Usually a low review count means that a chapter's sub-par, but when it's a flashback, I become concerned that many people just skipped it. If you did, hopefully this chapter will make you want to go back and read it.
Also, something that's been really bothering me lately is the realization that this story is kind of tough on scientists. I therefore feel the need to explain that it is simply because scientists are not portrayed in a positive light in Bleach to begin with. It's too easy to pick on Mayuri. Although some scientists are evil, like Andrew Wakefield, most of the scientific community works tirelessly for society's betterment. I know I will. So don't let negative media stereotypes (like in this story) sway you to thinking that vaccines aren't safe, homeopathy is anything but bullshit, and climate change isn't happening.
Thank you for lending me an ear, please enjoy the release!
The forest was dark and quiet. Orihime didn't quite know how to react to Ulquiorra's story. There was just so much to take in. He was watching her with expectant eyes, but Orihime didn't know what he was expecting. She said the first thing that came to mind, just to break the arduous silence.
"So when faced with a dangerous situation," Orihime started quietly, "You told your friend 'I'll figure it out when the time comes'?"
"Yes," Ulquiorra replied, unsure why this insignificant point was the first for her to touch on.
"And yet," Orihime continued slowly, looking up at Ulquiorra with accusing eyes, "you teased me for saying exactly that when we were at the fair?" Ulquiorra's stare flattened somewhat.
"I'm being serious, Orihime," Ulquiorra deadpanned.
Orihime got up on her knees, huffing in indignation. "So am I! You make fun of me, and yet you said the same thing in a much more dangerous situation!"
"Yes, and I regretted not taking Penumbra's warning seriously," Ulquiorra admitted, eyes steadily on Orihime. "I did not fathom the kind of danger that I would find myself in, and I did indeed suffer for being unprepared." Orihime's eyes grew wide.
"Really?" Orihime sat back onto her tush, eyes waiting for an elaboration.
"Have you not noticed?" Ulquiorra asked, sitting cross-legged in front of Orihime and watching her with intense eyes. "Despite having strength and speed vastly greater than Grimmjow's, why was it that I was so easily defeated by him?" Orihime just blinked. She remembered when Ulquiorra had been caught in the Caja Negacion. "It is because before coming to Las Noches, I had never fought a single battle. Compared to Grimmjow, who has fought tooth and nail every day of his existence, my skills are acutely inadequate."
Orihime was surprised to hear this. "But you're so graceful!"
Ulquiorra dismissed her comment. "Grace is a subjective quality, but my skill is pointedly inferior." He continued to glare at Orihime sharply, waiting for her next point.
The redhead thought for another moment. "So you were a Vasto Lord before becoming an Arrancar?" Ulquiorra's eyes sharpened.
"I was a Vasto Lord only for an instant," Ulquiorra clarified. "As a Vasto Lord, all the memories of all one's constituent souls are at hand. Because of the nature of the deaths, memory was a tremendous burden that I was unable to handle."
"Which is why you lost your heart," Orihime whispered. "And tore off your own mask."
"Yes," Ulquiorra whispered. Orihime looked up at him with sad eyes.
"It must have been horrible," Orihime ventured. She approached the fallen angel with open arms. "I'm so sorry." Her arms encircled the man, whose eyes closed just a little at the emotion in Orihime's voice. She held her breast against his pallid face, as if to envelop him in her heart. "I'm so sorry." Orihime leaned her cheek against his raven-black hair. They stayed like this for a long moment.
Renji towed an injured and cursing Grimmjow through the halls of the Sixth Division before the gawking eyes of his subordinates. "Will ya just shut up and walk?" Renji yelled.
"I'm not your fucking pet, stop dragging me," Grimmjow yelled right back, still being dragged. "You're lucky I don't rip your throat out…" Grimmjow proceeded to double over and cough out blood and bile.
"Oi, be careful," Renji exclaimed, still dragging Grimmjow to the division's medical office.
Grimmjow wiped blood from his mouth. "Ya did a crappy job healing me." Renji's eyes bulged from his face.
"Sh-Shut up and be grateful," Renji stuttered. "I could 'ave just left ya to die out there, ya know!"
Grimmjow snickered, teeth stained red with blood but eyes laughing. "But then ya'd never know what happened in there." Renji threw a look back at the Arrancar, bloodied and weak. His eyes narrowed with pain as his thoughts drifted again to Rukia and Yasutora.
