Reign Over Me
Chapter 37: Pick One
Orihime climbed up the stairs that led up to Hueco Mundo. When she felt the cold wind hit her face, she turned her head to escape the sand blowing in her face. As if feeling her distress, Lily appeared and shielded Orihime from the brutal wind and sand. Orihime looked up and smiled at her fairy.
"Thank you, Lily. You didn't have to." The shield disappeared as Orihime kept going up the stairs. She reached the top and took a deep breath, the chilly air filling her lungs.
She walked a few feet in the white sand, dragging her feet in it. After she was a good twenty feet away from the steps leading back to Las Noches, Orihime fell to the sand and sat. She sat in the sand and looked around at the seemingly endless desert. There was nothing for miles and miles. She gazed up at the starless, moonlit sky.
Never a negative thought, she pondered. I'm incapable of thinking bad things about people? But why would I want to? Who deserves to have bad things thought about them?
Orihime sighed and looked down at her toes in the sand. She could remember when Ulquiorra first brought her up to the surface and what it felt like to really see the world. She could still remember feeling breathless as she was set free from Kyoka Suigetsu's spell. It had been windy and cold just like now.
She wrapped her arms around herself. "At least someone was there to keep me a little warm, though," she whispered. She giggled a little. "Even if it was unintentional and awkward."
"Talking to yourself, woman?"
Orihime jumped a mile in the air. Tsubaki came out reflexively and attacked. Orihime blinked as the offensive fairy was easily dodged by Ulquiorra. Remembering their first encounter, Ulquiorra had not been able to do that. When had his reflexes gotten that much better? Even he seemed shocked at what he had just done. Tsubaki angrily returned to Orihime, realizing who he was attacking.
"Ulquiorra, you shouldn't startle me like that. The Shun Shun Rikka will protect me on their own nowadays, especially since you haven't been around." She said the last part almost in a whisper.
Ulquiorra stepped back up to her, nodding his affirmation. "Why are you out here alone, then? That is not the wisest course of action. Szayel's stunt was pretty much asking for trouble," he said.
Orihime sighed. "Yes, I know." She gazed out back over the sands. "Ulquiorra, does anything live out in these sands? Does anything roam about or is it just barren desert?"
He inhaled sharply. Ulquiorra stepped away from Orihime and walked a few feet away from her. "The desert may seem barren and deserted, but I assure you it is not."
"Oh?" Orihime looked after him. "Then what does?"
"Nothing that you need to worry about, woman."
Orihime watched him suspiciously for a moment. Then she blinked. She turned and looked towards steps leading back to Las Noches. "Something doesn't feel right. Something is... off," she said while getting to her feet. She dusted herself off and looked at Ulquiorra. "I don't like this feeling. I don't like it at all."
Ulquiorra nodded. "Then I suppose we should go back and see what bothers you," he said. He grabbed her hand and pulled her back towards Las Noches. Before disappearing down the steps, Orihime looked back at the desolate desert.
Shinji arrived to where his subordinates from the Fifth Tower were being held. He spotted Nel sitting and leaning against the wall. She appeared to be sleeping. He approached her and kneeled down before her. As if sensing his presence, Nel's eyes fluttered open. A big grin appeared on her face. He grinned right back.
"Shinji! What are you doing..." Nel paused as Shinji pulled her to her feet. "Really, what are you doing?" she asked.
Shinji pulled her close as they began walking. "We're going for a little walk. Then we're going to go back to Las Noches. I hope we're not too late," he whispered.
Nel's eyes widened. "What's going on at Las Noches? Is it under attack? How does Aizen know where..."
"No time, Neliel. Just come along. We have to pick up two people."
Gin was smiling, but the smile was fake. Keeping up his façade was not hard in the least. He was a great actor. After telling Shinji of Aizen's plans, he immediately headed back to Aizen's. There, the man was doing his version of "prepping" for an assault.
He was simply having tea.
"It sounds as if the masses are confused, mah lord. Some have touched the sand of Hueco Mundo while others are still clueless. There are Second Authority personnel at the wall of Karakura, blockin' the exit," Gin said.
Aizen nodded. "Thank you for that update, Gin. Kaname, did you find out where my soldiers are being kept?" he asked, looking over at the blind man.
"Yes, Lord Aizen. They are being held in a warehouse just past what used to be the Fourth Tower. It's the same warehouse that Zaraki put his Authority after the Eleventh Tower blew," Tousen said.
