Word Count: 4,972
Summary: Orihime has sought him out in Soul Society, in the human realm, and in the Hell realm. There's one last.
Author's Notes: Initial beta-reading by issues09, thorough beta-reading by tuathafae. Their respective fanfiction archives can be found here and here. I was quite liberal with the contest theme, but I hope this is still valid. If not, I hope you still get a decent read out of it. :)
"Your boyfriend is in Hell," she recalled that big, grotesque Espada -- Yammy -- chortling at her shortly after she'd descended from the dome. Of course she recalled. Her mind had been kneading and pestling that sentence ever since. But it was a lie.
He wasn't in Soul Society.
He wasn't in the human world.
He wasn't in Hell, either.
No matter how implausible this sounded, it was the only conclusion Inoue Orihime could come to. She'd spent four months doing nothing but searching, sweeping those realms clean, milking her every last connection to hike her way to the authorities, and milking the authorities in turn. She was a veritable dairy farm of information -- yet none about the man she sought.
"What's it that makes him so great, anyway?" Rukia had muttered exasperatedly, not long after they'd ventured into Hell and had their first run-in with its horrors. Her eyes had widened in guilt as soon as the words left her mouth, but Orihime didn't blame her for them. Chad would have said the same, if he were the vocal type. Even Ishida felt uncomfortable with this side-mission, she could tell, though he'd been present at the dome, start to finish.
Ichigo was the only one who understood, if only because he'd also reached out for an Espada's hand once. He couldn't know -- not unless he'd witnessed the sudden shift of vulnerability in Ulquiorra's eyes, felt the life-to-death ferry embodied in his five outstretched fingertips, broke some nails and scraped others raw in a fruitless attempt to scrape his ashes off the ground, not unless he'd done all that could he really, really know -- but he understood.
Not that it made any difference, in the long run. She knew what death entailed for humans and Hollows and Shinigami, but Ulquiorra was an Arrancar, and she had no idea what happened to Arrancar when they died. She was starting to feel like an average person again, one who knew nothing about the afterlife, one who reeled from fantasies of the unknown and glanced at clocks every other minute.
And maybe nothing did happen to Arrancar when they died, her mind persisted. Maybe they were just gone.
She ran that word over her tongue, but she must have misplaced her taste-buds in her gut, kooky girl that she was, because that's where she felt it. Its four letters dropped all the way down and just lay there like soft rotten marshmallows. Gone.
Ulquiorra was (not-in-Soul-Society-not-in-this-world-a
She'd been walking through Karakura Town when this cold shower of facts finally drenched her heart. Her hands shook. They went on shaking even when she squeezed them into fists.
"Why are you crying, Miss?" a familiar voice addressed her. It startled Orihime out of her sobs, although her eyes refused to dry.
"Oh! Ururu-san! From the Urahara Shop! Good day! Crying... is what I'm doing," she finished lamely.
"I noticed," Ururu answered. Not sarcastic-like, though -- she was a very polite kid. "Why?"
The redhead hesitated. "My friend," she said finally. It felt right; timely. "My friend died."
"The friend you were asking us about last time?" Orihime nodded. "That's sad. I'm sorry. That's really very sad." A beat. "Would you like to discuss it with the Owner over tea?"
Urahara Kisuke was all too happy to serve Orihime the aforementioned tea when she showed up beside the pigtailed girl. All too happy to hear her narration of the Life and Times of Ulquiorra Cifer while they sipped it. All too happy to announce his recent findings on the subject, to calm her down when she gasped and squealed and cried joyful tears into his shirt.
All too happy to open a portal for her.
Her starting impression was that no, this wasn't right, Urahara-san must have made a mistake, there were butterflies around and everyone knew that was strictly a Soul Society thing --
But these were no butterflies.
They were moths.
Orihime followed one with her eyes, entranced by the downy pinkish-brown wings in place of the ebony-black she was so used to. And the native insects wouldn't be the only thing to contradict her expectations, as she discovered seconds later -- when her surroundings finally clicked.
