A/N: Hello! I am Princess Kitty1, and when I wrote this story I was new to the Bleach genre but well-seasoned in others. I'd emerged from retirement to beat the dead Espada… I mean, pick on Ulquiorra, whom I miss dearly. This is the edited – and hopefully much improved – version of the first of my many Ulquihime fics.

This fic falls under dramady, meaning that if I did my job right, you will laugh one moment and cry eventually. :D Let's begin!

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or any of its characters.

Oz

By: Princess Kitty1

The Gas Station

When Inoue Orihime had signed up for The University of Phoenix's foreign exchange program, her mind had been filled with all sorts of romantic notions of America. In high school, she'd had plenty of friends who had visited the country and come back with crazy stories that had her imagination blazing. She wanted the adventure! She wanted the excitement! She wanted to embrace the new culture with arms open wide!

The glossy brochure had notinformed her that she would have to drive through the desert.

It had been hours since she had set out from El Paso, Texas, and nothing had changed. She could have sworn she'd seen that same cactus, that same rock formation, those same sand-colored mountains miles back. And the heat was insane! Perhaps the glossy red convertible that she guided down the rippling highway at a set speed of 70 miles per hour had not been such a good idea. Not to mention all the blowing dust…

But Orihime remained undeterred. She had come to America to feel the wind through her orange tresses, and damn it, she was going to do it!

"Eep!" she cried, ducking at the clack of a pebble hitting her windshield. Okay, maybe putting the top up would be a good idea. She could feel the wind through her hair later.

In the passenger seat next to her, a pet carrier with a blanket draped over its sides housed her faithful cat Yoruichi, who had made the trip across the ocean with her. She had been startled awake by the flying rock and sat wide-eyed, looking up at her mistress for reassurance. Orihime smiled at her. "It's alright. Nii-san promised me that it would only take two days to get there from El Paso." She looked back out at the road ahead, the endless expanse of rock and cactus and wide open sky. "Two days… of this."

When she got to her hotel tonight, she was going to hop online and make sure that everybody knew just how bleak the American desert was.

On the horizon, fluffy white clouds stretched up into the sky in billowing shapes that reminded her of an explosion. A bit panicked, she began to wonder if there had been a nuclear holocaust. Was she the only human left? No, impossible. There were other cars out on the road that passed sparingly, tearing up the road with no regard for the speed limit. Maybe they were speeding to get away from the disaster!

Wide-eyed, she turned on the radio and began flipping through the stations. Mostly static, punctuated by the occasional station playing Mexican music. Orihime frowned. She had studied her brains out to become fluent in English; no one had told her anything about Spanish, either.

Finally she settled on a pop station that came in and out as she passed rocky hills. No one was saying anything about a nuclear holocaust, so she could relax at least. Yoruichi meowed and yawned, laying her head back down on her front paws and closing her eyes. Up ahead, the sky was becoming a deep blue-gray color that mixed with the towering white clouds. The air seemed to be getting cooler as well. "Hmm. Maybe it'll rain," Orihime muttered as she checked her gas. The needle was dangerously close to the red E, but luckily, a passing sign promised an upcoming gas station. Her stomach growled noisily. Perhaps she would load up on snacks while she was at it, and she could take the opportunity to put the top up on the convertible before she got caught up in the rain.

The sign for the exit came so quickly that she nearly missed it, swerving onto the exit ramp and reducing her speed as she came to the intersection. The highway seemed to split here, a green sign listing three different cities with arrows pointing both ahead and to the right. She turned onto the smaller road and pulled into the gas station.

It was fairly big, probably the only one around for miles. There were separate pumps for the enormous trucks she had seen along the way, and the station itself boasted an eatery. She wanted to see what kind of foods the locals had to offer, but didn't trust her stomach to hold out for however many more miles it would take to get to the next city. "I'll be right back, Yoruichi," she told the sleeping cat and stepped out onto the dusty pavement.

The distant rainstorm was now close enough for Orihime to see that it was much bigger than she had originally thought. The blues morphed into lavenders and deeper grays, and from where she stood she could hear the rumbles of thunder it produced. She sighed, checking the gas pump. There was a friendly sign posted above the numbers: PAY INSIDE. "Oh, umm… alright," she muttered, grabbing her purse and striding purposefully towards the station.

