Bleach Fan Fiction ❯ Moderating Influence ( Chapter 37 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Tite Kubo owns Bleach. I just borrowed the characters. I did create Atonomatsuri (the bird) and Piecrust (the jerk).
Moderating Influence
When he opened his eyes the next morning, he heard the measured snoring of another person in the room. The sun had risen and he felt; how did he feel? His skin felt slightly abraded as if someone had scrubbed it hard, but his foot didn’t feel too bad at all. Moving his head, he noticed his hair felt wrong. It was tight against his skull and his scalp hurt slightly, almost like the hair was pulling against it. Reaching around, his fingers found a plait. Someone had plaited his hair! He sat up quickly, undoing the plait as fast as his fingers could move and then ran his hand through the hair many times. Satisfied that the offending hairstyle was no longer in evidence, he looked and saw that he was in the same room as his 3rd seat who was lying flat on his back, with his mouth wide open. Every time his chest rose a noise like a strangled snort emerged and as he exhaled he grunted. How had he managed to sleep through that racket?
“Wake up, Madarame. You’re making a bloody awful noise.” Zaraki spoke loudly, hoping that the noise would shock his third seat awake.
The snoring stopped as his voice echoed through the room. “You can’t talk,” the half asleep man replied.
Zaraki scowled at the man who still had his eyes shut. It wasn’t his place to say anything. But it wasn’t important. Today meant a big change and one that might make his life that bit easier. Ignoring the implied criticism and intimation that he snored, as he’d heard enough about that from Yachiru, Zaraki asked with interest, “How do you feel? Will you be able to be present at the hearing today?”
Madarame sat up slowly, his eyes still shut and a hand rubbing his chest as he yawned loudly. He winced slightly as he encountered the bandages and then nodded unhurriedly. “I feel better than I did. I’ll be there. I’d be there even if I was dying.” He opened his eyes and looked at his captain with clear intent. “It stops today. I want to be there to see the end.”
The depth of hatred in his voice was unmistakable and shocking. Zaraki was aware that his 3rd seat didn’t like the 12th Division Captain but wasn’t aware that the dislike had grown so strong. Later, he’d find out why.
“Yeah, we’ll get the scum and that will be the end of it,” Zaraki said feeling the conviction grow within him and ignoring that slight qualm of doubt. There was no room for doubt; the guy had to be stopped.
“The end? I doubt there will ever be an end as long as the man lives,” a cool voice said from the doorway echoing Zaraki’s discarded concern. “Good morning Captain Zaraki and Ikkaku Madarame.”
Retsu stood there her arms by her sides, her bearing as normal with her lips curved into a smile, but there was an air of expectation that Zaraki had not seen before.
“Breakfast will be served in 5 minutes and then I encourage you both to return to your quarters to dress. This is an official matter and we should respect the formalities. The hearing will commence shortly. By they way Captain, what happened to your braid?”
Without waiting for an answer, Retsu turned and left the room while Zaraki was trying to think of a reply. His hand had instinctively gone to his hair to seek assurance that the plait was indeed no longer there. Was she the person who had plaited his hair? He hoped not and felt a surge of anger that she’d mentioned it. Then he turned and saw a wide grin on his subordinates face.
“Don’t say a word, Madarame or you’ll regret it,” he said as he saw the question forming on the man’s face.
“But I only wanted…” he replied and then stopped as Zaraki’s expression hardened even more.
“That’s more than one word,” dropping his voice to a more threatening tone, Zaraki began to get out of bed ready to cause pain for his third seat, but the arrival of food prevented him from acting on his threat. Later he’d explain to Yachiru that the way he wore his hair was his concern and his alone. She could do what she liked with her hair, but any further speculation or suggestions weren’t welcome. One spurious comment and he’d ended up with a frigging plait! Next thing he knew somebody would decorate it with flowery hair pins and insist he wore a coloured uniform. There’d been enough changes in his life; he didn’t require any additional influences to make it even more complicated than it already was.
