A/N: This was another one of those ideas that just refused to leave me alone… and so, here it is, after months of procrastinating on writing it!
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
The Meaning of Life
By: Princess Kitty1
Despite the fact that it was almost seven in the morning, the overarching sky was still mostly black and full of cheerfully twinkling stars, the horizon tinged with the first few sleepy brushstrokes of blue. It was one of the flattest, most God-forsaken deserts in the country. Why put a university there? What did a pack of emerging adults, with all of their youth and vitality, stand to gain from spending seven or eight months in a place that, despite an average of three hundred days of sunshine a year, still managed to suck the soul from its inhabitants?
From his perch atop the campus's highest building, twenty-year-old Ulquiorra Cifer could see for miles. His breath fogging as it left his lips in a sigh, he turned his gaze upon the coloring line dividing Earth and sky and vaguely wondered if he was staring straight into a neighboring county. For all he knew, the interspersed lights in the distance could be a town an hour south of them. He surveyed the landscape spread out before him like a map unfurled. Across the darkness, at two second intervals, red dots would glow menacingly, then fade, and then repeat; what appeared to be an alien invasion were actually wind turbines. The gaudy white structures stood tall and imposing among fields of cotton and lined the edges of rocky plateaus like sentries, their giant fans slicing the air as winds of up to fifty miles per hour charged through the desert unobstructed. One such gust pushed at Ulquiorra's lanky form, and he planted his shoes more firmly into the cement roof, suddenly reminded of how close he was to falling.
But wasn't that the point?
Unknown to his friends, he had been planning this for quite some time. Weeks of observation led to the decision that seven o'clock in the morning would be ideal: the faculty would just be arriving, bleary-eyed, stumbling to the café in the university's bookstore before trudging to their respective classrooms. The students themselves would be preparing to leave their dorms; no classes started before eight. This made the campus just empty enough… nobody would witness it, but someone was bound to come upon the aftermath, react, and call for help before some poor, undergrad sorority pledge with bleached-blonde hair and a fake tan immersed her Uggs into a puddle of blood and got the stuff all over her athletic shorts.
People made the decision to end their own lives for various reasons. Ulquiorra had considered his plenty of times: he wasn't depressed. Never had been – at least, he didn't feel depressed. Sure, his friends pointed out that he was too quiet, too serious, but he was by no means a shut-in. He wasn't aiming to get back at anyone, nor did he wish to bring it all to a stop because of some past psychological trauma. In fact, to an outsider, his life would appear to be… perfectly peachy.
No, what drove him to the edge of the building that morning was a question, one that he had made it his personal goal to find an answer to: What was the point of all this? Why did people choose to go on living? What was their aim? Or, to sum it all up in a neat little sentence, what was the meaning of life?
It turned out to be much harder to answer than he ever would have imagined. High school had not provided him with a response. Rummaging through his memories of childhood had yielded no results, either. He decided against looking into religion; there were just too many, and he liked to think that he had better things to do with his time. So he had chosen to major in philosophy; surely the great orators and thinkers of the past would have found enlightenment amidst their powerful debates. Five semesters later, Ulquiorra had been handed enough roundabout answers to begin thinking that perhaps there simply was no straightforward, this is it sort of thing. People meandered through existence, and then it was over.
Thus, he figured he would save himself the years of fruitless searching and cross into the afterlife. Perhaps there he'd finally find what he was looking for: a supreme being who would sit him down and present to him – preferably in the form of a fortune cookie – the answer to this most important question.
Although the thought of jumping off a building was a little anxiety-provoking.
He blinked, realizing that his mind had gone off on another tangent, and glanced at his watch. The navy blue band of sky had been pushed upwards by greens and gold, the stars shrinking away from the invasion of day. Yes, now was as good a time as any. If he waited any longer, the students in need of coffee to get them through eight o'clock exams inconveniently scheduled before Thanksgiving break would catch sight of him, up where he technically shouldn't have been. Ah, well, it wasn't like they locked the door to the roof.
