helloooo! so this is not only my first story on this account, but also my first attempt at writing bleach fanfiction. this is solidly ulquihime, so if you're not into that sort of thing, i would not recommend this story to you! this first chapter is rather short, but keep in mind that it is just a prologue. the official first chapter should be out by next week.

for now, happy reading!



It was always cold in Hueco Mundo, and harsh, frigid winds blew unrelentingly, disrupting the desolate stillness of the desert. Las Noches stood in its midst, thick columns surrounding the long palace. It was as white as snow, and its domed roof was not unlike the top of a mountain; its atmosphere was freezing and stale, almost suffocating in its emptiness. It was terrifying to behold.

It was not surprising, therefore, that each member of the motley crew from Soul Society who had taken Las Noches by storm during the Winter War preferred not to think of it upon their return to Karakura Town. In comparison to the strange solitude of Hueco Mundo's desert, home felt comfortingly familiar. They were all still reeling from their experiences, but the reintegration into their old lives was surprisingly easy. For the most part, Ichigo and his friends had escaped mentally unscathed – all except for one.

Mere weeks after her miraculous return, Orihime Inoue was back to acting exactly the same as she had before the war had transpired: always cheerful and extremely friendly to those around her. To those who really knew her, however, it was obvious that something – although one would be hard pressed to pinpoint exactly what – was different about her.

Among her closest friends, the one who felt this change most keenly was Tatsuki Arisawa. It seemed that following her best friend's sudden disappearance and the subsequent disappearances of Ichigo, Kuchiki-san, Sado, and Ishida, Tatsuki had missed something vital. It wasn't the explanation. In fact, shortly after the group's reappearance in Karakura Town, Ichigo and co had recounted to her the story of Orihime's retrieval. Each described the battles they had waged against the Arrancars throughout the Winter War, which had reached a boiling point when Ichigo was forced to go up against the cuarto Espada.

"That guy…" Ichigo had said, quietly. "His reiatsu was ridiculously high, and he had two sword releases. If Inoue didn't cheer me on, I definitely would've died. It was only because of my inner Hollow that I won, but… in the end, he was the one who snapped me out of it. Without him, I probably would've killed Ishida and Inoue with no hesitation." He sighed, running his hand through his hair. "It was too late to do anything for him, my inner Hollow had beaten him so badly. He asked me to kill him, but… he died on his own, crumbled into ash."

Orihime, who had said next to nothing throughout the discussion, flinched noticeably. It was then that Tatsuki realized what she had missed – or, to be more precise, who she had missed. Ulquiorra Schiffer, Espada numero Quatro.

At first, she thought that the reason Orihime seemed so upset when he was mentioned was because she was afraid of him. It was the most reasonable explanation, seeing as he had kidnapped her and left her beloved Kurosaki-kun near death on several occasions. But as time went on, Tatsuki could see that it simply wasn't the case.

On the rare occasions when Orihime spoke about her time in captivity, she recalled Ulquiorra almost reverently. A strange expression would settle on her face, strikingly serious in comparison to her usually cheerful demeanor. The only word Tatsuki could think of that accurately captured its depth was despair.

If one thing was for certain, it was that the Cuatro had made a profound impact on her friend. Tatsuki herself didn't understand why – she had encountered him once in the park, flanked by the behemoth Diez Espada, Yammy, and he had been callous and cold, addressing her and Orihime as trash (she still wanted to rip him a new one for that comment, but that was beside the point.) She couldn't say she was sad to see him gone, especially in light of his treatment of her friends, but clearly Orihime was.

Was it Stockholm Syndrome? Guilt? Simple pity? Tatsuki didn't know. But no matter what it was, it was wounding Orihime deeply, despite her best efforts to conceal her pain. There were deep bags under her eyes from lack of sleep, and her tendency towards babbling and nervous laughter had increased tenfold, something Tatsuki didn't even think was possible. And, although she still addressed Ichigo as Kurosaki-kun, it lacked the adoration it had previously possessed. There were no more longing glances directed at him and Kuchiki-san, no more brilliant blushes, and no more rapidfire stuttering. She looked at him the same way she looked at her other friends, betraying none of her previous romantic affection towards him. There was also a wistfulness about her, not altering her effervescent nature, but underlying it. Tatsuki wondered if it was for her time in Las Noches, under the cuarto's guard.

As much as Tatsuki was aware of Orihime's sadness, she was also aware that there was no way to remedy it. Ulquiorra Schiffer was dead, disintegrated into ash after going head to head with Ichigo's hollow. Tatsuki could kill a fully grown man with five well placed kicks, could outrun the anyone, could climb the highest mountain… but she couldn't resurrect the dead.

Luckily for Tatsuki, although she didn't know it quite yet, she wouldn't have to. For the first time in her life, someone had beaten her to the punch.