One Reason Alone

by debbiechan

Disclaimer: Bleach is by Kubo Tite, and he wouldn't write a story like this one. (Or would he?)

Description: R. Set after the return from Hueco Mundo. The mission failed.

Characters: Ichigo, Ishida.

Warnings: Manga spoilers for Hueco Mundo arc, violence, angst, a less than ideal characterization of Orihime, character death.

A/N: This fic is not yaoi or BL. (Just didn't want people who saw Ichigo and Ishida all over the first few pages to be misled). Also, it doesn't fit with any of my other clumps of stories, such as the "Life is Trying" series.

-----

Special thanks to Raiy my new beta whose eyes are so much better than mine!

-----

"You ask him," said Ishida.

"No, you ask him," Ichigo.

The two sat on Urahara Kisuke's back porch and knew that they were cowards. Somehow, though, the coward label didn't seem as derogatory as it used to be.

There were worse things one could be. Like, guilty.

-----

Grief warps time: That didn't happen, it's not happening, it's a second before, it's years ago.

Only a little boy, Ichigo understood that it was easier to grieve in the company of Death than to bear the ordinary world that insisted on its ordinariness.

Far from town, Ichigo would sit, his head on his backpack, and watch the ghosts bob by. None of them was his mother. The spirit population that stuck close to the river was a nasty, boisterous lot, and Ichigo's mother had been a graceful, calm person. Even though she died here, she would've gone somewhere else.

To an actual heaven, maybe? There she sat combing her hair, humming in her beautiful voice, while the Riverside Dead wrestled like children or argued like grown-ups. One conflict after another: The sky is blue, no, it's transparent, I will be alive again, no you can't DO that, let's haunt that guy, let's get attention, let's hide.

When time followed a one-way arrow again, and Ichigo was no longer a child, he fought Grand Fisher. He learned that his mother was gone. Really gone. And, oddly, the knowledge was a relief. If she was gone, then there was no distance between himself and her. He didn't have to go looking for her, in heaven or elsewhere. She lived in his memories and no place else.

Ichigo's fears for his mother's soul died, but Grand Fisher survived. Declaring that he wouldn't be able to face his mother otherwise (and knowing he would never face her soul anyway because it was gone), Ichigo vowed to kill the Hollow that ate her. Nonetheless that ambition died. The distance between Ichigo and that Hollow should have stretched as far as a yearning for vengeance could stretch, but Ichigo had a more nearby monster to fight--his inner Hollow.

As for Death? It wasn't for Ichigo to fight; Ichigo was Death.

After the return from Hueco Mundo, one would've supposed that Ichigo knew more about Death than just about any other sixteen-year-old in the Living World, but he claimed not to understand a thing. He'd buried souls, fought souls, and exonerated souls.

Only now was he trying to figure out the boundaries and rules.

-----

"Death isn't a place you go," Ishida said. "Death is something that happens."

"Don't even start," Ichigo grumbled.

"That's why you can still say my mother's death, and I can still say my grandfather's death. Those deaths were events."

"This has nothing to do with my mother's death."

They sat on the porch while the late autumn winds blew blood-red leaves off the maple branches.

"There are all these healthy trees in the backyard," Ishida said. "Why did he have to plant dead ones downstairs?"

"Don't even try to figure him out," Ichigo said. "You won't get anywhere."

Ishida didn't want to begin to decipher the enigma that was Urahara Kisuke. He wanted to know what the shopkeeper knew. Cowardice blocked Ishida's path.

"What's the worse that could happen?" asked Ishida. "That he'll let us off the hook? That he'll tell us that it was her destiny?"

"Like we would believe that."

They knew Urahara had sensed their reiatsu. Ishida wondered if the shopkeeper was allowing them time to be cowards, and Ichigo wondered if night would fall and days would pass before he and Ishida worked up the nerve to knock on the door.

"For ten years I blamed myself for Sensei's death," Ishida said. He could scarcely believe that he was saying this to Kurosaki Ichigo.

"You were just being practical," Ichigo said. "Five-year-olds shouldn't fight Hollow."

"At the time, there was no issue of practical," Ishida said. "I didn't think about whether it was better for me to live than for the last two Quincy to die. I was just afraid."

"Afraid is fine. I could forgive myself for being afraid. It's for … being powerless to protect someone. That's what bothered me for so long about my mom."

"You couldn't have acted in time," Ishida said. "I stood behind that tree, and each moment I didn't act added to my shame."

Weird, thought Ichigo. A Quincy using the word shame. Things must be really bad today; they must be the worst they'd ever been.

"Are you still trying to one-up me, Ishida?" Ichigo leaned back on his palms and noticed that there were big, dark clouds on the horizon. "I thought we'd grown out of that."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm mean, who's stronger, who pisses further, which one of us was the suckiest kid with most guilt." Ichigo leaned back further. He lay resting on his elbows for a moment, but that position seemed too exhausting so he lay flat on his back.

"I think it's clear," Ishida said solemnly, "who fucked up this mission. One person." He looked down at his feet. "Me."

"I thought we were in agreement that it was both of us."

"What we were in agreement about," said Ishida, "was that we both felt guilty. But the story will speak for itself. When we tell Urahara-san what happened--"

"Maybe Urahara already knows what happened," Ichigo said. "We don't have to tell him."

"Then I want him to give me one good reason." Ishida's voice was uncharacteristically panicky. "One good reason why she did that."

"Maybe he doesn't have all the answers."

Ishida crossed his arms. "Then I'll get answers somewhere else."

"Try this door first." Ichigo's voice turned sarcastic. "It's obvious we have to go here before going anywhere else. Aren't you supposed to be the smart one? Or do you just want to run off?"

That did it. There was only so long Ishida could bear this degradation, no matter how much he deserved it. Angry, determined, he rose and walked to the door.

Ichigo looked up from the floor. "Ishida?"

For a moment, it seemed like Ishida was going to punch his fist through the fusuma, but instead he lay his forehead against the door and closed his eyes.