“Stay still, please, umn, Sir. Captain Unohana ordered an especially large breakfast for you, with plenty of tea. I made sure that food you like was included. There’s no natto,” Hanatoro was polite and slightly desperate as he set the tray of food on the table. He kept his face averted and seemed interested in the pattern of the wood flooring.
Grumbling under his breath, Zaraki looked at the tray and without further comment began to eat, uninterested in why the guy refused to meet his glance. The food was much better than the previous offering, but he ate quickly, his interest in it secondary to his impatience to get to the important matters. Dressing took minutes as he fully intended to change into clean clothes before attending the hearing.
“Hurry up, Madarame. I have better things to do than watch you push food into that channel to your ever empty belly,” he prompted his third seat.
Leaving 4th Division, Madarame, complaining slightly about being forced to eat so fast, they made speedy progress back to their Division.
“I’m going to have indigestion and my gut will probably make noises all through the hearing,” he grouched.
Ignoring the moan, Zaraki walked quickly and bid his subordinate to get ready, before he entered his quarters, changed and commenced arranging his hair. The first three bells were tied in record time.
“You’re not ready for this,” Atonomatsuri sounded worried once more. For some reason her agitation made that earlier unease he’d felt resurface. Was everyone psychic now? The bird had pretended that before but it had to be rubbish. “Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory,” she continued.
The sudden interruption startled him and made him drop the bell. As he was in a good mood, instead of getting angry, Zaraki sighed heavily and bent down to pick up the fallen item. Once again he tried to place it.
Again he was unprepared for the next sentence. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
“Nor do you,” he muttered under his breath. This time he hadn’t dropped the bell, but the hair was now flopping into his eyes and his face and hands began to heat from the increasing agitation. Hell, he wanted to get this thing over so his life could return to some sort of normality.
Her voice shrill, Atonomatsuri demanded, “What do you mean by that?”
With an effort he secured the fourth bell before he replied. “You stick around even when I ignore you.”
The vulture squawked loudly before recovering herself. “You dare ignore me?”
“I try damned hard to,” Zaraki agreed. Hadn’t she been listening? Had he ever pretended to be interested in what she had to say? Aside from the one or two times when she’d actually said something important. Those moments seemed to become increasingly rare.
The vulture’s words screamed through his mind as Atonomatsuri insulted him, often repeating earlier invective. Her rage and outrage built but he blocked it out.
Again he’d managed to affront her. Situation normal. It caused him to wonder if she enjoyed feeling offended, if perhaps the emotion was one that came easier to her than the more complex emotions, like ambivalence. Being upset with him meant she could act superior and withhold information and he had begun to be confident that she did not enjoy sharing her knowledge. It was almost as if she felt every piece of fact revealed to him diminished her somehow. He didn’t want to try to work it out because it would be a futile exercise and there were other, more important, things to confirm.
That might be one of the things he’d ignored. Resting his hands on the table in front of the mirror he gazed at his reflection, not seeing it. The bird hated him, whether that was in the past or present tense was unimportant. Neither of them liked the other, though sometimes he felt a grudging respect that she’d managed to make him think again after he’d so happily sacrificed the process. No matter the lures that had been presented to him previously, he’d managed okay without having to do more than use superficial thought processes. Introspection was for tossers, or so he’d said. Now he had to again re-evaluate a long term belief.
Atonomatsuri was instrumental in helping him gain at least a measure of revenge on the Clown Captain. Thinking about Atonomatsuri in conjunction with the man forced his to see something the bird had in common with Kurotsuchi. He gathered knowledge, facts, information and had to be forced to share the important things. It didn’t seem to matter that it could benefit everyone, yet the man treated knowledge like it was a possession. Sharing caused it become less valuable. Knowledge that he kept and didn’t share he could use as a bolster against the other Captains superiority over him, whether it was strength, wisdom, youth, personality or humour.
As he fixed the last bell on his hair he offered a sop to the spirit of his zanpaku-to. “Atonomatsuri, we’ll fight again, after the hearing.” That might satisfy her and he wanted to gain more skill in using the new form. It was time he mastered it, or he’d never reach bankai.
“I ask for an olive branch, he offers a leaf,” the vulture muttered. “I accept, but only because I want to see the promised justice.” The grudging acceptance was more than he’d expected.
