a choice of worlds

"I like you," the strange-eyed girl with the crown of scars says. She's sitting on the far end of the seesaw. She's much bigger than Orihime, so Orihime's perched up on the near end, watching her sandals dangle high above the ground.

Sora is sitting over where the adults sit. He's talking with a strange man who must be the girl's father or brother or something. He looks nice, Orihime thinks.

"You do?" she answers, flattered.

"You've got really pretty dreams," the girl says. "They're like the spots on the wings of butterflies."

"Oh." Orihime decides that's a compliment. "I'm sure your dreams are very pretty too," she says politely. "Are they like butterflies or moths?"

The girl thinks. "They're more like spiders."

"In zero-gravity?" Orihime remembers pictures that Sora showed her, of spiders building their webs in spaceships. The webs curve in on themselves and splay outwards in smooth curves and lines. It's because everything spins in outer space, Sora had said, so they never fall down.

"Yes," the girl says, and smiles. "Totally zero. Would you like me to --"

"Road!" The girl's big brother (he must be her big brother, Orihime decides) is waving to her. "We have to go! Say goodbye to your new friend and come along." He gives Orihime a smile as well, so Orihime forgives him for the interruption. It's a nice smile.

"I'll see you later," the girl says. She jumps off the seesaw, and bump, Orihime goes down on the far side, and she's too busy picking herself up and brushing the dirt off her skirt to watch them go.

Orihime cannot curl herself up any smaller. There is no corner that she can hide herself in. Her hair is thin and thready, and its short ends leave her neck cold. She is ugly. Ugly. And it's all her fault because of what she said to her big brother and --

"You don't look as pretty like that," a voice says.

Orihime looks up, blinking the tears out of her eyes. An oddly familiar girl is leaning over her, in a shocking short skirt and striped stockings, her hair standing out in spikes, scars twisting round her forehead like barbed wire. She's got an umbrella strapped across her back, almost as tall as she is.

"I'm sorry," Orihime says, good manners forcing her to be polite even though she'd rather go back to crying. "Have we met?"

"Once already," the girl says, "and three to come." She rocks backwards and forwards on her high heels, the ruffles on her shirt swaying in the wind.

(But there isn't a wind.)

"Do you want anything?" she asks.

Orihime would say, my big brother back again, but now and always she knows that isn't going to happen, so she just says, "No," and curls up again like a starfish.

"Next time," the girl says, and she's gone in her private wind, whisked away on the end of an umbrella.

Orihime doesn't know why Ishida-kun isn't seeing the same person that she's seeing when she talks to Road. Road is wearing very fashionable clothes that aren't shinigami style at all, but Ishida just looks at her dismissively and then turns away again to check the road ahead of them.

"It's an awfully big adventure," Road says, skipping along beside Orihime.

"Are you another manifestation of my fairies?" Orihime asks. But even as she speaks, she can feel the thrum in her hairpins, a warning of anger and danger, and it tells her that she's wrong.

"No," Road says, her face thoughtful for a moment. "They're from inside. I'm from outside. From really outside. Does that make sense?"

"Sort of," Orihime says.

"I'm tapping on the window and whispering at the glass," Road confides. "Sometimes you scream so loudly that I can hear you, even out there, past all the barriers and beyond all the passages. You could bring me here, if you wanted. I'd sail all the way to you in my great ship and save you and save everyone. Wouldn't that be nice?"

"But I'm not screaming," Orihime says. The rest of the offer makes her uncomfortable. There's the feeling of a price tag, a big price tag, a terrifyingly big price tag: a price that it wouldn't just be her paying.

(She'd pay with herself, maybe, sometime, if she had to, if there was anyone who wanted her enough for such a thing, but not with anyone else. They're her friends.)

"Sometimes I'm early," Road says, "and sometimes I'm late, and sometimes I'm just in time. You'll understand when it's important." She reaches out to touch Orihime's hair. "I'm so glad you grew it back. It's pretty."

"Thank you," Orihime says. "So is yours."

"Inoue-san!" Ishida calls from ahead. She runs to catch up with him, and doesn't notice that Road is already gone.

"I could make it go away," Road says, and wiggles her fingers.

Orihime isn't entirely sure whether Road means the bracelet on her wrist or, well, all the rest of it.

Road floats alongside her, sitting on the umbrella (which is complaining under its breath) as Orihime walks down the road, and nobody sees either of them. It's like the sort of dream which is almost a nightmare except that nothing really bad happens in it (it's all happened already) and so you can't really explain it to Tatsuki or anyone else when you wake up disquieted and unhappy. "It's not fair," Road says.

