.

..

CHAPTER 13

...

..

.

Orihime's head was spinning and her vision was nothing but blurs that wouldn't clear, no matter how hard she blinked. She'd experienced this feeling before, but only in short intervals. To endure the stress of sonido over the span of several minutes, let alone hours, rather than the split second bursts that Ulquiorra had exhibited, was making her equilibrium unstable.

Just as suddenly as it began, Orihime was lurched back into reality when all the colors and smears of scenery brusquely returned to normal faster than she could manage to process.

A muttered curse was grumbled out from somewhere near her side, catching her attention as she pressed her palms tightly to her temples in an effort ease the immediate rush of information and visuals that was sent to her brain.

"Where are we?" she managed to ask as her eyes glanced up to see a panorama that was quite foreign to her. "Oh…my…"

Orihime nearly gasped at the sight. With wild and gnarly limbs, colossal trees that seemed to be made of stone erupted from the ground, shooting upwards into the sky.

At the very peak, the branches fanned out and wound themselves together in reef-like knots to create a ceiling of sand and overgrowth. Peeking out from between the intermingled knots, teasing glimpses of the world above could occasionally be spotted through large holes. She stared, transfixed, when lightning flashed across the desert above and sent broken beams of luminosity crashing down to the strange forest. Inside those shafts of light, wispy particles of dust and sand fell through the cracks and twinkled like weightless fireflies floating in the air. Their radiance flared in ephemeral and fleeting flickers as they passed through the dispersed rays cast through the canopy before the darkness quickly snuffed them out.

She was still ruminating on the underworld's eerie beauty when another annoyed curse shattered the quiet.

Orihime turned her head enough to take in the broad shoulder set opposite of the one she was held against, as well as the long dark hair of her detainer. He was scratching the back of his head and looked, for all the world, totally and utterly lost.

"Nnoitra-kun," she began hesitantly, knowing that this situation needed the upmost delicacy. Already she could feel the agitated drumming of his fingers against her ribs as he held her firmly atop his shoulder. "We…are we by any chance-?"

"Don't even think about saying it," he bit out with an impressive amount of restraint.

Another round of silence passed between them, leaving Orihime quite unable to reign in her amusement.

"Damn it, you've got to be kidding me…" she heard him mumble under his breath, still trying to regain his bearings. There was something disturbingly adorable about the utterly flummoxed look upon his normally terrifying face and, despite herself, she couldn't help but be regaled.

Orihime felt her throat constrict when a renegade giggle nearly escaped. Hurriedly, she pursed her lips together and desperately fought to curb the laughter that was hastily building in her gut. Hiccupping from the strain, she sucked in a lungful of air and slapped a hand over her mouth – utterly failing to hold back the snorting, unlady-like giggles that were erupting from her nose as she continued to try and keep her mirth in check.

Immediately she felt him stiffen against her.

"It's okay, Nnoitra-kun," she said reassuringly and lightly pat his back, trying to remedy the situation. "If we just wait here, I'm sure Ulquiorra will find us."

"Bitch, you better not be mocking me," he managed between clenched teeth.

"Oh, no! I would never do that!" she feigned a surprised gasp. "Everyone gets…gets lo-lost!" Losing her tight hold, Orihime began bursting out into fits of laughter, only to release a pained yelp when her backside abruptly met the ground after he roughly tossed her from his shoulder.

"You think this is funny?" he asked with a stern frown. "Alright, pet-sama..." Leaning over, he reached down to pinch her cheek harshly. "Let's see those rosy cheeks of yours keep laughing after I leave you out here all by your lonesome…weak…self." He released a satisfied chuckle of his own when her mirth instantly disappeared.

"You wouldn't!" She swallowed hard, trying to hide the panic in her voice.

"I would," he answered, sounding very sincere as he turned from her and began walking off in some unknown direction.

Taking a speedy and rushed glimpse of her surroundings, Orihime pushed herself from the sandy ground and followed after him. "Please wait!" she called and wrung her hands together nervously.

Casting her a sharp glare over his shoulder, he narrowed his lone eye at her irritably. With her face clouded with worry and uncertainty, she lifted her skirts and hastened her pace to try and keep up with his long strides.

"…annoying bitch," he grumbled quietly and wondered if she merely pretended not to hear it or if perhaps she truly was so oblivious. If she had any brains, she'd keep her mouth shut regardless.

"I…I really think we should stay put," she suggested again, but the strain in her voice gave away her concern. "Ulquiorra will be looking for me." Her fingers kneaded the fabric of her skirts anxiously as sand kicked up around the ankles of her boots in the wake of her steps.

Nnoitra grit his teeth.

If she mentioned that bastard one more time…

It was all he could do just to try and drown out the sound of her voice.

Where are we going? What is this place? What is that? How far are we from the fortress? Ulquiorra this. Ulquiorra that.

It only got worse when she started going on about her amazing, perfect, unassailable, matchless, all-supreme friends. Most particularly that Kurosaki brat Grimmjow and Aizen were in love with. She wouldn't shut up and Nnoitra let out a gravely sigh as he forced himself to remember just exactly why he couldn't slaughter the woman where she stood.

Aizen needed her for his war. Nnoitra needed the war for the bloody battles. Indirectly, Nnoitra needed her to get what he wanted.

A sickening, roiling sensation filled his intestines at the very thought of needing her for anything. It only seemed to intensify when she started mentioning Ulquiorra's name again, like she was obsessed with the very way it rolled off her tongue.

"Nnoitra-kun?" she persisted. "Nnoitra-kun, are you listening to me?" Her voice was tentative and careful, testing the waters.

"You're really getting on my nerves, pet-sama," he said with a very strained sort of violence in his tone, not even bothering to look back to address her. "If you want to keep following me around, you better shut that trap of yours before I shut it for you." An unsettling frown descended across his mouth as he thought back to how that spiteful whore used to follow him around all the damn time.

Shoving his hands hastily into his pockets, Nnoitra tried to force his arms to relax when his fists began to clench tightly just thinking about that woman.

Nnoitra was no fool. The human girl was getting under his skin because she reminded him of Nel. Just exactly how, though, was maddeningly unclear. They didn't look the same, their smiles were totally different and the hair wasn't right. Even their figures and personalities were off despite a few vague similarities.

He could feel her gaze on his back, sizing him up and trying to decipher the reason for the sudden and angry shift in his reiatsu.

"Nnoitra-kun, are you still upset with me because I cut through your hierro?" she asked frankly. She knew that he particularly prided himself on having the most resilient and impenetrable flesh of all the Espada and it troubled her to think he could be holding a grudge over such a trivial matter.

At her words, however, he instantly froze, stopping dead in his tracks. Orihime bit her lip nervously as she witnessed nearly every muscle in his back coil up and tense dangerously tight, prompting her to take a cautious step back.

Without quite realizing it, her eyes reflexively skittered up his back and landed on his neck where the small scar she'd left permanently marked his skin. As if sensing the direction of her stare, Nnoitra whipped around in a blind rage.

Unguarded and weak as she was, it was easy for him to snatch her upper arm in one hand and grab a fistful of her fiery locks at her temple in the other. Spurred on by the unconcealed shock heard in the tone of her gasp, he dragged the girl toward him to glare down on her viciously before abruptly stopping short.

In his arms she was staring up at him with wide, unblinking eyes, refusing to struggle or fight.

Those eyes...

Looking at him without an ounce of fear in them, like she was better than him, like he was scum, like he was a beast.

Like he needed to be saved.

Lightning flashed violently above the forests' dense canopy as he hesitated. Those sordid images of hazel eyes and memories long past blazed through his mind, inciting a heavy, suffocating anger to settle in his chest. His fingers dug in deep and hard against her arm as his expression grew terribly unforgiving and ruthless.

Why couldn't that worthless woman just get out of his head?

"You think you're better than me?" Nnoitra said quietly, his breath coming a little faster than normal. Death was more preferable than to even think of giving her the satisfaction of knowing how much he wanted to hate her, how much he hated both of them…how much he did hate them. "You bitch…you fucking whore," he ground out on a rugged breath and watched in satisfaction as her eyes grew watery when her hair began to tangle painfully in his hand.

She released a hushed noise and his eyes involuntarily dropped to her lips like a magnet. It was truly disgusting how beautiful she was. Even more disgusting was the sudden and appalling realization of how abhorrently jealous he was of Ulquiorra in that moment.

He'd seen the way she kissed him. Like a bitch in heat, every part of her worked to attract him. Pressing and caressing, she would subconsciously push her breasts against his arm while her body subtly maneuvered itself around his as if she wanted him to throw her to the floor and fuck her senseless, like she was starved of his attention.

Nnoitra clenched his teeth in outright resentment and irritation when he realized how close he'd begun to lean towards the girl.

"Don't think I won't put you in your place in one fucking second, pet-sama," Nnoitra warned darkly, jerking her once to make sure she understood exactly what he meant. After all, women were only good for one thing. "Don't think I won't…" he drawled quietly.

Just as unexpectedly, he shoved her away from him.

Orihime gasped and flinched when her back hit something solid. Her spine stiffened when another hand seemingly appeared from thin air and gripped her arm from behind, steadying her when her feet stumbled from the harsh shove.

