Ikigai, in the Japanese culture, is considered the reason for one's being and discovering it brings satisfaction and meaning to life. Everyone is believed to have it, though sometimes finding it can be a long and difficult journey.
Note: I'm doing some tinkering with each chapter, adding and cutting mostly descriptive text. Nothing plot-wise will change. I didn't want to give anyone a heart attack by taking it down to work on it, so I'm just going through it at my own pace.
Chapter One: Scaredy Cat
Orihime woke slowly, eyes fluttering open like lethargic butterflies. Her hands, one positioned on her stomach and the other on the hard surface beside her, began to twitch as if searching for her favorite comforter, wishing to stave off the chill that had caused her flesh to ripple with goosepebbles. As her blurred vision cleared, a confused frown tugged belatedly on her lips. "Pots...?" she whispered, taking in the ancient and cluttered pot rack that hung directly above her. Above it, an unfamiliar ceiling greeted her; wooden and sagging and covered in cobwebs, as if it had gone a great many years without the tender maintenance of its tenant. Warm yellow light danced about, casting long and surreal shadows. She could smell wood burning.
She stared upwards without comprehension for a long moment, absentmindedly swallowing and grimacing as her parched throat made its displeasure known with a sandpaper-like grunt. A crackling sound caused her to turn her head sluggishly, as if still covered in the thick molasses of sleep, and an involuntary groan pulled from her lips. It felt like a particularly violent dwarf had begun hammering on the back on her head, looking for hidden treasure in her brain. She peered blearily to her right, blinking at the sight of a dilapidated, but quaintly rustic kitchen. The translucent white cloth that hung limp along the wall pointed out the kitchen window, although there was nothing but darkness beyond the glass, as if the shutters were closed. She had been placed on a crude, wooden center table beneath the ominous pots and pans and, in true form, her imagination promptly convinced her that she was intended to be someone's dinner.
Panic at that thought caused her to shoot up, immediately regretting it when her head screamed a resentful chastisement at her sudden movement. A trembling hand found the back of her skull and gently probed the large, painful lump that had made itself at home. Her fingers tingled as she touched it, and her hair clung to her with the spark of static when she lowered her arm. There was something familiar about that unpleasant tingle that she struggled to place. One thing was obvious though - someone with reiatsu had attacked her. From behind too, the sneaky coward...
She twisted carefully in place to see the only source of sound and light in the room - a fire burning cheerily behind its rusted grate, its smoke being carried lazily up through the chimney. She twisted back into place and regarded the partially closed tatami sliding door beyond her curled legs. Her brow furrowed with worried contemplation.
She had absolutely no idea where she was.
Her stomach sank into a small pit of dread when she took stock of her appearance. Her once pristine white uniform, now stained with blood, sand and tears and ripped beyond repair, clung to her form like leeches on a bloated corpse, making the curve of her breasts and hips seem grotesque and obscene. The last thing she remembered clearly was embracing Ishida-kun in joy as they realized that Aizen had been defeated, and Kurosaki-kun and most everyone else had survived. After that, there were hazy impressions of panic and an attempt to flee...something.
And then a sudden pain and darkness.
A thump and what sounded like a curse of anger sounded nearby and grey eyes widened, locking on to the sliver of corridor she could see beyond the tatami door. She drew back in fear, huddled like a child and instinctively moved to touch her hairpins, needing to feel their comforting presence.
Her blood froze. Her hands groped around her forehead long after she realized that they were gone and she was powerless. Another look around told her that other than the barred and shuttered window, which would be impossible for her to squeeze through, the only way out was through that door. She heard the low murmur of voices and footsteps, and felt a vaguely familiar spiritual presence that she couldn't quite place.
Intense curiosity battled with fear until finally she called out in a tremulous voice.
"Hello? Is someone there?"
The murmuring stopped, and she clamored hastily off the center table, feeling the need for a defensible position. The wooden chairs tucked beneath the counter dug painfully into her hips and thighs as she attempted to squeeze between them while making as little noise as possible. Her boots touched the wooden floor with a muffled creak as she eased her bottom over the edge, a small cloud of dust erupting into the air from beneath them. Like a cautious deer, she watched the door with every muscle coiled and deathly still.
Footsteps were approaching.
Suddenly feeling desperate for any sort of weapon, she turned with a flurry of white cloth and hoisted herself onto one of the chairs, reaching to unhook a sturdy looking pan from the pot rack. She had just lowered herself to the ground once more, makeshift weapon held threateningly over her shoulder and a determined scowl on her face, when she felt the presence approach. The sliding door was pushed aside by long pale fingers and measured steps brought him over the threshold.
