Date written: 20/03/09 – 24/03/09

Rewrote with Beta: 04/04/09

Posted on FanFiction: 05/04/09

A/N: This is my first Bleach fanfic and I hope the reception is good. Please leave a review after reading. Comments, criticisms, personal thoughts, 'good job' reviews. If you have any questions or inquiries, please PM me and I'll answer them to the best of my abilities.

This idea came to me about two weeks ago, thinking over an idea that instantly popped in my head. It stuck for a few days until I wrote down an unfinished outline of the plot's summary. By then, I've been thinking up some good plot devices and ideas that can move the story along with the characters intertwined in it. It was not easy, but worth it. Her shikai and bankai (If it appears) were hard to think up, but I found that it suited her personality, somewhat.

I've read in forums that the character people hate the most has Orihime chosen more than a few times. I can't really understand the reason for that. Yes, Orihime hasn't had any upgrades after acquiring her 'rejection powers that surpasses Fate' hairpins—though I'm pretty sure Kubo will give her one soon. Yes, her character had been a little shallow during the first two arcs, but the makers gave her some character development that showed a much different side than the happy-go-lucky side we've grown accustomed to. And yes, she's hesitant in battle, preferring to save both sides rather than letting them fight each other (I'm still a little puzzled as to why she would help those two arrancar bitches in the Hueco Mundo arc even when they outright beat her up just because her mere presence pisses one of them off). It just shows she hates fighting and thinks that one can resolve a conflict through other means than bloodshed. A pacifist is a likely term for her. But that's just my own opinion, and because of it, I've given this story some more thought in the development of Orihime's character earlier on than in canon. You'll see why; just read the story to find out more.

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach at all. So don't bother asking for more of this disclaimer shit.

Additional info: This occurs during Episode 3 of the anime when Sora Inoue attacked Orihime and Tatsuki in Orihime's apartment. I'll be modifying a few things here because I don't want this to look like a retelling of the episode.

I would like to thank my beta, NocturnalFerri, for doing a tremendous job in beta-ing this chapter. Maraming salamat po.


- CHAPTER 1 -

The Awakening

"Ah! It ripped," Orihime Inoue commented, a little depressed as she held the pink teddy bear that her brother, Sora, gave her when he was still alive. From behind her, her best friend, Tatsuki Arisawa, examined the extent of the rip. They had just finished eating Tatsuki's mother's homemade chicken teriyaki, Orihime's favorite, when the teddy bear fell to the floor from its spot on top of Sora's altar.

"That's one big tear, Orihime," Tatsuki said to the busty teen. "I wonder how it ripped. It's not like it ripped itself, right?"

THUD!

Both girls jumped at the sound. It didn't come from the ceiling, walls, or even the floor. It sounded a lot like a fist hitting something. But it didn't echo from one point. It was heard in every direction.

THUD! THUD! THUD!

"What's going on?" Tatsuki murmured, looking frantically around Orihime's small apartment.

Orihime was feeling the same way as Tatsuki: confused and a little scared. The situation felt like it came from a horror movie from the 80's. Usually her imagination would run wild at this point if the situation were not so dreadful and serious. She knew that there was a time for imagining and a time for worrying, and this was one of those times that she had to worry.

She heard a low plunk sound. Looking down, she saw that the teddy bear's gash was leaking something dark and reeked of a scent she hadn't smelled for so long. She also noticed her hands were wet with this dark liquid. Her eyes widened . . .

Blood . . .

CRASH!

A large arm shot out of the teddy bear, piercing through Orihime's body without resistance. For her physical body, the arm was intangible, unable to cause her harm. For her soul, however, it was a different story—it was forcefully ejected out of its vessel. Orihime's soul skidded on the floor until her back connected with the wall behind her. She felt the pain but it almost seemed nonexistent once she saw something crawl out of her teddy bear like a snake shedding its old skin to grow a new one. It was probably a natural thing for the monster to slither around like that. It looked half-human, half-snake, after all. Apart from its body, its head alone was almost the size of Orihime's own height. It had black hair that reached its chin, while its face was covered with a white skull mask, enhancing the sorrow dwelling within its crimson red eyes.

"Orihime!" Tatsuki took only one step towards her friend's soulless body before that same monster used its long tail to hit Tatsuki in the shoulder, pushing her to the wall adjacent to Orihime's soul. She was bleeding from the blow. "W—what is this . . .?"

