Title: Even On the Light Side of the Moon
Category: Anime/Manga » Bleach
Language: English, Rating: Rated: M
Published: 12-29-15, Updated: 3-26-17
Chapters: 1, Words: 21,191
Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Anyone remember my failure fic Ninth Pawn? (It... it might actually still be posted. Note to self- look into that later.) The same concept idea hit me pretty hard just now and so, behold- a completed revamp.
Staring abundant OOC exhibitions, lighthearted darkness, and a healthy amount of twisted plotline. This fic was loosely inspired by OHO's "Ninth Pawn," which, like Bleach, I do not own.
Warnings: eye horror, gore, descriptive violence, blood, mentions of choking/suffocation, sexual themes, language, and straight-up smut
Over the years, her room had changed several times. New beds, new floors, new carpets and drapes, new couches and love seats, new tables, new shelves, new doors, new this, new that...
In the constant change of rooms, one thing remained constant, and that was the view of the moon. It was quite the friend; that moon, hanging in the sky in an ever-present crescent glow. The one unchanging factor in her new life.
How many nights had the moon kept her company? Why, she'd lost count long ago, but she knew, vaguely, that it had been two years. She couldn't tell the month and more than she couldn't tell exactly how many times she'd been served tea during her stay, but in a land where time didn't seem to move at all, it hardly mattered, she supposed.
She was staring at the moon when she heard her door open. Ulquiorra had stopped knocking some time ago, months, a year, she wasn't sure. If she was asleep, he wanted not to wake her, so it was best he entered silently- despite all the times he'd caught her off guard or in what could be considered a compromising situation.
("Ah, woman, you are dressing. Should I leave for the time?" "Oh, Ulquiorra! I didn't hear you come in. I'll be just a second, ah, just let me get this stupid bra hook. Wait right there.")
"Good evening." He stated. "Are you hungry, Orihime?"
She considered his question. "Yeah, I guess. What do you have for us tonight, captain?" With a smile she hopped up and made her way over to the glass table in the side of her room, taking a seat. Ulquiorra opened her door and showed in a low-level servant who would serve them for the evening.
He sat across from her at the small table, paying their server no mind as the hollow pulled platters from a cart and set them carefully down on the table. The server took the lid from each platter, revealing a sushi spread, a salad, and a small bowl of miso. He stepped back and became part of the shadows, ignored by the two seated at the table as they began to eat.
"Yellowtail," Orihime said with a hum. "Ah, good choice, Ulquiorra."
"Of course. You requested this, you should not be surprised." He began with his salad, which seemed to be common for him. She started in on her soup to ensure it wouldn't get cold. "Do you wish for any dessert to be prepared, Orihime?"
Sometimes, as wise as her dear espada was, he could ask astoundingly stupid questions. "Of course, silly!"
Ulquiorra gestured to their servant, who bowed quickly and left with his cart, leaving them alone for the time being.
"How's work?" Orihime asked. She sipped at her soup thoughtfully.
"Lord Aizen has decided to send me to the human realm in order to acquire a few materials." He said plainly.
"It's been a while since you've gone. It feels like months."
"Two months and five days." He answered.
"I see." She finished her soup and set it aside, turning to her sushi. She usually saved the salad for last. "While you're there, you'll do me a favor, won't you?"
Orihime smiled- sweet and innocent as any woman could be, and very, very deceptively in that regard. He glanced at her smile and was momentarily silenced by the way her white teeth reflected the sparse light in the dim. Then he swallowed, and her smile faded, and the moment passed completely.
"What would you have me do?"
"If... If it's not too much trouble," and she knew it wouldn't be, "Could you check in on Tatsuki for me? Halibel was there about a month ago and said that... well, you know. Tatsuki still prays for me, but I do worry about her. If what Halibel says is true, she's just... so sad."
If time were turned back, and she had asked this of him a year ago, he would have scoffed at her. He'd most likely said that Tatsuki had fallen into a senseless, idiotic, even, depression. He'd go on to say it would be best for the girl to be put out of her misery or grow a backbone.
But that was neither here nor there, and instead he said, "Of course. It is likely that she is still sorrowful over your disappearance. Kurosaki and the rest of them didn't do a very convincing job at covering up your supposed betrayal."
She laughed. "They've never been very good at that." Sobering, she looked down at her plate with a soft smile. "See how she's doing. I want to know, please. Maybe... Maybe we can do something to make her feel better, later on."
"It is a possibility." He answered. Neither of them could tell if he said it because it was a fact that it was possible, if incredibly improbable, or if he meant it.
The servant returned with their desert- green tea mochi. Ulquiorra allowed them to be served, their empty plate taken away, before he said, "You failed to bring the woman a drink."
The server visibly paled. He bowed, swiftly, and said, "P-please, h-honorable lady, forgive me for my foolish mistake. I-I-"
"Silence." Ulquiorra said easily. He turned to Orihime, curious. "Should I take care of this trash, woman?"
She shook her head. "Oh, no, it's fine." She turned her attention to the servant, bowed over on the floor and cowering in fear. "It's alright. Just go get us both some water to drink. Oh- iced, please."
He straightened and thanked her a hundred times over, bowing and scraping as he left to do as she said. When he was gone again, Ulquiorra poked at his dessert, not meeting her eyes.
He did not look at her. "You are too soft on these fools." He said simply.
She grinned. "Oh, no, Ulquiorra." She took a straight bite from her frozen dessert, chewing it without so much as flinching under the piercing cold. She swallowed and then laughed a little. "I think I play my cards just right. Don't you agree?"
"You know what the worst part of war is?"
Grimmjow didn't look at her as he spoke. He was concentrating on hitting the balls of concrete out of the air with his sheathed sword, blasting them back into the crumbling while behind Orihime to make new craters. He'd successfully written "4 SUX A" with the holes in the concrete thus far.
"Waiting?" Orihime threw another ball.
Crack! He hit the ball hard, and sent it soaring back behind her. He was starting to form an S, if she was correct in her assumption of the shape. "Yeah." He said. He rolled his shoulders. "Waiting."
"How so?" She crouched down and picked another ball from the crate at her feet.
"Like, you know." He wound up as she took position for the pitch. "I wanna tear someone's throat out right now." Crack! "But I have to just. Sit here. Doing nothing. Waiting."
"An interesting position." She allowed. "What about when the fighting starts, and you get tired of it? What about when you don't want to tear someone's throat out?"
He laughed. "The fuck? When the shit am I not going to want to do bodily harm to some ass-prick? Naw, that shit ain't happening, Princessa, and you can count on that." Crack! This ball missed its mark, slightly. "Shit."
"But won't it get boring?"
"As-fucking-if. That would be like. I don't know. Eating getting boring. Or, like, sex or something." He paused. "Shit, it's been forever since I fucked anyone. Seen any hot ones around recently?"
"No one you haven't seen before." She answered. She threw another ball, glancing back at the wall he was aiming at to check on his progress after she heard him hit it. I looked like he was aiming to imply that Ulquiorra sucked ass. Hm.
"I can swing a repeat." He shrugged. "Second times the charm or whatever the fucking ever, right? How about that kid with the shark teeth? Seen him around recently?"
"I think Nnoitra killed him." Crack!
"Fan-fucking-tastic. I hate that bastard. For shit's sake, that kid was an incredible screw. Those teeth could do some fucked up shit, Princessa, let me tell you."
She laughed. "Gross! Grimmjow, don't tell me stuff like that!"
"Oh shut up. Like you're so innocent." Crack! "I bet you and Batsy get up to all kinds of kinky-ass stuff."
She blinked. "Me? And Ulquiorra?" She threw another ball, but then didn't bend to retrieve another one. She paused and put a hand on her chin. "Huh. I... I hadn't thought that-"
"What, you're not screwing him?" Grimmjow relaxed his pose, regarding his handiwork where it stood behind her. '4 SUX AS' "Now that's just fucked up."
"How so?" She finally snapped from her trance and bent to get another ball to throw.
Crack! "You have his balls on a leash and you're not even screwing him? It's just rude. Like, really fucking rude." He paused mid-practice swing to bark out a laugh. "If I gave two shits I might actually feel a little sorry for the bastard."
"For what?" She threw another ball; though this pitch was noticeably lame in comparison to her other ones. Grimmjow tipped it and sent it sailing over the wall with a muttered curse or six under his breath. "It's not like I'm being cruel to him. He can do what he wants."
"Yeah fucking right." He righted himself for another pitch. "Bat-shit is so whipped that if he were milk he'd be creamed by now." And then he grinned. "Creamed. Nice."
She didn't really get what he was going on about, so she wound up for another pitch. "I don't think so. He's just... a good warden, that's all." And then seeing he was about to interject, she hurried out a, "I mean, you're the same as him, right? We're friends now, so we can... talk."
"Friends? Don't push it. But you don't see me going out of my way for you." Crack! "He bends over fucking backwards and then some for you. Because he's whipped. Whipped as shit." Crack! "You haven't changed me a damn bit."
She threw another ball and he hit it, finally jumping with a whoop of excitement. He'd finished his message in the wall behind them. "4 SUX ASS" in large, crooked crater letters. Grimmjow looked proud as a father presented with his newborn son.
"I'm going back." She said. "I'm hungry and Ulquiorra is bringing me wasabi ice cream today."
"Fine. Let's go, Princessa."
She paused before leaving to consider her position.
"Yo, come on! Hurry your ass up!"
"Oh, uh, coming!"
She wasn't sure everything that Grimmjow had said was a lie, and that concerned her. Most concerning of all, though, was the very concerning lie from the very end of his speech. She hadn't changed him a bit? Now that was rich.
After all, Grimmjow had never even paused to consider walking someone back to their room a year ago. And she was sure that if anyone else asked, he'd kill them for assuming he'd do something so kind.
For her, though, he offered. He offered and then some.
"Your friend is doing better. She attacked Kurosaki a couple days ago; it seems, trying to get answers in regard to your whereabouts. She seems to be appeased for the moment."
"That's good." Orihime yawned, leaning back in her cushioned windowsill. "I know I didn't ask you to check, but how are the others doing?"
"They are honing their strength, it seems."
"They're preparing? Huh. That's... new."
"Indeed." Ulquiorra paused. "You do not resent them for leaving you to rot here, it seems?"
"I don't." And then she laughed. "But when you word it like that, it does make them sound like pretty lousy friends. Leaving me to rot." She sighed. "No, I made it look like I came here of my own free will. I didn't really want them to follow me."
"So you say. You knew, though, they wouldn't buy your story."
"But they did."
"I fail to see how anyone who knows you could think you possibly being a traitor." He leaned against the wall, not looking at her. "You are not one easy to sway."
She shrugged. "It doesn't... it doesn't really matter." Then she frowned, and said, "Even if it is... sad."
She shrugged again, still frowning slightly. "All we've been through, you know? And here I am..."
"Yes. Here you are."
"I get sent into the actual loin's den and they didn't even come looking for me." She looked out at the moon. "I thought Uryuu might, at least. It's just odd. That's all."
"What is odd is that you have not abandoned them."
"I belong to Aizen, body and soul." She recited. "How's that for abandonment?"
"If they knew you at all, they would know you did not betray them."
"Do you think I'm incapable of betrayal?" She asked.
"On the contrary." He said. "I believe you intend to betray us."
She regarded him from the corner of her eye. "Aizen wouldn't be pleased to hear that... Though, he probably already knows it. He must not think I'm a very big threat, or he'd tighten my security."
"I cannot pretend to know what Lord Aizen knows." Ulquiorra said. "However, I know you. And I know you will bide your time, and I know that when the opportunity presents itself, you will strike."
She raised an eyebrow. "Oh yeah?"
"You lie in wait, but you've made your intentions obvious to him. It is due to underestimating your abilities that you are not perceived as a threat. So you will wait, and bide your time; and then you will strike."
"I've been waiting an incredibly long time to strike." She sighed.
"You have." He turned to her, suddenly, and sat at her heels, regarding the moon in the same manner she had been moments before. "When one waits as you have, they often lose sight of their goals."
"Do they?" She smiled. "Who knows. Maybe I don't really have to wait. Maybe things will just stay like this forever."
"Perhaps." He clearly didn't think so, but chose to indulge her.
"You must think I'm crazy." She laughed.
She giggled, shaking her head. "You shouldn't be so quick to answer! At least pretend to think it over first; you'll hurt my feelings."
"I should have elaborated." He drawled. "After all, I would not wish to hurt your fragile feelings of all things."
