I just can't seem to get away from this pairing.
Hueco Muendo is a world so big it makes Japan pale in comparison. Its desert spans an area that dwarfs anything else Orihime had ever seen, a world so big it makes it hard for her to understand that something so large could truly exist.
And yet despite its vastness, Orihime can't help but think of it as a dead world.
Orihime had wanted a lot of things in life. She had wanted to be a teacher and an astronaut. She had wanted to make all kinds of delicious meals and stuff herself silly. She had wanted her own garden and she wanted to travel and see the world. She had wanted the moon and the stars and the big, bright future shining before her.
She never gave up on that, because it was her future and her life, and they couldn't be fighting forever could they?
It wasn't until Ulquiorra showed up before her that she saw her tracks in the sand of life come to an abrupt halt. The future suddenly didn't matter so much anymore. It became only the here and the now, and it was just a matter of survival and ensuring the survival of those most important to her.
The glass ball that held her dreams shattered and Orihime was only permitted to grasp a couple small shards before moving forward once again.
There are very few that bother her here. Most of the time she is left alone in her room with the one window that looks out on nothing. There are servants that come and go but they never say anything, and Orihime can't help but wonder if they even can say anything or if they were just mindless drones fulfilling a designated task. The only other one is Ulquiorra. He speaks but rarely, and his visits are always short. His attitude is as dry as sandpaper and though he is not a drone Orihime thinks he might as well be.
She had wondered at the beginning why Aizen had selected him to be her caretaker, jailor, bodyguard, whatever he was. But now she knew it was because he had no emotion. A man with no emotion cannot get attached or despise. To Ulquiorra she is nothing but another order that needs to be carried out.
He will be gone for days at a time, and in those days Orihime grows more fidgety and claustrophobic. She knocks codes on the wall, hoping that there are other prisoners on the other side who might be able to tap back. She stacks her plates in a neat fashion, then purposely messes them up again just to restack them. Sometimes she will play out fantasies in her head and reenact them. She finds herself needing the noise, needing to do something, anything but the deathly silence that burns her eardrums.
"You seem a little more restless than usual."
Orihime jumps in surprise at the observation. She had been unknowingly twisting the material of her gown in her fingers and tapping her foot on the floor as she stared at the wall. It is one of Ulquiorra's rare visits but Orihime had grown so used to him not saying anything she had totally forgotten about his presence.
"Sorry," she mutters, though she isn't sure what she should be apologizing for.
Ulquiorra turns his head to the side, like a dog that has found something it doesn't understand. "Has being alone this long been too much for you?"
She lies because she has no reason to tell him the truth. "No."
He stares at her for a long moment, judging her, and Orihime can't help but swallow and turn away. It bothers her when he looks at her. It feels as though he can see right through her, down to her very bones, to the very place in her heart where everything she keeps secret hides.
"Perhaps you would like to take a walk," he suggests. "Perhaps you have been in this room too long."
Orihime shakes her head. She raises her knees to her chest and wraps her arms around them. "No thank you," she says quietly.
Anything was better than that empty vastness Ulquiorra called home.
There is Aizen too. She sees him as often as Ulquirro talks, which is hardly ever. Sometimes he will order her to do something, typically heal his minions, but most of the time Aizen will just sit her down and talk to her. He will tell her all the great things he has planned, all the good he is trying to do by eliminating Soul Society. He will explain to her why his plan is good and why she should help him.
Orihime barely listens. She doesn't think Aizen cares if she does either. He just wants her compliancy, not her acceptance. Whether she agrees with him or not doesn't matter. All that matters is she does what she's told.
The only time Aizen's speech disturbs her is when he asks if she is comfortable, if she is content with her stay here. It bothers her because she knows she's a prisoner and she knows he's a bad man and she knows he shouldn't care if she is comfortable or not.
Aizen is not the stereotypical bad guy she had seen in cartoons and movies. He was not like them, who proclaimed their badness and treated everyone like crap, even their subordinates. Aizen acted like he really cared and he really did have a heart, and oh it was so hard to try and fix the world for the better good when everyone is against you.
