A Case of Nerves

M

She sets aside her worries and problems, one by one. She lets them watch and listens silently to the things they say. She doesn't mind. She'll be gone before the next snow anyway.

I wanted to explore the more hollow side of Ulquiorra. This is sort of a companion piece to The Nerves Girl, but it reads as a solo. Warnings for slight cases of PTSD and sexual content.

-o-

When the war ends, and the evil is dead, everyone's lives go back to normal. Not their twisted normal, which they'd come to love, but an old normal that reeks of humanity. Ichigo gets in fights with thugs. Chad looks for strays to save. Ishida sews.

Orihime does nothing.

She wonders, sometimes, who she'd been before her hollowfied brother had attacked her. Had she been someone with hobbies, and interests? What did she used to do with her spare time? Nowadays, she tends to clean more than she needs to. Her apartment is always immaculately kept, and the sheets get changed weakly- if she doesn't wash them often, it feels like there's sand in the bed.

"When we were alright," She says to Uryuu, and watches him sew a dress, "Did I ever do anything? Did I have hobbies?"

"Of course you did." He answers. "You're in the sewing club, like me. And you were in the dojo, with Tatsuki. You played sports, too."

"I did?" She doesn't remember all that well. It feels like that was life times ago. "Do you think I liked it?"

"You seemed to." He says.

He would know. Uryuu has always watched out for her.

"Thanks," she says, like she always does when he answers her odd questions about happenings before and during the war. She never asks about after. He never brings it up.

-o-

"If you wish, I will take you back." He says. Voice cool, face cool, body cool. Maybe it's more than cool- maybe it's cold.

She shakes her head and looks out the window, watching children play in the park across the street. When had the park been built? She remembers it as an empty lot. "No thank you. Not now."

He watches her in what could almost been interest.

"You don't have to wait on me." She says, though she doesn't really know why. "I'll be here."

He nods and disappears into the shadows.

-o-

They notice that something is wrong with her. They notice how she pines for nothing and everything. They notice that she's not scared anymore and how she's scared more than ever. They notice that she pecks at her food, that she eats like she's starving, that she looks over her shoulder and stares into the distance like she's lost and that she marches with a determined air about her that speaks of absolutes and nothing less.

"I think there's something wrong with me." She tells the school counselor. "I think… I think I need to leave again."

"No, no, Inoue, you can't run away from your life." The counselor writes something down on a page of paper. She's using red pen; Orihime thinks that must mean something. "Trust me. It's just a case of nerves."

-o-

Someone is knocking on her door. It's not polite knocking- they're banging with their fists. "Orihime!" she hears- it's Tatsuki's voice, and she sounds panicked. "Orihime! Open up!"

Orihime slips out of bed and blinks in the bright light of her room. She pads out to the front door and opens it, not so much as flinching when Tatsuki barely manages to stop herself from hitting Orihime's face.

"You're here." The girl sighs, "Oh thank god- thank god." She throws herself forward and holds onto Orihime tight. Her face is wet and hot- like she's been crying. "I thought I'd lost you again."

"What?" Orihime returns the hug, confused as she is. "Lost me?"

"I texted you, like, eighteen times! And called you at least seven. We were supposed to meet up yesterday, remember? You didn't show, and I kept calling, and then I tried again today and I thought- I thought…"

"We were supposed to meet up?" She remembers even as she says it. "No- we're supposed to meet on Thursday."

Tatsuki pulls back, brows furrowed. "Orhime?"

She quirks her head to the side. "That's tomorrow."

"Today's Friday."

"What?" She blinks. Surely that can't be right.

"It's- It's Friday. Did you think today was Wednesday?"

"Wednesday. That's today, isn't it?" She put her hands to her lips, because her voice doesn't sound like her own to her ears, suddenly. "Wasn't it?" She says again.

"…" Tatsuki looks sort of lost, and sort of sad, and a lot of other sort-ofs that Orihime could put name to if she had the time. "Can I come in?"

"Of course." She steps out of the doorway and lets Tatsuki inside, shutting the door behind her. "I- I'm sorry that I missed our date, um, I didn't realize-"

"Where is your phone?"

"My phone?" She thinks. "It's…"

Tatsuki sighs. "Did you leave it at school again?"

"No." She turns and points. "I put it on the counter to charge."

Tatsuki moves to the kitchen, and sure enough, there's the phone. It's dead, though, and the plug is nowhere in sight.

"Huh." Orihime frowns. "Guess I forgot to plug it in."

Tatsuki doesn't say anything. She just picks the phone up and goes to Orihime's room, finding the plug and setting Orihime's phone down to charge. She comes back into the living room and gives Orihime a tired smile. "When was the last time you ate?"

"Um…"

Tatsuki moves to the fridge and flings it open. "Of course." She mutters. "You don't have anything- Orihime, this milk is expired." She takes it out and chucks it in the garbage. "Have you gone shopping recently?"

"I think. Maybe." She needs her fingers into her palms and doesn't meet Tatsuki's eye. "I bought some rice the other day."

Tatsuki moves to the cupboard and finds it. "Well, at least you're right about that one- this is brand new. Want me to make us something?"

"Sure."

"We can go shopping afterwards."

"Okay." Distantly, she remembers something. "Oh. There's a sale at the supermarket today."

Tatsuki hangs her head. "No, Orihime." She says, patiently. "That was Monday."

"Oh." She can't recall if she's always been like this or not. She can't recall much of anything anymore.

-o-

"Your memories are stored in your spirit as much as your actual body." Kisuke says. "I should have thought about this before. You were in Hueco Mundo for three months, give or take. That's a lot of stress for a soul. The connection between your actual body and soul might be weakened because of it- in fact, I'm almost certain that's what's going on here."

"How do I fix it?"

"Your soul adjusted to Hueco Mundo a little too well." He explains. "So quitting the land cold-turkey, so to speak, has probably thrown you into shock. You need to spend some time in an atmosphere like Hueco Mundo's a little bit every day, and it should ease you back into your old state after a while. I can build a fake Hueco Mundo in a week or so-"

"It's alright." She says, smiling. She waves away her concern. "You don't need to go through all the trouble. The portal still works, doesn't it?"

His expression turns guarded. "Yes… it does."

"I don't want you to have to go to extra lengths because of me. I'm fine going back there."

"Inoue-"

"Orihime, please."

"Orihime." He corrects himself. "I know I don't understand, or even have a clue, as to what went on in Los Noches. But do you really think it would be best for you to return there? The others- they, well, they hinted that maybe you were hurt or-"

She shakes her head. "It's fine."

"Are you sure?"

She nods.

"… Alright." Sighing, he pushes himself up and heads towards the basement. "I'll get you a portal. We'll set a small one up in your bedroom so you can go at your leisure. Make sure to keep a book of your times so we can track your progress."

"Alright."

"And Orihime?"

She looks up at him. His eyes are dark.

"Protect yourself."

-o-

The first time she sets foot in Hueco Mundo again she's slammed with an on-slot of memories. Hands reaching for her from the shadows, dirty fingers in her mouth, the sound of someone's torso being stabbed straight through. Tea without flavor. Desperation in electric blue eyes- it matters, it just fucking does, princess, you don't understand- a tremor in his voice that could almost be mistaken for hatred. Blood smeared on the hem of her dress. A hand, reaching, reaching, reaching- never quite grasping- fading into dust.

She throws up in the sand.

"Do humans do this often?"

She turns from where she'd bent over and regards the owner of the voice calmly. "Depends on the season." She managed a small smile as she wiped her mouth off on her sleeve, trying not to be disgusted by herself.

"Strange." He offers her a hand but she doesn't see.

She stands, dusting her knees off. The sand sticks to her sweaty skin, though, and she laughs when she can't get it off. "Suddenly the uniform makes a little bit more sense." Her shoes are filled with sand and it's making her antsy, so she kicks them off and peels away her socks.

"After a hundred years or so, you learn a few things." He says- something Ichimaru Gin had used to say. They'd never got the inside-joke, but the silver-haired man had laughed quietly after each time he said it. Orihime had said it once in front of Izuru Kira and watched the boy laugh before becoming more sombre than usual.

"You know why I'm here, right?"

He nods.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I offered to take you back. You never asked why."

"I thought-" and then she stops, because she doesn't know what she thought, but it was wrong either way. Had she given it any thought at all? The days after the war all seem muddled.

