Sooner or later, it had to happen...
Continuing the completely and totally INSANE Bleach silly fic, by Mel and Christy. Now with actual plot!
(Kenpachi + Ichigo + Grimmjow, Ulquiorra + Orihime, AU, OOC, language, moderately crackfic)
“How long have we been running these bouts?” Renji asked abruptly, leaning against a tree and scratching the base of his messy red ponytail.
“Um.” Rukia blinked. “Ah… well, Ulquiorra started turning up a bit over three weeks ago… Lilynette and Starrk have been showing up nearly as long… Grimmjow and Zaraki-taichou had been playing for a month before the others turned up… so, almost two months? Why?”
“Seems a lot longer, is all.” He grinned a little sheepishly. “I’m not looking forward to having to fight the Espada once Aizen gets his act together, you know, and not just because they’re tough. I’ve gotten to like them!”
“What, even Grimmjow?”
“Yeah, even him. Guy’s a dick, but he’s a fun dick, y’know?”
“Fair enough.” She smiled, but it faded into a thoughtful expression as she looked down into the ravaged valley that was the arena for the nightly fights. “I don’t think they really want to fight us, either. Grimmjow’s the only one who even wants to spar! He’d happily play with Ichigo and Zaraki-taichou for the rest of his life, but if they fought seriously it would have to end.”
“Still gonna have to do it,” he sighed.
“True.” Rukia scowled at him. “And speaking of things that have to be done, were you planning to patrol any time soon? It’s your turn to watch Karakura, you know!”
“All right, all right, I’m going! Sheesh!”
As Renji left, the shiver of an opening Garganta reverberated from nearby, and Rukia’s cellphone pinged as it detected several high-level Hollows passing through into the living world. Flicking it open, she checked quickly to make sure it was the ones expected, then shut off the alarm. Expected Hollows, she thought wryly, starting to walk down towards the other Shinigami who had gathered to watch. Invited Hollows. Friendly Hollows. It’s ridiculous… but somehow, all sorts of ridiculous things have turned out to be reasonable lately.
Since I met Ichigo, in fact. Ha.
- - - - -
“Are you coming to watch Zaraki-san and Kurosaki-kun tomorrow?” Orihime asked, sitting next to Ulquiorra as they both watched Grimmjow swat Ichigo through one of the few trees still standing on the valley floor. “I’ve got spring onions and honey and pickled plums and bean jam and a bunch of other things, so I was thinking of making bentou boxes for Jaegerjaques-kun and Starrk-san too. Lilynette-chan already said she doesn’t want any. Ever,” she added, pouting slightly. “It can’t be healthy for her to just eat sweets all the time…”
She eats plenty of Hollows when we’re in Hueco Mundo, Ulquiorra thought, but didn’t say. “We’re… probably not coming tomorrow, no,” he said slowly, not looking at her.
“Oh. That’s a shame. Oh well, day after tomorrow then!” she said, brightening. “Everything will keep that long.”
“Mmm.” The green thing in the last compartment of his lunchbox wobbled at him, and he poked it experimentally with his chopsticks. “Maybe not then either.”
She turned to stare at him, eyes wide. Behind her, Grimmjow cartwheeled into a rock, swearing. “But that’s Jaegerjaques-kun’s turn!”
He realised he was frowning slightly, and hastily smoothed his face into its usual bland non-expression. “I know.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Not yet.” But there might be soon. Szayel was snooping around when we left today… and he’s not one to be sidetracked by sharing some Pocky and inviting him to come along. If he finds out anything concrete about what we’re up to, Aizen will know about it within the hour.
“But something might be wrong soon? Is there anything we could do to help? After all,” she said earnestly, clasping her hands together in front of her bosom, “we’re all friends now! Um, sort of, but--”
Still holding the bentou in his left hand, Ulquiorra reached across and grabbed the back of Orihime’s head, shoving her down until her nose brushed the short grass. She squeaked as a bolt of brilliant red energy blazed past inches above her bent back, scattering the watching Shinigami who were seated further up the slope.
“Damnit Grimmjow!” Ichigo yelled, shaking his fist. “Watch where you’re firing that thing! You nearly hit Inoue!”
“Well I didn’t, did I?”
“No thanks to your aim!”
“C’mon, calm down. Ulquiorra won’t let her get hit. Besides, you nearly Getsuga-ed Lilynette last time!”
“Yeah, and I apologised, didn’t I? Asshole!”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry, ’Hime. You okay?”
“I’m fine!” Orihime called hastily, sneezing and rubbing her nose where the grass had tickled her. “Really! Nothing at all hurt. Sorry I got in the way, Jaegerjaques-kun!”
