azi: Keep Calm and Take Tape. (Alliance/Union - Cyteen - Azi)
Title: War and Adjustment
Writing Date: Mid 2011.
Rating: General.
Warnings: Mild language. Obscure canon?
Fandom: TST AU.
Characters: Ulquiorra Schiffer, Justin Warrick, Szayel Apollo Granz and Grimmjow Jaegerjaques.
Notes: This fic is based on an AU timeline divergence for TST. The vast majority of Justin's spoken lines are [profile] schmot_gurl's work. <3
Summary: In the wake of Aizen's conquest of Reial, Ulquiorra takes a Fracción -- a human, somebody he worked for before the war.

The Badlands takeover had been as smooth as it had been swift.

Aizen’s forces had expanded under the noses of even underground movements such as Denouement and, with the kind of ruthless grace usually attributed to spiders, he had effectively wrapped The Badlands in silken thread and overthrown it less than a week. The Badlands Unification Movement had been wiped out and each and every one of the towns and outposts, from border to border and crossing the mountains, had come under his absolute rule.

To those on the outside it had been quick, unexpected and brutal. To those on the inside, it had been systematic. His citadel and seat of power had been built in secret beyond a magical paling to conceal it from prying eyes until the time was right. Within, everything had been planned to the letter.

The Vohemaro and Ivonian governments had struck out in retaliation, but the response from Aizen’s soldiers had cut them down at the border. The towers and spires of Las Noches, the bone white heart at the centre of his empire of sand, stood to remind those of either side of the cost of war. After the initial battles there had been an understandable sense of tension. Neither Vohemar nor Ivona dared try again -- physical and magical barrages from his human soldiers and Arrancar alike had severely depleted their forces.

People, normal people, found themselves in a state of disarray. Nothing had been normal since Aizen had risen up and refugees were an increasingly common sight in Badlands outposts. They had little in the way of possessions or supplies due to the sharp cessation of trade to the area and the death toll mounted while neither Aizen nor the other countries attempted to rectify it.

Before too long, Aizen rallied his forces and struck out at the powers opposing him with vicious efficiency. Had they joined forces, they may have stood a chance, but a long term rivalry and distrust between the nations sealed their fate.

Pandemonium reigned. Silence fell. It felt like the end of the world.

The powers of Vohemar and Ivona collapsed over night. By morning, any semblance of peace in Reial had been shattered and Aizen had a tentative, yet complete hold over everything.

In the wake of the war not everybody accepted Aizen’s sovereignty over the continent. Uprisings and skirmishes between those who wanted to follow him and those who wanted to remove him from power by any means necessary were common and varied greatly in strength, planning and participant number.

Patrols in problem sectors of the Badlands and the area around Las Noches became routine and Aizen’s Arrancar Elite, the Espada, always took point – those who were not keeping order in the old capitals of Vohemar and Ivona, at least. Near immune to the bite of normal bladed weaponry, fast enough to avoid shots from the primitive firearms the insurgents used and resistant even to some forms of magic, people cowered at the sight of them. Their presence on a battlefield signified the end of any defiance. To challenge them was to die.

Some people believed that the Arrancar were possessed by demons, or that they had made a pact with one. The few who had survived seeing one released knew this to be true. They were monsters; violent, cruel and unsympathetic to the plight of the common man.

Anybody who had any intention of surviving quickly learned to tell the Arrancar apart from the lower rank of human drones loyal to Aizen. All of his soldiers were white-clad, but Arrancar could easily be told apart by the masks they wore. If the rebels were diligent, they made an effort to memorise which of them were Espada and which were those who answered directly to them, their Fracción, as a matter of course.

Their names were not widely known except, perhaps, those who were clever to get too close to the fray. Few Arrancar, Espada or otherwise, considered the rebel scum as being worth the breath it took to reveal their names. Most of those unlucky enough to hear them tended to take them to the grave. The more intelligent of them kept such information confined to a group of trustworthy allies and, in some cases, the numerical standing and individual reputations of particular Espada became known among those who commanded groups of persistent resistance factions.

