He opens his eyes to a grey ceiling. An unfamiliar grey ceiling. For the extent of his service to Aizen-sama, Ulquiorra has become used to white. It is the color of choice in Las Noches. Everything is white. But the ceiling above him right now is grey.
He is not in Las Noches.
Considering what he last remembers, Ulquiorra isn’t surprised. He thought he had died. He distinctly remembers falling to that brat’s sword. He remembers fading into ash, cursing Kurosaki with his last thought. Even as he reaches for the woman, wishing for her not to leave as everyone else always has. Then, he recalls a crushing nothingness.
He doesn’t remember the grey.
Blinking hurts, feeling like his eyelids pull like sandpaper over his eyes. Ulquiorra does so anyway and finally sucks in a breath, feeling like a man who hasn’t done so in centuries. It actually hurts, lungs expanding to accept the air and stretching like muscles never used.
His fingers twitch as he tests them out, and he feels as if he’s been steamrolled by Yammy in his resurrección form. But he’s alive. Something Ulquiorra has not expected. Or even particularly desired if he thinks about it. He always thought to die in service to Aizen-sama.
His head tips to the side, and he takes in his surroundings. A medical building of some sort. Sunlight pours through a curtain-covered window. He thinks that he can hear the sound of a bird chirping. Ulquiorra is certain he is no longer in Hueco Mundo at all. He can’t for the life of him think of anyone who would try to save his life. Or where he could possibly be.
Most of all, he can sense reiatsu. A lot of it. Thrumming in the very walls around him. And it isn’t familiar. It’s lighter. Not as sharp or fierce. Shinigami. Ulquiorra is struck with the understanding that he is somehow in the custody of the Shinigami.
Voices are higher just beyond his closed door. Shadows visibly move beneath it. Someone is standing on the other side, no doubt intending to enter. Closing his eyes, Ulquiorra feigns sleep, mind still a jumbled mess of confusion.
The door slides open quietly, and the footsteps that enter are even softer. Bare whispers across a clean floor. At least, judging by the sharp scent of antiseptic, Ulquiorra assumes they are clean. He can’t imagine dirt of any kind lasting long here.
The visitor is definitely Shinigami. Ulquiorra can sense the quiescent reiatsu. Lieutenant level at least. With an edge to it that faintly resembles Ulquiorra’s own. The Shinigami smells of something sweet and sorrowful. Interesting.
Ulquiorra senses the presence drawing nearer. Too near in fact. Hovering right over him.
Cyan eyes snap open as Ulquiorra reacts, hand snatching the fingers that had stretched towards his face. The Arrancar looks up into startled blue eyes, set in a pale face framed by long strands of blond hair.
“I’m sorry,” his visitor says quickly. Softly. Heat staining his cheeks in obvious embarrassment.
Ulquiorra’s hand squeezes warningly. “What do you think you are doing?” he demands, feeling weak and vulnerable, two emotions he dares to hate.
“I…” The Shinigami – who now seems somewhat familiar – curls his fingers back towards himself and retreats a step once Ulquiorra finally releases him. “Your eyes… you look like you’re crying.”
Ulquiorra twitches. It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before. For some reason, he takes offense to it when it comes from this man. This Shinigami whose own drooping eyes and gloomy expression give off the same desolate look as when Ulquiorra glances in the mirror.
“So do you,” he retorts, fingers tingling as they recall the warmth of the Shinigami’s hand. Ulquiorra himself is always cold, but just a single touch of the man’s skin reminds him of something called warmth.
The blond winces. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”
“Do you apologize for everything?” Ulquiorra asks because that’s the second time in as many minutes an apologize has come forth. And it’s the second time in Ulquiorra’s existence a Shinigami has said such words to him. An Arrancar and an Espada to boot.
Blue eyes blink. “I… What?”
Ulquiorra chooses to let that pass. He focuses instead on the confusion that has been blanketing him from the moment he woke.
“Why am I alive?” he demands, and there’s something in the other male’s posture that denotes a desire to flee. Yet, he stays.
“I don’t know,” the Shinigami says, and he fiddles with his uniform, palms rubbing across the top of his thighs. “Why are any of us?” His voice turns softer. Thoughtful.
It isn’t the answer that Ulquiorra anticipated. He expects to be told to take his second chance for what it is – a new lease on life. Or that he is here to face some sort of trial, to be judged and most likely executed. Or that he should consider himself lucky. He doesn’t expect such a lackluster response.
“Who are you?” Ulquiorra repeats, something strange inside of him surging to life. This desperate desire to know. Understand even.
There is no hesitation. “Kira Izuru, vice-captain of the third division,” the now identified Shinigami answers, unexpectedly bold for his meek appearance. “I came to ask you something.”
Ulquiorra snorts. His fingers twitch. Body still feeling like one giant black-and-green bruise.
“I have no answers that you cannot find for yourself,” he says, even as he ponders.
The name sounds familiar. Ulquiorra asks himself why. He tries to place it in a memory that’s suddenly shadowed and full of holes.
