "You won't freak if I tell you this, will you?" She didn't want to let him know, for he would panic and fret, yet it was only a matter of time before he found out. After all, Yoriena was lying unconscious in a room a mere story above, and things would only worsen if they lied to him.

He nodded wordlessly, dread swirling in his stomach.

"When we—Mashiro—found her after the the fight, she was near death. Her body was in tatters and her vitals were extremely low..." she trailed away, silently waiting for his reaction. He nodded for her to move on. "Hachi's using restrains to stop her spiritual particles from scattering, but she might not make it."

"Kisuke," Shinji managed to force out after a sledgehammer hit him on the head, stunning him, and dislodged his thinking abilities. She was hurt, and it was his fault. "Go get him."

"He was called back to Seireitei with Yoruichi-san."

"When would they get back?" With the two of them gone, they had no other form of contact with Seireitei, contacts they could trust.

Her answer was deathly grave, much unlike the usual sassy retorts she offered him. "No one knows."

"I'm going to drag his sorry ass back," came the fierce snarl as he lunged out of bed.

Hiyori stood up, stepped forward, and blocked his path with both arms outstretched. "You can't. They—those shinigamis," she spat venomously, "will come and kill us all!"

"So you rather let her die? She's just a child, Hiyori, a child."

"She was a child a century ago! She's not your precious little Hime anymore," Hiyori retorted, furious and ferocious. "She's a fukutaichou! For all you know, she was the one who sent those assassins after us!" Her breathing was uneven, labored. Despite knowing that she was threading on thin ice, she carried on anyways, for it was the only way to stop him. "You're throwing us all away for her sake? For a person who didn't, and doesn't, give a rat's ass about us? Us who have stood by you?"

Shinji halted, shook his head, and pushed his way past Hiyori all the same. "I just don't want her to die because of me."

~.~.~.~

"Hikari-sama?"

The call, soft and hesitant, danced through the air. Eyes, alert and guarded, watched as she crossed the plains. It was not her style to call out and make unnecessary noise, but here, there were no enemy assassins prowling in the shadows to catch her off-guard. Ears strained to catch her zanpakutou's answer or a flutter of wings, but the only response was dead, heavy silence. Lips tucked into a thin line. Where was she?

One step, and a harsh, sharp gasp forced its way out from her throat and past her parted lips as a flash of burning pain tore through her frame, driving her down onto the ground. A burst of white colored her vision; fingers curled into tight fists as she writhed.

It was insane. Never had she felt pain that severe—the time she had been poisoned by enemies of Seireitei did not come anywhere close when to her, and that experience had been a trip down the road to hell.

And then, it was over.

As soon as it had come, the agony dissipated, leaving naught but a quivering wreck on the ground. Eyes were tightly shut, frame was trembling. It was as though every ounce of energy had been sapped from her very being.

"Damn..." the low, barely audible word tumbled from her lips, lips that were bloodied from a desperate bout of violent gnawing. "Why..."

Why was this happening?

No...What was happening?

Hands shoved at the ground, palms pressing into the rough soil, arms trembling, as she heaved her laden body into a faint resemblance of a sitting position and onto her feet. A step forward, and the fukutaichou found herself tripping in a failed attempt at shunpo and tumbling onto the uneven grounds, once again falling onto her knees. Those green eyes of tainted silver flittered to a close as she drew a long, quivering breath.

Damn it all.

Though she had always taken pride in being sturdy and tough, the pain had eaten into her. She could barely move, and was utterly and completely drained. Sapped of energy and reiatsu.

For someone who hadn't lost her cool in the past century, being thrown into a state of turmoil for the second time that day was an entirely new and unwelcome experience. It simply threw her off-balance, and the fear and confusion addled her mind. Blindly, she found her body moving on its own accord, carrying her over the grounds to search for Hikatori.

Terror gnawed at a corner of her heart as she passed by the river meandering down the valley. The stream that once shimmer with reiatsu—her reiatsu—was now completely dry. A few fish, paled till a shade of translucence, flopped on the cracked ground and dissipated before her very eyes.