Moments passed. The wind blew and the leaves rustled.

Ichigo felt a little scared. He'd seen horrible things in Hueco Mundo, but he didn't know if he could watch Ishida break down.

He should've known better: Quincy don't break down.

"It happens over and over," Ishida said softly. "I should've been holding her arm tighter. I shouldn't have let her run away. It happens over and over."

Ichigo didn't say anything. He was afraid if Ishida kept talking like this--damn it; Ichigo was not going to cry. He sat up. He was going to stand with Ishida at the door.

"Over and over." Ishida's voice sounded small, boyish, maybe five years old. "Do you think Urahara-san knows a way to stop it? Because it's like…."

"I know," Ichigo said. "It's like Inoue dies over and over again."

-----

Not having a scene to remember or a tactile clue to make hairs on his arm stand up when her name was mentioned, Ichigo's over and over wasn't as vivid or painful as Ishida's.

Ishida had been right there with Nell when Inoue Orihime's human body blew apart. The air brightened. The air filled with sparkling bits of reishi that only a millisecond before had been spatters of blood and flying shards of bone. If one didn't have a keen Quincy eye, one wouldn't have caught the gruesome moment. One wouldn't have seen the fiery missile impact soft flesh.

That wasn't the worst part. Over and over Ishida felt her tear away. Over and over she shook herself from his loose hold and ran, white clothes a blur, into the fire.

Would he have been so gentle if he'd been clutching someone else? If he cared for her less, would he have wrapped his fingers into a vise around her upper arm and dragged her away without mercy?

You're too soft, Ryuuken had told him during training. You're candy. You're going to get yourself killed.

Over and over, a rain of her reishi like glitter. Over and over, Ishida fell to his knees and felt the shock of losing her. Who knows how long he would've knelt there if Nell hadn't reminded him about Ichigo. "Ichigo!" Nell shouted, and before she could shout the name again, Ishida had gone and come back. He dragged Ichigo, ban kai and Hollow mask and all, away from the fight.

"This is a retreat," Ishida had said, and for reasons unknown, Ichigo listened to him.

-----

"They're waiting for you," Yoruichi said.

"Urahara peeked through a window and saw that it was a cloudy day. "Let them stand out in the rain if they have to." He sighed with impatience. "If I go out there, they'll act like scolded puppies. I want them to be men."

"Maybe you're expecting too much."

"Knocking on the door? This is too much? Hello, Urahara-san! We've returned from Hueco Mundo! "

"They're kids, Kisuke. Kids are full of high notions of themselves, and they've been knocked to the pavement. They don't need to hear you chastise them."

"Who said I was going to chastise them? I'm keeping them from going back right away, that's all. If they failed in this, they're not ready for real war."

Urahara had sensed everyone but Inoue-san step out of Garganta. He was surprised that the mission had failed, that the girl was still Aizen's prisoner, and even more surprised to sense Ichigo's unusual vacillating reiatsu. Ichigo who was supposed to grow stronger.

Urahara sensed that Kuchiki-san and Abarai went back to Soul Society. To plea for assistance in the next attempt to rescue Inoue-san, no doubt. Sado-kun went home. He was injured and perhaps Inoue had not finished healing him before the party was pressed to leave. There was evidence of more Hollow strength in Sado-kun. At this point, Urahara was not sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing.

"Tsk, tsk," he said in a whisper that Yoruichi couldn't hear. "Everyone expects me to be omniscient."

There was a knock and simultaneously the back door slid open.

The Quincy's eyes were ice.

"Welcome," said Yoruichi. Her voice was not welcoming. It sounded apprehensive, and she shot a look at Urahara. "I see you made it back from Hueco Mundo in one piece."

"Yes, welcome, Ishida-kun." Urahara approached Ishida with folded arms, his expression hidden under the shadow of his hat. "Are you here to tell me details of the mission?"

"Don't play with me," Ishida said. "You know the mission was a failure. You must've sensed that Inoue-san wasn't among us when we came back."

"Come in, Kurosaki-kun," Urahara called. "It's best to hear two versions of a story, so I'd like you here too, please."

Ichigo walked to stand next to Ishida. His eyes were as vulnerable as Ishida's were hard. "We failed," Ichigo said. "What more do you need to know?"

"You're all alive, so that is itself a victory," Urahara whipped out his fan. "Tell me about your adventure." The fan hid his face.

That damn fan and Urahara's amiable voice seemed to aggravate Ishida so much that he spit the words, "She's dead. Inoue-san is dead."

Urahara's mouth dropped open. He was genuinely surprised, but behind the fan, he regained his composure.

"You know something," Ichigo accused.

"Did you expect her to die?" Ishida's voice was losing its edge. His voice became soft and confused. "She--why would she have--? Did you know she was going to do something like this?"

"Of course not," said Urahara. He closed his fan.

"You're acting too calm about this." Anger rose in Ichigo's voice. "You sent us out there knowing that this would happen."

"Kurosaki!" snapped Ishida. "There's no reason to accuse Urahara-san of anything under-handed. The mission failed for one reason alone."

Urahara already knew what the Quincy was going to say.

"It was my fault. I killed her."

"Don't be so dramatic," Ichigo said. "That's not true."

"Failing to protect someone is not the same as killing someone," said Urahara.

"Stop it, please." Ishida sat on a zabuton without being asked. "I didn't come here to be consoled."

"Nevertheless." Urahara gestured for Ichigo to join him at the low table. "I need more information from you, Ishida-kun. Could you have seen an illusion? I don't know what talents the Arrancar have but if they have anything like Aizen's ability to deceive--oh thank you, Tessai."

Tessai was already pouring the tea.

"I don't want tea!" Ichigo was still angry.

"No need for petulance. We can talk about what happened with reason and calm. First of all, what killed her? A sword? A fall from a high place?"

