Hey there!

Man, once again I have to apologise for such late update... I'm so sorry! (It seems all I do is say sorry instead of writing chapters, haha... I'm hopeless and beyond saving :D) But let's not dwell on it longer than necessary...

Anyway,

Cethron, Sepsis, abiecula, AnimeFanx3, kutsky, Extreme Strawberries, CharismaHarmony, onlyluna, SweetestChick, hasegawa, SunRises6, Anna chan, Colubra, smell of orchids, ojou-chan, iivogelchen, 1234567, Shinju-chu, jd, JRVivaciousT, Yami no Saku-chan, Kemeyeoz, hamchan, Mitsie Chan, Kurosu, sehera, Sakura Yui, lmc9389, Key, Guest, Lulosky, ShiraChan-Desu, apple21, Anon, Guest

Thank you for your kind reviews! They always bring a smile to my face and keep me going, even in the times of dejectedness and lifelessness (yep, hit me hard at the beginning of the year, one of the reasons for such late update). I really love you guys and I hope that everything is going just fine or even better for you!

And on another bright note – I finally replied to your reviews and PMs! Yay! (Or at least I hope I didn't omit anyone... If I did, feel free to smack me on the head!) Those who has disabled PM, those who has no account on FF or those who has left their reviews anonymous, can find their replies on my profile as usual. It was fun writing you back, but it sure was time-consuming. From now on I'll do everything in my might to respond to you as soon as possible, so such negligence will never happen again. (Hopefully, tee-hee.)

Okay, end of my rambling.

I really hope you'll enjoy this chapter! (The longest one yet, I think!)

朝霧 -Asagiri-


The Frozen Whisper

by Asagiri


Chapter 20

Wishes and Wants


Ulquiorra looked at her, at her eyelids and eyelashes hiding her downcast eyes. She was completely still, only her chest raising and falling rapidly in short takes of breath betrayed that she was a living thing, not some doll seated on a chair. He extended his hand to gently caress her cheek, but she only moved her head to the right and stiffened even more.

He sighed unsure what to make out of her gesture. Was she simply uncomfortable? Or maybe scared? Moments ago he had seen fear in her eyes, but that time he had been pretty sure that she was afraid of her own feelings (for him?). But maybe he had misread and she was actually afraid of him after all?

Trying his luck even more he rested his forehead on her temple and slowly moved his hand down her neck and to her bare shoulder. Tentatively. Searchingly. And even slightly teasingly. Unable to see her eyes, perhaps he might learn something from her body language.

Her forehead was warm and slightly bedewed with sweat – a sign of her nervousness undoubtedly. Her shallow and quick breath too indicated that her composure was forced and it took her a lot of strength to maintain it. But what surprised him and at the same time pleased was that she didn't move away from him any further. For what reason she let him this close to her, he didn't know, although he wanted to interpret it in his favour – that despite everything she might be feeling rather comfortable with him and not too afraid of him.

Rukia had hard time coping with the situation. He was too close. Definitely too close. She could feel his warm breath wafting over the side of her face, she could feel warmth radiating from his body, surrounding, no... embracing her. She really wanted to run away, but couldn't. Her legs wouldn't move despite all the panicked signals her brain was sending to them. So all she could do was sit stiffly until her body would be kind enough to listen to her.

But what could she do when she was more and more perturbed with every passing moment? First off, she was generally surprised by his proximity. She also couldn't believe her ears when he had told her that neither he would kill her nor let anyone hurt her. Saying that he had sounded... protectively and possessively.

And of course his attempt to kiss her. Again... But she couldn't have let it happen. It was wrong, improper. Heretical. (No matter how wonderfully amazing his kiss may feel. And kind of right, too...)

Then he had caressed her cheek only to move his hand to her shoulder gently stroking her on the way there. That had caused a fluttering sensation in her stomach – full of dread but at the same time oddly pleasant one. Still, nothing could have compared with him resting his forehead on her temple. Suddenly everything except for him and her ceased to exist. She even forgot how to breath for a moment. Only the need to intake air reminded her of reality and the precarious position she was currently in.

Yet she couldn't run away. And some part of her – that one she didn't want to acknowledge – didn't want her to run away, even though it was too warm and too dangerous for her.

So she only closed her eyes and waited for whatever would happen. In her mind she was repeating a mantra – the same one she had chanted before he came. Just in case. He's my enemy. I'm his enemy. We're at war. This is wrong. ... Whatever it is. He's my enemy, for gods' sake! ENEMY... I hate this. Why— I mean, he's my enemy. I'm his enemy. We're at war... Screw you, Aizen! I'm gonna beat you up with a stick, you don't deserve any better death. Enemies. Enemy. He's my enemy. Ulquiorra. I don't want— Stop right there. He's your enemy! ... My enemy. My... enemy...

Ulquiorra sighed deeply, unsure what he could do in this situation. He hoped he hadn't misread the emotions in her eyes she carelessly let show. He knew she couldn't fake them, but her presence was making it hard for him to think clearly and logically therefore he could have actually made a mistake. (And he so rarely made any mistakes that you could very well say that he never made mistakes. The thought that he might have made one only strengthened his confusion.)

Oh, she was making him feel like a fool for hoping he was right. He never needed to hope, the concept of hope was alien to him – he always trusted his eyes and his mind. Whatever his eyes saw was a reality, whatever his mind analysed was a fact. There was no place left for doubt, confusion nor hope.

Yet, he wasn't so sure this time. He was even apprehensive that this time, of all possible times, his eyes might have seen wrong. And this made him feel rather awkward and uneasy. He never felt awkward nor uneasy, it was ridiculous. He was always sure of himself when it came to judging or assessing the situation, people or things. Absolutely nothing could hide before his keen eyes – they could pick up the tiniest details, slightest nuance, smallest everything. And with his calculating and analytical mind he could understand everything, nothing held any secrets before him.