Yoriena bit back a cry on anguish. She knew she was exhausted and empty, but having the truth hit her right smack in the face was a tad too much for her to take. Or maybe, that was what dying was like. To have the whole world crumble down around you before you too fade away.

Maybe...

Like a rubber band that had been stretched too many times and had weakened, the long, hard tug snapped her impenetrable control. Slowly, the shinigami sank to the ground, wrapped her arms around herself, and hugged her slender, trembling frame tightly. Never had she felt so lost.

~.~.~.~

"Kisuke!" was Mashiro's cry of delight as she flung her lean body into said guy's arms. "You're here!" Pouty lips curved into a wide smile of innocent happiness.

Sharp eyes the coloration of fresh mercury narrowed to cast hostile, exterminatory glares at each of the vizards in turn. "Is Yoriena here?" came the cold demand as she ignored the warm display of affection. One-sided affection.

Rose shifted nervously and stepped forward, one long finger unconsciously tucking a strand of wavy blond hair behind his ear. "Soifon-san," he greeted with a wary, shaky smile. "Nice to—"

"Cut the niceties, Otoribashi. Is my fukutaichou here or not?"

Yoruichi reached out to lay a hand on the taichou's shoulder and gave a hard squeeze of warning. "Rose, is Yoriena really here? Kisuke said she might be, but we can't sense her reiatsu."

Silence, thick and heavy, ensued.

"Something...cropped up," admitted Rose, "she—"

"She's in one of the spare rooms with Hachi," Lisa intervened. "This way." A hand pointed towards the opened doors as she led the trio out of the room and up the stairs, leaving the other vizards to wallow in unease and discomfort. "Urahara-san, we need your help."

"Is it...serious?" Yoruichi interjected anxiously, eyes of molten topaz scanning and taking in the numerous battle scars littering Lisa's exposed skin. From the looks of it, a fight had just occurred, and the outcome had not been desirable.

"Yes," the ex-fukutaichou responded and left it as that. Upon reaching the room farthest from the stair landing, she pushed the door open and stepped past the threshold. "Hachi, how is she?"

"Kisuke!" Shinji jumped up from his perch on the edge of the mattress on which Yoriena laid. They flinched at the thick concoction of emotions biting his tone—a mixture of fear, relief and desperation—and the sight that greeted them.

The target of their frantic hunt was resting on the bed in a deep slumber, still and unmoving. Her skin, though unnaturally pale, was ghastly white, forming a stark, unpleasant contrast with her shihakushou of black and the deep red blood staining her form. Dark tresses, lank and matted, was strewed on the bedsheets.

"What happened?" Soifon whispered, rooted to the spot. "Who did this to her?"

"I..." Shinji started, only to end off with a sigh and a slump of shoulders. "Kisuke, Hikatori broke."

Those who realized the implication of those two simple words blanched.

"When?"

"During the fight against..." A pause. "A hollow."

Urahara shook his head, uncharacteristic worriment lining his features. "Never mind about that for now. Yoruichi-san, please bring her back to Urahara Shouten. I'll run the tests there. Shinji, where's her gigai?"

"Not here. She must have left it at the café. I'll go get it?" He vanished in a flurry of swift shunpo steps when consent was given. Yoruichi slipped her student's lifeless form into her arms and headed for the door.

"Hachigen, follow us and hold the restrains." Said vizard nodded and shifted from his sitting stance at the curt order. "How long can you keep this up?"

"Two hours, with my mask."

"Please hold it there. Tessai will take over later. Soifon-san, can you stay and find out what happened?"

She hesitated, and, for the first time ever, she agreed with him. "Yes." It would have been an incident fit for the book of rare events of the century had the situation not been so tense.

~.~.~.~

A haunting song danced through the air, soft and barely audible, but sending shivers down her spine all the same. She knew only too well what it was, even though it was her first time hearing it, for the song was a part of her soul. It was the song of death, of mourning, it was the song of phoenixes.

It scared her.

With a hard bite of lips and a quick shake of head to clear her hazy mind, Yoriena picked herself up from the ground, graced a finger along her now empty sheath, and willed her legs to move. She had to find Hikatori, the phoenix of light, even if it killed her.