"A cero," Ishida said. He saw Inoue-san again. Over and over. The white dress, the pieces of a human body, the sparks of reishi, and then nothing, nothing.

Urahara began to believe the story. These boys wouldn't have left Hueco Mundo without Inoue-san, dead or alive.

"The body," he said ungraciously. He put the fan on the table. "Was there anything left of the body?"

"It wasn't an illusion," Ishida said.

"Not one of Aizen's illusions, perhaps." Urahara passed a cup to Ishida who took it and sipped. "Maybe not one of Hueco Mundo's either."

"Are you saying--" Ishida seemed to be unaware that he was drinking his tea with impolite passion. Two more gulps, and clanked the empty cup on the table. "Are you telling me that she might still be alive?"

"Death itself, Ishida-kun, is an illusion."

-----

Ichigo lay under his mother's body. He learned the difference between blood and rain. The warmth on his face was her blood. The cold was the rain.

Ishida watched his grandfather slam against trees and heard his grandfather's legs break. The three Hollow played like this with the body before the Shinigami came.

Ishida Uryuu hated Shinigami.

Kurosaki Ichigo hated himself.

Death warps time: It should've been different, I made the difference, I killed her, I killed him, and I can't go back. The regrets play over and over.

Only months before Hueco Mundo, Ishida had wanted to be a hero. Before he could gallantly rescue someone from a Hollow, though, he saved Ichigo from himself. Saving a Shinigami, drawing from Ichigo's energy and shooting aimless arrows into the sky--

How could this have been a triumph? How could this have changed Ishida's life?

He didn't hate Shinigami anymore, especially not one who had yelled the truth at him. Ichigo yelled into Ishida's startled face that Sensei's great wish had been for Shinigami and Quincy to work together.

Sometimes the most obvious things, Ishida realized, could be seized only by the simplest people.

Ichigo had wanted save mountains of people, but it was saving one person that stopped the rain. Rukia.

The rain. They once described one rain pouring over one boy's face years ago. After Rukia's rescue, they could describe anything. The rain of confetti at a parade. The rainy season. The rain of arrows. From a window, he could watch the rain fall without feeling it mingle with his mother's blood on his face. Nothing ugly about rainstorms anymore--just streets and sidewalks washed clean by the rain. Peace, relief….

Except that there were still Hollow.

Everywhere. In the Living World. In Hueco Mundo. Inside Ichigo. A path of Hollow enemies, and gentle, helpful Hollow friends--Hollow who were close to human.

But hadn't all Hollow been human once?

Ichigo didn't like to think about who the souls were behind the masks. Ishida knew, with a destroyer's clarity, that his arrows didn't just take out a target--they took a soul out of the cycle of reincarnation. Yet neither Ishida nor Ichigo knew the enemy's true face anymore. Was it the roaring monster who ate souls? Was it the Espada? Was it Death itself? Another sort of Death than the one they knew embodied in Shinigami--a Death that swallowed Shinigami and human souls alike, a Death that killed the future and ate the past.

All both boys were sure of is that they had come to Hueco Mundo to rescue Orihime.

Then Hueco Mundo itself became a chunk of time that would never happen. It isn't happening, it can't happen, it's a second before, it's another future. What else had Inoue killed besides herself? Ichigo knew he hadn't learned to control his inner Hollow. In Hueco Mundo's reishi-thick atmosphere, he should've. Ishida felt he'd missed learning something. After Inoue died (his mind always hesitated at the word), he stopped paying attention to details; his mind dulled; he could've endangered the rest of the rescue team. He came back stupid; he was more vulnerable.

The light which was the Living World at the end of Garganta only exposed their failures more plainly. Ichigo had failed at winning his fight with Grimmjow because Ichigo failed at being a killer; Ishida had failed to rescue Inoue-san, and therefore he failed at being himself.

Lightning. Loud rain. Thunder, not as loud as the sound of Hollow roaring, boomed outside the Urahara Shop. It was a hard rain for the time of year. It blew twigs and autumn leaves against the windows, and the twigs made intermittent clanks and thuds against the walls.

As if the Urahara shop was haunted by the rain.

As if drenched and shivering souls in the rain wanted to come inside but couldn't.

-----

"It couldn't have been a sacrifice for our sake." Ishida's voice was sad and quiet. "Killing herself didn't take away the dangers around us."

Ichigo was quickly becoming frustrated with the abstract shit that Urahara and Ishida were talking about.

Urahara said, "Maybe she knew that you wouldn't stop fighting for her. Maybe she believed that the only way you could leave Hueco Mundo was if you had nothing--no one-- to fight for."

Ichigo had never understood Inoue very well, but he knew that she wasn't this dumb. "She didn't kill herself," Ichigo announced to the room.

Ishida and Urahara looked at him with their mild, philosophical eyes. Even Ishida? Was he so ready to believe that Inoue hadn't been duped or forced by the same Arrancar that had duped her into coming to Hueco Mundo in the first place?

"Kurosaki-san," Urahara began. "I know that Death is a difficult thing to accept--"

Ichigo got up, snorted in frustration, and left the shop without saying goodbye. He knew of another place where there might be real answers. Suicide seemed unthinkable, impossible, so wrong for Inoue.

-----

From the moment she jerked out of his hold, Ishida had known that Inoue-san was intent on doing something horrible. Given her nature and the scary situation, her self-sacrifice just seemed to follow. Ishida had little trouble believing that Inoue wanted to die; what he had trouble with was believing that she was really dead.

Urahara didn't seem to believe it either, but what he talked about with Ishida was the concept of guilt. Urahara spent an inordinate amount of the evening recounting stories of people who felt guilt over others' misfortunes. These people, according to the shopkeeper, allowed their shame and their guilt to ruin even more lives, whereas if they'd just gotten over it, everyone would've breathed and lived easier.

Ururu brought rice crackers and cubes of cold meat. She didn't ask Ishida if he wanted to eat anything; she kept putting little plates within his reach.

