Disclaimer: Sing it if you know the words…
Listening to: Mumford and Sons – 'Little Lionman'.
So, somewhere along the line, I realised that the sequel I had planned worked better as two stories. Which I am now writing simultaneously. Any and all theories advanced that involve me being a masochist will now be treated with the utmost respect and genuine consideration.
Anyway, the two stories will be linked, but it won't be necessary to read both (lazy readers, rejoice!). This particular one will be an assortment of one-shots from a variety of points of view in the lead up to war (and, eventually, during). The other one will focus on my favourite crack pairing (Nemu and Jyuushiro. Yes, I know I'm mad. It's fun, isn't it?). These stories are still part of a series, but if you can't be bothered reading the others and want to get some back-story just PM me and I'll fill you in Sparknotes style.
Right… I think I've covered everything. Now – on with the show!
It had been two and a half weeks.
Actually, if you wished to get technical, it had been seventeen days, three hours and twenty-eight minutes. Not that he was counting. Or obsessing. But this was a situation that was somewhat difficult to ignore so, Ulquiorra reasoned, he could hardly be expected to remain oblivious to it.
In a perfect world, he would be a true hollow without feeling and wouldn't care about what was happening. Of course, in a perfect world, Aizen wouldn't be a traitor and Ulquiorra might never have evolved. Then again, in a really perfect world, would there even be hollows in the first place? Or death?
Sitting on the dusty rooftop, Ulquiorra glared at the setting sun and decided that, given how well everything else in his life was going at the moment, perhaps now was not the time to get philosophical. It was time to focus on the basic fact – that seventeen days, three hours and twenty-eight minutes ago Captain Neliel Tu Oderschvank of the Gotei Thirteen's Seventh Division had stopped speaking to him.
Ulquiorra was used to people not speaking to him. There were still many in the Soul Society who did not trust him, even though he had sworn allegiance to them and had served for over a year as lieutenant of the Seventh without a single blemish on his record. He could understand that. After all, he had been their enemy for far longer when he had served under Sousuke Aizen, and he could appreciate that it was difficult to trust an old foe, no matter how much of a new leaf they had overturned. In all honesty, this did not bother him – he was hardly a social butterfly by any stretch of the imagination.
The thing was, while he was used to people not speaking to him, he was just not used to Neliel being one of them.
This would have been awkward enough had she been merely his captain, but Neliel had been considerably more than that from the moment they met on the battlefield. She was his partner, his companion, his lover and, on the odd occasion, his sanity. And it now appeared that he had fucked that up rather spectacularly.
To be fair, it was his fault. During the last mission to Hueco Mundo, when they had learned to they were once again to be thrown into war, Ulquiorra had been given a unique opportunity to serve as a double agent. Yammy and Wonderweiss, the new ringleaders furthering Aizen's ideas, had made it clear that they believed his loyalty had never wavered and he had been sure to give the impression that he was a victim of circumstance, rather than a threat. His bluff had worked, and Ulquiorra was now in position to feed information to the Soul Society. The only problem was, he'd gone over Neliel's head in order to secure the Captain-Commander's support for the idea, and hadn't had the chance to explain himself to her before he was forced to disclose his role at a strategy meeting. Neliel… had not reacted well.
Shifting positions amid the loose roofing tiles, Ulquiorra's frown deepened as he remembered the way her typically bright and open face had become an expressionless mask as she walked away from him. He'd given her time to cool down, only to come home to the quarters they shared to see his belongings neatly stacked outside the door. Ulquiorra had taken the hint and had resorted to his emergency plan, one he only brought out in the direst of circumstances – finding Grimmjow and drinking himself stupid.
He'd woken up with a nauseous feeling that was only partly the fault of alcohol, and absolutely no idea how to fix things with Neliel. The next few weeks had been hell. He was forced to watch Neliel limp around the office in grim silence (she'd been wounded in the course of that last mission, and it was slow to heal), ignoring his presence. At least he'd been offered a place to stay – Captain Soi Fon had allowed him the chance to move into her residence on the grounds that she was hardly there anymore (Grimmjow had looked far too smug as his captain made that announcement) – but his new abode lacked the warmth and charm of his home with Neliel.
