Hueco Muendo is a dry, barren place. It is gray, featureless, and boring. It is also the place Ulquiorra calls home.
Why he was chosen to be her bodyguard he doesn't know nor does he particularly care. He just does as he's told. She does interest him a little, though he will never admit this outloud. Beyond Aizen's interest, which is only her powers, it is her personality that intrigues him.
He sees her once or twice a day. It is never for long; in and out, only long enough to carry out his orders.
Regardless, he is the one Orihime sees the most. As the days trickle into weeks, she sheds some of her inhibitions, becomes more like the strong woman that had caught his attention. He knows she is desperate for some sort of contact. Anything that will ease her mind from it's constant wondering of when and where and what. He is the very unlikely candidate.
She engages him in conversation. Or tries to. His answers are short and to the point. Orihime makes many attempts. Finally, after many defeats, she gives it up altogether.
When she is alone now, she talks to herself. She talks about her day and what is happening both around and inside her. Sometimes she says she wishes she were stronger. Sometimes whimpers and sniffles.
Ulquiorra doesn't purposely eavesdrop but he hears anyway. He doesn't really care what she does so long as she doesn't try something stupid like escaping. Still, he is curious so he asks her, "Who do you talk to when you're alone?"
It is the first time he has asked her a question that didn't have to do with Aizen's plan or her comrades. Orihime's fork freezes halfway to her mouth. "Ho-how do you know about that?"
"Just answer the question."
She blinks and lowers the fork slowly to the plate. "My brother," she answers. "I talk to my brother."
"And where is he?"
Her answer is short. It is unlike her past chatter and he can see she is not telling the whole truth, that there is more to her story than she is revealing, something painful and recent. Ulquiorra doesn't care much. He doesn't respond.
Orihime looks directly at him. "Did you have any brothers?"
"I have lots of brothers."
"No," she shakes her head. "I don't mean the Arrancar. I mean when you were human."
Ulquiorra almost laughs at her question. Almost. "When I was human?"
"All hollows are human, right? Weren't you human once?"
Ulquiorra stiffens. He says nothing.
Orihime doesn't catch it. "Do you remember who you were?" she persists.
For a moment, he has the urge to strangle her. To press his hands to that white throat and tighten his grip until she can no longer ask any questions. He tightens his hand into a fist instead. "You insinuate a lot," he tells her, "for a girl who doesn't know much. I suggest you keep opinions like that to yourself. Others won't take so kindly to foolish observations like that one."
"Foolish observation or not," Orihime responds, eyes wide, "is it the truth?"
Ulquiorra regards her for a moment. He takes a step toward her. Reflexively she draws back. Smoothly he bends down and retrieves the fork she had unnoticeably knocked over.
"I'll get you another one."
For once, she was silent as he left.
He had been created through the hougyoku. By Aizen and through the hougyoku. What he had been before that he didn't know, had never asked. If he had been a hollow or human or a human before becoming a hollow was unknown. All he knew was that he was created by Aizen. What he had been in that time before memory, he had no idea. He was Aizen's now.
He hates Orihime's question. Aizen had 'raised' him to think of the Arrancar as one identity, as if they were each a part of a body working together. Ulquiorra wasn't supposed to be a whole being. He was only a part that made up a whole.
Ulquiorra touches the hole in his neck. He runs his fingertips along the smooth edge and wonders why it isn't jagged. Wonders how a piece missing could be so perfect in shape.
It is even more perfect than the endless gray sands.
"Why do you talk to your brother?"
Exhausted from Aizen's orders all day, she looks hazily up at him from her sprawled position on the bed. If she is surprised by his sudden interest, she doesn't show it. "Back on that?"
Ulquiorra disregards her question. "You said he was dead."
"Why do you keep talking to him then?"
Orihime shrugs into the cushion. "I believe he can still hear me."
Ulquiorra snorts. "Idiot. He can't hear you anymore. Not if he was sent to Soul Society."
Too tired to argue with him, she closes her eyes. "I suppose then," she says, "it makes me feel better."
Ulquiorra grunts in a half-amused half-fascinated way, as if someone has just told him a joke that was not meant to be funny.
Orihime opens up her eyes. She peers up at him. "Why?" she asks. "Don't you do it?"
"There wouldn't be a point."
"No one is there to hear," he explains patiently. "You are simply talking to air."
"Then you're missing the point." She yawns, nearly asleep. "The point isn't to make sure someone listens. The point is just to talk. Sometimes it helps to pretend someone is listening even if they aren't. It helps to think you aren't always alone."
Ulquiorra doesn't understand her reasoning at all. "What a foolish idea."
Orihime smiles faintly. "Maybe. But it makes me feel less alone so what does it matter if it's foolish?"
