Stained

AU. It's black on white on black—bleached-blank memories and red-stained hunger. A coup d'état leads to a new twist in this tale: his story from the dark side of the moon. –post episode 124–

(extended, actually coherent summary) Ichigo loses the fight to his inner hollow, and ends up in Hueco Mundo. His friends vow, against the wishes of the Soul Society, to pursue and rescue him, no matter what it takes. They receive help from the unlikeliest of places, but they're going to need all the help and luck they can get, for they're about to find out that Ichigo has changed beyond what they can even imagine…

(a/n) A little later than I'd hoped, but here's chapter three! The preliminary character development out of the way soon, it's time for...the introduction of the plot! (dun dun duuunnn)


Chapter 3:
Two Women Are Burning

"A friend in need is a friend indeed."
--English proverb

The vizard had debated all that afternoon about what to do. They informed Urahara, and with the help of one of his gigai, they staged a car accident. Ichigo's actual body was still alive, as he had left it to become a Soul Reaper. It was being kept fed and stable at Urahara's place; however, without a soul to animate it, it would likely die fully by the end of the week.

Besides Shinji, the rest of the vizard had already fled Karakura, knowing full well that the Soul Reapers would find them in no time if they stayed. Shinji had stayed to clean up any last little details and remove the evidence of the vizard having been there—"they're gonna kill me when they find out I told you guys. No offense or anything, you know, they just figured it would be a cleaner break if it was like he died. But I figured you deserved the truth," he said.

For Orihime, it was like dying twice. It wasn't enough that she had initially thought Ichigo dead, but to be given a hope that he was still alive, still okay, only to discover that the truth was worse than she could have imagined—worse than him dying? It could have broken her. It nearly did.

She could not explain what had happened to her at the funeral—she had seen Shinji there and suddenly needed to…to hurt someone—hurt anyone, really—and he had seemed as good a target as anything. Initially, Orihime had only meant to strike him once, to knock him off balance so that she could better shock the truth out of him when she demanded to know his role in Ichigo's death, but…

But when her fist hit home, there was a moment, a naked unguarded moment, when a sick sort of satisfaction rose up in knowing that he was in pain and she had caused it—when she suddenly needed to break for every time she had been broken, to make someone else bleed as much as she was bleeding inside, to be the person on the other end of the punches this time (a little light had flicked on, and she wondered later if that was why Ichigo and Chad seemed to like this so much)—

—and she couldn't stop.

She just couldn't stop.

It was a wonder that she managed not to break down like that again after Shinji finally told them the rest—true, she had collapsed and cried until Ishida managed to calm her down enough to walk home (he insisted on walking her home even though she lived about seven blocks out of his way), but at least she hadn't felt the need to break the mailboxes on their route back. Orihime was glad for that. Violence had never really been her thing, and the sudden flash of instability she had displayed scared her—made her think she might be losing it.

Orihime was now staring at a mirror, trying to spot creeping insanity on her face. It wasn't really working.

Maybe she was going crazy.

It just…when she thought about it, it just made her truly feel powerless. She had done nothing for Ichigo—could do nothing, she supposed—when all was said and done, he had protected her as long as he could, and now he was gone.

She realized, then—

Who had she ever protected in return?

Her brother.

Tatsuki.

Ichigo.

They had all protected her, and what did she have to show for it? Her brother was dead. Tatsuki had been injured and, being that she had no spiritual powers, could not be expected to stand up to the Hollow hordes. Ichigo…well, she didn't want to think about Ichigo right then.

Orihime knew.

She had protected no one. She was nothing but a burden.

Next to her hand on the bathroom sink lay a pair of scissors, extra-long and very sharp.

She raised the blades even with her face, gazing at the reflection of the lights in the stainless steel.

"I swear," she said, through clenched teeth, "I will never be a burden again."

Snip.

xxx

Tatsuki went to school the following morning, thoroughly miserable, and got the biggest shock of her life.

Though she wasn't much of a girl to pay attention to hallway gossip, particularly not after the death of one of her best friends, several whispers of a troubling nature caught her ear: "Did'ja hear about Orihime?" "I heard Inoue totally lost it!" "Did you see her?" "It was awful—did you see what she did to herself?"

Tatsuki burst into homeroom, panting for breath and shouting Orihime's name, and pulled up in shock.

Orihime had cut her hair.

When you say it like that, it doesn't seem all so monumental, but Orihime had cut her hair. It was not even cut professionally—it was all hacked off at about chin length, and uneven.

Orihime saw Tatsuki and smiled widely. "Hi, Tatsuki!" she said, a bit too brightly and cheerily, given the situation. "Oh, yeah, this?" she asked, running a hand through her murdered locks. "I just...just wanted a change. That's all! There's no need to worry about me, Tatsuki-chan, I'm doing all right..."

Tatsuki could only blink and nod dumbly. Somewhere inside, she could hear My long hair symbolizes my trust in Tatsuki and she could see Orihime, battered and broken and Ichigo, showing up at the last minute like the stupid hero-wannabe he was and she could still taste the tears she'd cried into her pillow last night after the funeral and she could still feel the bruising on her knuckles where she'd punched her wall until it hurt and screamed Ichigo, you dumb dead shit until she couldn't scream for crying, but outside she couldn't hear or see or taste or feel, she could only walk to her seat in a haze and sit down and try not to look like the world was breaking and she hadn't gotten the memo.

It's just hair, Tatsuki, for crying out loud, she told herself.

Just to prove it, after class, she walked over to Orihime's seat. "Hey, 'hime-chan?" she said, trying to smile and coming out with a sort of weak grimace.

Orihime looked up, smiling too widely in return, "Yeah?"

"Is…is, uh—you know, I'm here for you, right?" Tatsuki had to swallow hard here; she'd never needed to ask something like that before because it had always been implicit. "So…you can tell me…if everything's okay…with you…"

Orihime blinked, smiled again. "Of course! I'd tell my best friend Tatsuki if anything was wrong, ne?" She ran a hand through her hair again—the action seemed to have become unconscious, like a twitch.

"Y—yeah..." Tatsuki could feel something breaking inside, something hard like sorrow and sharp like betrayal. "Of course you would."

Orihime walked out, and Tatsuki could only sit and try not to feel like she'd lost two friends in two days.

It's not a betrayal, Tatsuki.

"It's just hair," she whispered.

...

...Bullshit.

xxx

Orihime showed up at Ishida's house at eleven o' clock that night. "I can't sleep," she whispered when he opened the door in a bathrobe and slippers. "Do you have a couch I can sleep on?"

Ishida could feel himself blushing all the way down to his neck, and privately felt very grateful for the dark night. "Ah, well, yeah, I guess," he stammered. "My father's pulling a night shift at the hospital, so he won't be back until nine next morning. If, uh, if that's okay with...you." He blushed even harder.

Orihime smiled faintly. "Thanks, Ishida-kun," she said, and walked in. Ishida ran to get some blankets for the living room futon, but when he came back, she had already fallen asleep. Not ten minutes had gone by before the doorbell rang again.

Ishida opened the door to Chad, Renji and Rukia, the two shinigami both in full shihakusho and without their gigai. Orihime, having been awoken by the doorbell, groggily stumbled into the front hallway.

"What's going on?" she asked.

"Oh, you're here, Orihime?" Rukia said. "Good, that saves us another trip. Get dressed, both of you, and meet us back out here in about five minutes."

"I don't think I even need to ask what this is about," Ishida said, a hard grin spreading across his face.

Renji smiled, his expression mimicking Ishida's own. Chad nodded.

"We're going after Ichigo."

chapter three: end.