Ishida, Orihime, Gin, and Hollow Ichigo figure some important things out.
EDIT: I forgot to add an illustration I made for this chapter: Ishida Touching Orihime's Face
Disclaimer: Kubo Tite owns Bleach, and Incandescens owns the imagination that gave me the scenario for this particular fanfic.
Description: This A/U begins from the time Orihime was kidnapped and taken to Hueco Mundo, only the events preceding the immediate kidnapping are slightly different (as revealed in this story) This fic is an adventure romance featuring Ishida and Orihime, but there is also implied Ichigo/Rukia and Aizen/Gin.
Warnings: References to character death, teenage sexuality, homosexuality, and magical crystal objects. If any of these things bother you, you have been warned.
Special thanks to Incandescens and Finnigan Geist
Ishida respected Orihime’s abilities. He tried to understand her intuitive wisdom. He believed that she could protect herself. He could not, however, fathom why she insisted on staying in Las Noches and why every morning she stood with her hand outstretched and tried to summon the hougyoku.
The way Ishida saw it, Orihime’s being to summon the hougyoku correlated with its maturing in the winter. By that time, her relationship with the mysterious rock could be very dangerous. Her mind could return to Aizen’s control; her power could be used against her friends; her soul could be turned into an Arrancar.
In the meantime, there was always the chance that Kurosaki the Hollow would flip out and kill her.
“Aizen won’t let that happen,” Orihime said.
“Why do you always defend him?” Ishida clenched his teeth. Was her attitude a cruel, miserable side-effect of having believed she was Aizen’s daughter? “If he finds some way to make the hougyoku work to maximum effect without you, you’re dead in an instant. And who’s to say you won’t be dead anyway? That he doesn’t even need you at all? That all this healing stuff he’s been making you do hasn’t been some sort of sick game? Theatrics, maybe? Maybe you didn’t heal Luppi? You know how Aizen can work illusions.”
“I felt Luppi-san’s reiatsu.”
Ishida dropped himself on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Being irrefutably in love with Orihime wasn’t helping matters at this point. His mind felt less focused on figuring out the enemy’s game plan than on running his fingers through her hair.
“Don’t worry,” she said. She closed her fist--it was empty of the hougyoku but it nonetheless made a determined “go team” gesture.
When Ishida gave her an uncertain, surrendering look, she walked over and kissed him on the forehead.
“Things are all happening for a reason,” she said. “Me and you are happening for a reason.”
Me and you. That’s what she wanted to call it, but he gave it another name in his mind. And he considered the supreme irony that it was happening here, in Hueco Mundo …. Love in the cold, arid world of the Hollow.
“You’ve been looking for the hougyoku for seven days now,” Ishida said. “Las Noches is huge. It will take you months to search all the palace for that thing.”
Orihime had the idea that the hougyoku was hidden somewhere. That Aizen could not carry it on his person because it would drain his power the way it had with Kuchiki-san. Remembering how the hougyoku, in some combination with the gigai Urahara had given Kuchiki-san, had been turning the Shinigami human, Ishida had to concede that Orihime’s reasoning might be sound. But who was to say that the gigai alone had not been responsible for the power draining? Ishida still believed that the hougyoku was buried inside Aizen's wicked soul.
Shortly after the assembly where she revived Luppi, Orihime had decided the hougyoku was in one of the high towers of the palace. “Maybe if I come closer to it,” she had argued, “I can materialize it, and then we can leave--leave right away for home, Uryuu. Aizen will be powerless and the winter war will never happen.”
She had prowled the palace at night in her long cloak, searching for the scent of the mysterious object. Unbeknown to her, Ishida--hiding his reiatsu as best as possible and wearing a similar cloak--had trailed her, ready to draw his bow.
But they had never found anything. Nor encountered any suspicious Hollow or Arrancar. Neither had Aizen--if he knew anything about their wanderings--said a word or seemed to mind at all.
“Are you going again tonight?” asked Ishida.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Oddly enough, although Ishida had not drawn his bow while in Las Noches and was still pretending to be a helpless collared slave, he felt more like a man than ever before. He looked around the scattered clothes and blankets on the bed, found the embroidered bath towel, and tossed it at Orihime.
“Let’s take a bath,” he said. It still made him shy to say things like that, but the words made his heart race. The anticipation of nakedness trumped any hougyoku intrigue.
Orihime fingered the folds of the white towel and looked unusually thoughtful.
Oh no, she doesn’t want to get naked with me. She’s bored of me? What’s wrong?
Orihime was tracing the embroidered kanji with her forefinger. “Uryuu,” she said in an excited voice. “I know where the hougyoku is. It’s in the library.”
The panels hanging in mid-air showed the white-cloaked figure climbing the stairs of a faraway palace tower--another cloaked figure a few hundred paces behind her.
