Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
Author's Note: This is what happens when exercises in character analysis evolve a life of their own and distract you to no end until you finally break down and write something, just so you can focus on other things.
"I must not be afraid."
She told herself this over and over, trying to steel her resolve as she stood upon the boarding platform, watching the majestic airship easing its way down from the sky. How incongruous it seemed to her, something so big floating as gently as a feather. The chain connecting the cuffs around her wrists jingled as she leaned forward to peer up at it, the great propellers churning up the air and puffing out billowing clouds of steam.
She knew she was on the receiving end of a number of accusatory, suspicious looks from the assembled passengers on the other side of the platform, but she paid them no mind, only tearing her gaze away to glance between the armed guards at her sides and the cuffs around her wrists before looking back to the airship as it drew inexorably closer. Every second it seemed to grow in size and more details could be seen, lines of rigging, the sheen along the skin of the giant gas envelope, the gleaming boilers of the steam engines, rudders and ailerons all moving in concert, and even the little figures of people standing upon the deck.
Every second, it drew closer. Closer to taking her back to London, and closer to her fate.
Sighing, she finally took one last look out at what she had thought she could call home. From the embarkation deck here at the top of the capitol building, she could see the entire city laid out below her. A study in contrasts, it had been called, and from up here she could see what they meant. Newer buildings gleaming in paneled glass and intricate stonework stood beside tiny shops of wooden framework not more than three stories high. Winding through the city like the veins of a living thing were the train and trolley tracks, leading out to the factories and fab-labs, steamworks and smithing sheds in the distance. It was a mosaic of iron and brass, of wood and stone. Where muddy dirt roads crossed cobbled lanes and paved streets. Where the air was always mixed with pungent, dark smoke and pure, white steam.
She had loved it here, but it was a love not meant to last.
Turning back, she was surprised to see the airship coming to a gentle halt in front of her, stretching huge from side to side and the great gas envelope dominating her view from the sky. She could hear the clamor of the other passengers, all remaining a healthy distance from her and her guards, as the ship came to a stop while men ran about tying off mooring lines and hauling rigging, securing the massive airship to the boarding platform.
Gangplanks were lowered, simple things without any form of handrail and barely wider than her forearm was long. They bridged the ship to solid ground, and for a moment as she watched the crewmen nimbly walking along them without a care to the twenty-story drop to the earth below, Orihime thought she'd be forced to cross one as well. She breathed a sigh of relief as other, larger and far safer-looking boarding ramps were wheeled out and locked into place.
"Sorry miss," one of her guards said smugly, misreading her relief for resignation, "You won't be escapin' yer fate that easily."
Passengers and luggage were loaded with practiced efficiency. Supplies were hauled aboard and stowed with precision so as to maintain perfect balance between fore and aft, port and starboard. Crewmen and ground workers carried out their tasks in an orderly process as she watched, amazed, as if they were all cogs in some massive machine. Last to board, a sharp nudge to her shoulder sent her stumbling towards the boarding ramp and she was forced to get moving. Unused to such rough treatment, she none-the-less stifled the shock from showing on her face and caught herself before falling. Fixing her features into something she hoped was anything but timid, overwhelmed terror, she heaved a breath and marched her way up onto the deck of the massive airship.
"I must not be afraid," she muttered once more underneath her breath.
Cresting the lip of the ramp, she stepped down onto the topmost deck of the airship with a small twinge of uncertainty. The other passengers had already been ushered down to the cabin decks, leaving nothing but crewmen shooting her the odd, furtive look as they carried out their duties. Her guards had apparently decided something and indicated the bridge towards the rear of the ship. She felt herself pushed in that direction when a low voice stopped them cold.
"Only two guards? How careless, though I should have expected nothing less."
That voice, it rolled over the words it spoke like a stream over well-worn rocks, smooth, low and unhurried. And just like an icy stream, Orihime felt a chill at every syllable as they somehow managed to cut through the sound of the turbines and wind. A sudden presence at her back had her stiffen instinctively.
"You are relieved," he said, curtly dismissing the guards. Motionless, her eyes stared straight ahead, finding herself unwilling or unable to turn to face him. With only his voice to focus on, she found herself grasping for some nuance or emotion, some shred of humanity, but there was none. A subtle but important distinction, his voice wasn't cold or disrespectful, it was more that it simply lacked warmth or courtesy. Like a yawning void that threatened to swallow her whole, his voice held an absence, like it was empty.
"Our orders are to deliver her to the capta-"
"Your orders are immaterial," he said simply, "Your jurisdiction ended at the top of that boarding ramp. The prisoner is now my responsibility." His voice was toneless and dispassionate, concerned only with the facts of the matter and unwilling to entertain argument or acquiescence.
"This is not a negotiation."
Contempt. The first real hint of emotion she'd heard from him, and it filled her with dread. Orihime was instantly convinced that she would never want the owner of this voice to aim his ire at her. Her breath hitched in her throat as she felt him bend closer to her ear, his voice now ghosting across the column of her neck.
