A/N: Whoa! It's been a while since I've published anything. But this just occurred to me, and like I do, I had to write it down. I feel like we always assume that he would come to her at a convenient time, and I wanted to explore what might have happened if he didn't. So here you are. Please leave a review telling me what you thought!
Bleach (c) Tite Kubo
Even now she still loved to sit in that old rocking chair she had had for so long. Her silver, watery gaze was aimed distantly at the back yard, watching the occasional animal prance or skitter through, but mostly just observing the leaves and the berries and the grass. Her hands rested on her knees, which were covered by that old blanket. Her head rested against the back of the chair as she watched.
Sometimes she would doze there, when the sun slanted at the right angle, warming her frail little legs in the rocking chair. The rocking would still as her eyes drifted closed, her mouth slightly open, a thin strand of saliva trailing from her front tooth to her bottom lip. She slept quietly, her face relaxed, a glimmer at the corner of her mouth where liquid trickled over her cheek. The blanket was tucked securely beneath her thighs, the sunlight warming her body. Presently she would awake, blinking sleepily, and resume her rocking, looking vacantly out over the yard.
Her daughter came three times a week to visit, and it was the highlight of her life now. Sometimes her daughter brought her own children, now almost grown. Her daughter, Asuna, who had cared for her for so long. She also had a son, once. He had suffered terribly and died as a teenager. Now Asuna and her three children were the lights of her life, three times a week.
Asuna would lift her mother from the chair and carry her to the bath, where she would wash her body carefully. Then she would dress her, sit her back in the chair, cook her a meal that was gentle on her weary digestive system.
But eventually, Asuna would leave, and she would sit back in the chair. No music, as she had loved when she was younger. Just quiet. There were no analog clocks in the house, only a digital clock in her bedroom. There was no ticking of a second hand. All she could hear was the quiet rock of the chair, the creaking of the seat, of the blades against the hardwood floor. When the sun finally set, and she could not see the yard, she would slowly stand, letting the blanket fall from her old bones. Taking slow, sure steps, she tottered to her bedroom, tracing a path she had taken millions of times. Slowly she would lower herself onto the bed. Her pajamas were close by, and she put them on carefully, her shaking fingers doing up every button. As she laid down and pulled up her sheet, in the summer, the pleasant buzzing of the cicadas filled her ears. Obediently she closed her eyes, her cheek flush against a pillow she had slept on since she was four years old, more than eighty years ago now.
The house would settle around her as she slept, protecting that old woman in her bed, as it had all her life. She had never moved from this apartment, where she had lived first with her brother, and then alone, and then with her family, and then again, alone. Her husband had died almost ten years ago now.
When she woke, her day would repeat. But that was okay. She liked it. Her bones were old. Her skin was wrinkled and spotted. Her face was lined in a hundred creases, her silver eyes sunken into her face, rheumy and wet. Her knuckles on her hands bulged out, and ached when she tried to bend her hands. Her legs sagged, and her once long and beautiful hair was now short. But her back was straight, and she held her head up. She had no want for anything she could not find in her own home, content – and happy, even – to do the same mundane thing day after day.
Every so often he would cross her mind. She couldn't remember much about him, like how tall he was, or what his hands looked like. What she did remember was the ebony black hair, the alabaster pale skin, the sharp, jutting horn; and the piercing green eyes. But she didn't think about him often. Rarely, in fact. She was done waiting, she had moved on from him.
One day her home phone rang. It was right next to her, but she moved very slow. Her fingers closed around it and lifted it from the receiver. She brought it back to her mouth.
"Hello?" she said in a voice not much louder than a whisper.
"Mother, it's me, Asuna," came her daughter's voice clearly through the line. "How are you?"
She talked slowly to her daughter, telling her a little about how she felt. She was on a new pill, the doctors were trying out. So far nothing had changed about the pain in her hands or knees or back, though they had hopes that it soon would. They made small talk while she waited for Asuna to get to the point.
"Now, mother," she said, clearing her throat, "I was calling to speak to you about something rather important."
"My family and I are going to the beach for a few weeks. It's summer, you know, and the children are out of school. So I'll be taking them for a vacation. It will only be for a few weeks, and I'll come and see you tomorrow, but from then you'll be on your own. Do you think you can handle it?"
She thought. "I think so," she told her daughter.
Asuna's worry was nearly tangible in her voice. "I worry about you, mother," she said. "But I think you can do it. I'll see you tomorrow. You can think about it some more."
"All right, Asuna."
"I love you, mother."
"I love you too, Asuna," she said.