He's not looking at her. "Come," he says, and starts away so that she's forced to follow. "There are hollows seeking out the smell of humans. You reek of it."

"Bet the throw-up didn't help." She jokes weakly.

"You would be correct in that assumption."

"Where are we going?"

He looks over his shoulder at her and gives her an odd look. "Los Noches."

She frowns at that. She looks over her shoulder, back to wear she'd left her socks and shoes in the sand- to where the portal hangs open for her, and her alone. "I…" She turns back to him and frowns a little. "I don't want to go there. Not yet."

He doesn't question her. "Understood."

"So where are we going now?"

"There is nowhere else to go." He answers. "We walk."

-o-

Chad makes a damn good flan. She doesn't know why they make her feel so at-home, but they do, and so sitting there in Chad's kitchen on Sunday mornings has become something of a ritual. Chad always puts a strawberry on top of her flan when he gives it to her. She picks it off and eats it before anything else.

"You weren't at school again." He says.

She shrugs. She'd been asleep- she sleeps more than she used to, but it's getting better slowly. Kisuke chocked it up to the whole body-and-spirit link again. Tessia had said that the sleeping and memory issues were also side affects of depression. He hadn't looked at her in pity when he said it, and that made Orihime feel a little better about it.

"Where were you on Tuesday?" He asks, then.

She was in Hueco Mundo, wandering the sands with a dead man. Somehow, though, she doubts that she is supposed to tell anyone outside of the Urahara Shop. So she says, "Doctor's appointment." Because it's not a lie, exactly, if you squint at the issue just right. "I'm healthy as a horse!" That's not exactly true, of course. She's deaf in her right ear, and she hasn't told a soul about it. She's got burn scars on her shoulder, but no one's seen them yet. She gets dizzy if she's exposed to harsh light and loud noises, and no on really realizes it. (Ichigo doesn't need to feel any worse about turning into a hollow, and knowing that his cero had hurt her on top of everything else would be awful. The burn scars aren't so bad anyway.)

Besides, she could always go to Hatchi to be healed. She just doesn't want to show anyone yet- it feels wrong. She can't heal herself, though, so she keeps the harm to herself. Maybe one day she'll go get it all fixed.

Chad doesn't say anything, but he looks like he might know she's lying. Chad is very handsome, on mornings like this. He wears an apron and pets his cat when it goes walking by, looking incredibly domestic and nothing at all like the man who'd almost died in the desert with her.

She shivers and wonders if, like her, he left anything back in the sands.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

She starts in surprise. "Wh-" but she knows what he's talking about, and doesn't need to ask. Chad is quiet most of the time, and he's never brought this up before. She must seem a little farther off than usual. Or maybe it's him who is feeling bad. Maybe he's the one who needs consoling.

He sits at the table next to her- it's western style, and so he scoots his chair over so he's directly across from her. His cat- Bento- jumps up on the table and lays down in front of him to be pet.

"I…" She does want to talk about it, in a way. She wants to stand in a glass room and scream until she loses her voice. She wants to cry and let Chad stroke her hair while he hugs her. She wants to never speak of it again.

"You don't have to force yourself. If you're not ready…"

She blinks. That's right- she doesn't have to do anything she doesn't want to do. She considers it for a moment- does she really want to do this? She shakes her head. "We'll talk about it eventually." She says, a small smile slipping up over her features.

He nods. He'd been there for her a month ago, when she'd had a breakdown outside at school during gym- the sand in the ball pit had been a little too much for her at the time. He'd been the one who'd told her that one day, it would get better- because of everyone in their little group, he was the one who believed it.

"Thanks, Chad."

He smiles and gives a thumbs-up, just as him as ever.

-o-

She goes back to Los Noches the fifth time she visits Hueco Mundo. Af first, he does not find her- he's probably off hunting the sands for prey to build himself back up with. She climbs through the ruins alone, startling hollows and low-level arrancar as she goes. She puts up her shields when she sees them. The hollows seem wary to attack something un-hollow in a land of their own, and the arrancar remember stories of a girl who had golden shields and the powers of a god. Nothing touches her.

She finds the throne room and stares at the poetic justice of Aizen's crumbled throne for a while before moving on. Some of the white walls are scorched, others display dried blood stains. There are never any bodies, even in places that look like there may have been- the predators have picked the war-scape clean. It's for the best.

There are several places she has to climb, jump, and scrape her way up. The stairs have been ruined, and there are parts of the palace where the floors have fallen in. She passes through a room of blue and stairs at the mess of a bed in the center- posts collapsed, shroud torn, feathers scattered over the floor and fallen walls. It looked like an animal had been nesting there for some time, but the place was cold and abandoned, now. There was water dripping somewhere in the distance.

She wonders how many hollows lived in the palace before it was ruined. Most hollows, she'd been told, couldn't produce children- but those that could very often had many, many children, and hollows that were created as children were often times adopted by the hollows with parental instincts. She'd seen lots of kids in Los Noches. There'd been a girl with silver hair who'd drooled acid, and she'd played in the gardens with a small rat-like thing that hid in the fake Hydrenia bushes. Orihime had watched her every now and then.

It takes her two entire hours to find her room. It's mostly collapsed, but her couch is intact, so she dusts it off and sits down, watching the moon through the huge holes in her wall. It doesn't take long for a figure in back to appear in the sky, flying on long leather wings.

She sighs in what may have been relief when she sees he is heading towards her.

He slips in through her window with inhuman grace, turning to her with interested eyes as his wings folded back behind him. He's been in his released form for a very long time, and though she knows he can change back whenever he so pleases, he seems intent to assert himself as too powerful to fuck with now that Hueco Mundo's been pushed into an unbalance of power. He doesn't want to rule, but he doesn't want to get pulled into meaningless fights. He is certainly the strongest left, and he intends to show it, she thinks.

As he turns to her she notices the blood in the corner of his mouth. She gestures and he wipes it away on the back of his arm without blinking.

"Orihime Inoue." He says, simply.

She smiles at him, or almost smiles. She can't tell what her face looks like, right then, but it feels like maybe she's smiling- fondly, at that. "Hi."

He takes a moment to look around the room in interest. "Not much has changed."

"If you don't count the broken walls."

"All the walls here are broken. The floor is intact."

She nods.

"How have you been faring?" He asks. He moves to put his hands in his pockets and then frowns, finding he has none. His body fades into shadow for a moment before re-appearing, clothed and decidedly simplistic; the same as he'd been when she first came to know him. He sits beside her on the couch, fists shoved into his pockets.

"I'm alright." She lies. Earlier that day, at school, her deafness had finally come to light. She'd wanted to throw up all day. Kids had made a game of snapping by her ruined ear, thinking she wouldn't notice since she couldn't hear it.

He raises a brow at her. "I don't understand why you lie to me."

"It's easier this way." She's not ashamed or embarrassed that he'd caught on. He's actually fairly perceptive, even if he doesn't grasp the full concept of emotions yet. "… The kids at school have stopped touching me. It's nice, I guess."

"They fear you?"

She hangs her head. "… they at least fear my reaction."

"That is a good thing. That is something which will keep you alive."

"Here, yeah." She sighs and leans further back into the couch. "In my world?" She snorts, shaking her head. "They've started to call me the Nerves Girl behind my back, you know. It's not that I- I care what they think of me. But it still hurts, I guess."

"Kill them." He says simply.

She laughs. "Maybe later," she jokes.

For a moment, they fall in to a comfortable silence. Orihime watches some other winged-hollow trace the sky for a time. In the distance Bowa-Bowa slips in and out of view, breaching the sand like a sea snake in the ocean waves. Orihime wonders if Nel is playing a game with her friends. She'd seen the child once, when wandering the sands. She'd been feasting on a fallen hollow's body, face covered in blood. She'd grinned and waved at them before going back to her meal.

"Do you think I'm getting better?" She asks, eventually.

"No." He answers honestly. "I don't."

She nods and leans her head against his shoulder. He feels stiff, cold, and inhuman. He stares at her where she touches him like he's wondering whether or not to kill her for assuming she can touch him. He's hollow above everything else.

She wonders shy she feels like she can identify with hime more than anyone else in three worlds.

