This is a complete AU. Humans, hollows, etc. all live in a seemingly endless desert.
They say that everyone who goes into the prison dies. That the guards last mere weeks before falling and never again rising. That the shadows lurking between torches are alive, are hungry. That for every step you take, there is another right behind you, waiting just long enough to be an impossible echo. Orihime knows all the rumors. She has spent thirteen days collecting as many as she can, pocketing them like coins into a growing deposit of hearsay mixed with truth. She has memorized the floor plans down to the seventh sublevel. She hopes it's enough.
Her hair, braided and then wrapped around her head so it does not fall down her back, seems too bright for the darkened corridors. In the flickering torchlight of the first sublevel, it glows like the fires she tries to avoid. The guards here are many; Orihime finds an open, empty cell and slides inside to wait.
She does not wait long. The earth rumbles. Dust and small stones rain down from the ceiling and the guards' composure is broken. They shout, run, abandon their posts. In the confusion, Orihime slips past them. She finds the main station of this floor and lifts a key from the rack.
She goes down.
The next sublevel is darker, the ceilings lower and the walls rougher. Fewer places to hide, but the shadows stretch out, offering cover where there should be none. Orihime slides around a pillar in the only open space this level has to offer, heart beating a staccato rhythm in her chest as a guard shuffles past. She only dares to breathe when the light from his torch disappears around a corner. Her own light comes from her hairpins, a soft orange glow that will disappear long before any guard sees it.
All the prisoners watch her. Unlike the guards, they are long used to the dark and see through the shadows Orihime tries to use. They do not speak. Most do not even move. Silent eyes trail her every step. Whatever steals the life from those who work here has only stolen the will from the prisoners, leaving them alive to rot in suffocating quiet.
Orihime shivers. She thinks she can feel it, a little: a weight on her back, a taint to the air that grows thicker the farther down she goes.
A guard rounds the far corner. Orihime's light dies and she presses her back to the rough stone wall. The occupied cells on either side are quiet. Orihime does not know if anyone is in them. She hopes not. The guard moves ever closer, his pool of light washing over the floor towards Orihime's feet. She presses harder into the wall. Her left shoulder finds an empty space—a hole in the stone, either natural or from a careless excavation. Orihime pulls herself up, finds another handhold, and climbs higher. Three feet. Four. Six. Seven. The ceiling scrapes her nose and she stops, muscles shaking.
The light plays with her shadow, stretching it as the guard approaches and, after a heart-stopping pause, recedes. He does not look up. He hardly even looks at the cells he is supposed to maintain. When he is gone, Orihime lets out a long breath and unfolds to her full height before dropping down. Her soft boots make little sound against the floor. Her right knee pops when she rises, but nothing reacts to the sound.
After making sure that the only guard in the station is well and truly asleep, Orihime swipes the next key and opens the door leading down. It creaks and groans but the shadows swallow the noise, muting it far faster than nature should allow. Something ominous settles on Orihime's shoulders, tracing small lines of fear down her spine. She presses on.
The third sublevel is only a little darker than the second. Its ceilings feel the same. The guards here are lethargic, their eyes glazed over. They still move, but they have all been here too long. Watching from the shadow of a support column, Orihime reflects that the same will become of her if she lingers. The source of it all is patient, breaking these men and women down one vulnerable piece at a time. Orihime, for all her purpose, is no different.
Everything echoes in the fourth sublevel. Her breathing is suddenly loud, her heartbeat deafening. Every crackle from a burning torch sounds like the cracking of a great tree. Orihime's ears ring from the clanging of her next key in the lock. She pulls on the door, bracing for what will surely be a deafening squeal.
The door is silent. Orihime slips through and goes down the steps on muted feet. This floor is the same as the last, only the cells are spaced so far apart that no prisoner has a chance of seeing the source of a noise. Orihime presses her nails into her palms to calm herself so she does not jump at every scuffle of stone on stone or bite her tongue when a guard shuffles past.
She makes it through and spends time in the stairwell, listening to the sound of her own breathing. Away from the main floor, it is not harsh, or raspy, or loud; it is quiet, familiar, safe. Her right hand goes to one of her hairpins, drawing comfort from its warmth.
In this pause, she reassesses. She did not sense her friend in any of the previous levels. If he has become little more than a shadow like the rest, Orihime knows this will have all been for naught. There is no coming back from having your soul drained. No recovery can replace what was lost. The guards know it. They speak of it often in the bars. Debating whether the job is worth the money it pays.
Orihime pushes off the wall. She cannot afford to linger, not for her sake and everyone else's. In the sixth sublevel, Orihime's orange light is the only light she sees. There are no guards here. She sees solitary cells rising like lonely dunes from a desert. Hers is the only power she can sense.
Pausing at the far door, Orihime glances behind her. The dark plays tricks on her eyes, creating monsters and creatures of many eyes and teeth where nothing but void can exist. There is no key stored here, but she has known that since the start. Orihime brushes a hand against the door and finds the lock. She kneels.
"Hinagiku, Lily, Baigon," she whispers. The three spirits separate from her clips and fly towards the keyhole. After a moment, they glow brighter and fly inside. The mechanism clicks, the spirits return to Orihime's hairpins, and the door swings open. A rush of cool air forces Orihime back a step. The air is cold, yes, but stale. The taint threads through it like smoke. Orihime holds a hand over her mouth as she moves through it.
The seventh sublevel is the last one she knows how to navigate. Its plans are simple: a massive cavern with tiny cells burrowed into the walls, going all the way up to the chamber's apex. No guards. No light. No sound. The taint, now a miasma, chokes the air. Orihime struggles to breathe through it.
She walks a carefully straight line from the end of the stairwell to the far wall, searching for any sign of the man she knows is here somewhere. This is his level. It must be. If it is not, then this really is a fool's errand, just like Uryū had said.
The far wall is inches from Orihime's eyes when her light finally reaches it. Nothing travels far on this level. Pressure from all the levels above stifles any disturbance. Orihime turns, puts her back against the wall—no cells here, just rock—and presses her lips together to suppress the trembling in her jaw.
He is here. He has to be. There is no way that a boy as bright as him got snuffed out by a place like this. If he did—
If he really did—
Orihime closes her eyes and tries to breathe evenly, but that focus only strengthens the taint and she coughs it out of her lungs. Eyes watering, she goes to one knee until she can breathe again. She wipes her eyes and stands straight, casting her senses out one last time. All she feels is the taint and the flickering souls still clinging to life in this wretched prison.
Is this it? Is she done here? She curls one hand into a fist and knocks it softly against the wall, the only sign of her frustration that she can afford to show. Miasma curls around her, tugging on her skin and clothes and hair.
That gives Orihime pause. When she pays attention and waits, the miasma truly does pull at her with patient fingers, and she realizes, then, her thoughts tumbling through her mind like cascading stones, that she has not been following her own instincts for the last several floors, that the determination in her stomach is not fueled by hope but by the prison itself.
Fear. It curls in her throat and presses on her ribs. She seeks comfort from her hairpins, and while their heat and light remains, they cannot undo what has been done.
Does she listen? Or does she turn back?
Stay, the miasma whispers. Follow. Search.
"Search?" Orihime repeats, her voice twining out from between her fingers. She takes a step almost without realizing it.
"Yes," it murmurs, a sweet and lingering promise. It leads her away from her path, off the straight line, along the wall in simple eddies that push her along a few feet at a time. Her anxiety grows distant, some greater power taking hold. She washes up against a wall unlike the rest. This one is smooth, carved in solid lines with a great seam down the middle.
Not a wall. A door.
"Open," the taint urges. "Open. Free."
"What's in here?" Orihime asks, but the taint gives no answer. It only begs for freedom. She puts one hand flat against the cool stone and feels the thrum of powerful seals at work. She never studied seals—never had the desire or the chance—but these feel impossibly strong. These doors will never be opened from the inside.
But Orihime is not inside. She is outside, and her spirits say they can reject the binds that hold these stone slabs shut. The seals facing out were meant to be undone. She may not have the key, but that does not matter.
She calls her spirits one more time. "Ayame, Shun'ō."
