A/N: Spoilers for the HM arc.
I'll note immediately that this may well be the first chapter of the multi-chapter GrimmUlqui I want to write. I'm not sure yet. The narrative seems, to me, to have a lot of potential - a multi-chapter fic would ultimately follow Grimmjow and Ulquiorra as they attempt to make their own way from Hueco Mundo and form new understandings of Aizen, shinigami, and humans. If I do turn it into a multi-chapter fic, I probably won't be able to update regularly for a couple weeks (at least until after I finish Chaos Theory, my ByaRen multi-chapter) but after that would probably update once a week. So, we'll see. I've been wanting to write a GrimmUlqui forever, so who knows? If this does become a multi-chapter, the rating will change to a big fat M.
This fic takes off essentially after Grimmjow and Ulquiorra go down, individually, and is pretty much written on two key assumptions/plot points: that someone (presumably Unohana) revives Grimmjow after Nnoitra takes him down, and that Orihime does, indeed, revive Ulquiorra after his fight with Ichigo. The story itself focuses, as per the title, on what happens in the aftermath of the HM arc, from a particularly GrimmUlqui perspective.
Warning: this is a T because it's pretty light, but there's some empty-eye-socket-ness going on in here (Ulquiorra can squish one of his own eyes...remember?) and also a dead body. Just sayin'.
Disclaimer: Kubo owns Bleach and all its characters; I just take them out for writing funtimes.
Hope you enjoy!
He felt no pain. And that surprised him, because he could damn well remember pain: the sickening weakness and searing agony of the wounds Kurosaki had inflicted, the dull shock of Nnoitra's zanpakuto at his throat. He'd been, he knew, close to dying, unable to move or fight back or do anything but rail against the indignity of dying slowly, alone in the dirt. Dying a weakling's death. A death reserved for prey.
He forced his blue eyes open.
Above him, the false blue sky of Las Noches stretched into the distance. No sounds disturbed the silence, and the Espada knew instinctively that he was alone here. A glance down his body assured him of what he had already suspected: his injuries had vanished, all of them, as though they'd never been. In the place of deep gashes and sticky blood, only smooth, taut skin remained.
Kurosaki had vanished. Kurosaki had vanished and that strange human woman had vanished with him. For a moment, the Espada wondered if he'd imagined the entire damn thing in some kind of violent wet dream, but a glance at the nearby rubble and debris leftover from their battle reassured him that wasn't so.
Grimmjow came to his feet dazed, comforted only by the feel of Pantera at his side, and glanced around. His eyes fell on a prone figure in the dirt, too far away for him to discern properly who it was. He walked over, curious, his fingers tightening around the hilt of his blade. That you, Kurosaki? Did somebody finally get you, you goddamn bastard?
But the corpse wasn't Kurosaki's. Nnoitra Jiruga had crumpled facedown on the ground, looking like he'd been cleaved nearly in two before he'd fallen. Dark hair puddled around his face, and the smirking arrogance of his features had softened in the stillness that came with death. Grimmjow's eyes widened slightly. What the hell happened? Nnoitra was a good fighter, a dirty fighter, and sneaky as hell. How could Kurosaki have taken him down? Grimmjow rubbed the side of his neck absently as he stared down at the body; the phantom pain from the fifth Espada's underhanded attacked lingered.
With a snarl, he kicked the corpse. Serves you right, you fucker. Without another thought to the matter, he turned away and began a trudge back to his own quarters in hopes of figuring out what the hell was going on. He couldn't even begin to make sense of this.
Why was I spared?
Grimmjow bared his teeth at nothing in frustrated anger as he tried to recall just what the hell had happened. He remembered losing—losing, he realized anew with a stabbing ache, he'd lost to that goddamned shinigami—and he remembered Nnoitra sneaking up from behind, the shock of pain at his throat. He could hardly fault Nnoitra for it—the fifth Espada always been an underhanded, tricky shit—and he hadn't even been angry, really. They were Espada, after all, and this was what they did. The strong devoured the weak and unprepared.
But Kurosaki had protected him. That was Grimmjow's last blurry memory, the sight of that fucking bastard holding Nnoitra's zanpakuto at bay. The thought disgusted Grimmjow, made his fists clench and his stomach twist. I'd rather have died, he realized with astonishing clarity. I'd rather have died than have that goddamn stupid shinigami protect me.
And after that….after that…
He tried to think of what happened next as he walked. He could only recall darkness. Darkness and…and pain, and the soft respectful murmurs of a female voice. He'd recognized the reiatsu of a captain-level shinigami—one that he fought instinctively despite his grave injuries—but had apparently suffered no harm. Why didn't they take me prisoner? Use me as a hostage? Why didn't they just fucking kill me?
