Author's note: It's taken me awhile, but I've finally figured out how to get all of my ducks in a row and neatly tie up any lingering issue with this fanfic. Overall, we're looking at roughly four more chapters or so (plus a potential epilogue) until I'm finished! But don't worry; there will still be the smut scene between Ichigo and Orihime as promised. In fact, it's going to be the very next chapter! So I hope that you'll stick around long enough to at least read that since it's been years in the making. Literally. Anywho, this chapter will be primarily in Orihime's perspective as she struggles with the idea of losing her virginity and everything else. I hope you enjoy it!

A big thank you to my wonderful friend Sweety, who looked this over for me. You're the best!

Disclaimer: Bleach and all characters, designs, etc. belong to Tite Kubo. I'm only allowed to fantasize about them.

Swallowing thickly, Orihime felt her body tense as she and Ichigo were effectively cornered by two Hollows. Scanning the area, she noted that they were still inside of the local park, but far enough away from any children that might be mingling about in the play area. This brought a small amount of relief to her, but now wasn't the time to be relaxing. She winced when a Hollow screeched; her ears continued ringing long after the horrifying sound had subsided.


"Y-yes?" Though she didn't take her eyes off of the threat looming before them, she did take note of the strained quality in Ichigo's voice.

"I promise to get you home safely."

A wave of nostalgia washed over her as she remembered the first time Ichigo had promised to keep her safe. Unlike the last time, Ichigo was powerless to do anything to protect her. It was up to her and her alone. But could she really keep the man she loved safe while protecting herself? Pushing aside her self-doubt, she dug her heels into the dirt in order to brace herself as she took a defensive stance.

Finally, after what felt like a million agonizing moments, a Hollow lunged at them. Teeth were bared, claws extended. A spark of fear erupted within Orihime's chest, but she fought it down as she held her hands out.

"Santen Kesshun!" The familiar glow of her triangular shield engulfed herself and Ichigo mere seconds before the Hollow would have torn them to shreds. Gritting her teeth, she held firm even as the Hollow screeched in frustration and clawed madly at the resistance.

Orihime could feel Ichigo tensing beside her, but she tried desperately to keep her focus on the task at hand. If her concentration wavered for even a second...

"Behind you!"

Whipping her head around just in time to see the second – and nearly forgotten – Hollow speeding towards them. Before she could even think of sending Tsubaki towards the monster, a blue arrow imbedded itself in the Hollow's forehead, a spiderweb of cracks spreading across the mask's surface. She watched as the Hollow let out a blood-curdling scream before dissipating into the afternoon sky. Her attention was sharply brought back to the Hollow in front of her when an audible crack was heard. Focusing her attention on the shield once again, she tried her best to repel the beast, but her shield continued to crack under its barrage of blows.

A blur of red and black crossed Orihime's vision and no sooner had she blinked was the Hollow gone. Glancing to her left, she saw Chad dealing blows to the Hollow before delivering a brutal uppercut and shattering the Hollow's mask. With the threat gone, Orihime allowed herself to relax and her shield to fall. Chad and Ishida approached them; Chad was as calm as ever, a stark contrast to the thinly veiled anger on Ishida's face.

"Thank you, Chad-kun. Ishida-kun," breathed Orihime, a small smile playing on her lips.

Ishida turned his attention to Orihime, his expression softening. "It was nothing, Inoue-san. Are you alright?"

"I'm fine." Realizing that Ichigo had been silent the entire time, she turned her attention to him. Placing her hand on his forearm, she gazed at him with concern. "Ichigo-kun, you're not hurt are you?"

"No, I'm fine," he murmured, though his gaze never left Ishida's. His eyes hardened as Ishida jabbed a finger in Ichigo's chest.

"And what exactly were you doing?" demanded Ishida. "Orihime could have been hurt – or worse!"

Orihime bit her lip as Ichigo shoved Ishida's hand away and snapped at the Quincy. "It's not like I did it on purpose!"

Ishida's expression hardened and he glowered at Ichigo. "If you don't tell me what the hell is going on, I swear I'll -"

"You'll what? Follow me everywhere to make sure I don't get Orihime killed? I'm not completely useless, Ishida!"

"Well you sure seem to be acting like it, letting Orihime defend you of all people!"

Ichigo's hands curled into fists as he shook with rage. "It's none of your goddamn business!" he spat.