“Don’t apologise to him! Sheesh!”
“Oh! Sorry, Kurosaki-kun!”
“And don’t-- aw, forget it.” Ichigo rolled his eyes and turned back to the fight, glancing back for a second to toss “Thanks, Ulquiorra,” over his shoulder. “Now aim that way, shithead!”
“Thank you, Cifer-kun,” Orihime said, settling back into her previous position and smiling at him.
He shrugged dismissively and poked the wobbly green thing again. “What’s this?”
“Jalapeno jelly!” she said enthusiastically, thankfully distracted from her previous line of thought. “It’s really yummy on sardines, but I ran out.”
“Huh.” He popped it in his mouth, squished it with his tongue, and sat in considering silence for a few breaths before delivering his opinion. “It’s not bad. I like food that bites back.”
- - - - -
“Thank you.” Bottle clinked on cup, and Starrk sipped with a smile on his face, releasing his breath in a slight sigh as he put the cup down. “Shunsui will be upset with us if we drink the whole bottle without waiting for him,” he noted, not sounding at all worried.
“He’ll bring at least two more bottles,” Ukitake pointed out cheerfully, topping up their cups again, “and drink one and a half of them himself. If he’s going to be saddened by the loss of this one, well, all I can say is that he should have gotten here sooner.”
“Excellent reasoning!” Starrk saluted the captain with his cup and sipped again. “What’s kept him, d’you know?”
“Ah. Heh. I believe his lieutenant has worked out how he was slipping out of the compound, and was lying in wait with the last two weeks’ worth of paperwork to be signed. That young woman has a, shall we say, forceful personality.”
The Espada snickered behind his drink, shielding it with his other hand as a cloud of rock shards and dust billowed past. “She’d need it, dealing with him. I-- hmm.”
“Yes?” Ukitake looked up from brushing his haori clean, and blinked as Starrk abruptly thrust his cup in the captain’s direction. He was staring towards a low hillock crowned with dense scrub and trees, a small bobble in the valley’s side.
“Hold this.” And with a flicker, Starrk was gone. Ukitake blinked again, then philosophically topped up both cups once more.
Starrk returned barely a minute later, leaving after-images across the battlefield as he flicked back into place beside his drinking partner. Ichigo yelped in surprise, tried to dodge the insubstantial image that had just appeared in his path, and tripped, accidentally taking out Grimmjow in a tangle of flailing limbs and swords. Off to one side, Matsumoto cheered.
“Welcome back,” Ukitake said amiably, handing the cup back. Starrk managed a distracted half-smile as he accepted it, but it faded quickly as he glanced back at the hillock. “Is something wrong?”
“…No,” the Espada said after an uncertain pause. “It was nothing. I thought I saw something, is all.” He sipped, frowning. “Something white.”
* * * * *
“Not going anywhere today?”
Ulquiorra didn't react to the smug voice calling out to him, pacing along one of Las Noches’ corridors without altering his stride. Szayelaporro Granz swung out of the niche he’d been standing in and followed, pink hair bobbing as he lengthened his steps to keep up.
“Ignoring me now? That’s not a good idea. Why, if you don’t talk to me, I just might go and talk to Ichimaru or Tousen about the way you and Grimmjow keep wandering off--”
“I don’t need to explain myself to trash,” Ulquiorra said calmly, still not turning to look at the Eighth Espada. “If you think we’re doing something reportable, go ahead; report us.”
Szayel’s eyes narrowed in anger, and he laughed unconvincingly. “I just might,” he repeated. “I just might do that. I’m sure they’d be delighted to know that you two are up to something surreptitious, and now you’re drawing in Starrk as well.”
“I’m sure they’d be delighted with you for wasting their time.”
Frustrated at the lack of response to his barbs, Szayel stopped walking and scowled at the other Espada’s receding back. “I suppose we’ll find out, won’t we?” he snapped, and began to turn away.
“Szayel.” Ulquiorra paused, turning his head slightly to glance back over his shoulder. “If I find any more of your bugs in my quarters or on my person, I’ll kill you.”
Paling slightly, Szayel hurried away.
Ulquiorra watched him for a few more seconds, then continued onwards. I must have found all the bugs, he reasoned, thinking quickly behind his normal impassive expression. If he actually knew anything, he wouldn’t be fishing for information that way; he’d be using it. Since I didn’t rise to his bait, he’s not sure whether or not there’s anything useful to find out… and since he hasn’t got anything concrete to report, he probably won’t say anything.
