Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach, nor any characters or places in Bleach, but I DO however own the plotline for this story. Poor characters, they get manipulated so much... XD
And an Author's note, because everyone loves them so. (you can skip it I suppose, but really, it's not that long.)
Ok, so a few things to point out so people don't bitch at me. Italics are either stressed/important bits of thought, text, or a term. (Like in almost all literary pieces) However, a good portion of this is in all italics for a while because its one big flashback. So then it's switched when like that- italics are normal stuff, regular text is speech or important words/stuff. Honestly, I doubt you should need to read this though because if you can't figure that out there's a problem ._. When I do something, I do my homework on it and know (for the most part most of the time) exactly what I'm talking about. The little cloth-wrapped-looking diamond pattern on the hilt of a Zanpakutō IS called a tsuka, and the form of sandals that shinigami and Espada wear are called waraji. Unless Wikipedia lies to me. Which, actually, I suppose it could do…. So since Wikipedia is about as reliable as a *insert unreliable thing here because I can't think*, feel more than free to correct me- I'd appreciate it, actually. Uhh, let's see, what else….um, PDA is short for "public display of affection", and is used as common grounds for the administrators of many schools to drag hapless students to detention hall. (In case your school is blessed enough to not have to deal with that for whatever unfathomable reason.) Oh, and while I'm thinking of it, frailer is in fact a word. (According to MS word) Weird, huh? I thought so. ._.
The teacher droned on; the clock on the wall not far away ticked, each twitch of the hand seeming louder than the previous. In this false body, all his senses were dulled to the point of making him feel like he was underwater- his sense of smell was practically nonexistent, his vision was far inferior, and it sounded like someone had tossed a pair of earmuffs on his head; at least, in comparison to his natural form anyways. The more he thought about it, the more absurd it became. Ha. "Natural." As if there was anything even remotely natural about an ex Espada stuck in a gigai, suffering through a high school lesson. As if there was anything natural about an arrancar at all. But apparently she'd seen something worth saving in him- if she hadn't, he doubted he'd be here. His cyan eyes drifted from the taunting clock to the water stained ceiling, reduced to a primitive- no, a human form of entertainment; passing the time by trying to discern any shapes within the flaws.
There was a vague impression of a deformed rabbit there, and that one looked eerily like a pair of eyes. If he remained in this room one second longer he was sure he'd shed that awkward, uncomfortable gigai on the spot and bust out through the window, resurrecting mid-air and soaring far, far away so he could be free of the brain-numbing ramblings of Odysseus's tedious journey. His ebony nail scraped down the desk inaudibly, and he found himself wising he was instead digging his claws into something more alive. God, he couldn't stand it! He just had to get out of this suffocating room with its herd of young people packed inside. At last the bell screeched, causing half the class to jump, and the other half to blearily glare up at it, upset at their sleep being ruined.
His sigh of relief was thinly concealed as he fluidly stood, and swept all his papers into proper order, turning to leave the new form of hell he'd become so recently tossed into. Out of habit, he reached up to brush a pale hand through the coal black hair on the left side of his head- it was odd, the ever present hollow mask remnant not being there. But far more odd than that were the normal clothes he'd been forced into. He wore the school uniform with the top button undone, in a small show of defiance towards the killing of individuality by use of identical required clothing. As he reached the doorway, he took a bracing breath and allowed the current of screaming students to carry him along, before they all realized who they were screaming so loudly right next to- Ulquiorra Shiffer, the newest "creepy dude", as he'd often heard it said, of Karakura high.
Passing through the halls, Ulquiorra soon didn't need to worry about dodging students- they all warily parted before the pale-as-death, emerald eyed "student" as he drifted through the hallways. Their instincts subtly admonished them over the danger the disguised arrancar posed, each one going out of their way to widen the gap between the inhuman student and themselves. Lockers were primly maintained; although a few had recent graffiti the school's janitor hadn't gotten to yet. The other attendants of the school milled about sharing homework, gossip, or spit. He was nothing short of being revolted that these people could do such…things, right in public. It wasn't that he hated humans- far from it; he found them fascinating in a way. But some of them he wanted to beat some sense and decency into.
Teachers squawking "PDA!" gave chase to the free-spirited teens, as they ran laughing, weaving in and among the crowd. This was an everyday occurrence, but lately he'd been finding himself more and more annoyed by it. At last he made it out the front doors of the school, those who were nearest him pressing against complaining classmates in an attempt to put even more distance between them. Ulquiorra regarded one extremely thin, gangly blond pupil that had been easily pushed in way of his path. Locking apathetic eyes with her, she stuttered something that could have been along the lines of "I'm sorry!", or along the lines of "I'm starving!" the words were so incomprehensible. Ulquiorra gave the slightest incline of his head to her politely, before allowing his piercing, commanding gaze to rake across the group who'd pushed her in the first place. The collection of fools withered and shrunk, and once Ulquiorra was satisfied they'd cowered enough, he placed a hand on the shoulder of the terrified girl and gently moved her to the side.