The tail swooped at her again, knocking her out with a hit to the head.

A roar erupted from the snake-like monster as it advanced closer to her. Orihime was scared. Those dreadful red eyes glared at her so intensely that she was close to succumbing to paralysis. She crawled towards the wall where her best friend lay on the floor, unconscious.

"Tatsuki-chan . . ." Orihime checked her friend over quickly and determined that though Tatsuki would have a killer headache when she woke up and was bleeding pretty badly, she would live.

"Orihime . . ." the monster moaned in a throaty voice that sounded very familiar to Orihime. It raised one of its hands, displaying all five fingers with protruding claws that were more than able to cleanly swipe her head off if the monster wished it. "Don't you remember me?"

Orihime shivered in fear, shaking her head left and right. She couldn't get words to form in her mouth but her answer was understood, nonetheless. But this action, however, just seemed to aggravate the monster in front of her.

"I'm sad, Orihime," it said. "Very sad. Have you forgotten me already? Have you?!"

Orihime gasped as the outstretched arm of the monster swept from its back, aiming towards her shaking form. She closed her eyes instinctively, thinking that it was the end for her. But instead of feeling claws tearing against her flesh and the hot feeling of pain searing through her body, she heard a clash of steel and a grunt in front of her. She opened her eyes and saw black and orange.

The figure clicked his tongue after blocking the monster's claws with his oversized sword. "Your target is me! Leave her out of this!" he screamed, and pushed the monster away, severing its left hand in the process.

The shock of seeing the man she admired (and was most obviously crushing on) must've rejuvenated her voice box because she was able to say his name, "Kurosaki-kun?"


Ichigo Kurosaki was quite livid. It wasn't because his room got trashed earlier by a Hollow, nor was it because Rukia Kuchiki had nagged him about getting to Orihime's place quickly the entire way they ran there. No, it was because the Hollow was Orihime's deceased brother, Sora, who decided to kill her if he couldn't get to Ichigo. To make matters even worse, Tatsuki just happened to visit Inoue today and got caught in the crossfire. Looking at her from where he stood, he knew that the wound she had on her shoulder wasn't fatal but it still needed to be treated lest she dies of blood loss. He saw Orihime's body lying in the center of the room, her grey eyes glazed and open wide.

"Inoue . . ."

"Kurosaki-kun?"

He turned his head towards that familiar voice and his eyes widened at her. "Inoue?"

"Ah, it is Kurosaki-kun. But . . . what are you doing here?"

"You—you can see me?"

"Eh?"

Rukia said that only other spirits can see me while I'm a shinigami, so that means . . . He looked back at her soulless body, then returned his gaze at her soul. He noticed the chain that trailed from somewhere in the girl's body to the chest of the girl's soul. No . . .

"That's right," the Hollow's gruff voice stated. "The reason why Orihime can see you is because she is now a soul. In other words, Orihime is now DEAD!"

The Hollow swiped its tail at him, but he blocked it with ease, even though it was a little difficult to swing around the goliath of a katana he was wielding. But beggars can't be choosers. Making the most of what he had, he took the initiative and breached the Hollow's defenses, more than ready to begin striking his strongest attack. He charged straight with a battle cry—

"Idiot! Get back!" Rukia shouted as she entered the room through the door.

—but the attack did not connect. He was instead hit in the side by the Hollow's good hand, propelling him through the apartment wall, creating a big hole that's the size of his torso. Using his limited knowledge of his shinigami abilities, he skidded his feet on air which slowed him down considerably from the blow's kinetic force. Ichigo couldn't take a breather because the Hollow was already in front of him with its tail descending upon him.

He grunted as the tail's blow hit him square on the head, subsequently ending his floating-on-air trick and hit the street's pavement almost strong enough to crack his head like an egg. The Hollow watched near the wall, while Ichigo had a great fall.

Ichigo blamed the blow for his mind to dwell with the corny parallelism of his situation with an old nursery rhyme. But time for thinking was over now; the Hollow slithered down to the street, as he rubbed his head in pain.

"Ichigo!" Rukia cried from the hole in the apartment wall, looking down at him with worry.