But at the moment he couldn't believe himself. What had happened to him? What had she done to him? He felt ridiculous! He actually hoped he was right! He of all people!

Curse you, woman! ...

But what was the most unexpected – when he really thought about it, it wasn't making him feel bad; he wasn't angry at himself. He wasn't angry at Rukia as well. Because despite all those undesirable feelings, he felt... alive. More alive than ever before. He could feel his own existence through something else beside the pain and emptiness.

...Rukia.

He inhaled taking in her subtle fragrance and slowly breathed out wondering what he should do now. And of course he couldn't help but wonder whether he had read her eyes correctly or not. What was she afraid of? Was it what he thought it was? Or maybe he had misread? Well, it wasn't something he could ask her directly – knowing her she would get all defensive and he would learn nothing.

Therefore he decided to ask a question that might lead him in a roundabout way to the answers he wanted to obtain. And if not, it still might make Rukia give away something interesting.

"Are you afraid of me?" he asked her carefully, quietly, almost in a whisper.

After few moments Rukia finally started to calm down and her breathing wasn't so rapid anymore; even her fingers stopped clutching on the fabrics of her jacket. The warmth surrounding her made her sleepy, at ease even. That was when her more or less calm state was interrupted by his soft voice asking her whether she was afraid of him.

Startled at his voice but also because his breath tickled her ear, her eyes shot wide open, and realising how close he actually was, she backed away from him in the chair as far away as she could (which wasn't much).

"No," she said quickly but then even quicker she contradicted herself with, "Yes."

Noticing the nonsense of her answers, she settled for unsure "I don't know. I..." and fell silent, thinking.

Rukia took few glances at him while weighing her answer. Was she afraid of him?

No, not when it came only to her. He had told her that he wouldn't hurt her and she believed him. (She tried to ignore the fear of what he was making her feel – the fear of her own feelings towards him, to be precise.)

But she knew he would hurt people close to her, kill them without hesitation. In this case she was afraid of him. Also, the darkness within him scared her a bit. After all, he was a Hollow even if an Arrancar. That darksome emptiness had to be fed with something, so even if she wasn't afraid of him for herself, she was afraid of him for himself, for Ulquiorra. She was afraid that darkness would swallow him up and he would no longer be himself.

So in the end her answer was, "I think I am..."

She wasn't looking at him when replying, so imagine her surprise when suddenly she saw him kneeling on one knee in front of her. Flustered she tried to look away, but no matter how much to the side she would turn her head, he still had at least her profile to look at. She came to a conclusion that this had to be his intention – to have a better view of her face. It made her uncomfortable, not being able to fully hide her expression from him. After all it was obvious even to her that she was like an open book to him.

"Why? Why are you afraid of me?" he asked not making any notice of her uneasiness.

"Shouldn't I be?" she returned his question with her own; a ghost smile appeared on her face only to disappear soon after.

Ulquiorra pondered her question for few seconds and had to agree with her. Especially because he wasn't sure if one day he wouldn't lose himself and unconsciously hurt her. And he remembered that no more than few moments before he even had had an urge to hurt her, to break her bones, so she would feel his pain, physically at least. Of course he didn't want her to know that, so he only said, "Maybe you should, but I don't mean to hurt you."

"I know," she whispered after a pause and again the corners of her lips quirked up in an odd smile. "But you will. One way or another."

Now that she put it this way, he realised that if he killed people close to her, he would hurt her as well. Probably even more than if he were to hit her, wound or even kill her.

"Perhaps you're right," he nodded his head. In an afterthought he added, "But it's not what I want."

She only nodded her head acknowledging his words, but he could see sadness appearing in her eyes.

It wasn't like he didn't want to harm people close to her. If he could, he would. After all he did despise them. They had Rukia's affection, thoughts and Heart – something he wanted all for himself. But still there was that small part of him that didn't want to see her hurt, sad.

He wondered what would happen if he actually killed Kurosaki or her brother. How would she react? How would she feel? Would she still look at him with that warm look she sometimes had in her eyes? Or would they turn cold, dead even? Would she forgive him for hurting her like this? He even asked himself a strange question, one that he never supposed he would ask himself: how would he feel? (If he killed them? If he hurt Rukia?)

He looked at her intently, seeking her attention, wondering if she might be thinking about the same thing. Maybe this way, while studying her eyes, he could learn what she would do if (when) he killed her loved ones. However she only gave him a soft, unsure smile and quickly averted her gaze. It was too quick to even find a smallest hint in her eyes.

On the other hand, why did it even matter to him? Since when did he actually care that someone might hold a grudge against him?

Right, since Rukia. Since it could be Rukia who resented him.

"Would you..." forgive me?, he wanted to ask at first, but such question couldn't leave his throat. He was astonished that it even crossed his mind. So instead he asked almost casually, "What would you do if I killed your brother or any of your friends?"

Rukia stared at him surprised. She didn't expect him to ask such question. Because why would he want to know this? It wasn't like he would care whatever she told him. She didn't delude herself – given the chance, he would kill them anyway. She had nothing to say on the matter.

More importantly however, what would she actually do if he killed people close to her? Now that she thought about it, she had absolutely no idea. Would she start hating him? Would she want to take a revenge? Would she just die in despair and grief while cursing his name? She didn't know. All she knew was that it would hurt her unimaginably. She couldn't predict her reaction. She just didn't want to think about her brother and friends getting killed, especially by his hand. And she didn't want to think about him killing anyone as well. She had a feeling that if she gave it as much as a thought, it might actually open a possibility for it to happen. Therefore she didn't.

"I don't know," she replied. All the while her fingers were twiddling with each other, her nails sometimes dug themselves slightly into her pale skin, leaving small marks that disappeared in a matter of seconds. She continued in a weaker voice, "I don't want to think about it. I don't want it to happen."