"Excuse me." He said smoothly. The girl almost fainted from his proximity, mind likely still fried over the fact that the creepy, constantly annoyed looking "student" was capable of being even remotely gentle. Ulquiorra tossed a parting comment over his shoulder, more directed at the imbeciles than the victim- "And see that you don't allow anyone to shove you around." Fixing his gaze on the horizon in front of him, he continued his escape from prison. He stalked around to the back of the school, knowing full well nobody would dare follow someone such as himself. He had the soul pill between his teeth before he'd barely turned the corner, feeling the false body slip away as a cocoon around a butterfly might have felt.
The broken helmet returned, along with the dark green tracks down his face. This time he didn't bother to conceal the release of his pent up breath, giving his gigai a sharp nudge in the ribs with the toe of a slightly worn waraji sandal to get it standing so he could leave this place all the faster. Cutting across the grass to the sidewalk, his second body shuffled after him until a sharp look set it to walking evenly and fluidly, an aloof expression upon its face- even while pretending, Ulquiorra had no desire for friends, and if his appearance and mannerism kept them away, then he wouldn't hesitate to go the distance to maintain the cold façade. Or so he told himself.
Autumn leaves coated the streets, turning everything into a burnished, ancient gold color as he strode by, his pace clipped and precise. He'd be dammed if his soldier's instincts ever left him in this gilded cage of a town. He wanted to vomit at the scenery, and the way he was reacting to it- he'd been away from Las Noches far too long, despite it having really not been very long at all. He remembered his coming to be here, his perpetually blank expression taking on a hint of slight anger as he thought of the ridiculously dressed shopkeeper, waving a fan around childishly while stuffing his face with lollipops. Had Ulquiorra possessed any prevalent emotions at the time, he surely would have given a short, hollow laugh, and left. He remembered when, not so long ago, all he'd needed to worry about was keeping that woman alive and protecting Las Noches under the command of Aizen. He was, in all honesty though he'd never admit it to himself or anyone else, still rather shell-shocked. How had he gone from "Keep the tool alive. Protect Las Noches with your life." to "what is an epic hero trait of Odysseus?"?
Not so long ago. His teeth ground against themselves, the very action yet another testament to his stay in the town. Despite being part hollow, arrancar were also part shinigami- a fact that they couldn't cast aside, no matter how much they may have wanted to do so. Spending this much time around humans, despite much of his contact being limited to a curt nod or sharp answer to an unintelligent question, seemed to have dragged out the distorted human (if it could even be called as such at all) side in him. He couldn't demur though- not justifiably anyways. He'd saved that woman the only way he could, and this was his punishment. It wasn't intended to be punishment at all, but he certainly wasn't enjoying his time in this place.
At least he'd gained something from all of this nonsense- an understanding of the "heart", something he'd previously dismissed as nothing more than a mere organ that kept you alive by sending blood through one's body. And indeed that really was all that it did- but what it stood for, the implications behind the term- all of it had busted through the thick wall of his skull and kicked his brain in the tailbone, jerking him to a rather different track of thinking about things.
In the final moments of his "death", as it were, he'd understood everything- every gesture of kindness towards the enemy from Orihime, no matter how insane it might have been to do; he understood it all. He'd become aware of the existence of the heart in the same moment the woman had reached out to him in return to his question they had both become so accustomed to- "Are you afraid of me?" Her response had been akin to a slap in the face with a dead trout- "No." It was no different from all the other times she'd answered with that exact response, he knew, but there was something about it this time. Some sort of connotation he'd been letting slip by until it was almost too late. She had a heart, he had a heart; everyone did. Some people's hearts were just twisted beyond recognition. Aizen was plenty proof enough of that unsettling fact.
As these thoughts created a tempest in a teapot within his mind, it was a small task to keep the stiff, impassive mask in place. Despite the newly discovered emotion of annoyance, none of it ever leaked noticeably through onto his face. Never. Not even when he seated himself beneath the tree in the courtyard each day during lunch, as Ichigo's group of friends insisted on his joining them "only for the day!" With the exception of Ichigo, who seemed to be indifferent to the arrancar rather than outright hostile, the hodgepodge of friends openly encouraged him to be part of the fun. He would always do the same though- regard them with a cool, indifferent expression, before returning his attention to his food, or book, or whatever else he happened to have upon his person, if only to block out their harassing heckling. But as he had come to acknowledge, it had become progressively more difficult to ignore the group, the frequent peals of laughter carrying over to his ears, one in particular beckoning him to be a part of the happiness.
He passed on through another perfectly manicured street, something right out of a painting. How in the hell was it so perfect? His gigai had fallen behind, the mod soul savoring its outdoor freedom as it craned its neck up at a tree, eyes following the path of a falling leaf, lazily drifting earthward. Normally Ulquiorra would have given a sharp snap of fingers to set the mod soul walking appropriately again, but today, despite the vexingly flawless surroundings, he was content. Today was Wednesday, a day he ardently looked forward to all week long for the most elementary of reasons- it was the one day a week it was most satisfying to take wing through the skies. Regular days didn't leave him with enough leisure time to glide through the air before needing to return inside, still itching to feel the pulse of the wind against his wings before he'd had his fill of temporary liberation from this human world.