It didn't help that all the cat plushies strewn about had freaked him out a little. Or that someone had dyed them all bright blue, which was definitely not Ulquiorra's favourite colour.
He desperately wanted to end this silence and come back home to her but, having racked his brains for some time now, he was no closer to finding a way to make that a possibility than he had been seventeen days, three hours and twenty – no, thirty-one minutes ago.
A sudden shift in the air behind him alerted him to someone else's presence, just as some loose roofing tiles gave way and the owner of said presence slipped slightly, a familiar voice uttering a string of curses as its owner righted herself. A thin smile appeared on Ulquiorra's face as he registered the identity of the shinigami who had joined him.
His third seat, a tall, pale young woman with a seemingly endless well of sarcasm to draw from, flopped down next to Ulquiorra, glaring at him balefully. "Hello to you, too. You couldn't give a girl a warning about the freaken roof, or were you too busy moping up a storm?"
"I am not - " He caught her eye, and broke off. Shaking his head, he muttered, "Maybe I was just hoping you'd fall off and save me from having this conversation."
Her eyes wide and innocent, Maiko fixed a curious look at him. "What conversation, oh fearless lieutenant of mine?"
Fixing her with a wry look, Ulquiorra replied, "You are completely unable to stop yourself from getting involved in other people's relationships. It was only a matter of time before you decided to 'assist' Neliel and I once more. Is Rangiku involved too?"
"Nah, Ran's got her own problems right now. And I only interfere with yours because the office is hella awkward when you two are at odds with one another. I really don't want 'Seventh Division Official Go-Between' to become my job title, so it's in my interest to keep you both communicating." Grinning wolfishly, she raised an eyebrow. "Plus, I do all my best living vicariously, seeing as you won't share Nel. Unless you've changed your - "
"No." Ulquiorra's reply came with the swiftness of routine.
Leaning back, she rested her head on her arms and watched the darkening sky. "Well, a girl can dream."
"Yes, but must you really tell me all about it the next morning?" Ulquiorra growled darkly, "That is my partner you're envisioning in a lewd fashion."
She chuckled. "You can't restrain my dreams."
He snorted. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't just shove you off the roof."
"So violent", Maiko gave a disappointed sigh, "Clearly Grimmjow has rubbed off on you - " She broke off, catching sight of his expression, and winced. "Too far?"
Running a hand through her messy dark hair, she straightened up. "Sorry. But if you want a reason to keep me here, how about 'Nel actually talks to me, seeing as I'm Switzerland'. I have inside information."
A quizzical expression on his face, Ulquiorra turned to her. "Switzerland?"
"I'm full of chocolate, Nazi money and, most importantly, neutrality!"
"Ah. Of course. Foolish of me not to guess."
"You know, I can tell when you're patronizing me."
"So you are good for something. I've been labouring under the impression that your only skills were wisecracking and neglecting your paperwork", Ulquiorra remarked dryly. "I am delighted to be proven incorrect in that assessment."
"Do you want advice or not?"
Weighing his options, Ulquiorra decided the indignity of this, combined with the mocking he would take from Maiko, would be infinitely worth it if he came closer to getting Neliel to speak with him. "Very well, what would you recommend?"
Looking pensive, Maiko tilted her head to one side. "First things first. Why do you think she's mad at you?"
Ulquiorra blinked. "That much was obvious, I thought. Neliel is upset because I nominated myself for a dangerous mission and didn't tell her."
"Less the first, and more the second", Maiko pointed out. "Nel is used to danger in the line of duty. That she can deal with. Keeping it from her, though…" Breaking off, the young woman shook her head. "Given how painfully honest you are with people, it had to hurt that you lied to her, even if it was just by omission."
