I last updated this in November 2012? Sheesh! I feel like the world's slowest author. Sorry for keeping you all waiting but somehow I wasn't getting the correct mood for this fic. I hope you all enjoy this chapter.
Beta Cerice Belle
Grimmjow's eyes shot open. His head throbbed with a vengeance and his throat felt like he had eaten sand. He sat up on his bed only to feel like the entire world tilt on its axis. He scrunched his eyes shut and inhaled deeply. When he opened them, the world had steadied itself. Slowly he snaked an arm to the bed stand, reached for the pitcher of water and drank a gulp directly from it. To his dismay, it wasn't water that met his tongue but foul tasting wine. His first instinct was to spit it out but he desperately needed some liquid so he swallowed it.
Almost instantly he felt that his stomach churned in protest wanting to expunge its contents. Slamming the pitcher back on the bed stand, he clutched his head in his hand. He took a few deep, steadying breaths, willing his head to stop pounding. He sat motionless for a few moments, waiting for the nausea to pass. When certain that he wouldn't throw up his dinner, Grimmjow lifted his still heavy head from his hands, his eyes widened upon realizing that he was clutching a chunk of his hair in his hands. Very slowly he lifted his hand and ran through his hair, only to find another handful of blue colored strands entangled in his fingers.
A dull, steady and persistent throbbing behind his eyes had worsened Ulquiorra's already bad mood. He was supposedly breaking his fast but the food in front of him looked decidedly unappetizing. He pushed it around in his plate for a bit before abandoning all pretenses of eating and sent the plate away. He was contemplating whether or not to take a short nap when an usher announced the arrival of an informer. Suppressing a groan of dissatisfaction, Ulquiorra asked the informer to be sent in.
Within moments a small, portly man walked into Ulquiorra's privy chamber. The man bowed deeply and stayed that way till Ulquiorra asked him to stand up.
"What information do you have?"
The informant bowed yet again, "My majesty, I have news of Nelliel Tu Odelswank."
His previous discomfort forgotten, he leaned forward, "Tell me."
"Sire, my sources tell me that she is in Hueco Mundo, she hasn't left the borders."
Ulquiorra nodded, "Thank you. You'll be paid handsomely for your services."
"My Lord is very kind," the man said and bowed out.
Ulquiorra sat back with a frown on his face. He felt a fleeting sense of satisfaction from the fact that his hunch was correct but quickly dismissed his elation. It was too little and too late. He needed to find Nelliel and he had to do it now. He summoned a guard and asked him to call Grimmjow.
Tia Hallibel was happy. Her tour to the neighboring kingdom had been successful. Though it had taken some coaxing on her part, but she had finally gotten the king to agree to lend support to Hueco Mundo, in case of invasion. He had however clearly stated that should a rebellion break out in the country, which wasn't entirely out of the realm of possibility, he wouldn't interfere. The king was of the firm belief that internal matters of a kingdom should be solved internally. Personally Tia agreed.
Having informed the king of her arrival and success of the mission, she was now slowly making her way to the chamber. This travel had reinforced the fact that she was not as young as she used to be. Her body was sore from the endless bumps and jerks had taken a toll on her lower back and she was looking forward to taking a bath and loosening her taut muscles. A familiar and not wholly welcome voice halted her in her path.
"Lady Hallibel, I didn't know you were coming back," Barragan Louisenbairn said in a hoarse voice.
"Lord Barragan," she said stiffly. She had never really like the ostentatious old man who had a penchant for bragging.
"Did you hear what happened while you were gone?" he queried with a barely concealed glee.
Tia's lips thinned slightly at what she considered to be an inappropriate show of emotion from a man his age, "No, but I am assuming you will tell me."
Lord Barragan either didn't understand Tia's annoyance or didn't care. He continued resolutely, "The two rebels escaped the prison."
Tia was perturbed. Las Noches had been impregnable, so the escape of the rebels was definitely disconcerting but she could see no cause for the Lord's exuberance. "Why do I get the feeling that there is more to the story?"
"Yes, you guessed correctly," he nodded, his smile stretching from ear to ear, "They were aided by someone in the escape."
Tia frowned, "And who would that be?"
His eyes twinkled with an unholy delight as he said, "Nelliel Tu Odelshwank."
Tia stared at the old man standing in front of her. Her green eyes widened and narrowed alternatively, first in disbelief and then in suspicion. "You're lying."
Barragan guffawed, "Am I? Why don't you go and ask Starrk then? You trust him more than me after all."
"That is exactly what I will do," Tia said firmly, "I don't think Nelliel will betray Hueco Mundo."
Barragan scoffed, "Once a traitor, always a traitor."