"Shut up," he muttered, and stood back up although a bit groggily. His vision was a little blurry from blood loss, noticeable as the blood from his forehead trickled down to the bridge of his nose. He had to wipe the blood away before it got to his eyebrows and dripped down to his eyes. This was bad. Even Ichigo knew that. He wasn't fully prepared to take on a Hollow as powerful as this one. It wasn't as mindless as all the other Hollows he had 'purified' during his time as a substitute shinigami—though he had nothing to really boast about or present as good evidence because he only defeated two Hollows so far. But he knew that two was enough to gauge the difference in power and logic. The two previous Hollows were both powerhouses, mindless subordinates who didn't seem to really give a damn how much they got hurt as long as their prey would eventually enter their stomachs. Hollow Sora seemed to be in an entirely different level from the two. It was able to predict Ichigo's movements after only seeing him swing his sword for a straightforward attack once. It was the only thing Ichigo was good for, since he had no Kendo training experience to base his style on. Hollow Sora anticipated his movements with strategic thinking that didn't seem to fit with the idea of a Hollow being a soul's animalistic instincts. Not only that, it knew when to retreat to regenerate its partially lost mask when Ichigo fought it earlier tonight. The first Hollow he ever fought wasn't the survival-of-the-fittest type because it still tried to eat him and his family even after Ichigo cut down both of its upper limbs; that Hollow looked like it didn't even know the meaning of 'retreat' at all.

In short, his enemy was no ordinary Hollow.

. . . or maybe it's just an ordinary Hollow with its 'survival instincts' still intact. That might explain quite a lot of the unusualness of it.

"Watch out! Above you!" Rukia yelled.

Ichigo reacted quickly from the voice, and dodged, swerving the whole momentum of his body to the left. A giant tail swatted the place where he had been, causing a small crater that sprayed rocky debris and smoke near him.

"It's you," the Hollow said, "it's all because of you. It's because of you that Orihime is now dead!"

It attacked again, using its mouth this time. Ichigo blocked it but the equal power of their strengths had pinned them into a deadlock. His arms quivered from the pressure. Knowing that he can't keep this stalemate for too long, he tried to push Hollow Sora back like before, but it anticipated that and immediately reacted by using its good hand, claws out, to scratch the shinigami.

Ichigo screamed and got thrown a few yards away. He tried standing back up but his knees gave out before he was halfway there. He used his zanpakuto (Soul cutter) as a sort of cane to keep his body from falling completely to the ground like a KO'd boxer. He took staggering breaths as he examined the extent of his injuries.

Four scratch marks. All of them were deep and blood dripped from the wounds like leaking broken pipes. His vision was blurrier now to the point that he couldn't clearly see the Hollow eight yards away. This was bad. He had to end the fight quickly before he lost consciousness.

The Hollow let out a roar before charging at him again. By then, Ichigo can only see a shimmering outline of the Hollow as if his vision was made out of water with strong ripples disturbing the stillness of its surface. He knew he was out of breath and the strength in his arms was not to par in his present state. Still, he got back to his stance, ready to intercept the attack.

But the attack never came. Instead of seeing black and white, what Ichigo saw in his drunkard vision was the back of a person with orange hair.


Orihime jumped in front of Ichigo just as the monster was about to bite him. The monster hesitated then stopped altogether when she stood tall, her arms extended to her sides as if she was some human barricade. It took a while for her mind to get a grasp of the strange situation but at least she made it in time before Ichigo could get hurt. Well, get even more hurt actually.

She had been watching the fight from her second-floor apartment via the big hole in the wall. When she noticed the new transfer student (Rukia Kuchiki, she remembered her name being) standing beside her with her eyes glued on the same spot as she did, she wondered if Kuchiki-san could see them as well.

Orihime wanted to be sure, wanted to know if this wasn't all just some nightmare (though she wished it really was), and she thought that the girl in yellow pajamas looking at the invisible fight knew more about the situation than she did. All Orihime knew was that her soul was removed from her body—did that mean she's dead?—and judging by the expression on Ichigo's face earlier when she called out to him, he must be a soul as well. But why, that was something she couldn't answer.

For as long as Orihime can remember, she had had the unusual ability to see ghosts. She kept it a secret from everyone, even from Sora and Tatsuki. The latter wouldn't believe her anyway, so it was best to keep her lips sealed. It didn't really interfere much in her life, except maybe for the occasional ghosts wanting her help (and how could she refuse?). It wasn't until she turned nine that she could identify spirits from the living. And when she went to her first day of high school, one of the boys in her class intrigued her. Their first meeting had a bit of a bad start—him scowling all the time and her fidgeting like a stuttering idiot with no coherent thought in what she was trying to say. She couldn't help herself for that. There was just something very intimidating about the boy with orange hair as bright as hers (she later found out it was natural, just like hers), and it was not because of the scowl or the gangster kind of air he seemed to radiate. It was some sort of 'pressure.' That was as far as she could describe the intimidation. But after a few months, she got used to it. She guessed it was just how Ichigo Kurosaki was like.

