Phew! Another chapter! Thank you so much for the reviews, alerts, and favorites for this story! I'll try to work on the next chapter soon, but school has been kicking my butt lately with all this homework.
A loud, deafening roar pierced the sky and the source of the scream was a monster, a hollow attacking the city in the middle of the night.
From afar, the reason for its blood-curdling scream was nothing more than a small dot at its feet, but close up, one would see it was a familiar redhead, bent on making this battle her own.
Almost there...! she thought, biting her bottom lip in concentration. If she could beat this monster, it would be the fourth one this week where she 'cleaned up', to put it lightly, before Ichigo could arrive. She already felt quite proud of herself of getting this many on her own and this next one would only add to fuel her delighted feelings.
During the past week, it was obvious that she felt bad for Ichigo getting out of bed in the first place to cleanse the hollow's spirit, which meant he woke up for nothing.
A year ago, she wouldn't have been able to last five minutes, but now she was sending spirits to Soul Society all on her own. This new revelation was something to be celebrated and used, she thought.
Tsubaki zoomed around and struck the unusually large hollow once again, this time in the shoulder. The odd cry it emitted rang out into the sky once again as it attempted to take a swipe at the small, but powerful fairy.
Halfheartedly, Orihime recalled that day almost six months ago when Urahara determined that she could cleanse the hollows with her powers, almost like a shinigamis. She remembers being greatly enthused to hear the news that she could help without killing anything, despite the fact that the shifty shopkeeper had murmured off to suggest that she still shouldn't take on any by herself.
But Urahara couldn't just rain on her parade like that. He knew she was too excited about it all and he refused to bring that energy level down, especially if it meant she would train more in order to get to that point of taking the hollows on herself.
As she called forth her Santen Kesshun to protect herself from a rather powerful punch the hollow suddenly threw, she could feel herself wavering. Because of her reminiscing over the past revelation, her concentration faltered for a moment, inciting a fierce screech from her offensive fairy.
"Dammit, woman! Stay focused!" Tsubaki yelled, flying around erratically during Orihime's short moment of failure. After muttering a fairly quiet reply of understanding, she narrowed her brows as well as her concentration and willed her fairies to give it one last push to defeat the hollow.
She brought forth her Shiten Koshun, the power she developed only recently, and Tsubaki flew back to her and joined the other three fairies for the final attack. When the hollow would give her one last punch, it would force back the same amount of energy and would hopefully be cleansed. That plan had worked before on the hollows, giving her reason to think it would still work now.
Only, this time, a punch never came. Nor did a slap, kick, or anything else physical that Orihime would've expected. Something else came instead, something that made her eyes widen and her arms fall to her sides in sudden defeat.
I-I've never defeated a hollow that could use a cero before! She thought quickly, her mind racing. Should she call back her fairies and run? Or should she stay and will herself to stand by and try to repel the attack?
The blast of energy game too soon and Orihime only had enough time to bring her arms up to cover her face as the cero hit her Shiten Koshun. Even with her shield still up, the attack was quite taxing on her as the fairies tried to take in the overwhelming energy of the blast and reverse it right back to the hollow, along with just enough of her own power to cleanse it when it would strike back.
While her Shun Shun Rikka managed to return most of the attack to the monster and, in turn, caused the hollow to vanish in thin air per usual, the rest of the power of the cero had managed to blow her back, sending her body flying back against the wall of a rather close building. Her small form hit the hard surface and Orihime could've sworn she heard something crack when it hit.
Oh, how it ached when she hit that wall. Her head throbbed and throbbed, although she thought that was because she strained her powers too much this time, but her body seemed to hurt all over. She could only gasp raggedly as she tried to catch her breath after rolling into a less painful position, onto her front side, on the pavement.
I've been hurt worse, she told herself, willing her body to stand up. Her back seemed to scream in pain as she tried to stand up and head home, so she sighed and rested her cheek against the cool pavement and waited another moment. She didn't want to force herself up when she knew she couldn't move anyway.
She already knew she was going to be in trouble.
Even if she were to get up now and bolt for her apartment before she was found out, Ichigo would know she was here. She swallowed thickly and tried to still her spinning head as she sensed Ichigo's reiatsu getting closer and closer.
I should probably heal myself... she thought, pursing her lips. Orihime really wouldn't want to worry her friend over what felt like a small scratch and what would later be on heck of a bruise.
Still, her head seemed to be set on the 'merry-go-round' option and she felt that she and her fairies needed another moments rest. Pushing back that cero took more of a toll on her than she anticipated, but now she anticipated Ichigo getting mad at her, which was something she knew she'd have to push through.
In the back of her mind, she wondered what was worse to cope with: Ichigo's anger or a hollow's cero.
