A Different Kind of Western

Fandom: Bleach
Type: One-shot
Pairing: Kind of Orihime / Ulquiorra and kind of not.
Word Count: 5,065
Summary: Escapist fantasy is all well and good until someone loses an eye. (Orihime never really learned this, and no one ever knows what Ulquiorra's thinking anyway.) Post-Bleach.

A/N: Definitely an experiment, but writing from Orihime's perspective is always an interesting experience. Set post-Bleach and therefore very AU. I don't really follow Bleach closely anymore so there might be some inaccuracies too.

Although the paint was a very enticing colour of blue – like oceans in travel magazines or jello before it sets completely or even like if you spill berry Kool-Aid on your white shirt -- Orihime knew that it certainly didn't taste like any of those things. So she just ran the back of her hand across her face, smearing the drip of paint that had landed on her.

Leaping down off the coffee table she looked up and admired her work. It had taken her hours and her neck kind of hurt – like when you fall asleep on the train and then when you wake up you can't turn your head too fast or else – but the ceiling in her living room was now the most perfect, cloudless sky blue.

Sky blue like a real sky, the sort that if you could manage to look away from it for a minute you might see palm trees and ladies in pink with small dogs and a fancy Cadillac or two and even the sidewalks would shine because that's how perfect it was. A Hollywood sky of the movies. Not a grey one like you see during autumn in the city or even a sky like right now – all dark and night and more black than blue, really.

A couple more drops fell from the ceiling, this time onto the cream-coloured carpet, and Orihime was delighted that she had put the paint on thick enough for it to drip like rain. The man at the store who had sold her the paint had told her to put plastic all over her furniture and the floor before she painted the ceiling, but she thought it was better that she didn't. Now her living room was unique.

The sound of gunshots came from the television and Orihime went to sit on the paint-splattered floor to watch the film. She liked to have movies playing when she was at home even if she wasn't watching them because her house was too big for one person and the chatter from the people on screen was almost like having real people with her. It had to be movies too, because the people on talk shows and new reports were too boring. She'd much rather be friends with astronauts or talking dogs or martial artists – those last type of films even had an added bonus because sometimes Tatsuki would come over to watch them with her.

On-screen, the man in the black hat moved his hand towards the gun in his belt but the cowboy in the white hat was smooth and unperturbed as he drawled some clever remark. Westerns were Orihime's favourite type of movie because she knew that no matter how many trains were looted, ranches burned, or saloon girls kidnapped, the man in the white hat would always win. He had to, because he was the good guy and that was the way the universe was supposed to work.

Orihime would have liked to continue watching the movie but the paint smell left a funny taste in her mouth and she was starting to feel lightheaded. So she went outside onto the small balcony where the night sky was not at all like her newly painted one on the ceiling. It was dark and the summer air was warm and although the moon shone brightly the stars were faint because they didn't like the city lights competing with them. Around the handrail of the balcony were Christmas lights that Orihime kept forgetting to take down but by now it was almost halfway to the holidays anyway so she had decided to just keep them up. Besides, she thought they were pretty and couldn't see why anyone would want to put them in the attic for most of the year when they could glow so cheerfully all year round.

Something in the sky caught her eye and Orihime gasped as a brilliant speck of light travelled through the darkness. She couldn't believe her luck – how often did anyone see a shooting star? For once she was glad that no one was there with her, because Tatsuki always made fun of her and told her they weren't stars, they were airplanes. Maybe this was true but Orihime always wished on them anyway because even if a hundred of them were airplanes there was always the chance that one might be a real wishing star.

Orihime closed her eyes and clasped her hands together because that was what you were supposed to do when you made wishes. She thought about what she wanted more than anything – what she had been wishing for ever since they'd sealed the arrancar in their secret desert underworld base and the weeks of celebration with her friends that meant life had become ordinary again, except for the whole special powers thing and the occasional jaunt into the Soul Society.

"Dear star," she said out loud, pitching her voice like in a school presentation so it would carry and if she was lucky enough the star might even hear her. "Please grant me a wish." She took a deep, excited breath because there was something special about that night and she could tell that this time for sure it was a real star and not an airplane. "I want to have another adventure. I know it might sound selfish because I already went on a great one, but I want to be like the people in the movies just one more time."

She opened one eye to make sure the star was still there. It continued on its path across the sky and even if it seemed indifferent to her pleas at least it hadn't disappeared completely. "And if you're feeling really nice today," she added quickly, closing her eyes again, "I also wish for a friend to go on the adventure with me."

