A/N: Hello everyone! Long time no see, I know. But I have a plan now; a wonderfully clear path to where I wish to take this never-ending fic. Hopefully you have not forgotten where we left off, and if you have, a thousand apologies.
With the two of them alone in the ruined castle of Las Noches with naught but the never-ending rain, only the slow pitter patter of the water on the rock was noise to their ears. Ulquiorra stood stiffly in his wet clothes at the base of the stone throne, hand on Murcielago and eyes to the black horizon.
He knew he was grasping desperately at memories, wishing with all his being that he might reverse time, go back to the era where this castle was grand and tall and teaming with other Hollow; when its lord was strong and wise and his forces of Arrancar were enough to have the mere mention of their name cause all the realms to quake in fear; when Ulquiorra himself had been without question Lord Aizen's most capable and most loyal servant.
Time was a cruel thing...
"I asked you a question, Ulquiorra," The dark-haired Arrancar turned to his master, suddenly aware that his attention had been elsewhere.
"What was going through your mind when you stole me from my prison cell?" Aizen hummed from where he was slumped in that crumbling chair, letting the gentle raindrops wet his face. His tone was neither accusing nor grateful. As always, the man spoke to Ulquiorra like a parent reprimanding a child, in a manner that suggested he was about to share life-altering wisdom. "I am broken; neither Shinigami nor Hollow, rejected by all beings, rejected by the Hogyoku. I was content to die in that prison, even before they had sentenced me. Do you see now, my lovely Arrancar? Do you see I am beyond repair?" Ulquiorra felt himself swallow and he clenched Murcielago harder. Aizen rose from his seat wearily and went to cup the dark-haired Arrancar's face. "Do you regret your choice?"
Aizen purred deep in his throat as he continued to stroke his pet gently. Ulquiorra exhaled a silent breath, shivering in reluctant delight. He wanted more. He needed contact of some sort. Aizen's touch was anything but sexual, yet Ulquiorra's body, accustomed to frequent rutting with Grimmjow, came to life on its own beneath his lords hands. The Fourth Espada drew his bottom lip between his teeth to keep something shameful from slipping out. Why did this feel so wrong? Why couldn't he convince himself that this had been what he wanted all along?
Long fingers tightened painfully in Ulquiorra's hair, and the green eyes that had closed in longing bliss snapped open once again. The hold was not benign. Aizen had plans to inflict pain upon him, the Fourth Espada realized. His fantasy melted away before it even began.
"For so long, you were the enigma," Aizen said softly and meticulously, venom seeping into his words, "They all had their reasons...Baragon for power, Starrk for companionship, Szayel for new toys, Harribel and Grimmjow for the protection of their fraccion, Nnoitra and Yammy for the chance to spread chaos...but you," Ulquiorra saw a glint of madness pass through his lord's eyes in that moment, and in the next, Aizen had suddenly taken hold of him around the throat in a death grip, "What amazes me is how you ever deluded yourself into thinking that a God such as I would ever deign to taint himself with a creature like yourself."
"Aizen-sama..." Ulquiorra choked, but he remained still and made to attempt to free himself. If Aizen sought to punish him then, well, he likely deserved it.
"Did you not think Las Noches needed her Fourth Espada in her final hours?" Aizen demanded, his tone growing clipped, "I entrusted you with all of it, Ulquiorra, and yet you were not there when the Shinigami broke in our doors and destroyed our life's work. Did all of this mean nothing to you?"
"It meant everything!" the accused gasped, and Ulquiorra was slightly horrified to hear it leave his mouth in that frantic plea, "I was...indisposed at the time...Aizen-sama." It was difficult to get the words out. His hands twitched at his sides, but Ulquiorra did not allow them to come up to his defense.