“She’s not a bright girl,” said Aizen. “She knew that little white hood could disguise her from most of the guards, but she did not expect surveillance. It was not by chance that Ulquiorra detected her on this one sweep of palace security a few days ago.” Aizen’s smile was faint and fond. “She did not know that I would recognize her from the very shape of her shoulders and size of her steps.”
“Who’s the other figure?” asked Gin.
“I suspect it's her pet.”
“Ahhhh,” said Gin. “He’s trying to find the hougyoku too. Don’t know what he expects he’ll do with it, but the princess obviously doesn’t trust him or else he wouldn’t have to trail her the way he does….”
“Childish games,” said Aizen. “Alright, Ulquiorra, that’s enough.”
The panels dissolved, and the small Espada responsible for their images bowed his head. “Anything else, Aizen-sama?”
“Stay here a moment,” Aizen commanded. “I would like to assess your strategic skill. Tell me, Ulquiorra, what would you do about this servant boy who obviously still has malicious intent against our forces?”
Gin put his feet up on the far end of the sofa. “I’d kill him,” he said. “I would’ve killed that boy long ago.”
“Long ago would have been a different situation,” said Ulquiorra. His voice was soft and impassive. “At this point he matters very much to the princess, and she would be in a sorry emotional state were he killed. As Aizen-sama has stated before, Orihime-sama’s happiness must be maintained for the sake of her creative efforts.”
Gin smiled and smiled. “So says Aizen-sama. I think he’s got a crush on her.”
“In any event,” said Aizen, “knowing that the girl values this boy makes him our hostage in any bargaining situation. I had originally planned for Ichigo to play this role with Orihime, but now that’s she discovered the thrills of romance with another young man, well….”
“She doesn’t trust him,” said Ulquiorra. “She does not let him accompany her while she’s looking for the hougyoku.”
“Trust is won less easily than a few kisses,” said Aizen, and he looked at Gin while he spoke the words. “I dare say that my own daughter doesn’t trust even me, or else she would have told me that she’s been prowling the palace in search of the hougyoku. But this is her little adventure into independence. I expected it.”
“You don’t suspect…?” Gin looked skeptical and brushed his hand through his silver hair. “You don’t suspect that she and the boy are up to something together?”
“Nonsense. Remember Hinamori-kun?”
The name sobered Gin for a second. Ulquiorra, who had no memories of Soul Society, remained impassive.
“I know love in a young girl’s eyes when I see it.” Aizen went on. “Orihime serves me and my vision, still. She’s merely impatient for her full powers to see fruition.”
Aizen leaned into the sofa and beckoned for Ulquiorra to approach. From his own end of the huge sofa, Gin sat up on one elbow and watched the Arrancar kneel and lay his face--the mask-less side with the black hair--in Aizen’s lap.
Aizen stroked the white horn on the Hollow part of Ulquiorra’s head. “Orihime is merely indulging some childish curiosity about the hougyoku and thinking that she can keep that from me. When she is an Arrancar, of course, such tiny rebellions will be unthinkable.”
The Hollow slew other Hollow in the battle trials of Hueco Mundo. It was not sport, merely a way to pass the time. Arrancar were more of a challenge but not by much; only the Espada could throw him to the ground. Of the Espada, only Ulquiorra could outwit him every now and then, but day after day, he had spilled the blood of Aizen’s favorite Espada on the ground.
The Hollow had believed that existence beyond the Inner World would be satisfying. He had believed that a human’s body coupled with a Shinigami’s blade would arouse his natural hunger for power. He had believed that feeding this hunger with Death was his only obvious goal.
But now, he wondered if there was anything else he wanted.
The Hollow wanted to fight Aizen, but he knew he had to wait. When he approached Aizen, he felt the incredible pressure of the man’s reiatsu and lusted for combat, but Aizen always said, “We are uneasy allies now against the humans and the Shinigami. One day, Ichigo, it will be a contest between you and me for the kingship of All That Is.”
The Hollow knew how to wait. He had waited for a long time in the Inner World, waited for the Other’s weakness, waited for an opportunity to steal command.
What the Hollow did not know how to do was fight an opponent who did not carry a blade. Was Aizen fighting him already with trickery and cunning?
The Other’s voice was silent now. The Other slept in the sand.
The Hollow avoided the human pair. It was the only thing to do. It was best not to risk rousing the Other. It was best not to complicate matters by allowing any opportunity for Aizen to engage in mind-fuckery. Aizen was a manipulative man; he would fight not only with his own strength but with his ability to deceive. That who is it you long for? nonsense could only effect the Other, not him.
Then one morning the Hollow had seen them--the pair of humans--in a way he had not expected to see them. At first he had not recognized them. They were wearing hooded cloaks and were wandering a part of the palace only servants and laborers traversed. Their movements were not unusual, except for the fact that every so often the taller figure at some paces back would touch his sleeve and stiffen his spine. Ishida. About to summon his bow. The Other had seen that alert gesture a thousand times. No one else in Las Noches, not even Aizen, would have noticed it. And the figure in front--that had to be Inoue from the way Ishida seemed to be guarding her.