Every time he remembered that it could take between 10 and 30 years to reach bankai he felt his jaw tighten. Thirty freaking years in the worst case scenario! But that wasn’t true in all cases, there were exceptions. The kid Captain hadn’t been a captain for 10 years and he’d had bankai before he’d been appointed. There was some rumour that the disgraced Urahara and that annoying orange haired ryoka had managed to do it within 3 days. That was more to Zaraki’s taste. 3 days instead of 3 years or even 3 weeks. The major problem was how did he find out how to do it? Would the old man permit him to go to the human world or even contact the `outlaw’? Maybe Ikkaku had some ideas. Or he could talk to some of the captains. Retsu might help, or even Soi. Soi owed him.
That hope lasted seconds. Not any more she didn’t. That cursed Piecrust had probably soured that friendship and she had done what he’d asked, more than he’d asked by taking the old man to witness the evidence of Kurotsuchi’s ambition. He didn’t want to think about Piecrust, not now. The guy’s actions had affected Retsu. She no longer seemed as friendly and that irked him. He’d begun to enjoy the evenings they’d spent with Madarame, Hanatoro and Ayasegawa, but those were probably over.
Checking his appearance briefly he placed his eye patch more firmly and nodded slightly at his reflection. Despite the events of the last few days he looked as normal and that was all that mattered. He didn’t want the internal change to become physically apparent in any way.
Opening his door he wasn’t surprised to see his cohorts awaiting him. His third and fifth seat looked grim, but Yachiru smiled at him before jumping on his back.
“Let’s go,” he said before leading the way. They walked in silence at slower than his normal pace and as they approached 1st Division he noticed they had been joined by other Captains and seated officers of from different Divisions, equally silent. At first it had seemed amusing that this hearing was taking place, but now, with the feeling of the ever present threat from the traitors and the knowledge that private conversations and moments may have been monitored, the mood within the Seireitei had turned sombre. Trust had been broken too many times. Another threat from within dampened the spirits. If Captains could be corrupted so easily, what did that mean for the ordinary Shinigami?
Since the day before Zaraki had been struggling against a heaviness of spirit. Damn, he was fed up with this. The hearing would drag on, accusations would be made and then counter accusations. More unpleasant secrets would be exposed to the unwary and finally, maybe, they’d lose another captain. Even someone as inept and unattractive as the Clown Captain was preferable to no Captain at all. The guy had no people skills, damned few skills that Zaraki could see but there had been some benefits in his research: his eye patch for one.
If there had been a moderating influence on Kurotsuchi; that might have helped. When he thought about it, he noticed that some Captains had a person close to them who provided the characteristics sorely needed by their superior. He had Yachiru who provided the intelligence and humour and she’d often step in and prevent him from making his worst mistakes. Kyouraku’s laissez faire attitude was balanced by the strict attention to detail of his assistant captain. Hitsugaya’s humourless demeanour was counteracted by the party loving and friendly Rangiku Matsumoto and Retsu’s serenity met Isane’s lack of confidence.
Even the traitors had been partially equalised by their second in command, but 12th Division didn’t have even that. They had a man who was reluctant to admit that he might, possibly be of the same race as those around him and his chief subordinate wasn’t permitted to do anything, except acquiesce to every demand.
He shook his head. Why was he even thinking like this? He should be concentrating on the hearing. Ayasegawa had been shaken by some facts that Nemu had provided, but Zaraki could not accept that any of the Shinigami would allow this hearing to be usurped by a man who aspired to take over the position of Commander in Chief. Those facts remained: the chair, the stick, the coat, they were all present. The monitoring of other people’s lives without their permission or even the permission of the Council couldn’t be overlooked.
“Do you think the Clown Captain will be wearing make-up today, Ken-chan,” Yachiru asked. The voice was a welcome interruption to his thoughts that were becoming progressively darker.
He saw his 5th seat shudder and remembered his earlier request not to see the man without his clothes or his make up. “I don’t know. It’s a hearing. Maybe he’ll have to wear the same type of clothes he wore before Urahara had him released. Pity we can’t get Urahara back here. He could provide some explanations.”
