Hello all, I suppose this would be my first story in a long while. Beware, for I am a visual artist and not a writer (nor has this been beta-d, my apologies), but I could not get this scenario out of my head. I suppose it is in reaction to the many ideas floating around, in which many seem to deem physical appearance as a measure or testament to something or someone's humanity, which I simply don't agree with. That and it seems the subject of an unmasked hollow interacting with non-hollows is never approached due to this matter, and I just like the idea of seeing Ulquiorra as he was before. Reviews are lovely and always immensely appreciated, and I hope you enjoy!

She freezes, feels her muscles go stiff, hard, rigid as she stands in the doorway; feels her knees grow weak and calves grow taut as if her legs are screaming weakly for her to run. Run down the halls, back down the stairs, down the street to someplace open where she can find help and defend herself properly…

…Inoue Orihime goes to class most mornings nowadays, and comes home in the evenings– her university is not far and her rides back home are filled with the mellow clunk clunk clunk of her train on its tracks, and the rustling of newspapers being folded and turned. Some days she works at the florist down the street ("The tulips are in season now," she would think on her way back – she would give a pot to Tatsuki when they go hiking this weekend) and other days she spends putting extra hours in at the library.

"I study languages," she tells her friends, and the people she meets on the street, "so that people may better understand each other." So that I can connect two people, she thinks, even if they are from different worlds. She is devoted and bright –her professors tell her this, but she needs no recognition anymore; she knows she is – and she knows she'll travel the world someday soon in her studies (and see all the world, all the skies, the cities and the streets ).

Ishida writes to her from Germany, and she writes back with enthusiasm, going off on tangents of how she's glad the art of hand-writing letters hasn't been lost on some people. He tells her that his studies in medicine are going well, and that his university is in the city. He sends her a picture with it, its old walls breathing life with elegant architecture, and the city around it aged and deep and grand. "You should study abroad here for the summer," he says, encourages, hopes. "It would be an amazing experience and I'm sure your school would fund it."

She smiles at this (genuinely), and seriously considers it – she will see her world one way or another, "But if this is a start it is a good one."

Her mind races with fanciful thoughts of her possible adventure as she walks in the door to her apartment–she surely deserves such an experience after all her hard work ("I am a top student, after all," she reminds herself proudly).

Which is why it seems cruel – so cruel – when she walks in the door to find a hollow sitting on her ottoman – a hollow! With a bone mask and angry pointed teeth and horns and-

-green eyes.


The muscles in her legs loosen their grip as her knees give way – she feels her arms flail out in front of her as she tries to stop her fall - her stumble, slow motion- as she grabs the cabinet next to her for support. The kitchen is spinning, its white walls crashing down on her like waves as she fights the tide to pull herself back up, back together.

I should have felt it, she scolds herself; felt the suppressed energy running over her home – heavy, like it was over Las Noches – dark, dense, liquid – like an oceanic wave threatening to crash down from above.

She looks back up at the hollow as it looks back at her with restrained expectancy, analysis, as she struggles to have her mind cooperate, to put back the pieces.

Something twists in her stomach; feels heavy, fluttering, sick. It is fear, and sadness, and hope and confusion. She doesn't want to ask it – doesn't want to look into the yellow irises and have her daydreams in green come crashing down to earth in an unexpected reality. No, no, it couldn't be true – such hopes and thoughts and dreams over the past four years could not have manifested into such a truth.

Her head buzzes, and she wants to scream, and cry, and laugh – but mostly wants to scream, shut down, and reject what she sees- substitute it for her perfect expectations of how she wanted this world – her world, to be. How this was supposed to be. Because there is a hollow in her home, with angry pointed teeth and horns and claws and wings and-

It's impossible-

Instead she asks with hope – and dread: "…Ulquiorra?"

It crouches over her, claws on raptor feet clicking on her kitchen tile like falling beads.

Deep voice, even, controlled, smooth (just as she remembers it).



