Characters: Ulquiorra +/ Orihime
Rating: PG? Someday, I'm going to develop a method for determining ratings.
Warnings: AU for Ch. 353 and after; mentions of suicide.
Summary: It's not until he returns to the world of the living that Ulquiorra begins to remember pieces of his own past and the problems of being human.
A/N: So I was all like, "I'm going to write something shorter and simpler this time." And then, this happened instead.
The forest was full of autumn’s finery, every tree painted gold and bronze, when the two went looking for mushrooms. She tilted her head up every now and then to gaze into the gold lamé of the leaves and at the sky between them. The geese were already beginning their annual flight southward.
There was no autumn finery– gold or otherwise– in Karakura. Buildings of steel, glass, and concrete didn’t change much with the seasons. For his part, Ulquiorra sighed silently at the ridiculousness of it all and let the thin black book fall closed between his palms. –Not that closing the book did all that much to alleviate the general foolishness of the situation: students had been trickling out of the building gradually for an hour now as their clubs and activities got out, and they prattled to one another as they walked in a way that, he was sure, would have driven a lesser creature mad.
Two girls, each one with her long black hair drawn back into a ponytail, walked right past him, although they were so wrapped up in their conversation that neither one seemed to notice that he was there.
“I know, Naomi-chan, I don’t understand a word of it either, I wish he would try to talk slower– Oh, and it’s so cold out here too! Already! I hope it doesn’t snow anytime soon though, don’t you?”
And she drew her long coat around her dramatically, hugging her arms closer to her chest.
“Freezing cold,” the one called Naomi-chan agreed.
These girls and all the boys and girls like them– humans– were, he had decided, rather irritating. While she may not have ever been particularly interesting to him, he was quite sure that at least Halibel would never have behaved like that: whining about the weather! Everything here was unbecoming.
“Ah, look at the sky!” called a familiar voice from behind him, interrupting his thoughts.
“The sun is setting,” he replied, nonplused. Why did she say such useless things?
“It’s very pretty, isn’t it?”
(That he didn’t grace with an answer. Most likely she didn’t expect one anyway. But then why did she ask the question?)
She was almost level with him now, standing just behind the concrete bench on which he sat, and he turned his head just a little to look at her. –Or at least, he tried, and instead he was confronted with a large pink cloth elephant with a floral print and lace decorating its sides. Fake pearls dangled from its plush tusks.
“What is that thing?”
“Do you like it, Ulquiorra-kun? I used up the last of the lace trim, but I think it was worth it.”
“It is extremely pink,” he said uncertainly (Ulquiorra Cifer, great and mighty Espada, since when have you ever been uncertain about anything?), and he stood up, the book still clasped between his two hands. (Except that it wasn’t, not really, because his two hands had wrought things that none of these humans– these useless ones– could imagine, whereas these were just the hands of a gigai. He reminded himself of that fact with more than a little pride, and then he kept reminding himself...)
Orihime leaned over enough to peer at the book, and then asked in a still-cheerful (so this was what she was like, really. It was still peculiar to think that the Orihime he had known in Las Noches wasn’t quite the same person as the Orihime who lived in Karakura Town and attended a school full of noisy girls and boys who strutted around like they weren’t only weak humans...) tone, “By the way, is that any good?”
He frowned. “I thought that it was expected of you to have read pages one through thirty-seven for today.”
“Ah, of course! But, you see, I forgot, and– Oh, I’m sorry, look at how clumsy I am.” The pink elephant had tumbled out of her arms and onto the ground. “I’m so sorry, Cranberry-chan!”
Ulquiorra watched impassively as she picked up the stuffed animal and dusted it off furiously, as if this were a task of the utmost importance.
“It has a name,” he stated flatly.
“Of course Cranberry-chan has a name. Everyone should have a name. Anyway, what’s that book about?”
“A man and a woman were walking in the forest. It was autumn, and the geese were migrating. They were going to pick mushrooms.”
She considered that for a moment, and then smiled sweetly and said, “That doesn’t sound bad at all. Oh, and don’t worry, tomorrow at Sewing Club I’ll make something for you too.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Ulquiorra-kun, nobody can actually want nothing.”
He shrugged, and the wind picked up and whipped through his hair, prickled through his blazer and laid ice into his skin– he felt nothing.
“Who ever said I was anything like you? I’m nothing like you humans– remember that.”