Then, he remembers listening to Ichimaru-sama once upon a time. The silver-haired man had been standing on the balcony, overlooking the sands of Hueco Mundo. He’d asked Ulquiorra about loyalty. And… regret? Ulquiorra wishes he could remember better. But he does recall Ichimaru-sama mentioning a name. Izuru-chan. His lieutenant.
Perhaps that is why Kira is here? To ask after his former captain?
Not that Ulquiorra would know much. He had tried to maintain a certain distance from the constantly smiling man. His adulation had always been for Aizen-sama alone.
“You want to know where Ichimaru-sama is, do you not?” Ulquiorra asks in return, and he knows he’s struck gold when Kira stiffens.
He watches as Kira’s hands clamp onto his knees in obvious restraint. “He disappeared during the final battle. And it’s been weeks.”
Ulquiorra can’t help but wonder what ties bind the former captain and vice-captain together. They must be frayed by now, barely clinging by thin threads. Why does Kira care so much for a man who betrayed and abandoned him?
“You are asking the wrong person. If anyone would know, I would guess Luppi, but that option is beyond you.” Ulquiorra inwardly scowls thinking of the effeminate former Espada. He finds it incredibly hard to mourn his defeat. He had thought even less of Luppi than he did of Grimmjow, and that says a good deal.
He doesn’t know why Kira has asked him anyway. Ulquiorra remembers being killed. He doesn’t recall the end of the battle. He assumes that Aizen-sama was defeated considering his current position, but he doesn’t know how or by whom.
Crestfallen, Kira’s shoulders slump. “I find it hard to believe that Aizen didn’t have some sort of backup plan. For if he should fail.”
“Aizen-sama never intended or considered the possibility of failure,” Ulquiorra says sharply, surprised himself by the vehemence in his tone. “If Ichimaru-sama ran during the battle, that is his choice and nothing to do with Aizen-sama.”
It is Kira’s turn to bristle, gaze turning sharp. “Taich- Ichimaru-san didn’t run. And he’s not dead either.” Blue eyes flash. “If you don’t know, it’s probably because you weren’t important enough for Aizen to tell.”
Touché, Kira. Clearly, Ulquiorra has underestimated this Shinigami. Initially taken for weak, he can’t think so simply anymore. There is a fire behind those eyes.
“And if Ichimaru-sama isn’t dead and hasn’t contacted you, he likely does not care,” Ulquiorra counters. “After all, it is he who first abandoned Soul Society.”
The “and you” goes unspoken but implied.
Silence sweeps into the room, riding on the tails of tension.
It is abruptly broken by the sound of the door opening, and Kira’s head swings towards it with the look of someone caught in an act of disobedience. A woman enters, wearing the heavy and white haori of a captain. Her smile is pleasant but somehow fierce.
“I see you have been keeping our guest company, Kira-fukutaichou,” she says, bustling into the room with the busied air of a doctor with too many patients and not enough hands. “Though I seem to recall a certain edict stating this room to be off limits.”
Kira pales and rises to his feet. “I apologize, Unohana-taichou, but-”
She waves him off, already moving to Ulquiorra’s bedside with an intent to examine in her posture. He doesn’t like the look of her already.
“Well, it appears no harm has been done,” she dismisses with a wave. “But I do think your division misses your presence, don’t you?”
There is a command hidden in those words, and Kira doesn’t fail to catch them.
Kira turns, hastening to obey the stern-faced woman with kind eyes, and Ulquiorra catches a glimpse of the blond’s armband. He knows that it is a vice-captain’s badge; Aizen-sama had explained as much to him. But he is more intrigued by the flower etched into the wood. He recognizes it and can’t help but think of it as appropriate for this solemn-faced man.
“A marigold,” Ulquiorra murmurs without thinking, drawing attention back towards himself.
Kira pauses, one hand unconsciously rising to trace the contours of the carved wood. “It’s the symbol of our division.”
“Despair…” Ulquiorra locks eyes with him. “It suits you.”
He watches as another heated flush steals into the blond’s cheeks, probably wondering whether to consider it compliment or insult. Kira looks at him, expression unreadable. And then, he tilts his head in parting.
“Thank you,” he says. Then, he’s gone.
What a strange thing to show appreciation for. Ulquiorra finds himself intrigued by this blond with a gloomy expression but an unexpected backbone.
A sound in the silence reminds him of the captain’s presence, and Ulquiorra’s gaze flicker her direction. She smiles at him without hesitation, eyes crinkling at the corners and giving an impression of gentleness. It should seem false coming from a Shinigami but somehow genuine from her. And he allows her examination with his normal stoicism. Mind and thoughts elsewhere.
Not wondering after his fate as he should be. Or even his circumstances. The reason behind his survival, which undoubtedly has to do with that woman and her strange powers.
Instead, his thoughts are otherwise occupied. Focused on the outline of a flower and blue eyes that flash with the hottest kind of fire. The understanding that the vice-captain will surely return in the near future. And the realization that Ulquiorra almost looks forward to it.