Inoue would sometimes walk through a wall as if it were invisible. Barriers. Hadn’t the Espada said something about her talent being barriers? Her guard Ishida would lose her for a moment or so, but he always caught up with her.
That morning the Hollow, out of idle curiosity more than anything else, had followed the figures back to the princess’ rooms. Ishida had made it to the entryway first and had dropped his hood when Inoue rounded the corner.
“Uryuu! Why are you dressed like that? Were you going to follow me?”
“Yes, I worry about you going out alone.”
“I told you. You must not follow me. Promise me you won’t follow me.”
They had talked in hushed tones, and then Ishida reached out and touched Inoue’s face.
The Hollow knew what the Other would know. He called her by her first name. He touched her so freely. Ishida and Inoue were ….
The humans kissed.
The Hollow had felt a strange moan from the Inner World then. Not as if the Other was rising but as if a bad dream had shaken sand out of his mouth, pride out of his ears.
A small, slender girl with dark hair and intelligent eyes materialized before the Hollow’s eyes. A ghost? A memory?
At that thought in his brain, the Hollow had flown, in a sudden burst of white reiatsu, to the farthest side of Las Noches.
The library was located at a far distance from Aizen’s rooms and, surprisingly, not guarded. It was a small room, filled with only a hundred or so scrolls and books from different eras, and Aizen’s desk stood in the center. Here was where the leader of the Arrancar, uninterrupted by subordinates, spent a good portion of his time in Las Noches.
Orihime found Aizen’s chair, sat in it, and, closing her eyes, held out her palm for a long while.
“Anything?” Ishida finally asked.
“Let me keep trying,” said Orihime. “I sense Aizen. I sense Urahara-san for some reason. I know the key to everything is here.”
Ishida ran his hand across an open scroll. “These items were taken from Soul Society,” he said. “Maybe transported to Hueco Mundo before Aizen himself ascended.”
He decided that he had some reading to do.
The Hollow dared not sleep anymore. The Other walked in his dreams. A slouching boy with hands in his pockets. Endless afternoons of rain, rain, rain. A time before Kurosaki Ichigo had become a Shinigami. The tragedy of adolescence and a book bag full of assignments in some incomprehensible language.
The Inner World was windless and still.
The world of Las Noches was blood and white walls and a total bore.
Yet somehow in all this waiting and boredom, the Hollow knew that the Other could rise again. He knew the source of the threat to his kingship of the body.
He decided: I have to kill Ishida and Inoue.
“The hougyoku,” said Ishida, “appears to manipulate matter through some sort of time-acceleration. I don’t understand much of this, of course--and Urahara-san made some very sketchy, probably deliberately obtuse notes here--but when he put the hougyoku in Kuchiki-san’s body, the object was somehow anticipating her soul’s return to the Living World. Therefore, it was transforming her into a human body from her Shinigami soul.”
Orihime was still holding out her palm, but she opened her eyes at that statement. “Aizen-sama has always told me that my own powers do not have anything to do with time-space manipulation. He says I create. He says that when I heal I reject the injury and remake a whole body part or section of new flesh.”
Ishida looked up from the scroll and stared at the wall. “I think that you really can heal Kurosaki.”
“Really?” Orihime put down her palm and was all-attention.
“I also think that in conjunction with the hougyoku, you may be able to express powers of time-reversal. This is all theoretical, of course. I don’t see how it can possibly be done, and certainly getting the hougyoku in your hands might initiate these powers….”
“We have to help Kurosaki-kun!”
“Actually….” Ishida frowned and hesitated to speculate but he couldn’t help himself. “I was thinking that if the hougyoku could be returned to Urahara then maybe your powers could make it reverse situations… situations such as… the battle where Rukia died and Hollow Ichigo was born ….”
“Oh that would be amazing.” Orihime dropped her hands in her lap. “Then your father would come back too… and….” She startled at a thought. “If we went back in time, though, Uryuu, would we remember what happened here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean me and you.”
Ishida was quiet a moment and then said, “I don’t know. There are obviously some things that are more important than me and you. Certainly, we fight in a war with the risk of losing our lives. We need to risk our lives and more in order to defeat Aizen.”
A sudden stir of wind at the door made Orihime and Ishida turn to look.
“Defeat Aizen?” came a wry, amused voice. “What have we here? A couple of teenagers sneaking around in Aizen’s private library?”
Orihime gasped. “Gin-sama!”
“Oh, don’t be afraid,” said Gin. “You haven’t done anything wrong by coming here. This library has been open and waiting for you for a long time. Aizen was expecting you to come here and nose around. He wanted you to.”
Ishida lifted his arm so that his sleeve dropped and his Quincy bracelet was visible.
“What Aizen didn’t expect,” Gin said, “was that you would come here with your boyfriend. And he didn’t expect was that you two would be plotting against him.”