She busies herself around the kitchen, preparing dinner as she tells him she usually does, pulling out various ingredients and packaged foods from the freezer and cabinets. She focuses on the mince pie, dried squid, cider, mung beans… focuses intently, if only to try and ignore the watchful eyes following her every move. She allows herself the occasional glance back, only to be greeted by large eyes looking calmly out of skeletal sockets.

Green sclera, she notes absentmindedly as she chops a leek and tosses it into the boiling water. Like last time.

There is nothing else to do except watch the stew cook, and she spends an agonizing amount of time doing just that – staring and stirring – avoiding turning around, until she is sure she looks ridiculous.

Turning, arms crossed, she leans against the counter stiffly, looking back at her guest.

It is a rather absurd image, she thinks, as she takes in the sight – the hollow sitting at her kitchen table, in a chair, his tail lying limp on the tile floor and protruding horns threatening to knock the lamp hanging from the ceiling. He stares back, blankly, perhaps almost expecting her to say something to ease the stifling silence (she had offered him the couch and T.V., which he had refused). But perhaps she is wrong, because he looks away to survey his surroundings with restrained curiosity.

She blinks, because she really can't believe her eyes. It's...it's not really him, she tells herself, even though she knows it is.

He looks back at her, and moments of deafening silence pass.




Goes her clock, and she wishes she could rip her eyes away from the hold he has on her, rip her eyes away from the ivory mask and helmet and pointed teeth. She sees the white skin, and thick brows, and black marks peering out from underneath bone. (And it reminds her of Hel, ruler of the underworld, who was born with her skeleton outside her body.)

He repeats his words from earlier, "I'm not sure how long I can stay."

He had tried to suppress his reiatsu, he tells her, but it will only be a matter of time before the shinigami will come after him. She had put up a weak barrier around her apartment, perhaps enough to contain it – buy her time, whatever amount she had. But so far she found that she wasn't using it wisely.

"I- I know," she replies, surprised, his unexpected voice having torn through the spell.

A breath escapes, and as if not quite lucid, she breathes, "You're really alive."

Or, as alive as the dead could be. His soul was alive – alive and together – not a handful of ash and energy floating in the primordial air of life.

"Yes," he replies. And there is silence once more.

Thankful for the bubbling sound and thick aroma coming from the pot, Inoue Orihime once again takes it upon herself to stir and pour a bowl. She pours a bowl for him as well, though she's quite sure he won't eat it. Once again faced with a task to distract herself, she places the bowls on the table and frantically runs about preparing the silverware and napkins, setting them with precision on the table and rambling about once again to provide some avoidance.

"Now remember to put the napkin on your lap in case you spill on yourself! Tatsuki's mother always told me that when I would visit their house. Tatsuki is a very tough lady but she's actually got amazing table manners! Did I tell you about Tatsuki? She's my best friend – we've been best friends ever since we were little. She would even give me rides on her bike to school, even though her mom said it was dangerous sometimes – one time I sat in the basket and the ride to school was so rocky! Of course I don't ride to school on a bike anymore, I have to take the train. But that can be bumpy too! Do you want a drink? I'm going to get a drink. I have this mango nectar juice I got from Mr. Hikawa down the street. Speaking of mangos, I think they're in season right now…"

Her voice dies down as she settles into her chair, her gaze lowering to her bowl for a brief second in silence, before her voice and posture snap back up again as she clasps her hands in her lap with cheer before taking her spoon.

"Well, ah, help yourself!" she says before taking her first bite.

Ulquiorra is silent as usual for the first few moments, watching her take the first few bites. She knows her taste in food is unusual, if not at times repulsive to other people. But she doesn't mind her eccentric taste, or other people's reactions. Being poor meant eating whatever you could get – no fussing – and using what you had to make filling meals. She thanked her acquired taste as an adaptation for eating well and enjoying food.

A curious aroma wafts from the stew concoction, and she's quite sure that alone would repel a casual diner, let alone a person who (to her knowledge) never really needed to eat.

So she is startled when long, clawed fingers take the spoon next to his steaming bowl and scoops up a bite, bringing it between masked jaws to sip. It is a slow motion, and she wonders what he thinks of her cooking- if he will push away the bowl or shoot her an accusing and bewildered look.