Ulqoirra still doesn't understand. He has never known what its like to be truly alone and he doesn't think he ever will.
When they beat her, she never cries. She doesn't get angry either or, if she does, she never shows it. Her only expression is sadness, as if she feels pity for those beating her rather than for herself.
The female Arrancar hate her most of all. They tell her she's worthless and weak. They call her Aizen's pet and threaten that she'll no longer be pretty when they're through.
Ulquiorra never participates nor is he ever there for the beatings. But he is always present for the aftermath. He watches her, silent, as bruised and bloody, she will flinch and groan. No tears escape from under her eyelids.
Orihime, he has realized, never cries for herself. She only cries for other people.
"Do you ever feel like you're the last person alive in the entire world?"
"Good," she says, means it. "Good."
When he is gone, they slither to the room like rats to a piece of cheese. They won't come when Ulquiorra is there. They aren't that foolish.
Neither are they foolish enough to kill or physically maim her permanently. Bruises and cuts will do, small wounds that only take days to heal. Aizen doesn't care what they do if Orihime is still capable of functioning.
They scatter when Ulquiorra starts to return. They know he would harm them if he caught them.
Regardless of her wounds, Ulquiorra doesn't offer her help. She doesn't ask for it either. Silent, he watches her limp to the bed.
Outside there is the moon and through the lone window the moonlight pours in. It turns her unshed tears into silver droplets.
"Do you ever feel like that?" he asks out of nowhere.
"Feel like what?"
"Like you're the last person alive in the world."
Orihime closes her eyes. She exhales. "Now I do."
He stands outside her door the rest of the night and chases away the shadows that crawl across the floor.
"Why do they hate me so much?" she whispers.
"Because nothing beautiful lives here."
Her comrades fall one by one. First is the female Shinigami, followed shortly thereafter by the red-haired one. Then Ichigo. Surprisingly it is the Quincy that fights the longest.
He dies with her name on his lips.
Orihime doesn't cry at first. She doesn't believe that they could be dead.
Ulquiorra tells her about every single one in detail. Not because he wants to torture her but simply because he despises people who don't realize and accept reality. Ulquiorra does not live on false hope or dreams or any sort of picture for the future. Ulquiorra resides simply in the present.
Orihime cried a great deal for them after that.
She heals the wound Ichigo gave him. She doesn't ask him where he received the wound and he doesn't tell her. Still, her eyes are downcast and she says nothing to him for the rest of the day.
Ulquiorra pretends not to notice.
Ulquiorra was heartless enough to tell her that Ichigo was killed.
He wasn't quite heartless enough to tell her that he was the one who did it.
Chad lives longer than the others. Rather than being slaughtered, he is kept alive. With a power as unique as Orihime's, Aizen is curious to know how it came to be. They do experiments on him for days.
Orihime never sees the torture but she feels it. She trembles throughout and sighs with relief when his reiatsu finally fades.
Foolishly, she had thought that by coming here she had saved those she loved. She is almost painfully predictable. The good mother who is willing to sacrifice herself for her 'children'.
Now all her children are gone.
"I think," she says one day quite suddenly, as if waking up from a deep sleep. "I think I would like to go home now."
Ulquiorra looks at her over the empty space and empty silence between them. She is always making him point out the obvious. "You can not leave."
Orihime's mouth twists into a frown. "What do you hope to gain by all this?" "Aizen-sama wants the world."
"That isn't what I asked," she says, fingers twisting in her gown. "I know what Aizen wants. What do you hope to gain?"
Ulquiorra stares at her for a long moment. He's never thought about it and her question twists something in his gut, as if she has found something acutely obvious that he has somehow overlooked. It makes him uncomfortable.
"Does it matter?"
Orihime smiles sadly at him. "No," she says. "I suppose not."
She talks to all of them now. Rukia, Ishida, Chad, even Renji, whom she didn't know that well. Out of all of them though, she talks to Ichigo most of all.
Ulquiorra is observant enough to know she felt something for the orange-haired shinigami. He almost wishes he could have told Ichigo before he killed him that she had loved him. Maybe it would have made Ichigo fight harder, like the Quincy had.
Or maybe that was exactly why Ulquiorra had fought the hardest.
"You've been talking to your friends lately." He makes the observation pointblank, not caring if she minds the invasion of privacy.
Orihime wipes at her face. "Yes," she admits.
"What do you say to them?"
"That I miss them." She chokes a little, her hand curling around her throat. "And that I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
"For getting them all killed."
Ulquiorra snorts. He turns away from her towards the door. "It wasn't your fault," he states.
Orihime looks sharply up at him. "What?"
"I said it wasn't your fault." He turns slightly towards her, enough for her to see the profile of his face. "They made their own decision to come here," he says. "Whether they died or not has nothing to do with you. You hold no blame for their deaths."