"You should teach your bitch some respect, Ulquiorra," Nnoitra said with a menacing chuckle as his eye rose to meet an aloof, green gaze.

She didn't have to turn around to know who was there. It was easy to feel the familiar cold against her back from his chest and the icy grip from his fingers around her arm.

"Is there a problem?" Ulquiorra asked as his gaze remained fixed and unyielding in the face of Nnoitra's palpable agitation.

"I don't know," Nnoitra began sardonically as his mouth curved into a partial yet rigid snarl. "Does it look like there's a problem?"

Ulquiorra kept his silence whilst the tension continued to rise uncomfortably. Flinchingly, Orihime pressed her back deeper into his chest when Nnoitra took a prompt step towards them to intimidate her with a false charge.

"What do you think, pet-sama," he inquired with a grin. "Are we having a problem?" That wicked, polluted smile spread considerably as he leaned forward to run his knuckle down her cheek and across her lips with deceptive gentleness.

The deep static purr of sonido resonated through the air as the others appeared in the area surrounding them. Orihime felt her hands begin to shake as her eyes scanned the area. With Yammy and Wonderweiss appearing beside Ulquiorra, Tesla had materialized behind his master with a dangerously serious expression on his face. Although Wonderweiss was far more interested in taking in the sights, Yammy had stepped forward to scowl down on the scene threateningly.

"Of course not, Nnoitra-kun! There's no problem at all," Orihime exuberantly answered with a nervous laugh and a big smile. "I'm such a bother, I didn't mean to get us lost!" she added as she turned against Ulquiorra's chest to level him with a guilty grin. "You see, I asked Nnoitra-kun to stop because the sonido was making me sick…but then I got scared when I saw a Hollow in the forest. I ran off and got lost and Nnoitra-kun had to come looking for me!" she explained as she clapped her hands together and intertwined her fingers. "He was just a little upset when he found me." She laughed uneasily. "I didn't mean to cause so much trouble, really."

Ulquiorra peeled his gaze off Nnoitra long enough to glance down at Orihime, who smiled up at him with shamefaced embarrassment.

Orihime bit her lip. She knew he wouldn't take the bait and she didn't really mind so long as she was able to diffuse the situation. Ulquiorra would certainly see this, would he not?

All the same, his answer to the situation went unheard as the immense and shrill cry of a Hollow resonated through the forest trees. The lone call seemed to echo endlessly before dying out into a faint whisper, only to have it return full force as hundreds of its brethren answered the summons.

Orihime lifted her head as the spine chilling sound shook her very soul. It pulsed across the sky and throbbed through the ground as if it were a living thing. She could even feel the sand at her feet quiver and shudder under the vast pressure. It was a sound she recognized all too well, a raw, agonized howl of sorrow and torture.

Already the reiatsu in the air was turning heavy and dense. As the beasts grew ever closer the strain began to weigh down on her shoulders as the demands of their condensed presence hung overhead. Her ears popped and her lungs filled with the aroma of death.

Hollows always did have a particular and frightening scent to them that permeated from within their spiritual pressure. Just as human souls carried the odor of life and freshness, while Shinigami were branded with a fragrance that was both bittersweet and tangy, Hollows carried with them the scent of mortality – be they Arrancar, Adjuchas or Gillian. They all smelled of darkness and tragedy and death and everything else in this world that made her heart tremble in grief. It was always faint and slightly faded, but in such great numbers it was upsetting and overwhelmingly distressful. Around Ulquiorra and the rest of the Espada it was fairly easy to ignore, but here, in the heart of the forest surrounded by undead creatures, there was no sidestepping that scent.

"Well, what do we have here?" Nnoitra sniggered eagerly as he took stock of the ominous glowing eyes that were slowly materializing around them like specters.

"Shit, that's a lot of Gillians," Yammy observed aloud when he registered the full amount of the pale faced giants that had trapped them within a large clearing. An entire herd of them were coming out from the woodwork.

When another shriek pervaded the forest, it prompted a wave of bays and wails to rise up from the other Gillians as they swayed to and fro in their slow, creeping movements.

Feeling as though her skull was splitting open from the cacophony, Orihime's hands shot to her ears and pressed into the side of her head in an effort to block out the bloodcurdling screams.

"You should not have stopped here, Nnoitra," Ulquiorra said as his hand casually made its way back into his pocket. "Parading a human soul through a forest of Hollows is nothing more than a disaster waiting to happen."

"Relax, relax…" Nnoitra drawled in appeasing mollification, his tone sly and insincere. "There's no harm in a bit of play fighting, am I wrong?" He tittered cunningly. "Don't tell me you haven't just been itching to get all that stress off your back with a good fight, Ulquiorra." The devious glimmer in his eye was redirected to Orihime for a brief instant before making its way back to Ulquiorra, insinuating something in a manner that she couldn't understand.

There was a strange unease that licked at her skin and upset her senses from the way he'd looked at her, but when numerous cries of aggressive Menos splintered the moment, Orihime hurriedly wrapped her hands around her warden's arm and tugged impatiently.

"Ulquiorra, can we please leave now?" With a voice that was uncertain and tight, she tried to keep her panic hidden from Nnoitra's prying eyes. Certainly Ulquiorra would have no desire to stay here and cause issue with these creatures. There was no rationale behind fighting any of these Hollows and neither did she want to disturb them, particularly if her soul was acting as an attractant.

Several more angry howls erupted from the agitated Gillian as they grew increasingly restless. The noise bellowed out into the darkness of the forest until she literally felt the rumbling in her lungs. Tightening her hold in alarm, her fingers reflexively dug into his biceps as she pressed herself closer to his side, nearly burying his arm between her breasts.

The sticky cadence of Nnoitra's cackles had her curving her mouth in confusion. There was something behind the intent of his stare that hinted at mockery, as if the hilarity of the moment was just too good to look away from, and it only seemed to grow in volume the longer Ulquiorra held his stare.

"Ya know she don't even realize she's doing it…" he tittered on like he found something in this situation very, very amusing.

Orihime rolled her lips together and looked away, failing to understand.

Trying to remove herself from the situation, she lowered her eyes to the side and watched distractedly as Wonderweiss knelt down to examine something small and insignificant at the base of a large tree, completely unconcerned for the carnage that was about to unfold around him.

"Master Nnoitra…" Tesla's tense voice called out with cautious urgency.

Ignoring his fraccion, Nnoitra merely curled his upper lip odiously when Ulquiorra neglected to offer any reaction.

"Master Nnoitra," Tesla repeated more firmly, his voice alluding to something forewarning. Shifting his feet and clenching his fists at his sides, his eyes took in the countless beasts that had encircled them. "There's something wrong with these Gillian," he announced as his alert gaze ran across the perimeter of the clearing.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Nnoitra asked impatiently and turned to investigate.

"They aren't advancing," Yammy noted. Keeping his guard up, his sights swept over the legion suspiciously. Their black bodies stirred listlessly, oscillating back and forth in place as their white masks with their dead, blank stares moved stiffly in time.

"Why aren't they attacking?" Orihime mused.

"The Adjucha," Ulquiorra explained calmly. "Lord Aizen appoints only one as Guardian of the Forest…and gives him complete control over the Gillian."

"They're holding them back," Tesla realized gravely, knowing there would be more than just the Gillian they would have to contend with if they stayed.

"Heh, you make it sound like a bad thing," Nnoitra remarked as he stepped forward to fearlessly stare the Hollows down. "That just makes them easier targets." He smirked widely.

Orihime's brows lifted in shock. He couldn't possibly be planning to take all of them on by himself, could he?

Her gaze traveled down his figure, assessing and evaluating his condition. Although she'd healed the small bumps and bruises, his pants were still horrendously torn and smudged with grime whilst his skin was blotched in dirt from his fight with Dordonii. But aside from the trivial cosmetic issues, Orihime could scarcely appreciate the mystery of where his Zanpakuto was – or rather, how he intended to fight off an entire fleet of Gillian without it. She'd never seen him without it grasped in his hand or strapped to his back.

There was no sense in doing something so dangerous and irrational, and even though Nnoitra was the farthest thing from kind to her, there wasn't a cell in her body that wished him harm.

Her dark eyes glanced up to her silent warden.

Maybe Ulquiorra could talk him out of it…

"Ulqui-" Orihime stopped short when she noticed the direction of his stare and the way his green eyes discreetly tracked the darkness along the outskirts of the clearing.

Following his gaze, she released a quiet gasp at the sight of shapeless black shadows weaving through the trees around them. Stealthy and quiet, they flowed in and out of the undergrowth, orbiting around their group as they crept ever closer.

"Wonderweiss-san," Orihime exhaled shakily. The last time she'd seen the boy he'd been heedlessly making his way closer towards those slowly slinking shadows. "Oh, no…" she said with deep concern, worriedly dragging her fingers down her cheeks when she realized he was nowhere to be found. Self preservation and fear were washed away as she rushed forward without a second thought. "Wonderwei-!"

Cut short, Orihime gasped when she was jerked to an abrupt halt.

The firm grip of icy fingers was on her arm again, stopping her before she could even take another step.

Whipping her head around, her brows furrowed fiercely and her mouth twisted into a severe frown as she leveled her glare on a pair of unresponsive green eyes.

