I do not own Bleach or any of its characters

Chapter 32

Once again Ulquiorra found himself making the long trek to the room that housed the Captain's Council. His head was still fuzzy from the previous evening's exploits with Lieutenant Matsumoto, and he was glad that he had not eaten anything recently because his stomach felt very queasy. It was not the best time to face the most powerful beings in the Seireitei, but then he wondered when was the best time to find out whether he would live or die.

The doors opened to the room and he squinted his eyes as the bright sun pulsed through his brain, exploding in even more painful waves of overstimulation. When he finally readjusted his vision he noticed that he was surrounded on either side by the captains with Yamamoto standing at his usual place at the front of the room.

He slowly made his way to where the Captain Commander waited. A few steps in and his eyes caught and held those of Captain Ukitake. The white haired man smiled kindly at him and nodded his head slightly in his direction. He wondered what was going on when he noticed Captain Kyoraku, standing beside Ukitake, staring at him as well. Only Kyoraku tipped the sakkat on his head, as he sent a mischievous smile at him.

Ulquiorra quickly averted his eyes and tried to focus once more on Yamamoto as he continued to walk slowly forward. He had only gone a few more paces when he noticed the female captain, Unohana, smiling as well. Her eyes reflected calmly back at him and he suddenly found himself relaxing a bit. Unlike the other two, she seemed a little more sensible. Still he couldn't shake the feeling that she and the other two captains were up to something. It was as if they had some information on him that he was unaware of.

He turned towards Yamamoto and continued on. No one else spoke. In fact none of the other captains even acknowledged him. Kuchiki seemed almost irritated that he had to be there. Hitsugaya looked bothered as well. Komamura, Tosen's friend if he remembered correctly, was impossible to read, but Ulquiorra could feel a tension coming from the Shinigami.

As he came close to Captain Zaraki, the tall man greeted him with a wide grin and bellowed, "Looking a little under the weather today, Espada."

Ulquiorra winced as the man's voiced boomed through his tender ears. He stopped for a moment as he tried to steady his head. This only caused Zaraki to laugh even louder. Without even looking at the man, Ulquiorra once more continued on, coming finally to the place where the Captain Commander stood patiently waiting for him. He stopped beside him, facing the old man, but also the captains that now stood at attention.

The man eyeballed him in silence for a moment and Ulquiorra felt an uncomfortable sense of unease creep back into his consciousness. Why was it that this man had the ability to make him feel like a small, wayward child caught doing something naughty? He was a powerful being in his own right. Yamamoto shouldn't intimidate him, yet he somehow managed to do just that.

"So child," the old man began, his voice almost as loud as Zaraki, "That was quite a show of force yesterday."

Ulquiorra was unsure if the man desired a response so he remained silent. His head was throbbing painfully, but he refused to show any more weakness to these Shinigami. His eyes held Yamamoto's as he refused to back down.

"It was quite evident that once you released that hollow, Captain Zaraki was clearly at a disadvantage," he said when it was obvious that Ulquiorra was not going to speak.

"You ended the fight too soon, old man," Zaraki blurted out as soon as the Captain Commander finished. "I could have taken him, and if not, at least it would have been fun trying."

Captain Kuchiki let out a weary sigh of disgust, "Once more your bloodthirsty nature has blinded you to the seriousness of this situation."

"Why does everything have to be so serious?" Zaraki shot back taunting the other man, "Power like that is rare…"

"He is a hollow," Komamura argued as he took a step forward. Turning to Yamamoto he continued, "His power is not something to be trifled with. It poses a serious threat."

"Ah come on Sajin-san," Captain Kyoraku spoke up, his tone light, "What did you expect the boy to do. Captain Zaraki would have killed him. It was a matter of self defense. Besides it was clear he was holding back, weren't ya kid?"

Ulquiorra turned his eyes to look at Kyoraku. The teasing in his voice did not mask the man's true nature. He was shrewd; Ulquiorra could sense that. The lackadaisical manner in which he presented himself was nothing more than a mere ploy to hide his true strength and intellect.