Before she had the chance to open her eyes, the doorbell rang.

She couldn't help but smile as wide as she could because she knew – she knew – that it couldn't be anyone other than the sidekick she'd wished for. "Thank you star!" she called out at the sky before running back into the house. She flew down the stairs and Tatsuki would have yelled at her because she threw open the door in the dead of night without even checking the peephole to make sure it wasn't an axe-murderer or a knife salesman.

On her front step stood Ulquiorra, his hands stuffed into his pockets. He looked about the same as she'd seen him last, which is to say severely depressed and generally considered more alarming than just your run-of-the-mill human psycho.

They both stared at each other in silence for a moment although it didn't really sound like silence to Orihime because her heart was beating so fast. Ulquiorra blinked at her slowly, then opened his mouth to say something. Before he could speak, Orihime put a finger to his cold lips, cutting off his words.

"Shh," she said and drew him inside before he could speak to break the spell and disappear and she might wake up to find that this was all a dream.

She closed the door and turned to face him although she didn't have to move much because the hallway was so narrow that they were almost squished together. From so close she could see how truly pale his face was and the strange way that light reflected off his eyes, almost like a cat, and she wondered if this was actually a horror film and he was a vampire but he made no move to bite her neck and feast on her delicious blood so she guessed that wasn't it. She didn't know quite what to say and didn't know how he was there – they'd sealed them all in, hadn't they? – but she'd made her wish and now maybe it was really coming true. She couldn't mess up this opportunity.

She knew that, former enemy or not, he had to stay with her if they were going to have the adventure she'd wished for, so she tried to remember what the women in the old movies did. If they wanted a gentleman to leave they would usually chase him out with a frying pan or a broom or call their husbands but Orihime didn't want Ulquiorra to leave and she didn't have a husband anyway. She couldn't remember exactly what they did to get men to stay, but she knew that they usually wore pretty skirts and were good hostesses. Orihime was in a pair of overalls covered in paint but she guessed she could be a good hostess anyway.

"Would you like some tea?" she asked in her best delighted-you-stopped-by hostess voice, then grabbed his hand and pulled him upstairs.

She left him in the newly painted living room and told him she wouldn't be long. Alone in the kitchen, Orihime put on the kettle and had to resist clapping her hands with glee. She always knew that shooting stars granted wishes and couldn't wait to tell Tatsuki that she had been right all along. Of course, that would have to wait until after she and her new sidekick had gone on their grand adventure.

When Orihime emerged from the kitchen with a big pot of peppermint tea, Ulquiorra was sitting on the couch and looking the same as he always looked. Orihime set down the tea and the mugs and chattered away about how she hoped he liked peppermint and she really should have asked first. When at last everything was poured and in place, she sat on the chair opposite from him. He didn't move to pick up his mug, only kept staring at her with his same unreadable expression.

"It's so nice to see you, it's really been too long," Orihime said as she sipped at her tea that was still too hot and burned her tongue but she knew she couldn't wince because that might destroy this fragile dream that she was in.

Ulquiorra didn't reply, but he did look upwards as a big splash of blue paint fell from the ceiling onto his face just beside one of the dark lines on his skin. The paint on Ulquiorra's cheek looked like a teardrop but thank goodness it wasn't real because Orihime didn't like it when people cried.

When she was six, her brother had saved up whatever they didn't need for rent to buy her a hamster. It was small and white and so cute even though it bit her when she tried to pet it and Orihime saved up her allowance so she could buy a wheel for its cage. The hamster ran all night and the metal wheel squeaked so loud that she could hear it in her bedroom. Her brother seemed irritated some reason but Orihime was happy that the hamster was having so much fun with the present she'd got it. She loved it even though it kept trying to bite her and she named it Teddy and was always a little confused as to why her brother called it That-Damned-Rat after it had been particularly energetic the night before. Then one night a few months later there was no squeaking and the next morning the hamster didn't move or breathe and her brother looked from the hamster to Orihime a few times and when Orihime asked him what was wrong with her pet he got tears in his eyes and had to look away. That was the first time Orihime could remember seeing someone else cry. She decided then that she didn't like it because when someone else cried it made her feel sad too. So she was very glad that Ulquiorra wasn't crying, even though his eyes were big and round and mournful and his mouth was in a frown – he was just always like that, she knew.

Then another big drop of paint fell, this time into his tea.