Ulquiorra Schiffer took one look at her and his frown deepened. "What do you think you're doing, woman?"
The pan fell from her hands and clattered loudly to the floor, barely heard over the thunder of her heartbeat in her ears, filling her like an ocean storm. Orihime staggered backwards, tripping on the edge of her dress and flailing onto her buttocks, gaping in shock at the man before her. She had seen ghosts before, but never quite like this. "Ulquiorra-san!" she gasped, stunned, "But how? I don't understand, I saw you..."
"Die?" the Espada finished for her, his tongue coiling around the word in an indifferent caress that nevertheless reeked of sarcasm and contempt. "Obviously not."
She swallowed thickly, curling her fists into the dusty floor. Anxiety rose within her belly to settle in her throat like a squat toad, making her pulse race in an unsteady and dizzying cadence. Not even two meters away stood the man who had ripped her from the innocence of her youth - a man who had been quite dead last she'd seen him. Her eyes ran over him in blatant fascination. He looked...
Well, actually he looked slightly worse for wear. His uniform was in better condition than hers, but still far from its usual pristine standard. In fact, it looked exactly as it had before he had disappeared beyond the roof of Las Noches - torn down the front, exposing his hollow hole and his rank, tapering down over pale skin and taught muscles. Her gaze was drawn to two glaring spots of crimson on his coat's torn and jagged lapels.
That's where Kurosaki-kun first drew his blood...
How was it possible that he looked exactly the same? As if that battle atop the dome had never happened?
No, look closely. He looks exhausted.
Something in his stance was off, as if he were favoring one leg over the other. His shoulders, normally stiff and square, had curved down ever so slightly. He wasn't slouching, but he was certainly more relaxed than she had ever seen him. On anyone else his posture would have appeared casual. To someone who knew him, it was obvious that he was fatigued. Confirming this were the light purple smudges that had appeared under his haggard eyes. With his already pallid skin, he looked like a walking corpse.
He was weakened, and that knowledge gave Orihime the courage to glare at him and begin demanding answers. "Where are we? How did I get here?" She made a grab for the discarded pan and aimed it at him in as menacing a manner as she could muster. "What did you do with my hairpins?"
Ulquiorra's face flickered with displeasure as his eyes narrowed. One pale hand left its usual position in his pocket and made a quick, whip-like motion. The pan shot forcefully from her fingers and smashed against the adjacent wall, eliciting a small squeak of fright. "Quiet," he said lowly, taking a few steps forward.
Orihime's eyes shot wide open in fear and she scrabbled backwards, eyeing the Espada's movements nervously from her undignified position on the floor. Ulquiorra paused at her retreat, giving her an inscrutable look. Her breath hitched when, after a long moment, he continued to close the distance between them. Perhaps threatening Ulquiorra wasn't her smartest move, weakened or no. Aizen was no longer around to prevent him from doing his worst, and with a flicker of dread she remembered the ringing slap she had given him a few days ago. Had he kidnapped her again to get vengeance? She had thought they parted on at least amicable terms when she reached out to his slowly dissolving form. His slender hand had blown away before she could reach him though...
When the same hand lowered, palm up, in front of her face, she glanced into his eyes in confusion. His cold gaze was a far cry from the understanding one he'd worn in his final moments, but still not quite hostile. Hesitantly, she wiped the dust off on her dress and placed her hand into his, shivering at the chill of his skin. A walking corpse indeed. He helped her to her feet with a firm, but tempered grip and she pondered the symbolism of their touch. So this is what it would have felt like if she had been able to grasp him back then.
For a moment they were almost nose to nose and she flushed at the proximity, able to see every shade of green in his poisonous eyes before he took a smooth step back and released her hand, returning his own to his pocket. His gaze never wavered from her face and the force of his stare only rattled her nerve.
"You claimed you were not afraid of me," he said loftily, before his lips turned down and his expression hardened. "Clearly you lied."
Orihime flinched at the cold statement before narrowing her eyes in bold rebellion. "I wasn't lying. I'm not scared of you." In a weird way, she sort of wasn't. He was dangerous, but he was also Ulquiorra. She was like...80% sure he wouldn't do anything to hurt her, which practically made him best-friend material compared to the other Espada. For now at least. She still didn't know what he wanted. "I'm just...confused. I don't know what's going on."
"No doubt if Kurosaki Ichigo were present, you would be less 'confused'."
