A/N: This story began life as a drabble-a-day challenge years ago. As such, it's now ridiculously AU. I hated to leave it unfinished, so I changed the story arc and pieced it together properly. I hope I didn't spam anyone's email!

The cover is from the absolutely amazing La Kalaka. You should definitely go check out the rest of her work on DeviantArt (kala-k) and Tumblr (k-la-k). She is the bomb! Also, big thanks to my beta, PlatypusFace. She did this on a pretty short turn around, so I owe her for sure!

Inoue could feel events unfolding around her, almost faster than she could process them. But she knew one thing for certain -

Hurry, hurry, hurry.

It had to be now.

She grabbed Ishida by the shoulders, shaking him as much as she thought she could without hurting him. His eyes flew open, and she almost wept with relief. But there was no time for crying -

Come on, Inoue, get a move on.

"Ishida, we have to go. Now."


"Aizen is attacking Karakura Town. They moved it to Soul Society, but he's there. Now."

"How do you know that?"

She thought she was going to scream. It wasn't his fault, because he couldn't see it.

Speed it up, come on, now.

"My talent is barriers. Well, the right kind of barrier can also be a window, yes? Now, will you come with me?"

"I'm certainly not leaving you alone."

"Well, then, let's go. We're leaving, now."

Right now, go, go, go.

"Should we see if someone can-"

"No, I can do it. I just have to open the window."

"Inoue-san, that's amazing."

"Ishida, we're out of time. Some of our friends are awake, and they'll be the first targets for Aizen. I'm going to try something, and don't try to say I shouldn't, because everyone else has failed and I'll only have one shot."

One chance, one shot, get a move on!

"Okay, Inoue-san. I trust you."

She opened the barrier, and Ishida's eyes widened. He stepped through quickly, and she followed him. As they ran, she felt him grab her hand. She smiled at him, knowing he was trying to help give her the strength to finish this. It was all down to Inoue Orihime, the girl that could never strike out of malice, the girl that cried over fallen enemies.

Don't worry, Tatsuki. I'm coming.

The moment Inoue reached into Aizen's chest and grabbed the Hougyoku, Ishida knew he was looking at the most important being in the universe.

The Hougyoku flared to life and almost immediately flickered in submission. He held his bow at the ready, but Aizen looked too shocked to do anything. Inoue pulled it out of him, and Kurosaki stood at the ready, sword drawn and pointed at his enemy. Inoue took a step back as Aizen fell to his knees, and cupped the Hougyoku like a child holds a butterfly in their hands.

Looking at her, Ishida instinctively felt awed. This was no longer Inoue Orihime - this was a being of unlimited power. With the Hougyoku at her disposal, she could do anything and everything. She could alter the world around her at will, make her every whim reality.

Kurosaki and his father took the distraction and hauled Aizen away. Everyone else was occupied with the commotion he caused, so Ishida was fairly certain that he was one of the only witnesses of the next few seconds.

She had eyes for nothing else, but the expression on her face was not one of greed. It was sadness. And before Ishida could register anything else, the Hougyoku exploded into thousands of the tiniest fragments.

He was sure the blast would have destroyed them, the town, and probably their half of the universe, but there, no more than a foot across, was a sphere of a familiar gold, and the contents raged and burned until they were no more. Inoue collapsed.

Ishida rushed to her, but Arisawa got there first.

"Orihime, are you okay?" She said, eyes, filled with tears.

"Tatsuki." Inoue replied. "I came for you."

"I know you did. You saved all of us."

"I'll never let anyone hurt you." Inoue looked like she was having trouble keeping her eyes open.

Unohana was quickly at the scene. "Used up all her power. She'll probably be out for days."

Ishida went to pick her up, and his knees buckled. He'd forgotten, somehow, what all he'd already been through, what he'd put his body through.

"Give her here." Ishida was certain Kenpachi had never been more gentle in his life than when he took Inoue into his arms. "I can't believe she had that in her."

