Note: Written for the Tanabata Contest at Bleach Asylum's Ulquihime Fanclub; some familiarity with the story might be required (Wikipedia:: Tanabata:: Story).
Till Sunbeams Find You
Stars fading but I linger on, dear
Still craving your kiss
I'm longing to linger till dawn, dear
Just saying this
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you --
Prologue: May 28th
Apart from glimpses at the end of corridors or in the midst of rooms crowded with "charges" of hers – corpses and wounded bodies -- Orihime hadn't seen Ulquiorra since the end of the Winter War… and wouldn't have seen him now if not for the throne room conference she'd been instructed to attend. (Her business had been minor, and dispensed with from the very start of the meeting – a change of warden, since Starrk would need some time away from Las Noches for a reconnaissance mission.)
Nostalgia and desolation pressed down her stomach like a cold marble slab at the sight of the Cuatro Espada, the flesh she'd seen dissolving into ashes now wrapped firmly around his bones; but if the feeling was mutual, it certainly wasn't traceable. Her pale-skinned and emerald-eyed "ex" had glanced at her just once when Harribel was announced as her new keeper, and once when, half an hour later, she attempted a covert yawn and ended up with a loud hiccup. That had been the sum of their interaction until Aizen addressed him directly:
The customary bow. "Yes, sir."
"Ulquiorra, Ulquiorra… I'm quite disappointed by the reports I've been getting lately. You've been sloppy, haven't you." The throne and its occupant were too high for her to see clearly, but Orihime could hear the smile in his voice, amused and threatening in equal measures. Like a crocodile's. "The execution I'd ordered was reduced to a severe injury, and you actually lost your temper in the following exchange with Barragan." Orihime heard the old man in question grunt his confirmation, and saw Harribel twitch irritably next to her. There was a lot of competitive body language (sometimes even language language) around lately, since, for some technical reason related to their power level, the top four Espada were the only ones Aizen had been able to resurrect, and thus the last veterans amongst a slew of newcomers.
Ulquiorra hadn't let slip the slightest reaction during Aizen's reproof, but now, as if he'd gotten some private cue to speak, he said: "There were reasons behind those incidents, Aizen-sama."
"No doubt there were. But this sounds an awful lot like the sort of conversation I'd normally be having with Grimmjow" – he spoke his name like hammering a nail through a wall -- "don't you think?"
She saw something in Ulquiorra tighten. "I'm not comparable to that trash, sir. My loyalty to you will be severed by death and nothing else."
"Don't be alarmed, Ulquiorra, I'm not suggesting your allegiance is wavering." Aizen rested his head on a closed fist, savouring every word. "I just don't think you're putting your heart into it."
What had been a faint tightening of features metamorphosed into a full-fledged flinch, and Ulquiorra turned an accusing glare at Orihime, brief enough for her to tell it wasn't done for his master's benefit. Most of the other Espada took no notice, but she thought she felt Starrk's curious gaze on her for a moment. Aizen, meanwhile, had taken to drumming his free hand's fingers on the throne.
"Might be that all the months of unrecompensed service have taken their toll on you. It's understandable." Ulquiorra's lips were pressed into such a thin line that, black as they were, they had come to resemble an underscore. "I wouldn't object to giving you some more… motivation, if that's what's needed here." The tension buzzed and crackled in the air like a living thing, catching everyone's awareness. Her past caretaker's eyes were only a little wider, his posture only a little stiffer, but this had to be the closest to frightened she'd ever seen him.
And then Aizen's eyes met hers, and she could share a bit of that sentiment.
"Is it her?" the former Captain asked. "That you want? That has you distracted?"
Prologue: May 28th (cont'd)
Orihime gasped aloud, she couldn't help it; there might have been a jump, too, and the bare beginnings of an arm-flail (basically the subdued version of what would have been a full spaz-out in Tatsuki's presence). Ulquiorra, on the contrary, appeared frozen in place, not moving, not speaking, not emoting; just standing very still and holding Aizen's stare, for the longest time.
Then, finally: "…Ridiculous."
"No need to be defensive, Ulquiorra. It's nothing to me. We've all been young and in love once…" The affected sweet tone and the patronizing smirk were expected, but that didn't make them any less humiliating. "All I care about is that you find an outlet for whatever urges are usurping your attention and keeping you from doing your best work; and if, at the same time, you give Orihime a reason to heal our victims with more than half a heart, that would be a welcome perk, as well." He shifted his head to the other hand. "What do you say? Will you accept my gift?"
Was 'no' even an option, when it was phrased like that? Ulquiorra bowed, less in a show of respect than in an attempt to avoid his kin's judging looks, Orihime figured. "…Thank you, sir."
"And you, Orihime? Do you have any objections?"
She was sure she'd turned tomato-red from the neck up. "I… wha… n-no, sir." (The first words she'd spoken through the whole meeting; baby Nel would have fared better.)
It was the taciturn Harribel's voice that cropped up next: "Does this mean I'm relieved of my duties towards the girl, Aizen-sama?" Maybe it was the redhead's imagination, but Harribel almost sounded amused. It was starting to become clear to Orihime that Aizen had only been able to pull this off because the remaining 'old-school' Espada – Starrk, Barragan, Harribel – were the sort to find the idea of Ulquiorra's… whatever-it-was for her… either entertaining or contemptible. Nnoitra, if he had been around, would have demanded his own share.
