Author's Notes: Long, long overdue donation fanfic for Manonlechat. She asked for an UlquiHime story with a Gin cameo, and if I'd known Kubo was going to put the poor fellow out of commission, I would have certainly given him a bigger role in the story. Consider us both trolled, Manon. The story is not likely to compensate for all the time you've waited, but I hope you enjoy it anyway…!

Many thanks to Hinodeh for the in-depth critique and to PrincessKitty1 for the first impressions. If there are any errors, it's because I ingeniously snuck them in after their beta-reading sessions. ;)


Life After Death

0.

"Can it be done?"

Urahara had leveled stormy blue eyes at her and he'd looked so tired and oh, so old that Orihime had braced herself for an onslaught of second thoughts: she didn't want to impose on his life – he didn't owe her any favors – she ought to make a formal apology – she ought to reinforce it with ice cream – maybe the octopus cheese risotto flavor she'd recently invented –

But he'd nodded. Just once, curtly, discreetly. Then he'd retreated to his substitute lab, leaving her staggered and confused, like a comedian whose punchline had deprived her of applause and relieved her of audience.

Why had he agreed? Was there some kind of tacit contract between them… and had it been founded on the hurtful words he'd flung at her before she was abducted? Had it been officiated by his guilt and insomnia, sealed with her tears and blood and bruises? Orihime felt that she should have spotted this earlier; that she should have known.

She had an identical guilt-and-blood contract with someone else.

"This must be strange for you, Urahara-san," Orihime admitted when the shopkeeper reentered the room an hour later. "The only time you met Ulquiorra, you were fighting each other, and it was one of his bad days, so he was calling everyone names. Well, truthfully, he wouldn't be very polite now, either – but, um, he's changed in other ways! …somehow..."

"Hold out your hand, Inoue-san," Urahara said distractedly.

"Sorry, sorry! Of course!"

The girl soon found herself blinking down at her left wrist, examining the familiar piece of jewelry there – the bracelet Ulquiorra had given her when they first met – as well as the unfamiliar contraption Urahara had fitted to it. It was flat and circular with hands and numbers, like the main part of a wristwatch, but somber and austere, unlike the Chappy design she'd anticipated.

"You couldn't resurrect your friend because your powers needed a point of focus," Urahara explained. "Even Hacchi-san wouldn't have been able to bring Tsubaki back without possession of your hairpins." He rolled one of his shoulders tiredly, and continued: "What you're wearing now is an older invention of mine, tweaked and recalibrated for your purposes. Adjust the hands based on the hour, date and site you want to access, concentrate your shield on it, and if everything goes according to plan… you will be able to reject time and space."

"Thank you, Urahara-san…" Orihime hesitated. She wrung her hands together, pondering how to give voice to her inhibitions. "Chizuru-chan says I have four more stages of grief to go through," she muttered finally, ashamed, "'cause I'm still stuck at 'denial'. She may be right. I don't know." She looked up at Urahara imploringly. "What if I fail?"

He responded with a faint, patient smile which accentuated every stress line on his face.

"Then you'll have tried."

Something inside Orihime folded and cracked with the effort to smile back. She lied and said yes, it's good enough to try, even as she thought of Ulquiorra, of his sad eyes and the massive hole in his chest, and the tiny love she'd given him to fill it with.

"I reject."

If his body couldn't be revived, please let her heart be.


1.

It was Ishida she visited first, Ishida she most trusted to turn a funeral into a feast; him, the least culpable of all the key players. He had committed but a single sin, and now it prompted from her a single demand (which she made known after a weird and convoluted briefing involving many unnecessary hand gestures): "Don't take her up to the dome. Ishida-kun, I'm serious! No matter what she says, or what puppy-eyes she makes at you… don't take her up there, please."

The spirit platform lifted off into the air with a sigh.

From there on, Orihime's plan worked seamlessly. Ishida stepped onto the fifth tower; he fought Yammy; he chided Ichigo; he comforted her younger double; and then he refused her pleas and didn't take her up to the dome and no-one died and Orihime went from doodling on history books to doodling on history itself.

Except…

Shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods, pronounced Albert Einstein from the pages of her history book, beneath a doodle of a winged microwave. Hubris purred in her fleshy shell like static, and seemed to beckon the lightning bolt of Nemesis.

"Your friend lies atop the dome, unconscious," Ulquiorra announced. Orihime had slunk behind a pillar, so she couldn't see him, but even just his voice, after so long, set her heart hammering. "See to it that he gets medical support, Quincy, if you wish to save his life. We'll be leaving now."

Shipwrecked.

"'We'?" the boy repeated darkly.

"Inoue Orihime isn't your comrade anymore," the Espada declared. "Woman. Come."

