Something was brushing against his face, tickling his lips and cheeks. Something silky, downy-soft and red - though it was not the vermillion of fire or even the crimson of blood - but the color of the sun sinking into water, the color of a million scarlet swirls diluted. It was faded but it was real, bright enough to stain the white of his clothes, the white of his skin, the white of his world. It was a spark away from supernova. It was the sudden flare of warmth to make him realize that he was freezing.
Her fingers - if they were her fingers, which was impossible because this could not have been anything more than a delirious dream - brushed the damp hair away from his burning forehead, caressed the ridge of his brow, touched the skin that sung with every new and infuriating sensation. It was gentle, when his entire life had been anything but. He shuddered in horror, shivered, cringed, and sighed with pleasure all at once.
Always, leaning over him, cradling his empty head. Sometimes her hands were everywhere, pinning him against the futon, holding him down with ease. She held him against the battering tides of his reiatsu, as it ebbed and flowed in erratic currents, then eventually just ebbed away.
He was glad for it.
"You're burning up."
He could hear the smile in her voice.
Sometimes it was impossible to bear. Sometimes he felt himself shrunken down to the size of a child, dried out like an empty shell and helpless, feeling the world around him from inside the empty spaces of his new body. Other times he was a giant overflowing his container, huge and swollen with blood. His eyelids bulged as fluid flowed into his orbital cavities, his fingers numbed and bloated with lymph. Breathing became excruciating. Even in sleep this agony worked its way into his nightmares - heated needles stabbed through him into the floor, his guts ruptured and stinking, and the very air became an operation on his skin. She was the only thing that kept him from screaming as she battened him down against this hell.
In those weeks, she was lighthouse, life raft, horizon. He never saw her, could never open his eyes without feeling a ravenous swarm of insects on his eyeballs but he could feel her there in the backroom with him, breathing gently in the dark. She never said his name, rarely spoke, and when she did her voice never rose above a whisper. But he knew it was her. She was a potent hallucination he had lapped up eagerly, feeling as he did, as human as she looked the day she had slapped him.
It had been that look that Kurosaki wore sometimes, that look they shared. One that made Ulquiorra think of her. It was that look that spoke to him more clearly than all of her cryptic, girlish shyness, her stuttering romantics. It was white-hot and confusing, a burst of anger and determination. It was not the look of fear or hesitation, not the pathetic, helpless, melancholy, self-sacrificing expression she'd worn the day he spoke to her for the first time. It was a splash of color in a monochrome world. It gave her texture and dimension, fleshing out the idea of her, lighting the wicks of her eyes until the flicker of her became a flare - brief but beautiful, leaving him singed.
She was pulse, heartbeat, warmth. She was a story that couldn't be summed up with beginning, middle and end. Like all stories, she stretched past her epilogue, refusing to end as she watched him crumble into dust, just as he'd refused an end alone in the desert world of hollow. It overlapped each other and weaved together, like a room full of voices all reciting different lines of the same fable. Even without her presence it continued to tell itself, unraveling into his ear as he slept.
Impossible to tell where it began. Maybe it was there, in the backroom of a candy store where a stowaway was in the process of disguising himself as a boy. Maybe it had started years earlier, when a young man took his baby sister from the glowing, lilting, poisonous phosphorescence of Tokyo to escape a broken home. Or maybe it had started even before that, a century ago, when a man who was so good at telling stories had decided to make them come to life; had fashioned a new country for himself in a dark wild world, and created the stowaway who had been only one of many servants he'd shaped from the wild creatures of his kingdom.
Whenever the beginning, Ulquiorra decided that it didn't matter. Because now, it had all come down to this: a smatter of syllables, a fleeting glance, and the baby who had grown into a young woman, finding the entrance to the empty kingdom where he had lived. It was a piece of jewelry wound 'round the wrist, a spotlight of moon, the fall of scarlet hair around her shoulders and over her breasts, it was the hooks on her dress - he'd counted twenty. It was with these things that the stowaway was able to recognize the realness of her breath against the fiction of his days.
Now she had vanished completely, present only in whispered words as he staggered between awake and asleep.
"It's okay now. Open your eyes."
