The ice in the puddles was dirty and crazed with fractures. There were no flowers, and it was too foul to try looking for any lunar reflections.
Karakura itself was full of dusty shadows these days. Nanao was one of them.
She couldn't risk being here for too long: Aizen had his minions making regular sweeps through the town, in the hope of picking up one of the surviving shinigami. Urahara managed to keep his base hidden, but she was too far away from that to take cover there. She had to be in and out to make the pickup before five o'clock.
It would have been easier in some ways for a weaker shinigami to come: there would have been less chance of their reiatsu being noticed. But Soi Fong had insisted on a more senior representative of the Resistance, and Soi Fong's temper was . . . touchy, these days.
Nanao paused beneath a sycamore tree, and sniffed the wind. It smelt of human things, petty spirits, and dust. No Espada here for the moment. None of the other creatures who served Aizen, either.
This was the third time they'd passed information in this way, which probably meant that they were becoming too repetitive. Aizen was very good at spotting patterns. They'd lost other couriers that way.
A blur of reiatsu buzzed somewhere above her for a moment before falling silent again, breaking off as if it had never been there; sharp, acid, the smell of hives run dry of honey and full of anger.
Nanao unveiled her own reiatsu for a moment, letting it show before damping it down once again.
Silence, then a hiss from the branches of the tree under which she stood. "Up here."
Nanao looked up. Soi Fong was perched in the branches above her, robes swaying among the dappled skeletons of dead leaves. Her braids swung like snakes, and her eyes were as barren as winter.
"Captain," she said, flash stepping up to join the other woman.
Soi Fong nodded. "Ise-fukutaichou. All holds well?"
"As well as we can hope for," she answered. "No new attacks. Our position seems secure. We'll move within the fortnight for safety's sake, but they seem to have lost track of us."
Soi Fong nodded remotely. She would know the protocols, of course; they were meat and drink to Covert Operations. "We do well enough," she said. "A few raids, a few successes, but no Espada and none of the betrayer's pets. Yoruichi-sama is currently watching a possible base that Kurotsuchi has been setting up for his perverted experiments. We intend to make it cost more than he can afford."
Nanao nodded. She knew that her own expression would show her feelings, however hard and bleak she tried to keep her face. Kurotsuchi's betrayal had come at a crucial moment in the war; what he had done to Ukitake-taichou still could not be repaired, whatever Isane-fukutaichou tried. "Good luck," she said. She removed a packet from inside her robe. "Here are the latest dispatches from Ukitake-taichou and Sasakibe-fukutaichou."
Soi Fong nodded, offering a similar packet in exchange. "And here, from Yoruichi-sama."
"It would have been easier to exchange these via Urahara Kisuke," Nanao offered.
Soi Fong shook her head. Her braids swung once before coming to a standstill. "Yoruichi-sama says we can't risk too much traffic to his base. It'd be too easy for Aizen to spot the pattern. He wouldn't even have to know exactly where it was: if he had an idea of the district that it was in, he could send in enough of his minions to break down the area and search the ashes."
Nanao nodded, accepting it. She could feel time like a knife at her neck, growing dangerously short. "Do you have any messages for any of the others?"
Soi Fong's shoulders slackened a little, and for a moment Nanao remembered that the other woman was a fraction shorter than she was. "Yoruichi-sama sends her affectionate regards to Kuukaku-sama. As for me?" She shrugged. "Everything that is important is in that dispatch."
Nanao bowed her head. There was nothing that she could answer to that. "Go well, Captain. Good hunting."
"Guard yourselves," Soi Fong said. Nothing more than that: a moment later her reiatsu buzzed in a flicker of movement, and she was gone.
Nanao stood among the branches, waiting till she was sure that the expenditure of reiatsu had gone unnoticed. She told over the last few months to herself like tarnished coins as she waited.
Betrayals. Deaths. Losses.
And one loss, one huge loss that she still could not entirely believe, that still ached like a wound, that she would never see her Captain again this side of life or death . . .
No. There was no time for that. If he could have asked anything of her, she thought that he would have asked her to do her duty to everything that he had cared for. Everyone who he had loved.
Her eyes dry in the bitter wind, she slipped down from the tree to rush across the dying town and make her way home again. Back to duty. Back to the war.