Taking a few strides to the right, he made sure there would be no grass anywhere nearby, in the event that the gusting winds managed to trump gravity and force him into relative safety. He had to die, not break his spine and end up paralyzed, in a mental institution, his motives questioned by people trained to smile as they stuck drug-filled syringes the width of straws into his unsuspecting thigh.
Should there be a countdown of some sort? What number would he start at? The shorter the better, he supposed. Three-two-one? No, perhaps five… then again, he hated odd numbers. Ten was acceptable. He would begin there.
Ten… he took a deep breath. Nine… he attempted to relax his tense limbs. Eight… an older professor walked out of the building below, a newspaper and a frothy latte in hand. Seven… a flock of birds scattered from the distant bell tower as the breeze picked up again. Six… his traitorous heart was beginning to race. Five…
Four… and the door to the roof came open with an irritating creak, catching on a wind gust and slamming into its frame. This was followed by a startled cry and a soft curse, which Ulquiorra echoed with one of his own. Damn it. What now? He half-turned, seeking out the wrench that fate had thrown into his plans. Fifteen or so paces away, a female body wrestled with the door while simultaneously attempting to keep a large tripod under one arm and a messenger bag at her hip. A mane of auburn hair, manhandled by the breeze, flew out in one direction, and then the other.
Clang! The door finally shut, the young woman standing with her back to Ulquiorra, shoulders sagging in an exaggeratedly loud sigh. Then she turned, her free hand reaching up to push her hair back from her face, and froze. Wide, expressive eyes met his half-lidded, passively annoyed stare. "Oh!" Her arm dropped to the collar of her black North Face jacket, adjusting the collar. "I'm sorry! I didn't know that anyone else would be up here."
Oddly enough, Ulquiorra realized that he recognized this girl, an impressive feat considering the fact that their school boasted a population of thirty thousand students. Judging by the way her eyebrows knit together in concentration, the recollection must have been mutual. "Don't I know you from somewhere?" she asked after a few seconds of silent consideration.
"You're taking Intro to Photography, the section before mine, with Professor Hanson," Ulquiorra responded flatly.
"Right!" The girl pointed at him as if he were some sort of celebrity. "I'm ten to ten-fifty, you're eleven to eleven-fifty!" He nodded once, confirming this and wishing that she would go away. "Wow, so are you here for the project, too?" To his dismay, the girl lifted the messenger bag off of her shoulder and set it down on the ground gently, laying the tripod next to it. "That's a little upsetting. I was hoping to be the only person to get this shot… one that Hanson could use to inspire his future students," she continued, and sighed.
"I'm not here to get a photo," Ulquiorra told her bluntly, hoping that she would hear the ice in his tone and leave. But she was already rummaging through her messenger bag, withdrawing a camera bigger than her hand with a lens that could probably beat out her generous bust-size… and it was indeed generous, he did not fail to notice.
How in the world was he going to get this girl off of the roof? Well, there was always pushing her over the edge – he couldn't be charged for murder if he was dead, right? – but he would rather not have dragged her to the afterlife with him. She seemed like the type who would cry and complain and beat him over the head with her purse all the way to the underworld. Hmm… he could lie and say that he was going to get the shot – whatever that may be – so that she would be discouraged and walk away. Or he could tell her the truth, and give her permission to photograph his brains spilling out onto the sidewalk. But that would lead to an intervention, which he did not need. Those things were for drug addicts and people with obsessive-compulsive disorders, not him. He was fine.
Now the redhead was setting up the tripod, a frown on her innocent face as she jiggled one of its three legs outward. What was she doing? He watched her pry the thing open, her tongue poking out of her mouth in concentration, letting out a surprised squeal when the wind forced it shut again. Two attempts later, she cried out in frustration, stamping her foot against the ground. Then she blinked, her cheeks rosy from the cold wind and embarrassment as she remembered that she had an audience, and her gaze slid upwards almost reluctantly. Ulquiorra stared at her. "Uh…" she began, pointing to the tripod, "I never was very good with these things…"
Ah, would helping her get the shot faster clear her from the roof? Relieved that there was a solution to this dilemma, Ulquiorra walked over to where she stood, stopping a few feet away and holding out his hand. The girl sheepishly handed him the cold tripod. "Thanks, umm… what's your name?"