"It isn't," Orihime agrees. She would like to say more than that, but she's afraid that it'd make her start crying.

"They forced you into it." Road floats a bit closer, inches away from her. "You don't have to keep your word if they cheated."

"But they didn't cheat," Orihime says numbly. "They let the others go, which means they kept their side of the bargain. So I have to keep mine."

"I can make it go away," Road says urgently. "And then you can go back to your friends and it'll be all right. They'll say how clever you were for finding a way out. They'll love you even more than they already do!"

"Will they?" Orihime asks. She knows that they'd be glad to know that she was safe, but that's not the same thing, not the same thing at all, because someone who would break her given word can never, ever be trusted again.

She can change the world and she can heal people and she can protect people. And she can break her promise.

But she won't.

Kuchiki-san didn't break her promises. Orihime won't break hers.

"I'd love you," Road says. "It wouldn't matter any more if they didn't." But she can already see the refusal in Orihime's eyes, and she is drawing away into a thin line and then into emptiness, still floating on her umbrella.

There is neither day nor night in Hueco Mundo, but somehow Road sits in shadow, with a halo of candles floating around her.

Time has stopped. Kurosaki-kun is dead. Ulquiorra has put his hand into Kurosaki-kun's chest and now there's nothing but blood there. And Ishida-kun's arm is gone. And all Orihime's shields are broken and her power shattered and she knows, she knows that she can't win.

"I told you I'd come when I heard you screaming," Road says. The cross-mark scars on her forehead haven't faded: they're as new as if someone cut them into her yesterday. Her eyes are wide and sympathetic. "I told you I'd be here. I haven't let you down."

"Did you do this?" Orihime means the paused time, the halted moment; she doesn't have the words at the moment to try to describe that. Road may talk about her screaming, but the worst of it is inside her.

"We did," Road says, and pats her on the cheek sympathetically. "It'll be all right, Orihime. It'll all be all right."

"How?" Orihime asks, and hears the desperation in her voice.

"Wish it," Road says. "You can wish anything and it'll come true. It'll make all this go away," she gestures at the blood, the bodies, "and everything will be all right again, because it'll make our worlds come together. And then I can help you. I'll be able to do things in this world if you want it enough. I can make paths that will take us back to the real world. I'll burn up the Hollows and the Arrancar and everyone else for you. My friends will like you too." She leans in, putting her hands on Orihime's shoulders. "They won't even mind that you're human. They're nice. And we'll laugh and be happy and have adventures together."

Orihime kneels there and tries to think, but the words fall around her in sweet chains that soothe and flatter and calm her, that spin dreams and answer wishes.

"It'll always have been that way," Road goes on. "Once you wish it, our worlds will always have been together, and then I'll always have been with you, all the times before. I'll make it all better. Nobody will ever hurt you again --"

The image of Tatsuki is sliced away and lost before Orihime can call it to mind.

"-- or frighten you --"

Ishida is gone before she can remember his face or his name or that he ever existed.

"-- or be cruel to you --"

Aizen Sousuke, Ulquiorra, the two girls, Ichimaru Gin with his smile, Tousen with his coldness, all the Espada, all the long white corridors, all gone, nothing to worry about, nothing to ever remember again.

"-- and nobody will ever leave you again --"

And now she has no brother to remember or to remember her, he's gone too.

"-- but you need to say yes, Orihime, you just need to tell me yes and wish it so, and then we'll be together for ever and ever and you'll always be happy --"

There's blood on her hands. She should know whose blood it is, but that's lost to the whiteness, and there's nothing but her and Road in the whole world. Road and the shadows behind her, the men and women and the things like jointed toys and the clouds which fill the whole sky, waiting to come through into the whiteness, and Road is there, and all she has to say is --

A strand of her hair falls across her face as she lifts her head to answer.

Her brother had said how pretty her hair was, and Tatsuki had protected her so that she could grow it long again, and Kurosaki-kun had been there the night her brother died . . .

"Wish it!" Road commands.

. . . and Kuchiki-san had helped to send her brother on to Seireitai, and Sado-kun had fought the Hollows, and Ishida-kun had protected her, and Ulquiorra had tried to keep her safe, and . . .

"Orihime!" Road screams, hands tightening like claws on her shoulders. "Say yes!"

"I reject," Orihime whispers, and time starts moving again, and Road is gone like dust on the wind, like a wish which was never made, like a choice that will never exist again, and the memory of her is gone and all her world with her, leaving Orihime in the silence as Kurosaki-kun's blood drips from Ulquiorra's hands.