Well, with all the drama and whatnot within the fandom right now, it seemed like it could be a good time to post the conclusion to the story. It doesn't hurt that I'd really like to be doing anything other than studying at the moment, either…
So yes, sappiness ahoy. Hopefully that won't bother anybody haha. Anywho, a big thank you to everybody has reviewed. I do appreciate it uber much, and I hope that you will all enjoy this final chapter.
The seconds continued to slide by, each one bringing Ulquiorra inexorably closer to that point in the evening when he would be forced to leave his domain. He would retrieve the servant, who would be waiting with the evening meal, from the kitchens. He would walk to the remote corner of Las Noches while ensuring that no others had gone there after his departure that afternoon. He would enter the woman's room, listen to her fluttering attempts at conversation, note how much she ate after being given her dinner, and then leave.
He would. This time, he really would.
While he rose, fighting off the strangely heavy feeling that wished to keep him in his seat, he acknowledged his own cynicism concerning this topic. After all, he had had similar plans each day for the past week, but had not once successfully adhered to them.
It was only recently that he began to accept why that was. At first he had believed that if he did not acknowledge it, if he continued as he had before, that perhaps he could avoid truly grasping what had happened that afternoon outside of Las Noches. As the days continued to slide by, however, he had slowly realized that it would be impossible to avoid recognizing the things he had felt hovering at the edge of his thoughts.
He had been mistaken. His assumptions, his conclusions, had all been wrong, flawed from the very beginning, and because of that he had never once noticed the threat that had lingered in his every interaction with that woman, waiting for just the smallest catalyst to allow it to take shape. And now it was too late to undo the damage.
Ulquiorra silenced his thoughts as he arrived at the kitchens, returning his focus to his duties. There would be time for him to consider his own concerns once his responsibilities had been seen to, although the peace in the detached monotony of this routine had become almost welcome in place of the confusion he lately seemed to feel.
No traces of reiatsu could be found in the halls, and he arrived at the door to Orihime's room without distraction. He knocked sharply at it, hardly pausing before opening it and stepping into the shadows immediately within. He carefully ignored the faint slide of discomfort that ran through his chest; it had developed into such a common occurrence that simply disregarding it was becoming easy.
Orihime was already sitting at the table, posture rigid as she turned her head to look at him. As the servant entered and set the dishes out, her lips pulled up in something that might have been a smile if it had held any happiness, and once they were alone she greeted him with a cheerfulness that instantly revealed her unease.
For a moment, he stood there at the doorway, prepared to tell her to eat and then wait while she did so. He took a breath, feeling the words at the back of his throat, before reaching out to shut the door. As he slipped his hand back into his pocket, he found it disappointing, but not surprising, that he then slowly made his way toward her.
With those few steps revealing that he was staying, Orihime turned back to her meal and began to reorganize the dishes, making pointless comments about the preparation and ingredients as he sat in the chair next to her. Her focus was now directed completely on her meal, as it would be for the remainder of the time he was there. While it had been a somewhat puzzling habit that she had recently adopted, Ulquiorra admitted that he was thankful for it. It gave him the opportunity of observing her without the risk of being questioned about it.
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, watching her as she excessively fussed with her food. He followed the fluttery movements of her hands, the way the frail light ran down the length of her hair as she moved, how she softly pursed her lips.
There was a pause before he briefly closed his eyes and managed to look away. Even after he turned his gaze up to the window high upon the wall, the memory that was triggered continued to trickle in, each minute detail as painfully clear as they had been in the moment she had kissed him.
It had changed everything. That something so insignificant, so unremarkable, could have such dramatic consequences would have been unimaginable to him unless he had experienced the changes himself. What was so special about a kiss, about touching one's lips to those of another? It was just the contact of flesh, so why was it so different from when she had touched his hand? There was really no compelling reason to have thought that there would be a difference in his response.
But there had been. That had been the instant when Ulquiorra realized how little his reactions to her had to do with the fact that he was a hollow. It was true that he would not have been so keenly aware of her reiatsu otherwise, but the pang that had grown increasingly impossible to ignore, the ache that always seemed to flair the closer she was, had no connection with any instinctual draw he might have felt. His hunger for her had not been like that at all.
It was difficult to accept the irrational idea that he could feel something from a time when he had been alive; while self-awareness might have been retained as a Menos, memories were not. If he was not able to remember anything before being a hollow, how could he feel something that he knew could be nothing but a lingering vestige of having been human?