-o-

Days like these, where it's dark and over-cast from clouds, with the promise of oncoming rain, are the ones she feels most like the war hasn't really ended. She feels itchy in her school-girl clothes, and casts looks over her shoulder more often than usual. Loud noises in particular scare her, and she finds that her hands begin to ache shortly after leaving the house from having them clenched into fists so tightly.

"You sure you're okay?"

Tatsuki is her best friend- her very, very best friend. Tatsuki taught her martial arts. Tatsuki was there when Orihime received her black belt. Tatsuki made her food after her brother died. Tatsuki walked her to school when she first started living on her own. Tatsuki helped Orihime pack up her brother's things to be put away. Tatsuki is the one who knows all about Orihime's crushes. Tatsuki was there for her, when no one else would be.

And she can't tell Tatsuki a damn thing.

"Yeah. Just a little antsy to get home; I want to bake cookies!"

Tatsuki gives her a look that's becoming more and more frequent as of late. A look that is pained, but patient. A look that tells Orihime that Tatsuki isn't fooled- she knows when she's being lied to.

"What a coincidence." Tatsuki says. "So is Ichigo. A Uryuu. And Chad. Oh, yeah, everyone who went missing a little while after you took a vacation to see your aunt out on the coast."

She cringes.

Tatsuki knows, but she doesn't.

"Well, to be fair," Orihime says in a small voice, "Cookies are really good."

Tatsuki just huffs out a sigh. "Gimme a break already, would you?" She says, quietly. "You know I'm never going to believe that crap." She brushes past Orihime and waves at some of the guys from the dojo. They let her take a seat and laugh at something she says.

Orihime is left to find her war-friends on her own.

"They continue to treat you like a child," a voice on her left says.

She looks into the shadows of an open janitor's closet. Whipping her head around to see if anyone has eyes on her- and they don't, even if it feels like they always do- she slips inside. She hurries to close the door behind her and then blinks into the darkness, trying to get her eyes to adjust.

"What are you doing here?"

"Watching."

"Stalking me? Really? Come on, aren't we past your creepy kidnapper phase?"

He says, "Your spiritual pressure indicated distress. I came to find out why. Now I know."

"Oh yeah? And what do you 'know' mister smarty pants?"

He quirks his head to the side at the nickname, but doesn't say anything about it. "Kurosaki Ichigo continues to act as though he has any right to control your life. He has told you that you will not speak the truth to your friend, has he not?"

She looks away.

"It causes you distress. Not to mention the quality in the air today. It feels like-"

"I know." She snaps. "I know what it feels like. I know."

A pause. "When will you tell her?"

"Who, Tatsuki?"

"If that is her name."

She sighs. "I… I can't just tell her. Ichigo said-"

"Kurosaki says many things he has no business saying."

"You just don't like him because he beat you."

He raises a brow.

Instantly Orhime feels her cheeks burning with shame. Because no, that's not true.

"I seem to recall you saying that the mindless beast who slaughtered me and the petulant child of a war hero are two separate beings." He says.

"Th-they are."

"We wouldn't want Kurosaki to be at fault for the loss of your hearing, now, would we?" He takes in her wince and doesn't stop. "Or the scar tissue over your shoulder. Or the dots in your vision. Or-"

"Stop it." She commands.

He does.

"I… I know Ichigo doesn't really control me. I know that. But, he makes a good point. I don't know if I should tell Tatsuki, even if I… even if I really want to. There's just so much she doesn't know. I don't know what she'll do if I tell her."

"Hm." he shifts his stance, crisp white sleeve brushing against her arm.

She startles at the feeling and stumbles back. She trips over a broom, eyes going wide as she starts to fall, but he grabs her wrists and yanks her back up on her feet. They stand there like that, for a moment- one cold hand grasped tightly around her warm human skin.

His eyes look darker than usual.

"Have you eaten today?" She asks, because he has been insatiable ever since coming back from the dead. It will take years of eating to build up his previous strength so that he no longer needs to eat. He looks like he's starving.

"I have." He answers easily. "I ate an adjuntas this morning."

"You look hungry."

For a moment, he says nothing. He simply continues to look into her eyes. "I am," he says eventually. "But perhaps not in the way one would suspect."

She doesn't know what he's talking about. Before she can ask, there's a sound outside the door. His hand is gone from her person in a nano second, and before she can blink, he's gone. The person outside the closet continues on, and so quietly, she slips out, continuing on to lunch.

"Where were you?" Ishida asks.

She sits next to him and forces a smile, noticing he's bandaged his hands again. He's been practicing. "Just catching up with an old friend." She says. The word 'friend' tastes like copper on her tongue, and she swallows oddly around it.

If they notice, they don't say anything.

She expects as much.

-o-

She has a dream that she never got out of Los Noches. It's summertime, and she knows that her friends are probably getting out of school for vacation. It's so hot that she can see the waves of heat rising off the sand. Her room is suffocating, and the bars on the window burn her hands when she dares to touch them.

Her uniform sticks to her skin, darkened with sweat. She pulls the sleeves and cape off, laying on the cool marble floor with her hair spilling around her head. She can feel her heartbeat throbbing in her temples.

"You're uncomfortable," he says.

She looks up at him, panting through parted lips.

"Allow me to assist you."

He kneels next to her on the floor and puts an icy hand on her exposed chest. She gaps at the touch, back arching away from the floor towards him. His other hand goes to her shoulder, as if to hold her back against the floor.

"Is this better?"

She nods hurriedly, fumbling to grab his hands and move them. She grasps his wrists and runs his hands up and down her arms, over her clothed hips. She doesn't startle when he swings a leg up over her and straddles her hips, continuing to run his hands over her person.

She pulls his hands up to cup her cheeks. She licks her dry lips.

He leans down and closes his mouth over hers.

-o-

"You forgot again."

Orihime blinks at Tatsuki, who stands in her doorway looking darkly down at the ground. She'd given Tatsuki a key, so the girl had long stopped knocking and had taken to walking right in. Orihime is surprised to see her pause in the doorway. "I… I forgot?"

"We were supposed to meet at the park three hours ago. I tried to text you. Did you lose your phone again?"

Orihime steps aside and ushers Tatsuki into her apartment. "It's in my room."

"And where were you?" She marches past, into Orihime's room. She picks up the phone and finds it dead, so she turns to hurry back into the kitchen and plug it in.

"Sewing." She gestured at the table, where she's making herself some new shirts. It's cheaper to make them herself, and they actually fit her if she does. "Sorry, I keep forgetting to plug my phone in, but it's-"

"It's getting better." Tatsuki allows. "I know."

Clearly, it's not getting better fast enough. "I- I'm sorry I forgot."

"It's fine." She rubs her temples and takes in a deep breath. "I shouldn't get annoyed. I know- I know it's probably hard but. Just." And she sighs. Quietly, she says, "What happened to you?"

She should tell her.

She wants to.

She could.

"I… I went away, Tatsuki."

She lets out a loud noise of aggravation. "Well. Tell me when you get back then."

Orihime flinches.

Immediately, Tatsuki clasps her hands over her mouth, eyes wide. "N-no, no, Orihime, I didn't mean-" And she rushes over, throwing her arms around Orihime to collect her in a tight hug. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."

"It's okay." She carefully holds Tatsuki to her, wondering how people hug anymore. Is this too tight, or too soft? Where do her hands go? She'd spent so much time trying to prove that touch didn't have to be violent in Hueco Mundo that she forgot how to touch people who didn't expect harm from her hand.

"Orihime, I-"

"One day." She promises. "I'll tell you. I'm just… I can't yet."

Tatsuki nods hurriedly. "Of course. Of course, I didn't mean to be a bitch. I just- I just get so frustrated. No one is telling me anything."

"I know. Thanks for trying anyway." She squeezed once and then, ah, yes, that's how you hug. She'd forgotten. It's nice, holding Tatsuki like this. She thinks that, in another life, maybe she could have fallen in love with Tatsuki. Maybe, in another life, she and Tatsuki move in together, and her brother gives Orihime away at their wedding, and they get a pet dog and go out on the lake Sunday mornings to feed the ducks and swans in the park.

That's neither here nor there. She draws away from her best friend and smiles sadly at her, trying- trying…

Just trying.

-o-

She wakes up in a cold sweat. She doesn't know what she was dreaming, or if she was at all, but her heart is pounding wildly in her chest. She throws herself out of bed, room suffocatingly hot, and tears the closet door open.