But his eyes stay on the bowl as he swallows, and he moves to take another spoonful. Whatever he thinks, she'll never know. He moves methodically and casually, with nothing in his eyes to betray what he may be thinking. She's aware the she had stopped mid-bite to stare, and only resumes her eating when he briefly glances back up at her.

The spoon clinks occasionally on his teeth, perpetual canines running long around his jaws, and he tilts his head back slightly to allow the stew to run its path along his tongue. It is a slightly awkward process, the mobility of lips lost behind the limited movement of hard jaws, but he goes about it with as much grace and dignity as he can muster for the situation, which Orihime finds is enough to put her own to shame.

He's being courteous, she thinks with an uncanny fondness as she takes another sip from her own bowl. He had always been rather gentlemanly in a strange way, and perhaps he was going a little farther while within her home.

She finishes her bowl before he does, and he sets down his utensil in unison, no reason left to eat while she herself was done. She is about to briefly protest, encourage him to not mind her and finish his meal, but instead she gives a small smile, and picks up their bowls and takes them to the sink to wash them.

Running water, and the clink clink clank of dishes echoes within the kitchen and as Orihime goes about washing them, an unusual, dreadful feeling sinks into her from somewhere. She feels light, like adrenaline is rushing through her body, yet also heavy, as if there's more to come.

When she is finished stacking and drying the dishes, she turns around to see that Ulquiorra has already risen (so silently) from his seat and is observing a human anatomy poster posted on the wall opposite. His black mass obscures her view, but she knows her apartment like the back of her hand.

"Ah, that – that's a poster Ishida-kun sent me from Germany! Ishida-kun is so incredibly smart, he's in a medical school there. See – the labels are written in German. He said it would help me in my language studies a bit, or at least, it's fun to know. And the drawings are very detailed! Isn't the human body amazing? Did I tell you I was studying languages at the university? Well, I am. Do you remember Ishida-kun? You…"

There is a pregnant pause.

"…you fought him. And you also saved him from Kurosaki's cero," she says more softly.

"…Yes, I remember the Quincy," he replies, his eyes still running over the poster, taking in the drawings of musculature and the bony skeletal structures which so resembled his own.

She watches him for several more moments, her eyes taking in every line, contour, color, the familiar and the unfamiliar before she speaks up.

"I – I know your time could be limited. Can we talk in the living room?" she hurriedly says, not intending to make it sound so rushed, but a sort of anticipation and intimidation washes over her as her voice escapes. He has always been of average height, but tall enough to still tower over her, and the massive horns adding to that did nothing to make her already smaller body feel any taller.

"Yes," he replies as she walks towards the connecting living room. It is tiny, with only a sofa, soft chair, ottoman, bookshelf and coffee table, but it is cozy and Orihime is proud of her upkeep. Yet now her room feels too cramped, too full, too small, as she hesitantly sits down upon the chair, her hands clasping her skirt in nervousness.

Ulquiorra does not sit, but remains standing, his arms lying almost awkwardly at his sides with no pockets to place his hands in. He stares at the bookshelf, the tip of his tail swishing in small strokes on the floor.

Even though they are only several feet apart, Orihime feels as if they are miles apart within her tiny home. He sticks out awkwardly, painfully, startlingly in her bright world, like a giant, black, terrifying spot marring the cream of her walls.

She's unsure what to say for the longest time, adjusting her skirt now and then to make sure it covers the tan lines of her shorts, or making sure her hairpins were in place and not dropping down in her hair after a long day. He watches her, moving back to his observations of his surroundings occasionally, but for the most part his eyes never leave. She can only stare back, feel them penetrate through her own eyes as she tries to think of where to start.

Oh, where to start.

"…It's good to see you again," is all she can say, and she berates herself the moment it leaves her mouth. If only she could think of something more engaging, something to at least keep busy and avoid the question which plagues the back of her mind.

"I see," is all he says.

She's mildly disappointed, but what could she expect him to say? She ignores it – ignores it and lets the caged animal go free.