"I do not believe it would have proved beneficial to my plight to kill the captain," he replied evenly which caused the man to laugh.

"But I betcha wanted to kill him," he winked with a twinkle in his eye.

Ulquiorra stood straighter as he stared, assessing the man. Thinking carefully he replied, "I had no desire to do such a thing. My strength is far superior to his. Why should I have to kill him to prove it?"

"You are a rather arrogant little son of a bitch," Kurotsuchi interjected angrily.

"You, of all present here, know it is the truth," he remained calm, despite the pounding in his head, and the quick beating of his heart. "Otherwise why would you wish to study me?"

"The hollow that pretends to be human has the gall to question me," Kurotsuchi snarled, "It is not your strength that interests me boy…"

"I think what is of grater interest," Captain Unohana stopped the irate Shinigami midsentence. A serene smile lit her face as she continued, "Is that he possessed the control and discipline to not kill Captain Zaraki."

"I would think being surrounded by every captain in the Gotei Thirteen would have been incentive enough," was Kurotsuchi's snide reply.

Unohana continued to smile, but the quality changed minutely, causing the boisterous Head of Research and Development to step back a pace, an uneasy look in his eyes.

"I believe it goes beyond that," her gaze fell to Ulquiorra. "I wonder if maybe you didn't kill him because you truly have found your heart, and that has changed how you view Soul Society, and your own existence."

He sucked in a breath as his eyes opened wider. She was right – at least about how he viewed his life. Killing Zaraki wouldn't have made any difference to him either way. He had merely wished the fight to end, so that he could finish this charade of a hearing.

Now it seemed that honesty was all that was left to him. They knew his power, and it was well established what he had done while in Aizen's service. Who he was, in this moment, standing before them, may be the only defense he had left.

"As a hollow I had little respect for human life anymore," he began softly as he returned her stare, "I saw them merely as a means to an end." He broadened his gaze to look to the various captains in attendance. "But humans were weak, their spiritual power not enough to quench my desire. After a while they held no interest for me and I remained in Hueco Mundo, growing stronger from the reiatsu of my own kind." He noticed a few faces reflect displeasure at his words, but he continued on. "The Soul Society was nothing more than an arrogant nuisance. As a hollow, I understood what true power was, and Aizen was more than willing to perfect it in me and fellow hollows. "

He paused and turned his eyes to the Captain Commander. The old man was impossible to read, his stony expression, and closed eyes gave no clue as to whether he was displeased or waiting to hear more. Still he had to try. It would serve no purpose to stop now.

"I now see things differently," he exhaled, "My experience in the company of Inoue Orihime changed me, and because of her I now remember what it was like to be human. I have no desire to return to my former existence, and I do not wish to fight with the Soul Society."

"Then what do you desire," Yamamoto opened his eyes only a little and stared piercingly into Ulquiorra's.

Holding the man's gaze he replied honestly, "I desire to live amongst the humans."

"You have tasted immortality," Yamamoto said evenly. "You have existed for centuries, your power immense. To continue as a mortal, living within the small, fragile confines of a human body, does not bother you?"

He silently shook his head, his heart thumping loudly in his ears as he waited for what the old man would say next.

"You understand that you will eventually die," Yamamoto's voice rose. "Human bodies age and grow infirm. You will be in a sense condemning yourself to death if you return."

"I am aware of that," he replied raising his voice as well.

"Well this is interesting," Yamamoto gripped his staff tightly, but on his face a ghost of a smile could be seen, and then was gone. Turning to the other captains he said louder, "I believe the time has come to pass judgment on this child."

Orihime awoke to a feather soft kiss on her forehead. Fearing it to be some type of perverted intruder, she bolted upright quickly and swung with all her might at the attacker, connecting with something soft. A muffled curse was followed by a hand tightly clamping down across her mouth, as she was pulled hard against the intruder's body. She tried to let out a scream, only to find the hand grip her mouth tighter.