The portal there swirls invitingly.

She strips out of her nightgown and throws on a pair of shorts, a bra, and a baggy t-shirt. With that, she plunges into the portal- shoeless and unknowing of where she intended to go, other than away from the human world.

The sand is cold and soft beneath her feat as she stumbles into Hueco Mundo. He's already waiting there for her, wings dipping into the sand as he sits cross-legged, staring up at the moon.

"Ulquiorra." She breaths.

A jolt goes through her and he stiffens. They haven't said his name- haven't really recognized that it's him in, well, a year. Ulquiorra had come back as a shadow of who he'd been, and she'd reasoned that it wasn't really him, that it was some remainder of the man she'd known. Now, though, she says his name and makes him real. It's Ulquiorra sitting on the ground before her, and no one else.

He looks back at her with slightly widened eyes.

"Ulquiorra." She says again, and remembers how much she loves his name. "Ulquiorra."

"You're upset." He sees. "What happened?"

"I- I don't know. I think I was dreaming. I-"

"Come." He says. "We can talk elsewhere-"

"No, no I…" And she stares at his outstretched hand. "I…"

He tilts his head to the side. "Orihime?"

She swallows. Taking his hand into her own, a fire starts in her stomach. She tugs on him, bringing him closer to her. His head still tilts to the side, curious to her intentions. She steps up to him and wraps her arms around him without another pause, the cool of his naked torso calming and safe. She breathes in a long, deep breath.

He stiffens in her embrace for a moment. "What are you doing?"

"Hugging you." She says. She closes her eyes and rests her chin on his shoulder.

His hands twitch against her sides before he brings them up, resting them on her back. "This is very human." He says. "Is this all there is? Am I suppose to do something else?"

She laughs a little. He smells like old books and the beach, like freshly-printed paper and wet concrete. He smells old and new, and too terribly comfortable for someone who eats other living beings. She digs her fingers into the skin of his neck and shudders out a sigh. "You're doing just fine. A hug is a hug. How would hollows do it?"

"How would hollows do it?" He echoes. He draws back a little from her, to look her in the eyes. "Hollows would not hug to begin with. The closest we have, is-" and he pauses, considering his next words. "Well," he says, "There would certainly be less clothing on your person."

She flushes and draws him back tightly against her. Bold and honest in her exhaustion, she says, "Maybe we'll try it like hollows later." She plays with his hair and is surprised by the fact that its course and thick- it had looked so soft from far away. "For now, though, can we just… can we just keep it like this?"

"Yes." His hands are surer on the small of her back as he draws her towards him.

"Have you eaten today?"

"Yes. Have you?"

"Yes." She blinks. "Are you hungry?"

"Yes. Are you?"

"Yes."

They don't move for a long, long time.

-o-

Orihime thinks about why she and Ulquiorra are even communicating. Why did they decide to start seeking each other out to begin with? She comes up with a few factors.

She's the only person he's ever known. He's the only person who really knows her.

She wonders about their relationship; is it healthy? Is it gross and unnatural? He is a literal monster, prowling about the sands of another world eating his kin. She's a young girl- probably thousands of years younger than he is- who he'd kidnapped. There's got to be something wrong with that, right?

She knows what he did to her is wrong. She understands he had no choice but to follow orders, but she doesn't sympathize with him. He didn't have to be cruel to her like he was, and she knows he did it to understand, and because he didn't know how to be anything else, but that doesn't mean she thinks it was okay. He's apologized since then, and she forgave him, but she'd never thought for a moment that it was alright. She'd even resented him for what he'd done to her for a time, and forgiveness hadn't come easy or quickly.

She did have sympathy for him. She can't imagine living as a slave, or hunted, or hated for an entire lifetime. And he's got tons of lifetimes under his belt. The one time he'd seemed to really, truly be able to connect to her fully was when he was dying. For that she was sad, and for that she did want to show him that life didn't have to be so entirely bad. She wanted to stand in the sand and hug him; show him that not everyone was out to harm or control him.

But did that mean what she had was just some twisted sense of sympathy for him? They both had lives completely separate from each other- no mutual friends (did he have friends?) no places to go, no similar interests outside of staying alive. So why was she drawn to him? Why was he drawn to her?

She worried, for a while, about Lima and Stockholm syndrome. Now she knows that neither of them experience either, but she still worries that perhaps their relationship is nothing good. What good can come out of something like them?

She comes to him because she's in pain, and no one else can help. He comes to her because he has no one else. That doesn't sound like love. It sounds like a lack of options.

But then, she thinks about how he's careful of his claws on her. She thinks about how he's known countless other humans and hollows and shinigami, and everything in between- about how he actually did like a few, but never came to them like he comes to her. She likes that he speaks his mind, and that he sees her as someone strong. He likes that she continues to confuse him in wonderful ways. She adores the silent and protective support he shows her- never pushy, never suffocating, never belittling.

He shows up just before school. "I've found underground rooms in Los Noches. Do you wish to see? I can take you there now."

She tests a theory out. "No. I think I want to just be by myself today. You can come see me tomorrow, though."

He nods and doesn't argue, doesn't press her. "Understood." He turns and leaves without asking questions or guilting her. He respects her like she respects him. He leaves her alone well into the next day, and she ends up coming to Hueco Mundo in the afternoon to see him. He doesn't ask where she's been or what she was doing that was more important than exploring Los Noches.

"Do you wish to see now?"

She nods. "Lead the way."

-o-

Tatsuki's fist connected solidly with the boy's side. He spits and collapses with a grunt, swiping his feet out at her. She jumps, kicks him in the chest, and he goes down.

"Arasawa advances."

Orihime lets out a woot and stands; clapping as she waves at her friend. Tatsuki tears off her sweaty headgear and waves at Orihime with a smile. "You got this!" Orihime yells, and knows that she does. Tatsuki was at least going to advance to the finals.

A couple rows down, there's a cluster of girls who've come to watch boys take their shirts off and fight. They've been giggling and snapping pictures all day, but more and more often they look to Orihime. It takes them a while to recognize her- they're in the class below her- but they're sure of who she is now. In between matches, and at times when Orihime makes her voice known, they turn and snigger at her, talking amongst themselves.

She lets them watch. She listens silently to the things they say.

She's been setting her worries and problems aside, recently- one by one by one. What does it matter? Human life is so damn temporary and flexible. She knows that the girls a row down are making fun of her, but what do they really matter to her? There are hollows with better manners- hollows who will likely out-live these girls tenfold. And they can laugh and whisper all they want, but it's not going to change a thing.

Orihime has always been doomed to be the odd one out, after all. Even now, in her beloved group of freaks, she's the black sheep. She's never much minded. She loves life, and she loves living, and now she knows that there is so much more for her to look forward to than this.

They can gossip about her. Tonight she'll slip through a portal and into another world entirely. A world with trees made of spun black glass and crystalline sands. A world where the moon hangs constant in a starless sky. A world that's more grim fairytale than reality.

And they'll never know, either.

She's come to love Hueco Mundo. She feels at home in her body the more often she goes there, but it's more than that. Something about being the only human in her own secret land gives her a thrill. Ulquiorra is a large part of it, of course, but there is something oddly charming about Hueco Mundo once you know how to handle yourself around the monsters that prowl there. She's still learning how to deal with the monsters who prowl in her world, it seems.

Tatsuki is up for her last match of the day. She takes a hard hit to the gut and loses her footing for a second. To her left, the girl-group dissolves into ugly laughter. Orihime ignored them- she knows Tatsuki will recover and win.

"It's what the fucking dyke gets." One of them says.

She stands. She doesn't know what she's doing, but she's doing something, and she can't stop. She feels a fury she hasn't been saddled under in a long, long time- back when she'd hit Ulquiorra; full-well knowing he could have snapped her neck in retaliation. (He didn't, though, did he? He hadn't so much as breathed a threat at her. She wonders why that is.)

They look up at her nervously as she approaches.

"What do you want?" One says.

Orihime frowns. "She didn't hear you, but I did." She starts. "I want an apology, please."

"A what? You can't be serious."

"I am. No one- no one talks about her like that."

One of them snorts and rolls her eyes. "What are you going to do about it if we refuse? Cry like you did in gym class? Kurosaki isn't here to save you this time, dumbass."