"I'm going to get you some help," Renji grumbled, looking forward away from Grimmjow. "And then you're going to help me, Grimmjow." Just at that moment, Byakuya turned the corner down the hall, robes billowing gracefully behind him. His face was as calm and poised as always when he set his icy glare on Renji.
"C-Captain," Renji started. Byakuya cut him off.
"Where did you get the Arrancar?" Byakuya asked levelly. Renji's eyes hardened with anger and resolution.
"The Twelfth Division."
"You are a specimen of Captain Kurotsuchi's, so I cannot let you escape." Rukia's face twisted in disgust. Fire blazed all around her, destroying buildings and burning trees to ash.
"You commend this kind of treatment of your fellow shinigami?" Rukia demanded. She brought her already-bloodied hand to her side, which despite the shallowness of the cut, continued to bleed profusely. "Have you lost all morals?"
The man's eyes hardened. "It is not my responsibility to question my Captain's morals. It is my job to do my Captain's will." Rukia cringed again in disgust. She drew her sword.
"I will have to defeat you, then," Rukia said, sword in one hand, sheath in the other. Her nakedness shivered in the cold wind. The man tensed, preparing for combat.
She charged sword first towards the man. Their zanpakutou met to the hiss of steel against steel. Rukia, eyes narrowed in anger, slammed the shinigami's side with the sheath of her sword. He lost balance momentarily, and Rukia took the chance to knee the man in the gut. He swung his sword, but Rukia easily blocked. She hit him in the face with her sheathe, and he toppled over onto the ground.
Rukia frowned, and stuck her sword into the ground. The petite shinigami stalked over to her fallen enemy, and as she approached, he tried to throw himself back into the fight. Rukia stepped on his right arm, keeping him from using his zanpakutou. For good measure, she slammed her sheath into his gut again.
Even injured and bloodied, in terms of strength and skill, Rukia was far superior. The young shinigami scowled up in anger. Rukia frowned.
"Now, listen, insolent cad," Rukia ordered, bending down on one knee. "You are going to bring me to Sado Yasutora." The shinigami spat at her face, smiling a cocky grin. Rukia seethed, eyes fierce.
"Shameful inbred scoundrel," Rukia cursed, wiping her face. She hit him again with the sheath on his face. She repeated her demand. She felt lightheaded.
A flicker of reiatsu sparked in the distance. Rukia stopped the beating, eyes wide and once again lit with hope.
Pulling her zanpakutou out of the ground, Rukia dashed off through dark smoke and fiery red haze.
Nemu looked down at the collapsed man with empty eyes. He had taken quite a beating before finally losing consciousness. Nemu couldn't help but be impressed by his brute strength.
Looking around, Nemu realized that things were starting to get a little out of control. Many of the buildings were now on fire, as well as many trees, shrubs, as well as some dry grass. Orange smoke plumed up to the night sky, and it was only a matter of time before other divisions started poking their noses in. Nemu's subordinates were running around like chickens with their heads chopped off trying to put out the flames. Many were still frantically searching for the Espada and the shinigami that had escaped.
What pushed this situation to a crisis was that Captain Kurotsuchi had not returned from his meeting yet. He was at least an hour late already, and his absence remained unexplained. As protocol dictated, it was now officially time to cover tracks and prepare for the worst. Nemu flagged over some of her subordinates.
"Bring the human to a fortified holding cell," Nemu ordered apathetically. "Have him treated and do not, under any circumstances, leave him unguarded." The men saluted their Vice-Captain, then hauled the unconscious man away.
Nemu then proceeded to do a full sweep of the division, trying to focus on the reiatsu of Grimmjow and Rukia. Time passed and as she looked through some burning buildings, she felt a familiar reiatsu just outside. Frowning somewhat, Nemu emerged from the fiery red haze to find Isane, the Vice-Captain of the Forth Division.
"What can I help you with, Isane-san?" Nemu intoned calmly, seemingly unaware that some of her hair was on fire.
Isane was not so unaware. She frantically slapped at her colleague's hair. "Nemu, what do you think you're doing, being so careless?" Nemu blushed a little as the flames were extinguished.
"Thank you, Isane-san," Nemu murmured kindly. Isane seemed caught off-guard. She sighed.
