She doesn't have much of an excuse for being so tardy, other than she got a little caught up with her new fiction - which should be out later on this week, hopefully.
She hopes this chapter offers more insight into the previous chapter - thanks to the many, many people that have reviewed, and continue to read this fiction. And a special thanks to softwelshrain, who BETAs so well.
The next evening, when the door coughed open, she barely glanced up from the hairpins held between her fingertips, not wanting to confirm what she already knew. She doubted that he would come then, or the next day, or even the day after that.
And a part of her was relieved by that, but the small, ugly part in her snorted and told her that she wasn't relieved, not really, because a Hollow is better than nobody at all.
So when she saw him, Ulquiorra, his silhouette sharp against the faux light of Hueco Mundo and casting an eerie shadow on her white white walls, she stifled a squeak of surprise.
He had shunned her for reasons milder than this one before (never mind that the other one was his fault), and it was with true surprise that she stared at him. She was unable to react, to greet him with anything but a weak smile, strained, hints of gratitude peeking through the cracks.
She said nothing to him that evening, partly in a sort of apology for what she had instigated, and partly because she didn't quite know what she could say. The incident of the previous evening had burnt her in all of the wrong ways, and she didn't quite know how to act around him now.
He too, remained silent, but that was more out of a natural inclination than anything, she thought. It was awkward, she was awkward, but she thought that perhaps that was better than him not being there at all.
The food quickly disappeared, and so did he.
The next night, he came again, and this time she mustered the courage to say hello. He said nothing in return, but the silence that swallowed her greeting was not as biting, as icy as it could have been, and she took solace in that.
She wondered if he had already forgiven her, and wanted to ask, but in the end, decided against it. After what she had discovered, she didn't know if he could.
She didn't want to risk it, anyway. Any company is good company, after all.
The night after that, she said she was sorry. She wasn't sure whether she was apologising for what she had done, or for what he was. For what he couldn't feel, for what he would never know, what he would always be lacking in (a heart, a red warm heart).
There was true sincerity, compassion, in her voice, and he acknowledged it with a blank stare, before ignoring her completely.
And things would never be normal, but she knew now that they could still work.
As best they could, anyway.
A question came to Orihime Inoue while she was enthusiastically tucking into the noodle dish that whoever or whatever had decided to feed her that night. It made her pause, and it sent a little pang straight through her. The chopsticks dropped carelessly.
It was funny, how she hadn't thought of it before. And how important it seemed.
"What day is it?" She asked him, curious and wistful.
He said nothing for the longest time.
"It's irrelevant," he told her eventually.
She could not help the heavy sigh that fell from her lips, as her cheek rested on her knuckles, and an idle hand collected a chopstick to prod at the quivering mass of winding white and green. "I wish I knew," she said, not really to him, or even to herself.
His voice did not change when he said, "Sometimes it's better not to know," and her eyes swung to his. He stared at her dully, but somehow, she was comforted all the same.
Her lips curved up into the gentlest of smiles.
He merely looked right through her.
Orihime spent the day doing handstands.
She had done nothing short of bouncing out of her bed that morning, filled with an inexplicable energy that made her fingertips tingle and her brain trip over itself thinking and thinking and thinking andthinkingandthinkingandthinkingthinkingthinking!
It was the sort of nervous energy that filled her when she was going to a fair, or grocery shopping, or when she had Art class and she had finished a masterpiece the previous night, and she was certain that her teacher would like this one!
Days like that, unbeknownst to Orihime, would fill Tatsuki with dread, because by the time she arrived at Orihime's to escort her to school, the girl was already up and had made them both a generous breakfast. And, of course, Tatsuki would choke down every last bite, because she could never refuse Orihime anything, and eating her food was just another trial to be endured.
It was a pity that Orihime wouldn't do everything that Tatsuki wanted. Or, even if she knew what Tatsuki wanted.
If Orihime had been a little less naive, if her head wasn't so much in the clouds, perhaps she would have realised a few things about Tatsuki, about her willingness to give, and her need to protect her closest friend that would have thrown her utter devotion into a different light.
But she wasn't, and therefore she didn't, and so she never caught the looks that Tatsuki cast her when her back was turned. And if she ever did, she never thought anything of them.
Indeed, few thoughts of Tatsuki crossed Orihime's mind when she was parading around her little room upside down, her jacket flopping about her ears in an undignified manner. Her nose was screwed up in concentration, and she was frowning with the effort.
Five, six, seven.
She fell in an ungraceful heap, before recovering. She leapt up and gave herself a little cheer. Seven seconds! A new record!
Just wait until she told Tatsuki!
...And then she remembered that Tatsuki wasn't there to tell.
Dinner was an unceremonious affair. She considered telling Ulquiorra that she managed to stand on her hands for seven seconds, but she didn't think he would really care.
She would just have to tell Tatsuki when she finally got back from Hueco Mundo, she thought adamantly, and steadfastly ignored the little voice, the one that asked her if she really thought that it would happen.
She had gotten very good at ignoring that little voice.
"Do you know what I miss most?" She asked the empty air of her cell.
He ignored her, but she wasn't really talking to him anyway.
She turned towards the window. "It's the sun on my face," she murmured, closing her eyes against the ice of the moon, and imagined a warmth that wasn't there.
She heard the hiss of the door as it opened, and when she turned around, he was gone.
It was then that she realised that he never got to see the sun, either.
The cold of the room made her bones ache. That white light (well, not light, because it didn't illuminate, so much as emphasise the darkness. Anti-light?) threw the entire cell into gloom, seeming almost to suck the warmth out. She kept the light on, but it never made a difference.
Her accommodation was always dominated by shadows.
She noticed, a long time ago, that the bone of Ulquiorra's helmet seemed to reflect that odd light. Shining like the armour of an English medieval Knight, the ones she saw in history books.
Always saving a damsel in distress.
But when she allowed her flights of fancy to overtake her, it was always Ulquiorra who was the dragon, and Ichigo who was her shining Knight in armour, wielding his Zanpakutou and holding her as she swooned. Of course she swooned. She was a damsel.
Until one night, when it was Aizen who was the monster, an enormous dragon with pleasant brown eyes and a flicking forked tongue, who breathed poison, and the man who burst through and saved her was Ulquiorra. His face impassive as he slew The Dragon King.
It was then that she wondered why it was that the Espada were white, and the Shinigami were black, because aren't the good guys supposed to be in white?
He wore black
And I wore white,
And she leant on the window sill, her eyelids shut against the ice of the moon while she hummed a tune she hadn't heard in years.
He would always win the fight
The air seemed to be made of swords. Souls swords.
Agony. Can't breathe. Pain. Cold. So cold. Always cold.
Fever, or despair?
A voice. Soothing. Salve.
Sleep, it said. And he did.
She had dreamt that Kurosaki was still alive. That he had saved her, and Ulquiorra had turned into a giant monster with snakes for hair, his white face glowing like the moon. And then the monster was Aizen, who laughed and laughed and laughed.
When she awoke, she still fancied that she could feel the warmth of Ichigo's body beneath her fingertips.