Orihime decided that Ichigo's anger was the worst of the two, because with his anger normally came great guilt on her end. So, she'd rather take a cero any day.
Although it was probably the worst place to rest and close her eyes, the healer felt she needed to stop for a moment and collect herself. Her heartbeat was playing a steady tattoo in her ears as she tried to clear her head, but she could still hear the approaching footsteps nearing her fallen form.
"Fuck," she heard the person grumble, the low voice immediately alerting her that he had arrived.
If she wasn't able to tell it was Ichigo from his reiatsu or the tone of his voice, she always knew he was one that swore like a pirate.
Orihime prepared a smile for her crush, despite her one side of her face still resting on the cold ground.
"Hello, Kurosaki-kun," she greeted him, her tone unusually warm considering her predicament.
"What did you do?" Ichigo asked, his reply rushed and laced with concern.
"Um... Hollow attack," was all Orihime could mutter, feeling her head starting to clear. It still amazed her how her mind and fairies could re-energize so much quicker than, say, a year ago. Cracking open an eye, she could see Ichigo on his knees next to her. She couldn't tell if he was merely inspecting her damage and or if he just didn't know how to go about helping her.
"Must've been one hell of a hollow," he grumbled. He tenderly reached out to touch her back, something she didn't expect him to do in the slightest. It made her face burn hotly and her heart race even faster, as she flinched involuntarily in place. Yet she couldn't tell if she moved because of his touch or the pain. "You're bleeding. Badly."
"I am?" Orihime asked, genuine surprise in her voice. She thought her back seemed slightly damp for some reason, but she figured it was just a small scratch that caused a little bit of bleeding.
He hadn't seen her flustered expression as he trailed a rather large circle on her back. "Yeah, almost all of the back of your shirt is ruined," he spoke while indicating the area with his traveling finger. "Do you think you can stand? We should get you to a bench or something, at least."
Orihime sighed, unsure of whether or not it was because of Ichigo's nonchalant touch or in preparation of getting herself off the cold pavement.
Regardless, Orihime shifted her hands underneath her and tried to push herself off the ground. Her head was slowing down and clearing up more, but she could still feel the merry-go-round in her head still going on.
She gasped at the aches and pains she felt as she at least got herself to a sitting position on the ground. She tried to hold the noises back, as she knew Ichigo was worried. His actions of holding onto her arms to help her up indicated that. She could also tell he felt tense, almost as if he wanted to help her out even more (perhaps carry her to the nearest bench like a bride, but that was far too much of something to wish for).
Orihime made sure to flash him a smile, pained or not, to reassure him that she would be okay.
"I can heal myself here," she murmured from her seat on the ground. Her back was killing her as she just sat on the pavement, she assumed standing up and making the journey to a bench of sorts would be the death of her.
Even though she'd told him she'd be on the ground to heal herself, he still held his hands out as if to catch her if she fell back to the ground. The look on his face, which was twisted and practically begging to say something but held it back, was something she couldn't help but giggle at, despite the ache in her body as the laughter emerged.
"Soten Kisshun," Orihime muttered, allowing her fairies to come out and heal her. They didn't seem nearly as tired as the rest of her fairies were, but she could still feel her head throbbing as she willed herself to keep using her powers. She made a mental note to herself not to push herself as hard next time.
"What exactly happened?" Ichigo asked, getting off his knees and taking a seat on the ground instead.
"Oh, well, the hollow knew how to fire a cero," she smiled and let out a tinkling laugh, to ease the situation. As the warm glow of her shield formed over her back, she began to grow more and more relaxed. "I've never seen one to that before."
Once Ichigo flinched in place, she could tell that she had said the wrong thing.
"You should've waited for me," he hissed, growing fairly angered over the fact that hollow hurt her as bad as it did. When he first showed up and saw her bloodied back, he thought he was going to lose it.
He could stand to see the blood of anything else, but Orihime was just not one of them.
"I... I didn't want it to go anywhere else and-" she stuttered, her voice growing quiet and her eyes falling to her hands in her lap. She was only trying to help, yet she always seemed to mess up somehow.
"-and it still bugs me that you get hurt," he finished, running a hand through his hair. Orihime didn't dare look him in the face because of those words, but she could tell he was embarrassed to say them. The tenseness in his voice said it all. "I don't mind fighting together, Inoue, but getting hurt and bleeding like this isn't okay."
She knew it wasn't okay. Getting hurt in general was never okay. But she could understand what he was trying to say. He wanted her to wait for him so they could both kick butt and come out safe and unscathed.
A warm smile grew on Orihime's face as she turned to face him now. A tinge of redness clung to his cheeks, which only made her smile grow bigger.
"Got it, Kurosaki-kun," she replied, amused to see him turning such a color. It clashed with his hair so oddly, it was funny.