"I can see you have a lot to deal with right now," Isane started calmly, despite the chaos and destruction she was vaguely motioning at. Although, to be fair to Isane, chaos and destruction were not that uncommon for the Twelfth Division. "But by order of Captain Unohana, I need the antidote for Captain Kurotsuchi's Golden Ashisogi Jizou."
Nemu's eyes widened. "Father was in a fight?" That explained his absence, but where was he now?
Isane swept aside her sympathy and kept her professionalism. "You will have to ask Captain Unohana or Commander Yamamoto the details. Now, please hand over the antidote, we're already short on time." Numbly, Nemu complied. She barely registered Isane's goodbye as her mind swam. Worry suffocated her.
After just a moment of emotion, Nemu returned to her search, quiet, expressionless, and more determined than ever.
"Ah, that's much better," Grimmjow grinned as a medic healed his wounds.
"We won't be able to heal you fully with the resources we have here," Byakuya explained, "but we've sent for an officer from the Forth Division."
"Well, ain't that nice of ya," Grimmjow sneered. He looked to the reiatsu-binding handcuffs that had him trapped to the bedposts. Once he was fully healed, he believed, he could overpower them. A camera flashed beside him, taking pictures of Grimmjow's wounds.
"Are you familiar with the name Kuchiki Rukia?" Byakuya asked calmly.
Grimmjow eyed the man from the corner of his eye. "No." Renji frowned, but Byakuya didn't look fazed. Gracefully, his hand slid into the fold of his robe.
"This is Kuchiki Rukia," Byakuya stated, holding a picture of his sister up for the Arrancar to see. "You met her with Kurosaki Ichigo when you invaded Karakura Town with your Fraccion." The Arrancar took one look at the picture before grinning. Byakuya's eyes narrowed. "You nearly killed her."
"Kuchiki Rukia's her name, is it?" Grimmjow commented offhandedly. "And I bet you want to know what happened to her?"
"Where did you last see her?" Byakuya asked calmly, grey eyes flat and expectant.
Grimmjow leaned his head back against the wall. "Ah, that's a tough one," Grimmjow motioned grandly. His hard blue eyes met Captain Kuchiki's. "What's in it for me?"
"You get to live," Byakuya replied immediately.
"Not enough," Grimmjow shot right back, eyebrows raised expectantly and still grinning. Byakuya considered his options for just a minute as he appraised the maniacal grin on Grimmjow's face. This was a man undaunted by death.
"If you answer my questions and testify what you witnessed when needed," Byakuya proposed, "I will arrange for you to be released to the human world. I will insure that you may fight Kurosaki Ichigo without interference from Soul Society." Renji chocked on his spit and stared up at his Captain.
"C-Captain-" Renji stuttered.
"I'm not interested in Kurosaki anymore," Grimmjow dismissed boisterously. "The guy's fucked as far as I'm concerned."
"Then who do you want?" Byakuya asked, voice flat and deadly. Grimmjow's grin just got wider. His eyes shone with madness and excitement.
"I want to fight Ulquiorra."
"What will you do now?" Orihime asked. "Even though you've told me all of this, I don't understand what it all means." Ulquiorra's sharp eyes were piercing.
"I could not wait any longer," Ulquiorra intoned, eyes watching Orihime intensely. "I had to tell you where I came from, so that you would understand."
"Understand what?" Orihime asked. She had never seen Ulquiorra look so conflicted. He fought against the urge to let his gaze drop.
"If something were to happen to me," Ulquiorra avowed, steadfast, "I want you to know who I was. I want you to see how far I have come, and know that it is all because of you." Ulquiorra tightly held Orihime's hands in his. Orihime's fearful eyes were wide and disbelieving. "I want you to always remember that in the short time I spent with you, I lived more than I had in the six decades prior. Remember that I did not regret a single thing. And, more than anything else," Ulquiorra vowed, eyes burning, "I want you to know that I loved you. Loved you with everything I had." The Arrancar's words resounded in the night with nothing but truth. Orihime was overwhelmed.
Dread filled Orihime's eyes like tears. "Ulquiorra, I don't understand," she sobbed. "Why are you telling me this?" Ulquiorra lifted Orihime onto his lap and cradled her gently. Her head fell into the crook of his neck. Ulquiorra stroked her soft tresses soothingly.