"But you know I will most likely fight them," he told her after a moment. Gently, as if he wanted to prepare her for inevitable pain and maybe lessen it somehow. There was something indescribable in his eyes, something intense and at the same time fleeting, but as much as she wanted to know what it meant, she felt too exposed when looking directly into his eyes, therefore she just averted her gaze.

Although she didn't make any reply to his statement, Rukia knew he was right. She knew he would fight them. And they would fight him. Her brother and her friends probably wanted him dead as much as they wanted Aizen dead – they wouldn't forgive him for taking Inoue and her away. And in order to win neither they nor Ulquiorra would hesitate to kill. Both sides were strong and experienced in battle, so she couldn't predict the outcome of their clash. And what was the worst (for her as a Shinigami) – she couldn't exactly find it in her heart to hope for one particular side to win...

"Few days ago you were so certain that Soul Society would win this war," Ulquiorra's low voice interrupted her train of thought.

"Yes," she firmly nodded her head in confirmation, "And I still am." She was certain that Soul Society would never yield to Aizen. She'd rather die than see the day when that traitor would conquer the Shinigamis. But if Soul Society won, then it would mean that...

"Then what would you do if someone killed me?" he asked offhandedly, no emotion visible on his face.

Rukia once again stared at him in surprise. She would never have thought that he would ask such question. And she was about to ask herself exactly the same thing too. Still, what kind of question was that for him to ask? And the previous one as well? Did it really matter what she would do if he killed or was killed by somebody? Would her answer now prevent any of the hypothetical things from happening? Of course not! Then why should she think about them?! She didn't want to think about them just as much as she didn't want such things to happen. She would know what she would do once the circumstances arose. Besides, thinking it over now wouldn't prepare her mentally or in any other way for it. You simply couldn't prepare yourself for such impact.

"Why do you ask such questions?" she asked exasperatedly standing up and swiftly moving past him; using the opportunity that her legs finally listened to her, she walked few steps away finally escaping from his proximity. "What do you want from me?"

"What would you do?" he asked again, this time a little bit pressingly.

Rukia, hearing him standing up from his kneeling position and making steps in her direction, sighed and quickly answered in hope that he wouldn't come any closer to her. "I don't know, all right? I don't want to think about it either."

Stopping in his tracks, Ulquiorra looked at her slightly surprised. He was sure that his death and her friends' death wouldn't be the same to her and wouldn't affect her the same way. Yet, he had a feeling that there were undertones in her answer suggesting that they weren't that far apart either. She seemed too defensive and panicky – as if she didn't want to give something away, something that was rather uncomfortable...

"Why?" he asked curiously.

"Because I just don't want to think about it," she replied, this time in a calmer, quieter voice, resigned even.

Puzzling over the true meaning of her words, Ulquiorra took another step in her direction. Why didn't she want to think about it? He came to a conclusion that she was either afraid to even give a thought that something like that could become a possibility or such thoughts were unpleasant for her or both. He knew Rukia long enough to know it wasn't because she was uninterested or didn't care, that was for sure. From this conclusion as much as he understood why she didn't want to think about people close to her getting killed, he had hard time comprehending why she wouldn't want to see him die as well. It couldn't be it, could it?

"You don't want me to die," he said in a levelled voice – it was more of a surprised statement than a question.

"No," she confirmed and finally turned slightly to look at him. Her expression didn't show much, she put on a blank mask. What was she trying to hide?

"Why?" Ulquiorra asked, looking at her intently, searching for any hints on what she might be feeling or thinking at the moment. However all he could read in her face was resignation and... distress.

"I just don't," she replied matter-of-factly. "Why would I?"

"I'm your enemy. I keep you here against your will," he pointed out two very good and the most obvious reasons for her to at least despise him. With all certainty most people would hate him for them and even wished him death. Yet she was different. He couldn't believe that such things didn't seem to matter to her much.

"So?" Rukia asked in return. Realising that offhanded question sounded quite odd (like she didn't actually minded her current situation – which of course she did), she added, "I mean, even so, why would I want you to die?"

She didn't feel he was her enemy nor he did much to make her feel this way. Quite the contrary. Although she had to admit that being confined in one room sometimes made her feel like she was going insane, not to mention it made her think bizarre things... But that definitely wasn't something that could make her want him dead. After all he was the only person in Las Noches whose company she didn't mind. Actually she quite enjoyed it, now that she thought about it. It was like his presence was making it easier for her to stand her imprisonment. He wasn't an easy person to talk to nor he was approachable, but looking past his indifferent and cold demeanour there was something about him, something about the way he talked or behaved that was rather intriguing. More often than not he was a cold-hearted bastard, but there were those few times where he had showed that he cared and despite that hole in his chest he did have a heart.

Seeing he wasn't to comment on her half-rhetorical questions, she asked presumptuously, "What? Would you rather I wanted you dead?"

Ulquiorra didn't have to think twice about it for the answer was obvious – of course he didn't want that; he wanted her to look at him with that warm look of hers everyday, he wanted her to regard him with warm feelings, and most of all he wanted her to want to be his. But if she didn't want him to die, then... It was the first time he actually wondered about that. What did she, Rukia, want? Not only in her current predicament but in general. What did she dream about? What did that gentle but slightly sombre, strong but fragile heart of hers yearned for?

"What do you want then?" he asked her curiously.

Surprise was evident on her face, but he couldn't blame her for that. She seemed to ponder his question a bit, but shaking her head dismissively as if discarding all thoughts from her mind, she replied evasively, "I don't know..."

"You know," he pressed. Her avoiding a proper answer sparked his curiosity even more.

Sighing she went to her bed and sat on its edge. "There's too many things. And most won't come true," she replied reluctantly. "They're impossible to happen."

"Tell me anyway. What do you want the most?"

Rukia knitted her brows giving him a slightly suspicious look. "Why do you even ask? Why do you want to know that?"

"Tell me," he only said.