Then again, he might.
At the next intersection he turned left instead of right, heading towards Grimmjow’s and Starrk’s rooms. We need to talk… and I’ll have to ‘de-flea’ Grimmjow first.
- - - - -
“You sure you got them all?” Grimmjow asked anxiously, twisting around to eye his own back and scratching the side of his neck with one hand. “Those things are creepy as hell!”
Ulquiorra ignored his question, turning instead to Starrk. “You said you saw something white near the last fight. Another Espada?”
“Possibly,” Starrk shrugged, leaning against a large rock and crossing his arms. “I couldn’t feel any remaining traces of reiatsu in the area, though.”
“Which means nothing,” Ulquiorra concluded. “Most of us can shield ourselves effectively.”
“Think it was Szayel?” Grimmjow suggested.
“No. If he was there, he would already know enough to take to Aizen.”
Starrk yawned hugely. “So it wasn’t him, but he’s still suspicious.”
“And whoever was watching the fight -- if someone was watching, and it was one of the Espada -- has more than enough information to get us in a lot of trouble,” Ulquiorra finished.
“Get us dead, you mean,” Grimmjow muttered, scratching his armpit.
Starrk laughed. “This is new?”
They fell silent for a moment, then Ulquiorra shook his head and frowned slightly. “We can’t choose a path of action until we know what accusations we have to defend ourselves against. Everything depends on how Aizen and the others react to whatever they’re told about us. We need to decide on a few basic responses -- deny wrongdoing, claim we were researching our enemies, perhaps? -- and then improvise the details according to what situation we’re presented with.” He thought for a moment longer, then nodded. “That will do. You--” He looked at Grimmjow. “--keep your mouth shut and say as little as possible. And stop scratching!”
Grimmjow yanked his hand away from his groin and crossed his arms, scowling. “We could just run.”
“Think we’d get far?” Starrk asked. His voice was mild, but his expression was dark. “The time to run away from Aizen was before he ever knew about us.”
“It’d be better than hanging around here waiting for him to come down on our necks!”
Ulquiorra raised one hand to gesture the other two to silence. “We’re going to have to act eventually, Grimmjow, you’re right--”
“--but Starrk is also correct. If we just run, we will get nowhere.”
“Hmph.” Grimmjow looked sulky, but thoughtful. One hand crept up to scratch the back of his head. “So whadda we got to do if we wanna run and make it work?”
“We need allies.” Ulquiorra paused for a moment, remembering brown eyes staring earnestly into his own. “We… already have some, I think, but… we need more. And we need to either distract Aizen or hamstring him in some way as we leave.”
Starrk cocked his head to one side. “Yammy follows you…” He trailed off as Ulquiorra waved his hand dismissively.
“Up to a point. He finds it convenient to do as I say when he can’t think of anything better to do, that’s all. The attachment wouldn’t last beyond the first time I asked him to do something that annoyed him.”
“Not Barragan,” Grimmjow put in, snorting. “Not Nnoitra, either. They’re both dicks.”
“…Leaving aside whether that is a reason to exclude them in and of itself,” Ulquiorra said carefully, “they’re both also loyal to Aizen.”
Starrk nodded, then grimaced slightly. “I don’t think Aarionero’s particularly loyal.”
“He’s an even worse dick than Nnoitra, though,” Grimmjow objected.
“Completely untrustworthy,” Ulquiorra told Starrk, ignoring Grimmjow.
“We’re running out of options, then.”
“Zommari’s not a dick,” Grimmjow suggested. “He doesn’t talk much, though. Dunno what he thinks about anything, really.”
“Zommari is an unknown quantity,” Ulquiorra said. “I was thinking about Harribel, and perhaps some of the Privaron Espada and Numeros.”
Grimmjow blinked, then nodded. “Yeah, Harribel’s not a--”
“Which of the Privaron were you thinking of?” Starrk asked, talking over him. “And will it do any good? They were demoted because they’re weaker than the rest of us, after all.”
“Gantenbainne, for one,” Ulquiorra shrugged. “I wasn’t planning on having them join in a direct confrontation, but they could be useful in other ways. As you just pointed out, the first thing any Espada thinks when they’re brought up is ‘weak’; nobody regards them as a threat.”
“Maybe because they’re not?” Grimmjow said in a sarcastic voice.
“Szayel is physically weaker than you. Do you think he’s not a threat?”
“He’s got those creepy bug-things! And he’s one sneaky bastard, nearly as bad as Ichimaru,” Grimmjow objected.
One of Ulquiorra’s eyebrows lifted a tiny fraction. “So you agree that strength isn’t the only measure of threat?”
