Ishida and Orihime reached the dome, and quickly, the girl jumped off the makeshift elevator, running as fast as her thin legs could carry her. A dense, extremely heavy reiatsu fell on her, causing her to choke and sway on the spot. Her knees buckled, but she continued to walk on. Pale and wide-eyed with fear that made breathing hard and painful, Orihime looked up.
Her eyes widened, the hazel irises pale, almost white in horror.
Green, cold eyes met her horrified gaze.
"So, you came." The pause was heavy. "Woman."
"K… Kuro… saki-kun…" Orihime stammered shakily, her hands, legs and body shaking as one. Her teeth were chattering so hard that her mouth trembled in intense fear. "Please… P-please… stop—"
"You're right on time, woman."
Orihime stared up, mouth slightly parted.
"…to witness the death of the person you've put all your hopes into."
"…n-no… no… Please, p-please… stop… Please, stop!"
"Watch him die in front of your eyes, woman."
Cero came and hit.
A piercing darkness.
A broken, destroyed heart.
Her hopeless cries echoed.
So much blood. So much despair.
What should I do?
What should I do?
What should I do?
Her helpless thoughts screamed and reverberated inside her mind, fogging her senses, numbing her body.
Trembling pale and small hands went up to clutch at her hair. Wide-eyed, she stared at Kurosaki-kun's body. That… that… hole… that— Tears poured out steadily in misery.
What should I do?
What should I do?
So much blood. So much despair.
Desperately, she clung to her one last shred of hope. In retrospect, she will later regret it. But despair made her scream. Subconsciously, she whispered inside her mind:
I'm so sor—
He hated it with passion. He thought his rainy days were over after he had rescued Rukia. But— this isn't a rain.
Consciousness wavered. It moved under the surface, only slightly, only with little twitches.
But it was there.
Faint, but it was there.
But under the rain, amidst the fog, the continuous downpour, there was warmth not associated with cold drenching rainfall. The warmth was little at first, barely touching him, and then it spread, slowly but surely, penetrating the thin wall that separated consciousness from unconsciousness.
Get up, up, up.
I… I… I'll…
Get up, up, up.
I'll… I'll… protect… I'll…
Get up, up, up!
She's calling me.
The warmth pierced through the wall and touched his consciousness.
I'll protect you.
"Can you even hear me, Kurosaki? I'm telling you to stop! Do what you intend to do and you're throwing away your humanity!"
Orihime screamed as the newly resurrected Ichigo stabbed Ishida with his sword. Ishida flew back, skidded to a halt, and hit a boulder, Zangetsu sticking out of his torso. Blood stained his white shirt, and they spread faster. Orihime struggled to get up to her feet, unmindful to her own safety. "Ishida-kun! Ishida—" At last, she succeeded, swayed slightly, but she stood her ground firmly. However, fear still throbbed inside her body and as a manifestation, her legs cannot stop shaking. Weakly, Orihime tried to keep upright but in two to three steps, she lost balance, fell to her knees and hands, shaking harder, breathless.
"R…run, I-Inoue-san…" Orihime heard Ishida's faint order. Slowly, she looked up, eyes wide in horror as she felt the approaching dense, evil aura. Her mouth trembled in fear, and her shaking increased. I'm… I'm… I can't… breathe… The reiatsu was choking her. Fear crippled her lungs.
Hearing the rough, warped voice, Orihime turned her face around. Shadow fell over her.
Orihime was frozen in fear. She never knew… such fear exists.
Her mouth opened and closed, then opened again, but no words came out.
"You… I… I… I will…"
A tear clung to her eyelashes, it trembled before falling from her eye, followed by another and another until both of her cheeks were wet.
"…save… you… I'll… save you… You…"
He was reaching a clawed hand to her.
"You… Protect… You… I… I'll… save… you… I'll save… you…"
Orihime put a hand on her mouth, suppressing her sobs as he continued to reach out to her with one clawed hand. Tears clouded her vision as she continued to sob shakily, watching him dragged his feet towards her as though he was in pain.
"You… I'll… save you… I'll save you."
The words became clearer as he talked longer.
"I'll save you… I'll… save you…"
"Kurosaki-kun… Kurosaki-kun…" Orihime whispered brokenly. Why… why? Kurosaki-kun… what happened? He was closer now. Are you there? Are you Kuro—
Her body became numb and frozen. He… recognizes me!
He repeated, firmer, clearer this time.
The fact that he recognized her didn't make her happy. It caused even more pain, anguish and horror. Even shame. Was it… because of her…? Was it because of her… he became like this? This… this horrifying… monster?
Her mind screamed a vicious no! Denying… denying the possibility. No! But the logical part of her provided the horrible affirmation.
You. Yes, you—
Her conscience mocked.
Just to save me… you— My weakness— it was me. It was my fault. My fault… My fault…
Her helpless scream. Her despair.
"It's… my fault… isn't it… Kurosaki-kun?" She murmured, tears pouring out of her. "It's my… fault… I… I… I… I'm…"
"I'll save you… I'll… save… you… Inoue… you… you…"
Tears fell to the floor continuously as Orihime continued to look up to him. She pressed a shaking fist against her mouth while the other hand clutched her skirt. The hand with black claws was a scant meter away from the top of her head. In closer inspection, Orihime noticed it was shaking.
The hand was shaking.
Faintly, Orihime heard Ishida calling out her name from the distance, to run away, to stay away. But it was so faint. She shut down her other senses. Or, pain… shut down her other senses. Right now, nothing mattered. Only pain. Pain. More pain. Pain that became everything. Pain that overwhelmed even her strongest feelings for the boy behind that horned mask.
He's in pain.