"What? Inoue-san, stay back! No, don't – don't you dare – get your hands off her right now –"

No longer appeased by sound alone, Orihime peeked over the side of her pillar, to face what might have been a tableau in a Baroque oil-painting: the valiant hero, brandishing a sword to the demon who, black-winged, gaunt like death, had plucked the fair maiden from the safety of his supervision.

"It's all right, Ishida-kun," her doppelganger argued, and it was with a mixture of terror and fascination that Orihime watched her shift against her captor. "We don't have time for another battle. Go, take care of Kurosaki-kun. Ulquiorra… Ulquiorra won't hurt me."

"Inoue-san!"

"Ishida-kun, please."

It was at that point that Orihime's fascination vanished, because looking at her double was suddenly akin to looking at her reflection in a funhouse mirror: her mouth was pulled down, her eyes hollow and distended, and Orihime felt obliged to turn her own inward, to see what she saw:

an eternity of sterile white walls and pointed corners, of curry rice at noon and steak in the evenings, of alien skies, of alien moons, of rooms with too-perfect dimensions and Ulquiorra phasing in and out of them like a demented ghost, who thrummed with despair and sizzled with longing and so would she, so would she, there was no heart without her friends –

"Woman. Hold on."

"Yes. Yes."

Whatever epiphany Ulquiorra had arrived to in her old timeline, he wouldn't get it from this girl.

He wasn't saved. He was only alive.

Ulquiorra flew his charge off to her grim prospects; Orihime turned the hands of her watch backwards.


2.

Her next candidate was determined by process of elimination: she didn't yet have the willpower to speak with the man she'd pulverized, and she wouldn't trust her younger self with a retarded goldfish, much less a high-ranking Espada.

Thus the means to Ithaca were decided… but the road there was a bumpy one. Ichigo saw it fit to hoist her onto his shoulder as soon as he saw her (while she yelped "Eek!" and "Kyaa!" and other equally undignified things), and then her perfectly honest explanation for some reason didn't fly with him. "I'm a time traveler! From the future! This bracelet used to just turn me invisible, but Urahara-san tinkered with it and now it does other things! I'm here to save Ulquiorra from a super-powered evil version of you! Why are you laughing, Kurosaki-kun?"

Long story short: Ulquiorra and her double were well into their 'heart' discussion by the time Orihime gave Ichigo permission to crash into the throne room.

Brown eyes immediately locked onto green ones, and didn't let off. The tension thickened and thickened until the girl, observing from a distance, felt certain no-one could walk in the room anymore, but rather wade through it, as through a marsh.

"Aren't you going to order me to step away from the woman?" Ulquiorra finally asked.

"Believe me, it's taking me every ounce of willpower to suppress that instinct," Ichigo replied between gritted teeth. "And gotta say, you're not helping matters by sticking to her like Kon on curvy surfaces. Can't you just… move one foot away or something? Please?"

Going by Ichigo's flushed face and now-carefully-averted gaze, he must have formed some radical conclusions about her and Ulquiorra's relationship.

"I will move away from her only to put a sword through your chest," the Espada professed, quite apathetically.

"Yeah, that's another thing," Ichigo sighed. "Look, man, we don't have to fight. I trust Inoue, and… I can't believe I'm saying this, but she seems to care about you. Instead of following Aizen's orders, you could…" Here he paused, casting his gaze about the hall in search of his advisor, but pretty soon he gave up, buckled down and, after exhibiting every mannerism indicative of awkwardness and discomfort that the human race had come up with in its 200,000 years of existence, finished the sentence like so: "You could… I dunno… come with us?"

Orihime had a vision of the four of them bundled together in a coach that was hurtling down a rocky slope and into a fatal drop. Their eyes were tea saucers from the same set.

"Is this your doing?" Ulquiorra asked the dumbfounded girl beside him, at length. "Is this how you think to convince me about this fabled 'heart' of yours? Do you take me for a fool, woman?"

"W-what? No, I…"

"Oi, shut your mouth! Inoue is – well, one Inoue is trying to help you here! She says you're going to die if you don't –"

"Who are you to Inoue Orihime, that you may speak for her –"

"Just answer me!"

The air seemed to drain from the room, to be replaced with a vacuum, cold and artificial.

"Very well: my answer is this: you will know true despair, Shinigami," Ulquiorra promised. "And you," again he turned to the timeline's rightful Orihime, "will know such loss as will have all your hope, faith and love splinter like ash."

He was right on both counts.

Blubbery, disoriented, and with the sight of Ulquiorra's incinerated body still pinned on her eyelids like a brooch, Orihime turned the hands of her watch backwards…


3.

In the tumult and the storm, she'd miscalculated the time window.

Had everything gone according to plan, she would have had a good ten minutes' time to woo and sweet-talk her doppelganger into vacating the fifth tower; but with only a few seconds to spare, she simply, unceremoniously… pushed her down a flight of stairs. A hopefully short, hopefully narrow flight of stairs.