Orihime smiled, tilting her head to the side. "Go on."
"Anyone else in your situation would have broken by now. To be plunged into a foreign land, amongst beasts who would devour you alive, without any familiar ally or bit of security is enough to consume the minds of the best. By now, with the betrayal of your so-called friends, you should have plunged into depression. However... you've adapted."
"Or maybe I just haven't hit the breaking point yet." She mused. With a small laugh, she said, "If I do snap and decide I want to die, you'll kill me, won't you, Ulquiorra?"
He watched her from the corner of his eye, perhaps looking for something in her expression. After a second of silence, he slowly turned his gaze back to the moon. "Perhaps." he allowed.
"Perhaps." She echoed. "What if I told you to kill me?"
"... It is not in line with Lord Aizen's orders."
That's not a no. She shook her head. "It's odd. But it comforts me to think you would. I don't think, if any of my friends had come here with me, that they would do it- if that makes sense." She paused. "Do you think my friends even liked me at all? Did I just annoy them?"
"Tatsuki Arasawa's condition proves you were truly valuable to her."
"Tatsuki is different. What about the rest of them? Do you think they really cared?" She didn't seem upset by the idea that they didn't. She played with her hair and watched the sands stir outside her window. "I'm just curious."
He didn't speak for a second. It wasn't unusual- he always thought before he spoke. When he did open his mouth, he spoke slowly, carefully, as though he were trying not to trip over the words and imply something he did not mean. "I do not know you friends. I know you. And I know they are fools if they did not enjoy your company."
It was almost a compliment. She smiled. Still... "I... I kind of thought they'd come for me, you know?"
He did not respond.
"I mean, you know. I'm in love with Kurosaki, and he doesn't even look for me when I disappear. I'm not mad. It's just that I can't help but think about how he was when Rukia vanished. She lied, too, and made it seem like she was going back because she wanted to. She even told him not to come for her, to his face, and left him for dead. But he went after her. And then I leave... But to him, it's like I wasn't there at all. It makes me wonder if they liked me as much as I liked them."
"I have no answer for you that you haven't already considered yourself." He said. He sounded tired of the conversation, so she supposed he was probably getting agitated by hearing her talk so much about her old life.
She watched his face for signs of annoyance, for a moment, but didn't find any. Still, she continued to study his face. He was actually rather attractive, she supposed. Something to write home about. She looked away from him and wondered, in the back of her mind, what would happen if she fell in love with him.
He was watching her.
"How does it make you feel when I say that I'm in love with Kurosaki?" she wondered out loud, suddenly. Maybe it was rude or intrusive. She couldn't remember human protocol on such things anymore. "Ulquiorra?"
For a moment, he didn't move. His eyes widened slightly, and for the first time ever he actually seemed to have been taken off guard. After a moment, he blinked, and then said, "Why do you wish to know this?"
He blinked again. Never moving his eyes from her, he said, "It is an unpleasant sensation within my stomach." His eyes were beautiful.
She nodded. Maybe Grimmjow was right. Maybe he did like her. Wouldn't that be a change? For her, the ever pining girl, to be sought after? It felt good. Powerful. And... not surprising at all, as though she'd actually known all along. Had she?
"Is that a satisfactory answer?"
"Yeah..." She looked up at him again. "Ulquiorra, tell me, how does it make you feel when you think of me?"
"Think of you?" he tilted his head to the side, confused. "In what context?"
"When you are coming to my room, and you know you are about to see me, how do you feel?"
"No different than normally." He stated. "It is my job."
"How do you feel when we talk?"
"In what context?" he frowned. "Is there a point to these questions?"
"I'll get there. Just... talking. Normally. Like we were a moment ago."
"Content." He said shortly.
"Okay... then," She looked up at him from under her eyelashes. "Ulquiorra. In... what light do you think of me?"
He didn't answer at first, and she began to think maybe he didn't understand what she was asking. But then he looked away from her, out to the moon, and spoke very softly. "I think of you in a strong manner. A pleasant manner."
"You like me."
He didn't react.
"Even after I slapped you, and everything?"
He gave a slight incline of his head.
She pulled herself up on the windowsill cushions and tucked her legs underneath herself, leaning forward. She placed a hand on his knee and noted that his eyes darted to her for a moment before he looked away again.
She licked her lips.
He turned his eyes to her. He was listening to her. Intently- unlike anyone else ever had in her past. He wanted to hear what she had to say, and he would consider it carefully, and reply without sugarcoating or lies.
"If I told you to kiss me, you would. Wouldn't you?"
He seemed taken aback for a second, but recovered quickly, and nodded- slowly. Solemnly.
"But that's an order." Orihime realized. "What if I asked you to kiss me, Ulquiorra? Would you?"
"Do you want to kiss me?" She already knew what he would say in reply. And that sent a thrill through her; a dark sort of chill that made her aware of exactly where her skin began and ended.
"I have considered it." He thought, for a moment. "I do not find the thought repulsive as I would with another. So in that regard, I suppose I must want for- if only even a little."
He turned. He pulled himself completely up into the windowsill and then arched above her, pushing her into the wall behind her as he placed his hands on either sides of her head. Staring down at her, casting a shadow over her form, he said, "If that is what you would like-" he leaned down, cool breath ghosting over her parted lips, "-then that is what I will do."
There is a myth, that amongst gods and their familiars, an agreement is completed with a kiss.
The pale of Ulquiorra's lower lip met the rose of Orihime's, and with a breath, the black of his upper met with the flush of hers. Her hands came to hold his face, and his her waste. With a small sigh and a flush press of mouths, the contract was sealed.
Orihime was working on a project. There was a room at the very top of one of the towers that had two windows- one overlooking the dome of the castle, and the other pointed out to the endless expanse of desert beyond. In that well-lit room, she had a huge slab of white marble that stretched across an entire wall.
Slowly, she was painting a large mural to be placed in Aizen's garden. She was working on the sun in the center. From there, she would branch out, she supposed, but for the moment, all she cared about was the light.
Ulquiorra came and went through the human realm, brining her paints and brushes and rags of all sorts. She sat in that tower often, Rapunzel braiding her hair, and dabbed at the edges of her fiery sun, forgetting entirely to compare it to Ichigo.
The door creaked open behind her. She could tell by the hurried steps on the tile that it wasn't Ulquiorra and turned, smiling at Grimmjow as he came into the room with his hands crossed behind his neck.
"I'm bored." he said- point blank. "Since you're not doing batsy, we should screw."
She laughed. "A little late on that train, Grimmjow."
"You mean to tell me he got on the ball and did something? Fuck."
"I did something." She said. "I don't think he'd be the type to step out of line and start something on his own." She turned back to her painting. "What about that girl who cries acid? You know, the one with the silver hair?"
"I'll find her later." He groaned. "I'm in the mood for orange. Too bad Kurosaki ain't here to fight us. I'd bottom for a piece of that shit."
She laughed. "That's something I haven't heard before. I don't think he'd, um, top you though."
He raised a brow. "You saying he's a bottom?"
"I'm saying that I think he likes Rukia."
"Purple eyes, black hair. You fought her, you know."
He grinned. "Oh yeah. Hole-punched her right through the stomach. That was some sick shit." He shook his head. "That doesn't matter though. So what if he likes her? That doesn't mean he's tied down or some shit."
"If he likes her, then that probably means he's not... you know..." She trailed off, letting Grimmjow draw his own meaning from her words.
Grimmjow just rolled his eyes. "I could smell the pan on that kid from a mile away. It doesn't matter how much he likes Ruki-Ruki or whatever her name is. We'd bang."
"He's probably not into hollows." She laughed.
"Sucks for us then, huh?"
She furrowed her brow. Dropping her paintbrush, she turned around, tilting her head to the side in confusion. "I don't understand. What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh come on, Princessa, don't act so innocent. Anyone with eyes can tell you wanna bang Kurosaki through a fucking mattress."
She shook her head. "No, I mean... You said it sucks for us then. What do you mean by us?"
"You said he's not into hollows." Grimmjow said. He grinned at her aparent confusion. "Oh shit, Princessa. Haven't you figured it out yet? You're just as hollow as the rest of us."
"I don't think so..." She turned back to her painting, thinking. Her? Hollow?
"Well..." He leaned against the windowsill next to her, grinning as he crossed his arms over his chest. "That's pretty weird. 'Cuz I hear bat-shit ain't into humans. So how do you explain you two then, huh?"
She considered his words. Slowly, though, she shook her head. "Grimmjow, I can't change species. Even if you punched a hole in my stomach, too."
"It's not about having a hole punched through ya." Grimmjow laughed. "Hollow isn't a species. It's a nature. And I can smell your nature, Princessa. It's fucking feral as any of the damned Espada. And don't you forget that."
Grimmjow may have been wise to her- or maybe he just thought he was wise to her, but was deluded. She wasn't entirely sure. Ulquiorra, though, wasn't- he wasn't aware of what was there or what was not there, depending on who you asked- he was only aware of what she said and did. The things she left in between were never brought to attention. They were left in the dark, even when they slipped from her pockets like pebbles and clattered against the floor for attention.
The first time she'd kissed him, he'd left there after, bidding her goodnight as he went to take care of further business. She wondered if he ever slept. (It was sort of funny that they gave him a bedroom if he wasn't going to use it. It would have made more sense for him to have a dressing room or something.)
The second time she'd kissed him, he'd sucked in a breath like he'd been punched in the gut, and then sunk his fingers into her hips like claws before slamming his lips to her mouth like a starving wolf getting its first taste at flesh.
She'd stopped him with a sound of protest when she felt her stomach start to flutter. She didn't know if she'd be in the mind to stop him from going any further if they continued, and she didn't want to lay out any ground rules, or she'd have a bitch of a time getting him to break them later.
A bitch of a time. God, she'd been hanging out with Grimmjow too much.
The third time she'd kissed him, she ran from him with a giggle right after, ghosting into her room as he perused. When he came into the room he closed the door behind him, stalking after her as she shrieked with laughter.
"Tag." She sang. "You're it."
"And what am I?" He asked.
"You're a beast!" She gasped dramatically. She flung a hand to her forehead and fainted back on the bed, laughing again when her body bounced. "A wild, terrible, incredible beast."
"So you've named me, so I will be." His hand clamped around her ankle as he dragged her from the bed- kicking and screaming when she wasn't laughing. He kissed and bit at her neck, and her chin, and her cheek, and then sealed their mouths together. Her laughter stopped and she melted on the edge of the bed, settling down on his knee as blush spread across her skin. His bit at her bottom lip and caused an explosion of butterflies in her stomach.
He drew back just as she let out a moan.
"Tag." He breathed against her. "You're it."
"And what am I?" She whispered. Her pupils had been blown wide.
"A goddess." He answered. Then he touched the tip of her nose and drew away from her. "But I'll name you a child."
"A child?" She slipped away from him and stood, hands on her hips as she towered above him on the bed. "Now that's not very nice. How is a child supposed to tag you back?"
"An eternal dilemma." He deadpanned.
She stepped forward- to jump off the bed- and noticed how much give it had under her foot. She bounced, once, to experiment, and found she went a little higher than expected. She jumped lightly again.
Before she knew it, she was bouncing on the bed.
Laughing, hair flashing around her in fireworks of orange, she spun in the air, leaping from corner to corner of her mattress as she tangled the blankets and sent the pillows into orbit. "Ulquiorra!" She called, as he watched, confused. "Come here!"
He did as she asked without hesitation, stepping up onto the bed to stand before her and await further orders.
She took his hands in hers and said, "Jump with me! It's fun!"
"I named you wisely." He noted. Still, he started to jump with her, matching her springing exactly. He didn't look amused, but she was having fun, and she guessed that was what mattered.
They kept on jumping on the bed, Ulquiorra's extra weight sending them higher. She continued to laugh and spin and jump about until she got just a little too close to the edge. She slipped, fell, and landed in a mass of pillows and blankets, out of breath as she continued to giggle.
Ulquiorra- hand captured in hers- had come down with her, and thus crouched poised over her form. He watched her laugh with intense eyes, never blinking, almost seeming to memorize her face.
She shook her head and slowly, stopped laughing. She let out a little sigh.
Slowly, Orihime reached up, pushing Ulquiorra's hair back to better see his face. With her arms around his neck, she leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the lips, leaning back with a large smile and mirth in her eyes. "Tag." She declared. "You're it."
"And what am I?" He responded.
"Mine." She teased.
