Title: Riddled With White -- Part Four
Pairing: UlquiHime (plus Tatsuki and Ishida.)
Warnings: Cracktacular contents. Language. Violence. Szayel sass.
Summary: When the infamous scientist Mayuri Kurotsuchi disappears, it's up to private eye Ulquiorra Cifer and his Girl-Friday, Tatsuki Arisawa, to solve the case.
Part One: In which Ulquiorra takes the case.
Part Two: In which Ishida interrupts.
Part Three: In which Nemu escapes.
RIDDLED WITH WHITE--PART FOUR
An entire wall had exploded, flinging bricks across the street, through shop windows and doors. Flames escaped from the remnants of interrogation rooms. Chained trash littered the street, reveling in the destruction and sirens, while police officers indulged in an orderly panic. The rain had ceased, as if to spite their efforts.
The amount of chaos inflicted upon the police department by Nemu Kurotsuchi was rather impressive.
"There's no need to go any further," Arisawa asked as a second fire engine roared by. "Is there, boss?"
I stepped inside the mouth of an alleyway. Arisawa and the girl followed suit, helping themselves to the shadows. A pack of jailhouse tramps were chained to a bench across the street. They sat idly, sharing a cigarette. Lilynette was not among them.
Arisawa quickly reached consensus. "She's long gone. There's no way she'd just sit in her cell, not when she could run amok."
The girl edged closer, presence grating on my shoulder. "Perhaps she went back to Mr. Starrk?"
"It'd sure be nice if we could get him in on this." Boot heel met brick, arms crossed. "Do you think a fireplace poker would be enough to motivate him, boss, or should I go back for the shovel?"
"The…shovel?" The girl seemed intrigued--almost unnaturally so. “I suppose he is more vegetable than scarecrow.”
“I’m not going to plant him, Orihime. Just give him a rude awakening, that's all."
"Leave Starrk to Lilynette. She went with the Kurotsuchi girl for a reason." A pale blonde wisp wove through the mob--Kira. "Stay here."
"Wait." Fingertips, too cold for the girl’s temperament, caught the underside of my wrist. The single syllable of warning would have sufficed. Her concern had no place in that alley, side by side with destruction, holding me close. A selfless shield.
“Release me.” Muscle coiled, but her grip only intensified. “That was not a suggestion.”
“Shut it, boss.” Arisawa nodded towards the opposite corner. "Incoming."
The thousand yard smirk required no additional warning. Ichimaru stayed clear of the action, teeth bared appreciatively. Cohesive movement pressed three bodies flush with the wall, out of Gin’s field of vision. Her hold remained.
“I’m sorry...but that face…” Her fingers were replaced by the friction of cloth rasping against cloth. "I only caught a glimpse of him yesterday, through the window, and in the paper again this morning, but he…he carries very little trust about him. So little regard."
Evidence of a keen intellect clung to the underside of her tenderness. A mind at odds with the world, drowning in possibilities, a bivalved mass of curiosity and calamity.
"Boss!" The hiss irked. Arisawa reached across the girl and helped herself to a fistful of trench coat. "Go sniff around, have some tea, beat Ichimaru to a pulp--I don't care. But quit staring at Orihime.”
Warm breath grazed my jaw line, a half-gasp, driven out by flushed skin. I caged Arisawa's hand with my own. The girl's embarrassment had to nowhere to hide, only spread, undermining Arisawa's glare with bashful blood.
“You picked a really shitty time to develop a sense of humor, Ulquiorra."
"Excuse me…" Even averted, her eyes were pleading. "This isn't helping."
Arisawa broke my hold, pulling the girl deeper into the shadows. "You said this case wasn't about hiding, so off you go."
I moved around them, in the opposite direction of Kira, my true target. The flare of Arisawa's nostrils provided instant gratification. She wanted a direct confrontation with Ichimaru, replete with honorable bluster and blazing eyes.
How little she understood.
Her mind was not simple, but her morals were. Black or white--and she was the latter, wielding a just fist, clean to the core. One such as Ichimaru was a lesser being, a mechanical puppet fleshed out with wormwood and spite, sorely lacking motivation. An insect feeding on happenstance. So easily disposed of.
If I stood beside her, I must be of the light. My intentions must be above board. No pride, no lust, should sway me. I was to be a man among carrion. As if I gave a shit.