"Please let go of me, Ulquiorra," she requested sternly. There, inside her chest, she felt her heartbeat quicken into overdrive as she received the brunt of his inanimate stare. "I can't leave him," she added resolutely.

Twisting her arm in his unrelenting grasp, Orihime felt frustrated tears prick at her eyes when his hold proved inescapable. "Let go!" She fought against his hand, growing more and more upset by his strength, by the thought of Wonderweiss out there on his own, by the sensation of being choked under his empty gaze and, worst of all, by the realization that Ulquiorra was willing to leave him behind.

When she began to pry at his fingers with her free hand, she missed the sharp narrowing of his eyes and the repressed manner in which his mouth slowly began screwing itself into a heavy frown.

"Cease this at once," he ordered quietly and pulled her close enough to speak privately. "This is neither the time nor the place for your emotional antics."

"I won't," Orihime countered determinedly whilst continuing to struggle despite the futility of her efforts. "You can't just leave him alone, that's disgusting," she said accusingly. "How can you – ah, stop it!" she cried out when he gave her a solid but harmless yank to force her into order, nearly ready to hand the troublesome girl off to Yammy. He doubted she would retain her little fit for long under the brute's unforgiving hand. He had to wonder if she specifically resisted him just to try his patience. Considering she seemed to rail against his orders and wishes, while often times submitted and outright refused to fight others, it was clear she recognized he was less likely to harm her than the rest of the Espada and thus took advantage of that by pushing and testing her boundaries.

When it became clear to her that none of them were even remotely interested in retrieving the young flaxen haired boy, Orihime felt her heart sink into the pit of her stomach.

"You really ought to discipline your pet, Ulquiorra," Nnoitra said, the sound of his entertained sniggering only inciting further tension in her chest.

"Please, don't leave him," she whispered under her breath. The worry consuming her was maddening. Unable to help herself, her eyes repeatedly scanned the area where she had last seen the boy in hopes of catching a glimpse of him.

Too busy fretting over her missing companion, Orihime overlooked the thickening shadows that closed in around their group like a swarm of darkness, undulating and rippling in waves of obscurity. Black as night, they peeked around branches and slinked out from behind ashen boulders.

Something in the air shifted.

From above, a dim beam of light stealing into the forest from the desert overhead had turned dark.

Nnoitra grimaced. Dropping his gaze, he took a step back and examined the outline of the silhouette as it grew underfoot and covered him in darkness.

Tesla jerked his sights up.

"Shit," he cursed as his eyes doubled in size at the sight of an Adjucha coming down on his master, its body poised to attack. Loyalty moved the fraccion forward without thinking. Taking the initiative, he launched himself from the ground and pushed his sonido to the max until he'd firmly intercepted the attacking Hollow.

The long, imposing arm the Adjucha came down on him before the blade of his sword could be even stripped of its sheath.

Sneering in annoyance, Nnoitra's frown only deepened as blood splattered across his face and chest. Flickers and flares of blinding light glinted around the indiscernible profile of the two figures above. From below, he watched a sizeable fist emerge through Tesla's back. Clawed fingers expanded and reached, penetrating further through his abdomen in a futile effort to reach the Espada.

A pained, muffled gurgled slipped from Tesla, only to be cut off by a spray of blood bursting forth from his mouth as the Hollow pushed against the air to land several yards from Nnoitra. With a slightly hunched back, the limp body impaled on its arm seemed to be of little concern to the scowling beast.

"Tesla-san!" Orihime all but screamed in horror as she clamped a hand across her mouth. "No…" she breathed heavily. Her lashes felt frozen open in time. With lips that quivered in disbelief and eyes that blurred with tears, she could do nothing to turn away from the scene as she watched the Hollow reach down to grab the back of Tesla's hair for leverage and slowly pull its arm from his gut.

Feeling her stomach roll, Orihime nearly fainted as she heard a disquieting and stressed groan waver in the back of Tesla's throat when the offending arm was finally removed.

His sword slipped from his limp fingers, completely dropping from his hand as blood ran down his arm and dripped to the sandy ground below.

"No!" she shrieked and began pulling roughly at Ulquiorra's unrelenting grasp when Tesla's body was tossed aside like trash. Mindless and stripped of her senses, Orihime couldn't properly conjure the will to argue her need to rush to his side. Panic and dread numbed her body until it seemed the only thing anchoring her to the moment was the frigid hold seizing her upper arm.

Nnoitra's lone eye dragged over the prone form of his fraccion laying face down in the sand before following the blood trail back to the hand that had put the hole in his body.

The unnerving quiet left the air unsettled as Nnoitra lowered his head slowly, as if he was too pissed with the moment to even look upon the offending Adjucha.

"You know," he began darkly as a long, nefarious smirk spread over his features. "I really don't remember giving you permission to kill my slave…"

Taking a hard step forward, the oversized beast took an even quicker step back, suddenly cautious of the monstrous reiatsu surrounding the Espada.

"Attack him and I will set the Menos upon all of you," a deep voice warned from above them. Coming in swift and with great numbers, masses of Adjuchas dropped from the trees into the clearing.

The ground underneath exploded in a cloud of dust as more and more Hollows crawled out of the shadows, slinking forward in droves with their masks and holes and stench of death.

Orihime winced and lifted her forearm to block the wave of sand that surged towards them from the groundswell.

"And who the fuck are you?" Nnoitra scowled at the voice, irritated by the interruption. Outnumbered and unarmed, there was little concern he showed to the sudden flood of Adjuchas.

"I don't think that really matters right now," it responded. Taking a step off the branch it stood upon, the figure plummeted to the forest floor where it landed solidly on its feet. It was only seconds before the dust cleared, revealing a large Adjucha Hollow.

A violet sheen glinted across dark skin that was stretched tight over bulky muscle, openly displaying his raw power. His hollow hole was bared over his left peck and, with a mask exhibiting a resemblance to something wicked and semi-aquatic, the pseudo smile and lavender tinted markings seemed to set him apart from the rest. "If you desire to leave here alive, I suggest you concentrate on doing as I say…that is all that should concern you," he informed with a fierce glare.

"As you say?" Nnoitra echoed slowly. Quite suddenly, the startling smile on his face returned, reaching clear to his eyes. Rows of his teeth were flaunted against the dim light of the shadows, causing the pale skin around his mouth and lashes to crinkle sinisterly. "You really want to fuck with me right now?" he drawled with a deliberateness that spoke to his foul mood and temper. Tilting his head, he scaled the Adjucha up and was not impressed with what he saw. "Just who the fuck to do you think you are?" His voice had dropped significantly, annoyed by the arrogant challenge from a clearly lesser creature.

"He is the forest sentinel," Ulquiorra's neutral voice supplied from behind, catching the attention of the Hollow. Despite being surrounded by restless and deprived creatures drooling over the woman's soul, Ulquiorra paid them no mind as he trained his sights on the guardian.

Trailing his eyes down in an unhurried study, it didn't take long before he merely turned away, completely unimpressed. "He is worthless trash," he stated bluntly, causing the affronted Hollow's eyes to widen in chagrin. Quite indifferent, his lashes slid open to send one last glance to the Hollow over his shoulder. "Dispose of him if you wish."

Stepping away, he tightened his grip on the rattled woman's arm, silently ordering her feet to move lest he be forced to drag her against her will.

"Do not underestimate me," the sentinel advised, attempting to curb the livid bitterness in his tone.

With a single motion from his arm, his subordinates immediately moved to block Ulquiorra's path and flank him on all sides.

"Underestimate?" Ulquiorra repeated softly. "You misunderstand." He turned ever so slightly to level the Hollow with blatantly uninterested eyes. "To underestimate you would insinuate you are worth considering. I assure you, that is not the case."

Quiet, outraged growls erupted from the crowd of Adjucha, protesting the barefaced affront to their commander.

It was the guardian's clever amber eyes, however, that illustrated the most disdain that was suddenly directed towards the pale Espada.

"You really think you can keep up that attitude and fight all of us at once, Arrancar?" the sentinel goaded daringly.

"Do you wish to find out?" he answered as he met the silently fuming gaze of the sentinel.

Hissing and hunching his shoulders, the Hollow openly displayed his displeasure with the responses he was receiving. He wanted to attack but the cold, eerie calm that surrounded the man was giving him pause.

"Just give us the human," he abruptly demanded. "That's all we want. Hand her over and you will be granted free passage in exchange…it is a fair trade."

"What nonsense." Ulquiorra nearly frowned at their ignorance.

"You wish to devour her for yourselves, then?" the sentinel asked darkly. "Yet you have done nothing. You are wasting her!" Teeth snarled and clamored together hungrily amongst the hordes of loitering Hollow, salivating over the mere scent of her delicate reiatsu. "Human souls are so very rare here." His voice dropped to purr his words persuasively. "And females…rarer still." His fingers were already twitching with ravenous desire to devour her frail soul and feast upon her flesh.

From beside him, Ulquiorra felt the girl shift closer and shiver nervously under their hungry, depraved stares.

"Give her to us," he repeated.

"Impossible," Ulquiorra stated stonily. "She belongs to Lord Aizen."

