Her hair is wet. It's the first thing Ulquiorra notices when the woman barrels into the room, face flushed and breathing with the exertion of having run up four flights of stairs.
"Is he here yet?" Orihime says. "I missed the bus and I didn't mean to be late-"
"It is fine," Ulquiorra says. "Your friend is not yet here. You have somehow managed to be on time."
"Oh!" The woman hurriedly fixes her clothes, readjusting her blouse and glancing over her shoulder.
Ulquiorra frowns. Foolish. It is not yet five o'clock; doubtless the human is still trying on his clothes or walking down the street, destined to be no less than ten minutes late. That the woman should still be so concerned is disconcerting to him. Slowly his eyes sweep across the room, taking stock of the furniture and the afternoon light that begins to slant in through the open windows.
Her hair is wet. The detail strikes Ulquiorra as odd; it is in the middle of the afternoon, but not so hot as to make her sweat so profusely.
"Your hair is wet," Ulquiorra says.
"I took a shower," Orihime says.
"Why?" Ulquiorra says.
"Because I wanted to freshen up," Orihime says, and the answer is as mysterious and evasive as any he could have supposed. Ulquiorra frowns again. Things were easier in Las Noches. There, things followed a set script of rules. They never deviated. They were easy to understand. The woman, however, is not easy to understand, and Ulquiorra once again finds himself silently following the curve of the woman's neck. Damp strands of hair stick to her skin, and her shirt clings in places where her body had not been properly toweled off.
It would be easy, Ulquiorra thinks, to bridge the space between their bodies, to silently trace the slope of her shoulder and slip his hands against her skin. Easy, Ulquiorra thinks, were he one to think of such matters.
"Kurosaki-kun should be here soon," Orihime says.
Ulquiorra bristles, then straightens his shoulders. "I do not care if he is here," Ulquiorra says. "This was your idea. You were the one who organized this outing. I am only perplexed as to why you are not more offended."
Ulquiorra watches as her face turns red and the tops of her breasts heave a little under the v-neck of her shirt.
The human offends him. That she should be so enamored with him chafes against his personal sense of propriety. Ulquiorra was not late. Ulquiorra was here, waiting for the woman, patiently and without complaint, while she showered and freshened up for a boy who would not appreciate such things. It does not help that Ulquiorra can see the worry edge around the corners of the woman's eyes, which threatens to spill into hurt feelings. Nothing escapes Ulquiorra's eyes, and his time spent with her means he knows all the nuances of her expressions, knows and understands what she's feeling before she is even aware of it herself.
It is this awareness of her, this tacit understanding, that prompts Ulquiorra to step beside her and press a hand against her arm.
"He will be here," Ulquiorra says. The woman flushes, then nods.
The human comes fifteen minutes late, grinning and spouting ill-conceived excuses that makes Ulquiorra's hair stand on end. The woman is entirely too forgiving, and Ulquiorra frowns as she clasps the human's arm, eyes bright and smiling a happy smile.
That night, Ulquiorra stands vigil at the woman's apartment, waiting by the window until he sees her walking home; she's leaning against Ichigo and they're chatting idly, and it's only until she's home and exhausted and smiling that Ulquiorra stops feeling tense; he slips beside her on the couch, and doesn't move his arm when the woman pillows her head against his shoulder. She's warm and she's soft and it would all too easy to give into that base curiosity of his, that strange need that knots up at the base of his throat.
But he doesn't; he won't. He doesn't because he knows she trusts him.
It has been nearly a year since Ulquiorra's soul had reconstituted itself: he had awoken in the midst of a Rukongai slum, among the other former hollow populating the city. Not surprisingly, the rest of Soul Society was closed to him. It was only by chance that he ended back up in the human world, inhabiting a gigai and watching with quiet disinterest the woman's comings and goings. Full circle, as it were.
"...and we need flour and eggs and-hey, Ulquiorra, where's the sugar? I swear I put it somewhere..."
The woman is baking a pie. Ulquiorra stands with his hands in his pockets, ready to avert the pending nuclear disaster about to erupt in the woman's kitchen. The woman wipes a dusty hand across her forehead, furrowing her brow.
"Remind me again why you are doing this?" Ulquiorra says.
"Because it's fun," Orihime says.