“Well duh, of course not.”
“The same applies to the Privaron, then.”
“Uh-- well-- because-- um-- I--”
“Go back to scratching yourself.”
* * * * *
“Did he say why?” Renji asked, shoving his sunglasses up to the top of his head as he looked at Orihime.
“No, not really.” She shook her head, looking worried. “Just that there wasn’t anything wrong yet. Then Jaegerjaques-kun nearly Cero-ed me by accident and I sort of forgot to ask what he meant.”
He snorted. “Not surprising. Well, I guess we know why they’re late.”
“No we don’t,” Rukia pointed out. “We just know they have a reason to not show up, not what the reason is.”
“Maybe Aizen’s getting ready to attack and they can’t sneak out any more,” Ichigo suggested glumly.
“Maybe Aizen caught them and they’re all dead,” Renji suggested, a little ghoulishly.
Ichigo opened his mouth to reply, glanced at Orihime, and visibly swallowed what he’d been about to say. “Nah, I’m sure that’s not it,” he said hastily.
“Wanna bet? I’m just surprised it’s taken Aizen this long to work out what’s going on. He’s probably made an example-- OW! What was that for?!”
“So sorry,” Rukia told him in syrupy tones that contrasted with her angry glare. “My foot slipped. I’m sure that Grimmjow and Ulquiorra and the others are just fine.” Behind her, Ichigo was making “shut up shut up shut up” gestures and pointing at Orihime.
“Oh! Um. Yeah. They’re probably okay. They’re tough, and Ulquiorra’s pretty smart, I think.”
Orihime’s worried expression lightened a little, but not much. “They are, and he is, but… they’re all afraid of Aizen, I think.”
Ichigo snorted. “I don’t think Grimmjow’s afraid of anything, except maybe Yachiru.”
“Well of course Jaegerjaques-kun wouldn’t say he was afraid,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “He just gets sulky and grouchy and kind of scrunches up any time Aizen’s name comes up, which isn’t that often after all because nobody wants to talk about him. It’s a boy thing. You do it too.”
“I do not!”
Rukia grinned slyly. “Oh look, Rangiku-san brought more sake!”
Ichigo scowled and hunched his shoulders defensively, and Renji snickered.
“Don’t laugh, Renji, or I’ll demonstrate that you do exactly the same thing,” Rukia said sweetly, and he flushed.
“I don’t-- uh-- you don’t have anything on me! Er. Isn’t it your turn to patrol?”
As she drew breath to answer, a small Garganta abruptly ripped open in the air above the valley. Shinigami spectators looked up from their seats, some rising to their feet and reaching for their sword hilts as they checked to see who was arriving. There was a flash of white and light green within the opening portal, and then the Garganta closed as suddenly as it had opened.
“Was that Lilynette?” Ichigo said uncertainly, squinting up at the now-empty night sky. “Maybe she-- hey, what’s that?”
“It’s a note!” Orihime darted across the rutted grass and cracked rocks, snatching at the fluttering piece of paper as it drifted just out of reach. With one last jump, she caught one corner and brandished it in triumph, a moment before she tripped on a shattered tree root and faceplanted into the dirt. “…Ow.”
Ichigo sighed, rubbing one hand through his messy hair as he strolled over. “You okay, Inoue?”
“Mmph. Yes,” Orihime assured him, lifting her grass-stained face. Without getting up, she unfolded the note and squinted at it. After a slight pause, she turned it up the other way and squinted again. “…Lilynette-chan’s handwriting is terrible.”
“Lemme have a look.” Ichigo plucked it out of her hands, squinted at it… turned it sideways, squinted at it… “Is this even in Japanese?”
Rukia snatched the note away from him and glared at it. “Idiot! It’s perfectly legible! It says, ‘Can’t come today, maybe not for a while either. Will let you know when things change. Sorry.’”
“Well of course you’re the only person who can read it,” Ichigo muttered, not quite quietly enough, and her eyes narrowed.
“Is that supposed to mean something?”
“Well…” He hesitated, then started to back away slowly. “I just think that Lilynette might be able to understand your drawings…”
* * * * *
Grimmjow sidled into the Espada’s meeting room, looking around surreptitiously, and slid along the wall to stand next to Ulquiorra. “D’you know what he wants?” he muttered under his breath.
“I wonder what he wants,” Grimmjow went on, hunching down slightly and glaring at the door.
“Stand up straight,” Ulquiorra snapped, eyes narrowing slightly in annoyance. “You look suspicious.”
“I can’t help it!”