"I..." she hesitated, but she couldn't not notice that he seemed to care about her answer, like it mattered to him for some reason, therefore she eventually confessed, "I want to be home. I don't want this war to be happening. And..." she paused unsure how to word her third biggest wish. In the end she settled for, "I want to be with people I care for."

While telling him all that, she was unable to look straight at him in fear that her eyes might betray few things about her that she most definitely didn't want him to know. Because all his questions in the last few minutes made her realise some things. Like one that at least two of her biggest wishes included him as well. Namely, she didn't want this war to be happening for she didn't want to see him kill or get killed. Besides, as much as she hated herself for thinking that, hadn't it been for Aizen, Ulquiorra would have still been a Hollow (Adjuchas or Vasto Lorde) and maybe one day he would have got purified and ended up in Soul Society as a normal soul. Especially because she was worried that gaining Shinigami-like powers after removing his mask might have diminished or even destroyed this possibility.

Secondly, Rukia was already aware of the fact that she more or less cared for him. But when he had asked her what she would do if he got killed, she realised just how much she actually cared for him. He was no friend of hers, that's for sure, but she regarded him with equally strong emotions, whatever they were. She wished him happiness and if it was possible, she wished that he would be somewhere near her amongst other people she cared for.

She finally looked at him and added, "See? Impossible things and nothing else. That's why I don't want to think about things. No matter how much I want something or not, things will go their way. I have no power over them. As much as I want to believe that more often than not people can change their fate or grasp their own happiness, this is not the case. My hands are tied and all I can do is wait and see what will happen and hope for the best, even though the best might turn out to be close to the worst."

Ulquiorra nodded his head telling her that he heard and understood what she had said. So this was the source of her resignation. Well, it was true that there was nothing she could do in her situation to aid her friends. She was like a small bird thrown in the storm. Nothing she did, could change the course of the events, especially now when she couldn't even leave this small room. But he was sure that once she had a chance to do something, she would gather all her strength to accomplish it even if it costed her life. However he would make sure that nothing of sorts would happen.

"But..." she began hesitantly after a pause, "there's something I want that you can give me." Seeing that she had his attention, she continued in one breath, "Information. Do you or do you not know when this blasted war's greatest battle – or whatever the plan is – will occur and if you do happen to know, would you be so kind and tell me?"

"You sure are persistent about it," he commented. He could have seen it coming...

"It is rather important, don't you think?" she retorted knitting her brows together in a display of a slight vexation. "The order of the world we know now might completely get overturned. I wouldn't be surprised if it ceased to exist altogether, really. Many lives will end, and with them many small worlds will be destroyed. Nothing will be like it was before," she sighed deeply and looking at him beseechingly, she continued, "It's something you can't prepare yourself for, but at least knowing when it might begin, might somehow bring me some peace. I'd like to know how much time I have left."

Left? Left until what? Or for what? He didn't like the sound of her last sentence – she made it sound like she was going to die during the last confrontation. As if he would let that happen! But he concluded that it wouldn't hurt to tell her what she wanted to know, vaguely at least, especially if it really might bring her some peace of mind. Besides, it wasn't like he would tell her some secret and there was no-one she could pass it to anyway.

"Soon," he said laconically.

"I see, thank you," she replied, slightly bowing her head in gratitude.

"Which reminds me," he mentioned after a moment, "that we have a meeting in the evening, therefore I won't be able to come then. I'll send someone with your supper."

"Okay," she nodded her head.

Ulquiorra looked at the clock and with surprise noticed it showed 10:35, meaning he had been here already for more than an hour and half. He would never say that he wasted his time with her, but he sure was spending more and more time with her, though he couldn't decide whether it was a good or a bad thing. But for now he should get going, maybe again he would try to find Nnoitra but even now he couldn't feel his reiatsu anywhere in Las Noches and he didn't like it. That sodding bastard could be up to something.

"I'll be going then," he said, but truth be told, he wouldn't mind spending even more time with her.

"Yes," Rukia acknowledged with a soft smile, "See you later."

She too had noticed the time. Had it really been this long? Not that she had any objections – he was after all a distraction from the monotony of her days here. If he wasn't coming here, she would feel like she was confined in the Shrine of Penitence all over again and she really wouldn't like to go back to that silent helplessness and despair.

Observing him as he was reaching for his sword and putting it behind the sash, she couldn't help but wonder if there was something that he wanted, and if yes, what it could be. As usual it was him asking questions and her answering, while she didn't get a chance to ask him almost anything. Not that she expected him to answer, for – again as usual – more often than not he replied with questions of his own rarely really answering her, which annoyed her to no end... Still the question remained, what someone cold and reserved, almost emotionless like him might want?

When he was about to open the door and leave, before she could think better of it, she called after him.

"Ulquiorra..." she said and seeing him stop and look at her questioningly, she asked, "What about you? What do you want?"

For some time he looked intensely at her, probably contemplating his answer or considering whether to actually answer her or not; or maybe even thinking up a question of his own to evade hers. Yet, his gaze made a shiver run down her spine, and it wasn't an unpleasant one.

The silence between them lasted quite some time and when Rukia began losing hope that he would tell her something personal or reply anything at all, he uttered one single word.

"You."

"Oh..." shit, was the only thing she could say or think as she stared at him in complete disbelief while her face was changing repeatedly from bright scarlet to pale white from the mixed emotions – awkwardness and bashfulness, apprehension and anxiety. The beating of her own heart resounded in her ears and skull leaving her stupefied with only one reflection passing her mind – that she really should refrain from asking questions or saying something to Ulquiorra without rethinking it at least thrice and coming up with the most impossible scenarios and ways to deal with them.

Ulquiorra must have noticed that she wasn't going to say anything else due to her shock and disbelief, so with a courteous nod he left her to her thoughts.