"Tatsuki?" Inoue spoke up, eyes still closed.

"I'm right here."

"Can you stay with me?"

"I'm not going anywhere, Orihime. Not ever. We'll be old and gray and wrinkly and you'll still not be rid of me."

"Good. We'll eat strawberry squid," Inoue said, and then was silent. Arisawa, to her credit, didn't even flinch.

Inoue, who had once been whole, was in tiny bits. She was a puzzle with a million pieces, and she didn't even have a picture to go off of, just a vague recollection of how they went together once upon a time when she hadn't even been looking because she hadn't known she'd needed to and now she was just everywhere and-

She took a deep breath, and it hurt a little. Unohana had told her she would hurt, but to get out of bed and exercise. She was trying, she really was, mostly carrying lightweight things for the fourth division as they tended the many wounded. She remembered when she had wanted so desperately to be useful, and wondered if this was how useful felt. If it was, why had she yearned for it?

Sometimes, for the briefest of instants, she wished she had never done it, that someone else had succeeded in stopping Aizen before she had a chance, that someone else had the powers she did, could shoulder the burden she did. She wished that she had never grabbed the Hougyoku, had never let it filter through her, and in her darkest moments, she wished she had never destroyed it.

Then she remembered the look on Tatsuki's face, her best friend, the person who had done so much to protect her, and she knew that there had been no option. She had been backed into a corner, and she would do it again, if need be. It was thanks to this fierce need to protect that she even had her powers in the first place - it only seemed fitting to come full circle, to stand in the same manner as before, only this time to actually succeed and make sure that no one had the chance to harm her closest friend.

'I had to, I had to,' she kept repeating to herself, as if she could somehow use it as the glue to put herself back together again. But she couldn't, and she thought that maybe she was missing a few pieces, and losing them more and more, falling around her until she couldn't pick them up fast enough-

"Inoue-san, how are you?" She heard Ishida ask from beside her.

She turned to see him, in full Quincy garb probably just out of spite, stepping out of a small room, looking for all the world as if nothing had ever happened. While she had been out, sapped of power and will, he had needed to heal the slow way, helped along by the Shinigami, to his discomfort.

"I'm getting better. And you? Can I do anything for you?"

"Don't trouble yourself. I'm just fine."

She could see it, the pity in his eyes, and the awe, like a giant chasm separating them, and she began to lose the tenuous grasp on the pieces she had left, her grip on herself wavering like a mirage. Would she never again just be Inoue Orihime? She was falling, coming apart, pieces of herself scattered on the floor-

"Oh, I think you dropped something," Ishida said, and leaned over to pick up a roll of bandages. "Here, let me carry those. I've heard you've been doing a lot lately, and I'm sure you're probably still feeling awful."

She stared at him, the awe now hers as quickly as it had left him. He placed the roll on top of the others, then gathered them all from her, arranging them so they fit together well and he had a good grasp on them.

"Come on, I've got these. I'll help you get where you're going."

She blinked once, and wondered if he knew just what his words meant to her.

"Ichigo, you know it can't be that way! I'm not alive anymore! I have duties here, things I can't just leave."

Inoue didn't want to eavesdrop, she really didn't. But she cared for Rukia, and she cared for Ichigo, and they sounded unhappy. Surely it wouldn't hurt for a minute. Then, maybe, she could help, do anything to not feel so useless all the time.

"Then why can't I stay here?"

"You are not truly Shinigami. You are just a substitute."

"That's bullshit and you know it! I'm more capable than almost all of the shinigami out there!"

"You haven't been through the academy, you haven't risen through the ranks. Most importantly, you haven't even died."


"Can we not just enjoy this time together? You didn't argue last time."

She knew she had to leave right now. She was too fragile to witness anything else. But she could make this happen. She would make him happy.

There is no real plan, but it comes to her while Captain Yamamoto is presenting her with an award. He asks if there is anything she would like, in repayment for her services. She begins to say no, that saving all of creation was her pleasure, something she would gladly do again if necessary, when she sees Rukia shuffle on the side of the room. It comes to her, and the words are out of her mouth before she can even begin to think about how to phrase them.

