Tetraphobia; the fear or aversion to the number 4. Particularly due to its superstitious roots in East Asian culture, because it is nearly homophonous to the word ''death''.

.

THE NUMBER 4

.

It did not take one long to learn the rules that governed the dismal place of Las Noches. And those rules had always been simple and elementary in their nature; mind your superiors. Superiors that were dictated not by kindness or quality of character, nor the ability to conduct a peaceful command over a nation. But by sheer force and dominance with zero room for compassion. And mind them you would, with a vigilant, respectful eye at a heavy distance. Never raise your hand or your voice to the strong unless you aspired for death. Because, even in the end, those strong entities, just as well, will always answer to even stronger beings. Because within a place that offered no comfort or leniency for the weak, the creatures that wandered these lands were beyond the likes a simple girl who lead a rather unorthodox life had yet to have seen. And at times, times that she was reluctant and ashamed to admit, it was morbidly fascinating.

However, this was no adventure. These were beings that were just as alien and alluring as they were vicious and deaf to the plight of the innocent and, even at the lowest of times, their own kin. Throwing away life just to find satisfaction in gaining rank and position in this place where strength was the only thing that held value. Possessing powers and abilities and eyes so wild that it would surely have the hairs raised upon the necks of even the most seasoned of veterans. Eyes that were just as haunting and beautiful as they were dangerous and frightening. Glinting and gleaming eyes, watching like a predator for the very moment of weakness to strike. And from there the chain of command went on, simple and logical, but barbaric and unmerciful in and of itself. Encompassing and swallowing the ten Espada of Las Noches and their Lord Almighty like a bible. Burning the commandments away and replacing it with their one true law. A law that was a language only they and they alone seemed to understand.

She looked up at the thin, broad shoulders ahead of her, the pensive thoughts running through her mind as she obediently followed behind the cold figure before her. Watching with disturbing fascination as the large hall of lower Hollow quickly vanished upon seeing the man enter the library, panic decorating the few faces she was able to catch glances of before they turned away or simply disappeared. Briefly, she wondered if the brutal laws that managed the innards of Las Noches were far more civilized than what went on in the bleak desert outside of its blanched walls. And, if only momentarily, she shivered at the thought of having to survive in such a desolate environment, making a mental note to never complain about the emptiness this fortress seemed to invoke in her, if only to be grateful that she did not have to be thrown out into whatever horrid creatures waited outside that would gladly snatch her away to devour her human soul that Hollow seemed to so eagerly feast upon.

Her eyes saddened as she watched the rest of the figures rush from the room as if the apocalypse itself had come upon them. Her heart straining in her chest for a moment as she caught sight of one younger looking boy in the corner of the study, looking every bit the terrified rabbit that had been cornered by the hungry wolf...wanting to be anywhere but here.

Why?

Why did people have to be so cruel? Why did they have to create this? This fear.

She stole a quick glance at her escort, who, for all the world didn't even seem to notice the shivering Hollow tucked away in the shadows. Did he truly not notice? Or did he simply not care that even his fellow kin ran at the very sight of him? Surely he would not take pleasure in such a thing, would he? She did not know him well, but she had never noticed him taking satisfaction in terrifying others the way some of his fellow Espada did. He did not give her a chance to comment on her thoughts, however, as he was moving forward to a large row of books not far from the juvenile Hollow trembling so fiercely one could almost hear his teeth chattering.

Orihime released a breath she hadn't even realized she was holding, watching as he reached the dramatically tall shelf of books and scrolls sitting ahead of them and not, to her great relief, the poor thing watching every move he made with eyes wide as saucers.

"This is the only section you should concern yourself with," His quiet, monotonous voice informed. "It is the only section in the archives that is in a language you can understand-"

Orihime quickly tuned out his voice as she slowly made her way to the young boy curled into himself on the floor. The heart wrenching image he created almost made her angry at the man who didn't even seem to care that he was the source of the child's fear. Pushing it aside, she smiled gently, her features softening as she approached him carefully, watching in helpless pity as his shivering increased dramatically, waiting in agony as if she would strike him at any given moment. His wide eyes frantically grasped for an escape route, but seemingly found none worth chancing.

"It's ok," She said with all the grace and kindness of a saint, gaining the full attention of his bright blue eyes again as she bent partially at the waist to lean towards him. And for another brief moment, she wondered how Shinigami could ever call these creatures ugly beasts. "I won't hurt you." She ever so carefully lifted her hand towards him, turning up her palm in an involuntary offer to show she held no ill intent. His eyes moved away again, shooting from her hand to her eyes and back to her hand again. He looked wary, but some of the shivering eased, and thus eased her just as much at the progress.

"Do not bother with the likes of them," A familiar, uncaring voice interjected from behind them, still unmoved from his position next to the white washed book shelf he had began showing her only moments before. "You are a ward of Aizen-sama, such trash is below you."

She did not respond.

Orihime watched in near horror as the small progress she had made with the boy seemed to evaporate at the sound of his voice. Looking for all the world like he wished dearly for the shadows to swallow him whole, deep into a void that was anywhere but near that man. But Orihime suppressed her disappointment and only giggled softly at him, her smile brightening as she reached her hand a little further. "Don't mind him!" She smiled brightly, her hair falling softly over her shoulder as she tilted her head in a tentatively playful manner. "He's just grumpy...I won't hurt you." Her heart eased as she saw his tense body begin to relax.

"Here, take my hand, I'm sure you'd rather be somewhere other than this stuffy old library, ne?" She urged steadily, phrasing her words with care.

The boys hair slid from his brow as he tilted his head further back to look at her, utter and total wonderment glimmering in those beautiful blue eyes of his. Widening as if seeing her for the first time since setting foot in the room. "Are...are you an a-angel?" He asked shyly, staring in awe as the fake sunlight filtered in, making her hair shimmer and skin glow serenely.

Orihime could only giggle softly again, her smile broadening at feeling that she had gained some trust. "No, I'm just human."

A deep, crimson blush formed on his freckled cheeks and she was in pure awe at how adorable he was, his Hollow mask just below his left eye. Looking to be ten, possibly eleven, he would surely grow up to be a heart breaker. Her heart jumped in victory when he experimentally started to reach for her hand, as if waiting for her to turn on him at any given moment, waiting for the catch, waiting for her to reveal it was all just a trick. "Come now, maybe you can help me pick out a good book?" And when he had finally took that final commitment and moved towards her, the tips of his fingers brushing hers as the soft weight settled in her palm, she opened her mouth to praise him-

But that very moment his skin touched hers, the warmth of it was gone. She stared in open confusion as the young boy that had been sitting before her had...vanished. Her stomach churned as she heard a breathy gurgle, eyes shooting up to see him pinned to the wall, feet dangling off the ground, a pale, merciless hand around his neck.

Her throat closed up, and she tried to open her mouth to scream a frantic, 'NO!' But it seemed all there was in that second was the soft snap that echoed more loudly in her ears than she ever realized such a quiet noise could make, burning itself into her memory. And suddenly those beautiful blue eyes that had been looking up at her with trust and curiosity were as dull and lifeless as the desert outside.

Orihime's heart dropped to the pit of her stomach and it felt like all she could do was stare. Stare and be useless and grieve...the only things she seemed to ever be able to do. Never saving anyone, never helping, never being able to stop things and not even being able to notice until it was far too late.

Tears fell from her eyes as she heard, more than saw, the heavy, disgusting thump as his body hit the floor.

She moved forward to him quickly, falling to her knees to cradle his cold corpse, wanting desperately to call forth her fairies to try something, anything, to rectify what that man had just done. But they had been taken from her, only allowed to have them when Aizen-sama permitted it, when she would finally change her mind and agree to heal the Hōgyoku, only allowed to have them when she converted to their side. But she tried, tried and tried in vain, hoping that if she just wished hard enough her powers would come to her despite the fact he'd locked away her hair clips and sealed them from her.

"...no." She whispered as she held the limp creature tightly to her bosom. Whispering prayers and apologies and begging the boy to forgive her...she didn't even know his name. Her watery eyes lifted to the stiff figure standing above her, locking eyes with those deep, verdant ones that always seemed to resemble anything less than life. Cold and hard like marble. Hands in his pockets and currently examining her strange reaction with a type of disturbing curiosity hidden behind his raven lashes.

"Why?" She whispered desperately.

And Orihime, for all her sadness and grief and utter, total disgust, could not bring herself to hate the man. Looking at her like the body she was cradling so close to her was not even there, like he hadn't just cruelly destroyed a life without a second thought, like it was just natural. Like her tears made no sense.

"Such trash has no rights touching you." Was all he said.

Orihime's head lowered again, her forehead resting atop the soft, dark hair of the lifeless boy in her arms. When the other Hollow had run from them when they had entered the study, she knew it had just been that chain of command taking its natural course, running from them in fear. From him.

But...she had known he cared little for such things, always uninterested and aloof to the trivial, lower class beings. And it dawned on her that had it been any other occasion, had she just let nature take its course and let things be, that's all that would have happened; they would've all ran, the boy would have stayed safely tucked away in the corner and waited until he felt it was safe to move again, and everyone would have went their separate ways. But she, Orihime, had interfered, she had corrupted the order of things and it smacked her in a nasty and uncomfortably ugly way to know that this was her fault. And she briefly wondered if this was punishment for the dead boy in her arms for touching her, or punishment for her for allowing him to after being told otherwise...but, she already knew the answer to that, didn't she?

This is what happens when you step out of line. That is what this was.

Orihime frowned over the soft hair against her lips. "Aren't I trash, as well?" She said it almost cynically, bitterly, knowing full well his distaste of humans. But her body felt too weak, her heart hurt too much to sound as such, and in the end the words only came out sounding quiet and melancholic.

There was a moment of silence, a brief, fleeting flicker in his eyes that looked as though he very much was going to agree with that. But, her escort simply turned on his heel and began to stroll back to the entrance, seemingly losing interest in her 'odd' reaction. "That is only for Aizen-sama to decide." He stopped by the large doors, looking over his shoulder as he called out to her, "If you are not going to explore the archive that Aizen-sama has so generously offered you, then we are returning to your room at once."

Orihime shivered at the coldness and she could not tell if it was coming from the floor she was sitting upon, the lifeless body in her arms or the man who had so casually taken that life. Perhaps it was all three. It seemed to matter little to anyone in this 'palace' where the walls were washed white and pure, but everything was always dark, putrid and unholy.

Her eyes locked with his again and the brief intrigue that had flashed in them at her previous reaction was long gone. Once again, all Orihime could think was...

Why?

.

Orihime Inoue had begun to become intimately familiar with the sight of the broad, stiff shoulders of the man walking ahead of her. The quiet of his footsteps echoed like hushed drops of water in the cathedral-like halls of Las Noches, never hastened or rushed, never seeming to be in a hurry wherever he led her.

She couldn't help but notice that despite his hands being burrowed in his pockets and his shoulders slouched ever so gently, giving an almost easy, aloof appearance, there was still visible tension in them. Fleeting and brief in the subtle action, making it almost imperceptible to one who was not paying close enough attention. But here, in the very depths of Hueco Mundo, she knew nothing slipped past the eyes of these creatures the defected Soul Society captain Aizen Sosuke had birthed from his precious Hōgyoku. And here, she too, was learning his small, subtle nuances that, at first meeting him, she had failed to notice. With him never venturing to allow her much more than the eerily calm detachment towards her that made her spine shiver when his eyes locked with hers. Because if there was one thing Ulquiorra insisted upon other than his flat out nihilism, it was his demand for eye contact. He commanded it.

Her warden took a right turn and she realized with a vague sense of awareness that they were heading towards the main hall. She had been there few times before, her required demonstration of fixing Grimmjow's severed arm being one of them.

"Um...Ulquiorra-ku-"

"It's Ulquiorra," He replied quietly, reminding her for what was surely the tenth time since her arrival. "I am not human trash, nor am I to be referred to in terms the likes of which humans would." His voice was calm and lacking any real frustration with her, only vague annoyance at having to remind her once again.

"Oh, I'm sorry, it seems I keep forgetting..." Her eyes drifted to the side, as if trying to avoid his own eyes, despite his back being to her and not even bothering to glance at her over his shoulder to address her, it still always felt as if those eyes of his were on her every time he spoke. Gauging and sizing up her every reaction...Orihime did not like his eyes. "If you don't mind me asking, where are we going?" She queried, remembering how he had routinely announced his entrance into her quarters and told her they were leaving at once without even a hint as to where he was taking her.

A part of her rebelled at this. Being led to and fro without even the slightest notion as to where she was being taken. But in those fleeting moments when she wished to rebel, to demand an explanation, Orihime bit her tongue and ardently reminded herself each time that she had chosen this. She had opened herself up to their world and now she must let herself be immersed in it, no matter how she revolted at the idea of serving Aizen, when in reality, she was nothing more than a prisoner of war.

"Aizen-sama has requested an audience with you." Was all he was willing to supply and she had to wonder if he knew more and just wasn't telling her, or perhaps that was all the information he knew on the matter.

"Do you know why?" She asked, deciding to try and find out if only for the sake of making conversation. Orihime bit her lip and grasped her hands in her lap as he stopped in his tracks, shifting a foot to turn himself partially enough to lock eyes with hers. Orihime shivered again. No, she did not like his eyes at all.

"It matters not why. What Aizen-sama wishes of you, you will willingly give without complaint. You will follow orders without question. You will sit, quietly, and not speak unless you are directly spoken to. When you do speak, you will keep your answers short, respectful and simple. You will not inquire about your 'friends' and you will not open your mouth with silly notions, ideas or requests that will waste the time that he has so graciously given you. Is this simple enough for you to comprehend?"

Orihime bit her lip harder and clenched her eyes shut as the sudden mention of her beloved friends brought a whole new wave of worry and fear to the surface again. Wondering where they were, how they were doing. Were they happy? Safe? Were they thinking of her as much as she was of them? She heard a soft tap of a boot ring in her ears and she looked up to see he had taken a step closer to her.

"Woman." His voice, while unchanged, demanded her attention, demanded an answer. So she ceded without defiance and looked back up into his eyes to let him know he had her full attention.

"Of course," She smiled weakly.

"I see," He said almost impatiently, not buying into her false obedience. "Just the mention of such things as 'friends' has you withering at the very thought." He examined her face, the way her eyes stayed determinedly locked on his, putting up a good front. But nothing slipped past his eyes and he could see the wavering in them, the manner in which they started to shimmer softly, glistening in that way that surely meant the sign of tears to come. "It would be best you forget them, they are trash. To allow yourself to fall into such a state so easily is pathetic." His hand slinked out of his pocket and grasped her chin tightly, lifting it to ensure that she would stop that ridiculous habit of looking away from his eyes. He fully intended to rectify this grotesquely weak attitude of hers before their conference with Aizen.

Orihime held back the shocked gasp that nearly slipped out at his touch. His skin was horribly frigid with smooth, hard calluses. She swallowed softly, suppressing another shiver at the contact as her eyes only grew sadder. Because, despite the unwarranted contact, somewhere deep down in her heart, she hated how cold his flesh was. She had, in some wistfully benign manner that was so inveterately carved into her very soul, wished he would have been warm. That those icy fingers locked firmly around her jaw had been flush with the warmth that seemed to evade this man in every way, running from him in a manner that was almost desperate.

"You will not inconvenience Aizen-sama with such frivolous behaviors. It is unbecoming and weak." His attempt at setting her straight did not help in the least...having succeeded in nothing but the opposite effect as she suddenly felt very sullen at the coldness in him. "Do you understand?"

Orihime blinked away whatever small twinkle of moisture that had begun to manifest against her lashes and dug her nails into her palms, firming her features as she refused to look away. And even though she disliked the way he talked down to her with all the finesse of nails scraping across a chalkboard, she was meek enough to stop any thoughts of vocalizing in retaliation. Even if he wasn't as uncivilized as some of his fellow brethren, it was enough to agitate her at the simple mention of her friends.

Instead, choosing the high road and refusing to let the insensitivity he had treated her with show in any manner that would give him the satisfaction of knowing his words stung in ways that he would never be able to understand. If there was one thing Ulquiorra Ciefer always seemed to make known, it was that he utterly and completely failed to understand everything that was Orihime Inoue. And, with a small twinge of insecurity, she too, failed to understand him.

"Yes." She answered with a soft ripple of venom sharpening her eyes, letting him know full well that she cared little for his opinion of her emotions...nor for Aizen-sama. Only becoming agreeable to hasten along this situation and save themselves the further woes of each other's company.

When he failed to relent his hold on her chin, she looked deeper into his eyes. Examining his features in much the same way he seemed to be doing of her, sizing each other up. Studying and probing for something in her eyes. But for Orihime and her short attention span, it didn't take long before her eyes strayed and it was in that moment she noticed the slight beginnings of exhaust lines beneath his bottom lashes, molded grooves one would expect to see on someone who had begun to lose sleep. But the observation was quickly cast aside as he spoke again.

"Let me make something clear, woman," He began quietly, pulling her face closer to his and lowering his voice, as if conveying something only to be heard by her and her alone. Orihime thinks their posture is something onlookers would perceive as intimate, or perhaps a lovers quarrel, but she knows better. Because when her eyes are locked so closely with his, she sees none of the anger or passion one would expect to observe in such an encounter. Instead, she sees a vast, deep expanse of nothingness in his eyes. They are empty and cold. And like his eyes, his voice is barren and void of life. "I could care less that your words of 'loyalty' and 'obedience' to Aizen-sama are about as honest and hollow as your harping about the depth of your ridiculous notions of love, compassion and that unbreakable bond you have to your so called friends," Orihime's eyes widened slightly at his words, nearly shocking her out of her stupor as she realized he had completely seen through her ruse and decided it was time to call her out on it. "But I will not tolerate such obstinace in the presence of Aizen-sama." He leaned closer, his words a whisper in her ear. "If you insist on this nonsensical behavior of resistance for the sake of your own delusional fantasies, I will make sure that tongue of yours will fail to work properly for weeks to come, even if I have to rip it from between your lips." His hand gave an extra squeeze to emphasize his point. "Do you understand?" He asked again, speaking the words with a deliberate slowness, letting her know that there is no appropriate answer to his question other than 'yes'.

Orihime clenched her eyes shut, trying but failing to block out the images such a threat invoked from her mind, trying but desperately failing to subdue the shudder that went down her spine in response to those images. She released a hushed breath, turning her head from his as he at last released her. And there it was again, that infamous compassionate streak rearing up from inside her chest and telling herself, refusing to believe, that he would ever do such a thing to her. That this strange, confusing man would never be so callous to ever do such a thing to her, she, who had shown him nothing but consideration and respect, so much more than anyone else who, if found in such an undesirable and heartbreaking situation, would ever care to offer.

She nodded gingerly. Complying to his wishes.

"Good." Was all he said as he turned from her and began to resume their trek. "Stubbornness is not a desirable quality."

With her head down, hands resting once again over her lap as she followed dutifully, she whispered softly, "Neither is cruelty and mercilessness..."

He instantly stopped.

"Merciless?"

Orihime wanted to go on a tirade of her objections to this place, to the way lives were thrown away like one would toss out the garbage, to his lack of courtesy towards her, to Aizen's borderline mental ambitions, to the way Ulquiorra would look at her as if she wasn't even there, speaking like she was nothing but an object to be used, to the way he spoke of her friends, her oh so beloved friends...but there was something in the way he just stood there, unmoving, unspeaking. Not even bothering to deign himself to look upon her.

"Tell me, Inoue Orihime..." He said quietly, almost bitterly. "What kind of merciless tragedies have befallen you?"

She froze in her thoughts, suprised by the question. And when she found she couldn't answer, he did so for her.

"Petulantly refusing food in a manner more befitting a cross child. Preaching your righteous and pious words of bonds and the nexus of hearts connecting to one another to comfort yourself from your own delusions, pitying yourself and your own feelings of inadequacy in comparison to your foolish friends. Perhaps even losing a close relative at some pivotal point in your meaningless human life..." He paused for a moment, as if expecting retaliation from her on that particular subject, but in hearing none, he continued, knowing exactly where to strike next.

"...crying yourself to sleep at night because the man you love will never belong to you." He heard a sharp intake of air, quivering as if the act itself had been burdensome. "Is that the depth of your despair, Inoue Orihime?"

Orihime looked up from the floor, not even realizing that her gaze had drifted from him. But upon raising them, she nearly gasped at the intense gaze that was now focused so dispassionately on her, holding a sharp, almost disgusted look among them. "Your eyes are blinded by idealism. You know nothing of misery and darkness. To be surrounded by it, to watch it consume-"

Ulquiorra stopped himself mid-sentence, as if unwilling to further discuss such things with the likes of her. And as he took stride again with another order of, "Hasten your steps, Aizen-sama is intolerant of tardiness," Orihime released a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding, his words rolling themselves over and over in her mind, confusing and confounding her to the point she felt she hadn't even been able to respond. "Woman." He called sharply, snapping her out of her thoughts and pushing her own feet forward once more.

Not everybody has to live in despair...She thought to herself, her eyes following the harsh lines his shadow cast on floor ahead of her. And Orihime, in all her curiosity and naivety had to wonder...did Ulquiorra Ciefer have despair?

.

"Wait here." He ordered quietly, to which she obliged without argument, watching behind curious eyes as he made his way to where the long marble table sat, empty of occupants, situated in the center of an equally empty room.

Orihime stood patiently by the door, her eyes landing on the single figure of a man sitting at the head of said table. His broad shoulders, brown hair and utterly arrogant aura were unmistakable to those familiar with the damage Aizen Sosuke could do on immeasurable scales. Her soft features hardened instantly when he locked eyes with her, smiling and nodding like he wasn't keeping her captive here, like he was just nodding to an old friend. To which Ulquiorra, too, glanced over his shoulder as if curious about what his 'master' was looking at, but there was no curiosity in his eyes as he didn't even spare her another second before he returned his attention back to Aizen, apparently continuing the conversation her presence had interrupted.

How rude...She thought to herself, quite tired of being snubbed by the man.

Aizen gave her a small smirk almost as soon as the thought entered her mind, as if he could read every musing that ran through her brain. Orihime nearly grimaced. It riled her nerves, but she would die before she would allow him the pleasure to see her shudder even in disgust of him. No doubt it would just tickle him silly.

She briefly wondered what he wanted, what they were talking about. But she had a good idea. She had undoubtedly been called here for the same reason he'd always called for her, to which she always refused or made up convenient excuses, all of which she was quickly running low on. And she knew he was getting impatient with her, but if she could only bide a little more time until Ichigo and the others got here...

"Any luck persuading our Princess, Ulquiorra?" Aizen addressed his subordinate casually, fingers crossed under his chin while observing the girl with about as much intensity that a cat would upon a mouse.

"No," Was his reply, simple and curt. "I'm sure there is a way to gain her cooperation."

"Hn, yes." Aizen smiled, his gaze sliding from the girl to the stoic man before him. "I do apologize for dumping her on you." Lies.

"It is of no consequence." More lies.

Aizen really did smirk this time, as if acknowledging Ulquiorra's admission was as true as his own, as if he actually cared that shoving her on Ulquiorra troubled him about as much as Ulquiorra claimed he didn't care. Aizen knew he showed a certain amount of dislike for humans, but he really was the most convenient choice...

"Of course, but I do need you to do something for me." His eyes examined the man standing idly by the corner of the table, waiting for him to continue. "Ichigo Kurosaki and several others will be making their way into Hueco Mundo soon to retrieve their...lost goods." His gesture towards the girl was nearly imperceptible. "Without a doubt, Soul Society will mark her as a traitor, leaving him with less desirable circumstances to enter Hueco Mundo. From there, I'm sure you can piece together the rest, and with Kisuke Urahara undoubtedly helping them just as he did when they broke into Soul Society," He explained. "...this means they will most likely be entering from the north, given that is the best and closest route he will be able to direct them to." Aizen's fingers unfurled from beneath his chin, leaving one hand to run his forefinger over his bottom lip in contemplation, as if he were still indecisive on the matter. "I want you to clear a path for them."

Ulquiorra stood silently, waiting for the rest of the order that would undoubtedly be added onto that command.

"I want you to leave enough behind to slow them down, but nothing too strenuous, yes?"

"If that is what you want." This seemed a bit extreme...if the substitute Shinigami could not even defeat the Hollow in just making his way to Las Noches, then he wasn't even worth the time it took to think about it. It was rather ridiculous, but Aizen Sosuke did seem to enjoy these petty games that came along with the oncoming war and Ulquiorra also had a suspicion that Aizen was grooming the boy for something. Exactly what it was, he was still unsure. "Is that all, Aizen-sama?"

"Yes, that will do for now."

"Should I leave the girl in my quarters as usual?" He asked, unsure of what Aizen wanted done with her. If she did not perform her duties soon, he would undoubtedly dispose of her. Then again, he suspected Aizen didn't have her here for the current reasons he was telling his Espada. Ulquiorra was of the mind that Aizen wouldn't let her touch the Hōgyoku even if she finally agreed to negate the damage he'd wrought upon it; it was too risky, even if the value of her strength had been evaluated to be below standard, she was not worth the risk. Without a doubt, had she truly been here for such a purpose, he would have been rid of her the moment she declined his offer, as keeping her here any longer would serve no real function for him, at least not one that Ulquiorra could firgure out as of yet. It had also been clear she had refused him to buy herself time in order to plot her own way to go about destroying it with her unusual powers. It had been blatantly obvious those were her intentions from the start. The girl was not good at hiding things, especially with that expressive face of hers giving her away even in the smallest of lies.

"No, no, that won't be necessary. You will be gone too long for her to be left unsupervised. I will send her off with Harribel for a while, it will do her good to get some variety." The smirk on his face was bored and lackadaisical.

"Of course," Ulquiorra bowed his head a bit in respect, turning away from the table to leave.

"Oh, and Ulquiorra?" Aizen called after him.

"Yes?"

"When you get back, I expect you will directly retrieve the girl, yes? Harribel does have her own duties to attend..."

Ulquiorra nodded his head again in understanding before walking away. Acknowledging the command for what it really meant; don't to attempt to discard the girl on Harribel in order to be rid of her, because no matter how much posturing he did, even he would never be able to fool Aizen into believing he didn't mind having the girl around or that he wouldn't 'conveniently' forget to pick her up. Despite the order, Ulquiorra still planned for a brief reprieve after he returned, after all, with her being left under the watchful eye of Tier Harribel, it was an opportunity that he intended to take full advantage of, if only for a short period of time. He was being run ragged and with the woman taking up residence in his room, he had not been able to sleep in over a week. He did not mind being an errand boy, not in the least. Even babysitting the woman didn't irk him as much as it first did when she had come here, but this little job was borderline ridiculous. It was like a childish game...even if Aizen Sosuke enoyed these games, Ulquiorra had to wonder if he was being tested in some way. Caring for humans and receiving such remarkably strange and abnormal tasks.

Still...

...clearing a path for that boy? Such a pain.

"He will see you now." He told the girl as he passed her by the doorway.

"But..." She looked utterly confused. "Where are you going?" Her head tilted a little with the question. And he wondered why she cared.

"I am leaving."

"Leaving?" She immediately responded and he felt his already thin patience running thinner. "Aren't you going to wait on me?" Orihime realized she must have said something very wrong, because she noticed his jaw visibly tighten, looking for all the world like he just wanted to walk away like he usually did. She had a feeling the fact that Aizen was sitting not forty feet away watching them, watching Ulquiorra, had something to do with his current 'good' manners when she was certain he would have turned on his heel with a dryly retorted 'do I look like a servant to you' before leaving her presence.

"You will be left in the company of Tier Harribel while I am away, you will show the same amount of respect to her as you do me. You will not, however, pester her with frivolous requests and questions that you are so determined to voice." Orihime nearly frowned. She wasn't frivolous. Not to mention, she didn't know this Harribel person at all. Only vaguely remembering her because it seemed she was the only female amongst the plethora of male Espada. From what she had seen of the woman, she was very levelheaded, but her three friends were a bit...rambunctious. She wasn't completely comfortable with the news, nor with him leaving. He'd become somewhat of a security blanket, despite the cruel things he did and the numerous threats he made, he never bothered her much and he never hurt her... 'so far' her mind added uselessly. And as soon as the thought blossomed, she wished it to go away as it stirred up unpleasant images and scenarios of the one person she had grown remotely comfortable around.

"I'm leaving." He announced again, a little hurriedly, as if he could not wait for a break from her, leaving her feeling a little more than stung. Like she was just bad company. She had to remind herself of where she was and who these people were, reiterating the fact that none of these people were normal by her standards and she was certainly not normal by theirs, either. "Do not keep Aizen-sama waiting. He has been patient enough with you."

When he walked away, Orihime wanted to reach out and grab him by the coattail and pull him back into the room. To tell him to come back, to wait at least until Harribel came to get her...she'd never been alone with Aizen, Ulquiorra had always been there to accompany her and she hadn't even realized she had taken comfort in such a small thing until this very moment. A shiver ran down her spine as she watched him leave, she swallowed a lump in her throat and she had a thought to call out to him. Instead, she licked her suddenly dry lips and made her way to the man sitting at the table before her, smirking in that heinous way that spoke of taking pleasure in the discomfort of others.

When she stopped in the same spot that Ulquiorra had been standing in, she simply crossed her hands over her lap again and waited, refusing to address him first or show him any sign of respect.

"How are you today, Orihime?" He asked pleasantly. "I do hope Ulquiorra is not being too rough with you."

Orihime shook her head, her eyes landing somewhere on the center of the table.

"Good," Aizen nodded congenially, "I won't take up too much of your time," He stood from his chair and reached into a pocket tucked in the inner breast of his pristine white uniform. "I'm sure there are much more pleasant things you could be doing on such a fine day." She wanted to both laugh and cry at that. She had nothing to do but the things he approved for her, scheduling out agendas for her with redundant activities on days that were only created by his science and false sun.

"Have you changed your mind, yet?" He asked calmly, holding his hand out to her to show her the small hairpins resting in his palm. Her eyes softened at the sight of them, wanting to have them close to her again, she nearly reached out to touch them only to immediately stop herself. She wanted no further contact with him than necessary. He only smiled at this. "You know, you will be allowed to have them back once you fulfill your duties."

I have no duties to fulfill to this man.

She kept her mouth shut.