"You're still on warden duty, Harribel," Aizen replied. "We don't want our intended 'motivation' to change back into a 'distraction'. As for what the actual arrangement will be…" He looked back and forth between Ulquiorra and Orihime, obviously getting much more enjoyment out of the situation than either of them. "Hikoboshi and Orihime met by the Amanogawa River once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month… but you also have a touch of Hades and Persephone, don't you, and those two had a bit more time to themselves." He laughed. (Ulquiorra responded with a perplexed "Sir?", while Orihime, who was familiar with the comparisons, endured them with blushes and silence and shame.) "We'll find you a middle ground. Once on each month's seventh day, does that sound amenable? You'll have her all to yourself for a whole day every month, Ulquiorra… starting very soon."
There were only one or two more matters to be discussed before the conference was concluded and everyone dismissed. By that point, the furtive murmurs, the low chuckles and the suggestive looks, from low-ranked and high-ranked Arrancar alike, had become so unbearable that all Orihime wanted was to shrink into an insignificant speck; and when Ulquiorra walked out of the room without sparing her a glance, all she wanted was to disappear.
I: June 7th
The first day they'd been allotted, he entered her cell late in the afternoon, wordlessly leading her out to the desert of Hueco Mundo, like she was a dog he was taking out for a walk. She made to touch his sleeve once and he jerked away, eyes averted.
II: July 7th (Tanabata Day)
The next time, he didn't come at all.
III: August 7th
It was only on their third-month appointment that 'contact was initiated', as her Future Self would put it. And since her companion was of limited imagination, it started as just another desert outing.
"Thank you," Orihime said absently, while they were walking through the corridor that would take them to an exit. "For-for coming to get me. Harribel-sama is very nice, but she doesn't like to talk much, and there's no-one else… it gets lonely. I even kinda miss your speeches sometimes – from when you were my caretaker." She smiled shyly at him. "It wasn't what I wanted to hear, but it was something, you know…"
She had barely finished her sentence when she found herself smushed against a suddenly very still Ulquiorra's back.
He took his time to select his words, time she used to step back and wrap her arms around her waist, reeling from an onslaught of insecurity.
"Aizen-sama is rarely wrong," he began carefully, "but he is wrong about me now." He considered her out of the corner of his eye. "I don't feel anything." (For you.)
What she saw of his face was a near-perfect mirror of the crisp white canvas of his back, so devoid was it of any expression. Going back to Aizen and his lackeys, he'd also gone back to his old self – a Tin Man given up on his search of the Wizard. It was almost enough for her to forget the variety of emotions that had broken through his sad, clown-like mask when he'd extended his single remaining arm toward her and asked if she was scared…
"Oh," Orihime responded at length. "Oh, that's all right! That's… better. Ishida-kun likes – liked Kuchiki-san that way, and it was hard, because she liked someone else, so I wouldn't want you to be on the giving end of unrequited – n-not that I like anyone like that… anymore…"
It was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it case, but Ulquiorra's features sharpened in something resembling envy and softened in something akin to longing, and her foot really ought to be joining her mouth right about now.
"You're dead to all your friends. Stop entertaining these notions that you'll ever see them again," came his harsh declaration, façade restored. "Come."
Later, on their way back to Las Noches, Orihime brushed the back of her fingers against his apologetically. Their spasmodic twitch filled her with a surge of hope.
IV: September 7th
"I'm coming in."
This announcement was normally used to prevent animal yelps and heart attacks on Orihime's part – 'normally' being the keyword, since she was now flat on the floor after jumping two feet in surprise, hitting her head on the headboard and rolling off the bed.
"Don't cause such a ruckus," Ulquiorra chided her mildly, without lifting a finger to help her up.
"Is it today?" the girl murmured, rubbing the sleep off her eyes. "How did a month go by so quickly…"
"Time neither accelerates nor decelerates. The month went by just the same as all previous ones. This much should be self-evident, woman."
"I'm just saying it felt shorter," spoken with a pout, as she found her way to her feet and smoothed her nightgown.
"What 'feels' does not coincide with what 'is', and only the latter is observable in nature. This arbitrary speed you attribute to last month deviates from reality, and can be safely termed an illusion." A deliberate pause. "Like all your other feelings."
"…Would you stop that!" Orihime shouted at the top of her voice, with some aid from the four walls of her claustrophobic cell. She was shocked at the force of the command, and so was her companion; his body didn't stir, but his eyes spoke volumes. Not to be deterred, the redhead went on: "That's not what you are like! That used to be what you were like, but not since you died saving me and Ishida-kun and reaching out to me – you reached out to me." There were tear-tracks going down her cheeks now, too; they were a right match, she and he. "I only reached back. So you can't say you don't feel, you can't –" and she grabbed his hand, forcefully intertwining her fingers with his, as though they were a circuit to carry her words to him, or a shield to reject him, should he disintegrate at her touch.
Coming from any other female, this speech would amount to a plea for returned love or attention -- but that was not the case with Inoue Orihime, who was sure her heart belonged to Ichigo, for this lifetime and another four. What motivated her in this case was really compassion… and maybe a little bit of understanding. The ebony demon who'd carved up her beloved in front of her eyes had many things in common with the girl who'd sat and vented her jealous anger to Matsumoto Rangiku from the other side of a wall.