Rukia only stared after him, having hard time comprehending what had just happened. The first and seemingly only logical explanation was that she had misheard, but unfortunately she had to admit that this wasn't the case. She also tried to reason that he might have misunderstood her question, but she had to deem it impossible as well. She even tried to think that he simply had made a joke, but again she knew she was wrong – Ulquiorra had probably the same sense of humour as her brother – non-existent or undeveloped at most.

Therefore there was only one conclusion: she had heard him right. He had said that he wanted her.

After the initial shock wore off she leaned back on her bed, arms sprawled limply at her sides as if all strength had left her, and blurted, "This... This doesn't make any sense whatsoever."

Ulquiorra wanted her. He. Wanted. Her.

No matter how hard she tried processing those words in her head, she couldn't understand their implication. Because what did he mean that he wanted her? Like – here she blushed slightly at the idea – a man wanted a woman? Or like a Hollow wanted a spirit with a high level of reiatsu? Both perhaps? The latter one obviously made much more sense to her, but if that was the case, then why hadn't he devoured her yet? Aizen didn't need her, especially since he had once again captured Inoue...

So... did it mean the first option then? He had kissed her twice already and had tried kissing her again just few moments ago... Was it because of some kind of attraction he felt towards her?

Im-impossible! This doesn't make any sense! He's a Hollow after all! Hollows don't... can't... not like this... But...

Right, she was stereotyping him at the moment. Hollows were monsters without hearts, after all they had holes in their chests instead of them – that was what most of the Shinigamis thought. And it might be correct when describing normal Hollows or Menos Grande... But seeing Arrancars, she could tell that they displayed higher feelings apart from primal ones like anger, fear, simple desire, hatred. She had seen regret, sadness, happiness, loyalty, trust. They weren't much different from Shinigamis, they might be even more similar than anyone could have expected.

Ulquiorra was intelligent, he controlled his feelings – something a normal Hollow was incapable of, he acted like a (very reserved but still) Human or Shinigami, therefore there was a possibility that he might also feel attraction, and maybe, just maybe...

Pfff, yeah right, she snorted at the idea. It didn't matter if he was a Hollow or not, Ulquiorra and feelings didn't really connect. He was too cold for that... wasn't he?

Yet she couldn't put out of her mind the memories of his gentle kiss and soft touch that still seemed to linger on her lips and skin...

No, no, no, NO! She should stop thinking about such things! She should focus on getting Inoue and herself away from here, not on Ulquiorra! Gods, this place sure was messing with her mind (and heart)!

He had said that Aizen would start moving soon, therefore it probably was like Soul Society had predicted – that he wouldn't start moving until Hōgyoku fully awoke and that would be sometime in December. Today was either the last day of November or the first day of December, she supposed. She had never asked how long she had been out after her fight with the 9th Espada, so she couldn't be exactly sure of the today's date. Nevertheless, everything would begin in less than a month at most.

She would be staying in Las Noches for no longer than a month.

She or Ulquiorra or both of them had less than a thirty days of life left.

She would be seeing Ulquiorra for less than a month.

A then the clash and new beginnings or an ending.

Ulquiorra's and her fate would be connected for less than a month at most.

It was kind of depressing, when she thought about it. She had already got used to his presence and even enjoyed it. Sighing deeply, she mused that if she was to survive, she would miss him. Did that mean that she really had his Heart then? She smiled sadly at this question, but didn't answer it for herself. But of one thing she was sure – he had her Heart, for better or worse.

"You." I want you, Rukia.

That one word echoed in her head, making her blush and filling her with some kind of an excitement. Under different circumstances she would have probably been happy, thrilled even, hearing this word coming from him in such context, but now she felt mainly uneasy and fearful, though she couldn't deny that there was also a fluttering in her heart akin to joy. If only circumstances were different... The only thing that she would have to be afraid of would be her Nii-sama and his opinion, and of course his Sembonzakura...

Wait...

...

She just did not think that, did she?

Because it sounded like she had just considered Ulquiorra... and... her...

Nope. No. Just no. She didn't. Definitely not.

Unable to stay still, she got up from her bed and began frantically walking around her room. She felt a sudden urge to work out, just to take her mind off some things, especially those she had almost admitted to herself and which concerned a certain green-eyed fellow. After few minutes her walk changed into a jog and when it wasn't making her tired quick enough (besides running in circle in such small space was making her dizzy), she began doing push-ups, sit-ups, squats, some stretching, all the time focusing on counting how many times she had repeated the exercise, leaving no room for other (treacherous) thoughts.

After an hour of workout she still wasn't as exhausted as she wished to be, therefore she jumped on the window and aiming at the noon sun, she began repeatedly firing Spells at it, the bloody thing. How sick of it she was! She would have preferred to have a view on Hueco Mundo's cold and godforsaken desert – at least it was real and didn't pretend to be what it wasn't, unlike this fake sun. For some odd reason its rays were making everything more real and at the same time more dreamlike. It was like she was detached from reality, but of course she wasn't. For example Ulquiorra was closer, more touchable, yet he didn't seem like an Arrancar, an enemy, which naturally he was. Somewhere during those two, almost three weeks here she had lost the understanding of actually insuperable differences between them and got too close to him. And for that she blamed that blasted shining point in the sky.

"Sōkatsui," she yelled and fired yet another Spell at the sun. Finally feeling tired and slightly drained out of physical and spiritual power, she jumped off the window and taking fresh clothes, she went to the bathroom for a quick, refreshing shower.

Rukia took off her slightly damp with perspiration outfit and turned the water on. After she got the right temperature, she stepped in the bathtub and directed the shower stream at her hot and sweaty body.

Those exercises definitely did her good. That odd excitement waned for the most part, although whenever she remembered that intense look Ulquiorra had given her or that one word he had uttered (which was more often than she found appropriate and would want to admit), it grew slightly stronger for a split second, only to diminish a moment later, but it still was there, lying in wait until another recurring memory of him.