"Nothing?" He tried again to gain a response when the last attempt failed. "Not even more excuses?" He leaned in a little closer and held her hairpins in front of her face, twirling them in his fingers. Holding his gaze took effort, but that effort gave way after a short time as she let her eyes fall to the floor between them, having no answer he wanted to hear. She could not agree to it yet, not when she had yet to completely find a way to reject the wretched thing from existence. The strength of the Hōgyoku was immense, and hers was not. And she was going nowhere fast with him holding her fairies hostage the whole time. She felt helpless without them.

"I see." His smile was patient and kind, but Orihime knew better. She knew he was getting tired of her insubordination. "As I'm sure you're well aware, many have started referring to your abilities as 'God-like' in nature." He tucked her hairpins back into his breast pocket, offering her a single glance over his shoulder as he turned to leave her. "In this world, there is only room for one God…Orihime." And in that moment, she was glad she could not see his expression, as the smile sounded as if it had been completely wiped from his face.

"Harribel." It was a command and she only just noticed the woman standing by the door, three figures behind her. Orihime swallowed, unsure of how things would go from here on out. Would the woman be confrontational? She went to steal a glance at Aizen as he retreated in the opposite direction, but only saw emptiness as he had apparently already gone. A part of her felt relieved that the whole thing was over with, plus it had been much more brief than her previous meetings with him. But now she had to cope with a whole new situation and she hadn't the slightest clue how to greet the woman.

Ulquiorra had been hard enough to deal with. Popping into her life, killing her guards and leaving no room for quarter.

"Orihime Inoue?" The stern, confident voice had her eyes darting to the blonde who had made her way into the room only to stop a few feet behind her.

"Y-yes?"

"I have been instructed to look after you until Ulquiorra returns," The blonde turned to stride out of the room. "You will follow me."

Orihime only stared after the woman for a second, trying to gage the situation. She seemed slightly commanding, but at least she used her name and didn't call her things like 'girl' or 'woman'. And certainly not 'pet-sama'.

As Harribel exited the room, it seemed the three women in her company made it a point to get between her and Harribel, walking ahead of her but always staying respectfully behind the dark skinned blonde. They were all very beautiful, Orihime noted, watching the four of them as they made their way confidently around the palace, heading in a direction she was not familiar with.

They were also quite animated, Orihime realized, watching and listening as the three women between her and Harribel conversed with one another. One in particular was a bit loud, with blue hair and a bit of a tomboyish figure, almost reminding Orihime of Hiyori, but with vastly different features.

"Oh, shut up and stop your complaining," The brunette interrupted her tirade. Apparently fed up with listening to the other woman complain about their new 'cargo'.

"Don't tell me to shut it! I don't see why we have to get dumped with this bitch." She motioned over her shoulder at Orihime with her thumb, as if there was any question to who she was referring to. "Ulquiorra shoulda' just took her with him, she follows him around all the damn time anyways."

"Who cares?!" She all but snapped to the woman. "Besides, I'm sure Aizen-sama has better things for him to do, anyways."

"Aizen-sama does seem to keep him more busy these days," The third female interjected, never removing her sleeve from her mouth in a manner that screamed of propriety.

"Hehe, and you know why that is?" The blue haired woman held her hand over her mouth in a stage whisper, as if they should be deeply interested.

"Nope." The shortest one answered briskly and turned her nose up.

"And who asked you?"

"You did."

"Shaddup,"

"Oh, give it a rest, Apacci." The one called Mila Rose broke up the verbal bout. "Everybody already knows Aizen-sama has been keeping an eye on Ulquiorra."

"Yeah, because he don't trust him." She retorted and Orihime's eyes widened a bit at hearing this. "If you ask me, I wouldn't stick someone I don't even trust in my army."

"Well you don't have an army, now do you?" Sung-Sun prodded the other woman further, and even though she sounded haughty and snippy, it still rang in Orihime's ears like she was taunting the other female. "And neither did anyone ask you, did they?"

But Apacci seemed to just ignore this to continue with her argument against the apparently untrustworthy Ulquiorra. "I don't even know why Aizen-sama stuck the human with that freak, anyways. Ain't she supposed to be a part of this 'big plan'?" She annunciated the last words a bit dramatically. "Doesn't seem very smart to stick her with untrustworthy characters like him."

"Oh, so you'd rather babysit her every day?" Mila Rose asked. "Geez, what a pain would that be?" The woman scratched the back of her head, as if imaging the awful task it must be to watch her. "But now that you mention, it does seem a bit…irrational."

"I hardly see a problem." Sung-Sun's eyes seemed to shine in a mischievous way from behind her sleeve. "If there was an issue with him, I'm sure it would have already been addressed." Orihime tried to stop her frown upon hearing the woman pronounce the word 'issue'. It had a strange, eerie drawl to it.

"Oh, come on, there's only two Arrancar in this whole place that didn't need to be subjected to the Hōgyoku, and Starrk is too damn lazy to be suspicious."

Mila Rose rolled her eyes. "You sound so ridiculous. Are conspiracy theories your new hobby, now? Is your life really that empty, Apacci?" She laughed.

"Shut your face!"

"You're wrong, anyways, idiot. Barragan's the only one I can imagine who's arrogant enough to plot against Aizen-sama."

"Keh, that old relic?" Apacci nearly snorted, apparently not holding any fondness for the man. "I would hardly think so, that old bastard wouldn't know how to lead a revolt even if he tried. He'd just get bored with it. Feh."

Orihime was curious to know what Harribel thought of all their banter, or if she was even listening at all. The woman hadn't said a single thing since they left. But Orihime wasn't as good at holding her tongue as others usually were, and curiosity was one of Orihime's flaws she just couldn't ignore.

"U-um…" She began.

"It's not like I'd trust any of them." Mila Rose stated, agreeing in a somewhat indirect way.

"Even if I didn't trust him, the first one I would get rid of is that vile Nnoitra Jiruga." Sung-Sun all but sneered. And it seemed they all agreed on this, at least.

"E-excu-"

"That man!" Apacci huffed. "Going around taunting Harribel-sama like a dog! What a nuisance. Like he would be able to last in a fight against Harribel-sama, he must be mental."

"Excuse me," She raised her voice and Orihime realized she had probably raised it a bit too much as three sets of intense eyes fixated on her.

"Eh?" Apacci intoned rather gruffly. "You got something to say, human?" Orihime winced at the reference, suddenly finding 'girl' and 'woman' not quite so bad as she used to think it was.

"W-well, I was just wondering," Orihime swallowed hard, suddenly feeling like an ant under a magnifying glass. "You mentioned Aizen not trusting Ulquiorra…I was just curious as to why you...well, why you think this."

"Huh? Ulquiorra?" The look on Apacci's face was certainly less than feminine, appearing somewhat confused as to what the girl was getting at. Then a smirk crossed her lips and amusement lit her eyes. "Oh my God, get this guys," She jabbed Mila Rose in the side. "This little bitch is tryin' to stand up for Ulquiorra!"

"What? No, no, that's not it!" Orihime's eyes shot frantically from one woman to the next, as if eye contact would give them more reason to believe her.

"What is it? You don't like hearin' anyone talk shit about your Ulquiorra-kun?" She cackled.

"H-he doesn't like that honorific..." Her brow furrowed, but when the three women suddenly burst out laughing, a deep blush spread across her face and the eye contact she had been working so hard to maintain failed desperately as they shot to the floor in embarrassment.

"Let me tell ya a little something about Ulquiorra-kun," Apacci slung an arm over Orihime's shoulder, apparently having no qualms about touching a human such as herself. "And where that bastard was born..." She leaned down to whisper in her ear and Orihime pushed away the discomfort from the overly friendly gesture. "The first breath that freak took was curdled with the blood of-"

"Apacci." The stern voice of Harribel cut the other woman off. Apparently deeming it unnecessary to gossip about fellow Arrancar.

"But-" She began, only to have whatever she had been about to say die on her lips. "Sorry," Apacci muttered and immediately stopped her little sermon, pulling herself away from Orihime. "She was just curious, and can you blame her? Aizen-sama-" She voiced it like she had asked to hear whatever slander had been about to come out of her mouth, which now that she had gotten even a small taste of it, Orihime wished she hadn't bothered speaking up in the first place.

"I'm certain Aizen-sama has his reasons. If they are good enough for him, they are good enough for me. I do not question his judgment and neither should you." Was all she said, was all she needed to say. Putting the woman politely in her place and at once reminding her of whom their master was. For a brief moment Orihime had to wonder what kind of act of humility Aizen had shown her for him to garner the respect of such a person.

With that, Harribel turned and continued on her way, with the rest of them in tow.

"Whatever, I'm sure she'll figure it out on her own, anyways." Apacci said as she glanced at Orihime over her shoulder.

"I still don't understand." Orihime shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around it. "Aren't you, um, 'numbered' according to rank? Why would someone who's-"

Apacci laughed again, accompanied by a chuckle from Mila Rose, who quickly answered her question. "Do we act like we have rankings? Or more precisely, that the Arrancar here even respect any form of rank other than towards Aizen-sama?"

"I don't-"

"Who said strength and rank has anything to do with trust?"

"Though it does seem that strength comes with age...even though Harribel-sama is only a few centuries old, look how much stronger she is compared to the rest of them." Mila Rose practically oozed of her confidence in the woman.

"But-"

However, it seemed none of them intended on letting her talk. "The top Espada are numbered according to their age. Feh, shows how much this dumb bitch knows." Apacci rolled her eyes and Orihime wanted to find a retort for that. In fact she had one, but something told her these women wouldn't be as neutral as Ulquiorra was towards her. "Why is she even here if she can't figure shit like that out?"

"Who knows, I'm sure it's just like Harribel-sama said, Aizen-sama must have his reasons."

"Of course he does..." And they went on with their banter, going about like she hadn't even interrupted them with a question in the first place.

How was she supposed to know that? Just because she wasn't aquatinted with their lifestyle didn't mean she was stupid. She was certain they didn't know much about human lifestyles, either, and if found in different circumstances, they would be the ones feeling like a fool. The only difference being Orihime didn't go out of her way to seek pleasure in the suffering of others...

.

The whole assignment had taken far longer than it should have and as Ulquiorra tried in vain to ignore the harebrained moron stalking along behind him, he had a good idea as to what had slowed the ridiculous operation down to a pace more befitting an asthmatic slug.

"Ulquiorra! You think that meeting Aizen called is still on today?" A loud voice asked in a near earsplitting tone. Despite the deep baritone of his voice, it still never failed to grate on his nerves.

Ulquiorra gave in to a rare display of exasperation and sighed as he made his way through the back gates of Las Noches, Yammy following close behind. He had insisted on coming, even though Ulquiorra had objected against it and tried to remind him that Aizen may have need of him while he was away. But Yammy seemed to have finally made some use of that shriveled brain of his as he was able to come to the amazing conclusion that Aizen never seemed to give him orders. That whatever Yammy usually did of his own free will, acting independently without cause, was accepted by the man without much protest as his actions were reckless, but mostly harmless to his carefully laid out plans.

"I wouldn't know." He replied quietly. When, in fact, he had almost forgotten about the prescheduled meeting. Forgetting was not a usual occurrence for him, he was sharper than this. Ulquiorra did not quite believe in giving excuses for such failures or slip ups, but he was certain it had something to do with not having slept in over two weeks, almost three. Ulquiorra stopped himself from sighing again, berating himself for falling into such a decrepit condition, for he was certain it wasn't healthy. And as he felt another wave of exhaustion wash over him, the thought only served as another reminder of the painfully long mission...

Another Hollow had just been demolished under Yammy's childlike fascination with destruction and death, ripping the beast from stem to stern as Ulquiorra looked on from a short distance, perched on a tall rock with his hands stuffed in his pockets to oversee his fellow Espada's actions. Did that idiot really not understand the concept of 'don't kill it'?

"Hey, Ulquiorraaaa! This is pretty fun, we should go on more missions if this is the kind of stuff we get to do!"

Really, he had no idea why the simpleton insisted on following him everywhere...

"You idiot," Ulquiorra vanished from his post on the rock and suddenly appeared beside Yammy and the now decimated Hollow that he had planned on letting live for Kurosaki Ichigo and his companions to deal with. Its strength seemed adequate enough to slow them down without killing them before they could make their way to Las Noches for whatever pointless diversion Aizen had planned for them. "I told you not to kill it, now we have to go find another to relocate." He said as he nudged the carcass with his boot, his mind running over how little of a threat the half Shinigami boy offered, remembering the day he had went to the human world to scout the level of hazard the boy may present to them.

Even if his power had peaked at points that seemed impossible for someone who couldn't even land a killing blow to Yammy, if one couldn't control their own power, they weren't even worth his time. He failed to understand Grimmjow's obsession with the brat. There was nothing intriguing about him. He was trash. However, if Ichigo Kurosaki somehow managed to make use of that power, harnessing it in a way that he could actually control...he might become interesting.

Ulquiorra was starting to get the impression that this little 'enterprise' Aizen was setting up for the woman's companioins was less a form of entertaining amusement and more of an effort to mold the boy into something worthy of Aizen's time. That perhaps Aizen was much more interested in Ichigo Kurosaki's untapped potential and not fleeting wargames.

"Let's go," He said as he turned from the dead beast. It was already starting to stink...

"Hey, can I get the next one, too?" Yammy asked as he followed behind.

"No, you will only kill it. We don't have time to be running in circles out here for no reason." Ulquiorra tuned out the man's complaining as he continued on his way, once again mulling over the oncoming war...

"Where we goin'?" Yammy asked. "Ain't the meeting hall that way?" He gestured in the general direction of the hall.

"I have to pick up the human woman, first." He answered, wondering why he was still being followed. "There is still plenty of time before the meeting."

"Oh, so we get to play with that big titted human bitch?"

Ulquiorra nearly groaned with annoyance. "Yes, how very observant of you." He said quietly as his normally high tolerance for the large man had been mysteriously absent as of late. He just wanted the buffoon to shut up, he just wanted to sleep.

"Where's she at, anyways?"

"If you haven't noticed, we are in the Western most wing of the palace," He said as he stopped in front of a large door, assuming the man would be able to catch on without further explanation. "I'm coming in," He announced as he knocked on the door. He could already sense that Tier Harribel was not with them, that it was only her three fraccion. "Where is the girl?" Ulquiorra asked as he made his way into the large room that was decorated with quite a bit more furniture and color than his own.

"Geez, ever heard of knocking?" Apacci asked, frowning at him.

"I did."

"It's not like you waited, though...barging into women's quarters like that. How rude."

"Where's the girl?" He repeated himself, not at all interested in engaging in whatever acidic conversation she was attempting to provoke.

"Oh, Ulquiorra, you're back!" Orihime smiled as she came into the room, a towel around her body and a brush running through her long, wet hair. "You're...back..." She said, as if only just now realizing she was covered only by a towel in a room with men in it and blushing profusely for her mistake. All of which he paid little mind to.

"Change immediately, we are leaving." He ordered. There was still plenty of time before the meeting, but not if she slowed him down with her constant primping that always seemed to take longer than necessary.

But then she was looking at him as if he'd just sprouted an extra head, examining him from head to toe in a way that was slightly irksome. "Are you ok?" She suddenly asked as she approached him. Nearly getting directly in his face. If Ulquiorra was a lesser person, he was certain he'd be sputtering in disbelief and indignation to her blatant lack of respect. He heard muffled cackling coming from the women behind her, whispering something about 'Ulquiorra-kun'. His eyes narrowed in distaste.

"Excuse me?" He frowned, leveling his narrowed gaze at the girl.

"You...don't look well." She answered, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Then he remembered he must've looked like garbage. Blood splatter was still on his clothes and under his nails, deep in the crevasses of his skin and hands, cracked and drying into a dark brown color that stood out all the more against his pallid completion.

"I am fine. Change now, we need to leave." He ordered again, his voice betraying none of the impatience welling up within him, simply not having the time for anymore pointless questions.

"Oi, Ulquiorra, we're gonna be late!" Yammy all but yelled as he came into the room, his own small portion of patience appearing to have run out. Only to seemingly forget what he had been talking about as his eyes landed on the woman beside him. "Hey, so this is that bitch from the human world?" Yammy laughed, suddenly reaching down and wrapping a hand around the girl, completely encompassing her small frame in his large hand. Orihime squealed in protest and shock, unable to move her arms as they were locked against her sides in his massive grip.

"W-w-what do you think you're doing?" Orihime started kicking her legs as he turned her upside down, poking at her feet curiously. "Hey!" She couldn't stop the gurgled laugh that escaped her throat just then as he pulled at her toes. "S-stop it! Ah! That tickles! I said STOP!" She tried to kick harder, but he suddenly gave her a hard squeeze, nearly turning her blue.

"What's so special about her, anyways?" Yammy asked, lifting her upturned form to eyelevel. "She's so weak. What the hell would Aizen want with such a pathetic thing?"

"I assure you, it is of no consequence to you," Ulquiorra sighed. "Now put her down, she is not a toy."

Yammy squeezed her again, taking delight in the way the girl gasped for air.

"Hey, dumbass!" Mila Rose suddenly rose from her chair, apparently having enough of painting her nails while waiting for them to leave their room. "Cut it out, you're gonna squish her! Harribel-sama left her with us, if you so much as break a bone in her body, you're gonna be sorry you even stepped foot in here." She threatened.

"Oh?" Yammy suddenly dropped the girl and Ulquiorra wondered if he should have grabbed her before she fell on her head, certainly she wasn't so weak to retain damage from such a fall, was she? She fell on her side, nevertheless, in an undignified heap of coughing fits and gasps as she clutched her towel to her body. "And what are you gonna do if I do squish her?" He lifted his foot over her, as if to fulfill his threat. "Just like a bug."

"Just try it!" Apacci was suddenly beside them. "All the more reason to break that 'no fight' rule." She grinned a little deviously.

"I don't think a brainless fool like him can even comprehend what rules are...let alone remember them." Sung-Sun narrowed her eyes haughtily from behind her sleeve. And Ulquiorra realized the situation was getting too far out of hand. A situation he had absolutely no time to deal with.

"What a bunch of pathetic bitches!" Yammy's big mouth widened in a grin. "If you all want to die so badly, you should have just said so in the first place!" And then his foot was coming dangerously close to Orihime's head and suddenly the aura in the room turned absolutely lethal with their Reiatsu quickly raising.

Orihime's eyes widened in horror as she watched the foot coming down on her with a frightening amount of weight and speed. Clenching her eyes shut and bringing her arms up in a helpless attempt to shield herself against an attack that would leave her as nothing more than bloody smear on the floor.

It wasn't even a second later and suddenly Yammy was against the wall outside the room, a large crack splintering up from behind his form on the once pristine white wall, clutching his stomach and cursing his head off. "What the fuck, Ulquiorra?" He complained, apparently under the false impression that Ulquiorra had his back in the fight. But he received no answer as Orihime was pulled roughly to her feet by her arm and pushed in the direction of the bathroom.

"Change. Now." He ordered impatiently. "We are leaving as soon as she is done." He said to the others, as if to pacify them in some remote way, which failed as they stood, rooted to the spot, still eyeing the two men who had intruded upon their territory.

"Damn right you are." Apacci hissed under her breath, her temper beginning to slip. "Fuckin' freak..." But Ulquiorra ignored the comment, paying no mind to the temperamental women and instead brooding over the fact that by the time this ordeal was over with, he wouldn't even have time to change his clothes, let alone drop the woman off in his room.

When Orihime emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later in fresh clothes, she rushed to the door, easily picking up on the tense situation and the urgency to leave before another fight had the chance to break out. "Um...thank you for taking care of me," She said to the three women, who didn't even seem to hear her as they continued their staring match with Ulquiorra, before turning back to leave the room.

Orihime was relieved to see Yammy had left, his short temper apparently having had enough of the whole thing. She followed behind Ulquiorra in her usual manner, glancing at his back once in a while in curiosity. There was undoubtedly something wrong with him. His hair was messier than usual, the lines she had noticed under his eyes before he left were now twice as deep and even looked a little dark against his pale skin. Orihime's eyes narrowed on his back, noticing that it was even stiffer than usual. She was certain that if his muscles wound themselves any tighter, he'd pop at the seams.

"I'm sorry," She said as a peace offering to ease the tension between them. "I didn't mean to cause any trouble." She could tell he had not in any mood to wait on her back there and she was fully aware that the whole issue that had nearly started did not help things in the least. She told herself she didn't really care, that his demeanor didn't really bother her. That she was only trying to instigate conversation because she didn't like the silence.

But he didn't even acknowledge that she had said anything and she lowered her eyes in defeat, not wanting to push him further.

"You will wait here." He told her as they stopped in front of the doors to the main hall. Orihime was momentarily confused. Were they not going back to her room? "You will not move. If you even so much as twitch, I will-"

"Holy hell!" A loud, arrogant voice she vaguely recognized as Grimmjow's interrupted him, not even taking into consideration that he had been talking. "You look like shit!" Orihime's eyes widened at the abrasive comment as she glanced at the blue haired man who took up the relaxed position of leaning against the wall next to them. "You know, everybody already knows you look like the walking dead, but if you keep giving us material like this to work with," He gestured to Ulquiorra's ragged looking condition. "You're only hurting yourself in the long run." He chuckled, to which Ulquiorra turned and left her by the door, not even bothering to acknowledge his presence. Seeming as if he didn't even hear the loud insult.

"Geez, what a buzz kill..." Grimmjow mumbled under his breath and Orihime could only stare at him, unsure of what to do when left to her own devices around these people. "The hell you lookin' at?"

Orihime stuttered over her tongue in her rush to get an answer out. "I-I'm not-"

"Pet-sama..."

Orihime's heart dropped to the pit of her stomach at the nickname which she hated so much. And when two, cold hands landed on her shoulders, it was all she could do not to vomit.

"Your tits are looking great today." A tall, thin man leaned over her shoulders, examining the focus of his attention with close scrutiny. Orihime had to force the supposed compliment from her mind and resist the urge to jerk herself away in an attempt not to agitate him. She did not know his name, but she would never forget his face or his voice or his vile comments, always going out of his way with every chance he got to harass her persistently. Always waiting for the perfect moment when she was alone to try and make her squirm. Her eyes glanced up to Grimmjow, who was only grinning at her, just waiting for her to freak out and go bonkers on them, offering him a sort of morbid entertainment like her plight was nothing more than a freak show that attracted spectators by the dozens.

"Um...t-thank you?" She swallowed hard and forced the words from her throat, frowning when she felt his hands squeeze her shoulders and heard a cackle leave his throat.

Nnoitra burst out laughing. "Look how easily she gets worked up! She looks like she's about to faint."

"She's just a human, after all." Grimmjow responded as if it was the only logical reason for her distress.

Orihime went red with embarrassment and horror when she felt long fingers run through her hair, the tips resting around her temples. "How much you wanna bet Aizen-sama will let me look after her for a day if I ask really nicely." Her eyes immediately shot to Ulquiorra who was sitting in a chair at the table, seemingly completely ignorant to the situation. Did he really intend to leave her out here? Wasn't he going to take care of this? Didn't he always? Maybe he was keeping a discreet eye on the situation and she just couldn't tell...or maybe he wasn't. Maybe he didn't care what they did to her.

Panic started to rise and swell inside her the more she thought about it.

Grimmjow chuckled beside her. "See something you like?"

Nnoitra leaned down to whisper in her ear. "I'll even be real nice and let ya think of him when I fu-"

A loud sigh from behind them seemed to break the tension, catching them off guard. "Hey, you think we can get this over with soon?" Orihime didn't know who it was nor did she care to find out, if he was anything like these two she was certain she'd have to make a run for it soon. Even if Ulquiorra had told her to stay put, she wasn't stupid enough to subject herself to such animalistic behaviors or put herself at risk to who knows what.

"Fuck, Starrk, don't you have anything better to do than sleep all fuckin' day?" Orihime was more than relieved to feel those spindly fingers leave her hair. And when the lanky man removed himself from her presence completely, Orihime released a breath she hadn't even been aware she was holding. Watching in disbelief as the man and this newcomer strode confidently past her and into the large room ahead of them as if she wasn't even there. As if she didn't even exist and he hadn't just been tormenting her mercilessly mere seconds ago.

"Yeah, I do shit..." The other man scratched the back of his head, looking for all the world like he was barely able to keep his eyes open as a yawn erupted from his mouth.

"Babysitting that little bitch you hang out with doesn't count, jackass."

Seeing them leave, she sighed in relief as her eyes fell back to Ulquiorra, wondering how much longer she was going to have to wait out here before they could leave. However, her relief proved to be short lived as she realized Grimmjow was still standing there, looking down on her with dark mischief twinkling in his eyes, apparently finding it interesting to see whom she had been staring at.

"Ya know, I wouldn't get too comfortable if I were you." He said almost congenially, if it hadn't been for the demented way he'd spoken the words with a taunting lilt. "Don't let that calm, autocratic act he puts on fool you into thinking he isn't any less ruthless than the rest of us bastards."

"Wha...what do you mean?"

"Listen, I kinda like ya, so I'm gonna give you a heads up," He stated, leaning in closer. "I'll tell you right now, whatever thoughts you've got running through that pretty little head of yours about your darling Ulquiorra over there, are completely wrong. Believe me when I say he's probably the sickest asshole in the entire of the lot of us. The disgusting things I've seen that warped freak do have sent shivers even down my twisted spine."

Her brows narrowed, not quite understanding his meaning and not wanting to believe what she thought he was saying. "I don't-"

"Now, pay close attention, because I'm only going to tell you once," He leaned in even further and Orihime had to force her feet to stay firmly in place, to not back down as she stared into deep blue eyes that were alive with more emotion and vitality than she'd ever seen in the entirety of this desolate place. "When you're boyfriend gets here, he's gonna stalk him down the moment he sets foot behind these walls and without even thinking twice..." A long, clawed finger reached out to rest on her sternum, directly over her heart to draw in slow, intent circles around her chest, coming uncomfortably close to her breasts. "He's gonna sink his rotten fingers deep into his puny chest and rip that heart of his right out of his pathetic body."

Orihime's eyes were wide and disbelieving as she continued to stare at his broad, toothy grin as his words slowly sank in, his smile growing by the second at the unmasked horror in her eyes. Practically being able to read every image in them as the scene began to play out in her thoughts, seeing nothing but the ghastly picture his less than eloquent description had illustrated. "I...I don't believe you." She breathed out.

"Keh, you'll figure it out eventually..." His voice trailed off a bit before he pulled away and Orihime didn't even bother to feel relief at the distance that was now between them, so entrapped by the awful things his words had conjured within her mind. "But being the nice person that I am, I'll even help you out." He said, suddenly gaining her complete and full attention. "You've got nothing to worry about, I won't let that happen."

"You won't?" She questioned, feeling very confused by his words and somewhat hopeful. After all, any allies she could get were-

"Damn right. You find a way to keep Ulquiorra away from him and I'll make sure to give that Shinigami bastard as quick and painless a death as possible!" He burst out laughing then, not even bothering to watch as the hopeful look in her eyes sank into an expression of shock and disbelief. "I'll be damned if I let that clown get to my prey first." He stated almost harshly, possessively. A very feral look suddenly overtaking the light in his eyes. "Ichigo Kurosaki is mine and mine alone...but don't say I didn't warn you when you see with your own eyes how merciless that bastard can be...by the time he's done mind fucking that useless brain of yours, you won't even know your own head from your ass." He walked away laughing. Leaving her standing in the hall with a tumultuous amount of emotions coursing through her.

She didn't know what to believe anymore. And she didn't know why Grimmjow was so intent on harming Ichigo. The thought that such a violent man was looking to harm her friend made her head throb with worry and fear.

No, her friends were strong. She believed in them. They'd be able to overcome anything, no matter that is seemed the odds were stacked against them.

And Ulquiorra...she didn't want to believe what Grimmjow had said, it seemed he had only been trying to taunt her as all these people seemed so fond of doing. Of course she knew he was cruel and callous, but she couldn't picture the man going out of his way to harm someone he considered 'trash'. And even though she was still learning things about him, he never seemed to enjoy instigating fights. If anything, he avoided them like the plague. Not even letting the harsh taunting of his fellow Espada get under his skin. Vividly, she remembered the day in the park, how he hadn't been at all interested in engaging Ichigo in battle, he had barely given the boy a second glance let alone shown any interest in 'ripping out his heart'. He hadn't even been interested when Kisuke had called him out on it. And even in the Senkaimon, Ulquiorra hadn't bothered attacking her escorts until they themselves pulled their swords on him...

Perhaps she was only trying to explain all this away to ease her fears, to try and convince herself that Ichigo wasn't in danger of suffering such a horrible fate. Ulquiorra would never harm Ichigo in such a way...would he? Orihime then realized that perhaps she was becoming too complacent around him. That she was beginning to forget that she was still a prisoner here and he, the warden. They were still enemies, and he certainly wasn't helping her escape, nor did she foresee him doing so in the future.

This whole thing was giving her one big confusing headache. Until, once again, she sensed a distinct, snake-like presence slithering up behind her. "Orihime-chaaan~" A smooth voice called. She would have jumped out of her skin as another pair of hands landed on her shoulders had she not already felt the man coming. It wasn't hard to recognize the uneasy way he was able to raise the hairs on the back of her neck whenever he was near. "Why such a long face?" The fluid, lustrous voice hummed beside her ear.

She had to wonder if she was doing something wrong to attract all this unwanted attention. She wasn't even standing in their way to the door. They could have just ignored her. If she was such an insect to them, why did they go so far out of their way to make her feel uncomfortable and shower her with so much attention? "You must be lonely out here all by yourself." Orihime had already recognized the voice. She knew it well enough to cause a dull ache in her chest, throbbing uncomfortably as she thought of the woman he left behind in order to defect with Aizen.

Gin Ichimaru was not one to take lightly, no matter how amiable he may act at times toward her. He had broken Rangiku's heart, and Orihime had hated the look in the woman's eyes whenever his name was mentioned around her. It was a look that spoke of great pain and betrayal. Of despair and loneliness and all Orihime could think of was how utterly and completely pointless this war was. Causing nothing but destruction and heartache and pain. What were they fighting for, anyways?

"I'm ok, I don't mind it here." She tried to reassure him with little effect as he started to push her forward gently into the room full of Espada and defected Soul Society captains. She wanted nothing to do with this room. Nothing at all.

"Come, now," He urged. "Aizen wouldn't want you out here all alone, it wouldn't be polite to exclude such a pretty young lady from social gatherings." Orihime knew this was anything but a 'social gathering' and if she knew she would have stood a chance, she would have turned tail and ran from the offending occupants.