"Good." Aizen sat his teacup down. "Kaname, retrieve them. Gin, do you happen to know where Shinji is?" he asked.
Gin shook his head and shrugged. "Not a clue, mah lord. Ya would've thought he'd be here yellin' 'bout his tower. He must be goin' through the rubble like a scavenger," he lied. Gin knew exactly where Shinji was.
Aizen only smiled at Gin. "I see. Let's go. We have much to do. The hordes need to be called."
"Yes, mah lord."
A small tremor threw Orihime into Ulquiorra as the walked into the foyer. She clung to him and looked up. The chandelier in the room was swinging slightly. Then Orihime looked at Ulquiorra. His facial expression had not changed, but his eyes spoke of something like shock.
"What was that, Ulquiorra?" Orihime asked.
"It felt like a small quake of some sort..."
Before Ulquiorra could say more, Grimmjow came out of the hallway and leaned over the balcony. Soi Fon was behind him, her eyes somewhat large.
"Anyone else feel that?" Grimmjow asked.
Ulquiorra nodded slowly. "Yes. Any idea what it could've been?"
Grimmjow shrugged. "I'm just as clueless as you. Though this place is in an underground lair of sorts, it doesn't make sense why we would feel some sort of shock," he said.
"Unless the tremor wasn't from above." Yoruichi walked up from behind Orihime and Ulquiorra. "It felt more like it was beneath Las Noches."
"Something... BENEATH Las Noches? There's nothing below Las Noches except the rocks it was built on." Ulquiorra turned and looked at the shorter captain.
Yoruichi shook her head and crossed her arms. "You all know how earthquakes work, right? The tectonic plates shifting and all that good stuff. Las Noches is in a cave. It shouldn't be that..."
"It wasn't an earthquake," Zommari said, peering out from the door leading to Szayel's lab. "Szayel wants to show everyone something. Come." He disappeared back through the door. The others glanced around at each other before following.
Down in the dungeon, Szayel and Zommari were staring up at Szayel's large computer screen. It was switched to a radar map of the area around the underground cave. Small dots were everywhere. Some were moving while others were stationary and emitting little yellow circles. Szayel turned and faced the others as they came into the dungeon.
"Szayel, what's this about? Do you know what the hell just happened?" Grimmjow asked.
"Well Grimmy, this is the area around Las Noches. I'm sure you all just felt that tremor. You see this little dot?" Szayel used a laser pointer and pointed to the stationary dot near Las Noches.
"What about it?" Soi Fon asked.
Szayel cleared his throat and lowered his arms. "Those little rings it's emitting are seismic waves, the same waves that cause earthquakes. This little dot is something below even Las Noches. It was moving and then it stopped. That was the tremor you felt. These other dots are also giving off seismic waves," he explained.
"So what are those dots?" Yoruichi asked.
Szayel looked at her, clasping his hands together behind his back. "Empty beings known only as the Hollow. Usually, they are content to keep away from Las Noches and go on about their meaningless existences. However, something is making them converge on this place."
"That's a bad thing, isn't it?" Orihime asked.
"Yes, princess. Yes it is." Szayel looked away from her as a light came on in the room. Szayel faced the screen. "It would appear as though someone has entered the scanning room..."
Nnoitra was coming from the kitchen with a glass of orange juice when the front door opened. He paused for a moment. I don't remember anyone leaving? The alarm hasn't gone off so I suppose it's som... Nnoitra's train of thought stopped when he saw who stepped out of the red room. Tia? His glass slipped from his fingers, shattering upon impact.
"Hello, Nnoitra," Halibel said.
Nnoitra had a bit of trouble believing if the woman before him was actually Halibel. She was approaching him, dressed in something that resembled white scrubs. She was barefoot and sand was covering her feet. She looked as though she had just come from the desert above. When she finally made it to him, she stopped a few feet away, minding the broken glass and juice.
Halibel let out a long sigh. "I'm tired, Nnoitra," she said.
Nnoitra swallowed. "Well, where did you come from?" he asked.
"I escaped." She narrowed her eyes. "You didn't honestly believe that Aizen killed me, did you?"
Nnoitra nodded quickly. "We all saw you die."
Halibel only smirked. "Is that so?" She stepped around him. "I think I'd know if I died."