They stretch up and create an orange dome that spans the entire ten-foot door. The fairies grimace at the taint. It pulls back from them in tacit permission. As the dome works to reject the seals, the miasma ebbs and flows with surges of agitation tempered by the dark. The whispers of intent become a cacophony as the barrier fades and the doors swing open, missing Orihime by only a couple of feet in their arc.
This time, the rush of air does not come. The stairs that lead down are not at all worn by time or tread. The miasma is so thick it coats her mouth and throat, sticking to her skin like a coating of paint. With each step Orihime takes, the flavor changes. It grows sharper and the intrinsic twist that makes it so difficult to breathe begins to fade.
No light, just like the seventh level. Until this point, the eighth sublevel has only been a rumor among the guards. A folk tale. A warning. No more; Orihime walks through a sea of endless shadows. She can see nothing; the light from her hairpins does not stretch farther than the tip of her nose.
The taint—though that description no longer fits—guides her. The tug is now a push, then a shove, growing stronger and stronger the more she listens. She stumbles under the pressure, but it does not ease.
When the darkness clears, it does so all at once. Orihime freezes, the waves breaking against her rigid back. Chains like a spider's web hold fast a single kneeling figure. A collar around his neck glows with bright red light that sets his blood-streaked skin aflame. His orange hair hangs in sweaty strands over his bowed head. Orihime recognizes that hair even if she doesn't recognize the bone-white skin.
More seals. Her skin prickles from proximity, but she kneels next to the man anyway. She tries not to react to her surroundings, to the unbearable cruelty of this prison, but her left hand curls into a fist anyway. What kind of world would allow this?
"Ichigo," she whispers. Her voice barely reaches him. Waves radiate out from where Orihime kneels, disturbances in a place filled with centuries of silence. Ichigo does not respond. His limbs are slack, suspended in their chains without any resistance. Orihime gently raises his head. A forked black stripe stretches from his left temple all the way down his neck, covering his left eye completely. He does not wake.
Her heart aches for the boy in her memory, for his bright eyes and wide smile. Ichigo's skin is chilled to the touch, but a thready pulse beats under her fingers when she presses them against his throat. Each time she moves him, more waves emanate from the clinking chains.
The seals on each metal links burn when she tries to touch them. Her spirits come at her call, forming a tube around Ichigo's collar with the barest of separations between the orange barrier and Ichigo's skin. The metal ring flips through its stages of existence faster and faster until nothing at all remains. She repeats the process for all his restraints until none remain.
Ichigo collapses. Orihime catches him, falling back from the unexpected weight. She settles his head on her lap and brushes his hair away from his face. This close, she realizes that the taint was never a taint at all. It was Ichigo's power, twisted after so long spent contained in this hellish room. She squeezes Ichigo's wrist, searching again for a pulse. Her own heart beats a tremulous, uncertain rhythm.
"Ichigo," she says. "Ichigo, can you hear me?"
He does not stir, but something else does. Rumbling; it starts so quiet that Orihime hardly reacts, but then the darkness shifts, surges, retreats, and she is looking into a single, massive eye. The single slit pupil expands, wider than she is tall, into the sickly yellow iris that surrounds it.
It blinks sideways, then withdraws into the shadowy mists. Fingers shaking, Orihime reaches for her pins. Her spirits shoot out.
Something massive slams into the shield an instant after it forms, shattering it and sending Orihime flying. Ichigo's body rams into her after she hits the wall, driving the breath from her lungs in a sharp gasp. They both crumple to the floor, Orihime wheezing around what is certainly a cracked rib or two. Her spirits retreat back to her, alive but crippled. Her shield is lost.
A rescue ten years in the making, and she is failing in an instant.
"Tsubaki," she gasps. The fairy shoots into the dark, weaving around a massive shape. He disappears for several seconds at a time as he winds through the dark. Terror grips Orihime's heart. She cannot fight a creature this large.
As though sensing her thoughts, the serpent hisses, darkness spewing from its nostrils. Shrinking back against the wall, Orihime shakes Ichigo without tearing her eyes from the monster.
"Ichigo. Ichigo, wake up. Please wake up."
She does not know where the exit lies. Her head is full of fog. This darkness is noxious, filling her lungs and refusing to leave. She can hardly see—but she knows precisely when Ichigo wakes. His power slams into her harder than the serpent's tail did and consciousness snaps like a cut line.
It returns a second later with pain pounding a blinding rhythm through Orihime's chest and skull. She opens her eyes to see a creature standing over her, its eyes two seas of gold in a terrifying horned mask. The creature sees her stir. Its mouth opens and a primal scream shatters the tattered threads of silence still clinging to the prison. Orihime's eardrums rupture and the world slips from her grasp.
She wakes with her awareness in pieces and no sense at all of how long it has been since she was last conscious. Orihime opens her eyes but sees nothing. She cannot hear. Her stomach presses into the floor and her ribs are burning from the pressure. Some sixth sense warns her about something large looming in the space just in front of her. Orihime tenses, then moans quietly when her battered body protests. Her voice is only a vibration in her throat. She cannot hear it over the ringing. She moves to get up, pressing one palm into the rough ground, only to stop when something warm hits the ground nearby, splattering her face. It tastes foul and Orihime gags. Her chest heaves, the pain spikes, and she collapses.
When the orange-haired boy came to their village, he was alone. He wandered out of the endless sands in torn clothes and with blood on his teeth. He only knew his name and spoke nothing of where he came from. Orihime and her brother took him in with help from several other families. Sora taught Ichigo and Orihime together when he could and sent them to Tatsuki's home when he could not. He often could not; as a hunter, he had to join the other members of the party to scavenge food almost daily.
It was not a peaceful upbringing, but it was all they could give. Ichigo, Orihime, and Tatsuki grew close. He and Tatsuki especially became siblings in all but blood. Their circle of friends expanded to all of the children their age in the village. When Sora never returned from his final hunt, that small group of children became the only family Orihime had left. They were well-known to the adults, who humored their pretend adventures but kept constant watch over them.
Even with time's constant urging, the village never forgot Ichigo's origins or the crimson that stained his face. Only one kind of creature fed like that in the great desert, and for all that Ichigo was clearly not one of them, none could shake that fear.
The adults never shared that worry with their children. Ichigo became their de facto leader, marching through the town with a broken branch held high. The forest of withered trees became their favorite haunt; a small bridge stretched over the small ravine that separated it from the village. They are there now, and Orihime is trailing behind. She hurries to catch up, tiny legs smaller than she remembers.
Halfway across the bridge, Ichigo pauses and turns. "Orihime," he says, childish voice losing its youthful tenor. There is a man there now, a man with bone for skin and eyes like molten gold. His voice grows twisted, doubled back over itself. "Orihime, wake up."
Orihime opens her eyes. The man leaning over her does not have white skin. Nor are his eyes gold. Ichigo's achingly familiar amber eyes stare down at her, expression pulled taut with worry. She reaches up, one hand brushing his cheek.
"Ichigo," she breathes, then winces. At least she can hear herself, now, if only barely. Relief steals over Ichigo's face and he helps her stand.
"Try not to speak," he says, his own voice scratchy. Orihime struggles to read his lips when his words fade out. "I think you broke some ribs." She nodds wordlessly. "I've got a lot of questions once we're out of here. For now, do you know where the exit is?"
Orihime shakes her head, mindful of the way her brain feels unmoored from her skull. At least one of her ears has recovered enough to let her hear, but Ichigo's voice sounds tinny and distant, going in and out like a rock skipping over a pond.
"Guess that big snake tossed us both around." Ichigo peers into the darkness. Casting her gaze to the floor, Orihime realizes with a start that the light from her hairpins reaches her feet. In fact, it stretches for several yards beyond that. "It's dead, by the way."
The creature's carcass remains even if its life is gone. They pick their way around it with careful steps. Each time Ichigo takes more of her weight, Orihime wonders at his recovery. She remembers his pale skin, his sallow cheeks. What changed? She cannot recall anything after the monster attacked.
"I can't believe you came for me." When Orihime looks up at him—he is so tall, now—she sees his jaw set in hard lines, his gaze fixed straight ahead. Then he meets her gaze and his eyes soften. "It was dangerous. And reckless. Thank you."
She nods, chest swelling with pride.