And now, that same 'pressure' of intimidation was pouring out of Ichigo like running water. It took Orihime a bit of time to regain her breath from the staggering dread she felt grind through her bones (Do souls even have bones? Soul bones?). She may have been an airhead and a ditz at times, but she didn't become a top-ranking student for nothing. Even the state of panic she was in now, she understood that the 'pressure' she had felt whenever she was around Ichigo was not because she had a crush on him (she used her "Woman's Intuition" for this claim, but that didn't stop her from liking him for a different reason, unbeknownst to her) but because he was this fighting soul. And she may have had the right mind to be intimidated. The power coming out of the boy was staggering and inhuman.

But it seemed like he was new to his powers—which put her 'invisible superhero' theory in the wastebasket—and she saw that most of his moves were unrefined and hesitant. It was like he was contradicting himself: he wanted to defeat the monster; he didn't want to defeat the monster. And in that hesitation and lack of skills in swordplay, he was easily matched by the monster even if it had to use only one hand to do it.

When she saw him almost slump to the ground with only his giant sword to support him, all fear and rational thought went out of the door. She only thought of Ichigo's safety, fully discarding her own.

"Hey wait!" she heard Rukia yell at her, but she didn't listen. It was dangerous to jump from the second floor but she didn't care. If she were to hesitate like Ichigo, then it might be too late.

Now that she was facing the monster unarmed, she didn't know what to do. She hadn't thought this far, it seemed. She was just going along and acting out on the spur of the moment. An airhead, through and through.

"Inoue," she heard Ichigo murmur in a throaty voice, as if his tug-of-war between consciousness and sleep was coming to an end with the latter slowly edging itself for the win. "What're you doing? Get out of here!"

She shook her head furiously. "No," she said to him, "I won't."

"Don't be a fool. You'll just get hurt."

"I don't care! I just can't stand around and do nothing." And see you get hurt . . .

"Orihime," the monster moaned, pure anger radiating from its crimson red eyes. "You would rather help him than me? The one who raised you alone; the one who gave everything just to make you happy?"

Orihime looked deep into the monster's eyes and found the true color buried inside its crimson orbs. She knew those eyes, remembered them. Through sadness, through happiness, throughout her life, she had seen those eyes in another person. There was no mistaking it. But . . .

"Onii . . . –chan?"

"Yes, you remember now. Now move out of the way."

"W—why?" Her disbelief came from knowing this was her deceased brother. And knowing that he had hurt Tatsuki and Ichigo. "Why are you doing this?"

"Why? You're asking why?!" He grabbed her whole body with his hand and squeezed tightly enough to knock the breath out of her. "I did this because of you, Orihime! I was lonely. So very lonely. I finally found the opportunity to come back to you . . . and this is what I return to?! Never! Never again will I tolerate you bonding with these worthless bugs! You're mine, Orihime. MINE!"

She gasped at the tightness of the monster's grip on her body. She was being cracked open like a nut getting crushed by a nutcracker. Her breath grew ragged and she couldn't inhale enough air. This wasn't like her brother at all. He may have been Sora under that mask but the monster was no longer her brother. The comforting and caring brother she had known all her life was already gone; what returned was nothing but an illusion of him. But illusion or not, its intent to kill her was clear.

"HAH!" The battle cry was full of strength. Ichigo brought his blade down and cut the monster's hand with preciseness. The severed hand lost its vise-like grip and let go of the almost crushed form of Orihime, letting her drop unceremoniously on the pavement.

The monster screamed in pain and retreated into a portal, leaving only the two of them in the empty street.

"DAMN!" Ichigo cursed. Orihime guessed that he was annoyed that he let the monster escape. He then turned to look at her intently. "Are you all right?"

Maybe it was the doctor's son part of him that compelled him to crouch besides her and move his face closer to her face to make sure she was okay. Orihime blushed involuntarily and it took all her willpower not to squeal or panic like some deranged fan-girl. She was about to reply but her lungs still felt compressed and she had to let out a few coughs for trying to force herself into speaking. Naturally Ichigo rubbed her back comfortingly, instigating a shiver to course through her spine. He's touching me! He's touching me! Kurosaki-kun's really touching me!