(And she sighed a little, more audibly than he had done, and one hand dangled limply at her side.)
It must have been something in the air: the sounds, the smells– something. There was an undeniable quality of memory here, and it troubled him.
Here was a tumbledown street, far too wet with rain– your feet would drift through puddles like fishing boats coming in in the evening. The smell– whatever memory it held– was mixed: on one hand, the sea– fresh sting of salt– and closer to, cooking smells and the sickly sweet drift of damp garbage. He wrinkled his nose.
His ears filled with the patter of rain and women’s voices. A dog barked and someone yelled at a wayward child, who began to wail.
In a small room, several voices resounded: children’s, and that of a woman. He didn’t turn to look at her, didn’t need to turn.
Did you get them new shoes? They need new shoes. I told you.
Then a long pause, and then, Why don’t you ever say anything anymore?
–And then the sound of rain picked up, harder than before, almost deafening, and this was memory, and this was memory–
(But Ulquiorra did not wake with a start, did not look around the shopkeeper’s spare room anxiously in the dark. He did not toss and turn.
In the morning, he didn’t remember having dreamed at all.)
“Look, Anna, a deer.”
They both paused and peered around the foliage, Anna’s thin fingers digging into the elm’s side.
“She’s so beautiful,” she murmured, and she leaned forward a little more– causing the basket of mushrooms to tip, and its contents to fall, rustling over the fallen leaves. At the sound, the doe stiffened, then darted away through the undergrowth. Anna had just begun to laugh, when suddenly
Having reached the end of page fifty-three, Ulquiorra set down the book and went to do something more useful.
It was all Orihime’s idea, of course, although he didn’t quite understand why. And that shopkeeper certainly didn’t mind having one of the former Espada living under his roof, not as long as it meant that through him he had information. That man had one of those minds that was always turning in on itself, over and over. Ulquiorra, who wasn’t nearly human enough to be fooled by the cheerfulness of his voice, thought that he had eyes like a snake’s. –No, eyes like Aizen’s.
And if Ulquiorra was going to be living in Karakura anyway, then why not enroll in school with the others? It might be a good thing, after all, for everyone to stay as close together as possible, and besides, that was what the shinigami had done on the occasion that they had come down from Soul Society to monitor the situation.
Yes, it made sense, it all made sense from their point of view.
What he still didn’t quite understand was why he had agreed to it.
This day, the sun had already touched the horizon, and Ulquiorra was still waiting outside the school. Where was she– that useless human woman? (Not, of course, he thought curtly, that useless and human weren’t synonyms anyway....) He had long since finished what reading he had been assigned for the night (nobody could commit even the most mundane lists of facts to memory as quickly as he could), and so, with nothing else to do, he sat with his hands in his pockets and watched the humans go by.
There were so many of them. Disgusting. A group of boys was walking by, and even though they weren’t close, he could still hear their conversation clearly enough: it was as if they felt obligated to speak at maximum volume. Why? Why did they even have to exist in the first place? It was irritating.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Orihime running toward him, her book bag bouncing up and down and her hair flying all around her as she ran.
“You’re late.” It wasn’t a question. “You said that Sewing Club gets out at 4:30, and your actions so far have corroborated that. But now it’s nearly 6:00, and therefore, you are late.”
“You know, you didn’t have to wait for me,” she said with a little laugh– and that was peculiar too, because she never laughed in Las Noches.
(Neither of them said it, although perhaps they both thought it: Ulquiorra’s life was far too empty for him to have had anything else to do but wait.)
“I’m glad you did, though,” she continued, “Because the reason why I stayed after so late was that I was making something for you. Well, I’m starting a bedspread, so I spent most of the time working on that, but I wanted to do something for you, too.”
But instead of giving him whatever it was that she had made, she sat down next to him on the bench. She scuffed one foot aimlessly on the pavement and, very slowly and carefully, placed one hand palm-down on the bench between them. He just stared at it.
“What is it?”
“Do you remember what you said last time after Sewing Club?”
“I said several things. But I have no idea what you’re referring to.”
(She shifted her hand a little, spreading her bare fingers a little wider on the bench– even though they were already starting to become red with cold. He didn’t notice.)
“You said that you aren’t like me, that you aren’t like any of us.”
“It’s the truth.”
“But why is it the truth?” And before he could respond, she continued, “That’s what I wondered. Why did you say that? But it’s all because of this, isn’t it?”