Without another word, he grabbed Orihime's hand and stalked down the path leading out of the park. Orihime called out her thanks to Chad and Ishida as they left their friends rather confused in their wake.

Once well past the park and away from their friends, Ichigo finally released Orihime's hand. He stared at the ground, though whether it was out of anger from his spat with Ishida or out of shame, Orihime couldn't tell.

"Sorry about that, Orihime. I shouldn't have acted that way," he said quietly, his gaze still downcast.

Orihime soothingly put her hand on his arm. "It's alright. I'm just glad that Ishida and Chad arrived when they did. If they hadn't -"

"Don't." Orihime trailed off, surprised by the sharpness to Ichigo's tone. Ichigo raised his gaze to the sky as he ran his hand through his hair in agitation before shoving his hands in his pockets. "Just...don't finish that sentence."

Nodding, Orihime fell into line beside Ichigo as he silently continued on their original path to her apartment. Silence reigned as the two teens were immersed in their own thoughts. What Ichigo was thinking about, Orihime could only guess. It was then that things clicked; Ishida's accusations and Ichigo's increasingly agitated moods. Ichigo hadn't told Ishida or Chad what had happened! As this new realization dawned on her, she glanced at her boyfriend and felt her heartstrings tug. He hadn't wanted to worry them, or worse, make them think he was incapable of protecting them.

The thought of Ichigo bottling everything up like that saddened Orihime. Weren't friends supposed to be there for you in tough situations? Her gaze dropped to her shoes in shame as she realized that she hadn't exactly been truthful with Tatsuki about what was going on either. She was just as much to blame for their situation as Ichigo was.

So absorbed into her thoughts as she was, Orihime barely registered that they were rounding the corner to her apartment building. Coming out of her daze, Orihime stopped in front of the stairs leading up to her door and turned to face Ichigo. His brows were still furrowed as he brooded on what had happened. She had a sinking feeling he was brooding on what was to come as well. Touching his hand gently, she smiled when he finally registered her presence.

"Would you like to come in for some tea?" She hoped he would say yes, because she didn't think she could stand letting him go in his current state.

She was pleased to see him nod in acquiescence and promptly led him up the stairs. He followed silently, his eyes trained on the ground, even as they entered her small but comfortable abode. After kicking off her shoes and setting down her bag, Orihime bustled about the kitchen, making tea and arranging some assorted cookies and biscuits on a small tray. She re-entered the living room to find Ichigo already sitting at the small table in the middle of the room, staring blankly at the wall in front of him. Sitting beside him, she poured him his tea and gingerly set the cup in front of him.

Taking a sip of her own tea, Orihime stared at him, trying to deduce what was bothering him. Coming up empty-handed, she sighed in resignation and set her cup down. "Ichigo-kun, are you really alright?"

"I'm fine."

The response was so quick that Orihime knew it was an automatic response. Grasping his hand, she squeezed it reassuringly. He finally turned his gaze to meet hers; she could tell that something was definitely bothering him and she was going to get to the bottom of it.

"No you're not," she said finally. "Please, tell me what's bothering you. I want to help you."

After a moment of obvious internal deliberating, Ichigo sighed. "I can never seem to lie to you, can I? There is something bothering me, but it involves...well, you know."

Squeezing his hand again, Orihime encouraged Ichigo to continue. He started slowly, thinking about his words carefully and haltingly telling her about the call he had received from Ukitake. Orihime listened in silence, not wanting to interrupt in case he wouldn't continue.

"So basically, my reiatsu is attracting Hollows and the only way to keep all of them from attacking Karakura is to...have sex." The last bit was just above a whisper, as if he was ashamed of the thought. "I don't understand their logic behind it, but it seems like the only answer to the problem. I'm so sorry, Orihime. I keep putting you in danger."

Swallowing thickly, Orihime tried to wrap her head around everything that was happening. She didn't understand the logic behind it either, but if Soul Society was correct...

"We'll get through this." She hoped Ichigo couldn't hear the shaking in her voice. "It'll be tough, but I'm here for you and we'll figure it out."

"Orihime, I -"

Shaking her head, Orihime smiled. "I'm not going to let you keep apologizing for putting me in danger, or whatever you think you're doing. I love you, and I won't let you change my mind about that."

Kissing his cheek, Orihime pushed her uncertainty to the back of her mind as she changed the subject to something she could properly handle. Their upcoming exams.