The textbook version of Purgatory, from what little Orihime had read about it, seemed to involve unique, exotic activities like purification of one's Human soul through Searing pain and Cleansing fire. But Orihime did not care for pain in the slightest, and she only cared for fire insofar as it was used to caramelize crème brûlées, so she'd envisioned Purgatory kinda differently. Like, maybe each of the soul-people would be presented with a number of candles equal to the number of their sins, all of which would be sitting atop a gigantic, custom-made birthday cake, and those people would only have to blow out the candles to ascend to Heaven and eat their cake.
Neither of these scenarios bore any resemblance to the real thing.
Spread out before Orihime was... a street. A wide, sleek, black street -- the kind you'd find in a megalopolis rather than a village -- perfectly normal on a structural level, but with no end in sight whichever direction the girl turned. Forward: the street, unraveling and unraveling like the carpet of a throne room, until the horizon. Backward: the street, sluicing like an extension of her now-visible shadow, until the horizon.
And on either side of it were buildings. Oh, nothing like the hammocks of Rukongai, which had been sprinkled all over the map like blocks of tofu in a soup, and built no differently. These were the sort of buildings that, in Orihime's own world, could only be afforded by the upper classes: vast, multi-floored structures, with chestnut panels against white walls and a verdant, well-trimmed garden. They were spaced apart with inhuman precision, down to the centimeter. She felt ashamed to even look at them.
Yet there was no sign of life around, barring the insects still fluttering around her head. Absent was the motion and bustle of Soul Society, in favor of an overarching quiet that reduced the grand mansions to little more than lavish tombstones.
The girl loitered on the spot for some time, irresolute.
Her hesitation proved baseless when she finally worked up enough courage to approach one of the structures. While the outer gate yielded easily to her touch, the inner door wouldn't budge. Neither did anyone come to her assistance when she knocked. Maybe the house didn't even have tenants; there was no name on the doorbell, for one thing.
The same was true of the next building, and the next. And the one after that.
Weary and disconsolate, Orihime was left with nothing to do but to slog on down the road. The scenery flickered by -- uniform, mass-produced -- as if viewed through a sandstorm or a fine mist. And regardless of how many hours she felt she'd been walking, the sky and its sun remained nailed in position, unchanging in hue. A fossil of time and space.
How many crocodiles would she have to count jumping over a fence before she'd leave this street? How many steps did it take to reach a dead man?
Her throat was parched. Her feet hurt. Even the moths had stopped following her.
If you... with your horns and your claws and your hole and your insane sadness... if you didn't frighten me, Orihime mused to anchor herself, then nothing here can. Wait, Ulquiorra. Please wait for me.
Just when her imaginary crocodiles had finished lunching on the fence and were deliberating whether to cannibalize each other out of sheer boredom... someone spoke:
"Oh, may I help you, Ma'am?"
Orihime couldn't stop herself from gasping at the sound of the voice, nor from gasping again at the sight of its source. Far to her left, nestled snugly between two buildings, stood a counter piled with computers of different sizes, and behind it...
"Nnoitra!" the girl exclaimed. "What are you -- how did you -- why did you --" Orihime paused her babble just long enough to frown. "'Ma'am'?"
"Oh. My apologies," the sable-haired Espada said, straightening his glasses. Glasses! "This isn't really Nnoitra Jiruga. My current form is merely a random copy drawn from your subconscious." Probably sensing his listener's befuddlement, he elaborated: "It's an ability granted only to Purgatory's authorized personnel. This realm is designed to tap into the minds of its occupants, you see, in order to project the images most likely to trigger an emotional response from them. It's something of an excess, but we're dealing with heavy sinners here. You understand."
As a matter of fact, Orihime did not understand, but she had a feeling she would soon. Despite her apprehension, she felt a little relieved to have met another person -- this was a whole new realm, and there was so much to see, to explore, that she might have drifted till the end of time without him.
"So, what may I help you with?" the gabby clerk went on. "You seemed a little lost just now. To be honest with you, Purgatory is just an obscure little holding realm, so we don't get much tourism. There's another dozen staff members down this road, but I'd bet an eyepatch you're the only client any of us has got today. And you are certainly the only girl your age ever seen frolicking" -- hearing the word 'frolicking' out of Nnoitra's lips really gave her the creeps -- "in the realm all on her own. How old are you? Oh... sixteen? Seventeen?"