"I-I assure you, I-I-I'm fine!" She was starting to panic again as they approached the table, loud with Nnoitra and Grimmjow arguing over something. There were a few others talking amongst themselves, and as she passed them she vaguely realized they weren't conversing so much as tossing insults back and forth to one another. But the moment their eyes landed on her, the place seemed to grow silent as she felt the eyes of every Espada in the room on her, sending the sensation of pins and needles to rake across her skin.

She didn't know these people, didn't even recognize half of them. Only knowing Grimmjow due to her having fixed his arm, and Harribel after she'd spent the week with the calm woman. She didn't even know the name of the man who threw sexual insults at her like a boxer threw punches. She knew a few faces, faces she'd caught glimpses of here and there, but had no names to attach to them. And being in a room full of strangers stronger than she could ever wish to be, strangers that were all her enemy, no matter how much Aizen doted on her like a precious guest, Orihime wanted to be anywhere on earth so long as it wasn't here. Their stares speaking louder than words that she was not welcome here.

"Here, since Yammy isn't here, you can have a seat right by Ulquiorra." He ushered her closer to the chair, the hands on her shoulders forcing her into the seat with enough strength behind them to make sure she did not protest, and that whatever words were on the tip of her tongue were not welcome.

Orihime tried not to acknowledge the stares she was attracting, as if her very presence at the table was offensive. She suddenly realized she was shaking when she felt her knees trembling together against her will. As if on instinct, her eyes shot to Ulquiorra again, somehow hoping he would offer her a way to escape this unwanted mess. But he wasn't even looking at her, his eyes fixed somewhere on the far end of the room, staring off into space, his aloof attitude only serving in agitating her more than she already was.

Orihime felt rather than saw Aizen enter the room, keeping her eyes downcast and glued to the marble surface of the table before her. She was only partially aware of the greeting he gave them before he started to talk about plans and strategy and things that she didn't understand completely and things she suspected he was probably discreetly leaving out due to her presence at the table. Things she, apparently, had no business in hearing. But then again, she wasn't quite listening. Instead, all she could concentrate on was staying as still and quiet as a possible, trying to will herself to simply disappear from this dismal place.

Off to her right, she heard Nnoitra chuckle and on a rather stupid impulse, she looked up to see he was staring in her direction. Motioning with his finger a couple times, pointing at something behind her that he apparently thought she should be looking at.

When she turned to investigate, Orihime's mouth nearly fell open when she looked up to see Ulquiorra bleeding from the nose and corner of his mouth. A cold chill of concern rocketed through her body and without even thinking, she reached up to offer some kind of...of what? What exactly was she going to do, anyways?

Before she had a chance to realize her mistake, a pair of green eyes landed on her in an acridly cold warning. Looking down on her with a harshness she had yet to have seen in him, his mouth set in a deep frown that spoke volumes of his displeasure at her actions. A cackle was heard from her right again and she jerked her hand away from where it had touched his arm.

A soft sigh from Aizen proved a big enough distraction to break up the fiasco as he calmly asked, "Is there something you wish to say, Nnoitra?"

The man in question leaned forward on the table as he leveled his stare on Ulquiorra. "Yeah, I was just wondering if Ulquiorra actually enjoyed being coddled over like a fucking infant." He laughed loudly, apparently finding his words very funny. "Shit, if I needed a mother to wipe my own ass for me like that, I think I'd actually kill myself." His cackling was joined by Grimmjow as they both seemed to find humor in the situation. Orihime turned red with mortification.

"Ya know," He leaned closer, as if he had some vastly important message to convey. But Orihime should have known better as the next words to leave his mouth left her wanting to lurch out of her chair and run from the this wretched room. "If you didn't stay up every night fuckin' that bitch, you wouldn't be in such a sorry state, Ulquiorra." He chuckled and Orihime was a little shocked no one, not even Ulquiorra, said anything against the absurdity of all this. "Why don't you let me take her off your hands? Then again, if you keep this up, you'll be kicking the bucket in no time. If you ask me, the sooner the better." His voice grew dark as he grinned at the man in a taunting manner.

"If you have something you wish to settle with me, then perhaps you should actually do something about it...instead of moaning about your inadequacies like an incompetent imbecile." Ulquiorra said, leveling the man with a blank stare.

"Fuck yeah I have something to settle with you!" Nnoitra suddenly stood, nearly knocking his chair over. "You little son of a bitch, I'll wipe the floor with your white ass!" He reached behind him to wrap his fingers around the huge Zanpakutō on his back, ready to move at the slightest sign of further provocation.

"Get over it already, troll face." Grimmjow sighed from his seat across and slightly ajar to the man. "Nobody cares that you're all pissed off about the fact he's getting boned every night and you aren't."

"You wanna start something, too, pussy cat?" Nnoitra's grin was positively gleaming with ill intent and she couldn't tell if it was from irritation or the prospect of finding another reason to goad someone into more fights. "I have no problem with taking the both of you on at once."

"Just say the word, fucker." Grimmjow replied, seemingly all too happy to take the man up on his offer.

"Nnoitra," Aizen's voice interrupted the men from going any further, and Orihime was almost shocked to find a hint of amusement in his tone. She could hardly begin to understand the man. One moment he was sipping tea and acting like high society only to find him garnering amusement from such brutish scuffles such as these. It was almost sickening, she didn't know how anyone could find amusement in violence. "Is the presence of our guest too distracting for you?"

"Of course not," He smiled almost forcibly and leaned back in his seat again, acting as if he hadn't just tried to start a fight. "Just sayin'. Besides, I don't know what the fuck that bitch thinks she's thinks she's doing here anyways."

"Yes," Orihime stiffened in her seat when Aizen leveled his gaze on her. "What are you doing here, Orihime?" He asked intently, as if he were very, very interested in her answer.

She could feel her heart hammering in her chest and Orihime was distraught to know she had no idea how to stop it, or even how to answer him. Her eyes shot to Ulquiorra again and she was certain she heard Grimmjow and Nnoitra's cackles echoing behind her at her action, hopeless as it was, she couldn't help herself. But she should have guessed, as Ulquiorra offered no help. Suddenly remembering who put her in this situation, she stole a glance at the man standing beside Aizen, who only grinned in amusement at her in response. As if he'd known that something like this was going to happen when he brought her here.

"Look at her! She's so stupid she doesn't even know how to answer a simple question!" Nnoitra was laughing again and Orihime closed her eyes in embarrassment. She wouldn't cry...she wouldn't.

"Th-that's not-"

"What, whore? You talking back to me?" Orihime felt utter dread in hearing the agitated grate of his voice, holding none of the taunting tone it held in his previous inappropriate comments towards her. She felt something in her snap, and it was then Orihime realized she'd had enough of this place. Enough of cold stares and degrading remarks and twisted criticism. Where people said things that made her skin crawl and every sentence had a hidden meaning that her human brain was incapable of deciphering. This wretched place where people took delight in the power they had in instilling fear over others. She'd had enough of being terrified by Nnoitra, of being tossed around like some invalid to be looked after and she'd certainly had enough of Aizen.

With a rather indignant frown on her face, she narrowed her eyes at the foul-mouthed man who just didn't seem to want to give her a break. "It's not like I want to be here." She scowled bitterly.

In the next second, Orihime felt a cold hand grab her arm, slinging her out of her chair as the world flew by in blurs and streaks of bland colors, only to have it suddenly stop as she landed on the other side of the room and all she seemed to understand was that she was on the floor and no longer in her seat, far away from the table. Her heart was hammering even faster in her chest, beating almost violently against her ribs and still unsure of what had just happened. Her vision was a little blurry and she wondered if had she hit her head.

With a hand pressed to her temple, Orihime pushed herself up on her palm and glanced toward the table, gasping as she saw Nnoitra and his threatening Zanpakutō leveled right over the chair she had been sitting in, the blade buried at least an inch deep in Ulquiorra's arm where he had stood and blocked the attack. Nnoitra was grinning like a maniac, locked in a battle of wills as he pressed the blade even further into the flesh of the other man's arm.

"Shit." She heard Nnoitra's curse only milliseconds before the pressure wave that washed over the room had her plastered to the floor with a force so violent it nearly knocked her senseless as her temple hit the ground. Her eyes were frozen open as pure, unadulterated fear coursed in her veins as her view was reduced to nothing but the base of the table and the legs and feet surrounding it.

This...this was...Aizen's spiritual pressure?

She couldn't move, could barely breath and couldn't even raise her eyes as she saw a pale arm hit the floor, followed by the blade of Santa Teresa slamming into the marble flooring, it's weilder helpless to stop the direction of the Zanpakutō with the gravity of Aizen's spiritual pressure pushing down on the room. And then there was blood everywhere. She felt bile rise in her throat at the sight of the black nailed fingers of the dismembered arm contracting, like an animal with its head cut off, still receiving neural messages and reacting without a brain to guide it.

Orihime thought for certain she was going to die in that moment as she felt herself begin to lose consciousness. She didn't want to die here, like this, helpless on the floor of some cold room in the enemy's base of operations. She wanted to see her friends, to do things she had yet to experience, to just go home.

In that moment, Orihime thought of her brother, and wondered if she would see him soon, but the thought got nowhere as she completely blacked out. Not even having enough time to say a prayer for her friends who would undoubtedly come here for her only to find her dead...

.

Orihime had the vague sense of floating, it was eerie and slightly strange, but not entirely disconcerting...but as the seconds flew by, she began to become more and more aware of the issue at hand, passing out on the floor, certain of death.

She was dead, she just knew it. She was dead and there was nothing around her but darkness and silence. She hadn't even gotten a chance to kiss a boy or travel the world or drive a car...or even have someone actually fall in love with her the way she so easily seemed to fall in love. And here she was, in some afterlife that was void of anything but this silence.

But then she felt her brows furrowing and pain shot through her head. She also felt extremely heavy and fatigued, as if she'd just run a marathon. Wait, did that mean she still had a body? Orihime groaned as her eyes squinted open, blurry with the sudden whiteness around her illuminated by the lights on the ceiling.

Wait...

Orihime lurched forward and felt arms unfurling from around her, aware of the sensation of her feet being planted on the ground. She swayed under the sudden weight of her own body, only to have that cold, boney hand grasp her upper arm before she crumpled to the floor, burying her hands in the familiar white jacket.

"Where..."

"I am taking you back to your room. You fainted." That calm voice seemed to sooth her for a moment, until her eyes shot up to his, nearly sending her into a dizzy fit again.

"Fainted? What? No, I..." She tried to gather her wits and that was something that seemed darn near impossible at the moment. "Wait, your arm!" Her hand immediately went to the appendage she fully expected to be gone, ready to insist that he take her right back to Aizen to demand the return of her hairpins in order to reattach it. She was stunned to see his arm was fully intact, not even sporting a scratch. With the exception of his sleeve being torn, there was nothing wrong with him. The blood had been wiped from his face and besides the condition of his cloths and the dark circles under his eyes, he looked much the same as he had before that horrid ordeal.

"What about it?" He asked blandly, wondering what she was so worked up about it.

"I must have been hallucinating..." Orihime shook her head. "I...I thought I was dead." The hand resting on his arm then went to her head, remembering that monstrous thing that had been Aizen's spiritual pressure that had hit her like a ton of bricks without warning. No, it had been even worse than that. "I think I need to sit down." She was feeling dizzy all over again, not nearly as severe, but it was there nonetheless.

Orihime leaned forward and rested her forehead against his chest, not even giving it a second thought, only wanting support against the swaying walls around her. "What do you think you are doing?" He asked, apparently not at all pleased with her close proximity, her breasts brushing against him as other areas of her body came far too close for anything less than decent to enter his mind. "I am not going to comfort you, if that is what you are-"

"No," She said quickly. "...no," She repeated the word a bit more calmly, taking a slow breath. "I'm just dizzy...sorry."

Ulquiorra repressed an irritated sigh. "Do you require further assistance to reach your room?" He asked, assuming she would take the hint and remove herself from his personal space or take him up on the offer so he could go about his evening without further distraction.

Orihime shook her head, whether she did or did not need help, she had been humiliated enough for one night. "I'll be fine, I just need a moment." And she couldn't help the contented sigh that left her lips at the coolness his body seemed to radiate, easing the throbbing in her head and the heat in her own body. In a brief lapse in reason that she could only blame on her jumbled brains, she wondered if that body would be able to cool other manners of heat that would arise in her at times, or if her body warmth would be able to do the same for the almost frigid air his own lean frame seemed to emanate. That very coldness that she hadn't liked at all about him, that she had found almost dismal and gloomy, she now considered quite relaxing and...

Orihime's eyes widened suddenly as something odd struck her, completely cutting off her less than proper thoughts as she concentrated on what she thought she heard. Or rather, what she wasn't hearing. And she pulled away, only slightly embarrassed with the fact she had nearly been snuggling into a man that was, by all means, her enemy. But she gave it little thought as her eyes stared at the space where she had just been resting her head, her mouth slightly ajar.

He...he didn't have a heartbeat.

Orihime quickly retracted herself from him completely, realizing that she had been rudely staring. But it was also something else, something instinctive inside her, telling her to move away from something that was so unnatural. She pulled herself together enough to meet his eyes and swallowed softly. Perhaps she had been mistaken...

"Are you done?" He asked, and apparently judging by the look in his eyes that were normally so vacant, he hadn't exactly been thrilled with her behavior.

"I'm sorry, like I said, I was just feeling dizzy." And Orihime was stunned, truly stunned that she hadn't stuttered in embarrassment over the fact that it had seemed like she was trying to become a little more intimate with him than necessary. "We can go, I'm fine now." And she stepped out of his way to let him walk ahead of her as usual, not wanting to suspend the awkward moment longer than necessary, to which he quickly obliged her.

When they entered her room, he paused in the doorway for a moment, as if examining it for any changes in his lack of absence for so long, letting the girl walk past him as his eyes landed on the couch, letting his gaze linger there for a moment longer.

"Have you been fed?" He asked as she sat herself down heavily on the sofa. If he were a creature of deeper feeling, he was sure he would have resented her for that...for taking his bed.

"I'm not an animal, I don't get 'fed'." She sighed, trying to correct him, even knowing her attempts were always fruitless, she would never stop trying. "But, no, I haven't eaten since this morning."

"Fine, I will send-" Orihime watched, perplexed, as he turned his head away from her a bit, as if hiding something. And with the same amount of mortification she had displayed in the meeting room, she saw that he was hemorrhaging again, running out in a thick stream from the corner of his mouth in a much greater amount than before.

"Ulquiorra..." She leapt up from the couch, fully intending to run to his aid. With a faint sense of worry, she noticed the bright intensity in his eyes had faded quite a bit, and with the room so dimly lit, she couldn't be sure but it looked as if his cheeks were actually...flushed. "What's wron-"

"You're food will come shortly," He ignored her as he turned to leave, attempting to completely disregard her. "I will return in an hour to-" Orihime watched in a strange accumulation of concern, amazement and a rather sick sense of fascination as the man who was so sternly calm and collected, even caustic at times, was barely able to catch his forearm on the doorframe to stop himself from falling to his knees. And then he was retching blood all over the floor. Coming out in amounts that she was sure was unhealthy no matter what one's species were. His breaths coming in slow, heavy pants.

"Ulquiorra!" Seeing him like this upset her in ways she couldn't bother to understand as panic seized her heart. Normally so composed and unmoved, now coughing up more blood than she thought physically possible.

"Don't." He warned darkly when she began to approach him. And the threat in his tone stung as her breathing hitched at the acidity in his voice. She had only wanted to help. But when another wave of blood came pouring from his mouth, she couldn't help herself.

She took slow, tentative steps towards him, as if approaching a wounded, wild animal that may take off at the slightest sound, afraid that she may make a wrong move that would displease him enough to send him running. "Don't be silly," She said quietly with a soft smile in her voice. "It's not like I'm going to-"

"I said get away from me." He sounded positively lethal...

...and also ridiculously out of breath. She could only imagine the amount of frustration he was feeling, but just standing there and letting yourself puke out buckets of blood like it didn't matter was just foolishness.

"Well, you'll just have to kill me if that's what you want," She tried to make the statement sound like a lighthearted joke as she moved forward, but she never had been very good at joking about such dark things. Orihime unzipped her jacket and removed it from her shoulders, placing a gentle hand on his arm and offering it up as a rag, to which he, of course, ignored. "And I don't think you'll do that, after all, I doubt Aizen wants me dead just yet." She smiled despite the weight that comment actually held. A heavy weight she really did not have the strength to contemplate at the moment.

But Ulquiorra didn't seem to hear her as he concentrated on steadying his breathing. It was laughable, to let himself become so pathetic. He would be completely useless if he continued to go on like this. His senses would start to dull soon, his normally calm temper was already starting to shorten and for the first time in his existence, he actually found himself craving souls. Even the thought of such a thing was repulsive. He'd never devoured a soul from the moment he crawled out of that abyss buried in the furthest reaches of Hueco Mundo...but now he found himself wanting that very thing. Cannibalism always had been an outrageous concept to him, reserved for the lowest of trash.

And this whole thing was just absurd, it was getting out of hand.

And that girl... What did she want from him? Why did she continue to insist on becoming familiar with him? She had nothing he wanted and she never would, but she kept pushing and pushing.

He sighed and it was slightly gurgled with the blood still coating his throat. "Stubborn woman."

"I...I don't know what's wrong, but I'm sure I can help if you let me. I bet we could even become friends."

He went to jerk his arm from her, but she suddenly tightened her grasp and jerked back, refusing to let him go. And something in him snapped. He knows if he had his wits about him like normal, he would haved coped better. But now, in this scenario, in this moment, it was the last straw. How dare she? Who was she to think he was here to solely make her happy? When he wasn't fulfilling his other duties to Aizen, she took up every damned second of his day. She took his room and the place where he slept and now she was taking away the stern hold he had on his once calm state of mind. Where everything had been simple and quiet and normal. Now she was there, constantly, day in and day out, staining his black and white existence with that vivid hair of hers and those soulful grey eyes.

Without thinking twice, he grabbed her arm, pulling her from his side until her back slammed into the cold wall in front of him, leveling her with a cold, intense stare. "I don't want your help, I don't want your pity and least of all, I do not want to be your friend."

Orihime stared with wide eyes as he leaned closer, as if to make sure he had her full attention, to make sure she heard exactly what he had to say next. "Do you understand? To even suggest such a thing is an insult to my very being. Friends are nothing but intolerable, pathetic attachments that have nothing to offer but the amazing ability to hold you back and weaken your resolve...and in the end you will be left standing, all alone, when your friends are dead and defeated, with nothing but bitterness and disappointment to fill your 'heart' when you realize that your beloved bonds will never be enough to win against the pure, cold hard truth that the world is never going to be the place you want it to be."

Orihime felt tears prickling in the corners of her eyes, her mouth set in a determined line as her lips started to quiver. Not wanting to believe his words and not wanting to believe that the man who spoke them with such a cruel, dispassionate coldness believed them, either. "Th-that's not true." She whispered quietly and Ulquiorra saw how her eyes seemed to shine bright even in the darkness of this room, of this place. He wanted it to go away, he didn't want to see it, he didn't like it. It had no right being there...not when she was supposed to be withering and dying in this harsh, foreign world, alienated from everything she loved.

"My heart will-"

"There is no heart." He pressed her harder against the wall and the jacket she had been holding fell from her hands.

"There is." She replied in a small voice, holding on to her determination.

"And you think this heart will bring your friends to you? That it will guide them here? That Ichigo Kurosaki will come here because he is in your heart?" He leaned closer, willing her to just give in, his gaze was unwavering and searing straight through her. "You will soon find yourself wishing you never believed in such a thing. Because when they come here, they will die...and that heart that you believe in so much will break."

"And what of you, Ulquiorra?" She asked, her voice still barely above a whisper. "Where is your heart?"

There was no hesitation as he reached up to the zipper resting against the high collar of his jacket. Slowly, he began to pull it down, separating the fabric as his hand went lower to finally stop just above his abdomen. Orihime caught her breath as the clothing fell away, exposing his chest and the hole resting there. His own cruel way of answering her question without having to say a single word. She lifted a hesitant hand, fingers trembling slightly, as if to touch it, but pulled back before she got too close. Sadness and understanding suddenly blossoming in her eyes.

But then she did the most peculiar thing, she reached for the hand grasped tightly over her arm, gently pulling it away to place over her heart, her warm hands resting over his as she pressed it closer. She closed her eyes and smiled, concentrating on her own heartbeat and the way it pulsed through her body and into his. His fingers were cold, like the winter days when she would go outside without gloves, making them feel frostbitten and numb. Then she felt the weight of his hand relax against her skin, examining the soft thumping beneath his fingertips.

Orihime looked up and smiled. His eyes fixated on their hands with a calm, calculating expression about them. His fingers spreading as he felt the steady beat against his palm.

Ulquiorra blinked.

No...

He didn't want this. This heart beat for Ichigo Kurosaki and he had to remind her of that. He would make sure she wouldn't forget it. And when the boy got here, he would personally see to it that she knew exactly where this heart of hers would get her.

And when his hand began to move up from her chest, cupping her neck, she let him. His fingertips brushing against that hair of hers that stood out in such striking contrast to this land of eternal night. Her own hand tentatively reached forward to caress his chest, skimming around the black mass that had taken up residence where a heart would have been.

Ulquiorra leaned forward, his lips brushing against the sensitive shell of her ear, there was no protests, no bothering to worry that he was smearing her with blood. Like she didn't even care that she was letting hands that had been soiled and dirtied with so much violence touch her. And when his teeth gently bit a tender spot just below her ear and she made a sound so soft and pleased, he pushed her back against the wall with his own body, immediately spreading her legs with his knee.

Her hands clutched at the sleeves of his jacket, her nails digging into the fabric to pull him closer.

When she let out a breathless gasp as he pressed her hips hard against the wall with his own, he had to remind himself why he was doing this, why he was letting his hand creep down her neck to the hem of the uniform covering her breasts, slowly tugging it down. He was going to make sure she knew what happened when one was foolish enough to put all their faith in the absurd attachments of the heart.

"Say his name," He said quietly against her ear as her spotless white uniform fell about her feet, shivering as she suddenly stood naked before him. His fingers skimmed around her bare nipples, a light and airy caress that had the soft pink buds rising at his attentions. But he refused to allow himself anymore than what was necessary to get his point across, he wasn't going to let himself become so deep rooted in lust to forget what he was and what she was and why he was here. "Say the name of that man," He repeated urgently, his fingers drifting lower, edging around her hip and down to her inner thigh.

"Ulquiorra, I..." She was quieted by his fingers brushing against her, his hand fisting in her hair as her hips suddenly jerked hard when he skimmed over the moist, sensitive pearl near her center. Her legs parted for him as a soft, feminine mewl echoed in the room when he refused to relent his ministrations on the bud.

"Cry it out as I touch you," His teeth raked down her neck and when a finger slowly slid into the small, wet entrance, Ulquiorra nearly moaned at the tightness of her. Trying to ignore the thought of that tightness wrapped around him in different circumstances... And at feeling how wet she had become, he pushed another in to accompany it with little difficulty and the girl positively came apart, moving them in tandem as his thumb caressed her clit, eliciting quiet cries and moans that he could tell she had been trying so hard to hold back. "Say that trash's name," He said impatiently, pushing harder when her fingers tugged at his hair, her own lips whispering over his exposed chest as she held him to her so close it made him ache. His fingers curled insider her and he suddenly felt her begin to tense, knowing what was coming, he wanted her to submit, to give in...he wasn't going to let her have it otherwise. "Cry it out from the deepest parts of your heart." He urged, and when her other leg wrapped around him desperately, pulling him against her, he fought every urge in his body to push back.

"Ul-Ulquiorra...I...I can't-"

When he steadily pulled the appendages out, only to slowly push three long fingers deep inside her, a violent shudder ran through her. Biting down hard on his shoulder when muffled cries left her throat as she began to climax.

"Think of his face," He demanded. He wanted her to picture every detail and memory she had stored away of the boy, bringing it to the surface where he could crush it from existence. To picture his eyes, his voice, everything. There was no jealousy. The boy represented everything the woman stood for, all her ideals and the source of her unyeilding faith. To destroy him was to destroy hope... "Call out to his heart, to his very soul as I make you cum...and see if he answers." His voice was an intense whisper, his lips pressed hard against her ear, moving his fingers inside her with an unforgiving strength that had her gasping in a manner that was brimming on pain, but he always, always, hit that hypersensitive spot hidden within her that left her speechless.

"Ulquiorra, I-I'm...I'm..." She panted, holding tightly to him. Breathing his name over and over in broken syllables. And he hated it. She was doing this on purpose...And just as he felt her start to flutter oh so gently around his fingers, he pulled himself away. His knuckles curling into a fist as he fought to reign in the alien sensation of losing his temper, failing in the end and inevitably slamming the offending hand into the wall next to her head with a heavy amount of restraint. The impact still violent enough to shake the room and crack the walls and floor.

He cursed under his breath, certain that he wouldn't be doing something so ludicrous if his normal sense of reasoning had been fully intact. He wouldn't have lost his temper, he wouldn't have done something so juvenile as to punch a wall and he'd be damned if he would have found himself tempted by a human woman who was so physically weak and frail it was laughable.

This whole thing was unacceptable.

Aizen had made it clear he was to return to the meeting hall directly after removing the girl, with it most likely having everything to do with the debacle that her presence had created. And here he was, screwing around like a fool. He'd had enough of it. Enough of her naked body still pressed to his, enough of her hot breath panting against his neck and enough of her pale thighs quivering around him, fighting her own urges to move her hips against his.

He pulled her hand out of his hair and turned, wiping the blood from his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket, heading for the door at a pace much quicker than his usual steady gait. He heard an uncertain, insecure protest from behind him, but he could not take another moment around the woman. And in shutting the door behind him before she could offer anything more to say, Orihime stood in the suddenly earsplitting silence of the room, clutching her once discarded jacket to her chest. The amount of confusion wracking her mind seemed more than she was capable to process, leaving her disoriented, uncertain and utterly dumbfounded.

And what she hated most was that nagging voice whispering in the back of her mind, prodding and poking at her, reminding her where the loyalties of her heart were supposed to lie.

She wondered if this made her some sort of masochist, becoming so quickly aroused by his touch. And she wondered if she was supposed to be feeling shame when all she felt was the vague yearning to have him close to her again.

Orihime sighed, lifting the jacket to wipe his blood from her face and neck, thinking that she would rather not think about it at all. But the most troubling thing of all, what truly frightened her and made tears fall from her eyes, was the ache in her heart that told her she hadn't wanted to call out Ichigo's name, he failed to even register in her mind until Ulquiorra demanded it of her. Distressing her just as much as it seemed to have Ulquiorra. And she knew when she cried out Ulquiorra's name, touching her and sending her mind into a void of nothing but passion and ecstasy, that he didn't want it, wanted absolutely nothing do to with it...because when she said Ulquiorra's name like that, in a soft moan rolling off her tongue, his grip would tighten. He would hold her closer. His breathing would stop and his fingers worked harder to deepen his contact with her.

It was a troubling thing, indeed.

.

Orihime's eyes were glued to the man sitting on her couch as she brought the fork holding a small portion of salad to her mouth. He had on a fresh pair of clothes, with his eyes closed and breathing quietly in a slow, steady rhythm. Ulquiorra had taken longer than usual to return after her food had been delivered and she wondered if it had something to do with what had happened earlier or if perhaps it had something to do with the incident in the meeting hall. Had he gotten reprimanded for it? She hoped not, he had done nothing wrong in her eyes and the thought of him being disciplined for a situation that she had indirectly caused troubled her.

She dropped her fork and returned her attention to the sleeping man.

This wasn't the first time he had dozed off on her couch, but the sight never failed to amaze her and she was slightly surprised that he was willing to do so after what had happened. Then again, she really shouldn't have been so shocked, there wasn't much she knew of that truly got under his skin. But it had been quite a long a while since he had even remotely nodded off around her, even before his week long absence, and suddenly presented with the view, she couldn't take her eyes off him. Slumped against the back of the couch with his chin resting on his chest as his head tilted ever so slightly to left and an arm draped over his stomach. His feet spread out and planted firmly on the floor, looking more relaxed than she had ever seen the man. He was a very quiet sleeper, and as nice as that was, she kinda wished he would snore at least a little bit. It would have been...cute.

She rested her cheek in her palm as she pushed her plate away, not feeling very hungry tonight, especially with all the confounding thoughts racing through her mind. Instead, feeling much more interested in just observing the man before her. Her eyebrows perked up when she noticed his fingers twitch, quickly followed by a small jerk of his knee. This was also something she had seen him do often when he napped around her and she wondered if he was dreaming or if it was just his muscles relaxing as bodies were prone to do when sleeping. But the way his brows would furrow and the manner in which his fingers continued moving the way they did, Orihime had to believe they were dreams.

And with such a conclusion she had to wonder what he dreamt about.

She wasn't aware of how long she sat there staring at him, but she began to feel herself dozing off just the same. It couldn't have been long because the tea in her cup was still steaming softly. She kinda wanted to go to bed herself, but she was reluctant to wake him, he looked like he needed the sleep pretty badly.

Orihime stood from her chair quietly, she had learned he was an incredibly light sleeper, which wasn't much of a surprise, but he never seemed to wake unless she got too close. She placed the clear glass of water and the tea cup beside her plate on the tray to transfer to the trolley that the unnamed Hollow would bring her, usually followed shortly by Ulquiorra soon after. She placed the tray down and grabbed the fresh nightgown on the bottom shelf of the trolley. A clean uniform being delivered every morning and a nightgown in the late evenings as well as a thin blanket.

Stealing another quick glance to her warden, she hung the silky nightgown over her forearm and turned, making her way into the small bathroom tucked in the back corner of the room, deciding to take a bath and hoping perhaps he would be gone by the time she got out.

But when Orihime stepped out from the now steaming room, towel drying her hair as she went, she was slightly surprised to see the man still there. Unsure of what to do, she threw the damp towel over the door and made her way closer to him. It was unusual for him to sleep so long around her and she was curious to see if he would wake if she got close enough as he usually did. But when she was standing directly before him, close enough to lean down and examine his face, he still did not stir.

How strange.

When his brows furrowed and his breathing deepened, speeding up if only a fraction, she noticed his hand clenching in the fabric of his pant leg. Orihime regarded him with a great amount of scrutiny, shocked more than anything that he hadn't even popped those big green eyes open yet, startling her half to death as he did so often.

