"As they Peel Apart the Skin"

She was tiring, he could tell.

The girl had surprised him an hour ago when they were attacked by a trio of low-level Hollows. The weaker ones tended to travel in groups.

When he'd immediately jumped into action, he drew his sword and separated the largest one from the other two right off the bat. Its physiology hinted at a capacity for projectile assaults, so Grimmjow knew the key was to dispatch it right away.

Following a series of leading attacks, the former Espada swung Pantera into action. He deflected the poisonous darts that fired from the monster’s frilly mane, his sword clanging at every strike. This creature posed little challenge, he realized almost immediately. There was no feral grin tinged with bloodlust as he sliced through this Hollow's tough flesh, meeting little resistance. All too soon, the elephant-sized beast came tumbling down into the sand, bellowing in the throes of final death.

Years ago, before Aizen and the Hougyoku, Grimmjow would have taken a piece of its flesh for himself. Now, though, the action would have done nothing to help him grow, so he suppressed the inherent urge. Besides, he'd probably frighten that fool of a girl silly.

Shit. Speaking of which…

She wasn't screaming yet, so she'd either run away or gotten eaten. Either outcome would have been regrettable.

When Grimmjow turned to face the two remaining Hollows, though, he had to stop and blink twice.

Orihime stood there in the sand, feet balanced on their balls and set shoulder width apart. The two Hollows were both collapsed on their sides, bodies dissolving with a thick, wet hiss into colorless ash from two massive entrance and exit wounds. His brows raised as he watched a violent streak of light – unmistakably that Tsubaki of hers – return to one of her hairclips.

I'll be damned.

"Huh. Not totally useless after all, are you chick?"

Orihime merely smiled and cocked her head to the side cutely, and Grimmjow rolled his eyes. He deftly flicked the remains of the Hollow off his sword before resheathing it, and they continued.

Now, an hour later, he decided to call a halt to their flight. The girl looked exhausted, and he was more worried about her faceplanting into the dunes than he was about getting caught. Las Noches could wait.

Problem was, as she settled in, she started talking again. And the silence had been so nice…

"What's your favorite food?" Orihime asked absently. Conversation had been sparse since he'd revealed his revulsion for Kurosaki-kun, and at first she couldn't muster up the interest to keep the idle chatter going. Leave it to her to make friends with people who were so complicatedly embroiled, she thought. Now that some time had passed and they'd stopped for a break, though, she hoped a different topic might make him open up again.

Grimmjow was silent for a second as he digested the absurdity of the random question.

"I don't need to eat."

Orihime's gasp alone spoke volumes over the affront she felt on his behalf.

"You're kidding!" she said, horror lacing her tone. "Not even for fun?!" Grimmjow made a face at her, making it abundantly evident how daft he found her in that moment.

"Why the hell would I bother eating food when I don't have to?" Orihime's hands rushed to her cheeks, then to her chest, then over her stomach as if she did not quite know where to place them to make her astonishment most evident.

"But, Grimmjow! There's so much good food out there!" A wistful look came over her face. "There's chocolate, and anchovies, and honey, and bean paste... Oh, and mango! And warm fresh bread, or cold ice cream... Corn flavored!" His expression was laced with mild amusement as he watched her flutter off into an imagination-induced daze, her hands articulating what her words couldn't manage.

"I hope you're not talking about all those flavors together..." he said, somewhat teasingly. She snapped her attention back to his face with a questioning look.

"Why not?" she asked, quite seriously. He turned slightly green.

"You're so fucking weird, you know that?" he said, equally serious as he pinned her with hard eyes.

He did not get the reaction he was hoping for. Grimmjow was more confused and somewhat dumbstruck when, instead of shame or bashfulness, a dazzling smile broke out across her face.

"'Weird' is just a matter of perspective, silly. At least I keep things interesting."

Her honest – and admittedly very pretty – smile threw him off kilter. He went slightly slack-jawed as he was reminded of just how much life his companion had in her.

It was intoxicating.

Grimmjow watched her auburn locks sway from side to side as he fell into a distracted daze behind her. He reflected, as he watched her wrestle animatedly with the drawstrings on her satchel, that everything about his existence circled around death, destruction, and emptiness. It was his very nature. Hollow.

This girl, though... This fucking girl.