"Sixteen. I'm looking for my friend." The girl looked him right in his one slitted eye, willing him to understand how many square miles of her heart this person occupied. "Ulquiorra Cifer. Do you know where I could find him?"
"Oh, lucky fellow!" He pressed a bunch of keys in the computer nearest to him, and within seconds he triumphantly announced: "Building number 4, Street of Erentil. He first entered our records four months, eleven days, sixteen minutes, and five seconds ago."
"Why is he here?" Orihime blurted out; couldn't help herself. "Who goes here?"
"Pluses or post-sublimation Hollows that have committed too many sins to enter Soul Society, but few enough to gain a temporary reprieve from Hell," Not-Nnoitra recited practically in one breath, making it obvious that this was something he'd explained a thousand-and-one times before. "Plus all Arrancar and Vizards. They 'confuse the system', you could say. -- Do you know that, despite the low profile of our realm, we actually have a higher population than either Soul Society or Hell? You must have noticed the incredible number of buildings. Speaks for the grayness of humanity, don't you think?"
"Yes. I... Yes." She wasn't really in the mood to humor his preening. "My friend. Could I see him now?"
"Oh, but of course. Just fill out this form and we'll be on our way."
Last Name: INOUE, she typed on the proffered keyboard. First Name: ORIHIME. Address ... Postal Code ... Method of Transportation ... Number of Visits ... she typed and typed. Purpose of Visit: BRING HIM BACK. She thought she might have gone too far with that, but the clerk only snorted and clicked the 'save' button.
They started walking. All of a sudden Orihime wished the ground had been covered with tiles for hopscotch and other children's games instead of this depressing asphalt. Its bleak mien was forcing her to turn her attention to secondary things -- like the way Nnoitra's shadow swallowed her whole.
"Um... excuse me... is this going to be a long walk?"
"Quite long, yes. Why?"
The redhead fidgeted in unrest. "Just... my last memory of this body you're borrowing isn't too pleasant and it doesn't fit with the way you speak and it's all kinda awkward, so... if it's not much trouble for you... could you change to something a bit less intimidating?"
Not-Nnoitra stopped in his tracks and gave her a look eerily reminiscent of Actual-Nnoitra.
"What did you have in mind?"
Moments later, Inoue Orihime could be seen following a bespectacled, bipedal crocodile to Ulquiorra's latest residence.
There was only one room.
Only four walls, only a ceiling and a floor, illuminated just barely by a frail, self-sustaining twilight: such was the empty, growling belly hidden inside Purgatory's titanic establishments. Only one room, the size of a planet.
Given the context, Ulquiorra Cifer was impossible to miss. The sole piece of furniture in this orgy of empty space was a metal chair, right within the entrance's line of sight, and he sat there in his released form -- his true form -- with his majestic wings unfolded, his horned head bowed. The poor, four-legged mold looked like it could barely hold him.
He was beastly, infernal, wretched, queer, misshapen, he was all coarse fur and sharp edges, and Orihime had never feared him less than now; never missed or adored him more.
"Ulquiorra!" she called out happily. Her erstwhile caretaker remained motionless. He didn't seem to hear her. "Hey, Ulquiorra --"
She wanted to ask him; she wanted to know. How had he changed, was he happy, was he tired, did he want to stay, did he remember her...?
She made to rush forward -- he was only a dozen feet away -- but her foot hadn't even touched the ground before she bumped into... something. She lifted both hands, felt it around. An invisible barrier.
"Oh, my bad," her chaperone spoke up before she could put a voice to her question. "Our timing seems to be unfortunate. The cleansing process is starting." Orihime's eyes widened in horror. "Oh, don't worry," the Sobek-lookalike said reassuringly -- she'd only just noticed it, but he sure said 'oh' a lot. "It should only last an hour, in human terms, and then you'll have him all to yourself for about, oh... five minutes, before it starts over again."
"Five minutes? That's not --" Not enough time, she meant to say, but then she remembered their parting scene, and how little it had lasted, and how much it had accomplished. Keep the time: two minutes. Keep the entropy: even in the end -- some interest in you -- am I frightening -- you're not -- I see -- I see -- I see. "That's not a problem."