This painful realization made her tear up uncontrollably.
Oh god… what have I done? What have I done to Kurosaki-kun!
"Kurosaki-kun… Please, please…" she sobbed in despair, pain… A pain too great to describe was overwhelming her small body, her frail heart which was breaking, breaking, breaking into pieces. "I—" She was stunned with so much feelings as his clawed fingers picked up a lock of auburn hair.
Slowly, quivering, biting her lower lip to contain her sobs, Orihime lifted her hand from her mouth to reach up to his large hand.
"…I'm sorry, I'm sorry… Kurosaki-kun, I'm so sorry… Please, I'm so sorry—"
I turned you into a monster!
"I'll save you… Save… save…"
Before she could touch him, he snatched his hand away, made a savage turn and gave a loud, blood-curdling, animal roar. His jaw had snapped open as he screamed, releasing a blast of dense, black reiatsu. Behind him, Orihime gave a yelp at the vicious pressure, waves and waves of condensed reiatsu washed over the place.
"Kurosaki-kun!" Orihime cried out, but his scream drowned hers.
Ishida gawked at his scream. This cry… Kurosaki… This is not some normal cry. What has happened to you? His eyebrows scrunched together. Such… raw emotions… Are you… The Quincy swallowed— in pain, Kurosaki? He gasped in shock as he flash stepped and reappeared a second later in front of him, seized the zanpakutou, yanked it off him and faced the newly-regenerated enemy. Ulquiorra stood in one solid leg while the other was still in the process of regenerating itself. The Quatro Espada procured his lance of reiatsu. Lanza del relampago.
"We'll finish this, Kurosaki Ichigo."
He was responded with a roar.
To Orihime's horror, the horned creature bent down and gathered energy between the tips of his horn.
Ulquiorra released his attack before Kurosaki can finish gathering reiatsu.
The streak of light hit one of Kurosaki-kun's horns. It caused the horn and the half of his skull mask to crack and shatter, revealing his face and his strange eye: gold iris, black sclera. He looked dazed, eye half-lidded and mouth slightly parted.
For a moment, Orihime thought he heard her, because his eye moved and found her.
Orihime's eyes widened, catching the movement of his mouth. He was falling forward, in slow-mo. "Kuro…" But he stabbed his sword and broke his fall, putting all his weight on the zanpakutou. He breathed deeply, his mask half-on, his eye dazed.
He straightened, although his shoulders were slumped forward, yanked Zangestu off the ground and lifted it.
Fresh tears fell down her already moist cheeks, but no sob came this time. Orihime was still on her knees, hands on the ground, watching him, wide-eyed. "Why… why… Please… stop, stop already… Stop it… Kurosaki-kun…"
Ulquiorra silently assessed the situation.
"Stop… Stop… Please, Kurosaki-kun, stop it… Don't… don't get hurt anymore…" Her teeth clenched, as she remembered Nel's words.
There ith no way heth not suffering! Of course he ith! But… but Ichigo is uthing that power… for you! He'th fighting for your sake! He wore that mask for you! Even thought it hurts… He still fights!
…stop it… I'm not—
He raised Zangetsu in front of him. Tears multiplied, thickened. Her already broken heart was in pieces, and her mind was in the verge of cracking. Stop this pain… She had to stop this. She had to. She had to stop bringing pain to her friends… to Kurosaki-kun. Why did it come to this? She came to Hueco Mundo so that her friends, Kurosaki-kun…everyone would not get hurt, but what happened? Everything was ruined, everything was a big mistake! Her plan… backfired to her.
She had to stop this.
I had to!
Fighting the tremble of her legs, Orihime struggled to get up. She bit her lip, pushed herself up and determinedly stayed upright. Ishida, who caught her movement from the corner of his eye, stiffened in panic. He opened his mouth to tell her to stay where she was but she spoke in her tearful, broken voice.
She broke into an unsteady run.
"Please… Don't fight anymore! Don't get hurt anymore!"
Ishida sat up, horrified. "Inoue-san! Stay back!" But the girl didn't listen.
"Stop fighting! You don't have to save me… You don't have to try so hard… You don't have to win…" She sobbed. "Because… I…" Orihime steeled her resolve. This will hurt. It will… definitely… hurt. But she deserved it. She deserved this pain, the pain of acceptance.
"I… I… I'm not worth it!" Orihime screamed the last words so loudly in her broken, sad voice. Ishida watched as Kurosaki turned his head towards her running figure as soon as she released those words. However, there was a blinding light being released.
Ulquiorra! Ishida thought in horror.
"Inoue-san! Move back—"
A streak of light, of reiatsu. Lanza del relampago. Orihime looked to her right where the light was coming from. Ulquiorra—
A blur appeared before her. Startled, she looked up.
"Kurosaki-kun…—" Barehanded, he caught the lance of condensed reiatsu. Ulquiorra and Ishida were both stunned, although Ulquiorra hid his astonishment well.
Clawed hands closed around the lance. Deformed, the lance was tossed over Orihime's head carelessly. It flew in the direction of other towers, and as it hit, the pillars crumbled.
Orihime remained staring up to Kurosaki's half-masked face. Up close, his reiatsu was even more powerful, crushing her. But… he felt so warm. He wasn't looking at her, but at Ulquiorra's direction.
"Kuro—" Orihime gasped as the other half of the mask started to crumble before her eyes. Long hair receded and to her surprise, before her eyes, the hole in his chest started to close up.
"I'm sorry, Inoue."
Still wide-eyed, she looked up to his face. Still, he wasn't looking at her. After a few tense seconds, his head turned.
A sad, small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he glanced at her, his strange eyes shadowed behind his hair.
"I… scared you again."