Yeyness, new story! This has been in the works foreeevah... because school hates me and wants to thwart all attempts of stress relief, I'm pretty sure. But I guess the most important thing now is that I'm finally getting it up. I believe there will be three chapters... but it could end up being more. It depends. In any case, this first chapter is pretty long, so hopefully it'll tide everybody over for a while.
And yes, I did title this after that song, and yes, I realize that the style of the song is completely inappropriate... for anything to do with Bleach (which I do not own, as everybody already knows). All the same, it was pointed out that the WORDS were fitting. So I'm focusing on that. _
Finally, before I complete my yapping, I must say a huge thank you to Hinodeh for helping me with the characterizations and to Ashley for again betaing. I really appreciate all the time and assistance more than I can adequately express.
Alright, I'm done now.
It meant nothing.
That was the only reason Ulquiorra could sit still as the girl drifted deeper into sleep, her body relaxing further against him until he could even feel her slight movements as she breathed. He tried to focus on that, the soft inhales and exhales that were the only sounds to fill the silence of the room, and not the hand she had fisting into the fabric of his jacket.
But it was too distracting, that foreign weight against his chest. He considered the hand for a moment, feeling its warmth seep through the material and into his skin. It was a strange sensation, balanced between being pleasant and uncomfortable, but he believed that he had started to acclimate to it over the past few weeks; this was not the first time her arm had been draped across him.
Although, Ulquiorra vaguely wondered if that could really be viewed as progress. To come to a point where it was no longer decidedly strange to allow her to be so close was perhaps not such a good thing. His gaze drifted from her hand to where her head leaned awkwardly against his shoulder. Even though the room was dim, her hair still seemed vibrant and impossibly bright where it fell across his white uniform, something that had become increasingly distracting lately. That, too, was a thought that lingered uncomfortably in the back of his mind.
Of course, there was no reason to react in such a way. Perhaps it was true that somebody who witnessed the scene could find something intimate about it, but that was not the reality of the situation. While he did not necessarily follow orders explicitly, Ulquiorra had never acted outside of what he perceived to be Aizen-sama's intent, and this instance was no different. He was simply performing the duty that had been assigned to him.
And that had been to watch Orihime Inoue and ensure her health so that she would be of use when called upon. Although he had accepted this task as he did with everything else asked of him, Ulquiorra had found the idea both tedious and dull; few things sounded more unpleasant than being the caretaker for a human girl.
That had held true, for a while. There was much about her that disgusted him, from how easily swayed she was by her own emotions to how possessively she clung to merely the thought of her nakama. Yet there had been something that countered those feelings from the beginning, something that had lit a spark of curiosity that only grew with every occasion he saw her.
She was young and idealistic, but he had come to realize that she was not necessarily naïve and by no means simple. His classification of her, regardless of her unique powers, had needed revision as she had demonstrated more strength than he would have expected given her circumstances. He had seen it in the façade she had presented when easily speaking loyalties he knew were false, and when she had actually dared to strike him even though she must have known what repercussions she risked.
No, she had not been what he had expected her to be, and perhaps that could in part explain why he was currently allowing her to do something as absurd as sleep on him. Even so, he had to wonder if he would have allowed himself to feel any curiosity about her in the first place if he had known it would come to this.
It had started a month after the attempt to rescue her had failed. At first she had cried when she had believed nobody could hear her, clearly attempting to muffle the sound in the cushions of the couch in her room. And then the tears had stopped, and with it everything else. She had become silent and still, and he could not help but note that she, the one living creature in that whole world, was suddenly the most lifeless.
She continued to eat when her meals were brought, and she followed those few and trivial orders that were directed to her, so it had been difficult for Ulquiorra to pin down exactly why he had nonetheless felt that he was failing in his duties. True, the color of her skin had lost some of its warmth, but overall her physical health was fairly stable. There should have been no reason for him to feel that he was overlooking anything.
That was when she had finally spoken. He had grown so used to her silence while she ate that even her whisper had seemed to shatter the stillness.
"Ulquiorra, may I ask a favor of you?"
When he had not replied, she continued, setting her fork down with measured movements that revealed an amount of unease. "I think… I'm ill."
That comment had confused him, as every physical clue seemed to contradict it. "You do not appear to be so," he had finally said, half question and half statement.
For a long moment she had watched him before shaking her head. "I do not mean my body." Slowly she had raised her hand, laying it across her chest – where he had pointed to her heart a few weeks before. "I mean inside. Here."
That reply had done nothing to make the situation any clearer to him; if anything, it was suddenly even more ungraspable than before. Perhaps she had realized this, because she sighed and lowered her hand back to her lap, folding it together with the other one. "I miss my friends. And my home. And my freedom. I feel… alone."