Not that it would make much of a difference, seeing she was going to die anyways.

The fright clouding her, mind and form, increased with each passing second. She plowed through the darkened forest that was once the color of vibrant hues of light. Most of the flowers were gone, scattered in the wind. The larger trees remained standing, but they too had lost their former majesty and were nearing their ends. With her reiatsu drained, the creatures no longer had the energy to take their shapes.

Lips fluttered at a sigh. When her world evanesced, it would be time for her to bade all farewell.

For the first time ever, she came to realize just how much she relied on shunpo. A mere twenty minutes of trudging had left her exasperated. Beads of perspiration dripped to sting her eyes, for the air was humid, damp, and had none of the wind she had come to associate with flash stepping. Her legs were heavy and aching, not only from the previous bout of pain, but also from the slow movement. After all, she was built for dashing, not plodding.

It was all wrong. And she hated it, hated the feeling of being so weak.

The air was getting stuffier. It was getting harder to breathe, and she was slowing down. Lifting her legs was becoming harder by the minute. To her, the truth had never been clearer.

She was going to die.

And it would be next to her zanpakutou.

She had to make it to Hikatori, lie beside her, and be covered by her wings of soft down before she would finally give in and close her eyes.

What the...Yoriena stared, finally reaching the clearing where she had first heard the song from. The magnificent phoenix curled in the middle of the few wisps of grass, her form dull and crippled.

"Damn it all," she mumbled, and added a few colorful words that would make most drunkards proud of her. Though she did learn those words from taverns while on patrol duty.

Wearily, Hikatori lifted her once prideful head and fixed her shinigami partner with her deep, soulful eyes. "Little One, you're here." Even at a time like this, her voice was stunningly rich and melodious.

Nicer than mine would ever be, Yoriena thought with a faint, forced smile. Slowly, precariously, she wobbled over on unsteady footing and curled down next to her. With painful slowness, Hikatori wrapped one of her wings around her thin shoulders and held her close.

"We're going to die, no?" the shinigami questioned quietly, her heart finally at peace. Being a part of Onmitsukidou for an entire century had taught her to be constantly prepared, and to accept the inevitable final.

And she did.

Though she did not want to leave like this, without a farewell, without knowing why, she would accept it with a calm heart and a placid mind. A sigh escaped. There were so much she wanted to do, so many goodbyes she wanted to bade, but...life was never fair to begin with.

"Yes, we are. I don't want to either," Hikatori confessed, sensing a slight turbulence in her wielder's emotions. "But some things just aren't within our control."

"I know..." I just don't like it. With that, Yoriena canted her head to lean against the queen of birds' form. Eyes batted and closed, for she wanted to block out the scene of destruction and hurt from her final moments.

Seconds ticked by and yet, the duo sat in stony silence, wordlessly enjoying the other's company. Hikatori started to fade, growing fainter by the second, while her wielder felt a wave of sleepiness wash over her.

Yoriena sighed. Sometimes, she wished she was a normal girl, one who cried whenever things went wrong, and this was one of those rare moments. It had been so long since she last shed a tear that she had long forgotten how crying felt like, but the stinging sensation pricking the back of her eyes felt faintly nostalgic. Still, it was pointless to break down at the last moments when she had spent her entire life being strong.

"Little One...open your eyes," Hikatori whispered.

Eyes fluttered open, and she stared. "Why?" the word of confusion sounded. The process of vanishing seemed to have halted. Death had stopped, sparing the last remaining creatures.

"Someone out there is helping you..."

~.~.~.~

The room was completely sunken in inky blackness save the faint glows of the many pieces of medical equipments lined up within the room. Above a screen bent a single being, anxious eyes of gray fixated on the erratic jumping lines.

"Kisuke...What's going on?"

The man did not bother to turn. Though he had neither sensed her reiatsu nor heard her entrance, he knew it was her simply by intuition. They were that in tune to each other's presence.

"Her reiatsu's fluctuating...Heartbeat's erratic. Her body is fighting itself to death, trying to keep her alive. Even then..." He straightened and intoned solemnly. "It's just a matter of time."