"Please excuse me Lord Barragan," Tia replied in clipped tones, "I will be taking your leave now."
Without waiting for a confirmation from the old man, Tia marched towards Lord Starrk's chambers, the tiredness from the journey forgotten.
The setting Sun had painted the sky in resplendent colors. A little swirl of dirt arose from the hooves of the cows that had pulled the cart carrying Uryuu and Nel to the ruins old temple. Uryuu jumped down from the cart and asked Nel to follow suit. Descending from the cart she was a little perplexed to find the cart standing at the edge of a forest.
"This is near the eastern border of Hueco Mundo," Nel looked at Uryuu. The archer was staring straight at the forest with a somber expression.
"The ruins lie deep within this forest," he said slowly, "We'll have to walk the rest of the way. Are you up to it?"
"Yes," she turned to look at the cart, "Maybe we should let the cows go and set the cart to fire, in case someone has followed us."
Uryuu nodded and set to work. After unloading their meager possessions, he undid the knots and freed the cows from the cart. Meanwhile Nel collected some dry leaves and created a small fire. Using a few branches as torches, the duo set the cart aflame. They did not wait for the cart to be burnt to ashes and stepped into the forest together.
They walked a small distance before Uryuu looked skywards and voiced his concern, "It will be dark soon and we will be in the forest. Maybe we shouldn't go in too deep just yet."
Nel nodded, "I agree. While I am accustomed to darkness, my joints are still stiff and my fighting skills are rustic. I would be of little or no aid should a wild animal attack us in the darkness."
The two of them walked some distance in silence, till it had become difficult to move owing to the lack of light. They had chanced upon a small clearing and decided to make that their resting spot. They worked quickly to start a fire that would both give light and keep the wild animals away. The two sat staring at the fire, each lost in their own thought.
"It's so odd," Nel spoke out of the blue.
Uryuu looked up, "What is?"
"I'm the former General of the army that caused the massacre of the Quincy race, and you, the last Quincy alive," she paused for a breath, "And now, we're both fleeing. How ironic?"
"Fleeing?" Uryuu's jaw hardened, "I'd prefer if you didn't call it that. I left because Ichigo insisted, swearing by our friendship. I'm not a coward that I would flee."
Nel smiled a little, "I didn't think you looked away from the truth."
"What?" Uryuu's eyes sparkled with latent fury.
"Uryuu," Nel said in a calm voice, "Sometimes it is wiser to run than to be stubborn and face certain death. There is no harm in a little caution. Even the mightiest of mountains have to give way for the river, but does that lessen the mountain's glory in any way? Standing proud, erect and resolute isn't always the solution."
Uryuu's expression changed as he stared at her in silent amazement.
"What?" Nel asked.
"You… you just reminded me of my father," he replied haltingly, "He would say something similar."
"He once showed me a tree that had broken in a storm," Uryuu had a faraway look on his face, "He had pointed at it and said 'You know Son, this tree broke because it didn't bend in front of a stronger adversary.' Then pointing at another tree that was intact he said, 'Notice how supple and flexible its trunk is? That tree knew that it wouldn't be able to withstand the storm and so, using its supple trunk, it bent and lived to see another day'."
Nel nodded, "He was a wise man."
Uryuu stayed silent for a while before he asked, "Why did you do it, Nelliel?"
"Annihilate the Quincies," he said slowly, "What did my kin ever do to you?"
She looked away, "Whatever I say will sound like an excuse to you. The fact is, I have the blood of your people on my hands and no amount of explanation can wipe that off."
Uryuu looked at her, "But you don't seem like a person who would order genocide in cold blood. I had thought that you were a cruel heartless woman but… you're different. You're not how I imagined you would be."
Nel bowed her head, "I'm honored that you hold me in such high regard."
"Don't be mistaken," the softness from his voice was gone, "I have still not forgotten my pledge of killing you or to die trying."
Nel smiled, "I would hope not. You don't seem like the man who would give up his pledge so easily."
Without answering her, Uryuu stood up and walked to the edge of the clearing, indicating that the conversation was over. Silently Nel made a vow that she would bring Uryuu Ishida face-to- face with the person who was responsible for the massacre of the Quincies, or die trying.
Ukitake's brows furrowed in displeasure, Rangiku's eyes were narrowed, Yumichika's expression remained neutral but his disapproval was evident from his rigid posture. Toshiro was muttering fiercely under his breath and Kira stood in the corner with his head bowed. Renji and Ikkaku hadn't reacted to the news in one way or the other. Kenpachi however didn't mince his words.
"You let them go!" he roared, "How could you let them go? That woman General was supposed to be our prisoner!"