Too many questions. Too many questions with too few answers, and Grimmjow was scowling as he walked down quiet and soundless halls until he realized, in a cold shock of awareness, another bizarre truth:
Everyone was gone.
The sixth Espada stopped dead in his tracks, cast his senses out. At the very least he could usually sense Baraggan. The arrogant ass made his presence evident almost constantly on sheer principle, a perpetual demand for the deference he believed he was due. But now Grimmjow could sense nothing. Nothing.
He couldn't sense Aizen, either.
The only thing he could sense, in fact, was a familiar reiatsu that throbbed and fluttered just at the edges of his consciousness. Grimmjow paused, trying to place it, and then gave a short, humorless laugh.
Of couse he'd fucking survive. Grimmjow found that he wasn't altogether displeased by the thought. His obsession with the fourth Espada had occupied a great deal of his time prior to Kurosaki's invasion of Las Noches; he found himself constantly seeking to provoke the green-eyed arrancar, to draw some reaction from him other than calm logic or indifferent disregard. Ulquiorra was...different. Nauseatingly subservient to Aizen, the fourth Espada was nevertheless disinterested in the politics and power plays that were common amongst the elite ten. He held himself apart from all of them, hopelessly alien, and the sight of him--of that pale graceful body canted just so as he walked with his hands in his pockets, of his calm gaze and unsmiling mouth--inspired a disturbing desire that Grimmjow chose to interpret in himself as battle lust. He'd wanted to fight Ulquiorra for as long as he could remember, after all; their brief, too-short squabbles hadn't remotely sated the need.
But right now Grimmjow didn't want to fight. He wanted answers, and so with grim purpose he tracked that faint reiatsu all the way to one of Las Noches' battlements. Surely he isn't the only other Espada left in Hueco Mundo? But that seemed to be the case, and the thought made Grimmjow uneasy as he finally emerged and fixed a pale, slender figure in his view.
As was his wont, the fourth Espada stood calmly, looking out over the vast view of Las Noches. He looked… whole, Grimmjow realized, impeccable, his pale skin unblemished and the clean lines of his ivory uniform unmarred by so much as a speck of dirt. And yet… Grimmjow frowned slightly as a memory tickled at the edge of his awareness. I thought…
"Ulquiorra." His voice fell rough and challenging into the silence.
The fourth Espada glanced at him calmly—a vivid flash of green—then returned his gaze to the view. "Grimmjow."
Grimmjow folded his arms, annoyed as always by the fourth's quiet reticence, his elegant silence punctuated only by necessary speech. "The fuck happened here?" he asked, studying Ulquiorra for any signs of having been in a battle, and the tickle of memory returned again. I thought…I felt you fighting. In the dark haze of semi-consciousness that had followed his own wounds, Grimmjow remembered the feel of a reiatsu that far surpassed his own, that had been every bit as dark and violent and despairing as he'd imagined it would be. He had, even hazily, exulted in it. I know I felt you fighting.
"Dammit," Grimmjow snapped, "you better fucking tell me or I swear I'll beat it out of you." The threat was empty—he knew Ulquiorra's strength as well as anyone—but he voiced it anyway, unable to bear the long silence.
"I can show you," Ulquiorra finally replied, tonelessly, and before Grimmjow could either assent or object the small, slim Espada had reached up with elegant fingers to calmly gouge out his own eye.
"Shit--" Grimmjow muttered, but before he could say anything else Ulquiorra had crushed the eye in his palm. He flung the remnants out easily with a hand, and in the shimmering haze, Grimmjow could see the events the fourth Espada had witnessed during his own battle: Kurosaki Ichigo gone raving batshit mad, unbelievably powerful, a monstrosity among monstrosities. He felt his own eyes widen. "You beat him when he was like that?" Holy fucking shi—
"No," Ulquiorra said calmly, turning to face the other Espada fully. His missing eye, the asymmetrical blankness of the empty socket, made him seem…monstrous, somehow, barbaric. More like a hollow. Grimmjow found the sight oddly reassuring. "He annihilated me."
The calm, emotionless tone with which Ulquiorra uttered the words unnerved Grimmjow. "Bullshit," he muttered. "You're still here."
Silence. Ulquiorra turned away again.
Forget this shit. Grimmjow turned away and began to walk back in the way he'd come; that calm, quiet voice stopped him again. "Ash." He looked back over his shoulder at Ulquiorra; the fourth Espada stood with one hand in his pocket as he gazed over the battlement. He seemed deeply unmoved by the narrative of his own destruction. "He reduced me to ash."