Ulquiorra at first looked like he might hyperventilate from the unprecedented contact… but he promptly tightened his hold on her hand, almost to the point of pain, and grasped her jaw in his other palm, again none-too-gently.
They stayed suspended in this bizarre face-off for seconds – yet more seconds -- seconds that stretched and lengthened…
And then, very slowly… but surely… he leaned in. Like a glob of honey levitating between the spoon that held it and the bowl that magnetized it. Orihime's first thought was: He's going to kiss me. Her second: Kurosaki-kun...
Ulquiorra paused inches from her face, his brow knit in an expression universally known as 'second thoughts', but this Act had already been set in motion and needed to be seen through…
He pressed a resentful kiss to her forehead.
"Get changed to your Espada uniform," he instructed, unruffled but for a tiny, albeit audible swallow. "I will return in ten minutes."
Thump, went the door.
Thump-thump, her heart.
V: October 7th
Upon her request, Harribel had provided Orihime with a paper and a pen to mark the passing days (much like the prisoner she was), so that this time, she wasn't surprised at Ulquiorra's advent on the seventh. She had been staring outside her barred window when he knocked, and she resumed staring after he entered.
Without preamble: "Ulquiorra… what month is it in my world?"
As much as he must have been surprised by her a-propos-of-nothing question, he didn't miss a beat: "Fall." He took a step closer to her. "Although I don't see why it should matter."
"Fall…" It wasn't a 'month' at all, but she didn't press the point. "I remember I loved the fall rain… but I guess it's a good thing it never rains here, huh?" She graced him with a sad smile.
"Why would that be?" His relaxed, hands-in-pockets posture gave his questions an air of apathy, but she knew they were really fueled by an incessant curiosity.
"If it were raining, the magpies wouldn't come."
"…I don't understand."
"Ah! Right. It's because the Tanabata festival is based on the myth of the princess and the cowherd. But then…" Oops. A wave of embarrassment overtook her. "…I forgot Hueco Mundo doesn't have any myths. Or princesses. Or cows. There aren't any cows wandering around the desert, right? 'Cause there are hardly any plants out there, and they'd have to turn into those meat-eating cows you hear about on the news… oh, but they'd be Hollow cows, so my argument… makes no sense…"
If she hadn't already been flustered, Ulquiorra's impatient expression would have done the trick.
"Don't waste time on such meaningless things, woman. Come."
However, instead of heading towards the door, he freed one hand from its pocket, lifted it to the air as though reaching for an invisible knob, and opened a rift.
"Wear this." Only then did the ginger-haired girl notice the bracelet dangling from the fingers of his outstretched hand; the same one he'd given her on their first tête-à-tête. "The human world considers you dead, and we will do nothing to convince them otherwise."
Still she could manage little more than random vowel sounds.
"Don't tarry any longer, woman." Ulquiorra actually sounded annoyed (with her or with himself?) as he grabbed Orihime's arm and pulled her forward. She would forever associate the word "déjà vu" with the sound-memory of the rift closing behind her like a zipper.
VI: October 7th (cont'd)
The sensation of the cool wind on her cheeks, like passing through a ghost; the sound of the sea against the rocks; the sight of the vast grey skies, adorned by that meek yet persistent October sun.
Orihime thought she'd never been so happy in her entire life.
"Thank you," she could only say, already out of breath from skipping and bouncing and swirling and laughing to her heart's content. "Thank you thank you thank you thank you…" She made to hug him, but caught herself at the last moment, and touched his arm affectionately instead. He didn't jerk away like he had on their first meeting.
"You looked unwell; I thought a change of scenery might be refreshing," Ulquiorra explained. "Is Harribel taking proper care of you? You've lost weight." He rested a palm on her stomach to illustrate the point, and she blushed to the roots of her hair.
"Ah! I…! Um…!" Personal bubble, personal bubble… "Harribel-san is treating me fine! She brings me food daily and everything, I just don't always feel hungry… like after hearing a bad rumor, or healing the injured Arrancar…" And she's not such a stickler that she'll tie me down and force the food down my throat if I don't want it, she almost added. "But it's not her fault, really! It's just me!"
"I see." He finally, finally retracted his hand and started down the walkway, with her trailing behind.
The bracelet might not even have been necessary; there were hardly any people around, as opposed to the chorus of seagulls.
"We're not in Karakura Town…" She didn't know what had become of the Key that Aizen had been after, but she at least knew that her hometown was still standing.
"We're not," the Cuatro Espada confirmed. "It's not far from here, but I wasn't certain if I could trust you not to get carried away, should you run into a friend or relative."
"I don't have any relatives," she commented, catching up to him with one long stride. He glanced at her curiously, but refrained from expressing what he felt, whether it be sympathy or pity or contempt. He didn't actually speak another word until much later in their stroll, when he caught her serenading a fast food restaurant with her eyes.
"Is there something you want?"
Ulquiorra obviously hadn't given up on his disapproval of her diet, though, because he changed his course and motioned for her to follow. One of the men in the counter turned when he heard the door swing open, but seeing only empty space, he shook it off and returned to his chat with his co-workers.
"Ulquiorra… what are we doing here? We don't have any money…"
"It doesn't matter. None of them can see us. Tell me what you would like."
"We can't do that! That would be stealing!"
"Haven't you sworn allegiance to Aizen-sama, woman?" Orihime nodded reluctantly. "Then you no longer conform to this society's rules and conventions. Tell me what you would like."