Orihime's mouth smoothes into a line.

"And what's some half-def chick gonna do?" The girl finishes.

"Don't you ever wonder why it is I came back from vacation all messed up?" She asks, genuinely curious. "Why it doesn't bother me when girls like you talk about it? Make fun of it?"

The girls exchange a look.

Orihime hadn't meant her words to be a threat, but now she feels almost like they are. "Tatsuki is the best fighter in the room." She promises them. "She taught me everything she knows."

"S-so, what? You gonna beat us up or something, huh?"

"No, no, of course not!" Orihime laughs a little, rubbing the back of her neck as she blushes. "Sorry, I got a little carried away there. Culture shock, you know? No, I'm not going to hurt you. You're going to apologize, and then I'm going to go sit down and enjoy the rest of the match."

"Or what?"

Orihime blinks. "Or what?" She echoes, and she wonders. What will she do if they refuse? She won't tell Tatsuki. She won't tell their mothers. She's not going to hurt them, or spit at them, or spread rumors to ruin their reputation. What will she do if they refuse? And the more she thinks about it, the more she's sure of herself when she says, "You don't want to know."

There most be something hollow in her eyes. They don't recover from her words for a good minute or so; frozen staring at her as they are.

"You really, really don't know what I'll do." Orihime says, truthfully. "And that should be enough for you to know you need to apologize now, while I'm giving you the chance."

"Sorry." One of them hurries. "We're sorry, okay?"

She nods. "Good."

She returns to her seat. They're still whispering about her, but it doesn't matter. She's not surprised by her own actions. The first time she'd ever been risen to violence was for Tatsuki. The first hollow she'd ever killed had been for Tatsuki.

She's sure that even if everything else where to change, in the end, she would still fight, and fight, and fight; if only for Tatsuki. Even in another life, even in another world… this is the one thing that will never change.

-o-

She wakes up to the sound of tapping on her window.

She sits up in bed and peers into the darkness for a moment. There's something white and black hovering outside her window, and she knows in seconds what it is. She hurries to unlatch the window and lets Ulquiorra in, helping him fold back his wings to make it inside.

He tucks his wings against his back as he steps on the carpet, form shifting effortlessly into his regular body. His helmet is gone, but the horns remain. His transformations have less lines between them than they used to. Sometimes its impossible to tell what stage of himself he's meant to be entirely.

"It's late." She says.

He looks as though he's never considered time before in his entire life. He looks to the open window behind them and back to Orihime. "Should I leave?"

She shakes her head. "I'm just surprised to see you, is all."

"Hm." He steps closer to her, lifting a hand to run it through her hair. "Wet." He says, and takes in her flush with darkening eyes.

"I- I showered." She swallows around her stutter and wonders if the room is hot or if it's just her. "I didn't dry it off, so, um…" His hand touches the skin of her cheek and she blushes more so than before.

"You're so warm." He says. "Are all humans so?"

"I'm just blushing." She says softly. "It makes me feel hot."

"Blushing." He repeats. "Are you embarrassed by something?"

"Not exactly, um," she steps forward, closer to him, and threads her fingers through his hair. She looks at his lips, and to his eyes for any hint of hesitation or sign to stop. She finds none and leans in, kissing him quick and chaste.

"You're right." He murmurs. His head follows hers as she pulls back, stealing another quick kiss before he pushes his face into the side of her neck. He breaths in deeply and says, "You're not embarrassed at all."

She shivers at the feeling of his lips against her neck. His lips are just warm enough to pass as living, but his nose is cold against the column of her throat. She tugs at his hair, pulling him flush against her, and feels it when his face begins to warm.

"Then what are you, to be blushing, woman?" He mouths at her neck, holding a hand at the small of her back. She arches into the touch, tugging at his hair when he bites at her, softly.

"I- I don't know." She says, though maybe she does know, and doesn't want to say. "Maybe a little embarrassed."

"Hm." He continues to fuss at her throat. He takes her skin into his mouth and sucks at it, applying a slight bit of pressure with his teeth.

She gasps and slams her eyes closed. She's sure she must be blushing all from the tips of her ears to her chest. Ulquiorra moves down, slowly, leaving dark red marks as he goes. He bites at her collar bone once too hard, and she lets out a small yelp. He licks the skin to sooth it, kisses it, and doesn't put so much force behind his biting again.

"Are you hungry, Orihime?" He asks.

She swallows hard, body shaking as she nods mutely against him.

"What a coincidence," he leaves a hickey just under her jaw and pulls back to face her. His pupils are blown so wide she can barely see the green in his eyes. "I'm starving."

Something hot and electric zings through her blood, lighting a fire in her stomach. She pulls at Ulquiorra, backing up until her knees hit the edge of the bed. He goes with her, straddling her hips, but not touching with anything but his hands.

He cups her face. "So red." He says. "I can hardly think what it must be like, to be so alive." He kisses her with an open mouth, eyes sliding shut as her tongue slips over his lip. She grabs one of his horns to pull him closer, her other hand fumbles at his jacket for purchase.

Orihime feels like she's going to melt into the mattress, or go up in flames. Ulquiorra's cold hand feels good when he lays it against her back again. The one on the kiss-bruised side of her neck soothes her skin. She wants more of that feeling- the cool of his flesh against hers. Already, his palm is beginning to warm, like being in contact with her has made him more human, somehow.

She lets go of his jacket and reaches back, pushing his hand down until it meets the hem of her shirt. She pushes it back up, then, underneath the fabric. She shudders at his light touch. He presses her harder to his front, and she returns her hand to his jacket's collar.

Orihime bites Ulquiorra's lip and hears him groan; a low growl of a sound in the back of his throat. Her stomach floods with a liquid heat that makes her almost dizzy with lust. She wants to draw the sound out of him again.

She pushes her hand inside the folds of his jacket and begins to slide if off his shoulder. He breaks away from kissing her, just for a moment, to shrug it off entirely. She has a second to notice his tattoo is gone- a pale scar in the shape of a four remains- but is drawn back into a wet kiss before she can study.

Her hands go in search of what her eyes cannot find for the moment. Her fingers trail over his stomach and she takes in a deep breath through her nose, suddenly reminded of the fact that Ulqiorra does have an impressive physic. His doesn't have a bellybutton, and the thought strikes her as odd for only a moment before she remembers he was never born. He just came to be.

The thought, for a moment, wipes her clean of her arousal. She's suddenly struck by how damn alone Ulquiorra has been. He's never known love, or kindness. He's never had friends or family. For a second she aches for him, wanting to give him everything he's never had- every happiness that he's been denied in his life.

Then his thumb presses into the dip of her hipbone and she forgets what it was like to have ever been sated. She needs more of this- of him- and she needs it now.

"Ulquiorra-"

He slides his mouth down the unmused side of her neck, peppering it with kisses and slight nips as he goes. He laves at a darkening hickey near the hollow of her throat before moving to mouth at her shoulder.

She slides the spaghetti-straps of her sleeping top down over her shoulders, leaving them bare for him. He must find it agreeable, because the hand at her hip suddenly holds her in a stronger grip. He tips them back farther into the bed, until she's laying on it, and he's hovering above her.

She grabs his face and lurches up to sloppily kiss him. it's wet, and hot, and without any of their previous skill in the heat of her want. "More," she says against him. "I want more. I want-"

He tugs at the hem of her shirt. "I will give if you allow me. I will take if you allow me." His eyes meet hers and she's caught off-guard by the heat in them. It's two shades human and one hollow. "Tell me what you would like for me to do."

"T-take. You can take my shirt off."

He nods. Using one hand on the small of her back, he pulls her torso away from the bed. With the other hand, he drags her top up over her head, throwing it off the bed. She doesn't sleep in a bra, of course, so suddenly they're both bare from the hips up. He stares for a moment, and she feels her stomach tighten at the naked desire in his gaze. Then he lowers himself back down over her, mouth opening against the flesh of her left breast.

She jerks against him and feels teeth pulling at her skin. She cries out- this time in pleasure- and grips his head between her hands. "Ulquiorra- Ulquiorra, Ulquiorra,"

He can't talk. He's busy.