He didn't believe her. Was blatantly telling her that she was a scaredy-cat without Kurosaki-kun around. She squared her shoulders, raised her chin up at him. She had faced Ulquiorra bravely before, even when Kurosaki-kun wasn't around. Although...he had been rushing to her rescue and she had no idea where he was now. Or where she was. Or what Ulquiorra wanted from her.
But it didn't matter - she didn't need Kurosaki-kun's protection to stand up for herself! He seemed to sense her belligerence, and closed his eyes, turning away. She knew that look. It was the Ulquiorra version of a scoff, a callous dismissal.
"Come," he ordered, turning to leave the room. Orihime hesitated, watching his coattails fluttered out of sight. She took one last look around at the kitchen, rubbing her hands over the chilled skin on her bared upper arms. This was certainly not Las Noches - unless she had been unconscious long enough for some serious remodeling to have occurred. She drew her lower lip into her mouth, suckling on it thoughtfully.
What on earth was going on?
Taking a deep breath, she padded out the kitchen, pausing in the short corridor. At the end to her right was a door that she suspected led outside, and to her left were two more doorways, only one of which was open. It was almost completely dark, the only light coming from the fire behind her and from the other open door, from within which she could hear scuffled movement. Nervous, but devastatingly curious, she headed towards the sound.
She had to stifle a gasp when she met the solid wall of Ulquiorra's back in the entrance, the long dark hair that trailed down his spine from beneath his mask tickling her nose. His head turned slightly until she could just make out the curve of his jaw, acknowledging her presence before stepping forward. She followed, peering around his shoulder to get a good look at the room, lit by a single, moth blanketed ceiling light. The wooden floorboards creaked loudly beneath her as she crossed the threshold. It was much the same as the kitchen, except slightly smaller and furnished with a privy and a yellow stained porcelain bathtub and sink.
Most surprising, however, was the blue haired man bleeding all over the floor.
"Grimmjow-san!" Orihime exclaimed, her voice sounding far too loud to her own ears. Immediately an icy pair of blue eyes snapped open and glared at her. The sixth Espada grit his teeth before releasing a bark of laughter that smacked of acrimony and resentment.
"So you got yourself the women too, Ulquiorra. You bastard..." He suddenly turned his head and coughed up a sizable amount of blood, his long torso visibly convulsing until he was left gasping for breath. Dark, rancorous chuckles escaped him between the blood bubbling on his lips. "A fucking shame for her then."
"Shut up," Ulquiorra said firmly, blinking down at the spreading pool of red. "You waste what remains of your energy." His eyes slid over to Orihime and once again his hand raised from his pocket. He showed her the two blue hairpins he held delicately in the palm of his hand.
"You took them!" She cried, clasping her hands to her breast to stop herself from snatching them out of his grasp.
"Yes. You will heal Grimmjow and then return them to me."
He didn't give her a chance to respond, his wicked-quick hand easily sliding her hairpins into their standard position, his dexterity allowing them to slip into place smoothly without scraping against her scalp. She barely had a chance to blink and his hand had already returned to his pocket.
"Heal only the life-threatening injury. There is no need to exert yourself further than that."
Staring at him in surprise for only a moment, Orihime obediently knelt at Grimmjow's side, calling forth her fairies and grimacing as the deep wound in his shoulder knit itself together. Grimmjow watched her silently through the golden shield, his heavily hooded eyes inscrutable.
"I find it unlikely that the boy would have had it in him to do this amount of damage," Ulquiorra commented, keeping a careful eye on Grimmjow, who scowled and turned away. Orihime didn't miss the flicker of bitterness - no, of shame - that flashed over his face. Quietly, she answered Ulquiorra's obvious inquiry.
"It was Nnoitora. He got in a cheap shot." Orihime shuddered at the memory of the gangly Espada's fingers, forcing their way into her mouth. Grimmjow's look of shock and pain as Nniotora's blade sunk into his shoulder would forever be emblazoned in her mind as one of the more terrible things she had witnessed in Hueco Mundo.
Grimmjow obviously noticed her expression of sorrow. He scowled up at her, his fists clenching. "Don't you dare pity me bitch, I'll snap your neck."
Orihime flinched back as Grimmjow began to raise his arm towards her, murder in his eyes. Ulquiorra reacted quickly, his heel coming to rest firmly on the prone man's throat. "Grimmjow," he said softly, "You will not touch her."
"Or what?" Grimmjow spat hatefully.