Even with measures so desperate, Orihime barely had a chance to blink before Ulquiorra announced his entrance – "Yes, sir" – and smashed a rift through Aizen's throne. Orihime caught his eye and took off running towards the nearest doorway, already out of breath.

It'd work this time. She would lure him to another room, detain him there. Only for a spell; only just long enough for her twin to return to the tower, for Loly and Menoly to assail her, for Ichigo to whisk her away. For Ulquiorra to live and let live.

The Espada could have apprehended her within two steps, but – and Orihime had counted on this – his curiosity dictated that he observe her flight and scrutinize its purpose before making a move.

Sonido.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"Ah, I was running…" she muttered earnestly. "Now I'm standing." Ulquiorra narrowed his eyes, no doubt rifling through his former experiences with human humor, in the event that he was being mocked. "Now I'm wondering why you always hear about space pirates, but never about space ninjas." He glared. "Now I'm –"

"Be silent." He crossed the last remaining paces to her, his double greens mesmerizing as fairy wells in the half-light. Orihime had never felt afraid of him, but she'd never felt what she was feeling now, either; as if it would be a swell idea to lock the exit door and stay in this room forever (and relieve her doppelganger of Urahara's dour time-piece, of the time-travel, of all the new realities made and wasted). Just to live out the remainder of her years looking at his sad dear face, mingling her breath with his; whether they be eternal souls or matter in chaos, that didn't matter, that couldn't matter less…

"Are you frightened?" her companion asked, misinterpreting her expression.

'I'm not –' was what she would have retorted, had she not been interrupted by a shrill, gruesome, distressingly familiar scream. He hasn't heard! the girl's treacherous heart crowed at first, but Ulquiorra put paid to that hope with the resentful look he spun on her. She could guess at his thoughts: that scream had belonged to the real Orihime, therefore she must be the shape-shifting Noveno Espada, therefore Ulquiorra would have his head. Both of them.

Over in the hall, Ichigo stood out for more reasons than his blooddusttear-streaked face: he was the only vertical figure in the vicinity. Yammy, Loly and Menoly lay dead on the floor… as well as… – Orihime let loose a keening sob, and only then did it hit her: she'd led the black-haired Espada away from the action. He hadn't been there to separate Ichigo from her second self.

He hadn't been there to shield her from the misfired Getsuga Tensho.

She could see nothing of Ulquiorra beyond his back, but everything was already spelled out in the hunch of his shoulders, in the slide of his thumb along the hilt of his sword. He was livid.

The girl didn't stick around for the denouement. The white-and-red pastels on the floor, Ulquiorra's purposeful stride, Ichigo's galvanized expression – they all floated away when she turned the hands of her watch backwards…


4.

It hadn't escaped her notice that the outcome got worse with each endeavor. Was it just shabby luck, she wondered, or were the umpires of time flashing her the yellow card? If so, they'd likely glue the red one to her forehead, kick her out the team and rant about her in the tabloids for the time paradox she was about to invoke.

"Hey, ah –" She fished around for a form of address. Self? Inoue-san? Orihime-neechan? Woman? "— you. Let's talk."

Truthfully, the degree of success she'd expected from her younger self was analogous to the resident Hollow puppy's 'degree of success' when she'd ordered it to 'shake' and it had triumphantly peed on Nnoitra's boots… so she was blown away when the girl not only acted out the entirety of her script, but went so far as to improvise. Was it just for show? Her entreaties sounded honest to Orihime's ears; her embrace could have trammeled a planet. And: it was working. Ulquiorra seemed disarmed by his captive's attention, in a way he hadn't been by Ichigo's wobbly, reluctant pact.

"Aizen-sama said –"

"Aizen doesn't care about you, Ulquiorra! He doesn't care whether you're hurting, lonely, angry, whether you like wasabi chips or sperm whales or footrubs! I'm just saying it would be nice – it might be nice, seeing you under a sun."

"Woman..."

All three of them felt somewhat as if they were attending a sacred, private ritual – one that went on so long that the heretics, too, smelled the must and the honey. There was a jarring buzz: Orihime looked around in search of the monstrous insect that must be producing it, but it was really another rift, opening in the air like an eyelid.

A bird's cry made to emerge and died in the girl's lung. She felt the feathers in her mouth.

"I thought I'd come by and see what's been keeping my dear Espada," the very man they'd been discussing crooned, stepping out of the rift with Ichimaru Gin and Kaname Tousen in tow. "You used to be ever so dependable when it came to following orders, Ulquiorra."

"Aizen-sama. I..."

"Quiet now."

They exchanged some hushed whispers, and then the Shinigami looked from his soldier to his captive, sorting something out. "Orders have changed," he announced pleasantly. "Kill her."