"Come," was all he said as he swept around her, leaving her and the two guards behind without so much as a second glance. With no choice but to follow, she left her guards grumbling several choice and vulgar words as they stomped down the gangplank. Pacing after him at a healthy distance, she tried distracting herself from her predicament by focusing on him. She hadn't seen his face, having kept looking straight ahead as he had spoken to the guards, but she could see now that he wore the scarf and epaulets of an officer, but the long-tailed coat and helmet of an airman. He walked with his hands in his pockets, the only casual thing about his straight-backed, serious posture.
He moved easily past the bridge and made directly for the captain's stateroom, opening the door and walking inside without bothering to hold it open for her. It was such a startling disregard for etiquette that she found herself unconsciously irate, staring in disbelief as the door swung closed on its casters. Eyes flashing and lips set firm, she pushed open the door of the stateroom and came face to face with the unexpected. The chains of her manacles jingled as she stopped short.
"-give you, prisoner one-two-oh-one, Orihime Inoue," her less-than-chivalrous guide said to the man sitting casually at the large, ornate mahogany desk.
"That's quite an impressive entrance, Miss Inoue." He turned to her, his chin resting on one hand as the other drummed his fingertips against the wood grain.
She knew him from the war posters, of course, and he looked every bit as handsome and approachable as he did in the pictures. Tousled chestnut hair, strong jawline, genial smile, he was utterly photogenic. But the warmth in his smile didn't reach his eyes, and concealed behind the interested tilt of his head and arch of his eyebrows was a certain predatory analysis. As he stood from his seat to approach her, she couldn't help but think that his apparent kindness was just like the posters she had seen pasted up in alleys and over rotting fences, a flat veneer over something ugly.
Frozen in place, with her shoulders thrown back and a defiant set to her chin, she felt very much at odds with how she knew she looked. However strong and fearless she appeared, she could feel her nerves growing as he neared and cast her eyes about for the other, the one who had brought her here, just to have something else to look at. Unfortunately, Captain Aizen had come to a stop before her, blocking out her view as he crossed his arms and stared down at her. Whatever chills she felt at her guide's voice were magnified a hundred fold by this man's sheer presence. A glance at the cross look on his face and she could tell his type; demure and meek, willing to fawn all over him in exchange for the barest of acknowledgements. Just because she was more nervous now than ever in her life didn't mean she wasn't observant.
And it didn't mean she was stupid either. He was a man clearly unused to seeing a woman with such bravado, however fabricated hers might have been. Orihime let her gaze fall to the floor, softening her stance in order to avoid the risk of provoking him. She had never been much of an actress, but letting herself appear to quail under such scrutiny, to be cowed into submission, was hardly an act. Not too much, she realized, and fisted her hands around the cold metal chain connecting her wrists.
Captain Aizen was an expert at showing the world what he wanted it to see, while Orihime knew she was just an amateur at it. Still, the fact remained: two could play this game.
"Welcome aboard," Captain Aizen said, brightening somewhat, "It is rare to have such a… distinguished guest aboard my ship. So rare, in fact, that we had to construct quarters just for you. I hope you find your journey with us to be comfortable, after all, just because you're not here by choice doesn't mean it has to be unbearable." He spoke lightly, discussing what was to be her last journey as easily as he would the weather. "Mister Schiffer will see to your needs, you are to be in his care. Never-the-less, unpleasant business is best handled quickly…"
She dared not look him in the eye, only stared down at the silver manacles around her wrists.
"Prisoner one-two-oh-one, Orihime Inoue, you are hereby remanded to the brig," Captain Aizen ordered, "Mister Schiffer, take her away." He turned from her with a sigh and moved across the stateroom to where two other men were huddled, bent over a map and various navigation instruments.
Finally feeling like she could breathe again, Orihime dared to raise her head. Her gaze swept up the one who had brought her here, 'Mister Schiffer' he had been called. His boots made only a whisper of noise as he stepped across the floorboards, his long coat swishing about his legs. His hands had left his pockets and were in the process of removing his leather flight helmet and goggles. Messy black hair spilled down around his head as he approached, and for a moment she managed to catch a glimpse of his face.
He immediately seemed to be everything Captain Aizen was not. His face, pale and sharp, held none of the soothing warmth or reassuring gentility that the Captain's had, despite however much of a lie it might have been. His eyes were hard and cold, broken wine bottle green, and regarded her with honest but uncompromising contemplation. She had been on the receiving end of many looks before, but Mister Schiffer stared at her differently. While embarrassing, she had never been oblivious that her physical attributes held a certain allure, even in this shapeless gray prison dress, but under Mister Schiffer's clinical, expressionless gaze she didn't feel objectified so much as… studied.
There would be no charade here. It was immediately obvious that this was a man who would not purport to treat her as anything other than what she was, a prisoner. It was oddly reassuring in a way, to know exactly where she stood after the disorienting experiences of her capture, incarceration, and extradition back to England.
"Come, prisoner one-two-oh-one," he said, slipping around her and this time, holding the door open.