"…Ulquiorra…how? How? I tried and……now. How?" She breathes, voice laced with some desperation, the absolute need to know.

He stares back, unyielding and so completely even.

"Does such a matter really mean so much? I am ultimately alive. In all senses, the only way I can explain it is that my body was able to regenerate and reconstitute itself within Hueco Mundo. As to the exact mechanics, it is unexplainable. I have always had regenerative properties, and perhaps that allowed some sort of magnetic reformation from the excess reiatsu, but I cannot know for certain. All I know is that I woke up alive."

It's been so long, she wants to say.

Her heart knows things have changed – he has changed in some way, something has gone free and it surrounds him in everything he does. It eases it a bit – eases the responsibility she feels for his-

…but why-

She cannot avoid what she sees in front of her. That which would make any human flee in horror and make any shinigami brandish their sword without thought. That which is shaking her logic and reality right now.

"Why…why do you look like this?"

His gave softens for a miniscule second before it hardens once more into its typical stoic manner. The question is expected for him – she at least knows that much, and he turns slightly towards her.

"You must understand, that as a-" he pauses for the barest millisecond, "…hollow, this as I truly am. It matters not – I was somehow able to reform in the desert, and that is all that needs to be known."

But her eyebrows only furrow more and her grip tightens on her skirt. She wasn't going to stand for that- oh no, she wasn't.

"No. No, Ulquiorra. I need to understand. What you were when I last…saw you, that is as you truly are, too. I know this, I'm not – I'm not a fool. You have to explain to me. I have to understand."

She glares daggers at him, determined, strong. Chest forward, shoulders back – she may be sitting and he may still tower over her, but she is formidable and persistent and her brown eyes speak of intelligence he cannot avoid.

He gives.

"When I came back after I died, all the ashes and particles which were once a part of me reformed to reconstitute my body. You need to remember that I was an artificially created arrancar when I died. It is by that method from which my body can be divided and my excess power sealed into a zanpakuto. When my body dissipated, my sword no longer existed, and none of my released power could be artificially sealed. The hougyoku is but an artificial means of removing the mask and sealing a hollow's power – without the use of that artificial medium, my body recreated itself in the most natural way possible. The particles of my mask which had been ripped off by the hougyoku and which were but ashes in the desert as well returned with rest to my body. There is no natural way for power to be divided and contained without the use of the hougyoku, and so my power and essence returned in its entirety and in the only natural way it could - by being a part of my whole body. That is why you are seeing me as I am now, untainted by an outside and artificial source."

The information sinks in slowly, as she sits and stares at nothing in particular, replaying his words so that she may envision everything – pick it apart, and use it to the best of her knowledge. Although he had never entered her abode in Hueco Mundo with his sword, she wished he had it in her presence now – for all it would mean, and for all it would correct. A deep, shuddering breath enters her as she continues to stare off, trying to avoid the nagging feeling in her ribcage that threatened to eat her alive should she turn to it.

"…I see…"

Orihime had grown strong and mature in four short years – self assured, responsible, and driven. She could only thank hardship and tragedy as the things which made her resilient and tough, yet still… there were regrets, regrets and mistakes she wasn't ready to take responsibility for yet. Not when it stood before her like a frightening reminder.

Her eyes return to his face, mask, face-behind-the-mask.

Some benevolent force of the universe must have decided to take pity on such a rare thing – hollow with a heart – take pity on both of them, and put a cruel little twist along the way.

The universe works in strange ways, she thinks, what am I supposed to learn from it being like this?

Her imaginative mind wonders if she's living in a Halloween fable, with a costumed specter coming to her door at night, asking her, "A trick or a treat?"

"Take off your mask first," she would say.

"That can't be done right now," he would reply quickly, "Now which am I?"

Both, oh how she would honestly love to answer "both." But which one was the wise answer, the answer that would yield her the happiest ending?

She wants to be wise. Oh, how she wants to be wise and rational, to be the epic heroine of the fables who can answer every riddle of the world correctly and continue along the bumpy road with a skip in her step.