Nnoitra watched as she disappeared up the stairs. Just as she went around the corner, the others came from the dungeon. Nnoitra's mouth was still hanging open when Grimmjow snapped in front of his face. He looked down at them.
"Why are you standing there with your mouth hanging open? You look like you just saw a ghost," Grimmjow said.
"Maybe..." Nnoitra whispered, putting a hand to his head. "Hal's back."
"Halibel?" Yoruichi asked.
Nnoitra nodded. "In the flesh. Literally."
Shinji pushed open a big metal door. He had taken Nel through a series of tunnels under what used to be the 5th Tower. Nel had remained silent throughout the trip. She did not question Shinji's instructions or anything. Once he had completed pulling open the heavy metal door, he stepped to the side to allow her to go first. Nel nodded and obliged him. She gasped when she realized what, or who, was in the room.
"R-R-Rangiku?" she whispered.
The strawberry blonde looked up at Nel. Her hair had been cut short, around her chin. She also appeared a bit thinner. Her face was pale and she looked like she needed sunlight. But her smile was still very large. There was a rustling against the wall behind Nel. Rangiku nodded towards where the sound was coming.
Nel turned her head. Her eyes widened and jaw dropped. Then her eyes began to water and her lip started to quiver. She could not even bring herself to say the name of the person who stood before her.
Halibel scoffed and shook her head. "Neliel, close your mouth before something flies in it." She looked at Shinji. "You've finally come to take us out of here?" she asked.
Shinji nodded. "Yep. Shit's about to go down at Las Noches. They'll need their leader," he said.
Halibel nodded. Before she could say anything else, Nel threw herself into her. She was crying so hard that she was shaking. Halibel stared at the head of sea foam green hair and simply smirked. She patted the crying Espada on the head.
"I thought they'd killed you, Tia! I thought you were really gone!" Nel said between sobs.
Shinji shook his head. "It was all a ploy." He glanced at Rangiku, who was making her way to her feet. "He's even deceived Gin."
Rangiku frowned as she approached them. "Why would he want to deceive Gin? I thought he trusted Gin."
"Aizen trusts no one, ladies; least of all Gin Ichimaru. Even if Gin is his right-hand, it's more to keep an eye on him than anything else. Gin is like Aizen. Of course he lacks the ambitions to be a god and ruler of all, but he's like Aizen nonetheless," Shinji said. "Anyway, we need to get a move on. Urahara is waiting for us."
"Something is off about Halibel," Orihime whispered to Ulquiorra.
They were watching Halibel eat. Nnoitra hovered over her like a devoted little puppy. Every now and then, Halibel would sigh and punch him to get him to calm down. For all intents and purposes, she was acting exactly like Halibel. She had just dealt Nnoitra a particularly violent blow and the taller man was licking his wounds.
Ulquiorra took his eyes away from them and looked at Orihime. "Everything seems in order to me," he said blandly.
"Yes. But... she just seems off to me. Something isn't right." Orihime crossed her arms. She jumped as Halibel stood roughly.
"I'm going to rest." She glared down at Nnoitra. "Do not interrupt me." She left the kitchen in a huff.
Silence reigned in the kitchen as Halibel left. Once she was gone, everyone looked at each other. Lilynette was the one who spoke up. "Am I the only one who thinks she's acting strange?"
Orihime shook her head. "No. I thought I was the only one." She looked around at the others. "What do you all think?"
Stark shrugged. "Seems like the same Halibel to me," he said with a yawn. Lilynette punched him in the side.
"She does seem a little... different somehow. I can't quite place my finger on it. What do you think is the difference?" Grimmjow asked.
"Just something about her presence." Everyone looked at Orihime for her to elaborate. "She's there in her body, but it's like her presence is somewhere else. Her... aura is distinctly different than I remember it being. It's emptier and definitely not as intimidating."
"Well, of course she'd be feeling stra..." Yoruichi was cut off as another violent tremor rocked Las Noches. Once it stopped, Yoruichi looked around at the others. "Maybe we should prepare for something to happen."
"I agree. Anyone else coming to the armory?" Grimmjow asked as he stood. Yoruichi, Soi Fon, Zommari, and Lilynette got up. Lilynette pulled Stark along with her. Ulquiorra stood as well, prompting Orihime to quickly snag his arm and follow him out.
When they all reached the foyer, another tremor shook the underground fortress. It seemed to be centered behind directly underneath Orihime. Ulquiorra turned to see her eyes widen as the marble floor began cracking beneath her feet.
