Orihime lay on a large white couch, her makeshift bed. Her arm rested over her eyes. She hovered in that unpleasant middle ground of consciousness where she was neither fully awake nor asleep. She groaned softly. Ulquiorra would be entering her room soon to announce it was time to eat.
More like threaten to finish her food this time, unless she wanted him to give her an IV or shove the food down her throat. And yet, no matter how many times Ulquiorra threatened her, he never carried it out.
With a little effort she pushed herself off the couch. She stretched, satisfied with the small pops she felt down her spine. Her back was to the door when the handle appeared. The door creaked open, and a figure entered the room.
Orihime turned around. "I thought you usually announced yourself before you entered, Ulqui—"
She stopped. The person standing before her was definitely not Ulquiorra. He was a pink-haired, bespectacled man, a grin plastered across his face. His amber eyes seemed to dance with amusement, even in the dim light.
"Forgive me, Szayel Aporro-san. I wasn't expecting—" Orihime hesitated, warmth rising to her cheeks. "I mean, I thought you were Ulquiorra."
Szayel shook his head, his grin wider. "That's quite all right, Orihime-san." He stepped into the room, closer to her. "May I ask how you know who I am? I don't believe you've ever met me before."
"Ulquiorra told me about the other Espada and how they looked," said Orihime as she drank in his appearance. She hadn't seen anyone other than Ulquiorra and Aizen—and Grimmjow, she recalled, from when she healed his arm. This new face was a welcome sight.
"Oh?" Szayel crossed his arms. "The Cuatro Espada isn't known for being talkative. How peculiar."
"It was an exchange," Orihime said blankly. "He said he'd answer anything I wanted, but in exchange I had to finish my meal."
Szayel nodded. "That makes a bit more sense. Well, considering your surprise, I take it Ulquiorra didn't feel it necessary to mention he would be out on a mission for Aizen-sama. I'll be acting as your guard for today." He headed for the door, but stopped when he noticed Orihime hadn't moved, still rooted to the spot.
"Szayel Aporro-san, I'm not supposed to leave," she said, her hands wringing together. "If Ulquiorra found out—"
"No need for you to worry. He understands I can't allow myself to get behind in my own duties. Come, you'll be following me to my domain."
"Really?" asked Orihime, slightly hopeful. Her room was nice enough, but a gilded cage was still a cage. Besides, she was starting to develop cabin fever. "I guess, as long as Ulquiorra is okay with it, we can go."
They exited the room and strolled down the halls. Orihime tried not to lag behind, forcing herself to keep in step, but Szayel noticed her struggle. He slowed down, and soon they were walking side-by-side.
She murmured an apology.
"It's all right, Orihime-san," said Szayel, chuckling. "So, what exactly did the Cuatro Espada have to say of his 'comrades'?"
Orihime practically jumped at the sound of his voice. She was used to walking in silence when she was with Ulquiorra. "About whom specifically, Szayel Aporro-san?"
"Preferably me," he said, humor lacing his voice. "And perhaps anyone else you feel is worth mentioning. And please, you don't need to be formal. Call me Szayel."
"Ulquiorra didn't have much to say about you, Szayel-san," said Orihime. "He mentioned you were the scientist of Las Noches, and that you had pink hair and glasses. He had some choice words for some of the other Espada, but—" She looked down, blushing. "I wouldn't repeat it."
Szayel glanced at her out the corner of his eye. "That's all he had to say? That's almost kind, coming from him." He paused. "Grimmjow and Nnoitra, correct?"
Orihime pulled her gaze from their surroundings. Down the hall, on the right-hand side, was a large door, stretching from the floor to the ceiling. She had never been in this area of Las Noches. The only other place she visited was Aizen's throne room.
"The other Espada he had 'choice words' for," Szayel explained. He stopped at the door, the entrance to his domain, and pushed it open with ease. "They were Grimmjow and Nnoitra."
Szayel mirrored her movements, his head tilted as he inspected her. Meticulousness was, after all, in the nature of a scientist. No detail would escape his attention. Her long orange hair framed her face, held back with two blue flower clips—where her powers originate, Aizen had said. The white and black uniform hugged her arms, her chest, her waist, then floated away at her hips. Her hands wrung together, her shoulders slumped over ever-so-slightly, as if a large weight had been placed there and was becoming increasingly heavy.