For a moment, he seemed grim, taking in her words. Then, he said, "So you have named me." He leaned down and pressed his face into the delicate skin of her neck. "So I shall be."
In the land of the living, two souls sat outside a candy shop, sweating as they passed a bottle of water back and forth, taking long swigs of it as they panted.
"Hat and Clogs doesn't let up, huh?" Ichigo wiped a hand over his brow, looking up at the sky as he passed his companion the bottle he'd just drunk from.
"Never." Rukia replied. She took a sip of the water and then placed it between them, leaning back against the wall of the Urahara Shouten.
They'd been training long and hard, all day, for three days in a row, and they were both exhausted. They knew their friends were probably somewhere else on the premise, in similar condition.
"Why are we even here?" Ichigo grumbled. "We could be out fighting real hollows right now."
"As if that's any sort of training." Rukia snorted. "Wait until some actual arancar come if you want to get real battle experience. Until then..."
"We're stuck with those two as our personal trainers."
"Exactly." She took another long drink from the bottle. "And with how much we've been training lately, I'd say we're nearing the end."
"The beginning of the war." Ichigo said. "It'll be good to actually put our training to use, but I'm really not looking forward to this."
"It's not the first war Soul Society has raged. And I doubt it will be the last." She sighed. "Things are just a little different this time; that's all."
"Well..." She frowned a looked away from him. "With the traitors, it's going to be painful. I imagine Matsumoto and Kira must be miserable just thinking about it. And then there's... well..."
"Inoue." He surmised.
They were quiet.
"She didn't betray us." He said firmly. "We know that. Come on, Rukia, you know Inoue. She couldn't hurt a fly. We know she was kidnapped."
"I know. They're just treating it differently in Soul Society."
"Exactly why we're got to get stronger. So that we can rescue her before anything happens."
He turned to her.
"Do you think-"
"She's alive." He said firmly.
"I know. I think we would have felt it, somehow, if she'd... But what condition is she in? It's just been so long. By now she must be so weak. I don't want to think of the things they must have done to her, but I can't help it."
"I know." He took a drink of their water and looked away from his shorter half. "But we just have to hope that whatever happened, she'll come through it."
"When we find her, she might be broken."
"She will be broken. She's the weakest of the group. But we'll just have to hope that we can find some way to fix her."
"I can't imagine the suffering she must be going through."
"So then she was like, 'yeah-huh' and I was like, 'nu-uh' and I was like 'yeah-huh' and I blasted a hole through her face."
Orihime nodded, concentrating on braiding the thick black hair before her. It was sort of slippery- like silk- and she had to be sure to pull it tight or it would slip out of its braid.
"Apachi, do any of your stories end without you blasting a hole through someone's face?" Mila Rose was painting her nails across from Orihime; carefully and without pause.
"Sometimes." Apachi shrugged. "What's it to you?"
"Being hot-headed is so unattractive." Sun-Sun chimed. She covered her face to disguise a laugh.
"Ah! Don't move, Sun, it will fall out!" Orihime pulled a little tighter on the woman's hair as she continued to giggle, hoping that she wouldn't have to do the braid all over again.
"Apologies, Orihime." Sun-Sun sobered and went back to sitting stock-still.
"You calling me ugly?" Apachi snapped.
"You're the one who said it, not me."
"I think you're both pretty." Orihime said. "All three of you are."
"As if Tia would have anything less." Mila Rose added. "Though I think we all know that I'm the most beautiful."
"With that uncontrollable mane?" Sun tittered. "I hardly think so."
"Come on, guys, can we not do this?" Orihime groaned. She was just finishing up Sun's braid. "I'm only here for a little while longer, and it would be nice if we didn't fight the whole time."
"We weren't fighting with you." Apachi grumbled.
Still, they stopped. Orihime finished up Sun's hair just as Rose was done with her nails. Sun said, "Now I will do your makeup, Hime-chan." and Rose said, "I'll paint your nails to match Cifer-sama's." and Apachi grunted out a quick, "I'm gonna do your hair."
Orihime laughed and got comfortable where she sat on the bed. "Do what you want!" She cheered. "You all look so lovely, I'd love for you to work on me."
Eleven minutes later, that was how Tia found them- all lined up on the unusually large bed, Orihime the center of her three fracion's attention. She came in the window silently, nodding at the four girls when they all chimed out their similar welcoming pieces.
Dropping her coat and stretching, she sighed. "Inoue-san. How pleasant to see you again."
"Same to you, Halibel-sama. How was work?"
She started to undo her braid, shaking sand out of her hair as she continued towards her wardrobe. No one batted an eye as she began to strip, leaving trails of sand in her wake. "Fine." She held her hand out to the bowl of water stationed beside the wardrobe. The water came to life at her gestures, and then quickly ran her body over until she was clean. The water, dirty then, simply glided out the window and down to the sands below. "Tiresome."
"Would you like a massage?" Sun-Sun purred.
Tia glanced over her shoulder at the four of them, contemplating the offer as her hands blindly picked out a new outfit. It was her most usual outfit- the loose hakama pants and the half-cut jacket that hid her lower face. "Perhaps once our guest has departed." She said. She finished zipping the jacket as she turned to them. "Unless, of course..."
"She would like to stay." Mila Rose leaned forward to caress the line of Orihime's jaw, giving her a heavy stare through bedroom eyes.
Orihime laughed. "Thank you, but no thank you. Five's a crowd, don't you think?"
"Not even." Apachi snickered.
"If you are not interested, then we will leave it be." Tia answered. Still, she slid up on to the bed- almost boneless; she seemed so tired. "Ulquiorra seems so taken with her, after all."
"The heartless one?" Apachi snorted. "Not likely."
"It would be odd." Mila Rose allowed. "I didn't think he was interested in anything other than orders."
"He seems plenty interested with her."
Orihime just laughed again. "It's really not nice to talk behind his back, you know." When they all just gave her a look- as if to say that she was in Hueco Mundo of all places and that they weren't nice- she went on. "I just think maybe he's not as simple as people sometimes make him out to be."
"He, as a being, is not simple." Tia said easily. "It is his regard for you that is simplistic in its nature. He holds a reverence for you that can only be compared to his loyalty to Lord Aizen."
"I saw your human friends, today." Tia said suddenly.
Orihime perked up. "My friends?"
"That warrior, the quincy, and the strong arm." She said. "They were by ocean where I was hunting for a brief period of time. I left the area when the fireworks began so as not to be spotted."
"What did they look like?" She asked, curious. "Oh gosh... fireworks be the ocean. It must be New Year's Eve."
"It seemed so." Tia answered. "They looked usual. The warrior cut her hair again. It is as short as it was two summers ago. The quincy has a scar over his lip, and his hair is longer. He seems less delicate. And the strong arm has grown more bulky than before, but he, like the others, is mostly the same."
"Where they happy?"
Orihime let out a long breath, looking down at her black fingernails. They were drying fast. "Good." She said. "I'm... I'm so glad." She wondered why Rukia and Ichigo hadn't been around, but didn't bother to ask. "Thank you for telling me."
"Of course, Inoue-san." Tia inclined her head respectfully.
"Why do you even care about them?" Apachi asked. "Fuck them, seriously."
"They betrayed you," Sun-Sun hissed. "They do not deserve your concern."
"Yeah." Mila Rose added. "Maybe if they believed in you to save yourself, it would be a different story."
"But they do not even believe in your sacrifice." Tia surmised. "It is... ugly."
Orihime simply shrugged. "They have their reasons." Since Tia was back, she assumed Ulquiorra was as well. So, standing- her braid falling heavily against her back- she bowed to her company with a smile. "I think I should be going, now. Thank you all so much for the wonderful day- I had a great time."
"Of course." Tia said. She stood to show Orihime out. "My fracion are available to you at any time, Inoue-san. You need only ask and they will be at your service."
"Thank you." Bowing again as they reached the door, Orihime ducked out with a smile. "Hopefully next time Ulquiorra is out of the tower, you'll be around. I'd love to get to know you better."
"Out side of my bed, of course." Tia's eyes glimmered with a faint bit of humor. Inclining her head slightly to Orihime, she said, "It has been a long day. I will let you be on your way now. Goodnight, Inoue-san."
With that, she turned to leave, listening as the door lightly clicked shut behind her. She knew her way to her room from Tia's well enough, as she'd often come to hang out with Tia's fracion. She rather liked the girls- much more than she liked spending the day doing her hair on her own. As odd as their dynamic was, she appreciated that it worked and that they had some kind of love for one another, even if most of it was based in their shared lust for Tia. Tia loved them in her own way, too. Like one tiny sexual family.
Making her way back to her room, she caught Ulquiorra just as he was approaching her door. "Ulquiorra!" She called out excitedly. She hurried to catch up to him as he paused, turning her way.
"Orihime." He greeted her. His eyes skipped over the black makeup that mirror Sun-Sun's own. Little dots of tears trailing after each eye.
"You're back." She smiled wide at him and noticed the way his gaze stayed to her teeth for a moment before returning to her eyes, like usual. "I hear that it's New Years Eve in the world of the living."
"That seems to be what the racquet was about."
"I want to see it." She said. When he didn't answer her right away she said, "It's been so long since I've been in the world of the living, Ulquiorra. Can't we go just for a little bit? So that I can see the fireworks?"
"We can prepare fireworks for you here." He said. "Would you prefer to watch them above or below the dome?"
She shook her head. "It's not the same. Please, Ulquiorra. Take me to see them in the human realm. Please?"
He hesitated. "... It... is not in Aizen's orders-"
"It's in my orders." She said in a small voice.
Turning her eyes up to his, she implored him with a determined look, waiting for him to decide. She knew already that she was being sort of silly by asking it, but she just couldn't help it. And as if Ulquiorra- that stickler for the rules, ugh- was going to take her out to see-
"Get dressed quickly." He said suddenly. Her heart began to leap in her chest. "We leave in-"
"Yes!" She jumped into action, running past him into her room. She ran to the closet right away, throwing aside her most common outfits for something a little more practical. The one with the white tights and little skirt, the hugging long-sleeve top, and the tall boots. She threw on a cape, too, not sure what the weather would be like- all the while uncaring that Ulquiorra was standing behind her, watching.
"Okay!" She turned back to him with a huge beaming smile, braid swinging behind her. "I'm ready!"
"Then we should be off." He tapped the air next to them and opened a rift in space. "The fireworks were just beginning when I left. You do not have much time."
"That's okay." She nodded. She took his hand and pulled him after her into the black maw in space, pulse racing in excitement. "I just want to see them for a second, and then we can come back home!"
"As you wish." He sighed.
As they came out onto the other side of the rift, Orihime was surprised to see they were in Karakura town. She hadn't thought Ulquiorra would take her to Japan- let alone her old home. They were on the roof of a building near the park, overlooking a huge picnic area where hundreds of couples were watching fireworks light up the black night sky.
"Oh wow." She giggled.
"Your human friends are not here." He informed her as she stared at the stars. "They are on the coast, and so this area is safe to roam about-"
Ulquiorra froze in the corner of her eye.
She just smiled fondly and shook her head. Lowering herself down onto her belly, she pointed out at where she could make out a head of orange hair. "See?" She started to kick her legs in happiness, sighing. "There he is. That's his family. The two younger ones are his sisters, and the older man is his dad, and then there's Rukia-kun."
He regarded her oddly.
"Are you masking our spiritual pressure?" She asked. "They don't look like they've sensed us."
"You are inept," he said, slowly, "as usual."
"I like to think I'm pretty sharp." She winked. Looking back up at the sky she sighed, watching as a blue display faded into green. "I've been inside a firework, you know."
"I do. I read about it in a report from Ichimaru."
She laughed. "Of course. Just when I think I have the drop on you."
Below them, the people started clapping. "Ten!" They called out. "Nine! Eight!"
"What is this countdown for?" Ulquiorra asked her.
"It's for the new year." Orihime explained. "Once they reach zero, the year is over, and a new one begins."
"They are forming tight groups." He noticed. "Why?"
Orihime giggled. "You kiss at midnight." She answered. "For luck."
Orihime suddenly lurched to her knees, grabbing Ulquiorra by the coat. "Happy New Year," she whispered.
She kissed him rather hard, if she did say so herself. It was the only surprise kiss she'd given him thus far, and he seemed to take to it rather well. This one was fast, and hot, and involved a bit of tongue and teeth alike.
When she drew back from him, he already had a rift awaiting them. His pupils had been blown wide, and he was looking at her like he wasn't really sure what kind of creature she was anymore.