Those known to be ranked Quinto, Sexta and Diez were easily the most volatile and were known to attack with little provocation. Others, such as Tres, were more pragmatic. Octava had no qualms when it came to taking hostages, though what for, they didn’t know. Nobody he had taken had returned to tell of it.

Ulquiorra Schiffer, an Espada recognised for his tear-like facial marks and half-helmet mask, was known for being ice cold. Not especially violent, but quick to dispose of anybody foolish enough to chance an attack on him, he was as feared as those with a penchant for slaughtering people for sport. Nobody knew his name -- he rarely announced it. His rank was also a mystery. Even so, there was no mistaking his pale grey skin, contrasting black hair or his dark green eyes.

He openly regarded regular, non enhanced humans as trash.

He walked down the dusty path of a half-destroyed and largely abandoned town with apparent contempt. The stench of people, of poverty, was unpleasant but it did nothing to stir his sympathies. He didn't bother to look at the people who scrambled away at the sight of him or those that pressed themselves into the shadowy recesses between buildings. He expected it. What he didn't expect, however, was anybody to address him.

“Ulquiorra...?”

His eyes widened a fraction. That voice--!

In a move sparked by disbelief at the act of calling out his name as much the unexpected recognition, turned to the familiar and yet tremulous sound. As he suspected, it belonged to somebody he had once known. Somebody he had known before the war. Somebody who knew him to be an Arrancar and would have even if his uniform and reputation hadn't confirmed it. He had once even seen his release, but fear of his position didn’t silence him. When they had last met, Ulquiorra, as a mercenary, had been working as his bodyguard.

“Justin,” Ulquiorra said, with easily masked surprise. Guarding his emotions was a skill that had not faded with time. “What are you doing here?”

He could see the lines of tension in Justin’s body ease as he spoke. Back when they had travelled together, during their service on both The Fiertia and The Convoy, and in the time between, Ulquiorra’s cool indifference had calmed him easily. Despite everything, that didn’t seem to have changed. Ulquiorra found it almost hard to believe. How foolish.

“I...” Hesitation. “Don’t know.” And then he paused, reordering his thoughts to dig deeper and search for a better answer. “Looking for somewhere to sleep, I suppose.”

Ulquiorra could have walked away. He could have left him there, disorientated and alone, and swept off, hands in his pockets and a blank expression on his face. He didn’t. Everything about him stirred memories and seeing his face, practically unaltered, and hearing his voice, a little more scared than usual, gave him pause. He used to look after him. He would take his orders, heed his suggestions and take note of his opinions. Once, he had even called him ‘sir’. Now, their roles were reversed. Only people with a death wish would dare defy an Espada and he suspected that Justin was in no hurry to die. He may have been a painfully, foolishly peaceful person, but he wanted to survive.

Ulquiorra listened to Justin's explanation of what he had been doing and made a decision regarding his future survival as he did. Up until then he had been working with a resistance faction, albeit as a doctor. That was to cease. Now.

It was not a difficult choice to make. He could either leave Justin there, in the desert, to die, or he could take him with him and take him as a Fraccíon. Justin understood him. Few people did. Justin had, somehow, after all they had been through together and after the amount of time they had spent in each other’s company, nearly bypassed his emotional shield. He had, against his better judgement, grown to like him. He hadn’t worked for him out of obligation, as much as he told himself at the time, but because he had wanted to.

He had, in a way, a distant and hard to believe way, almost regretted leaving him when they had parted ways. It had stirred a sensation in him that he hadn’t felt since... no. He didn’t want to think about it, not even then. It had been similar to pain -- a dull ache in his chest as he had walked away. In all honesty, he had not expected him to survive, but, against all odds, he had. This time, he wouldn’t have to leave him to return to the side of his real master.

This time, Justin would work for him.

“Get up,” he said, his tone giving no room for doubt as to whether or not it was an order. “Come with me.”

Justin, exhausted, struggled to his feet. It was clear to Ulquiorra that he didn’t want to move. It was also clear that the instruction was not one to be ignored and that Justin wouldn’t have dared do so. Good. His compliance was a requirement in this new world order.