Drumming her fingers on the lacquered wood of her small table, Orihime stared helplessly at the textbooks strewn across the tables' surface. Pieces of paper were scattered here and there, her notebook lying open to a page filled with complicated equations, notes, and diagrams. No matter how hard she tried to concentrate on her studies, her thoughts would drift back to the information Ichigo had shared with her a few days prior like clockwork. Every time she made some kind of progress, there she was, pondering her options and implications of those actions.

Worrying her lip, Orihime tapped her pencil against her notebook, her studies all but forgotten. Her pulse quickened and her palms started to sweat. Dropping her pencil, she hastily wiped her hands on her skirt.

She loved Ichigo with all of her heart, but she wasn't sure if she was ready for the next step. She felt queasy every time she thought about it, but the thought of leaving her friends and the rest of Karakura in danger made her feel even worse. Guilt nagged at her whenever she thought about not going through with it. She could simply tell Ichigo that she just wasn't ready yet and Ichigo would never bring up the subject again. It would be that easy.

But could she live with herself if she did that? Not only would Ichigo be forfeiting his shinigami powers, but she would indirectly be endangering herself and everyone she cared about.

Not wanting to be alone with her thoughts, Orihime pushed away from the table, slipped her shoes on, and headed out the door. Her heels clacked softly against the pavement as she wandered down the street, no particular destination in mind. She kept her gaze downcast, focusing on her footsteps instead of the important decision she'd have to make. Maybe if she could calm down, even a little bit, she'd be able to think rationally...

Her footsteps slowed as she neared a familiar park on the opposite side of town. Worrying her lower lip, anxiety built up inside of her until she couldn't take it anymore. She couldn't face the uncertainty alone anymore.

Ten minutes passed and she found herself standing on the doorstep of Tatsuki's home, her knuckles already rapping on the wooden door. She fidgeted as she waited for what seemed like ages; finally, Tatsuki opened the door, her blue eyes peering at Orihime curiously.

"Orihime, what are you doing here?"

"C-can I come in, Tatsuki-chan?" Whether Tatsuki had noted the sound of desperation in her voice, she couldn't be sure, but she eagerly walked through the doorway as Tatsuki stepped aside.

After slipping off her shoes, Orihime meekly allowed Tatsuki to lead her upstairs and into her bedroom. Sitting on Tatsuki's bed, she pulled her knees to her chest as her friend settled herself on the floor.

"What's wrong?" asked Tatsuki. Her voice was gentle, but Orihime could see the worry in her friend's gaze.

Taking a deep breath, Orihime tried to steady her emotions. Where should she start? She could confide in Tatsuki, that much she knew. The question was how much should she tell her? Deciding to come clean to her best friend for the first time in a long time, Orihime dropped her gaze, suddenly ashamed.

"I...I have something important to tell you, Tatsuki-chan. I just... Promise me you won't be angry."

Tatsuki smiled softly. "I could never be angry with you, Orihime. Now what's going on?"

Tightening her grip on her legs, Orihime launched into the details of everything that had happened over the last few months. Tatsuki didn't say a word while she told her story, though Orihime swore she saw her friend clench her hands into fists on more than one occasion.

"And so...that's what's happening. I'm so sorry that I didn't tell you earlier, Tatsuki-chan. I didn't know what to do," whispered Orihime. Tatsuki remained silent, which only made Orihime's anxiety grow. A few moments passed and Tatsuki unclenched her hands before running her fingers through her hair.

" a lot to process, Orihime." She held her hand up as Orihime started to apologize. "But I'm glad that you were honest with me."

Silence passed between the two girls as Tatsuki attempted to process everything Orihime had told her. Finally, she said, "So what are you planning on doing about this?"

"I... I don't know," admitted Orihime. Worrying her lip, she averted her gaze. "We know what has to be done, but I'm just not sure if I'm ready for this. Ichigo-kun would never pressure me into something I'm not ready for, but I don't know if I can live with the guilt of putting everyone in danger."

"Orihime." She raised her gaze to meet her friend's; Tatsuki squeezed Orihime's knee reassuringly. "You have to do what's best for you. Don't worry about what this Soul Society place is telling what you should or shouldn't be doing. This is your life, not theirs, and they shouldn't be meddling like that. Personally, I'd love to go there and give them a good ass kicking."