“Captain Kurotsuchi is still a Captain and will be accorded all the privileges associated with that position, Captain Zaraki, as any of us would,” Captain Kuchiki assured him solemnly.
Zaraki jumped as he hadn’t noticed the man previously. He had to get the hang of shun-po. It would save on all that endless running through the Seireitei and might be the end of arriving late. “Uh, yeah. While he’s still a Captain,” he said, and tried to keep his tone flat. Despite his attempt there was a marginal emphasis on the word `still’. He knew that Kuchiki would take his responsibility of defence seriously, despite his examination of the evidence. The man took everything seriously. Why he had sought out Zaraki, he had no idea.
“Oi, wait up, Captain,” called Abarai from some distance behind. “I can’t keep up with you.”
“That was my intention,” the dark haired noble said very quietly and Zaraki was amazed to hear a note of humour in his voice. That comment proved more interesting than expected and he resolved to try to find out more, but later. He glanced at Madarame, but it was evident that he hadn’t heard it, nor had any one else.
“I look forward to cross examining you later, Captain Zaraki,” Kuchiki continued smoothly. “I’m sure your answers will provide enlightenment and entertainment.”
Stifling a groan at the thought of the questions that could be asked Zaraki replied, “Yeah. I’ll see if I can slip in a joke or two.”
“See that you do,” and with that the Captain stopped walking, allowing time for his assistant captain to draw near.
Not sure what to do, Zaraki walked on. While he knew the day might provide inconvenience he wanted it over so that all the problems could be revealed. He wanted to spend time doing things in his Division: sleeping, in, dozing, taking a nap, getting other people to do his paperwork or looking for a fight. Maybe he’d even read a book or two.
“Did Captain Frosty make a joke? Can you catch a sense of humour and did he catch it from you?” Yachiru’s mouth was near Zaraki’s ear. “Or did he have it all the time?”
It was a very good question and made Zaraki consider his answer carefully. Was the man humourless because he felt that his position required that he act in that manner, or did he suppress his nature because nobles were meant to be expressionless, or what? He’d often wondered if the man was hiding something and this might be the very thing that he’d been trying to conceal. “Don’t know,” he replied shortly.
“It might be fun to find out, Ken-chan,” Yachiru said quietly. “Is anyone here really as they seem?”
That comment made him straighten suddenly, so much that Yachiru complained that she almost lost her hold on his shoulders. If Atonomatsuri had asked that question, and she might have, he would have dismissed it as another ploy to confuse him or deflect his attention to something else. When Yachiru asked a question like this it made him consider the answer because she would often notice matters he might dismiss. He wasn’t the same man as he appeared; in the last week he had changed into a person he wasn’t positive he’d recognise, but most people wouldn’t know.
“You don’t have time to contemplate your navel,” he heard Atonomatsuri scold. “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”
He felt an overwhelming desire to shake his head and keep shaking it until he could forget what she’d said. For once it actually seemed appropriate, especially after what Yachiru had mentioned, but the vulture was also correct. This wasn’t the time to get involved with an internal discourse on the nature of personality and how thoughts could frame and change the person. Maybe that was Kurotsuchi’s problem, he never thought past himself and that form of blindness could only increase with the passing of time. A stab of recognition made him uncomfortably aware that the same description may have applied to him only a short while previously.
“Not completely. You have always cared for Yachiru,” Atonomatsuri reminded him, apparently in tune with his thoughts.
The shock that accompanied the reminder took him into the room appointed for the hearing. It was not Yamamoto’s office, but another room that Zaraki had not entered previously.
There were chairs and tables, long benches were pushed against the wall and the central table, facing two others, had the 1st Division Captain’s chair behind it. Zaraki and his officers were directed to sit in a specific zone. He caught sight of the Captain’s assigned to prosecute and defend and they were seated at the front behind the two tables. Fortunately it was a large room with double doors that were opened to allow the air to circulate freely. Flowers had been placed on the tables: white iris on the prosecutor’s tables, yellow chrysanthemums on the defence. Small, fragile crimson orchids with some decorative fern stood in a slender vase on the Captain-General’s table.