The prospect of stealing inspired about as much eagerness in Orihime as the prospect of visiting the dentist, but she complied: "I guess… maybe an ice cream would be nice. They're in the freezer. No, over there –" She pointed. "And a packet of French fries… but you'd have to go behind the counter to… oh." That Sonido sure came in useful. "Then… maybe also a cheeseburger? They're the ones next to the – yeah." Emboldened now: "And maybe a couple of chicken nuggets. And a side salad – some ketcup, too. Oh, and I always meant to try the chocolate chip cookies – and…"
A quarter of an hour later, they were seated in a secluded bench overlooking the sea, with a banquet spread across their laps, the bench, and the pavement at their feet. If there was one thing besides her friends that Orihime had missed during her months of captivity, it was food; real, honest-to-God food, not the featureless, texture-less dishes she was served in Las Noches.
"…Woman, I highly doubt these two foods are supposed to go together."
"Eheheh… everyone thinks so, but they're really tasty! Just try!" She pushed a piece of cheeseburger into his mouth, followed by a ketchup-and-mayonnaise-covered chicken nugget, followed by a bite of vanilla ice cream.
His resulting expression clearly said, not so much with the tasty. (In fact, she bet he was biting his tongue not to speak the word 'trash' out loud.)
"Huh. Wow. Maybe my taste in food really is as bad as people say…" Orihime lamented. Ulquiorra didn't deny it in words, nor did his sour face exhibit any change -- but his hand hovered over her head for a second, before he gave her an awkward, pseudo-consoling pat.
Orihime burst into laughter.
And when all that was left of her giggling fit was a wide grin, the girl repeated her earlier words: "Thank you." She leaned her head against Ulquiorra, pressing a kiss on his white-garbed shoulder in a sudden rush of tenderness. "I'm so happy; thank you."
VII: November 7th
Ulquiorra would likely scold her for thinking so, but those twenty-nine days between the seventh of October and the seventh of November passed at an excruciatingly slow pace. Every time Harribel would take her for a walk, she'd have her neck craned for a glimpse of Ulquiorra; every time Aizen would call her for a meeting, she'd have her ears on alert for the timbre of his voice. And according to her estimations, it shouldn't be long before she'd develop an Ulquiorra-centric version of her sixth "I can smell Kurosaki-kun!" sense.
Which is why, when the seventh finally rolled around, she waited by the door like a faithful puppy, and practically pounced at him when it opened.
"Woman… what's wrong?" He held her with more care than even her brother had, as if he had claws in place of nails or knives in place of hands, and had to be attentive not to cut her.
"I'm sorry," the ginger-haired girl mumbled into his chest. She pulled back at an arm's distance to add: "I missed you."
"You're lucky that wasn't Loly and Menoly at the door," he said dryly, although sparks of concern were still flickering on his eyes and temples. "Let us begin." The rift opened at a snap of his fingers.
Surfacing on the other side of the Garganta, Orihime found herself in very familiar surroundings.
"Is this… my apartment?" There was no mistake. This was her carpet… her television… her closet… her books. Her home.
"We will not venture outside, for the same reason I mentioned last time. If you wish to leave this place, notify me and I'll open another rift."
The girl nodded absentmindedly, not really paying attention to his words. She spotted her patched-up teddy bear on its usual shelf; grabbed it, hugged it close to her chest. Next she fished out the remote control and pressed a random button. A science fiction movie was on.
She felt funny. There was happiness, of course, as in their last trip to the human world, but also this… agonizing pang of nostalgia, which rendered the experience rather bittersweet.
This was what it would have felt like to kiss Kurosaki-kun for the first and last time before leaving him for Hueco Mundo, she thought.
"Why do you humans immerse yourselves in these fantastical scenarios, I wonder," Ulquiorra's voice carried her out of her musings. It took her a moment to realize he was referring to the science fiction movie currently on television, which he was examining with an almost scientific interest. "What bearing could they possibly have on your reality?"
"Well…" Her chaperone looked at her expectantly, so that she regretted even opening her mouth. However, she quickly managed to collect her thoughts and answer: "The natural world is so harsh, you know, sometimes people need an escape… and that's what they have dreams for, and music, and art, and stories." She nodded toward the TV screen.
"Is your spirit really so feeble that you find comfort in fabricated –"
Gah, Orihime would have none of it. "Or sometimes we relate to the people in the stories, and come to some conclusion about ourselves that way."
"Really." To her chagrin, Ulquiorra sounded even more irritated now. "The people in the stories. The people in your Tanabata myth." He stepped toward her, invading her personal space as boldly as he had in the fifth tower, when she'd first broached the subject of hearts with him. "Are you the Weaving Princess in your mind's eye, Inoue Orihime?"
Huh, so he'd read up on that over the last twenty-nine days… all because she'd mentioned it once…
"Is Aizen-sama the proverbial Sky King? Is Garganta the Milky Way?" He stared into her eyes intently. "And are you waiting for Kurosaki Ichigo to reunite with you someday this year or the next, like the Hikoboshi to your Orihime?"
That's what it was. That's all it was…
What a relief.
And to think, in the beginning, she'd found him so inhuman, so impenetrable…
"…What are you saying, woman?" Ulquiorra's green eyes were bright as emeralds, and just as sharp.
