"Trying to Get their Fingers in"
When he'd first mentioned the Negal Ruins to her, Orihime didn't know quite what to expect. Not one to waste breath on adjectives, his minimalist description gave her imagination little to paint of the place before she could finally see it with her own eyes.
Rising out of the sands like they were borne from the desert itself were a series of towers, rounded parapets each tipped with fierce silvery spikes that pierced the inky midnight sky above like needles. Connecting the perimeter walls of the ruins, the imposing spires framed the vast low palace within. The entire compound seemed to glow with an eerie light that illuminated its stones from the perpetual nighttime, like moonlight.
At the very front, the wall had crumbled to nothing but dust and rocks. They were the remains of a devastating intrusion a hundred years ago when Aizen first invaded this, the sacred – and original – seat of power in Hueco Mundo. Barragan had been the King of the Hollows then, but after a short-lived battle the Vasto Lorde had avoided a slaughter, wisely bending the knee to the Shinigami Captain and his small entourage. It was the downfall of Hueco Mundo's autonomy.
The palace before her was massive, its aura ancient and powerful. Appropriately, the place seemed haunted in its desolation, Orihime thought to herself. She wondered if it had been like that even before Aizen's invasion, considering that it was quite literally the palace of the living dead. She used her hands to rub the sudden chill from her arms.
Bawabawa dove back into the sands with nary a farewell to the two, but the human girl hardly noticed his departure as she eyed the immense structure before her with wonder and wariness. Grimmjow stood ahead, beholding the castle with a heavy sense of purpose, like he was about to take on a tremendous burden. She figured that was exactly the case; this would henceforth be his throne. Orihime studied his scowl, realizing she was beginning to tell his expressions apart now. She couldn't help the building admiration she had been feeling for the former Espada as he stood there, wide shoulders squared with such tremendous intensity, outlined by the soft glow of the ruins. His frown was one of outward introspection; he was taking in his future. The moment was powerful, and she was left somewhat speechless as she let him soak it up.
Now he just needed to unseat an evil Shinigami overlord and his army of powerful monsters.
Biting her lower lip, she tried to sort her emotions.
She owed so much to this force of nature personified before her. Yes, he'd helped her escape from her captivity in Las Noches, but more importantly…
He'd given her a sense of direction. She had ambition now, such that it was constantly evolving the more she came to know this Arrancar. Whereas before, she found loose inspiration in the plan to destroy the Hougyoku, there was now so much more to her ideals. She wanted this fierce man before her to succeed. Yes, he was dangerous, and violent, and his motives were still under question, but there was a strange purity to his purpose that she had not yet seen in any of the other Hollows – or Shinigami, for that matter – that she'd encountered in Hueco Mundo thus far.
As Grimmjow's feet began moving again, Orihime felt a strange stirring in her heart. A strange, unidentifiable warmth was curling its way into her belly as she watched him, and she was afraid to examine it too closely. Like the start of a new chapter, she could feel the page turning in the narrative that was their alliance.
She could follow him here, or perhaps she could just… go home. He was strong; surely he could manage this without someone as weak as she.
He stopped at the sound of his name on her lips and turned to see her upturned face, as if just remembering she was there. The expression he wore, though…
His frown was gone, replaced by a neutral, questioning look. It was a look she imagined he might give an equal.
The stirring in her heart exploded into butterflies in her stomach.
She bit her lip again and shook her head, as if the gesture could shake away the distraction. She gave him a small smile and spoke.
He blinked once down at her, then let out a small hum of agreement, the corner of his lip quirking for a flash under his mask.
Orihime stuck close to him as he took those final strides toward his fate.
The small bala he released into the ruins blocking their way made her shriek, though.
"Wh-… What was that for?!" she exclaimed, hand to her chest as she tried to calm her rapidly beating heart.
Grimmjow turned to face her again. He kept a straight face at the rat's nest her hair had become.
"Clearing the mess. You don't actually expect me to waste my time climbing over all this shit, do you?" he said, as if it was obvious. He watched her make an incredulous face before turning around and continuing through the smoking clutter he'd created. Orihime scrambled to catch back up to him, tripping occasionally on rubble now hidden by the dust stirred up.
The former Espada wondered at her behavior as he walked toward his fate. He could tell something weighed heavily on her mind, but figured she would eventually talk about it if it bothered her for too long. She talked about everything else, after all.
He felt her small hands at his back every once in a while, catching herself as she stumbled over the wreckage. He allowed the contact, partly because he was happy that her instincts existed at all and kept her close to him in this dangerous place, but mostly because she was hot and he was an opportunist. He would take what he could get, he thought to himself with a sinister glint on his face.