“Why orchids, Ken-chan? They don’t seem like his flower at all. I would have thought something more masculine, like cornflowers or those ugly long life flowers. Or maybe a kangaroo-paw.” Yachiru, eyes wide, was staring at the flowers in astonishment.
“Is it important?” he asked gruffly. He didn’t care if they’d decorated the tables with yards of crepe paper and streamers. Flowers just added a hint of adornment to a room that was noticeably bland.
Yachiru subsided under the hard note in his voice.
Where had that anger come from? The kid had asked a simple question and he’d almost yelled at her. He sat, shifting impatiently as his skin hung askew on his bones, feeling like it belonged on another frame. It was rare that he had the sensation that his skin was trying to reject the muscles, veins and bones that lay beneath. The only other time he could recall the experience being this intense was a long time ago, when he was entering the Academy. At that time he was sure he was making a mistake. It had taken a stern will and firm resolve to enter those doors instead of picking up Yachiru and running in the opposite direction.
Hell, a man could get scared at least twice in his life.
If he was chucked out of the Seireitei he could survive in the stews of the Soul Society. His skills were greater, people would recognise him and he could get work as a mercenary, perhaps get a cushy place guarding one of the noble houses. Yachiru wouldn’t suffer; he wouldn’t let her suffer because she would insist on coming with him, even if he told her to stay behind. If he got a undemanding guards job she could take it easy, maybe even have a childhood, what was left of it.
The threat of execution didn’t daunt him, except he wondered what would happen to Yachiru. Would Madarame and Ayasegawa take care of her? Would her position be taken from her because of his actions? The kid was blameless and he’d tell any scum bug who thought otherwise. She had to be taken care of, no matter what happened to him. He’d make then swear to take care of her until she was old enough to fend for herself. No, better than that, he’d extract the promise from the old man. He owed him anyway.
“Ken-chan, let go of my hand. You’re squeezing it too tight,” Yachiru squeaked in his ear.
Automatically he released his hold on what he had thought was the handle of his zanpaku-to. Turning he stared down at his assistant captains face. She stopped rubbing her hand and looked at him curiously. “Why were you holding my hand? You were clutching your zanpaku-to and then suddenly you grabbed my hand and started muttering to yourself. Is there something wrong, Ken-chan?”
“Vulture, explain yourself,” Zaraki bellowed within his mind. “What are you trying to do?”
“Reminding you of what’s important, fool,” Atonomatsuri’s voice almost purred. “Getting scared for no reason. Where’s the fearlessly brave, or is it brainlessly fierce, Captain Zaraki now, Kenny? You don’t care about yourself, we’ve already established that, but try to keep it together for the one person who matters.”
“I am,” Zaraki growled back, infuriated that he could be so easily influenced by the creature.
There was a heavy pause and then the bird cleared her throat meaningfully. “Look Zaraki, if this goes the way I think it will; I want you to follow my instructions. I’m asking you to, well, um, you see, ur. To put it another way, um, ur, ugh, ub…”
“Spit it out, or have seeds got caught in your craw?” He wished she’d get on with it instead of using meaningless sounds staring with `u’. She hadn’t even managed to insert an adage but few of them consisted of half words and gurgles.
“Glug,” she said in reply.
“And you talk about my vocabulary! Have I been reduced to listen to you overuse a single vowel, or are you going to tell me what you want to say? Get on with it or the hearing will be over before you manage to work your way onto the next vowel. I suppose that would be `a’.” Was she going to start with argh, ag, ax or was she going to actually say something intelligible? The room was filling rapidly and he didn’t want to be engaged in a meaningless conversation with the dingbat spirit of his zanpaku-to when the fireworks commenced.
“Humph. Ungh.”
Had the bird bought the vowel and wanted to make certain that she got her money’s worth? Would she, in his lifetime, actually say what she wanted or was that not possible?
The she said two simple words which explained the trouble: “Trust me.”
There was no doubt in his mind what she meant. Atonomatsuri, a pain in his neck since she began speaking to him, wanted him to trust her by acting on her instructions without explanation.