And she turned towards him and– very slowly, tentatively, like one beginning a crucial operation, something that had to be undertaken with the highest cautiousness and care– placed two fingers delicately on his blazer, pushed them in just enough to be able to feel the breastbone underneath. Despite himself, he– Ulquiorra, self-proclaimed favorite of Aizen! Ulquiorra, ruthless warrior of the Espada!– flinched just enough to be noticeable. (But why? he asked himself, and found no reasonable answer.)
Then, just as slowly and carefully as she had placed them there, she withdrew her fingers and began to dig around in her bag.
“But Ulquiorra-kun? I don’t– I mean, maybe I didn’t in the first place, I mean... What I’m trying to say is that you’re not actually all that different, you know.”
He frowned. “An Arrancar is certainly not the same thing as a human. You shouldn’t compare the two.”
“But, Ulquiorra-kun, an Arrancar was once a human, right? That’s the way it works.”
“It’s not as if I remember having been a human. And that was probably a long time ago, anyway.”
“But it did happen, right? Once upon a time.”
Why was she so insistent about that? It wasn’t as if it had anything to do with her. While he didn’t actually mind her company now (or perhaps he never had...), the fact remained that sometimes, this woman could be completely mystifying. Were all humans like this on some level? He really couldn’t remember.
“I suppose so,” he conceded after a moment.
“Yes. It must be true. Anyway– it’s so much trouble over a heart, isn’t it? Over a... a hunk of flesh... So I made you this. To remind you.”
It was a pin of sorts, with what appeared to be a felt heart covered in glitter attached to it.
“You could wear it– I mean, if you want to. I mean... I mean, you don’t have to,” she explained, talking very fast.
There it was again: that rainy city, that small room. The days that passed there: long, gray days, and they passed seamlessly, with no difference between one and any other. A woman, her face drawn into a permanent world-weary expression, several young children. Monotony.
And then: fever, sickly and yellow like rotted fruit; hallucinations. One child’s coffin, then another. The woman in bitter tears, dressed in mourning clothes. For himself: no particular feeling– or rather, the feeling of nothingness, which perhaps was not quite the same thing.
–Yes, an emptiness of long days.
Days, weeks, months where no words came– that had been going on for a long time. He replied to nothing that was said to him, approached no one in conversation. A mute? But this was different– it was perhaps not quite by choice, but there was nothing wrong with him, not really.
It was simply that there were no words left to be said.
And then, suddenly, in his hands: the answer, the ineffable solution– so simple, so easy–
(And this time, throughout the next day he would remember– something. There was nothing definite, only a sense of feeling that hung over him like a grave shroud.)
There had been no waiting outside the school yesterday, and there would be none today: it was Sunday. Now it was Orihime who waited, standing uncertainly just inside the Urahara Shouten and hoping that someone would appear soon. Wouldn’t it be rude to just barge in? –Then Urahara himself walked into the front room, Ururu following close behind him, and solved her problem.
“Aha! If it isn’t Inoue-chan!” he announced to no one in particular, gesturing at her with his fan. (But why did he still carry that around with him anyway when it was so cold out? Was he just trying to be as inscrutable as possible?) “You must be here to visit with Espada-san.”
The room that Urahara had lent Ulquiorra was surprisingly spacious– Orihime had half been expecting something like a cluttered stock room. Instead, it was an open area with wide windows and tatami flooring. Of course, the spaciousness was exaggerated by the fact that it was almost entirely empty. A futon was folded up in one corner, and there was a small Western-style wardrobe in another (that must have been Urahara’s originally; she couldn’t think of who else would own something with such incredibly curly ornamentation)– and that was it, except for Ulquiorra himself, of course.
He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, a small stack of school books in his lap.
He didn’t look up or give any other indication of having heard her, but after a few seconds he closed the book he had been reading and said, in his usual serious tone, “There is glitter all over my shirt now.”
For a moment, she had no idea what he was talking about, and then it clicked.
“So you did decide to wear it! I’m sorry though, I must have put too much glitter on again– I always keep doing that. Well, glitter can be surprisingly tricky to get out of clothing, but I can show you how; I have a lot of experience by now.”
He tugged at the sweater he was wearing– the camel-colored sweater that came with the Karakura First High School uniform– and pointed down his collar at the white shirt he wore underneath.
“I only have this one shirt,” he said– although whether that was meant as a pointed accusation, or an explanation, or something else entirely she couldn’t tell.