"I'm saying," Orihime pronounced clearly, "that Kurosaki-kun is not Hikoboshi." She smiled benevolently at the wide-eyed Espada. "Think about it… for one thing, does he look even slightly like a cow herder?" With perfect timing, she reached up to stroke the horn on his bone helmet.
And that was all it took.
Ulquiorra's lips clashed against hers, his tongue blindly seeking entrance between them while his fingers dug into her arms to keep her still. She tried to gentle him with loving palms on his waist, his shoulders, his cheeks, but was only marginally successful; it was like trying to contain a forest fire with a single helicopter. The background music from the sci-fi movie was buried under the loud, wet sounds of their kissing.
They remained locked in this activity for many long minutes, since Ulquiorra appeared unwilling to jeopardize the situation by furthering his advances. At last, Orihime broke the kiss and, still in a fever, pulled him toward the nearest flat surface: the floor.
Things happened. One of her legs rode high between his. His hands crawled under her shirt to fondle both of her breasts. Her nose rubbed against his neck affectionately. He tugged haphazardly at clothing, hers and his. She cried hard when he broke her, and he just held her head and whispered "Quiet; quiet" in her ear, over and over.
VIII: December 7th
She didn't have to prime her sense of sight, smell or hearing to find Ulquiorra anymore. Wherever she was and whatever she was doing, from visiting the kitchens to chasing the resident Hollow puppy on her way to her cell, he seemed to always be around her periphery. Of course, he looked away disdainfully whenever she tried to catch his eyes, but that was just for show -- and possibly a remainder of his old I-bully-because-I-care tactic.
("Orihime, is Ulquiorra bothering you?"
"Harribel-san! I didn't hear you there. I'm at a big disadvantage without Sonido, heh! You said something about… oh, no, Ulquiorra isn't doing anything wrong."
"Besides stalking you, you mean."
"Ehhh? No, that's just… It's nothing. Just a habit. It's nothing, really."
"I can bring it up to Aizen-sama if there is something…"
"Habit! Nothing! Really!")
They had two failed attempts to meet up before the seventh, once in her cell (interrupted by a servant) and once in a side corridor (interrupted by a new Espada best described as 'Nnoitra-lite'), which only left them feeling more deprived and frustrated than before.
December 7th, for the first time, he stayed with her for a full 24 hours.
And every 7th after that.
IX: January 7th
They were lying on her bed again -- her apartment's, not her cell's -- just basking in the afterglow, when Orihime poked two fingers into his Hollow hole.
"Guess that wasn't a literal heart you got, after all," she muttered sadly.
Ulquiorra ran a hand over her neck, lingering on his bite marks with a hint of possessiveness. He didn't partake in her grief, at least not vocally.
"Do you feel empty, Ulquiorra?" she asked in the same downcast tone. "I don't want you to be empty…"
She expected him to say: No more empty than you humans are. Or: My kind are called Hollows, woman; I'm empty by definition.
But what he said was, "You're searching in the wrong place this time, Inoue Orihime", and linked his hand with hers.
X: February 7th
"I dreamt that you went away…"
"It was only a dream; pay it no mind. I'm not going anywhere."
"It felt like that time… after your fight with Kurosaki-kun. You held my hand and said a few words and left me…"
"…on a flying, polka-dotted gondola… with Chuck Norris…"
She went back to sleep.
XI: March 7th
"Please hold still."
Orihime whispered the words with effort, only half-aware that it was she, and not her patient, who was shaking the most. Her extended fingers shivered like tiny frail branches in a strong wind; her body swayed like a tower of matchsticks. Through eyes bleary from exhaustion she watched Soten Kisshun's butter-yellow glow, and the healing effect it had on the Arrancar's punctured chest, torn limbs, gouged eyes; and she was about to move on to the next wounded (a female whose facial features were no longer discernible through the slashes and the red-black blood), when she was apprehended by a hand on her elbow.
"Ulquiorra?" She almost-instinctively conducted a hasty survey of his torso, arms, legs; he wasn't hurt. "What are you doing here…?"
"It's midnight." Orihime's blank look prompted him to elaborate. "We have entered the seventh of March, according to your Gregorian calendar."
"Seventh… oh." She stood still for a few seconds, biting her lip, then resolutely moved to the prone female Arrancar. "I'm sorry -- I can't. I still have so many people to heal, and more may be arriving later… It will have to wait until next month." She began casting her healing shield.
"No." The girl lifted her head to blink at him, taken aback. "You've been doing this for hours; you need a recess. There will always be war victims, and you can't save everyone. This is enough." When he saw she wasn't budging, he added: "I spoke to Aizen-sama and he, too, said he deems your contribution sufficient for one day." Still Orihime kept at it, even turning her back to him in a show of defiance.
At which point the Cuatro Espada, obviously not in the mood for caprice, grabbed her arm and started dragging her to the door by force.
"No! Ulquiorra, please! Can't you see what state they're in? They're going to die if I don't help them!"
"What I see is that you're going to collapse from exhaustion if you continue a minute longer. You're already trembling."
"Better that than to just… abandon them to play house with you! How is that fair?" She dissolved into tears. "Let me go, please…"
Ulquiorra appeared to hesitate at the sight of her tears. He reached out and wiped them off tenderly, though his pale, black-nailed hands seemed so incompatible with her rosy cheeks. As soon as that was done, it was like flicking off a switch: his expression changed from apologetic to stone-cold, and he pulled her outside the room, closing the door behind them.
"Think of it as saving the equal number of Shinigami who would have fought them."