“Let me get this straight. You want me to trust you, follow your instructions, no matter how featherbrained they seem, without question and immediately. Does that cover it, you quilled monstrosity?” Zaraki thought he was being polite. He’d been told once, and only once by some jerk who was trying to motivate him, to make it clear you’ve understood the speaker, though how any one else would have understood the strangled sounds she’d been making he didn’t know. If she knew he’d understood she might not have to repeat what she’d said and that could only be good.
“There’s no need to be insulting. An injury is sooner forgotten than an insult.” The protest was much less vehement than customary and lacked the conviction that she normally expressed. Was the bird feeling worried about whether he would accept, or was she nervous?
“Whatever. Was I close to what you were trying to say?” The bird would go off on a tangent if she was on a merry-go-round. He shook his head at the notion. Prolonged exposure to Atonomatsuri was affecting his brain and not in a good way.
“Yes,” was the grudging agreement?
“You’ve got thirty seconds to explain why,” Zaraki offered in the spirit of kindness. Not that he was being kind, but he didn’t believe the bird could explain anything in less than five minutes, give or take, dependent on insults and adages.
“I can’t,” the voice in his head wailed. If he could see her, he was sure she’d be wringing her wings, or at least waving them around and knocking over the furniture. It’d be hard for a bird to wring its wings, might be impossible. She seemed genuinely upset.
“Too bad,” Zaraki settled down and began to block out her voice but a few words he’d waited to hear passed the blocks easily and he caught a few fragments of the sentence.
“Help… bankai… soon,” his attention was now fully fixed on the bird.
“Repeat that,” he said. He couldn’t believe it would happen this easily.
“You heard me the first time and I meant exactly what I said.” Her tone was firm and it was obvious she knew that he wanted whatever it was she had offered.
“Indulge me. Tell me once again,” he said.
“We’ve run out of time. Do you agree?” the bird was urging him with a promise that he hadn’t heard of something that sounded too tempting to pass.
“Hell, to reach bankai I’d even be prepared to kiss your beak.”
There was a short but heavily strained silence.
“We are agreed. He who cannot agree with his enemies is controlled by them. When the time comes you will trust me and follow my instructions.” Cold and precise the clipped words outlined his part of the bargain.
Zaraki nodded. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He hadn’t lied. He would have been prepared to kiss her beak and groom her feathers if he got to bankai. Her jabber didn’t register that much as he was caught up with new possibilities.
“We will have to work closely together,” her voice advised as his mind pictured him using his bankai and wiping all traces of Aizen from Hueco Mundo or wherever the heck he was. Obliterating that son of a Yemenite dung beetle might help restore some of the lost pride of the Seireitei and it might be fun.
“Fine,” he agreed quickly. Tosen having justice served on him, bankai style. No, the guy wasn’t worthy of his bankai. He’d let Yachiru take the guy out, ur, kill him. His mind was throwing all manner of strange images at him now it had been roused by the hope of progression to bankai and was doing too much free association. Yachiru would never be allowed to go anywhere with a traitor.
“Focus, Zaraki. People are wondering why you’re laughing, even quietly. You have to concentrate on these proceeding so I know when to, I mean we know, when to act.”
The reminder was timely. Yachiru was nudging him hard in the ribs. A slim index finger was pressed to her lips as she tried to get him to remain silent. Looking up he noticed that Yamamoto was entering the room, followed by the prisoner.
The hearing was about to commence.
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Author’s Note:
On occasions I feel that I should attribute some of the adages or quotations that Atonomatsuri makes. For example “All that we are is a result of what we have thought…,” is a quotation from Buddha. As you may have recognised, some of the quotes used are from a variety of profound minds.
When I was revising this, prior to completing it I got slightly overexcited. I blame the season, Summer, and possibly because I’ve been looking forward to writing about the hearing for some time.
The comment about buying the vowel and getting the money’s worth is a reference to `Wheel of Fortune’, a game show I have, on occasions, been forced to watch. I apologise for the popular culture reference, but at least it wasn’t romance.
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Teeming and Toxic
Delta MkII