“Loyalty to Lord Aizen is paramount,” he spoke in the same flat fashion that he always had, but there was an authoritative edge to his words. “You, like the rest of us, belong to him. You will always belong to him.” They were statements, not questions. Justin was not required to answer. “However, from this day onwards, you will answer to me.”

Unspoken words hung in the silence; You will be mine.

Justin froze before him. Their conversation regarding the way things worked back in Justin’s hometown gave Ulquiorra enough information to know that what he said was not going to be easy for him to hear. Justin was used to people who followed orders without question, but he knew that he wasn’t used to being one of them.

“I... understand.” Justin said, and his words sounded forced. It was hard to get his muscles to co-operate.

He swallowed. He knew that an obedient word of confirmation, even a nod, was probably all Ulquiorra needed to hear, but he had a compulsion to talk more, to retain even a shred of the closeness they'd had before and tell him the truth.

“It will take me some time to get used to the thought. This is not a situation I've been in before.”

Open honesty. Ulquiorra was aware that not many people would express such with one of Aizen’s elite and he knew that it was testament to their involvement prior to the war. He sighed shortly.

“That will not be a problem. I will ask little of you, but your compliance will render you untouchable to the more violent of the Espada.” Quinto, Sexta, Diez. “They would not dare touch another’s Fracción. Your safety will be assured.”

And Justin thanked him. Shakily, but he thanked him.

Without further hesitation, Ulquiorra took him back to Las Noches.

Some called it a city – others, a palace. A good number of people didn’t believe that it truly existed. When Aizen had dropped the shield that concealed its location in the wake of his initial conquest, people had thought it was an illusion, a mere mirage to give the impression of power. Ulquiorra’s eyes, those eyes that could see through any illusion or lie, could testify to it being real. Made of white marble and constructed with harsh lines and sharp edges, it was no delusion. It was bleak, austere and impossibly vast. Neither a city, nor a palace, Las Noches was a fortress.

Ulquiorra walked Justin to his tower of residence and left him to sleep in his bed before leaving to request permission, for the first time, for a Fracción. Traditionally they had to be Arrancar, but it wasn’t a rule. He knew it wasn’t a necessity, but he was fully aware that permission was required to bring an outsider into their midst.

“My lord,” he said, standing before him, “I wish to extend a request.”

He fixed his eyes on the calm, impassive face of his leader, the man who was practically a god emperor as far as current events could be considered. Gin Ichimaru, his leering, incomprehensible right-hand-man, stood in the position appropriate. Ulquiorra ignored that vulpine smile.

“Oh?” Something akin to amusement laced Aizen’s tone.

“I request permission to take a Fracción,” Ulquiorra said. Flat, to the point. Everything Aizen had come to expect of him.

“The boy you returned with,” he replied. “Justin Walker, or, should I say, Warrick. You found yourself in his employment once before. He is human.”

It didn’t come as any surprise to Ulquiorra that he already knew these things.

“Yes, my lord.”

“And you wish to take him despite this?” Aizen’s dark eyes narrowed near imperceptibly, a movement not lost the Espada.

“Yes, my lord.” He repeated in the same, level tone.

There was a moment of silence intended to give the impression of thought. Ulquiorra was aware that it was probably for show, to raise anticipation. He didn’t doubt for a moment that he had already made up his mind before he even entered the room.

“If you wish.” Permission granted. “He will be your responsibility. See that his comparative weakness and ties to Reseune do not become a liability.”

“Of course, my lord.”

He bowed stiffly at the waist and crossed one arm over his chest. It was practically a salute. He left the hall with no further comment. He knew that, before long, Justin would be required to undergo the same magical augmentation as the rest of Aizen’s human soldiers, but it seemed that he was going to be allowed to settle in before that happened. Given the company he would be keeping, greater strength and damage resistance would likely be very useful.

When he returned to his room, he was in no hurry to wake him and, while he slept, he removed his mask and sword and laid them down more carefully than he usually would have as not to wake him. He in the chair at his desk and waited. He was patient, though after a few hours had passed he left him alone while he occupied himself with a shower. When he returned, Justin had awoken. He was still tired, but was making a concerted effort to look alert.

“You slept sufficiently?” He noted looked a lot better than he did before he’d slept, but still tired.

