The Challenge – Chap. 17

(Originally posted 4/21/12, edited 8/13/12.)


"What?" Orihime stared at Ulquiorra in panic. The pale Espada leaned back so that the harsh fluorescents of the hospital room lit the planes and angles of his face. He continued to study Orihime, still firmly secured to her bed. She attempted to thrash within the restraints, but they were too secure. Without access to her hairpins, she was powerless. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that your actions have served Aizen-sama's plan, as usual." There was a note of long-suffering patience in Ulquiorra's voice. He glanced at the pink-haired Espada, still fiddling with the bank of equipment. "Leave us, Szayel."

The man opened his mouth and for a moment Orihime thought he would protest, but then he apparently thought better of it and merely inclined his head, striding out of the room. The door clicked shut behind him.

"What… what did I do?" Orihime's voice quavered despite her best efforts to hold it steady. The thought of having been under Aizen's control for three full weeks was terrifying. What horrible things could she have done, mindlessly obeying the will of a man with no morals or principles whatsoever? Could she have killed people? Hurt her friends?

Ulquiorra simply gazed at her, his green eyes dispassionate, waiting until she stopped struggling in the bonds. Then he moved to adjust a monitor beside the bed so that it was facing her, and turned it on. "Aizen-sama has ordered that you watch this video," he stated. "It will explain the part you played in his latest plans."

Orihime stared at him, suddenly chilled to the bone. If Aizen was explaining what she had done while under his control, it would no doubt be appalling. Aizen did not explain until it was too late, and he enjoyed watching his victims' horror and pain at his revelations. She realized that was likely why Ulquiorra was remaining in the room, so he could record her reactions and deliver them to Aizen later. But she could not help being curious. Reluctantly, she lifted her eyes to the screen. It appeared to be showing a newscast of some kind.

A young man in shinigami robes and a sleeveless kosode was seated behind a desk, his face serious. "Welcome to Seireitei Communications News, live from the Ninth Division. In our top story today, we bring you continuing coverage of the dramatic prison breakout that took place only a few hours ago at Soul Society's highest security prison, Muken. We go now to Kuna Mashiro, live on scene at Muken. Mashiro, over to you."

The video shifted to a dark, confused nighttime scene, smoke rising from damaged buildings in the background, sirens wailing, and voices shouting incoherently in the distance. In front of the camera, a harsh spotlight trained on her, stood a young girl with short green hair and large hazel eyes with dark circles beneath them. "We're seeing complete chaos here at Muken," she said, a hint of strain in her voice. "In the wake of the sudden attack by unknown assailants on Soul Society, and the death of over a hundred shinigami, including First Division Lieutenant Sasakibe Chojiro, guards had been diverted from Muken last night, leaving the prison with less than a full security complement. Very early this morning, a series of explosions devastated several sections of the prison, followed by the unauthorized entrance of two individuals, tentatively identified as former Espada Ulquiorra Cifer and human Inoue Orihime."

Orihime gasped as the scene shifted and displayed two mug shots of her face and Ulquiorra's side-by-side.

Mashiro brushed a lock of green hair out of her eyes and continued. "In the confusion, Cifer and Inoue were able to slip past or incapacitate the remaining guards and damage most of the security cameras at the prison, but the following surveillance video was recovered and the Ninth Division was able to obtain a copy."

On screen, the grainy video displayed a dark corridor within the prison. Two white-robed figures came running past, and to her horror, Orihime recognized herself, wearing her old Arrancar uniform, trailing Ulquiorra as the Espada fired a Cero at a camera mounted near the ceiling and then ran on. They stopped at a heavily barred door near the end of the corridor, and Orihime saw herself raise her hands as the glowing golden shield of her powers appeared over the lock mechanism of the door. A few seconds later, the door had swung open and the two figures had disappeared within.

There was a flicker onscreen, perhaps a splice in the video indicating the passage of time, and moments later, they reappeared, supporting between them a man dressed all in black. With a sharp intake of breath, Orihime recognized her former captor. Aizen was walking somewhat awkwardly, and the auburn-haired woman onscreen moved closer to him and placed his arm around her shoulders. The brown-haired man paused, and the screen clearly showed his affectionate smile as he looked down at her. Then he slowly and deliberately threaded his fingers through her hair and brought his lips to hers.