"What's going..." Grimmjow turned and saw Orihime rising up over Ulquiorra's head. "Ulquiorra, get her!"
Orihime reached out for Ulquiorra as he tried to grab her hand. Right as they touched, Orihime disappeared from sight as the ground opened up beneath her and swallowed her up. A shrill roar was heard echoing around the foyer as well as Orihime's scream. Forgetting about whatever was coming through the hole, Ulquiorra stepped forward to follow Orihime. He immediately hopped back as pink tentacles shot upwards towards Orihime.
Damnit, Ulquiorra thought. The tentacles were overwhelming and kept him at bay. How do I get through this?
Orihime put her hands out to keep the tentacles away. Beyond the tentacles, she saw something white and that resembled teeth. It dawned on Orihime that she was still falling. She squeezed her eyes shut and hit something solid.
"Orihime, wait right there! Don't move!" Yoruichi's voice echoed down to her.
Orihime opened her eyes. She was floating on her shield. She sat up, not having realized that it had even been called out. The tentacles kept trying to get at her by repeated punching the shield. Wow. Thanks, guys.
Ulquiorra faced the others. "Get to the armory. I'll get the woman," he said.
Ulquiorra's eyes settled any disputes immediately. The others hustled off, leaving Ulquiorra standing above the deep hole. The shrill roar did not stop. He looked down to see Orihime covering her ears. Her shield was supporting her.
"Ulquiorra, help me!" she yelled. Her shield was beginning to crack from the damage being done to it.
Ulquiorra frowned. "You might have to help yourself, woman."
Orihime raised an eyebrow. "Can't you just fly down here and get me like you usually do?"
"I don't 'fly,' woman. I... ride." Ulquiorra knew it was a poor way to describe what it was he did exactly. However, Orihime seemed to take it. "You can't move your shield while you're on it?" he asked.
"Well," Orihime looked down at shield. The cracks were beginning to shine now, signaling their breaking point. "I can try!" she yelled up to Ulquiorra.
"Hurry," Ulquiorra said, pointing down in the hole with a single finger. It won't take me long to deal with this Hollow," he said.
Orihime looked up, seeing a faint green glow. Her eyes widened minutely before she closed them again. "Hinagiku, Biagon, Lily. I need a favor."
"We serve only you, Orihime," Lily said.
"Can you fly me up and out of this hole?" she asked.
"If that is what your heart desires..."
"... we will make it so," Hinagiku finished Biagon's sentence.
Orihime smiled. "Thank you." She looked back up to see the green light was bigger. "Better hurry now, guys!" she yelled.
Ulquiorra blinked as something orange shot past him. It was followed by gangly tentacles immediately. Figuring the flash of orange could only be one thing, he released his attack on the offending beast below Las Noches.
Soi Fon knocked into a shelf of artillery as Las Noches shook again. "Damnit! These tremors are getting annoying."
"That wasn't a tremor," Grimmjow said. He noticed Soi Fon glaring at him. "It was one of Ulquiorra's attacks. I think it's safe to assume that whatever wanted princess for dinner is dead now."
"Ulquiorra putting holes in things again. I can't keep fixing Las Noches, you know. I'm not a handyman," Szayel said as another tremor shook the room. He glanced around. "Where is Nnoitra? Why does he keep disappearing?"
"Maybe he went to go get Halibel or make sure she was all right." Zommari stopped as Orihime fumbled into the room. Ulquiorra practically glided smoothly in. "I trust everything went well."
"Of course," Ulquiorra said.
Orihime frowned, fixing her clothes on her. "Speak for yourself." She sighed when Ulquiorra appeared to completely ignore her.
Halibel crept out of Barragan's room. She silently closed the door. Fixing her clothes and cracking her neck, she started walking down the hallway almost silently. She headed back to her quarters only to meet Nnoitra coming down the hall. She furrowed her eyebrows as she approached him.
"Hal, what are you doing out here? I thought you said you were tired," he said.
Halibel shrugged as she met up with him. "I went to check on some things. I also told you I didn't want to be bothered. Where is everyone else?" she asked, tugging on lock of her hair.
Nnoitra's smile turned upside down for a moment. Then he smiled again. "They're waiting in the armory. Let's go." He turned to walk away. He saw Halibel release her lock of hair and catch up with him.