He considered not telling her; after all, they would put it on the school-wide announcements to explain the reason that the university's flags were at half-staff a few days later. However, he figured that going along with the conversation would be less suspicious. "Ulquiorra," he responded, then threw in a bit of common courtesy, "and you?"
"I'm Orihime Inoue," she said with a sunny smile. "Nice to meet you, Ulquiorra!" She watched him as he fiddled with the tripod, trying to get it to stay open, and grabbed her hair in an attempt to keep it from flying into her face. "Well, if you aren't here to get the shot, I feel much better! I have trouble waking up in the morning, so getting here was actually a tremendous effort for me."
"Really," he tried to sound interested.
"Mmhmm! But I'd made a decision and dedicated today to taking all the photos for our project, which led to me setting five different alarm clocks around my room in an attempt to get myself to wake up and stay up. It drove my roommates crazy!" the energetic girl explained, hoisting up the heavy camera and pointing its lens out at the landscape.
Ulquiorra peered at his watch. It was already seven-thirty, and a sliver of sun was visible on the horizon now, setting the flat desert ablaze. Damn it, he was going to have to postpone his plans for the next morning. What a pain. Now he'd have to change the date on the explanatory note he'd left for his friends. Why hadn't he just skipped the stupid countdown? And this girl… "What are you doing your project on?" he asked as he handed her the tripod, if only to find out why she had interrupted him. "Sunrises?"
Orihime laughed. "Of course not!" She thanked him for the help, situated her camera on top of the tripod and spent a few moments tweaking its position, zooming in and out, adjusting and readjusting the focus. Then she pressed down on a button and the camera made a quiet 'beep', then came the snap of the photo being taken, after which she straightened and clapped her hands. She turned and motioned for Ulquiorra to come closer as she lifted the camera to his eye level. "Look."
It was an undeniably beautiful shot: the university's entire campus lay beneath a rainbow-colored sky, the shadows of the buildings stretching outwards, away from the rising sun, while golden beams circled the massive star and cut through the heavens like searchlights. A picture like that, Ulquiorra thought, would be worth thousands in the eyes of the right people. "For my project," Orihime said to him, "I decided I wanted to take pictures of things that were important to the university. This will be the cover photo."
Just the cover photo? That was a bit disappointing. Ulquiorra straightened and gently pushed the camera back towards her. He'd been so preoccupied with his building-jumping plans lately that he hadn't given much thought to his photography project at all, though if he had his way, he wouldn't need to worry about turning it in for long.
Another snap brought him out of his musings, and he looked at the girl quizzically as she lowered the camera from her eye. What the hell, had she just taken a picture of him? In response to his thoughts, she stared down at the preview screen and gasped. "Wow! You're really photogenic!" she said, showing it to him again. Ulquiorra looked at the picture of himself: black hair blown back away from his face, a thoughtful expression, the shirt within his jacket rippling in the breeze. How interesting. To a perfect stranger, he would have seemed… much different than he was on the inside. "Nice, isn't it?"
No, it wasn't nice. She was going to fill the head of their instructor with all sorts of misconceptions about him, though he supposed it didn't matter much. Soon everyone would look at that picture and think nothing other than the fact that it was 'the guy who jumped off of the school library'. Ulquiorra turned his attention to Orihime. "Woman," he said, "why did you take a photo of me?"
She blinked, a puzzled smile half-hidden by her auburn tresses. "Why not? You're important to the university, too."
Ulquiorra wanted to make a bitter remark about how the only thing the university wanted was his money, but he found his tongue glued to the bottom of his mouth. Was this girl serious? How in the world would she know that, if it was true? She couldn't go around making assumptions about people she didn't know. He had half a mind to ask her if she was stupid, but a loud, grumbling whine caused them both to look down at her stomach. Orihime giggled sheepishly. "I haven't had breakfast yet!" she announced unnecessarily, then leaned down to put the camera back into her messenger bag. "Say, I know we just met and everything, but you want to come with me? The student union building should be open by now."