"It is inefficient," Ulquiorra says. "You can get store-bought pies for cheaper and at less hassle to yourself. That you put yourself through this aggravation is puzzling to me."
The woman huffs, "I like baking," and then, "You just don't get it, the good stuff is always hard," to which Ulquiorra frowns and tilts his head and only slightly widens his eyes when the bag of flour explodes all over the woman's countertop.
"Oof!" The woman waves her hands, coughing with the powdery smoke.
"Woman. This is counterproductive," Ulquiorra says. "I will purchase a pie. You only need to tell me what flavor."
"Why don't you want to eat my pie?" Orihime says, and even Ulquiorra can appreciate the woman's accidental sexual innuendo. "Ulquiorra?"
"I do not like pie," Ulquiorra says.
"Even if I make it?"
"It does not matter," Ulquiorra says.
"What if I made you something you like?" Orihime says.
Ulquiorra considers. "Espada consume the souls of others," Ulquiorra says. "I find it improbable that any sort of pie can fill that need."
"You're no fun," Orihime says. Ulquiorra watches her with darkened eyes.
On the day of the battle, when Ichigo had bested him and Ulquiorra was bound to turn into so much ash, he had finally understand what it meant to hold one's heart in his hand. All that emptiness, that vague loneliness that plagued the whole of his existence, seemed distilled into that one moment: when he reached out for her and grasped nothing but air.
"You look sad," Orihime says, and Ulquiorra glances up again. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Ulquiorra says, and he slips his hands into the pockets of his hakama.
Somehow, the woman's familiarity with him bleeds into outright physical affection, and Ulquiorra finds himself at the receiving end of her affectionate assaults: his back is straight as he sits stiffly on the couch, the woman's body all but draped across his lap as she obliviously and with great concentration, methodically paints her toenails.
"Do you like it?" Orihime says. She wiggles her freshly painted toenails in front of him, leaning against his side.
"They are red," Ulquiorra says.
"Yeah but do you like it?" Orihime says, and she flips around, her hand landing unceremoniously against his thigh. Vaguely Ulquiorra wonders if this is what it feels like to be manhandled; the woman moves without regard to his physical proximity, arms and limbs and hands bumping into his and landing at the most inopportune places. She snuggles against his shoulder and all but hugs him around the waist, taking for granted the fact that Ulquiorra is not the sort of trash to take advantage of her, especially in that sort of uncompromising position.
"Woman. Your hand is on my leg," Ulquiorra says.
"O-oh! Sorry!" Orihime blushes. "It's just that I'm so comfortable around you. I forget, sometimes..."
"You would do well to try to remember," Ulquiorra says.
"Sorry," Orihime says, and she moves.
He is still unsure how to navigate the subtleties of their relationship. In Las Noches, things were so much simpler: he was her caretaker, he was to make sure she was healthy, he was to make sure she was entertained. But now all he's aware of is the space between their bodies and the strange complicated bond that's formed between them both, and he wonders what is considered appropriate when it comes to these matters.
But the fact remains: the woman can't stop touching him. Whether by nature or insecurity, the woman is always pressing a hand to his waist, or clutching his hand at unexpected times. He finds that this is not unwelcome.
Later that night, the woman falls asleep, breathing softly and curled up on the couch. Quietly Ulquiorra kneels, then drapes a blanket over her shoulder, frowning slightly and never once wondering if this is the sort of thing people do, or if it signifies something more.
"Kurosaki-kun is fighting hollows again," Orihime says. She sits with her legs curled up beneath her, knee to her chin and one bare foot planted squarely in the middle of a couch cushion. "Rukia and Renji are probably helping him. I'd help them too, but Urahara said I might get in the way."
Her tone is cheerful, but Ulquiorra has known the woman long enough to hear the hint of longing in her voice, the twinge of jealousy and that dull hurt edging out at the corners of her eyes. "I guess I'm just too weak!" Orihime says, and she laughs, a nervous, silver-bell laugh. Ulquiorra frowns.
"Kurosaki is weak," Ulquiorra says. "He is foolish to refuse your help."
"Really?" The woman looks up at him with wide eyes. Ulquiorra absently rests his hand on her head, then pushes back a strand of her hair.
"You have the power to reject space and time itself. Only a fool would not put it to good use," Ulquiorra says.