"You lie!" he snapped harshly and stepped around to the front of the pair, glaring the smaller male down. "She has your scent all over her, Espada," the sentinel challenged before abruptly leaning down into Ulquiorra's face. "I can practically smell your stench on her breath."

Orihime felt her heart rate increase dramatically as she discreetly moved behind her warden's back, intimidated by the Adjucha's worrisome proximity and his troubling, fixated interest in her.

"You are mating her," he said accusingly and Orihime buried her face in Ulquiorra's back, mortified yet grateful when he gave no response to such a shamelessly audacious allegation.

"Nonetheless, I think it's about time we put an end to this unnecessary standoff." Extending a long, clawed hand past an unflinching Ulquiorra, his sharp talons gradually reached out to curl a finger around a lock of her fiery hair. "Wouldn't you agree?"

"Indeed."

Muting the noise of shock in her throat, Orihime's eyes widened only briefly before ducking further behind Ulquiorra at the sight of Yammy's daunting shadow falling over the oblivious Adjucha.

A shriek from his comrades, along with the unmistakable spike in reiatsu, tipped off the guardian to the massive fist that came crashing down towards his head. Releasing a strangled curse, he darted aside swiftly before pushing away from the group to jump into the mass of branches overhead – barely escaping Yammy's cruel fist just as it broke through the earth underfoot with a shattering explosion of sand.

Ulquiorra's eyes immediately followed him, zeroing in and focusing on the Hollow while all around them the tension snapped and erupted into chaos. Stealing in through the disorder, the pale masks of the Adjuchas began to close in on them.

"Yammy," he called without taking his gaze off his quarry. "Take the woman back to Las Noches."

"What?" Yammy hissed angrily. Wanting to stay in the action, he prepared to heave out a string of curses at the shorter man, only to frown and stop short when Ulquiorra disappeared from sight. "Damn bastard," Yammy growled testily as he stared at the small girl standing uncertainly before him.

Orihime took several steps back as he gave her a nasty glower. Doing as he was told, his large hand reached out to grab her impatiently.

No sooner than he could even get ahold of her, Yammy released a throng of yowling protests when several Adjucha assaulted his vulnerable back. Instinct overtook strategy and Yammy swung around in a violent rage. His wide arm collided with the Adjuchas' bodies like a battering ram, annihilating several Hollow that had been too slow to evade his enraged strike.

Stumbling back, Orihime's eyes flittered across the cramped battlefield frantically.

"Tesla-san," she breathed distraughtly when she saw his body lying across the way, motionless and soaked in red. "I'm coming, Tesla-san!" she shouted, hoping her voice would reach him and inspire him to cling to life.

She seized the moment instantly. Turning away from the horrific sight of Yammy's fist furiously pounding a corpse into the ground, Orihime wasted no time in pushing her feet forward. She ran hard and darted around the few lifeless bodies that had already fallen in the short time since the first blows were exchanged, simultaneously trying to avoid the skirmishes of the smaller Hollows turning on one another.

Plagued with frail, irrepressible impatience and cursed with rationality akin to wild beasts, the denizens of the forest seemed to lose what little control they had at the scent of blood. Like animals, scraps broke out amongst the crowd of lower Hollow. Competition fueled by seething hatred flared through the mob as they sought to slaughter each other, clawing at their brethren with the mindless need to see and taste blood.

"Stop! Get away from him!" Orihime called insistently when she saw several avian-like creatures beginning to surround Tesla's lifeless body. "Baigon, Lily…Hinagiku!" she exclaimed hurriedly, too distracted to concentrate on her incantations.

The blaze of her Santen Kesshun immediately spread out over his figure before she could even reach him, causing the beasts to squawk and flap their wings in agitation before they took off. As the scavengers slowly dispersed she finally closed the distance and knelt beside him. She reached out with hesitant hands – only to have her entire body freeze on the spot, completely immobile.

A cold chill proliferated up her spine as blood sprayed out from behind her.

The small glints of red flashed through her peripheral like jewels as moisture splattered across her back and soaked her dress, causing the material to cling to her flesh. Wide eyed and petrified, her head spun around to stare at the gory sight of a beheaded Adjucha slowly sinking to its knees. With arms flaccid at its side, the beast landed heavily upon its shins. Its weight kicked up small tufts of dust as it sagged forward to the ground, revealing the lanky figure responsible for its demise.

"Nnoitra-kun," she uttered quietly, realizing he'd just saved her life.

There was no reply as he stood before her. His eye lowered with an unreadable look to take in the inert form of his fraccion before shifting back to her face.

"Tell that lazy bastard to get his ass up when you're done with him." He frowned unpleasantly and then turned away to head straight into the heart of the fight, leaving nothing but destruction in his wake.

Schooling her features, Orihime knitted her brows together and nodded resolutely at his back in a silent promise.

"Soten Kisshun!" The words left her in a quick, concise chant as she quickly scooted closer to the motionless Arrancar under her care. As he lay face down, she struggled to turn his body over as carefully as possible. Orihime bit her lip and fought off the dizzying wave that washed over her upon seeing such a massive pool of blood spreading forth from underneath him. "Tesla-san, can you hear me?" she called softly but got no response. Gentle and tender, her fingers moved to pull up the hem of his jacket.

Her eyes watered at the painful looking wound and the thought of the agony he must have endured.

Adjusting her position, Orihime delicately placed his head upon her lap. "Don't worry, Tesla-san." She smiled down at his pale face encouragingly, hoping to rouse a sign of life from him. "You're going to be just fine. Nnoitra-kun wants you to get up as soon as possible." She swallowed deeply. "Please don't keep him waiting too long."

Perhaps she had said something right, for the seemingly lifeless corpse flinched sharply in the next moment, roused by the sound of his master's name.

"T-Tesla-san?" Orihime called, her voice rising in optimism. Heartened by his response, she reached down to pull back his jacket again. Her spirits lifted considerably as she witnessed her reiatsu successfully working to pull his innards back together.

She very nearly sighed in relief.

"Lady…Inoue?" his weak voice whispered from her lap.

"Oh, thank goodness." Offering a compassionate and consoling smile, Orihime looked down at him comfortingly. "You're going to be okay, Tesla-san!"

"What…what happened?" he rasped out.

She wasn't given a chance to answer when a loud explosion shook the ground beneath them. Leaning forward, Orihime quickly tried to cover as much of his body with her own when debris came plummeting down atop them. Upon hearing the sounds of destruction all around them, Tesla's body jerked as realization dawned on him.

"Master Nnoitra!" he coughed uselessly as he struggled to arise.

"No, you can't get up!" Orihime protested. Lightly, she pressed on his shoulders to hold him down, wary of causing him pain. '"You're not healed yet," she pleaded desperately when she saw that unwavering and determined look in his eye.

"But, Master is-"

"Perfectly fine," she reassured him as she glanced up to find Nnoitra's tall figure imbedded deep in the chaos. "He wants you to get up, but only after you've been healed," she said, twisting the truth to her own favor in hopes of reasoning with him.

"I can't just sit here, not when he is fighting." At his sides, his fists clenched in frustration after he attempted to sit up again, only to wheeze in agony as pain shot through his abdomen.

"Tesla-san…" Orihime uttered sympathetically.

"Master Nnoitra doesn't even have his weapon," he grit out through his teeth and Orihime lowered her gaze, unable to distinguish if it was the pain in his gut or the mere idea of being unable to assist his master that was distressing him so direly. "He…he left it behind in hopes of growing stronger for the war. He says a fighter who is unable to accomplish anything without depending on his weapon will never have the skill to succeed." Pausing to hiss as a particular wave of discomfort raced up his chest, Tesla exhaled heavily and waited for it to slowly pass. "Until he picks up Santa Teresa again, it is my duty to be by his side protecting him."

Orihime considered his words as she lifted her head to observe the lanky Espada across the field, slaughtering his way through the crowd.

Even Nnoitra was preparing for the war...

Trying to better oneself, pushing yourself to your limits, stepping outside the boundaries of safety and comfort and familiarity…Orihime had never made such efforts in her life. She had always been so dependent on the strength of others.

"That's why he always starts fights…" she uttered distantly as she gradually began to understand the pattern in his past behavior.

But...didn't he have anything else besides fighting? Did he not want anything more than power? Had he no one to protect?

Was that really all he had in life?

She wondered if her friends were pushing themselves in such a way, too…what kinds of struggles and trials and tribulations were they going through just for the mere sake of rescuing her.

Edgy and agitated, the swarms of Menos began to advance on the carnage all at once, breaking her musings.

Noticing this, Tesla gathered his strength to roll over onto his forearms.

"W-wait, you can't-"

"I have to!" he declared between long, heavy pants. "I refuse be a spectator."

Orihime flinched back as his words struck her.

Even Tesla was fighting for what he cared for…just like her friends. To be in such pain and refuse to yield, she had never known such sacrifice.

"Please, just wait a little longer," she requested with downcast eyes. "I know it's hard, but you can't go out there like this," she rationalized as her eyes landed on his abdomen. Even though it appeared solid and healed over, there were still things inside him that had not been entirely fixed. "I…I don't want you to di-"

"There you are!" a loud, angry voice interrupted them from behind.