Well, he wouldn't be carrying out his plan now anyway. "Why?"
Orihime frowned. "You ask that a lot. Why? Because we're both taking the same photography class, albeit at different times, so we've got something to talk about. Is it a crime to want to get to know a person better?"
He supposed that it wasn't. He remembered his friend Nel saying something similar when they had met in high school. Had he always been so wary of other people, relentlessly questioning their motives? His green eyes lingered on the girl, who was wrestling with the tripod again, this time to get it shut. No, he shouldn't go with her. What was the point of meeting someone now? But he had the unsettling feeling that she wouldn't take no for an answer, and so, very reluctantly, he replied, "Alright." It wasn't like he had anything to do for a while. He, too, had woken up earlier than he usually did that morning.
"Great!" Orihime cried as she stood up, bag slung over her shoulder and tripod in hand. "Let's go!" She marched towards the roof's door and Ulquiorra followed wordlessly, looking over his shoulder at the ledge somewhat longingly. He was going to regret this, wasn't he?
Ulquiorra soon learned that Orihime Inoue had a stomach large enough to accommodate a baby calf. Sitting across from her in the student union building twenty minutes later, he watched her devour three sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwiches and an entire cinnamon roll with a mix of fascination and horror. Well, at least she wasn't worried about watching her figure. But where did she keep it all? "You know," she said as she dragged a cinnamon-laden chunk through a dollop of frosting, "you never told me what you were doing your project on."
Ulquiorra lowered his head, staring at the half-eaten apple in his hand, before returning his gaze to the empty plates surrounding the girl and wondering if he was witnessing the breaking of the law of conservation of mass. "You never asked," he informed her. Around them, other students and teachers chattered over their breakfasts, the occasional loner sitting with a newspaper or textbook open in front of them. College was a place full of strangers, where no one could really infer anything about the people they saw… so why did Ulquiorra feel like the nerd sitting with the head cheerleader?
Orihime didn't seem to notice. Most girls would be careful about what they ate in front of someone they had just met, but she was carrying herself as if they were lifelong friends. "Oh! How rude of me," she said, wiping sugar from her mouth with a napkin. "What are you doing your project on, Ulquiorra?"
"I don't know yet."
Her brow furrowed. "It's due next week."
He shrugged. "I've been busy." An understatement, really; he had two essays due in his philosophy classes: one on existentialism, and one that was supposed to create an argument with two opposing sides and no clear answer. He'd managed to finish the first one, but the second was giving him trouble. What to argue about?
His friend Grimmjow had suggested that he write about the existence of Santa Claus. Was there really a jolly, fat mutant elf delivering gifts to all the children of the world, becoming frustrated the more he was branded a fairy tale? It would be just in time for the holiday season, his friend Nnoitra had added. Ulquiorra had kicked both of them out of his dorm room for making such an absurd joke, but now he was starting to think that maybe he should have listened to them.
Orihime's voice brought him back to the present. "Well, what did you do your last project on?" she asked as she finished off her apple juice.
"Hmm…" It had been a while since that assignment. He'd had a lot of other things on his mind, so it took him a few seconds to remember. "The damage from the tornado that swept through here in September." Then he had to recoil as Orihime, with no warning at all, spit her apple juice out. Luckily it hadn't been much, but it covered a decent area of the table.
"That was you?" she cried, her eyes widening. Ulquiorra offered her another napkin, but she ignored it, her hands flapping excitedly. "Oh my God, I can't believe it! When I saw those pictures, my mind was blown straight out of my ears! Seriously, you have no idea! Professor Hanson used your photos as an example for what we should be striving to achieve!"
Ulquiorra stared at her, the napkin still in his hand. "He did?"