Breathing as deeply and as slowly as she could, she said that she was fine, prompting him to give a nod of acknowledgment.

But it was far from over . . .

"Ichigo!" Rukia jumped from the second-floor hole, landed on the ground with grace, and ran full speed to where the two were. "Are you all right, Ichigo?"

"Yeah, this is nothing," he replied. And his wound chose that moment to bleed again.

"You idiot! Look at you! You're hurt."

"I said this is nothing." He then widened his eyes a bit. "Rukia, how's Tatsuki?"

"Don't worry. I already healed her. I am quite proud in my healing skills."

He sighed in relief. "That's good."

"Kurosaki-kun." Both heads turned to her as she made her presence known to them. "Why did that monster look like Onii-chan?"

At this, Ichigo looked away, a sense of hurt present in his eyes. "Inoue . . . that was—"

"ORIHIME!" The monster returned, catching all three of them by surprise as the portal it used to escape appeared beside them.

Rukia and Ichigo were swept away by the large tail, sending them straight into the wall to Orihime's left. Orihime felt two giant hands grasp her body then lift her up to face the white mask of the monster. She was afraid, dead afraid. She wanted to scream for help, get away from it as far as possible, but its grip on her was too strong, causing her lungs to compress again; there was just no way for her to scream now. The pain was excruciating; she didn't know she could feel this much pain without even screaming. But the rest of her body demanded some sort of release from this nightmare. Her vision turned white as her consciousness began to fade.

. . . lis . . . ome . . . will help . . .

Voices in her head, low and distorted. Was she going mad from the pain?

. . . come . . . elp you . . .

"Orihime!" the monster shouted, "if I can't have you then I will make sure no one will!"

The monster poked its head-sized thumb at her face. It pushed her chin upwards, giving the thumb a perfect opportunity in crushing her petite throat. She couldn't breathe . . .

The white light was vastly approaching, consuming the remnants of her vision as reality faded from her grasp. The pain was still there but it gradually lessened as the whiteness overtook almost every ounce of her consciousness. It wouldn't be long now . . .

Come, child . . . come . . .


Ichigo cursed as he tried to push the tail away but found it to be a futile attempt. He felt like a prisoner being tied up while the executioner was getting ready to guillotine his friend. Besides him was Rukia, who was struggling like he was in their restraints. What made the situation even worse was that he accidentally let go of his zanpakuto and it now lay on the pavement several feet away from where he was. "Rukia, can't you do something?" he asked his companion in their makeshift prison.

"I'm doing the best I can here!" she snapped at him. "We need to get out of here before that Hollow kills Inoue-san."

"She's not dead?" Ichigo couldn't hold his surprise and relief.

"Not yet, anyway. What happened to her is what you humans call 'yuutairidatsu' ('out-of-body experience'). But if her chain of fate were to be completely cut off, then she'd die."

Ichigo steeled his eyes and said, "Then we have to save her now!"

"Just give me a second. I'll get us out of here."

She began chanting one of her kidou spells and Ichigo struggled to get out of his restraints. He doubled his efforts when he saw the Hollow choking his captive.

"Now!" Rukia shouted as a blast of energy pushed the tail away from them.

Using the surface of the wall as a base of momentum, Ichigo kicked it with both feet. It was like jumping horizontally rather than vertically, and with his shinigami powers, his jumps were higher and longer. He directed his jump towards his zanpakuto and the Hollow. His senses were also heightened, so it was fairly easy to grab the zanpakuto from the ground as he swept the air like a bullet.

"LET HER GO!" he yelled as he directed his newly regained zanpakuto's blade to the Hollow's head. One swift move to the head. That was all he needed to kill it. All he needed to kill—

"You idiot! Why are you hesitating?!"

The Hollow reacted quickly and swatted Ichigo like a fly. He was tossed away again like some abused ragdoll and skidded near Rukia.

"That's no ordinary Hollow," he heard Rukia state before he rose back up again.

"INOUE!" he shouted as he readied his freakishly huge sword for another frontal assault.

"Wait, Ichigo!"

Ichigo stopped momentarily to glare at the raven-haired girl but didn't follow her request. When he ended his glare and turned his back to her, he continued his sprint at the Hollow. "LET HER GO!" he yelled again.