"Orihime, I am an Arrancar," Ulquiorra reasoned, breathing in the scent of Orihime's hair. "You cannot expect Soul Society to just leave me to my own devices. I am what a researcher would call an 'interesting specimen'," Ulquiorra explained gently. "Much like you are, but it is much easier to abduct a Hollow and get away with it than a human ally such as yourself. Many powerful people would protect you. In my case, Soul Society would just have to say that I had caused some sort of trouble. It will be trivial for them." He held Orihime tightly against him, savouring the feeling of her body against his. But Orihime pushed him back.
"Why are you giving up?" Orihime demanded, breaking through her sadness with wild eyes. "You knew that there'd be trouble, but you were always facing it so courageously! Why are you giving up now?"
"Orihime, I wanted to believe that they would forget about me if I faded into the background," Ulquiorra explained. "But it is obvious now that they will go to any lengths to pursue their ambitions-"
"That's no excuse," Orihime cried, pushing against Ulquiorra's chest. She stood boldly on two feet and stared down the Arrancar. His eyes widened and he stared at Orihime's flustered face. "Didn't you promise me forever? Didn't you say that no matter how tough the battle, you'd find a way to stay by my side? You can't just take that all back now, it's too irresponsible!" Ulquiorra's expression became grave, and he stood to face Orihime.
"If I were to do that, and more than anything else I want to," Ulquiorra reasoned, something burning in the cold depths of his eyes, "it is obvious to me now that you would become a target too." His face grew dark, almost to the point it chilled Orihime's blood. "For years I had been told that the shinigami have no morals, but it is only by seeing their cruelty for myself that I understand how deep their depravity runs." Ulquiorra brought his hands to Orihime's cheeks, holding her securely. "Protecting you is my ultimate priority." But Orihime wouldn't have it.
"You're strong, though, aren't you?" Orihime demanded. "Kurosaki-kun is supposed to be Captain-class, and you nearly killed him with only your hand. No release, not even your sword, Ulquiorra." Her words were biting as her eyes glared up at Ulquiorra sharply. "Don't pretend like you couldn't defeat anyone who'd come for you!"
Ulquiorra's face was shadowed with gravity. "I would kill every single Captain of the Gotei 13 if it meant we could be together. I would kill all your friends without hesitation if it were the only way." The Arrancar's eyes narrowed dangerously. "But the Soul Society is resourceful. My strength is meaningless when I have a single thing that I cannot let die." Orihime's eyes widened and she took a step back, as if struck.
"Do you think I'm some damsel-in-distress?" Orihime demanded, taking another step back, furious like only Ulquiorra could make her. "That I'd let them hurt me? Hurt you?"
"Orihime, that is not what I meant-"
"That is what you meant," Orihime yelled, swiping away Ulquiorra's hand as he reached for her. "And this whole time I thought at least you believed in me." Ulquiorra grabbed Orihime roughly by the shoulders and kissed her deeply and passionately. His tongue circled hers, passionately falling into the depths of her love. He tasted her sweet breath and revelled in the softness of her lips. The feeling of her chest against his was magical. Ulquiorra pulled back when he was breathless. Orihime looked up at him with conflicted eyes.
"I have just developed the ability to want to protect someone even at the cost of my own life," Ulquiorra stated gravely. "I strongly believe this is something you should be encouraging."
"Not at the cost of your life," Orihime breathed. "I can protect myself, and I can protect you, Ulquiorra." The Arrancar's eyes widened.
Orihime swallowed the tears she would not show, and looked up at Ulquiorra confidently. With a small smile, she stared right into his soul. "I will protect you," Orihime stated, as one would state an undisputable fact. "Whether it's Soul Society or Grimmjow or anyone, I will protect you." Ulquiorra's expression softened in complete adoration, although a passerby would never notice the difference. The two looked at each other for a long time before Ulquiorra pulled Orihime into a deep hug.
"I love you," Ulquiorra said. "So much I don't know what to do with it." Orihime smiled widely.
"Who knew Hollows had hearts after all?" Orihime teased, eyes once again playful. "To think you've denied it this whole time while knowing it was true." Story of his life, really.
"Normal Hollows don't have hearts," Ulquiorra countered. "Only Vasto Lords."
"So you're a Vasto Lord now?" Orihime asked, tilting her head. Suddenly, Ulquiorra's soft expression froze.
"Not quite yet," Ulquiorra murmured, darkness suddenly encroaching upon him.
