A week had passed since the end of the bitter conflict between the Arrancar formerly known as the Espada and the Shinigami of Soul Society, when the worn and weary soldiers of the Thirteen Divisions decided to hold a funeral in honor of their fallen savior. Unohana presided over the service, her first formal act as Captain Commander. There were angry mutterings amongst some of the recovering Captains that Unohana, who had been, as they called it, 'Aizen's Lapdog', did not deserve the post. Nonetheless, the fact remained that she was the most powerful Captain still alive, not to mention the oldest, and had the experience needed to wield commanding power in such a dark time.
The Vizards had left shortly after the Arrancar had returned to Hueco Mundo, their end of their bargain with Héctor fulfilled and eager to leave Soul Society before old wounds were opened and matters got even more chaotic than they already were. After the conclusion of the funeral, the Shinigami returned to the task of piecing back together lives that had been irrevocably altered by twenty years spent in either captivity or constant combat. Grimmjow, who had attended the funeral out of respect to his fallen friend, bristled at the thinly-disguised and blatant looks of hatred that most of the Shinigami were giving him, but Soi Fon quickly calmed him down before his temper flared up too high to be controlled.
Orihime was seriously considering going to bed and sleeping for a whole day, but her mind was too troubled to let her get any rest. Shiro had been standoffish and moody since she'd healed him, and she had no desire to try to get him to talk to her while he was drinking, most likely to excess, in a bar in the Rukongai. But she had to talk to someone, and that left only one candidate.
The moon was beginning to rise as Orihime approached the door to Ulquiorra's quarters and slid it open, knowing that he would still be awake. He had barely slept since the day Neliel had died, and hadn't come out of the room he had chosen to stay in to see anyone either. Orihime knew that her friend and former teacher was in bad shape, but she couldn't keep from gasping as the moonlight illuminated just how gaunt and frail Ulquiorra was.
His ribcage stood out like fishbones, the scar where the number '4' had once been tattooed onto his chest made even more noticeable on such a ghost-white background. Ulquiorra said nothing as Orihime moved slowly into the room, but a slight shift in his posture told her that he knew she was there. Eyeing a cold plate of food on the small table, her shock quickly turned into anger.
"Ulquiorra," she said as calmly as she could, her hands balling up into fists on their own, "why haven't you eaten your dinner?"
"I'm not hungry," came the faint reply, the fragile tone making Orihime's heart clench in her chest.
"You're lying," she insisted, trying to get Ulquiorra off of the suicidal road of self-pity he was walking down, but the Arrancar didn't budge.
"What does that matter?" he asked, the almost casual tone of his voice finally pushing Orihime over the edge. She stalked over to him and seemed to wrestle with putting her rage into words, before she finally opened her mouth and spoke.
"You know what?" she said acidly as she backed away, locking her gaze with Ulquiorra's and holding it, "go ahead. Do it. Starve yourself to death. Waste away like the coward you are, Ulquiorra. I'm sure Neliel would be so proud of you."
Orihime saw her friend wretch pitifully at that, her hand flying to her mouth in surprise and more than a little shame; she immediately regretted having been so harsh as to go for such an open wound.
"Ulquiorra, I—" she began to apologize, but he waved her silent with one hand as he walked over to the table with the food and sat down in front of it.
"Don't apologize, Orihime," he said after a moment of silence, while she sat down across from him. "You're right."
After she had watched him eat in silence for some time, Orihime broke the silence and answered the question Ulquiorra had left unspoken.
"When my brother died," she said slowly, "for a while, I didn't know what to do with myself. Our parents had died when we were both young, and I didn't have very good memories of them, so for me it was the first time I'd lost someone close to my heart. I didn't go to school for days, until Tatsuki came and stood in front of my house. She waited and waited and waited for me, and then finally I came out and we walked down to school together."
"Why did you leave?" Ulquiorra asked, and Orihime smiled as she rose from her seat.
