Title: A Guide at the Threshold
Rating: PG – for general unhappiness
Pairing/Characters: Ulquiorra and Orihime
Length: 2,369 words
Summary: Set before Ichigo and pals arrive in Hueco Mundo. When Orihime refuses to eat and his threats about force-feeding have lost their effect, Ulquiorra tries something different: flowers. But why do they mean so much to her? Ulquiorra struggles to understand.
Disclaimer: I do not own the places, characters, situations, etc. I have purchased flowers, though.
Author’s Note: I might have taken too much liberty with the theme, and if so, I'm sorry. But given the time period in the manga (which I’ve stretched from one day to several), this seems a good precursor to his wondering “what is a heart?”
Ulquiorra paused by the woman’s door and waited for the servant arrancar with the cart to catch up. This was the third and last time today she would be getting a meal and, if his prediction was correct, it would also be the third time she would refuse to eat until threatened. He found the threats distasteful, despite their necessity. Threats, after all, undermined the psychological cage he was building around her. There was, he assured himself, nothing more to it than that.
The squeak of the cart’s wheels signaled the beginning of the newest battle, and Ulquiorra pushed open the door to the woman’s room before standing aside to let the cart in. “It is time for your meal, woman,” he murmured, addressing her back since she hadn’t turned around at his entrance.
“I’m not hungry.”
Ulquiorra carefully tucked away his irritation at this now-habitual response and focused instead on what was new about the situation: the woman’s refusal to speak to him directly. He took a step forward and peered over her shoulder. There on the table was a crayon drawing of another table, this one adorned with a covered tray and silverware, a napkin and glass of water, and—curiously—a second, taller glass filled with garish weeds. To the side of the drawing, she was creating a pile of misshapen weeds folded out of waxy, crayon-smeared paper.
“Whether you are hungry or not,” Ulquiorra said, taking another step forward, “you will eat, by your own volition or otherwise.” He put off for the moment the inevitable mention of IV drips or even less pleasant alternatives, put off calling attention to the difference in power between them. It was possible, even preferable, that such direct threats could be avoided entirely.
For her part, the woman continued with her work, pausing only briefly to place a particularly hideous tulip on top of the pile. “Not now,” she said softly. “I can’t. Please.”
Ulquiorra stepped to the side and studied her from this new vantage point. Something seemed more wrong than usual. Where was her curious mixture of dejection and defiance? Where were the flashing eyes, the unassuming-yet-undefeated posture? Where was the strength he had noted earlier? He observed her skin, paler than usual; her hair, dull in the moonlight; her fingers, trembling as they pressed a crease into the paper. Even the outline of her in the chair seemed slimmer than before, despite the meals he made sure she ate. How odd it was that a human’s physical state should be so closely bound to its psychological one. This was not at all the effect he had hoped for in crafting his cage.
He turned his focus from the woman herself to the picture she had drawn. The tray was the same as that on the cart he’d brought in with its polished cover, and the utensils also. Right down to the napkin and choice of beverage, the woman had depicted a typical meal here, except for the bizarre detail of the glass with dead weeds in the center of the table. Ulquiorra reached forward and tapped a black-nailed finger on the weeds in the picture. “Woman,” he began, “what is the point of keeping weeds after they have been killed?”
The woman looked up at him then, her brow furrowed as though she couldn’t understand him. “They’re beautiful,” she said, her voice as distance as though it came from a different room. “And they smell nice. And they make people happy.” That said, she returned her attention to her current weed, which was either a daisy or a rose, though it was hard to tell with the rainbow stripes and awkward craftsmanship.
Ulquiorra turned the idea of weeds being beautiful over in his mind and came to the conclusion that it was absolute rubbish, as were many of the ideas she’d expressed during their few, short conversations. How could a weed create happiness, even if it were regarded as beautiful? Still, if they held such a powerful attraction for her, it might be worthwhile to investigate further. “Is this a common bit of human foolishness, or is this flaw unique to you in particular?”
The woman sniffed, and set her completed weed onto the pile with considerable force. “It isn’t a flaw!” She looked up at him, and the slight glistening in her eyes prompted him to examine the wording of his question, searching for the perceived insult. “People have shops that sell flowers,” she continued, her voice wavering slightly, “and people give flowers as gifts. At restaurants, even the cheap ones, they put flowers on the table to add color and make the mood nice...”
She kept speaking, but Ulquiorra let her words drift over him as he thought about their implications. Did the woman want dead weeds in the room with her? Would she eat then? Keep herself healthy and well? That was, after all, what Aizen-sama wanted. What he wanted, also, for reasons of his own that he didn’t quite understand. If it was that simple, he could arrange it. He held up a hand to stop the flood of words that poured from the woman’s mouth. “Then you don’t find the atmosphere in your room to be a positive one.”
She blinked, her mouth still open around the last of her words. After a moment, she blinked again. “How could it be positive?”
Ulquiorra turned toward the serving arrancar and gestured toward the cart with its still-covered tray and chilled drink. “Leave it,” he instructed.
“I don’t understand,” the woman said as the other arrancar nodded and left. “Why is—”
Rather than answer her question, Ulquiorra held his hand out in the woman’s direction. “Come with me, woman.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
In the kitchen, Ulquiorra directed the woman to sit while he gathered the kitchen shears and selected a pitcher that looked close in shape to the glass in her drawing. He ignored the wide-eyed, longing stare the woman cast at the various cooking implements, though it filled him with an odd sense of foreboding, one of the many things about her that piqued his interest.