In Las Noches, he'd never bothered to change into his released form- there had been no emotion of content or satisfaction that could have prompted him to do it. But here when each day at school (the very word making him cringe) he was confined to a false body and monotonous lecture on things he usually already knew of, he desired some form of release- something to look forward to, to keep himself from undertaking his earlier plan of a daring window escape.
A few more turns and at last and the Urahara shop came into his line of sight, and the moment it did he saw it erupt into flames in his mind's eye. Now if only it would happen in reality; that would be far more satisfying than his weekly flight could ever be. But a simple gigai drop off, and then he'd be free to fly as he pleased. The door slid open with a clack, the snoring Urahara on the floor barely twitching. Ulquiorra stepped past him with disgust. Did that man ever do anything worth doing besides sleep? The gigai followed Ulquiorra inside, the only difference being it paused to snicker at the line of drool leaking out the side of Urahara's mouth rather than disdainfully glaring. Ulquiorra gave it the routine instructions he always did on Wednesdays;"You are not to be seen. You may go outside if you can accomplish that requirement. If not, then the consequences will be your own problem. Do whatever else you wish; it is of no significance to me." With that the ex Espada turned on his heel and left the shop. Stepping into the open yard in back of the store, a scuff of dust accompanying his halt, he drew his sword; the intonation and release came as naturally as breathing. "Bind. Murciélago."
He felt his body shift with the change. His previously broken helmet now served its purpose as a completed one, whilst his dark wings lashed out on either side of him, buffeting the air- and someone else- in their wake. A muffled "Mmf", the sound of a person bracing themselves, was heard. Stilling his wings he cut off the small tempest that erupted in their wake, quickly pulled them in against himself as best their length would allow, and brought his eyes up to rest on Inoue Orihime. She too remained in school attire, except that she wore hers appropriately within school requirements, unlike himself. Seeing her here, and now, threw his rhythm off kilter for a moment. To anyone, his expression would have remained as impassive as ever. But from her days as a prisoner in that white washed tower, Orihime knew that the slight centimeter his eyebrow lifted meant he hadn't planned on this. Clearing the shock from her own face, for she hadn't expected to skip right in on the released ex Espada upon using the back door to the shop either, she smiled the bright smile that he had been waiting for- it never failed to appear, even for him; apparently being kidnapped, and threats of being force fed hadn't made even a chink in her armor.
Or rather, not one that he could see anyways- for she too had become more skillful in concealing her emotions. As the glue that bonded her group together, she had to be strong, lest everyone fall apart. Moving forward, she came to a standstill an appropriate speaking distance away from the arrancar, who regarded her with a lack of….. anything really. This bothered her. He did not threaten to force feed her for weeks on end, did not save her as payment for in turn saving him, only to stare at her now without any emotion whatsoever. Purposely tucking a stray length of hair behind her ear in a gesture she knew she often performed unconsciously, she watched him carefully- and there it was; the flash of recognition that flitted across his eyes was unmistakable, despite his attempt to hide it. She gave him props though- anyone else would have definitely been none the wiser.
"Let me guess- Urahara is asleep, snoring and drooling?" She broke the silence with her inquiry, but her voice was pitched to carry and not startle.
"Indeed. A shoe to his face would likely remedy that problem however." Ulquiorra didn't break Orihime's gaze as she cracked a small smile at this, despite it being slightly unexpected. He felt oddly triumphant at getting her to smile and it confounded him, as many things recently had been doing. Apparently the ex Espada had a deeply…deeply buried sense of dark humor somewhere. But it was still there nonetheless.
"Maybe I'll pour some sand in his mouth or something."
It was Ulquiorra's turn to be amused, the corner of his lip twitching up for half a second as he imagined the lazy shopkeeper flailing about, gagging. He'd pay money to see something like that…..hell, why bother paying? He could watch it for free, and do it himself. Tomorrow was already looking a little better with this plan in mind.
"Please do so. The snoring grates on your nerves after a long enough time."
Deciding his flying time had been cut short enough, he reluctantly stepped away from his used-to-be prisoner-turned-rescuer. Berating himself for the reluctance to leave her presence, for he should not care, a single powerful down stroke was all it took for him to become airborne and he spiraled up lazily, thoughts off elsewhere- particularly on Orihime as he saw her stare up after him with a look of amazement on her face, before quickly clearing the expression and heading into the shop. A moment later he dropped a few feet in shock when he heard a distinctive yelp, and Orihime's firm but still kind voice scolding Urahara, and asking him how he possibly stayed in business if he slept through customers all the time. "That had to be her stepping on his face. There is no mistaking it." Allowing himself to hold a barely-there smile for a full second this time around, he swooped and dove, relishing the feeling of the wind biting at his skin and the clouds challenging him to brave their cold, moisture-filled fluffy bodies.
He skirted the edges of them instead, reaching out a hand to collect a palmful of cold water. Drifting from the airspace near the Urahara shop and above the more urban area of Karakura on a weak current of air, he dropped the surprise upon a passing student he knew was equally loved and resented for her fickle nature. Shrieking, she batted at her flawless curls before whipping around and staring up, as though she'd actually be able to see him. He, the arrancar and an ex Espada. He, the one visible to only those with a spiritual pressure of their own. He, who could kill just as easily as he could drop that handful of water. He didn't find it worth his time to await any further reactions from her as he banked sharply and climbed higher, the town a mottling of small-looking houses, cars, people, and anything else one could see from his vantage point. He tore through the sky until the sun fled for a time, and the moon came out, reminiscent of Las Noches in all its pale radiance.