"Was the traitor's spawn more important than I? Or perhaps was it the traitor himself?" the grip around the Arrancar's neck tightened to a strangle, "It was your only test and you failed most spectacularly. Faced with the choice of his God or the needs of his flesh, Ulquiorra Ciffer made it clear to all of the Hueco Mundo where his priorities lied." Aizen finally let go and shoved Ulquiorra away with more strength than his weak body suggested he possessed, but not before he had stolen Murcielago from its sheath. On the rain-soaked floor, Ulquiorra now stared up at his former lord, who had the katana aimed at his prone form. Aizen inspected the sword with something akin to disgust upon his features. "I grow weary of your trite attempts to woo me. A dog is not permitted to demand the affections of its master, and even with how far I have fallen, make no mistake Ulquiorra, I have no lingering love for the whimpering, pathetic animal that you are."
Hurt and anger spiked through Ulquiorra. His loyalty to Aizen was eternal! He'd never intended any betrayal! He'd been away from Las Noches birthing the child his lord had commanded of him!
Ah, but you failed to kill Grimmjow as he had asked, Ulquiorra's traitorous mind supplied, and you allowed the Shinigami to take both yourself and Grimmjow as live captives, thereby enabling Grimmjow to grow disillusioned and guaranteeing his subsequent treason. You could have prevented everything...and you did nothing.
As if sensing his thoughts, Aizen's lips turned up slightly into the arrogant sneer that the Arrancar below him knew so well.
"Do you wish to raise your hand against your lord and king? Your deity?" the Shinigami taunted in a low, satisfied purr. "Do it. Strike me." Ulquiorra considered it, he truly did, but only for a fleeting second. As any and all fight drained from him, he let his head fall back onto the wet stone.
"As I suspected," Aizen concluded, both pleased and disappointed. He drove Murcielago into Ulquiorra's chest without so much as a blink. Blood blossomed around the embedded sword, spreading and tainting the surrounding puddles with crimson. Ulquiorra's breath came in short gasps, though he was unsure if this was due to the physical wound or the all-encompassing, broken feeling he held inside.
Aizen departed, leaving his last Espada nailed to the steps of the ruined throne.
Ashido had long since stopped questioning his strange fascination with Hollows. He'd come to the Hueco Mundo to fight a war, and stayed to avenge a friend. Vengeance had been accomplished one hundred times over at this point and yet...Ashido was still here. He'd grown to accept Hollows, made peace with his own inner demons and even began to appreciate their simplistic lifestyle. He'd spent so much time in the Hueco Mundo that now he felt that he didn't belong in either world. He'd decided to appoint himself something like an ambassador, a liaison between the Shinigami and Hollows. He was no longer suited for anything else.
He led Grimmjow silently to the designated spot. A gaping portal stood open, not a garganta, but a portal opened by a very skilled Shinigami. Said Shinigami stood with a beaming grin to welcome them and tilted his hat out of his face. A woman stood behind him. Her purple hair was blown into her eyes and her arms were crossed in front of her.
Urahara Kisuke and Yoruichi Shihoin. Ashido knew very little about them. Urahara and Yoruichi were both generations younger than himself, but were both former captains of the Gotei Thirteen, he'd discovered. Now they were rather like himself, beings that were outcasts and who didn't belong to any particular realm.
"Grimmjow Jeagerjaques, I presume," Urahara said cheerily, offering his hand. Grimmjow hung back, wary like a cat. Urahara's smile was a practiced one, a smile that could hide many things, and could not hint toward honest or dishonest intentions. Grimmjow turned to Ashido, unimpressed.
"This weirdo can help me get my kid back?" he asked, quite rudely, jabbing a thumb in Urahara's direction.
"My, my so disrespectful," the woman, Yoruichi interrupted, though she looked rather amused, "Here we are to help you out of the kindness of our hearts and you greet us with an insult?"
"I haven't yet accepted your "help" woman," Grimmjow warned with a growl, "And this is my domain. I'll say what I want to say."
"Enough," Ashido stepped in, "If you would listen, Grimmjow, these people would show you their plan to rescue your son." The gathered party went silent, as did Grimmjow. Wind blew over them again in dry waves as the Arrancar seemed to consider.