She seemed to breathe life and light wherever she went. Even the desolate halls of Las Noches seemed to buzz with vitality whenever he would near her cell chamber. It contributed to his curiosity about the woman; it was why he always found himself drawn to her wing during the deadest of hours like a moth to a flame, little to her knowledge.

Her mere presence almost seemed to soothe the gaping ache, the literal emptiness physically manifested as the hole in his midsection. He felt it again: the flutter of something long-ago lost and sought after and craved and starved for… Was this what his fragmented soul was looking for all this time? What was this?

As positive emotions that he had not experienced since his days as a living man flickered to life in him, he begrudgingly began to admit to himself that he might not, in fact, despise this girl. Far from it, actually.

He even harbored an ounce of respect for her. She wasn't his prisoner. No, not anymore, if she ever could have even been called that. She was his willing and capable ally, and he was faced with something he couldn't remember ever having in this afterlife.

A friend.


Balls. Caught staring, he did his best to save face. Her wide eyes were filled with inquiry, and he could detect the trace of worry she felt at his uncharacteristic pensiveness. Backtracking to their earlier conversation, he deflected like a professional, hoping to knock his partner off balance.

"Pff,” he scoffed. “'Interesting'? The only interesting thing about you is your mammoth knockers, chick." A little late of a comeback, he thought with a grimace, but then again think about your audience. That should probably do it.

To his abject horror, he watched dumbfounded as his plan backfired spectacularly.

Orihime merely blinked once, then looked down curiously at her own breasts. She lifted her hands and – God help him – cupped them solidly, as if weighing them. His voice caught humiliatingly in his throat at the sight, torn between incredulity at her brazenness and sheer lustfulness. He certainly wasn’t the Espada of Stoicism, no-sir-ee, and the devil on his shoulder was cackling gleefully.

He blinked hard and swung his eyes away from the display, inhaling through his teeth in a hiss.

"Gah, jeeze. What the hell are you trying to do, ya dumb bitch, give me a hard-on? Christ. Put that shit away." She’s just a stupid girl that’s more trouble than she’s worth and who cares if she’s got hooters to rival Tia’s with a personality that’s actually approachable and shit Goddamn… FUCK!

"I don't see what's so interesting about them, really," he heard her say. Her hands were still holding them, and he could vividly imagine her gently pushing them together, lifting them, squeezing them. Crap crap crap. It took all of his willpower not to look again.

"Tits are the most interesting thing in the world to a dude, idiot. Just ask any straight friend you have," he explained impatiently toward the sky. Ulquiorra smiling. Szayel's ugly face. Aizen dancing. Tousen kissing Yammy! Grimmjow grasped frantically for distracting subject matter. Barragan in a bikini!

His last visualization was like ice water on his libido. He breathed a pent up sigh of relief and squinted his eyes shut before turning to Orihime again, heat still crawling up his neck. He wouldn't be surprised if there was steam coming off his head in the chilly desert night air.

"Boys are so weird," he heard her mumble under her breath. He risked opening his eyes all the way, and was glad to see that her hands had returned to her sides. She was getting comfortable, and fortunately that did not involve auto-assaulting her anatomy. He let out another shaky breath, this one relieved.

"'Weird' is just a matter of perspective, stupid," he said drily, fishing for a reaction. There was an amused glint in his tired eyes as she turned to face him with some astonishment, surprised that he’d taken account of what she had said earlier. Orihime gave him a small smile at his indirect acknowledgement.

She let her eyes linger on the former Espada for a moment longer than usual as she curled her arms around her knees, bringing them to her chin for a moment. He fearlessly watched her big gray eyes as they glinted the reflection of the strange night sky back at him. Content in a way she hadn't been in a very long time, Orihime’s lips curled into a soft smile as she settled back in to a comfortable position and prepared to nap.

"Goodnight, Grimmjow."

He was half tempted to respond, but as was becoming their custom, he answered her with his silence instead.

As he watched her drift off, his thoughts flew in wild circles, reminiscent of the fairies from her girly hairclips. Though he was conflicted, he found himself strangely satisfied with the conclusions he'd drawn about his relationship with this young woman before him.

Of course, it figured that his ally and first real friend would be a babe that he couldn't quite bring himself to touch. He cursed to himself. Why couldn't she have been a cow? Or at least an irredeemable bitch.

"When you chew your food and swallow," she said sleepily through the silence, "does it just sort of fall through the hole in your stomach?"

Damn it all.

"Go to sleep, Orihime."

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