Scrambling to defend himself, Ulquiorra opened his mouth, only to be silenced as she continued. "However, you never do anything without a good reason, so I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt." Maiko fixed him with a stare that made him wish he had the official definition of the word 'gimlet' on hand. "Unless, of course, you have no excuse, in which case - "
"I had just cause for my actions", Ulquiorra broke in hurriedly. "I think even you could acquit me."
She relaxed, a faint smile crossing her face. "Yeah, I think I can guess. You know, sometimes you're just too nice for your own good."
Eyes narrowed, Ulquiorra frowned, looking her over before replying slowly, "I suspect you've actually deduced my reasoning correctly. You know, sometimes you're just too perceptive for your own good."
A mischievous grin on her face, Maiko carefully got up and brushed herself off. "Touché."
"I believe advice was offered", he stated bluntly. "Or is that as elusive as your completed paperwork?"
She snorted. "Why I'm nice to you, I'll never know. Look, if your reason for concealing this is what I think it is, you need to talk to her. She'll understand."
"I appreciate that, but I've been trying to talk to her for quite some time", Ulquiorra sighed. "I can't corner her in the office, and she changed the locks back - " He broke off, realising what he'd been about to say.
"Back home?" Maiko easily completed the sentence.
He glared up at her. "You do realise that things were infinitely simpler when I just didn't have feelings."
With a wry smile, his companion replied, "Simpler isn't better." Pausing, she fished something out of her pocket, before carelessly tossing it toward him. He caught it out of reflex, not even looking at the object as he palmed it. She continued. "Filched it from her desk today, so it's the current one. Use it well." She aimed one last grin at him, before launching herself off the roof and flash-stepping away.
Watching her progress until she disappeared from sight, Ulquiorra shook his head, sinking back into despondency. Clenching his fists, he was reminded of Maiko's gift and opened his hand to see what she had given him.
A polished silver key lay in his hand.
The corner of his lips twitched as he realised exactly what he was holding. Picking himself up, he tucked the key into his pocket and set off, determined to end this stalemate.
To say that Nel was not a happy woman right now would be roughly the equivalent of saying that Kenpachi Zaraki sometimes liked to fight.
It was a gross understatement of fact.
Oh sure, she'd been able to act as though she was functioning while she did her job. She knew that everyone she worked with could tell she wasn't herself, but she'd be damned if she broke down in front of them, no matter how many pitying looks Maiko cast in her direction. Once she got home, however, her behaviour was another story. The second she stepped through the door and no longer had to face her colleagues' scrutiny, it was almost as if she were a puppet whose strings were abruptly cut. She would collapse onto her bed, too drained even to cry, and just stare at the wall until sleep overcame her. Her house didn't feel like home anymore, all the warmth apparently leaving with Ulquiorra, which struck her as odd given that he was certainly not what anyone would describe as warm.
Nothing seemed to make sense. She wanted to ask Ulquiorra what the hell he'd been thinking, not going to her first and at least letting her know what was going through his head, but it still hurt too much to see him, let alone hear his voice. It didn't seem logical, that the man she loved, who loved her back and lacked even the inclination to lie for the sake of being tactful, would have done so over something of this magnitude. She felt like she was missing something, but since talking to him was the only way of getting at this last piece of the puzzle, she was going to continue missing that same something, at least until she felt able to look him in the eye without sobbing.
Given how she felt at the moment, that could be some time away.
Curling up into a ball, she shut her eyes and clutched her blankets closer, wishing that all the sheets didn't still smell like he did. She wanted him back here, especially given how dangerous his new mission was, but until she could meet him and talk like a rational arrancar, this was… Well, not better, precisely. Preferable? A more acceptable alternative? Living hell? If only –
Nel bolted upright in her bed, as she felt a spiritual presence she knew as well as her own arrive at her door. Paling rapidly, she tried to slow her breathing.
I don't have to face him. It's not like he can get in now that the lock is different. I'll just stay here and block my ears so I won't hear him in the extremely unlikely event that he decides to yell and –
She froze, as she heard the sound of the lock tumblers shifting and falling back into place, a sound that was rapidly followed by the door opening and footsteps coming her way. Trying not to hyperventilate, she looked up at the dark doorway and into the pair of bright green eyes that watched her, one thought clear in her head.