"I'll get you a new cup," Orihime offered with a cheerful smile because she knew that good hostesses always had a cheerful smile even when unexpected things happened.

"I do not drink tea," said Ulquiorra in his usual monotone, and Orihime waited two heartbeats before she felt relief – he hadn't disappeared and this really was all happening.

Orihime felt reassured enough to try for a conversation. "So how have you been?" she asked politely.

"I have no idea why I came here," he said suddenly and Orihime thought that if zombies really did exist and there was a really sad one, he would have a voice like Ulquiorra's. "It is not as though you could help, or that I would ask for your help in any case. I did not come to warn you either, because I do not care if you live or die. The time I spent as your captor made no impression on me. I do not know why I am here."

Orihime wondered how he could say all these mean things in his bland, flat voice, as though he was just talking about something normal like the weather or school or what he'd had for dinner, but she knew she had to keep listening if she wanted to find the start of her adventure.

"I broke out of Las Noches," he continued the same tone as ever. "It required sacrifices and betrayal but I broke free from that accursed seal placed by you and the shinigami. I decided that finally I would be free from Aizen too, but the traps I set failed and soon he will be free. And he will come, knowing what I did."

Orihime's eyes went wide and she bobbed her head to show that she understood but even though he kept talking she couldn't really concentrate on what he was saying because she was too busy mentally thanking the wishing star. This was the start of her adventure. And even if he said that there was nothing between them, she'd read about this before in books – hostages and captors can form a strange bond and as much as he tried to deny it, he had somehow ended up on her doorstep when he needed someone the most.

"You're absolutely right," she blurted out, interrupting his perpetually melancholic words and perhaps some important details of his escape. "Aizen will come after you. So we'll need to do the right thing." She set her mouth in what she hoped was a look of heroic determination. "We'll need to lead him out of town, away from people he can hurt."

Ulquiorra stared blankly. "I do not care how many humans are ki—"

But Orihime was too busy planning their adventure to hear his objections. "—And of course we'll have to go into hiding to keep you safe. It's my duty to keep you safe." She paused dramatically and she thought that if this were a film they might do a close-up on her at this point. "No, not my duty. It's my destiny."

This made perfect sense because after all what could a wish-come-true be other than destiny?

If he were a real actor in a real movie and capable of real emotions, Ulquiorra might have arched an eyebrow. But of course none of this was true. "I do not believe you are capable of keeping me safe, nor did I ask you to do so."

Despite his words he gave no indication that he intended to leave and Orihime found that she pitied him a little. He was kind of like Teddy, who would bite her even though she was the only one he could depend on for love and security and fresh cedar shavings and yummy hamster food. She thought it might be a bit absurd to compare the dangerous arrancar who had once held her captive to her tiny childhood pet, but as long as he never found out it was probably alright.

"You should stay here tonight," she suggested because it was getting late and she was tired after painting the ceiling. "I'll lend you some pajamas."

"I do not require sleep," he said but followed her into the bedroom anyway.

Despite his words he took a pair of her pajamas – the dark blue ones with sleepy moons on them – and let her push him into the washroom to change. Orihime put on her green pajamas with frogs on them and thought about what to do next. She wished she had paid more attention to the movies because then she'd know more about what people were supposed to do the night before they went on a dangerous journey together. She had a vague idea but she wasn't sure she could pull it off entirely so she just unbuttoned the very top button on her pajamas and propped herself up on the bed with an elbow.

"I don't have an extra bed and the couch is all covered in paint so you'll have to sleep here." She thought her voice sounded more like a whine than a purr but maybe he wouldn't notice.

"I do not require sleep," Ulquiorra repeated but Orihime knew in her heart that he was just trying to act tough because that's what protagonists often did.

"Also the heater is broken so we'll need to use our body heat to stay warm," she informed him because that was a line that seemed to work well.

Even though it was mid-summer and the house was already so warm that you'd have to be mad to turn on the heater, Ulquiorra slid silently under the covers and rolled over so he faced away from her.

Satisfied, Orihime settled onto her side of the bed and tried to sleep, which was kind of hard because she was so excited that everything was going so well.

In the morning Orihime made them whole-wheat pancakes with tofu cubes in them because breakfast was the most important meal of the day, especially when you were going to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. She had planned on using strawberries but when she found them in the back of the fridge they were all shriveled and moldy and since tofu was a good healthy substitute for anything she decided to use that instead.

