A/N: Welcome to the final chapter of Oz! I can't believe it's ending… so late! This story was supposed to be finished before the end of last year, but oh well. Better late than never! Thanks to all of you for reading and encouraging me to continue.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach, The Wizard of Oz, or any other copyrighted material.
By: Princess Kitty1
The Gas Station, Revisited
Orihime woke up rather abruptly to the festive blasting of trumpets. She sat up with a gasp, a red mark on her forehead from the steering wheel, and looked about her frantically, only to scream when a semi truck zoomed past her glossy red convertible, which was parked on the side of the highway. The radio was blaring Mexican music. "What…" She held a hand to her chest.
She was in the middle of the New Mexican desert.
The sky above her was blue with a light smattering of high clouds, and a cold wind from the west brought her attention to the blue-violet storm in the distance. Without that breeze, however, it was quite hot. Bringing her hand up to the back of her neck, she wiped a decent amount of sweat from her skin.
"I'm back," she whispered before being seized in a fit of joy. "Yoruichi-san, we're back!" she cried, reaching for the pet carrier in the seat next to her and throwing it open. The black cat inside flinched in surprise, but did nothing but meow when the girl brought her out of the cage, holding her high above her head and swinging her happily. "We're back, we're back, we're back! Oh, Yoruichi-san, isn't this wonderful?" Orihime paused to get her reaction.
The cat stared at her blankly. Other than looking quite annoyed at having been jostled, there was no glimmer of intelligence behind its gold eyes, no promise of any higher level of reasoning than 'lick self' and 'claw out face of owner.' Orihime stared at her in confusion. "Yoruichi-san?" The cat yawned, then continued to glare at her. Not even a meow of confirmation.
Orihime's brows knit together. She lowered the cat onto her lap and observed her surroundings again. Okay… she was in the New Mexican desert. She knew that much because her car was parked in front of a billboard that she had passed before.
Orihime finally looked down at her clothes. They were different than the ones she had worn to leave Oz. In fact, they were the very same clothes that she'd worn the day that she had been taken to Oz. Running a hand through her hair, she began to feel her stomach sinking when her fingers brushed over the hair clips her brother had given her, flowers intact. There was no way… She remembered her bag and leaned over Yoruichi, finding the purse on the floor of the passenger seat. Moving the cat aside, she set the purse down on her legs, unzipped it, and felt a sucker-punch in the gut.
There was her cell phone, the one that Ulquiorra had destroyed, in one piece. Orihime reached in and pulled the device out, pressing a button to light up the screen. Just as she'd feared: it was the very same day that she had been swept up by the tornado. In fact, it was even an hour or two earlier than the time that she'd left.
Her arm fell to the side, gaze stuck on the center of the steering wheel. "It was a dream, wasn't it, Yoruichi-san?" she whispered, clutching her phone tighter. "Just like Dorothy."
With one poor attempt to gather her wits, she hit number one on her speed dial and lifted the phone to her ear. It rang once, twice, and then her older brother's groggy voice crackled over the speaker. "Orihime-chan?"
She heard a shuffling sound, presumably him sitting up in bed. "It's late, Orihime-chan… wait." The sleepiness left his voice. "Are you okay? You didn't get into an accident, did you? Oh God, are you alright? Did you call the paramedics? Are they on their way? Hold on! Tell me what hospital they take you to and I'll get a plane ticket to-!"
Orihime laughed. "No, I'm fine… sorry. I guess I was just feeling a little homesick and forgot the time over there."
Silence. "You're sure?"
"Yeah, Nii-san. I'm a-ok." She tried to make her tone more upbeat, but it wouldn't budge. Her own mind had just deceived her in a very bad way. She felt betrayed; by her own self, no less. "I'm fine," she whispered, though she was finding it a little hard to breathe at the moment.
Sora must have noticed her distress, because his voice lightened quite a bit. "Don't be sad, Orihime-chan. It'll be winter break before you know it, and I'll be sure to fly you home as soon as you can get here!"
Orihime nodded. "That sounds great." Lifting her gaze to the road ahead, she saw lightning jump through the dark clouds on the horizon. "Hey, I'm going to let you sleep. I think I'm close to the Arizona border."
A loud yawn. "Sounds good to me. Call me when you get there, alright?"
The phone call ended. Orihime sat quietly for a few minutes, then turned the volume of the radio down, put the convertible top up, and pulled away from the side of the highway, speeding up to join the traffic.
She couldn't believe it. All those weeks spent in Oz, a mere dream. Sure she was known among her friends for having very vivid dreams, and with the severe jet lag she had been suffering since arriving stateside, it really shouldn't have been so surprising. She'd constructed an entire world for herself – probably her subconscious's attempt to soothe her nerves over being abroad and away from home – and had lived in it for however many hours she had been napping.
Yoruichi navigated the luggage for a while, then returned to her carrier, curling up for a nap. Orihime smiled at her sadly. Well, at least she wasn't alone, right? Human in disguise or not, Yoruichi was still her closest friend.