This man, who was so different than the one she loved. Such extreme opposites. When she had seen Ichigo before she left, his lips were upturned in boyish cuteness, not in the frown that curved this man's lips even in his sleep. She tried not to think of how close their bodies had pressed together earlier, or where his hands had roamed or the way she sighed at his touch, but it was near impossible. The way those cold hands had heated her blood up to near boiling temperatures.

Orihime did not miss the irony as she found herself leaning closer, such similar circumstances of the night she left, wanting to steal the kiss of a sleeping man. But, then again, the circumstances weren't as similar as she wished they were. Two different men, two different places, two different worlds. She was a prisoner here and he her warden. But maybe he liked her? People didn't do that to each other if they didn't like that person, right? Then why was he saying those things to her? Oh, who was she kidding? Was he trying to play games with her, then? Ulquiorra didn't seem the type to like games. He didn't seem the type to 'like' people, either. He could barely tolerate her.

She was about to sigh in defeat when the man in question took a deep breath and turned his head a bit, her eyes watched the action intently. It looked like he was having a nightmare...

What kind of nightmares did Ulquiorra Ciefer have? She knew she had bad dreams about giant robots and evil space octopus rampaging through cities to take over the world. If that was the case, she certainly didn't want him having such horrible nightmares...the only right thing to do was to sooth them away...kisses always worked. Sora would always kiss her forehead at night when she awoke from bad dreams.

Yes, that's all she was doing, just trying to help, Orihime thought as she leaned those few inches forward and placed a soft, chaste kiss to his cool forehead, his dark, messy hair tickling the skin of her cheek. She was very shocked when he didn't stir, but she wasn't at all shocked when it seemed to work as his breathing finally calmed and his face visibly relaxed. Orihime smiled triumphantly. Those kisses always worked.

An epiphany occurred to her then, it was rather out of the blue as she watched her special kiss work it's magic.

This was his room.

That must be why he was always dozing off in here.

Orihime had always wondered what that unique scent was that covered the couch when she first came here, it was fresh and clean and nothing quite like anything she had smelt before. And after spending so much time in his company, she had easily recognized it as his. It never failed to lull her to sleep on restless nights. And the plainness of the room certainly had his...personality. But she wondered for a moment why she would have been put here in the first place. Las Noches was so huge, were there no other places suitable for her? Then again, she was fairly positive that Aizen's Arrancar army consisted of well over one hundred Hollow. She also knew there were several labs in the fortress, the few she had seen took up an impressive amount of space and she didn't even want to imagine being put in a dungeon, if they even had one. There probably weren't many 'vacancies' in a place like this. And sticking her in his own room was probably the best way to keep a close eye on her.

Is...is that why he had been so sick? Spewing blood all over the place and looking like, as Grimmjow put, the walking dead. It would certainly explain those bags under his eyes.

She knew she shouldn't have, but she did feel a bit guilty. No wonder he'd been so grumpy acting lately. Looking at his sleeping face and reflecting on the situation, she knew she would feel put out if someone took her bed and didn't even thank her for it. Then more strange ideas started pushing and shoving into her mind. Wondering if he'd wake if she stole another kiss. But instead of his forehead, her eyes unquestionably landed on his lips.

When she found herself leaning back towards him involuntarily, in that moment, Orihime made a promise to herself. That this was nothing, that it meant nothing but the girlish curiosity that teenage girls such as herself displayed in the opposite sex. That is was just a kiss. And, above all else, that she absolutely would not fall in love.

Feeling his breath gently fanning across her face, and shivering in delight upon realizing how warm it was, she reassured herself again, that she would never love this...this man.

Her eyes closed as her lips brushed his. Tender and soft. Her heart thumped upon feeling the way the flesh of their lips gently melded to one another before quietly pulling away and she found herself wanting to lean in for another, but in the next second, cold fingers were gripping her jaw, fingertips pressed into the roundness of her cheeks, pushing her lips out in an almost comical fish-like manner.

Orihime's eyes were wide and horrified when she saw the pair of alert, green eyes glaring at her.

"What do you think you are doing?" A calm voice asked.

"I-I-I...I, uh..." Orihime wished the ground would open up right beneath her feet and swallow her whole, such was the depth of her embarrassment and mortification. "You...you looked like you were having a nightmare," His gaze was unmoved as she tried to explain. "I just...I just wanted to make you feel good." Her voice was sweet and innocent, but even Orihime pressed her lips together upon realizing how dirty that sounded.

"Nightmare?" He asked, his intense gaze seeming to lose its focus as if recalling something.

"I'm sorry...I know I shouldn't have," She began, but noticed his eyes were lowered, no longer keeping contact with her own. And Orihime realized what those verdant orbs were examining so intently. Her nightgown was hanging low over her chest with her bent position, exposing a large amount of cleavage, full and unrestrained with the lack of a brazier. One of the thin straps was slipping from her shoulder. If it was possible, her blush deepened further. Even if he had gotten a full view of them before, still...

But when she was just about to pull away and voice her humiliation, the hold on her jaw loosened to a softer grip and pulled her closer until their noses nearly touched. Orihime blinked, completely entranced by the depth of those eyes that she had once disliked so very much, but now found herself not wanting to look anywhere but directly into those beautiful rings that were always so penetrating and vivid. So many things at once, both dispassionate but profound. Empty yet so full of intensity, alert and burning with things she didn't understand.

Those eyes that were sending heat back to areas of her body that he had so easily evoked in her only hours earlier.

"Take it off," He said quietly, his voice barely above a whisper.

But before she could turn red and sputter out her embarrassment and a confused 'excuse me?' he released her chin, fingers sliding enticingly from her skin, refusing to break their stare. And under such a strong, heated gaze, she quickly felt rapt with desire, running from the base of her neck all the way to her toes. And when she straightened, she kept that deep eye contact, engaging herself in his calm demeanor and leeching from it to settle her own nerves.

When the strap that had already been halfway down her shoulder continued to fall, she did nothing to stop it. Instead, slowly reaching up to dip her finger under the opposite strap, deliberately taking her time to tug it from its post. Biting her lip as she pulled her arm from its satiny confines.

Her palm and fingers smoothed over her breast, still covered with the thin silk of the short nightgown. A chill that was at once both hot and cold ran through her body under his stern gaze and she wasn't sure if the stiffening of her nipples was the effect of her hands or his eyes. And suddenly it didn't quite feel like her hands skimming over her breast, but his. She bit her lip harder as she moved her hand under the fabric, letting her fingertips and nails skim over the sensitive bud before pulling it back up to the strap that was slowly on its way to joining its companion.

When the gown snagged about her waist, Orihime rested her palms against her sides, tucking her thumbs under the fabric as she guided the smooth piece of clothing down her body. Gliding over her ivory flesh in a slow manner as she turned her hips a certain way, moving them once more to ease the garment past the swell of her hips as it fell to the floor.

Her skinned glowed against the darkness of the room, lit only by the silent moon outside her window. A blush worked its way back over her face, blooming over her cheeks and dusting the top of her breasts as she ran a hand back up her stomach, fingers leaving cool trails as they brushed over a nipple and came to rest on a shoulder in a small gesture that spoke of her silent embarrassment.

She felt a finger hook under the hem at the bottom of her panties, dangerously close to her femininity. Running along the seam until it reached her upper thigh, tugging her forward until she rested a knee on the couch beside him. Her eyes watched in heavy-lidded fascination as he leaned forward, his other hand snaking up the back of her leg, skimming over her backside and forcing itself beneath her underwear, squeezing softly before hooking the other behind her knee, suddenly pulling her closer as his lips ghosted over the protrusion of her hipbone.

There were no thoughts running through her mind. No reminders that she was stuck here, in a place that wasn't her home, in a place she didn't belong and didn't want to belong, being held prisoner against her friends. No thoughts that this wasn't the man she thought she loved touching her, that he was her enemy, her warden and could possibly be responsible for harm that would come to her dear friends.

Thinking only, instead, that this was Ulquiorra. That this was his mouth that was spreading goose bumps across her abdomen in waves of pleasure, of how his fingers were caressing her against the fabric of her panties, trying to push away the embarrassment at how wet they suddenly felt. When he pressed against her clit, Orihime nearly came out of her skin, hips jerking blindly against his hand. And when she gasped in a thrill of delight as he did it again, she felt him bite the skin around her ribs under her breast and squeeze her ass in response.

When her panties were being pulled from her body and his fingers found their way back to where she wanted them to be so desperately, Orihime buried a hand in his hair as the other gripped the back of the couch for support, suddenly feeling as if the world would topple out from beneath her very being. His arm slipped between her legs, wrapping under and around a thigh and lifting her against him as he leaned back and suddenly Orihime felt his tongue gliding between her inner folds. Her legs trembled as it circled her clit in slow, torturous motions. Smooth and languid, leaving her breathless and panting for air. His arm held her steady, preventing the wild, uncontrollable jolts that rocketed through her hips and abdomen from breaking his rhythm. It only served to make it harder on her, as she was certain that if he continued for even a moment longer, she was going to cum this very second.

But then she felt his tongue inside her, pressing against her walls and exploring her in a way that she had never dreamed possible. Tracing over the small, wet circle of her opening before dipping back inside. Orihime's pants and small cries of pleasure seemed to die on her tongue as her throat constricted and her body tensed. It felt as if she couldn't even breath as every nerve in her body screamed out in ecstasy. The fingers in his hair pushed him harder against her as the other came up to cover her mouth, teeth biting into the back of her hand at feeling every muscle inside her contract in reaction to his ministrations. A soft, quiet, 'Ah!' echoed off the walls as her vision darkened and narrowed as she came.

He hadn't even let it pass as immediately afterwards there were fingers touching her, pushing at her entrance and testing her tightness, Orihime was sure that she could not take so much so soon. But she was so wet and ready and willing, that when he sank three, long fingers deep inside her, Orihime felt every muscle in her body give out and she was certain that if he hadn't been there to hold her, she would have fell to the ground in a useless, boneless heap.

Her head fell back as a deep, guttural moan filled the room.

Her insides were still vibrating with her orgasm and they reverberated around his fingers repeatedly. Filling that emptiness that her orgasm demanded to feel against her innermost walls. But it was so tight, so much and so intense.

Orihime bit the back of her hand harder as she whimpered, pushing herself down against his hand, causing the fingers inside her to hit a spot that nearly pushed her over the edge again. And without any thought she pushed down again and again, rolling her hips forward against his mouth as his tongue continued to circle her clit that had now become nearly overly sensitive. When his lips closed over the small bundle of nerves and gave a gentle suck, Orihime held her breath as that familiar tension returned.

Her abdomen twitched and her legs were left with nothing to do but tremble with the strain to fight it off. It was all so amazing, but she wanted to keep feeling him inside her like this, touching her so intimately and there was some foreign fear inside her that said if she gave in, then it would all be over. But like he had done earlier in the night, his fingers curled themselves within her and Orihime felt her toes curl.

"Ulquiorra!" She tried to plead with him to wait, but when his teeth grazed her clit, her eyes fluttered shut as she succumbed to the orgasm that she had been fighting so hard to prevent. A quiet groan reached her ears as he felt the effects of his actions coiling around his fingers and she suddenly realized the hand on her back was holding her so brutally it felt as if he was already leaving bruise marks.

When she felt those fingers slide out of her, Orihime swiftly slid down his body and settled herself firmly in his lap, not wanting to waste a second in fear that this would end before she'd had her fill of him. Without hesitating, she cupped his face in her hands and pressed her lips to his in an urgent, passionate kiss. He wavered for a moment, as if contemplating whether or not he wanted to return the act that was something he seemed to find a bit too affectionate, something that just screamed of mutual tenderness and bonding between humans and their emotional attachments.

But when her fingers began hastily pulling his zipper down and her nails raked over his chest, it didn't take long before his own fingers fisted in her hair, pulling her in and replacing the halfhearted, reluctant pecks he had been allowing her with a deep, forceful kiss as he bit her lip, making her whimper in a way that had him hardening at the very thought of all the sounds he could make her cry out. To hear that breathy pout as she came under him...she was so quiet when she came...

The shy, inexperienced way she reached her tongue out for his, running along his bottom lip, had him squeezing her ass harder and harder in frustration until he dragged her forward in his lap, pressing her bare center against the stiffness beneath his uniform. She gasped and broke the kiss when he began grinding her against himself and he shivered when her fingers hesitantly traced around the empty hole in his upper sternum and over his nipple, pushing over his shoulders to remove the jacket she so desperately wanted gone.

She started squirming in his arms, pushing against him as she nipped and pecked at his neck, pulling herself down as her lips followed the hard, muscular lines of his lean body. When she began tugging impatiently at his pants and went to kneel between his knees, he knew exactly what she was wanting and was surprised at the effort it took him not to pin her down on the floor and force himself into that mouth that was so eager to please. But Ulquiorra was feeling unusually impatient, not in the mood for playing around longer than necessary as he felt another painful throb jolt through his member.

Orihime licked her lips as her hands pulled at the black sash around his waist, wanting to taste him as he had her, to feel him in her mouth, to experience that heady power over him that he had over her when he touched her. She bit the solid flesh just above his nipple as a hand finally managed to slip beneath the fabric, wrapping her fingers around the thick member she had been almost frantically seeking there. Her cheeks flushed a dark crimson at the feel of him, slightly shocked, but intently fascinated at the smooth hardness and size of it.

She squeezed softly, before pumping her hand from the base to the tip, wanting to stroke and feel everything he had to offer, but it seemed he would have none of it, because her back was pushed into the cushions of the sofa in the next moment and Orihime gasped at the feel of his bare chest pressing against her own, her nipples returning to attention at the friction of their bodies moving against one another.

She realized he was tugging at his pants, and as if picking up on and sharing his urgency, Orihime bent her knees and dug her heels into the waistband of the bothersome clothing, shuffling them down his legs, not even getting them past his knees as he stroked himself a few times before coating the head of his member in the moisture between her damp lips, positioning the head at her opening.

There was no lovingly concerned words of 'are you ready' or waiting for her to nod in approval and certainly no worried glances of tentatively whispered assurances telling her 'it will only hurt for a moment'. There was only him pulling at the back of her neck as she arched almost submissively beneath him, shaking in yearning and anticipation to be with him, tilting her own hips against his in impatience. His teeth biting into the thin flesh beneath her ear as he sank himself deep inside her.

Orihime gasped as all the air in her lungs left her, digging her nails into his shoulder blades, her back arched completely off the couch at the fullness of him. "Ulquiorra...oh god..." She lost her breath again as he began rocking his hips into hers with a quietly whispered 'let me in' against her ear. And she realized that she had yet to completely take him in as he continued to rock rhythmically against her.

"It's so...it's so..." Words seemed to fail her as dizzying waves of pain and pleasure shot through her like an electric shock. And it seemed the only thing she could pant out was a breathless, 'oh god...oh god...' in tandem with his movements as he went deeper and deeper. Running her nails down his back as his warm breath fanned across her neck. The quiet, masculine groans that left his lips seared themselves into her skin as he pressed his lips against her flesh.

Apparently having enough of this, he rested his weight on his forearm above her as his other hand grasped her upper thigh, tilting her hips forward as he thrust down hard into her, burying himself to the hilt. And Orihime felt tears in her eyes as he touched something so deep within her she was sure it wasn't natural. It was such as strong, profound sensation that she was helpless to the orgasm that suddenly rushed over her, careening her right out of reality and to a place where all that existed was this feeling, this fullness.

He groaned atop her, biting down on her bottom lip to stop himself from moving in her, if not for the sake of letting her adjust, but refusing to even flinch lest he lose the ground he had worked so damned hard to gain within her. And with her orgasm forcing her walls down against him, pumping in tight waves from his base all the way to the head of his member, pulling out and trying to push back in at this point would just be another burdensome task that he wasn't willing to undertake with her...she was tootight and she came so easily.

His forehead fell to her shoulder as he felt the way she tentatively curled her hips up into his over and over again, each motion accompanied by the most demurest sounding of pants he'd ever heard, her orgasm instinctually prompting her into the insistent movement that he was certain she wasn't even aware that she was doing. His member swelled and twitched inside her and he knew she must have felt it because she gasped immediately afterwards.

Ulquiorra fisted his fingers in her hair, bringing her lips close to his as he very nearly growled into her mouth, "You have got to stop doing that," It was nothing more than a hushed whisper, but it was bit out with dark warning edging in his tone. And as patient as he usually was, he just wasn't certain he could take it if she continued to climax with only the slightest bit of effort, for he was already fighting back thoughts of doing things to the woman that he knew her frail human body would be unable to bear.

Her eyes opened to meet his, his lips catching her melodic pants, watching the bits of moisture gathering in the corners of her eyes only to spill over, some slipping to her temples as others left wet trails down her cheeks.

She suddenly tilted her chin up, brushing her lips with his once before slowly pulling back to meet his eyes again. Only he didn't wait for her, as his own mouth pressed back down to hers, swallowing the choked moan as he slowly pulled back and reentered.

Orihime was certain she was going to fall apart, he was everywhere inside and around her. Pushing into her at an agonizingly slow pace. She felt tight, strong muscle flexing beneath her fingers as they ran along his back to grip his shoulders, feeling the veins straining against the surface of his skin. Orihime desperately wanted to see the way his hips surged down into her own, the way his back rippled with the motion as his strong arms held her steady and easily moved her smaller body into new and deeper positions. The thin sheen of sweat that had coated not only her body, but his as well. Covering his back and arms and chest, glistening with each movement as he brought her to climax more times than she could count.

The way she learned that her body would tighten more if he took her from behind, but how it quickly became her favorite as he was able to reach spots inside her that had her begging and pleading that he wouldn't stop, because even though the notion was irrational, that fear that he would stop and she would be left feeling empty and quivering without him was enough to send panic wracking her mind, compelling her to desperately cry out, "Please! Please don't stop!" with tears brimming in her eyes.

The way he leaned back against the sofa, pulling her into his lap and letting her sink down atop him. Her head fell back as she immediately reached orgasm, learning just how deep such a position allowed him into her body. Her legs felt weak and useless, but somehow found strength in the heady rush of adrenaline as she dug her knees into the cushions and moved her body over his. How she would stop as she sank down to lock their hips together, settling him deep inside her as she did nothing more than simply rocked against him, feeling his thickness in every crevice of her body, creating a blazing friction that frenzied thrusting alone could not. The action coming so naturally to her that there was no embarrassed blushes, only the heated flush of excitement and the rapturous thrill of desire running through her veins as an arm wrapped around her, pulling her close to take a nipple in his mouth with a tongue that teased and circled the peach colored flesh before closing his lips over it and sucking masterfully. Sending her into another fit of shivers and moans and pleads for more.

Continuing on and on, working her over and over for so long that Orihime had lost track of time, certain that hours had to have gone by as he pressed her back into the cushions once more. His thrusts seemed to stagger for a moment and it was purely on instinct that she knew he was close. It was in the way the arm about her waist tightened, holding her hips steady against the heavy weight of his hips colliding with her own. The way he pulled away from her fervent kisses to bury his lips against the welcoming nook of her neck and shoulder.

"Ulquiorra, please..." Her whisper was hurried and imploring, as if seeking something even she was not sure of herself. "Please...cum inside me." The quiet, bashful lull of her voice was an intoxicating mixture against the avid lust dripping from her shy request as her arms unwound from his neck to rake down his back, sinking her nails into his backside to pull him hard into her, wanting him to stay there, as if this would somehow help aid in her endeavor to extract the very thing she was appealing to him for. And the slow, evenly paced thrusts he was exerting began to slip. Hastening his well controlled ardor into an impatient and vigorous thirst that was damned near unquenchable, whispering in his ear with candid innocence that held a distinct urgency in the voice of a young, naive human female.

He lifted her hips from the sofa beneath them, angling them upwards as he had done when he had first entered her, affording him a deliciously tight friction as he continued to roll his hips against hers, quickly and easily accomplishing what he wanted as she felt as if he were hitting somewhere above her navel, her walls beginning to flutter and coil around him again. He heard her continued pleas, muffled and breathy pants of 'Please...I...I want to feel you cum in-' and she gasped on a particularly hard thrust, but she continued on, imploring him with an innocence in her pleas that had him driving harder, listening avidly to the soft cries that did not match with the fevered longing of her words.

He ran his teeth down her neck, vaguely aware of the sound of deep, edgy grunts resonating in the room, only to realize they were his own as released another upon pulling her as close as their flesh would allow, feeling his own body tighten as she clamped down on him with all the force of a vice. That hungry way her walls milked him had him unable to resist further as he released himself deep inside her, rutting hard against her as he let her greedily absorbed every last ounce he spilt into her.

Ulquiorra couldn't stop the heady groan that left him as her legs trembled around his waist, her whole body shaking and trembling as she breathed out his name over and over again. Her hands digging into his backside, instinctually trying to pull him further into her quivering body to receive more of his seed as the rocking of his hips slowed. He was vaguely aware of the way her inner walls were still moving against him, refusing to yield until she was certain she had received everything she could possibly get. His eyes closing slowly as his breathing evened out against her neck, almost immediately falling back to sleep atop her. With her warm body still gently contracting around him, her tightly wrapped arms loosening from about his body and only barely aware of soft fingers running down the side of his face, brushing away the hair from his brow as he let his exhausting, endless weeks of no sleep finally catch up to him. Drifting away into that simple world where everything was black and white and there was only darkness and the sweet, calming echoes of the nothingness of oblivion.

.

Orihime found it slightly hard to breath under the dead weight of his body, but she knew that she had no desire to move out from under the somewhat pleasing feel of the firm, dense heaviness of his chest, or the arm burrowed between her back and the couch, or the tickle of the warm breath coming from the mouth tucked against her neck. And after a short while, she began to drift off, as well.

She was unsure of how much time had passed, but she found herself quietly gasping awake as a bolt of pleasure shot through her. She felt movement atop her, the thick member that had still been buried inside her began to harden as she squirmed a bit against the sensation.

Orihime heard a muffled groan by her ear as the arm that had been wrapped around her tightened, drawing her closer as the now fully erect member pushed deeper inside her. Repeating the action a few times in an almost lazy manner. The pull of his arm lacked the force it had seemed to possess earlier in the night. When he gave another slow, languid push and she heard a hushed grunt, his other hand squeezing her ass almost too hard now, as if not measuring his strength, Orihime realized he was still completely and utterly asleep.

A quick shiver wracked her body as that unforgiving hand pulled her into him, hitting a spot deep inside her. And with every nerve in her body still overly sensitized from the hours of stimulation he had put it through, her mouth parted in a silent cry as her climax hit her out of nowhere, sneaking up and slamming into her with all the force of a train.

He must have felt it, because she heard another quiet grunt as he quickly, or rather as quickly as a sleeping man could, went to push back into her. But the clamoring of her tight walls seemed to fight against him and he made a distinctly frustrated noise, the fingers on her backside digging in as he once again tried to pull her up against him. When she thought she felt the graze of teeth against her flesh and realized the urgency in his slow, unconscious actions, Orihime cupped her palm against the hard line of his jaw, gently pressing her cheek against his own as she willed herself to loosen for him. Bringing her knees up slightly and spreading her legs wider as her other hand settled against his lower back, her fingertips grazing the top of his backside, helping him along as she pulled him against her as the wave of her orgasm settled and he was finally able to sink deep inside her, feeling the warmth of his release against her womb immediately afterwards with a muffled groan.

She rocked against him gently, riding out his orgasm for him and receiving an appreciative sigh for her efforts as what little weight had been lifted from her settled back down over the length of her body.

Orihime barely bit back a sob that nearly escaped from her now quivering lips, tears running from her eyes when she suddenly realized that her heart was hammering against her chest in ways that had nothing to do with the climax she had just experienced. She closed her eyes, willing herself to do what she had learned to master so well during her once strong, but now crumbling feelings for Ichigo...feelings she had thought were impervious and would last lifetimes...

She ignored the heartache. She ignored the pain of having him so close and yet so far. And she ignored the fact that she was falling for a man that she knew didn't love her in return...

.

Orihime awoke the next morning to an empty room, it was something she had been expecting and welcomed it to a certain degree. Unsure if she could open her eyes to the person she had welcomed into herself so intimately and with such ease it scared her. His clothes were gone from the floor, and with a tiny sense of panic she realized hers were, too. The trolley that had been there last night was gone as well, replaced with a new one with a warm, steaming breakfast and a fresh uniform sitting on the bottom mantle.

That...that weird Hollow person had been in here, taking away the trolley and bringing in a new one, picking up her clothes from the floor as she lay there naked, heaven only knew how close he had gotten or what he had seen!

She swung her legs off the couch and went to stand, wanting nothing more than to grab those clothes and cover herself up before he came in again, only to find herself falling in a shaky, useless heap to the cold marble floor.

Her legs!

Orihime bit her lip as she tried to stand again, only to have her thighs erupt in a fit of quakes and tremors, feeling as if she had absolutely no control over her own body. Her calves felt tense and unable to relax, her thighs felt as if they were as useless as gelatin and her knees just as weak and heavy. Her ribs and abdomen ached and there was an emptiness deep inside her that left her innards feeling as if they were throbbing in a way that was at once both spine tingling delicious, but also nagging and demanding that the situation be remedied with the very thing that had caused all these problems in the first place.

A deep red blush bloomed across her face as she suddenly felt moisture running down her inner thighs in an amount that had to be unnatural. Dripping from her opening and coating her bruised thighs and the floor directly below her with the thick, viscous fluid.

Pushing humility aside for the moment, she crawled over to the cart to grab the white uniform and the fresh towels beneath it. She quickly wrapped the towel around herself. With the now close proximity to the cart she had so determinately crawled to, she could smell the sweet temptation of pancakes wafting to her nostrils and her stomach let out a loud growl.

Orihime sighed. As hungry as she was, she really needed to get into the shower, if she could stand long enough to even take one, that is. Steeling her nerves, Orihime willed all the strength she had into her legs, her hand pushing down on the cart as a means of support as she tried to stand once more, only to have the metal trolley topple over and hit the floor in a loud crash as her legs refused to cooperate. Her knees gave way, curling under her as her legs folded in on themselves, her rump landing on the floor with her heels digging into the backs of her thighs.

She wanted to cry as she saw the delicious looking pancakes now ruined and splayed about on the carpet. She planted her palms on the floor between her knees as she dropped her head in defeat, frustrated beyond words.

The door slid open then and the familiar, harsh silhouette in the doorway was the last thing she wanted to see at the moment. But, ever the optimist, Orihime looked up at the man who wore the same dull expression that he always seemed to. She smiled sheepishly, a small blush appearing on her cheeks at the silly image she probably produced, as well as the mess of pancakes and syrup strewn across the fibers of the once white carpet.

"Oh, hello, Ulquiorra," She greeted cheerily, trying to prolong the unavoidable 'what are you doing' question that would be fired from his mouth with deathly calm at any moment now. "How are you this morning?" She gulped, knowing it was coming right...about...

"What are you doing?"

Ah, there it was.

"What am I doing?" She repeated dumbly. "Well, I was...that is I'm just..." She fingered the fluffy hem at the bottom of the towel around her, fiddling it between the fingers of both hands. "There was this thing...but then I ended up down here...and then the cart just..." She yammered on, as if the broken, unintelligible sentence explained everything.

Then she paused to look up at him, a fussy frown on her face. "And what are you doing?" She turned the question on him, as if it would divert his attention away from the circus spectacle she was creating of herself.

"Stop asking ridiculous questions, this is what I always do at this time of day." He replied, falling back into the routine they always went through, as if last night had never happened. Going about the day as usual, making his rounds before picking her up for the outings that Aizen approved for her. Though, she did notice distractedly that the dark rings under his eyes had begun to fade. "I expected you to be ready, do you need to be monitored twenty four-seven to insure you do not harm yourself now?"

Orihime's chin crinkled with her indignant frown, but her attempts at being snippy always did come out sounding more childish than abrasive. "Well I'm not ready and as you can see, I'm perfectly fine, so you can excuse yourself from such a troublesome duty." She felt her towel starting to slip and she reached up hurriedly before it completely fell, not really feeling like exposing herself to him again at the moment. A brief flicker of horror flashed through her eyes as she felt more of the thick fluid drip out from inside her...his fluids...and with the slight way her legs were parted as well as the fact that the towel didn't cover every part of her body as well as she liked, Orihime quickly planted her palms on the cool floor between her thighs again, hoping that he hadn't noticed or question her sudden actions.

"No, I have business to attend later, this is the only time I have available in my schedule." He answered unwaveringly, leaving no room for objection. His eyes settled on a single spot on her neck for a moment and she wondered what he was looking at before they quickly flickered back up to hers. "Get dressed, you're going to the greenhouses today."

Orihime could admit that the outing did sound interesting, much better than staying cooped up in here all day. Realizing that it was futile to argue, her efforts would only be fruitless and force her to sit here in front of him in this silly situation longer than necessary. "Fine, just..." She paused, bringing her knees closer together instinctively, her thighs pressing against her wrists settled between them as she did so. Orihime dropped her eyes to the side as she quietly said, "Let me take a quick shower, first." She blushed harder when she felt more of his fluids flowing from her like a leaky faucet, her thighs felt positively drenched and she was vaguely aware of her feet sliding against the moisture pooling on the floor beneath her bottom. Orihime swallowed hard, shifting uncomfortably, causing the hem of her towel to ride up and expose a harsh purple bruise.

If he noticed, she was glad he didn't say anything or stand there and stare. He simply said, "Fine, I will return in half an hour," before he turned and left. Orihime sighed in relief and continued in her efforts to make her way to the shower, finding the more she worked her legs back into activity, the easier it got. The quivering in her thighs were still there, but after a short time, she was comfortable with walking across Las Noches without the fear of falling on her face...

Things continued on as normal for some time afterwards and it was not unwelcome. But when she awoke one night, curled up on the couch to see him sitting at the opposite end, eyes closed and breathing steadily in that way that indicated he was sleeping, Orihime would make her way over to him and kiss him awake. Pressing against him until he pulled her into his lap and she would take him into her body with welcoming arms.

It was not a frequent thing, but when Orihime went to bed at night, she made sure to curl up extra tightly in the cushions to make sure he would have a place to come and sit to sleep if and when he did come.