Ulquiorra increased the pressure on his throat until Grimmjow let out an involuntary gag, then said in a gentle murmur, "Or I will kill you." His eyes slithered back to Orihime, who was watching the display nervously. It was somewhat comforting that Ulquiorra would stop Grimmjow from hurting her, but that still didn't tell her what he wanted from her. And she disliked the threats of violence.
"That's enough," Ulquiorra commanded. Orihime shook her head.
"No - I can still heal him more, I'm not tired or anything."
Ulquiorra released Grimmjow and rounded her shield, coming to stand over her at her side. "That is irrelevant. Grimmjow will become a nuisance if he has too much energy." He said this as if referring to a disobedient pet, and for a moment Orihime feared that Grimmjow's hateful glare might actually cause Ulquiorra to burst into flames. Was Ulquiorra purposefully trying to belittle the weaker man? How needlessly cruel. Her jaw set stubbornly.
When she ignored him and stared firmly ahead, his hand dropped onto her shoulder, heavy and threatening. "I said to stop."
She realized that she had little choice when she felt his fingers start applying pressure, slowly tightening their grip - not quite to the point of pain but clearly heading in that direction. She reluctantly dropped the shield and immediately pulled away, shrugging out from under him. Ulquiorra's hand slid from her shoulder as she move back and rose to her feet. Grimmjow sat up, still severely weakened and covered in injuries but no longer at risk of dying. He glared up at Ulquiorra.
"Afraid I'll destroy you if I'm at full strength?" He spat at the pale Espada's feet. "Coward."
Ulquiorra pointedly ignored him, narrowing his eyes at Orihime. "Hand them over now."
She knew exactly what he was referring to, and her hands immediately went to the sides of her head, protectively shielding her hairpins. "N-no! I won't give them to you."
Ulquiorra took a menacing step forward, his passionless gaze seeming to pull the very strength from her bones, leaving her quivering. "You will."
She shook her head frantically, knowing she looked ridiculous. "Why do you need them - I can't hurt you with them!"
"I will not make the mistake of underestimating you." He held his hand out expectantly, curling and uncurling his fingers. "Give them to me now, or I will take them by force."
The room was silent for a long moment, the atmosphere thick with tension. Orihime's eyes darted around frantically, knowing that she had no chance of making it to the door unless she blocked the others with her shield. But that wouldn't hold Ulquiorra for long, and she wouldn't be able to run fast enough. She should fight back as a matter of pride, but what would that accomplish? It might satisfy her ego to know that she hadn't given up meekly like she always did, but she had no idea what kind of damage Ulquiorra might do if she made the mistake of angering him.
He stood patiently, even Grimmjow watched her silently, waiting for her next move. To give up her only form of defense, her beloved Rikka to an Espada...But what choice did she have?
Slowly, she pulled the shimmering blue pins away, and as if in some last desperate attempt at defiance they snagged at her hair before she clutched them to her chest. "Please, don't...hurt them."
Ulquiorra was silent, unresponsive but for a twitch of his lips, and she realized that there was really nothing more she could do. Steeling her resolve not to cry, she deposited her source of power into his hands, holding her breath as his fingers gently curled over the fragile bits of metal before he placed his hand once again in his pocket.
Grimmjow chose this moment to interrupt the tense exchange. "So now you're scared of little girls too. When did you become so pathetic, Ulquiorra?"
He yelled in protest when Ulquiorra suddenly gripped his upper arm and hauled him roughly to his feet. Grimmjow staggered, face contorted in pain, and glared at the more powerful Espada with the deepest loathing. Ulquiorra began dragging him from the room, unaffected by his curses or his struggling. As he passed Orihime, he met her gaze. "Bathe. I will arrange fresh clothing."
Orihime stuttered and waved her hands, "Uh - no thank you, that's really not necessary! I'm fine, really." Was he crazy? What exactly was it about her situation that made him think she'd be okay with getting naked?
Ulquiorra's nose wrinkled ever so slightly. "You carry the stench of blood. It is unpleasant. Bathe."
Once again she realized she had little say in the matter, lest Ulquiorra threaten to strip her down and do it for her. She nodded and swallowed thickly. "O-okay. I will."
Ulquiorra left the room, still supporting the staggering Grimmjow. She watched him leave and shut the door after him, leaning her forehead against the door and releasing a shuddering breath.
She still had no idea where she was or what the Espada wanted.
Exhaling, she began to undress.
Personal Note: If Suede is reading this, you're the love of my life...
...but if you don't like my story I'm kicking you out the house.