Warm air tickled her ear, and then a soft, deep voice whispered, "Do you wish to wake the entire apartment complex woman?"

"Ulquiorra?" she gasped her voice barely discernible.

The hand moved away from her mouth, but his other still held her firmly against his body. Wriggling free she turned and faced him.

"It is you!" she lunged forward without warning, knocking him backwards with the force of her embrace.

Once more he groaned as he slammed against the hard wood of the floor.

"Do you seek to do me serious harm?" he groaned as his hand moved to rub his head gingerly.

"Oh my, I'm sorry," she leaned back just enough to look at him. "I didn't expect it to be you."

"Do you have other men coming to your room in the middle of the night?" his voice lowered.

"No," she blushed furiously. "It's only that I thought you were in the Soul Society…" her voice rose again and she noticed him wince. "Oh gosh," she reached towards his head, "I really did hurt you didn't I?"

"No," he said as he grimaced again, "It is just that you are being extremely loud."


"Yes, and it is rather painful," her face fell and noticing he continued, "The blame lies with Lieutenant Masumoto, not you."

"Rangiku-san?" she was now very confused.

"The woman appeared at my cell last night with a bottle of sake," he began, but she interrupted.

"You got drunk with Rangiku?" she sounded completely shocked.

"I had a little…"

"No one has a little sake with Rangiku-san," she blurted out, interrupting him again. He squinted his eyes as if in pain. "Oh right," she whispered, "Your head. Wait," she fought to keep the smile from her face, "Are you hung-over?"

"I believe that I may have overdone it a little," he replied as he pushed her back even further so that he could sit up.

This time she couldn't help but giggle.

"You find that humorous?"

"Well no," she began and then let out a loud snort as the laughter gripped her fiercely. Grabbing her side she said, "Okay so it is a little funny…no actually a lot funny…in fact if you wait there I'll get my phone and take a picture to remember this…"

His hands shot out and grabbed her shoulders once more, pinning her in place.

"You will do no such thing woman," he growled, "I would rather not have any reminders if you do not mind."

"Okay, no pictures," she relented. As she calmed down from her giggle fit reality began to drift into her sleep clouded thoughts. "Ulquiorra," she stated, "Rangiku is known for doing some pretty crazy stuff when she gets drunk."

"So I have heard."

"Well its just that you were imprisoned, and then you two were drinking, and now you're here in Karakura Town again…" she hesitated.

"What are you trying to say Orihime?" his voice slightly irritated.

"Did you two escape?" she blurted in a rush, "Because if you did, it's okay with me. I mean I don't mind going on the lam with you. In fact I'm real good at hiding out…"

His hold on her shoulders grew almost painful.

"I did not escape from Soul Society with Lieutenant Masumoto," his voice rising [slightly].

"Then how?" she started but stopped as she noticed the anger leave his eyes, as he looked down; his hands on her shoulders loosening their punishing grip.

"I received my sentence today," his eyes met hers again, but she could tell he was agitated.

"Your sentence?" she asked as she reached over to cover his hands in hers. Squeezing them encouragingly, she asked, "But you're here, so that's a good thing isn't it. Doesn't that mean they let you go?"

"Yes, that is true," he looked into her eyes and having regained his calm said slowly, "In a manner of speaking."

"What does that mean," she was confused by his dodging of the answer. "Either they let you go or they didn't."

He let out a sigh and looked away once more, "I have been exiled."


"To the world of the living," he began as his gaze once more met hers. He seemed to judge her reaction, unsure of what to expect. "I am to live out my life of mortality - as a human."

"Wait," her brows knit together. "You are a human. And I thought staying in Karakura Town was," her hands squeezed his tighter as she grew anxious herself. "You do want to…"

"Stay in the world of the living," he answered. She nodded and he continued his voice softer, gentler, "I desire nothing more…as long as it is with you."