"Urahara wanted to create the perfect being that transcends the limits of shinigami and Hollow." He looked down at their entwined hands. His fingers were pale and thin as bone against hers soft and plump with life. "To create something at the center of the spectrum."
"A human?" Orihime suggested. Ulquiorra drew his hands back, tucking them in his pockets. He looked up at the fading night sky.
"A human with 100 000 souls," Ulquiorra whispered after taking a deep breath. "A human that grows to encompass the whole world. A human that is the essence of what it means to be human, but is far too powerful to be called a human." Ulquiorra's eyes shifted again to Orihime. She looked unsure. "A Vasto Lord, Orihime. A God."
"Ul-Ulquiorra," Orihime voiced, although she couldn't think of anything else to say. She feared the distant look in the man's eyes. It was as if he could drift away like ash in the gentle breeze.
"Orihime, you have opened up whole new worlds to me," Ulquiorra admitted slowly, his eyes flooded with tenderness. For once he seemed truly relaxed. "You have shown me that the chance to feel love is worth suffering the tremendous pain." Orihime held onto his hand because she thought he'd be lost if she didn't. His voice shook so uncharacteristically. "You have shown me that the chance to truly live is worth suffering my," he paused, a look of bliss crossing his face, "my inevitable death." His sharp emerald eyes begged Orihime to understand.
"Orihime, I'm so close," Ulquiorra whispered, voice heavy with meaning. "I can feel it, Orihime."
"Close to what?" Orihime asked, scared despite herself. Her face was pale and her wide eyes followed Ulquiorra's every move.
"My souls," Ulquiorra whispered, eyes half-lidded and watching empty space. "I feel as if I can almost reach them now."
"Ulquiorra, you're scaring me," Orihime whispered, eyes begging for an answer. "What's going on?" Ulquiorra's eyes widened and he focused on Orihime again.
"I am sorry," Ulquiorra murmured, looking down at his hands, then at Orihime. He looked to his left, then ambled away distractedly. Orihime watched on, confused.
"I've never seen you like this, Ulquiorra," Orihime called after him. He stopped, and looked back at her from a distance with gentle green eyes. His black hair and clothes made him look lost in the darkness.
"I have never felt this way before," Ulquiorra murmured. He looked up at the night sky. "I am sorry to frighten you." Orihime noticed his hand was shaking in his pocket.
The redhead strode over and took hold of Ulquiorra's arm. She looked up at her former captor with sympathy. "This must be terrifying for you too." Ulquiorra's reptilian eyes looked down at her.
"I always believed that the emptiness was a gift," Ulquiorra murmured, looking back up at the sky. "If happiness could not exist without insufferable pain, I believed I was best without either." He closed his eyes. "Never again would I allow myself to return to the darkness. That is what I believed back then."
"And now?" Orihime ventured.
Ulquiorra looked at her with great tenderness. "I am in love with you. The fact that I understand what that means proves that I have already forgone emptiness." Orihime's eyes drowned in sympathy.
"So you need to return to the darkness?" Orihime whispered. Ulquiorra took her hands in his.
"I no longer fear the darkness," Ulquiorra promised, bringing his forehead to Orihime's. He closed his eyes. "Because I understand that beyond the darkness, I will find 101 624 human souls that will lend me their light." Orihime looked up at Ulquiorra with bright eyes.
"So what Urahara always wanted to create," Orihime began, unsure, "was a Vasto Lord?" Ulquiorra stroked the side of Orihime's face with gentle fingers.
"No," Ulquiorra said. "An Arrancar who had been a Vasto Lord is just the closest that a Hollow can come to what Urahara seeks. Something like me is even closer to it than the Vizards who had been Captains."
"And that's why Urahara-san helped you out," Orihime reasoned, "because he knew that you could become a Vasto Lord?"
Ulquiorra held Orihime's head against his, leaning close to her tenderly. "Yes, I believe so."
"What do you think he wants to do with you, then?" Orihime questioned, tilting her head cutely. Morning light started scintillating strands of her auburn hair.
Ulquiorra didn't know. "At the moment, that is unimportant," Ulquiorra stated. He looked to the East, where light was colouring the clouds a soft lilac. "The night has ended, and Sado and Kuchiki have not been found."
Orihime's brow tensed. "They just have to be in Soul Society."