They find the door. Orihime counts each step in her head on the way up: seventy-two total. Seven more floors. With one ear still blown out, her balance wavers. Ichigo keeps one arm around her for support.
Once she reorients, Orihime leads them both towards the surface, one sublevel at a time. The oppressive darkness of her descent is gone; while there is no natural light, Orihime's hairpins are more than enough to guide their way. Avoiding the guards with two of them—and with Orihime hardly able to walk—proves a challenge. Ichigo has to knock a couple out before they can sound the alarm, but somehow, they make it to the tunnel Orihime had used Tsubaki to dig.
"Can you make it?"
Orihime looks between Ichigo and the tunnel. She bites her lip. She speaks softly, carefully, feeling out each word. "I think so. Let me down."
He helps her to the ground. Orihime feels him watching as she inches her way back into the tunnel, following its slight curve upwards. Every time she brings a hand forward, flames race across her chest. She knows that, beneath the dark tunics Tatsuki had scavenged for her, she is a mess of welts and bruises.
One particular wave of pain brings with it a tide of dizziness. Orihime's right shoulder digs into the tunnel wall while she focuses on breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth.
"I'm okay. Just need a moment."
"You can make it."
Orihime spares a moment to reflect on the irony of Ichigo being the one to tell her this. She is not the one who had been imprisoned with a giant snake creature for eleven years. The thought is enough to get her moving again. She breaks the surface, pushing aside the scant cover of woven cloth and sand she and Tatsuki had pulled together in an attempt to hide the tunnel from any passing guard patrols. Orihime flops onto the ground, a few tears leaking out from her closed eyes.
Ichigo grunts as he hauls himself out. He stands there, his shadow falling over Orihime's eyes, for a long time. Orihime squints one eye open. "Ichigo?"
"Ah, sorry. It's just…it's been a while since I was last outside." He looks down at his hands with a frown before he shakes his head. Orihime watches his mouth, though she can catch almost every other word if she really tries. "Anyway, what's the plan now? I don't think I'm ready to go sand-surfing yet."
Orihime lets him help her sit up against a nearby rock. The ridge they emerged on is the only rocky outcrop in sight, and the only patch of solid ground near the prison. Tatsuki's diversions from earlier are still raging. The fires will continue to burn for hours yet, Orihime bets.
"No sand-surfing," she says, suddenly realizing Ichigo is still looking at her. She licks her lips and takes her time when she next talks to avoid that burning pain. "Tatsuki should've met up with Chad by now. They'll be picking us up from here. We just have to wait for them."
"Chad's here too?"
Orihime nods, then regrets it. She resolves to stop moving entirely. "Yes." She studies Ichigo as he sits down against his own rock, his expression contemplative. That image of him wasted away in his chains will not leave her mind. His condition—and she hates to think it, worries that she is being ungrateful—does not make sense. "Ichigo."
"What is it?"
"Are you…are you really okay?"
As he digests the question, Orihime notes that even the stripe that went over his left eye is gone. Only his clothes and hair match her memory of that first encounter. Ichigo's lips quirk in a painfully familiar half-smile. It is not quite the confident grin Orihime remembers, but it is an attempt.
"I'll be fine." He looks past her, out at the horizon, still taking in the landscape. Moonlight reflects off his eyes and casts light shadows across his face. "I do have a question, though."
"How long has it been?" He is looking at her, now. "You look…older. I almost didn't recognize you." One hand goes to his hair. "And I don't really remember growing my hair out this long."
"Oh, um, about ten years, I think. Or eleven? I'm twenty, so…so yes, eleven." Orihime runs through the numbers in her head again. She is not confident about her arithmetic—that is Uryū's area of expertise—but she is reasonably sure she has it right. Ichigo, though, is shocked to stillness. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, it just…It didn't feel like—" he bites his lip, gaze turning inward, a furrow between his brows. "Eleven?" he whispers.
Sensing his need to process, Orihime spends a minute scanning their surroundings. Way out to the east, a small plume of sand disturbs the otherwise straight line of the horizon. Orihime settles back down, taking a few shallow breaths until the fire in her chest dies down.
"They should've put some warning signs about the giant snake," Orihime mumbles. She pulled out one of her hairclips and runs a gentle finger over the chipped petals. They are slowly repairing themselves. In maybe an hour, Orihime will be able to heal herself. Replacing the clip, Orihime undoes the braid around her head and lets her hair fall down her back in a loose wave. She swallows, and her left ear pops a little. She can hear the wind washing over the rolling dunes. Orihime closes her eyes to the sound and lets it carry her away from the pain radiating throughout her body.
She opens her eyes. Ichigo is looking at her with something decidedly uncertain in his eyes. "Do you…do you remember what happened with that snake monster?"
Frowning, Orihime searches her memory. She broke Ichigo's chains, held him, and saw the snake's eye. She put up a shield, and then…nothing.
"I don't, Ichigo. I'm sorry. It hit me and then you woke me up. Why?"
He works his jaw in a sign of nervousness that Orihime has never before associated with him. "I…I don't really remember it either."
"No. I heard your voice, and then I was on top of that thing." He gestures to his clothes, which are soaked in blood and gore, with a grimace. "I kind of just assumed I killed it. But I don't know that I did."
Orihime stares. She does not know what to say to that. "You don't remember?"
"No. And I don't—I mean, eleven years? It wasn't eleven. There's no way. Two. Maybe."
"Ichigo, I really don't understand what you're saying."
He runs a frustrated hand through his hair, then scowls when his fingers get caught in its long strands. Yanking his hand free, he pauses in sudden realization, staring at his palm. "He wouldn't have," he mutters.
That seems to snap him back to the present moment, and he drops his hand. "Sorry. It's nothing."
Orihime does not believe him, but she figures pressing will get her nowhere. The disturbance on the horizon has grown steadily during their conversation. It will be upon them in minutes. Ichigo, following her gaze, looks to his left. "What is that?"
"Our ride home." Orihime manages a small smile. "No sand-surfing, I promise."
As the miniature sandstorm approaches, Ichigo helps Orihime to her feet and lets her lean against him. "How long have you guys been planning this?"
"Years." Orihime's voice is heavy with time. "We wanted to come and get you sooner, but we weren't ready, and the village needed us." She senses Ichigo's confusion and elaborates. "When you saved us from that massive hollow attack, your power affected everyone—I mean, everyone in our group. They took you away, but we all developed abilities. We knew we could use them to get you out, but we would need to be strong." She pauses for breath, her chest tight and hurting. She keeps talking anyway. "We trained as much as we could. Seireitei withdrew its protection, so we were the only defense the village had. Has."
Ichigo's grip on her shoulder tightens. His voice is a low, dangerous growl, and something about it causes the hair on the back of Orihime's neck to stand on end. "They abandoned us?"
She tries to draw comfort from his rock-solid presence. "We survived. We all got strong. And when we were sure we could leave someone behind and the village would still be safe, we came to get you." The sand cloud reaches them. "I'm sorry we couldn't come sooner."
Wind clears the air within seconds, revealing a massive worm. Ichigo tenses. "A hollow?"
"Relax, hotshot." Tatsuki drops down from the jerry-rigged saddle on the worm's back, her spiked hair streaked with soot. Her face is no better. "He's friendly. Ish." Her gaze falls to Orihime. "What happened? You're hurt."
"I'll be fine in a bit."
Another figure dismounts. Ichigo straightens, recognition lighting up his face even more than it had when he saw Tatsuki. "Chad. Chad, is that you?"
Leaving Orihime in Tatsuki's care, Ichigo and Chad embrace.
"He looks good," Tatsuki murmurs, adjusting the way she's wrapped her arm under Orihime's far shoulder. Orihime winces, but the new position is a little less uncomfortable than before.
"He does." But he did not before. That mystery still tugs at her thoughts, but she is too tired—and too relieved—to focus on it now.
"You're really hurt," Tatsuki says, giving her a critical look. She cannot see everything from her angle, but Orihime knows her expression is giving away all the pain wracking her nerves. "Come on, let's get you up to the saddle."
Tatsuki, Chad, and Ichigo work together to get Orihime up. She tries not to cry out at all the movement, but noises slip through her lips despite her best efforts.
"What happened to your spirits?" Tatsuki asks, settling Orihime in among the softest bags of supplies.