“Then at least try to stand with your usual arrogant slouch instead of cringing like that.”
Grimmjow straightened up with a snarl, glaring at him. “I am not cringing!”
“Not any more,” Ulquiorra agreed. “Keep it up.”
Whatever Grimmjow might have said in reply was lost as several more Espada entered, and Ulquiorra took his seat. Starrk was last to arrive, yawning hugely as he strolled in the door, and Aizen walked in immediately behind him, flanked by Gin and Tousen. The renegade ex-Captain was smiling benevolently as he took his seat at the head of the table, and everyone turned towards him, almost involuntarily.
His charisma is frightening, Ulquiorra thought, watching the three Shinigami settle themselves. His influence over us, even those of us who now wish to leave… and I would not have seen that as a problem a month ago, he realised, eyes widening fractionally. Has associating with other Shinigami changed me -- us -- so much? Why? I thought of it, of them, as nothing more than relief from boredom--
He remembered Orihime, worried about him, and shifted uncertainly in his seat. Worried for him. Why should she care?
He realised that Aizen was speaking, and dragged his attention back to the room.
“--pleased to announce that we are nearly ready to act,” the ex-Captain was saying, smile widening. “There are only a few necessary preparations left. I--”
“Oh, so this isn’t about Grimmjow and Ulquiorra’s little secret?” Szayel interrupted, raising one eyebrow theatrically. “What a shame! I was looking forward to finding out what that was about.”
Idiot, Ulquiorra thought coldly as Tousen’s blind face turned first towards Szayel, then himself. Tousen was very likely to ‘punish’ you for interrupting without waiting to see what you had to say. He didn’t respond, still looking attentively at Aizen as if waiting for him to resume; across the table, Grimmjow growled under his breath.
“What’s this, Szayelaporro?” Aizen asked, eyebrows lifting. “Do you have something to report?”
“They’ve been sneaking out of Las Noches at night for weeks,” Szayel told him, managing to sound concerned. “I think they’ve been leaving Hueco Mundo and going to the living world, and recently Starrk’s been going along with them. I tried to find out what was going on, but--” he shrugged, spreading his hands wide “--they’ve been very careful not to be followed, and, well, Ulquiorra threatened me when I asked him what was going on.”
“I threatened to kill you if you tried to bug me again, you mean,” Ulquiorra said flatly, shifting his gaze to study the other Espada as if he were one of his own bugs.
“And why didn’t you report this earlier, if you’ve known it was happening for weeks?” Tousen asked, frowning. Szayel flinched.
“I-- I didn’t want to bother Aizen-sama with mere suspicions!” he said hastily. “It would have been a waste of his time, I thought--”
“Indeed it would have been,” Aizen said genially, folding his hands on the table. “It might still be. What have you been up to, Ulquiorra?”
He couldn’t decide whether he was glad Aizen hadn’t asked Grimmjow, or annoyed that Aizen assumed he was in charge of whatever they were doing. Blinking calmly, he turned back towards the head of the table and took a breath--
Gin laughed. “Hey, Szayel, you shoulda asked me! I coulda told ya it’s nothin’ to worry about.” His permanent smile widened as he tilted his head towards Aizen. “They’ve just been sparrin’. Gettin’ a little practice in, y’know? I think they were gettin’ bored, is all.”
“Really?” Tousen turned towards Gin and scowled. “Then why the secrecy?”
“Waaal,” Gin drawled, “if I had someone sneakin’ around tryin’ to find out what I was up to and actin’ like I had somethin’ to hide when I wasn’t doin’ nothin’ wrong, I wouldn’t tell him on general principles, y’know?”
“Like we wanted him following us around!” Grimmjow snorted, glaring at Szayel (and scratching covertly under the table).
“I see,” Aizen said, a faint trace of irritation showing in his voice, and waved his hand to dismiss the interruption. “As I was saying--”
Ulqiorra stared at Gin for a long moment, fingers tightening on his knees. Why did he intervene? Why did he cover for us? What does he know?! As if feeling his gaze, the silver-haired Shinigami turned to face him and smirked, eyes squeezing into even narrower slits than usual for a moment before he turned back towards Aizen.
Shaken, Ulquiorra focussed on what Aizen was saying again, just in time.
“--will be modified to act as a counter to the Soutaichou’s zanpakutou,” he said, finishing some sort of explanation. “Once that is taken care of, there is one more thing I will need. Ulquiorra!”
“Yes, Aizen-sama?” he responded. He was relieved that his voice came out perfectly calm.
“I want you to kidnap Inoue Orihime and bring her here.”
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