Orihime, her heart pounding, watched as the woman onscreen smiled back brilliantly, then tightened her arms around the man as she lifted her face and accepted his kiss eagerly. Beside them, Ulquiorra stood, expressionless as always. Aizen drew her head back and kissed her thoroughly and possessively, his long fingers visible alongside her cheeks as she cleaved to him. Watching, Orihime felt a flush creep up her neck to her face.

The voiceover continued. "Notorious criminal Aizen Sousuke, currently serving a 20,000-year term for betraying the Soul Society, appeared to have been the primary target of Cifer's and Inoue's strike. However, other prisoners throughout Muken are also missing, and a full list of escapees has not yet been released."

The scene changed once again and Mashiro glanced up at the camera. "Captain-Commander Yamamoto Genryuusai, when reached at his office, indicated that Inoue Orihime had once been under suspicion of treason during the so-called Winter War. However, she had previously been cleared. Captain Yamamoto stated that this new evidence indicates that the case should be reopened."

A guard appeared in the corridor, shouting. The image of Ulquiorra calmly lifted a hand and fired a Cero point-blank. The guard fell to the ground, half his torso blown away. Orihime watched with a pang as the woman onscreen stepped over the body without a backward glance, her eyes focused only on the man beside her.

"When the substitute shinigami, Kurosaki Ichigo, was reached for comment, he had this to say after viewing the video," continued the announcer.

Ichigo's familiar face filled the screen, scowling even more ferociously than usual. "That's ridiculous!" he shouted. "Inoue would never do something like that! It must have been Kyouka Suigetsu. That wasn't Inoue… she would never help the bastard who kidnapped her!"

The camera pulled back, showing the green-haired woman holding a microphone. She spoke into it, her voice unruffled. "Kyouka Suigetsu is Aizen Sousuke's zanpakutou, isn't it, that holds the power of illusion?"

"Yes. Yes, of course."

"Well, what would you say if I told you that the video I just showed you has been vetted by at least two shinigami who have never been exposed to Aizen Sousuke's shikai." She held the microphone up to Ichigo's lips.

The orange-haired youth looked distraught. "Well… I don't know." He rallied. "But it can't be Inoue. It must be some trick of Aizen's," he insisted.

The camera zoomed in on his face, and Orihime could clearly see his dismayed expression. She had to turn her head away from the screen, her eyes stinging. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ulquiorra staring at her, no doubt recording all her reactions for Aizen's later viewing pleasure.

Abruptly fierce anger jolted through her and she flung her head back as far as the restraints would allow. She would not cry in front of Ulquiorra, and she would not show weakness to Aizen.

Onscreen, the green-haired shinigami was continuing, "…and it is not known whether Aizen Sousuke's escape and the unknown assailants attacking Soul Society are connected."

Ulquiorra shut off the video and paused, looking at Orihime. "Did that guard survive?" she asked, her voice tight.

His green eyes locked on hers. "Does it matter?" His voice was neutral.

Orihime stared at him in fury. "Of course it does—to him, to his family… and to me."

Ulquiorra held her eyes for a minute longer, then nodded once. "He was found and healed shortly after our escape." His voice remained dispassionate. "Not that it is important, given that we encountered nothing but trash, but there were no deaths during our mission. It was quick and all went according to plan." He paused. "Does it disturb you that Aizen-sama used you in this way to break him out of prison?"

She narrowed her eyes and glared at him. "Disturb me?" she demanded. "Of course I knew you and Aizen would do something despicable once you had me under control. Am I supposed to be surprised or hysterical?" She tightened her lips. "Sorry to disappoint you. Can you get me out of the restraints now?"

The black-haired Espada showed no emotion. "Will you become agitated, try to escape, or attempt to resist my orders?" he asked.

Orihime glared more ferociously. "No."

His eyes searched her face. Satisfied with whatever he saw there, he nodded. "Very well. It is good that you are not emotionally distraught after all. You are even stronger than I remembered." He reached for the straps and began to release them.

Orihime watched as he began to unbind her, concentrating on her anger. She needed her anger now, her fury at being used again, to keep from breaking down. She would not break down. She would not cry. As she turned her head away, the import of the announcer's words finally hit her.

"What is all this about 'unknown assailants' attacking Soul Society?" asked Orihime, her curiosity getting the better of her. Ulquiorra was patiently undoing the straps one by one. He began to break the kidou holding each of them in place.