"There was a big snake."
Tatsuki shakes her head, arranging the nearest bag just so. "I appreciate your imagination, but maybe now isn't the time for tall tales. Was it a hollow?"
"That thing was no hollow," Ichigo says with a grunt as he hauls himself up. He sits by Chad, who reaches over the saddle's raised sides and gives the worm a hearty slap. The ropes that loop through its serrated maw quickly go taut when it moves. "It was in there a long time before I showed up. It was something ancient."
Orihime shivers, the mental picture of that giant eye flashing through her mind when she next blinks. "I'm glad it's dead."
"So this snake attacked, but you managed to free Ichigo, and he killed it?"
Orihime exchanges a look with Ichigo, then nods. "Yes."
"Is that where the blood is from?" Chad asks, nodding at Ichigo's soaked clothes and skin. Ichigo prods the particularly drenched spots with a queasy frown.
"It was an intense fight. I don't remember every detail." He brings one hand up to wipe at the blood on his face, but it does nothing but smear the splotches not yet dry.
Orihime frowns. As Ichigo says something else to Chad, she can see something dark in the corner of his right eye. That darkness spreads, tiny tendrils creeping farther along his sclera.
"Something the matter?"
Tatsuki's voice pulls Orihime's attention away form Ichigo. When she sneaks another glance, the strange darkness is gone and Ichigo's eye is normal again. "No, nothing at all." She is tired and seeing things. She needs rest. "I think I'm going to get some rest. My spirits will be able to help me in half an hour or maybe a little more. Wake me then?"
"Of course." Tatsuki gives her an encouraging pat on the head, gentle on account of her injuries. "And, by the way, good job. I knew you had it in you."
Orihime's pleased smile, although dulled by pain, is genuine. She shifts a little and closes her eyes, searching for sleep amid the pain. It comes in fitful spurts. She steals odd dreams when her injuries do not drown out all thought. Voices, indistinct with her mind so sunken into exhaustion, parade in and out of her awareness. A deeper sea lurks just a little farther down. It promises true relief from the pain, the kind of sleep that lasts for days. Orihime reaches out. The surface ripples out to infinity at her touch. It feels cool, like water. Her hand goes under, then her elbow. Her head makes contact, the sea disappears, and she opens her eyes with a gasp.
"Whoa, Orihime, careful—"
Too late. Agony screams up and down Orihime's nerves, rendering her mute from sheer overload for several seconds. When it clears, she lets out a quiet moan. Her spirits, finally recovered, dart out from their pins and surround her in a soft orange glow. The pain grows steadily worse, spikes, and then disappears entirely. Sound rushes back in from both sides, bringing with it short-lived vertigo. She opens her eyes to Tatsuki leaning over her, Chad and Ichigo looking on with concern.
"I'm okay," Orihime says. When Tatsuki's worry does not fade, she sits up and waves her hands. "See? All better!"
"That's some power you've got," says Ichigo. "Are you completely healed just like that?"
Nodding, Orihime gestures to her hairpins. "I can reject injuries."
"She practically turns back time," Tatsuki comments. "It's pretty incredible."
"What about you, then?" Ichigo asks, turning to her. Tatsuki looks away, scratching her cheek.
"Let's just say I'm really good at blowing things up without getting blown up myself."
Chad does not need to be prompted. He lifts his left arm. "I gained the power of a giant in my arm."
Orihime is looking at Ichigo when Chad says that, and so she catches the minute flinch Ichigo quickly hides behind a smile. "That's great. I'm proud of all you guys. You sound like you really pulled together after I left."
His brave face is full of cracks. Tatsuki sees them too and shoots Orihime a worried look. They grew up without Ichigo, that is undeniable, but they still want him back. They would not have come all this way if they believed otherwise.
What goes unsaid is the fear. They all saw what happened that day. The secret of Ichigo's initial appearance in the prison sticks in Orihime's throat. She cannot say it; if she does, even Tatsuki and Chad will not be able to ignore the truth the way they all have for years. Their friendship with Ichigo is precious. They would not be who they are without him. At the same time, the village's memory is long, and even children, in time, pick up on what adults try to hide.
Orihime watches Ichigo laugh at something Chad says. He appeared in their village with blood on his teeth. Now, his whole face is stained.
They stop at the only oasis for miles. It sits about halfway between the prison and their village. By the time the worm hollow Chad wrangled rumbles to a stop, everyone is sweaty, dusty, and tired. Orihime slides down the side. Ichigo is already on the ground, and he catches her easily. He repeats the process for Tatsuki. Chad stays on the worm for a minute. He was the one who caught and trained it. Once he is sure it will not run, he joins them by the nearest pool.
"Oh, no," Tatsuki says, pushing Ichigo towards a second, smaller pool. "I am not going in the same water as you until you get that gunk off you. No way."
Ichigo's halfhearted protests do nothing to dissuade her, and she eventually shoves him right in, clothes and all. His yelp cuts off with a splash. Brushing some residue off her hands, Tatsuki removes her outer clothes and slides into the other, cleaner pool with a contented sigh. Orihime follows suit. Luckily, they had dressed with this pit stop in mind: Orihime and Tatsuki are both wearing wraparound bras and underwear that resembles shorts more than anything. Chad simply wears his boxers.
For a desert, the water is remarkably cool. It ripples silver under the moonlight that will continue for several months before it bows to the sun. Orihime dips her head. Her healing bubble also got rid of the snake's blood on her face, but it still feels good to rinse off.
Tatsuki lets out a sigh of contentment. She has rubbed away the soot and ash. Orihime looks past her to see Ichigo in the other pool scrubbing his clothes. He doesn't notice her looking, too caught up in his cleaning. He has stripped off his robe, leaving only loose shorts the prison must have given him before throwing him into the dark. Scars decorate his back and arms, some of them familiar, some of them not. Evidence of experiences Orihime was not there to share.
Ichigo goes still. Orihime, suddenly very aware of how long she has been staring, feels the blush warm her face. She goes to look away, but pauses when Ichigo lets go of his robe and brings a hand to his face, staggering in the water. Before Orihime can do anything, though, he stands straight again. His shoulders are still tense, but after several more seconds, his hand falls.
Only then does he turn and see Orihime still—still, she realizes—staring. She quickly looks away, face on fire, and sinks into the water. Tatsuki raises and eyebrow and Orihime just shakes her head, blowing bubbles to distract herself from the thoughts in her head. This is so very much not the time for those kinds of feelings.
When she goes fully under the water to rinse her hair one last time, she cannot get the image of Ichigo's gold-on-black eyes out of her head. Her heart wants to believe it was a trick of the light, a reflection of the moon off the water, a product of her exhausted state. Her mind knows better. Still, as she dries off and watches her friends do the same, she cannot bring herself to say it. She avoids looking at Ichigo as much as she can, heart twisting. Surely it is not true. She is mistaken. She must be.
Chad's declaration snaps Orihime out of her thoughts. She follows his outstretched finger to the southern horizon, where a great wall of sand—far more than their worm can kick up—obscures the lowest stars. She takes a step back on instinct, anxiety pooling in her stomach. "Hollows," she says.
"There's gotta be a hundred of 'em." Tatsuki's voice is tight with apprehension. "They must've sensed us when Orihime used her power. We gotta go. Now."
They pack up and throw themselves back onto the worm. It keens before moving, fighting against Chad far more than before. "It knows the other hollows will eat us," Chad grunts. The muscles in his arms bulge with effort as he wrangles the creature. "Then it will be free."
"If we can get to the village, we'll stand a chance," Tatsuki says. "Can we outrun them?"
Chad says nothing, and the glance he shoots Tatsuki's way is not confident. Tatsuki sits back, attention falling on the trailing horde. She is chewing her bottom lip in worry. Orihime shuffles over to her side, trying to be supportive, but they all know what will happen if they are caught. Tatsuki puts one arm around her shoulders. The truth goes unspoken: as strong as they are, that many hollows will either wipe them out or weaken them so severely that they will be easy prey for whatever comes next.
Ichigo suddenly groans, bringing both hands up to his head. "Ichigo?" Tatsuki says. Her tension causes her to accidentally pull Orihime even closer, but Orihime hardly notices. The worm beneath them bucks. Chad barely keeps it under control.