The internal compromise, the endless justification required to use force--to maim, to inflict permanent damage--is a desolate chore, dripping with shades of gray. Lying to oneself becomes the sixth sense, until there is no longer a need to persuade, only deviate slightly. If every altercation is viewed as a matter of survival, one is always in the right. She would come to recognize this in time. A pinprick of remorse would shatter her fist, allowing her to finally embrace true despair. I would see to that.
Arisawa leveled a glare at my back. All subtlety drowns in adrenaline. "What the hell--"
"Do not question me."
"Fine. We'll wait here." A dark utterance followed. I took the curse as a compliment.
The alley intersected another, which delivered me into the pit. Were the charred heaps lying about innocent victims, or had Nemu Kurotsuchi exacted a primitive form of justice? The matter did not warrant much thought. Their fates were sealed. Only Kira paused to lament their passing.
"You certainly didn't waste any time getting here, Ulquiorra." His harrowed gaze held no welcome.
"Hisagi pays me to be efficient."
"Efficiency is my department. He pays you for results--and for discretion."
"Nemu Kurotsuchi acted on her own accord. This had nothing to do with me."
"Perhaps." He looked over his shoulder at Ichimaru, still idling on the periphery, ever the predator. The watchful snake smiled back. "But you could have stopped him."
"Ichimaru is a mere tentacle. Superfluous."
"Then go after Aizen."
"You have tomorrow's headline, Kira. Stop reaching."
He nodded, almost penitently. "They're saying some rather incredible things about Miss Kurotsuchi."
"That she never slept, never ate. She just sat in her cell. Didn't pace, didn't say a word, an entirely catatonic presence, until smoke suddenly started pouring out of...her unmentionables, and then…" His eyelids sagged. "Kaboom."
"A rather useful modification."
"Useful? How can a walking time bomb be useful?"
"The answer lies within the question."
"How very deep of you, Ulquiorra--and how very condescending." He flipped through his notepad. "Don't you have a body to find?"
"Yes, as a matter of fca. Does the name Uryū Ishida mean anything to you?"
Recognition raised his head. "Tell me everything."
The Shinigami Research and Development Institute was a pristine stone labyrinth, built long and low, a windowless monument to science. Kira deftly guided the car through the main gate, coming to a halt at the main entrance. "Are you sure about this, Ulquiorra?"
"Save the chivalry for someone who needs it." Arisawa cracked her knuckles in the backseat. The girl nodded in agreement.
"I will handle the situation here."
"Understood. I'll debrief Hisagi, and then--"
"Just stick to the plan, Kira." The passenger door opened, signaling the end of the conversation. Arisawa and the girl trailed me across the pavement. Kira sped off. The entrance loomed. "I trust that you've both managed to grasp that we are walking into a trap."
"Figured as much," said Arisawa. "If Nemu won't run, then she certainly won't hide."
The girl paused. "You mean, whoever's behind all this...they're inside and they already have Miss Kurotsuchi? And Ishida--"
"Stay alert, Orihime." Arisawa gripped the girl's shoulders, forcing eye contact. "Do not wander."
"No--I'm here to help."
I proceeded inside. The girl's intentions were meaningless--she was meant to be ensnared. The unknown element, saved for last. A thread to be cut.
Her arrival at this juncture was inevitable. From the moment Ishida began trailing Szayel Aporro Granz, from her first step inside the Boneyard, from the second her hand touched the receiver to inform the police of Kurotsuchi's possible demise, danger had been pursuing her.
"Boss, something's not right." Arisawa's observation was accurate. The halls were deserted, all productivity had ceased. A gutted hive.
Akon was the point of contact. The route to his office wound through long expanses of unnatural sterility. His door was closed, lights extinguished. As if the tri-horned freak would call it quits in the middle of the afternoon.
"Stand back." Once Arisawa and the girl reached a satisfactory distance, I inched the door open. An acrid odor escaped. Akon lay slumped over his desk, unmoving. The stench intensified. "Get out--"
"Now, now, that won't do." A voice like barbed honey. Szayel stood twelve feet behind Arisawa and the girl, whip thin and leering.
"Szayel Aporro Granz." I appealed to his ego, drawing his attention away from the juncture of Arisawa's neck. "A brilliant mind with no follow through. Hatching vainglorious plots, endlessly wasting your potential. Fodder for the likes of Mayuri Kurotsuchi."
"I never took you for a malicious gossip, Ulquiorra." He brushed a strand of perversely hued hair out of his face. "But I must admit, your presence here is somewhat unexpected."