His tongue prods at her nipple. She feels it harden more so than it already has and wines out loud, rocking her hips against his. She can feel his arousal through the loose folds of his hakama. He continues to worry the skin of her breast, hand attending to the one his mouth isn't on. He pulls off of her and trails lower over her skin with his tongue, eyes flashing up hers.

She's panting, so uncomfortably turned on that she can't do more than squirm when their eyes meet. He reaches her naval and closes his mouth, kissing her belly once. She shivers.

His hands slowly trail down her sides, claw-like nails lightly scraping against her skin. She moans and throws her head back, an arm over her eyes. It's too much, it's too much, and it's definitely not enough.

His hand plays with the elastic band of her shorts. "Tell me what you want, Orihime."

"W-whatever you want." She manages. "Anything. You can take them off."

His index finger slips beneath the band of her underwear. "Both?"

She nods blindly. "Both. All of it. Anything you want."

He slowly begins to tug at her clothes, giving her ample time to back out. "Are you sure?"

"Yes! I'm sure. I'm sure, I promise, I-"

"Tell me to stop if you so desire." He says. "I won't pick up any social cue you may give me. You will tell me to stop. Do you understand?"

"Bossy." She kids, breathless. She kicks his knee, but seeing as he's stopped, she nods. "I understand. Please, just don't stop."

His teeth softly scrape at her stomach. "If you wish." He murmurs. His breath is hot against her belly.

Slowly, painstakingly so, he begins to back up- taking her clothes with him. He stands at the edge of the bed, and she can feel his eyes all over her as finally her pants clear her feet. Her underwear get caught on her ankle, but he patiently slips them off a second later, lowering her legs back down onto the bed when he's done.

She gulps in a breath of air, not daring to move her arm off of her eyes.

The bed creaks as he settles back on the blankets, kneeling between her legs. She starts when he grips one of her thighs, but relaxes as second later, loudly exhaling a half-stung moan.

He maneuvers her thighs further apart, gently. "You want this?"

"Yes." She rasps.

He throws one of her legs over his shoulder. Suddenly, he grabs her hips in both hands and pulls. She gasps, throwing her arm back to brace herself as she's thrown off balance. Her eyes go wide as she looks up and finds him pulling her hips up to meet his mouth. She parts her lips to tell him he really doesn't have to, he must think it's gross, he-

She goes boneless and collapses against the pillows as she lets out a long, airy moan. His tongue slides against her easily, with just enough pressure to be on the high-side of pleasure.

"Oh-"

He closes her mouth around her without hesitation. She cries out loudly and bucks against his mouth, but his hands keep her in place. Pulling away from her momentarily, he says, "Your neighbors will hear you, woman." Evidentally, he doesn't care much to aid her in keeping quiet, because he goes right back to it.

"Ulquio-" his name breaks off into a string of detached groans.

His tongue swipes around the bundle of nerves at the peak of her sex in time with the pressure he applies. The sounds his mouth makes against her are filthy and loud- he sucks at her skin and uses his tongue to tease her, relentlessly. He sets a pace two steps shy of brutal, hands clamped tight around her hips to see that she doesn't squirm out of his hold. When she's gripping tightly enough to him with her legs that he's sure she won't slip out of his grasp, he moves one hand from her hips and to her sex, slowly sliding his middle finger inside of her.

"Oh!" She jerks and bites her lips hard to stop herself from sobbing. It's good, so good, so mind-numbingly good that she can't hardly even breathe-

He moves his finger in and out of her in time with his tongue, pressing up into her and stretching her just a tad, skin cold inside of her and too wonderful to wholly comprehend. His tongue settles into rhythm with his hand and she slams her eyes closed and tries to breathe.

She feels tears start to accumulate in the corners of her eyes, the pleasure is so intense. She throws her arm back over her face and focuses on trying to breath. "You weren't kidding." She tries to joke, but she sounds wanton and thoroughly fucked despite it. "You must have been hungry."

He hums against her and notices that her mouth falls open as she nearly sobs in bliss. "Ravenous." He says against her. He bites the inside of her thigh, as if to prove his point, and almost seems to laugh when she jerks in his grasp.

"Ulquiorra, I-" She's cut off by the unholy noise that falls out of her lips because there- right there, oh god, oh god- he's rubbing his tongue over her just hard enough, just fast enough, just right and "oh, Ulquiorra, I- I'm-"

His eyes smirk at her as he doubles his pace.

Orihime goes slack-jawed, eyes rolling back in her head as a guttural groan builds in her throat. Her stomach tightens and suddenly she's orgasming against his mouth. He doesn't stop, or slow down- adding more fuel to the fire as she rides out the aftershock rolling through her body.

She goes completely slack against him, suddenly. She's acutely aware of the sweat rolling down her thighs from the backs of her knees. Her chest is heaving, and the skin of her breasts glistens in the slight light from both sweat and Ulquiorra's saliva.

"Oh my god." She manages.

He leans back on his haunches and wipes his mouth on the back of his arm. The sight is enough to make the fire in her stomach feel like new.

She notices the obvious tent in his pants and surges up. "Let me," she says, hands tugging at his robes, "Like you did for me."

"You really needn't-" he grunts as she finally yanks his pants down, exposing his arousal to the cool night air. She nearly sends them both topping off the back of the bed, trying to rid him of his pants. He plants his hands on her shoulders and pushes her back down into bed. "Orihime."

"But you did it for me. I should-"

"Another time." He says. "I would partake in your flesh."

She blinks. Suddenly, it registers- he wants to, to- "Oh."

"Is this agreeable? I will not be angry if you wish not to-"

"Shut up." She pulls him down on top of her to kiss him. She can taste herself on his lips. "Shut up." She says against his lips. "Of course I want it. I just thought, it wouldn't be fair if-"

"It is plenty fair."

"But then, if you only get to come once, and I do it twice, it will be-"

"Just as pleasurable for me." He assures her. "Watching you is nearly enough. I would devour you again, woman. I would do nothing but for days to come." He gives her what could almost be a smile. "But then, I'm sure you'd tire of it. You're shaking as it is."

"Another time." She echoes him. The prospect makes her mouth water.

"Of course." He leans back in for another open-mouthed kiss. He groans as she warps her legs around him and brings him closer to her heat. He draws back panting, placing his forehead against hers, as though he is collecting himself. "If you are you sure you do not wish to change your mind-"

She reached between them and finds his dick. He jolts at her touch, but she's sure with her hand as she draws him closer to her, carefully. "I want you to fuck me, Ulquiorra." She says, cheeks stained red. "Don't keep me waiting."

His eyes turn hungry again. He doesn't even reply, he just rolls his hips into her hand. Carefully, he allows her to guide him to her. He hisses at the wet heat of her, clutching hard at the bedspread.

She swallows hard. Having had enough of waiting, she snaps her hips up against his.

He groans, falling against her. His head rests at her shoulder, breath hot and heavy in her ear as she stares wide-eyed at the ceiling. The stretch burns, but it's not painful- just a little uncomfortable. She wiggles her hips a bit, wondering at the sensation. She can feel Ulquiorra shaking with the effort to remain still.

"I'm fine." She promises. "Move."

He doesn't need to be told twice.

He rolls his hips once, experimentally, and seems to find it to his liking. He settles back at a more comfortable angle, holding himself up above her. His head falls back to expose his throat as he groans, snapping his hips against hers.

Orihime lets out a sharp cry and reaches up to grab his shoulders, her own head thrown back in the sheets. Her nails sink into his skin, but he either doesn't notice or doesn't care, because he continues to thrust into her without complaint.

His hair is wet with sweat and hanging around his face, sticking to his cheeks as he breathes hard. His grip on her hips is nearly bruising, but it feels good. She continues to attempt to find purchase at his shoulders and back, but the pleasure is so blinding and consuming that she has to keep scrambling to get a good grip.

"You can be a little, um," She swallows. He meets her eyes. "Harder." She says.

His Adam's apple visibly bobs in his throat.

The next rock of his hips is forceful enough to push her up against the headboard. She gasps, one hand reaching behind her to hold on to the headboard, as the other continues to scrape at Ulquiorra's back. He groans as her nails sink into him, but it doesn't seem to be in pain. He lurches forward and begins biting at her neck again. She's going to be covered in hickeys and bruises in the morning. She doesn't mind one bit.

She doesn't want him to treat her as human. "Faster."

The headboard starts to thump against the wall.