A small bell chimed overhead as she entered, kicking the toes of her flip-flops against the welcome mat to clear her feet of dust. It was a normal gas station; rows of merchandise ranging from children's toys to canned goods, refrigerators stocked with beverages of all kinds, a rack of postcards with local wildlife and picturesque views of the mountains. Orihime browsed the selection of snacks, grabbing a shopping basket to load up. Candy bars, spongy cakes in plastic wrap, muffins… there was even a small selection of pet food. She grabbed a treat for Yoruichi and placed it in the basket, then picked some cold drinks out of the back freezer.

"Hay alguien afuera?"

"Mande?"

"Que haces? Necesito ayuda con estos frijoles."

"Son frijoles. Que demonios esta tan dificil que no puedes con eso?"

"Yo no te veo aqui cocinandolos!"

Orihime looked up curiously. There was a black-haired, dark-skinned boy at the register, sitting on a stool with his legs propped up on the counter, his gaze fixed on a magazine and a rickety looking fan blowing cool air straight into his face. He flipped a page, seemingly unbothered by whoever was yelling at him from the back. A radio next to his feet played the same cheerful Mexican music she had heard on what few channels she'd passed over.

Looking back down at the basket on her arm, Orihime quickly sifted through its contents to make sure she had gathered everything she wanted before walking down the aisle towards the cashier. He placed the magazine down and slipped off of the stool, not even making eye contact with her as she approached. He was almost a head taller than her. "Hello," she offered, then realized her folly. What if he didn't speak English?

"Find everything you needed?" he asked as he began withdrawing items from the basket and punching their prices into the old cash register. Orihime nodded and blushed, not trusting herself to say anything further. Idiot, of course he spoke English! And without the slightest hint of an accent, which was more than she could say for herself.

Suddenly, the music on the radio cut off, a shrill tone taking its place. This was followed by static and what sounded like a ringing phone, then another silence, and a voice began to speak.

"The National Weather Service in Albuquerque has issued a tornado warning for the following counties…"

The boy clicked his tongue and looked out the window. "Sounds bad. You're not going to drive through that, are you?" he asked Orihime, who blinked in surprise at the fact that he'd even addressed her. "It might be safer if you wait the storm out here."

"Oh, no, thank you!" She waved her arms sheepishly. "I'm in a bit of a hurry. I have to get to Phoenix, Arizona by tomorrow night at the latest or my older brother will have a cow."

"Hmm." The boy clearly hadn't paid attention to anything after no, thank you. "Will you be needing gas, too?"

Orihime nodded, craning her neck to see which pump she'd parked the convertible at. A flash of lightning made her jump. "Oh!" She held a hand up to her chest. "That was pretty scary!" But frightening or not, she needed to keep driving. She'd probably just get a load of rain dumped on her, which reminded her that she had to put the top up as well.

The boy placed her bags on the counter between them and handed her back her debit card. "Have a nice day," he said, picking up his magazine and turning to situate himself back on the stool. But the voice from earlier called out to him again and he sighed, side-stepping his perch and making his way to the back. Orihime smiled to herself as she pushed the station door open, then yelped as she was blasted by a chilly wind. She fought her way back to the convertible, placed the groceries on the floor and began wrestling with the top. Once she had secured it, she filled up her gas tank and went on her merry way.

It didn't take long for the rain to hit, causing a terrible racket. Yoruichi was wide-eyed again, meowing as Orihime struggled to keep the convertible in its lane. She could hardly see ten feet in front of the hood. "Don't worry, we'll get through this in no time!" she said to the cat.

Then suddenly the convertible pitched to the side. Orihime screamed. There was another violent heave, followed by the top of the convertible being ripped clean off with a snap. She gasped and grabbed Yoruichi's pet carrier, holding onto it for dear life as the car was thrown into the air, spinning and wheeling about in all directions. The seat belt constricted, sucking the air from her lungs. She couldn't breathe. Her head jerked backwards and hit the seat with enough force to send stars bursting across her vision.

Orihime squeezed her eyes shut as she was thrown around like a rag doll. Was she going to die like this, caught up in a tornado in the middle of the desert? Would the gas station guy find her mangled body pinned in the twisted and crumpled remains of her convertible the next day and shake his head pityingly, muttering an "I told you so" in Spanish?

But before Orihime could dwell on the subject much further, the convertible began to fall towards the earth below. She was hardly aware of the fact that she was screaming, still holding onto Yoruichi's carrier, not daring to open her eyes to see how far the tornado had thrown them. At the speed the car was dropping, it wasn't like she would have to worry about where she was landing anyway. The moment the wheels connected with the ground, the force of the impact jarred her into unconsciousness.

All she remembered thinking before she fainted was that, suddenly, it wasn't raining anymore.

To Be Continued