"What's going on?" Chad asks, twisting around to check on them. His eyes go wide. "Ichigo?"
"Drop me," Ichigo gasps. His voice is strange and double-toned. Orihime shivers.
"Drop you?" repeats Tatsuki. "Are you kidding? That's a death sentence. Tell us what's wrong, we can fix it. Are you injured? Orihime can heal—"
"No!" Ichigo interrupts, finally looking straight at them, hands away from his face. They all freeze. His irises are molten gold, his sclera black as the night sky above. He sees their reactions and quickly looks away, hands balled into white-knuckled fists. "I have to go. I can't keep—" he stops abruptly, doubling over as though struck. The echo to his voice grows stronger. "I can't hold him."
"Him? Who is he?" Tatsuki lets Orihime go, watching Ichigo like he is caged animal. "Talk to me. What's going on in there? Who are you holding back?"
Orihime's eyes flick down to Ichigo's arms. His skin is turning as white as the sands below. White as bone. White as a hollow's mask.
Ichigo does not answer Tatsuki. Instead, he stands on shaky legs and, before anyone can stop him, throws himself over the side. Orihime and Tatsuki rush to the rail in time to see him disappear under the dust cloud the worm has kicked up. "Ichigo!" Orihime cries, but it is no use. He is gone.
"We can't stop," Chad says, voice pained. "If we do…"
Tatsuki's jaw is set. "We came all the way out here. We can't abandon him."
"Tatsuki." Chad's voice is level, even if his grip on the worm's reins is tight enough to make his hands shake. "If we stop, we die. Uryū will have no one to help him."
The air shifts. Orihime, halfway through her inhale, chokes and devolves into a coughing fit under the sudden pressure. Tatsuki and Chad are pinned in place, but Orihime gets herself under control and looks back at where Ichigo had fallen. She recognizes this feeling. It is almost exactly what the prison's taint felt like, at least once she got close to Ichigo. It is his power, magnified tenfold. Unable to stand it, the worm roars. Chad loses control and all three of them are thrown to the ground as the worm rips off the saddle and burrows into the sand, quickly disappearing from view.
Orihime, bruised but alive, coughs and spits until she can breathe again. She staggers to her feet, seeing Tatsuki and Chad also rising from where they'd landed. Sand tumbles from her shoulders and hair in dry waterfalls. They gather by the discarded saddle and Tatsuki sums up what they are all thinking: "Not good."
"We still have most of our supplies," Chad noted.
"Supplies won't do us any good once those hollows catch us. They've probably already reached Ichigo." Tatsuki winces as she says it, realizing how harsh it sounds. They all go quiet, looking at the approaching storm with varying degrees of resignation. Tatsuki frowns. "I can still feel him, though."
Orihime perks up. "Me too."
"So can I. He's still alive."
Without the worm throwing sand into the air, they can look back at its massive trail. Wind will eventually blow it away, but for now, it is easy enough to see.
"There," Chad says, pointing. Tatsuki and Orihime land on what he sees a second later: a lone silhouette of a standing figure.
"Is that him?" Tatsuki mutters, squinting. "It doesn't look right."
They may not be able to see detail, but they all hear it when the creature roars. The shockwaves a second later. Orihime stumbles, nearly falls, and catches herself in time to receive a second blast of sand. Blinking it out of her eyes, she brings one hand up to her pins and puts out a shield to protect them from the weaker follow-up waves.
"That's a hollow," Tatsuki says. Her voice is shaking. "And if it's that small—"
"Vasto Lorde," Chad finishes grimly.
Orihime presses her lips together, the weight of the knowledge on her shoulders finally becoming too much to bear. "It's Ichigo." She senses more than sees Tatsuki spin to look at her askance.
"It's him. I didn't tell you guys but…" she pauses, rallies, "when I first saw him in the prison, his skin was white, he had a black stripe on his face, and the whole place felt like a den of hollows." She had not thought so at the time, but looking back, the truth behind Ichigo's power—its ominous nature, the way it seemed to gather around her—is obvious.
"You didn't think that would be important?"
"I'm sorry!" Orihime blinks away tears. "I just wanted to bring him home, okay? And after the snake monster knocked me out, he looked fine, I thought—I thought that maybe I was just imagining it. I imagine a lot of things." Her voice breaks. "I wanted it to just be my mind playing a trick on me."
Chad puts a hand on her shoulder and squeezes. He does not have to say anything for Orihime to understand that he would have done the same. Tatsuki, the more verbal of the two, sighs and looks back across the sands. "You guys found out about Ichigo's history too, right?" It is something they have never discussed, but Chad and Orihime nod. "You remember all those times he cut our adventures short or disappeared for a bit?"
"I thought he was just hanging out with someone else for a while," Orihime says. Tatsuki shakes her head.
"He wasn't. I got curious one time and followed him home. He got halfway there, then doubled back to the forest. He went deeper than we were ever allowed to go. Then he started talking to himself, and I got the same feeling I've got now. Hollow reiatsu. He was dealing with this from the start."
"You don't think…" Orihime trails off, her stomach turning. The barrier in front of them flickers. She sets her jaw and it stops. "You don't think that he—that he ate the snake, do you? I couldn't really see anything in the dark, and we left so quickly, but that's what hollows do to survive, right?"
"He was covered in its blood," Chad notes, a troubled light in his eyes.
Tatsuki brings a hand to her temples. "His face especially. What was that he said? 'I can't stop him'?"
"What are you saying?" Orihime asks, flinching when another distant roar rocks the air.
"I think that, if we survive this and he survives this, we'll need to talk. If he doesn't eat us first."
Two things happen more or less at once: the first is the reemergence of the worm hollow, now returned for vengeance; the second, an explosion in the distance so great and so bright that it drowns out the stars. Orihime dives out of the way of the worm hollow's rush. Tatsuki ends up next to her, and Orihime throws up another shield as the explosion's shockwave hits them. Orihime grimaces. She is down on one knee, both arms held out in an effort to boost her shield's strength.
To their right, the worm hollow lets out an ear-piercing shriek and crashes to the ground. Chad lands and rolls, coming to his feet nearby, his shield arm held up to protect his face from the last of the explosion-fueled sandstorm.
Tatsuki, after a glance at the worm to make sure it is dead, brushes sand out of her hair. She does not tear her gaze from where smoke is still billowing into the sky. "What in the hell was that?"
"A cero," Chad says after a beat. "He's charging another one."
Orihime can barely see the red light forming by Ichigo's head before it widens into a beam. An instant later, a massive dome of fire ruptures the landscape. With Orihime's shield already up, they weather the aftereffects without issue. No more ceros come; whether the hollows are dead or Ichigo is out of energy, Orihime does not know. As the horizon quiets down and no more attacks come, Tatsuki slips away and starts going through their supplies, organizing them into essentials and non-essentials. Smoke from the distant battle has scattered across the sky, dimming even the brightest stars. Only the moon shines freely.
"We'll only be able to carry so much," Tatsuki says when Orihime and Chad join her. "Since we already packed light, it shouldn't be too much trouble, but we have days of walking ahead of us." She pauses with her hand halfway into her backpack. "If Ichigo doesn't kill us."
"He won't," Orihime says.
"We don't know that for sure."
"He left me alive."
"There was a giant snake monster right there. He probably gorged himself on that before he thought about eating you."
"It is strange, though," Chad says, frowning at a bag of dried meat. "Humans don't turn into hollows. Hollows don't turn into humans." He lets his statement hang. "We can't say anything for certain."
Tatsuki glances over her shoulder. A couple smaller explosions have stirred the wind, but Ichigo has fired no more of those world-ending ceros. She cannot see anything except a mass of something darker than the sky on the horizon. Over the past hour, clouds have slowly drifted across the sky, dampening the moonlight and casting deep shadows. They rely on Orihime's hairpins to finish packing their things. Orihime shoulders her pack, stands, and hesitates. "Should we wait?"
"Depends," Tatsuki answers. "Do you want to get eaten by the guy we grew up with or by some total strangers?"
"Tatsuki," Orihime says, sharper than intended, and Tatsuki has the decency to look ashamed.