"She sought shelter with us," Ichigo cut in coolly, "She was a refugee, not a prisoner."
Kenpachi brushed aside Ichigo's words, "Doesn't matter! What is important is that you let her go. For the first time we had a leverage and you let her slip right through your fingers. I wonder if you are becoming soft?"
Ichigo clenched his jaw at the insult, "I haven't let her slip through my fingers. Uryuu is with her in case you didn't notice. But I have to ask, did you really think of her as leverage? I had the distinct impression that most people thought of her as a scapegoat, only waiting for a chance to dig their nails in."
Kenpachi was about to launch into a tirade when Ukitake put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. "I agree with Zaraki," the white haired man said in a calmer voice, "You shouldn't have let her go without consulting us."
There were a few murmurs of approval which Ukitake ignored and continued, "But knowing you, I know there must be a valid reason for you to do what you did."
"You're right, I do have a valid reason," Ichigo conceded.
"Can you tell us?"
Ichigo shook his head, "No, I am sorry."
"Why not?" Toshiro queried.
"The reason I cannot tell you is the same reason I had to let Uryuu and Nelliel go."
Kenpachi bristled, "What kind of an explanation is that?"
"The only kind that I can give," Ichigo answered levelly, "Take it or leave it."
Although it was evident that no one really liked what Ichigo was saying, they sensed that they wouldn't get any further information from him. One after another the rebels left, glaring at him as they went. Ichigo stood resolute. Kira, Renji and Ikkaku lingered on. Once he was sure that the other rebels were out of earshot, Renji limped over Ichigo.
"What do you think Renji?" Ichigo questioned, his voice reflecting uncertainty for the first time, "Did I do something wrong by sending her away?"
"Honestly speaking," he started, "I don't know how I feel. Nelliel helped me out of that prison, so I felt a kind of reluctant kinship towards her. I somehow couldn't rest thinking that she might be harmed somehow. Now that she is gone, I feel I can rest easy."
Ikkaku muttered a curse, "That wound on your leg has made you soft. I was in the prison too and she helped me out as well. But I never felt any 'kinship' or any other ship towards her."
Renji scowled at Ikkaku, "I don't expect a buffoon like you to know about human relations."
"Who is a buffoon, you ass?"
"Who are you calling an ass, you bald man?" Renji riled up comically.
"Bald man!" Ikkaku screamed, shaking a fist at Renji, "Who are you calling bald you crazy cockatoo?"
A slow smile crept on Ichigo's face realizing that his friends were putting up a show to take his melancholy away. He stepped forward and slapped the backs of the two warmly. As the two returned the gesture, none of them noticed Kira slip out noiselessly.
An unprecedented lethargy had encompassed Grimmjow. He sat slumped on his chair, his head lying on the backrest. A blessed darkness encompassed him and verily he surrendered to it. His peace was interrupted by a hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently. He opened his eyes but he could barely make out the figure of a man through a haze that seemed to permeate everything that surrounded him. He blinked several times to clear the fog in front of him. His vision focused and he looked at the guard with a mix of annoyance, query and confusion.
"Lord," the guard said handing him a terracotta block.
Grimmjow leapt up and asked the guard to show the man in. Within moments a man draped in a black hooded cloak stepped in. Grimmjow quickly dismissed the guard and asked the cloaked man to take a seat. Once they were alone, Kira removed the hood.
"What news have you brought?" Grimmjow asked eagerly.
Kira narrowed his eyes, "Are you keeping well my lord? You look sick."
"I am just having a bad day," he said brushing the query off, "You tell me what you have to say."
Kira stayed momentarily silent before speaking, "I have news of Nelliel Tu Odelshwank."
The blue haired lord grinned widely, "That is brilliant. Where is she?"
"She was with the rebels," Kira answered slowly.
"That is fantastic news," Grimmjow said slapping his thigh excitedly, "Wait, you said was?"
"Yes, was. She's now absconding," Kira informed, "With Uryuu Ishida."
Grimmjow frowned, "What? Why would that Quincy take her? Is she a prisoner of his?"
Kira considered the question for a moment, "I cannot say for sure, but from what I could gather, Ichigo let the two of them leave. And from what he said, it didn't seem like he had taken her as a prisoner, but I will not rule out the possibility either."
Grimmjow nodded, pondering on Kira's words, "Why didn't you inform me about Nelliel's whereabouts earlier? She was with the rebels for a while."
"I wasn't aware of it," Kira said without the slightest bit of change in his expression, "A select few rebels were aware of her presence."