The Arrancar could sense the eyes all around them, watching them from the shadows. Whether she knew it or not, her intuition was serving her well. This was not a welcoming committee here to greet them. These Hollows were what remained of the enormous contingent that once took up residence in this palace, and they were extremely wary of intruders. Grimmjow remained aloof as he continued forward.
"You feel them, don't you?" he whispered to the girl behind him. He felt her one hand clench in the back of his jacket, the fabric bunching in her grip.
"Yeah," she replied softly. "What... What are they?" she inquired. Her concerned eyes tried to reach their watchers in the shadows and failed.
"The rebellion," he answered her. She gasped softly. "They're the ones that remained behind when Barragan abandoned the throne for Aizen. They've been here, lurking, for the better part of a century. Ghosts of an era long past."
His low words drove a slow tingle up Orihime's spine as she watched the shadows dance beyond the rubble. The two of them had by now entered the compound completely, and their only way out was the way they'd come.
Suddenly, her senses screamed at her.
Reacting immediately to both her voice and his own awareness to the threat, Grimmjow reached behind him and shoved her out of the way of a blast of acid. The sour-smelling liquid sizzled on the ground where they'd once stood, and he drew his sword.
The pregnant silence vanished as an eerie hum swelled all around them, the Hollows rising in excitement as one by one their siblings sprung to attack the intruders, pouring forth from the darkness. Grimmjow grit his teeth into a fierce grin as he prepared to retaliate.
He sprang into action.
Flying through the tangle of legs, he hacked at the forest of limbs surrounding him with Pantera. Crimson blood sprayed him as feral screeches of fury rained down around them both. He saw the glow of Orihime's shield and knew she had acted in time to protect herself. Good girl.
There was a smattering of Adjuchas-class Hollows in the group, and he strained his senses to ensure he maintained a pin on their respective locations. Seven? No, ten. Shit, how many of them are there?
"It's been too long since I've tasted the blood of a traitor," came a distorted voice from the shadows, where he knew two of the Adjuchas were. He snorted at the ill-concealed threat.
"Tch. Don't even start. I don't listen to diatribes from shit weaklings like you." His sword glinted in the eerie moonlight. "Now come closer so I can gut you, you peons."
"Grimmjow..." he heard the girl start from behind her golden shield. He did not even bother to look at her as he offered arrogant reassurance.
"This will be over fast, Princess. Just sit back and enjoy the show."
He took off.
Into the throng of Hollows he sprang, heedless of the encroaching shadows in which they hid. Perhaps they might have stood a chance if they were organized enough to coordinate an attack, but as they were they could do nothing against the former Sexta Espada. His sword flashed again and again as it bathed itself in the red of their defeat. He saw the glow from the girl's direction increase and knew she was diligently defending herself as he mounted his offensive.
"Grimmjow!" came her voice again.
The Arrancar ignored her, choosing instead to prioritize his distractions. He'd see what she wanted in a moment - after he'd dispatched these nuisances.
He grinned widely, a predatory look in his eyes as he swung Pantera down onto the head of the Adjuchas that spoke, intent on splitting the uppity fool in two.
His sword clanged loudly as it bounced off Santen Kesshun, vibrations shooting up his wrist uncomfortably. He could see the shock in the eyes of the Hollow beyond the triangular golden shield, the enemy well aware that its sudden and powerful appearance was the only reason he was alive.
"Please, everyone, stop."
The desperate tinge to her voice was the only thing stopping him from lashing out in a rage, furious that his destruction had been interrupted. Confusion seeped into his angered expression though, when he saw the healing glow of her Souten Kisshun bathing one of the Hollows he'd already cut through.
He was not the only one confused at this point. The drone from earlier had melted again into silence, breath held all around them as they waited for any forthcoming explanation.
"Grimmjow plans to overthrow Aizen," she explained as she caught her breath. She looked pleadingly to each Hollow in turn, wary lantern-like gazes lighting upon her from masks of all shapes and sizes. "He's here to take back Hueco Mundo."
The quiet didn't even last a moment before her words elicited murmurs and growls from the shadows.
A snakelike voice came from the feet of a tall dark column. "And who does that make you, little human?" it asked cautiously, slitted red eyes hypnotized by the sight of her powers. Orihime belatedly realized the column it stood beneath was actually an immense Menos Grande, the disconcerting mask staring at her from far above. Mouth dry, she looked over and met Grimmjow's stony expression.