The crocodile nodded; he had hardly any neck, so he had to bob his huge snout up and down instead. It was kind of funny, but she didn't feel like laughing. "This might interest you," he said next, using that snout of his to gesture to the chair and its attached Espada. Something was happening.
The walls of the house, only some seconds ago shrouded in shadows, were beginning to light up. The transition was quick and painful, like giant blinds being lifted from giant windows, and it took her a while to process what she was seeing. Screens. Six enormous cinematic screens, one for each of the room's rectangular facets. Ulquiorra's eyes were already open, and trained on the one to his right. He looked sad, pained; why? Displayed onscreen was a scarlet smudge; was a nondescript face; was...
Every single screen displayed her.
On the wall across the doorway where Orihime was standing, two guards charged toward the 'camera' -- toward Ulquiorra, she remembered -- while the tiny, onscreen her looked on, fawn-eyed. To her right, it was her avatar who was charging forward, hand extended; crack. On the ceiling, force-feeding session. Beneath her feet, 'she existed only for Aizen-sama and his desires'. The scenes alternated every few minutes, but the point of focus always remained the same big-breasted, red-haired girl.
Orihime took a look at the screen Ulquiorra had turned to face. It was dominated by an undraped window, and behind it her double was leaning in to kiss an unconscious Ichigo -- why was that even in there?
"Hate me," she murmured, never taking her eyes off the screen. "You want to make him hate me. S-so he won't want to follow me back home. That's what this is." In a small, confused voice she continued, "Isn't it?"
Even as she said that, though, the clerk's exposition resurfaced in her head: this realm ... designed to tap into minds ... in order ... images most likely to trigger an emotional response ...
"So you see," the anthropomorphic crocodile stated, having caught sight of her guilty expression. "The images aren't normally that vivid, but your friend's projection ability came in useful." He grinned toothily. "It even weaves his feelings into the replay, if you focus hard enough. Ironic, isn't it? Oh, occasionally there's also displays of his past victims -- but most of the time, it's just you. You really did a number on him."
Orihime pleaded. She reasoned. She used Tsubaki. She beat her fists on the barrier. Nothing worked. In the end, she could only press her cheek against the invisible block, close as could be, and watch Ulquiorra watch her.
He didn't react to his environment beyond flinching or sporadically shutting his eyes, but even that was a whole lot by his standards (and taking into account that he'd already been doing this for months, but she didn't want to think about that). At one point, she tried to focus on his feelings, like the clerk had told her, but it was too intense -- how he saw her, how he experienced her. Not 'intense' in the conventional way... not the watery torrent of 'intense' that Orihime felt every day, but 'intense' like a treasured little oasis in a drought. At any rate, she couldn't go on.
The show, on the other hand... did.
It was capped off by a duplicate of her (another staff member?) walking up to the released Espada and unleashing a healing shield on his round, gaping hollow hole. Ulquiorra hissed in pain as it closed up, like a vampire scalded by a cross.
"Right out of his subconscious, mind you!" Orihime's supervisor yelled after her when she took off, but she didn't care, she was running, running fast and she was almost there --
And then she was there.
She'd acted this reunion out in her head innumerable times since he'd died; she'd planned to hug him, to pull him close, to cry against him and link their hands the way she'd wanted to back at the dome. But now that he was real and she was standing over his seated, slumped-over form, she suddenly felt all shy.
Just a touch on his shoulder, just a curt greeting. That wouldn't be too presumptuous, would it?
"Ulquiorra," she ventured, shaking him lightly."Hey. It's me. Ulquiorra, hey."
He didn't lift his head when he responded in his usual colorless tone: "So soon...?"
"Soon?" she mewled. "No, it's not soon at all! It took me four full months to get here! Ahh, I would have come sooner, but I was looking in the wrong places! Can you ever --" Her ex-captor wasn't reacting. She realized, with a dawning nausea, that they'd been talking about entirely different things. "Ulquiorra, you think that -- no! No, that torture is over, and you'll never have to go through it again, I promise! This is me -- the real me." Still no reaction. "Here," she said, and tried to take his hand from where it was fastened on the chair's arm.