At last nearing morning, and thus the end of his flight, he gave one final swoop and dove at the ground, pulling up sharply and soundlessly landing with his wings extended, knowing this would be the last time he stretched them until the weekend. He hadn't missed the intake of breath as he'd landed, nor did he bother to immediately turn and meet eyes with the person- Orihime was recognizable enough by her scent. It was floral, as expected, but not cringingly so. To balance the flowery half, a warmness like freshly baked bread wove itself through the smell, tying it together in an unexpected harmony. He blinked at the conflicting nature of it- bread and flowers? It shouldn't have worked- and yet, somehow, it did. But a more pressing question was why hadn't he noticed it until now? Perhaps because all close contact with her had been with him being half dead at the time, or in the middle of a life-threatening situation, where a scent was furthest from either of their minds.
Why was she out here at this hour? He passed a glance at her over his shoulder. Her fiery hair stuck up on one side of her head, and her face had press lines from obviously being slept on- she must have fallen asleep in the shop somewhere. Irked at the shopkeeper for not having the proper manners to wake her and send her home, he slowly retracted his wings, purposely making their presence highly obvious; he was waiting for a glimmer of fear to dart across her eyes before she valiantly shoved it down, but to his frustration, the only thing there was a cautious curiosity. Why didn't she fear him? He might be under tight surveillance from Soul Society, and they might have saved each other, but properly placed fear was a life-saving survival instinct. And he was a creature to be feared, whether the one fearing him consciously knew it or not.
But perhaps it was like someone who befriended a tiger- the fear would be there at first, but after a while, it would fade. Until of course that tiger did something to strike up the fear rooted and buried deeply within the person- perhaps an expansive yawn exposing rows of fangs would cause the person to remember WHY this animal should be feared, even if for a moment. Likewise, hiding none of what Ulquiorra truly was from Orihime should have prompted her to remember what he was. But for all Ulquiorra's new insight into the heart, he was still oblivious about Orihime's illogical logic- She didn't fear him because of who he was, not what. He'd see it eventually, she'd promised herself that. She wasn't done getting him to understand his previously swept-under-the-mat concepts yet; not by a long shot.
He pondered the possible reasons for her trust; most feasible was the connection they shared. He'd kept her alive all those weeks while Aizen had still been in existence, despite being under orders and acting rather cruelly about it. In return she had saved him from the brink of death. He wondered, what about her had gotten him so agitated lately? Was it things unsaid between them? But what was there to say? "Thanks for resurrecting me from a little pile of ashes, woman!" "Oh, no problem Ulquiorra, you did save me from being eating by a gelatinous purple blob after all!" Somehow he knew that was about as far away from right as it could get. So what was it? What was it that inspired him to search her gaze a little deeper, pay a little more attention to her, and try to figure her out more completely than the little he already knew of her? He was acutely aware of his heart beating in his chest, the barely faster than normal staccato rhythm appearing to taunt him with the symbolic-ness of it all.
"Ul…Ulquiorra…?" He heard the tentative voice breeze by the edges of his consciousness, it taking him a full few seconds to comprehend the words after they'd been spoken. The woman. His stomach felt like it was about to jump ship…but that wasn't possible- his stomach, among other organs, had been blasted away by the hollow-ified Ichigo. Hadn't they? He went to move his hand to check, only to remember he had no arm now either. But he twitched his fingers, feeling the cool sands of Las Noches sift through them. His eyes opened a slit, a blur of gold-orange attacking his vision and punching straight through into his pounding brain. He felt like he'd been trampled over by Yammy a thousand plus times, and then used as Grimmjow's scratching post. He probably looked like Grimmjow's litter box too. Heh, he was sure Grimmjow would get pissy if he knew Ulquiorra had made that comparison.
"D-don't rush it! You were practically dead… You can't be feeling very pleasant right now…" The voice was quiet despite the edge of hysteria it held in it presumably to keep his head from exploding; the way his brain was clamoring inside his skull was bad enough as it was without any extra noise. But he refused to lay there without knowing the gist of his situation. He HAD died, had he not? Why was he here then? ...Unless Orihime had died too. He shook the though off, bothered by how much it disturbed him. Trying again to move, his vision still only registering vague blurs of color, he felt two warm hands on his shoulders carefully hold him down.
"No. I just fixed your stomach, and the surrounding organs are still recovering. You move, and they'll tear, and I'll have to do it all over again."
"…I cannot see." His voice was rougher and more strained than he'd ever heard it before- even his throat had been scorched by collateral from Ichigo's cero. He felt the hands move slightly with the force of a nod being executed traveling down through them.
"I know. I haven't gotten to your eyes yet. Just… trust me, and be patient. You'll be okay."
He felt her jump a little at his tone, and he softened it a bit.
The question he intended to pose was "Why did you save me?"
Instead, what came out was "What is wrong?"