Unfortunately the faded excitement made a room for uneasiness and apprehension – once again she didn't know how she should act in front of him when they would meet again. She wished she could be more self-possessed and indifferent, but his presence made her nervous and more honest. She guessed that she would have to have another go at acting as if nothing had happened.

She sighed heavily. She would probably be forced to act as if nothing had ever happened for another month.

Less than a month..., she thought and felt a pang of sadness – one that strikes you when there's nothing you can do about anything, even though you dream things were different; even though you actually know the solutions for things to be different, but you're helpless and can do nothing only sit and wait.

Rukia put her head under the shower stream.

She had less than a month to spend with Ulquiorra, though she would be surprised if it lasted longer than two weeks. She... she was even ready to stay with him for that long, if that was what he wanted. She really wouldn't mind it. But at the same time she would prefer if Inoue was safe in Soul Society or Human World, so still her priority was getting her out of here. She didn't want her friend to be exposed to danger, especially since she didn't know Aizen's intentions towards Inoue nor what were his exact plans once he started moving. All she knew was that he planned on making Ōken, the King's Key, out of Kamakura Town's residents.

Feeling refreshed, she turned off the water, stepped out of the bathtub and dried herself with a towel. Then she combed her wet her, dried them a little bit more with the towel, combed them again into their usual shape and when she finally got dressed, she went back to her room. With a thought that a short nap would do her good, she threw herself on her bed, grabbed a pillow and hugging it tightly to herself, she closed her eyes.

Less than a month... huh?


Ulquiorra closed the door to Rukia's room after himself and began walking in no particular direction, thinking.

He again had to admit that she often amused and amazed him. He liked watching her, her variety of expressions, her sudden reactions, changes in her lovely eyes. Her dark violet eyes so different from his – warm, open, full of life, whereas his were cold, calculating and rather empty – at least that was what he always saw in the mirror. Even when she put on a mask and her gaze was blank, he knew that deep inside her heart or mind many swirling emotions were hidden.

Although he still didn't understand feelings that well, he knew now that they existed. All because of her. Even her idea of Heart was somehow beginning to make a vague sense to him. Or at least if that was what she believed existed, he wanted that as well. He wanted her Heart too.

After all he wanted her all – each and every aspect, layer, piece of her, visible or not.

When she had asked him what he wanted, she was the first answer that had come to his mind. Beside her there was nothing he wanted as much. Sure, there were other things he wanted, like freeing himself from this maddening emptiness, but as long as she would be with him, he didn't mind it as her presence lessened the pain that came with it. She made him whole, soothed him, filled with serenity.

He needed only her.

Unfortunately it wasn't like this for her. He didn't delude himself – she probably didn't need him, not much at least. But what was worse – there already were people she needed – her family and friends. She wouldn't be happy with only him, would she? To feel happy she would want them around her as well. That was why he couldn't forgive them their existence and would do everything to erase them. Maybe not by his own hand, seeing this might upset her and make her resent him, but there were many strong Arrancars that could do the job. It was a war after all, and during war people died. So naturally, let's say Kurosaki Ichigo, Abarai Renji, Kuchiki Byakuya and other people she held dear to her heart (especially those who she had drawn a bunny pictures of and hang them above her bed), those people might not be lucky enough to survive the confrontations.

(How would he look like a bunny anyway? As much as this thought sounded odd even to himself, he couldn't help but wonder if Rukia had ever considered drawing him as one. He'd like to see that.)

But of one thing he was sure – Rukia cared for him. Not only she had admitted that she didn't want to see him die, but also the way she had acted and said that she wished to be with people she cared for hinted that there was something more to it. Something she didn't want to admit, probably even to herself. And that would be that he was one of those people she cared for and wanted to be with.

And if that wasn't enough, her reaction to him admitting that he wanted her, had said it all.

Consequently he concluded that he was right after all – Rukia was afraid of her feelings towards him. Moreover the feelings she had for him were warm. They might even be quite strong – she maybe even liked him. But as it was something she shouldn't be feeling, she was afraid of them, fighting them, trying to deny them.

But of course he was there to prevent this from happening.

Sometime later Ulquiorra was returning to his room after checking if Nnoitra was somewhere in his castle wing. As he had foreseen the deviant was nowhere to be seen. Which was odd since that abhorrent excuse for a person never avoided a confrontation – on the contrary, he was the first one to make a move, to engage a fight. It was his element after all. He wanted to prove that he was the strongest of all by continuing to fight and defeat his opponents.

Yet, it was like he had vanished off the face of the earth.

Why? What was he up to?

Would Nnoitra, the 5th Espada, pass up a chance for a confrontation with him, the 4th Espada? After all he didn't really care for Aizen-sama's orders and authority therefore wouldn't think twice before setting upon a supposed ally, especially if this could be a mean to show off his strength.

And Ulquiorra would gladly become his opponent. (And of course put him in his place, preferably kill.) Nnoitra must have known that he was looking for him, ready for confrontation... So wasn't it a perfect opportunity for the 5th Espada to try and prove his strength and rise through the ranks by defeating the 4th Esapda? Then why had he concealed his presence? It was very unlike him.

What the Hell could he be up to?

The very moment he asked himself that question, he felt Rukia's increased reiatsu and heard faint sounds of blasts one after another in the distance. Alarmed, he quickly scanned her surroundings for other spiritual pressures, but couldn't feel any. Nnoitra?

Using sonido, he found himself in front of her door in no time. He was about to open it, when he realised that there was no-one else in the room beside her – she was using Destructive Spells firing them off in the distance. If she was being attacked, the opponent would be in her room by now and with the rate she was firing the Spells, her room would be in smithereens. Therefore she wasn't in any danger. If he listened closely, he could even hear her shout "Get lost!" or "Disappear!", therefore she was training and at the same time letting out her frustrations or anger.

It was probably a way to fight her own feelings as well.