“For the moment,” Justin replied. “What did he say?”

“He approved my decision to take you on as my Fracción.”

Justin paused for a moment to allow that to sink in. “...your Fracción.”

There was a definite air of finality to it. He was there, within Las Noches, now working directly for one of the Espada. Ulquiorra decided against mentioning that Aizen already had information on Justin. It wasn’t relevant, not at this point.

“Is there something I should be calling you other than your name?” Justin asked, aware of little more than the basic implications of what such a position entailed.

“No,” Ulquiorra said. “My name will be sufficient. I am the Cuatro Espada, but I do not require you to address me by my title.”

Justin, at hearing his rank, dropped his gaze. It came as a dull, resounding shock. He had known ahead of time that Ulquiorra was powerful, but fourth? He forced himself to look back at him when he spoke again.

“I will leave the decision regarding an appropriate term of address for a public setting in your hands,” Ulquiorra said. It varied from Fracción to Fracción. Sexta’s were casual and saw no reason for polite honorifics or titles. The Segunda’s regarded their Espada as practically equal to Aizen himself. Ulquiorra was prepared to allow Justin to choose what suited him, at his discretion.

“I understand that the adjustment will be difficult for you,” he told him, his voice softening slightly, “but understand that it is for your benefit.”

“I do,” his voice caught. Feeling too many emotions at once made it difficult to think. “Ulquiorra. Thank you.” He blinked rapidly and allowed himself a shaky breath to try and calm his nerves. “I'm sorry. I will be better in a few days.”

Ulquiorra shook his head very, very slightly. The movement was barely perceptible, but the brief closure of his eyes got his point across. “There is no urgency, Justin.”

Justin was different, he could not deny that. He was, understandably, more nervous than before. It was to be expected. The last time they had seen each other had been in Antrim, the ghost town, on The Long Night. Szayel Apollo Granz, the Octava Espada, had met him there to deliver a message and he had left before the ship departed to Licere. After that, everything had changed. Justin must have bore witness some horrible things, up to and including people like him, with the same mask-like adornments, killing rebel factions and unfortunate innocents alike.

They worked for a man who had practically declared himself a god and Justin had known that Ulquiorra was one of them the entire time. He must have. Ulquiorra considered that he must be suffering a certain amount of inner turmoil over it and the revelation of his rank likely had not helped. Did he resent him? Fear him? Hate him for being in Aizen's inner circle? Ulquiorra couldn't know, not without asking.

“Are you afraid of me?”

Justin took a shaky intake of breath and closed his eyes, composing himself before he responded. He had to, it was all he could do not to cry. “Yes. No. I...” An explanation. He knew full well that Ulquiorra, while he understood the theory of emotional responses wasn’t himself tied to them. Putting the effort into explaining it helped calm him, against all odds.

Ulquiorra watched him as he paused to figure out how to continue.

“I fear the Cuatro Espada, like everyone does,” he admitted, “but only because I haven't gotten used to him yet. It will pass.” It would have to. “And I fear you, somewhat, because while I don't think you would hurt me out of your own will - not unless I gave you reason - you would if you were ordered. But I've always known that, so perhaps it shouldn't make a difference.”

Ulquiorra listened, his expression blank and his composure perfect. Somehow, though, he didn’t feel it. Somehow, what he said made him feel as he did when he walked away from him. That pang, that distantly familiar unpleasant feeling came back again.

“That is... understandable.” He said, his voice a fraction quieter than it had been. And wise, he didn’t add.

At that, Justin reached forward to touch him, but hesitated, stopping short. He didn't do so due to any sense of unease, but because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be touched. He hadn’t meant to hurt him, but it looked like he had.

“It’s all right,” he said, attempting to reassure him. “You are who you are and this...” he didn’t glance around, but he was sure that Ulquiorra knew what he meant. “This is more than I could possibly expect.”

In the days and weeks following, more permanent sleeping arrangements for Justin were made. Instead of making a habit of sharing his bed, or using it when he wasn’t there, Justin was given an adjoining room. Ulquiorra spent much more of his time in his quarters than usual, if only because Justin seemed to prefer the company. It didn't hurt, of course, that he had little time for his peers.