Szayel drifted steadily closer. I matched him step for step. "You thought dropping a pair of spectacles in Kisuke Urahara's lap would spur him to action. As if that man would ever make a move without deploying a pawn first."
"Don't speak so lowly of yourself."
"You believe that I am a pawn? Interesting. Considering your subservience to Aizen, you'd think that like would recognize like.""How can accusations flow so freely from that limp mouth of yours, Ulquiorra?" The distance was halved.
"Here's another--you gassed the Institute staff."
"Nemu Kurotsuchi harmed her own subordinates?" I reached Arisawa's side.
"Why not? She killed her own father. She also placed the Institute on lockdown as soon as you arrived. There's no escape."
"And how do you know this?"
He moved a step closer. Point blank range. Arisawa could defend herself, but not the girl. Instinct took over. I would not hesitate.
"Knowledge has the power to both enlighten and paralyze. She made me watch while she poisoned that insufferable brat who's been following me--"
"What the hell do you mean poisoned?" Arisawa's fingers constricted, ready to facilitate a strike.
"As I was saying," Szayel said, with no small amount of pretention, "Nemu Kurotsuchi made me watch while she poisoned that prick with a chemical injection that systematically breaks down the digestive tract. The pain is excruciating, to say the least. The boy was screaming out of his skull when you arrived. I'd hate to hear him in about three hours, when his guts implode."
A shiver racked the girl's body--as if to reject all fear. She understood that danger existed, but only for those around her. For Arisawa or Ishida, even Lilynette. Never for her. "Where is he?"
"The Block A laboratory--but it doesn't matter. There is no antidote. The boy will die and I'll be next. One by one, she'll kill us all. It seems that any and all threats to Nemu Kurotsuchi must be eradicated."
"Enough." Arisawa's voice promised pain. "I've had enough of you."
"Leave now, or I will kill you myself." I released Szayel. He staggered backwards, clutching his damaged arm.
"You'll suffer, Ulquiorra. You will suffer!" The smile returned, distorting his features. "Just you wait!"
Szayel disappeared around the corner. A forceful shake seemed to clear Arisawa's head. "I shouldn't have snapped like that. I'm sorry, boss, but that guy..."
"He was lying, Tatsuki. Miss Kurotsuchi isn't behind this." Her resistance had surfaced once more. How I longed to crush it. "Ulquiorra, do you think that Ishida's alright?"
"Don't expect me to lie."
"I was hoping you'd say that." Relief softened her features. "Now, which way to the Block A laboratory?"
"Did I miss something?" Arisawa asked with a raised brow.
"Ulquiorra thinks that Ishida's alive. That's enough for me."
"That's not what he said, Orihime."
"If he thought it was too late, he would have said so."
"I suppose." Arisawa shot a dirty look behind the girl's back. "When did you go soft?"
"Go rouse Akon."
"And get a lungful of gas? No thank you." Glower answered glower. "If I shut up, will you be happy?"
"No." I took up Szayel's trail. The two of them had ample opportunity to question my logic, to protest. But they didn't.
***Silence paved the path. The girl followed closely, with Arisawa only a step behind. Hallways turned into dead ends and locked doors. Windowless laboratories were littered with unconscious scientists and test subjects--animal and human alike. Some had apparently blacked out mid-scream. Chemicals continued to simmer, mixing with the lingering stench of gas.
An hour fled.
If Szayel was to be believed, Ishida had roughly two hours to live. I wanted him to suffer. A cry of pain would correct the course.
Arisawa abruptly halted, hands on hips, surveying the white walls. "Does anyone else feel like we're being watched?"
"Just because you like to watch, boss, doesn't mean--"
"Did you hear that?" The girl slipped past, nearing a run. My hand grazed the curve of her spine. It was enough. She pivoted, invading my airspace. "Didn't you hear that?"
"I will not tolerate irrational--"
"Are you not aware--"
"I won't stand idly by while someone suffers, Ulquiorra."
"Do not interrupt me again."
"Then listen." The conflict carried into her breath. Tense seconds drained her certainty. "Wait...please."
A howl sounded, distant but definite. "You will follow."
With a measured stride, I led them into the depths of the Institute. The hallways blurred together. Arisawa began to linger at the turns, second guessing ceiling fixtures and floor tiles. Her sense of direction had abandoned her. The enemy was unseen. Ineffectual fists hung low. So painfully out of her element.
"We're going the wrong way, boss."