"I would like Kuchiki-san to come back with us! I mean - that is - if she'd like to. We've grown fond of her, and I understand that we are alive, and she is not, but - well - she is my friend. She is a friend to all of us. And we can't all come here, but could she not come there? Even to visit? If that's okay."

He looked like he might be considering it. "Kuchiki Rukia, Thirteenth Division, report!"

"Sir!" She stepped out the line, eyes wide.

"Is this something you would wish to do?"

She looked around. At her friends from both worlds, her gaze lingering on Ichigo. "I would, sir. But I am worried about losing my position."

"This is a serious concern. We could not freeze everything while you were gone. But considering the differing lifespans, I am sure that by the time these humans come to Soul Society, and you with them, very little will have changed. You can take this time, and be assured that we will find you a place when you come back. This was such a selfless request that I feel I must grant it. After all, we owe Inoue-san, don't we?"

Inoue saw the grin on Rukia's face, and thought she might cry. She is broken, but she can still fix things, she can still make things better.

Inoue had cut herself off. Once they got back to the living world, she had closed her apartment door and refused to speak to anyone (always with the exception of Tatsuki, who could never report anything other than tears or despondency).

The apartment seemed so quiet, but Tatsuki pressed on, putting her spare key in the lock, and stepping in. Orihime was laying on her futon, not moving.

"Orihime-chan?" Tatsuki called into the dark, going over to open the curtains.

"Here." The sunlight illuminated the room, and Tatsuki could see that Orihime wasn't very happy about it.

"I brought you some stew and rice my mom made," Tatsuki said. "It's really good."

"Thank you."


"I'm not leaving until you eat it."

"I'm not hungry."

She'd had enough.

"Orihime-chan, why won't you talk to me?"

"I can't stand it, that's why!" Orihime burst out. "I'm not normal anymore! I'm a monster!"

"Oh, 'Hime," Tatsuki breathed. "You're not a monster. You saved me. You saved everyone."

"I couldn't save myself. Now I'm a horrible person." Orihime started to cry.

"You'll never be horrible."

"I wanted it! I wanted it so badly!"

"But you walked away."

"I'll never be the same." Orihime curled up and continued to sob.

Tatsuki doesn't know what else to do except lay down next to her, holding her friend through the covers until she cries herself to sleep.

Ishida took the long way home after school, planning to at least stop by and see if there was anything he could do to help. It had officially been a week, and even students in other years were asking about her.

He walked up to her door and couldn't get an answer. He wasn't going to try the doorknob at all, until he heard what sounded like crying coming from inside. After waiting a long moment while his teenage awkwardness battled with his Quincy pride, the pride won out and he was turning the handle.

"Inoue-san, it's Ishida! Would you please let me in?"

He heard the reluctant click of the lock, and the door opened a crack. Red, puffy eyes greeted his. "I'm sorry, Ishida-kun, but I'm not really in the mood to entertain guests."

"We're worried about you," he answered. "I just wanted to make sure you were alright."

"I'm fine."

"We miss you at school."

"Please don't waste any more time worrying about me." Inoue looked surprised as she touched her cheek. "Sorry, I didn't mean to start crying again."

"Is there anything I can do?"

She began sobbing again in earnest. "I just want someone to talk to, but no one will understand! I'm all alone, now."

He wanted to reach out for her, but propriety and fear made him refrain. "Just because I can't understand doesn't mean I can't listen. You've got far too many friends to ever be alone."

The words sounded cliché to him, but they must have been the right ones because she opened the door for him and he walked into the home of a very depressed person. The living area looked as if disaster had struck, and the kitchen was practically unused.

Ishida made his first order of business a good meal. He mustered up the best he could with the strange hodge-podge of ingredients she had, and he bullied her into eating. He then bundled her up and led her onto the stairs, hoping a little fresh air might make things a little easier for her.