"That is correct," Ulquiorra agreed, still gazing at the sunrise. "Your nakama have likely come to this conclusion as well, and will soon prepare to go to Soul Society." The Arrancar's bean green eyes shifted to Orihime. "Am I correct in assuming you will go as well?" Orihime's face had hardened in determination.
"Of course," she asserted. Wordlessly, Ulquiorra pulled back from her, and took her hand in his. He led Orihime back to the forest.
"I have told you that Soul Society is corrupt," Ulquiorra started. "As an institution, they have no respect for life. Despite their pledge to protect humans, they allow death and decay to reign in Rukongai." The two weaved through the trees as Ulquiorra calmly explained what he knew. "And they spend their days seeking glory and drinking sake while humans are devoured by Hollows." Ulquiorra shot a look back at Orihime. "This ensures the well-being of the Gotei 13, but it goes against the mission statement of individual shinigami to protect humans from Hollows at any cost."
"If you're going through all this to say that Kuchiki-san had it coming..." Orihime warned, frowning at Ulquiorra's back.
"Kuchiki is hard-working. I hold no spite against her," Ulquiorra was quick to add. "But without a true moral compass, shinigami have the freedom to do true monstrosities."
Orihime's brow furrowed. "Like what?"
Ulquiorra shot a look over his shoulder. "Like human experimentation." Orihime's mouth fell open in shock.
"No," she said simply. "There's no way. No." Her face grew pale. Ulquiorra pressed forward through the dark forest.
Orihime felt the blood drain from her. "W-wait, Ulquiorra, are you saying that Kuchiki-san and Sado-kun are..."
"That's the most likely situation," Ulquiorra answered quickly.
Orihime thought she was going to gag. "How do you know?" she whispered.
Ulquiorra looked over his shoulder with concern. The two were almost running now. "The other night, I saw Barragan." Orihime's eyes widened. "He was recreated from shreds of reiatsu. He showed signs of invasive clinical study."
"Grimmjow was unconscious when he disappeared," Orihime realized.
"Kurotsuchi Mayuri is the most likely culprit of his disappearance," Ulquiorra stated. "He has the same twisted ambitions as Urahara, and even less ethics."
"So maybe while they were taking Grimmjow away," Orihime voiced, face frozen with dread, "Kuchiki-san and Sado-kun were on the way home and they noticed a strange reiatsu."
"It would explain the reiatsu patterns that we found," Ulquiorra agreed. "They had been walking on a direct route back to Karakura High School, and they abruptly stopped at a street corner."
"Why didn't you say so sooner? We have to rescue them quickly," Orihime stated, eyes wide with fear. She ran faster, pulling Ulquiorra behind her. "We have to go to Soul Society now." They broke out onto a street. Orihime stopped abruptly and swung around on her heels to look Ulquiorra in the eye.
"I have to go to Soul Society," Orihime corrected. "If you go, you'll be killed. You have to stay here."
Ulquiorra's slender eyebrow rose. "You truly believe I will let you go on your own?" Orihime's chin jutted up defensively.
"I'm not letting you go," Orihime stated definitively. "I'm not going to rescue Kuchiki-san and Sado-kun just to lose you, Ulquiorra."
Ulquiorra approached her, bringing his hands gently to her hips. His eyes were tender. "And I will never let harm find you, Orihime." Orihime couldn't help but smile.
"You understand it now, don't you?" Orihime murmured, hand on Ulquiorra's chest. "The desire to protect?"
Ulquiorra's stoic face softened. "I do. And you understand that when there's someone that you would do anything to protect, it is cruel to try to stop them?"
"And that's why you're staying here," Orihime decided with a smile.
"That is why I am coming with you," Ulquiorra corrected. He let go of Orihime and walked a few steps down the street. His eyes brightened strangely. "Unless, of course, you can get to Urahara before I can." Orihime's eyes sparkled in return.
"You're on," she accepted. The two ran down the dark street as fast as they could, pushing each other beyond their limits.
"Rukia and Chad aren't here," Ichigo stated definitively as he arrived at meeting spot he had decided on. He flailed his arms, deep anger burning in his eyes. "Not anywhere in this whole fucking world."
"We've looked all night," Uryuu said, throwing a look at his watch. "It's 5:19 in the morning, the sun has already started to rise."
"So they really must be in Soul Society," Tatsuki concluded, sitting down on the side of the curb, exhausted. "What do we do now?"