"Oh... I forced Ichigo to go on without me- Soul Society is in great danger after all. We both knew I'd be fine here. But as I watched him leave, I remembered the look on your face when you'd faded- you'd finally found what a "heart" was, hadn't you? I couldn't sit around and let you die like that after having been given another chance."
Ulquiorra felt his insides healing as Orihime spoke, and he concentrated on both what she was saying and the odd, unnatural warmth reversing the damage he'd sustained, one piece at a time. He felt as it spread from his recently re-assembled stomach, working diligently on the organ, before passing over it again, as though checking for any other injuries it had missed. It traveled up to his throat, working on the burn-damaged tissue there, and he tensed at the vulnerability it invoked. A hand settled on his head, nervously running through his obsidian hair in an attempt to soothe, but as though afraid he'd sever it upon contact. Had events panned out even slightly differently, with him not grasping what a heart truly was in the last moment, he would have likely retaliated against the unfamiliar touch. As it was though, he allowed his eyes to shut and relaxed until the warmth started regenerating them, and secretly enjoyed the hand running through his hair. The last time he'd felt a touch not meant to inflict damage had been before he'd become a hollow, before he'd become a vasto lorde, before he'd become an Espada, and up till now. When he'd been human. As though seen through the murky waters of a long stagnant pond, his memories of that time were disjointed and fuzzy.
He was yanked back to the present as he felt the hands on his shoulder and head begin shaking, and knowing his vision was either healed and was normal again, or at least soon would be, he glanced up at his unpredicted savior. Same as he remembered, her bleach-white clothes were shredded from the two arrancar who'd attacked her during his fight with Ichigo, and as could be expected, a dusting of purple was appearing around her eye where it had been nearly gouged out. The color had drained from her face, and her eyes were alternating between being focused and vacant.
His now even and smooth voice pulled her back from whatever stupor she was in as well, her eyes darting to lock with his. He held the gaze for a moment, confirming what he thought he'd seen- her stormy gray eyes were indeed flicking between conscious and vapid.
He repeated, but with more emphasis.
"…uhhh…yeah…?" The lethargic response prompted Ulquiorra to sit up, wincing as he realized that while any fatal damage had been amended, there were still massive cuts and bruises littering his body which, if not tended to, would quickly become fatal. He turned right in time to see the woman sway unsteadily, before he reached out a hand and placed it on her shoulder, steadying her.
"Woman! What is wrong?"
"Uhhhm, I just…y'know….too much healing and stuff…"The slurred, odd answer was enough of an impetus for Ulquiorra to suck up his pride and scoop Orihime up, one arm under her knees and the other behind her back. This brought her back to reality long enough to be shocked, to weakly question his motives, and to warn him against moving, before he silenced her by placing the back of his marble white hand against her lips.
"Sleep, unless you wish to die. You've used far too much of your spiritual pressure."
All that was managed was an inarticulate string of speech from around his hand.
"Urahara's ship, Karkura town, he'll know what to eat."
"…what? A ship in Karakura town? Someone named Urahara will know what to eat? How is this helpful?" Regardless, Ulquiorra raised a hand to materialize a Garganta, careful not to drop Orihime- any brain damage she must already have that caused her to be so incessantly cheerful shouldn't be made worse. The black abyss yawned open, daring him to tread inside its perilous depths. Scoffing at the fear shinigami had of this passage, he easily stepped inside.
The teeth of the rip in space slammed closed behind him, the light being sucked out of the dimension, leaving the two in total blackness. He started forward, waiting until he innately knew he'd reached the appropriate point at which to exit. He stepped out of the portal, and his Emerald eyes widened at the site. There were decimated buildings, crushed cars, felled light posts, shattered windows, and a torn up street; the pavement sticking up and cracked, crumbling away from the massive blows it had undoubtedly sustained. He inspected the tell tale signs of an arrancar fight- cero marks scorched anything that had been unlucky enough to get caught in the blast, circular indentations in building sides marking sites at which either shinigami or arrancar had been tossed with considerable force into a wall.
This had been a war zone, and the risk was high, because it could still be one. Ulquiorra glanced down at the girl in his arms, and knew that he had to get her to safety no matter what- an un-repaid debt would be an egregious stain on his honor, and he would absolutely refuse to permit it. He flinched as he used sonido to skirt the annihilated battle ground, feeling himself continue to lose what little blood he had left from the wounds Orihime's Sōten Kisshun hadn't been able to fix before she'd passed out.
Grimacing, he reviewed his limited options. He could attempt to shake the life out of the foolish woman, until she woke up and told him more about this ship and eating man who would help. He found he was actually a little unsettled at the thought of causing injury to the woman though, so that idea was swiftly discarded. Alternatively, he could use a chunk of his remaining energy to shoot a cero, drawing any nearby shinigami who'd certainly fetch help. But, he acknowledged, that would also lead to his capture. Despite not missing vital organs anymore he was nowhere near having the ability to fight off multiple captains, never mind do something as simple as walking while holding another person. However….would a fight be necessary at all if he surrendered? The thought left a taste of ash in his mouth, but it was the best option he had out of his limited list.