A consciousness slowly formed nearby in the park. Nothing too spectacular. A stray thought here and there. Slowly it collected into a mind, steadily, and then a body. A shimmering outline of a man, lying behind a bush, curled up. He slowly solidified into a clear outline, and then he slept for three days.
Three days later Asuna was gone, with instructions to call her or a neighbor immediately if there was a problem. She agreed graciously, and bid them farewell on their trip.
Now she was alone in the rocking chair, gazing out into the yard again. Her eyelids felt heavy. They drooped, and she was asleep.
His eyes opened. They were startlingly green. He sat slowly up, looked down. His hands were pale, pale as death. He reached up, felt his head. His hair was smooth. There was no interruption of a helmet. Glancing down at his bare chest, he saw no hole, just a circular scar that was raised a little bit from his skin.
He was wearing simple black shorts. Slowly he stood, brushed himself off. He was in the park near where he had first landed in this world. It looked a little bit different, but not much had changed since then. The sun was beginning to go down now, and the sky was tinged with pink.
He felt around. He could not sense that infernal shopkeeper, nor the Shinigami boy, nor the irritating Quincy. But – there! The signal was weak, as though she was sleeping. But there was the Onna. He fastened onto her mind, followed it.
He walked through the park, stepped onto the street. The asphalt was strangely empty; no one was out tonight. He stayed on the sidewalk, as the little rocks in the pavement hurt his bare feet. Steadily, he made his way to the Onna's apartment, and climbed the stairs to her home.
He knocked on the door. No one answered. He knocked again, put his ear to the door. He thought he heard a faint noise, so he tried the handle. It was unlocked. He let himself in, looking around.
There were some things that weren't familiar about the house, a few photographs of people he didn't recognize. But it looked the same, mostly. He saw a walker by the door, though he couldn't imagine whom it might be for. Maybe she had allowed her grandmother to stay with her?
"Hello?" he called.
He heard a noise from farther in the house, so he continued on. Rounding the corner, he stopped short.
There was a woman, seated in a rocking chair. She had and orange, brown and white blanket wrapped round her legs, and her hands were resting in her lap. Her eyes were wide open, and her mouth opened a bit as well. Her fragile hands raised to her chest, where they pressed over her heart.
"Oh, dear," she breathed.
In his chest, his heart broke in two. For beneath the wrinkles, the spots, and the white hair, he still saw her. He saw the Onna, Orihime Inoue, sixty years later.
He was too late.
Ulquiorra moved his knight out from the second row. She counted his squares, two up, one over, as he shifted the chess piece.
She thought about when he had first walked in. Her mind had, for once in her life, been completely and utterly blank. Her gaze focused on him, and she saw his thick eyebrows – oh, those eyebrows! – draw marginally together, perplexed.
"Onna?" he breathed. His voice was heavy, rough. He cleared his throat, took a step towards her. "Is…that you?"
She couldn't speak. He was…here. She hadn't seen him in sixty years, since she was nearly sixteen years old. She ran her gaze over him. He was still so beautiful, so brokenly beautiful.
"I waited for you," she whispered. "For so long…"
He stepped towards her, fell to his knees beside her. His head was bowed.
"I'm sorry," he said. "The high-speed regeneration…it…"
He fell silent, unmoving at her feet.
She took a moment to collect herself, taking a deep breath. Then she placed a worn hand on his head, and he lifted his eyes, surprised at her trembling touch.
"Why don't you get out the chess," she said. "It's been a while since I had a game. We'll play while we talk."
It had taken him a while to find the chessboard, but eventually it was located in her son's old bedroom. He pulled a table over and unfolded the board. She directed him on how to put the pieces on the colors, what went where. She played white, he played black, so she went first.
After she explained the rules of the game, she moved her pawn two squares out from the line. He frowned.
"Onna," he said gently, as if he was afraid to break it to her, "you said you could only move a pawn one square at a time."
"Yes. But, on the first move, you can move your pawn two squares when you are first moving it." She smiled at him, wilting on the inside. His frown stayed.
"I think you are manipulating the rules to your favor," he murmured, moving his knight.
She protested. "No, no, Ulquiorra-kun!" she said, starting to move her hands. But pain shot through them, and she winced and stilled her movements.
"Are you okay?" he said, looking up.
"Yes. Yes, I'm fine," she said. "Just a little case of oldness."
Suddenly she was embarrassed. She was over conscious of her age. In front of her sat a young man – man? That part was debatable – who was in his prime, with a narrow, sculpted body and a hard, yet beautiful face. This was a man many women would kill to be with. She knew this now, now that she was older. She had lost the naïveté of her teenage years, well most of it, at least. Even at that time, in her youth, she would have done anything to be with him. And here she was. Old. But with Ulquiorra.
