The Cold Is To Be Endured.
Summary: Nothing is easy, but sometimes the things that are hard are impossible. When Orihime loses those that meant the most to her, she is faced with a life in Hueco Mundo. The overall question is not whether she can adapt, but whether she can endure. Ulquiorra x Orihime. Hints of Grimmjow x Ichigo (If you squint).
Author's Note: Discontent with the ending of the Hueco Mundo Arc led to the development of this piece. It is AT, thank God.
Many thanks to both B- Corvus Corvidae -M and Eriea for BETAing this.
His eyes were brown... they were brown, not yellow, and they belonged to him. They held a softness, a concerned vulnerability that was so rarely seen in them, but they were his nonetheless and not a monster's. They were his and not her brother's and she was glad - so glad!
He stood before her, with the tragically happy look in his eyes that she could barely see because her own eyes were swimming in tears; not of sorrow, but of relief and joy. He was really there, just like she had imagined for so long in that white cell that was her home and her prison.
Nothing else existed in that moment but the both of them - not Hueco Mundo, not even Aizen. He took her hand, and it was engulfed by his. It was warm, human and alive, and she clung to it gratefully, because all she had known there was the cold.
They said nothing; nothing needed to be said. Everything that was said and could ever be said was reflected in each other's gaze.
He held her to him then, in one quick movement pulling her to his warm broad chest, and she could no longer hold back the tears that threatened. They flowed down tender cheeks and mingled in with the blood and the sweat that already stained his black robes.
"I am so glad you're okay, Inoue," He told her softly, and the cacophony of high-pitched wails that followed that statement made him smile. "And you too, Nel," He reassured the small girl swathed in rough green beside them. Her cries became delighted shouts of "Itsygoo!" before she attempted to once again crush his midsection.
Despite the death that surrounded them, both in the landscape and in the corpses that littered the path that they had taken, she knew that everything was going to be all right now that he was there beside her. His smile told her that she was home, and that was the only place that she wanted to be.
And so they left that last arena, skirting the bone-white body staked out like an offering with both their eyes and their hearts, and headed away from the moon and the ironically white fortress that was Aizen's domain.
In hindsight, Ichigo should have realised that it had been too easy.
They encountered next to no resistance from the Hollow (In fact, there were none), nor had any of the Espada accosted them.
Led by Nel, they trekked wearily along the unforgiving planes of sand, tree, and rock. It was impossible to tell exactly how much time had passed when they had set out, but it had at least been a few days.
It was definitely long enough for their bodies to begin to ache and protest. The never-ending night that was Hueco Mundo seemed to loom over them condescendingly, making it impossible to correctly establish the long grueling hours that had passed them. The moon hung above them smugly, as if it were mocking their quickly developing hunger and thirst.
Mournfully, Ichigo looked back on the packaged food and bottled water that Ishida had thought to bring, and wished desperately he knew where the hell Ishida was, and if he had any more. The redhead doubted that he did, but it didn't hurt to wonder.
His mouth felt as if he had tried to eat the sand beneath his feet, and his stomach was informing him that he most definitely had not - or anything else for that matter. His spittle had dried in the corners of his parched mouth, and his eyes were dry and burning and he was slowly becoming overwhelmed with the need for water.
No. He refused to pity himself. Inoue was suffering as much, if not more than he was.
He turned to look at her from the corner of his eye, and his chest ached in pity. Her hair was caked in sand and sweat and hung lankly like an old curtain, and her lips were cracked and sore looking. Her eyes were bloodshot from the incessant wind and the constant sandstorms; she looked utterly exhausted, but she had not voiced one word of complaint.
Her strength sometimes overwhelmed him.
He was not trudging close enough to her to reach out his hand and to clasp hers, so instead he spoke. "Hey, Inoue."
She turned to look at him with grey eyes that, despite everything, were still so full of hope. "Kurosaki?" Her voice was hoarse.
She was probably the toughest girl he had ever met, and he respected her for it, but she was still fragile, and she needed something to hold on to.
Someone to protect her.
"You know we're gunna be okay, don't you?"
And she smiled then. A small, genuine smile that chipped away at the streaks of off-white sand. She looked like an old, wretched woman, her chapped and dirty face cracked and flaky. Ichigo thought she had never looked so adamantly beautiful.
"I know," She said softly.
And suddenly, it was. This was only one more obstacle to overcome.
And overcome it they would. They had to: if there were any justice in the world then it would allow them to leave: it would be too cruel for them to survive the monstrous denizens of Hueco Mundo, only to be murdered by the landscape.
Firstly: they needed to regain their strength. If they couldn't find somewhere to rest, and find at least something to stave off their dehydration, then they would both be in a lot of trouble.