Her eyes grew wide as the smile graced her lips once more.

"With me?" she squeaked too happy to speak.

"If you will have me," he said as he drew closer, his eyes never leaving hers, "But it is inevitable that this body will grow older, possibly infirm, and eventually I will die. Does that bother you?"

"Ulquiorra," she raised her hand and cupped his cheek tenderly, "This is a natural part of life."

"It does not frighten you?" and she heard the apprehension in his voice that he was trying so hard to hide from her.

Leaning forward she kissed his lips softly and then pulled back just enough to speak, her breath hot against his mouth, "I look forward to every moment on that journey." Her lips touched his with another feather light kiss, and then she pulled back again, "Of course you have to promise not to become one of those crotchety old men that yell at the children in the park when they cover the sidewalk with chalk pictures…or chase the pigeons with your cane when I try to feed them breadcrumbs…or complain about the way the teenagers dress…"

He cut her off as his lips covered hers, his tongue exploring her already open mouth, tasting her completely. Every thought in her head fled as she reveled in the feel of his tongue mating with her own. His arms moved from her shoulders to wrap around her back and he continued to kiss her.

Coming up for air he smiled against her mouth, "Even with an entire lifetime, I do not believe I will understand the way your mind works."

"I guess we'll just have to wait and see about that," she placed a light kiss on his lips, "Since we now have our entire lives to find out."

His eyes softened as his gaze penetrated her own deeply. Still rubbing her back with his hands he breathed, "You are certain that this is what you desire?"

"Do you even have to ask?" she teased lightly.

"What if I disappoint you?"

"I'm sure you will at some point," she laughed as his eyes grew wide, "But then again I am positive that I will do the same to you as well." She ran her hands gently across his chest. "Life is messy Ulquiorra. That's what makes it fun – and interesting."

"So you do not desire perfection?"

"I desire you," and then her face burned red as she realized how her words must sound, "I mean I desire to be with you…no wait I mean that I don't care if it isn't perfect as long as it's with you…"

He pulled her into a crushing embrace. When he spoke again his voice was hoarse and she was amazed to realize the powerful emotions he was fighting to contain, "I thought for sure that they were going to imprison me for life, or have me executed." His hands dug into her sides as he held her even tighter, "It seemed unfair that I had finally found my heart, only to have Soul Society take it away again."

"But they let you go," she smiled as her hands moved to his hair. She traced slow, soothing circles through his black locks. "Hueco Mundo, The Winter War, and Aizen – they're all behind us now. We can live free from the fear of reprisal. You now have a second chance at life."

"I love you Orihime," he whispered against her ear. "I always will."

She understood the gravity of those words. Ulquiorra was not one to toss his feelings about so lightly. He felt things deeply, his words held truth and sincerity. That fact endeared him more to her than anything else could. And her reply was equally as honest, "My heart belongs to you," she replied just as softly, "For now and forever."

Lieutenants Masumoto and Abarai sat atop the roof of Orihime's apartment. Having escorted Ulquiorra back to the World of the Living, they had been instructed to remain in Karakura for a few days, just to make sure the former prisoner remained out of trouble. Rangiku didn't mind in the least. She knew that the Espada would pose no threat, and she planned to take advantage of the free time that would create by catching up on her shopping.

Still Ulquiorra's return had thrown one wrench in her plans. Sighing she complained, "It would seem that I no longer have a place to stay while I'm here."

"I don't see why you're so hesitant to barge in there and take over," Renji remarked sarcastically. "It's not like you to worry about impressions."

She turned her glare his way and replied, "You obviously do not understand the delicacy of the situation."

"He shouldn't be there anyways," Renji ignored her glare, instead stared out into the night sky.

She chuckled softly and teased, "When did you become such a prude?"

"I'm not being a prude," was his indignant reply. "What I don't get," he turned his eyes to hers, "Is that you have no problem with her taking up with that hollow."