His hand trails against her shoulder. Her flesh is warm beneath the thin fabric, and though Ulquiorra would never take such liberties in Hueco Mundo, here in her room, in this place, it feels perfectly natural. Logical, as if his hand were meant to always cup her shoulder. He remembers his last moments, his hand reaching out toward hers, and frowns.
"Do you ever get lonely?"
Ulquiorra considers. "That is a foolish question," Ulquiorra says. "Loneliness is a human condition. I was never human."
"But you have a soul." The woman leans beside him, resting her chin against his shoulder. "I get lonely sometimes," the woman says. "Especially when Kurosaki-kun and everyone goes out like this. It just...it just reminds me of my brother and how he died, and how everyone's always protecting me."
The woman's face darkens, slightly. "Kurosaki-kun doesn't like you," the woman says.
"I find that is the least of my worries," Ulquiorra says.
"Yes, but..." the woman struggles for words. "He almost died," the woman says. "You almost killed him."
Ulquiorra watches her, quietly. He does not know exactly where this line of questioning is leading, though he can deduce well enough.
"You are asking me if I regret it," Ulquiorra says. "Would it disturb you to say I do not?"
He waits. The woman fiddles with her hands, then pushes a strand of hair from her face. "He tried to kill you and you were doing your job," the woman says.
"Yes," Ulquiorra says.
"But then..." The woman's face scrunches. "But then, you looked so sad..." The woman's eyes flick upward. "When Kurosaki-kun was a hollow and you stopped him from hurting Ishida-kun. I wasn't paying attention then, but now I remember how you were standing there and how sad you looked, and-"
"You imagine things that were not there," Ulquiorra says. "I was not sad. Merely irritated that a human was so difficult to fell."
He watches the shadows cross the woman's face, and is only moderately surprised when she leans forward and burrows her face into his shoulder.
Ulquiorra blinks. She is hugging him. Slowly he raises his arm, then shifts her weight closer.
"You are trying to comfort me," Ulquiorra says. He feels her squeeze him tighter. "How foolish."
"Sometimes people just need hugs," she says, and Ulquiorra is about to point out that he is not a person, but she is resolute and the hug is strangely comforting.
Sometimes, it is best not to think about these things.
There is a sound coming from the woman's bedroom. Curiously, Ulquiorra steps forward, then pushes open the bedroom door.
"S-sorry!" the woman is hunched over her dresser, a pile of tissues scattered around her. "I tried to be quiet, I really did, I know you're a light sleeper and-"
"You are crying," Ulquiorra says, and the woman shakes her head and clings to him, small hands fisting the front of his shirt. "Woman. Why are you distressed?"
"Because." Orihime chokes. "Because I was thinking of Sora and I-I just got sad..."
Her eyes are puffy and she snorts big, inelegant gobs of mucous from her nose. Ulquiorra hands her another tissue.
"Sorry," Orihime says. Ulquiorra frowns, then brushes back a piece of hair stuck to her forehead.
"You have cried for me before," Ulquiorra says. "Do not think I am not used to it."
"Oh!" Orihime blushes, then wipes her eyes.
They sit for a moment, Ulquiorra watching while Orihime fidgets and sniffles pathetically. Out of habit, Ulquiorra sits beside her and touches her hand in a way that's meant to be comforting.
She kisses him. Ulquiorra jerks back.
"What are you doing?" Ulquiorra says.
"Control yourself," Ulquiorra says, and the woman's face crumbles.
"Woman," Ulquiorra says. The woman pulls away. "Woman."
"I didn't mean to." The woman looks absolutely miserable, hunched into herself and hugging herself, tight. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I didn't-"
She buries her face into her hands.
He doesn't understand. His heart beats. It stretches inside of him, making his chest tight.
"Do not cry," Ulquiorra says. "I will call Kurosaki Ichigo. Surely he will make you feel better."
"I'm so stupid," Orihime says.
"Most humans are," Ulquiorra says.
"I just thought..." Orihime's eyes dim. "I thought you liked me."
Ulquiorra blinks. "I do not dislike you," Ulquiorra says.
"I know, but..." Orihime sniffs, miserably. "But I went to kiss you and you pulled away."
"Only trash would take advantage of you in this state," Ulquiorra says.
The woman takes in a shuddery breath, twisting a tissue in her hands. "Then...then if I weren't crying...if I went to kiss you, would you...?"