But regardless of how unfathomable it had seemed, Ulquiorra had known almost the instant her lips touched his. This desire had not been what a hollow felt toward a human, but what a man felt for a woman. It was improbable, impossible, but undeniable. All the strange things he had done in regards to her that he had not been able to comprehend had suddenly made sense in that moment. Why he so often found his eyes drawn to her for no other reason than to watch her, why he had found such satisfaction on those occasions that he could make her happy, why he had felt so on edge whenever she touched him… as disjointed as these things had seemed before, he now saw the common thread that ran through them all.
Yet while he acknowledged that he felt something for her, that did not mean that he had any understanding of what it truly was. In the span of his memories, there was nothing that had prepared him to grasp the full nature of this, no recollection to let him know what it meant or what to do.
Perhaps it was because of the fact that he possessed no knowledge regarding these matters that it had happened. There had been no reason to suppose that this would be the outcome of his actions. The evolution from seeing her as no more than a human woman with some interesting powers to the inexplicable things that he felt stir whenever he was around her had been the slow work of months. The shift had been so gradual that he had not even noticed its occurrence.
And even if Ulquiorra had noticed a change, it probably would have made no difference. His conclusions that he felt nothing more than an unusually strong pull to her reiatsu would have been the most likely explanation under those circumstances as well. This result seemed as though it had been inevitable from the moment he had felt the slightest curiosity about her.
Everything about the situation was puzzling and strange, yet even more than that it was frustrating. He glanced at Orihime, who was still picking at her meal, and fought the wave of irritation that rose within him. That he could feel like this at all was wrong, useless and unwanted as it was. But what made it worse was that while he struggled with all these things, Orihime appeared to be largely unaffected.
That sentimental human girl, who had worn her emotions so clearly that they were like an emblem, continued to attempt to act as she had before. It was not true that she had not reacted at all; her embarrassment had been quite evident in both that brief moment and every instant that had passed since. In that silent, colorless room, he had noted every blush that fanned across her cheeks when he entered and every weary sigh that passed her lips when he left. Yet that was all it seemed to be, and something as superfluous as a bit of discomfort at a memory was hardly a comparison to the complete disproval of things he had taken as facts.
She looked up now, having pushed the few scattered remains of her meal to the center of her plate, and again gave him that unconvincing smile. "I'm finished, Ulquiorra-san," she said, allowing her hands to drop to her lap. "I'm sorry that I'm so slow; it's probably boring for you to wait."
Regardless of the politeness, her comment was so casual, so forcefully relaxed. Again, Ulquiorra felt the pulse of frustration. It was so obvious now, the additional act she had started. He had not perceived it immediately, those first days so full of his own considerations that he had noticed little outside of the sphere of his thoughts, but now he was aware of the slight alterations. She was pushing what had happened from her mind, pretending as she had with so many other things that the kiss had never occurred. She would leave him to feel any changes alone.
And he suddenly found, as he looked into her wide eyes, that he did not want to be the only one who felt pressed with questions that he did not have answers to. He wanted to tear away the curtains she had drawn around herself to block out anything she did not wish to consider, wanted her to experience the confusion and uncertainty with the same intensity that was inflicted upon him. While he may have foolishly allowed her too much freedom, it was nonetheless her actions with that freedom that had led them to this point. He would not allow her to step back now.
With more decisiveness than he had felt for the past week, Ulquiorra rose and walked around the table so that he stood at her side. Watching the obvious surprise that flickered across her features, he realized just how carefully they had been maintaining the distance between them as he crossed it.
It was uncomfortable for him to be so close to her, but he was still mildly surprised by how quickly Orihime's unease overwhelmed her; it was only a handful of moments before she suddenly pushed her chair away from the table and stood. "Well there are probably things you need to do," she said, clasping her hands behind her as she smiled distractedly, her weight shifting back on her heels. "I don't want you to miss something important."
His pause before replying was very brief. "There is just one thing that is presently of importance."
"Oh?" she breathed, a touch of relief in her expression. "I guess this is goodnight then?"
Confusion flashed in Orihime's eyes as she finally looked up at him. "What?"
"I am not leaving yet." He took a step forward, closing the distance she had tried to create moments before. "I will understand this first."
She opened her mouth to speak, probably to say that she did not know what he meant or to ask him to explain himself, but Ulquiorra had passed the point where speech was sufficient. So in that moment, with her face tipped up towards his, he leaned down and kissed her.
