A/N: I am terribly sorry for this overdue update, but your reviews did indeed keep this chapter alive in my head, so I thoroughly hope you aren't too disappointed by this. Twice the file had been deleted, but before the second time I was smart enough to save it on a USB and didn't lose everything like the first. As for myself, I'm just about this close to ripping everything apart, but I've grown fond of this fic, so I won't give up. The chapter may be a little unorganized due to my impatience... Now that I've got that out of my chest, please carry on.
Chapter XI: Silence Broken in a Gamble
Orihime gently took away her hand to look at his face carefully, her eyes slightly wide and shining at finally hearing his soft voice for the first time since they had met. Her soft gentle smile never left her lips as she sat back on her knees in front of him. His eyes were watching her carefully, critically even, as if one wrong move could mean the difference between life and death, possibly her life, but she simply guessed that he was only uncertain of this new development. His voice was certainly shaky and terribly quiet, it was almost hard to catch, so it was only natural for him to be this way. Her expression never faltered as she moved her gaze slowly about him. The entire left half of the white material was ripped away from his face almost fully exposing his nose and lips. Without even thinking, she brushed her fingertips over them noting the difference in color between the upper and bottom lip only when he flinched did she realize her actions and immediately pulled away with a whisper of apology and resumed with looking more into his features. Black inky hair draped over the side of his face where the jagged remains of the helmet lined them and long bangs hung over at the center where it disappeared into the right half underneath the familiar bone. Despite its messy sight, the strands were like silk through her fingers as she caressed the hair at the center of his face. Pure curiosity and fascination dictated her actions, but she had to admit that he was not exactly bad looking, quite the opposite, yet it was his eyes that attracted her greatly.
"That's a very nice name, Ulquiorra-kun." she whispered, brushing the pad of her thumb over a single sorrowful looking eyebrow despite the blankness of his hard stare; he didn't seem to mind her touch much as it was becoming a regular occurrence.
She could see that those streaks carved in the mask were no decoration, a thin green slightly touched with a bit of blue trail marked his pale skin from the rim of his eye to the bottom of his jaw. The male hollow blinked suddenly at her comment and silently questioned the added 'kun' to his name when before she had used a more formal tone with the title of 'Hollow', but didn't think much of it the next moment. His thoughts were more directed to the new feeling of space; his hearing at the left side of his head seemed to enhance considerably as well as his breathing. The air is incredibly thin here... he thought absently. Though he was granted speech, if one would listen very carefully they would hear his voice slightly muffled by the right half of the mask's obstruction. His musings of the subtle changes to his person was broken back to reality when the girl finally took away her hand to place it on her lap.
A single pale hand cautiously moved to gingerly touch his lips where hers had been momentarily. He never had a purpose to use them nor his tongue to form words; body language, if not his reiatsu, was enough to get the main points across to those unfortunate enough to encounter him in Hueco Mundo. Some practice with his speech was definitely in order, however, for one like him such a thing would take no time to master.
"Oh, you do know my name, right?" she pointed a finger to her chest indicating herself. Ulquiorra dropped his hand to rest over folded black wings, his eyes narrowed in a look of annoyance hearing that childish question slip throgh her lips. He was no fool and he was very tempted to call her such were it not for those gleaming grey eyes staring at him with such hope. He didn't care really, but he wondered if the way her name sounded in his mind would be the same with his voice and aside from that it would help to better control his tongue. A light sigh escaped him.
"Inoue...Ori...hime..." he needed more work than he thought. His mouth was dry and uncomfortable, he may as well have no voice, but then that would defeat the purpose of destroying half his mask. She clapped her hands once together in apparent happiness that continued to baffle him, even those annoying lizards were peeking at him through freshly bit holes in the bag, chirping in a loud chatter of what sounded like awe.
"And them?" she suddenly questioned, gesturing to the reptiles that stared so intently at him. One by one she picked them up out of the bag and into her arms and then he would answer, stretching it even to the shinigami behind her.