"Thank you, Ashido," Urahara told him quietly after a moment of assessment, "We'll take it from here."
Ulquiorra had not been in such a lab in many a year. He'd stayed far from them during his time in the Colony, just as he had attempted to while at Las Noches. He did not understand the machines. It was a magic he was uninterested in. Only the weak would need to rely on such technology, he'd always told himself, but the truth was something closer to fear. Strange instruments were hanging on the walls with unknown purposes. Things in jars floated in sickening green fluid, seeming to stare with their dead eyes. Walking into Szayel's laboratories had always left Ulquiorra with an uneasy feeling in his gut. This was not his world, and he could feel his disadvantage for it in the air.
Being back here filled Ulquiorra with a strange longing for Grimmjow, as he could so clearly remember those days they had been separated. He held his pups close while M01 performed the tests upon the small vial of liquid. They squirmed restlessly but he would not put them down. He knew that in this place all it took was a single touch of something foreign and pain or death would follow. He'd seen it countless times before.
"This is...extraordinary," M01 concluded after much silence while fiddling with glass tubes and reiatsu detecting devices, "This could not have come from another Hollow," the mosquito Arrancar turned to Ulquiorra, "It is not of our world."
"I am aware," Ulquiorra replied somewhat impatiently, "It was given to me in the human realm." M01 gazed at him as if seeing him in a new light and Ulquiorra was forced to remember the other Arrancar's youth. He'd been born after the Winter War. He perhaps knew of the existence of the other realms, but he'd never set foot outside the Hueco Mundo. He'd never seen a human or a Shinigami. He didn't know of their powers or how they looked. He must be overwhelmingly curious, but he fought it well.
"I am uncertain of how well my equipment can analyze something so foreign, but I shall give you my best guess of the contents in this vial," the younger Arrancar continued, "It is a poison...of sorts. A drug, perhaps, if you'd prefer to think of it that way. It is very fortunate you had brought it to me first, because ingesting even a small amount of this concoction would have been agonizing."
"What does it do?" Ulquiorra prompted, "What is it's purpose?" And why had Kurosaki given him such a substance? Lying there upon his death bed Ulquiorra had sensed no murderous intent. If Kurosaki had not wanted revenge or to kill him then why had he given Ulquiorra a poison?
"I can only assume its purpose must be torture," M01 concluded, "Alone, it can not kill. From what I can gather, it greatly enhances the subjects cognitive abilities. It would raise a man's perceptions to a level unimaginable." Ulquiorra knew then that he must have had something of a hungry look in his eye when he reached out his hand to have it returned. M01 moved it from his grasp.
"Sir...Ulquiorra," the younger Hollow corrected himself, "I'm afraid you do not understand. That sort of enhancement would be a curse. A physical body would never be able to cope. Things would appear warped beyond recognition, and time in seconds would feel like centuries. There is no telling if a subject could ever recover after such trauma. I would advise you to leave it with me for further study."
Ulquiorra considered for a long moment. There had to be some reason that Kurosaki's last deed as a human had been to give Ulquiorra this strange substance. If he did not intend to kill him or torture him, then had he wished for Ulquiorra to use it to kill or torture someone else? No. Kurosaki was ever a sentimental human with a bloated sense of righteousness. If he wished harm on another he would not be the type to use something so underhanded as poison.
Then what could the reason be? He thought hard upon that final conversation. There must have been a clue somewhere in his words.
Laying in a hospital bed day and night for months on end is no way to live, the human had said. Ulquiorra remembered his sad smile. Time is a funny thing. It is completely relative to the observer. I have lived a long and rich life, whereas you, in comparison, have scarcely begun. Eighty five years is more than enough for a human, but for a being like you, eighty five years...can pass in the blink of an eye.
Kurosaki had spoken about time more than once. What had he been trying to reveal with his words? Their conversation had moved to Sol after that, and then to Aizen...