"Someone's coming." Chad's warning brings them all to attention. Orihime recalls her spirits. She wraps one hand around a strap on her bag. Do they run? Do they stay? Is the person approaching Ichigo or some other hollow that won the fight?
"I can still feel Ichigo's reiatsu," Tatsuki mutters. "That's gotta be him." Orihime swallows, nervousness pooling in her stomach. If those ceros were really Ichigo's, there is no point in running. They would never stand a chance of getting away. Fighting is equally pointless. If a giant snake monster and a hundred hollows cannot bring him down, then what chance do they have? They are just some kids from a village way out in the sands. They cannot fight a hollow of legendary power.
"Too late to run." Tatsuki is gripping both straps of her bag, her eyes fixed on the approaching figure. Chad grunts. He has two packs, but they are both at his feet. Orihime copies his example and lowers hers to the ground, even though she was drawing a small amount of comfort from squeezing the rough burlap.
"It was…it was really nice to go on this adventure with you guys," Orihime says quietly. "I had a lot of fun."
Tatsuki glances at her, resolute expression unraveling at the edges. "Yeah, I did too. I mean, we did stage a successful prison break out of the worst prison in this whole world. That'll count for something."
Chad looks down at necklace he is rubbing between his fingers. He says nothing, but his eyes are far from empty.
A cloud drifts in front of the moon, plunging them all into darkness. Orihime's hairpins provide enough light for them to see each other. "Orihime," Tatsuki says, "cut the light."
"We're a beacon in the dark with them shining."
The night becomes absolute, but only for a moment. As Orihime peers into the black where she knows Ichigo is, she sees something: two points of gold swaying back and forth. It is almost hypnotic, the cadence constant and unchanging. Tatsuki's voice is a sudden snap to reality: "You guys are seeing it too, right?"
"Yeah," Chad says, and Orihime echoes his affirmative.
"His eyes were gold," Orihime realizes.
"I—I remember. In the prison, his eyes were gold."
Tatsuki sighs. Orihime hears her slide her foot in the sand. "So we can see him coming, I'm sure he can see or smell us or something, and now we know he's still a hollow." Her foot stops. "I gotta admit, this is looking pretty bleak."
Orihime reaches blindly for Tatsuki's hand. She finds it, and they both try to find comfort in the familiar grip. "I'm scared," Orihime whispers. "Ichigo wouldn't do this."
"He isn't himself," Chad says. "When he reaches us, you two run. I'll hold him off."
Tatsuki's hand goes rigid. "Don't be stupid. You won't stand a chance against him, and I'm not taking a cero to the back as my way out. We go down fighting. We go down together."
The cloud clears the moon and silver light floods back over the dunes. It comes from behind Orihime, casting her shadow just barely in front of her and then pulling back the curtain of shadow from the rest of the desert. With Tatsuki's hand squeezing the life out of Orihime's fingers—and with her returning the favor—Orihime tries to keep breathing evenly as Ichigo crests the closest dune. He is less than a minute away from them.
Tatsuki draws in a sharp breath. Chad goes stone-still.
It is Ichigo, and it is not Ichigo. The orange hair is still there, but his skin is that eerie, unnatural white. A mask hides his face, and two wicked horns just out from either side of his head. Tufts of red fur cover his wrists, ankles, and neck. Most prominent, visible between the fluttering scraps of his ruined clothes: a gaping hole in his chest, emphasized by thick black markings.
He slows some fifteen yards away, staggers one step, and then stops entirely. This close, Orihime can see the claws where his nails should be. A few of them still have hollow blood breaking down into reishi on them. His eyes, yellow in the full dark, are now yawning black pits in his mask. He does not speak, and that is more unnerving than the roars that carried across the desert.
"He's not attacking, at least," Tatsuki whispers. A second after she speaks, Ichigo sways and then falls. His body sends up a small puff of sand. Orihime stares. Ichigo does not rise. Instinct kicks in and Orihime darts forward, heedless of Tatsuki's cry for her to wait and Chad's warning.
"Ayame, Shun'ō!" Orihime orders. The spirits hesitate for the first time but still fly out. She kneels next to Ichigo's body, hovering hands finding no injuries. Is the hollow hole an injury? Can she reject it? Her spirits say no, that it is part of him. They do say that he is extremely malnourished, and that they can reject that, at least.
Chad and Tatsuki arrive as Orihime begins her healing. All three of them watch in mute shock as Ichigo's limbs regain their color. The white flows back towards his chest like water. Even his mask loses its solid form and goes down to fill the hole. As that section of his chest returns to its normal hue, Ichigo groans. He still has that black stripe on his face, but the longer Orihime holds her technique, the fainter the stripe becomes, until, finally, it fades to nothing.
The dome flickers and vanishes. Orihime falls back, but Tatsuki is there to catch her. Sweat streaks Orihime's brow, but the healing is done. She tries to think through what her spirits said to her.
"I think," she says, "that this…the hollowfying, I mean…I think it's because of hunger." When she receives twin looks of confusion, Orihime scrambles for an explanation. "It's just that my spirits, um, they were saying that they can't, well, heal the—" she makes a vague gesture—"but they could heal his malnutrition, because I guess he wasn't eating well." She bites her lip. Tatsuki is frowning at Ichigo, who has yet to stir beyond that initial groan. Chad, meanwhile, nods.
"It would make sense that one snake is not enough to make up for eleven years of starvation."
Starvation. The word hangs heavy in the air.
Tatsuki chews her lip for a second. "That time I followed him was during the lean cycle."
"So it's hunger that brings this on." Chad goes down on one knee, scrutinizing his oldest friend. As the only other outsider in the village, arriving only a month after Ichigo, he and Ichigo had bonded quickly. That connection had only deepened with time—but after so many years untended, its true shape has become shrouded in doubt. "He never mentioned being hungry."
"He was too stupidly selfless for that," Tatsuki mutters. "Always worrying about us first. You in particular." She nods at Orihime.
"You never noticed? Whenever there was trouble, you were the first one he asked about."
Orihime looks down at Ichigo. Those times spent parading through the village and forest together seem so far away, now. "I guess he did," she murmurs.
Ichigo's eyes move beneath their lids, his fingers twitch, and then he is wide awake. He shoots to his feet and then, when the blood rushes to his head, almost goes right back down. Chad has moved with him, though, and grabs Ichigo's arm in a steadying grip. Eyes wild, Ichigo at first tries to throw off Chad's hand.
"Ichigo," Chad says. "It's us. You're safe."
Slowly, over the span of many panicked breaths, Ichigo calms down. The last of the black bleeds out of his eyes and he finally seems to recognize them when he meets their gazes. "Chad, Tatsuki, Orihime." He blinks. "You're all okay." He looks down at himself, bringing one hand to his chest, palm stretching over where his hollow hole used to be. "I'm okay."
"If you call throwing yourself off a giant worm, going on a rampage against a hundred hollows, and then collapsing 'okay,' then sure," Tatsuki says, "you're okay." She crosses her arms. "Since I'm sure your reiatsu has chased away everything in a thirty-mile radius, I think it's time you start talking."
Ichigo looks at all of them, not searching for a way out, but evaluating. He cocks his head as though listening to someone, and then gestures for them to sit. "This isn't something you should be standing for."
Tatsuki scoffs but obliges. "We've already figured most of it out."
Ichigo raises one eyebrow. "You really think so?"
"You turn into a hollow when you get hungry."
"It wasn't a lean cycle," says Chad. "Not when those hollows attacked."
"Okay, so he turns into a hollow when he's hungry or in a fight." She turns to Ichigo. "Well?"
He absently toys with some loose cloth on his robe. "You're right, but you're missing a lot, too."
"Then at least tell us how long you've been like this."
Ichigo's lips quirk but the humor does not reach his eyes. "As long as I can remember."
"So when you came to the village…"
"I'd turned into a hollow on the way because of hunger, yeah. Normally it's fine. I can remember what happens and I have a little say about what we do."
Orihime frowns, speaking up for the first time. "We?"