Ulquiorra's eyes snapped open. Almost immediately, the pain of fusing bones, of seizing tendons and straining muscles disappeared, flowing out of him like it had never existed. His skin immediately forgot the feeling of pain. Sunlight was pouring into the room. There were birds whistling outside the window.
He was still covered in cold sweat but he felt fresh, energetic, the feel of breaking through a fever. And his body was tingling with sensation. Ulquiorra frowned, drew his eyebrows together, flexed his fingers, strangely aware of each muscle and tendon involved in the movement; then he realized that this would be his first trial. As an Espada, he had been in complete control of his body. Even though he was sensitive to minute changes to each of his senses, it had been easy to block out what was of no use; able to fine-tune smell and sight and hearing before battle while numbing touch. It upset him now to realize that he no longer possessed this ability, as the smell of candy and cleaning fluid and the human world outside hit him like a fist.
Silently, Ulquiorra surveyed the room, bare but for his futon and a full-length mirror mounted on one wall. He rose on shaky legs and walked, naked, to the window. Through the thin screen he saw that the last dregs of summer had given way to fall. The smell of dead-leaf decay floated in on a breeze. Ulquiorra wanted to curse. The shopkeeper had warned him that adjusting to the limits of the gigai would take time but he had not counted in losing a season.
Ulquiorra had learned of how Rukia Kuchiki was kept in a similar gigai for her lengthy stay in the living plane years ago. When he asked why it hadn't been a problem to slip her into it, why she too hadn't lost weeks battling the agony of adjusting to her gigai's limits, Urahara explained to him in a condescendingly patient tone the crucial difference between them: he knew she could be trusted, while Ulquiorra could not. Without the luxury of time or the benefit of a doubt - he knew that to try to convince the former captain that he no longer cared about Aizen's past objectives would be pointless and wasteful - Ulquiorra was presented with only two choices -
"One: To allow me to take the appropriate measures to ensure this city's safety. I will only offer you a gigai that I will design to strip you of your reiatsu completely, and to fuse itself to you so that removing it will be next to impossible." Urahara leaned back and regarded Ulquiorra critically. "I can't have you devastating Karakura while my back is turned."
"I can assure you, my interest in this town -"
"But it's a dangerous process," the shopkeeper continued, as though Ulquiorra hadn't spoken. "Theoretically it can be done but I've never attempted to do this in such a short period of time before. You're familiar with Kuchiki-san, yes?"
"Of course," Ulquiorra replied curtly. It had been because of Urahara's failure to seal the Hyogyoku within the shinigami which lead to his birth. "How were you able to reduce her to near-human without her notice, if this is supposed to be as agonizing as you say it will be?
A look of pride crossed Urahara's features. "Considering the circumstances of her stay, the gigai I gave to her allowed me to do it gradually and painlessly. She resided in this world for a number of months so breaking down her reiatsu was only frustrating and inconvenient, at most uncomfortable, for her. Unfortunately for you," the shopkeeper looked to be suppressing a grin. "This gigai will be able to dissolve most of your spiritual energy almost immediately. But adjusting to such a significant change will take time. It's risky because I can't guarantee that your new body will be able to take such a sudden fluctuation without causing permanent damage to you. Of course, there have been medicines developed by Soul Society to ease the discomfort of residing within a gigai but nothing that will benefit you. The idea of those pills is to keep the spiritual body from accidentally fusing with its physical container even after an extended period of time, and it's the opposite that we're going for. So there will be no remedy for what you'll be going through."
Ulquiorra could see one last thought behind the man's shaded eyes. "That is...?"
"That is, if you survive getting into it at all."
Ulquiorra fought the urge to narrow his eyes. "And the other option?"
Urahara leaned back, picked up his steaming teacup and took a long drink before he replied.
"Leave and don't come back."