The convertible let out a soft beep and Orihime checked her gas. It was getting pretty low. Thankfully she'd just passed a sign promising a station and food up ahead. Her stomach growled audibly. No harm in picking up a few snacks while she was at it.
The next ten minutes were spent combing over every second of her Oz experience, from start to finish. Of course she'd been dreaming. None of that stuff was real. A land where munchkins lived in and harvested candy, where magicians lived alongside people and cities were made of emerald? An evil warlock threatening the world, his own henchmen eventually turning against him? It was too farfetched, the stuff of films. She had a powerful imagination; it had just decided to play a very cruel trick on her. Her heart ached. She wanted to cry, but held it in. If she got started now, she would have to pull over again until her fit subsided, and she didn't want to delay her trip any further.
Orihime drove on, slowly coming to terms with the fact that she was nobody's Promised Child, nobody's savior. She was just a Japanese college student, headed for an American university, thousands of miles from her family and friends.
The wind picked up as she approached the storm, making her vehicle jerk to the side a few times. But she saw the exit for the gas station coming up and allowed that to soothe her. Perhaps she could wait out the storm in there. Would they let her bring Yoruichi inside? She'd have to ask someone.
Once again, the sign for the exit came so quickly that she nearly missed it. Turning off of the highway, Orihime came to an intersection where the highway seemed to split, a green sign listing three different cities with arrows pointing both ahead and to the right. She guided her convertible onto the smaller road that led down to the gas station.
Pulling up to one of the pumps, she parked the convertible and stepped out, her hair thrown back by a gust of wind that caused the PAY INSIDE sign taped to the machine to flap noisily. She sighed, then stuck her head back into the car. "I'll be right back, Yoruichi-san."
The sleeping cat dozed on as Orihime walked towards the store. But the moment the girl had gone inside, one of Yoruichi's eyes cracked open. Uncurling herself, she stood up and stuck her paw through a gap in the carrier door and easily unlocked it, then pushed the door open and hopped onto the dashboard. Sorry Hime… please don't think I was lying to you. She looked over her shoulder at the gas station that her best friend had disappeared into with what might have been a smile on her feline face. Truth be told, I think you'll be just fine on your own. You've certainly proven yourself strong enough.
With a bit of effort, she rolled the convertible window down and jumped through it, landing nimbly on the pavement outside. Goodbye, Orihime. Take care of yourself. And with that, she started towards the approaching storm, intending to catch the tornado and get back to Oz. Where would she land? Where would she go from there? She wasn't certain, but she did know that she was anxious to find an adventure of her own.
Orihime sighed heavily, staring at the snacks on the shelves but not really seeing them. The shopping basket on her arm was empty, but it felt like it weighed so much. How long would it be before she got back to her normal cheerful self, she wondered? "Focus," she muttered under her breath, and grabbed a treat for Yoruichi, placing it in the corner of the basket. This was really no place to space out. The energetic Mexican music playing from the radio by the cash register was struggling to lift her mood from the pits. And besides, she had to hurry with these groceries so she could load them in the car and bring Yoruichi inside.
"Hay alguien afuera?"
"Que haces? Necesito ayuda con estos frijoles."
"Son frijoles. Que demonios esta tan dificil que no puedes con eso?"
"Yo no te veo aqui cocinandolos!"
Orihime grabbed some plastic-wrapped pastries from the shelf, checking their expiration dates before dropping them into the basket with as much enthusiasm as someone getting a cavity drilled. How nice it must have been to know Spanish. Her brain was too fried to even consider taking on a third language. English had been difficult enough for her to…
She slowed to a stop halfway between the pastries and the drinks that she had been fully intending to buy as well. Her heart leapt into her throat, causing her to become short of breath, and her hands began to shake.
She'd remembered something.
This something… this seemingly insignificant something that she had somehow forgotten. No, it made sense that it had slipped her mind; she'd been so stressed in the past few weeks, which she now understood were not the product of a dream. She'd lived them. Oh, she definitely had, and the small scar on her leg from the cut she had received during her fall with Ulquiorra was proof enough of that.
But it was something else. The basket slipped from her arm and hit the floor with a thwack, its contents spilling at her feet. Tears gathered in her eyes. She blinked them away, because she needed her sight. She needed to be one hundred percent positive of what she saw, of what she had suddenly realized:
She knew where the Royal Guard's Ulquiorra was.
Her heart was pounding in her ears. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. How could she have forgotten when Ulquiorra had been, in his own way, trying to protect her from the very beginning? And so she took a deep breath, lifted her head, and turned to face the cash register.
There he was.
And he was staring back at her with those sharp green eyes, legs propped up on the counter, the magazine in his hands drooping slightly. His skin was darker than his double's, but that was to be expected if he lived in the middle of the desert. His expression betrayed absolutely nothing.
The music continued on happily between them. Ulquiorra closed the magazine and set it down on the counter, then put his feet on solid ground and stood from the stool he had been sitting on.