The 'her' in question gasped and attempted to flee the assembly, only to be intercepted by Ichimaru's Shunpo. The Cuatro Espada looked slightly unsettled by the whole thing.

"Aizen-sama," he started, "with all due respect, her powers have proven extraordinary and may still –"

"Ulquiorra," Aizen repeated, his smile even wider now and more terrible, "do as I said."

The widened eyes, the brows, the very pores of the Espada's face were blaring 'No' but what he said was "Yes" before turning to face the girl. Ichimaru let her go – "You could have held on longer," she whimpered in her terror, and it turned his smile upside-down – while Ulquiorra advanced on her, stopping only when their chests were nearly touching.

He extended his arm until the tip of his blade was pointed at her back, staring at her watery face, staring –

And without even the delay Orihime had hoped for, he plunged the blade into her body, running her all the way through –

And though it was already over he kept piercing, through new skin and muscle and sinew –

Until he was impaled with her.

(Sewn to her, Orihime envisioned helplessly, with a red, a blood-red thread of fate.)

Confronted with Aizen's delighted laughter, the girl couldn't keep the bile down her throat – she saw stars, and she pawed at her watch to turn its hands, not backwards, not forwards, just away


5.

She landed on her hands and knees, and spent the whole next minute dry-heaving.

No more, no more, no more, no more.

She was throwing in the towel.

Orihime hoped she'd ended up in a shadowy corner of Las Noches where she could curl up and cry forever, but wherever this was, it couldn't possibly be worse than the caverns of her own psyche, the contemplations of her orphaned universes. She lifted her head.

Ulquiorra, Ichigo, Ishida and the timeline's resident Orihime were clustered together far away from her, talking. She knew what she was about to witness by the knob in her throat, but she activated her watch's invisibility setting and slogged over there nonetheless. Maybe she'd get to push herself down a staircase again.

She soon got close enough to catch snatches of what was said, and finally, close enough to listen:

"Do I frighten you?"

Her alter-ego was about to cry with big sparkling tears, all the while mewing that she wasn't scared, and Orihime was feeling as different from this girl as she did from Aizen Sousuke; couldn't understand her at all. Why didn't she heal Ulquiorra? Say that it was impossible – why didn't she heal Ishida instead? Anything would be better than this vapid, futile exercise…

"I see."

The younger girl was holding out her hand now.

A dormant pustule had broken open in Orihime's mind, flooding her whole body with grief and shame. What a juvenile, shallow, stupid girl she'd been… People were dying around her and the best she could do was reach out a hand, speak some pretty words? Why? Ulquiorra wouldn't even be around to remember what she'd told him – it was inane, it was pointless, it accomplished nothing, so why

As the Espada's horn crumpled into ash, Orihime could bear the mortification no longer. She sprinted to where the other redhead was swaying, and gave her a good push. Her doppelganger squeaked and stumbled, but she didn't fall, having gotten a hold on the nearest tangible 'something': Ulquiorra's hand. His fingers closed gratefully around hers. Their joined hands looked good together, like a single entity, like a bullet or a seed.

Heal him! You're close enough! Heal him now!

Neither her younger self nor the Espada moved to act, however. They just stood looking at each other.

Vapid, futile exercise – juvenile, shallow, stupid girl –

But oh, the look in Ulquiorra's eyes…

It was inane, it was pointless, it accomplished nothing –

But the look in his eyes…

Orihime blinked blearily. Ulquiorra's body had dissolved completely; her twin was sobbing into her palms, and Ichigo was staring blankly into space. For her part, Orihime felt as if she'd spent an entire night in the throes of a grave illness, and the dawn had just peeped through the curtains of her room, lending it a soft pink glow.

Ulquiorra had been right about them, after all. Silly humans, who put such stock into phantom feelings. Naive humans, who would seek a connection seconds before their death. Foolish humans, who would offer the balm of forgiveness to a walking corpse.

Well, guilty as charged! She'd wanna be nothing else.

First she would have a good cry beside her lookalike; then she would wind her watch and travel back to the beginning of the battle, thus resetting the timeline; then she'd contemplate the watch's hands again and…

Forward. She'd turn them forward.

End


Author's Notes: This fanfic was an exercise in pacing for me. The previous drafts (of which there are many) were divided into five sections of about 1,500 words, so I had to hack and slice more than Sweeney Todd in a day's work to get them where they are now. I don't know if less really is more where this story is concerned, but hopefully you'll tell me. For the record, this was intended as a way to convince myself that I ought to be happy with the current canon, even if Ulquiorra doesn't come back. (Kubo's current portrayal of Orihime is crippling my efforts, though…)

I will be uploading a short, comparatively happy epilogue within the next few days. Watch this space.