"Urahara," Ichigo stated, dark bags under his burning eyes. "Urahara will get us to Soul Society." Tatsuki's gaze dropped.
"Maybe you should sleep a little, Ichigo," Tatsuki gently suggested. "You already haven't been sleeping..."
"I can't sleep while they're still missing," Ichigo shot down. "Did you sleep a minute the night Inoue disappeared?" Tatsuki nodded. She couldn't help but still feel bad just looking at Ichigo, all dishevelled and desperate.
"Well, Urahara's run-down hut is nearby," Uryuu noted, deep blue eyes already looking down the street. "Let's be on our way." Just before the troupe were able to set off, however, an unexpected force blasted straight into them.
"Give it up, Ulquiorra," Orihime yelled as she ran at top speed. She turned the corner... and ran right into Uryuu. They toppled to the ground. Hot on her tail, Ulquiorra stopped short of running into Ichigo. He stopped about three inches from the Vizard's face, an awkwardly close position.
Orihime gasped, sitting on top of a barely-conscious Uryuu. He bled a little at the back of his head. "Are you alright, Ishida-kun?" she demanded. She took him by the shoulders and tried to shake him awake. Ulquiorra noticed where Orihime had found herself, and Ichigo could have sworn a nerve popped on the Arrancar's forehead.
"Orihime, get up from him before I make you," Ulquiorra deadpanned. Orihime's eyes widened and she jumped to her feet.
"Where are you guys going in such a hurry?" Tatsuki asked, eyebrow raised. The two looked at each other, and their faces turned intensely sombre.
"We think we know where Sado-kun and Kuchiki-san are," Orihime asserted. Uryuu sat up, rubbing the back of his head.
"It's a safe bet they're in Soul Society," Uryuu responded. With Orihime's help, he rose to his feet. She apologized again.
Ulquiorra's eyes narrowed. "Who is responsible?" The whole group looked uncomfortable.
"You did not want to think about it," Ulquiorra noted. "Which of your comrades do you trust the least?"
Uryuu's eyes hardened. "Kurotsuchi Mayuri." Ichigo's eyes widened and he swung his head to face the Quincy.
"Why him?" Ichigo demanded. "I mean, he's freaky, but c'mon, he saved your life!" Uryuu was silent but steadfast. He didn't pass a glance at the shinigami. Ulquiorra responded for him.
"That does not matter," Ulquiorra asserted. His eyes travelled to the bristled Uryuu. "Kurotsuchi Mayuri and men like him have slain and tortured Quincies for centuries." Uryuu's eyes sharpened and he frowned.
"That's none of your business," Uryuu issued challengingly. Ulquiorra, unexpectedly, didn't rise to the challenged. Uryuu was astonished when the Arrancar's bean green eyes softened and he looked up at the night sky, once again almost wistful.
"I once knew someone who had many Quincy souls within him," Ulquiorra revealed, lost again in reverie. "Can you imagine, 469 Quincy souls that so rejects soul multiplicity, coexisting as one with each other and 65 389 other souls?" All eyes went to Orihime, all asking the same question. "What a conflicted individual he was." Orihime slapped both hands onto Ulquiorra's cheeks.
"Please stay focused, Ulquiorra," Orihime asked cutely. "Focused." Ulquiorra shook his head a little, as if to clear the memories rising uninhibited. Ulquiorra's eyes met Uryuu's.
"The Vasto Lords hold great sympathy for the Quincy," Ulquiorra offered, almost like a condolence. "Although we disagree with their premises, we have always respected your people's integrity."
"What do you mean?" Uryuu asked, oddly disarmed by the waves of calm rolling off his once-enemy.
Ulquiorra seemed oddly Zen. It was freaking everyone out a little, even Orihime, who had seen it just a while earlier. "The Quincy had only one soul each, and they fought so that every creature would have only one soul each. They were not hypocrites like the shinigami."
"Okay, I'm lost," Ichigo exclaimed, frustrated with this pointless distraction. "What's your point, here? Who has Rukia and Chad?"
Ulquiorra's eyes met Ichigo's, and he could read every emotion there. Moreover, he could understand those emotions. "You love Kuchiki Rukia, don't you?" Ichigo bristled.