"If I can't have her . . . If I can't have her . . ." The Hollow grabbed Orihime's chain of fate—"Then no one will!"—and tore it out of her chest.

Orihime screamed from the pain. Tears formed in her eyes as she shouted "It hurts! It hurts!" over and over. She wrapped her arms around herself when the Hollow loosened its grip and gave enough room for her to do so.

"No . . ." Ichigo skidded to a halt as he realized what happened. Orihime's chain of fate had been severed. She was now dead. "No . . ." He lowered his head, shadowing the expression of his face. His grip on the zanpakuto tightened, shaking with too much applied force. He asked himself, Why? Why did she have to die? Orihime had nothing to do with his duties as a shinigami nor did she have any involvement with Hollows that were on rampage. He wanted to protect the people he can, yet . . . Why couldn't I save her? He felt like a fool. If this was as far as his powers can go, then what good was he if he can't stay true to his word? But . . . his thoughts didn't linger in his self-loathing long. Someone had to pay for Orihime's death. When he raised his head again, his eyes looked like they were ready for murder. "You . . ." he growled, sheer anger pulsating out of his reiatsu (spirit pressure). If reiatsu was like the magma inside volcanoes, then Ichigo's anger-induced reiatsu would be like the infamous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.

"Rukia," he hissed with his gritted teeth, barely able to control his urge to kill that monster now. He felt her come near him moments after the Hollow tore off Orihime's chain of fate. "Is there any way for you to repair the chain?"

He knew it was futile to hope. Fate wasn't always fair. While his gaze was rooted at the Hollow in front of him, he somehow knew Rukia shook her head at his question.

"No," she answered solemnly, "once the connection is destroyed, it can no longer be repaired."

"I see . . . then I want you to do something for me." He looked at her with his anger-filled eyes, and saw her take a step back in response to his deeper scowl. "Do not stop me."

With that said, he rushed towards his opponent at lightning speed. If he stuck around to hear Rukia's surprised outburst, he would've heard her say "What the—? He's using shunpo (flash step)?!"

Any other thoughts were irrelevant to Ichigo at the moment. All he had at the front of his mind was his sword, his enemy, and the blank stare he saw in Orihime's gray eyes . . .


Come now, child . . . come . . . it is time . . .

Wha . . .? Who's there?

Do not be afraid, princess. I am not here to hurt you.

Princess? Who—who are you?

The voice chuckled. You, child. I am you.

Eh? But if you're me and I'm me, then . . . who am I?

The voice chuckled some more. It was feminine and quite lovely to hear. It was like listening to the laughter of a woman with noble conduct; the way they move their hand near their lips as they giggled in a cute sort of way.

Wait . . . where am I?

You're in my realm, child. Quick, open your eyes and see the truth.

Orihime slowly opened her eyes and found herself in a forest of blooming sakura trees. The sky was bluer than any other times she'd seen it before; it almost looked purer and absent of any dirt and corruption. As her senses fully returned, she found herself lying on soft ground, right in the shade of one of the bigger sakura trees, as the sun shone down with a brilliant light that accentuated the beauty of the cherry blossoms fluttering in the air. It was like a dance of beauty that intoxicated Orihime, hypnotizing her with awe.

"You've finally woken," she heard someone say from behind her. Instinctively, she looked over her shoulder and saw a person sitting on a bench, looking out beyond a cliff's edge. The person was definitely feminine, if the voice wasn't enough of a hint to tell. Her back was to Orihime, and the red parasol she had over her right shoulder was opened to protect her from the rays of the sun. It blocked Orihime's view of the woman's head and upper torso.

Orihime was left speechless as she moved to a sitting position from where she was—just a yard behind the woman with the parasol. The woman was wearing a red kimono and black sandals; the lower part of the kimono was loose and Orihime saw white, slender legs that were meant to be hidden. Though her face was obscured by the parasol, Orihime somehow knew that the woman was very beautiful.

"Who are you?" Orihime asked.

The woman did not make any movement to turn and look at her directly. She instead kept her stare at the view from the cliff whose edge was protected by red wooden handrails that were around three feet in height. "I've been with you since your birth, child," she said. "My name is A . . ."

"Your name is . . ?"

"A . . ."

Orihime couldn't hear the rest. It was as if the woman's voice muted right when she was about to say the rest of her name. But at least she understood that the first syllable was 'A' and it was accented and pronounced like 'father.'

"I see," the woman spoke in a grave tone. "You are not yet worthy to hear my name."