"Bad luck?" He asked. "Or good?"
She blinked. "Huh?"
"It doesn't matter. Luck does not exist." He went on. "I am simply curious. Do you humans believe that kiss will bring us luck that is bad? Or luck that is good?"
Blink, blink. She was caught off-guard by such a simple question. And when she thought about it, she couldn't really be sure if kissing was for luck at all. Was it good luck, or bad? Did they do it to defy luck, or to earn it? She couldn't recall.
"I don't know."
He stared at her for a moment. There was an odd sort of emotion in his eye- one she couldn't quiet place- which was gone even faster than it had appeared. "Bad luck." he decided, eyes flickering over her shoulder.
She followed his gaze and found he was looking at Kurosaki, who was climbing to his feet with Rukia at his side. They were squinting up at them- or at the rift, perhaps, but seemed unable to make them out in the darkness. The way they moved conveyed their intent to ditch body and gigia alike, though.
With a small smile and a shake of her head, Orihime grabbed Ulquiorra's hand before it could touch his sword and tugged him after her- into the portal back to Hueco Mundo. "Come on." She said. "You don't believe in luck, anyway."
And if he had before she said that, well, he certainly didn't afterwards.
The War began suddenly, and without hesitation, three months later. She was kept out of battle plans but no one did anything to hide them from her, either. She figured that soon enough she'd have a chance to destroy the hogyoku by 'healing' the unnatural structure of souls it consists of; thus releasing them and breaking the item.
Her mission, once so incredibly urgent, though, didn't seem all that pressing anymore. She had time, after all. Lots and lots of time on her hands. With all her friends out at war with the shinigami where they invaded the land, she suddenly found that she had all the time in the world.
The mural that she'd been creating slowly in the tower was coming into bright focus. In a world of white on black, her painting blazed like a gem in its room all alone, and she loved it for that. No one other than the espada was allowed in the top most tower by order of Tousen; who loved her painting as much as any blind man could.
Up in the tower, the air was thin. At one moment in time, she found her nose dripping blood. In a stroke of mad genius, she started on red chrysanthemums alone the border of her display, using her blood with a smile and a laugh she couldn't help but produce. Not a smile of ire, or a laugh of lunacy- but genuine happy gestures that came out as pure as any child's.
It was in that way she'd learned to live her life. You take the bad with the good. Even on the light side of the moon, there are shadows, and even on the dark side of the moon, there is light. There is no goodness without evil in this life, and she did not mind- because that meant there couldn't be any single evil that lived without a speck of good inside it.
Even devils loved, and even angels sinned.
As she was leaving the tower that evening, she noticed she'd stayed out a little longer than she usually did. It didn't matter in the least, but the lights had already been put out, and so she crept back to her room in darkness.
Until she heard a noise behind her. A small click, like nails on metal, made her pause. The tick sounded several more times, and the realized that she was hearing heeled shoes on the marble. She turned towards the noise and was assaulted by an unstable giggle from a female she hadn't been hoping to see so soon.
"Loly." She greeted the dark-haired woman. She turned to the girl's counterpart and inclined her head slightly. "Menoly."
"No bow?" Loly sneered. "Pure little bitch- do you think you're better than us?"
No, no, that wasn't really it. She was above them in position by leaps and bounds- worlds, even- but she didn't think she was better than them. They didn't earn her respect, though, and they weren't in a position where they automatically held it, either. So no- she would not bow to them.
"Oh, no, I don't think that." Orihime shook her head. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you." She found that despite it all, she was very calm. Dark night, cornered by two angry arrancar? Okay. Cool. She could roll with that; she'd just drawn flowers with her blood. How badass was that?
"You don't sound so sincere." Menoly tittered.
"Maybe we aught to put her back in her place, hm, Menoly?"
Orihime flinched as Loly reached out for her. The three women were suddenly bathed in a golden light as Orihime's shields went up, and then greeted by the sound of Loly's scream as her skin made contact with the shield, burning instantly.
"Oh, sorry!" Orihime dropped the shield and hurried towards Loly, holding the burning hand in her own before Loly could even understand what was happening. At her touch, the wound began to reverse itself- turning into a faint pink just as Loly snatched her hand back.
"Bitch!" She screeched. She made to claw at Orihime's face, but Orihime reached up and grabbed her by the wrist in time, hands glowing gold with the thin lining of shielding that surrounded them like armor. These did not burn the girl, but they did keep her in place with tremendous strength.
"Sorry, Loly-san, I really am. I just, ah, don't really want you to hurt me, you know?" She let Loly go and intercepted a punch from Menoly in the same way she had Menoly. "Sorry, sorry!"
"You fucking cunt, I'm going to-"
"What are you doing?"
A voice like ice pierced the air and Orihime sighed. Things were about to get messy.
"Y-you-" Menoly stumbled as Orihime let her go. "You!"
"Yes, me," Grimmjow taunted, stepping into the light. He grinned at Loly. "Who let the dogs out?" He taunted.
"Grimmjow," Orihime sighed. She could tell by his posture that he was planning on killing them. "Please don't-"
She was cut off by Menoly's high pitch scream as Grimmjow grabbed her by the face and crushed her skull in his hands. He dropped her just as soon as her scream cut off, palm dripping blood. "What was that, Princessa?"
Orihime sighed again, looking over at Loly. The girl was petrified, staring at Grimmjow as beads of sweat started to slip down her face and trembled on her upper lip. She looked back to Grimmjow. "That wasn't very nice." She said grumpily.
He opened his mouth to retort when Loly lost it. With a loud scream, she charged at Grimmjow, releasing a large red bala blast from her palms. Before it could so much as singe a hair on his head, Orihime had used a small step of shunpo to place herself in his way, neatly catching it in a net spun of gold between her open palms. She folded the bala between her hands, smothering it and feeding its power to her fairies until it was nothing more than a small curl of smoke that drifted out between her fingers as she dusted off her hands.
She held her hands out again and said, "Shun Shun Rika," once- trapping Loly where she was in a golden box. The girl was frozen completely; able to hear, but not able to move or speak.
She turned to Grimmjow, then. "You didn't have to kill her." She pouted. With a gesture of her hands there was a dome hovering above Menoly's prone form, re-fitting pieces of skull beneath her skin. "I was okay, really!"
"You heard me, princessa- anyone fucking looks at your wrong and I'll crush 'em." He regarded the two girls behind Orihime's back. "They were doing a little more than just looking, so I thought, hey, why not fucking kill them, you know?"
"You made a mess." She said pointedly. She pointed at the red splattering the wall next to them.
"Well fuck! Someone will clean it up, okay!? Look, you've got most of the mess piecing back together right there- is there really a problem? And why the fuck are you putting her back together, anyway? I'm not bat-so and even I'd call her fucking trash."
"Maybe that's why they're so mean sometimes." Orihime chastised. "You guys are always calling them names." Her shields broke as she snapped her fingers, calling her powers back to herself. Behind her, Loly sobbed out Menoly's name and fell on her, checking her over for any signs of damage that hadn't been healed.
"And now she's doubting your power." Grimmjow muttered. "Just let me break her legs off or something. She deserves this shit and you know it."
"They don't deserve anything!" Orihime declared. Turning to them, she put her hands on her hips. "If I hadn't stopped you, Loly, you'd have hit Grimmjow, and then there'd be nothing I could do to help you. You owe him an apology."
Their eyes were twin plates.
Behind her, Grimmjow: "Say what now?"
"You all heard me!" She declared. "If you two are going to act like little kids, then we'll treat you like them. So, say you're sorry and then just... go. You don't need to keep coming after me; it's only going to hurt you, okay? And I really don't want that, but there's only so much I can do up to a certain point. So... Say you're sorry. And then go."
Before Loly could finish, Menoly put her hand on the other girl's head, forcing her into a bow. The both of them stooped over on their knees, Menoly rushed out a quick, "Forgive us, please, sexta-sama."
He shrugged. "Whatever. Get lost before I decide I'm going to kill you again."
Still protesting under her breath, Loly allowed Menoly to drag her away. And then it was over, just as suddenly as it had started. Orihime was surprised it had worked out, but she definitely wasn't complaining. She turned to Grimmjow with a large triumphant smile.
"I resolved a conflict!" She sang.
"Violence did the trick." Grimmjow droned. "You just made it weird."
She frowned. "But-"
"Good work, though." He patted her head once and then turned and began away from her- back the way he'd come. "If you hadn't stopped her bala blast, it wouldn't have mattered what you said. I would have killed that bitch, and I would have made sure she stayed dead."
"So you admit," Orihime said, "That is did resolve that."
He snorted. "I ain't admitting nothing."
With that, he disappeared into the darkness, leaving her to enter her room.
As she entered her room, she began to change into her night clothes- moving slowly to allow the moonlight to settle over her naked skin. She was so pale that it almost matched her hue for hue. As she slipped in to her sleeping gown, she continued to stare out at the moon- and it was then that she began to wonder something.
The bars on the window were not exclusive to her room alone. All the windows in the palace were barred. For the first time since coming there, she wondered to herself; was it to keep the monsters out, or to keep the monsters in?
She was looking at her hands, one morning- very happy, and very confused. It had been almost three and a half years since she'd left the world of the living, and in a place like Hueco Mundo- which had stressed her to the breaking point in the beginning months- one should have been able to see those years on her skin. Her hands, however, looked the same as they had when she'd left her apartment all those years ago. There was not one new crease or wrinkle, no bit of aged skin- nothing. And the rest of her had followed mysterious suite.
She didn't look a day past sixteen.
She was contemplating the oddity when Ulquiorra entered her room that morning, with his usual, "I'm coming in." She could hear the wheels of a cart and a second pair of footsteps that signified he'd brought her breakfast and a server for it.
She turned to him and smiled. "Ulquiorra!" She chimed. "Good morning!"
He took his seat at her table, nodding at her. "Orihime."
"I was just noticing something strange," she said. She rose from her seat at her vanity table and hurried across the room to where he and the masked servant where waiting for her, sitting down at the table across from him.
"And what would that be?" He asked. He nodded at the servant, indicating that it was time to get working. Wordlessly, the servant began to place their platters on the table- glasses closely following those.
"My skin." Orihime surmised. She held her hands up for him to inspect.
He glanced at them before looking down at his food as the servant uncovered. "Yes, your complexion seems to have suffered slightly from the lack of sunlight. It is not so strange."
"Not my skin tone. My skin. Everything!" She smiled when the servant uncovered her food, noticing that she'd been given three entire blueberry pancakes. There were eggs on a separate plate, along with a couple of sausage links- like breakfast in the UK. "Oh! Thank you!"
"What about your skin?" Ulquiorra asked. He'd been given a more traditional breakfast and was already starting on his rice.
"It hasn't changed."
At that, he actually did look up at her, looking more closely at her form. She didn't fidget or turn under his gaze as she waited for him to see it, too.
"This was to be expected." He finally said. He turned back to his breakfast.
"Expected? Why is that?" She couldn't help but laugh a little bit- he was just so straight forward sometimes that he skipped point B and C and went directly from A to D; leaving a lot of people confused as he did so.
"The nature of your powers is the negation of reality. In recent years, your fairies, as you call them, have begun feasting on the spiritual partials in the air and those of the attacks you neutralize, am I correct?"
"The question we should have posed earlier on would be where that power was going. While you have become considerably stronger in the use of your hairpins, it is odd that they would consume anything other than your own energy. With all the reishi that has been eaten by your fairies, it would need some place to go. Or, perhaps, it is being consumed because of where it ends up, rather than as a side effect."
"So you're saying... I'm nourishing myself with reishi?"
"In simple terms, it would seem so. You still need to eat, which makes it appear at though your body has not been affected by this. You have simply stopped aging."
"Simply." She mused.
"This is beneficial to our purposes." He said. He began to cut into his food again, as he spoke. "With your new-found semi-immortality, it does not matter how long this war takes for you. It had been a concern, previously, that perhaps you would grow old and die and leave our side at a disadvantage before the war had been won."
She nodded. "That's nice to know. I'd never really wanted to grow old. I mean, yeah, being a cute little old lady would have been fun and it probably would have had its perks, but I'm not really all that sorry that it seems that won't happen."
"It still could," he reasoned. "We do not know to what extents this goes. Perhaps you are only aging very, very slowly. It is possible that you have become more like a shinigami soul and will simply age at a crawl."
"And if not?"