Ulquiorra sat at the breakfast table and frowned at the pancakes but since this was normal for him Orihime guessed that this meant he was enjoying them immensely. He ate slowly and methodically and Orihime was a bit disappointed that his white arrancar outfit had a high enough collar to hide the hole at the bottom of his neck so she couldn't find out exactly how he managed to swallow his food.

"We need to get you some new clothes," she noted because even though she thought arrancar outfits were pretty swanky they weren't exactly adventure material. They both needed to look more like the cowboys on tv.

"And we'll need a car," she added because a car would be faster than horses and she didn't know where they could get horses in the middle of the city anyway.

When they had finished their pancakes Orihime scoured her house for the best possible clothes for their adventure. For herself, she found a white button-down blouse that pulled only slightly around her chest and an old pair of jeans with a fringe down the sides that were just a little bit tight but maybe they would stretch after a while. Then she added a pink feather boa that had been hiding in the back of her closet which she figured was alright because sometimes the saloon girls had them. She didn't have much that would fit Ulquiorra so she just gave him the paint-covered overalls she'd worn the day before and one of her plaid flannel pajama tops because it kind of looked like something a rancher might wear.

"These will look great on you," she reassured him as she piled the clothes into his arms and he stood there like a depressed mannequin.

She also tied a big red kerchief in a bow around his neck. "When we get into a car chase with the bad guys firing their guns at our tires and blowing out our back window you have to pull this up to your nose to cover your face like a bank robber, okay?" she told him sternly. It was very important that he did it exactly as she imagined because their adventure wouldn't be complete without it.

Then there was only one thing missing from their outfits: their white hats.

Orihime found an old white Tilley hat which was the only thing she could find with a brim that went all the way around – clearly a necessity for any cowboy hat. She couldn't find anything for Ulquiorra but that was alright because he always had his funny white semi-hat anyway. It didn't look exactly like a cowboy hat but if anyone made fun of him she'd just tell them off.

"Don't judge people for their taste in hats," she would say crossly, loud enough for Ulquiorra to hear. Then, of course, she would whisper apologetically to the offending stranger, "He can't help it, you know." She'd give one of those knowing looks that manages to communicate the worst and the person would mumble something sympathetic and be on their way. No feelings hurt.

"We must hurry. Aizen will be here soon," Ulquiorra said, all gloom and doom as usual. He kept clenching and unclenching his fists and Orihime wasn't sure if it was because he was nervous about Aizen or if it was because the overalls didn't have any pockets except for a big one across the chest and he was at a loss for what to do with his hands.

Of course, Ulquiorra was right about having to hurry so Orihime took out all of the money she'd saved up from its hiding place under her dresser. Then they went to visit a lady down the street who had an old white and rust-coloured car in front of her house with a 'For Sale' sign on it.

"Your first car! How wonderful!" said the neighbour when Orihime told her she wanted to buy it. "I didn't know you'd got your license already."

Orihime just smiled at her because she didn't know she'd got her license either. She gave the woman all of her saved up money in exchange for the keys.

"Is that your boyfriend?" asked the neighbour, looking curiously at Ulquiorra.

"Nope," said Orihime, "He's my partner."

"Oh, of course." The neighbour nodded like she understood completely. "That's what it's called now, isn't it?"

Orihime drove the car down the street back to her house and was happy to find that driving was just as easy as the movies made it seem.

"We cannot afford any more delays," Ulquiorra said in his usual drone but Orihime told him to sit still and she'd just be a minute.

She dashed into her house and retrieved the can of blue paint. Since they didn't have much time and she had to hurry, the big blue racing stripe that she painted on the car ended up crooked and uneven but at least the car looked better and faster. Just as she finished painting, Ulquiorra got out of the car and stalked towards her.

"We're leaving," he said plainly. He picked her up by a belt loop in her jeans, which was kind of uncomfortable, and tossed her into the passenger seat. Then he started the engine and they took off.

"I didn't know you could drive!" Orihime exclaimed, very impressed and enjoying their adventure already. He drove so well it was just like a car chase in those black-and-white films with the pedestrians that screamed and jumped out of the way and the cars that honked at you or that swerved off the road and crashed when you cut them off.

Then the sirens started up and the police cars came in hot pursuit and Orihime couldn't believe their luck – it was exactly the adventure she had always wanted!

"Let's outrun them!" she said and pulled her pink feather boa up to her nose so no one could get a clear picture of her face and put it on wanted posters.