"You have been alone since you were brought here."
"I had the hope that somehow they would save me, even though I didn't want them to try. My memories of them kept me company, and the knowledge that I had done what I could to protect them allowed me to look forward. I couldn't hold onto that when they left; I do not have anything now. I feel empty."
That, at least, he had believed he could understand somewhat; the only difference was that he could not remember what it was like to feel otherwise.
Silence had spread between them as he considered her, noting that she had raised her gaze to meet his. It had been a long time since she had looked at him so clearly, without the shadows of her hair or the dark line of her lashes obscuring her wide eyes. The shine they had once held had diminished, but the light had not been completely extinguished; he had spent enough time watching and analyzing her to notice that it was still there, weak and frail though it was.
"What connection does this have to the favor you mentioned?" he had asked, only bringing it up because he wondered if her answer would allow him to understand how she had managed to retain even a flicker of hope.
She had finally looked away, down at the fingers she had woven together. "Have you ever heard of make-believe, Ulquiorra?"
"No." Again, he found himself trying to think of what her words could possibly have to do with her first comment. It reminded him of how frustrating he had found speaking with her to be when she had first been brought to Hueco Mundo; she had seemed just as inane then.
"It's kind of like a game," she had explained slowly. "I used to play it all the time when I was little. I would imagine that I was an astronaut in another galaxy, or a pirate out on the ocean, or a robot princess who ruled over an entire country." The corner of her mouth pulled up slightly in what might have been the touch of a smile, but even he had seen the obvious sorrow in the motion. "It's pretending to be something else, somewhere else."
He had made no effort to make sense of that statement. "Again, I fail to see what relevance this has."
"I would like you to allow me to make-believe."
She had spoken the words so quietly that he had almost missed them, too distracted by his own thoughts. For a moment he watched the nervous movements of her fingers before looking away. "That matter is of no relevance to me; if you wish to believe in something false, I can have no influence either way."
"That isn't true, and that's why I asked." She had stood and approached him cautiously before stopping, leaving a wary distance between them. "It's not just believing something. That is part of it, of course, but it's only a daydream like that."
"Then what else is missing?"
"It's like… an act. Or a charade. And that's something I cannot do alone."
Those things she had spoken of were so foreign, so incomprehensible. Was it just her, or were all humans as strange as she was, full of such odd ideas? "What do you think I could possibly do to help you?"
She had seemed to consider this for a moment, as though she were carefully trying to piece together her words. "I think that… if I didn't feel so alone, perhaps I could forget how it hurts. If I could pretend that I was not a prisoner and not so far from everybody I love, maybe I could hold myself together a little longer." Her voice had grown soft, almost directed at herself, before she shook her head and continued. "Anyway, all I would ask is that you overlook anything I say or do that might seem a little strange, because that would shatter the illusion."
"And you think something as insubstantial as that would benefit you?"
Without a moment's hesitation, she had nodded. "Yes."
He had turned from her then, walking toward the door before replying as he left the room. "Very well."
So in that way he had discovered what it was that had fallen through the cracks, that not only did her physical health need to be considered but her emotional health as well. It had seemed quite obvious once he had become aware of it; with such vivid and strongly felt emotions, of course some sort of maintenance would be required.
For that reason, he had granted her request. She had identified the source of the problem for him and had even gone so far as to explain the solution. With this knowledge, it would have been irresponsible for him to ignore the obvious course of action.
At least, that was what he told himself. Regardless of how easily he could get everything to fit into a logical explanation, of how simple it was to make a clear connection to how this did, in fact, fall within his duties, he was uncomfortable with it. If this reason had really been the end of his thoughts on the matter, that would have been one thing. There was no fault in doing what he could to follow his orders. But that was not where it ended, and he knew that the orders were more of an excuse than a motive for his actions.
Because, ultimately, it all had to do with the fact that she fascinated him. She spoke and acted in ways that he never would have tolerated – or likely even seen – in others, and somehow that had drawn him to her. Yet it only seemed that the more he tried to understand her, the more unfathomable she became.
And in the long line of things about her that were mystifying, this 'act' was merely the most recent. It still seemed as ridiculous now as it had to begin with; he did not see what could be gained by tricking one's self into believing something other than what was there. It seemed infantile to try to retreat to false comfort, especially when such delusions could be so easily crushed and scattered. To exhaust so much energy on something false was both wasteful and useless. Just believing something did not make it real, and there had to be consequences when reality was once again faced.
Again, he considered her careless position, so vulnerable against the strength he could easily call upon at any moment. It truly must have been something, the illusions she had created over the past two months, that she could so simply disregard the danger she had to know he posed.