Orihime tells him yes only so that he'll change the subject.
"What was this world like before Aizen came here?"
It is another day, another visit, and though Orihime really doesn't care much for conversation she is curious so she asks him. Ulquiorra looks quietly back at her.
"Why do you want to know about that?"
She shrugs, trying to show she has no ulterior motive. "It's just strange to me," she says. "Aizen only just came here. That must mean there was a world before this one. A world you lived in without his rule."
"That is correct," he answers. "There was a time when Aizen did not exist here."
"What was that like?"
She swears she sees a twitch in his mouth, as though he is amused. It astounds her and her hand actually curls into a fist in front of her heart.
"Before Aizen, this was a world that was full of disorder and chaos," he says. "It was a world where the occupants could travel between their own and the humans' world as they saw fit, searching and taking whatever resources they might need along the way. There were no regulations, no rules, no one to answer to. It was a world where the strong survived by taking what they needed and the weaker diminished. That was Hueco Muendo."
Orihime swallows. "It sounds like a terrible world."
Something in the way he says the word makes her straighten her back. She stares at him, breath held in her throat.
"Do you think you are free in your world?"
Her brow furrows at the strange question. "Yes, of course. Everyone is free to make their own choices."
"Do you have a choice to go to school?"
"Well, yes. There's a law that we're required to be in school but-"
"If there is a law then you're forced to go. There is no choice there. Are you free to take money whenever you need it?"
"Of course not. You have to work for it-"
"Then you are not free," says Ulquiorra. "When you have to work, you are not free. In order to attain that which you need you must work for it rather than taking it. Laws exist to prevent the taking of things. In this way, you are not free."
"Laws exist to provide stability," Orihime responds, her big eyes wider than usual. "If there were no laws, everyone would just take what they needed freely without concern for others. If laws didn't exist there would only be anarchy."
"Precisely," Ulquiorra agrees. "And that is why it is only in anarchy that we can truly be free."
She thinks of her friends a lot. She wonders what they are doing, what they thought of her, what they believed had happened. She wonders what they plan to do in the upcoming battle, hopes that they will be safe and well. She doesn't pray for them. She had given up praying after her brother died.
Words were only words. They never saved anyone. In the empty loneliness of the room she has nothing but words and they are only her own.
Outside there is the vastness of the desert that holds nothing. She stares out at it and wonders if she has disappeared from the world altogether.
"Do you miss your old world?"
She likes to ask him questions that catch him offguard. She likes to see the almost inaudible twitches in his muscles, at the corners of his mouth, the slight crinkling of his eyes. It is like discovering fossils hidden deep in the earth.
"Why are you asking that?"
"I'm just curious."
He gives her a considerate look. "Your question is irrelevant," he says in response. "Don't ask such useless things."
Orihime is not put off by the rebuff. A rebuff is better than silence. "Is it only because you don't want to answer?"
"I have no reason to answer any of your questions except for what I have been ordered to."
"Then why have you?"
His eyes narrow and she can see she has hit a nerve. When he moves, she is too slow to react and his hand circles her throat. He doesn't squeeze enough to snap her neck nor even cut off her air supply, but it is enough to hold her immobile and feel the pressure on her esophagus, and for the first time since entering Hueco Muendo Orihime was terrified for her life.
He watched her struggle futilely for several seconds, eyes hard as emeralds, then he released her and she fell to the floor gasping. He left without another word.
Ulquiorra is not the loyal servant Orihime had pegged him for. She was slowly coming to learn that. He had answered all her questions without being told by Aizen to do so. His sudden anger had proved that.
He was just as much a rebel as Grimmjaw is. The only difference is Ulquiorra is much smarter about it.
Grimmjaw was the type of rebel who liked to cause waves in the vast lake that was Hueco Muendo. He disregarded subtlety completely and in the end it only got him punished.
Ulquirro was much more restrained. His rebellions created only tiny ripples, ripples that were so small they could barely be seen at all, and could not be acknowledged as dangerous. He made subtle acts of defiance that could not be recognized as such.