Even so, Justin didn’t seem happy. Ulquiorra couldn’t see why not – he’d taken him from certain death and taken him to, arguably, the safest place in Reial to stay. Instead, Ulquiorra thought that he seemed rather like a caged bird. One evening, when he found Justin gazing at the page of a book with his eyes fixed in place as though he was deep in thought, Ulquiorra addressed this fact.

“Are you unhappy?” He asked, his expression unreadable.

Justin looked up at the slender form of his Espada after a moment and sighed with the kind of resignation reserved for acquiescence. “I’m not unhappy,” he said softly and after a moment’s thought. “But... I haven’t thought of being happy in a long time either.”

Ulquiorra turned his eyes to view of the desert from the window. Perhaps taking him in was foolish, he thought, his pale countenance betraying none of what he was thinking. Perhaps my debt for his kindness did not need to be repaid. Would he have been more content out there, with the rebels, fighting all I stand for?

He, of course, appreciated that he was undesirable company as far as most were concerned. That, however, didn’t seem to bother Justin prior to the war. Perhaps, now, he was simply waiting until Stockholm Syndrome kicked in.

“What you have seen,” he said, turning to him. “Has it changed you?”

If he had been witness to even a fraction of what the Arrancar, especially the Espada, had done it would come as no surprise.

“Of course it has,” Justin said without hesitation. “But most of it isn't irreversible.”

Humans are adaptable, Ulquiorra thought. But is that infinite?

“But even without all that,” he continued, “our relationship is not the same as before. It's impossible for the change not to affect how I act with you.”

Ulquiorra had clearly expressed a desire to spend time with him, as he had before everything had happened, but he had also said, in no uncertain terms, ‘you will answer to me’. That meant that everything would be different.

“You are permitted to act familiar with me, Justin.” Ulquiorra said, perhaps a little more shortly than he had intended. “Deference is only a public requirement.”

He recalled him smiling much more frequently back on the airships. He had laughed, joked. Made comments that had left Ulquiorra unsure what to respond with. Now... nothing was the same.

“I know, but the fact remains that it's a difficult balance to learn,” he explained, not worried by Ulquiorra’s tone. Getting him to understand was important. “Regardless of how I can act in private, the underlying relationship is different, and I can't let myself just forget that.” He looked, and sounded, apologetic. “Please understand -- it's not that I don't want to. I'm just... not sure how.” He reached out and touched him, his fingertips just brushing his forearm.

Ulquiorra tensed beneath his fingers reflexively. It made the only barest amount of sense. Even with the stipulation that formality need only be used in certain circumstances, Justin was still having trouble adjusting to the changes. Nothing much had changed. Ulquiorra was still, essentially, protecting him as he had before. So why was he making it so difficult?

Justin couldn’t help but look the tiniest bit amused and Ulquiorra didn’t miss it.

“You really aren’t making this easy for me,” he said, smiling faintly. “And I can see that I am not making sense to you.”

No, Ulquiorra thought. Humans make everything difficult with their needless emotional responses to simple situations.

“I told you, once,” Justin began, as if to fill the silence. “What relationships I grew up seeing.” Talking helped. “And now I'm on the other side of one. I'm applying the model I'm used to, and basing my behaviour on yours more than before.”

He is taking my cues, Ulquiorra thought. That made sense. With that in mind, it wasn’t any wonder that he was quieter than before.

“At least until I can figure out how else to do this.” He smiled again, faintly, but warmly that time. “I will get better.”

“I don’t know how to make this easier for you,” Ulquiorra said, understanding but not seeing how he could alter the circumstances. “Do as you wish until you have drawn a conclusion.”

“I will,” Justin said, giving him a nod. “Thank you.” He drew breath. “Remind me, sometimes. That helps.”

He seemed to improve after that, albeit slowly and steadily. Ulquiorra took steps to integrate him into the way things went on at Las Noches. He was given a uniform of his preference and asked to accompany him within the fortress. He was instructed to wait outside with the other Fracción present when Ulquiorra attended meetings and was given the chance to observe how the others acted around their superiors.