Being captured aside, Ulquiorra realized it wouldn't matter even if he did escape soul society- Aizen had been destroyed; there was a lack of that particular malignant, twisted spiritual pressure. He had nothing to return to, nor would he have willingly returned to Aizen anyways- he was not a little lost puppy, and knew Aizen was mad with power. So should he move forward? Could he move forward? Freeing a hand to aim the growing cero away from everything, he decided one thing-he had little choice in the matter.
A few leagues away, all heads snapped simultaneously towards the pillar of green- a cero? What awful aim. A desperation move perhaps? Or a diversion? The commander lifted an old, wizened, white brow before his flash step led the charge. All able-bodied division captains and vice captains shared uneasy, confused glances before following, coming to witness a most out-of-place site- A pale, heavily breathing and bleeding arrancar in tattered, bloody, battle eaten clothes holding Orihime Inoue, her looking only slightly better than he. Juushiro Ukitake, captain of the 13th division flashed down, coming to stand before the now ex Espada, regarding him with a calm sort of fascination.
"Are you just going to stand there and stare, fool? Can your eyes not see she is in danger of losing her life? Every second counts."
Ulquiorra commented, trying to remain standing tall despite feeling like his life was coming to an end once more. Hadn't he died enough damn times already? His eyes widened as he abruptly staggered and coughed into his hand, leaving behind a mess of blood, more still running out of his mouth as he panted. That cero had taken much of what he had left to fire off, and coupled with the sonido he'd used to get here while carrying an extra person, the toll had added up to a high cost- robbing him of his regenerative power's ability to hold him together.
Meeting the white haired captain's shocked eyes, Ulquiorra proudly lifted his head and declared; "My debt is repaid." before seeing black holes developing in his vision and falling forward, feeling as Orihime was caught in a shinigami's arms before he hit the fractured pavement. He gave a strained "Rrrh…" As he futilely tried to push himself back to his feet, but the world tilted and spun. "Shit." He mumbled, greeting the blackness he'd become well acquainted to as of late.
"Ughh….. What an awful sound to wake up to…." Ulquiorra's voice came out scratchily again, much to his annoyance. The renowned 4th Espada wasn't supposed to sound like he'd downed a bucket of rusty nails! His face remained blank, or so he hoped anyways, as the memory of his not being an Espada any longer hit him square in the face like a brick; which, now that he thought about it, felt like it had a nicely sized bruise developing across his cheekbone.
"Be glad. It means you haven't kicked the bucket yet." A neutral sounding voice pointed out, a ripping sound accompanying the movements of fabric. She was changing bandages perhaps?
"I shall be "glad" as soon as I know where I am and whether or not my situation is deserving of this "gladness"."
"You're in the 4th division barracks in soul society. We've got multiple captains on stand-by should you attempt anything...less than peaceful. Remain calm, and I don't think anything really bad will happen to you. I'm captain Unohaha's lieutenant Isane, and am here because she's busy tending to your…friend, Inoue. It's fortunate you got her- and yourself- here when you did." The voice informed him.
"…As I surmised, nothing much to be ecstatic about…" The arrancar mumbled flatly.
Ulquiorra was reluctant to open his eyes, remembering the intensity of his previous headache and wondering if this would have a similar effect. But he had to know his surroundings, had to assess the situation. With Aizen no longer alive, these were purely instinctual actions. His cat-like pupils came in contact with a pair of guarded gray-brown eyes, and he flicked them past her probing stare to the facility around him. The room was a pale green and smelled of sterility; bare save for a single white stand in the corner, Murciélago perched atop it as though it had been awaiting his awakening. Apparently it had, for it gave off a pulse of energy Ulquiorra could only loosely associate with being pleased. Isane whipped around, hand on her sword hilt.
"My sword is not capable of attacking of its own volition, nor would I be asinine enough to attempt anything. Relax, shinigami. Now, why am I unable to feel anything very well?"
"…" Removing her hand from the hilt, Isane inspected his expression. She found it to be a pointless venture though, seeing as how the ex Espada wasn't displaying emotion on his face at all anyways.
"That would be the pain medication. Your lung had been punctured by a broken rib at some point that hadn't been fully healed and you strained yourself, opening it up again, and surgery was necessary to patch it up. It should be wearing off soon though, so inform someone when it does- more painkillers will be brought to you then. You'll need them. But once Inoue recovers, she'll be sent in to speed up your healing."
Ulquiorra nodded, barely feeling his matted hair brush his cheek through the numbness. That was fine then, he'd just sleep for a few more hours; recover, and try to make Orihime's task a little easier. He'd quickly discovered that the more taxed Orihime was, the longer it took for her healing to make much of a difference. The Isane lady said something else, but Ulquiorra had already tuned her out and fallen back asleep. He'd deal with everything once he stopped feeling like shit.
The opening of the door leading into his set-aside infirmary room woke him, and he heard the soft steps, muffled by socks, approaching him. He tensed, but then inhaled and relaxed. Only the woman, Orihime. He hissed as he tried to sit up, and found himself shackled to the bed by seki seki rock cuffs. Of course. They did allow for a good deal of freedom of movement, enough to stand and pace, but not to reach out for Murciélago. It was a reasonable precaution though, he thought, running a nail over the bracelets, feeling as they practically repelled him like a magnet would its same polar end. At least he no longer had IV's snaking along the length of his arm. He noted that while his bloodstained hakama remained on, his jacket had been taken...somewhere, leaving him with bandages spanning the length of his chest and wrapping around his torso. He gazed at Murciélago for a moment wanting to reunite with his blade, his hip feeling particularly awkward without its ever-present existence there.