It had not been until that instant that Orihime realized what a complete prison her room truly was. She had always known that there was no way for her to leave – the window was too high and the door too heavy – but she now saw that her constraints were not limited only to those physical barriers.
Even within her own mind, it was impossible to find any sanctuary. The heavy silence pressed against her ears until she could only hear the increased pounding of her heart, and the white walls and black shadows around her offered no distraction from Ulquiorra's vivid green eyes. Everything seemed to force her attention on what she was desperate to overlook.
Orihime could feel it in the shiver she could not suppress when his fingers sank into her hair, in the fact that his cool touch somehow managed to make her feel warmer than before. Shock flooded her mind, but rather than stemming from embarrassment as it had before, this came from the race of emotions that slid through her. They wrapped around her heart and squeezed, drawing out things she could not even explain, that made her want to cry and laugh all at once.
It would all stop if she could just do something as simple as turning her head or stepping back, anything to break the kiss. It would be easy, even with Ulquiorra's hand now resting at the nape of her neck; its weight was hardly more than a half touch, as though he could not quite bring himself to hold her completely. Her instincts screamed for her to move, to realize the utter vulnerability of her situation, and her conscience reminded her of her nakama and the war and how this was wrong, how this could never be rationalized or overlooked.
Yet even with all these things clamoring in her head, all Orihime could truly notice was how badly she wanted to kiss him back. Against the knowledge of how effortlessly he could destroy her was the softness he displayed in pressing his lips to hers, and it was disturbingly easy to counter the concern regarding her nakama when they were not there.
The hand she had clenched before her uncurled until it lay against his chest, her fingers trembling between pushing him away and pulling him closer. It was only when his other hand slid around her waist and gently drew her to him that she felt the ability to choose slip away, the decision made.
Her thoughts were silenced as she finally gave in, closing her eyes before tilting back her head. At first every movement was slow, cautious, but the hesitance soon dissolved as she felt the kindling of whatever had rested in her heart for the past week. It did not burn or flare but smoldered like embers, melting through the pretenses and the illusions she had created until she was left with nothing but realities. And for a moment, it was not as frightening as she had thought it would be.
But then she moved the hand resting upon his chest upward, and she felt the sudden give in the jacket's fabric as her fingers passed over his hollow hole. Ulquiorra instantly froze, and in the sudden stillness the fragile moment shattered. The warmth that had insulated her from considering repercussions and consequences dissolved, leaving cold understanding to flood her thoughts.
It was difficult to move, but somehow Orihime managed to press the heels of her hands against him. He allowed her to pull away, making no attempt to stop her escape from the arms she knew could have effortlessly trapped her. As she stepped back on unsteady feet, he merely watched her, eyes flashing with a shocking intensity in a face that was as unreadable as ever.
She wanted desperately to look away or say something, anything that would take some measure of his focus from her, but she felt too cornered and confused under his gaze to do anything but blink. She wondered how he could look so casual and unruffled, even then returning his hands to his pockets, when she still felt the heat spreading across her face and her heart thundering against her ribs.
Each beat seemed to bring with it another thought, like the relentless pounding of the incoming tide. What would her friends say? How would they look at her if they knew what she had just done? She shuddered and gripped the fabric at her sides. There was no way to overlook what had happened this time, not when she had so easily and completely given in. Her first kiss, and she had given it to an enemy.
Orihime thought about orange hair and brown eyes, about the one she had always hoped to give that kiss to. It had never been very likely – Kurosaki-kun's focus was constantly on those things he now saw as his responsibilities – yet that had not stopped her from wishing all the same. It had only been when she knew she would have to remain there that she had tucked that desire away, folding it with her feelings for him and her nakama into a little corner of her heart, where it would not constantly remind her of what she had left behind.
Perhaps she had done too well in keeping her memories away, in avoiding the pain that came with every recollection. It could have served as a reminder, could have kept a wall around her emotions and thoughts so that new things could not slip in and grow unchecked in her heart. Perhaps it could have kept her from suddenly feeling that she truly was a traitor.
"What do you see?"
The question was sudden and unexpected, halting the frantic thoughts crowding her mind and reminding her again of the present, of the situation that was still unfolding. "What do you mean?" she whispered in a voice too soft for the room, although how she had managed to speak at all escaped her.
"Is everything still as imaginary as you claimed, or did that effect you in some real way?"