Ulquiorra wasn’t there constantly. Aizen did not give his Espada time off to babysit their subordinates and, as such, he was expected to continue with his usual work. Puppeting Ivona and stamping out problem groups in the badlands and cities alike were all part of his job. He wasn’t alone in it, of course, but some of the other Espada were just too violent to send among the people, let alone head up delicate situations.

To stave off some of Justin’s boredom and at his request, Ulquiorra found him a job with which to occupy his time. He was, Justin had explained, a kind of scientist and, as such, it was suggested by Aizen himself that he be sent to work in the laboratory complex of the Szayel Apollo Granz. It was not an arrangement that Ulquiorra was entirely happy with, but Justin’s desire to be useful overrode Ulquiorra’s initial reluctance to put another living creature within reach of Szayel. If nothing else, he was human. There was little he could find scientifically interesting about him given that fact.

Even so, Justin had suffered the misfortune of meeting him, if only once, back in Antrim. Upon discovering the connection between him and his fellow Espada, Szayel had probed and pressed, making him admit to things that were perhaps... unwise. Ulquiorra’s knowledge of the incident was limited.

“Szayel,” Ulquiorra said, his face unreadable.

“Ulquiorra,” Szayel replied, as though getting a visit from a long lost friend. “and Justin,” he pronounced his name with apparent relish, his smile widening. “My my, it has been a while.”

Ulquiorra regarded him coldly. He didn’t wish to drag a meeting with Szayel out for longer than necessary.

“Justin will be working with you,” he said shortly. “Aizen-sama has already approved the decision.”

“Is that right? And I don’t get a say in this?” His eyes narrowed. He abhorred being undermined.

“He is competent,” Ulquiorra replied.

“I’m sure he is,” Szayel said, looking around Ulquiorra at Justin with a look on his face that made him look like he was practically leering.

Justin did his level best not to look intimidated. He had, of course, met Szayel before. He hadn’t liked him then, he’d been probing and had easily exploited is weaknesses. A working relationship would probably be more tolerable. Still, he’d had enough of scientists unable to keep their hands off their lab assistants for a lifetime.

“You are not to touch him.” Ulquiorra told him firmly.

“Pity,” Szayel said, wistfully. “But I can hardly blame you for wanting to keep him all to yourself.”

It seemed, at least, to cheer Justin up and it gave him something to do while Ulquiorra was either away, or participating in long strategy meetings in the board room. On one such occasion following the latter, Ulquiorra’s exit was halted as a weighty hand dropped onto his shoulder. His eyes narrowed.

“Finally letting your Fracción out, eh?” The voice came in an unmistakable growl. “A human, too. Seems kinda weak.”

“Grimmjow,” Ulquiorra said flatly as he dislodged the hand. “My Fracción is of no concern to you.”

“Damn right he isn't,” Grimmjow said, his face splitting into a grin half-obscured by his mask. “I wouldn't waste my time. Even Di Roy didn’t have trouble with him.”

Ulquiorra, carefully, did not react. He knew that Di Roy was, even as the rest of Grimmjow’s Fracción viewed him, barely worthy of being considered an Arrancar at all. He was weak, bestowed with a pathetic Hollow and possessed of arrogance unbecoming of one barely above regular Demihuman level. Even so, he would be much stronger than Justin. The implication that they had met, or worse, was a concern.

Grimmjow’s grin widened. “Oh, he didn’t tell you?” He barked a laugh. “I would have thought that you’d have made sure he was obedient... or were you looking for something like Lilinette? He’s fucking useless. You’re lucky they didn’t feed him to that Jäger in the dungeons.”

Ulquiorra gave Grimmjow a look of flat contempt. The fact that one of Grimmjow's subordinates had, to his knowledge, presumably picked a fight with somebody else's wasn't a surprise, but it was still something that should not go unpunished.

“Rest assured that if I hear about one of your Fracción touching mine again,” he said calmly, quietly, “there will be repercussions.”

With that, he swept off to Szayel’s laboratory complex. So, there had been an incident with another Espada’s subordinates and Justin hadn’t reported it. On one hand, he wasn’t surprised. Justin had proven, in the past, to be the kind of self-sacrificing fool who would allow himself to get hurt if only to stop it causing trouble. On the other, Justin must have known that he would be displeased if he heard about such a thing.