“Well, you could buy another shirt, right? Or get Urahara-san to lend you one; I’m sure he’d lend you one. Or I could make you one, you know. I could make a whole bunch of them; I’ll do that.”
He pulled his sweater and the shirt beneath further apart so that she could see that, despite his complaints, he was still wearing the pin. The inside of his sweater was now coated with glitter as well.
He stared at it for a long moment, then asked, “Why did you make me this in the first place?”
“I... It’s just what a told you on Friday.”
“You’re very romantic, aren’t you?” he said bitterly. (What was he so bitter about? He realized that even he didn’t know, but all the same, there was this feeling...)
She didn’t know how to respond to that, and all she could do was sit and fidget awkwardly for a moment.
“What are you reading?” she questioned after a while.
“The book for our literature class.”
“Oh, of course.”
“You still haven’t started it.”
“I– I’ve been so busy over the past week.”
(She didn’t say: I’ve been busy worrying; didn’t say who she had been worrying about.)
Another long day, a dreary day, a nothing nothing nothing day. What day was it? But his lips were sealed shut; he could hard ask anyone anyway. (How many months had it been since he had had anything to say to anyone? There was nothing– nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing....)
–Ah no, not quite: because here was something. Right here in his two hands. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? But it was all quite clear now, and in his hands the revolver was a reassuring weight–
(This time, Ulquiorra did wake with a start, the sound of a gunshot still loud in his ears.)
Monday, Ulquiorra walked back to the shouten on his own, early, before the Sewing Club was slated to get out– or at least, he almost did. He heard the footsteps behind him first, and then Orihime’s voice.
“Ulquiorra-kun! So there you are.”
He kept walking; he was in no mood to listen to her foolishness.
“Ulquiorra-kun?” –Why was she so persistent? (Of course, he didn’t see the way she bit her lip just then; he never would have guessed that her persistence was a hard-earned art.)
“Why aren’t you still at the school?” he asked– or, at least, he probably asked; the intonation made it sound like a flat statement of fact.
“Sewing Club got out early. I’m surprised you didn’t wait for me.”
“I thought it didn’t matter to you.”
“Oh no, it’s not a problem. I’m just... surprised, that’s all.”
There was a long, chilly silence then, and, sensing its coldness, Orihime smiled as brightly as she could and commented, “Anyway, you were really right, Ulquiorra-kun.”
“About that book. You said it was good,” –He didn’t recall having said anything of the sort, but then again, he supposed, she did take things in strange ways sometimes– “I you were so right. It just blew me away. They were so sweet together, I mean, isn’t that just the most perfect couple ever? And then at the end, when her father says they can’t be together and they’re both so upset and she kills herself– I cried.”
Ulquiorra didn’t even know what he was going to say until the words were already out of his mouth, dark and bitter– they even tasted bitter: “You must think that’s terribly romantic, don’t you?”
“Huh?” There was something peculiar in his tone that she didn’t quite understand.
“Because you do like romantic things. And humans probably always act like that– ‘Oh, she killed herself for love,’ you say, and you’re so superficial it makes me sick–”
“I... I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Of course you didn’t,” he snapped, “Because you never mean anything by anything, do you? And it’s not just you by yourself, either, it’s all of you humans.”
“Oh. I am sorry, Ulquiorra-kun. I guess it didn’t work, then, did it?”
“What didn’t work?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.
“I really will make you a new shirt; I’ll make you twenty new shirts, in fact. And then after that I won’t bother you anymore, I promise. And you can go off and do whatever it is you want to do, and no one will try to tell you how human you are, okay? I know that it didn’t work, that you don’t care what I say anyway. That’s okay, I guess. Thank you for listening to me at least this long, Ulquiorra-kun. Ulquiorra-san, I mean. Sorry.”
“Is that why you were so insistent that I come here with you? That I go to your school? So that I could become a human?”
“It was stupid,” she said, and shook her head, “I know it. But I just wanted to... to...”
“Because if your goal was really just to make me human, then congratulations. You’ve succeeded.”
She opened her mouth, and then closed it again and stared at him.
“What I do not understand, however, is why you would want something like that to happen to me.”
“Oh, Ulquiorra-san... -kun... that’s a good thing, really. Things in this world are so nice, you’ll really like them, I promise–”
“No. I do hope you’re happy with yourself, though. You told me that I was human once upon a time, and I said that since I didn’t remember it, it didn’t matter. You won. I didn’t realize that I was bound to remember in the end– especially after being around all these human things.”