But she's not quite old enough yet. She scolds herself, hoping to force the wisdom out of its hiding place in her heart sooner, but for now, its door remains tightly shut.

She doesn't know why, but she feels like she could weep. If she could rip away the skeletal mask from his face, would the rivers running from his eyes continue until they pooled on her floor like spilled India ink, or would they stop at his chin like permanent stains, or would they dissipate and fade altogether until she was left with the thin blue lines of his cheeks? Her fingers want to stretch out, run along the ridges of his sockets and feel if the skin beneath is softer, or warmer, or still as unforgiving as marble. If she slapped him now, would it still make the same sound, would his head still snap back, or would the marks of his teeth imprint themselves on her hand? She wonders all this, and wonders, in a daze, if a kiss without lips is a kiss at all.

A sudden bitterness washes over her (and her inner child stomps her foot and yells, "Not fair! Not fair at all!") and she tries to shrug it away, but something in her briefly protests, "I'm an adult now, I'm allowed to be bitter!"

No, it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair at all, she thinks. In her dreams - her fanciful fantasies – she can revive him, breathe life back into his newly formed lungs, pull him out of the fire and ash and put him back together again. Sometimes he smiles back at her, mild, small, but enough – or sometimes there will be a happy crinkle of sheet-white hierro under his eyes, green, vibrant, alive. She would take his white hand, white hand and black nails, and hold hands in a completion of what she – they – meant to say all along. Her brown eyes would meet his, bold green, human enough (and fringed with thick lashes she thinks would look more suited for a desert-worn Arab) and her tears wouldn't be wasted on a sleeping face. She'd see white skin, and only half a helmet – she'd see his whole face, the low eyebrows, upper lip dark like frostbite, and streaks of turquoise down his cheekbones. Other times he arrives at her doorstep, mask gone and in city attire (so completely human) – sometimes he is still in his pristine arrancar uniform, despite its destruction in the blaze of fire, brimstone and black rain. In her wildest fantasies she is bold, superb, and plants a peck on snow white complexion to see if it brings color to his face – but in all of her dreams, he returns to her looking so incredibly human.

Which is why it feels bitter, shattered, as she stares back at him now. She wishes he could be the Lindworm prince, so that she could scrub him with milk and lye, peel away layer by layer of taut black skin, chip away ridge by ridge of his dragonesque helmet, until she found the white of the shinigamified Ulquiorra by morning.

He looks at her passively, as if watching the varying emotions flickering across her face as she takes him in. There are no lips for her to see – no upturn of the mouth to look for, only rows of teeth, unyielding ("like Kurosaki's mask"), no disheveled hair to note, only horns growing viciously out of his skull (two pairs she is familiar with - the tall, stag-like ones she saw atop the wretched dome, and the smaller, ridged ones-"like ears!"- far below and back, so familiar with his mundane form), and she looks at the three pairs, the middle one she never saw (swerving long and back, its tips curved) and notes how each must have been divided, sealed into his resurreccións as the hougyoku ripped through his mask so many years ago.

She can see the long black hair growing out from under the ridges of his helmet, and she wonders, briefly, if she can be Delilah and cut Samson's hair- cut away his power (layer by layer, lock by lock) until his hair is short, at his shoulders, his power and gone and sealed and his clothes white once more.

Would Semele have felt this way if she had survived seeing the lightning bearing Zeus in his entirety? She wonders. But she is not the one who turned to ash, and he is the one who wields el relámpago.

Looking at him (clavicles meeting, sternum full – dipping, shallow, below barestript black throat), looking at his naked bosom-bone, so solid, complete, full, and the watery eyes that look at her with equal scrutiny, she knows there is no place for him. That there is no place in this world for people like Kurosaki (living shinigami; and people with good hearts who have raging hollows living within them) and people like him (once-upon-a-time hollow-shinigami -- hollow with a heart).

No, a hollow with a heart is hollow no more, but no more shinigami, and no more living human, not with hollow teeth and horns, not with a heavy chest and expressive eyes.