Grimmjow grunted his disbelief. "Then how—"
For the first time a glimmer of emotion showed on that pale, composed face; Ulquiorra's brow drew down, as if in thought; he glanced at Grimmjow with one vivid green eye. "That…woman," he said, simply, and Grimmjow remembered the time that strange human girl with her too-large eyes and her shaking hands had given him his arm back from nothing. Shit, he thought, desperately confused. Shit, fuck, and hell. Since when had humans and shinigami started helping hollow? The thought unnerved him—it upset him. I won't be indebted to anyone. Anyone. Especially not a shinigami. Especially not a human.
Ulquiorra's voice intruded on his thoughts. "The others are gone," he explained, "or dead." He reeled off a list of the fatally wounded in the same indifferent tone with which he gave reports to Aizen and his fellow Espada: Aaroniero, Nnoitra, Zommari, and Szayelaporro. "Aizen," he added, "took the others to the Living World to continue with his plans."
Grimmjow noted the drop in honorific. But before he could ask what Aizen's plans fucking were, a shivering crash intruded on his thoughts; he glanced up and saw a distant column collapse. A sizable area of Las Noches in the distance was in utter ruins, and if he focused enough, he could feel the overwhelming concentration of reiatsu in that area. The hell?
"Yammy," Ulquiorra said distantly. "He's fighting with two shinigami captains and some of the humans." That green eye slid closed, and the small Espada puffed out a small sigh. "Idiot. If he relies only on his strength then he, too, will lose his battle."
Grimmjow barely heeded the last comment, wandering off a few steps as he mused. Dead and gone. Nearly everybody's dead and gone. He felt no grief or sorrow at the thought. He'd never been lonely, like Starrk, never felt the need to create familiar bonds with the other Espada. Yet, for the first time in a very long time, he found himself uncertain. What was there to do, now? Away from Aizen's smug smile and that omnipresent gaze, he was free to return to the life he'd had before. Free to roam the wilds of Hueco Mundo, to devour, to gather his strength, which he knew he would need if he ever intended to face and beat Kurosaki Ichigo again. And he did intend to triumph over Kurosaki Ichigo. He'd show the fucker that he didn't need to be protected. Yet.…
…the thought of his former life no longer appealed in the way it once had. He had evolved, Grimmjow realized bitterly, beyond the most defining elements of his nature: the thought of roaming the wilds of Hueco Mundo and devouring other hollow, the mindlessness of the hunt that had once characterized all his waking hours, now held little charm and little purpose.
More than anything, he found that he was curious, helplessly so: curious to know why shinigami had suddenly started coming to the aid of hollow, why Kurosaki had let him live and what the fuck Kurosaki even was and why that strange human girl had healed Ulquiorra, what the hell Aizen was doing and what had happened to the rest of the Espada. But he didn't know where to begin to chase those answers, or how he might start to understand them. The uncharacteristic uncertainty disturbed him; Grimmjow hissed angrily at nothing and shoved off those concerns for the time being. At the very least I know what I'm not gonna do, and that's sit around and wait for Aizen to come back.
For an interminable time he'd chafed under the reign of that goddamn smug shinigami and his two minions. Grimmjow had nothing if not his pride, but he'd allowed himself to be subjugated because in subjugation rested the promise of survival, of evolution, of advancement. He'd put up with all of it: the goddamn meetings over tea and that too-smooth voice, Ichimaru's grating, insincere smile and Tousen's nauseating self-righteousness. All because he wasn't stupid enough to let himself get killed merely for resisting, because he knew too damn well the dance of hunter and prey. Grimmjow, after all, could be patient when he absolutely had to be. But now...
With Aizen gone, Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez found himself presented with the sudden and dizzying prospect of freedom. And despite whatever else he didn't understand right now, he damn well intended to take advantage of it. In fact--
Ulquiorra walked calmly by the sixth Espada as if he was no longer there, hands still in his pockets as he moved away and down the steps. The sight drew Grimmjow from his thoughts and reminded him of another niggling question; he reached out with a large hand, caught the fourth by one slim shoulder. Ulquiorra halted, glanced at the hand touching him with supreme indifference. "Your reiatsu," Grimmjow noted, "during that fight with Kurosaki—" I know I felt it. Even barely conscious I felt it. And it's like nothing I've ever felt before.
One green eye lifted to gaze back at him, calmly. Grimmjow gave a little shake to that shoulder, suddenly angry at the thought. "Why?" His fist clenched. "Why'd you hide it? You could've taken out Baraggan." You could have fought me. "Why didn't you?" Why the hell are you so hard to understand? What else have you been hiding?