Ulquiorra inhaled sharply, things coming together at once. Kurosaki had told him the length of Aizen's sentence after revealing that the man had not been killed. As for Aizen...it is pointless...he has a sentence on him...of twenty thousand years...Kurosaki's weary and breathy admittance played over and over in the Fourth Espada's mind. Ulquiorra took the vial from M01's hand and held the tiny glass container of liquid in his palm, his thoughts broadening suddenly. Perhaps the enchantments keeping Aizen imprisoned were timed seals? Seals that would only wear off once their prisoner had suffered through twenty thousand years? And if there were a way to make twenty thousand years seem like mere seconds...
"M01, is it possible to calculate how many drops of this drug would equate to twenty thousand years?"
"I could try," the mosquito Hollow answered slowly, "but the risks involved, surely you are not thinking to use it on yourself?"
"No," Ulquiorra said quietly, "not myself," his fingers grasped the vial tighter and he nearly felt dizzy in his elation, "someone who was once...important... to me."
But even if he could use this liquid to rescue Aizen from the Shinigami's deepest dungeons, how was he to get in? If he could not get to Sol then he certainly could not get to Aizen...
His only window was now, Ulquiorra realized. Grimmjow must have some sort of plan to enter Seireitei by this point. Once he was through here he would catch up to Grimmjow. Sol's rescue mission was, unbeknownst to all but Ulquiorra, about to become Aizen's as well.
After hashing out a few terms of agreement, Grimmjow had decided he had no other options than to let these two Shinigami take control. Grimmjow found himself stepping into the portal that awaited them, and re-emerged into the harsh glare of sunlight of the human realm. It was Karakura town, he noted, but things had changed. Time had passed. In place of a quaint town was a gleaming metropolis.
The two Shinigami led him to what he supposed must be their home. It was small and cluttered, with various things for sale that Grimmjow knew no normal human would have any use for. Why did these Shinigami stay here?
"I'm afraid our reasons for helping you are not entirely altruistic," Urahara said once the three of them were shut tightly in private. Grimmjow could feel the beginnings of an interrogation, and it took him back to his days as a captive. "We know that Ichigo entrusted something very important into your care at the close of the Winter War. In exchange for helping to rescue your boy, we would like it back."
"Heh," Grimmjow laughed low, "I should have known." He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms defiantly, "You're damn right. Kurosaki entrusted it to me, told me to hide it away forever. I ain't the type to go back on my word, but you're in luck, Shinigami. I gave it to my brat for safe-keeping so I'm sure Seireitei has it now. Find Sol and you'll find your little, glowing ball."
"How do we know you are telling the truth?" the Yoruichi woman threatened.
"You don't. You'll have to take the word of a Hollow- or is that too much for you?" Grimmjow answered with a wicked grin. The woman did not back down. Her glare intensified and she threw a hand-drawn map of Seireitei up onto the wall for all to see.
"The plan is here," she announced with a rough gesture at her map. Unfortunately, she was not able to explain any further. Both Shinigami in the room stiffened suddenly. Their eyes found each others and Grimmjow could sense their confusion and unease.
"I feel it too," Urahara said to the Yoruichi woman's expression. They looked to Grimmjow.
"What?" the Sixth Espada growled, "What is it?" Then he felt the reiatsu.
It had darkened into night outside the shabby little store. The two Shinigami dropped into a defensive formation as they assessed the approaching being. The light of the human realm's moon did little to illuminate the dark shadows cast by the surrounding buildings.
"Why do you hide from us, Arrancar, when you do not bother to mask your spiritual energy?" Urahara wondered aloud to the darkness.
"Urahara Kisuke. Shihoin Yoruichi. We meet again," It was Ulquiorra's voice. The Shinigami both tensed upon hearing their names issued from the blackness.
"You have not come back to terrorize this town again have you, Arrancar?" Urahara tested, "Things are different this time around. I think it is you who is outmatched and outnumbered now." Ulquiorra did not answer this. He remained partially hidden. Grimmjow remembered what the Shinigami must have been referring to. Ulquiorra and Yammy had been among the first to go and scout out the humble town to see if it was fit for Aizen's plans. This had been over seventy years ago at the start of the Winter War. Ulquiorra and Yammy had scuffled briefly with a few powerful locals. These two Shinigami must have been among them.