"Well it's to be expected for him to know a thing or two about a few of us after staying here for well over a month." Urahara approached the two with his fan tucked into his sleeves. "Now I'm sure it doesn't quite feel like so, but that is quite some time to keep a hollow here in my care. It's actually quite surprising that no one's found out yet, especially for one of your level." his smile was still plastered on his face as he chuckled lightly, yet his eyes held a serious edge to them, shadowed by his unkept hair and hat as if to intimidate him. The hollow only stared at him with disinterest. "If you would be so kind, Ulquiorra-san, I would like to speak with you and Orihime more comfortably." he pointed above him towards the shop above the training ground. Out of instinct he looked to Orihime whose smile minimized to a small worried frown before shooting him an assuring smile once more before standing up to follow the man and woman. The reptiles jumped back inside the bag slung over Orihime's shoulder in a string-like fashion while Ulquiorra stalled behind.
He stared at his hands and unfurled his wings, bringing himself to stand as well and follow. He broke that last physical barrier he had and still there remained nothing of great importance. He was on his feet now, caught the swift glance shot at him from over the girl's shoulder as he began to walk without real thought of mind. The others around him; the red headed shinigami, a man standing with the two strange children and even those weird stuffed animals were watching him curiously as if this was the first time they've met. It was then that he remembered his purpose from the glares of suspicion; that sole title etched deep within his very existance that made even the greatest warriors fall into darkness. His eyes stayed fixed onto the girl's back, not even acknowleging the wary red eyes peeking from the bag. His mouth pulled a tight thin line of indifference as an image of brightly colored eyes mirrored his own.
"It's quiet tonight." Ichigo said as he sat on the rooftop of a building void of light and people. Standing behind him was none other than Rukia who stared at the bright light of the crescent moon looming high with the stars. She only offered him a hum of agreement at his comment.
"It's starting to become like this every night. You would think with things as they are, we should be relieved that there is not much activity..." she allowed herself a light smile, but it was weak and fake, only for show.
"No kidding, but it certainly doesn't feel like the other boring patrol times."
"Is it because of Orihime's pet?" she asked when there was really no need. The answer was as obvious as his hair color and he could only let out a seemingly tired sigh at the question. "I do not understand her reasoning with keeping him here. I suppose it's natural to express gratitude for safety," she said with a bitter look. "However, there is no reason for him to stay here."
"I agree, but all the times I've asked her she would just stop and stare at him when he was off staring at something else or being pestered by those lizards." A long silence stretched between them as the wind quietly blew through their hair.
"It will only be a matter of time before someone finds out." the male finally said softly. "I doubt they'd let him go with a warning with him being a vasto lorde and all."
"It's odd though..." Rukia mumbled. The substitute glanced an inquisitive look her way as she brought a finger to nearly touch her chin in thought. "I've seen countless hollows with various sorts of masks linked on their face, but I've never seen nor heard of a mask quite like his. There was always fangs or teeth; a mouth hungering for more souls, but his is completely covered. There's no opening at all and even those lizards can feel some sort of hunger judging from the watermelon you gave them." at that she laughed at him and he only scoffed at her.
"Hollows eat and eat to fill up the void in their chest, but he does nothing. Urahara said that that is the highest point a hollow could become; a vasto lorde, but if that's all what else is there after that?" Ichigo asked and Rukia remained silent, unable to offer even a thought to an acceptable answer.
"What purpose is there for him if there is no more hunger and reason?"
They sat and stood there on top of the abandoned building wondering and waiting for an answer that would not come. It wasn't until a very simple suggestion escaped the Kuchiki's fair lips. "We could just ask him." and Ichigo just stared dumbly at her, unable to decide whether the words she spoke were something else or completely stupid.
"And how exactly would he tell us?" he grumbled, effectively killing the short girl's small enthusiasm of figuring out the odd situation they found their friend in and it would not just be her, but everyone around her as well. "I wonder though..." he said suddenly, the tone of his voice drawing the other to stare curiously at him as he raised his head to look away from the other shops and houses. "Is there really such a thing as a good hearted hollow?" he wondered out loud, the image of Orihime's brother staring at them with so much pain and sorrow from trying with all his might to be free from the other murderous hollows that have already succumbed to their fate, if it would keep his precious little sister alive and well.
"Ichigo?" she whispered.
"I just can't think of it as that way. What do you think?" he asked her, but all she could do was answer with a simple "I don't know". She answered this because being hollow is just too painful to comprehend, an insane loneliness accompianied with only hunger for what was lost and what can never be regained. He only hummed at her as another soft gust of wind howled softly to its next destination with the night clouds. The shinigami stood and continued to dash through the town once more to check for any hollows that they knew would not be here. Neither said a word to the other, too lost in their own thoughts for what they would most likely see when they returned to the shop.