"Then you have become like us." He said simply. "The arrancar are born at the age they die, and they do not age from then on. We still die by hunger or by injury- at times, by illness- like any other creature. But time is very relative to us."
"Why not the shinigami?" She wondered.
"There are more of them. Up until recently, they were more intelligent than most hollows. It is necessary that they die by natural causes eventually, or they will over-run the pool of souls."
She nodded. "That seems reasonable. I mean, after all, everyone has to die someday."
"Perhaps." He said simply.
"Won't that be a kicker when they come to find me?" Orihime suddenly laughed. Noticing his tilted head, she said, "My friends, I mean. They've all changed so much! And I haven't changed at all."
"You may find they do not think so." He warned.
"Why? Because of all this?" She gestured broadly at herself, her room, and him. When his mouth set in a grim line she just giggled. "I know it seems like it would be more in character for me to, I don't know, hate you guys still and all that. But I've always been adaptable, despite what people think. I haven't really changed at all, even if everyone thinks so. My circumstances have- that's all."
"You say that, but a few months ago when we visited the world of the living and you saw Ichigo Kurosaki, you did not run to him. You did not even call out to him."
She winced. "Oh. That." With a sigh, she said, "Well, Kurosaki-kun is kind of the one who... changed me. I've always been reasonable when I'm not daydreaming. For some reason, though, when I... when I fell in love with Kurosaki-kun, I just started acting sort of funny. I felt like he could take on the world, and when he kept babying me, I started to think I couldn't do anything. Like I always needed to run to him, cry out for him- be protected. I've had some time to think that over. And now I know that he's just like anyone else. He can't protect me from everything! That's my job. I don't need to be protected. That's why I didn't run to him. It would have just been silly. I'm not done here. And he's not ready to fight for me, I think." She nodded when she was done with her speech, turning her head up to flash Ulquiorra a watermelon smile.
He simply inclined his head once. "Very wise, Orihime."
When had he stopped calling her woman, again? Ah, yes. Out of everyone and everything- she was sure that she had changed the least.
Tatsuki looked out over the blank expanse of desert before her. It was bleak, and dead, and empty, and it was- unquestionably- no place for a girl made of springtime and smiles.
"She's here?" Tatsuki asked. "This is Hueco Mundo?"
Beside her, Renji nodded. No one else has the heart to tell her that her worst fears had just been confirmed. They'd kept her in the dark for so long; for all the years of her training. And now she knew why.
She couldn't fight back the tears building underneath her eyelids. She closed her eyes and breathed, trying not to think about poor Orihime lost and alone in a world of night and white sand.
Ichigo's voice startled her. "Let's go." He said. "She doesn't need to stay here another second."
The group started forward, quickly and quietly over the sand. Tatsuki jumped again when she felt a hand on hers, as she was running. She turned her head and found Rukia beside her with a gentle smile. She twined their fingers together and gave Tatsuki's hand a little squeeze.
"She'll be okay." Rukia said. "I know it."
In front of them, Ishida called back and said, "It will take time for her to recover, that much is for sure. But Inoue has always been strong of heart. We'll bring her back from hell- just you wait."
Tatsuki looked over at Chad and found he was nodding. He caught her eye and gave a small smile and a thumbs-up, telling her in his own way that everything was going to be okay.
They all said what they said. But none of them believed it.
Nnoitra was laughing so hard he was choking. Tears were streaming down his long face as he pounded on the table hard enough to shatter the surface, as everyone watched on.
Orihime was often late to their little espada meetings, but it was very seldom she pardoned herself with a joke. She made a mental note to do it more often as Nnoitra fell out of his chair and began to convulse with laughter on the floor.
Five seconds prior:
"Ah! Sorry, sorry, I know I'm late, haha!" Orihime came hurrying over to her seat near the head of the table, on Ulquiorra's left. She sat and said, "I was just thinking about this really awful joke and-"
"Tell us the joke." Gin Ichimaru demanded.
She pinked. "Oh. Um, it's really-"
"The joke, 'Hime-san."
"Fine I'm warning you now, though, it's really bad." She sighed. "Ahem. Do you have a hole in your shoe?"
Gin cocked his head to the side. "... Can't say that I do."
"Then how did you get your foot in there?"
For a moment, it was silent. And then Nnoitra lost his mind.
As the entire conference world waited for Nnoitra to regain his sanity- the man was choking and gasping out the joke over and over again- Orihime contemplated her position in life. A couple of years ago, coming to Hueco Mundo had been her worst nightmare. And now...
She was wondering how the hell she'd ever seen this place as anything scarier than your average run-of-the-mill haunted Halloween house. There weren't even any fake spider webs- never mind real ones.
Leaking out a fair amount of spiritual pressure, and thus silencing Nnoitra and making the rest of them wince- Aizen let lose a pleasant smile. He didn't appreciate the humor of the situation, it seemed. He wanted to get right down to business. "As you all know," he began, voice silky smooth. "A small task force has entered Hueco Mundo. Their purpose here is not clear as of yet, but I believe that it would be best to leave them be until absolutely necessary." He eyed Grimmjow when he said this, and then turned to Nnoitra as well; who had recovered and was sitting in his seat again, leering at Tia's breasts.
"The group is composed of shinigami lieutenant Renji Abarai, shinigami lieutenant Rukia Kuchiki, captain level substitute shinigami Ichigo Kurosaki, human quincy Uryuu Ishida, human abnormal Yasutora Sado, and human abnormal Tatsuki Arasawa." Tosen spoke quickly and efficiently, while Gin pointed to their images with a long stick as they appeared in the air between them. "Are there any questions?"
"Who is the strongest in the group?" Aaroniero asked.
"It is estimated that their strength can be gauged as follows. Ichigo Kurosaki is the strongest. After that, in order, comes Rukia Kuchiki, Renji Abarai, Yasutora Sado, Uryuu Ishida, and finally Tatsuki Arasawa. However, none of these intruders are to be taken lightly. They've been trained by the infamous Urahara Kisuke and Yoruichi Shihoin."
"What are their unique abilities?" Tia asked.
"That will be the subject of tomorrow's meeting." Aizen cut in smoothly. "For now we just wanted you to know they are here. We're observing them for the moment to see if we can get any further updates on their abilities so that we don't provide any false information."
"Fer' now," Gin added, "If ya' wanna know anythin' about 'em, then Szayelapparo has all you shoul' need ta' know."
"Soul Society must be in pretty sorry shape if they send a bunch of kids to the front lines!" Lillinette cackled. Starrk was snoring next to her, but he'd probably gotten the information somehow.
Orihime frowned. Well, yikes, that wasn't it exactly but it was kind of awful that some teens were the first line of offense and defense wrapped into one. All the big-shots they had back in the gotie thirteen and this was what they did? She could see it now- a big flyer ad sent out with the words, 'WANTED: TEENAGE SHINIGAMI TO SAVE US ALL.' with "and company" in the fine print. It would fit Ichigo's bill.
She sort of wished they wouldn't have come. She had no idea where their skill level was at, but she knew only misery could come from their visit. And not only that- but Tatsuki was with them now, too? When Orihime had left, Tatsuki hadn't even really known about hollows...
She worried at her lip the rest of the meeting. Her friends were very silly to have come. Why where they even there?
"Come." Ulquiorra's voice broke her from her thoughts. "I'll escort you back to your room; it is time for you lunch meal."
She nodded absentmindedly and fell into step besides him.
"Are you worried?" He asked as they walked.
"A little, yes."
"I thought you would be glad that your friends have come to rescue you."
She shook her head. "I don't need to be rescued."
"So you are upset that they have come."
She stopped walking. Was she upset? No... she was concerned. But they hadn't forgotten her, had they? If they'd come to rescue her at all, then they must have loved her after all. She was glad, and yet she was not. "I don't know." She shook her head again, biting her thumbnail as she hurried to walk with Ulquiorra again. "I don't know how I feel."
"Odd." He observed.
"Do you know why they're here?"
"I cannot say with certainty. I believe they'd come for you alone."
"It has to be more than that. Why wait all this time?"
"The war has only just begun. Perhaps they were waiting for our side to make the first move, so as to avoid plunging the world into a war they were unprepared for."
It was then Grimmjow caught up to them, leaping out in front of Orihime as he walked backwards. He had his hands up behind his head, and was grinning- looking supremely smug. "Hey, princessa."
"She is not in the mood for your antics, Grimmjow." Ulquiorra said.
Grimmjow ignored him. "Kurosaki's here. I'm gonna fight him."
"Grimmjow." Uluiorra warned.
"I'm so fucking excited! Did you see him!? He must've been working out every fucking day since we last met. That kid is ripped. Oh shit I'm so goddamn excited!" He jumped in the air and laughed, running a circle around the walking pair before taking up his position before Orihime again. "What should I do? Wait like Aizen said? Or just say fuck it and go attack that fucker right now? Who knows! Oh shit oh shit, if I wait here I can do a fucking dramatic entrance or some shit while he's alone. I'll use you as bait- wait, no, then you'll be in the way- fuck it who cares you can take care of yourself Imma do it. And then-"
"He's still my friend, Grimmjow." Orihime said softly.
He stopped talking.
Ulquiorra shot him a dark look. "I warned you, sexta-"
"Whatever." Grimmjow shrugged and then fell in line beside Orihime. "Prey is prey, Princessa, you know I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do."
"He'll do what he'll do too, you know." He snickered. "He may yet kill your little batsy-"
"That's enough." Ulquiorra snapped. He stepped between Orihime and Grimmjow, hand on the hilt of his sword. "Leave now, before you upset her further."
"Shit dude, I wasn't trying to upset her! Fuck off!"
"Don't fight." Orihime sighed. "Ulquiorra," she put a hand on his shoulder, not looking at them. "I want to eat lunch, please."
"Very well." He began back in the direction towards her room, leaving Grimmjow behind. The blue-haired man made no move to follow them.
"You can heal him after I kill him!" Grimmjow called after them. "I'm not that fucked up!"
"Thank you for trying." Orihime said over her shoulder. At least he was attempting to be civil, she supposed. She was beginning to develop a headache. At the heart of it all, she figured she was just conflicted. Who did she want to win? No one, and everyone.
When they reached Orihime's room Ulquiorra shut the door, wandering over to her window seat to sit and look out at the sands.
"Can you see them yet?" Orihime asked, quietly.
"No. However, I can sense them."
She nodded and then swept past him to sit on her bed. "Oh."
"Is there anything you would have me do to alleviate your pain?" Ulquiorra asked. He seemed to be putting of lunch for the moment, in order to make sure no servers could see her in a moment of what might have appeared to be weakness. "Grimmjow is a fool, but he is right. We will fight them. And it is likely we will win."
"What would you have me do?"
"Nothing. Just... nothing." She shook her head. "I don't want to think about it- them. It would be better if they'd never come."
"I will not bring it up again."
For a moment it was silent.
Ulquiorra suddenly stood. "I will bring a servant and your lunch. Would you have-"
"I'm not really hungry. Will you stay here with me, for a little bit?"
"... I will." He carefully returned to his position in the window. "You should eat, Orihime. You would do well to keep your strength for what is to come."
"I guess." She shrugged. "Skipping one meal isn't going to hurt me. I just want to think about something else. Or do something else- I... I don't know." And then she paused. "What if they come for me?"
He blinked. "What if? Orihime, they have come for you."
"I mean... what if they succeed?"
"That is up to you." He said simply. After a pause, he turned. "I will bring you lunch. You can choose whether or not you eat it, but it will be here if you do so require it."
"Thank you." She said.
She watched him as he left, and knew- somehow, deep in her gut- that she wasn't leaving any time soon. She didn't know if that was a good or a bad thing.
"Everyone wants to rule the world." She told him simply.
"Not everyone." He answered. "Not us."
Orihime watched Stark fiddle with one of Lillinette's ravaged stuffed animals. Very carefully, he was putting little white clouds of cotton back inside its tears, sewing each hole closed- careful not to ruin the toy further.
"Not us." He said again.
Orihime laughed. "That's just silly. You're fighting to win it."
He shook his head. "Aizen is. We're fighting for our lives under him." He reached into the box next to him on the windowsill and pulled out a button for the tanuki's eye. "I'm fighting because I have to. Lillinette is fighting because I am. But the espada... none of us want to rule the world. It's beyond our grasp."
"Grimmjow." She said. "He wants to be the king."