And after some time of this had passed, Orihime began finding herself awoken in the dead of night to persistent hands and lips that were uncharacteristically urgent and rushed, as if something was on his mind, festering and prodding at him until he didn't even bother to take the time to remove her clothes.

Instead, cold, diligent hands would slide under the fabric with impatient zeal, fervently pulling it up her thighs and tugging her underwear aside as he sank himself deep inside her, coaxing an orgasm from the half asleep girl at the quick, immediate intrusion. Taking her with a harshness that was so different from the controlled, languid way she had grown accustomed to. Thrusting with a rough sort of determination and frustrated enthusiasm, driving into her hard as if he just couldn't get deep enough, before suddenly emptying himself inside her. Climaxing after a strangely short amount of time compared to the hours of long, tedious control that was normally displayed before he would finally succumb.

But Orihime didn't say anything during those times, because it seemed words weren't something he wanted to hear. His forehead beaded with sweat as it fell to her chest, directly over the thumping of her heart as he would ride out his orgasm before almost instantly falling asleep thereafter as he so habitually did. With her lips pressing into his hair as her fingers slid down his cheek with such a tenderness he would actually sigh.

No, Orihime tried to remind herself fervently, she would not fall in love with this man at all...

.

Orihime felt vaguely disquieted by the room they had just entered. She didn't recognize it at all and it was significantly darker than the rest of the palace usually was. There were tall, squared pillars raised from the ground, each reaching to different heights. Not to mention the small pit in the center of the room, the uses for such a thing, she did not even want to imagine. And with the horrible memories of the last meeting she had been 'invited' to, she really wanted nothing more to do with this place.

Unconsciously, she moved closer to Ulquiorra. Wondering why they had even been called here in the first place. Aizen had already met with her this morning, attempting once again to persuade her into doing his bidding. What else did he wish to discuss with her?

"So good of you to come, Orihime." Aizen welcomed with deceptive kindness. As if doing so would make her feel more at ease. "Ulquiorra, if you would be so kind?" He gestured with his hand for the man to come stand beside him, to which Ulquiorra obliged without objection. "Now, Orihime dear, I'm sure you're more than aware of how very patient I have been with you and your...excuses. But patience can only get you so far. Not even presented with the chance to get your precious hairpins back have you shown even a vague interest in cooperating."

Aizen rested a hand on Ulquiorra's shoulder and Orihime immediately recognized the gesture as anything but friendly. A foreboding sense of dread suddenly filled her when he rested his other hand on Ulquiorra's forearm, lifting it from his side as he smiled at her again, only it held less warmth to it and more deviousness. And she suddenly knew exactly what was about to happen. "As much as I hate to do this, it does seem like this situation calls for a bit more drastic measures..."

Her eyes widened as she watched him start to pull on his arm, the hand holding his shoulder acting as a brace against the applied force pulling against it.

"Wha-what are you doing?" She asked in disbelief. And Ulquiorra, he was just standing there, staring at her, completely uncaring of the manhandling he was receiving. Staring at her like nothing was even happening at all, as if Aizen himself wasn't threatening him with bodily harm...and he was letting him! No resistance, not even a whisper of opposition.

"Now, now, I'm sure you're a smart girl, Orihime." She heard his shoulder pop and a shudder ran down her spine. "You know what I want."

"Stop it!" She cried out upon seeing blood start to dot itself against the pristine white fabric of his jacket, only to suddenly spread out in that way that liquids do when coming into contact with absorbent material. She went to rush to him, knowing she could do nothing to stop him, but damned if she didn't try. But suddenly her hands were behind her back in an iron tight grip as she was pushed to her knees.

"That's not a very smart idea, Orihime-chan." Gin said from behind her and she hadn't even been aware there had been other occupants in the room until now. "I really don't think you should be pushing your luck anymore than you already have." And even if she couldn't see his face, she could hear the grin in his voice.

"Quit it! You can't-" She all but screamed, struggling against his restraining hands. Orihime's breath stopped when she heard fabric ripping, and when she raised her eyes, she realized with a sickening weight in the pit of her stomach that it hadn't just been fabric tearing, but flesh and tendons. Tears were running from her eyes as she saw the amount of blood running down his side, staining his uniform and pooling in a sharp contrast against the white marble of the floor.

Aizen had told her that he would only give her so much time before he took matters to a level that she would find less than pleasant. But this...this was too much. "Please," She begged. She had sworn to herself she would never give this man the pleasure of seeing her beg or cry or any kind of power over her other than the power he had to keep her trapped here against her will. But she couldn't take it, her heart was aching in ways she wasn't aware it could and seeing Ulquiorra covered in so much blood like that...he wasn't even attempting to resist! Looking at her with all the emptiness of a vacant expression as if he wasn't getting his arm ripped off, as if he didn't even care! "I...I'm begging you." She dropped her head, unable to watch the gruesome sight a second longer. Unable to take the shame filling her heart that she was willing to beg to Aizen...for Ulquiorra.

And then she heard a dull, quiet thump as something hit the floor. Her pupils dilated as she saw the dismembered arm lying before her, the upper half ripped to shreds where it had once been attached to his body. Nothing like the clean cut a Zanpakutō would have produced. It was brutal and medieval and cruel and she could see the splintering of bone where she had secretly hoped that it would have just become dislocated from his shoulder joint, but it hadn't. Aizen had snapped the bone in two and shredded his flesh. Slowly, she lifted her eyes to where the arm had once been, bile rising in her throat at the sight of bone and decimated muscle and tendons hanging from his shoulder in one of the most repulsive and disgusting sights she had ever seen of outright gore and violence.

Aizen reached around Ulquiorra to tuck her hairpins on the collar of his jacket. "You know exactly how to stop this, my dear. It's really not such a difficult thing to understand, is it?" And then Ulquiorra was on his knees, his other arm behind his back and ripped from his body in less than a second, not patient enough to take his time as he had with the last one. Ulquiorra's frown deepened as his eyes narrowed behind his hair, clenching his jaw to silence the inaudible noise in the back of his throat at the sudden movement.

"NO!" She screamed, fighting even harder against the hands holding her in place, unable to even lift herself from the floor, leaving her feeling frustrated and weak. Why must she always be so absolutely helpless to these situations? Why couldn't she find the strength inside herself the way Rukia could when Ichigo needed her or any of her other friends? She knew she could never be as strong as the others, but when she was the one always being held down against her will, fighting to get back up, there was always a part of her that screamed from the inside, telling her to never give in. Even if she knew she was outmatched in every way, even if she had stopped fighting, she would always keep hoping for the best.

"If you agree now, I might even let you fix his arms. After all, an armless Espada doesn't have much use in my army, now, does it?" He asked calmly, but then his hand was in Ulquiorra's hair, pulling his head back as the other hand ran fingers under his green eye before using his thumb to prop his eyelid wide open, the tips of his fingers prodding deep into the thin flesh surrounding the verdant orb, ominous and threatening in their intentions. "Or do I have to push these dramatics further than necessary?"

"I'm begging you," She whispered. "I'll do whatever you want, just...please don't hurt him anymore." Aizen's smile was one of satisfaction, seemingly finding an easy enough solution to her 'disobedience'. His eyes lifted to Gin, giving him the silent command to release her.

Orihime nearly stumbled over herself as she tried to get back to her feet to rush to him. But she froze in shock before reaching them, watching as Aizen leaned down to whisper something into Ulquiorra's ear, only vaguely hearing something about 'hiding things' and disembowelment if he ever kept anything from him that would help further his plans in the war. And Orihime nearly felt her legs give out from under her as she had the unsettling feeling this whole charade had nothing to do with her at all.

"Of course, Aizen-sama," Ulquiorra answered quietly.

Aizen grinned as he removed himself from the messy scene he had created. "And do fix yourself up, Ulquiorra, the poor girl looks like she's about to faint at the very sight of you."

Orihime felt frozen to her spot in front of the man kneeling before her. Surrounded by blood and bone and other such bodily parts, never wanting to witness such a heinous thing again in her life. She felt confused and slightly terrified by what had just happened. But when she started to take a shaky step towards him again, ready to call forth her Souten Kishun, she watched in surprise as he lowered his head a bit, as if concentrating, and stared in confusion and astonishment as tendon and bone and muscle started to reform from the tattered remains of his arm, slow only at first as the frayed flesh that had still been connected somehow regrouped with the new flesh, only to suddenly spring forth quickly to take the shape of a new, healthy looking arm.

When he raised his head again to stand, all he said was, "We are leaving," and then he strode past her, completely unfazed, shoving his hands back into his pockets where they had been before this whole debacle had taken place.

Orihime was at a loss for words, to put it lightly. He'd literally just been dismember in one of the most repulsive displays of cruelty she had ever seen, and he hadn't even batted a lash, as if the whole thing hadn't just happened. "Ul-Ulquiorra!" Her hand landed on his arm as she pushed herself past him, blocking his path with tears still running from her eyes with so many emotions and thoughts skittering through her brain she couldn't even bother to stop them. "Are you ok? Are you hurt?" She asked worriedly.

"Of course I am, does it look like anything is wrong with me?" The question was rhetorical, she realized, but it did little to ease the hammering of her heart.

"No, but aren't you-"

"I believe these are yours." He interrupted her, pulling the twin hairpins from his collar and holding them out for her to take. "I suggest you take them before you lose them again." She wanted to argue that she hadn't lost them, they had been taken from her, but she just didn't have the energy for it.

"I'm so sorry," She tried again, tried to get anything out of him, words, gestures, anything. "If I hadn't-" Apparently, he'd sensed where she wanted to take this conversation and proved he wanted nothing to do with it by interupting her again before she could get any more worked up than she already was.

"I assure you that spectacle had nothing to do with you, so don't bother with apologies." He replied a bit quieter than usual as he led them out of the room. Leaving the nasty mess of his arms lying in the large pool of blood behind them. He seemed distracted, as if something were on his mind.

And there certainly were things troubling him. That spectacle that Aizen had created back there, having known the moment they entered the room it had nothing to do with the girl and her childish attempts at insubordination, that the only satisfaction Aizen gained from having her there was the small bit of pleasure her mental distress gave him. He'd known she was easily breakable when the punishment was taken away from her and placed onto others, that she was rather masochistic in her views as she would rather endure great tortures than watch another receive it, whether it was hers to take or not. He'd known she play the part to a T. He'd known that she showed favor to Ulquiorra over the rest of his army. Using her as a witness of sorts was only a small warning to whatever other horrible punishments he could and would receive in the event he proved himself untrustworthy. Aizen was anything but stupid. Aizen knew Ulquiorra had something he was hiding. What Aizen didn't like was not knowing what that thing was. Because a God was all knowing and all powerful, with complete dominion over his beasts...

He'd been irritated that Ulquiorra had been keeping things from him, things that might help or even possibly hinder his carefully laid out strategy.

And that was fine, Ulquiorra had nothing to hide from anyone, he had no secrets. What he did have, however, was a second Resurrección that he'd transformed into less than a handful of times and Ulquiorra found it pointless to offer up the services of something that he hadn't even completely mastered all the skills and techniques that came along with the overwhelming power…apparently, Aizen hadn't found it so pointless.

"But, I don't understand."

"You don't need to understand. It's of no concern to you." He dug his hands deeper into his pockets as he kept walking, completely unconcerned for the tears in her eyes and the confusion wracking her mind as he was too distracted with his own thoughts.

Orihime's feet stopped dead in her tracks, watching as he continued on walking without her. She stared at that back that was beginning to become an all too familiar sight, always walking away from her, never giving her explanations, never helping her to understand anything, any of this. Whatever this was...

He stopped and turned slightly as he glanced back at her eyes that were examining him with a strange kind of scrutiny. "Is there a problem?" He asked, probably hoping it would prompt her into just shaking her head and following along obediently behind him like she always did.

Orihime could feel her fists clench and shake as her brows furrowed in frustration and anger. "'Is there a problem'?" She repeated with clenched teeth and upon seeing her ire peak, he turned to completely face her, as if waiting for whatever her response might be with a deathly calmness that was starting to grate on her nerves. "I've been forced into this place, held hostage against my friends and none of this is my business?" And perhaps if she wasn't such a benign and amiable person she was sure she would have snapped those words out instead of barely keeping them in check with a thick kind of agitation. "I was made to watch that horror show in order to force me into some sick sort of submission so I would agree to do something I want nothing to do with!" She swallowed hard, trying to reign in the anger welling up inside her. "Forcing me to agree to heal that...that thing and then refusing to allow me near the wretched device in this horrible place where nothing is my business but everybody here makes me their business and delights in going out of their way to harass me. Where people say things they don't mean and don't mean the things they do, like some silly little puzzle. Where I'm nothing more than some weak human female, yet everyone is obsessed with what I'm thinking or doing. And none of it is my business?"

She stood stalk still as he approached her, stopping directly in front of her and she forced herself to calm down, to lower the pitch of her voice. But she hadn't expected the way her voice suddenly came out in nothing but a whisper or the way she lowered her eyes to the ground as she slowly asked, "With all this, please tell me then, why it is so wrong of me to not understand this place and these people and all these actions that surround me? I'm an alien in a foreign environment where I don't belong." Her eyes lifted back to his, listening intently as she continued in her hushed voice. "Why is it such a sin to not understand? And why is it so wrong to want to understand?"

"You're right."

Orihime hadn't known what she'd been expecting, but it wasn't that and her lashes lifted over her eyes as they widened slightly.

"You don't belong here. You are only here because Aizen-sama sees fit for you to be. You are useful to him now, but will only become dispensable in the near future. Dispensable commodities have no place in understanding any of our business," He hadn't changed the tone of his voice, nor had he put any emphasis on the word, but when that word, 'our', left his mouth it was like someone dumped a bucket of cold water over her head, reminding her of all their differences, of everything that separated them. Human and Hollow, cold and warm, alive and dead. Just an enemy standing face to face with another enemy in the cold, empty halls of Las Noches. "If you cannot figure out the reason behind your purpose here by the time your comrades come for you, then you will soon enough when they die, as they inevitably will, with nothing left of them for you to remember but their cold blood staining the sands outside the palace walls that they will try, and fail, to infiltrate."

His words held an extra sharpness to them that made her heart break, as if he were trying extra hard to drill the image into her mind, going out of his way to make sure she could picture that very thing, as if he were trying to push her heart back to a more comfortable distance than where it was at the moment. Standing too close to him with its persistent thumping and humming and skipping beats when he walked in a room only to speed up when he touched her.

Orihime reached forward, her fingers grazing the bare forearm at his side, running over the unique texture of his flesh before stopping over his wrist, wrapping around it and squeezing softly, feeling the hand in his pocket clench. "Why are you so afraid of me, Ulquiorra?"

She could not see his face, as her eyes were fixated on his wrist held gently in her hand, but she could hear the change in his voice as he asked, "Afraid?"

"I...Ulquiorra, I-I lo-" Orihime gasped as her back was suddenly pressed firmly into the wall beside them, her hands pinned above her head as he wasted no time in silencing her with his mouth, unwilling to hear what she had been about to say.

"There is nothing you have to offer that could instill fear in me." He stated clearly, spreading her legs and quickly lifting her skirts until her skin was bare to him, as if this would make her understand his words. Orihime stumbled in a struggle to keep her feet on the ground, only to lift her leg to hook around his hip as it was all she could do to keep up as he was suddenly inside her.

Orihime shuddered and tried to push down the almost knife-like aversion she had to his arms wrapping around her. These weren't his arms. These were frigid and cold and held all the same qualities that were Ulquiorra, but they weren't the same. The arms that had held her tight and caressed her almost tenderly at times were lying in pool of blood in a room far away. Frayed at the edges and bone shattered about them as they had been ripped from his very body.

She cried out when his nails sank into the flesh of her backside, thrusting hard against her in a manner that was nothing like the urgent, almost desperate times he had taken her in the similar type of fervor he displayed now. These arms were only trying to prove a point, not make love to her. These hands pulled hard in her hair and Orihime had to turn her head away as her traitorous body had forsaken her in the need to have him near her, climaxing as he lifted her feet from the very ground as he continued to drive into her.

No, these were not the arms of Ulquiorra Ciefer.

And, for the first time, Orihime, who had only ever released such quiet, docile sounds befitting an angel when she came, cried out loudly in a way that almost bordered on a lament of pain. The sob echoed through the halls of Las Noches, the noise rebounding off the walls over and over again in a hauntingly resounding manner until if finally died off in the distance.

The man pressed against her stilled, standing unmoving for only a second. With cold hands under her, holding her steadily in place beneath her derrière with harsh, insensitive fingers as her feet dangled at his sides. "You're disgusted." He said quietly as he pulled himself from her body.

Orihime shook her head vehemently as he let her feet slide back to the floor, unable to look at him even as she whispered in a way that sounded like she was lying even to herself, "No...no, I'm not."

"Then why are you crying?"

.

The next day, her friends entered Hueco Mundo and whatever odd relationship that had settled between them crumbled. Orihime was painfully aware of the way he no longer touched her or spoke unless he deemed it necessary. He never had been one to waste words, but when he had opened his mouth to talk, Ulquiorra liked to talk a lot. But now it was only orders and demands and goading her about her friends. He was no long Ulquiorra her warden. Now, he was just her warden and nothing more.

He was the man that had killed her escorts, who had killed the boy in the library and the man who constantly reminded her that her friends were never going to make it here alive.

And Ulquiorra watched in mild revulsion as the woman changed right before his very eyes. Nearly the instant her friends made their way into the deserted sands of Hueco Mundo, something in her shifted. It had not been dramatic nor immediate, but it was there nevertheless and soon there wasn't much left of the woman he had once thought was interesting.

It was as if suddenly there was no more Inoue Orihime, only the weak, useless human that he had first laid eyes upon when she had come here. As was the change he witnessed in the girl. He had thought perhaps he had been wrong when she slapped him one day not long after her friends arrived, but he quickly saw that he was mistaken.

Gone was the woman who looked at him with fire in her eyes when he dispatched the guards escorting her from Soul Society. Gone was the woman who had looked Nnoitra dead in the eyes as she snapped at his insulting remarks. Gone was the woman who had actually had the gall to refuse Aizen's order. Gone was woman who had seemed to peek through to the surface when she smacked him... Gone was the woman who would crawl into his lap at night and move atop him, skin gleaming with sweat as she worked with a feverish intensity to take every inch of him inside her, her heart hammering at his touch and eyes shining with only him reflected in their depths.

Seemingly erased from existence until there was only her, nothing other than the physical body that had once held the girl that was now just...gone. But there was nothing to be done about it, and the sooner one just accepted the way things were, the easier it was to get over the nagging annoyance at seeing her reduced to such weaknesses.

That woman he'd found interest in was nowhere to be found as her vocabulary was drastically reduced to nothing but the words 'Kurosaki-kun' and the occasional few times she would whisper the names of her other comrades as she just stood there and stared out of that window like a zombie. The way she couldn't even look him in the eye as he interrupted her and Grimmjow's attempt to heal the piece of trash that had already been disposed of, having to turn her head at the very sight of him when only hours before she had slapped him so hard her hand had turned red.

He thought that maybe something had happened in the time he was gone as he broke through the Caja Negación, because it seemed she was actually capable of normal speech again and her usual rants about the heart and friends and connections you can't tangibly grasp were back in full swing. But then it seemed to evaporate into the atmosphere, going back to wherever it was that it had come from, forcing him to wonder if he had once again imagined it.

There was nothing there that interested him when she allowed herself to be attacked by the two female Hollow who had stalked her throughout Las Noches with a disturbing sort of jealousy. Two weak Hollow that, with her hairpins firmly back in her possession, she could have fought with only a small degree of difficulty, instead, only crying out for Ichigo Kurosaki to save her, seemingly uncaring that the man was in a fight to the death with an enemy, fighting for her freedom.

Completely uncaring of the fact that he was drastically losing and still she cried out for the help of the man she loved without even trying to help herself. For speaking so highly of love and all its amazing powers, Ulquiorra decided she had a strange way of showing it. Realizing with a bit of disappointment that she talked big, but perhaps she just couldn't practice what she preached. It proved useful enough though, as he used the situation to his advantage, trying to pull forth that untapped power inside Ichigo Kurosaki to the surface as he refused to let him pass.

And when she screamed out to a dead man to save her from him, Ulquiorra knew that whoever this girl was, it was not the Inoue Orihime that he thought he knew. But, Ulquiorra told himself, that's what he deserved for fraternizing with humans...because in the end, she still won.

The justice of her heart had triumphed.

He was the one standing there dying as the boy grasped at his chest in slight panic, bruised and battered, but healthy and alive.

But when Ulquiorra leveled his gaze at the girl, a strange expression dominated her features as tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. She always had looked beautiful with tears in her eyes.

Ulquiorra reached for her, searching her eyes for something that he finally seemed to find. That, yes, maybe he had been wrong. That maybe, this girl was indeed Inoue Orihime and that her heart was...

.

Orihime sighed as she made her way through the doors of the Urahara Shōten, leaving her sandals at the entrance as she wiped away the drops of sweat beading on her brow. It was midsummer and ungodly hot, making her shorts and pink tank feel like she wanted to peel them right from her body and jump in a tub of ice water.

Shifting the slight weight in her arms, she made her way to one of the back rooms where she knew everyone was most likely gathered, drinking ice cold sodas and indulging in flavored popsicles in the heat of the day.

She adjusted the weight in her arms again as she stopped in front of a door where a decidedly pandemonium-like amount of noise was emitting, knowing she had found the right room, Orihime slid the door back with a positively glowing smile on her face, hoping they had saved a soda for her, particularly hoping for her favorite.

Several heads turned in her direction in a room that seemed almost too small for the amount of people populating it. "Hey everybody!" She said cheerily as she shrugged the heavy, pastel polka dotted tote from her shoulder to set beside the door.

"Orihime!" Several voices chimed at once and then they were swarming around her like flies, nearly overwhelming her as they clamored over one another to get closer, examining the tiny, interesting thing in her arms.

"I'm sorry I'm late, I had a bit of trouble getting out the door," She explained. "I kept forgetting things, so I had to keep going back!" She laughed sheepishly. But nobody seemed to notice nor care as they continued to poke and coo at the now wiggling object in her arms, a tiny hand gripped tightly to the breast of her pink tank as big, green eyes stared back at the blurry images of the strange figures surrounding them.

"What's his name?"

"Well, I decided on-"

"Oh my god, I get to hold him first!"

"Sure, of course you ca-"

"No, I do. Look, he doesn't even like you, you're scaring him."

"Shaddup, with an ugly mug like yours, it's a wonder he hasn't started screaming yet."

Orihime just smiled when all her efforts of either responding or just talking in general seemed to be completely ignored.

Her eyes lifted to where Urahara sat near the center of the room, a few blankets and pillows spread about the area haphazardly atop the tatami mat where everyone had abandoned him the moment she walked into the room. Well, almost everyone, she thought as she stole a glance to the orange haired young man sitting cross-armed next to him, his brown eyes examining the black head of hair nuzzled securely against her chest with the same measure of seriousness as when he first learned of her 'situation'. She wished he would relax at least a little bit and let himself enjoy the day like everyone else was. And despite the sternness in his gaze, she didn't miss the hint of curiosity glinting there either.

"Kinda unimpressive, ain't he? He's awfully small..." Renji trailed off, leaning back to scratch the back of his head as he continued to stare at the infant. Which promptly earned him a hard smack to the back of the head by Rukia.

"Of course he is, idiot, he's only a week old." She said, before returning to cooing at the newborn in an almost comical manner, her forefinger wiggling over his toes, smiling when they curled at the stimulation. "I can't believe his eyes are already open!" She said in amazement. And Orihime couldn't help the wide smile that spread across her face as she looked down into those vivid green eyes, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life.

"He's...so tiny," Sado said from the other side of her, looking on in wonder at the being in her arms that seemed so small and helpless. "What's his name?" He asked, being one of the few people who hadn't yet been introduced to infant.

"Sora." She answered simply as she made her way into the room to lower herself into a cross legged position beside Urahara who had been eyeing the babe quite curiously himself. "Here," She said, holding the child out to him, her palm gently supporting the back of his head as she insisted he take him. "I know you've been really curious about him."

Kisuke laughed a bit sheepishly, as if being caught red handed, but reached forward quickly nevertheless, as if afraid of letting him being held out and away from a pair of firm arms for too long would result in him being dropped somehow. He held the tiny form in his hand, resting the child in his palm as his other supported his back and head, holding him up for a moment inquisitively before lowering him to a position much closer to his crossed legs. The others settled around them as they all examined the slightly squirming infant in a moment of quiet intensity, as if he were the most interesting thing in the world.

"You sure are a unique little thing, aren't you?" To which the youngling only squirmed a bit more, his tiny arm stretching out as a shaky yawn escaped his pouty lips. Urahara looked up to Orihime momentarily with a lopsided grin. "I've certainly never seen anything like him. Honestly, I don't think a something quite like this has been recorded in history, at least not my lifetime!" He laughed a bit jokingly, but still a bit seriously. Because, when it boiled down to the reality of the situation, nobody had ever heard of a human birthing a Hollow's offspring. "But I suppose it makes sense, Shinigami have kids all the time." He surmised, still wondering just exactly how to classify what the newborn infant was. Human? Hollow? Maybe he was neither. One thing was for sure, it was going to be interesting watching him grow up.

Orihime, rested her weight against her palm as she leaned over, tilting her head as she, too, examined the little body that she had already spent hours running over every small detail, every hair on his head and all ten fingers and ten toes. Everytime she looked at him she wanted to cuddle him sensless and shower him with tons of kisses! She smiled a bit sillily with unabashed pride, her smile widening when she noticed Ichigo loosen up a bit and start leaning in as well to inspect her child.

When his big green eyes opened again to stare up at Urahara, he chuckled a little. "Man, he looks exactly like his father." To which she could have sworn she heard a huff from Ichigo, arms crossing back over his chest.

"Tell me about it!" Rukia agreed, crawling forward to look down at him. "He's like a little clone." And Orihime was surprised Rukia hadn't ripped Ichigo a new one at the way he was sulking like a child in the corner.

But it seemed Ishida was no longer able to contain himself as he suddenly pulled a finely decorated bag out from behind him, sitting with a straight posture as he smiled almost haughtily. "I've brought a gift for you, Inoue-san." He stated, to which he promptly pulled out a vast array of neatly folded baby clothes, and with a wave of his arm they were magically spread out before him like a deck of cards on display. "Each of them are color coordinated and made to match all of the seasonal fashions. Ranging in size and design for him to grow into over the year. I've purposefully used nonirritant materials with painstaking precision..." And he went on and on, his arm folded over his chest as the other reached up to adjust the glasses on his nose. Apparently not at all noticing the suddenly droll faces of the other occupants who were swiftly on their way to ignoring him.

"Thank you very much, Ishida-kun!" Orihime said happily and very sincerely as he finished his rant. "It's so kind of you to go to so much trouble!" She smiled, stimulating Ishida's ego to puff up dramatically at her praise.

Sora made a small fussing noise then, to which Urahara promptly panicked, urging her to take him back before he broke the child. It was amazing, really, the amount of fear a tiny little infant can instill in grown men. Which gave her a wonderful idea...

"Kurosaki-kun," She said as she stood and then settled on her knees next to the man who had, at one time, filled her near every waking thought with girlish fantasies. She still found herself blushing around the boy at times, but after a time she realized it was done merely out of habit and not the racing of her heart that seemed to no longer be there when he was near. It was something that had saddened her at first, because she had become so accustomed to loving him, that it was a strange feeling to know she no longer depended on him. "Would you like to hold him?" She asked and nearly laughed at the sudden dread that had washed over the young man's face, nearly draining him of all color.

"Do what?" He nearly stuttered as his eyes widened. And before he could protest, she was urging the small bundle into his arms. As if on instinct, despite his hesitations, his arms instantly folded beneath hers, as if terrified that if he didn't that she may drop the infant into nothing but air if his arms were not there to catch him.

Orihime tilted her arms forward slightly, gently passing the infant into his, to which Ichigo immediately stiffened. His long stares and assessing glances evaporating the instant the feathery weight settled into the crook of his arm. The child grunted a little at the change from the softness of his mother's arms and loss of the cushion of her breasts to the hard, muscular arm and solid chest that offered none of the pillowy goodness of his mothers.

He looked up at her in shear panic. "What does that mean? Why's he doing that? Maybe you should take him back." He rambled out before the he finally seemed to settle in his arms, making him sigh in relief.

Orihime shrugged. "Babies just make noises sometimes, I guess." She smiled.

"What do I do with him?" He asked her again, his body so still as if the slightest movement would cause him to drop the infant to its death at a mere one foot above the floor.

"He looks sleepy, maybe you should just let him nap there, my arms do get tired." She lied, flexing her arm in a dramatic display that suggested that the muscles there ached. "I'm going to go get a soda from the 'fridge." She said as she stood and made to exit the room, glancing once more behind her as she saw Rukia make her way to his side to tickle Sora's feet.

"Don't!" Ichigo protested, turning his torso and the infant in his arms away from the petite girl who had went to tickle his feet again. The woman seemingly having grown some new obsessive fascination with her child's feet. "You'll wake him up!" He said in a harsh whisper.

"He's not even asleep yet, you idiot!"

"No thanks to you!"

Orihime smiled delightfully as they continued on bickering, leaving the door open to keep a close ear on her child as she left the room. Orihime had known that whatever misgivings Ichigo held about the offspring of the man that had killed him would evaporate the moment he laid eyes on him. Nobody could resist the charms of her Sora. Maybe she was just a biased mother, but Orihime believed that she had the most beautiful, perfect child in the world.

Orihime thought others must have thought so, too. Because she remembered how nearly all her male friends would approach her, Ishida being one of the more persistent ones, to propose marriage. Always with the same speech of, 'with such a young, unmarried woman in today's society...' before offering their services as man of the house. And Orihime, too naive to take insult, would only blush and feel very awkward as she thanked them for their polite offers.

When she opened the refrigerator, the chilly wave of air was a welcome sensation, bending down to retrieve a can, she pulled the tab and took a long, satisfying swig. The fizzy bubbles created a tingling sensation in her throat and nose and she resisted the urge to run the cold tin can over her chest as her breasts ached with the extra weight and swelling. She'd had to wear extra thick padded bras after the birth, as there were times when they were so swollen with milk that they began to soak through her shirts.

She dropped the soda from her lips, holding it loosely in both hands as her eyes grew distant. Wondering briefly what the cold, firm hands of her child's father would feel like pressed to them, soothing the ache away and cooling her heated flesh with his fingers...