For a moment, he half expects her to slap him again. Instead, though she doesn't look convinced, she sighs gently. "Thank you for that."
Ulquiorra leaves the room, feeling uncomfortable in his own skin. He would have preferred she had slapped him. He would have known how to deal with that better.
At night, from inside the room, there is a dull thump. Something has fallen and hit the floor. Ulquiorra, the ever watchful watchdog, rises. He enters without knocking.
Orihime is on the floor, some several feet from the bed. She twitches, spasms, murmurs something in her disordered state. Her eyes are closed.
Ulquiorra stands above her. Her lips move silently. Her fingers twitch, trying to catch some far away thing in her dreams.
After several moments, he bends down. He hesitates. Except for the time she had hit him, he has never felt her touch or touched her.
He lays his hand on her arm. The hole in his neck starts to burn. Forcefully he ignores it.
He gathers her into his arms. At the bodily movement, she awakes.
Ulquiorra freezes. He stares at her.
Orihime blinks dazedly at him. She reaches up. Softly she touches the markings on his face. "Tears," she says. "Why?"
In the morning, he is by her bedside. She fidgets in her sleep, muttering with nightmares. He touches her forehead – to check for fever, he says to himself - and she opens her eyes.
He doesn't move. They stare at each other for a long moment. Finally, he steps back.
"You were talking to your brother again."
She says nothing. She swallows.
"Does he ever answer back?"
The difference between them, Ulquiorra thinks, is that Orihime's world is full of choices. The only consequences Orihime has to face are consequences she's brought on herself.
Ulquiorra's world is full of orders. He has no consequences to face because he does only as he told.
He has never felt guilt because nothing was ever his doing. Orihime is full of guilt because even though he forced her to make a choice, she still made one. It was a lose-lose situation for her. No matter what she could have done, she would have come out the loser.
You wear your hole on the inside, he thinks and listens to her talk to her dead friends through the door
"Please." Shaky and sweaty, she falls on her knees before him. She pants against his shoes. "Please," she begs, "help me escape."
He moves back, out of her reach. "You are beyond groveling," he responds. "Stand up."
As usual she doesn't listen to him. She shivers on the floor, small and helpless, so unlike the strong woman he had seen on so many occasions before.
It disgusts him. "Get up."
"Will you help me?"
"Don't be foolish."
For a moment she is silent, shivering mutely. Then she looks up at him. "If you won't do that," she says, "will you let me kill him?"
Across her face, he can she her losses stretching by, a perfect circular hole. "No."
She almost reaches for him, thinks better of it.
Ulquiorra stares at her. His nose wrinkles. She smells of tears and despair and things lost. It reminds him, strangely, of the hole in his neck.
Ulquiorra leaves because the sight of that makes him disgusted too.
He doesn't return until she is fully composed. Silent and pensive, she sits with her hands softly folded across her lap.
It is Ulquiorra that speaks first. "Why do you want to escape?"
Orihime looks to the open window, where the harsh sun makes harsher light on the floor. "Why indeed," she murmurs, like she is talking to herself.
"You have nothing left out there for you," he continues. "You've lost everything."
She doesn't flinch at his harsh words. "I know."
"Then why even want freedom?"
She turns to him. She smiles a sad, secret smile. "Didn't you know?" she says. "Freedom is just another word for nothing to lose."
It never rains in Hueco Muendo but today there are clouds.
"Today," she says. "I think today will be the day." She lays her hand on her hair, as if to check if her hair pins were still there.
"Today," she nods. "Today I will end it."
Orihime doesn't answer him. Instead she looks him in the eyes. "If I attacked Aizen would you kill me?"
Ulquiorra freezes. Something drops inside him, like a trap door opening up. "Is that what you are planning?" he asks carefully.
Orihime doesn't respond. One hand is fisted over her heart. Her eyes are wide, desperate. "Please," she begs.
Ulquiorra gazes at her and suddenly he knows what it feels like to be the last person alive in the world. He closes his eyes. "Yes," he whispers.
She smiles at him. "Thank you."
He doesn't move when she leans toward him and the kiss she gives him sets his neck on fire.
Ulquiorra has never known what it was like to be alone because he has never had something that belonged only to him. He has never had something belong solely to him only to have it taken away.
If he could curse her, he would, because it's her fault he feels this way. But now she is done, done and over.
At last, Ulquiorra truly understands what she meant.
"You were talking to somebody last night," Grimmjaw comments.
Ulquiorra glances darkly at him from the corner of his eye. He says nothing.
"Who were you with?"
"Then who were you talking to?"
Ulquiorra doesn't answer for a long moment. "Nobody," he says finally. "Nobody at all."
Across the endless sands, Ulquiorra takes one step forward.