Ulquiorra said nothing, his green eye trained on Grimmjow's face, and then turned and walked away without another word, shrugging off the hand that held him.
Eyes narrowing, Grimmjow followed. "You're going to tell me," he growled. And he meant it, because in this world where suddenly nothing made any damn sense, he found it suddenly vital to solve for himself the mystery of this pale, silent Espada. What in the fuck's the matter with you? You could have taken them all down. Why are you so damn content to be Aizen's lapdog?
Ulquiorra did not respond, walking some distance ahead, and the sixth Espada continued snarling at him from behind. "Are you going to go sit by Aizen-sama's throne and wait for him to come back? Hope he'll tell you that you did a good job guarding the fortress? You're such a damn dog, Ulquiorra." If he could incite the fourth Espada enough, he reasoned, he'd get an answer that meant something worth a damn—and if not, he'd get a fight, which was sometimes even better. Grimmjow was desperate to work off his own confusion and anger, eager for the release.
Something about Ulquiorra had always provoked a frightening hunger in him.
In front of him, finally, Ulquiorra stopped walking. For a heartbeat Grimmjow's hand tightened on Pantera as he realized he'd probably really fucking done it, he'd started a fight, and would have to move fast before he died on his feet. But Ulquiorra didn't turn around or respond, simply stood where he was, and it took Grimmjow a moment to realize that the fourth Espada was gazing intently at his own hand, his fingers curling as though he were holding something fragile and precious in his palm.
"Goddamnit," Grimmjow snapped. Maybe he's just crazy. "What in the hell are you doing?"
And before he could blink, before he could make a sound of surprise, Ulquiorra had launched into sonido and vanished from his view only to reappear before him, bare inches away.
Grimmjow held himself still, unsure of what the strange, silent Espada intended. He reasoned that if Ulquiorra meant to attack him he'd have done so already--the fourth Espada wasn't particularly given to hesitation once he'd committed to a course of action--and so he waited with narrowed blue eyes and tensed muscles to see what would happen. He promised himself that he would release Pantera at the slightest sign of threat.
But no threat came. Ulquiorra simply studied the broad-shouldered, blue-haired Espada with one curious, fathomless green eye. The fourth Espada looked…thoughtful, or perhaps concerned. At this proximity he was close enough for Grimmjow to note tiny details: the messy raven hair that fell forward into his eyes, the smooth contours of the remnant of his mask, the vibrant markings on his cheeks that resembled tears, the soft unsmiling mouth. So fucking strange, Grimmjow thought, with no little admiration.
Ulquiorra's brow knit. He looked dissatisfied with the results of his intent gaze. "Do you have a heart, Grimmjow?"
The question so startled the sixth Espada that for a moment he couldn't think of anything to say. "I—" What the fuck? Irritation welled up in him suddenly, made his next words sharp. "Don't ask goddamn stupid questions." Snidely, he added, "And if you care so much, where's yours?"
Green eyes widened fractionally, as if Ulquiorra was surprised Grimmjow had asked; carefully the fourth Espada held out his empty hand, palm up, and gazed at it intently. "Here."
Grimmjow couldn't find words. He opened his mouth to snarl a response, but the derisive, mocking retort he'd planned simply wouldn't come. Obviously the heart was anywhere but there, and fuck, it was ridiculous for Ulquiorra to give a shit about such a stupid goddamn thing anyway, but...
There was something fragile and alien in the fourth Espada's gaze that Grimmjow had never seen there before, had never seen in any of the Espada. What happened to you, Ulquiorra? He wanted to ask, found himself suddenly desperate to know what the look in that remaining green eye meant, what kind of a discovery would summon this kind of feeling--any kind of feeling--from the coldest and most rational of all of them.
Instead, he focused on that pale still hand upturned before him, and fought off the desire to lick that open palm just to see how the skin tasted, to sink teeth into the vulnerable underside of Ulquiorra's slim wrist. Dark tendrils of desire stirred within him at the thought, and he found himself uncertain of how to interpret them. A lust for flesh, or a lust to fight? He couldn't tell the difference. All Grimmjow knew was that he wanted to anchor himself and the fourth Espada to right now, to sink his fingernails and his teeth into Ulquiorra's pale skin, to touch something real so that the new world around them both didn't seem, suddenly, so goddamn frustrating and confusing.