"Orihime?" She nearly jumped out of her skin as she suddenly noticed Urahara standing in front of her. "Sorry," He laughed lightly, coming to lean on the counter beside her. "Didn't mean to startle you."

"It's ok, I was just lost in thought, I guess." She smiled that trademark smile of hers, insinuating that there was more on her mind than she let on.

"I was wanting to talk with you about something," He stated and was silent as she met his eyes, letting him know he had her attention before he began.

"What's that?" She asked, genuinely interested.

"Well, I guess I should just get straight to the point..." He muttered more to himself than her as he scratched the back of his head in contemplation, as if wondering where to start. "You see, not long after you came back from Hueco Mundo, you had a weird energy about you. At first I wasn't sure what it was, maybe it was just some unheard of aftereffect from being in such an alien world for so long. But when it still hadn't left after several months, I just assumed it had to do with your pregnancy."

"A weird energy?"She asked quizzically, looking down as if to examine herself. "I didn't feel weird when I was pregnant, other than the usual morning sickness and such." She smiled again, a bit of humor in her voice, despite the fact that her pregnancy had actually been very difficult in carrying a child bred of interspecies relations, the last part of her gestation period had been particularly tumultuous on her body. It seemed to have become yet another reason for the heavy dislike that settled over Ichigo for the child's father.

"That's just it," He continued. "I had expected it to fade after you had Sora, but it hasn't." He paused, as if to let that information settle in her mind, which only led her to further confusion.

"I'm not sure I understand." She tilted her head a bit, one of her brows lifting in an endearing sort of questioning manner.

"I don't really quite know how to explain," He was rubbing the back of his neck a little harder than what one would consider comfortable. "Other than the fact that you've stopped aging."

Her eyebrows nearly shot up into her hairline. Then she laughed a tad nervously. "That's silly, if that were the case, things like my hair and nails would've stopped growing." Her lip quirked as she tugged at her bangs to show how had grown out significantly over the past nine months.

"Well, yeah, one would assume that, but take us Soul Reapers. We age at a significantly slower rate than humans, but our hair still grows, as do our nails and our height as we grow older. I suppose I shouldn't have quite phrased it like that, rather it's that your developmental rate of growth has slowed to that of something more similar to that of a Shinigami or a Hollow, and not that of a humans..."

"So...I'm not going to...age normally?" She said with a hint of worry in her tone. And had she not looked so distraught, he might have laughed. Only Orihime would find something that most women would openly welcome as a blessing, as a curse. "Why?" Was the obvious question.

"I really don't know, this whole baby thing is new territory and the only thing I've been able to come up with is that it's an adaptation the Hollow part of your infant caused instinctually to increase its chances of survival, aiding the mother in rearing her young."

Her mouth formed a small 'o' as she took the information in. Still, Orihime smiled and simply waved it off. "I'm sure it will wear off," She said in an attempt that seemed to be trying to assure herself more than him. "You'll see, I'm going to grow into an old, wrinkly woman with all my friends."

And Urahara couldn't help but chuckle with her. "If that's what you want, who am I to stop you?"

A quiet cry was heard from the other room and from her position she was able to see her child still held securely in Ichigo's arms, as well as the extra wave of panic that swam over his features as Sora let out another small whine. Sora never had been a fussy or loud baby, and she quickly recognized the soft protests for what they were as her breasts ached at hearing the cries. Feeding time.

"What the hell did you do?" She heard Rukia scold him.

"I...I didn't do anything!"

"What's wrong with him?"

"How the fuck should I know?"

"Hm, he's probably hungry, here, set him down," Rukia said as she pulled a small plastic baggy out of her dark blue lunch bag. The bag holding a handful of little, circular cereal bits. "Babies eat this kind of stuff, right?"

Orihime muffled a laugh as she watched Ichigo sputter in pure indignation, twisting the arms holding the infant away from her again. "The hell, Rukia?! You can't feed that to a baby, you're gonna kill 'em!"

"And how do you know? I see babies eating these all the time on those television commercials."

"He'll choke to death, back off!" He protested.

"Oh, and now you're suddenly Mr. Mom? Like you know anything about babies."

"I know enough not to feed a newborn fuckin' cereal!"

Both she and Urahara laughed at the scene. "They're just like an old married couple." He stated, pulling out his fan as he started trying to wave some of the heat away from himself. Staring at the two fighting over a child in such a way conjured up images and ideas of futures to come. "I bet they're gonna have some damn cute kids." He said offhandedly, but then he stiffened after saying this, clearing his throat in an awkward way, as he had known she had harbored feelings for the orange haired boy. And Urahara knew that even if she'd carried another man's baby, especially considering the questionable circumstances, that didn't necessarily mean the feelings for the other would just disappear.

But Orihime didn't even seem to flinch as she hummed in agreement, still chuckling at the sight of them fighting over her darling Sora.

That train of thought led to other trains of thought, ones that left him feeling worried for the girl beside him and he snapped his fan shut as he turned a serious look to her. "You still plan on going to Soul Society, don't you?"

The girl only turned smiling eyes to him as she affirmed with a quick nod and a softly voiced "Nn," as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I know they will only allow me to go so many times a year, but I'm still taking every chance I get." She explained, as if to assure him further, to which he only sighed.

"Still working on getting him an acquittal?" She only nodded again. "Orihime, he may not even be-"

He was slightly surprised when she quickly cut him off, as if hearing the words would be too much to bear. "I don't expect him to go unpunished, but having him there, in that place...I just don't think I can take that..." Orihime's eyes lowered, her mind remembering the events of that night that still gave her nightmares...

She vividly remembered the intensity of his eyes on her, the way they settled on her with all the burning fire of the sun that was slowly dying into fading embers, ashes scattering in the wind with a sort of ironic grace that was such a contrast to the tumultuous storm in her mind.

She remembered the way she had reached out for him, only to grasp nothing but air, eyes widened in shock as she stared on in confusion at the scene before her. A vague sense of unease raced through her mind as her eyes registered the heavy chains and binds that had seemingly appeared out of thin air, pinning Ulquiorra to the ground with a loud crack as the weight of the metal smashed into the concrete beneath them.

A busty, stoic woman was suddenly straddling his back, grasping the horn on his head and pulling his head back as one would an animal to sink a needle deep into his neck as she injected him with a vile looking substance. Shocking her as the slow decay of his body slipping into ashes suddenly stopped.

The woman was off him in a second as his tail wrapped tightly around her throat, throwing her from his body and slamming her into the ground with enough force to create a small crater. The woman seemed to quickly recover as she cut the appendage with a single, clean slice, sending blood spraying all over her small, black kimono. She was on top of him again in no time, but Ulquiorra was having none of it, even weighed down with the painfully heavy looking chains around his arm and wrist, he reached behind his back, grasping her ankle and smashing her into the ground beneath him, placing her firmly within his line of vision as the bindings prevented him from moving any more than he had already demonstrated.

His hand was around her throat, squeezing with enough force to push nearly all the veins in his arms to the surface. But Ulquiorra, tired and weak with the weariness that death brought and lacking another arm to stop her as she twisted in an almost luridly perverse manner beneath him, was unable to stop her as she lifted her leg until her thigh was wrapped around his neck. The remnants of his wing flexed in protest as he tried to stop the velocity she created as she regained the upper hand and flipped him on his back, her thighs clamped tightly about his head as she succeeded in securing a thick metal collar around his neck with a speed that Orihime was unable to keep up with.

Ulquiorra was barely able to toss the woman from him again, turning back onto his torso as his only remaining arm struggled to lift him from the ground with the extreme weight pulling him down. Only getting a few inches for his effort as his hand reached up to try and remove it, seemingly the heaviest of the bindings.

But that persistent woman was there again, weighing him down with more chains around his torso and leg. In a frustration that she had never seen in the man before, he swung his partially severed tail under her legs, sending her falling back, only to be shot in the opposite direction mid-air as his tail wrapped around her waist and pummeled her into the ground next to him, keeping his tail securely around her and squeezing with a force that looked as though he'd crushed her ribs.

Everything was happening faster than she could process and she took a step forward, as if to intervene as she finally got a good enough glimpse at the woman to recognize her, a cold sliver of trepidation ran through her as she began to understand why she was here. But she did not want to see any more people die. And as she took another quick step, Ichigo's hand was on her shoulder, stopping her and looking like he himself was about to step in and stop Ulquiorra from causing her anymore damage. But then she became aware of another presence suddenly standing near them, telling them not to bother interfering. Watching as Ulquiorra's arm wrapped around her, his hand gripping down to the roots of her hair as he pulled her back against his chest, using it as leverage as he quickly and mercilessly jerked his arm, twisting her neck with a loud crack.

With blood still spewing from the whip-like tail, he threw the woman from him, sending the red liquid in a fan around them as he did so.

His hand went to pull at his chains again, but faltered as he had to brace himself on his palm against the ground, his breathing was heavy and labored and his arm shook with the effort it took just to keep his chest off the ground.

"Ah, ah, ah..." A heinous voice said from beside them, mocking and sarcastic in its nature. Her mind registered with horror just who had decided to join them at the top of the tower as twelfth Division Captain Mayuri Kurotsuchi stepped closer to the man chained to the ground with a partially dismembered body. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," He suggested, but Ulquiorra paid him little mind as he continued to struggle against the weight of the chains, he may have been willing to die in battle after a crushing defeat, but he'd be damned if he let these people do what he knew they had planned for him...

But then that woman was on top of him again, completely slicing off his tail and pressing her knee into his back, forcing him to the ground he had been struggling so hard just to keep his face out of the bloodied dirt. She lifted her other leg as her foot slammed down into his arm, seemingly uncaring that she was flashing her underwear for whoever cared to look.

Orihime couldn't take another minute of it, simply watching on while they swarmed around him like vultures, crawling on him like flies on a carcass, beating and wearing him down when he was already dying. But Ichigo's hand gripped her upper arm, warning her she didn't want to get on the bad side of that particular captain. And she already knew that all too well, but still...

"Nemu, report." He ordered as he made his way closer, and even though Ulquiorra could see the Zanpakutō in his hand was broken, he wasn't dumb enough to believe the man couldn't do any damage.

"Specimen has received a fractured skull, half a lung is missing as well as all of the lower intestine, kidney, liver and a damaged spinal cord. No apparent signs of a heart or the necessity for one. Aside from the missing arm and leg, there is no further damage. DNA is a one hundred percent match to the clone specimen found in Szayelaporro Granz's lab. Thirty five percent chance of success if operated on." She stated almost mechanically.

"Good," Kurotsuchi said. "We are keeping this one, there's lots of material to work with and he's unlike the others. A bit of a rarity, aren't you?" He smiled down at Ulquiorra, pleased with his find. And when the dark haired woman pulled a large, thick syringe from who knows where on her body, only to sink the needle deep in at an angle into his spine, hastily injecting the liquid, Ulquiorra immediately fell limply to the ground. Quiet and unmoving.

The sight had Orihime suddenly speaking up in protest.

But Kurotsuchi didn't seem to register her words or care for what she had to say, prompting her to raise her voice until he finally turned to her in irritation. Only to have the irritation evaporate as soon as his eyes landed on her, causing her to take a cautious step back.

"You're that girl," He stated, as if that somehow narrowed her down to one out of all the other thousands of women in the world. "Ah, Inoue something, right?" His eyes raked over her, examining her like he wanted to cut her up and dissect her on the spot. "My, my, what a unique case you are." Then he turned to examine his freshest catch before looking back at her again somewhat quizzically, as if solving some small puzzle, before finally turning away again. "Nemu, grab the girl, we're taking her." He ordered, only to be met with a loud protest from the young man who had been standing beside her, now standing defensively in front of her.

"You're not taking Inoue anywhere." He made sure the other man heard him, to which the captain turned to look at them once more, sighing as if just now noticing the fact that she had been with Ichigo Kurosaki, meaning she was off limits. "Very well," He waved dismissively over his shoulder as he walked forward to take in the strange appearance of his bounty. "Leave them, help me with this thing, already, Nemu." He ordered impatiently.

"Kurosaki-kun, you can't let them take him," She reasoned, unbelieving of the way he was just turning away as if he hadn't seen a thing, letting the twisted captain take off with his newest specimen to experiment on.

As Orihime stood there at the center of circular platform, Ulquiorra having disappeared to a fate worse than death and Ichigo walking away towards Ishida, she had never felt so very alone and very helpless...realizing that she had once again let Ichigo dictate her actions and prevent her from intervening, because if Ichigo said so, then she would always blindly obey.

Realizing that even though that man was their enemy, that he had just mercilessly killed Ichigo before her eyes, she'd selfishly asked for Ichigo's help. To help the very man who'd killed him, instead of stepping in to do something about it herself.

From that day onward, Orihime had vowed to never have to depend so fully on her friends again. That from this moment on, she would be the one to protect them...

"I know as hard as it is to accept, leaving him in Kurotsuchi's lab may be the best thing for the time being." Urahara said, snapping her out of her thoughts. "If his condition is as bad as you said it was, Kurotsuchi may actually be the best chance he has at survival."

Orihime shook her head. "I don't see how. To have him piece Ulquiorra back together, only to have him dissect him like...like a..." Her voice trailed off, the words sending unpleasant images running through her head, prompting her to quickly change the subject. "I don't know all the details, but I know there had been some sort of distrust Aizen had of him, I'm hoping this will help me gain him pardon." She explained quietly, thinking back to the time she had been left in the care of Harribel and the three women who talked so openly about such subjects. "Like I said, I'm not really sure what the reasons were, but it's something, at least. And with Harribel in charge of Las Noches now and some amount of peace settling between Soul Society and Hueco Mundo, maybe they will change their minds." Orihime said in a hopeful voice, unsure if she was trying to convince herself or Urahara more that she believed her humble tactics might work.

"That certainly may help, but considering you've only been able to present your case to them a handful of times, you still don't completely know what you have to work with. And the fact that there might have been strife between him and Aizen, the very man he was working for, may hurt more than help. Though I don't particularly believe there was any amount of trust between Aizen and his subjects, Soul Society is a stickler for going through their political procedures, no matter the situation. And in the end, once they've gone through their usual act of pomp and circumstance and have gathered all the allegations they can pile on him, you'll realize too late they've already made their ruling long ago and no matter how sound your objections may be, it'll never make a difference..." He explained with a shrug as though he sympathized with her, and Orihime knew by the way he spoke, though light and airy, he had been speaking from experience. Then he grinned one of his lopsided grins at her that always seemed to manage easing just about any kind of tension in their small group.

"It all seems so complicated," She said, unable to hide the weariness in her voice.

"That's just how they do things," He shrugged again, knowing that's just the way things were and there was nothing to be done about it. "I think they're also unsure of the reasoning behind your actions."

"Reasoning?' She asked, not understanding why they would bother wondering about the intentions of a girl whom half of them probably didn't even remember her name.

"One of their bigger concerns is the fact that you were possibly in Las Noches for a long enough duration of time for Aizen to gain your loyalty, thus leading you to want the release one of his Espada in order for said Espada to break him out of Soul Society," He said in an exasperated tone, nearly rolling his eyes at how ridiculous it sounded even coming from his own mouth.

"That's just silly!"

"I know, I know...and they know it, too." He tapped his fan against his chin in a manner that spoke of the act being more an unconscious habit than anything else. "Flat out truth is, they just don't want him released. Despite what you may think, Orihime, you are loved greatly by many members of the Gotei thirteen. Fact of the matter is everyone believes he...well, that he..." Urahara trailed off, unsure of how to word it correctly.

"...he what?" She asked innocently, patiently waiting for him to finish the sentence.

"They're all basically thinking along the same lines as Ichigo," Urahara kept his voice steady, yet refrained from anything too heavy, unsure exactly how the girl felt on the whole matter. He had his suspicions that things weren't as bad as everyone was led to believe, but that didn't mean he wouldn't throw his words around without knowing the circumstances that had led to the infant sitting in the quaint and cozy Urahara Shōten were consensual.

It seemed as though anyone who knew the young girl believed she had only been working so hard to free the man out of the kindness of her own heart. As forgiving and sweet as the young girl was, the common consensus was that Orihime's charity and benevolence was urging her to grant the man a pardon for the sake of her newborn son and nothing else. And though he believed that such gossip was, for once, most likely true, Urahara was comfortable in saying there were probably deeper, more personal reasons behind her actions.

Her head tilted a little, as if she still wasn't catching on. "I don't really understand," She stated in a way that was meant sound kind and inoffensive, as if trying not to insult him because his explanations had apparently been so bad that she just didn't get it. Urahara almost laughed, because it wasn't his 'bad' explanations that were to blame, but rather her naivety that kept her from grasping onto the situation. "And I certainly don't understand why Kurosaki-kun was so unnerved by a harmless baby." She said, still mulling over the puzzling matter. Truly, Orihime could understand his dislike for Ulquiorra, but that didn't mean he had to be so anxious about his child.

She'd known he and the majority of her friends were more than a little unnerved about her pregnancy, and she just chalked it up to the same shock that had hit her at the news of it all, thinking that had to be the only logical reasoning behind them acting so strange. But everyone's reservations and uncertainties disappeared the moment he'd been born. Everyone, that is, except for Ichigo.

Orihime leaned over a little closer to Urahara, as if to whisper something that was embarrassing but curious all the same. "I don't think Kurosaki-kun knows much about babies," She explained, as if to clear away whatever previous assumption Urahara had about everyone else's similar 'line of thinking' to that of Ichigo's. "I...I don't think he knows how to make them, either. He didn't pay much attention in that special class in school." Her blush deepened.

Kisuke's lips puffed out as he suddenly stopped a burst of laughter from escaping. He probably would have let it out if he'd known it wouldn't have embarrassed her, and also for the simple fact that, in reality, everyone's 'line of thinking' was that Orihime Inoue had been raped. Even he had originally feared that had been the case when he heard about it. It shouldn't have been a laughing matter, because she still hadn't shared any information about how the child came about. And despite what he had come to assume was a completely consensual affair, Orihime had a knack for hiding deep emotional scars.

"Well, they all think..." He cleared his throat, trying to straighten his face and forget her completely ridiculous comment and chose his words very, very carefully. His tone of voice letting her know that he was on her side and would take her word as truth no matter what 'they' had been whispering behind her back. And even though he could sit here for the rest of his life and tell himself that he did not want or need to know anything, that she could just speak up whenever she wanted to, the fact remained that a very dear friend of his had been placed into scandalous circumstances and she deserved more than silence from him on the matter. "I'm sure you know how surprised everyone had been when the news got out...so most people just automatically assumed that you had been forced to-"

The sudden stuttering and red-faced girl looked like she was about to pass out from embarrassment as she cut him off before he could say anything more. "Th-th-that's not true! He...he never! I mean, of course we had t-to..." She gulped and waved her hands in front of herself frantically. "Things weren't...th-that is it wasn't like-"

Urahara laughed and decided to spare the fretting girl from anymore distress. "Calm down, calm down...I get the picture." He urged, lightly tapping his fan atop her head, it seemed to work as she visibly relaxed, but remained red as a tomato. "I just want you to know, even though I can't speak for his character, if you feel like he deserves a second chance, you're word is good enough for me. I'll be willing to help in whatever way I can and I'm sure Yoruichi would be happy to do the same."

"Thank you so much!" She smiled brightly, clapping her hands together happily. Also looking very relieved by the change in subject. "By the way, where is Yoruichi?" She asked.

"She's still in Soul Society at the moment, she's making sure the preparations for the hearing you requested are still in order, she'll be back in time to escort you and Ichigo there in a couple hours." He answered simply, going back to watch the raucous coming from the room across from them. "Just make sure you stay close to her and Ichigo, especially since you insist on taking Sora with you, even though I don't really approve of taking a baby like that into the lab of Mayuri Kurotsuchi...honestly, I don't know whether it's good or bad luck that he's actually going to let you in his lab, though I suspect he has his reasons..." He said a little darkly.

"I know, but I want Sora to meet his father, even if it's just this once..." She explained, the determination in her voice wavering a bit. "I've heard rumors that he's not even conscious, but I don't want Sora growing up without seeing his father, even if it's like this, even if he never..." Even if he never wakes up, even if he's never set free, even if he's dead and there was nothing left but a body preserved by Mayuri Kurotsuchi's science, keeping him from rotting away and turning to ash. Orihime swallowed hard.

Orihime wasn't going to pretend she wasn't nervous about the visit to that lab, not just because she was afraid of what condition Ulquiorra could be in, but she knew the man would be eyeing her infant like a hawk with the sickest of interests in mind. Which is precisely why Ichigo was going to escort her and Yoruichi to Soul Society for the hearing and her first visit to the twelfth captain's laboratory that the Captain Commander had finally agreed to. Ichigo was highly respected in their world, and in just being with him put her in just about the safest position she could ask for.

"What do you plan to do if it works?"

Orihime seemed to pause, knowing exactly what he was talking about. What would she do if Ulquiorra survived? What would she do if he woke up? What would she do if he was let go?

Urahara could see by the look on her face that she hadn't thought that far ahead. Which confirmed yet another thing he had suspected, that she was going through all this trouble to free the father of her child without even thinking about the consequences, or even what he might do if her efforts actually paid off.

"I...I'm not sure really." She said a bit sheepishly.

"Maybe he could stay with you?" Urahara said just for the sake of getting the gears in her brain working with possible options.

Orihime actually giggled at that. "I really don't think he would fit in here very well, Ulquiorra doesn't like humans very much." She explained.

"Are you so sure?" He grinned a bit. "I can think of at least one that didn't seem to bother him much..."

Another deep red blush popped up on her cheeks again just as it seemed she had recovered some of her normal coloring after that little panic attack she had. "I...I guess." Urahara's grin morphed into a smile as he noticed the glimmer of hope in her eyes. Honestly, it was actually a tad strange seeing the girl blushing over anyone that wasn't Ichigo. Her childlike crush had become an integral part of her personality to all of them, but seeing how happy she was with that baby...he was sure they'd be able to adjust easily, he thought pleasantly.

"You never know," He spread his fan again, hiding his wide smirk. "Maybe he had a change of heart."

The wide eyed girl looked at him in an odd sort of wonderment, mouth slightly parted as if she had just been star struck. The eager hope radiating off her in waves. She wondered if he knew how ironic his words were...it was suspicious, really, how that man seemed to know too much for his own good.

She was snapped out of her thoughts, however, as another of the familiar cry reached her ears, coming from the other room as the voice continued crying out for its mother. She smiled as she heard another argument break out between her friends and a loud, "Orihime, something's wrong with this thing!" She set the can of soda down on the counter without preamble and made her way back into the small room.

"He's getting all squirmy," Rukia said as she looked up to the auburn haired girl stepping into the room. The infant having now been passed to the petite woman, who was grasping at her unimpressive chest. Despite the difference in size of his own mother's large ones, it didn't seem to deter the babe as he seemed to know exactly what breasts were, nuzzling against the small curve and searching for food.

"He's hungry," She smiled as she explained, taking a seat next to her friend.

"Ha! I told you he was getting hungry." She said to Ichigo, whose eyes were glued to the small breasts getting quite a bit of attention from the newborn.

"Keh, it's not like I said he wasn't..." He remarked, forcing his eyes away as Sora was passed from Rukia to his mother.

Orihime pulled one of the many blankets laying about the floor into her arms, settling her child against the bundle as a cushion for him to rest on as she fed him. She paused though, looking at the men in the room with a blush on her face as they all stared at her, as if expecting her to start doing tricks and jump through loops. "U-um..." She started, only to have the men suddenly thrust violently from the room as Rukia kicked them out with a loud yell.

"Perverts!" She scolded as she slid the door shut with force. "Geez, men..." She said as she made her way back to sit next to Orihime, who was now dragging the strap of her tank off her shoulders to pull down half her shirt and bra to expose a breast, sighing a bit as some of the near painful ache in them started to ease at the insistent suckling. The two women continued to chat as the baby was fed, burped, had his diaper changed and then laid out on his back atop a thin blanket beside her, turning the fan on him to keep him cool as the rest of her friends rejoined them to spend the afternoon together.

.

"Maybe you just should have brought a stroller," Ichigo said as he walked beside her, both of them following closely behind Yoruichi as they made their way into the Shinigami Research and Development Institute. "That thing looks uncomfortable," He gestured to the baby carrier wrapped around her torso and supported by her shoulders.

"I'm ok," She assured. "A stroller would have been too bulky and bothersome, anyways. Besides," She said as she reached up to grasp each of Sora's hands in her own. The infant sleeping soundly against her chest. "I get to keep him close to me like this!" She smiled.

"Wait here," Yoruichi said before she left them in the waiting hall, disappearing behind a door for a few minutes before reemerging in the company of the captain of the twelfth division, Mayuri Kurotsuchi. The site of the pasty-faced man evoked a chill to run down her spine, that and all the stares of the lab coated scientists she and her child were attracting. They were looking at Sora like a piece of meat, sending a surge of anger and fear to well up from inside her.

Orihime forced her nerves to settle, she had been expecting this and was determined not to let them deter her.

"Welcome to my Research Institute," Mayuri said enthusiastically with something that sounded like forced politeness. Orihime squirmed a bit, still feeling the stares searing into her skin. "You'll have to forgive my assistants, the lab doesn't exactly get visitors." Meaning the people that did have the unfortunate circumstances to be brought here usually never left. "Here, come this way, I believe you're here for specimen 2406, correct?" He turned on his heel and headed back towards the doors that he had just emerged from.

"His name is Ulquiorra." Orihime said quietly.

"Huh?" He gave her a strange look.

"He's not a specimen. His name is Ulquiorra." She looked him in the in eye, eyes that were regarding her in a manner that spoke of how silly he thought her statement had been.

"Of course..." He continued walking. "Ulquiorra is this way," He said as they went deeper into the compound. "We have to keep him locked up for security reasons, only myself and Nemu are allowed access, I want to make sure all the research on such a rare subject is done properly," He explained, pulling out what looked to be a keycard as they stopped before a large metal door. "None of my assistants are permitted to enter, it prevents any contamination or unapproved experiments that might interfere with the progress we've already made."

"Is he awake?" Orihime asked hopefully.

"See for yourself," His smile was wide and a bit wicked, as he swiped the card through a mechanical device beside the door, emitting a quiet 'beep' before the loud noise of the door sliding open slowly echoed in the hall.

Orihime stepped into the room hurriedly, eyes scanning the dark shapes and shadows before landing on what she had been searching for. She froze in tracks, nearly fainting at the site before her.

She had expected the worst, she always had. She'd imagined him splayed out on some medical table with wires poking out of him, or even floating in a tube of gunky looking liquid that appeared so often in science fiction movies. But when she saw Ulquiorra strung up in the large, upright circular device at the end of the room, she felt nausea rolling around like eels in her gut.

Whatever the device was, it was nothing more than a hollowed out, circular piece of metal, Ulquiorra held in place as his hand was secured in a reinforced encasing attached to the device, as well as his foot. His left arm was still missing and whatever had been trying to grow back of his leg the last time she had seen him was long gone. His head hung lifelessly from his shoulders, his dark hair covering his face and the remnants of his wing had been removed...it was sitting on a table in the corner of the room, pins and needles poking out from it as it lay in neat, precisely cut slices.

Long, deep incisions covered his body, cut open and sewn somewhat lazily back together as it seemed they were places that were worked on daily, if not hourly. There was a long, open cut down the side of his neck where a plastic device was weaved into the tendons of his neck. And worst of all, was the piece of medical equipment that Orihime could only compare to a spatula holding open a particularly long incision across his left lung, completely exposing the organ as if Mayuri had only just been working on him before they interupted his work. It was collapsed, and the boney ribs around it were broken in nearly every place she looked.

Orihime covered her mouth to stop the noise that had been about to leave her throat. She truly had expected the worst, but seeing him like this, the father of her child, strung up and cut open and exposed, sloppily stitched back together like some kind of horrible Frankenstein experiment gone wrong, left her nerves rattled as she began to wonder if all of this was just a lost cause.

She felt her companions come up beside her, but their presence offered little comfort. She could feel the sharp, catlike eyes of Yoruichi gauging her reaction steadily.

Mayuri walked forward and pressed a button on the side of the round object, making another beeping noise as the device slowly started to rotate backwards until it was horizontal with the floor. Orihime felt her stomach lurch again as his head suddenly rolled backwards with the change in position, hair falling from his face and exposing the gash in his neck all the more better.

A shiny metal slab detached from the tiled floor beneath him, supported by a single stainless steel beam beneath it that lifted it from the ground. Continuing to raise until it touched Ulquiorra's back as the restraints holding his hand and leg were released to drop him onto the slab, causing his arm to fall limply off the table, swinging lifelessly like a pendulum until if finally stopped.

"Progress has been slow going," Mayuri began as he stepped closer to the table. "And even though there is no damage to the brain, there has been no activity." He said, sounding a bit disappointed. "Although the cloned organs are a match, and transplanting them has been easy, they aren't integrating into the new body as well as I'd hoped. As you can see," He reached over to the small tray beside him, not even looking as he did so, as if knowing exactly where all the medical instruments were by heart. He took a silver scalpel and sliced down one of the loosely stitched areas on his abdomen, pulling apart the flesh to expose the innards of the prone man. Coating his pale fingers in blood and without thinking twice, Mayuri reached into Ulquiorra's body to gently pull forward what looked to be a carefully reconstructed piece of intestine. "The body is not rejecting the organs, but getting them to work in tandem with-"

Orihime suddenly bolted from the room, unable to bear any more of that man's horror show.

"Inoue!"

She heard Ichigo calling out for her, but she ignored him, trying to keep the bile from rising in her throat. Her breath heaved from her as she slowed her pace a good long distance from the room she had just exited, leaning her back against the wall as she slid to the floor and wrapped her arms securely around Sora as tears ran down her cheeks unchecked. Her whole body shook as she cupped the back of the infants head in her palm, rocking against the wall in an effort to distract herself.

What was she doing here? She thought she had been prepared, that she could handle it. Orihime had seen a great many things on the battlefield. Deep wounds, dismembered arms and legs, even the death of Ichigo. But this was nothing like the fear that had welled up inside her as she watched Ichigo's body be thrown from the tower, void of life, by the very man who sat cut up open like a lab rat in the other room. That had been pure, mind wrenching terror.

This...this was just...sickening.

For the first time in her life, Orihime began to believe that a person was possibly better off dead than to be subjected to such cruelty. She wondered if she were doing the right thing, or if maybe she should just let him go.