Ishida stayed in the Urahara shop long past nightfall. Everyone left for bed, and without having been asked, Ishida chose to remain in the main room. There was no place else to go but his father's. Here he could think.

He thought for a while and fell asleep.

Some time later, Ururu brought a pillow, and Urahara's feet padded behind hers.

"I'm not here to be coddled." Ishida sat up, blinking. "I'm--" He reached for his glasses on the floor. "I'm thinking."

"Looked like sleeping," Ururu said in her tiny voice to Urahara.

"Ishida-kun," whispered Urahara. "You need to go back to Ryuuken's."

"Why?"

Ishida stared at Urahara. Urahara seemed to be staring back but his hat was on and the shadow of its brim blackened most of the shopkeeper's face.

"I must say, there's a determined look." Urahara said. "You look like you've made an important decision."

"Looks sleepy to me," Ururu said.

"Yes. Actually I have made a decision." Ishida rubbed his eyes. Urahara could be creepily omniscient sometimes. "I've decided to go back to Hueco Mundo--if there's the slightest chance she's alive--

"Ishida-kun." Urahara set the candle-holder on the floor and he himself was in darkness when he sat down. "You need to go to Ryuuken's because you need to train before you go. You can't survive Hueco Mundo again, not alone, not without Kurosaki-san and your other friends. If you don't want to train with your father, then you can train here."

"You'd train me?"

"Your father is the Quincy, of course, and the more suitable trainer. Given the circumstances under which you left--"

"You came and got me."

Urahara laughed his breezy laugh. "It wasn't exactly a kidnapping. You defied your father of your own free will."

"Ryuuken probably is planning to kill me at this minute. Or at the very least chop off my hands for stealing his weapons."

"Ah, Kurosaki-san was quite right about you." Urahara shook his head. "So dramatic."

"I'm not going back there to be scolded. And he'd figure out some way to keep from leaving again, I'm sure of it."

"Well then." Urahara's voice was light and friendly. He was quite the different person from the serious philosopher he'd been when talking about Death. "Tessai's set up the cellar like it was when you were training with Sado. High places like you like. A few fake bushes--you didn't like the bare trees, did you? "

"You knew I would want to go back to Hueco Mundo?"

"I knew that you, Ishida Uryuu, a Quincy, would not accept failure very easily."

-----

Ichigo didn't find Shinji; Shinji found him.

"Back a little early, aren't you?" Shinji was hanging upside down from a tree limb. His hair and clothes were dripping wet from the rain.

"What do you know about Hueco Mundo?" Ichigo had to shout over the rain.

"That it's drier there than here?"

The Visored hide-out was only one shunpou leap away. There, the Visored gathered excitedly around Ichigo.

"Look what the cat dragged in," said Hiyori.

"Looking good there Kurosaki," said Love. "I thought for sure you would've been ripped to shreds in Hueco Mundo."

"Orihime, you moron," snapped Hiyori at Love. "Orihime heals everybody. The whole gang is all better and ready to party thanks to the girl's amazing skills." The way Hiyori said "amazing skills" made it sound like Hiyori was not too amazed by them.

"Tell us what happened, Ichigo." Shinji took off his cap and squeezed the water out of it over Hiyori's head. She tripped him, and he fell down backwards, not without some grace like a hip hop dancer's, as he tried to balance himself. He addressed his next words to Ichigo from a sitting position on the floor. "Hueco Mundo was just a little fraternity hazing for you, wasn't it? You made it through the gauntlet and realized your Visored powers. Am I right?"

"I'm not here to talk about my powers," Ichigo said.

"Told you he wouldn't get them," said Mashiro.

"Shut up," said Shinji. "He's here. He's got new powers. He's got nowhere else to go."

"I'm not here to join you if that's what you think," said Ichigo. "I don't belong here."

"Not that again." Shinji crossed his arms and looked annoyed. The other Visored were quickly losing interest in their guest and wandering away.

"I have some questions to ask about Inoue."

"Orihime?" Shinji's voice took an exaggerated brightness. "Orihime, my love?" Then he shouted over his shoulder to the Visored behind him: "Hey, Kensei, Lisa, come back here, you may need to spar with our friend. Hueco Mundo probably knocked him all out of shape."

Lisa rolled her eyes, but she and Kensei did as Shinji told them.

"Everybody, back here!" Shinji said. "You're being rude to our guest."

Ichigo wasn't sure if he wanted everyone to know--telling it to more people seemed to make it more real somehow. But there was no avoiding the truth. "Inoue died in Hueco Mundo," Ichigo said. "And I'm here to find out what you know about that."

The shock on Shinji's face was plain. The bluish artificial light inside the warehouse made his tongue-ring glint as he opened his mouth. He closed his mouth. He opened it again. He closed it.

"How the hell," asked Hiyori, "did you guys manage to screw that up? You were supposed to go save her and now she's dead?" She shrugged her shoulders. "What's everybody looking so upset about? She was just a human with some measly powers."

Ichigo told the story, every detail as Ishida had related it to him, and then he told everything about Hueco Mundo that he could remember before and after Inoue's death.

"She couldn't have killed herself," Ichigo said. "I refuse to believe that. Did someone make her do it? Did Aizen?"

"Sheesh," Shinji said. "How am I supposed to know stuff like that? She seemed like a sweet girl, though." He whistled through his teeth. "My angelic Orihime. The type that would sacrifice herself for her friends."

"Stupid humans," muttered Hiyori.

"But she wasn't taking us out of any danger." Ichigo remembered Ishida's conversation with Urahara. "There were still a lot of Arrancar around that could've killed any one of us. Inoue could heal us if we got hurt--why would she want to take the healing away from us? That's not like her."

"Then how did you get out?" asked Hiyori. "How did you guys get healed?"

"Well, some of us were less wounded and messed up than others." Ichigo closed his eyes and didn't want to reveal the next bit of information because he was sure the Visored would laugh, but maybe it was an important detail. "This little Arrancar who throws up on people healed us. Healing spit or something like that."