“You remember who you were back when you were aliv– back before I knew you?”
“I lived in a city full of rain. It was awful. And I never talked to anyone, not ever. That just made everything even more desolate. One day I shot myself.”
“So I guess that even when I was a human, I still wasn’t quite like you, was I?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, but continued, “And here you are, always thinking that everything is so amazingly romantic. How wonderful for you. Tell me, what do you think of me?”
“I– I like you.”
“You like me. Oh, how wonderful. You know, I could shoot myself again, if you like. Wouldn’t that so romantic? I bet you’d like that; it would be just like your precious book–”
“Ulquiorra-kun, no! No, no, that’s not what I was hoping for at all; I’m sorry I even said anything about any of this in the first place...” She trailed off, and then raised one arm in front of her face and began to cry into her sleeve while he watched silently.
A little girl with braids ran out of an apartment building– she didn’t so much as give the two of them, odd pair though they were, a second glance– and an unusually loud car thundered by on the road beside them.
“I would consider you a very human person,” he said after a while, “So why don’t you explain it to me?”
“Explain what to you?” she asked, hastily wiping her face, “Being human? Being useless and unhappy? Because that’s all it means to you anyway, right?”
“Explain why I can’t be human like that. I was human, but I wasn’t human like you are, was I? You– you feel things, and you cry at everything. But, you know, I never felt anything, and I never cried even once.”
“So you consider me– What? The expert on humans?”
“You are very emotional.”
“Then, in that case, you should at least listen to what I say. You know, I think that shooting yourself is one thing, because you’d only have to have a second to make the decision in. I mean... I guess that would be pretty easy, wouldn’t it? If you were that depressed, I mean. And before that, you didn’t talk to anyone for... how long? It can’t possibly have been your whole life, not really.”
He considered that, then decided, “Months, maybe. Or a year or two. It’s difficult to tell. Does this matter?”
“And when did this happen?”
“What? It feels like a long time ago.”
“Longer ago than a few years?”
“So– you didn’t talk to anyone for months or years or however long it was. And then, you made a decision that took a split-second. Ulquiorra-kun. Do you realize what happened after that? You lived in Hueco Mundo for... Well, who knows, really, but probably a long time.”
“I do know that part,” he muttered, perplexed now.
“You know, it must be easy to become a Hollow, especially if you’re depressed anyway. But personally, I can’t imagine surviving for years– decades, whatever– in Hueco Mundo without getting eaten by another Hollow.”
“What are you saying?”
“That it must have taken tenacity. And... something else. I don’t think it’s possible to even want to cling on at all if you don’t think that it’s going to get better. In fact, you know that you wouldn’t. So I would say that there’s even something like... hope? You must have been waiting for something good to happen.”
“And it’s not all that cold yet, and you have somewhere to stay, and school’s... well, it’s really not all that bad, not once you get used to it. And you have... people.”
“I– Yes. So what are you waiting for?”
–And they kept walking the path back to the shouten, and behind them, almost invisibly, followed a very faint trail of glitter.
(Longest end notes ever!)
-- This fic went through so many different ideas of what it was going to be about that I have no clue what's even going on in it anymore.
-- I wanted to write something cute, because this icon is so cute. I wanted to write a sweet, happy 'Ulquiorra lives and goes to school and so forth' fic... Apparently even when I try to write something happy, it turns out to be depressing. There may be cause for concern there, lol.
-- The book they're reading here doesn't actually exist. ...Which is probably fortunate, since it sounds incredibly boring. :p
-- I wanted to leave the question where/when Ulquiorra actually lived sort of vague, because... I guess because I always end up in the trap of trying to over-explain things, which only makes everything much longer and more tedious.
-- ...Um, can I say that I seriously hate the ending of this and I don't think that it fits with the rest of the fic very well? But I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to end it.
-- So much dialogue! I'm sorry; I've always been really bad at dialogue!
-- You know, I used to really like this pairing/ I think I had a good feel for it. Idk why I didn't actually write it at that time, then....
-- Hm, this will probably be the last I write until winter break starts and I don't have so much coursework. helike, I feel really bad that I turned out to be so stressed out and therefore fail at writing coherently right now! Idk, if you're unhappy you can request me again during break when I'll be more sane. ;__;