"What? But… how can I think of it like that… death and suffering are still death and suffering, no matter if they're happening on the side of the Hollows or the Shinigami…" Yet the spunk had gone out of her voice at the reminder of her former friends and allies -- something Ulquiorra must have picked up on, since he didn't comment further.
He walked her to her cell at a brisk pace, and had her against the wall the very instant they stepped foot inside.
A bite on her earlobe. A trail of kisses down to her neck. Two fingers pinching her nipple.
Smack, his kisses on her neck went.
Kiss. Kiss. Lick. Kiss.
"I'm really tired…" He pulled back to look her in the eye, but kept his hand on her breast, still toying with her nipple idly. "I don't know if I'm up to it today…"
Ulquiorra gave her an appraising look. "We will not have another chance at this until thirty days from now."
"And you're implying that you find that term acceptable."
"Very well." Any physical contact between their bodies ceased immediately; he was such a gentleman. "In that case, we have no reason to stay here."
He made to snap his fingers and open a Garganta, but Orihime stayed his hand.
"I… don't know if I have the strength to do a lot of walking today, either." Her face fell. "I'm really sorry, Ulquiorra…"
Another long, calculating look from her chaperone, and then he did snap his fingers and open a rift.
"Oh. Okay," the redhead whispered defeatedly.
On the other side of the Garganta, Orihime was consumed by a rain of black.
XII: March 7th (cont'd)
And then something lifted her up into the air, higher and higher, like a theme park ride or an elevator or Sora's arms, and she couldn't even remember to be scared because the wind was a cool sheet on her face and the sky was everywhere around her and she was soaring…
"What – what…"
"Don't struggle; it's me." That's when Orihime felt the claws on her waist, heard the flap of mighty wings, and the figure that held her solidified in her mind: Ulquiorra's second release. "You said you couldn't walk."
"Ulquiorra… yes, but you didn't have to…" Who was she kidding? Her tired limbs were already rejoicing over this warm and strangely furry pool-float (sky-float?) they'd found themselves in, judging by the way they clung to him. "…Thanks."
Ulquiorra reacted with silence, which he seldom did in her presence anymore, but this time Orihime welcomed it. It allowed for this mental image of the two of them gliding in a big, invisible bubble, insulated from noise and pain, ill-thoughts and hardship. Even the cities below seemed an extension of the sky, with dark cubes in place of clouds and blinking lights in place of stars. It was probably the most romantic moment in her life to that point, and how odd that it should be with a man in the form of a demon…
That's when her pretty fantasy broke apart, because the memories of what exactly that demon had been up to the last time she'd seen him came rushing back. The blood sprouting from Ishida-kun. The obstacles in her way. The despair. The Lanca del Relampago. The gaping hole in Kurosaki-kun's chest. The despair, the despair, the despair.
"Are you cold?" Ulquiorra questioned, alerted by her tremors.
"No. Just…" Her fingers wandered over the brink of her lover's own hole and she let out a small, bitter laugh. "Isn't it funny… I just remembered…"
The girl reached out to stroke his left cheek, eyes trained on his teal tear-mark. She traced it with her thumb, full of wonder. "Just. It's funny that I have this 'arrangement' with you, out of all people. 'Cause your regeneration powers are so advanced that… you're the only one I'll never get to heal…"
The silence stretched between them, around them. She thought she was back in the bubble. Then:
"Is that so," Ulquiorra answered enigmatically.
His grip on her tightened with a vengeance, and though she was surprised, she snuggled closer to his chest. It felt so safe and comfortable that she was actually getting a little drowsy. The distant electric lights were beginning to look more like flickering candles through her half-closed eyes.
"Ulquiorra," she mumbled against his skin, "why were there so many injured today?" Her eyes fell shut, at last succumbing to fatigue, though her mind was still awake. "Are we in battle with the Shinigami?" And next up, the question that had been haunting her since he'd cut her healing session short: "Are my friends all right?"
One of his clawed hands latched onto her hair – out of reflex, she supposed – but she didn't protest. He must be hurting, too. Sure enough, his tone was uncharacteristically brash when he replied: "What does it matter? You will never reunite with them again. Their current status would not factor into your life in any way, other than potentially damaging your psychology. Why can't you be content with what you have?" (Why can't you be content with me?)
Sigh. She'd never intended to get him mad. Maybe it would be best if -- no. She wouldn't back down: "Ulquiorra, I have to know…"
"No, Inoue Orihime, you don't. This is merely an effort of yours to assuage your guilt because you're not in that battlefield, dying at their side. Would you also have to know what the real world was like, if you were immersed in a pleasant dream? Would you have to know what happens after death, if it was an annihilation of your soul?"
Orihime's eyes went wide as saucers. Was Ulquiorra I-will-show-you-true-despair Cifer really asking her if the truth was preferable to… hope?
Probably suspecting that she was prepared to call him on his slip-up, he interrupted her with the one thing that was sure to stop her on a dime:
"Kurosaki Ichigo is alive."
It was like a slap, like that slap, in that Orihime couldn't for a second control her reaction – neither her sobs, nor the words that escaped her mouth: "Kurosaki-kun… oh, thank mercy… Kurosaki-kun…"
XIII: April 7th
Ulquiorra was eerily reticent for the whole of that day, no matter how many jokes she cracked or how many creative recipes she related. He only stopped giving her the cold shoulder for the duration of the sex, and that was even eerier, in its own way.