They sat out there for quite some time. She talked and talked and talked, about what she had done and what it had meant, and Ishida nodded in all the appropriate places, said what he thought he was supposed to say. She was right, he didn't really understand, but he was determined to lend her a shoulder to cry on if she needed it.

When Inoue finished using that shoulder for crying, she proceeded to use it for sleeping, and even though it was still early in the evening, Ishida carried her inside and laid her down on her futon. He tidied the place up and on his way out left a note on her desk saying simply 'You should come to school. You'll feel better.'

It had been easy enough, going through the familiar motions of getting ready for school (shower, teeth, blow dry, underwear shirt skirt tie socksshoesbookskeys) when the curtains were closed and the house was dark. She knew it was time to go back - she was tired of worrying Tatsuki anyway.

But when she opened the door to wait on the stairs, the direct morning sunlight made her close the door again.

She was an awful, terrible person, and surely people would be able to tell if she walked around in the daylight like everything was fine.

But Tatsuki was knocking on her door before long and she was still standing there in her coat and scarf, wondering when everything had gone wrong.

She opened the door again, squinting against the sunlight that was so determined to see her failings.

"Oh! You're coming to school? You're feeling better?"

When she saw the hopeful look on Tatsuki's face, she knew she would rather everyone know how awful she was than do anything to take away the girl's smile.

"Yeah, Ishida-kun came by last night to say that everyone was worried, and I figured I'd come to school. Besides, don't we sign up for science projects today? I can't decide if I want to go for aliens, mecha, or mushrooms…"

She is the only person that would call him in the middle of the night. And she was always so terribly polite that she would never call him for no good reason. So he knew, when his phone rang at exactly 3:13 a.m., that Inoue had been having nightmares again.

"I'm so sorry to bother you again, Ishida-kun," she started the same way she usually did, after he rasped out a greeting. "It's just - I can't call Tatsuki-chan because I don't want to wake up her family - and I'm so - so -"

"It's okay, Inoue-san," Ishida said, his brain clawing its way out of sleep.

Ishida had decided that Inoue's nightmares are weird because it's when she dreams that her subconscious is most able to pull up images from whatever happened while she was destroying the Hougyoku. Most times, Inoue couldn't even explain them - not in anyway that made sense, at least. But she talked and talked, and he listened, and eventually he heard her breathing even out.

"Good night, Inoue-chan." He whispered into the phone, just like he did every other time she called. He wondered when 'good night' began to mean 'I love you,' and if she wouldever be ready to hear him actually say it.

When she woke up in the morning, the line had been disconnected, but the phone was still in her hand. She continued like nothing had happened.

Inoue stepped out of the fortune teller's tent with a grin on her face. "Okay, who wants to go next?"

Neither Tatsuki or Ishida, who they had run into earlier, looked very excited. "Go, Tatsuki-chan! It'll be so much fun!" Inoue said as she pushed her toward the tent.

"Fine, fine. But Ishida's definitely next!" She grouched.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world." He said flatly as Tatsuki disappeared.

As he and Inoue stood waiting, he noticed that she was rocking back and forth between the balls and heels of her feet, as if she was just dying to let it out. "You know, Inoue-san, it was your idea not to tell until we'd all gone." Ishida mentioned.

"I know! But it's so exciting! Don't worry, though. I can definitely wait!"

Tatsuki came out in record time, looking like she was going to punch the fortune teller. "What a bunch of-"

"No, wait, Tatsuki-chan!" Inoue squealed. "You can't say anything until we've all gone! It's Ishida-kun's turn."

"Yeah, good luck." Tatsuki muttered violently in Ishida's direction.

Ishida held his head high and disappeared into the tent. When he came back, he wore the exact same expression.

"Okay! What did she say?"

"Maybe you should go first, Inoue-san." Ishida offered.