"He wants to be the strongest. He doesn't want to reign over anything. And what about the rest of us? We don't want anything to do with it. But we're here." He finished sewing the rabbit's eye on and then placed the newly formed tow beside him. "So we'll fight."
She'd never wanted to destroy Aizen more than in that moment. She'd never known much about hate. But she knew she hated that monster of a man; who would enslave a people and call it fellowship. A man who would cut down his army if it fell right.
"You say everyone wants to rule the world." Stark said. He started on a new stuffed animal- a tanuki with its head torn off. "Do you?"
She wasn't sure. "... It certainly would be kinder that way."
"Kindness." He scoffed. He pulled out fabric for a new stomach lining from his little box of materials. "Ruling is not kindness. Ruling is hording. It's possession. An ant farm with an owner who doesn't shake the box is still boxed, girl."
"I'd make it a bigger box. A nicer box. I wouldn't kill the ants."
He considered her words for a moment as he began to sew the tanuki's neck closed. Finally, he laughed a little- a dark, dangerous sort of laugh that made her think there was infinitely more to him than an endless laziness after all. He said, "Find an army."
"I've found one." She said quietly.
He paused again. Then, with a small frown, he said, "Kinder indeed."
Orihime watched the sands erupt into chaos outside of her window. She couldn't see anyone from so far away, but she could feel their spiritual pressures ebb and flow through the air. She watched and listened to the fighting and tried to make out what was happening.
It was still all low-level shinigami and low-level hollows at the palace gates. Farther beyond, though, where the sands whipped in tornados and turned deep crimson, she knew her Karakura troop was engaged with arrancar.
"They're doing well."
Orihime turned and found Ulquiorra in her doorway. It was dark out, and dinner had long since past. For a moment she wondered what he was doing there, but then she realized that she'd been calling out to him with her spiritual pressure for some time. She pulled in her signature in order to let him be.
"Your friends." He stepped forward and allowed her doors to swing closed, making his way over to her side. He sat beside her in the windowsill and looked out at the sands with her- distant.
"Are you worried?" She asked.
"You should be."
"Why?" He looked at her, unblinking. "It doesn't matter if they win or lose."
And in a way, she knew he was right. What mattered, in the end, was what side she chose. She couldn't stay in limbo forever. "Ulquiorra..." She trailed off. She wasn't sure how to pose exactly what she was feeling.
"I am listening."
She sighed and turned her gaze to her hands. Her young, un-aging hands. "Let me tell you a story," she began softly. "Once upon a time, there was a demon. He lived in hell with the other demons, but he hadn't committed any sins. He'd been born into hell from some deep sorrows that even the oldest of the youkia could not remember."
"Is this a true story?" he asked.
"Perhaps." She answered. "One day, while she was blessing a field on Earth, an angel tripped over a stone and fell into a pond that lead to the underworld. She fell into hell, and became trapped there, where she met the sinless demon. Now, I have to tell you, Ulquiorra. This angel, even though she was a heavenly being, sinned. By looking at the demons and feeling pity for them, she was questioning the truth of her lord, and that, my dear espada, is a sin. The demon, meanwhile, loved- even though he was a hellish being. By looking at the angel, and thinking she was better than the rest, he was loving her. Together, they found out that by joining forces, one of them could leave hell and return to the earth to live as a human- a being that could both love and sin. But only the most human of the two would be able to leave. So tell me, Ulquiorra. Which one left?"
She furrowed her brow at him. "You decided already?"
"Why do you think it was the angel? The demon was just as human as she was. That's the conundrum of the whole story."
"It is simple." He answered her. "The demon loved the angel, did he not? He wouldn't have allowed her to stay in hell. He would have committed sin after sin, until he was no more human than the rest, and thus she would have arisen."
She stared at him for a long moment.
Outside, something exploded, and twenty-seven reiryoku went out like candles in the wind. Shinigami and hollow alike; gone. Orihime might have noticed, in the back of her mind somewhere, and she may have even thought for a second that soon she would have to run out to the battle grounds to heal those who had fallen- hollows under orders, and shinigami in secret. If she did notice, and if she did think, though, it was fleeting and without presence of mind. She was intent on leaning in towards Ulquiorra; her hands creeping up into his hair.
"The story isn't true." Orihime breathed against his lips. "The angel would have commited just as many sins, trying to escape and free the demons with her, Ulquiorra- she pittied them."
"All of them?" He asked. He leaned forward and pressed a searing kiss against the skin of her jaw. "Did she not simply love one?"
"No." She answered honestly. "She pitied them all."
"What a coincidence." He murmured- she shuddered. "The demon pitied the angel as well. So I suppose, then," He bit her neck gently before letting go to kiss the reddened area. "Neither were to escape hell."
"We'll see," she sighed out. "We'll see."
"Take your clothes off, please." She was pulling at them herself, but she couldn't seem to figure out the zippers. It was like Tatsuki's stupid competition outfit; she'd never been able to help the girl out of it when she need too. "I want to touch your skin."
He shrugged out of his coat and pressed her down into the window seat, hands on either side of her head. He opened his mouth against hers and drew her bottom lip into his mouth to tug on it with his teeth. He let go and then smoothed the skin over with his tongue, meeting her tongue in the process.
"Touch me." She demanded.
Orihime mapped all of his torso out with her hands. He was all soft skin and hard muscle, with few scars marring the territory between. His hips were a sin, they made her stomach clench so tight, and his back was home to her nails the instant Ulquiorra began to mark her neck with hickies.
His hands stayed on her hips- the only safe zone in a minefield of inappropriate feminine places. He was too good to her, sometimes. She liked him that way, though.
She left his back for a moment and started to struggle out of her cape and sleeves. "Help me." She said, and he did, with quick and skilled hands that peeled the white away from her shoulders until she was left baring her collarbones and an enticing bit of cleavage. He put his mouth on the birthmark sitting at the top of her left breast and made it turn purple.
It was hot in Hueco Mundo for once. She'd known the world to be chilled, but at the moment, it was so warm she could scarcely breathe. She grabbed the top of her gown and tugged at it until the matterial was bunched up below her bellybutton and then said, "help me," again.
Ulquiorra left the window seat for just a moment, kneeling on the floor before her to help pull her dress off. Once it had pooled around her feet he started on her boots, unbuckling them quickly and then pulling them off as he bit and kissed her knee and thigh, holding her legs while he closed his eyes in bliss.
"May I take you to bed?" he asked. His breath ghosted over her naked thighs and swept over her stomach.
He hooked an arm under her knees and turned her, hoisting her into his arms. The trek to the bed was a short one, and once his knees met with the edge of the mattress, he leaned forward and laid her down so that she was propped up by her mountain of white pillows.
He must have noticed how she beckoned to him with her bottom lip between her teeth- her hand stretched out to him in asking. He climbed up onto the bed with her, kicking off his boots as he went. When he was towering above her and blocking out the light the moon in the window cast, he carefully removed his sword and set it propped up against the wall next to the bed.
Then there was him, his pants, her underwear, and her- with just the atmosphere between them.
"You can touch me anywhere you'd like." She said.
He nodded and dipped down to her breasts, pulling aside the bra- only pausing a moment to meet her eyes in order to make sure clothed areas counted. While he pulled a nipple into his mouth and tested it with his teeth, she swallowed back a moan and arched her back to take the bra off completely.
"That's nice." She panted. "R-really nice."
He met her eyes, not stopping his work, and seemed almost to thank her for her praise with his gaze. Then he closed his eyes and redoubled his efforts, sucking and rolling his tongue over her flesh until she was pulling at his hair hard enough to hurt.
He pulled away from her with a lewd noise, wet-lipped and dark-eyed. "Would you like for me to continued, Orihime, or will this be the extent of my duties?"
"Continue. You don't need to ask. If I want you to stop, I'll tell you."
That was all he needed to be told. He nodded once and then pressed his face back to her bust, grunting when her nails embedded themselves in his back. She rolled her hips and he put one hand on her side to stop her. His other hand, however, slipped down over her belly to meet her clothed sex, which he began to stroke at a leisure pace.
Her nails began to draw blood- but he did not mind. If anything, he liked it based on the way he groaned.
"Ulquiorra," she whispered. Her eyes were beginning to tear up. "Ulquiorra, U-ah! Ulquiorraaahhhh... un..."
He pulled the last layer of clothing she wore down. Down over her knees and to her ankles, allowing her to kick the garment away. Then her feet rose again, up to his hips, where her toes slipped beneath the waistband of his hakama. She began to worm them down off of his person, and so he pulled himself away from her for a moment to discard them.
Nothing was left, then, but the air and skin between them.
His fingers pressed into her core easily, thumb making circles around and over her the bundle of nerves at the head of her sex. "You're very wet." He said, almost sounding astonished.
She blushed despite herself.
He kissed her on the mouth once before moving back from her- peppering open-mouthed kisses over her torso the further he went. He travled steadily downward; nipping at her skin here and there, stopping at times to make hickies bloom over her flesh. When his legs were almost hanging off the bed, his mouth met the hair of her sex. He looked up at her to see if she would protest, and when she did not, he opened his mouth against her.
"Ah!" She bucked into his mouth once before he pinned her hips to the bed.
"Do your best not to move, Orihime." He said quietly. "Lest you injure yourself." He let go of one hip to gesture vaguely at the crest of bone that framed the side of his face.
They should have named him Taberuhito.
Hands clutching desperately at his hair, Orhime couldn't help but rock into his mouth as he sucked at her, relentlessly- never needing to come up for air since he didn't really need to breathe. He pressed his tongue against her and laved at her, and then pointed it and circled her clit like he had with his thumb, and then he'd begin by sucking her skin into his mouth all over again.
She felt heat building in her gut, stronger and deeper- faster and stronger the longer her went. Finally, when her legs were shaking and she felt like she was going to end up crying, the pleasure uncoiled within her.
Her thighs clamped down around his head as her head slammed back into the pillows. Shaking and gasping, she came, tumbling down from her high in soothing waves of pleasure. When she'd come down from her high completely, she felt herself go boneless- her legs flopping uselessly to the bed on either side of the espada.
"Would you like more?" He asked quietly.
She nodded woodenly.
This time, he rose up above her, kissing her again- tasting different, but not unpleasant. He drew away from her to mouth just below her ear; breath heavy and voice deep. "May I partake in your enjoyment?" He asked.
With her permission guiding him, he reached between them and positioned himself rightly above her.
It is customary, for the religious, to thank their god for the blessings bestowed upon them. Good weather, or wealth, or a long stretch of good health- anything and nothing at all, it was a blessing to a believer, and they gave thanks. Orihime had never understood the reverence they held in their voices, or the way they closed their eyes and bowed their heads.
But now she does.
She has never heard Ulquiora give thanks for anything at all. With his cool forehead pressed to her sweat-soaked neck, she wanted to keep giving him blessings- things to thank her for, to close his eyes for, to bow his head against her and tremble under the cover of darkness. She wanted many more of these nights; nights where his skin was human for the first time in his life. Nights were she turned hollow under the influence of his moon-burned skin.
They did not sleep that night.
And all the lord's sinners say: hallelujah, amen.
When her friends came, she was sitting in the tower. Her mural was almost complete, and she was working on finishing the touches. They'd entered the tower early in the morning; long before she'd gone to sleep. She and Ulquiorra, busy as they were, hadn't even noticed.
She found she wasn't sore in the morning- another helpful feature that came with her fairies' new ability of limited immortality. She was just as energized as ever with all the reitie in the air from the destruction outside. She hardly needed sleep.
She felt it when Rukia and Tatsuki faced Aaroniero, and later, when Renji and Uryuu faced Szayelapparo. She felt Ichigo and a familiar presence- one of the hollow children who played games just outside the palace, out in the sands with her friends. Why Ichigo progressed forward with the child, she didn't know, but she figured she would find out soon enough. She frowned to herself when she thought about Ichigo pulling a child into the danger with him. But then, it was hardly a surprise. They were "only hollows," after all.
"They're winning." Ulquiorra told her. "And they're coming for you."
"I know." She said. "Could you please pass me the blue paint from the table over there? I don't want to leave this undone."
He did as she asked.
As the day dwindled down to night, the groups had progressed to new enemies. Outside, the war continued to rage, but no one else made it past the front gates.
Once night had truly come, Ulquiorra had put a fake sun in her tower room so that she could paint by daylight.
"He's here." Ulquiorra warned.
Orihime paused. She was so close to being finished. "... Would you mind leaving for a little bit, Ulquiorra?"
His posture indicated that he did, indeed, mind. Still, he turned to go, but Orihime stopped him.