But most notable was the amount of life, of light, radiating from her entire being.
Noticing her fidgeting increase under his gaze, Szayel stepped in and motioned for her to enter. "It's not much, but this is where I call home."
Orihime's eyes widened. Now her room really felt like a cage in comparison. The main room was wide, with high, almost cathedral-like ceilings. Branching from the main room was an intricate weave of hallways, no doubt leading to even more rooms. She couldn't help feeling envious of the Octava Espada, having all this space for himself.
Szayel watched the emotions play out on her face. Surprise, shifting to envy, before settling on excitement. Ulquiorra was luckier than he knew. Did he not realize what an amazing specimen he had in the palms of his hands? Szayel scoffed. Probably not.
Orihime turned to him, smiling. "Do you also have a lab, Szayel-san?"
"Of course." He pushed up his glasses. "What is a scientist without one?"
"Then, are you one of those mad scientists, like in the old horror movies?" she asked, her hands close to her chest, awaiting his reply.
"Some would argue that," muttered Szayel as he moved closer. "And while I would love to show you some of my research, I suspect Aizen-sama would be displeased if I did."
She lowered her hands, her smile slipping. "Oh. Well, I guess it's for the best."
They stood in the main room for a bit. Orihime's face was blank as her eyes searched out his domain, soaking in every detail it had to offer. The thought pleased Szayel, though he couldn't understand why.
Then it hit him.
"You're a very inquisitive, observant individual, aren't you, Orihime-san?" he asked, after some time had passed. He stood before her, hands on his hips. "Those are the signs of an excellent scientist."
Orihime laughed nervously. "Thank you, Szayel-san. You're too kind."
He shook his head. "Not at all. It's the truth!" He placed his arm around her shoulder and guided her down a hallway to the left, deeper into his domain. "I think it would be a shame to let this blossoming scientist go to waste."
"Oh?" She stiffened at his touch, but didn't move his arm. "Does that mean—?"
A lock of Szayel's hair covered his eyes. He grinned widely. "Yes. I believe I must let you see at least one experiment before you go."
They passed door after door as they made their way down the hall. Orihime felt like it would go on forever. And it was too quiet for her liking. The only noise was their footsteps echoing all around.
He offered her a grin. "Yes, Orihime-san?"
"You're not—you won't show me anything too dangerous, will you?"
Szayel turned to her. Then, after a beat, he continued guiding her to their destination. "I see Ulquiorra felt it necessary to tell you the nature of my experiments," he said evenly.
"Yes." Orihime glanced up at him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."
A small chuckle left his lips. "You don't need to worry. I would never think of exposing you to anything too dangerous. More than a few people would be upset if something happened to you."
"Upset?" she asked, frowning. "Like who—?"
"Here we are!" said Szayel, unlocking the last door.
He grabbed Orihime's hand and pulled her inside, making certain to remember every detail of this encounter. It was difficult to determine with his gloves on, but she felt warm. Her cheeks, now a deep shade of red, seemed to support his theory.
Orihime didn't know what to expect when she entered the room. She was worried she would find hundreds of Hollows in cages, like in pictures she had seen of primates back in her world. Or perhaps something strapped down on a pure-white table, still alive and thrashing about, ready to be dissected. What she saw wasn't as bad as she'd imagined, but it still caused a chill to crawl up her spine.
"Szayel Aporro-sama! Szayel Aporro-sama! You came to visit us!" exclaimed two sphere-like creatures, bounding over to them.
Orihime shifted closer to Szayel, her hand gripping his sleeves as best she could. He smirked at the contact.
The two Arrancar stopped in front of them and stared at Orihime.
"Szayel Aporro-sama?" asked Lumina. "Who is that woman?"
"You owe me! I told you Szayel Aporro-sama wasn't gay!" Verona cried out, much to Lumina's frustration.
A vein in Szayel's forehead popped out. He moved out of Orihime's grasp, ready to punish his Fraccion—he could always make more—when he heard someone giggling. Orihime covered her mouth. She looked mortified—and amused.
"Forgive me, Szayel-san!" she said in-between laughs.