"I'm-..." What was she to him, actually? Think quick, mull later. Lives depend on this answer. She never broke eye contact with the Arrancar as she answered.
"I'm his trump card."
She listened as the hum of voices swelled up again, but focused on the way Grimmjow's eyes narrowed on her. He was catching on, she could see it. She ignored the way the butterflies fluttered under his scrutiny; his stare was always unnervingly intense, she reminded herself.
"None of you should be fighting each other." Her voice sounded stronger than she felt. "You want the same thing, right? For Aizen to be stripped of his power and for Hueco Mundo to return to the control of a Hollow. Him," she finished, pointing at Grimmjow.
By now he'd lowered his sword, its tip floating inches above the ground as the drip drip of blood landed on the stones below. He stood straight, but his posture was closed and defensive, chin tucked close to his chest and shoulders squared away as he eyed the pack of monsters now sizing him up, his own expression full of mistrust.
"I have the power to reject the Hougyoku, just like I'm rejecting your injuries and attacks," she explained as she waved back at her two shields, glowing golden on opposite sides of the courtyard, "and I am going to help Grimmjow-sama become king." She added the honorific in front of this new audience for his benefit.
"Will you help us? Or will you keep hiding here from the army in Las Noches?" she finished, adding extra weight to her final sentence as if to shame them.
A murmur of discontent spread like wildfire throughout those assembled, and a giddy little corner of her mind thought she might have convinced a few of them. She realized, as she watched the crowd practically shudder with impatience and festering excitement, that many of them probably knew exactly who Grimmjow was, and she did not have to convince them of his strength. She wrung her hands, though, when her gaze shifted to her companion. She thought to draw his eyes again, hoping she could make him turn by sheer willpower alone. He didn't. Why won't Grimmjow look at me?
"Not everyone will welcome you," said a papery voice from behind. Orihime flinched at the hideously emaciated body of a Hollow like a little old lady with a mask like a crow's beak. A large Gillian, vaguely stag-like, towered over her like a sentry. She must be the leader here, the girl thought to herself. "But we will let you pass, for now. Do not count on everyone jumping to your cause," she directed at Grimmjow. "Give them time to make the decision. You might just be an upstart, after all."
The former Sexta Espada did not react as the human expected him to and merely narrowed his eyes at the crone. Despite the fact that she was getting to know him better and better, she was sometimes surprised when his composure won out instead of what she would deem to be a characteristic outburst. She figured that would be the childish way to react. No matter how wild Grimmjow might seem, he certainly was no child, she reminded herself.
Then, as suddenly as they'd appeared all around them, the Hollows practically melted back into the shadows, disappearing from the perimeter of the courtyard and leaving the two alone once again.
Orihime deflated with a hollow exhale, her knees nearly giving out from under her despite the thrill from her successful interjection. They'd survived with minimal bloodshed – after all, she knew Grimmjow was capable of slaughtering them all with ease – and perhaps she'd even managed to earn Grimmjow some new allies. She was ecstatic, and she bit her lower lip as she brought her hands together in front of her. She felt like she owed herself some pampering. The girl wondered if there was a bath somewhere here in these ruins.
Orihime was jerked off her feet by the front of her dress. A grunt escaped her mouth as she was hauled up to Grimmjow's eye level, both her hands wrapping in fright around the one strangling the fabric of her outfit. She was a little scared by the sudden manhandling, but trusted Grimmjow enough to…
"Don't ever get in my way again," he threatened dangerously, halting her thought process. Orihime's blood ran cold in her veins as she felt his warning wrap around her like ice. He was deadly serious. His frigid, hateful gaze had her emotions in a whirlwind, her instincts telling her to run but her heart telling her this was her friend.
Her hands squeezed his one gently, pleadingly. "I- I'm sorry," she apologized, confused.
His face twisted into an ugly scowl as he let go of the front of her uniform, she still a foot off the ground. She landed silently, her eyes never leaving his face as he managed to look absolutely disgusted with himself. Her one hand came up to cover her hammering heart, the other to slide some strands of hair behind her ear.
"They won't bother us for a while. Go find a place in here where you want to set up camp; there might be some running water, still," he ordered lowly, his voice almost a growl.
"I'll be back later. Don't leave this place, period."
He turned and left, much as he used to do at the end of their meetings in Las Noches. She wondered, as she covered her eyes with trembling hands and tried to make order of the shambles of her feelings, if this was going to be the story of their relationship.
If so, she wasn't sure her blood pressure could handle it.
She shouldered her bag, hands still shaking as she reached down to pick it up, then turned to make her way further into the ruins.
She left behind nothing but silence.