"AN ARRANCAR?" Hiyori was the one most shocked by this.

"Spits up on people? Ewww." Mashiro made a face. "Shinji, I'm out of here. This conversation is getting too gross for me."

"Alright," said Shinji calmly. "You were healed by a vomiting Arrancar. How did you escape Aizen's clutches?"

Ichigo sighed. "I don't know. We kept running. Ishida says Aizen let us get away."

"There's your answer, Ichigo," said Shinji. "Orihime, my dear departed, was the only thing Aizen wanted and you guys weren't even worth killing." He narrowed his eyes at Ichigo. "Didn't the Arrancar show the slightest interest in your powers?"

"Huh? My powers? And what do you mean there's my answer?"

"He's slow," Shinji announced to the other Visored.

"Tell me what I'm slow about."

"Orihime knew this, Ichigo. As long as she stayed alive, Aizen wouldn't stop coming for her, hurting her friends. It was a no-win situation. Aizen has the power, at this point, to get whatever he wants … or so it seems. Even if you guys rescued her, he would come for her again."

"You're saying she killed herself?" Ichigo's voice got angry. "That can't be it! She had powers--Rukia told me, Rukia trained with her--she had powers strong enough to--she didn't have to do this."

"What kind of powers is he talking about?" asked Love.

"Ones like Hutch's," said Rose. "Remember how the girl just could walk past our barrier like it was fog? That's probably why Aizen wanted her."

"Hutch's?" Ichigo was puzzled.

"He's the man who you want to talk to," said Shinji. "He spent some time with the girl…playing with her barrettes or something like that. Hutch could tell you a little about Orihime, but…." Shinji looked bored. "I don't know what difference that makes. She's gone. You've got your own powers to worry about, you know"

"I'm not going to join you," said Ichigo.

"I'm sensing that you're as weak as a baby at the moment, Ichigo. It's going to take us twice the time it did before to work you up to Visored strength."

Hutch, the giant Visored who had been standing quietly behind the others, spoke now.

"Ichigo, I am very sorry for your loss. Will you come with me please? Excuse us, Shinji."

"Whatever," said Shinji.

Hutch took Ichigo to a high alcove away from the other Visored. In a hole in the sheet metal, two birds were nesting among twigs. A very shoddy nest, that to Ichigo, seemed precariously positioned. Wouldn't eggs fall out of the nest very easily? The birds didn't sense the dead people, Ichigo and Hutch, and didn't fly away.

The rain was still going strong. It hammered loudly on the metal roof of the hide-away.

"She was a very special girl," Hutch began.

Like Ichigo didn't know that. Funny, but he knew that more now than he had when Inoue was still alive.

"She…" Hutch looked solemn and lowered his large pink-haired head. "She had the power to do almost anything, the power to step through the barriers of time."

Ichigo frowned. Ishida hadn't speculated about anything like that. Rukia hadn't said anything about "barriers of time."

"She had the power to walk into and out of Death," Hutch said.

Ichigo understood that much. "She's coming back?"

"Oh no, no, no. I doubt it." Hutch looked very sad or maybe (Ichigo couldn't remember) that was his usual expression. " She had little knowledge and no control over her powers. Without knowledge and self-discipline, all the power in the world can't serve you or anyone else."

Ichigo was feeling his heart fall from a high place again. Since returning from Hueco Mundo, he had hoped every hour on the hour that Inoue's death was all a mistake, a dream, an illusion. He hadn't been able to hold onto that hope for more than a few minutes, so he'd consoled himself with another sort of denial: She didn't run into that cero on purpose.

"She had little self-confidence as well as little self-awareness," Hutch went on.

It was getting harder to deny anything; this Hutch guy seemed quite the authority on Inoue, more so than Urahara.

"She made a mistake," Hutch said.

"A mistake?" Ichigo's voice sounded small. "A mistake?" Ichigo could barely hear his own words.

"She died in the belief that she was going to save her friends, but by removing herself from the Living World … well, Ichigo, I don't want to tell you this but … by taking herself away, she may have rescued her friends but endangered all time as we know it."

It didn't matter.

It didn't matter anymore what hocus pocus Inoue could do with her powers.

Ichigo had always felt it was beyond him--her ability to put torn flesh back together when he himself could only tear it apart. He would never understand Inoue. All he understood now was that she was gone. And…

This guy was saying that not only her friends but the whole universe lost something important (Ichigo didn't get and didn't want to get this time business) when Inoue killed herself.

"Are you telling me that the universe is going to blow up or something?"

"No, not that," said Hutch. "But it could get seriously unbalanced."

Ichigo had thought that things couldn't get any worse. What a thing to know about his friend. That what appeared to be her greatest sacrifice had really been her most dumb-assed mistake.

-----

Grief warps time: If I do this, I can fix it, if I go there, it will never have happened, if I escape her, I might just find her.

Ishida sat in the darkness at Urahara's and listened to the rain. Ururu had found a box of brightly colored wagashi and was sharing them with Urahara. Ishida had passed on the little teacakes when Urahara said something about not being sure of the expiration date.

Ishida didn't want to go to his father's. Ryuuken would put up a sound argument. It made no sense, really, to brave the dangers of Hueco Mundo in search of a dead person. Ishida wanted to go to Hueco Mundo right away, but Urahara hadn't given up trying to convince him that he needed more training and skill.

Ishida wasn't sure of Urahara's motives--did the shopkeeper want Ishida to get stronger in order that he might find his friend or in order to have one more strong fighter against Aizen for the Winter War?

The war didn't matter at this point. The whole universe mattered less than one girl. If Ishida didn't go back, right now, right away, on the slightest chance that Inoue-san was alive, then he would be no better than Soul Society. Soul Society who hadn't wanted to take the risk of rescuing her because something called "the greater good" was at stake.

Soul Society. Wait a minute.

Ishida nearly choked on his tea as the thought hit him.