"No-one else calls you this, do they?"
"Open your eyes – look at me."
"How is this, woman?"
"Does this please you?"
XIV: May 7th
In retrospect, the signs had all been laid out for Orihime to see. The unusual stillness of their April "date" was only the beginning; Ulquiorra also stopped prowling in her territory, cut their attempts at secret rendezvous cold-turkey, and, the single time she bumped into him in a corridor, orchestrated a three–foot swerve to avoid her.
At the time, the ginger-haired girl had just put this down to one of his moods -- a hypothesis that got a serious boost when he showed up on the seventh… looking and behaving normally. As if those intervening days of weirdness had never happened.
Well, then she would just pretend the same thing.
Their first stop was Orihime's apartment, and, more specifically, her bed, as was often the case after their ordained month-long celibacy. Soft moans and blissful sighs replaced last month's psychobabble, barely heard over the rhythmic creaking of her old mattress. It was only a good five minutes into the afterglow that any word was spoken, when, with his body blanketing her own and his face burrowed against her neck, the Cuatro Espada muttered:
"Whu – why -- what?" Orihime panicked.
"…is what you felt for the Shinigami -- Kurosaki Ichigo," Ulquiorra continued, unfazed by her overreaction. "How do you define it?"
The girl blinked in confusion, even though he couldn't see it from his position. "Didn't you say I should forget all about my friends, because they won't be affecting my life anymore…?"
"Mm," he grunted. "However, I will concede some curiosity." He pressed light kisses on her neck until his lips found her pulse, and stayed there. "Tell me."
"Are you worried that I still feel that way about Kurosaki-kun? Because I --"
"Woman," he bit out. "I'm sure I asked you a question."
Orihime let out a resigned sigh, and reminisced. "For Kurosaki-kun… I fee-- felt like I wanted to be with him all the time. And like no-one could make me laugh the way he did… or cry the way he did. And like it didn't matter if he loved Kuchiki-san instead of me, because I would be happy for him and love him all the same…" Absorbedly, she ran her fingers through her Arrancar's ebony hair. "And I was in awe of his hero complex… he really wanted to save everyone, you know, human or Shinigami or Hollow. And he made me want to become stronger and stronger, so that I could do something for him in return. Save him in return." Desire rose up and choked her at the memory of her orange-haired knight, and she found she couldn't go on. "I don't know… Does that answer your question?"
Ulquiorra stayed quiet for a long time, but she knew she'd later have bruises on her waist from his powerful grip.
"It does." And he rolled her over for another round.
XV: May 7th (cont'd)
Orihime had been happily nuzzling her lover's chest (she'd found a particularly comfy spot just to the right of his hole), when, out of the blue, the body that chest was attached to stood up from the bed. Oomph. Head, meet pillow.
"Why?" She pouted. "It's still early enough…"
"We're going for a walk." He was already putting on his last article of clothing. "And I'm likely to change my mind if we prolong these activities further."
"Okay then…" the girl said, bouncing off the bed. "We can continue later, right?" She grinned and pressed her still-nude body against his back -- not even registering how much her body language had loosened up around him lately.
When she was fully dressed, down to the bracelet that would render her unseeable to all but the Espada, she took her place at his side and waited for him to open a Garganta.
He walked towards the door instead.
"…We're taking a walk here? In Karakura?" Ulquiorra didn't deny it, which was confirmation enough for Orihime. "So… so you trust me now?"
"It is irrelevant."
"What does that mean…?" she muttered, but he was already out the door, and she had to hasten to catch up.
Nothing had changed in Karakura. She didn't know why she'd expected it to, given that she'd only been gone for a couple of years, but nonetheless, there was no describing the effect each house, each tree and paving-stone had on her. Lesser people wouldn't have reacted so effusively had they been reunited with long-lost family members.
"Lead the way," her sad-eyed companion encouraged, another surprise in a day brimming with them.
Orihime didn't lead them anywhere, busy as she was camping out on her favourite cloud – but her feet did. Indeed, they seemed very confident in their destination, crossing streets and turning in alleys and running down slopes until they reached it.
The field with the red dragonflies.
"Oh! This is where Tatsuki-chan and I would meet every autumn. – Have I told you about Tatsuki-chan? She's my best friend… -- Huh. I don't know why I came here."
There were dragonflies this time, too; she hadn't seen this many since middle school! This day had better end with one hell of a tag line, after all these incredible twists.
Ulquiorra had taken one hand out of his pockets to tap her shoulder, and just when she turned around, a dragonfly descended on his finger.
Orihime pinned him with a look more full of longing than any variation of bedroom-eyes she'd ever given him, shocking both Ulquiorra and herself. He shoved his hand back into his pocket with a spastic movement.
The dragonfly flew away.
"Umm! Sorry, it's just… my brother, he used to…"
"Never mind," Ulquiorra cut in. "I took you out for a reason, and idle banter is not it."
That sounded intimidating… "What's the reason?"
Ulquiorra took her hand in his. Is he going to propose to me? was Orihime's first thought, and she did a shoddy job of suppressing the accompanying swell of nervous giggles. But the Espada continued his way up to her wrist -- and removed the bracelet that encircled it.
Orihime couldn't breathe. She couldn't breathe.
"I don't understand," the ginger-haired girl whispered. She was telling the truth, so why on Earth were her eyes wet…?