"Can you blame the guy?" Orihime took it from him and began wiping the table. "You got an A on that project, didn't you?" She didn't even wait for an answer before going on. "It was amazing, the way you ignored the damage itself and instead focused on the people who were out there, helping to clean up the mess. There was one," she turned her gaze skyward, trying to think, "that showed two student volunteers righting a cross that had been knocked off of the chapel. That one really got to me. It was like… you'd captured the heart of the moment, you know? The very meaning of life, right there, smack in the middle of the photograph!"
The meaning of life? That was impossible; he didn't know what the meaning of life was. Wasn't his pursuit of that knowledge what had led him to stand on the edge of that building? How did this girl think that he'd found the answer to his own question without even realizing it? "What…" he frowned, leaning closer, because suddenly he was very interested in her opinion, "what do you think the meaning of life is?"
"You could pick it out in a photograph," Ulquiorra searched her face for some sort of enlightenment, "so then you must know what it is."
"Oh, I sure do!" Orihime wadded up the used napkins and set them to the side, then leaned in closer. "The meaning of life," she said, "is this." She reached forward and grabbed Ulquiorra's arm, lifting it towards her, and placed his hand in hers. He looked down in surprise. Her hand was much smaller than his, fingers thin and soft, and her skin had more of a tan to it. "Do you understand? It's other people, and the bond that we form with them. Because in the end, what influences us the most? When we're born, it's our parents and family, who could either raise us lovingly or reject our existence. As we grow older, it's the friends that we make as we strive to become who we want to be. They inspire us, they uplift us; but they can also make us upset, and convince us that we're worthless. Can we ever realize our true potential on our own, without someone encouraging us and pointing out our flaws so that we can fix them?" Orihime smiled at him. "It makes sense then, why loneliness is such a destructive feeling, because what's life without other people?"
Ulquiorra couldn't tear his gaze away from their hands. They were so different, and yet, they looked good together. It was another thousand-dollar shot, like the picture of the sunrise that Orihime had taken that morning. He didn't know why she was so impressed with his work; it was apparent to him that, while he prided himself on having a good eye, there were things that still slipped his notice… things that she somehow saw as plain as day.
He supposed it was a matter of perspective, like the various answers given to his question. But Orihime's logic made sense. He thought back to the days before he had met his friends, how awful it had been to be lonely. How had he forgotten that feeling? How had he begun to take something so simple, and yet so significant, for granted? "I see," he murmured, glancing up at her finally. "That's… a very good answer."
Orihime grinned, then suddenly she gasped and sprang up from her seat. "Oh! Shoot, I'm going to be late for class!" She grabbed the trash she had left behind and placed it onto the black tray she'd used to bring the food to the table, then fumbled for her messenger bag. Ulquiorra stood up as well, his mind full of thoughts that needed an afternoon of careful sorting. But there was one that stayed at the forefront, above all the others:
He wouldn't need to kill himself after all. Who would've thought that he'd already found the answer he was looking for and had simply overlooked it? The whole situation was so comical, he kind of wanted to laugh at himself. Too bad his friends weren't going to find this funny in the slightest, especially if they'd already discovered the note that he'd left them. "Ulquiorra," Orihime was now standing halfway between the table and the trash can, staring at him somewhat uncertainly, the tray still in her hands. "Do you wanna, maybe, have breakfast again tomorrow? If you don't have an early class, that is… same time, same place?"
It was thoughtless of her to assume that he didn't have a morning class, but he was beginning to think that this girl was a lot smarter, more observant than she let on. "Sure."
She took a step back. "Good!" Dumping out the trash and putting the tray down, Orihime leaned down to retrieve the tripod. "By the way," she said as she straightened, a knowing smile lighting up her entire face, "I'm glad that you didn't jump."
Ulquiorra's eyes widened, his mouth falling open, but she was already walking away, her auburn hair flowing behind her. Definitely observant. "Yeah…" he said quietly as she disappeared into the crowd, "me too."
A/N: It seemed that a few months ago, there was an increase in students committing suicide (for various reasons), and it made me very sad. This one-shot was a result of that, I guess. I hope that you enjoyed it.
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