"Harder, please- please, Ulquiorra, I can take it-" She almost screams as the bed springs begin to squeak in protest.

"I'm close-" she babbles, lost in the heat and electric tinge of an imposing orgasm. "I'm so close, so close, yes, yes, like that, fuck- fuck, please, oh my god, Ulquiorra! Ulquiorra!" She sucks in a deep breath, holding him against her as she rises off the bed, mouth open in a soundless scream. Her toes curl, heat blooming and spreading from her core to the tips of her fingers, to her heals, to the small of her back, to her ears. She feels herself tighten around him and then turn to jelly, sinking back into the mattress- paralyzed in bliss.

He groans a second later and goes stiff. She feels a wet, different sort of heat flood her. Ulquiorra is still above her body for a moment, teeth sunk into his bottom lip, before he goes boneless too. He collapses on top of her, moaning against her shoulder as he turns slack.

For a time, they lay like that, trying to catch their breath as the beads of sweat on their skin begin to cool. Orihime pushes his hair away from his face, smiling at him with half-lidded eyes.

"Still hungry?" She whispers. He looks like he's fallen asleep.

"Always." He murmurs, eyes closed.

She hums out a gentle laugh.

Ulquiorra blindly reaches out for the covers that she'd kicked to the side of the bed in her scramble to open the window for him- the still open window, she notes. He pulls the blankets up over them and then doesn't move again, already seeming to fall asleep.

Orihime settles back a little, now that they're at least covered from the waist down. She gasps, suddenly- eyes wide as she takes in the bloody landscape of Ulquiorra's back.

"It will heal by the hour." He mumbles.

"Oh gosh. Sorry?"

"Do not apologize." He says. Unabashedly, he cracks open an eye. "I enjoyed it." Seeming intent to leave her blushing and embarrassed, he closes his eyes again, breath beginning to even out with the first signs of sleep.

She just shakes her head and laughs.

Smoothing his hair back away from his face, she sighs out a sleepy, "Goodnight, Ulquiorra."

"Buenas noches, Inoue Orihime."

-o-

She covers her hickeys and goes to school on Tuesday. She'd slept in most of Monday, and had decided not to go. She'd texted those who asked about her and said she wasn't feeling good- a stomach ache, she claimed.

Ulquiorra had created a red and purple minefield from her jaw to her chest. She'd blushed bright red after first seeing it, but by Tuesday morning she'd grown accustomed enough to the sight that covering it didn't make her feel ashamed, or anything like that.

She's starting to get that her life isn't going where she thought it would. Her memory is improving, but nothing else really is. She can't go to sleepover for fear or night terrors, she can't participate in the school play because the captive-princess scenario makes her shake, and the heat of the ovens in the bakery remind her of being burned by cero and bala.

Ulquiorra lets her braid his hair and listens to her talk about re-building the palace for all the hollows with a mind to live civilized life. He nods as she talks about the palace being one huge free apartment for anyone who wants. There are flaws in her plans, and he points them out one by one, but her little fantasy becomes solid and practical under his influence.

She could leave. She could live in Hueco Mundo for as long as she wants, until she feels ready to come back to real life again. She doesn't age in the other world, because her body is 'dead,' and she doubts that a return trip can do any damage the first life there didn't.

She doesn't tell her friends about what she's been thinking. She starts to put her things in order, in her head, so that she can begin to pack boxes when she gets home. Ulquiorra went back to Hueco Mundo to investigate the blue room she'd found.

"You okay?"

She blinks. Ichigo had been talking to her, but she'd started staring off into space. "Yeah, yeah. Sorry, just thinking."

"About what?"

"Aliens." She supplies. It's something the original Orihime would have said.

He cracks a grin at that- she notices his smile doesn't reach his eyes anymore. "Sounds a lot more interesting than what I was talking about. Aliens and algebra- no comparison."

"They're both a foreign concept to me." She jokes. It's a lie, of course. Orihime is a math wiz, and she thinks that if there are three worlds in earth's orbit, then there must be countless others elsewhere. She's always believed in aliens- even before she believed in death.

"Yeah." he ducks his head and looks for a moment like he might ask her something. He opens his mouth, then clamps it shut, then opens it again. He doesn't meet her gaze.

"Kurosaki-kun?"

He looks up at her. "Sorry, it's just, uh," He clears his throat. "I was wondering if you're… doing okay?"

She blinks. "Oh. Fine. Just fine!" She beams at him- fake.

"Oh. Good, good. Yeah."

"Are you… okay?"

He nods frantically. "Yeah! Yeah, totally fine. Couldn't be better."

She wonders if going to Hueco Mundo would make him better. Probably not. His hollow is the only thing in him at peace in the sands- and the word 'peace' is still quiet a stretch. She thinks for a second to mention it to him, but doesn't. "Good." She says instead. "That's good."

"Yeah." He looks away from her. "Real good."

She goes home and starts packing her clothes up that night. She'll be gone before the next snow.

-o-

Orihime sits outside with Tatsuki, the both of them holding popsicles to their mouths. Orihime picks green, and Tatsuki picks red. They're both sweaty, but Tatsuki is the worst off- she'd just finished her last local karate match. Her cheek is a bloom of black and blue, but she looks happy despite it all.

"You sure did a number on the last guy." Orihime laughs.

"Punk had it coming, aiming for my face like that." She leans over and spits in the grass- her mouth is still bleeding a little, but she doesn't seem to mind. She licks her popsicle. "It was a last-ditch effort anyway. Good thing I can take a punch, right?"

"Yeah." Orhime shifts nervously on the bench. She's been antsy all day.

"You alright there, 'Hime?"

She nods. "I'm okay." She's just nervous.

She's been thinking about how to tell Tatsuki. All day, she's gone through countless starting sentences and scrapped thousands of them. How the hell does she even start? She doesn't know how to get herself to tell Tatsuki, but she wants to- needs to. Tatsuki is her best friend, and she hopes that maybe she can arrange for the girl to visit once she makes away for Hueco Mundo.

No one will eat Tatsuki, even if Orihime's not by her side. Tatsuki would deck a hollow right in the face. Tatsuki would fight a hollow and win.

"You sure? You can tell me if something's goin' on, you know."

She does. "Well…" She just can't. "Everything is good."

Tatsuki raises a brow at her in suspicion.

"I just need to taste your popsicle!" She lunges forward and gives it a big, slobbery lick. Tatsuki laughs at her and snatches her treat away, kicking lightly at Orihime to push her back. "Mm, spit."

"Hime! You've got your own, gross!"

She just grins. She'll find a way to break the news to Tatsuki eventually.

-o-

She comes home on Friday and finds him laying in her bed. His hips are covered, so she can't be sure if he's naked, but he's certainly not wearing a shirt. She smiles and laughs upon finding him napping in her bed, throwing her stuff down on the floor next to her side of the matress.

He cracks an eye open at her.

"Sleepy?"

He closes his eyes again.

"It's hot, huh?"

He nods against the pillows.

"This should be the last heat wave before it starts getting cold." She starts shifting through her bags so she can throw her homework on her nightstand, so she won't forget about it. Her phone is… somewhere, but she can't find it right away, so she doesn't bother.

"It does not get hot like this in Hueco Mundo." he says, voice muffled by the pillows. "I was forced to accommodate."

She smiles at him. "You could have turned on the AC." She says. "Instead of getting naked." She'd turned it on upon walking in the door- it had been hotter in her apartment than it had been outside.

"This is suitable." He says. "I do not know what the AC is."

She laughs.

He turns, so that he lays on his side, and stretches a hand out towards her. "Come, woman. Sleep with me."

She bites her lip against her grin and nods. She is rather sleepy, after a long day of school. Orihime pulls her shirt off and kicks her skirt off, leaving her bra, panties, and long white socks on. She crawls up next to him and turns, letting his cold skin press against her as they spoon.

"How is this?" She asks.

"Good." He presses his nose into her neck and kisses her before making a noise of discontent. "Your cover-up tastes disgusting."

"Oh, whoops." She reaches over to the nightstand and pulls a face wipe from her package, using it to wipe her makeup off. She tosses the soiled wipe at the trashcan and misses, but doesn't move to fix it.

He kisses her again. "Alcohol." He sighs.

"You just can't win today, huh?"

"It seems that way." Ulquiorra settles in as if to sleep, his hand pressing against her belly.