He didn’t bother knocking the door once he had reached his destination and Szayel looked up sharply from his workbench as he let himself in.

“To what do I owe the honour?” He purred, his tone sweet but obviously edged with disapproval at the interruption.

“I require Justin,” he said levelly. “Now.”

“Was the meeting so tense?” His eyes flashed and his lips curled into a smirk. “Feel the need to let off a little steam?”

“Now,” Ulquiorra repeated. He was in no mood for Szayel’s vulgarity.

Szayel’s gaze flattened and, for a moment, his eyes were lost behind the glare on his lenses. “Justin,” he called, raising his voice. “You’re wanted.”

Justin looked around the door to an adjoining room, apprehension on his face. It seemed to fade when he noticed that it wasn’t Szayel who wanted him, but Ulquiorra... but only briefly. It had to be important if he had come to collect him personally.

“Yes, sir?” He sounded very slightly concerned.

“Come,” Ulquiorra said, turning to the door.

Szayel smirked. “You’ve taught him to do that on command?”

Ulquiorra didn’t wait to see whether Justin was following. He expected it of him and knew that Justin wouldn’t disobey either a direct order, especially in front of another Espada. He walked to his own residence in silence and opened the door for Justin, allowing him to step inside before he followed.

“You neglected to mention an incident with Grimmjow’s Fracción,” Ulquiorra said, leaving no room for questions. “Explain.”

Oh. That. Justin frowned. “Nothing really happened. He just tried to scare me. I just,” he hesitated. “Didn’t think mentioning it would help.”

Ulquiorra’s gaze did not waver. It was as he suspected.

“Justin,” he said, not blinking. “When I brought you here I told you that your safety would be assured.” He could hardly forget it. “Allowing yourself to be treated like trash by the Fracción of a lower ranked Espada contradicts that.”

Justin nodded. It was difficult for him. He was so used to allowing people to do as they wished that he hadn’t considered that Ulquiorra would be annoyed with him for it, though he should have expected it. He had expressed frustration in the past at that attitude regarding it making his job as a bodyguard difficult. It was no different now that he really was his responsibility.

“I...” his mouth felt dry. Knowing he had so easily disappointed, even annoyed, Ulquiorra stung. “I'm sorry.” He looked down. “Sir.” It felt right to add that.

“If it happens again, you will tell me.” An order. “You are mine and I will not tolerate others interfering with you.”

That was new.

He spoke as though he could be considered property. Justin’s eyes widened and his breath caught at his choice of phrasing. His -- as though he owned him. In a way, he did. He was there by his intervention and that alone. He was his superior and he had the right to consider him such. Some people would dislike the clear possessiveness, but it was a mindset that Justin could understand.

“Yours...” He sounded nearly awed but didn't look unhappy.

“Yes. See that it doesn’t happen again.”

“Yes, sir.” And he smiled.

With that in mind, Justin adjusted more and more readily to the situation. He continued to work with Szayel, and Ulquiorra, dutiful as always, spent varying amounts of time away from Las Noches. Justin worried when he was away too long and Ulquiorra knew that. It didn’t move him, but he knew.

As he sat in one of the small carrier airships on the way back to Las Noches following a mission, he knew, due to that, that the next time Justin saw him would be with a look of concerned horror on his face. It had been a difficult job and the Arrancar had been vastly outnumbered. They had lost three números and both he and Halibel had sustained injuries, albeit relatively minor ones considering their strength.

Blood stained his uniform and he felt himself weakening from the energy sapping effect that his regeneration ability had on him. Powerfully magical in nature, the attack had torn the flesh much more effectively than a weapon and it made the healing process much more complicated. Injuries usually mended quickly, but he was low on reiatsu due to the battles he’d participated in and the resulting discomfort of slow reparation, a niggling itch, prevented him sleeping during the flight.

He sat mutely through the debriefing that followed their arrival back at the fortress. It was difficult to pay attention when his body wanted to do little more than sleep, but he took in everything that was said. It was all important, of course, but when the meeting was over he gratefully made his way back to his quarters.