"Urahara-san, if Inoue-san is truly dead like the odds say she is, then wouldn't her soul have gone to--?"

"Ishida-kun, you know yourself how impossible it is to find anyone there. Millennia can pass and spirits will still not have reunited with loved ones."

"But her power? Wouldn't her reiatsu give her a great advantage? Having been to the Seireitei before, wouldn't her soul try to get there as quickly as possible?"

Urahara chewed on a teacake. "You may be right. If that happens, I'm sure one of your Shinigami friends there will let you know soon enough."

Ishida took off his glasses and rubbed the space between his eyes. "I can't wait. I can't trust them to get in touch with anyone here. I have to go to Soul Society before I go anywhere else. I should be able to feel her, I should be able to sense her. I know I can find her--"

"Ishida-kun--"

"Please, Urahara-san, you have to let me pass through your spirit converter to get to the dangai. I need to go to Soul Society."

Urahara-san allowed the time to pass. The rain got no louder or softer. Ishida was waiting for his answer.

Finally, Urahara said, "If this is what you want, I'll arrange it."

Ishida exhaled with relief.

"But do you know," Urahara continued, "how many souls with sensitive sensing abilities are looking for other souls with high reiatsu? When you were in Soul Society, didn't you try to reach out with your senses and look for your grandfather?"

Ishida startled. He had. He had tried every day he was there, even after considering the possibility that Mayuri's experimenting destroyed his grandfather's soul forever.

"Don't you think Inoue-san didn't look for her brother? Kurosaki-san for his mother?"

Ishida didn't stop to wonder how Urahara knew so much about peoples' personal lives. After finding out that Urahara knew Ryuuken, Ishida figured that all Karakura must have passed through Urahara's shop for sweets and sodas at some time. Urahara knew more intimacies than a local barber.

"I want to try," Ishida said. "I want to try looking in Soul Society first because if I go to Hueco Mundo first--"

"Without sufficient training," Urahara added.

"Then I might die there. And if I die there, I will have lost my other option of looking for her in Soul Society. I don't know if anyone else…" Ishida looked a little confused, as if only now realizing how much he cared for Inoue-san. "I don't know if anyone else would keep looking for her there."

Urahara smiled a little. "You're not so self-sacrificing, after all. I suspected that the reason you wanted to go to Hueco Mundo right away was so that you could take care of your guilt. Upon finding no Inoue-san, a disappointed Ishida-kun would take a cero the way she did. "

Ishida ignored this. He didn't want to die for Inoue-san; he wanted to find her.

"Kurosaki can help," Ishida said.

"I don't think so. Kurosaki-san does not approach situations like this one with patience. He doesn't spend time turning over the stones and writing down the clues. Tomorrow morning, he will be training again. This I believe."

"Then Kurosaki can look in Hueco Mundo and I can look in Soul Society."

"Ishida-kun, you're not understanding me. Kurosaki-kun had no issue with Inoue-san's death; what he didn't want to believe was that she killed herself. I'm sure he's not going to waste much breath and energy on that very long."

Ishida frowned. Kurosaki, what an idiot.

"Ishida-kun, Kurosaki-kun can let her go." Urahara petted Ururu who had fallen asleep in his lap. "You need to let her go too."

-----

Time heals all wounds? No, that was Orihime. She had healed the fallen and made the passing time the joyful present. Ishida bitterness and grief dissolved around her. He wouldn't go so far as to say that because of her, he was cured of dwelling on the past, but she helped him feel better about it. Quincy pride was all about acknowledging his peoples' legacy, the good and the painful. Ishida's past was part of what made him strong.

But it was Inoue-san who had made him smile.

The dangai warped time; Yoruichi-san had once explained it. When Ishida crossed into Soul Society, he was either younger or older--he couldn't remember which.

Ichigo stayed to train with the Visored. He would mourn his friend and make certain that his other friends would not fall like Inoue, that no one else would be hurt or saddened by loss. Ichigo's job was to protect mountains of people.

Ishida wandered Soul Society. After visiting the Shinigami and being told that no one knew anything about Orihime, he went from village to village asking if anyone had seen a ginger-haired girl who was very pretty and very kind.

One boy on Earth and one boy in Heaven.

One boy a spirit among the Living, and the other boy a living soul among the truly Dead.

If the Universe was going to become unbalanced, the presence of the Quincy in Soul Society and the strength of the Shinigami on Earth could balance it again. Hope followed the two boys wherever they went.

Ichigo fought for control of his Inner Hollow. It was test of self-awareness. Over and over, the battle with the Hollow wounded his soul, and Ichigo learned things about himself he had rather not known. Day by day, he grew stronger, in body and spirit.

Ishida fought to let go. He couldn't, of course. The phrase itself, "letting go," was too reminiscent of what he'd done with Orihime's arm before she ran to her Death. Maybe he couldn't have stopped her--a person that bent on suicide would probably try again. He couldn't fix Orihime's mistake; he couldn't make her alive again but….

He wanted to see her. If she, with her own voice, with her true spirit eyes looking right at his, could tell him one good reason for what she'd done then….

Then things might be right again, he could accept her Death and dismiss his guilt, he could put her sacrifice in its place, and go on with his life.

He walked from village to village; he didn't use his powers of speed and flight; he wanted to comb every inch of the World of the Dead.

At first he lied to himself and believed that what he was searching for was knowledge. He had searched for knowledge all his life, and the facts he'd garnered were part of what made him a strong Quincy. Knowing helped him to gauge the future, predict an opponent's moves, or calculate the importance of events as they passed by him in time.

Ishida liked to think that he was hyper-aware. He thought he was well-versed about the ways of the Living. He thought he knew how time worked and how nothing was destiny. Then one afternoon, on a bridge over a sad shallow river, as he watched the Dead fish for the food they didn't eat, he realized neither knowledge nor the lack of it had affected the most significant happenings in his life. Losing Sensei, meeting Kurosaki, going to Soul Society the first time.