Orihime wasn't even given the chance to process the situation when Yammy's large hand grabbed her and snatched her up from the ground. Overcome by his strength, she uselessly reached out to the young man still besieged by his wounds.

If Yammy took her away, he'd die without her…

"N-no!" Orihime uttered under breath. "You can't…please, he'll die if I don't-"

"Shut up," Yammy snapped and gave her a painful squeeze as he turned to stride away from the scene. "Do you know how much trouble I've gone through trying to find your ass out here? What a waste of time."

Orihime cried out when his grip only increased, causing her ribs to compress drastically. A long, raspy wheeze erupted from her throat as she held on to the large hand holding her captive, her other arm wedged between his palm and her side. When he finally loosened his grip, she gasped deeply as the sweet relief of air flowed back into her lungs.

"Please," she tried again. "Tesla-san needs my help, and Wonderweiss-san…we can't leave them."

Orihime received no answer and with each step he took, her hopes began to dwindle little by little.

Behind them, the belting howl of a Menos screeched out into the darkness. When the dense red blast of a massive cero shot out over their heads, Orihime cringed against the immense heat of the energy and tried not to scream at the resulting explosion.

Even still, she was reluctant to leave them and another protest was hanging on the edge of her lips until the sudden sensation of sonido swept over her, throwing her mind and vision into a blurred mess.

He was taking her away from them. She was being removed from the battle again; the liability, the hindrance that needed to be eliminated from the equation, the non-functioning burdensome limb that amputation had become preferred to the option of tolerating its useless existence.

They had found her useless, even here with the very people who had kidnapped her for her powers. They didn't want her in the way. They didn't want her at all.

Orihime remembered that promise she had made to herself. She had sworn to find a way to stay valuable to them in order to remain alive. After all, if they no longer had a need for someone as inept as she…

An aching groan hung in her throat as the effects of such a high speed of travel began making her head spin.

Tesla and Wonderweiss, even Ulquiorra and Nnoitra…her heart raced as she found herself agonizing over their wellbeing.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Orihime tried to block out the mental images that were beginning to distort and merge together in her mind. All those beautiful memories of her loved ones had started to smear and haze over into a frenzied mixture as the term 'friend' began calling forth faces that had not been there before her abduction – faces of not only violet eyes, strawberry blonde hair and nerdy glasses, but wild electric blue locks, childish freckles and cold pale skin.

Orihime bit back a tear.

Everything was spiraling out of her control.

It wasn't supposed to be like this…

.

.

.

There was something excruciatingly insufferable about Yammy's sonido that made Orihime's whole being throb with discomfort. While Nnoitra's sonido had been rapid and a bit erratic at times and Ulquiorra's was so precise she hardly realized she'd experienced it until it was too late, Yammy was far more sloppy and slow.

It made for a terrible experience.

Orihime staggered forward when he dumped her upon the steps of the fourth tower, barely giving her enough time to catch herself on the massive gated entrance before she fell.

"Welcome back," Yammy spat bitterly and turned away, completely uninterested in her. "Go back to your room before something happens to you. Ulquiorra will be pissed if you get into anymore trouble."

"Th-thank you," she offered, hesitant and apprehensive.

Fear shot straight to her belly when, upon speaking such words, his massive fist connected with the door only inches from her head. The force of his strike shook the entire structure and splintered the walls. Orihime immediately curled into herself as she braced her weight against the cold slab of marble. With feeble legs rendered ineffective after several hours of direct exposure to the man's shoddy sonido, her knees slowly sunk to the ground as she shook with fear.

She could hear his heavy breaths and feel the anger in his unstable reiatsu. Warily glancing up at the imposing man, it was all she could do not to falter under his fury.

"I don't want your thanks, human," he intoned scathingly. "In fact, I don't even want you here at all."

Orihime's eyes widened as flashbacks of his fist breaking nearly every bone in her body came flooding to the surface. She tried to calm her fears in an attempt not to feed into his blinding rage, but being faced with such an adversary when she was so alone was not something she could easily endure.

Measured and deliberate, he leaned forward threateningly.

"You don't belong here."

His frown was deeply engraved across his features and his eyes glared into her as if she were nothing more than an object to be despised.

"I…I didn't chose to be here," she whispered despondently.

"Bullshit!" His fist pounded dramatically against the gate once more, causing her to flinch back and clench her lashes shut to escape the hatred in his eyes. "You chose to come with Ulquiorra! And now he's stuck with you." Orihime could very nearly hear his teeth gritting in his mouth. "Ulquiorra would be better off without you, but you've ruined everything!"

"I didn't do anything!" she denied earnestly.

"You're like a child that must constantly be monitored. To think an Espada like him has been forced to such levels! He only indulges you because Aizen would kill him otherwise," he said harshly. "You actually think he likes having to pamper your ass?"

Reaching up to cover her ears, Orihime turned from him as much as the gate would possibly allow.

"Ulquiorra hates humans," he said maliciously and Orihime squeezed her eyes shut tighter, trying to block him out. "With a bitch like you around, it's not hard to wonder why."

Straightening up, Yammy shoved open one of the large double doors enough to allow her into the tower. "I hope Aizen loses interest in you soon enough," he remarked caustically before turning away. "At least then Ulquiorra won't have to spend so much time with you."

Orihime dared not waste a single second on watching him stalk off. Hurriedly, she tucked herself between the thin crack he'd made for her between the doors – doors that were so enormous and heavy she would have been entirely unable to open them on her own.

With her arms crossed self-consciously close to her chest, she accelerated her pace before dropping them to her sides to run blindly through the monochromatic halls of the tower, fighting off the urge to cry.

Had she also become a burden to Ulquiorra just as she had been to her friends? Or had Yammy simply been speaking out of jealously?

Ulquiorra always had to look out for her and protect her from unseen threats that she never seemed to notice until it was too late. Was this the same issue her friends had to face with her? Was she truly so clumsy as to run straight into the arms of danger, only to conceitedly expect them to bail her out of trouble at their own sacrifice?

What's worse…despite her genuine gratitude, she had always been secretly offended by their habit of expecting her to need rescuing.

But now, looking at it from such a perspective, she was being entirely too selfish to realize the truth.

Even now, locked away in a separate dimension from the living world, she was insisting that they come for her regardless of the fact that she had, by all accounts, willingly chosen to come here.

Self-loathing washed over her as she threw herself against the door to her quarters.

That's not the truth…that's not who she was.

She refused to believe such terrible things. She had to be strong now. She had to make sure she survived until the others came for her. Because they would come. And they would come for her because they desired it, because they missed her, because they were beautiful people and because they loved her.

Not because they pitied her.

They would come here for the same reason she had left them behind.

Orihime, more than anyone else, knew her own limitations. She only wished to reach outside those limitations to help the ones she loved, even if she did get in the way because of it.

She merely yearned to support her friends. If such a thing meant that she was most useful toiling away in the background, healing them, cheering them on and offering kind, warm smiles, she would feel genuine happiness inside herself at being able to accomplish such a small thing.

One needn't have the most powerful reiatsu in the world to truly make an impact.

There was a place for everything and everyone. That place didn't have to be in the middle of a battlefield displaying one's strength to have meaning – no matter that you were human, Hollow or Shinigami.

Pressing her forehead against the cool marble of the door, Orihime released a deep and profound sigh. Perhaps she was over thinking this. Yammy didn't know her like her friends did. He didn't know her like Ulquiorra, either. It was clear there was resentment inside him that stemmed from jealousy at taking up all of Ulquiorra's time.

Orihime pushed the door open, hoping these plaguing thoughts would just leave her be. However, the jarring and riotous clatter of metal smashing to floor burst through the room at her unannounced entrance. Her eyes caught the shimmer of shattered glass as a round tray slowly rolled to a stop near her carpet – its wobbly spinning quietly grated over the hard floor until it gradually died out, settling the room down into silence.

Quite shaken, Orihime openly stared at the lone figure standing under the moonlight.

The mute serf that tended her room was frozen stiff. His shoulders were rigid and his back was ramrod straight. When his masked face whipped around to the door to see her standing at the threshold, his posture loosened to a degree.

"Hello," she greeted carefully upon noticing how jumpy he still seemed. "I'm sorry to have startled you."

As if suddenly realizing his place, his eyes immediately lowered to the floor as he bent down to begin picking up the mess.

"Is everything alright?" she asked gingerly as she moved forward to help him clean up.

The servant pulled back without delay, gathering the messy pile of plates and pitchers and dishware in his arms close to his chest. Heavily agitated, his eyes nervously shot from the door to her and then to the door again.

Orihime's gaze followed him curiously as he stood and scurried out of the room, vigilantly checking both ends of the hall before exiting.

Sitting in the hush of her room, she inwardly questioned what she'd done to startle him so badly. With such paranoid mannerisms, she couldn't help but wonder if she had offended him in some way.

Perhaps she should follow after him…

Then again, he didn't seem to be very fond of spending time around her lately. Every time she saw him he began acting strangely and did everything in his power to leave her company as quickly as possible.

Orihime released another sigh at how confusing things seemed to be getting these days.