Orihime thought it was very cool how Ulquiorra still managed his stoic expression even when they were being chased by the cops. She wondered if afterwards she should give him a kiss because that was usually how the heroes were rewarded. For now she just settled for batting her eyelashes at him and twirling the ends of her boa around her fingers.

"It would be more efficient to leave this vehicle. With our powers we can run far faster than it moves," Ulquiorra said but Orihime knew he must secretly be having fun because it was impossible not to.

The police didn't stand a chance against the combined power of Ulquiorra's masterful driving skills and the racing stripe that Orihime had painted and in a while they had lost the cops and were hurtling down a deserted road far outside of town.

They sped through the countryside and Orihime rolled down her window and waved her arm out of it but Ulquiorra wouldn't do the same so they couldn't make their car look like it had wings. Then Orihime stuck her feet out the window and kicked her legs in the wind. She wiggled out of her shoes and sent them flying past the car and tumbling onto the road behind them and even though she was now shoeless she had always wanted to do that. Then she threw the maps from the glove compartment out the window too because heroes never needed silly things like maps or directions.

"This is so perfect," she sighed in contentment as she flipped through every radio channel to find just the right one for the background music.

"Aizen is here." Ulquiorra's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "He is coming."

"Don't worry," Orihime said brightly because everything was going just as she'd always imagined. "Everything will be alri—"

But she didn't get to finish her sentence because the road in front of them exploded. Ulquiorra slammed on the breaks and Orihime was actually scared for a minute because her neck twisted painfully as the car spun out into the ditch. When they stopped moving she was dazed but managed to crawl out of the car -- its hood smoked and the paint at the front was all burnt and peeling. Her knees were shaky but she made her way towards Ulquiorra who was staring straight ahead.

Aizen was an imposing figure as he stood confidently in the middle of the road beside a smoking crater.

"He has grown even more powerful than before," said Ulquiorra and Orihime thought that maybe if in a hundred years someone made a movie about them they could cast a robot for his part because it would play Ulquiorra better than any human could for sure. And she also really liked the idea of her movie-self having a robot sidekick in the final confrontation with the bad guy.

"Ulquiorra," said Aizen in his deep and silky voice that Orihime was glad sounded exactly like a villain's was supposed to, "I am grateful for your help in breaking the seal that held Las Noches, but you know I don't look kindly upon defections."

He smiled his evil smile and Orihime broke out into a huge grin because lines like that always meant that the showdown was about to start. She crouched behind the hood of the car for cover and touched her flower hairclips like she was a gunslinger ready to draw. Beside her, Ulquiorra stood perfectly still.

Then Aizen raised his hand and in a blinding light Orihime was thrown backwards as their car and protection was vaporized.

Orihime was a bit surprised that it hurt so much when she landed because she always thought that grass was supposed to be soft and it had been too long since she'd last fought for her to remember that this wasn't true. She alternated between being in pain and being kind of sad because she had really liked their car with its blue racing stripe but figured that once they defeated Aizen she could go buy a new one and this time she'd paint two stripes so it would be even better. With this in mind she struggled back onto her feet and looked around, disoriented, to find her enemy. She caught sight of him as he had one hand around Ulquiorra's neck and she knew that it was time for her to stage a heroic intervention and save her partner from his impending doom.

But she didn't have time to concentrate and summon her powers before Aizen glanced at her sharply and she was knocked down by another explosion. This time the force was so strong that it pushed all the air out of her chest and when she tried to breathe it burned and felt like she was drowning.

She tried to stand again but her feet were cut and bleeding all over the green grass because she'd thrown her shoes out the car window but that was okay because when they either finished Aizen off or made him repent and turn good, Ulquiorra would pick her up and carry her off into the sunset so she wouldn't need to walk at all. Or maybe it wouldn't work like that entirely because she could just make out that Ulquiorra was slumped over on the road with one of his legs bent at an angle Orihime had never seen.

Then Aizen smiled at her and Orihime tried to summon her powers but she couldn't move and couldn't speak and there were little black spots dancing across her blurry vision but Orihime knew she wouldn't die here because that wasn't how things went in the movies. And even if Ulquiorra's face was at last showing emotion – his eyes squeezed shut and his features bunched up as he clutched at his broken leg – and Orihime's ears were ringing so loud from the explosions and she couldn't see straight and her skin felt sticky and wet and red, she knew that it was going to be okay because they still had their white hats.

And the good guys always win.