"Talking to you is a waste of time," Ichigo growled. "I'm going to Urahara's." He stomped down the street. Ulquiorra stared at the man's back, and his eyes sharpened. The sun's light crept into the clouds above, staining them magenta and lilac.
"Kurotsuchi Mayuri has them," the Arrancar offered, eyes once again cold and penetrating. "They are likely held under top security in the Twelfth Division's research labs." Slowly, Ichigo turned to look at Ulquiorra over his shoulder. His whole body was tense and his eyes were filled with horror.
"You don't mean-" Ichigo cut himself off.
Ichigo, Uryuu and Orihime stopped breathing. They felt two familiar reiatsus re-emerge at the other end of town. All eyes widened in astonishment as Rukia's and Yasutora's reiatsus could once again be felt, both together to the West of the group's current location.
The friends exchanged a startled look, and they all wordlessly dashed towards where they sensed their friend's reiatsu. Tatsuki, unable to sense the change, ran after the others, confused.
"This is suspicious," Ulquiorra stated, as he ran through the streets along with the rest of them, Orihime at his side.
Orihime pressed ahead faster. Her eyes were still drowning in fear. "I just hope they're alright."
"I thought they were at the Twelfth Division," Ichigo called out to Ulquiorra from up ahead.
Ulquiorra thought on it a moment. "Perhaps they have escaped. Perhaps they were released."
"Either way," Uryuu brooded, "there's trouble ahead." Ulquiorra nodded.
The group finally arrived to where they sensed Rukia and Yasutora. They were taken aback when they saw that it was Karakura High School, of all places. Just what was going on? The friends entered the school gates, and tracked the reiatsu readings down to their Math class, the first class of their day, Uryuu remembered.
Ichigo slid open the sliding door with a loud clack. "Rukia, Chad!" There they were, simply sitting at their seats, school books in hand and dressed in their uniforms, as if this was what they did every day at five o'clock in the morning. "What the hell are you guys doing here?"
"Hey Ichigo," Rukia greeted like usual. "Where's your body?" Her brow tensed, looking honestly confused. Ichigo strode towards Rukia and took her by the shoulders. "Hey, you look like shit, what happened to you?" Ichigo was startled. Something was wrong. He examined her face.
"Where were you last night?" Ichigo asked, eyes searching her face. Rukia looked confused by the question.
"I was sleeping in your closet, like usual," she answered, aggravated at how tight Ichigo was squeezing her shoulders. "What's wrong with you, Ichigo?"
But Ichigo had stopped listening. Numbly, he brought his fingers to the small girl's neck, his rough finger tracing recently-scarred flesh that seemed to have been sewn together with transparent plastic thread. The cut went from the base of her neck, down past her clavicle and disappeared down her uniform. Shoving up the woman's long grey sleeve, Ichigo saw a large bandage, just slightly dotted with fresh blood, on the sensitive skin of her inner elbow and down a few inches onto her forearm.
Horror-stricken, and deaf to Rukia's reproaches, Ichigo lifted Rukia's shirt above her stomach and saw a series of surgical cuts carefully sewn back together with that same transparent plastic thread. More disturbing still was a hastily-set bandage on her side that was just about soaked red with blood.
Seeing the scar tissue on Rukia, Uryuu turned quickly to Yasutora. Approaching, he saw faint blue bruises scattered generously on the man's dark skin. "Take your shirt off, Sado," he demanded urgently. His cool blue eyes were sharp.
Although confused, Yasutora obliged, silently rising to full height from his chair and unbuttoning his uniform carefully. When his chest and arms were revealed, Orihime stumbled back into Ulquiorra's chest, her hands over her mouth in horror. There were several long cuts all along his heavily-bruised arms and chest, hastily stitched together with that transparent thread. They made the burly look like Frankenstein.
None of this Yasutora or Rukia seemed even able to see. Aside from being spooked by their friends' behaviour, they did not see anything wrong with what was going on.
Ichigo's frantic gaze stared deep into Rukia's eyes, and he saw the fear and confusion there. She had no idea what had happened to her, had no idea what was happening at that very moment.
Something inside Ichigo cracked. His back arched forwards and his grip on Rukia's shoulders tightened painfully. The white of his eyes turned black.
"I will kill you, Kurotsuchi."
That single bloodcurdling curse erupted from his lips before he grabbed Ulquiorra by the collar and threw himself out the window in a rain of shattered glass.
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