Orihime flushes and can't help the way his touch turns her minds from sleeping with him to sleeping with him. She threads their fingers together in an attempt to keep things innocent.

"I can feel your pulse in your stomach." he murmurs in her ear.

She swallows. He must be aware of her arousal.

His hand slips from her grasp and begins to ghost down her body, stopping to palm her sex. She makes a noise in the back of her throat and squirms to give him room to touch her. He starts to stroke her through the cotton of her underwear, continuing to plant lazy kisses behind her ear.

She worms against him and lets out a soft mewl. As soon as the sound is out she bites her lip to hold back others, but it's too late. She can feel him growing hard against her backside. He is completely naked under the covers, it seems, and the thought that he was waiting for her like this makes her stomach clench. She reaches up and holds his head to her neck, sighing in pleasure as he laves at one of her healing hickeys.

"I want to kiss you." She sighs. He pulls his hand back and sits up, allowing her to turn and straddle him. She slings her arms around his neck and grins against his mouth, noticing that he tastes like lemonade. He'd been in her fridge. "Yummy," she teases, licking at his lips.

He threads his fingers through her hair, holding her head with tender care. His nose traces her cheek as he moves against her. They're both already covered in a thin sheen of sweat from the heat, but his skin is much cooler than hers, as usual. She likes it.

His hand creeps back down between them to rub her sex, but she has other plans. It's a lazy Friday evening, she doesn't have to be at school in the morning, and they don't have to rush a damn thing. She pulls away from him and slips off the bed, kneeling on the floor before him.

He raises a brow at her.

"Come here." She commands, grabbing his knees.

He does, slowly, so that his legs hang over the bed on either side of her body. He looks down at her and runs a hand through her hair, tugging lightly at it. She kisses the inside of his thigh once before biting into his skin, hard.

He lets out a low groan as his head falls back. His chest begins to rise and fall faster.

Orihime licks her lips and says, "If you want me to stop, tell me."

"A doubtful event." He says.

She rolls her eyes at him. Her mouth on the head of his erection shuts his sass right up, anyway.

"Woman-"

"Hmm?" She hums, and has to fight back a smile as he rolls his hips at the pleasure. She's never done this before, but she'd heard the act described countless times by the girls in school. It's not as difficult as she would have thought.

She takes the head into her mouth, mindful of her teeth- even if he has exhibited how much he enjoys it, she thinks maybe this would be an area of exception. She swirls her tongue around it, and then rubs at the bottom for a moment. His low, growling moans encourage her to attempt taking more into her mouth; almost to the point of gagging. Her hand takes what her mouth can't as she begins to bob her head, sucking and licking as she goes.

Ulquiorra's hand tightens in her hair, so she understands she must be doing good. She shifts her body, trying to ignore the pulsing ache between her thighs, and swallow around him once. He makes a noise like he's been punched and jerks his hips up into her mouth, but she draws back before he can accidentally choke her.

She starts to move her hand in time with her head, spit making her fist easily glide along his shaft as she continues to take what she can into her mouth. He's shaking with the effort not to thrust into her mouth, and when she looks up at him to see how he's doing, she finds his eyes have turned. The sclera is black, and his pupils are slits- completely hollow with his lust. She swallows and thinks, oh god he's not going to hold back when we go at it in a little bit.

The thought is enough to have her rubbing her thighs together. She tries to swallow around him once and he lets out a startled half-shout, hand pulling hard at her hair. She tries again, in time with the bobbing of her head, and he has time to say, "Woman-" before he's coming in her mouth.

Her eyes go wide. The taste leaves something to be desired, and it's hot- she hadn't expected that, for some reason. She swallows on impulse despite the unsavory flavor and texture and pulls of of him, gasping for breath.

He falls back boneless against the bed, breathing hard.

"Come here." He insists, gesturing to her with a limp hand.

She laughs a little and climbs up on top of him. "Can you go again?"

"Let me recover." He says. He pulls himself up and sinks back into the pillows, allowing her into his open arms as he tries to breathe at a steady pace. Orihime curls against his side and sighs as he tugs the sheet up over them. She thinks maybe this could last forever.

The door slams open.

"What the FUCK!?"

Orihime jumps away from Ulquiorra, a scream of surprise trapped in her throat as she scrambles away from the door and into the headboard, eyes wide. Tatsuki is standing in her bedroom door, looking like the incarnation of a tornado meeting a volcanic eruption. Her knuckles crack as she makes a fist.

"Tatsuki!" She squeaks, and frantically pulls as the covers. Ulquiorra is glaring, unmoving as she attempts to cover them better. "What are you- why are-" and then she remembers. They were supposed to go to the movies. Tatsuki must have dropped by to pick her up. "Oh my god. I'm so sorry, I-"

"Who the fuck is this!?" Tatsuki demands. "What- what is this?! What's going on!?"

"I… I was going to tell you-"

"Tell me!? Tell me what? Who is he?! Wha- what are the horns, why are you-"

"Just…" She reaches over the side of the bed for her clothes and starts pulling them back on. "Well-"

"I thought knocking was a human concept." Ulquiorra interrupts her. He glares at her like she's been lying to him this whole time.

"Not now." She hisses. Dressed, she slips out from under the covers and hurries to the door. She manages to push Tatsuki out. She looks over her shoulder as she closes the door and finds Ulquiorra curling back up to go to sleep, unmindful for human niceties.

"What. Was that?" Tatsuki demands. "He looks familiar. Is he from-"

"He's a hollow." She blurts.

"… A what?"

Orihime swallows her nervousness down. "I- I've been… I've been trying to think of a way to tell you everything. Because I'm ready now, to tell you but, um, well- this… this wasn't at all how I thought this was going to go." She puts her face in her hands, blushing so hard it hurts. "I'm sorry."

"Just…" Tatsuki reaches out and touches her shoulder, her eyes widening when she sees the hickeys there. She snatches her hands back and and then looks at the floor. "Can you just start from the beginning, or something? I'm so lost, Orihime."

She nods. "Let's sit down. I'll get us some lemonade if, um. If Ulquiorra didn't drink it all."

Tatsuki looks like she wants to say something to that. She doesn't, though. She just sits. "Alright." She waits for Orihime to come back, which she does, and then takes a sip of lemonade. Tatsuki sets her glass down and folds her hands on the table before her. "Talk." She says.

Orihime frowns at the table. "Right. Well…" She swallows. "I guess you could say this started a couple of years ago."

-o-

Everything is ready. Tatsuki knows. She's got everything packed up. She's payed all her bills and put her brother's things and everything she wont take with her in a storage unit. By the time fall comes around, she's ready to disappear.

"Hey," Ishida says. "We missed you at sewing class yesterday."

Orihime feels a flash of guilt. "Oh, I'm sorry, I-"

"It's okay, I know your memory isn't fully recovered yet." He smiles.

She's going to miss Ishida.

"Orihime," Chad says. "Your flan is in the fridge."

Orihime feels quilt swell deep in her stomach. "I forgot Sunday! Oh, Chad, I'm so sorry."

"It's okay." He says, and he means it. He smiles at her.

She's really, really going to miss Chad.

"Hey," Ichigo says, and he smiles. "Yuzu is making a big Thanksgiving dinner or whatever at my house tonight. It would be nice if you came- she's making pie, too."

Orihime feels herself crumble with a guilt-infused grief. "I'm sorry," she starts.

"It's alright." Ichigo assures her. "Next time, right?"

She'll miss them all.

-o-

"What do you think they're going to do, when they notice?" She asks. She looks out over the sands from her room, a thin blanket draped over her shoulders.

"They came for you once," he reasons.

"… I don't think I'm leaving, this time."

He nods and drops a kiss on her shoulder. "Neither will I."

"And to think," she says, softly, "That they called this all a case of nerves in the beginning. I really did just need to leave, I think. Start a new life since my old one ended.

He regards her from the corner of his eye and doesn't say a thing. Having once risen from the dead himself, and started a new life, he knows exactly what she means. "A case of nerves?" He questions.

She laughs. "I'm the nerves girl." She explains. "So I guess they would argue that my whole life is a case of 'nerves.'"

"Is that what this is?" He runs his fingers over her collarbone.

"Maybe." She says. She looks out across the unending sands. She smiles. "Maybe."