To leave would have meant returning to Hueco Mundo, back to the days of fitful sleep and endless dreaming. Back to the empty dusty fields, the never-ending nights where bulky shadows glowered at him hungrily. Back to the emptiness of survival, the waning and waxing of the moon. He would be the last of the last, a monolith in a hollow world. To stay without the gigai would mean spending the rest of his life dodging patrolling shinigami throughout the city, maybe even the planet. The garganta barrier had been set up because of him, and if the Soul Society were ever to learn of his escape they would spare no expense to rid themselves of the last Espada. In the meantime he had had methods to mask his weakened reiatsu while in the living world, and the protection of Urahara's shop. But if - and when, as it was certain to happen - the remainder of his powers returned, impossible to say when, then they would sense him and hunt him down until they found him.
Even with the prospect of losing his powers permanently, Ulquiorra was surprised at how easy it was for him to choose.
When Ulquiorra turned away from the window he was surprised to see clothes laid out for him - underwear, socks, faded jeans and a long-sleeved button up - neatly folded on the tatami beside his futon. As he dressed he was careful to turn his back to the mirror, having no desire to see himself as a human. In the past he had been devoid of all vanity, only using the mirror in his chambers to make sure his clothes and hair looked neat if only for his master's obsession with organization and uniformity. But as he began to button his shirt, curiosity momentarily overwhelmed him. His eyes flickered over at his reflection and in a glance he saw himself for the first time.
Ulquiorra paused and stepped closer to the mirror, astonished at how different, and at the same time, how unchanged he appeared to be. Reflected on its surface was a man, more boy, who looked too tired for his age. He could have passed for eighteen, nineteen but his eyes, striking cracked green glass, were much older and his face, though angular and elegant, was etched with worry. He had been concerned with the possibility of Urahara giving him some horrible, disfigured appearance, as a joke at his expense but the shopkeeper had done remarkably well, as promised. Though Ulquiorra could still feel it pressing against his skull, the portion of his hollow mask was gone, along with the markings on his face. Even the shade of his skin, although still alarmingly pale, was no longer the corpse-white it had once been. But most importantly - his hand rose to touch it in disbelief - his hollow hole was gone. Beneath his fingers there was bone and flesh and solidness, unmarred and perfect as it never had been before. With a jolt, he thought, he looked complete. And stranger still was the dull thud-thud sound that he felt, more than heard, beneath his splayed fingers, against his ribcage.
But as his hand slipped down his chest he spotted something dark hidden beneath his shirt. He moved the cloth aside. When he saw it unchanged - the tattooed 4 in Aizen's own hand, still stark against his skin - that little warmth had begun to resonate inside was immediately extinguished.
"Should you ever forget," Urahara said, unsmiling, from the doorway. When Ulquiorra turned to face him, the shopkeeper saw the look on his face and broke into a grin. "I wanted to be here to see your reaction when you woke up."
"So glad to be the one to help satisfy your whims," Ulquiorra replied as he turned his attention back to his shirt.
A flash of something dark and formidable, and no doubt reminiscent of his time as captain of the 12th division, passed over Urahara's features at Ulquiorra's words but was gone as fast as it had appeared. He grinned once again.
"Don't forget, I'm the one who's been accommodating your requests. Hardly one to talk about whims, wouldn't you say?" His tone was amiable and playful but Ulquiorra knew better than to assume the man was being anything but serious.
"Hardly demanding," he replied, careful to keep his voice neutral. He turned to face the doorway. "I trust you've done as promised?"
Urahara threw a backpack at his feet. As it hit the ground, he heard the thud of bundled notes and rolls of coins from inside it. Ulquiorra picked it up and opened it, quickly glancing at the human money. (If the Octava Espada had been good for anything, it had been his endless restlessness, his need to create new machines, devices and trinkets which turned out to be quite valuable. The few Ulquiorra had been able to scavenge had been enough for a gigai and more than enough leftover for him to get by in Karakura.)
"I threw in a few pieces of identification for you, too," Urahara said, too cheerfully, as Ulquiorra pulled out a passport. "I took the liberty of taking your photo while you were recovering and filled out all the paperwork for you.
"By the way, there's one more thing I'd like you do for me..."
The bastard, Ulquiorra thought some time later, as the shopkeeper turned and walked down the hall, out of sight. He looked down at the bag in his hands, at the black, deadened colour his nails had always been.
For the first of many, many times he tried to decide if what he'd given up was worth what he had gained.