She hushed the now awakened infant, remembering her pregnancy and his birth in an attempt to get her mind off the bloody image of Mayuri reaching in and coaxing forward parts of Ulquiorra's innards. She had wanted to have Sora in the real world, in the Karakura Town maternity ward. But when it had become apparent that her pregnancy was going to be littered with complications, Unohana had forbid it in that sweet, frightening way of hers, as having the child in the human world was wrought with risk. And when a natural birth became something that was no longer an option, a caesarean section was necessary. Orihime had only cared about the safety of her child at the time, but afterwards when he came out safe and healthy, Orihime had actually worried about a scar. She had never been vain or self-conscious, but the thought of a giant scar running across her abdomen did not appeal to her, though she should have known better than to doubt Captain Unohana's skill, as she examined her stomach after the operation to see not even a scratch.

Orihime bit her lip hard as she thought back to that time, giving birth to Sora right here in the Seireitei, with Ulquiorra only a few miles away in this place. She bit down even harder as she thought about her stupid concern about getting a scar, fretting about it like some child while he had been here, in this place, in that condition. Perhaps it wouldn't have bothered her as much if she hadn't known that Mayuri Kurotsuchi was liken more to a dungeon master than a scientist when it came to his experiments.

"Inoue," Ichigo called again, and upon seeing them coming up from the long hallway, Orihime pushed herself from the wall and onto her feet, quickly wiping her face of tears before they could get close enough to see.

"It's ok, I'm fine," She said with a calm smile as they approached her.

"Are you sure?" Yoruichi asked, taking in the young girl's pale complexion.

"Yeah, I was just shocked, that's all." She assured them, her eyes shifting to the end of the hall where Mayuri exited the lab, making sure to lock the secure room back up before he turned to approach them.

Before he could even get ten feet from them, Orihime stepped forward to approach him. "Let me help you," She said suddenly, shocking everyone in the hall. "My powers can speed up the reintegration process of the transplanted organs."

Mayuri only chuckled. "As tempting as that is, I'll have to decline. With your interference, I'll be losing all the data I would have received going about the process naturally." The smile on his face told her that wasn't the case at all. Mayuri Kurotsuchi knew what she wanted and he wanted to see her play all her cards first before he would agree.

Orihime couldn't say that she hadn't expected it. But she had made her decision and refused to back down no matter how apprehensive and unsure she felt about this whole thing. "Then what if we make a deal?" She asked quietly, trying to keep the nervousness from her voice and features. Trying to appear confident and unwavering under his stare.

Mayuri laughed as he examined her. "I don't see what you have to offer that could convince me to forgo months of data to let you interfere. Unless..." His grin widened as his eyes lowered to examine the infant strapped to her chest, wrapped securely in her arms. Orihime felt a fierceness well up inside her the likes of which she had never known as she tightened her arms around her child, turning her torso away from the man defensively as fear and anger swam in her eyes like a whirlwind. "You let me-"

"Don't even think about it!" Ichigo and Yoruichi were in front of her in an instant.

"What did I just have a chat with you about, Mayuri?" Yoruichi asked steadily, her voice holding a warning edge.

"Of course, of course..." He drawled a bit irritably. "I would never think of such a thing..." He said completely unconvincingly.

Despite the anger in her, Orihime pushed forward before she lost her window of opportunity. "If you let me help you, I'll allow you to study me as much as you want." Ichigo's eyes were stunned as he looked back at her.

"Inoue, what are you-"

"You've already expressed interest in my powers, now you have the chance. And now that I've had the child of a Hollow, I'm sure that by now you're aware of the changes in my body...how I'm no longer aging like a human." She remembered what Kisuke had told her, and was now somewhat glad for the unwanted transformation in her body as it could be used to her benefit.

"Wait a minute, Inoue," Ichigo protested. "You can't just-"

"It's a deal." The scientist said, promptly cutting Ichigo off before he could stop the situation unfolding before him.

"Only if he wakes up." Orihime stated, laying out another of her conditions to their bargain.

"Fine. But you will also be carefully monitored for data during the process to ensure I get every bit of information possible during the operation. Be here early tomorrow morning, I want to get a good start on the day." Mayuri said quickly with a large smile on his face, turning from them before any more unnecessary compromises could be brought up. "My, my...this turned out even better than I expected." He mumbled to himself as he walked away, sounding a little too satisfied with her offer, leading her to believe this was something he had planned from the start. And that it was a very good possibility that he had something to do with the Captain Commander finally allowing her to visit the institute in order to get his hands on her.

The rest of the day was spent listening to Ichigo and her other friends efforts to try and dissuade her from her decision as she tried to convince them that she knew exactly what she was doing and there was nothing to be worried about...even though she wasn't so sure she believed that, herself.

That night, she asked Urahara and Yoruichi to do her the honor of being Sora's Godparents. She supposed something like that was supposed to be a happy occasion, but instead all she felt was concern plaguing her thoughts. Because after the day's events, Orihime had suddenly become painfully aware of the dangers her child faced if anything were to ever happen to her. Who would be there to look after him? To care for him and protect him?

It had also come to her attention that Sora was not a normal child, he was of mixed origin. And it left a fear in her heart that as he grew up, he may not find the same acceptance into society that other children had the luxury of, simply because he was 'different'.

But she knew, at least, that under the protection and guidance of these two people that she held in such high regard, that he would always be safe. And she knew that she had made the right choice when they both nodded and agreed with serious looks deep in their eyes, understanding exactly what it was she was asking of them.

.

Orihime sat in a tall, metal chair next to the table holding the prone, mutilated body of Ulquiorra, staring at the injection sites of the many wires and needles attatched to him. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat and resisted the urge to pull at all the little plastic circle adhesives sticking to her skin that held small implements that monitored every beat of her heart, bead of perspiration, spike in brain activity, Reiatsu...everything, as well as a few needles that had been placed in her arms to analyze her blood work.

She looked down to examine his face and the green markings over his cheeks. Still in his Resurrección form, but some of the features had faded, remembering the way his eyes had reverted back to their usual color and the thick, black streaks on his face faded away to green as he stood there dying. Now, he it was like he was stuck, frozen in limbo halfway between two vastly different forms.

Both Rukia and Ichigo were there, standing guard behind her just to make sure nothing went wrong. And though she wanted to remain strong and confident, their presence was a welcome comfort as she eyed the room around her, set up like they were about to go into a medical war zone. With instruments and devices that she had never seen before in her life. Her eyes particularly tried to stay away from the busty woman standing nearby at the ready, positioned next to a rack of organs in jars of strange looking fluids, each attached to something that looked like a life support system.

The sight had her feeling jittery all over again.

Mayuri walked into the room, going over papers and writing something down as he approached his artificially made daughter to say something that she couldn't hear.

Orihime looked down to Ulquiorra again, reaching forward to gently brush away the hair that fell between his eyes. Before she lost her nerve, she bent down slowly to press a chaste kiss to his temple, whispering something in his ear, an action she knew he would highly disagree with, before pulling away in mild embarrassment, knowing that her friends had probably been watching her.

"Girl!" Mayuri's loud, hasty voice startled her, making her heart jump. "What did you just do?" He asked as he quickly made his way towards them, his fingers pulling back Ulquiorra's eyelid to flash a light in his eye, apparently looking for any sign of pupil dilation or activity.

"I…I...I didn't do anything!" She stuttered out frantically, alarmed by whatever it was that had gotten the scientist so worked up. "I was just sitting here."

Nemu came up beside him, handing her father a long sheet of paper covered with squiggly markings reaching from end to end. "There is a small spike here, indicating brain activity for a brief moment, but it stopped immediately afterwards with no further activity."

"Is the equipment malfunctioning?" He asked.

"I do not believe so, but I will make sure to double check."

"Is that a…bad thing?" Orihime asked, a bit worried.

"It's nothing to worry about now, we will continue." He said, waving her off and coming to stand at the opposite side of the table, slipping blue, plastic gloves over his hands. "Operation of specimen 2406 with the assistance of Inoue Orihime beginning at 5:07 a.m." He said aloud and Orihime wondered who he was talking to, only to realize the place was rigged with cameras in nearly every corner. A large window sat at the top of the wall to her far right, full of men and women in lab coats holding clipboards and pens as they stared down on them with morbidly stoic faces.

"You are ready?" He asked in a manner that suggested it wasn't really a question, but an order.

Orihime nodded and tried not to look as he started cutting into Ulquiorra in an area that was dangerously close to his lungs. "We're starting with the liver." He said as he used a retractor to spread the flesh apart, the implement held the tissue out of the current field of operation as he began the methodical task of removing the damaged one from Ulquiorra's body. Orihime closed her eyes and concentrated her energy as she called forth her Shun Shun Rikka, spreading the soft, golden glow over the operating table as she focused her efforts in the areas that he was working.

When Nemu handed him the replacement liver, and he worked on transplanting the organ, Orihime used her powers to reject the trauma resulting from the transplant, reintegrating the organ at a much faster rate than it would have taken had it been left to heal by the unnatural means of the scientist she was currently working in tandem with.

Hours passed as they worked tediously to replace all the damaged structures in his body, structures she realized had been completely destroyed in his fight with Ichigo and 'regenerated'. Taking the physical place of the old ones, but unable to serve any function, some organs hadn't even been regenerated at all. Knowing this, she began doubling her efforts as she worked to both aid in the operation and fix the broken bones in his arms and legs and the fractures in his skull.

When several more hours passed, Orihime was feeling the exhausting effects of having her powers in use for so long. But when she felt his body begin to accept the new organs and regenerate the bones in his ribs by himself, she caught her second wind, feeling a surge of hope that seemed to double when she suddenly heard a pleased noise from Mayuri. "Yes, very good…"

She opened her eyes, nearly gasping as she watched new bone, muscle and tendon begin to slowly form and stretch forth from his severed arm and leg.

"Is this a normal trait for this particular Espada?" He asked her, not lifting his eyes from his work, but wanting to know the information all the same.

"Yes, I...I think he can regenerate anything with the exception of internal organs and his brain," She explained, trying not to get too distracted by the new development. "Though, from what I've seen, normally it's much faster than this." She said as she watched the almost snail-like pace of the new growth, the way it looked almost as if the flesh was crawling out from inside his arm. Veins snaking and spinning around the sinewy tissue.

When he announced that they had finished, Orihime sighed with relief and wiped the sweat from her brow. She looked wearily to the clock on the wall, realizing that it was nearly four in the afternoon, almost twelve hours having passed.

As Orihime stood, she felt the room begin to spin and sway around her. She griped blindly for the table, but felt nothing as everything went black, hearing the voice of her friends calling out to her as she fell to the floor, unconscious.

.

When Orihime's eyes opened blearily to the spinning of a ceiling fan above her, she immediately recognized the sight and knew she was in one of the many small rooms of the Urahara Shōten.

"You're awake!" She heard the familiar voice of Rukia from beside her. "Hey, guys! She's awake!" The dark haired woman called out over her shoulder, prompting a flood of people to come rushing into the room as she slowly sat up, each familiar face a welcome site.

"How are you feeling?" Ishida asked as they surrounded her like a pack of worried mother hens.

"I'm fine," She assured them, to which they didn't seem to believe. "Really, I am. Just a bit tired, that's all."

"That's good," Rukia sighed in relief.

"Where's Sora?" Orihime asked a bit hastily, trying to push herself up, only to have Rukia's hand on her shoulder stop her.

"He's still with Tatsuki, he's fine. You need to rest." She said reassuringly. "You shouldn't have pushed yourself so hard."

The statement seemed to shake her memory as Orihime recalled why she was here in the first place. She shoved the blankets from her waist as she leaned forward. "The operation, did it work?" She asked with hope filled eyes, expecting the best as she remembered the way his body had began regenerating on it's own. "Is he awake?"

The somber looks of her friends had her heart sinking as none of them seemed to want to look her in the eye. Rukia shook her head as she said quietly, "No, Captain Kurotsuchi said there was still no brain activity..."

"Oh."

They all stared at her, making her feel weak and pathetic from the worried, pitying expressions on their faces. Which only made the tears threatening to spill over all the more difficult to keep in check. She'd sworn to herself she'd never let them see her weak and helpless, she'd never wanted to see those pathetic looks they gave her ever again.

"Well, I guess that's to be expected," Her lips quivered a bit as she swallowed hard. "It was a long shot, anyways..."

"Look, Inoue, maybe you should just consider forgetting about all this," Ichigo said, crossing his arms and clearly trying to hide the slivers of anger in his eyes. "You know I didn't approve of this whole thing from the beginning and I still don't. It's not safe and after everything that guy did..."

"M-maybe you're right..." She said shakily. And Orihime suddenly felt very overwhelmed and confused, understanding what he meant by that statement. She was painfully reminded of what everyone thought Ulquiorra had done to her. And hearing how much Ichigo and probably the rest of her friends thought of her actions, how much they disapproved of her desire to help one of Aizen's cruelest and strongest henchmen had her heart shattering in her chest. Because she didn't know how to explain to them that what she was doing was right, because even she wasn't sure. She always thought she could just explain to them that Ulquiorra was a 'good guy' and that he would never do anything to hurt them. After all, he was the father of her child and they didn't know him like she did. They never saw him the way she had. It was all so simple in her head.

But she knew now that she had no idea if such things were true. That her hopes that Ulquiorra would come back and cause absolutely no trouble, let alone expressing interest in a half-breed child, was nothing more than the product of wishful musings of a desperate mother. She remembered how she had once convinced herself into believing he would never hurt her friends, that he wasn't the 'violent' type because he just didn't 'seem that way' to her. That whenever he threatened her or her friends, her good-natured heart pushed aside his verbal warnings, like a dog's growl announcing it was going to bite, and ignored them like a child, reaching forward until she learned the hard way how painful that bite could be. She remembered how naive she had been to think such things, misjudging him as Ulquiorra proved her wrong over and over again. He had warned her, though, more times than she could count and she never listented, always opting to lie to herself. She wanted to blame it on Stockholm Syndrome, but even she new better than that.

She felt selfish, suddenly becoming aware of how they must be feeling after going through so much danger, the life-threatening things they went through to rescue her only to have her come home to seemingly take the side of an enemy. And here they were, still offering support and friendship and just the simple comfort of being by her side. Orihime realized she had been taking advantage of that friendship recently. She knew they didn't wish for outright torture or death, they would never be so cruel, but she could also tell they weren't comfortable with the idea of him running around of his own free will. Especially since they had no reason to believe he wouldn't repeat his actions.

"I was just...just trying to..." She couldn't stop herself as a sob ripped from her mouth, tears pouring down her cheeks as she curled into herself, feeling very insecure and confused, like a complete and utter fool, wishing they would all just leave so they didn't have to witness her heart breaking into a million pieces.

"I'm going to kill that fucking bastard if ever see his face again." Ichigo growled out as he suddenly stood and stormed out of the room and Orihime wished he'd stop saying those things, but she would never ask that of him. Not after what he went through and lost during the war. And certainly not after what she learned he believed Ulquiorra did to her, a thing Orihime didn't even know where or how to begin to explain was wrong, something she was fairly certain they wouldn't even believe if she told them, anyways.

Her body shook as Rukia quickly crawled over and wrapped her arms around the crying girl.

"I'm s-sorry," She apologized again and again. And she wasn't even sure what she was apologizing for. For crying? For worrying them? For seemingly taking the side of an enemy and not her friends? She didn't know, all she did know for certain was that she was very tired and hungry and all she wanted was to wrap her arms around her child.

.

-Two months later-

.

Orihime rushed through the doors of the Urahara Shōten, panting heavily as she hurriedly made her way to the small room that Urahara had set aside for Sora, a place where he could sleep when they would visit or head underground to train. It was small and still functioned sometimes for what the room had originally been intended for, which was storing blankets and pillows, store records and other such things. But he had set it up a crib and a changing table with a baby monitor. It wasn't much, but it was perfect as far as she was concerned. Where Tessai and Ururu would keep a close, watchful eye on the babe with the occasional curious stares from Jinta as she trained with her friends...only to have Tessai spoil him silly when she wasn't watching.

She placed the child on his back, making sure he was secure and there were no toys or pillows near his head that may suffocate him if he happened to roll over in his sleep. With Sora safe in his crib and Tessai in the shop to watch him, Orihime rushed from the room, heading directly for the underground facility where she knew Urahara was at the moment.

"Oh, Orihime! What a nice surprise!" Urahara greeted, but Orihime knew he was faking. She knew he knew exactly why she was here.

"Is it true?" She asked breathlessly before she had barely come to a stop in front of him.

Urahara swallowed hard and looked very much like he wanted to be anywhere but there.

Clearly seeing that he did not want to answer, she pushed on. "Please, tell me if it's true or not." She insisted. "Did they really let him go?"

He cleared his throat a couple times before finally speaking. "Yes, they decided to re-" He didn't even get a chance to finish before she interrupted him, and he looked a bit shocked at her uncharacteristic behavior.

"Take me there." She said with determination. Never becoming rude or impatient, but persistant and eager all the same.

"Orihime, you know I can't-"

"Please." The look in her eyes told him she had already won, that he really had no say in the matter. So he sighed, lowering the brim of his hat as he smirked and gestured for her to follow him.

.

Orihime was well aware of the stares she was attracting as she ran down the streets of the Seireitei, taking sharp turns and concentrating on not getting lost as she tried to hurry her pace.

She had to get to him, she had to let him know-

She was jerked to a sudden halt as a small hand wrapped around her wrist, nearly sending her body careening back with the force of such an abrupt stop. She turned sharply to regard the icy blue eyes of Rangiku Matsumoto looking at her with an odd, pitying sort of intensity.

"Rangiku, please," She urged, trying to pull her hand free of the firm grasp of the beautiful woman. "I have to go, if I don't get there soon I won't be able to-"

"He's gone, Orihime." She said solemnly, her eyes holding a measure of sadness as she regarded the girl who looked so much like a younger, more innocent version of herself.

"Wha...what?" Her eyes widened, unsure if she had heard the woman correctly.

"He left for Hueco Mundo hours ago."

"No...no, he couldn't have..." This wasn't happening. "I didn't get a chance to tell him..."

Rangiku kept her eyes locked with Orihime's as she felt the girl begin to tremble, possibly the only person in the Seireitei, man or woman, to understand the hurt and to have the strength to keep herself from looking away from those innocent grey eyes flooding with misery. "I just wanted him to know!" She cried out, feeling anger and hurt and every other unwelcome emotion hit her hard. "He has to know!" She pulled Orihime against her in a tight embrace as she began sobbing, deep and painful noises of a young woman who'd just lost whatever small hope she'd had for a future. For her son to have a father, for the father to know he has a son. For her chance to tell him she had loved him once. She felt anguished and lost, knowing that whatever silly dreams she still clung to of having any sort of peaceful relationship with Ulquiorra was exactly that...a dream. She wanted to feel relief in knowing he was okay, that he'd woken up and survived, but everything was overshadowed by the simple fact that he was gone.

Rangiku only held the girl tighter, knowing all too well the pain shredding apart the remnants of her heart, the disappointment in the shaking of her hands and the river of bitterness that ran down her cheeks, broken and knowing that whatever fantasies she'd once had of living 'happily ever after' had walked out the door along with him.

.

Ulquiorra stepped through the Garganta he'd just opened, the portal swiftly closed behind him as he examined the small room. It had only been a few days since he had regained consciousness, opening his eyes in some sort of laboratory environment that he could only assume was in Soul Society.

He recognized the man and woman who had attacked him on the tower as they almost immediately began cutting into him. From his briefings with Aizen, he knew the paint-faced man to be none other than Captain Mayuri Kurotsuchi of the twelfth division and his Vice Captain, the artificially created intelligent lifeform. It didn't surprise him.

Neither did it surprise him that the man had actually been trying to coax a terrified reaction from his so called patient as he would cut body parts from him left and right, only to study the apparently fascinating way he regenerated them at a remarkably high rate. Curious to see if Ulquiorra could control the speed and rate of the regrowth, or if he could control whether the limb would grow back at all. The man was even more disturbed than Szayel had been. And the fact that Soul Society allowed things like this to occur behind their 'holy' walls, it was no wonder Aizen had defected. But Ulquiorra knew that had absolutely nothing to do with his former master's motives. And in those moments when Mayuri Kurotsuchi had been taking delight in the gruesome acts that had him brimming with enthusiasm, the only thoughts running through Ulquiorra's mind had been; where was he and what was his best method to escape.

He had been subjected to the man no more than a day and a half before the presence of their Captain Commander had intervened, suddenly stating that Ulquiorra was to be set free under the fifth act of the new treaty between Soul Society and Las Noches, apparently it was an act that was only effective if said individual was 'sentient', and given the fact that he had been brain dead for a year, apparently he hadn't fallen under this category until recently. And even though they had been there to free him, he found the fact that the few men who had accompanied their Captain to the lab, with their hands resting firmly on the handles of their Zanpakutō and never taking their eyes off him like a pack of paranoid groupies, to be rather amusing. Because even if his arms and legs were to be freed from the straps holding him down, Ulquiorra wouldn't have even been able to bat a lash at them with the toxic amount of drugs that had been pumped into his system, paralyzing his entire body.

After they had escorted him from the Seireitei, Ulquiorra had intended on going straight back to Hueco Mundo and nowhere else, having learned Harribel had taken charge of the place. Because even though Ulquiorra had never found a need to belong, what he did want was something to do. He was curious and interested to see what had become of the place.

Ulquiorra could feel the device implanted inside him, placed there by that ridiculously eccentric scientist, and resisted the urge to rip it right out of his body. But the man had warned him of the consequences of doing such a thing, given his new 'circumstances'.

Which is why he found himself in this small room, staring at a white crib with blue and green padding, and not on his way back to Las Noches as he'd originally intended. Unconsciously, his Reiatsu dropped to levels lower than he'd imagined it could ever go, an involuntary reaction to prevent the helpless creature's soul in front of him from being crushed. He hadn't even realized he'd done it. Ulquiorra had never suppressed his Spiritual Pressure to such a degree, he'd never had a need to.

But as he took a few steps closer to the crib, looking down on what appeared to be a miniature clone of himself sans the Hollow mask, hole or markings, he found that he didn't even bother trying to rectify his body's involuntary reaction.

He stared at the large green eyes peering back at him with the same amount of intensity in his own eyes, watching as it squirmed and fussed as if something was bothering it. His tiny fists shook as his mouth started to open and thin, pouty lips parted as a silent cry rolled off his equally small tongue. He was certainly a quiet child. With such a dramatic build up, one would have expected a loud, ear splitting wail to have erupted from his lungs instead of the silent noise of discomfort that he gave instead.

He was teething.

As if knowing exactly what the babe wanted, he reached a hand into the crib and nudged at his lips with his finger. Almost instantly, the child grabbed onto the proffered fingers and began chewing on his father's knuckle. A strange sense of pride welling up in him at feeling how strong the child's grip was.

Chewing happily on the pale appendage, he released his grip and started grasping at his wrist, trying to reach higher. Arms outstretched and a demanding look in his eyes as he insisted on being picked up, wanting to be held.

Feh…just like his mother…

Always wanting things, always fussing about things. She was probably spoiling the brat senseless.

Ulquiorra had always known what he felt about things, about situations and the like. He knew what he felt about fighting and wars, about when to kill or not kill. He knew what he felt about Aizen's motives. He knew what he felt about humans and Shinigami, he even knew how he felt about the girl whom he had impregnated.

But as he stared at the tiny being that he had spawned, Ulquiorra could not place his finger on exactly what it was he thought of this whole thing. He was left feeling almost…confused. He should have known something like this would have happened. But the idea had never even entered his mind, subconsciously assuming that a human and an Arrancar simply could not create offspring successfully. But there it was, lying right before his very eyes, looking back at him with vivid curiosity as his impossibly small fingers pinched at his skin, still insisting he be held. Ulquiorra felt no urges to pick him up or hold him close, but his stubborn persistence was certainly interesting.

However, the moment of silent scrutiny was broken as hurried footsteps grew in crescendo the closer they got to the small room. Ulquiorra knew it had been coming, having sensed them in the building the moment he set foot in the room, but when Ichigo Kurosaki burst through the door with all the grace of a tsunami, Ulquiorra didn't even bother giving the man a second glance.

"Get the fuck away from him." He growled out with all the protective fierceness of a devoted father.

Ulquiorra wasn't ignorant. He was no stranger to emotion. He knew exactly what it was when things like fondness, envy, rage and even fear hit him. He didn't stand there like a dumbfounded imbecile contemplating the meaning to life as some 'strange new world' opened up to him when an emotion struck. No, Ulquiorra knew exactly what these things were, he simply didn't experience them in the mammoth quantities that others would, and often found them too burdensome and troubling to bother with. However, what did stun him was the sudden amount of it that filled him with anger when that piece of trash ordered him to step away from his offspring.

With the sudden commotion, the once calm infant began to cry in protest as the loud noise appeared to have frightened him. Ulquiorra pulled his finger away from his lips and nudged his chin up, gently shutting the child's mouth. Immediately, the wailing died to a whimpering only to completely stop a second later as he went back to chewing on the finger in front of him.

"If you do anything to him…" Ichigo growled as a man Ulquiorra recognized as Kisuke Urahara came up from behind the boy to stand in the doorway. Watching him with a calm, steady gaze. As much as the man's aggressive demands annoyed him, he had other things to do than stand here and listen to his grating voice. "I swear to God, I'll-"

His tirade was effectively cut off when a Garganta opened up behind Ulquiorra as he pulled his hand from the crib and made his way into the portal, heading towards his original destination.

Well, he thought as the Garganta closed behind him, at least the child was safe…

"Do me a favor, Urahara," Ichigo said as he walked forward to the crib to check on the infant, making sure he was unharmed. "Don't tell Inoue about this…I don't think it would be a good idea."

"If that's what you want," The older man replied nonchalantly. "But if she asks, I won't lie to her."

"Fine." He said as Kisuke quietly left the room.

.

Ulquiorra made his way into Las Noches through the back gates as he so frequently used to do, a strange habit he'd acquired over the years of service in the palace. He was surprised to see the vast amount of damage that it had attained during the war was a distant memory, save for the few walls here and there that were still under construction.

The place held a vastly different aura about it, no longer the sparsely populated grounds that held Arrancar that would scatter like roaches at the very sight of any of the Espada. Now, the occupants only stopped their activities to stare at him with watchful eyes. Curious, but wary and guarded.

He hadn't gotten far before the three women he recognized as Tier Harribel's fraccion appeared in front of him, swords drawn and pointed steadily at his neck.

"Where do you think you're going?" Mila Rose said sternly.

"You have no business here." Apacci spat vehemently before he could even reply. "I suggest you turn around and crawl back into that disgusting pit that birthed you." She ordered.

"Where is Tier Harribel?" He asked, ignoring her insults.

"Nowhere that you need to concern yourself with," Mila Rose said. "Now get out."

"That's enough." A stern voice said from behind the women. "Lower your swords." She ordered, to which they reluctantly obeyed. "I can guess why you're here." Harribel said as she moved between her subordinates, standing before him. "However, if I am wrong and you are here to challenge me for possession of the throne-" Her feminine, yet steady, voice held a substantial amount of warning in its edge.

"I have no interest in such a thing." He said blandly, but truthfully, as it held no relevance to him. Their eyes locked in a flat, yet intense stare, her blue eyes alight and shining with caution and scrutiny. Neither of them foolish enough to let their casual appearances distract them from the very real threat that each of them possessed to the other. However, Ulquiorra wanted nothing to do with the troublesome responsibilities that came along with said title and all of its annoyances.

"In that case, Las Noches is always in need of strong, dedicated soldiers willing to protect Hueco Mundo." She said in a capable, authoritarian voice with all the regal confidence of a warrior queen. "Can I depend on you fulfill this duty?"

"Of course." Was all he said, not wanting to drawl the conversation out longer than necessary when things were so rocky.

"Harribel-sama," Mila Rose said a bit urgently as she came to stand beside the blonde woman. "Perhaps you should reconsider, do you not remember even Aizen did not trust him?"

"All the more reason to welcome him," The queen of Las Noches answered. "Or do you not remember that Aizen trusted none of us?" To which Mila Rose only quietly conceded to her logic, the bitterness of that specific memory written on each of her subordinates faces. For a moment, Ulquiorra wondered if they had actually expected anything else from Aizen than what they got, which surprised him, because Harribel was one of the few level-headed Espada that had been in the army...he had thought she, of all people, would have known better than to place any amount of trust into the inhabitants of Las Noches, least of all Aizen. "However," Her calm, smooth voice suddenly took on a slightly darker, malevolent tone. "If he does prove himself otherwise…" She trailed off, her cold blue eyes speaking volumes to the promise of danger if he ever attempted anything against her authority. Letting him know that were he to even entertain the thought of attaining her throne, he would have to fight viciously for it if he ever dared such a thing, that she would never permit even the slightest signs of suspicious activity on his part.

"Possession of the throne is of no consequence to me," He reiterated his earlier statement, honestly caring less who sat in that seat so long as there was someone sitting in it willing to give him orders. Letting her know all he wanted were obligations to keep him occupied and distracted. However, he wondered for a moment if she knew of his second Resurrección...he didn't believe she did and he pondered over the idea of whether or not he should inform her the way Aizen had wanted. Ulquiorra had never fought Harribel, only having observed her a few times from the sidelines and thus, he did not know the extent of her power. However, in the event she viewed his own strengths as a direct threat to her position, she may retract whatever offer she has made thus far. No, he couldn't afford that at the moment. If she didn't already know, then he wasn't going to bother telling her.

"Then you will be welcomed here." She replied to his comment. "There are other things that may become required of you over time," She began to explain. "If negotiations between Las Noches and Soul Society continue as they are now, we will be needing a levelheaded man such as yourself to act as ambassador, someone calm and even-tempered. With your current situation and connection to the Shinigami Captain Kurotsuchi, this puts you in a prime position to take the job, as you will be traveling to their world on a regular basis, I presume." Harribel said evenly, pausing as if waiting for him to state otherwise in the event the information she had received about his current happenings was wrong. But when he said nothing, she only continued on.

"I will give you time to think this over, of course." She added, though her tone suggested he didn't have much say in the matter. "I will also take this time to brief you on a few of the new rules that have been set in place. Even though I understand that you did not display the same amount of violence as the rest of the Espada, there is no killing or shows of unnecessary violence within the walls of Las Noches any longer. This will be your one and only warning, as there is no leniency shown to those who break this rule."