Ulquiorra was, in essence, a quiet rebel, even if he didn't realize it himself.
"Do you miss your old world?"
It is Ulquorra that asks this question. It surprises her. They had not spoken for an entire week. She had been purposely ignoring him.
She turns away from the window that leads nowhere to look at him. She can't recall a time he had asked a question like that. Whenever he addressed her it was always to tell her to do something or making a simple observation, like her restlessness. He had never asked a question that required an answer without her asking him one first.
"Yes," she answers pointblank.
"I miss my friends." She answers truthfully this time because there is no reason to lie. "I miss going to school. I miss…everything."
Ulquiorra says nothing. He simply grunts, as if he had gotten the answer he expected and was disgusted by it.
He waits, for her to say something more Orihime supposes, but she has nothing left to say and finally he leaves without another word.
"I've been thinking on what you said."
Orihime is not one to hold grudges. She forgives readily and so she forgives him. She had truly been thinking about what they had talked about and was eager to show him her viewpoint. Besides, talking to him helped to remind her that she isn't the only living thing in existence.
"What I have said?"
Apparently he had forgotten.
"Oh? And what conclusion have you drawn?"
He genuinely sounded interested in what she had to say. Or was he only making fun of her? Regardless Orihime plows on.
"I don't think that it's true."
"That you can only be free in anarchy."
"What is it that you think then, woman?"
He never uses her name but, strangely, she isn't bothered by this.
"I think it's all about the basic instinct of survival," she responds. "Man is smart but when his survival is threatened he falls back into the same basic instincts that animals live by. He does only what is needed to protect himself rather than doing the right thing. I think the only way to be free is to make sure those basic instincts never come to the surface."
"And how would you do that?"
"Provisions. When all of mans' basic instincts are met, then it is possible to live in a world where there is no need to take things from others, where everyone can live happily because they are completely provided for. That is why I think the best way to get freedom is through providing these things."
"In this way then, do you think your world is free?"
"Of course not," she says, and she sees a slight twitch in his arm. "There has always been crime in my world. There are still those that die from hunger or lack of clean water or are murdered for their land. Most of the world still isn't provided for."
"Do you plan to save them then?" he jabs at her.
She shakes her head. "Only a god could do that."
The room starts to remind her of her home back on earth. Her house had been just as empty as this one, with only herself as company. Only here there is Ulquiorra, whose visits become more frequent. She has no idea why but she doesn't dare ask. It might remind him that he's not under orders to be there.
"I think that people can be free even with governments," she comments. "That's what democracy is for."
"And yet there is still corruption. Humans kill each other everyday. They swindle each other for nothing more than money. They destroy their world, use all their resources, and then point the finger at other people rather than taking responsibility themselves. Why bother with the whole charade and call it what it is?"
"What's that then?"
"Cannibalism. You feed on each other in order to get ahead. You may try and cover it up with pretty words but in the end it is what it is."
"So your society is better then?"
"No," says Ulquiorra. "They are exactly the same. We just don't try and hide it."
Her world slowly begins to dwindle down to just her room. The rest of the world had faded away and left, leaving only her behind. It is a tiny world but it is her own and she holds onto that above all else.
The only visitor is Ulquiorra, who once had seemed so silent and cold like an open grave, but is now a small salvation in her bare and hushed bubble. She can't help but admit his view of the world intrigued her. He was completely different from herself.
And since she had lost her future, Orihime has no choice but to look to the present.
"You do realize you live under a dictatorship now?"
"What a novel concept," he replies, and she wonders if he's being sarcastic. "Is that just another pretty word for slavery?"
Days trickle by her, like all the sand spanning the desert trickling through an hourglass. It is another day of absolutely nothing. Orihime sits on the couch and stares at nothing, having long since giving up reaching anybody by knocking. She has been here for weeks and Aizen had barely asked a thing of her. It was not at all what she expected. Aizen had wanted her hadn't he? So why wasn't he using her? Why did he only keep her trapped in this boring but comfortable room?