"A group calling itself 'Vandenreich' has threatened Soul Society," Ulquiorra explained in his toneless voice. "They have stated that Seireitei will be destroyed in five days."

Orihime started, eyes wide. "What? Is this Aizen's doing as well?"

Ulquiorra knelt to reach under the bed to release a long strap that wrapped all the way around Orihime's torso. "They have also invaded Hueco Mundo in Aizen-sama's absence, and he has directed me not to engage them at present. But I am not party to any further information. All I know is that they served as a useful distraction during our prison strike. You will need to speak to Aizen-sama yourself to learn more. He has not given me full details on his plans."

"I… will speak to Aizen-sama?" Orihime's voice cracked and dropped to a whisper. "I thought you said you weren't in contact with him."

"That is true at present." Ulquiorra's voice was muffled as it emerged from beneath the bed. "However, he has informed me that he will be returning to personally collect you shortly."

"Collect me?" Orihime's voice was bitter. "Yes, I was always no more than a tool to him, a thing to be collected and used, wasn't I?"

Ulquiorra straightened as he released the last strap and she finally was able to sit up. He looked her directly in the eye. For once there appeared to be something more than dispassionate conveyance of instructions in his voice. "No, I think you were quite aware you were more than that… until you angered him by destroying his offspring."

Orihime shook her head, frustrated. "I told you, Ulquiorra. Gin was lying. I never did anything to my own child. Loly and Menoly attacked me. They kicked me in the belly several times and I miscarried." She met his deep green gaze, her own eyes wide and determined. "I bled all over the place, and afterwards I couldn't feel any reiatsu from the baby." She remembered it, the raw agony of loss, her frantic and failed attempts to use her own powers, the awful taste in her mouth that didn't go away for weeks.

Ulquiorra had an expression on his face that might have been faint skepticism, and Orihime felt her anger stir again. Fiercely, she held onto it. "It should have been on all the surveillance cameras! Don't you have a record of Loly and Menoly's attack? And besides, where were you, anyway? You were supposed to be guarding me," she said pointedly.

The black-haired Espada sighed. "There was a failure of the surveillance system that afternoon. Your room was blacked out."

Orihime frowned. "Well, that's suspicious, isn't it? Somebody must have arranged that." Her expression turned into an accusing glower. "Maybe Aizen did it himself. He probably sent Loly and Menoly after me with one of his manipulations."

Ulquiorra had begun to look thoughtful. He shook his head. "No, Aizen-sama made it clear to me that he was interested in protecting his child." His eyes lifted to her face. "If this is the truth, you need to inform Aizen-sama. It is not appropriate for one such as him to be fed misinformation."

Orihime swung her legs out of the bed and put her hands on her hips. "That's what I've been telling you from the beginning."

"Although," Ulquiorra remarked, "I would be surprised if he trusted in your words."

She glared at him again and tossed her head. "Well, that's his business if he chooses to believe a lie over the truth. Now, what else did I do under his control? Did I hurt anybody?" She held her breath.

Ulquiorra, his face still uncharacteristically thoughtful, was staring off into the distance. He brought his gaze back to Orihime. "No. I was watching you the entire time. I kept you away from your friends most of the time, and did not allow anyone to harm you, nor to force you into situations your heart would object to. Aizen-sama's primary use for you was for your unique power to help break him out of prison. He allowed me latitude in how I carried out that assignment." His gaze lingered on her face. "Are you relieved?"

She let out her breath. "I am." She wasn't sure why, but she trusted Ulquiorra. "Thank you. I was afraid that he had made me kill someone."

He held her eyes with his. "That would have been more distressing than your role in breaking a condemned prisoner out of jail?"

Orihime exhaled. Then she looked away. Ulquiorra still didn't understand. "Of course."


Orihime sat quietly on the neatly made bed in the windowless, locked room. The walls were a blank, utilitarian gray; the floor white and featureless. There was nothing in the room but a narrow bed and a single dark green plastic chair with a low end table beside it. The only thing that marred the bareness of the walls was a pocket door leading to a tiny bathroom. She had been imprisoned here for three days, with no news from the outside and no contact with anyone other than Ulquiorra, who brought her meals three times a day but refused to give her any information.