"Yeah." Ichigo shifts a little. He is silent for a little too long, and then frowns. "No, I'm not—no." He sighs. "Okay, to explain this, I have to start at the beginning. What I remember of it, anyway. I was really young when my dad told me all this, so I might not be remembering everything perfectly." He gathers his thoughts and sits a little straighter, and the command not to interrupt goes unspoken. "My family is from a small village even farther out in the dunes than this one. No Seireitei protection at all. Before I was born, my mom was attacked by a strange hollow. It burrowed into her and stayed there. Her soul would've killed itself to get rid of the infection, so my dad went to a shady scientist he knew for help. They stabilized my mom, but they couldn't get rid of the hollow completely. They thought it was dormant, or something.
"When my mom had me, things were fine at first. I had two younger sisters, too." He stops, years-old pain surfacing before he pushes it down. "Things went wrong a little after they were born. I started hearing a voice in my head. I was hungry all the time, even after big meals. I sometimes blacked out and woke up somewhere else. People's animals started to go missing, stuff like that.
"My dad was the one who suspected what was going on, but we didn't know for sure until he took me back to that scientist. The hollow that had infected my mom had also infected me. It was different, though; instead of being a foreign thing, it had basically merged with my soul. We were one…one entity, I guess, instead of two. I die, he dies, and vice versa, so he got pretty interested in my survival."
A cool wind pushes Ichigo's hair into his face. He scowls at it. Chad reaches into his bag and passes him a knife. "Thanks."
Tatsuki watches Ichigo work for several seconds before she sighs and gets up. "Stop, stop." She reaches out a hand and Ichigo gives her the knife. "You're hopeless."
With Tatsuki working on trimming his hair to a reasonable length, Ichigo picks up his story. Orihime keeps her eyes on Tatsuki, noting that, even as focused as she is on his hair, she still pauses sometimes when Ichigo speaks. "Once we figured out what was happening, my parents and the scientist guy tried to train me to control myself. It kind of worked, and as long as I got more food than normal, I stopped blacking out." He looks down, knitting his fingers together and pressing hard against his knuckles. "When I turned six, a bunch of hollows attacked our town. I don't remember what happened after they reached our house. When I came to, everyone was dead."
"Everyone?" Orihime repeats in quiet horror. Ichigo nods, only to freeze when Tatsuki makes a warning noise. He mumbles an apology and then continues.
"I looked for survivors, but there were none. I buried my family and whatever remained the rest of my village and headed into the desert. Thought I would die there, but I found your village, and after how nice you all were to me, I couldn't just leave. I figured I could keep myself under control."
"Until the hollow attack," Tatsuki mutters, trimming a particularly long section of hair that drifts down to the sand.
"Yeah. Until that. I couldn't stand the thought of that slaughter happening again so I just…headed towards the fight."
Orihime absently brushes one hairpin. She will never forget the sight of Ichigo that day: shoulders resolute, yelling at them to get back even as he runs towards the overwhelmed Shinigami trying to protect their village from an army. His skin going white, the tail—
"You don't have a tail anymore," she realizes, and then goes red when everyone turns to look at her. "I mean, you did that day, but not…here."
Ichigo blinks. "Huh. I guess you're right. I wonder why…" He trails off, gaze turning inwards, and then refocuses. "Something about hollow evolution, probably. Not sure myself."
"So this…hollowfication," Tatsuki says slowly. "It's because you're…part hollow?"
"Basically." Ichigo scratches his cheek. "When you broke me out, Orihime, I was…I was way past reason." His hand falls to his stomach, twisting the fabric. "If that snake monster hadn't been there, I…" He looks at her, and Orihime's heart breaks at the guilt and shame and fear that fills them. "I never wanted to put you guys in danger like that. I swear. I just couldn't walk away from the life you offered. I get that if you don't want me here anymore—"
"Shut up, you idiot," Tatsuki says, giving him a light slap on the back of the head. "If we didn't want you here, we wouldn't be here. We all saw you rush into trouble to save us that day. We knew there was something going on there, but we still came for you. You're our friend, weird soul and all."
Ichigo looks at all of them. Orihime offers the best thing she can think of: a wide, encouraging smile. He abruptly looks away, blinking hard, and wipes his eyes. "Thank you," he says, voice tight. Behind him, Tatsuki nods once and returns Chad's knife.
"Hair's done. How does everyone feel about getting this show on the road? We've got a long walk ahead of us."
Orihime gets to her feet. "Do we have enough food?"
"Maybe." Tatsuki looks at Ichigo. "We'll have enough water, but…"
He shakes his head. "I'll be fine. No more rampages, I promise."
"What will you eat?" asks Chad. Ichigo does not answer until Chad passes him one of his packs, which he shrugs over one shoulder.
"Hollows. I doubt I'll need to eat any of your rations if I'm smart about it. They're a little more filling than this food, anyway." He tactfully ignores the way Orihime goes a little green. She tries to swallow the feeling. "Don't worry about me."
He starts walking. They end up in two lines: Ichigo and Tatsuki in the front, Orihime and Chad in the back. Everyone stays alert, wary of hollows, but none appear. Orihime tries to keep herself entertained by counting trees and stars, but it is no use. She is bored. A good thing, really, in a place like this, but still. As she pulls her eyes from the sky, Ichigo and Tatsuki's conversation reaches her ears.
"It's not really that I'm in control when I hollowfy, it's more like…the other half of me has the reins and I get to throw in suggestions."
"Oh? So this hollow half is—what's the word—"
"Sentient?" Chad offers, clearly paying attention as well. Tatsuki nods.
"That's the one. When you pause, are you listening to it?"
Ichigo, true to form, pauses. "Well, he doesn't really like being called an 'it,' but, yeah, more or less. He's like me, just…a little different. He likes fighting. A lot. Right now he's still recovering, but whatever Orihime did really helped him get back to seeing reason."
"Me?" Orihime says.
"Yeah. When you healed me and eased the hunger. I guess I never really explained it…"
"Explained what?" Tatsuki asks, jogging a few steps ahead so she can walk backwards and look Ichigo in the eye. Her ability to do so without slipping speaks to her years of experience in the desert.
"I don't remember spending eleven years in prison." That makes Tatsuki stumble, though she recovers. "I mean, I kind of do. In bits and pieces. But for the most part, I was just in my own head, training with my hollow half."
"Training?" Orihime echoes.
"Yeah. Turns out I have a giant world in my head. I learned a lot of stuff in there. But I guess my hollow half pushed me deeper sometimes. I think I spent most of the time unconscious. I don't even remember dreaming. He was the one who was in control for most of it. It's also why we went a little crazy when we woke up—it wasn't just the hunger."
Chad frowns. "So he served your prison sentence for you."
"I told him not to. He didn't give me much of a choice." Ichigo still sounds bitter. Orihime bites her lip. If they had all worked a little harder, they could have spared him a little of this pain. But the past is the past; there is no changing it.
Their trek home is uneventful. Ichigo gets food as he predicted: he disappears for a couple hours at a time, then returns. They can all tell when he is about to leave by his appearance. His skin stars to take on its hollow hue, and the black stripe on his face gradually becomes visible. He tries to play it off, but Orihime can see how bothered he is with how quickly the hunger returns.
"It's because I used up so much energy when I didn't have any to spare," he says on the second day at Tatsuki's prompting. "Even if Orihime temporarily reversed my condition, years of starvation can't be pulled out of my soul that quickly."
It is not comforting, but Ichigo assures them that he will get better.
"I'm surprised there's no one chasing us," Chad notes a half-day's walk from their village.
"Maybe they never figured out Ichigo was gone," Tatsuki says. Orihime is not convinced.
"We did kill that monster in the lowest level. I'm pretty sure that thing was acting like security for them. They would've noticed it dying, right?" Then she remembers all the time she spent observing the guards. "Or maybe they didn't even know it was there. The guards were all acting strange. The ones on the second floor and down didn't even notice your explosion, Tatsuki."
Ichigo adjusts the way his pack's straps sit on his shoulders. "I'm just glad to be out of that place." His expression turns dark. "And even if they come here, I'm not going back, and I'm not letting anyone else get hurt. Seireitei doesn't have a claim to anything out here anymore."
Orihime exchanges a glance with Tatsuki and Chad. None of them say anything, but no one has to. The intent is clear: they will keep an eye on Ichigo. Not out of fear, but out of worry for their friend. This is not the same boy who was dragged away eleven years ago, and they are not the same people who could do nothing but watch.