She wishes she really was God, so she could take earth, heaven, hell (and the white desert of Hueco Mundo that was limbo in between- and Soul Society somewhere higher still) to carve out a place for him where he would belong with other heart-heavy heartless and hollow shinigami.

But she can't, and he stands before her still. She knows she can never reject him, but right now, she can't quite accept him either.

(Some strange fate, she thinks, that he is the one thing she can't reject, in all matters of the word. He seeps, seeps in every wound she touches- reiatsu- from Kurosaki's ribs to Ishida's hand, and she compares it to swimming against the dark undercurrent of the ocean – cool – persistent—and she knows she can't swim forever.)

It's already midnight, and for some reason the entire sight in her living room is too much to handle at this hour. She rises quickly, feeling as if she really has been struck by lightning and is stumbling back home for some relief. Exhaustion settles in over her, like a heavy softness that pushes her towards her promising bed.

Ulquiorra doesn't question her abrupt departure, nor does he make any motion to follow her as she clumsily makes her way to her room.

Curling around her bear and pillow, she vaguely hopes that if she falls asleep she'll wake up to him as good as new. Her eyes ache from the long day – she tries to take in everything, shut down, think clearly, rationally – not be dominated by petty and inappropriate emotions. He would scold her if she told him this, and she wishes she could be like him and stay so cool.

In the back of her mind she can hear rustling, as if he is exploring her apartment, taking in her possessions and assessing them. She hears books being shuffled along the wooden shelves, and she thinks, groggily, that he is probably looking at what she's been reading lately. There is a long period of silence, and the vague thought that he has decided to leave, his purpose accomplished, crawls across her thoughts slowly, idly. Something in her hopes he has.

The comforting cover of sleep is almost upon her when a heavy weight settles down next to her and lifts the thin cover of drowsiness. Brief taps and bumps hit the wall above her bed as her mattress creaks from his movements. He must be trying to find a comfortable position without his horns hitting the wall she thinks, not quite so shaken out of her rest to think his actions audacious for how prudent he typically is (though, it's preferable to him staring at her sternly from across the room). He seems to finally settle into an acceptable position, slightly upright, though perhaps in slight discomfort due to the obvious protrusions. Serves you right, she wants to say to him childishly, playfully, but contains it.

She rolls over slightly and blinks at the dark ceiling, feeling the mattress next to her bend downward from the obvious weight. It's been a long time since anyone (Tatsuki, mostly) has been with her this late at night. Hears him breathe slightly, the low hiss of inhale, exhale; sees the rise and fall off a dark chest from the corner of her eye. His exhale – her inhale; the air they share – what has been in his lungs is now in hers.

Her eyes close, heavy, but dart back open with the feeling of fingers on her chest, almost settling precariously between her breasts. She wants to turn over and protest, is about to swing her hand and raise her voice in sudden fury and spunk at the audacity of it all, until she sees him. He looks at her intently, calmly, beseechingly, and the feeling of déjà vu washes over her at the feel of his black fingers, long and spindly, gingerly pressing against the cage of her heart.

She stops still, the memories passing over her, flashing before her, and she feels as if she's been placed back in time to relive it again, and yet, it is so different. There is no more scrutiny, or search, or harsh criticism and question – but acceptance, and knowing, and contentment.

His palm splays out against her sternum, long fingertips wrapping around the edges of her shoulders like a spider embracing its web.

She's not sure what to say. What he means is clear, but she can't bring herself to say, "You're welcome."

No, not when she feels she made him this way.

She allows herself only a few more moments of gazing before she turns her head away to look out the dark window, the full moon dimly lighting her room. There is an obvious wet pressure behind her eyes, and she holds it in with an iron grip. She won't allow herself to cry in front of him – not now, and not with selfish tears. She is done with that – she is done with being young and foolish, but the tiny pang of guilt stretches farther than it should.

A deep breath allows his resting hand to move with her rising ribcage, its weight falling back down with her. She continues to stare out the window, watching the few stars flicker dimly, and the bright lights of a helicopter pass on by.

Ulquiorra's splayed hand lingers for only a couple moments longer, before she feels it being withdrawn, the light weight removed and her thinly covered skin coming into contact with the cool air of her bedroom again.