But Grimmjow was confused as to why Ulquiorra was here now. He should be back in the cave recovering and regaining his strength. Had something happened? Ulquiorra came into sight, but stayed back. His eyes narrowed in the halflight. The two Shinigami did not drop their stances. Grimmjow saw that the other Arrancar was wary and defensive and suddenly knew why Ulquiorra kept his distance. He had brought their cubs along with him.
"Put your claws away, Shinigami," Grimmjow said calmly, rifling a hand through his blue hair. "They are with me." He couldn't encourage any conflict while his children were here. Perhaps Ulquiorra knew this. Perhaps this was why he'd brought them. Reluctantly, the two Shinigami relaxed, and with some of the tension eased, Ulquiorra stepped into the light. Grimmjow saw that his daughter slept comfortably in her mother's arms, nothing but a bundle of black fuzz. Kuro poked his head from the sling where he had been nestled, roused from slumber by his sire's voice.
"Do you know how dangerous these Shinigami are, Grimmjow? Did you not even think about what sort of aid you were enlisting when you followed them here?" Ulquiorra said, and Grimmjow did not miss the way his arm's tightened around the tiny cub in his arms as the Shinigami noticed what he was holding. Urahara's eyes softened considerably. Yoruichi's did not.
"What does it matter? As long as they can get our kid back to us..." the Sixth Espada responded, "You asked me to rescue Sol. This is the best way."
"I wish to assist in the rescue," Ulquiorra said.
"You're injured and weak," Grimmjow reminded the other, as if such a thing weren't obvious enough, "Go home." Ulquiorra glared at him with all the annoyed ferocity of a child not getting his way. "We are breaking into Seireitei, Ulquiorra, in case you've forgotten. If something goes wrong and this turns into a brawl..." he left the sentence hanging as he thought of losing all his family at once. It bothered him more than he wanted to admit in front of Ulquiorra and the two Shinigami. "Go home. Trust me to do this. I will not fail."
Surely he would give up and return. What had brought this sudden change of mind, Grimmjow did not know. Why was his mate suddenly insisting upon accompanying him? Something was going on in Ulquiorra's head that Grimmjow couldn't see. Finally, after a long few minutes of nothing, Grimmjow saw Ulquiorra's shoulders dip ever so slightly in defeat.
"Hold on," Urahara spoke and placed a hand on Grimmjow's shoulder. It stunned him for a moment that this Shinigami he'd only just met had a mind to touch him with such familiarity, "I think we could use all the help we can get." His sandles plodded on the dry earth as he approached Ulquiorra. "Shall we put the past behind us?"
Ulquiorra's blank expression turned to one of subtle amusement. Perhaps he was surprised at how easily this Shinigami offered his hand up in friendship to a former enemy? The Fourth Espada glanced down at his son, as if silently asking the child's opinion. Kuro made a curious noise, hungry eyes alighting on Urahara.
"We shall, Shinigami." Ulquiorra answered, and it was Grimmjow's turn to scowl in defeat. Urahara broke into a disarming smile and tipped his hat so he could better observe Kuro.
"Hello there, little fella! You're a cute little Hollow-"
"Do not speak to my pups. Any further attempts to do so shall immediately void our ceasefire, and I will end you in the most painful of ways," the Fourth Espada interjected, walking coldly past the Shinigami to stand before Grimmjow. The two Arrancar shared a glare that meant they would have angry words about this later. Urahara, looking thoroughly put-out, sighed and stepped back with a pout. Grimmjow chuckled despite himself. These Shinigami had no idea of the fierce beast his mate could become.
"Come in, then. All of you," Yoruichi said. She was now leaning against the door-frame looking rather bored. "We have a lot to cover."
A/N: A bit short, I know. Allow me some time to get back in the swing of things. Reviews, as always, are much appreciated.