Giggling at the thought of Tatsuki taking on Ukitake and the other captains, Orihime began to relax. Tatsuki was right; this was her life and she could make her own decisions. But her thoughts kept drifting back to Ichigo...

"Tatsuki-chan, what if...what if I don't know what I want? What should I do?"

Settling on her haunches, Tatsuki stroked her chin as she thought about that for a moment. "Well, you love him, right?"

Orihime nodded.

"Then why not? I've seen the way you two have been looking at each other recently and there's some obvious sexual tension between you two."

"T-T-Tasuki-chan!" Orihime's face flamed as her friend grinned wickedly at her.

Nudging Orihime in the ribs, Tatsuki winked. "Remember what I told you? Sometimes you have to make the first move! It's obvious Ichigo isn't going to make a move, since he's such a worry-wort, so you might as well."

Hiding her face behind her hands, Orihime subconsciously knew that Tatsuki was right. There was no way that Ichigo would press her into doing anything she was uncomfortable with, and at the rate they were going, he'd never get his shinigami powers back! Feeling her blush begin to fade, Orihime lowered her hands and smiled at Tatsuki.

"Thank you, Tatsuki-chan. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"I don't know what you'd do without me either," teased Tatsuki.

The sun had set hours ago and Orihime found herself standing outside Ichigo's house. Her conversation with Tatsuki had been frank, and Orihime had appreciated the honest advice from her friend. Despite her decision, it had taken her a bit longer than she thought it would to gather the courage to see Ichigo. The porch light gave off a warm glow, but somehow that didn't comfort her. Her nerves were on high alert and she couldn't seem to calm down. She knew what she had to do, but was it the right thing?

Shaking her head, Orihime pushed her doubts aside and rang the doorbell. She could hear footsteps as someone rushed down the stairs. To her surprise, Ichigo answered the door.

"Hime? What are you doing here so late? Is something wrong?"

She waved his worries aside, a shy smile on her face. "Nothing's wrong, Ichigo-kun. Can I come in?"

"S-sure." Ichigo stepped aside as Orihime entered the foyer and removed her shoes. Confusion was written clearly on his face, and Orihime could tell that he still thought something was wrong.

"Ahh...sorry for stopping by so late, but I wanted to talk to you about something important." Suddenly noticing the lack of Ichigo's father, Orihime peered around the living room. "Are you home alone tonight?"

"Yeah, dad and the girls went on some class trip for the weekend. They won't be home until tomorrow afternoon."

A wave of relief washed over Orihime. It was now or never.

"Er...would you like to come up to my room? Or would you feel more comfortable staying down here?"

Noticing how nervous Ichigo was - why, she couldn't quite put a finger on it - she smiled warmly at him. "Your room is fine, Ichigo-kun."

Ichigo nodded and the two headed silently up the stairs to his room. Orihime's heartbeat quickened with every step and her stomach twisted itself into knots the closer she got to his room. Breathing deeply and remaining focused on her decision seemed to be the only thing keeping her from bolting. Ichigo stepped aside to let her in first before shutting the door with a quiet click. Orihime stood awkwardly in the center of the room, wringing her hands.

"What's going on, Hime? Is everything really okay?"

"I...I have something important to tell you, Ichigo-kun. It's really hard for me to tell you this, so please...just listen, okay?"

Ichigo nodded and settled himself on his desk chair, his amber eyes gazing up at her. Swallowing thickly, Orihime mentally grasped for what she was trying to say for a few moments before she finally gathered the words.

"This whole's not ideal for either of us. I'm scared, Ichigo-kun. I'm scared of what could happen if we do have sex and what could happen if we don't. Especially if we don't... What Soul Society is asking of us, it isn't fair." Orihime clenched her hands together and smiled softly at Ichigo in an attempt to put him at ease. "But I can't see myself with anyone but you, Ichigo-kun. And I guess, what I wanted to say was...I'm ready."

The silence stretched between them, each second more painful than the last. Ichigo's eyes had widened, surprise evident on his face. When he finally seemed to have processed what she said, he rose to his feet and took her hands in his.

"Hime, are you sure? Absolutely, one-hundred percent sure this is what you want?"

She nodded, her smile still in place. "Of course, Ichigo-kun. It might not be the best circumstances, but I've thought it over and I'm as ready as I'll ever be. I love you."

Ichigo's gaze softened as he hooked a finger under her chin. "I love you too."