"I realized how much I was hurting my friends by being so selfish," she finished, walking towards the door, "and that just because I was in pain, that didn't mean there was no one there to help me through it."
Orihime was reaching out to slide the door open when Ulquiorra called out to her.
There was an openness to his voice that she had never heard before, and that coupled with the fact that Ulquiorra Schiffer had just said the word 'please' without a hint of sarcasm in his voice froze Orihime in her tracks. She turned back around and Ulquiorra spoke again, rising as he did so.
"Can I ask you a favor, Orihime?"
"What is it?" she asked. Ulquiorra paused, weighing his words carefully.
"Could you restore my zanpakuto?" he said, and Orihime's eyes narrowed with slight skepticism at the request. Ulquiorra saw the question in her eyes, answering it before she had even given it voice.
"I do not plan on falling on my sword, Orihime," he answered plainly, "if that's what you are worrying about. I know that you did this once, for Neliel, and I would like you to do it for me. It feels… empty, without it here."
Orihime took a few more heartbeats to judge Ulquiorra's sincerity, but when she was sure that he wasn't in a suicidal state of mind anymore, she nodded shortly and walked back over to him. She took his hand in both of hers, trying not to shiver at how cold it was.
"I'm going to need to extract some of your reiatsu," she explained. "It might sting."
"Do what you must," he answered calmly, and she nodded again before getting in tune with Ulquiorra's energy, counting to three in her head and extracting some of it with a sharp pull. He winced, but the warmth of the hands holding his own thankfully deterred Ulquiorra's mind from feeling most of the discomfort. As a small flame of Ulquiorra's green reiatsu hovered in between her hands, Orihime summoned her Soten Kisshun and began working at restoring his zanpakuto. A few minutes later she had finished, but when the shield dispersed, her expression became confused.
"It's… different," she said. "I must have messed up the process."
"No," Ulquiorra corrected her as he approached the green-sheathed blade and picked it up, noting the wavy design of the guard, "this is my zanpakuto. It might have changed, but that is to be expected. After all," he finished, sticking the sword in his sash, "so have I."
"What is its name now?" Orihime asked, and Ulquiorra gave a small smile as he replied, glad to feel that much closer to whole once again.
"Murciélago," he answered. "Thank you for this favor, Orihime."
"Don't mention it," she replied, relieved just to see her friend in high spirits again. "What are you going to do now?" she spoke after a moment. "Now that Aizen's dead, you're free."
"I think I will travel to Hueco Mundo. The solitude there would be the ideal place for me to think things over, and try to find where I fit. Now that I am, as you said, free."
"Good luck," Orihime said with a smile, before turning around and walking back towards the door. As she left, she spoke parting words over her shoulder.
"Whatever you're looking for out there, Ulquiorra, I hope you find it."
Ulquiorra turned his gaze back to the moon, wishing that he could remain under its comforting glow rather than spending his sojourn under its harsh counterpart in Hueco Mundo.
"So do I."
Héctor was packing his belongings into a large bag as night settled fully over the sky, preparing to set off back to the Human World and fulfill his end of the bargain he had made with the Vizards. In exchange for coming to his aid, the masked hybrids had demanded that Héctor come and train with them as soon as the immediate fallout from the fighting had settled down.
"How long're you gonna be there for?" Grimmjow asked, and his son shrugged.
"Can't say. The closest thing to a definite time they gave me was 'until it feels like you're done', so who knows how long that could be. But don't worry; you saw how strong they were. What could possibly go wrong?"
"Famous last words," Soi Fon grumbled, even though she knew how stubborn her son was and that there was definitely no stopping him now that his mind was made up. After the two had embraced, Héctor turned to speak to his father, his expression deadly serious.
"Be careful, all right?"
Grimmjow looked at his son curiously, but Héctor just frowned at him.
"Don't act like you haven't noticed it, Dad," he pressed. "Those Shinigami at the funeral earlier were all furious. If it had been any other time, I'm sure they would have tried to tear you to shreds just for being an Arrancar! The Espada might have stopped fighting the war," Héctor finished, "but not these Shinigami. They want revenge so badly it's obvious, truce or no truce."