Ulquiorra muttered something under his breath. The girl leaned in closer to hear, and caught something that sounded like 'getting better at this'.
"I told you I'm not -- listen to me! I can explain everything later, but they only gave me five minutes with you and we have to leave now!"
He straightened up a bit. His sternum had already eroded into a hole. "Inoue Orihime?" he said, and her heart leapt, only to plummet back down when he continued: "Whatever would she come here for? You know what I did to her -- it's on the walls for everyone to see."
Orihime felt like crying. "She forgave you, didn't she?" she asked, taking care to be gentle with him. He looked away again. "Didn't she?" the girl pressed.
The atmosphere was heavy with dilemmas and potential, humid with redemption.
"She didn't mean it," the demon replied finally, uncertainly.
There it was. A cluster of nerves. Just another minute or two and she...
...was sucked back to the entrance before she could mouth another word. The barrier was back in place, and the clerk was metamorphosed into another random dramatis persona from her subconscious -- Ichimaru Gin -- and waving at her merrily.
"Why do you think I didn't pay any mind to your 'bring him back' stipulation?" he asked, sporting his likeness's ubiquitous smirk. "No-one wants to leave here. They know Hell will be waiting for them if they do. They're terrified of it -- anyone would be."
"Not Ulquiorra," the girl disagreed, flashing back to the dome. The blood first; then the ash. Do it. Kill me. Hurry up. "He's not repelled by death... or by time, or the afterlife... any of it, really." Heart? "Only by... that other big word."
Her listener shook his head in amusement and took to twirling his glasses with his index finger, while the redhead snuggled up against the barrier and waited for another hour to pass. Another hour of memories pulsing together like a single organism, with a constant beat of Inoue-Orihime-woman-woman-woman-her-her-h
Eventually it was over, and she wouldn't waste any time, this time.
"Why do you stay here?" she asked Ulquiorra without preamble, marching up to him as if she owned the place. He glanced at her out of the corner of one eye, like he'd used to in the past. "What good does it do?"
"If you were really that woman, you would know," he answered monotonously. He looked and sounded haggard... but she couldn't let it get to her. "I'm making it up to you -- her -- for what I did."
"This is your idea of 'making up'? Sitting around and whipping yourself?" No answer. "Are you too scared to make it up to her in person? Too scared to go outside and live?" His silence drove her furious. It wasn't a common person's silence; it was a silence with subtext. It's no use. Trash. Disappointing. She wiped a few angry tears away. "It would serve you right if I just up and left you here! I'm almost m-mad at myself f-for caring about you this much!"
"I see," Ulquiorra said, in a timbre that suggested he didn't. His yellow gaze connected with hers for the first time, driving the knife deep: "I won't even be allowed my five minutes of recess anymore, is that so?"
Orihime's eyes stung where she'd rubbed them, but she had to rub them again, now.
The rest of her imparted time zoomed by. There was nothing more she could think to say or do to him. (Maybe he'd also be better off with Kuchiki-san giving him a pep talk in my place, that small, green, needy part of her had to muse.) She actually felt a little relieved when she found herself back at the doorway.
"Giving up?" Ichimaru Gin snarked at her, to no avail.
The redhead spent the following hour cross-legged on the floor, trying to gather her resolve. Her closed eyelids buffered her against the peripheral visuals, but not against her past self's blood-curdling screams. She must have gone up to the dome again. How had Ulquiorra maintained his sanity over whole months in this realm? She'd been here no more than a few hours, and she was already going half-mad. Half-mad.
That was the only excuse Orihime had for what she did next -- what she never would have done under normal circumstances, she or any other good girl. As soon as Ulquiorra hissed in pain, signaling the end of the ritual, she stood up, approached him, opened her mouth to speak, and... couldn't. What she did instead -- what she did was straddle his lap, place a palm on each side of his face, and kiss him on the lips.
I'm a horrible person.
Ulquiorra's fur was ticklish against her thigh, where her skirt had ridden up. His mouth was coarse and salty, and for a while unresponsive -- he must have still been disoriented by the so-called cleansing process. At length he kissed her back.
He moved his mouth against hers.
He touched his tongue to hers briefly.
Then he made a tiny, choked sound of anguish in his throat.