"He is not a hollow."

"That hollow still resides within his zanpakuto," Renji reminded her, "Placing a limiter on him will not change that. It's no better than placing a band aide on a mortal wound."

"Oh please," she rolled her eyes in exasperation, "You're being a little extreme. Besides he has control over it, and the Captain Commander would not have let him go if he felt he was a threat."

"Yet he sent us to watch him," Renji stated. "And most likely will keeps tabs on him for the rest of his life."

"So he's being cautious," she pouted.

"The situation is dangerous."

"He loves her," Rangiku reiterated, "I don't think he will jeopardize that by giving into his darker side."

"I can only hope you are right," he stared back out into the early morning sky.

The sun had just begun to paint the sky with beautiful shades of pink and purple. Rangiku stared out at it as well and recalled her conversation with Ulquiorra the previous evening – or at least what she could remember. The honesty in his words caused her to feel absolutely confident that he would always keep Orihime's best interests at heart. Renji may have doubts, but given time she believed he would come around as well.

A smile graced her lips as she took solace in the fact that some good had come out of this struggle with Aizen. They had all lost so much – some more than others. And if Ulquiorra could find redemption, then maybe, just maybe, it would be possible that others could too.

Her eyes scanned the streets below, as the sunlight began to bring the city to life. She was resilient as well as patient. She would wait, a new hope blossoming in her chest. Orihime had believed in Ulquiorra, a man who had once been her enemy, and her belief in him had done miraculous things. Could not the same be true in her case?

Soul Society had never found Gin, but she knew in her heart he was still alive. Someday he would come back to her, and she would find the answers she so desperately needed from him. But for now she would be content with life as it was, knowing that her young friend had found happiness.

She would leave Orihime alone today, but she fully intended to monopolize the girl's time over the next week. After all the teen had the rest of her life to spend with Ulquiorra, a little time with her would not be an inconvenience.

Ulquiorra stood outside the room to the Handicrafts Club waiting for Orihime to finish. Today was the first day in a week that he would be able to spend some time with her without the constant threat of interference from either Lieutenants Masumoto or Abarai. Admittedly the red haired Shinigami pretty much kept to himself, but Masumoto insisted on taking Orihime on shopping trips or out to eat, adamant that he tag along, mainly to pay for the meal, he soon realized. Still with Abarai at Urahara's and Masumoto staying at Orihime's, he found himself growing increasingly frustrated. Now finally they had returned to Soul Society, and at least for now he could enjoy some time with Orihime completely alone.

He was amazed at how quickly life had returned to its normal and routine pace. Keigo had rebounded from the hollow attacked that had set off his whole fight with his hollow and subsequent trial in the Soul Society. The hyperactive teen was just as annoying as usual, but for some reason Ulquiorra found that his antics did not bother him as much as they had before.

Even Arisawa, who still held him in suspicion, had relented, backing away from her usual protective air when it came to Orihime. Though she had cornered him when he had first returned, lecturing him on human relationships, and insisting that if he tried anything too forward with her friend, she would make him a eunuch. He was not worried about her threats, but he still couldn't help but guard his crotch whenever she was around. He still remembered painfully the kick to the groin that she had gotten in during their fight a few months back, and he was not in the mood to relive that pain anytime soon.

As for Ichigo, Chad, and Uryu – the three males had remained rather silent since his return. It would seem that they had come to some sort of unspoken agreement about his presence in the World of the Living. It would seem that Soul Society's verdict had brought some sense of closure. The Winter War was behind them, and more importantly what had happened on top of the Dome of Las Noches could be finally laid to rest.

It almost seemed too good to be true, and the only thing that still left him unsettled was Murciélago. The hollow aspect of his soul had remained quiet since his return. He doubted it was due to the limiter Soul Society had forced upon him. The hollow, he feared may be just biding its time.