"You don't have to leave. I truly was asking a question- it wasn't an order." She wiped her brush off before dipping it in yellow. "In fact... it might be better if you stay. I want to finish this. Would you mind talking to him for me? I... I don't think he'd listen to me."
He barely had time to nod before the door had been knocked down.
"Inoue!" Ichigo roared.
When no one rushed to intercept the orange-haired boy, he paused. He took in the sight of Orihime calmly painting a huge sun out over a field of green grass and red chrysanthemum, guarded by a familiar looking arrancar.
"She is busy." Ulquiorra said calmly.
"You." Faced with an enemy to destroy, Ichigo zeroed in on the sight of Ulquiorra; a task much easier than talking to Orihime while she ignored him. "I recognize you... you're the one who was in the park that day!"
"You're the one!" He yelled. "You're the one who took Inoue!"
Ulquiorra ignored the remark. "If you have come to take her away, shinigami, you've come too early." Ichigo paused in stride- surprised. Ulquiorra continued. "You will not be able to remove her from this palace until Aizen has been defeated. If you try to take her now, you will be caught in the war as you try to flee. Surely you think that if that were to happen, she would be killed. Think before you act, boy."
"I... I won't let that happen to her!"
"You would risk it?"
Ichigo paused. Then, he said, "You... You're just trying to distract me. You want to hide her, put her somewhere else. No- you. Inoue! Inoue, look, it's me! Ichigo Kurosaki!"
"Ulquiorra." Orihime said.
He left Ichigo and appeared at her side.
"I'm done." Marveling at her final creation, Orihime stood, backing away from the painting she'd created. It had taken months, but finally... finally it was complete. She let out a happy laugh and swallowed back the urge to cry. "It's finally done."
"So it is."
"Hey!" Ichigo roared. "Ulquiorra, that's your name?"
"I'm talking to you! Don't think you can turn your back on me!"
Ulquiorra turned to stare him down, but continued to speak to Orihime. "Should I have this placed in the garden, Orihime?"
She nodded, still staring at her picture. She'd talk to Ichigo in a minute- god, she'd missed him- but for now, she just had to admire what hard work looked like in the end. It was beautiful, and she was sure she'd never made something of this magnitude before.
"I'll have it done right away." He made to leave the room.
"You're not going anywhere!" Ichigo leapt in front of him, confused, but taking the chance to do something he understood well; face down an enemy.
Orihime was done. She could talk to him, finally. "Ichigo." She said, pleasantly. She turned around and gave a big smile, face freckled with paint. "It's been a while!"
He stared at her.
"Ulquiorra, put it on the east wall." Orihime said.
He nodded and then turned to retrieve servants to fulfill her request. Frozen in shock as Ichigo was, Ulquiorra was easily able to sonido right past him and begin his decent on the tower stairs.
Orihime laughed again. "Sorry about Ulquiorra, Ichigo, he's not very good with pleasantries. If someone doesn't get what he's trying to say, he won't stop to explain it, either. He really wasn't being rude, you just weren't listening."
He continued to stare.
"What?" She quirked her head to the side. "Do I have something on my face?"
He blinked, then, and seemed to wake from his stupor. He re-adopted an expresion of determination and stepped forward. "We're going to get out of here." he said. His wrapped an arm around her waist and then pressed his shoulder into her stomach, to lift her off the ground and onto his shoulder.
"Ah!" She pushed him off of her and backed up, almost slamming into her painting. She caught herself at the last moment and tip-toed away from her creation. She turned back to Ichigo with a small frown. "What are you doing?"
"W-what am I doing?" He spluttered. "I'm here to rescue you!"
She blinked. "Rescue me? From what?"
"From Heuco Mundo!" He cried.
"Silly Kurosaki-kun, I don't need to be rescued." She said with a laugh. "Do I look like a damsel in distress?" She shook her head, and before he could answer, breezed past him. "You really haven't changed at all, have you?"
He scrambled to follow after her. Catching up to her, he fell into step beside her. "Inoue..." He started out carefully. His face betrayed him- telling just how scared and concerned he truly was. "What happened to you? What... what did they do to you?"
She didn't have time to answer. A group of arrancar coming up the stairs to get her painting froze upon seeing Ichigo and took up battle positions.
"Get behind me, Inoue, we-"
Orihime shouldered in front of Ichigo with a good-natured roll of her eyes. "It's fine," she told the hollows, "he's with me. Go back to work."
They bowed and then did as they were told, slipping past Ichigo and Orihime- making sure to keep their heads inclined as they past the latter of the two.
Ichigo just stared at her.
"You were saying?" She continued walking.
For a moment he seemed to forget how to move. When he again started after her, he had to run to catch up. Coming to her side he squinted at her, like he was looking for something visibly wrong with her. He wouldn't see anything; she'd worn her high-collared dress that morning.
"What's going on?" he asked.
She gave him a funny look. "Huh?"
"What is this? Is this a trick? I don't-"
"It's not a trick, Ichigo." She sighed and looked away from him. "Listen, if you want to leave here, you're jumping the gun. Ulquiorra was right. If you want to leave, you need to fight Aizen. Not just you. It will take all of you to defeat him. He's too prideful to let Gin or Tousen or anyone else get involved in the battle, so you can go straight to him. Tousen will try to kill while you're distracted, if you do win against Aizen, so beware him. I don't know about Gin, though, he's hard to read. None of you have seen his zanpaktu's release, so it shouldn't go wrong... You're staring at me funny, Kurosaki-kun."
"Are you really Inoue?"
She stopped and put her hands on her hips. "Have you been listening to me?"
"I have, it's just-"
"Then get going! Grimmjow is heading after Rukai right now; he plans to use her as bait in order to get you to fight him. I'll call him off for the time being, but you'll have to fight him when this is all over. Don't worry- if you die I'll bring you back to life."
"Go!" She pushed on his back. "You don't have time to stand around here! Do you really want a full-blown war or are we going to stop this while we can!?"
"Oh- r-right!" He started away, but before he was even out of her sight he stopped and turned around. "What about you?"
"Ichigo, I've lived her for well over three years now. I think I can handle myself."
He colored with embarrassment and guilt. "R-right."
Then he was gone.
Behind her, Ulquiorra's familiar presence came back to her. "I told you that you would betray us."
"I haven't betrayed you." She said. "Not yet."
"Not you. Just Aizen."
"Was there ever any difference?"
"When I'm done, you'll know there was." She nodded firmly, to herself.
"When you're done," he said, carefully, "It is very, very likely that I will be dead."
Orihime stared at the Hogyoku. It swirled with an odd light that made one feel a tug on their chest if they looked too long- beaconing, calling, whispering dark promises that the living gem had no intention of fulfilling.
Feed me, Seymour. Orihime mused.
She approached the podium it sat on slowly, and carefully, listening with her sixth sense for any nearby rieatsu. Her friends were still engaged with Aizen, and the rest of the palace seemed blissfully unaware.
Orihime reached one dainty finger, blue light glinging off of her black painted nails. She touched the glass box surrounding the hogyoku, feeding it a small bit of reishi in order to get it to open.
"Now tha's gotta be 'gainst the rules, Hime-chan."
Orihime ripped her hand away from the hogyoku like she'd been lit on fire, whirling around to face Gin Ichimaru as he reclined against the doorway to the hogyoku's chamber.
"I-Ichimaru-san." She blinked. She hadn't felt him coming; why would he mask his spiritual preasure unless he knew what she was doing? There was no way to talk herself out of this one. She was prepared to fight, but god, she didn't think she was captain-caliber. She might have to call on Ulquiorra. His omen from before echoed in her mind.
"Please, ya' can call me Gin. Ichimaru-san is just stuffy, doncha' think?" He chuckled, closed eyes seeming to pierce through her.
She opened her mouth to call Ulquiorra's name. If they worked together, they could win against Ichimaru- she was sure of it.
"Don't." Suddenly Gin was in front of her, a long bony hand clasped around her throat. He didn't put any pressure on his grip, but the threat was there. "S' jus' you an' me."
She didn't move.
"Yer here to destroy the hogyoku, aincha?"
"Yes." She whispered.
He nodded. "Thought so." He looked away from her, at the glittering gem to their right. He turned back to her and cracked open an eye; enough to make her falter in her breathing. "How'er ya plannin' to do it?"
"The souls that were stolen." He clarified, accent lifting for a second. "Where are they going to go?"
"B-back to the pool of souls, I think." She gulped. "I'm not going to destroy a soul- I'm going to absorb them and the hogyoku and then let them back out, I... I think."
He nodded. "So, hypothetically speaking, if there was part of a soul in there, and its other part was still alive and in a body, it would return to them, yes?"
"I- I think." She blinked. What was he going on about?
"Good ta' know." His eyes closed again, and he took his hand away from her throat. Turning, he made his way to the door. "Ya'd do best ta hurry. Aizen'll fall back on here to take the power a' the hogyoku soon since things ain't lookin' so good fer 'im."
Baffled, but not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, she nodded. As he was leaivng, she said, "Where are you going?"
He turned to grin at her. "Ain't none of yer lil' friends know how ta kill a god. I figure I'll amble on in an' show 'em how."
She watched him go.
... That left only a couple of people to Aizen. Tousen, Aaroniero, Zommari, and Tia- to an extent. There was the small problem of Ulquiorra's loyalty to Aizen; as the fourth espada would still do anything Aizen told him to do, but Orihime was counting on Aizen hoping to use the fourth for a temporary leader when he went out to war, so there was a good chance he wouldn't use Ulquiorra as a resource since he needed him alive for later.
Orihime shook her head. It wasn't time to be thinking about such things. She had a job to do.
She pressed her palms together and let out a long sigh, relaxing. As she opened her hands, golden threads spilled out between them in a complicated version of a cat's cradle. Leaning forward, Orihime dipped her hands into the cool mist of the box, and finally, she grasped the hogyoku.
She pulled it out of the box, blocking out the creeping feeling she was being watched by the gem, and then folded her hands around it, encompassing it in the net.
Pain stabbed through her skull before she'd even linked her fingers together. With a yelp she crumbled to the floor, blinded, mind reeling from a sudden assault of voices. She shook her head, trying to dispel the thousands of screams in her mind.
"Shun-Shun Rika!" She managed through grit teeth. "I reject!"
She felt her hands began to heat up to an uncomfortable level. She couldn't see- even though her eyes were wide open- but her eyes felt like they'd been iced over. She hand't thought about this- how would the souls escape her body once they were inside?
The eyes are the window to the soul.
She concentrated on breathing through the pain and the voices. She could do this. She had to. There was nothing else she could do.
Ichigo wasn't sure how long they could keep this up. Aizen was relentless in his attacks, and there was only so much damage they could all take. The self-proclaimed god looked worse for wear as he threw espada at them.
It was clear none of them were going to last long.
To Aizen's left, and exit, was a woman who Ichigo was having troubles getting past thanks to her freezing his steps. Rukia was countering the woman's powers easily, but it was no simple matter to walk over ice in order to get to Aizen.
Seeing that the woman wasn't going to last long, Aizen turned to make his escape. "You're in the way," he snapped. He turned and drew his sword clean through her, suddenly and without warning.
She didn't even scream. She grunted and collapsed in a heap on the ground.
Ichimaru Gin appeared where the female espada had fallen. "This way," he said. "The girl broke into the Hogyoku's room."
"No." Aizen's reiatsu flared with anger. He took a step past Gin-
He tried to take a step past Gin. But the taller man caught his sword.
"Shoot ta' kill. Shinso."
Orihime woke with the feeling that something was off. She was being carried, that much was clear, but as she blinked up at Ulquiorra she further confirmed something was amiss. He didn't look right.
"What-" her throat was raw.
Ulquiorra glanced down at her before looking back up the way they were going. "I am taking you to the throne room." He said simply. "Should I pluck out your eye so that you may heal it?"
They were in the throne room then. Ulquiorra flashed up the stairs and deposited her in the throne. Once there, Orihime noticed the hovering mirrors before the throne's front, disguised by Kido so that no one else could see them. It was to avoid attack from behind, she realized. No wonder they'd all thought Aizen had eyes in the back of his head.
She stared at her reflection. One eye was sterling silver, as usual, but the other was a pupil-less milky blue. She touched the area just beneath that eye in wonder.
"A weak soul got trapped in your eye." He said simply. "It couldn't push past the flesh. I will release it for you." He reached forward.