Ulquiorra's musings were brought to a crashing halt when he was- yet again- forced to lay back down by the woman tugging his arm, bringing the rest of him down along with it; his abdominal muscles were still far too shredded to be of much use in holding him up. He glared at her, irises barely distinguishable in the dark room- he'd obviously slept the whole day. He felt a twinge of something he would later know as guilt, as he observed the now darker splash of purple beneath her eye- something he could have and should have prevented. She had changed out of the torn up white outfit given to her in Las Noches, replacing it with the garb of a shinigami. The black robes looked as though they'd been borrowed from a random shinigami's dresser at the last second, being a bit too large for her. Or, had she gotten much thinner from her time in Las Noches? Despite being forced to eat every day by Ulquiorra, he knew that humans worked in odd ways- physical food had been enough to keep her alive for a time, but she had been steadily whittled away, ultimately, by starvation of the "love" she often spoke of, which he now understood.
"…Don't push me, woman." Ulquiorra mumbled, not placing as much sting as he typically would have behind his words.
"You're still really hurt and you're trying to get up and go again. I'll sit on you if I have to, to keep you still long enough to heal." Orihime notified him. Scarily enough, she sounded completely serious about following through with the threat too.
To say Ulquiorra was bewildered was a bit of an understatement. His eyes had widened and his lips were slightly parted as he stared at Orihime who'd turned to summon her Sōten Kisshun. Had she just… had she just told him what to do? While he was still trying to wrap his mind around what she'd said, the shield of gold-orange materialized over him. The warmth returned, and he felt his muscles slowly knitting themselves back together. The peaceful silence was broken by Orihime sighing disapprovingly as she noted the state of his hair and hollow mask. Limp with dirt and blood, the half helmet caked with other unpleasant things, it made the Espada appear that much frailer. Orihime didn't like that on him- he was someone who was meant to look powerful, no matter the situation. He didn't bother to turn his head but merely watched from the corner of a jade green eye as he saw the woman stand, and offer a short "I'll be right back." Before padding quietly across the room and slipping out the door.
He watched her go, and thought of Hueco Mundo- did he miss it? Why was he suddenly using verbs like miss? The pale sands and barren, skeletal quartz trees flashed in his mind, and he thought that no, he had no true desire to return to that place. It's not like it was the most interesting of places, and there was nothing left for him to bother with there anymore anyways. Orihime's shield had wavered and faded with the distance she'd put between her object of healing and herself, but he knew she was returning as the shield picked up its brightness again.
Her voice resonated softly from behind him now, and the request caught him quite off guard-"Would you mind if I washed all that crap out of your hair? It just….doesn't look right." He debated with himself for a moment, but eventually conceded with the logic that if the woman was willing to make a move to clean his hair herself, it must have been pretty awful. "Fine. How do you intend to accomplish this?" Orihime's mind stumbled, but she collected herself before the perceptive arrancar could notice; Or so she thought- she missed Ulquiorra's half smirk-half smile as she glanced at the bowl of warm water, shampoo, conditioner, and stack of towels she'd snagged from the nearby bathroom. She found that he had a valid point- it's not like this was like one of the salons in the mortal world. Sucking up her embarrassment, she stuttered out a shaky "Here." before tapping him lightly on the back, prompting him to sit up and pass an inquiring gaze behind him at her.
Laying one of the towels across his shoulders, she hesitantly grabbed his hand and guided it up to where the two ends of the towel met in front of his neck. "Hold it there." Her brain took full opportunity to acknowledge that, although currently wrapped in bandages, he had a nice build. He wasn't muscular to the point of being Kenpachi, but he wasn't sharply angular like Ikkaku. Giving herself a mental face slap, she grabbed another one of the towels, folded it a few times, and placed it under his neck so his hair was free to be washed in the bowl while he leaned back and relaxed. She was about to run the water through his matted hair, until she had to stop herself from doing a face-palm; his helmet. How in the hell had she forgotten about that? Her mental tirade at herself was interrupted when she heard a flat, humorless chuckle rumble from the arrancar's chest. Orihime was struck dumb at the fact that Ulquiorra COULD laugh, so when he next spoke her brain had to sprint to catch back up.
"It comes off, you know." Ulquiorra noted to her, as though he'd just said it had rained yesterday, or he'd gone to the store.
"It…does?" Orihime said vaguely, still stuck over the fact the ex Espada had laughed, if only a little.
There was another flat chuckle. "how do you think I washed my own hair with this thing? It comes off, but having it off is…uncomfortable."
"Uncomfortable as in painful?" Orihime queried.
"….Not…exactly. More like walking through a crowded place without a pair of pants- it makes us feel very…vulnerable."