"Of course." He repeated again, offering no complaint. Only listening silently as the woman spoke more words than he had ever heard her utter during their entire service to Aizen.

Before he turned to leave upon coming to a mutual consensus, it seemed she was intent on giving him his first order. "I realize you have business to attend elsewhere and I do not expect your presence here at Las Noches as much as Aizen demanded," She explained steadily. "But I do expect you to return by the end of the week. Grimmjow has been leading a rebellion against the throne and has become particularly active lately. We will need everyone on duty before their ranks can reach our walls."

Grimmjow…he shouldn't have been surprised that short-tempered brute was still alive. Reckless fools like him were too damned stubborn to die.

"Oh, and Ulquiorra," Harribel called out once more as he walked away. He paused to glance over his shoulder, expecting her to give out another order, but he should have known better.

"Congratulations." She said almost lightly. If it weren't for the high collar hiding her face, or the fact that her entire lower face consisted solely of the remnants of her Hollow mask, he would have believed she was smirking.

Women…

Apparently even Harribel was just as frivolous as the rest of them…

.

"Shhh, it's ok," Orihime gently pat against Sora's back as she tried to calm him, slowly pacing the floor of her apartment. Her face the very epitome of stress. "I don't understand what's wrong with him," She said worriedly.

"Maybe he's got a fever." Rukia said from her position on the couch beside Ichigo. They had both insisted on keeping her company, apparently worried for the unusually stressed girl after learning of her actions previously in the day.

"No, I already checked," She answered. "I've tried everything I could think of. Nothing is working." Truthfully, she had been glad for their company, not wanting to be alone any longer. She had always been used to the silence of her apartment, but when Rangiku and Captain Hitsugaya had moved in temporarily, she had grown accustomed to the ruckus they made. And when she returned from Hueco Mundo to an empty home, her apartment seemed hopelessly void of life.

She'd bought a television, never watching it, but always leaving it on if only for the sake of the noise. After Sora had come, the loneliness eased, but sometimes she just missed the company of her friends.

Orihime realized Ichigo was just staring at the TV with a strangely brooding look about him, not saying much. She imagined she wasn't being a very good hostess at all. "I'm sorry guys, I'm sure you must be bored. You don't have to stay just for my sake, it's getting late, after all." She said apologetically.

Rukia flipped through the magazine she was reading. "It's fine," She said as she tossed the paper onto the coffee table in front of the couch, strewn about with 'how to' books on raising a family and caring for babies and books with guidelines about being a new mother. "Besides, someone insisted on coming over here for some reason." Her eyes glared pointedly at the boy sitting next to her. "He's been acting all weird all day." She sighed.

"Oh...well, are you guys hungry, then?" She asked. "I could make something for you, or we could order out?"

"Order out!" The both of them answered hastily at once, not wanting to chance the woman's horrid cooking.

But before they could even grab a phone, Sora's crying increased almost tenfold. To which Orihime returned her full attention to her child, worried out of her mind.

"Are you sure he's not hungry or anything?" Rukia asked, sounding a bit worried herself.

Orihime shook her head. "Maybe I should take him to the hospital…" She thought aloud, worrying her lip between her teeth. "He's never like this, he's always been such a quiet baby…this isn't like him at all. Perhaps he's-"

Before she could say another word, both Ichigo and Rukia shot from their seats on the couch as she felt another presence suddenly fill the room. Both their eyes locked on a figure behind her radiating a familiar energy.

"His teeth are bothering him." A toneless voice said from behind her. A voice she hadn't heard in so long she had barely recognized it.

Orihime gasped, whipping her head around to come face to face with the pale, expressionless visage of her son's father.

The room was deathly silent for a moment, with only the pained wailing of Sora's cries filling the void.

"Oh…" She breathed out. "Of…of course that's it…" She nearly stuttered. And then she started shaking almost violently. "Silly me, I should have known." And then she was pacing the floor again, rocking the infant against her nervously as she ran her fingers over the softness of his hair. "I guess I've just been so distracted lately." She continued on in her failing efforts to simply appear normal and nonchalant. The smile on her face was almost flat, perhaps wobbly at best, and it was faltering with each passing second. "Everything's just been s-so hectic today," And then tears where streaming down her cheeks unchecked, hiccups straining her throat as she forced herself to try and stay calm. "I'm always losing track of things…I just…I just…" A loud sob escaped her throat and she tried to cover it with her hand all too late as she stopped her pacing.

She hated this, standing here in front of her friends and Ulquiorra, crying and sobbing like a child. But with the wave of emotions hitting so forcefully, she couldn't be bothered to care. "I thought you had…" She nearly choked on another sob, unable to even finish the sentence as that feeling of abandonment filled her again. Thinking he had left without even giving her and his child a second thought.

She heard him sigh in exasperation and when she felt his cool hand at the back of her head pulling her forehead against his chest, their child pressed securely between them…she couldn't hold it back anymore. The fears and pain and emotional confusion that had been building up inside her the past year was just too much as it came pouring out of her. Her fist gripped at his jacket like a lifeline as her sobs hitched and hindered her breathing.

"So emotional…" He sighed again and she didn't even hear the loud arguing behind her as Rukia had to violently pull Ichigo from the apartment, not even noticing the slam of the door when they left.

.

Ulquiorra sat on the couch, staring at the thick, dark hair splayed across his thigh as the child lay in his lap reaching up to his father with a persistence that was almost impressive. A noise of frustration worked itself from his small chest and he watched in silence as he lent the child his hand again, quickly latching onto it to begin happily chewing on the back of his knuckle.

Orihime's voice could be heard from the other room as she moved about her kitchen, informing him who had died in the war, how Aizen had been defeated and locked away, and how Ichigo Kurosaki had lost his powers only to recently have gained them back. He continued to listen distractedly as he briefly examined the area around him. It was spacious and clean and kept organized in an almost compulsive manner. Categorized at what most would term as 'cozy'.

His verdant eyes fell to the floor, noticing the suddenly contrasting clamor it offered to the well coordinated upper half of the room. Covered with stuffed animals and other strange looking toys, a bouncy chair with wheels at the bottom of the legs, pillows and blankets spread out in front of the television along with a stroller folded neatly up beside the door and a highchair sitting next to the dining room table, a white plastic tray wrapping around the front of the seat. The place was filled to the brim with baby supplies, pacifiers, bottles and other such things that he had absolutely no idea what purpose they served, he was finding it difficult to believe such a single, tiny organism as the one in his lap needed all this stuff.

He leaned back in his seat as the woman continued to nervously move about her kitchen. "Are you hungry?" He heard her ask. "I was thinking of making something, b-but I don't know what kind of food you like…" She trailed off and he didn't respond. His eyes were glued to the television set on the far wall where two beautiful and glamorously dolled up women named Angeldove and Dejanea were clawing each other's eyes out over an equally beautiful and dolled up, dimpled chinned man named Storm whom had just come back from the dead only to reveal he was a government spy who had faked his own death to run from a conspiracy.

Ulquiorra's eyes narrowed in disgust.

Did humans actually find this appealing? Was this really a form of entertainment for them?

Still…it was like a train wreck, he just couldn't look away. And his eyes narrowed further as Dejanea struck a decisive blow to her archrival, sending the woman careening down a flight of stairs.

"He likes you." The sound of the woman's voice so close alerted him to her proximity and he returned his attention to the infant she had been referring to. Still not saying a word as she sat next to him to run her fingers over the dark strands of hair of their offspring. He didn't have anything to say. He still had no idea what he thought of this whole ordeal. The fact that he was a 'father'…it was a situation that he'd never even entertained the notion of. He felt as if he should be feeling much more indignation towards the whole thing than he really was, to the fact that he'd fathered a child with a human woman. But as he watched the child slowly lose his grip, the soft chewing turning to sucking as he nodded off several times before finally closing his eyes to sleep…the last thing he felt was indignation. He felt like he could stare at him for hours, just to see what he would do next.

"Ulquiorra…I've been wanting to ask you," The girl began hesitantly from beside him. "What…what are you going to…that is, I mean, what exactly is it that you-"

"I'm not going to hurt your friends."

"I-I wasn't going to say that!" She nearly stumbled over her words in her rush to get them out.

"You were thinking it." He replied quietly, suddenly feeling very tired. "I couldn't even if I wanted to, anyways."

"What do you mean?" She asked, her brow quirked in that way she always did when she couldn't understand something.

"There are certain…circumstances…now that prevent me from such things." He said, thinking of that annoying contraption nestled dangerously close to his spine. In all honesty, he'd have preferred to simply rip the damned thing out and just get it over with than let that repulsive doctor keep him on a leash like a dog. But now it seemed he had certain responsibilities that demanded his attention…Ulquiorra never had been one to shirk his responsibilities off on other people.

However, that man had little to do with the situation concerning her friends. No, that was more a result of his sudden release from Soul Society and his newfound standing in Las Noches, all the new rules that he had suddenly become aware of as a peace treaty settled over the two vastly different worlds. Along with the 'trial period', as Soul Society called it, as they released him, warning him that his actions were going to be closely monitored and observed over the next several years. Assuring themselves that he would pose them no threat.

It was hardly something that thrilled him, but he considered it like a bitter medicine, the faster one took it, the faster it was to get past. He had no choice, really.

"You mean Captain Kurotsuchi?" The girl asked, catching on to part of the situation much quicker than he ever thought she could have. It seemed she was a bit sharper than he'd originally given her credit for. "I'm sorry you had to be subjected to that…" Her voice trailed off and she suddenly looked very pale, as if thinking of something very disturbing. "Actually, seeing you here reminded me that I have to go back there-"

"You're never to set foot in that laboratory again." She looked shocked at that, confusion mixed on her face with disbelief. Kurotsuchi never let his specimens go if he couldn't help it.

"But I have to, I made a deal with him."

"Not anymore, whatever mutual agreement you had with him has been absolved." He said calmly as he tried to pull his saliva-covered finger from the infant's mouth, only to receive a grunt of protest, prompting him to let the child pull the finger back into its mouth.

He remembered how indignant the man had been when his most prized test subject was to be released only a day after he'd actually regained consciousness. He'd actually threatened him, or rather threatened the girl and her offspring. And so he'd agreed to supply the man with as many arms and eyes and data and other disgusting bodily fluids than that sicko could ever dream of.

"You and the infant are not allowed to go near that man, do you understand?" Ulquiorra added uselessly, trying to ignore the uncomfortable images that faded in and out of his mind of the woman and child being subject to even a fraction of what the man had done to him.

The unexpected softness of her lips pressed to his cheek along with the faint giggle that followed had his eyes widening in surprise. "Silly, I was just trying to ask if you even ate 'human' food." She said, leaning back into her previous position, looking at him with big, happy eyes.

Ulquiorra sighed, trying to push away the indignation at being called 'silly'. He'd known that hadn't been at all what she'd been trying to ask in her stuttering, fumbling words and more-serious-than-necessary face. The girl was the worst liar he'd ever known, she never had liked tense situations and he supposed this was her way of diverting the subject to more comfortable waters. "Yes." Was all he said, resisting the urge to sigh again in exasperation…

"Good!" She said as she bounced off the couch and back to the kitchen. "Then I hope you like your spaghetti with peanut butter and wasabi!"

Ulquiorra frowned.

Peanut butter and wasabi?

When Orihime came out of the kitchen to set two plates on the table, she couldn't hold back the disappointed pout on her lips when she saw him lying there with his head slumped against the back of the armrest, dead asleep.

Still, the sight of him looking so relaxed in her own home had her heart swelling. His arm hung over the side of the couch, brushing against the floor as their child lay on his chest, held securely in place by his father's hand on his back as tiny fingers wrapped around the edge of the dark hole in his chest exposed by his partially unzipped jacket.

Instead, she just plopped down in her chair, twirling her fork around the long strings of spaghetti to bring up to her mouth. Her chin planted firmly in her palm as she chewed quietly, staring at the man on her couch as the infant on his chest rose and fell with his steady breathing. Never had she thought she'd see the day when Ulquiorra Ciefer slept on her couch…let alone with their son lying across his chest.

She had been amazed at the ease in which he handled the infant. So unlike the heart stopping fear that seemed to seize most of her friends when they held him with stiff bodies and panic stricken faces. Ulquiorra held and touched him with a calm sort of confidence and curiosity that only came to someone who absolutely knew that the infant would come to no harm in his arms. She was actually kind of jealous. He'd handled the babe far better than she had when she was first adjusting to the careful way she had to handle the newborn. Even though she was still learning things, she had long become accustomed to most of the responsibilities. But not only did he handle him better, Sora seemed to prefer him. He was quieter with Ulquiorra and calmer, though Sora wasn't exactly a noisy baby, it was still noticable.

Putting the dishes away and cleaning the table, Orihime made her way back into the living room and bent down to gently scoop Sora from his father's grasp before making her way to the bathroom to fill the tub with warm water. The child awoke with all the new commotion, and made a noise of excitement at the familiar sound of the water.

"Bath time!" She said enthusiastically, holding the infant over her head as his arms and legs wiggled happily. "We have to be quiet though, don't wake daddy, ok?" She whispered, pulling him down to press a kiss to his forehead...and then his nose...and his cheek...and chin. She couldn't help herself, really. Even though Orihime usually used the baby tub to bath him, she occasionally brought him into the bath with her, loving the way he seemed to enjoy the water. Splashing at its surface and kicking his legs as if he thought he were swimming.

A small blush filled her cheeks as she looked to the door, wondering if he would join them if she asked. She quickly shook her head and sank into the water, holding Sora to her chest as it splashed over the side of the large tub and onto the floor to flow over the tiles, draining at the center of the room.

He probably wanted nothing to do with her in the same ways they used to spend time together. He was probably only here for his son out of a sense of responsibility and curiosity.

The thought caused a deep, cold sadness to fill her chest, to which she promptly pushed back down. She had nothing to feel 'sad' about, she had everything she needed and wanting more was selfish and only pushing it further than necessary. It was just wishful thinking, wanting to have a family like this. She had made it this whole time without him, even if she had felt incredibly lonely at times. She wanted to push her luck and see just exactly how far he would let her push, if things could possibly return to how they used to be between them when they had become complacent and comfortable around one another before the end, but circumstances were vastly different now. He was no longer her warden and she was no longer a prisoner of Aizen. They weren't enemies.

So…that should have made it easier, right?

Somehow, she knew it wasn't that simple. And the idea that if she rubbed him the wrong way, he may simply leave and never come back, ruining Sora's chances of having a father. And at the root of it all, that's what was really important. For her son to have a father. If she ruined that chance…she would never be able to forgive herself.

When Orihime stepped out of the tub, she laid Sora down on the padded surface of his changing table before grabbing her silk robe to wrap around her moist skin, tying the belt loosely around her waist.

She smiled and giggled as she blew raspberries on his belly, causing the infant to squeal and kick in delight. She pulled away, tickling his feet, smiling and cooing at him before dipping down to blow on his belly again. "Hold still, now. Mommy needs to dry you before you get cold." She said as she gently padded him down, sprinkling him with baby powder before wrapping him up in his diaper.

Orihime picked the infant up, not bothering to dress him in his usual onsie, with the heat of late summer still thick in the air, simply leaving him in his diaper was the best way to keep him cool. "Come on, let's get you to bed." Sora made a garbled noise that almost sounded like a protest, as if he actually understood what his mother had said. She wouldn't have doubted it, he was so intelligent it worried her at times. "Hush now, it's already past your bedtime." She chided lovingly as she opened the door to her room and leaned over the crib to carefully lay him on the soft, fluffy mattress beneath.

Reaching up, she pressed a small button that turned on the spinning mobile that hung above his crib, silently spinning with stars and moons and planets that each emitted a soft, glowing nightlight. "You know mommy loves you," She whispered tenderly as she bent down to press a kiss to his forehead, kissing away any nightmares that dare threaten her child. "More than anything in the whole, wide world…"

"What's his name?"

Orihime would have jumped out of her own skin at the sound of the quiet voice coming from behind her had the disbelief that she hadn't even told Ulquiorra his own son's name been so mortifying. She'd been so distracted and nervous and excited that it hadn't even crossed her mind.

"It's Sora," She said in hushed tones, looking down on said child with all the affection her heart could hold. "He's named after my brother, he died a long time ago before he turned into a Hollow…" Her voice trailed off, choosing to only remember her brother's loving smile and not the beast he had been forced to turn into.

"I see."

She felt him lift a strand of her hair, examining it between two fingers silently. She felt the strong, familiar urge to be near him, to hold him in her arms and for him to do the same. Orihime tried desperately to push those dangerous yearnings away, reminding herself that he probably didn't want the same things she did. There was still a very big rift between them, probably even bigger than the one that had formed between them when her friends came for her in Hueco Mundo. Not only were there gaps and rifts that hadn't been there before, but now they both knew he was capable of getting her pregnant, he probably didn't want to make the same mistake twice.

But when she turned to face him, her hair slipping from his fingers as she met those intense verdant eyes, sparkling with specks of jade in the dim light of the mobile spinning slowly over their child's crib, Orihime could not help herself. Reaching forward with a trembling hand as her fingertips brushed his cheek, she pushed up on her toes to press a chaste, lingering kiss to his lips.

"What are you doing?" He asked quietly.

Orihime quickly retracted her hand, swallowing hard in embarrassment. "I…I'm sorry. I just thought…I thought you might…" Orihime stopped her words before she made a bigger fool of herself than she already had, gripping the belt of her short, silken robe to wring between her hands, she swore that she would kill herself if she allowed the tears pricking at her eyes to fall.

"Do you not hate me?" He asked.

And Orihime suddenly realized he probably thought she detested his guts. The way she had felt disgusted the last time he had touched her with those cold arms. The way he had taunted her and her friends. The way he had harmed Ishida. And how he had ripped Ichigo's heart from his very body on more than one occasion, killing the man she had loved so dearly…right before her very eyes.

Those were no small things. Things that couldn't just be ignored and forgotten…

But things were different now, they had a child. Orihime had always believed people deserved second chances. Even though he was the only man she'd ever been with, he had also become the only person she'd ever hated...even if she may have hated him at one point, when she saw him throw Ichigo's body to the ground like he was nothing but a piece of trash, those feelings had long disappeared. And if she was going to be with anyone, she realized she wanted it to be with him.

Without thinking, she pushed forward again, cupping his face in her soft palms as she pressed her lips firmly to his. A silent answer to his question. An unspoken truce of let's start over again...

When she felt those strong, firm arms wrap around her, she slid an arm around his neck, pulling him even closer as the other pulled at the zipper of his jacket, tugging it down until she had successfully removed the fabric separating her from the body she wanted pressed to hers in every possible way...she had missed him so much and she hadn't even realized just how badly until this moment.

When the backs of his knees hit the edge of her bed, his arm pulled her with him as they sank to the mattress, straddling him as she willingly followed. She was vaguely aware and embarrassed of how messy her bed was compared to how neat she usually kept it every morning. But she had been in such a rush to get out the door upon hearing the news that he had been released that she hadn't even bothered.

The thought was abruptly swept from her mind as his fingers pulled at the loose belt around her waist, slipping it from her body and banishing it to the floor as the hem of her robe spread apart. His fingers nudged it away that small last inch, watching as the thin fabric fell to the crooks of her arms, exposing her breasts as his hand cupped a heated, heavy mound, swollen with the weight of the milk that fed their child.

Orihime's head fell against his shoulder as he gently squeezed the aching breast, leaving her unable to hold in the whimper that escaped her lips as those very hands that she had been dreaming of eased that ache. Pleasure shot straight to her core, throbbing between her legs as he gave another squeeze to lift and feel its weight while running a cold thumb over a pert, pink nipple. "Ulquiorra…" She panted, complying when his other hand took a firm hold over her thigh and hastily pulled her against him. Orihime nearly groaned at the feeling of his quickly stiffening member beneath the troublesome wall of fabric separating them. "I...I-"

I've missed you, she wanted to say, but she was hot and dizzy and too eager to form proper words.

As if knowing exactly what she needed, his lips closed over the rosy nipple he had been attending. His tongue slowly rolled over the small nub before bringing it into his mouth to suck gently and groan at the sweet, milky fluid that filled his mouth. Orihime's nails raked over his scalp, biting her lip and trying to ignore the heated building in her lower body that spoke of a quickly coming orgasm. But when he sucked harder, drawing out more of the warm liquid and easing the heavy pain in them, she release a tiny, quiet grunt as she felt her climax hit her. Rocking against him softly, she realized that had been her first orgasm in a year, leaving her wanting more.

She heard him groan again as he felt her thighs tremble around his waist and the sudden increase of moisture at her center pressing against him, proving herself still as sensitive as always, climaxing at the slightest bit of attention.

Orihime was on her back in the next second, the robe having long fell from her body as their limbs tangled in the mess of her thin bed sheets, working to remove the troublesome pants about his waist while tugging on them until they hung lopsided over his hips. He'd barely freed himself as he impaled her urgently, groaning in pleasure and frustration when he realized just how much time had passed since she had taken him into her. No longer was she the loosened, easily penetrated body that had resulted from weeks of long, exhausting nights spent finding release in the girl. Working night after night until he'd finally been able to enter her without the difficulty her tight body presented.

His hand slid up her thigh, fingers hooking under her knee as he lifted and spread her leg, panting beneath him as he was finally able to fully push into her, locking their hips together tightly. He knew it had been coming, but when she suddenly came again, clenching around him with a tightness he thought he'd never have the pleasure of feeling again, he nearly lost it. The girl always had been rather helpless at this, letting her emotions mix with the physical stimulation so much so that it almost seemed to overwhelm her, and she always gave in with abandon, never fighting wherever her heart seemed to lead her as it never steered her wrong.

He brought his lips down over hers, tugging persistently at her luscious bottom lip until she opened them in a quiet gasp, thrusting his tongue against hers in an effort to distract the overly sensitive girl as he began a steady rocking against her hips. Pleased when she quickly began responding, lifting her hips shyly to meet his own.

And when he would reach a spot that nearly make her squeel in delight, she would quietly plead, "…there! …ah, please, don't stop!" as if she were afraid that if he changed his angle or his pace or anything about what he was doing, he would never again be able to find that spot that seemed to make her toes curl in the sheets and force her back to arch against him.

When he once again felt her start to coil around the thickness of his member inside her, Ulquiorra sighed roughly, almost shakily, as his arm dipped beneath her, lifting her closer to him as he took one of her flushed breasts into his mouth, lips closing over her nipple as he drove harder into her tight body, sucking greedily on her generous breast.

A hushed crying erupted in the room just then and Orihime's eyes to jolted open.

"Ulqu…Ulquiorra…" She panted, barely able to speak his name against the force of his urgent hips. The crying seemed to grow a bit louder upon no one coming to his aid, protesting the fact that his crying was not garnering the attention it usually did.

"The…ah!...Ulquiorra, the baby…" Orihime recognized the cries. He was hungry and the more she heard those cries growing in volume, the more her breasts ached, despite the attention Ulquiorra was giving them, and the more everything else faded out until all she could think of was getting to her baby.

"He can wait…" He said almost gruffly as his thrusts began to stagger, his left arm tensing under his own weight as he felt himself nearing the edge…just a couple more-

Ulquiorra promptly found himself on his back, staring up at a white ceiling fan with pink and yellow flowers printed over the wooden blades.

"It's ok, I'm here…" He heard the woman's soft voice calling out as she quickly made her way to the crib. Ulquiorra pushed himself up on his elbows, the thin sheets of her bed wrapped and twisted about his legs and waist as he stared at the gentle curves of her body as she leaned over the railing to pull the infant into her arms. His eyes followed the thin, almost petite body possessing an unusual amount of curves for one so slim and young.

She made her way back to the bed in a manner that suggested this was a routine she was well accustomed with, sitting next to him in an almost girlish demeanor that was a strange contradiction to the warm, motherly affection lighting her features. His eyes narrowed as he watched her lift her breast closer to the infant's mouth, still moist with his own saliva, nudging the soft nipple near his mouth to help guide the child's blind attempts at finding the source of his hunger until he was finally able to latch on. His tiny fingers gripped at the cushiony flesh of her breast, suckling greedily as he made short, happy gurgling noises to express his mirth.

Ulquiorra frowned, looking away in frustration.

Was he actually…jealous?

Keh…ridiculous…

Still, he found his eyes sliding back to the infant. His feet squirming together contentedly as he curled his toes in delight. Without thinking, Ulquiorra reached up, his fingers grazing over the soft, slightly pale flesh of his feet. Surprised when those tiny toes curled around his pinky.

"He looks exactly like you." He looked up to see the girl smiling at him.

Ulquiorra said nothing as he returned his attention to the infant who was slowly starting to fall back to sleep in his mother's arms. Thinking yes, indeed, he did. Somehow knowing things in life weren't going to be the same as they were before, even though he still couldn't decide where he stood on this whole matter that seemed to be turning his life upside down, Ulquiorra loathed the idea of his offspring being raised in the human world, even if said offspring was half human. However, he knew Hueco Mundo was no place for defenseless infants who couldn't even survive a few hours without their mother, no matter how 'peaceful' Harribel was attempting to make the place.

When she'd placed the child back in his crib and made her way back to the bed, Ulquiorra impatiently pulled her back under him, giving her abandoned nipple a hard bite as he took it back into his mouth. Orihime opened her mouth to protest, only to have it immediately die on her lips as he pushed himself deep inside her without delay, lulling the protest into a quiet moan as he gripped her hips tightly and pressed her delicate body against him as he urgently continued where he had left off.

It was not hard to draw out those dainty, harmonious sounds from her lips in time with his persistent thrusts before he finally found release within her, drifting off to sleep atop her as he so often did in the past - her fingers grazing down his cheek and through his hair.

He couldn't be bothered to stop the sigh that escaped him as he felt the last of that twisted Captain's drugs finally start to leave his body. And as he closed his eyes, he knew there was going to be no escaping the girl or the child that he had sired. That he couldn't just leave them and head back to Hueco Mundo, shirking all the responsibilities onto the girl without second thought, no matter how much his brain screamed at him that it was the 'logical' thing to do. Because as he lay with his ear pressed to her chest, listening to the strong, steady beating beneath him…there were other things at work here besides logic.

.

Ulquiorra had wondered what other parts of his dignity he would have to sacrifice in order to bribe that ex-Soul Reaper into giving him one of those damned monkey suits that Shinigami seemed so fond of running around in here in the human world.

But when Ulquiorra had approached Kisuke Urahara a few days later, he was surprised to learn he hadn't even had the chance to ask before the man presented him with the Gigai. Ulquiorra was suspicious. But when Urahara explained that as long as it made Orihime happy, he was willing to do whatever it took…and because she'd already asked before he'd even gotten a chance to…and because, in reality, Kisuke revealed that this was his way of thanking him from keeping the girl away from Mayuri Kurotsuchi.

And as he slowly came to learn, there were a staggering amount of people in this world who were obsessed with the woman's happiness…and as the years went by, Ulquiorra found himself slowly being counted amongst those ranks.

.

FIN

.

Thank you so much for reading! I'm actually a bit self-conscious about this fic. I found myself writing it when I wasn't completely satisfied with the last UlquiHime I wrote, even though I loved it, there were some parts that just drove me nuts! I would go back and edit it, but then that would end up 'updating' the story, and I do hate to do that to a fic that's already so old and buried so far back in the archives.

So, I made this. But as far as this one goes, I did try to keep everything as canon as possible and everyone in character. I'd read somewhere on wiki that the Espada were ranked by their birthdays, and I figured it made sense, as strength probably came with age, so their rankings are probably pretty accurate(though I still think Ulquiorra was one of the strongest, after all, it's typical that the strongest characters are given the spot in Shounen manga to fight the main character in such intense battles). Also, I could be wrong, but I also believe Barragan accepted the powers of the Hōgyoku, as it seems he openly talked about accepting Aizen's aid or something like that…idk…But, I got the plot for the ending from when Kurotsuchi found those bodies hanging in Granz's lab, I've always wondered what those were...Concerning the fic, I'd just intended on leaving Ulquiorra dead, but then I loved the idea of seeing a little Ulqui baby… and then I loved the idea of seeing an Ulqui daddy even more. I hope I did well in portraying things!

I do appologize for my weird way of using honorifics, honestly, I don't like using Japanese terms much when I write, nor do I like seeing them, because if you're going to write something in one language, don't litter it with words that don't even belong in your dictionary. However, the idea of Orihime calling Ichigo anything but 'Kurosaki-kun' or Ulquiorra and the others saying Lord Aizen and not 'Aizen-sama', just sounded wierd to me. So, forgive my sloppiness.

As much as I'd looovve to write tons of little 'family outing' side stories for this, or even give Sora a sibling, it would just take too much time and even though it's fun, I still have a hard time picturing Ulquiorra in family situations. Lol, can you imagine them going to the beach?!

"Are you sure you don't want to use some sunscreen lotion, Ulquiorra?" Orihime asked with trepidatious eyes hidden behind her large sunglasses. "The sun on earth is very different from the one-"

"Woman, I am not a human. Nor do I have human flesh. The use for such trivial things is ridiculous."

"It's just...you're so pale...I'm not sure if it would be a good idea-"

"Woman."

"Sorry, sorry, I won't bother you again!" She smiled a bit, waving her hands in surrender.

*two hours later*

"I did try to warn you..." Orihime chided gently as she smoothed lotion over his bright red back.

"Not another word..." Ulquiorra clenched his jaw, the cooling sensation of the cream in her hands doing little more than to add to the harsh sting of his burning flesh. "...not another word..." He repeated quietly, loathed to admit the woman had been right about this whole thing, loathed that he should have listened to her in the first place, and loathed to have to sit here while she literally rubbed in the fact that she had, indeed, been correct.

OMG (˚▽˚)

Anyways, every review is appreciated, but please do not complain about this not being a multi-chapter story. Because, honestly, the only thing separating this from being a really long one-shot and a chaptered fic is the simple press of a button that leads you to the next page. Besides…multi-chaptered fics just aren't my thing : ) And, yes, I know, 133 pages of (OMG) almost 52,000 words…tell me about it.

I also want to take this moment to thank everyone who voted in my poll. I was surprised at how many people voted. And a super thanks to those who went the extra mile and sent me wonderfully encouraging messages urging me to write again.

Thank you!

.

Note: Any 'updates' this has is just me going back and editing my bad grammar.