Following him, she opened her mouth to speak but was instantly cut off. "Be silent. You are to say nothing unless asked directly, and even then the only answer suitable for you to give shall be 'Yes, sir.' You have no rights, only privileges, any and all of which can be taken away." He lead her across the command deck, down the elegant main staircase and across a sparsely populated landing. Pushing past a clearly stenciled 'No Passengers' sign on one particular door, he continued on into a narrow corridor all without bothering to check if she was still behind him. "You are my responsibility and as such, you will abide by the orders I give you, eat the food I bring you, and comport yourself in a civil manner."
He led her towards the bow of the ship, the whole of it feeling remarkably solid and secure beneath her feet even though she knew they were hanging several hundred feet above the city. They reached another, narrower staircase that led down two more levels, finally stopping beneath the second gun deck at the very bottom of the ship. Looking about, she found they were in the bottom-most stowage, surrounded by barrels and crates of dry goods and fresh water. The timbers creaked and groaned above her while light filtered from the occasional oil lamp, trying vainly to push back the dimness. Turning back she saw that he had come to a stop and was looking in her direction. Her heart sank as she looked at what he stood beside.
A jail cell.
Made of wrought iron bars welded together and bolted to the walls, floor and ceiling, one section of the stowage had been completely walled off, the only entrance being the door open at his side. Furnished simply and sparsely, it was still a step up from the accommodations she'd had previously and the hands of the city gaoler, even a dressing screen to maintain whatever modicum of privacy she could eke out. Resigning herself, she walked steadily across the stowage hold and up to the open door with only the slightest bit of trepidation.
He lifted a hand in front of her, effectively halting her. Turning towards that same, unreadable expression on his face, she watched him reach towards her, his long fingers outstretched and felt a surge of sudden fear. Alone with a strange man, here in the very bottom of the ship with layers of wood between her and anyone else, no one would hear her scream. Her breath caught in her throat and she instinctively shied away from him, but only as far as the chain connecting the cuffs of her manacles, now held securely in his hand, allowed her.
"Do you know why this cell has been built here, at the very bottom of the ship?" he asked her, lifting up the manacles and bringing her hands with it. Still drawn back, she aimed a wary look at him as he continued. "It is the area of the ship most likely to take damage if the rebel resistance attempts to launch an offensive, and it is designed to protect the decks above by collapsing under their weight in the event of a crash landing. The rebels know this, just as they know this is the only logical place to put your cell." He removed a key from his pocket and deftly released her wrists from the cuffs. "You know it to be true, just as well as I. No one is coming for you. No one will save you. You are alone here."
It was brutal and unflinching, but it was the truth, the first real dose of honesty she'd been given. It would not do to get caught up in fantasies of daring rescue. The reality of her situation required her full attention. Rubbing her wrists, she resolutely set one foot in front of the other and stepped through the open door of the cell. It creaked shut and locked with a ratchet of tumblers. The whisper of his boots retreated from their place outside her cell, then paused.
"It is my responsibility to see that you are delivered to London and I will do whatever I deem necessary to accomplish that task. The condition you arrive in is entirely of your own choosing, either by following the orders given to you," he drew out a significant pause, "Or not. Do you understand?"
She turned to look back at him, her hair sliding over her shoulder and her eyes meeting his. "Yes, sir." Her voice was raw and soft from disuse, and tremulous from hopelessness.
Seeing him turn his back on her, she moved towards the bars. "W-wait," she said thoughtlessly, trying to reign in her desperation for human contact.
He turned on his heel, his eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly. "You ignore my orders at your first opportunity?" he asked, his voice deathly calm.
"I… I just wanted to…" Orihime trailed off, trying to swallow past her parched throat.
"Your desires are immaterial to my task."
Orihime relented, crossing her arms as she drew away from him. "Yes… of course, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Your thanks are immaterial to my task, as well." The whisper of his boots slipped back into the darkness of the stowage hold.
"Wh-what's your name?" she called out to the darkness.
He stepped out of the dark once more, into the pool of meager yellow light below an oil lamp. "You know it already, Mister Schiffer," he reiterated, his green eyes studying her.
"Your first name…"
"My first name is immateri-"
"Please…" she dared interrupt him. "My, my name is Orihime Inoue," she continued quietly. This was the longest conversation she'd had with anyone since her arrest and she was doing anything she could to keep it from fading away.
"Of course, prisoner one-two-oh-one." He turned away again, the tails of his coat fluttering gently from the motion, and in moments he was gone.
Orihime sat heavily on the small bed, drew her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. Reviewing everything that had happened, her thoughts dwelled briefly on Captain Aizen, sending a shudder of revulsion up her spine. It was a good thing she'd barged in like she… her grey eyes opened with a shock. Mister Schiffer had held open every door for her except the stateroom door.
If not for that door, she would have walked into Aizen's stateroom looking for all to see like a scared, lost little girl, helpless, chained up and at his mercy. God, she practically served herself up on a platter if not for that door slamming in her face, provoking her, turning her into something Aizen obviously didn't like. And Mister Schiffer, he had done it on purpose.
Author's Note: Minor edits for clarity.