The word "vulnerable" was a fight to get out, but Ulquiorra managed it. Orihime watched as he seemed to retreat into some part of his mind for an instant, then come back to himself. "Give it a tug now- it should come off." Orihime did so and carefully slid the helmet piece off, as though afraid it would shatter like glass. "Woman, you could hurl that at the floor with all your might, and the floor would be more damaged. It isn't about to break from being picked up." Nodding, Orihime set the hollow mask piece on the floor, still careful despite the ex Espada's assurances of its solidity. She watched as his hand twitched uncomfortably, as though itching to come up and feel the empty half of his head out of habit.
Now that Orihime was able to get at all of his hair without a bone carapace covering half of it, she gently worked the warm water through the worst of the tangles and clumps, loosening whatever stuff happened to be caked in it. Flipping the top off the bottle of shampoo with a quiet "pop" the clean, soapy scent of the mixture seeped almost lazily into the air. Ulquiorra thanked luck that Orihime hadn't grabbed a fruitily scented shampoo- he'd have died a little on the inside if he had to be subjugated to smelling like cherries or strawberries or something akin to that for even a little while. Working it into a lather, she rubbed the shampoo through his ebony hair with more care than she'd ever used when washing hair in her life.
Ulquiorra had been surprised at Orihime's boldness around someone as unsettling as he knew he was, but was far more surprised at himself. Normally he'd be having a serious problem with someone touching him at all, never mind allowing them to remove his mask. But something inside him told him to stop being so thick for once- it was time he moved past all of that, time he let go of all those old little cruxes. He could still feel the leftover warmth from the woman's hands over his, and wondered if it were a side-effect of the painkillers- the feeling of her hand over his should have vanished by now. He let Orihime have her way with him, leading up to something which made him immensely glad he had- having her nails gently scrub his scalp and free all the grime that had dried in his hair was nothing short of indescribable. He'd approached this situation thinking that it would feel no different from when he washed his own hair, uncomfortable and unremarkable in any way, but- yet again- this woman had proven him completely wrong.
Orihime smiled as she felt the tenseness in Ulquiorra steadily trickle away, and his breathing slow a bit. She took a moment to etch this into her mind- this was probably the most relaxed she'd ever seen the arrancar in all her months of being in his presence. The hand that had been repetitively twitching and drumming its fingers nervously at not being able to complete its typical, habitual movement was still as she heard his breath push out and pull in deeply. She knew he hadn't fallen asleep, and also that he was likely fighting it despite being undoubtedly drop-dead tired. Combing the conditioner through his now clean hair, she made a botched attempt at stifling a yawn. Orihime stood and left the room briefly to refill the bowl with clean water, and upon reentering found Ulquiorra's two emerald eyes insistently tracking her path across the room back to him.
A bit unsettled by his intensity, she busied herself with rinsing the remaining conditioner out of his hair. Satisfied it was all out, she used the last towel to put in place of his pillow. It wasn't like soul society had hair dryers or anything, so Ulquiorra was going to have to deal with letting his hair air-dry for a bit. Glancing at the hollow mask remnant that she'd set aside earlier, Orihime proceeded to clean the filth from the grooves of the half helmet carefully. The mess came off easily, as though the mask itself had a problem with being dirty too. Setting it back down, still being careful with it by nature, she dumped all the bottles into the bowl and pushed them aside. That thorn in her side gone, Orihime concentrated on her Sōten Kisshun, eyes closing as her gentle power hummed through her.
Ulquiorra's eyes wandered back to her face after a time. In that locked tower where they'd kept her, the only expressions he'd ever seen on her features had been fear or despair. Her face wasn't anguished at the moment, like it had been in Las Noches- rather, she gave off the visage of being content, or even a little pleased. It was a complete flip from the utter hopelessness he'd been accustomed to. Still, as he followed the slight furrow in her slender brow as she concentrated, he knew something still nagged at her, and it bugged him that in spite of both of them being alive she remained upset over something.
"Woman. We are both alive, your friends have survived, and the war is over. What can you possibly sad for?" His voice broke the long silence, snapping Orihime out of her preoccupation, the shield flickering for an instant.
"What can I… I don't believe you. I save your ass from being a pile of soot, and you have to go and almost kill yourself again to get me here." She seemed to be somewhat startled at her little outburst, and taking back control of her emotions, her voice softened a bit. "I…I don't want anyone to get hurt anymore, especially not because of me. And because you brought me here, now you're…" Orihime motioned to Murciélago across the room, his injuries, and the bindings connected to the bed all in one generalized swish of her hand."I don't think they'll kill you. But I don't know what they have in store for you Ulquiorra, and it's my fault you're trapped here at all. I-I'm sorry."
With this said Orihime turned and sat, leaning her weight against the bed side as her abilities continued to alleviate the worst of the ex Espada's wounds. Ulquiorra fixed his eyes on the moon outside the window, so different from Hueco Mundo's moon in the fact that it was surrounded by stars, not hanging there in solitude. It wasn't alone, and as Ulquiorra breathed out, he saw that neither was he.
"…Thank you for saving me."
So? How was it? My first chapter of my first story, but I don't think I bombed it...right? Share your thoughts please, I'm open and eager for criticism :3
[And by the way, I'll probably resubmit this once I've got all the chapters and whole story written out and edited and all nice and pretty and stuff. (the completed thing will probably be...mmm...I'll say a bit more than 20,000 words? Unless you want me to submit the next chapter now, I could just edit that...)]