Although annoyed by the seeming indifference by his spy, Grimmjow was thrilled with the news. He tried to pay Kira handsomely but the man refused. "I cannot carry so much money with me to the slums, I will be caught."
Grimmjow nodded, "Anything else?"
"No my lord, that is all."
The lord dismissed the spy with a gesture of his hand. Kira had given him a reason to rejoice after a long while. He wasn't going to let his health dampen his spirits.
Verdant eyes bored into the sapphire ones which stared back unblinkingly. Oddly Ulquiorra found himself concentrating on the rather tired looking face of the man whom, he realized with a jolt of surprise, he had begun to think of as a friend.
"You look tired," the king commented.
Grimmjow gave a thin smile, "Didn't get much sleep last night."
You too? Ulquiorra thought, aloud he said, "Why would the rebels house her?"
The taller man stood up and walked over to the window to stare at the setting sun, "That is something I have been wondering about ever since I heard the news. It doesn't make much sense unless," he paused for a couple of heartbeats, "the charges against her were true."
Ulquiorra's brows knitted together, "You think that she really supplied weapons to the rebels?"
Grimmjow clicked in irritation, "That's the problem your majesty, I don't know what to think. Admittedly I'm not nearly as familiar with her as you are sir, but from what I know of her, I cannot picture her as a traitor. But I can't dismiss the evidence that is practically staring at me. If we assume that Nelliel was indeed traitor then everything is bloody smooth, and we know everyone's motives. But the problem is it is too darn easy, way too easy for me to be completely convinced. Nelliel is anything but a fool."
Ulquiorra stood up and joined the lord by the window, "I agree. But this brings us back to the original question, if she hadn't supplied them with weapons, why would the rebels house her?"
Grimmjow rubbed a hand over his face, "I don't know. I feel like I am going around in circles."
Ulquiorra nodded in understanding, "There is another, more urgent and related question that needs answering. Where have the rebels hidden her?"
"And why did Uryuu Ishida, of all people, take her with himself?"
Ulquiorra stared at the bright red horizon in silence for a while before adding, "I also want to know, what is she thinking?"
Orihime was staring at her reflection as her maids worked on her hair, setting it in an elaborate pattern. Having been jolted out of her limbo, Orihime had made a pledge that she would try and mend her marriage. This was her life and she wouldn't let it be marred by one traumatic incident. She would be the bigger person, move past her wounded ego and be the one to make amends. Besides she had two very important bits of news to give Ulquiorra. She had chosen sky-blue silk gown that cinched at the waist, with a bodice of silver lace and beads. Her skirt fell in layers and trained down to the floor majestically.
She had her maids set her hair in an intricate whorl of braids, studding them with small pearls and sapphire studs. She wore a silver and sapphire necklace, coupled with matching earrings and bracelet. She put her dainty feet in her silken slippers, dabbing her pulse points with fragrant oil. Finally when her maids were done, she stood up and examined herself. Satisfied she nodded, lifted her chin in an inadvertent act of boosting her confidence.
With steady, deliberate steps she walked out of her chamber and to her husband's. Upon reaching it, she was led into his privy chamber by the usher. Ulquiorra sat on his chair, his fingers joined in a steeple, touching his lower lip, his face devoid of any expression. But Orihime knew, that was Ulquiorra's defense mechanism. He didn't show emotions, not because he didn't feel them but because he felt them too strongly. He wasn't cold hearted as most people believed; he merely guarded himself more strongly and fiercely.
Despite knowing this, Orihime couldn't help but feel a little disappointed at his complete lack of reaction. A stab of fear followed on the heels as the memories from the morning when her world crashed around her came rushing in. She took a deep breath and firmly banished all the thoughts from her mind.
"My lord," she said in a stiff, controlled voice, "May I have a seat?"
Ulquiorra nodded and in a surprisingly gentle voice said, "This is your house my lady, you can sit wherever you desire."
She slowly settled on a chair facing Ulquiorra, feeling a myriad of emotions. Up until then, she hadn't felt anything and all of a sudden, facing the handsome man, she was overwhelmed. She cleared her throat, "I have a couple of things that I needed to talk to you about."
Ulquiorra nodded, urging her to continue.
"I bled this morning," she said in a low but firm voice betraying none of the turmoil she was experiencing and feeling inordinately proud of her self-control.
Confusion, comprehension and relief flickered through his face in quick succession before it slipped back to his usual non-expression. His eyes however were much softer now and reflected his sincerity, "Thank you."
She frowned, "For what?"
"For telling me this. If a child had been born out of that…," he trailed off, unable to complete the statement.
Orihime nodded. She too shared the sentiment. "I have something else to say," she ventured after an awkward and extended period of silence.
"I want to join the court."