She finds herself muttering, not giving much thought to the fact of being heard and not intending for it to be answered. "Why am I even here?"
"It is because you held on to too many things."
She blinks in surprise. Ulquiorra is looking at her and it takes her a moment to flog through her brain to form a reply.
"You held onto too many things," he repeats. "When you hold onto too much, you lose it all."
Her lips part in confusion. "What do you mean?"
He sighs without opening his mouth, a sound of irritation deep in his throat. "Everyone has a load they can carry," he explains patiently. "When one holds onto too many things the load becomes too much and you are unable to carry it. Everything falls to the ground."
"But I'm not holding onto anything. I gave up everything when I came here."
"You hold onto your friends."
"I would have nothing if I let go of them."
Ulquiorra snorts. "Then you have not given up everything, have you?"
She had wanted to be a fighter. She had wanted be a healer too. She had wanted to protect everyone by fighting for them and she wanted to help everyone by healing them. She wanted to be both and not one or the other. She had wanted to be an asset rather than a burden.
The important lesson Orihime had not learned was that most of the time a person can only be one or the other. They cannot be both a healer and a fighter all at once. One cannot heal as they cause destruction.
Maybe Ulquiorra was right. Maybe she had held onto too much, had tried to carry too much. Maybe that was why her whole world had ended up falling apart. Maybe she had tried carrying so much that she had lost her grasp on it all.
"What is it you hold onto?"
"Nothing," says Ulquiorra. "I hold onto nothing."
"Because one when holds onto nothing they can grasp anything."
When Orihime sees the hougyoku she knows what she must do. Aizen had made a terrible mistake by showing her his most valued weapon.
All she has is her life and her friends, the very last two shards she has kept in her palm. If she had to give up one she knew which one it would be.
Ulquiorra had taught her the worst enemy wasn't one on the outside. The worst kind is one that is on the inside
She will reject the existence of the hougyoku.
"I feel sorry for you."
"You feel sorry for me?"
"Isn't that interesting," he comments. "Because I feel sorry for you too."
She's grateful, even if he was a total ass about it.
There are days when Orihime is allowed to forget about what she must do. The future is a black void that doesn't exist. It lets her feel as if she is on a faraway island in the middle of a sea of sand, a place that is a closed circle and cannot be touched by anything else.
"I can make tea, you know."
"Is that so?"
"Really good tea…Really, really good tea."
"Are you suggesting I bring you supplies to make tea?"
She says nothing. Only looks at him, pleadingly.
He huffs like a bull but he still does it anyway.
"Is it good?"
There is silence from the Arrancar sitting across from her.
"If it's horrible you can tell me."
"It is horrible."
The clothes she is ordered to change into are Arrancar clothes. Aizen had said she was to be one of them. Orihime didn't believe a word of it. He was only trying to emotionally wear her out. She was perfectly aware of that.
But there is Ulquiorra, a silent support that never intended to be one but ended up as one all the same.
"Stop that," he scolds her in that boring way of his as she picked at the foreign garments. "If you pick at it anymore you'll damage it."
"It's too tight."
"It makes me look fat."
"You look perfectly acceptable in it."
"I look hideous."
"You look good."
The words make her stop and she looks up at him. Ulquiorra has become very still, a surprised look on his face that was so restrained Orihime doubted anyone else would have been able to recognize it.
She smiles at him. Ulquiorra doesn't smile back. He moves like a robot to the door and quickly exits.
Orihime keeps smiling anyway.
When her friends come, it throws all her plans into disarray. She realizes she cannot die, because then it would have meant they came there for nothing. It would mean all their efforts were for naught.
Suddenly Orihime is thrust back into the world. No longer was it just her own but a multitude of other people's as well. She was forced to come back to reality.
Ulquiorra says barely anything. He stops coming to visit. He distances himself from her, because no longer can they pretend there is no war and there is nothing outside that door.
Secretly Orihime is relieved.
Ulquiorra always speaks the truth and the day he tells her how and why her friends were stupid in coming to Hueco Muendo was no different.
When she slaps him, she feels a cold wash of fear come over her. She knows he's going to kill her.