Destiny?

Choosing to sacrifice his power--that had been a decision based on all the knowledge he had at the time, and maybe he'd made a mistake. Maybe there had been a better way to save Inoue-san from Mayuri's experiments. He could've waited until they were both captured; he could've attacked the gruesome captain by surprise; he could have tricked him, using all the knowledge he had, instead of wasting his powers in a blaze of blue energy that didn't even defeat his opponent.

Inoue-san, you didn't have to run into-- if you had just waited a little while, I could've figured out what to do.

But the more he thought about it, the more he could understand suicide from Inoue-san's point of view. Did the war require another healer? The fourth division was going to be at the front lines of the war. Did she have the offensive capacity to make a difference in the battle? No. Would her smile and gentle encouragement make any difference…?

Ishida watched fish struggling in nets in the Land of the Dead.

Ishida realized that he wasn't looking for knowledge; he was looking for her.

Not to make the universe right, not to simply understand what had happened, not to save a frightened person from the dangers of the Rukongai, he was walking and walking the Land of Death for one reason alone.

----

A girl pulled the dusty hems of her white hakama to her knees before she sat down. She said a quick prayer in appreciation of a meal.

"That outfit doesn't look too comfortable," said the old woman. "I'll find you something else to wear. Believe it or not, when I was a young spirit many many years ago, and I had a very lovely figure like yours. I sewed some nice things for myself."

"You like to sew?" asked Orihime. She was just making polite conversation, but the woman seemed to take the question seriously.

"It's a big responsibility," she said. "Making clothes for the whole village. What people wear often determines what other people think of them."

"Well, that's just wrong."

"You tell them. There are lots of things wrong about the way people are--but you can't force people into a right way of thinking. You have to let things be."

"Letting things be…." Orihime looked thoughtful. "But sometimes you have to act, right?"

"Still trying to justify blowing yourself up?" The old woman smiled.

"I felt it was the right thing to do," Orihime said. "I was even proud of myself at the time, but now… now, I just miss everybody." She passed her hand through her teacup as if it were water. She held her hand before her face. "Who's to say that this bad man, Aizen, won't come looking for me--even here."

"I can see how anyone would want to control those powers of yours," said the old woman. "Men. They want to control everything." She handed a plate of steaming fish to Orihime and watched with amazement as the girl ate up two fillets with genuine relish.

"Souls with a lot of reiatsu feel hungry," Orihime explained. "I don't know why."

"As I was saying…." The old woman slid the entire contents of the fish tray onto Orihime's plate. "Men think that they can do better than God. Why control things? If one lets things be, things control themselves. But letting things be requires some self-control, I suppose."

Orihime was poking at the fish with her chopsticks. She didn't look hungry anymore.

"I'm not sure," she started. "I thought that maybe--" She laughed a self-deprecating laugh. "I thought that I might end up in a bad place where all the suicides go, but when I recognized this was Soul Society, I figured I was alright."

The woman picked up Orihime's cup and before filling it, checked the bottom to see if it wasn't a trick cup. It was the third time she'd done that this afternoon. The girl had a habit of sweeping her hand through solid objects every now and then, as unconsciously as a person might twirl her hair or pick his nose. She had seemed surprised when told that all spirits didn't have this ability to pass through wood and stone.

"Trying to control your life, were you? That's usually what suicides want to do. Then they find out they can't, and think that they can control Death if nothing else."

"It wasn't like that at all. I wanted to save my friends."

"Are you sure that was all?"

Orihime ate without enthusiasm. After chewing her fish for a moment, she said, "I wasn't very happy with myself at all. I didn't like anything about myself. I thought that if--I thought I could do at least one useful thing."

The woman nodded. "They all say that. Suicides are very deluded people."

Orihime got a worried look on her face. "I'm not wrong about this bad guy. He's very powerful. For all I know, he's already damaged a lot of the Living World and he's coming to Soul Society next--he's coming for me."

"Negative, negative." The woman got up to look through a large hamper of fabric and sewing materials. "You're being so negative, Orihime. Instead of being sure that this bad man is coming for you, why don't you assume that your friends are coming for you? Maybe that wonderful Kurosaki-kun you told me about--he might come for you. They went after you in Hueco Mundo--why not here?"

"They wouldn't do that. I don't matter that much to anyone, especially now that I'm dead."

"Deluded," said the woman and held up a meter-long swathe of strong, practical fabric. "There's only one reason people do crazy things like march into a land full of Hollow to search for a little girl who doesn't even like herself."

Orihime waited.

The old woman withheld the response. "Look at this," she said about the cloth. "I can sew you a new dress. You'll fit in with the other ghosts."

"Aren't you going to tell me?"

"Orihime." The woman dropped her hands to her lap. "I sew clothes. I don't sew the fabric of time or stitch the destiny of peoples' lives--as much as I like to think I influence their health by making friendly and non-provoking things to wear in the more dangerous parts of this village. A robber goes for the person in fancy clothes, you know. Assumes that you're rich and will smack you over the head and send you back into the cycle of reincarnation."

Orihime sighed a little sigh of frustration. "You were going to tell me why my friends came for me?"

"It's obvious," said the old woman. "They loved you. Love is the only reason anyone does anything brave."

Orihime was taken aback by the word. "Love?"

"Love has no sense. It attaches itself to the dumbest people and makes even the most unworthy--" The old woman cast a sidelong glance at Orihime. "Love makes even beautiful girls, the ones who are built like goddesses and have breasts the size of Yubari melons--girls with long shiny hair and a natural sweetness and even the ability to walk through walls--Love makes these girls the object of its craziness too."

Orihime looked puzzled. She was trying to understand. "You're mocking me," she said.

"I'm not," said the woman. "It's just that Love is so easy to make fun of." She found her needles and began to work on Orihime's new dress right away. "You killed yourself because you thought this Kurosaki boy didn't love you, am I right?"

The girl actually blushed.