She didn't seem to notice his presence on the other side of her door, too focused on firing her Spells at invisible opponent. He wanted to walk in, tease her a little bit to bring out her feelings, but decided against it. He would have time for that later.


Orihime strolled around her room out of boredom. There really wasn't anything to do here, expect immersing herself in thoughts. Many of them were typical for her – cheerful, slightly fanciful and unreal with fantastic narration made by her. They were kind of tales, really.

Kurosaki-kun gallantly storming into Las Noches on a white stallion in a shiny armour and rescuing two captured maidens – her and Kuchiki-san... Or maybe there should be Ishida-kun as well? Then there would be two brave knights for two damsels in distress... Then Ishida-kun would be on a white stallion and Kurosaki-kun on a black one.

That would be absolutely perfect!, she giggled to herself.

They would save them from the hands of Aizen the evil tyrant and his similarly evil generals (the Espada) and other minions. She and Kuchiki-san were of course abducted, because Aizen mesmerised by their beauty, wanted them all for himself. He was about to force them both to marry him, or one of them and the other one would be given to his most trustful general... Anyway, that was the moment when two fearless knights and their companions – Sado-kun the bard, Abarai-kun the monk warrior and Yamada-kun the novice healer – arrived. After fierce battle the five managed to defeat thousands of Aizen's minions, his generals and finally the evil tyrant himself. Two maidens were rescued, the justice prevailed and everyone lived happily ever after. The end.

Or two young, beautiful and clever girls got captured by evil scientist Aizen, who wanted to destroy the world and they were the keys to achieve this scheme, for they knew the vital codes to turn on the great weapon that could wipe out all human race. But she and Kuchiki-san were tough opponents, even when cuffed to walls and tortured by most evil tortures of all – tickling. They didn't give in and didn't disclose the codes. When Aizen, frustrated that he couldn't break them even by tickling them, left to come up with even worse torture, she somehow managed to take off her hairpin and using it, she released herself from the handcuffs and then Kuchiki-san. Using their wit and intelligence, they captured Aizen and send him off to jail. The world was saved and everyone lived happily ever after. The end.

She made up many stories like this where either they were rescued by their friends or they managed to flee from Aizen on their own. But they all had one thing in common – the very happy endings. Even though there were many obstacles to overcome, some failures, peril or worse times marked their way, in the end the good always won. She and Kuchiki-san always safely reunited with their friends.

She eagerly prayed that the reality would turn out in similar fashion.

However there were moments when even she, Inoue Orihime, had her doubts, felt hopeless, low-spirited. Once she had even felt that she didn't have the strength to fight for herself, Kuchiki-san and their friends. She had cried for a while, but eventually her true character had won over and wiping her tears, she had forced a smile on her face and artificially created a cheerful mood, which eventually became a real one.

She was sure that Kuchiki-san too had her doubts and times of hopelessness, but her friend was strong and stubborn therefore would never give up. So she too had to keep her head high and hope for the best. That either they would be able to flee Aizen by themselves or Kurosaki-kun and others would come to their rescue.

Even though it was only a day since she had seen Kuchiki-san last, she really wished to see her again, to talk to her, but she knew that Ulquiorra-san wouldn't let them meet again. And unfortunately the doors to her room were shut tight, therefore she couldn't sneak out and go to Kuchiki-san herself.

All she could do was try and stay positive and maybe something good would happen.

At least she was sure that her friend was treated well. She had that confidence which maybe didn't have any base, but she knew that Ulquiorra-san wouldn't hurt her (unnecessarily, at least). Besides, she often searched for her friend's reiatsu and every time found it undisturbed. Maybe few times it felt slightly shaken, but there were no signs of fear or danger in it.

Ah, she wanted to see Kuchiki-san badly. But she could do nothing, only repeat cheerfully every time Ulquiorra-san was leaving her room to go to Kuchiki-san, "Please, say 'hi' to Kuchiki-san from me." Though she doubted he passed those words to her friend. He never said he would, too.

But she had made few curious observations about him. She couldn't exactly put her finger on it, but there was something different about him. He was as demanding as he had been before, but only in words and not in attitude anymore. And his eyes had gained some depth, more things were going on in them, they were less cold. And his reiatsu too seemed more gentle and calm. Especially when he was with Kuchiki-san... And he seemed to spend there quite a lot of time, from what she could tell... Much more than necessary.

Maybe her woman intuition was right after all... Not that she ever doubted it, but maybe indeed he did like her friend. And no surprises there – Kuchiki-san was very pretty, strong and intelligent, maybe slightly tomboyish at times, but she could be femininely gentle and disarmingly adorable as well. Witty and fun to spend time with. All those great qualities could have caught his attention...

"Oh my," whispered Orihime and blushed slightly. That would be awfully cute! If only they weren't enemies...

She wondered what Kuchiki-san thought about Ulquiorra-san. How did she perceive him? Did she get along with him?

If only she could meet with her, she would bombard her with so many questions! And of course she would tell her how the hairpins worked... And maybe the two of them could come up with an escape plan. Kuchiki-san couldn't exactly do much without at least knowing that if they managed to leave the castle, they could easily teleport from Hueco Mundo directly to Urahara-san's shop. In split second they would be home.

If only she could meet with her... She missed her very much.

Then a light glinted at her temples and all six spirits of her Shun Shun Rikka appeared in front of her. Before she could say anything or even greet them with a smile, Tsubaki started pulling at her hair, yelling.

"Woman, think! You're not a half-wit, are you?"

"Ouch, ouch, ouch," was all she could utter as she was too surprised to say or do anything. Besides what her only offensive spirit was doing with her auburn locks wasn't particularly pleasant. Despite his small size, he did have some strength.

"You have us, Orihime," said Shun'ō as Baigon and Hinagiku tried to take Tsubaki off her hair – fortunately for the poor Human girl it didn't take them too long.

"That hurt," quietly complained Orihime, but massaging the skin of her head where Tsubaki had pulled at her hair, she almost immediately looked curiously at her Shun Shun Rikka and asked, "What do you mean?"