Renji had been the one to suggest he spend time in jinzen, the Shinigami method of communication with the spirits within their Zanapkutos. The lieutenant believed that maybe it would work with his hollow, since the creature now resided only within his blade. Ulquiorra decided it was worth a try. Working together with Murciélago would make more sense than the constant struggle to subdue him. And since Soul Society had not forbidden him from engaging hollows in battle, if completely necessary, he knew he would need to be in a sense of harmony with his Zanpakuto if he was to be successful in protecting those he cared about.

As he stared into the classroom Orihime looked up, sensing his presence, and smiled. Waving enthusiastically she called him over. Casually, hands in his pockets, backpack slung over his shoulder, he approached her. Nodding in acknowledgement to Ishida, he then turned to her and asked, "Are you ready to go?"

She gathered up her things and smiled, "Sure I am," and then turning to Uryu asked, "Would you like to walk with us Ishida-kun?"

The teen looked up at him and then smiling politely at Orihime replied, "You two go on ahead. I have other things to do before I leave."

"Alright then," she replied cheerfully as she turned to head towards the door. Once in the hallway she looped her free hand around Ulquiorra's arm and gently laid it upon his arm right above his elbow. "So where would you like to go?"

"Wherever you wish if fine with me," he replied as they walked towards the entrance of the school. Stopping at their lockers they swapped out their shoes and then left for the day.

"We could go to the arcade," she tried, "or maybe karaoke?"

He understood that she was teasing. Her easy going nature had relaxed even more since his return, and he found he enjoyed her games, much more than he had before. In fact he had a completely renewed appreciation for life since he had been given this second chance.

"We could swing in the park," he replied, his own tone light.

"Oh it's much too cold for that," she grew serious. Thinking for a moment she blurted excitedly, "You know what would be really nice? We could go to my place, share the kotatsu, and play some board games."

Board games held no appeal to him, but the close confines, under the blanket of the kotatsu, did stir something within him.

"Arisawa is away at a tournament?" he asked.

"All weekend," she replied sweetly, "Why do you ask?"

"No particular reason," his body relaxed and he thought of just how enjoyable the evening would be without the threat of bodily harm from Tatsuki. "I believe board games would be fine."

"Good then," she squeezed his arm tighter. "My place it is."

They continued on, she talking animatedly about her day, he responding when appropriate. It amazed him that this quiet exchange could appeal to him so much. Still as he thought back over his existence in Hueco Mundo, this had been what he had truly been longing for all the while. Acceptance, pure and simple, as he had found it in her, was what his heart had so desired. Now it was his, and not just from her, but from all her friends. No, not just her friends, but his as well.

A small smile graced his lips and he turned slightly, and leaning over kissed the top of her head with tenderness.

She stopped and looked up at him, "What was that for?"

"I don't know," he replied as he looked into her eyes, "I guess it was just a thank you."

"A thank you?" she was obviously confused.

"For believing in me," he reflected, "And seeing in me what even I failed to recognize."

She stood on her toes, her hand still light on his arm, and kissed his cheek softly. She stepped back and repositioned her backpack. Words were not necessary; her eyes conveyed it all.

Her step was lighter though, and he knew she was happy.

He made her happy.

Warmth spread through him at that realization. Her happiness gave birth to his own, and he realized he would spend the rest of his life seeing that that smile remained on her face.

He now lived for her and her desires. And in that, he found his own fulfilled.

Author's Notes:

Dramatic drum roll ~ It is finally complete.

It only took me two and a half years! But I am glad to finally be done. I want to thank those who encouraged me over the course of this story, and pushed me to not give up on it. Also a big thanks to all who reviewed. I loved reading all your comments.

Special thanks to lilarin, my beta for Changeling, who helped me through this final edit and also encouraged me to finish.

Also *kzira created a beautiful fan art inspired by this story. The link is .com/art/Who-I-Am-286287121 - I felt a renewed sense to finish after that. Thanks for the inspiration.

Once more I appreciate all the response. Please let me know what you thought of the ending.