Would I really have done anything? Even age to my eighties before I saw him? She supposed she should have been more careful about what she wished for.
But even now, she didn't want to disappoint him. And she felt like the fact that she was old and worn, and no longer young and beautiful, was disappointing to him. He was expecting the innocent redhead from what probably seemed like just yesterday to him. But instead he got this, an old woman, a shadow of what she had been, a used up being that was happy to simply gaze out of the window every day.
Her hands were shaking. She quickly returned them to her lap, studying the board for her next move while she tried to gain control over herself.
"So…tell me about yourself," Ulquiorra said. She lifted a hand, made her move, and returned it to her lap before she spoke.
She told him how she waited until she was nearly thirty to marry, though she had had many suitors. She didn't say why, but she was sure Ulquiorra had a suspicion. She said how she had a daughter named Asuna who now had three nearly grown children of her own. She also said she had had a son, who they had lost at the age of eighteen to osteosarcoma, a rare cancer that develops in bones, generally of children who are growing quickly. He had had it in his leg when he was around ten, and had had to have it amputated to save him. When he was eighteen, they took a PET scan and saw that his whole body was lit up like a Christmas tree. After a quick, severe regression, he passed away. She didn't tell him what his name was. She couldn't look him in the eye and say she had named her son for her pale jailer who died in the desert night.
Her husband had been good to her, she said. She had loved him so. She met him in college through a friend. He had died ten years ago, after having several heart attacks. But even though her husband and son were gone, Asuna was still here, though she was on vacation at the moment, of course.
She had been an elementary school teacher, and in her time had taught various kindergarten through fifth grade classes. But first grade was her favorite. The wonder and excitement, finally entering grade school with all the big kids, it was magical every time. She loved her job, she loved her family, she loved her life. The only thing missing for a long, long time was Ulquiorra, but that faded slowly with time.
"Now explain to me what happened to you," she said. "I thought you said your internal organs were kaput."
He looked at her, holding her gaze steadily. "I neglected to mention this that day," he said. "But my internal organs did grow back eventually. They were not as fast as the rest of my body, I suppose. It took them…sixty years. My body is the same, but now I am here. I don't know what I will do now…"
She smoothed her blanket and began looking for her next move as she spoke. The pieces were arranged all around the board now, and they both had a fair amount of pieces lined up on the sides. "My daughter Asuna comes to care for me three days a week," she began. "But it's hard for her to find the time. Her own husband died just after their third child was born, although she did remarry, but still…" She found herself making excuses. But there was no need. She glanced up at him to see a hint of a smile in his eyes.
"I would be happy to stay here for you as long as you need," he said. Then, he slid the knight he had made his first move with into position. "Checkmate, Onna."
The old woman and her strangely pale nurse lived in the old apartment for eleven more years. She was nearly one hundred when she died, at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. They say she could no longer walk, and the pain in her hands and back had her confined to her bed, but the quiet, beautiful man never left her side. Her voice emitted from her mouth in a raspy whisper, and she could no longer eat solids, so he tipped warm broths down her throat. They say he was alone with her when she died, as she had requested. Her daughter understood. He held her hand when she took her last breath, and kept it when she exhaled it. He heard her last words whispered in his pale, delicate ear.
That's what they say, at least. They say he stayed by her bed for a while longer. Then the man stood, and he walked out of her room. He walked past her daughter and grandchildren without a word, leaving the apartment as they watched. They say he was never seen again.
The story says she was his friend when they were younger, in another land. Somehow he had been stuck in time, never aging, while she lived her life waiting for him, believing he was dead. They say he was wracked with guilt that he hadn't come back faster, thinking he had ruined their future together. That she had felt regret that she hadn't waited, not marrying, not so much as looking at another man until he returned.
But what they don't know is that they were happy, those eleven years they had together. He found joy in caring for the old woman. Her soft presence calmed him. He found serenity in doing the simple things she asked of him, and in just sitting quietly with her in rocking chairs, gazing out at the backyard. Taking her on walks around the neighborhood soothed his mind. And as for her? She felt blessed by him, blessed that he had come at last, blessed that he wanted to stay, though she was old.
They say his face was blank as he left her house, that he looked empty and stoic on that last walk. But if you really wanted to know, you would have to ask her youngest granddaughter, who is an old woman herself now. She will pull up a chair, recount the story of Ulquiorra and Orihime. And at the end of the story, she will lean in close, and say that as he walked out of that house, she swears she saw a single tear rolling down his cheek.