Her eyes flick upward. Her face is puffy and tear-stained and her nose is running.
Ulquiorra considers. "Yes," Ulquiorra says.
The woman stares. Then she launches toward him and all but knocks him into the dresser.
This is what it means to be human. Ulquiorra understands. The way she sighs, the way she buries her head against his chest. The way she kisses him, again and again.
There is a strange sensation that rises up inside him, that makes him want to hold her close and shield her from the rest of this world. There are vulgar sensations too, sensations that Ulquiorra refuses to give name, because they are base and human and Ulquiorra refuses to let it take control.
Refuses, that is, until Ulquiorra finds the feeling is mutual.
She feels warm and wet and good, and her breath is warm against his cheek as he thrusts. He moves with slow, long strokes, because this is her first time, and even he knows enough not to be rough with her. "Am I hurting you?" he says.
"No," she says. "No, it feels good. Oh."
Her face is flushed. Strands of hair stick to her skin. He feels her leg curl against his waist and he's shaking with the effort not to lose himself. He kisses her neck and her collarbone, then moves to kiss her breast and the tender pebbled nipple there, it's pink and taut and the woman gasps when his mouth closes over her, and she's shaking and she's making incoherent sounds, "Please," she says. She moves her hips upward. "Please, harder."
"I do not wish to hurt you." His voice is breathy. Sometimes he surprises himself.
"Please," she says. Her fingers dig into the muscles of his back, and that sense of urgency returns. He moves, then thrusts harder, hips slamming into hers. She gasps, then strains beneath him, and he knows he's close, they're both close, and he's breathing hard and his hands grip her arms and he comes. He feels himself spill inside her, heart beating fast and his breath sounding ragged in his ears.
She feels good, but slowly he pulls out from inside her and lowers his body. The woman is shaking. Instinctively, Ulquiorra lowers his head and slowly begins to lave her sex the way an animal would lick its wounds. She is swollen and probably sore, and Ulquiorra licks her slowly, moving from her wet slit and upwards toward the swollen nub of flesh at its apex. She gasps, and Ulquiorra dutifully closes his mouth over her clitoris, tonguing her gently until her sharp breaths punctuate the air, and her body starts to shake. When she comes, she bucks against his mouth, and Ulquiorra is surprised to find that hard knot of arousal returning. Without thinking, he touches himself, thumbing the head of his erection as her body eases out of its orgasm.
"Do you...do you want to go again?" she says.
"You are sore," Ulquiorra says, softly. "Do not pretend otherwise. I have taken care of you long enough to know."
He watches her carefully, as the woman's brow furrows in concentration. Then her face brightens. "I could do what you did to me," she says, and she scrambles forward.
But her mouth is warm and wet, and Ulquiorra does not have the wherewithal to stop her.
He feels her nudge her head against his neck. Ulquiorra sighs, then shifts her weight against his chest. He enjoys the feeling of her lying against him. He kisses her forehead, because that's what humans do, and murmurs against her, "Woman, what is it?"
"I feel like baking." The woman nuzzles against him, her hand tracing small circles on his chest. "I don't think I have the ingredients though, and it's late out..."
"We will bake tomorrow," Ulquiorra says.
"Promise?" she says, but she is already starting to close her eyes.
Slowly, Ulquiorra begins to understand the nature of human companionship. He has always found comfort with her physical proximity, had always looked forward to their time together. Even in Las Noches, he had explained away these yearnings as a manifestation of loyalty for Aizen, his need to be with her and fulfill his duties. But now he knows better.
"You're in love," Rukia says, and Ulquiorra doesn't quite smile, because the fact remains that this has always been true.
"You're in love," Ichigo says. "With him?"
Ulquiorra's eyes narrow. Kurosaki Ichigo is insulting him, and Ulquiorra is torn between wanting to disembowel him and throw his carcass off the nearest precipice, or honoring the woman's obvious affections toward her friend. She is lucky. He does not want to hurt her, even if indirectly.
"Yes," Orihime says. "I'm going out with Ulquiorra! So you'd better be nice to him!"
Ulquiorra's face betrays no hint of emotion when the woman runs beside him, smiling and taking his hand.
"Oh boy," Ichigo says, and Ulquiorra turns, smug with the knowledge that the woman has chosen a superior mate, and knowing Kurosaki Ichigo has absolutely no say in the matter.