Now he had something else he needed to record, once he got the chance. Her laughter. It was light and pleasant, like…
Szayel searched for a comparison, but came up blank.
He shot Lumina and Verona a look that promised them hell later, then faced Orihime. He forced a smile. "It's all right. My Fraccion are rather…amusing, aren't they?"
The Fraccion in question glanced at each other, worried.
"Yes. So, you created them?" asked Orihime as the two bounced in place.
"Unfortunately." Szayel turned to them. "What are you doing here? You know this area is restricted. Leave, or else I'll make you regret it!"
As suddenly as they had appeared, Lumina and Verona were gone.
Orihime blinked. "Weren't they the experiments you wanted to show me?"
Szayel shook his head. He took her hand again and brought her to the center of the room, where a pedestal stood. Resting on top was a pure white cube with a little speaker on the front. Or, at least, Orihime assumed it was the front. Tools were strewn about on the tables near the creation. She glanced at Szayel. After seeing his nod of approval, she moved her hands across the smooth, cold surface.
"What is it?"
"This? Well, it's…" Szayel laughed. "I'm not entirely sure right now. It's the outer case for a robot, but I haven't decided what its purpose should be."
Orihime smiled, a twinkle in her eyes. "Maybe you should make it an Ulquiorra translator. Sometimes it feels like he's speaking another language!"
"An Ulquiorra translator, huh? That's not a bad idea, actually." Szayel grabbed a clipboard off the table closest to them and started writing, ignoring Orihime's protests that she was only joking.
Intelligent, he wrote, watching her carefully, and has an amusing sense of humor.
When he finished his notes he placed the clipboard back. "Shall we be returning?" asked Szayel, his hand on the small of Orihime's back. They walked in silence. The trip back felt much shorter to Orihime, probably due to the lack of anxiety on her part.
"Thank you for showing me your creation, Szayel-san!" she chirped. "It's been forever since I've seen anything new and exciting. I was starting to go crazy."
"I know precisely how you feel." Szayel removed his gloves and took a lock of her hair. He rubbed it slowly between his fingers. Smooth as silk, as he thought it would be.
Orihime felt warm all over. Her body trembled. "Sz-Szayel-san, what are you—?"
"Orihime…" Szayel smirked as he trapped her against the wall. Orihime stuck her arms out and pushed on his chest, her breathing shallow. "I wonder…if all of you is this silky smooth…"
His fingers grazed her cheeks, following the curve of her jaw. Orihime gasped at the contact of skin on skin. There was a dark chuckle from Szayel. His thumb smoothed the apple of her cheeks as he leaned in.
"You truly are a one-of-a-kind specimen," he whispered, his lips lightly grazing her ear. Orihime couldn't help gripping the front of his top to keep from gasping again.
The Octava Espada groaned. Of course, Ulquiorra had to come back just when he was getting to the good part. Szayel turned. The Cuatro's face might have been as passive as ever, but if looks could kill, Szayel would've been dead—many times over.
"Back already?" asked Szayel, pulling away from Orihime. "I wasn't expecting you so soon."
Ulquiorra's eyes narrowed. "Obviously."
The two Espada glared at each other, their reiastu flaring. Szayel knew if Ulquiorra decided to take this a step further, he would be in trouble.
"Ulquiorra?" Orihime asked. The pressure between the two was becoming oppressive. She needed to distract them. "I was wondering if, maybe, there was some way I could get clothing with a little color."
The randomness dissipated any tension.
Szayel immediately understood her intention and decided to follow suit. "I agree with Orihime. There's nothing wrong with white and black, but you could do with a little color. I think pink would look good on you." He looked her straight in the eyes.
Orihime's face turned a deep shade of red. She understood his implication all too well.
"I disagree," said Ulquiorra. He came up to Orihime and placed a hand on her back, moving her away from the Octava Espada. "Pink doesn't suit you."
"Is that so?" Szayel asked, running his fingers through his hair. "And what color do you think would best suit her?"
Ulquiorra held his gaze before responding, "Green, obviously." And in a flash they were gone.
Szayel stared at the spot they had been moments before. Inoue Orihime, huh. He brought his fingers to his lips, smirking. This definitely required a more in-depth investigation.