Kneeling forward on her knees, she started the process of tidying up only to halt her actions when her hand touched her thigh and felt the cold presence of blood. She lifted her hand to examine the dark substance and was once again reminded of just how completely she was covered in it. Tesla's wound had bled out all over her skirts. Worse still were the sticky streaks of it running up her back.

Deciding to save the mess for later, Orihime grabbed her nightclothes and made her way into the bathroom.

The semi-dry fluid was flaky as she pulled her dress from her body. It very nearly adhered to her back as she drew the zipper down and pushed the heavy fabric from her hips.

Needless to say, the hot bath did little to settle her nerves. At the very least, it eased the headache she obtained after so many hours of being exposed to that horrible sonido. She'd only just recovered from unconsciousness a couple days ago, and the experience certainly hadn't helped.

Dipping her head under the water one last time, she nearly shrieked in fright when she surfaced to a bright pair of pale eyes staring down at her from over the rim of the porcelain tub. Orihime flinched back in surprise at the flat stare, only to quickly lurch forward and wrap her arms around the boy when she noticed the speckling of ginger freckles peppered under those indolent eyes.

"Wonderweiss-san," she exhaled into the steamy air as she leaned into him heavily. "How did you get back here?"

Pulling herself away, she held his shoulders tightly as she looked up at him with relief.

"You shouldn't wonder off like that…" She gave him a weak smile when he only continued to stare at her blankly. "I…I was really worried," she admitted somberly before lowering her eyes and dropping her hands back into the water. "Are the others okay?"

Without replying, he abruptly shoved a bouquet of dead twigs towards her face.

Orihime blinked and examined the handful of branches confusedly. "For me?" she asked before finally smiling at him kindly.

"Thank you very much." She chuckled and reached out to take the bundle from his hand. "How very thoughtful of you," she said appreciatively and briefly studied the smooth, quartz sticks.

With the wide tub carved into the floor of the bathroom, Wonderweiss stared deep into the waves of his watery reflection as she stood and sent ripples billowing through his image. Bending forward to grab herself a towel, Orihime stepped behind the white canvassed screen to dress and gently scolded him when he began chewing on his nails again.

Once outside the heavy air of the bathroom, Orihime sighed upon seeing the mess that was left behind. It only served to remind her she probably wouldn't have any diner until Ulquiorra came back, if he even came back that night at all.

She was certainly hungry…

Stepping forward to the trolley, she pulled the small flower out from its vase and replaced it with her bundle of branches, taking care to arranging them neatly.

"Wonderweiss-san?" she called distractedly as she stepped over to her mirror to quickly run a brush through her hair. "Wonderweiss-san," she repeated louder when he still did not answer.

With her hair still so wet, Orihime merely tied a simple knot in her long tresses at the base of her spine, making sure to keep the locks in order until it dried enough to braid for the night. Giving the petals a quick sniff, she tucked the dark red flower behind her ear as a quick after thought.

Angling her head back to check on the boy's whereabouts, she opened her mouth to call out for him once more. However, by the time the he strode out of the bathroom, Orihime had froze in bewilderment at his appearance.

He was utterly soaked from head to toe in bath water and leaving a grievous trail of soapy puddles in his wake…totally clueless to the mess he was making.

"Oh, dear…" She frowned vexingly at the sight and rushed into the bathroom to grab several towels. "You're going to catch your death like that!" she reproached him lightly as she threw a towel on his head and urged him over to the couch, coaxing him out of his jacket along the way.

Standing behind him, she began scrubbing his hair furiously to get him as dry as possible. When he looked over his shoulder to give her a curious sound, Orihime could only smile back and chuckle softly.

"My brother used to do these kinds of things for me when I was younger," she said with a reassuring grin. While running the towel gently over his mask, she lit up with a sudden idea. "How about I fix dinner for us tonight?" she suggested happily. "Ulquiorra showed me where the kitchens were this morning…they're not far from here."

Dropping his gaze down to the rug that lay before the couch, he contemplated her words for a moment.

"Food…" he thought aloud.

Orihime couldn't help but smile blissfully again. His vocabulary had improved so much in just a few months time. She could recall when he'd hardly been capable of pronouncing his own name.

Leaning over the back of the couch, she promptly wrapped a dry towel around his bare shoulders cozily.

"Yup," she answered jovially and moved towards the door with Wonderweiss close at her heel. "We really should hurry, though," she insisted as he began lagging behind. "Since I'll be getting up sooner from now on to fix my own breakfast, I'd like to go to bed early tonight."

She received no response, but when she felt a tug at the bottom of her night tank, Orihime paused to glance back inquisitively.

Wonderweiss stood behind her, his hand growing ever tighter around the fabric as he gazed at the floor silently.

"…h-hime," he said quietly before lifting his head to stare at her with eyes that were lazy and heavily laden with affection.

Looking down at him, something warm and protective blossomed in her chest. Against the pale complexion of her skin, a faint blush quickly covered her cheeks as a soft and sentimental grin pulled at her lips. Gently, her fingers gave his freckled cheek a brief caress.

Orihime didn't seem to mind the way he hung onto the hem of her clothes as they walked, nor did she bother to correct him when he raised his thumb to his mouth to begin chewing on his nails again.

They merely moved on in silence, with nothing more than the dim patter of her bare feet to disrupt the calm.

.

.

.

Nnoitra had been nothing but a nuisance.

He'd caused trouble where it wasn't wanted, started a risky battle with the Privaron that could have drawn unwanted attention and took off with the woman towards the Menos Forest where he'd gotten lost with her, only to initiate a disastrous battle with the inhabitants of the forest.

By now it was clear Nnoitra had sought Ulquiorra out that morning, believing he'd root up some action when he noticed Ulquiorra had been up to suspicious activities. Would it not have drawn more attention than he wanted, Ulquiorra would have done away with him before he'd had the chance to cause so many reckless disturbances.

Although their encounter with the Privarons had been cut off before any real damage had occurred, Nnoitra had sabotaged the entire day. Even though Iceringer and Demora were far enough off the grid to approach without any risk being involved, he held no interest in conversing with the less than intelligent Hollows outside of manipulation.

As it was, the isolated Arrancar had only ever answered to Szayel's orders. Regardless of his intentions, they had both been secluded in a remote outpost far from the reaches of Las Noches with their only contact being Szayelaporro – who most likely had them wrapped so tightly around his finger they wouldn't even hear a word Ulquiorra said.

Indeed, perhaps it had been for the best that Nnoitra had interfered this once.

Despite the tense atmosphere that had been erected between the Espada and Adjucha, he'd been left to clean up the mess Nnoitra had made and convert it into something more constructive. As one opportunity had closed, another had opened and it wasn't long before negotiations had shifted into smoother territory once the woman had been removed from the premises, allowing Ulquiorra to manipulate and influence the guardian without distraction.

The sentinel of the forest only received his orders from Aizen, giving him complete control over the Menos and other Hollows residing there. In spite of this, there was one thing that would always bleach away useless things such as allegiances and loyalty, and that thing was power.

The mere promise of it was more than enough to win feeble minded individuals over.

Simply insinuating a vague guarantee that Aizen would transform him into an Arrancar, the Adjucha had agreed to kill Ichigo Kurosaki and his companions without question.

Now, with the boy's impending arrival, such obstacles would serve as a means to truly measure his worth. He would make sure this Ichigo Kurosaki was as dangerous as he seemed, as important as Aizen gave him credit for and as strong as Grimmjow believed him to be. And if he still surmounted every hurdle…Ulquiorra would see to the issue personally.

He would make sure the boy was worth drawing his sword for.

When Aizen had sent him to the living world a week ago to observe the progress of the woman's companions, he had been far from impressed. He'd spent days distantly monitoring the boy, staying hidden and watching his every move.

Though the kido barrier prevented him from getting too close, he'd seen more than enough to be disappointed.

Had this been the mighty, omnipotent strength the woman frequently boasted about? She had told him Ichigo Kurosaki was extraordinarily stronger than others due to the bonds of their hearts.

Yet, that boy he saw, the very one she had been placing all of her faith in, was beyond pitiful.

He'd been mediocre at his best and an insult at his worst.

Regardless, there was something in him that even Ulquiorra couldn't turn away from…something that was arrestingly proverbial and startlingly relevant when he pulled that mask of his out. Perhaps it was the look in his eyes, or perhaps it was the distinctly Hollow-like reiatsu that would permeate from him far more purely than that of the other Vizards' hollowfication.

Witnessing such things, Ulquiorra could hardly control the deep, driving urges to push the boy into the unfathomable reaches of darkness where insanity could wrap its cold fingers around him and pull his soul into an oblivion of despair.

He would break him.

Then…maybe then he would a worthy adversary.

He'd briefly contemplated telling the woman how close her friends were to coming for her. He was curious to see the look on her face and hear the words she would undoubtedly spill about that heart of hers binding all of them together, how it had succeeded in communicating her feelings across worlds.

However, the last thing he wanted at the moment was for her to grow more defiant against him.

She was far too important for Kurosaki and his cohorts to lose, seeing as they were utterly obsessed with getting her back. Indeed, if he used the girl, the very core of their world, their connection to her heart…all of it would be cut off.