She seems all right to me, he thought.
Rangiku came through the back door of Las Noches first. Urahara followed her with Nel and Halibel. Shinji brought up the rear. They noticed the silence that rang loudly. No one appeared to be around. They all looked around at one another before Nel continued on into the foyer. She gasped and wobbled before Urahara effortlessly grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to him.
Shinji whistled. "That's one big hole," he said, gazing down into it. He saw a severed pink tentacle flapping around on the marble floor. Then he looked at Urahara, who simply nodded. "Won't be long now. Where do you suppose everyone is?" He directed his question towards Halibel.
Before she could answer, she heard an all-too-familiar voice coming around the corner. They all watched as Nnoitra came down the stairs, talking animatedly with someone. Nel appeared confused before looking back at Halibel.
Nnoitra turned his head at the sound of Nel's voice. He immediately stepped away from Halibel and looked down the stairs. The first person he saw was Nel. He resisted laughing at her new facial feature before looking at the others.
"It's nice to see you two are back. Wait until the others find out. We've just been getting... all... kinds..." Nnoitra's voice tapered off as he saw Halibel standing there with her arms crossed and looking pointedly at him. "Hal?" Halibel began angrily approaching him. "Tia..."
Halibel's left fist met Nnoitra's face. Then she headed for who was assumed to be an imposter. She pushed the offending woman down on the ground. "Who are you?" she asked through clenched teeth.
"I'm Tia Halibel, Tercera Alpha. Who are YOU?" The imposter kicked Halibel off of her. Then the two began an involved fight.
Everyone else watched, visibly stunned at the sight before them. It did not help that they were both wearing the same thing. After so much turning and twisting around in grappling positions, they forgot who was who.
"Nnoitra, where is everyone else?" Nel asked. Nnoitra numbly pointed towards the armory. Nel grabbed Rangiku's hand and they shuffled past the fight. Urahara and Shinji followed, never taking their eyes off the fight.
Urahara passed Nnoitra a firearm. "One of them is a fake. You better choose wisely," he said before following the others.
The two Halibels continued to throw one another around the already destroyed foyer. One managed to pin the other down right at the edge of the giant hole. Nnoitra sighed and removed the safety. He shot the ground where the women were twice. They immediately separated and stood.
"You could've killed me, asshole!" both yelled at the same time.
Nnoitra blinked. This is gonna be hard. Damnit! Why do I have to do this? he thought ruefully.
"Care to explain?" the two Halibels asked in unison. Then they looked at one another. "Stop that!" They started to go at one another again. They did not get far before Nnoitra shot between them.
"I will blow your noses off. Now, stop and listen for a fuckin' minute!" he yelled. Both Halibels looked away from one another to look at Nnoitra. He was scratching his temple with the gun. "There's only one way for me to know which of you is really Halibel."
The Halibels appeared confused. "And what's that?"
Nnoitra looked at them. "Where's your Espada tattoo?" he asked.
"My right breast." The Halibels glared at one another again. "You only said that because I did!"
Nnoitra sighed again. "Care to show me?" Neither moved. Nnoitra pointed the gun at them again. "I'll just shoot both of you."
The Halibels stared at him. Then the one on the right crossed her arms and frowned. The one on the left raised her shirt and pointed to her bare breast where the gothic "3" was. Nnoitra promptly pulled the trigger, shooting the one on the left between the eyes. The one the right's eyes simply widened in surprise. She looked at the fallen body and then back at Nnoitra.
Nnoitra put the gun under his belt after re-engaging the safety. "I never want to do something so taxing again. My head hurts," he mumbled.
Halibel smirked. "How did you know?" she asked.
Nnoitra smirked right back at her. "You'd never flash me in public, Hali-baby."
"Only you'd think of such a perverted way of getting information." Halibel walked forward towards him. She grabbed him by his hair and pulled him towards the armory. "We have a lot of work to do."
Gin frowned for a moment. "Looks like someone figured out our lil' secret, mah lord." He faced Aizen. "What do we do now?"
Aizen sipped his tea. "We wait. Our 'secret' is far from fulfilling her purpose."
Gin appeared confused, his smile falling away for a moment. "Other purpose?"
Back in the Las Noches foyer, the bullet in the fake Halibel's head was pushed out of her head. Her body changed appearances quickly. She sat up in her new form. Looking around, she stood up quickly and headed upstairs silently.