There is silence for many long minutes. It envelopes her, and although she never loses awareness of his presence next to her, she lets her vision of the night sky take over, relax her into thoughtlessness (though in the back of her mind, everything is scrambled and twisted into a tight knot of feelings, emotions, information, logic, nonsense, and everything else in between.)

The moon in Hueco Mundo is always a crescent, she remembers, as if it always has a hole in it.

Like a gaping hollow hole.

The air around them seems to take on a current of discomfort, tinged with regret. She credits this awareness to her woman's intuition, more finely tuned than it was when she was younger, thankfully. Yet she can't help but think that living in obliviousness was at times a much easier experience, especially when it provided a shield to the corrosive tensions which emanated from certain individuals.

Her fingers move slowly, absentmindedly along her sheets. She allows her eyes to close for a brief moment of rest in darkness, but his timing is eerily accurate – or perhaps a nuisance, as her eyelids rise in time with his voice.

"The moon is full now."

Her head turns quickly to look at him – he's no doubt been observing her line of vision, and perhaps trying to break the silence which had settled upon them. But his gaze is not quite settled on the window, and instead circles around her room before making its way back to her face.

"Compared to last time I was in the human world."

There's a small voice in the back of her head that somehow tells her there is more to it than just that, but a brush against her pinkie finger brings her to the immediate.

"Inoue, Orihime."

She looks at his hand, the long fingers moving slightly, almost unsurely, next to hers. Pitch black against her sheets, black against her sunkissed hand.

She thinks of her almost-kiss with Kurosaki, and how she had entwined her fingers with his to no avail – no fingers squeezed her back, never returned her efforts, never reciprocated her desires. She thinks of Ulquiorra against the sky in Hueco Mundo, and how he had reached for her – his hand available, wanting, inviting, and how she had raced with hers outstretched – fingers almost meeting, entwining, holding and then –


The tears well in her eyes, stinging, and she fights to keep them back, for she feels she could cry forever if only one escaped.

His voice snaps her out of it, and she looks back, taking a deep breath.

He looks back at her through the sockets of his mask, eyebrows low, eyes soft, sympathetic, unsure; and her breath hitches, because it reminds her of the last time she saw him.

He pauses, uncertain.

"…Do I scare you? Woman."

His hand rises, delicately – fragile, hopeful.

And it hits her – "Ulquiorra."

He's here, he's here he's here he's here he's here, he's really here!

The dam breaks, the pressure and weight which had bided its time in her heart escapes, dissipates. She feels herself choke, the sob that breaks through her throat in small, crying gasps and laughs. And she can't control it, the smile that erupts on her face – tight, painful, because she can't smile enough. She sobs and laughs, and the tears stream down her face in salty lines on her red cheeks.

"No—No you don't!"

And there it is again, that relief that washes over his eyes – and the weight is lifted off of him, again. "I see." And she is sure there is something gentle beneath his mask, because she can see it in his eyes – soft, easy.

Looking down to his hand barely hovering over the sheets, she is stricken, surprised, and she moves quickly, as if he might turn to ash again and fly away with the wind and out of her grasp forever.

She puts her hand on his, entwines their fingers as she had wanted to four years ago; feels them connect like a web, soft and sweet and tight. She feels him squeeze back, feels his heartbeat in his palm, and lets the tears run freely, and watches her thumb rub affectionately over his knuckles. In her palm she can feel her heartbeat against his, silently, gently, and wonders if this is what it means when two hearts beat as one.

She cries because she is sad, because she is surprised – but she cries mostly because she is relieved, because she is hopeful, and because she is so incredibly, exponentially happy.

She puts her free hand over his chest, and there is no hole through which it collapses through. It is solid, and warm, and she feels the thing beating inside ba bump, ba bump, ba bump; the treacherous, heavy, beautiful thing that makes her stomach flutter and her head light with sweet relief and hope.

It may not have been what she expected, or dreamed of, or imagined in serene perfection.

But it was more than she could have ever asked for.