"Oh look at you. Don't worry. You didn't screw up just by blowing yourself up. Love will find you eventually."

"It will?"

"There's no other reason," said the woman. She put one, two, five pins on her lip and talked through her closed mouth. "There's no other reason for Love to exist except for you."

"You mean that something so grand as Love…." Orihime was unconvinced. "Love exists for stupid girls with long shiny hair who are suicidal and deluded?"

"No, I mean Love exists for you. You, Orihime, the soul of a person. You, Orihime, the goddess of your own life and death."

Orihime edged closer to the woman and helped her with her dress-pins.

"Give me some credit," said the old woman. "I can't walk through barriers or heal people or bounce around looking pretty and full-breasted anymore, but I can sense a few things. It's not a super-power. I just know when Love is looking for someone."

"When--" Orihime was tentative. She seemed not to want to ask for fear she wouldn't be told the answer. "When will Love find me?"

"Ever mourn anyone dear to you, darling? A grandmother? An old uncle?"

"A brother," said Orihime.

"Then you know how grief warps time. What if, why didn't I, it's years ago, it's only yesterday."

Orihime nodded.

"When Love finds you," the old woman said. "There won't be regrets like that. You'll be glad even for the bad and annoying parts. You will love yourself--that's when you know you've been found."

Orihime shook her head. "There's nothing like that for me in the future."

"Negative," said the woman. "Stop being so negative."

"What I believe," Orihime said, "is that I have to be … well, worthy of Love and all that.

If I could only learn how to use my powers and fix the past--"

"You're barking up the wrong tree."

Orihime shook her head, more determinedly this time. "If only I could go back in time the way I can walk through walls here in Soul Society. You see, when I was alive, people told me was I was doing something funny with time in my healing, but I never could move myself through time…"

"If you could, what would you do?"

Orihime thought for a moment. "When I was alive, it felt like the world was one unhappiness after another. So many peoples' lives have unhappy endings. If I could--if I could move myself through time, I'd go everywhere and fix things. I would give all the universe, everything that is, the Living World and Soul Society and even Aizen's palace a happy ending."

"And yourself, would you give yourself a happy ending?"

"Well yes, I'm included in that whole universe thing."

"What's more important to you, darling--the whole universe or yourself? You have to pick one."

"The whole universe, of course. That way--"

"Would you really have a happy ending if you shared it with all the universe?"

"You're confusing me. Are you a fortune-teller? One time Tatsuki and I went to the fortune-teller at a festival. She was very expensive and we spent all our festival money to have her read our tea-leaves. She said Tatsuki would marry a wealthy man and go vacationing often. She said I had a career in the movies. I don't think she was a real fortune-teller."

"What I'm asking you, Orihime, is do you matter to yourself? You proved to your friends that they mattered to you--in some odd way--when you killed yourself. You didn't think about how they'd miss you, but let's not go there. You thought you were doing a noble thing. What I'm asking is how much would you sacrifice for your own well-being and peace of mind? What fires you would walk through, what horrors you would face?"

The questions threw a future in front of Orihime that she didn't want to face. Too many possibilities, too many disappointments, too many chances that she'd screw things up in her next life just as she had in her recent one.

"Would you accept Love for yourself, Orihime?"

A puzzled look.

"Not Love from far away, not love for a boy you don't want to touch--"

Orihime gasped.

Now, that was harsh. Orihime wondered what the old woman had against Kurosaki -kun.

"Not a love that is perfect and can't be damaged by a harsh cruel word or an error of judgement. Can you accept the Love that is looking for you?"

Orihime smoothed her hand over the hard nubby cloth in her lap.

"What dress are you going to weave for yourself, goddess of the stars?"

When Orihime looked up, the old woman was gone. Her little house was gone, and with it the hamper of sewing materials. Only the cloth on Orihime's lap remained, and the one needle she'd been holding in her mouth.

It was a chilly night in Soul Society. Orihime was sitting under a velvety blanket of darkness, and there were more stars in the sky than she'd ever seen.

Was she really Orihime, goddess of the stars, or was that just another fantasy she invented to stave away the hurts of life?

She told herself that she stepped down from Heaven, looking not for knowledge but for herself.

Not to understand the sorrows of the world, but to feel them.

She told herself that she took a human shape because not only did she want to feel the strength of her muscles, she wanted to discover the weaknesses of her heart and lungs.

Being human meant hurting and dying. Surprise, surprise. Orihime had truly been surprised by suffering and cruelty. Her soul couldn't understand it, couldn't fathom its purpose. She would have to talk to her Father about it. Maybe it could be gotten rid of?

If not, it would always line her path, and she would just have to accept pain as part of being human, alive or dead.

She knew that she hadn't come looking for Love, but she knew that here, in this reality far away from God's Kingdom, away from her tedious role as Princess Weaver of the Sky, she was going to find a true self.

And with a smile on her face, she lay on the wet grass.

Love would find her too. It was only matter of time.

END

A/N--Sorry, sorry, sorry. I know you people have been telling me my stories are depressing lately and that you would like more like "Dinner Party," but what can I say? My heart belongs to IshiHime, and it was only Tanabata last week and I had to write another version of the myth. Maybe someone can make sense of this fic; maybe someone else can read in it how much I love two characters of Bleach more than the others; maybe not that this one is out of my system, I can go back to smut and comedy.

TMI: I take depression and grief very seriously. Emo-ing is not just a phase of adolescence or a display of weak character. Kubo, at this point in the manga (283) has shown us an Orihime who is depressed and insecure. An Orihime who may not have resolved the death of her brother. An Orihime who has far to go (in a unique shounen story that seems to be exploring myth-quests for girls as well as boys). I know she's easy to hate, but I know she'll end up fine. The unfathomable power inside her represents the will to heal that is in all of us. We're going to see Orihime find it.

My motto for life (not my only motto, of course) now is: Suicide is not an option, even if you believe is.

So kids, don't kill yourselves. Things get better, or if they don't, you do.

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