Just as she had managed to escape the shock, it was like he was once again forcing it before her. "Why does it matter?" she asked, fighting to ignore the question even as it seemed to still echo in her ears.
"Because I will no longer indulge you. I am tired of wasting my time on an illusion." Ulquiorra's usually steady eyes wavered for a moment over the features of her face before he looked away, and Orihime felt something inside her crumble as she realized that he might not have been as calm as he appeared. "It is therefore necessary for me to know the nature of how you view such things."
"I still don't understand." But somehow she did.
"That is unimportant," he replied, finally looking at her again so that she felt pinned under the obvious command in his eyes. "You only need to answer."
Orihime continued to look up at him, and she was surprised at all the things she could suddenly see. It was faint, barely discernable, but she noticed the touch of confusion, the uncertainty, behind the demand, and she suddenly was sure that this all weighed more heavily upon him than he betrayed. It twisted again at that part of her heart that was already bruised from his kiss, and she realized that her attempts at make-believe would no longer be able to protect her.
That had been its only function, and Orihime had never considered it any deeper since slipping into that routine. To question it was to pull away from the safety in seeing things as she wished to see them and to make herself vulnerable to the pain again, so there had been no reason to take such risks. If something strange happened, or if some uncomfortable thought crossed her mind, she found ways to weave it into the illusion until it was no longer threatening.
At first, it had been for nothing more than to keep her thoughts from her loneliness, to help buoy herself above the flood she had slowly been drowning under. To do so, she had reached for the company of the one person she saw, her one chance for interaction. It had perhaps been a foolish choice, but it had not been illogical; there had been no other options.
It had shifted the nature of their relationship and forced her to look at him differently. Orihime had been aware of the change, but only at its most superficial level; such observations had been dismissed almost the instant they were made. Now, as she looked back, she realized that those things she had felt for him had taken the place that her loneliness had previously held, becoming the threat that she had unconsciously fought to protect herself from.
Anything that might have made her notice what was occurring in her heart had instantly been diverted and changed to prevent the necessity of questioning, of analyzing. The alteration had been slow, as slow as the shift of her feelings, but it had eventually led to the game of make-believe existing solely to allow her to overlook her reactions to him – if everything she did was not truly real, then what she felt must have simply been part of the ruse as well.
What was now sliding through her veins, though, was definitely not imagined. It had been invading her thoughts for the past week, picking at the fraying edges of her false world even while Orihime had desperately tried to hold everything together. She had told herself that whatever she had felt in her heart and whatever she had seen in his eyes during that moment had been inconsequential, that it really could not change things that much.
Yet it obviously had. He had stripped away the last threads of her defense, pulling the blindfold from her eyes so that she now saw everything under the painful glare of reality.
She knew she could have retreated from it, difficult as it might have been, if she could say that she was the only one who felt the effects. But that flicker of confusion in his eyes had instantly revealed that his actions weren't simply the result of some detached curiosity, that she was not alone in feeling something. Knowing that, it would be impossible to attempt to go back to how things had been, and she felt herself resign to the path she knew she would now tread.
Orihime did not have any explanations to offer, and she did not know what the next step was. Everything was still too new for her to completely understand what she felt, to put names to the strange emotions that slid through her heart as she looked at him. It would be like stumbling in the dark from that point, but she at least had an answer.
She finally lifted her gaze from where it had dropped to the floor, almost surprised to find Ulquiorra still waiting, silent and immovable while she had tried to untangle her thoughts. Everything felt so awkward as their eyes met again, the silence that had been allowed to settle like a chasm between them.
Yet she knew it was not impossible to cross it, and she took a deep breath, bracing, before cautiously raising her hand. It was strange that after all those times she had carelessly touched him, letting her fingers hesitantly brush across his cheek now was so different. "You," she finally murmured, her hand slowly fall back to her side. "I see you."
For a moment Ulquiorra made no sign, and she wondered if that was enough, if he would understand the meaning behind the words, before something about his features softened slightly. If Orihime had not been waiting for a reaction, she knew she would not have noticed; in that room, full of shadows, it would have been easy to dismiss something so subtle.
But she did notice, and she felt the significance it silently conveyed. Irrepressibly, she felt her lips pull up in her first real smile in months, even as she acknowledged all the difficulties and consequences that this moment entailed. There would be trials before them, and yet there was the fact that it would not be alone, and it would not be with eyes closed. It would be together, wherever that led.
And that meant everything.