He paused briefly at the door, knowing that Justin would have already returned from his day at the laboratory. It wasn’t hesitance – he knew what was likely to happen. Night had already fallen, so there was, of course, the chance of him being asleep. He sighed shortly. Was he actually concerned about worrying him with his injury? Ridiculous. He must know that this was a possibility. He was a warrior, and a strong one, but he wasn’t invulnerable. He had seen him injured before.

He pushed the door open without another thought.

Justin was in the main room, staring out of the window, when he opened the door. The lights were off, so Ulquiorra could only assumed that he had been there since before darkness had fallen and had neglected to turn them on. He noticed that a book had been abandoned not far from where he was standing. He turned quickly, as though worried.

“Ulquiorra?” He asked, tentatively, as though he hadn’t expected him.

“Yes,” Ulquiorra replied, his voice betraying none of the confusion that was creeping up on him. He closed the door behind him. “You were expecting somebody else?”

“A report came through from where you were stationed,” he took deep, steadying breaths to compose himself. He was all right. “It said that the mission hadn’t gone to plan and that your group has been overwhelmed. They told us to prepare for the worst.”

Justin walked over, as though disbelieving. He didn’t miss the blood stain on his chest, nor the ragged material around where the blast had hit him. An Espada could survive a surprising amount of damage, but clothing was not so durable. He could see that the wound beneath had already healed. He wasn't unfamiliar with Ulquiorra's astonishing recovery time, so he forced himself to be calm about it. It wasn't easy. He reached out and touched him, as though testing to see whether he was really there and not a delusion. The warning had seemed so final.

“We lost a number of human soldiers and some lower ranked Arrancar,” Ulquiorra replied coolly, as though describing something trivial. “We accomplished what was asked of us.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d come back,” Justin said, his voice quiet.

“You needn't have been concerned,” Ulquiorra replied, keeping himself upright and collected. Fatigue showed in his eyes.

Justin frowned, taking another step closer. He didn't bother to resist the urge to wrap his arms around him and pull him close. He was slightly hesitant at first, but when he met no resistance, he didn't let go. He had held him before, with permission, long ago. It had made him feel better, though Ulquiorra had seemed indifferent. This time, he yielded surprisingly easily. That, or he didn't want to use the energy required to push him away. Justin couldn't help but notice how small he felt in his arms.

“I couldn't help being worried,” he replied, his fingers curling into the fabric of his Espada's uniform as he pulled him against him. I need you.

Ulquiorra's eyes widened as he was held to him, but he quickly relaxed. He was too weakened not to. It was comforting and warm. It made him feel like he didn't need to stay awake. He fought the tired feeling that was dragging him into sleep, even on his feet, but he nodded at Justin's concern. He, of course, had expected nothing else.

“You're exhausted,” Justin said quietly. He knew already how much energy significant reiatsu use and healing took. “Is there anything I can do?”

Ulquiorra leaned against him, struggling to keep his eyes open. It all brought back memories. An initial moment of shock in the Fiertia's records office. Flashes of a battle with a dragon. Justin near panicking at his injuries following it. Genuine concern. A long, honest talk in a hotel in Bydan. A silly exchange of letters during a seasonal celebration. Standing, prepared to defend him when he had suffered an unwanted visit. Being dismissed. Justin asking to hold him when Ariane Emory had upset him and dredged up thoughts of unpleasant things he would rather forget. A throwaway compliment. Gentle smiles. Evenings spent silent, and relaxed, in each other's company. Long conversations. Secrecy. Denial. Concealed contentment. None of it he regretted. None of it he wished had never happened. During that time, he hadn't been alone and it hadn't been unpleasant. It wasn't now.

He closed his eyes, considering the question.

The answer came easily.

“This.”

Several days after the Archadian invasion, a terrible explosion reduced the once proud city of Nabudis to naught but rubble. Though the city fell in the space of a night, the Mist that now swirls where it once stood has transformed the land into a barren waste for eternity. Even now, the cause of this cataclysm is not fully understood.

-Sage Knowledge 03

March 2012

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