He couldn't do that to her, not after everything that she had been through - that they all had been through. As he turned to ask Nel if there was anything in this godforsaken dump to drink, and perhaps to rest, something to the left caught his eye.
It was a tree.
The tree itself was of no significance - in fact, it was the exact type of tree sparsely littered through the expansive desert that stubbornly refused to die: stunted, bent and black as if it had been burnt.
No, what had caught Ichigo's eye about this particular tree were the three lowest branches: they were snapped in half.
This wouldn't have really been important: but he knew that they had passed that precise tree a number of hours ago. He knew this because he was the one that had broken the branches when he had been tripped up by a young Arrancar that was still overly enthusiastic with his overall wellbeing.
His jaw clenched.
He should have known.
They were both short. And really loud. They even had, but for the colour, the same hair. He should have seen the resemblance.
If he had have known that a certain Arrancar was related to an incredibly tiny Luitenant, he would have tried to find his own damn way out of Hueco Mundo!
"What the hell, Nel?!" He demanded of said Arrancar, turning to her, "I thought you knew where you were going! You're leading us in circles!"
If he wasn't so exhausted, he probably would have grabbed her by the foot and given her a good shake.
She had been wasting precious time - more than just a few hours was at stake in this, and here she was playing an elaborate game of Ring-A-Rosie.
He couldn't help the anger, born of dehydration and worry, that flooded him.
The tiny child drew herself up and huffed at him; "O' course I knows where I'm goin'!" She informed him with all of the fury that a young child can possess, "We is goin' da right way!"
Obviously, they weren't.
"Then why are we passing the exact same tree that we did, like, six hours ago?"
She stopped and looked at him, and then at the tree in question, her eyes wide in puzzlement. "Itsygo can tell da diffwense between all da twees?" She paused, and then looked rather impressed, "Can Itsygo talk to twees?"
"No, moron! You made me break a bunch of the branches when you tripped me up before." His exhaustion was making him snappier than he usually would be, he knew, and he felt a little remorseful when the look she levelled on him was filled with insurmountable offense and a little genuine hurt.
"Ya' din't need ta yell!" She yelled, "If ya din't have big stampy feets then ya woodn't a stomped on me!"
She demonstrated what she obviously thought was a spot-on impression of his 'Big stampy feets', and he scowled exasperatedly, but tried to contain himself.
Taking his frustration out on her would get them nowhere and would just upset her. He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a few deep breaths until he felt he could use what Yuzu had affectionately named his inside voice.
"Nel," He explained gently, when he had calmed somewhat, "Inoue and I need some --"
He broke off as then their world shimmered and slowly began to melt. The off white of the sand brightened, turning the clinical white of a hospital room and inexorably, the moon and the darkness that was the sky began to fade to white.
The broken tree that had been under scrutiny mere seconds earlier twisted grotesquely, eerily silent as it contemptuously broke the laws of physics to bend, stretch and mutate.
Something unfathomable and loathsome clawed at his gut as the lifeless wood laboriously took on a form it should on no account be able to take - the form of a man.
A man in black and white robes, with impossibly broad shoulders, and a handsome face, graced by a genial smile that was somehow horrible in its lack of malevolence. It peeked out in a friendly manner while the black wooden bones gyrated, as if they were trying desperately to defend the form that they had begun with.
The soft chuckle that pattered like rain drops from his kindly lips was drowned by Ichigo's snarl of fury and the gleeful hiss of a drawn zanpakutou, the spitting whisper of lethal metal seeming to imitate its master's rage.
It made sense!
Nel wasn't leading them in circles: they hadn't been going anywhere in the first place. How could he have been so blind, so utterly stupid?
The Sword of Deceit.
It did its job well. How much of that illusion was genuine, and how much mere trickery? His eyes darted around, taking in his surroundings - the half desert, half hospital that melded together unnaturally, hurting his eyes, playing tricks on his vision. His body shifted into a fighting stance that was as natural as breathing.
And that wonderfully awful face spoke.
"After the lengths in which I had gone to obtain her," It said conversationally, "Do you think I would just let her leave?"
Ichigo's lip twisted. "Ban-"
Then a light of such brilliant beauty, of such a dazzling green that Ichigo was temporarily awestruck, flew towards the sky. It was almost as if it had come from him.
He knew that light: it was familiar but he couldn't place it. It was puzzling, because he was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that it could not possibly originate from him.
In his confusion, he looked downwards, towards his chest, where blood was welling from the gaping wound in his sternum. It made sense that it didn't come from him, but from behind him - through him.
The blood was oozing from the hole (Like a Hollows) and he could taste it in the back of his throat, and it was his blood, it was his own blood all over him, and the smell of his own burning flesh in his nostrils. He suddenly felt nauseous, and then the pain came.