Orihime tried to control her breathing as he came closer to her. She must have looked like some freaky stalker, staring at him and crying as if he were a walking tragedy. He wouldn't recognize her, she thought, because he wasn't her Ulquiorra. There was no reason to weird him out. He was probably just coming to help her pick up the things that she had dropped. That seemed like something that a chivalrous member of the Royal Guard would do, right?
Ulquiorra stopped in front of her, but he made no move to retrieve the basket on the floor. Thunder rumbled over the music, promising a downpour. "Orihime Inoue?" he questioned her, and his voice sent her heart stuttering. She nodded once, unable to stop her tears.
Finally, she saw something give: his green eyes softened. "Yes."
Before she could say anything else, his arms circled her waist, he brought her closer, and his lips met hers. Orihime could do nothing but melt against him, eyes falling shut as she returned his kiss, her body threatening to shut down if she put it under anymore stress. But he didn't seem too keen on letting her go. His hand came up to the base of her neck to keep her there, and he kissed her again. With her hands laying flat on his chest, she could feel his own quickened heartbeat beneath his skin.
They separated moments later, but only enough to gaze into each other's eyes, confusion apparent on both of their faces. "How?" she asked him as he gently wiped the tears from her cheeks.
"That's a very good question," he murmured. "But I'm fairly certain that it had to do with the Six-Petal Flowers."
"T-They broke, though… didn't they?"
"They did." Ulquiorra pushed her hair back. "But you tried to reject my double's death, and since no magic can bring to life someone who has already passed on, the Flowers did the next best thing."
Orihime sniffled. "And that would be…?"
"They brought his memories to me." Her eyes widened as he took her hand and laid it over his heart. "I will not deny that it's very strange, having the thoughts and feelings of someone else in here, but I suppose that he and I were the same to begin with. He was merely granted the opportunity to walk alongside the Promised Child, the savior of our world." He regarded her carefully before allowing a very brief, faint smile onto his face. "It's interesting… how much he had come to love you before he died."
Orihime couldn't help it anymore. She hid her face in his chest, bursting into loud sobs that caused him to stiffen. "Ulquiorra-san!" she cried, wrapping her arms around him.
"Please don't cry, Inoue-san." He held her tighter against him, kissing the top of her head. "It's quite alright." He could see that Kisuke hadn't told her anything; that after leaving the Royal Guard before the start of the war, he had requested to be sent to Earth where he could be away from Oz's joke of a monarchy. Had he known that there was a war going on, had he recognized Orihime's hairpins when she had first come through the store – really, that Wizard ought to stop messing with the fabric of time – he would have jumped into his own car and followed her to Oz.
And then what? Would he have killed his double upon meeting him?
No. It had been a good learning experience for the Espada, if the content sigh that he heard from the back of his mind were anything to go by. He could see him there in the darkness, looking quite tired, his body slowly breaking apart into black ashes. Don't worry… I'll take good care of her. You can rest now, he promised. The other said nothing as he faded away, but Ulquiorra knew his own face; he could see the gratitude, the relief, the peace.
Meanwhile, Orihime was blubbering apologies, hands fluttering in the air. "I-I didn't mean to lose it like that. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Ulquiorra-san. I won't cry anymore, okay? At least, not after today." She met his gaze, and for a moment it felt as if she were looking at her Ulquiorra, but the feeling left as quickly as it had come. "Though I suppose I will have to get to know the real Ulquiorra-san better?"
He contemplated for a moment. "Maybe later," he said before pulling her into a passionate kiss.
Suddenly, the music on the radio was cut off, and a shrill tone caused the station's two enamored occupants to break away from each other. Both stared at the radio guiltily, as if they had been caught doing something that they shouldn't have been.
"The National Weather Service in Albuquerque has issued a tornado warning for the following counties…"
Ulquiorra turned back and pressed his forehead to hers. "Sounds bad," he said with that same ghost of a smile that scattered butterflies in her stomach. "You're not going to drive through that, are you?" She smiled back at him as the man on the radio continued to list procedures for avoiding the tornado. "It might be safer if you wait the storm out here."
And Orihime, in absolutely no hurry to leave, nodded happily. "Okay."
A/N: Now go back to chapter one, read the sneakily vague description of the cashier, and feel free to yell at me for playing with your minds this whole time.
Explanation time! Ulquiorra was the youngest member of the Royal Guard (seventeen or so when he left, which makes him three years older than Orihime), but very much a traditionalist. When the new King and Queen came to power, he refused to serve the pair of cowards and resigned from his position, leaving his sword behind with Urahara and finding refuge on Earth. When Aizen made off with the clone blueprints, he also stole Ulquiorra's sword, leading to the identity mix up.
And what becomes of Espada Ulquiorra now? His consciousness will fuse with the original's, so that they become, in essence, the same person. Luckily for Orihime, this Ulquiorra studies at the University of Phoenix as well. Maybe she'll have him in a class or two?
Oz is now officially complete! -throws an enormous party- I would once again like to thank you all for sticking with me… I know this journey in particular has been quite long. I do hope that you enjoyed the story, and that others will enjoy it in the future as well. Until next time!