They crest the largest dune left before the flat their villages rests on. Tatsuki and Chad, walking in front, freeze. Orihime and Ichigo hurry to catch up, only to stop in their tracks.
The village is under siege. A veritable army of hollows has washed up against the village's meager walls on three sides. Hollows' roars just barely carry to their ears.
"When I scared away all those hollows," Ichigo says with dawning horror.
"They all came here," Tatsuki finishes grimly. A flash of blue lights up the far side of the village. "That's Uryū. He's fighting all of them alone. Come on!" She takes off at a dead sprint, Chad hot on her heels. Ichigo hesitates, so Orihime does too.
"Give me a second," he mutters. "I'm trying something different." Before Orihime can ask what he means, the air shifts. That familiar heaviness presses down as the color bleaches out of Ichigo's skin. While the white spreads from his chest out to his extremities, Ichigo removes his robe from his shoulders to get the tattered sleeves out of his way, keeping it tied at his waist. His shoulders jerk when the hollow hole tears itself through his chest, but he narrows his eyes and bears it.
"Ichigo," Orihime says again, slower this time. She wants to back away—the fear is instinctive, deeper than rational thought—and she nearly does. Ichigo's expression stops her. He smiles at her, a quirk of his lips, a return of that reassuring smile from days ago. The stripe paints itself down his face, filling his left eye with black and gold.
"It's all right. I'm still me this time." His voice has that echo to it, but it is not the abrasive sound of before. Ichigo rolls his shoulders and cracks his neck. A single horn juts out from the side of his head, sharpening to a wicked point. He flexes his clawed fingers, blinking. "Guess this'll take some getting used to, though." He glances at Orihime. "Ready?"
She steels herself, locking away the fear. It has no place here anymore. Ichigo is her friend, and she trusts him. She always has, and she always will. Her hairpins glow, and she jumps onto the platform that forms beneath her feet. "Ready."
The hollows, for all that they have in numbers, lack in power. Tsubaki tears through them as easily as he does the air. Orihime keeps her discomfort with the battle wrapped tightly beneath her determination. If she does not fight, then everyone she loves will die. There really is no choice, and she will not cower behind someone else's walls. Ichigo has disappeared into the thickest knot of the beasts. Red light flares from that direction every now and then, but Ichigo is not using the devastating attacks they all witnessed before. The collateral would be too much to bear.
An explosion goes off so close to Orihime's back that she can feel the heat sear across her neck.
"Sorry!" Tatsuki calls, right before another blast rips apart three scorpion-like creatures. Chad crashes down on a fourth coming out of the ground behind Tatsuki, cratering the sands and crushing the beast into a bloody pulp. "Thanks."
"I'm fine, no worries!" Orihime shouts back to reassure Tatsuki, right as a hollow slams into her shield. She winces at the strength behind the blow—the shield is cracked—but Tsubaki zooms out of the nearest thicket and slices through the back of the hollow's head and, subsequently, its mask. It collapses. The remaining hollows nearby melt under a rain of blue arrows, and abruptly Orihime realizes that the only remaining hollows are in full retreat.
Ichigo does not let them run. Orihime watches him raise his hands, almost like Chad's boxing style, and then punch at the air. A hail of red concussive blasts obliterates the survivors, and quite suddenly, the desert is quiet again. Orihime's spirits return to their rightful places. Tatsuki's fire-coated fists flicker out. When Orihime glances at Chad, she sees that his arm is back to normal. Even Uryū has—
"Uryū?" Orihime asks, seeing that he is the only one to keep his weapon of choice manifested. The glowing blue bow pulses with energy.
"I see you found Ichigo," he says, his voice damnably controlled even as he raises his bow at their newly-rescued friend. Orihime quickly steps between them, arms held out.
Tatsuki grabs Uryū's shoulder, throwing his aim askew. "Yeah, hold on a second." He shakes her off, but Chad is there, and he is much harder to avoid.
"Are you blind?" Uryū demands. "He is a hollow."
"Are you blind?" Tatsuki challenges. "God's sake, Uryū, look at him. Would he fight on our side if he was a hollow? Would he stop and wait for you to fire?"
Even Orihime glances back. Ichigo, sensing that it is not yet his turn to speak, just waves. Given that he is still very much hollowfied, the effect is unsettling even to Orihime. Uryū slowly lowers his bow. "So that's really him in there."
"It is," affirms Chad. With that as his cue, Ichigo closes his eyes. In the reverse of what Orihime witnessed before the battle, the white recedes from his fingers, his claws liquify, and his horn—and all the rest—crawls back to his chest, filling the hole until there is nothing left. The stripe on his face and his discolored eye remain, clear signs of the energy he has expended and the resultant hunger. Uryū stares, forgetting to push up his glasses in his shock.
After several long moments, during which Orihime seriously considers suggesting everyone come to her house for a nice dinner to calm down, Uryū finally lets go of his bow. It dissipates into blue spirit particles that quickly disperse into nothing. "It really is you."
Ichigo grins. "Yo."
"How?" Uryū adjusts his glasses. "I am happy to see you again, but…I thought they would have executed you immediately." Orihime flashes back to their planning sessions for the prison break, all the times Uryū reminded them that Ichigo was probably dead, and all the times they ignored him. "Why didn't they?"
Ichigo shrugs. "They didn't exactly ask my opinion, but I caught them saying something about studying me once. I blacked out not long after that. I figure my hollow side made enough trouble for them that they decided imprisonment was a better bet, at least until I was too weak to fight back. And with that snake and the atmosphere down there, I wouldn't be surprised if they just never saw it worth it to come back for me."
Uryū's frown remains. "Your hollow side. Is that the reason for the new face tattoo?"
"Face tattoo?" Ichigo reaches up and touches where the black mark sits, not that he would be able to feel it. "Uh. Maybe?" He glances at everyone else. "What's on my face?"
"Your left eye is black and yellow," Tatsuki offers, while Chad indicates on his own face where the black mark covers. Ichigo blanches.
"Seriously? There's no way I can just cover that up."
Orihime laughs at his expression. She cannot help it. After the prison break, the hollow attack, the long walk, and this most recent battle, she needs a release. "I am sure we can find something. I have plenty of scarves."
Ichigo does not look enthused at the prospect. Still, the lingering tension in the air has been defused, and Orihime calls that a win. She claps her hands together, startling everyone. "Now that we're all back together, who wants dinner? I'm sure I can whip something up." Oddly, no one says anything. They all look at each other. After an uncomfortable beat, Tatsuki speaks up.
"I am pretty hungry, but Orihime, you did the lion's share of the work on that prison break. How about I treat everyone, yeah? We can still go to your place, if you'd like."
Orihime brightens. "That sounds wonderful!" She makes eye contact with all her friends in turn, and just like that, their plan is decided. Orihime leads the way, humming, acutely aware of Ichigo's presence behind her. He is talking with Uryū, going over the details of the prison and what little Ichigo can remember of his time there. Uryū's grudge has not diminished despite Ichigo's return—but that, and the organization behind it, are problems for another day.
They gather around the rough wooden table in Orihime's living room. The painting of her brother watches over them from the far wall as they take turns assisting Tatsuki with the cooking. Orihime is given by far the least to do, but everyone keeps up a steady stream of conversation. She watches them rotate around each other in a time-worn pattern. An interrupted pattern, but one that quickly slides back into place. Ichigo laughs at a joke from Tatsuki, only to get elbowed by Chad for it. Tatsuki gets a sly grin while Uryū sighs like he wants to wash his hands of all of them, even though he would never actually do so.
Orihime rests an elbow on the table and then puts her chin on her hand, lips pulled into a quiet smile. She missed this.
They finish the meal prep and settle around the table in positions they have not occupied like this in more than a decade. Ichigo and Tatsuki jostle each other for elbow room, Uryū picks at his food with entirely more decorum than their surroundings warrant, and Chad reminds Ichigo that, given his condition, he really should eat. That sparks a round of Tatsuki berating Ichigo for forgetting that little detail. They always got on Ichigo's back about not eating enough before; now, the reminders take on a different note.
Ichigo still protests, though. Not that Orihime expects anything less. She eats her dinner and quietly enjoys the knowledge that her family is whole again, and that maybe, just maybe, the world is not quite so cruel after all.