"Can't you keep her alive?" came the hoarse whisper. "Kisuke, no one knows about the secrets of shinigamis more than you do. Can't you do something? Reconstruct Hikatori?" Long fingers curled into fists as topaz-hued eyes held her lover in a steady stare. "Don't you dare quit before it really ends."

Head shook. "Hikatori's broken beyond repair. It's no longer strong enough to hold her wielder together. The only hope is to modify her gigai so that it can support her life processes in place of her body. Only...I'm not sure if she can last till then."

"Why did this happen? She was alright when we left her earlier today...She was perfectly fine." She took a step forward and ran a long finger along her student's ashen white arm.

"Did Shinji really do this?"

~.~.~.~

"Hirako Shinji."

Lean frame jolted to a halt at the icy call of his name that had come from behind. Reluctantly, he turned around to face her. "Soifon. I have to deliver the gigai to Urahara."

One thin brow of pure black arced at the mannequin he held in a single hand, its weight dragging along the grassy ground. "Okay, but I want to ask you this before we get back: Who hurt Yoriena?"

"An—" He ran the tip of his tense tongue over his lips. "A vaste lorde."

"Who hurt her?" came the echo. Furious eyes of steel fixed him with an unfaltering stare.

"A—" he tried again, only to be interrupted.

"Apparently, you guys have yet to come up with a proper story. Some of your fellow...comrades told me it was a group of adjuncas, yet here you are, insisting that it's a vaste lorde. I don't know who's speaking the truth, but I doubt both. Even if your skills have rusted over the years, a couple of low-class hollows should be a piece of cake for former taichous and fukutaichous, no? Yet, all of you are hurt in one place or another."

Shinji glanced away. "We—"

"The truth, Hirako. I want the truth. Or..." she hedged. "Do you not care about Yoriena anymore?"

A low growl was coupled with a frustrated sigh. I'd hurt her, alright? I hollowified and turned into a fucking hollow and nearly killed her, alright?"

Soifon merely stared. "I guessed as much. After all, you were evicted for becoming a hollow those years back, no?" She glanced at the ground, slender shoulders drooping into a slump. "Do you know, Hirako? When Yoriena wakes up, we'll have to tell her the truth, and I doubt she'll like it much."

"Let's deal with one problem at a time, okay? We'll get her to wake up first, and then face reality," he retorted shortly, noting her use of 'when' and not 'if'. Somehow, the taichou had more confidence in her subordinate than he had in his princess.

"You better pray that she will. If anything goes wrong...You did not royally mess up, Hirako. You've put your neck on the guillotine, and I'll be the one slicing that fucked up head of yours off."


Summary for Chapter VI

No matter how hard you try to forget, no matter how hard you try to hide, the truth is never gone for real. It is always there, hiding, lurking, in the shadows, until it leaps out to deal its blow. A blow that is always fatal.


Authoress' Note: To be continued...

It would have been nice to end with a 'Fin' and no summary...but nah, 'tis not the time to end it all. I know it's been a really long time...eons...since I last updated, but please forgive me. I can only hold up a shield in defense and blame it on the mess of exams, projects, writers' block, work and whatnots. Life is out of the world hectic for me right now, seeing finals start in 4 days time with French oral, which I will fail, and the accursed writer's block ensures that I have to write each line numerous times before anything seems alright.

This chapter took 8 to 9 attempts as a whole, not counting each individual line or section...I believe it killed me. Bleach is not really interesting right now, so my motivation for writing this was kind of...really low. As low as the Grand Canyon. On the bright side, Ichigo and Aizen have both stopped level upping, and Kisuke appeared, so maybe something good will happen?

I hope you all still like this story, that this chapter isn't too bad, and...I shall thicken my skin and ask for reviews. Please review! The drop in reviews for the previous chapter was really disheartening, but I shan't moan and bitch about it. After all, some of you have reviewed, and others have dropped me a note via Quizilla and even email. I really appreciate it, and they've made me really happy ^^ The next update will come...I won't promise anything, but definitely after 13th October when my exams end. Reviews are motivations...*Hints*

Thank you all.