He tried to scream but it came out a choked gurgle, and more of that brilliant red gushed out of his mouth to join the river running down his front. It was agony, pure agony. There were dark spots in his vision: he couldn't see properly, and it terrified him. How could he fight Aizen if he couldn't see Aizen?
He swayed drunkenly on the spot and finally collapsed, trying to keep a hold of Zengetsu in fingers that were going numb and cold.
And then there was nothing.
"Kurosaki!" Inoue cried in horror and in terror as Ulquiorra's green Ray Cero tore a gaping hole in his chest. "Kurosaki!"
She was rooted to the spot: her disbelief staying her more effectively than any bind could have. It was silent, so silent. Even the wind had stopped blowing, as if it too were shocked, and nothing moved. It was as if that one moment, that one horrible moment had been frozen.
And then a sound started slowly, an undulating, awful sound that hurt her head and it slowly penetrated her conscious. Slowly, groggily she realised that it was the young girl Arrancar. Nel was shrieking, her sobs ear-piercing while she clutched the cracked bone that crowned her.
Ichigo. He was standing there, looking down at himself in the utmost shock, as if he had never seen his own blood before.
His own blood. He was covered in it.
Everything was moving: no, she was moving. She could feel the sand beneath her sandalled feet, sand that was almost stone, but wasn't quite yet and so was suspended between. She was running.
It had become more and more real for her: she was running towards him, tripping and almost falling over a small green bundle but not bothering to stop, because Kurosaki needed her, he needed help - he needed to be healed! He needed her to reject what had happened: to make it asit was before, because it was Kurosaki and something like this couldn't happen - he couldn't die, it just wasn't possible!
All Orihime could see was the man before her as she ran towards him, and it did not quite click in her mind that the black haired monstrosity was no longer standing behind him, nor did she make the connection when two white clad arms wrapped around her abdomen and tightened, stronger than steel.
She beat at them, tearing at them with her fingernails and her voice and her desperation but they did not relent for any of those things. Kurosaki needed her! She kicked and elbowed and bit and wriggled but her struggles were ineffectual at best.
She screamed when he fell, his sword falling with him, sliding limply from his lax fingers.
The sound tore at her throat like iron hooks, just as the look of surprise on his face tore at her heart. She reached for him with fingers curled into miserable talons as her tears carved their painful way down her face.
The little girl did what she could not. She ran to Kurosaki, her robe flopping around her legs. It became stained a deep red as Nel fell to her knees at Ichigo's side, shaking him as if he were just asleep and she were trying to wake him.
But he just lay there in the puddle of his own making, his skin so pale and his body so still. So unnaturally still.
Orihime's tears kept flowing, and her voice was raw and hoarse from agony and exhaustion. It hurt so much, but she couldn't stop.
Why couldn't he get up? He had survived so much worse than this, so why wouldn't he just get up?
"Get up, Kurosaki," She sobbed - no, begged. "Get up..."
"He can't. He will be dead soon," A voice told her impassively. She riled against it.
"You can't say that!" She shrieked, hysterical. "Let me go!"
Ulquiorra's grip tightened around her waist. "I cannot."
"I HATE YOU!"
Inoue had never spoken those words before. That tiny fraction of her self buried beneath the horror and the hurt wished dearly to unsay those words; to recoil from them.
But she didn't care enough to try. Ichigo wouldn't get up, and it was all his fault. She had never felt so helpless; not even when her brother had lain in that awful white bed, plugged into horrid beeping machines.
"Your feelings towards me are irrelevant," The Espada said finally, his voice perilously close to her ear.
"...Ichigo," She whispered, her strength failing. It was too much.
Kurosaki's lifeless body was lying in a widening patch of crimson - the redblackblooddeath was staining bone sand dark, and Nell was keening, her high-pitched sob of grief rending the air.
It was too much.
It was just too much.
Her trembling legs gave way, unable to take both the weight of her body and the sheer hopelessness and overwhelming horror and misery that assaulted her. Deceptively strong arms caught her featherweight with consummate ease. She didn't even try to push him away this time. Orihime could feel his slight breath puffing evenly against her ear, and it revolted her.
"Please take her back to her room," Aizen's voice was gentle, as if he understood what an ordeal she was enduring. A dull sense of fury washed over her at that, but Orihime felt as though it was far away and unconnected; like it was happening to someone else.
"Yes, Aizen," She felt those slim arms shift, maneuvering her so that she leant against a slim side, his arm wedged beneath her armpit. The Espada's hipbone dug into her thigh, and he was squeezing her ribs much too tightly.
And then they moved, and the landscape became a mere blur.