Aware he hadn't answered the question, and that Ulquiorra still stood silent and calm before him--willing, apparently, to wait as long as it took for a response--Grimmjow reached out. He couldn't help it. Desperate to get away from the desires and concerns ringing in his own head and that new, disturbing softness written on Ulquiorra's delicate features, he traced rough, seeking fingertips around the empty eye socket that, disturbingly, reminded him slightly of Nnoitra Jiruga's hollow hole. "Does it hurt?" he asked, if only to break the silence and draw Ulquiorra's thoughts from this new and disturbing track. "To take your eye out like that?"
"Yes," Ulquiorra answered, but the monotone response gave no indication of his feelings on the matter. He seemed supremely indifferent to the touch. "You did not answer my question. Do you have a heart? Where is it?" He took Grimmjow's hand and examined it intently.
"I don't fucking know," Grimmjow snapped, now desperately uncomfortable. He pulled his hand away only to find, immediately after, that Ulquiorra's own palm was pressed flat against his chest. The fourth Espada's touch was surprisingly warm on bare skin, the graceful fingers of that small hand spread wide. Blue eyes narrowed. "Get your fucking hand off me," Grimmjow growled. But he heard, as soon as he said it, the lack of conviction in his own tone.
"Will I find it," Ulquiorra wondered softly, "inside here?"
A soft, cold chill settled all around Grimmjow. He didn't dare speak. He didn't dare move, aware suddenly that one sharp jab of that hand would impale him. Fuck, he thought desperately, and suddenly chastised himself for taking the fourth Espada too lightly. If he was able to take Kurosaki on, when Kurosaki was like that--
Ulquiorra's lips had parted slightly, his good eye intent on the chest beneath his hand. The fourth Espada looked almost...alive, Grimmjow thought, almost interested. What's going on in his head? He wasn't sure he wanted to know, and the warmth of the hand on his chest--a warmth he hadn't entirely expected to find appealing--was rapidly untangling what little was left of rational thought. Grimmjow wondered if drawing Pantera would worsen the situation.
But the moment passed. Ulquiorra dropped his hand and that calm emptiness settled once more over his features. He turned away, disinterested, and began walking again as though the entire exchange had never occurred.
Annoyed at the bizarre interaction, at Ulquiorra, at himself, Grimmjow snapped, "Where the hell are you going, anyway?"
Ulquiorra halted and looked back over his shoulder. With one delicate gesture, he reached out and touched empty space; a Garganta unzipped in front of him, a gateway on yawning blackness. "I want to know what else exists," he said calmly. "What my eye cannot see."
The hell does that mean? Grimmjow scowled. "Are you going to the Living World?"
"Yes." Ulquiorra took a step forward, then paused and glanced back. "Grimmjow. Are you coming?"
Fuck you. The sixth Espada suddenly didn't know how to respond and so he didn't, his eyes narrowed and glaring, fists clenched. He knew his teeth were bared. What makes you think I would go with you anywhere? I'm Grimmjow fucking Jaegerjaquez. I don't need--
"Grimmjow," Ulquiorra repeated, calmly.
Grimmjow scoffed and turned away. "What? Do you think I'm gonna fucking follow you?" He didn't follow anybody. He was done with that bullshit.
Ulquiorra's green eye lingered on him for long moments, and then the fourth Espada closed his good eye and turned away, blowing out a small sigh. "Mindless trash," he intoned softly, and stepped through the Garganta without another word. The zippered blackness closed behind him, effectively blanketing any sense of his reiatsu, and Grimmjow found himself standing alone.
The sixth Espada gazed angrily at the empty space before him where Ulquiorra had been and did his best to ignore the deafening silence. Briefly he entertained the idea of jumping into the ongoing fight between Yammy and the shinigami, but the prospect held no appeal: the stupid giant bastard was useless in any fight that involved strategy, his vast hulking frame leaving him vulnerable to attack. Besides--Grimmjow spat on the ground--as much as he hated shinigami in general, he didn't have a particular grudge against either of the two captains fighting.
In truth, Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez only had an interest in one particular shinigami at the moment. And yet even the thought of Kurosaki Ichigo seemed very far away right now, meaningless next to all the unanswered questions, next to the fragile life he'd glimpsed in those empty green eyes and the lingering warmth of that small, pale hand on his chest. Gritting his teeth, the feline Espada took one more glance around and then opened his own Garganta.
He reasoned that he wasn't really following Ulquiorra if he went on his own.
Besides, the two of them had a score to settle. Grimmjow had always maintained they were closer in power than their respective numbers allowed, and maybe--once he got to the Living World and figured out what the hell was going on with Aizen and Kurosaki and that strange girl and all the rest of it--he could prove himself against the slim pale Espada once and for all.
The thought satisfied him. One day, Ulquiorra, I'll kill you.
But not just yet.
....not just yet.