I'm a horrible person. I'm horrible. Just horrible.
This became Orihime's mantra for the next hour, after she'd broken the kiss -- stricken -- and retreated to the front of the room. She'd been a fool to think she could come in and out of Purgatory without a guilt-trip of her very own. Her chaperone didn't say anything this time, which was for the best. She wouldn't have been responsible for her actions.
Once the passage was open, the redhead fell to the Cuatro Espada's feet, crying and repeating how sorry she was, how very sorry, how much more controlled her actions normally were and how her brother had taught her not to treat people that way but how, if he would just listen to her -- suffice it to say, her monologue was a huge blur both at the time it was being said and afterwards. Ulquiorra seemed to agree, since he kept looking at a point over her shoulder the entire while, and didn't dignify her with an answer until four minutes fifty seconds in:
"I see you're not even trying to inject a semblance of realism into your performance anymore."
She didn't ask him if the wide-eyed, tear-streaked face she turned on him was 'realistic' enough for his taste. Time was up.
That was the precise moment it became clear to her that: this wasn't enough. This wouldn't do.
The Orihime on the walls spent most of the subsequent hour sobbing in her cell; the Orihime between the walls spent it drying her eyes.
The instant the barrier vanished, she was on her way. The clerk must have marked something disturbing in her steely glare or her lofty carriage -- something that hadn't been there before -- because he patted her head, more like a threat than an endearment. "Shouldn't you be getting back home now?" he inquired in Ichimaru's ophidian voice. The girl took another step. "Shouldn't you, Orihime?" The hand on her head had changed; the voice, too.
Into her brother's. Into Sora's.
She continued striding over to Ulquiorra. Didn't even look back.
The Espada had adopted his usual posture: head lowered, back hunched, horns jutting out like dangerous barbs. (Orihime turned her right palm over, considered the curves, the creases, the lines.) Not for long.
His hierro damaged the hapless basin of her hand something terrible, but it was worth it for the stunned expression on his face.
"Woman... you --"
"Get up," she said, not caring to let him finish. "Get up, and come with me."
Ulquiorra let himself see her, really see her, for the first time in months. He took in everything, from her blood-shot eyes to her fever-pink cheeks to her wrinkled clothes. His shiny, bat-like eyes made the rounds, and concluded their journey on her face. "You're the strangest human," he decided. His exhaustion still showed through, but it was just slightly overshadowed by curiosity -- that was more like the Ulquiorra she was familiar with, and she let him know with a weak smile. "I assume this isn't a negotiation?" he asked her softly.
"It's really not," she replied, smiling large.
Her brother -- no, the clerk -- stood to the side to let the two of them pass, hand-in-hand. Her puny fingers were completely submerged under Ulquiorra's jet-black hide.
"You know, someday you're going to end up in Purgatory yourself just for this breakout," the clerk said scathingly, in her brother's beloved voice. His target ignored him. "Oh, is that all? Aren't you going to make a speech about the sadistic workings of this realm, and the injustice of the world, and how you're going to change all of it someday?"
That gave Orihime pause.
"Make a speech? Why?" she retorted in an even pitch. "I know I can't change the big things -- not the fabric of the universe, which... this realm is part of. I once thought I could, but... no. The world is what it is. You are what you are." She tightened her grip on Ulquiorra's hand. "It's just that me, too... I am what I am."
Past her brother's pleas and Tatsuki's yells and her mother's booming orders, the girl guided the Espada into the portal.
Orihime's apartment is situated up a long, winding staircase, and she gets there before him, throwing the door wide-open with all the excitement of a proud housekeeper. She switches all the lights on and she's back at the doorway by the time his slow, leisurely pace takes him near her.
They meet each other's eyes, she at the threshold of her home, he at the near-top of the staircase. A shadow flits behind his eyes, and right there for a second, she knows him so well:
Should I rid myself of this moody, fickle heart you've forced onto me and return to Purgatory... even to my unlife in Hueco Mundo... or should I stay by your side forever? Should I throw you down the stairs, or have a cup of tea?
He takes the last step up.
End Notes: Two kinds of "making up" here, hm? Title taken from an obscure passage in Dante's "Purgatory".