When they did come back it was well over midnight and they could not contain their surprise at seeing Orihime sitting at the small table with Ulquiorra beside her. Across from them was Urahara and Yoruichi, Renji was sitting against the wall in casual clothing with his arms crossed over his chest and a grave expression framed onto his face as he was sitting beside the bag full of lizards.
However, the fact that shocked them the most was the sight of bright green eyes staring at them with an empty expression and black draping over white like paint to a blank canvas; a stain. There was no longer so much white.
"Urahara, what happened?" Rukia asked as the teen beside her pointed weakly to Ulquiorra's half exposed face. "His face..."
The shopkeeper cleared his throat as Yoruichi beckoned them to take a seat to which they soundlessly did. "Yes I am well aware of the slight changes to his look, but hey! I think he looks better don't ya think, Orihime-chan?" he asked playfully to which the girl only laughed cheerfully at his words. He smiled approvingly as he turned towards the subject of their talk. "Now if you would be so kind, please introduce yourself to these fine guests of mine, Hollow-san." he waved a hand in their direction to the two confused shinigami, Ulquiorra followed it automatically and stared at them in silence as they awaited his words with hidden anticipation, well for the female it was hidden.
He seemed to find this odd, was his name really of much importance to these people? Could they not just say who he was? He didn't have to talk constantly like those around him, it just wasn't necessary; talking with Orihime and the two in front of them was enough. Initializing a conversation was just not in his nature unlike the girl beside him. He let out a sigh and opened his mouth to speak once more.
"My name is...Ulquiorra." he was getting better; at least he wasn't breaking the words apart and was simply getting more breath and moisture in his mouth as seen with a glass of water set in front of him. His voice came out a little smoother and was by nature low and deep. Ichigo continued to stare at him in wonder while Rukia took the opportunity to respond.
"I am glad that we at least know who you are, Ulquiorra and I take that you already know us by name, correct?" she was answered with a subtle nod of his head.
"You guys can relax about interrogating the poor soul, Yoruichi and myself have done that quite enough. Almost lost his voice from trying to answer all of them." he chuckled, waving a hand to dispel of any questions hovering over their lips. " I think I almost made him yell..." he smirked at him while Orihime laughed lightly. "Really, it was like talking to a broken record."
"What was it he kept saying?"
"'That information is none of your business' and phrases that basically meant the same thing or somewhere along those lines."
Orihime huffed a silent sigh, earning a swift glance from the dark haired woman sitting across from her with a bowl of rice in her hands. "What we were discussing was about where Ulquiorra-kun could stay." she said softly knowing that a simple weak smile would do nothing. She knew Kurosaki would not take it kindly and it was evident in the tone of his voice.
"What'a wrong with the underground training area?" he asked lowly.
"Oh there's nothing wrong with it at all. It's just we're not gaining much helpful information on our hollow friend here aside from training you. He doesn't seem to want to interact with any of us, not even Ururu, and he only seems to become more animated when Orihime comes to play. Get what I mean?"
"No, I don't."
"I hope you don't mean what I think you mean." Rukia said lowly, her expression steeling over into one akin to when engaging in an inevitable fight.
"I'm afraid it is dear Rukia. Having Ulquiorra-san stay with Orihime is as close as I can get to figuring out what he wants without resorting to a fight. If we can somehow settle this peacefully then by all means, I'll help however I can."
"Don't you realize that by saying that, you could be endangering not only Orihime, but everyone around her?" Ichigo banged his hand hard against the wooden table, disturbing the delicate glass and threatening it to tumble onto its side. Ulquiorra watched calmly with noted attention to a single drop that strayed over the rim of his cup before meeting the enraged gaze of the Kurosaki boy with his own tranquil one. "There's no guarantee that he'll be a love-sick puppy like those lizards; he could potentially kill her." he stated quietly, never breaking the hold their gazes created.
"Then do tell me, why has he not done so in Hueco Mundo, Ichigo?" Yoruichi asked, her head moving to lean on her hand.
For this he could not answer. That was one of the main question they have all wanted to hear, but the hollow in question did nothing to relieve their curiosity and suspicion. Sitting in his space, uncharacteristically quiet since the two have returned, Renji finally chose that moment to speak. "If you're so worried that he might do something we can have Chad or Uryu stay with her, hell even me or Rukia could do it."