From the kitchen it was a short trip to a side door leading to the false heat and sunlight under the dome. Ulquiorra had noticed that waste water from the kitchen seeped into the sand here, and in an uncharacteristic display of vitality, the desert ground all around the area had erupted in gaudy displays of color against patchy green backdrops. The weeds had sprung up at the bases of distant pillars, and the open spaces near the kitchen foundation were liberally dotted with color. Clearing these weeds was a task that eventually had to be done, but it was not a high-priority and the method was of even less importance than the timing. He saw no reason why the woman shouldn’t be allowed to perform the task if she wanted.
Ulquiorra handed her the clippers and the pitcher, ignoring the question in her eyes. He opened the door to release his charge into the false sunlight and slid his hands back into his pockets as she gasped at the sight. “Cut what you want, woman. Cut them all if that’s your desire.”
She turned toward him, smiling tentatively, like she expected this to be a cruel trick. When he simply leaned back against the wall, the smile expanded in a way that made him feel... not uncomfortable. That wasn’t the word for it. But different somehow. As though he stood on the threshold of understanding and could either proceed or turn back. As though he only needed a guide.
“There’s...” The woman spun around, her arms held out from her sides. “There’s life out here! And sunlight! And flowers!” Her smile was now a grin glimpsed only through gaps in the greenery as the woman darted from weed patch to weed patch, thrusting her nose into the foliage and inhaling deeply before moving on.
Ulquiorra watched as her flurry of movement gradually settled into careful selection of weeds that, to his mind, made a jumbled, over-colored mess. These she placed carefully in the pitcher she’d settled in the sand, and when that was full, in a stack to the right of the pitcher. He didn’t see the appeal in either the activity or the resulting piles of weeds, but it had brightened the woman’s complexion considerably. Ulquiorra tried to see the connection, the link between the cause and effect, but came up frustratingly short. The only concrete benefit he could establish was the decreased weed population, and even that wasn’t complete since the woman had left a good number of weeds still standing.
“I’m saving them,” she said, waving a hand toward the remaining patches of color spoiling the pristine sand. She handed him the shears and then the pitcher before turning to gather the loose weeds she’d cut.
“Then you are ready to return?” he asked, slightly perturbed that his train of thought had been anticipated. At her nod, he led her back inside, her armful of weeds perfuming the air as they walked. Her smile, while it hadn’t dimmed on returning to the stark corridors of Las Noches, no longer caused as strong a sensation as it had earlier. Ulquiorra tried to find the meaning in that, and again found himself missing some key piece of the puzzle.
As he led the woman through the corridors back to her room, Ulquiorra took a moment to view the scene as an observer might: the prisoner traipsing down the halls with an armful of colorful weeds and a beaming smile on her face, her warden carrying a pair of kitchen shears and a pitcher of cut weeds. If called on to explain his actions he would, of course, point out how this weed-gathering adventure served Aizen-sama’s interests. If the woman perceived that they had been kind enough to give her these weeds she was so fond of, it would help to keep her in line, break her of any desire to flee or escape, and perhaps even cure the malaise that had settled on her since arriving. He wondered why that explanation left him feeling more empty than usual.
They arrived at the woman’s room in good time, and Ulquiorra motioned her inside. He set the pitcher of weeds down on the table while the woman busied herself laying out the others on her couch and arranging them into small clusters. Ulquiorra eyed the folded paper bits, and picked up the topmost one, the rose-or-daisy with rainbow stripes the woman had slammed down earlier. He slid it into a pocket before unloading the now-cool items from the cart onto the table around the weeds, shifting the dishes around until they matched her picture.
“I trust you are now hungry, woman?”
“Hm?” The woman turned around, and stared at the table for a long moment before shifting her eyes to the picture she’d drawn. “I... okay.” She bit her lip. “I’ll eat it.”
Ulquiorra nodded, slid his hands into their customary place in his pockets, and watched until she sat in the chair and began eating. He had thought it odd earlier that her physical and psychological wellbeing were so deeply embedded within one another. Now he thought it odd that simply having weeds in the center of her table produced such a profound effect in her. He ran a finger over the smooth, waxed surface of the origami weed he’d plucked from her table earlier. It made no sense. So simple a thing...
After she had finished, Ulquiorra wheeled the cart with its empty dishes back to the kitchen before proceeding to his own room. He stepped inside and closed the door behind himself. He scanned the room and its minimal contents. The bed where he slept, the chair he sat in, the table he sometimes used to arrange paperwork or hold a glass of water... if anything, there was less here than in the woman’s room, yet he’d never felt anything was out of place about that. His eyes took another tour of the room and again settled on the table, currently empty.
He slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out the ugly, deformed paper weed the woman had made with its nauseating combination of rainbow stripes folded to form swirls of riotous color. It was trash. Possibly the worst of the woman’s attempts at mimicking actual weeds. Ulquiorra wasn’t sure what had possessed him in that room, what had made him pluck this bit of folded paper off the table, made him smuggle it out in a pocket like some sort of dangerous contraband.
For the first time since arriving, the woman had eaten an entire meal without a struggle, even thanked him for it. The only difference Ulquiorra could discern between earlier meals and this last one was the presence of those weeds and the trip to acquire them. Something had happened in that space and time, something had changed for her, in her. He turned the paper over in his hands, studying the contrast between its color and his pallor as though it held all the answers. He felt he was nearing something, was only a leap away if he could just see the destination.
Ulquiorra unfolded the weed, slowly pulling apart each petal until he was left holding a rumpled square of paper and unsure of what he’d hoped to find hidden within it. He traced the creases with a finger, and then reversed his earlier actions until the paper was again a sorry imitation of a weed. There was no understanding here, no meaning. Only paper, trash. This was the sort of thing that ought to be destroyed in order to preserve the aesthetic, sterile qualities of Las Noches.
An impulse washed over him, and he set the woman’s weed down on his table, nudged it to the center with one careful finger. He had set down paper: empty, deformed, trash. But there was the threshold again, sitting in the middle of his table, disguised as a flower. And there he was, teetering and directionless.