An individual could conceivably control the boy simply by exploiting her in every possible way…

When Ulquiorra stepped into her quarters to find her missing, his eyes immediately scanned the trash spread across the floor; the broken glass distributed amongst the soft russet hue of spilt tea, the water trailing out from the lavatory and even the soaking wet uniform lying beside the couch.

Crouching down, he lifted the heavy jacket from the floor to briefly examine.

Without hesitation, Ulquiorra dropped the wet fabric and stood as he narrowed his eyes in annoyance. Stretching out his pesquisa to find her exact location, he was back out the door and heading towards the kitchens.

It seemed she had failed to learn her lesson properly the first time…

.

.

.

Orihime often wondered where it was Wonderweiss would always disappear to. Many times, he'd leave her without warning.

It was only after she'd met Kaname Tosen and become familiar with his reiatsu that she'd noticed Wonderweiss's disappearances were surprisingly correlated with the man's arrival after long absences from the fortress. It was no different tonight.

No sooner had she started preparing their dinner did he take off to follow after the man's spiritual pressure, leaving her companionless.

Orihime smiled lopsidedly.

It was remarkably lonely by herself.

The servants had run out of the kitchen the moment she'd stepped inside, as if they were terrified of her. It had certainly been an alienating experience to have an entire room clear out at your mere presence, and it wasn't as if there was anyone else to keep her company.

Maybe that's how all the Espada felt when other Hollows ran from them…then again, she suspected most of them enjoyed the sense of power and authority it brought. But for her, it just felt like isolation. The servants avoided her, Wonderweiss always left her and even the mute Arrancar that snuck flowers into her room had been fleeing from her lately.

Worse still, she hadn't seen Grimmjow since the day she recovered. Though it hadn't been more than two days ago, he'd completely estranged himself from her. He used to sneak into her room everyday and loaf around on her couch like lazy bum, now the only one who lazed about on her couch was an occasionally visiting Starrk.

She'd grown quite used to being alone when she first came here…but things were different now, were they not?

And yet, what if Ulquiorra left her too? After all, he'd been gone for an entire week when she was sick. What would happen to her if he left and never came back...ever?

Those terrible fears popped up in her mind again, causing her heart to clench vexingly in her chest.

She shook her head.

She really didn't need to be thinking about such things.

Besides, even though she hadn't known where he'd gone, he still came back.

Pushing the distressing worries to the back of her mind, Orihime distracted herself by focusing on the food she was currently experimenting with.

Stirring the pot of broth she was preparing, she captured a bit in her wooden spoon and blew on the steamy liquid before lifting it to her mouth, only to grimace.

"Far too bland," she noted, dissatisfied after a quick taste test. Giving her chin a thoughtful tap, she went about digging through the cabinets in search of further ingredients. "Maybe this one?" she wondered aloud after finding a spice that she was unfamiliar with.

Deciding to chance it, she sprinkled the pot heavily before giving it another try.

"Oh."

Orihime immediately frowned, scrunching up her face with displeasure.

It was terrible!

She shook her head to rid herself of the flavor and ultimately pressed on in her endeavor to find a proper ingredient, mentally swearing to never use such a nasty spice again. Now, with the broth effectively ruined, she bent forward to one of the lower cabinets in search of a new pot to start her dinner afresh - where, while reaching to the back of the cupboard to grab a large steel pot, her senses had failed to pick up on the thin figure casting its shadow over her form.

"What are you doing?"

Orihime flinched hard when she heard the displeased voice behind her, causing her to drop the heavy pan with a terrible, earsplitting clatter.

"Ulquiorra…" she muttered as she whipped around, quite shaken.

Despite the jolt to her nerves, a distinct sense of relief was first to flood her heart, momentarily blinding her to all else. Without a single speck of blood upon him, the feeling forced an irrepressible softness to manifest into her expression as she saw with her own eyes that he was unharmed.

However, that softness was quick to fade as she remembered how willing he'd been to leave Wonderweiss and the others behind. He hadn't even spared them a thought in his mind when those Hollows had attacked.

"I asked you a question."

"I heard you," she answered a little shortly. "I was hungry." The clipped tone of her voice barely hid her ire as she turned back around and gripped the edge of the countertop weakly, hoping he'd leave her alone. She didn't want to be mad at him right now.

A shocked gasp escaped her throat when he suddenly gripped her arm and pulled her from the counter, forcing her to face him.

"It would appear that you are not only incompetent, but have no concern for your own wellbeing, either," he said quietly before urging her to the door.

"Just like you have no concern for anyone else's wellbeing?" she asked under her breath as he led her out into the hall where he released her.

"Correct me if I am mistaken," his voice was dangerously calm as he stepped forward to stare down at her, completely ignoring her irrelevant argument. "But it seems as if you rather enjoyed spending a full week unconscious and on the brink of death, else you would not be exposing yourself to the very circumstances that led you to such a condition in the first place."

"That's not what I was trying to do…" she uttered and lowered her eyes to the side as she rubbed her bare arm where he'd gripped her. "I…I just wasn't thinking."

"Clearly," his said with a hint of condescension. "Were you not the one who insisted on such an agreement? I was under the impression trust played an implicit role in this heart of yours, and yet you are the first to break it."

Orihime dropped her eyes even further as she registered the fact that she had, indeed, broken the verbal agreement between them. "I…" she began hesitantly. She didn't want to get into another fight with him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause a problem," she said with a heavy sigh as she peered up at him from under her lashes.

A moment of silence passed between them before he looked away and shut his eyes in mild exasperation – every mannerism obscure and implied.

Turning from her, his hands found their way back into his pockets as he strode from the scene. "Just be back in your room by midnight," he said, letting her have her way.

"Please wait," she called and stepped after him to grab his sleeve, refusing to let another of their encounters end on a sour note. Cutting him off, she blocked his path and stood before him, nervously curling her toes against the cold floor. "Why don't you stay and have dinner with me?" She bit her lip and valiantly fought the blush burning her ears. "It's been a long day, I'm sure you're hungry. I think it would be nice, no?"

Reaching out, her fingers toyed with the hem of his jacket. Enamored as she was with that thin sliver of flesh that exposed his midriff, she couldn't help herself from faintly grazing over that skin curiously, causing a most inconvenient case of butterflies to assail her stomach.

Sliding her palm up his chest, she hesitated upon feeling the hollow indentation under his jacket. "I could cook for you…" she suggested, timidly peeking up at him in a manner that was far too inviting for her to realize.

Her fingertips skimmed over his abdomen for a second time and Ulquiorra could not help but feel something in him relax.

She was doing it again.

The way she snuck her hands onto his body, the unsure but amorous glances, the coquettish warmth radiating from her eyes and the vague effort she put into pulling him closer to her…it was annoying how obvious she was, yet remarkably oblivious to her own efforts. The girl seemed far too young to know how to be subtle.

Shades of pink poured into her cheeks and without thought his gaze dropped to her full lips. The quiet pressure of her fingers slowly traced up the black teeth of his jacket's zipper, alluding to her intentions as she leaned forward and rested her weight against him.

Delicate and faint, the drifting course of her nails snuck under the hem of his collar and grazed his neck as she teased her lips over his.

She traced the pouty outline of his mouth, kissed his upper lip and briefly brushed across a tearstain where it faded out just below his jaw before fully claiming his lips.

Orihime released a quiet moan upon feeling his mouth so directly against hers. Having always limited herself, she had only ever kissed the corner of his mouth in such chaste moments. But as she gave in to a contented sigh after pulling away, the sensation of his soft lips enticed her to press her breasts into his chest, looking to encourage him.

Her eyes sought his, silently imploring him to return her efforts as she leaned in once more, her lips just shy of touching his.

The unexpected grip of his hand on her jaw startled her enough to suck in a shaky breath as she was thrust back against the wall and forced to stare up into cold green eyes.

"What is it exactly that you want from me?" he asked quietly as his fingers tightened their hold, causing her hand to instinctually shoot up and clutch his wrist in apprehension.

The long black silhouettes cast under her lashes crawled over the contours of her cheeks as her eyes widened under his intense gaze.

Painfully slow, his head bent down to just a hairbreadth away from her mouth.

"What is it you want?" he repeated under his breath when she didn't answer.

His breath grazed her jaw, exhaling softly against her skin. Angling her head aside, his lips stalked down the curve of her neck, eliciting a weak gasp from her lungs. She gave in to an uncontrollable shiver that ran up her spine, vaguely aware of his long fingers teasing along the him of her shirt.

"This?" he whispered intently, gently nudging her ear as the cold caress of his hand slipped under the fabric to forge a path up the delicate rows of her ribs. Like incense, the sweet aroma of the flower tucked in her hair permeated around her as the silken petals glanced across his cheek.

Orihime scrunched her eyes shut and clutched at the fabric covering his chest, pushing against the intensity of him as his touch skimmed along the underside of her breast. Her core tightened up like a coil, hot and burning from the contact. The feel of his breath wafting over her collar bone only propelled that heat to every part of her body, nearly tearing a whimper from her lips at the sensory overload.

"Is this what you want?" From under his lashes his eyes leveled themselves upon her, boring into her very soul as his thumb drawed across her nipple from beneath her shirt, only to have his lips follow behind, chasing over the fabric in the barest whisper of a caress. Lifting her breast, he pressed a wet kiss to her pert nipple through the thin material, soaking it down to the flesh.