After mentally determining that she was far too exhausted to continue healing herself, Orihime called back her fairies to their respective places in her hairpins. Her back wasn't quite healed up yet, but at least the bleeding stopped.
"Done?" he asked in curiosity, shifting himself in his spot. Her back of her shirt was still soaked in blood, but he told himself it was just leftover from bleeding before.
"Yep! All done," she replied, biting her tongue of the truth. He didn't need to know how she still hurt a little.
Standing up from her spot, Orihime noticed the lack of great pain that used to be in her back. While it still throbbed, it wasn't nearly as bad. The problem she'd need to worry about now was the jello-like feeling in her legs from using so much energy in fighting and healing.
"I guess I'll see you tomorrow, then?" she smiled, turning towards the direction of her apartment. She took one step, and that was all that was needed for her knees to give out on her and come falling right to the ground again.
Only, the ground never came.
Instead, she felt a warmness on her side, accompanied with a large, broad hand on her small waist. The warmness from him made her turn quite hot herself.
"Still a little tired?" he mentioned, a small smirk threatening to break out on his face. He found it somewhat... endearing to see her trying to hard (although he would later dismiss that the word used to describe her actions incredibly embarrassing and far from what he meant to say). Orihime blushed hard and nodded slowly. Perhaps she couldn't get away with as much as she used to.
Ichigo moved her hand to his back, instructing her to grab a hold of the fabric of his shihakusho there. She did as instructed and clung on, her movements flimsy and flustered. Ichigo kept a hand on her waist and smiled a little.
"Come on, I'll help you home," he told her, making his obvious plans said out loud. Orihime couldn't hear a word he was saying though, as she was too busy blushing and coming up with daydreams of how this could pan out once they got to her apartment. Something with the couches and ribbon.
Quietly, but comfortably, they both started walking towards Orihime's apartment, completely unaware from the set of eyes that were watching them from afar.
Ichigo tried to remain as quiet as he could as he crawled through his window. Below, on his bed, he could see his lifeless form, right where he left it. He hadn't expected it to move or anything, but it was always a relief to see it was right where he left it last.
Closing and locking the window behind him, soft footsteps also echoed into the room, causing the substitute shinigami to turn around and see who was coming into his room in the middle of the night.
"Ichigo?" they asked, the small form stepping into the glow of the moonlight. It was Rukia, rubbing her eyes and yawning, and clad in his sister's nightgown.
Sighing, Ichigo turned towards her and folded his arms across his chest. "Go back to bed, Rukia, the hollow is taken care of."
"You're getting faster," she grinned sleepily, resting her hands on her hips. "You used to take forever to defeat hollows. Now you're doing it before I can even wake up."
Ichigo grew silent as he turned back to the window to close the shades. Due to the sudden increase of darkness, Rukia shuffled her feet to his light switch and flipped the button to fill the room with the glow of fluorescent lighting. She had to take a few minutes for her eyes to adjust, as did he.
"Inoue took care of it before I got there," he told her quietly. On the inside, he was still beating himself up for not getting there quicker.
Rukia's eyes grew wide as she assessed Ichigo's form, but more importantly, his hands. "So that's her blood on your hands?"
Ichigo's heart practically stopped when he heard her and, in turn, he looked down to his palms and digits to discover that Orihime's blood had indeed been on his hands. It was dried by now, but he didn't even notice it when he helped her out earlier.
"I... guess," he choked out, already making his way to the bathroom.
Rukia followed after him in concern and he was already in the hallway, just outside the bathroom, when he stopped to face his shinigami friend. She was surprised to see the pain written all over his face. But not just physical pain, but emotional.
"Go back to bed, Rukia," he quietly ordered. He didn't want to deal with her any more tonight, especially since he knew she would question him further about what happened, eventually leading to fueling more guilt.
Thankfully, Rukia just nodded and returned to his sisters' bedroom, leaving him alone in the hall. He returned to the bathroom and didn't even bother to close the door. All he wanted to do now was to wash the blood of his hands.
He felt guilty about it earlier, not being there to help her before she got hurt, but now as her blood sat on his hands, he suddenly felt so much worse. He made a promise to Orihime to protect her before, and it was only recently that he backed off a little and allowed her to fight with him (which was something he found sort of uplifting for some reason).
Yet here he was, after defeating both Aizen and Ginjou, and he couldn't even save his friend from a measly hollow.
A measly hollow that knew how to fire a cero, he reminded himself as he noticed the discoloration wasn't coming off easily on his skin. Still, that little fact about the hollow's new power was something he'd need to talk to someone about. Maybe Rukia, maybe Urahara... Hell, even his dad might be someone worth talking about this new revelation.
For the time being, Ichigo could only do what he could and that was to defend the cities from hollows. Perhaps even more training could be in order.
But first, he needed to wash this guilt off his hands.