But to her amazement he doesn't strike back. He only looks at her, fully looks at her, like she had betrayed him or something, then leaves.
That was the first time Orihime cried since coming to Hueco Muendo.
"You were the one who attacked Kurosaki-kun weren't you?"
"Yes." Ulquiorra always speaks the truth, even when the truth hurts. He looks at her steadily. "Do you hate me now because of it?"
Orihime starts to cry, foolishly, insanely, not knowing why, not understanding. She forgives him anyway. "No," she chokes, "but I wish I could."
They are from two completely different worlds.
Orihime knows this and understands it. She does not belong in his world and he does not belong in hers. There is a reason he became a Hollow.
That doesn't stop her from wishing though. Wishing that reality had never caught up with them, that it was just him and her and this room, and all their conversations in between.
She wishes that things could turn out differently.
"Thank you," she tells him out of nowhere, in the dark recesses of the room before all hell broke loose, before they had been returned to reality.
She can't say for being my friend. He would only deny it. And more than likely just as he had failed to realize himself a rebel he would fail to recognize how he had become her friend. She could say for saving my sanity, but she doesn't want to admit that either.
She smiles instead, big and happy, and sits down next to him. He stares at her but Orihime doesn't explain, and he doesn't ask her to.
Words are useless anyway.
When she sleeps that night, he is there, a dark specter faintly outlined by the window that led nowhere, and she recognizes him by the horn. She doesn't stir into wakefulness, undisturbed by his presence to the point she does not jump up in alarm.
"Thank you," she hears him say.
She wants to ask why but she's so tired. She'll ask him in the morning.
He touches her face once, a soft caress on her cheek, before he fades into the darkness.
She never did get to ask him why. Her friends came the next morning and everything changed.
She carries her friends because she knows they carry her too. A load may be hard but if stretched across more people it becomes lighter. They all carry the load of each other.
Near Aizen's throne Ulquiorra is glaring at her. She stares back at him and when he approaches she stands perfectly still.
They are enemies.
He knows and she knows this. But yet they cannot help themselves.
"Are you afraid?" he asks her.
"I'm not afraid. My friends are in my heart."
"You still carry them then."
He moves to walk around her and suddenly she realizes what he's going to do. She grabs his arm.
"Don't fight him," she says. "Please, don't."
He looks down at her but he doesn't move to try and get out of her grasp. "Are you afraid for his life?"
"No," she says. "I don't want either one of you to get hurt. Just please, you don't have to do this. You said you liked your world better before Aizen came so why not help us get rid of him?"
He studies her silently for a long moment. She feels that gaze of his, as if he were searching her soul and deep into her heart where all her secrets were kept.
"You can't carry me, Orihime."
Her name. He said her name. Her knees buckle a little.
She knew she couldn't carry him. She couldn't. If she did her whole world would fall apart.
But that didn't stop her from wanting to try.
"If I cannot carry you," she says, desperate now, "then you can carry me."
He says nothing. Only stares out into the vast emptiness of Hueco Muendo.
His eye moves to look at her. "Because then my world would be destroyed," he answers. "You are too brilliant for a world such as mine. My world is a world of darkness. I cannot permit the sun to shine there. And I cannot darken yours."
She opens her mouth, ready to protest, but suddenly his hand was on her face just like that night, and the words died on her tongue. He kisses her softly, like she were a precious flower he admired but could not have. The gentleness of his actions make her cry all the more.
"Thank you," he whispers. "If it had been at all possible I would have let you carry me."
Then in a flash of black she can't catch, he was gone.
Nobody could understand why she cried in the ruins that day. She wouldn't say and people finally chalked it up to the stress of her imprisonment.
Orihime never explained either because words were useless. They wouldn't understand.
Maybe in his own way he had grasped her, and in doing so knew that his world would have to come to an end. Maybe he had slithered inside her heart when she wasn't looking and curled there for the rest of time.
Mostly though, she had her world intact. She had a future again. That was a gift he had given her that could never be replaced.
But she thanked him for that part too.