"Alright! So, apparently I'm going to graduate in the top ten, yay!" Inoue said. "Then, Kurosaki-kun is going to ask me to marry him, and I'm going to be a homemaker. I mean, awesome, because I get to marry Kurosaki-kun, but I was hoping for a little more than a homemaker."

"You know, this junk isn't really telling the future." Tatsuki spit. "You can do anything you want."

"What about you, Tatsuki-chan? What'd she tell you?"

"Nothing that didn't make me want to use her as a punching bag."

"Oh. Okay, then! Ishida-kun?"

"Well, I'm agreeing with Arisawa-san. She definitely isn't telling the future. She told me I would be a doctor, and that I would marry you. It's a little hard to do if you're already married to Kurosaki." Ishida began to look a little pink, but he kept his head held high.

"That's funny! Maybe we have some kind of crazy love triangle going on!"

"I doubt it."

"Why would she tell you that, though? I mean, I know she wasn't the real thing - she kept fishing for information. She only said I was going to marry Kurosaki-kun because she asked who I liked-"

Inoue stopped, and her eyes got big. Tatsuki was gaping at Ishida like he'd grown a second head. Ishida, to his credit, stood perfectly still, a model of dignity.

"Oh, well. Who believes in fortune tellers anyway?" Inoue laughed. "I heard they had some really tasty things down closer to the river. Come on, guys! It won't be long before the fireworks start, and then we'll be too busy watching to eat!"

She flounced off, and it seemed as if Ishida was off the hook. The only acknowledgement that Tatsuki gave the whole event was to glare at Ishida and punch into her fist, just to make sure he got the message.

That night, however, after the fireworks and Ishida walking her to her apartment, she couldn't help but wonder what married life with Ishida might be like.

The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, it was unseasonably warm, and there was not a single good reason for Inoue to be in a bad mood. Not that anyone could tell she was in a bad mood. She was just frustrated. School was almost out for the day, and she had a decision to make.

What do do about Ishida?

He had taken to offering to walk her home, and she had taken to letting him. They hadn't said anything, but it had quickly become part of their routine. Until she messed everything up.

The day before, as he had walked her home after school, she found that she didn't want him to leave. She wanted him to stay, to stay with her, to never be apart from her again. It was only a split second, but she worried about it all night. The only person she had ever felt like that for was Kurosaki. Surely she wasn't already falling out of love with him? No, she couldn't be. Her love was forever. It was intense, and it burned, and she had never felt that smoldering pain with Ishida.

She decided to never think about Ishida in a way other than friendly again.

The bell rang, and suddenly she felt her hands shaking and her heart racing. Why was she feeling like that if it was the right thing to do?

"Inoue-san, would you like some company on your walk home?" Ishida asked, assuming he knew the answer.

"Actually, Ishida-kun, I'm going to wait for Tatsuki-chan today." She replied, mechanically gathering her things and not looking at him.

"Oh. Okay, then. Enjoy your evening."

Inoue hadn't planned to look at him, but he sounded so mellow about it. When she looked at him, however, she saw that he understood what it meant. She wanted to tell him it wasn't his fault at all, and that she was sorry, but he turned and walked away. The hurt in his stride made her question if she had done the right thing, but she knew she had.

Her love for Kurosaki was forever, and it just wouldn't do to care about someone else. Ishida would never settle for second best.

Ishida supposed that all there was left to do was take his own advice. If Inoue had ever been tactless enough to talk about her love for Kurosaki with him (which she wouldn't, of course, because she would never rub it in his face), he would tell her 'just get over it, and find someone who loves you, too.'

And that was exactly what he'd have to do.

She knew. He knew that she knew. She'd made it quite clear that she didn't want him, hadn't she? Now his options were limited.

He could continue to act like a lovesick fool, when the girl had already made it quite clear that the feeling wasn't returned.

He could carry on as her friend only.

He could distance himself from her, keeping close enough to maintain his promises to protect her, but far enough away to keep himself from hurting.

Of his options, the first wasn't even really an option. The second would be too hard to maintain. How could he walk her home, knowing she was only wishing he was someone else?