But perhaps these imaginings were not as feeble and ineffective as he had believed them to be. The ability of Aizen-sama's zanpakuto was to create illusions, after all, and it had been the use of that power that had allowed him to accomplish his goals in Soul Society. And if that were the case, then great power could be hidden in a false reality.
The thought did nothing to settle the vague unease in Ulquiorra's mind, and, if anything, only increased it. For if he accepted that something that was imagined could actually have an effect on what was real, it opened a new question: how would things be changed if he allowed her to continue with her game of make-believe?
The fabric under her cheek was warm, and it was that fact more than anything that let Orihime know that Ulquiorra had left again; it was something she had noted weeks earlier, that her warmth could not entirely chase away the coolness of his body.
She was not surprised, of course, because she had not expected him to stay. He never had before, and she supposed it would be both irrational and foolish to think that he did not have other things to see to. Surely, there were many responsibilities he had to perform as an espada.
Pressing out wrinkles from her clothes as she sat up, Orihime pushed the thought from her mind as she had done numerous times before. She did not want to think of what things he was ordered to do for Aizen, because the thought was too grim, opened up the possibility of too many horrors, even when no more substantial than half-formed ideas.
So instead she wondered how long Ulquiorra stayed as she half-consciously made her way to the vanity in the bathroom. There was no sunset or sunrise to mark time, yet there was clearly a routine to the activities within Las Noches. Did he stay just long enough to ensure that she was asleep? Perhaps he had not been gone long before she awoke? Or did it vary on each occasion?
As she ran a brush through her sleep mussed hair, she had to smile slightly at her reflection. Again, having such silly and useless thoughts. And yet, this only made her smile widen. It had been so long since she had been able to think of such things, something that had no meaning, that carried no weight. To have a thought that was not shadowed by her failure to really protect those who in turn had failed to save her.
Orihime had denied herself that for a long time. A month, Ulquiorra had told her later, once she had somehow broken through the sorrow and found that life had continued. It had only been a month, but it had felt like centuries, millennia, in that timeless world. Every waking moment had been spent going over the battles, the choices, wondering if one change here would have caused a difference in the outcome there, and every time she slept she relived that final moment, when her nakama had been forced to turn their backs and leave.
It had felt like her life had ended in that moment; it was therefore not so strange that she had refused to allow herself to think of anything else. Could there even be anything else, when everything had gone? What was left but memories and regrets?
Being in Hueco Mundo had always been difficult, from the moment the darkness had embraced her as she had followed Ulquiorra through the garganta. There was no laughter or warmth or life. The moon teased her by spilling watery light into her room, enough for her to be haunted with recollections of the sun but not enough to chase away the shadows that had seemed to close in around her. Yet she had somehow managed to brush away the loneliness and fear because she had known that she had done her part to ensure the safety of her friends, just as they would have done for her.
But everything had changed when they came. Hope had soared in her heart, even as her fear had increased to match it. It had been like a light sparking in the darkness, shining the previously impossible chance of escape into the nothingness that had stretched before her. Yet it had come with a price, because it had also illuminated every fear that had been hidden in the shadows, giving them a shape so that they could no longer be ignored.
The two forces had pulled at her, tugging her emotions in different directions until it left her almost feeling breathless. Everything about the rescue attempt seemed to have happened so slowly that it was torturous and yet too quickly to be absorbed – it had been with a shock that, finding herself suddenly surrounded by their allies, she realized that she was nearly free.
Of course, then everything had fallen apart. There had not even been time for Orihime to follow the events that had found her returned to Aizen, to where it was as though nothing had changed at all. It was like the closing of a door just as she had reached it, and even Kurosaki-kun's appearance had been unable to return her smothered hope. How could she have had hope in that situation, when she had seen the results of his last battle with Ulquiorra? The differences in their reiatsu as they stood before each other had been obvious; it would take releasing all control over his inner-hollow for Kurosaki-kun to be stronger, and she knew that he would do everything within his power to prevent that from happening.
So while there had been no joy when others had come to tell Kurosaki-kun that contact with Soul Society had been reestablished and that the battle to protect Karakura urgently needed assistance, she had been relieved. At least in that fight he would not be alone.
He had tried to refuse, saying that the whole point in venturing to Hueco Mundo had been to save her and that he couldn't leave without doing so. But she had known him well enough to see that, despite his words, the situation in Karakura weighed heavily on him; his family was there.
Somehow she had been able to force herself to speak the words that tore her soul, to tell him to leave. Everything inside her wanted to give in to his objections, spoken with such conviction and determination, but she had made herself continue against him, her instincts, her heart. She said that she would not want her life to come at the cost of so many others, which was true. And when that had been unable to convince him, she had said that there was no reason to believe she was in imminent danger when she was still of use to Aizen, which had been a lie she silently begged him to forgive if revealed.