A hot, torrid shock was sent straight to her loins as she arched her back from the wall and released a needy moan, emanating somewhere from deep within her chest.

With trembling lips and shaking legs, Orihime struggled to find her voice through the haze of the moment. Yet as the frigid hold of his fingers dug deeper into her jaw and his hand pulled her shirt up until a single breast was fully exposed, knots of tightness formed in her stomach as everything quickly became hypersensitive to every point of contact between them.

"Oh…" she whined softly and bit into the back of her knuckle when his smooth lips circled her bare nipple, sending shudders coursing up her thighs. Short, wavering pants rushed past her teeth as desire surged into her veins, flushing her skin and leaving hot trails in the wake of his exploring fingers.

Thoughtlessly, his grip on her jaw gradually receded as he became absorbed pulling her nipple into his mouth, suckling her, tasting her. Slowly his calloused touch slipped down the delicate curves of her body – dropping between her shoulder blades, dragging across the soft rises of her spine and ribs and even skating over the steep dip in her lower back before firmly gripping the fleshy mound of her bottom to pull her into him.

His knee worked between hers, coaxing her legs apart with ease. The rosy blush that arose on her cheeks spread clear down to her breasts when he pinned her thigh to the wall with his hip, leaving her open and vulnerable with nothing but a thin undergarment separating her from total exposure.

Spread so wide, the heady moisture trapped between her legs suddenly ran down her thigh and dripped to the floor, making her clamp them around his waist and hastily bury her face in his shoulder with embarrassment.

But when his hand squeezed her backside and rolled his hips into hers in one long, slow motion, something hot and searing clenched deep inside her. A shuddering and profound cry erupted from the back of her throat as she pressed her lips against his neck, trying to smother the sound.

Urgently and encouraging, she pushed back against him as a powerful need to be with him arrested her heart.

"Ulquiorra…" she called quietly against his ear, every breath full of praise and desire and yearning. Her knee locked high on his waist and her muscles constricted eagerly as she wrapped her arms around him. Desperately, her nails trailed down his hard shoulder blades, holding to him forcefully when he pressed her to the wall. His hips moved into hers, drawing out mewls of unbidden pleasure as he seized her hair in a firm hold and pulled her head back enough to expose her chest.

Gently, he drew her nipple into his mouth and gave it an evocative yet placid suck.

The overstimulation quickly besieged her as that unbearably agonizing heat continued to bind everything tighter. Fathomless emotions the likes of which she'd never experienced before – cravings, aches, desires…needs – filled her chest until she felt as if she may burst.

She wanted to hold him, to draw him close and embrace him like she'd never embraced a man before.

A strangled cry fractured the uneven rhythm of her pants when he suddenly pushed into her hard, allowing her to feel a part of him that had her desperately pushing back. Orihime struggled to bury her shaking fingers in his hair as her strength began to come and go in devastating and overwhelming waves. Unrestrained, that insufferable fire rushed between her legs, tensing her body up beyond her control.

"This is what you want…?" The grip in her hair constricted, pulling her closer and breathing the words heavily against her ear. "...you want this?" He forced his hardness fully against her center, lifting her thigh higher in order to reach femininity completely.

Orihime instantly released a sultry moan of approval at the feel such thickness, her body answering readily, responding where her inexperienced mind could not.

When his hand reached between them, trekking and teasing along her thigh, Orihime instinctively tried to spread her legs wider for him.

His feather light touch drifted up her inner thigh to ghost over the soaked fabric covering her. Unhesitant, he slid under the hem of the thin garment and pressed the pad of his middle finger directly against her core. He circled the small opening, adding gentle pressure as his ministrations stretched the taut flesh.

"Ul…Ulqui-ah!" she uttered brokenly. "I…I'm…oh...I'm gonna..."

Everything within her suddenly grew intolerably tight when two fingers began bearing down on her tender hole, demanding passage inside. Around her, the blanched walls of Las Noches blurred, bleeding past her closed eyelids and building to a blinding white as jolts of urgency were sent straight to her brain.

He felt as her thighs abruptly started quivering around his waist. The moist heat her body exuded very nearly scorched his senses raw and pulled him deeper until the unexpected touch of her hand against his cheek snapped his eyes up to hers, stopping him short.

Trembling lips came down upon his, gentle and insistent.

His hand immediately extracted itself from between her legs, and although it had not been rushed or impulsive, the intent had been made all the more clearer when he tried to withdraw from her kiss.

Her short breaths filled the turbulent air between them as she stared up at him in confusion. Questions swirled in her eyes at his refusal, probing his apathetic face for an answer. Without thinking, she arched forward to capture his lips unrelentingly. The soft brush of her tongue swept over his bottom lip in a shy demand for acknowledgment before lightly prodding forward between the smooth bows of flesh.

Unexpectedly, a startled gasp rattled her lungs and she hastily pulled back at the feeling of a sharp prick piercing her lower lip.

Her hand slowly reached up and touched her mouth with uncertainty as she lifted her gaze to his. Raising her hand before her eyes, she began blushing madly in a strange mixture of unease and embarrassment upon seeing the dark smear of blood spread across the tips of her fingers.

His teeth…

They were excruciatingly sharp.

Before she could protest, his cold fingers imprisoned her jaw once more as his mouth slanted over hers. The slow, illicit sweep of his tongue trailing over the thin coating of blood only served to exacerbate her nerves further.

"This is what you wanted," he said softly, almost cruelly, against her shuddering lips, seeing the unreserved traces of alarm in her eyes.

He descended on her then, drawing her lips to his. The insistent prod of his tongue brazenly invaded her hot cavern. Her hands pressed against his chest tensely as the cool, moist muscle explored her freely, pulling her bottom lip between his teeth and shredding it like an unforgiving razor. A heavy and distressed moan echoed in the back of her throat as her fingers dug into his jacket, leaving her unable to even taste him properly for the overwhelming tang assaulting her mouth.

The coppery essence of blood flooded her senses, even as she tentatively gave in and tried to follow the leisurely sweep of his tongue, moving within her like a persuading yet persistent temptation.

Heavy lidded, his eyes stared into her, trapping her in his grip as she remained frozen under the spell of those keenly slit pupils.

Her lashes fluttered shut as her fingers tenderly brushed his cheek, their breaths mingling until she nearly grew dizzy. But when he abruptly drew her tongue into his mouth, only to deliberately rake his brutally sharp teeth over the defenseless piece of flesh, she jerked away with a pained cry. His grip quickly tightened and pulled her back, commanding the attention of her large brown eyes as his thumb dragged over the abused skin. Torturously, he scoured her bottom lip with his teeth once more before sucking the bloody mound into his mouth as if he may devour her.

Orihime became painfully aware of the thin rivulets of crimson liquid that suddenly trailed down her chin as he gently released her. Shaken and embarrassed and completely unaware that her breast was still exposed, she hurriedly pressed both hands to her mouth and turned from him slightly when several more trails began dripping past her jaw to run down her neck.

Lowering her eyes, she swallowed hard to try and remove the thick fluid.

Her first kiss…had utterly shred her lips to pieces.

She felt him exhale close to her ear, causing her shoulders to stiffen and shrink away from him in both uncertainty and excitement, sending titillating tingles dancing over her skin from his breath.

Orihime watched him from the corner of her eye warily as he leaned back and swiped his thumb across his bottom lip to remove the small splotch of blood left there. His eyes cast an indifferent glance at the thin smear contrasted against his pale skin before lowering his hand into his pocket.

"As I said...be back in your quarters by midnight." He regarded her shortly before he left, his expression so unflappable it seemed near unnatural.

Her wide eyes never left his back as he strode down the hall and disappeared into the blinding whiteness of Las Noches. Beset by the moment, her legs continued to shake from the need for the release that had been so abruptly torn from her grasp right at the precipice.

A flood of emotions thrummed through her heart, most of which she was far too frazzled to bother identifying. She wasn't entirely certain she could have been able to recognize them even if she did have her wits about her, anyways.

Regardless, there was something decidedly deep about the sentiments left unsaid in her heart.

Glancing down, a knot formed in her stomach upon seeing the swollen flesh of her naked breast, darkened by the soft suction of his mouth. Dropping a hand from her lips, she quickly pulled the wrinkled fabric of her tank back down, only to blush distraughtly at the small wet mark his mouth had left on the outside of the garment, directly over her nipple.

After stealing a final peek towards the direction he'd left in, Orihime made her way back into the kitchen in search of a clean towel to press to her mouth.

She moved on autopilot as a tempest of emotions plagued her mind.

Blindly, she stood before the sink and gazed at the water that poured from the faucet, thinking how puffy and tender her lips suddenly felt. Reaching her hands under the valve, Orihime merely watched as the water bled red.

Standing there, staring into that swirling red liquid, a soft blush blossomed on her cheeks again when she realized...

Ulquiorra had kissed her.

.

..

TBC

..

.

So, it's really hard to choose between words like 'sneaked' vs 'snuck', and 'dragged' vs 'drug'. According to Webster, both are right!

And...yeah, bats have really sharp teeth, so this makes sense to me.