"I'm sorry," Orihime said.

"Why should you be sorry, child? I only said that you are not yet worthy to hear my name. But that did not mean I will deprive you of your birthright."

"My—my birthright?"

"Yes, child. As we speak, your male friend is out there fighting your brother's Hollow and failing."

"Kurosaki-kun? Hollow? Kurosaki-kun is fighting that monster?!" Orihime widened her eyes. "Oh no! I have to help him."

"May I ask, child, what can you do?"

Orihime stopped herself from standing up and instead stared at the woman's back. She saw her twirl her parasol a bit.

"You do not possess extraordinary abilities like your friend. If he cannot defeat this enemy, then how can you, a simple human, be able to defeat it?"

Orihime didn't know how to answer that properly. All she knew was that if she didn't help Ichigo, he might end up dead. And she didn't want that to happen. She'd rather be the one to die than let that happen. "I don't know," she said at last. "But even if I don't know how to do it, I still want to help him."

"You still want to save this male, even though you are risking your own life for his?"

"Yes," she answered with determination. "Even if I were to die, even if I am just a hindrance and my attempts are all for nothing, I don't want to feel like I've done nothing to help Kurosaki-kun."

"You love him?"

She didn't need to answer. It was as if the woman was reading her like an open book. And her question was more like a statement of truth than an inquiry. In this situation, the natural thing to do would be to blush and Orihime did exactly that, though a little more controlled since there were other issues that needed to be resolved right away.

"I can help you, Orihime," the woman said to her, still not moving from her seat overlooking the cliff. Orihime saw that the land below was shrouded in a dark gray fog, almost thinking that it was a sea of gray water.

"How?"

Orihime somehow felt that the woman was smiling behind the parasol. "Someone once told me that 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'" The woman moved her left hand to her side, urging Orihime to take it in hers. "Are you ready to take that road, child? Once you grab my hand and accept my power, your heritage, then there is no turning back."

"Will I be able to help Kurosaki-kun?"

"Yes, indeed."

Orihime needed no other urging. She stood up, walked towards the woman, and intertwined her hand in hers. And as her fingers enveloped the slim fingers of the woman, she felt sleep coming upon her again.

Sleep well, child. Everything will be all right . . .

Everything will definitely be all right!The voice was menacing.


Ichigo was slammed to the wall again. Even Rukia was looking worse for wear as she gazed at the monstrosity that didn't seem to even have a scratch on him. It regenerated too fast for his pace, so he should end its rampage before it could escape into another portal to heal its wounds again. With all the chaos in his mind, Ichigo almost did not realize that the Hollow was getting stronger. Rukia took note of his observation and admitted the strangeness as well. This wasn't an ordinary Hollow; both of them saw that for a while, but now they could back their claim up if anyone said otherwise.

But the question remaining was if they could defeat it or not. Orihime was still in the Hollow's hand and it didn't want to let go of her anytime soon.

Suddenly, Ichigo saw a flash of light coming from the Hollow's hand where Orihime was clasped tightly. "Inoue . . ." The light brightened significantly, urging him to cover his eyes with his forearm. He grunted and looked away.

He heard the Hollow growl then scream in intense pain. When the light dissipated, Ichigo looked back to see a sight that made his jaw drop.

Orihime was clad in a black kimono with a three-foot long katana strapped to her waist. But that was only the appetizer. What really made Ichigo's (and, to some extent, Rukia's) jaw drop were the Hollow's two severed fingers, the thumb and the forefinger, she held in each hand. By their size, they could pass off as black clubs, if not for the sprouting blood shooting out of the open veins. He saw the Hollow charge at her and would've went to intervene, but Orihime beat him to it. She threw both fingers towards the Hollow; one of them stabbed it in the eye, leaving a grotesque image of a person screaming in pain while the claw gnawed at his right eye; the other, the thumb, was thrown so powerfully that it managed to tear off a quarter of the Hollow's mask.

Following its instincts, the Hollow retreated.

"Inoue?" Ichigo asked uncertainly. He was still in shock at what occurred that it took a while to realize that Orihime was wearing a shinigami uniform. "Wha—what the hell?" But that was not all he saw. He also saw a different smile—a seductive smile—on her face and also her eyes . . .

They weren't gray anymore. They were chocolate brown.

"Hey, cutie," she said to him, placing both of her hands on her hips, winking seductively at him.

She was definitely not Orihime anymore . . .