Apparently that had been enough though, for he had given her a long look before cursing and following those who had come for him. She had hardly noticed the distant touches of reiatsu disappearing as she had stared into the emptiness where he had just stood. Her mind was full of that last look, of the regret and apology that had been so clear in his brown eyes, that the only thing that managed to shake her from the memory was the moment his reiatsu finally vanished.
That was the instant when it had seemed like there was nothing else that existed beyond herself. The flame, that little light that had shown so briefly, was completely gone, yet it had still left her with that one image of all her fears. She was then piercingly aware of the desolation of her situation and of every terror that lingered just a breath away, and she had felt herself break under the weight of that knowledge.
It would have been better if they had never come.
At first, it had felt like she would never be able to stop crying. It was like every beat of her heart had been painful and labored, every movement just reminding her that there was nothing now but existing. Eventually even that had become too exhausting to continue and the tears stopped, but she had still felt them pooling silently in her heart.
What had changed still escaped her, even though she had considered that issue many times. She had been so completely and totally immersed in her sorrow that she could not imagine how she managed to break free from it, or why she had done so. Perhaps it had simply been the fact that she was acting so far outside of her character; she had continued her life even after her brother had died, and the crushing reality of that situation certainly could not have been any better than the one she currently suffered.
Sighing slightly, Orihime set the brush down and made her way back into the other room, sitting down distractedly at the table. It was always at that point in her thoughts that she found it difficult to continue. While the recollections of the pain were definitely not pleasant, they had at least been understandable. What she had done afterwards, however, continued to baffle her.
It had not taken her long to realize that simply trying to overlook her situation would not be enough for her to ignore it. In the past she had never focused on herself, yet that was the only option she had been given, and it consequently made her concentrate on every sorrow and every regret, on every fault she saw in herself. So if that were the case, she had thought that perhaps having some way to direct her energy elsewhere would allow her to regain some amount of peace, regardless of how little she felt she deserved it.
Her friends had always teased her about her imagination, and, for her part, Orihime had never been able to contradict them. She had always daydreamed too much, always been too quick to dismiss reality. So, really, it probably made sense that her imagination was the first retreat she thought of. It was just missing one element.
That happened to be that she needed somebody to share it with. Her usual daydreams were fine to keep to herself, but this was not like her thoughts from the past. This required at least the sense of something tangible, something that could manage to anchor her in reality.
She had known that there was only one option, one person she could ask, and that knowledge had made it easy to keep any false sparks of hope from truly igniting. For him to even listen to the entirety of her request without dismissing it for its foolishness had seemed unobtainable enough, so it had come as an incredible surprise when Ulquiorra had not only listened but accepted.
Again her thoughts drifted to him, although Orihime supposed that it would be difficult, if not altogether impossible, to keep from doing so. Her time was now measured by the intervals between meals, when she was left with nothing but the weight of her own thoughts and memories. It seemed unlikely that she would have been able to keep herself from falling apart without that routine, those few breaks, to stabilize her.
Yet, she wondered whether she should be thankful that she had managed to hold onto her sanity in a place that seemed to be built on cold madness, or if she should have been disturbed by the fact that she relied so completely on him. Because she knew, when she allowed herself to think about it, that there was something undeniably wrong about depending on somebody without a heart to help her maintain her own.
If things had remained as they were at the beginning, perhaps it could have been overlooked. That tense distance, even when they sat across from each other at the table or side by side on the sofa, had so clearly spoken of their respective roles, of the guard and his charge. At that time he had done as she had asked, never questioning the false friendliness she had tried to force between them, and she had been content with the normalcy in treating him as some casual acquaintance. It should have been enough.
But somehow things had changed and then it was not so simple, not so easy to dismiss. That line that had been drawn so clearly that it had been impossible to overlook even in her illusions had somehow blurred, changing unpredictably from day to day, encounter to encounter. In the long silences that punctuated her day, she could not avoid questioning the choices she made when Ulquiorra was there, yet this unease had never yet been enough to change her actions.
Because, in the end, whether or not she should feel guilty about it did not matter. Principles that were stringently followed when safe did not have the same application when surrounded by terrors, and she was willing to do whatever was necessary to keep from falling apart. If reaching over the shifting divide between herself and her captor was what was required, then she would face the repercussions later if she could be allowed the comfort now.
So once again, as she had on many other mornings, Orihime scattered the thoughts from her mind and instead considered the simpler, easier issue of what she would be having for breakfast.