"You have a point, moocher..."
The voices blended into the background as Orihime lowered her eyes down onto the table with dull eyes. That frown on her face was apparent and was not kept from the watchful green. She was not happy with this situation and it seemed that no one could easily see her thoughts as he did or if they had, did not wish to acknowlege them. He turned slightly to her and caught the sight of loneliness etched deep in her being as if she was trying to solve this all on her own.
"Orihime you can't be serious about allowing him in your home, can you?" Rukia asked softly, her gaze softening as she reached a hand to her shoulder.
"Well, I uh... I honestly don't think he would wish me any harm at all. He doesn't seem interested in anything like that."
"What we're worried about Orihime, is not the fact that he would or would not hurt you, but the fact that he could hurt you. Your brother didn't want to when he was under the hollow's control and yet he could not help but do so anyway."
"Hey Yoruichi that's going too far..." a weak hand reached her way, but the words were already out of her mouth and there was no missing that pang of hurt stabbing at the poor girl in front of them.
"I understand that, but..."
"You humans..." the voice startled them all to silence as all eyes darted over to Ulquiorra who touched the glass cup with soft touches on the rim. "Are not... so trusting. I was wondering why... you would not allow her space." he said this slowly and never left the cup, lifting it and taking a very small sip. After a long time it was odd to feel something slip down his throat, it was soothing.
His words had them all wide eyed and baffled at his observation, Orihime nor the shopkeeper himself could find any words to respond; all except for Ulquiorra himself.
"Perhaps, if you would care at all... you would allow a flower to bloom," he stopped to stare at them in pure wonder as if he was suggesting something to a formula. "More freely..." the words were more directed towards himself, not as a statement, but as a question in his mind. He really had no say in this, he shouldn't have had one, he didn't care and yet he just went and said words that he knew humans would hold onto. Words that were only words and held no physical value, only reassurance and fake promises or so he has seen countless times in the forest and as lower stages of a hollow. Whatever their meaning, they did in fact make the dullness in her grey eyes shine anew.
"Your concerns are empty... Hunger does not exist for me." he said finally as he scratched at the object with a single digit, a white line following its trail.
Silence reigned for a short time before Urahara coughed to break it. "Well said, Ulquiorra-san, but how is it we can trust your words?" he asked with a grin.
To this he looked at him tediously and hummed as if in thought. "Your decision in placing your trust... is entirely up to you... I have already said what can only be said for me." a tail flicked freely to the side and a wing twitched against the edge of the table. They would continue to talk of this issue well over the night and miss a day of school tomorrow, until then Ulquiorra would stay in the underground area feeling an odd feeling of disturbance leaking at his core.
Black clouded his inner vision and there could be seen only a silhouette of a form of the same height as he standing before him without a face or voice to speak of. A black coated hand pointed to his chest where there lay the small hole of his heart and touched the edge; there was no feeling. Questions floated like a mist in his head of this weird sensation of nothingness, something that called to him in a voice of silent distortion. He could not understand, the sound was becoming more distant as he tried to listen, but was soon broken out of his reverie by a light hand touching his shoulder.
"I will go home today okay, Ulquiorra-kun?" the girl said softly as the others remained seated and spoke among themselves in a whisper to his ears. "I hope we can talk more tomorrow. I won't go to school, so would that be fine with you?" she had no idea why she had to ask, but she couldn't really help it. There was just too much stress at the moment to think crystal clear.
She beamed him a kind smile to which he obviosly did not return, but chose to silently acknowlege it in his own reserved way. An apology was also sent his way in a whisper of her soft voice, yet it was as if it was sincere; that she wished that they wouldn't have thought so bad of him and this puzzled him. It was all understandable, they were in right of mind to think of the danger she'd be putting herself in with his presence constantly in her home. There was nothing to keep his power in check if so wished to kill on a whim, not that he'd do that, but the girl was certainly something to actually think of him at a level the same as her friends. Ridiculous. She could not be read so easily as the others, her thoughts were not always up to par with her expressions, yet at that moment when she looked so broken, with her eyes dulled and her frown deep, however small and subtle they appeared, at the memory of her brother, she was the exact image of the word that so clearly manifested into his very soul.