"But it's behind us now."
"Oh, hell no. No. You heard it first."
"Maybe I'm thinking too loudly."
"Boss, please." She appealed to me openly--without expectations, only simple need. "Tell me you can hear the screams."
Disappointment was all I could offer. It hit her with unusual resonance. My inability to reassure her, to realign her center, was almost regrettable--but my assistant was not supposed to falter. "Chemical exposure may have induced auditory hallucinations."
"We're all having the same hallucination?"
"Tatsuki." The girl reached for Arisawa, who spurned the advance, taking a defiant step backwards.
"I can hear him. Whether you believe me or not, I can hear him."
"Of course I believe you," said the girl, with utmost care. "Just tell me which way to go."
Arisawa's pace was determined, gaining distance with ease. The girl followed suit.
"Arisawa, this is unacceptable."
"Condemn me later," Arisawa called over her shoulder.
One hallway led to another--echoing with a scream. Arisawa charged ahead, a flash of black with a bittersweet veil. The dire cry sounded again, in close proximity.
Arisawa stopped short of a pair of steel doors, set within a recessed archway. The Block A laboratory. I motioned for them to hold back. Arisawa nodded. The girl sought my gaze. Cold comfort.
As I stepped within the archway, the doors slid open. I trespassed only half a step. A split second.
"Boss!" Not quite a scream, but irrefutably panicked.
A fluid strength took hold of my back, followed by the heavy slither of crossing blades, metal on metal, and a strangled gasp. I fell.
She fell with me.
My right side took the brunt of the impact. White knuckles dug into my chest. A single tear traced the hollow above my jaw. Sprawled in shock, our legs moved together, tentatively searching for damage. She gasped again. A deep gash marred her left calf. Blood stained the bottom of my coat.
"Orihime, are you hurt?" A wall of intersecting blades kept Arisawa at bay--an insidious security measure, befitting of Kurotsuchi. The steel doors slammed shut. Complete severance. Not even Arisawa's voice could reach us.
The girl withdrew, as if bitten, trailing blood across sterile tiles. Unchecked repulsion overtook her. Row after row of dissected organs, individually preserved in clearly labeled jars, were to blame. Kurotsuchi was obviously protective of his specimens, but I held no admiration for the eccentricities of the insane.
Back on my feet, I examined the doors. They had been designed without handles or any obvious release mechanism. I expanded my search, finding only stone walls and spare formaldehyde.
"No," she said, sinking into herself. "There's no time. Ulquiorra, we have to--"
"Tend to your leg."
"You don’t understand…you…" A sob cracked her wide open. I still could not take credit for her tears. Szayel's taunts had pierced too deeply. "We have to get out of here."
Her tears continued, as did my search. A workstation occupied most of the far wall. Sifting through drawers full of medical instruments and blank labels, I located a roll of gauze and a clean towel. The supplies landed beside her hip.
"I gave you an order." Momentarily drained, she obediently applied pressure to the wound with the towel. "Why did you act on my behalf?"
"I…I don’t know." Blood began to soak through.
"That's not good enough."
A moment of hesitation--an opening. "You're important to Tatsuki."
"I saw the blades. It just happened."
"You lack the prowess to act on instinct."
"Stop." She abandoned the towel, hastily covering the still seeping wound with gauze. I had unsettled her. How much more to break?
"Shall I tell you the real reason why you threw yourself at me?"
"It's not like that." She managed to stand, relying on a shelf for support.
"You need me alive. If I die, so does his chance for survival."
"I wasn't thinking of him--" A hand clamped down over her mouth. Her full, horrified attention settled upon me.
"Don’t worry," I said, without checking my tone. To shatter. To claim. "I won't tell Ishida how fickle your affections truly are."
I managed an anemic sneer. "Don't deny it. I've seen the way he looks at you."
"Ishida?" Her confusion was pure. "But he's my friend, just like Tatsuki and I are friends. We protect each other, and yes, we may care for one another, but it's nothing like you're suggesting. He doesn't…he can't."
Tears welled in her eyes. All for me.
Pallid fingers captured her chin, angling her head back slightly, to provide an unobstructed view of my hard-won prize. I leaned in, savoring her lack of resistance. "Am I one such friend?"
"No," she whispered.
"Keep that in mind."
I made slanted demands of her mouth. Pressed up against the shelving, I sank into her, clawing at the flesh of her backside and the
narrowing of her waist. To sate. To mark.
To be continued...