Orihime recoiled from him for a moment. "Hey there buster brown!" She yelled. "Have you even washed your hands?!"
He blinked. "I had not thought to."
Orihime knew he was right in his methods, but there was something gross about an unclean hand being put in any orifice she possessed. "Go wash your hands." She said. "Then you can... you know." She gestured at her eye.
He nodded. For a moment, he disappeared, leaving her to regard her new complexion alone.
Her skin was practically glowing. She felt like she'd drank an entire pitcher full of five-hour energy. "You guys better convert this into reiryoku pretty fast." Orihime said to her fairies. "It can't be good for me to have this much power in my active roster, you know."
Ulquiorra was back then. "Are you prepared, woman?"
She wasn't. "Yeah. Just... do it fast. Like a band aid."
"I do not know what that means." He admitted. "But it will be quick. Summon your fairies now so that they may heal you the moment I have removed the eye."
She nodded, speechlessly calling them out of her pins to hover in the air next to her ear. They were fluttering oddly, encompassed by glowing blue energy, but she knew they'd get the job done.
Ulquiorra leaned towards her, pausing for a moment. "Aizen is dead." He said, quietly.
She nodded. "I thought as much."
"There is a large group of souls on their way here." He said. "They have many for you to heal. Your friends are among them."
"Then you'd better go fast, Ulquiorra." She swallowed.
He nodded. Fingers peeled back her eyelid as he regarded her. "I can tell you from experience," he said, "The pain is fleeting."
He plunged his fingers into her eye socket.
Tatsuki pushed through the large doors to what she'd been told was a throne room, leaning heavily against Renji as she dragged a broken leg behind her. The shinigami had used a small kido spell to numb her pain, at the least.
They were leading a large group to Orihime to be healed. She was nervous, but excited despite it all, to see her friend after so long. As she pushed through the doors to the throne room, she spotted Orihime in the center of the long hall, sitting on a throne.
There was an espada hovering above her, one hand on her face.
"Or-" Tatsuki stopped dead.
Orihime was seated on Aizen's throne, and leaning over here was an espada. And they, late now, were just in time to witness the nameless espada pluck her eye from her skull. Tatsuki watched on in horror, stomach churning dangerously. Orihime lurched forward with a cut off yelp, holding a hand to the empty socket as it began to weep blood.
The espada crushed her eye in his hand, releasing a wisp of blue into the air.
"Orihime!" Tatsuki screamed. She summoned her carbon gloves again, coating her hands in the material. Broken leg or not, she'd kill that bastard for what he'd done!
Behind her, there were similar screams of her friend's name. The hall was long, and they were all caring dead and wounded with them. No one could seem to move fast enough.
The espada turned to regard them apathetically as he stepped back to the right side of the throne Orihime inhabited.
"Ah!" Orihime stood, smiling. Her eye was back. "Welcome, everyone!"
Orihime wished Ulquiorra would have been faster. She had yet another thing to explain, and really, she was very tired. Blood caked over her cheek in a long tear, like that of Ulquiorra's released form.
"Before anything else, please bring the dead forward!" Orihime yelled. The longer they were dead, the harder they would be to bring back. She spotted Tia in the throng, body torn up, and felt a small seed of sadness take root in her heart.
"Ulquiorra," She said, "Go get Tia."
He nodded. For a fraction of a second, he was gone, but he was back just as quickly, placing Tia's dead body at Orihime feet.
She summoned her fairies and began the quick healing process. "Ulquiorra, will you...?"
He nodded. Stepping forward, he raised his voice. "Orginize yourselves! The dead first, and then those most injured to least! Those with healing powers, begin working on the lesser injuries; it will be a faster process this way."
"What about the shinigami?" An arrancar called out.
"The war is over." Orihime declared. Silence fell for a small second. "For the time being, we're in this together. Work as a group, understood? As soon as we've finished here I will be sending people out to stop the fighting at the front lines."
"Work quickly." Ulquiorra said. "There is much to be done."
When everyone had been healed, the throne room was left deserted. Orihime sent Stark out with Gin to intercept the shinigami lines with her message, and the rest of her subjects were left to stop the fighting if possible. The castle was quiet.
Ulquiorra stayed rigid at her side.
Orihime was not surprised when, as everyone else left, her small group of friends stayed behind. At the base of her throne, she could still make out their features. Regardless, she called them up to her.
"Please," she said, "Come here! It's so good to see you all! I'd come myself, but I'm still recovering, haha!"
They began to climb the stairs to her throne, nervous, but willing.
Tatsuki ran up the steps, unlike her friends. She went to throw herself on Orihime in a hug, but Ulquiorra stepped in her way.
"Let me see her!" Tastuki sobbed. Orihime noticed she'd started crying. "Move you fucking-"
"Ulquiorra." Orihime called.
He nodded and stepped back.
Tatsuki was on her, then, sobbing into her shoulder as she clutched Orihime like she'd dissapear. "I missed you! I missed you so much, Hime!"
Orihime smiled fondly and hugged her friend back. She'd missed Tatsuki more than anyone.
"I never stopped looking! I didn't know where you'd gone, but I put up missing posters, and I checked in the police station for reports every Sunday; I did everything I could. I missed you so much, Orihime."
"I missed you too."
"They wouldn't tell me where you'd gone..."
"I thought as much." Orihime smoothed Tatsuki's hair over.
The girl withdrew herself, then, sniffling as she wiped her face and stood. Orihime's other friends were watching her, cautious, like they were waiting for her to snap.
"Three years." Orihime laughed, softly. "And now the dream team is back together, huh?"
They all cracked small smiles. They seemed to be nervous about Ulquiorra's proximity, more than anything- aware of him in the way one was aware of a chained up rabid dog.
"Ulquiorra, would you leave us, for a moment?"
He nodded, and then in a burst of sonido, he was gone.
They were all regarding her strangely.
"I thought you might be more comfortable without him staring you down. I know how weird it can feel!" Leaning forward, she whispered, "Sometimes, he doesn't even blink."
"Anyway, what's up?" She smiled brightly at them.
"Orihime..." Rukia trailed off. She worried at her bottom lip with her teeth.
"Come home." Uryuu said, suddenly. "The war is over. Let's go, Orihime."
"Home?" She shook her head. Had they... had they really not thought this through? "You don't understand... I don't have a home there anymore. All of my things must have been sold off a long time ago. I have nothing. Tia tells me that my aunt had me legally declared dead months ago."
They shifted uneasily.
"Stay with me!" Tatsuki said. "We'll always have room for you, Orihime. We can buy you new things- better things! Please, let's just go home, I-I can't stand it here."
"You get used to it." Orihime said softly.
"Hueco Mundo needs me." She said. "Gin will be going back to Soul Society, and without anyone else to lead, Los Noches will fall into chaos. We need to rebuild."
"And you think you think you're the one to do it?" Ichigo cried. "Inoue, don't be crazy! Come home with us; they're hollows! They'll kill you without a second thought."
Orihime was annoyed with Ichigo for the first time in her life, then. All she'd done, and he still thought she was weak? Oh- wait one dilly darn second. She'd promised someone that they'd get to punch Ichigo in the face when all was said and done, didn't she?
"Grimmjow," she sighed.
He was there in an instant. He grinned wide, drawing his sword. "Kurosaki!"
Orihime sighed and rubbed her temple as Grimmjow threw Ichigo off of the throne and down to the ground below. "Take it outside, please." She reminded the sixth. He nodded absentmindedly before launching himself after Ichigo.
"Uh..." Uryuu stared after the duo.
"Should we be worried?" Rukia asked.
She shook her head. "I'll fix them when they're done. Grimmjow's been waiting patiently for this; there's no stopping him now."
"Listen, you're all welcome to stay here as long as you want. I'll have Ulquiorra create a rift to send you back home when you're ready to leave, but I'm not going anywhere. Soul Society is ruthless, and I can't just leave them to be attacked while they're like this.
"So that's it, then?" Renji said. "You're just going to stay here? Be the new ruler of Hueco Mundo? You're a human girl!"
"And yet, I already have control here- more than any hollow has."
"You have to come back!" Uryuu cried.
Over the years, Orhime had lost a lot of her patience. The espada never tried her like her friends did. They got things over quickly and didn't have to be told anything twice, because they remembered. They, at least, would bring new points to an argument. They, at least, didn't treat her like she was a silly little girl.
"Thank you for coming for me." Orihime said softly, trying to remember what it was like to be a patient soul. "But I'm not going anywhere. Like I said, I can provide you with safe passage back to the World of the Living; I'll bring you there myself. And I'll put out word and make it so that you guys can come and visit me any time you want." Her eyes, suddenly sparkling with mischief, lit up the dim. "Can you imagine? A huge sleep over party in here? It would be so fun! There's this huge pillow pit in Stark's room; I can have another one built in the observation room. We can turn it into a cinema!"
They were all staring at her oddly.
Ulquiorra was suddenly back at her side. "Orihime," he said, "An ambasador from the vasto lordes has been sent. May I show him in?"
She nodded. When he left, she turned back to her friends and said, "Here, come over to the left side of the throne for a second. I'll be quick."
The vasto lordes that Ulquiorra showed in didn't use sonido to scale the stairs, but actually took them one at a time. He was old; much older than any other hollow she'd seen. Huge white feathers dragged along the floor after him as he acended the stairs case. When he came before Orihime, he bowed respectfully. She returned his gesture with a nod.
"I'm Orihime Inoue. What can I do for you?" She asked.
"Shinigami have begun to enter Hueco Mundo just beyond our lands." He said. "We felt when Aizen was killed. Are you his successor?"
"In a way. I guess we kind of overthrew him."
He nodded. "In that case, you may see reason. We offer an aliance. Send you arrancar to defend our lands so that we may continue to live in peace, and we will aid you should you need. I understand if you will need a few days to think it over, my lady, and we will send-"
He blinked. "Pardon?"
"How many arrancar do you need?"
"Ah... twenty, my lady."
"Ulquiorra, give this gentleman twenty reliable arrancar and see that they guard him on his way home, please."
He nodded, and then was gone again.
"Is there anything else I can do for you? You must be tired after your journey. If you'd like, I'll have a room prepaired for you. A servant will be sent up with food."
"Thank you, my lady, but I must return. I would like to leave as soon as possible."
"Understood." She inclined her head to him again. "I would have someone show you out, but I'm a bit short on hands for the moment. Would you like for me to escort you?"
"A tempting offer, my lady, but I see you have company. I will be on my way." He bowed. "Thank you for your help. We look forward to working with a leader such as yourself." He turned, beginning away. Very soon, he was gone.
Orihime turned to her baffled friends. "See?" She said simply.
They all stared at her.
"I'll have rooms prepared for you all. We'll catch up over dinner, and then you can be on your way." Feeling strange and not at all like these were really the friends she'd left three years ago, she rose, intent on heading to bed with Ulquiorra at her side.
"You've changed." Rukia said quietly.
Orihime turned to regard her. "Not so much as you think." She said sadly. "It was just hard for you all to get to know me well when you thought I was so fragile."
After so many years, she had no idea why she'd thought that things would be the same. She didn't know her friends anymore, and they didn't know her. Tatsuki would love her, and she would love Tatsuki, but the rest of them? Would they ever stop staring at her in horror?
They'd expected to come and find her broken. Were they disappointed to find her stronger than they'd left her? Time changed them all, she supposed, and in the end she'd make new friends- friends who respected her power and person as one.
She would thrive. She would adapt.
She'd be a better ruler than Aizen ever could have been.
Kill them with kindness, the saying echoed in her brain. Use honey to trap flies.
"Ulquiorra." She called, using her spiritual pressure to beckon him. He appeared in an instant. "Just for tonight, I think I've decided to be a human again. Will you watch over while my friends and I catch up?"
He nodded. "If that is what you wish for."
"Thank you, Ulquiorra." She reached up, very knowing of the staring crowd her old friends presented, and kissed him gently. She leaned back even as her friends were gasping, and smiled. "If Grimmjow comes looking for me, you may direct him to us."
He nodded. Pausing for a moment to look at her shocked company, he leaned back down and brushed her hair away from her face. "Orihime." He said, bowing, and pressed another kiss to the corner of her mouth. "Call should you need for anything."
He was gone, then.
Turning back to her friends- who still stared in horror- she couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, come on." She said, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. "You really didn't think I'd still be hung up on Ichigo, did you?"
From somewhere nearby, she could hear Grimmjow laughing.
Yeah. Things were going to be okay after all.