She was incredibly bored. There was nothing to do in the tiny room. Sometimes she thought she would claw her throat out with boredom. It was worse than her imprisonment in Las Noches; at least there she had a window and had been allowed to keep her hairpins, so that she could sense reiatsu flows. Here, with her limited perceptions without her fairies, all she could detect was that the walls were lined with sekki-sekki, so that her own reiatsu could not be detected from outside. She supposed she was somewhere in Hueco Mundo, but due to the sekki-sekki, she could not sense spirit particle densities.

She was hungry. The meals were inadequate, as usual. Ulquiorra, like most people, didn't realize how much more food than a normal human she needed to sustain herself, and in her pride she had refrained from asking him for more.

He had warned her not to try to escape, that he could not restrain Szayel if he came upon her wandering in the corridors, but it hardly mattered, since without her powers she could not break the lock on her door.

She paced to one side of the room and then back. All she could do was exercise and sleep, and she had done both until she was thoroughly sick of each. When she complained to Ulquiorra, he had stared at her and remarked that Aizen-sama had had to endure far worse in the bowels of Muken. Finally, he had given her a pad of paper and a pencil, tonelessly ordering her to amuse herself with that.

Restlessly, she picked up the pad from the bedside table and sat on the bed, staring off into space. There were only so many pencil games she could play. Sighing in frustration, she let the tablet slip from her hands and fall to the ground as she slumped back on the bed.

There was an odd echo from the pad's fall. It was repeated, and she sat up suddenly. That was no echo. There were noises from outside, loud, staccato bursts. She realized with a shock it was the sound of explosions. The building shook, and the noise came closer. What was going on? She wished once again for her hairpins; she felt so blind and helpless without her powers.

She heard voices in the hall, angry shouting, and more explosions. Doors were flung open and banged against the wall. The footsteps were coming nearer.

Hastily looking around the tiny room, Orihime got up, tipped the bed on its side, and crouched down behind it. It wouldn't afford her much protection from a kidou blast, but it was better than nothing.

She heard the rattling of her doorknob, and then an incredibly loud bang as someone blasted the lock off the door. She crouched, hardly daring to breathe, as she heard the footsteps of men rushing into the room.

She held her breath, waiting, as footsteps approached her hiding place and paused. She could hear her heart beating so loudly that surely it must have been heard by everyone in the room. She hunched lower and remained still. A motion caught her eye, some type of weapon moving slowly over the top of the bed. She looked up and saw the unsmiling face of an Arrancar with an ugly half-mask, unshaven jaw and buzz cut, cautiously peering down at her.

He lowered his weapon, snickering, as he saw only Orihime crouched behind the bed, unarmed. She was wearing her summer clothes now, having been eager to shed the Arrancar uniform earlier. Now she almost wished for something that would cover her more thoroughly. She hadn't liked the look in the man's eyes as he took in her short shorts and thigh-highs. Suddenly, fashion was a lot less important than survival. But she stared back at the man defiantly, refusing to lower her eyes.

He grinned. "Hey, look what I found here," he called out to his comrades.

Another Arrancar peered over the bed. "Get out from behind there," he ordered her, and slowly, she rose and moved to stand with the wall to her back. He looked her up and down, annoyance in his expression. Orihime's eyes flicked between him and his companions. There were three of them, identically attired in some kind of light brown uniform she did not recognize, all bearing those odd weapons. Their faces were hard and hostile. They were not like the Arrancar she had met during her last trip to Hueco Mundo. With her limited perceptions, she could detect they had some level of spiritual power, but to what degree, she had no idea. Nor did she know whom they served; most likely not Aizen, she suspected. What had happened here while he was in prison? She had not realized how much she had come to depend on her spiritual powers in the months she had possessed them.

Now, blind and helpless, she firmed her lips and faced down the men threatening her, silently enduring their scrutiny.

The one who had found her first still had a brutish grin on his scarred face under the bone mask. "I say we take her with us," he suggested to the other, who seemed to be the leader.

The other man turned away. "No," he said dismissively. "We continue on to our primary objective." He looked back at the first man. "Kill her." He spun on his heels, followed by the third man, and left the room.

The first man scowled, then shrugged. He raised the weapon, pointing it between Orihime's eyes. Frantically, Orihime cast around for some form of defense. Could she call her shield into existence even without her hairpins? Maybe her fairies would respond to her call? She reached out mentally only to once again find nothing; her powers were not accessible to her. The weapon seemed to move in slow motion and she knew she had only seconds to live.