"You are a half-wit after all," grunted Tsubaki, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

"Why won't you use us?" asked Lily with a bright smile. "We are here to help you."

Shun'ō, seeing that Orihime was at a loss, explained, "You could send one of us to Kuchiki-san. We don't like to see you worry and we'd do anything to assist you, just ask."

"You can go to Kuchiki-san? Talk to her? See if she's fine?" asked Orihime excitedly, her eyes brightening with a hopeful spark.

"Of course, idiot," scoffed Tsubaki, as pleasant as always.

The Human girl smiled cheerfully at that answer and inquired again, "Would you do that for me?"

"Just ask," replied Hinagiku, full of energy.

"But can you fit through the door?" worried Orihime looking at the tall doorway that never budged, no matter how hard she pushed or hit them, "I can't see any gap you could leave this room through..."

"Don't worry, we'll find a way," reassured her Shun'ō. "As long as you believe in us and in yourself, there's nothing we can't do."

"That's right!" yelled Baigon, and Ayame smiled shyly nodding her head in agreement.

"I believe in you and...," stated Orihime firmly. It was true that she had every faith in her Shun Shun Rikka, however she couldn't say so about herself, even though she knew that the source of power of the six spirits lied in her own confidence and strong will. Therefore she had to discard any thoughts saying that she was weak, ugly, useless or hopeless. She needed to be stronger than she ever had been, so clenching her fists in front of her demonstrating her determination, she said, "And I believe in myself."

"Good. Then I'll go!" announced Tsubaki, pleased and quite proud of that strong fire of resoluteness in her eyes. It made him want to act now and there. He knew that his companions all felt the same.

"No, I'll go," offered Shun'ō. "It'll better if Orihime wasn't left without you, Tsubaki. You're her only offence."

"Which never worked with her will," argued Tsubaki. "You know very well how she's about hurting anyone, even her enemies... If anything happened, she would have better use of defence and healing."

"And you are too hot-headed, Tsubaki," retorted Shun'ō.

"Stop it, you two," Lily cut in, shaking her head in exasperation at their antics. Then she turned to the girl she served and said with a smile, "Orihime, it will be the best if you chose. Which one of us should go?"

"Me?" asked the Human girl. "But I—"

She was about to make an excuse that she didn't know, wasn't sure whom to choose, when she suddenly felt Kuchiki-san's increased reiatsu. She looked in the direction of the source. Was she fighting? Was there someone threatening her, attacking her? No. She seemed to be alone. Her spiritual pressure maybe wasn't calm, but definitely that wasn't how it felt when Kuchiki-san was fighting with an enemy. It felt more like when she had trained with her in Soul Society, though now it was slightly filled with... anger and confusion? What had happened? Was everything all right? At least Kuchiki-san wasn't in danger, and that mattered the most.

Orihime, realising she was holding her breath in worry, exhaled deeply calming down. She needed to start acting. She turned her head to look at her Shun Shun Rikka and after a short moment asked, "Shun'ō, will you go and find Kuchiki-san?"

"Of course," the spirit happily agreed.

"Tch," scoffed disappointed Tsubaki.

"See if she's all right, ask her how she's doing, tell her that I'm doing fine, that I miss her... Also tell her about the hairpins and how they work, okay?" instructed Orihime as Shun'ō was nodding his head in understanding. "Maybe she will come up with a plan?"

After she had covered all important things, slightly blushing she asked in lowered voice, "And... ask her about Ulquiorra-san... well... you know, right?"

"Understood."


How did you like this chapter? They're slowly getting there, aren't they? Even Rukia, who is still reluctant to admit anything to herself, seems to be about to (accidentally) give in, haha :D

So, that's all for now. Until the next chapter then!

Take care, everyone! :)

朝霧 -Asagiri-


OMAKE

It's just a draft from the original version of this chapter, however I couldn't really imagine Ulquiorra asking this question, therefore had to change it into something less direct as you have just read. Still, I find this notion rather interesting. And awfully cute. And Ulquiorra is kind of vulnerable? :o What the Hell?

On the other hand, why did it even matter to him? Since when did he actually care that someone might hold a grudge against him?

Right, since Rukia. Since it could be Rukia who might resent him.

"Would you..." he began slowly, gently. It wasn't an easy question for him. He wasn't supposed to have such doubts. Any doubts. He simply shouldn't care. "Would you forgive me for doing something that would hurt you?"

Rukia looked at him surprised. She didn't see such question coming. But more importantly: would she? What would she do if he killed her brother? Or Renji? Or Ichigo? Or any other friend she had? Would she forgive him? Could she forgive him? Oh, she didn't know. Part of her – the bigger one – was saying that no, she wouldn't forgive him. But there was also a part of her that hesitated, that would want to forgive him. Ah, she didn't know. She didn't want to think about it. She didn't want such situation to happen. But she could see he wanted an answer. It was probably the first time he wasn't looking at her – his gaze was directed at his hand resting on his bended knee. Was he afraid? Or unsure at least?

"I... I don't know," she replied hesitantly. He didn't look up at her, probably thinking her answer over. Feeling it was natural thing to do, she extended her open hand to him. Her gesture made him look at her, surprise and uncertainty evident in his eyes. Realising he wasn't sure of her intention, she put her hand on top of his – fingers first, and when he didn't withdraw his hand, she covered it with hers. He still looked questioningly at her, so she only shrugged her arms for she too wasn't sure why exactly she did it.

"I don't know if I would, could forgive you," she repeated, her small fingers inadvertently caressing his slender hand. "I'd rather have nothing to forgive you."

He turned his hand to take hers into his own. His thumb gently stroked her knuckles.

"But you know, you know it's inevitable," he told her, squeezing her hand tightly.

She returned the gesture and replied reluctantly hanging her head down. "Yes," she whispered painfully.