"What is it that you do not understand, woman?"
Wordlessly, she held up her bare wrist.
"I'm setting you free. You are no longer bound to our arrangement or to Aizen-sama's wishes."
She still couldn't raise her voice over a whisper. "Did Aizen order you to…?"
"No," was his curt answer.
"But then… why would you…" Water was running down her cheeks as from open faucets now. Could it be? "Ulquiorra… are you --" (In love with me?) " -- feeling for me what I felt for Kurosaki-kun?"
"No," he answered again. But just when Orihime was about to berate herself for her self-centeredness, he added: "I feel more."
For the length of the next minute, the universe turned into a snowglobe in which the only things in motion were not white snowflakes, but red dragonflies.
"What are you –"
"You defined 'love' as a desire to grow stronger and be the one to save Kurosaki Ichigo for a change – which, due to his overwhelming presence, you failed to accomplish," her companion explained.
"But I will save you."
Orihime shook her head frantically. "No… no, this is insane! What do you think Aizen will do to you when he finds out?!"
"Have me executed, or incarcerate me in a Caja Negacion able to hold me permanently," he said bluntly.
"See?! My life is not so important that someone should risk their own to improve it!" She was yelling now. "I won't let you do this!"
"It's already done," Ulquiorra replied, setting forth two conflicting urges in Orihime's mind, to kiss him and to slap him. She'd tried both, and they'd both felt good. "Your nature is incongruous with Hueco Mundo and the war and loneliness it encompasses. You should be with your friends, if they inspire such feelings in you as…"
"I don't feel that way only for them!" she blurted out. The words would be hard to say, but she had to take the leap: "Ulquiorra… I lo--"
"You love the Shinigami," Ulquiorra stated matter-of-factly. His neutral voice concealed his envy, but his eyes didn't. "If you feel anything for me, it is a progressed version of what you humans term 'Stockholm Syndrome'. I provided you with food and company in a trying period of your life, as well as attending to your reproductive urges, so you're confusing your gratitude with emotions you obviously reserve for Kurosaki Ichigo. You will forget all about me after a month back with him – and so the better."
"You're wrong." She'd been keeping her distance from him out of bewilderment, but now she deliberately leaned in for a kiss. Ulquiorra resisted at first, but in the end, he couldn't help his actions around her – story of their life – and kissed her back. It was in that state that a familiar persona caught them:
It was Ulquiorra who pulled back first, eyeing the interloper up and down. Orihime felt her lover's arm snake around her waist protectively, but she was already stumbling out of his arms:
"Tatsuki-chan!" She tackled the taller girl to the ground, tears of happiness coming to mix with her previous tears of grief. "Tatsuki-chan, I've missed you so much…"
"Orihime…" Tatsuki held on to her like a lifeboat, and Orihime was slightly embarrassed to hear her sobbing openly, it was so unlike her… Only minutes later did she manage to compose herself and take into account the Espada's presence: "Who's he…?" She inspected him over the redhead's shoulder, and her eyes flashed with recognition. "He's the guy from that time… Orihime, is he the one who abducted you?!"
"That's right," Ulquiorra spoke in an apathetic tone. Orihime bet he found Tatsuki's display of bravado amusing at best.
"Bastard!" Tatsuki snarled, making to rush him. "You know what I do to the people who hurt Orihime for a second, let alone two years?! I'll beat the crap out of you!"
"Tatsuki-chan, don't!" the ginger-haired girl held her back. "Ulquiorra is my…" His eyes caught hers, sparkling with interest; what was he to her, anyway? "He's a very special person to me." Her eyes pleaded with him, we can talk about this later, though he looked away so fast he might not have noticed it.
Tatsuki flailed a little in her grasp.
"That's my cue to leave, woman," Ulquiorra interrupted their little tug-of-war, getting straight to the point. "You seem to be having no trouble reintegrating," he added with a pointed glance at Tatsuki.
"Save your tears. You've already lost me once, and you made it through perfectly sound. This time should be no different." He would have stopped there, but her sorrowful visage forced him to go on: "The simple fact is that I want you to be content more than I want you, and you couldn't be so in that desert. Take this into consideration, and face my death with the same acceptance you faced the prospect of your own, back in the fifth tower."
"No. No. You're just making up excuses!" Orihime protested. Her best friend's appearance may have mellowed her determination to go back to Las Noches with him, but she hadn't raised her white flag yet. Her tag line was 'hope'. "You're wrong about me, my feelings for you and my feelings for Kurosaki-kun; and I'll prove it. I'll see you in two months."
Ulquiorra didn't seem at all convinced: "Woman --" he breathed with a hint of exasperation.
"I'll see you… in two months," the redhead repeated slowly. "Same place. July 7th. Tanabata Day. I won't let anyone else make this choice for me. And I won't forget you in a month, like you claimed, or in two months, or in a dozen lifetimes. I will be there; I promise." Her optimistic smile shone brighter than her tears.
"…Goodbye, Inoue Orihime."
A small part of Orihime wished she'd reached out before he vanished into the rift.
Just in case.
Epilogue: July 7th (Tanabata Day)
Orihime stood in the field with the red dragonflies, where she was supposed to meet with Ulquiorra – only there were no dragonflies around anymore, and no Ulquiorra as of yet.
(What about magpies…?)
It was only her, and a pink umbrella, and the dull pitter-patter of the rain.