"Even if that's true," Soi Fon parried, "As long as Unohana is Captain Commander and they're recovering from the drain being imprisoned put on them, none of the dissenting Captains are going to dare break the peace."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Héctor said with a sigh as he slung his bag over his shoulder and walked out of the room. "Just keep your eyes open, okay?"
Grimmjow and Soi Fon stood silently for a few moments as they thought about their son's parting words, and Grimmjow was the one who spoke first.
"He's right, you know."
Soi Fon said nothing, as storm clouds rolled slowly over the horizon.
Rukia had been forced to visit the Human World in order to pick up supplies from Urahara the next day. The shopkeeper had been leaving to go on a 'Lunch Break' as soon as she had approached, however, and paused to drop an incredibly unsubtle remark about how roses were in bloom this time of year before saying that he'd be back in about twenty minutes and disappearing.
Unable to completely squelch the human instincts she had picked up during the time she had spent living among them, Rukia soon found herself holding a bundle of roses and standing in front of the grave that marked the final resting place of Ichigo Kurosaki, right alongside his mother, father and two sisters. The service that had been held in Soul Society the day before had been a symbolic one; Ichigo's physical remains were interred here, the place he had called home for almost all of his life. As she stood in front of the grave, lost in thought, Rukia suddenly got the feeling that she wasn't alone in the graveyard.
Turning around, her breath caught in her throat and her eyes widened as she saw Ichigo leaning against a nearby tree, watching her.
"So," he said, "You're the one who puts the flowers on that kid's grave every day?"
Rukia was too surprised by the question to even respond, still reeling from the fact that someone who was supposed to be in the ground beneath her feet had just spoken to her.
"You… you don't know who's buried here?" she managed to force out after a moment, still mystified. Ichigo shook his head, and Rukia was snapped out of her stupefication as she realized what was going on here.
Ichigo's soul had been powerful enough to maintain its mature physical shape upon reincarnation in the Human World, rather than being reborn as a baby. But all of the memories he had gained as Ichigo Kurosaki had been stripped away from him, never to return.
While Rukia was lost in her own thoughts, the boy who was and was not Ichigo narrowed his eyes and spoke.
"Do I know you from somewhere?" he asked, and Rukia felt her heart accelerate as the fleeting thought that maybe he remembered her crossed her mind. But then she got her emotions back under control and shook her head, putting the face of the boy she had once loved out of her thoughts for good.
The vibrating of the cell phone in her pocket saved Rukia from any awkward follow-up conversation, and she answered it with slightly-clammy fingers.
"I'm back, Kuchiki-san!" Urahara's annoyingly cheerful voice answered. "Feel free to drop by—unless you're in the middle of something…?"
He let the question trail off in his uniquely annoying way, and Rukia had to bite back the urge to snarl her reply.
"No," she answered casually, letting the flowers fall from her other hand onto the grass beside the grave, "nothing important. I'll be right over."
As Rukia hung up her phone and turned to leave, the boy called out to her again.
"My name's Tarou, by the way," he said. "Are you sure I haven't seen you somewhere before?"
"Yeah, Tarou," Rukia answered as she walked away,
A/N: For anyone still reading this story out there, and who's interested in following the continuing stories of this particular plotline, here's how the sequel is going to work: since there's a major tonal shift at a certain point, I'm going to split the sequel up into two parts/stories. The first part is going to be a shorter story—still multichapter, though—and then the second story, the third in the sequence, is going to be the main sequel. So both of them will follow from Torn, but one's more like an intermezzo than a full-blown sequel.
Big ups as always to JasoTheArtisan for beta-ing this despite having no time and needing two straws, and a huge shout-out also goes out to all of the people who have followed this story from the beginning; thank you for making 'Torn" so much fun to write, and I hope to see you at the next story!