I'm going to kill Maiko.
She couldn't suppress a shiver. She'd missed that deep, husky voice almost as much as she'd missed its owner. That, however, was not the point. Holding her blankets with slightly shaking hands, she finally got her vocal chords working.
"You're not supposed to be here."
She winced as she spoke, realising as the words came out that she sounded like a petulant child. Ulquiorra stepped in through the door, coming to rest in a patch of moonlight her open window admitted. The cold, white light threw his features into sharp relief, and Nel couldn't help but admire him as he stood there, regarding her coolly.
"You do realise that this was originally my quarters, do you not? As such, I think we can hardly use that argument."
Nel flinched. "If you want me gone - "
"That is not what I meant", he cut in abruptly, before sighing and settling himself down at the foot of the bed. "That is the last thing I want. I'm not here to drive you out, I just need to talk to you."
Not trusting her voice, Nel nodded.
Silence stretched unbroken, as the two stared at one another, Ulquiorra looking as though he were trying to find the words and Neliel looking as though she were trying to find the nearest available exit. Finally, he spoke.
"I didn't want the choice to be yours."
She blinked, waiting for him to continue, before muttering, "Oh, well that clarifies things beautifully. I feel so much more enlightened now, so - "
"I went over your head to the General because I didn't want to force you to decide between my safety and that of the Gotei Thirteen", he broke in, his eyes fixed on her almost willing her to understand. "Because I knew that you'd do the right thing. I knew that you'd agree with me, and that I would be in this position anyway. And I knew that if I were to die as a result of my activities as a double agent, which is a very real risk, you'd never forgive yourself for having given that order."
He was staring at the floor now, but she still couldn't take her eyes off him as she inhaled sharply. Her mind racing, she blurted out the first thing that came into her head. "I might have been selfish."
He looked back up at her, a bittersweet smile on his face. "You wouldn't. I know you, Neliel. Better than I know myself, sometimes. So I took the choice out of your hands. I planned to tell you before it was announced, but I ran out of time. So I'm sorry that you found out that way." Ulquiorra paused, the smile fading. "But I'm not sorry for what I did. I only wanted to spare you further pain, in case - "
"Don't." Nel hugged her blankets even closer, shaking her head fiercely. "Don't even say it. I can't - " Breathing deeply, she began again. "I'm your captain. I give you dangerous orders all the time."
"Not like this", he replied. "We're on the brink of war, a war that we may very likely lose. Everything has changed." Gazing at her beseechingly, he tried again. "Neliel, I'm sorry that I hurt you, I just wanted - "
Whatever Ulquiorra had been about to say was cut off, as he suddenly found his arms full of his captain, strands of her green hair that had escaped from under her bone mask tickling his nose and her delicate hands curled in his shirt. A strained and muffled voice reached his ears.
"Next time you decide to get all noble on me, at least let me know why, so I don't throw you out of the house and spend the next seventeen days, three hours and however sodding many minutes it's been moping. Are we clear?"
Ulquiorra chuckled. "You counted too?"
The admission in that question was enough to break the last of Nel's barriers, as she fought not to sob into his shirt. "Oh Kami, I missed you. So much."
His arms curling around her even tighter, he whispered, "And I you, Neliel. We'll survive this." Staring down at the woman in his arms he repeated, with conviction, "We'll survive. We have to. I'll make damn sure of that."
A watery grin on her face, Nel looked up at him. "Well, when you put it like that, I have to believe you, don't I?"
"Precisely", he replied, brushing her bangs back from her face.
They stayed locked in that embrace as the minutes went by, until Ulquiorra drew back, the beginnings of a grin on his face as he held up a small, silver object.
"So… does this mean I get to keep the key?"
I accept Visa, Master Card, Diner's Club, American Express and review-love, kthnx.
Guess which one's my favourite? :p