Of course, this meant he would have to distance himself from the whole group - there was no way he could back away from just Inoue, and keep the same relationship with the others. He was prepared, he thought. He had always been alone before, surely it would be nothing to go back to being alone again.

He just wasn't expecting to want to stay.

Inoue never quite realized how important Ishida had been to her until he wasn't there. She supposed there was something very worn about the situation, because hadn't it happened to so many people? But now there was something missing from her life.

Of course, it couldn't just be missing. It had to be missing and staring her right in the face. The lack of Ishida's presence was now an unscratchable itch, and things always itch the most when you can't scratch them.

Without his presence, the nightmares had grown worse. The fear that she was a truly evil person was nearly all-consuming. There were days when she remembered the burning need to take that infinite power, the lust burning through her veins, and the thought that she was just the same as Aizen sent her into her apartment, closing the curtains and locking the doors.

She had kept her smile on, of course, because who was Inoue Orihime if she wasn't smiling? Every now and then, however, she would lose her cool. When even the teacher was sick of it and paired them for an assignment just to force them to interact, and he treated her like the old Ishida would have, before they were friends, she thought she would crack right there. He wasn't mean, or angry, just so convincing at pretending that he'd never really known her at all, and that had probably hurt the most.

"If he keeps it up for much longer, I'm going to kill him," Tatsuki said on one of the few occasions when Inoue couldn't stand to keep it in for even one more second, and was now leaning on the other girl's shoulder in a small recess in the hallway that had long ago had a now-unknown purpose, crying as quietly as she possibly could so she didn't disturb anyone.

"No, you know what? Killing's to easy for him. I'm going to break every single bone in his damn body. Even the little ear bones."

"Tatsuki-chan?" Inoue asked in a shaking voice.


"Thank you."

He heard her laugh sparkle from across the room, and he thought he would go so far as cutting off his own hand to be in her presence again, to have everything the same as it had been.

That laugh haunted his dreams. Her laugh always rang, and he could still hear it occasionally, reverberating in his brain.

But the worst part was that she was laughing. He felt like he wanted to crawl in a hole and die, and she was okay-

"Oh - stop! I'll get a cramp from laughing too hard."

"Get your hands off of her, you filthy-"

He hadn't been aware that he had been staring until she met his eyes and started to tear up. That very moment, he changed his mind about the worst part.

He wanted the laughter back.

This had been coming for a long time now. As Ishida grew closer to Inoue, he grew closer to Arisawa as well. She had thought about it for some time before deciding that she didn't mind. But now things were so much more complicated than they were when Inoue was the only loyalty she had. And even though she would still always pick Inoue's side, always protect her, she couldn't help but feel an attachment to the boy in front of her, kicking rocks, baring his soul before her because there was no one else and he would explode, she was sure, if he kept trying to keep all this in.

"I love her. What else can I do? She's Inoue, she's perfect and wonderful, and I care so much about her that sometimes I look at her and wonder what the hell happened to me. She means so much to me, too much."

He was pacing around, gesticulating wildly, and she thought that she had never seen him this impassioned.

Had anyone?

"But I'm not good enough, I'll never be good enough. I'm just not Kurosaki. And how can I be jealous of him when he doesn't even want her? She'd rather pine over someone she'll never have than give me half a chance. And I just can't handle it."

He took his glasses off to pinch the bridge of his nose, and just for the slightest moment, Arisawa took his side in her head. Why couldn't Inoue just try?

"So, I know I'm hurting her. But I can't not. I just can't act like everything is okay. I wish I could, because I hate myself even more every time I see that look on her face, sorry mixed with pity and I don't even know what. But please believe me when I tell you I didn't want to hurt her, but I'm completely at the end of my rope and out of options.

There had been a puddle on the roof that was shallow but quite wide, and the usually fastidious Ishida had walked through it many times, the range of the footprints showing his agitation.

He put his glasses on and straightened his tie, taking a deep breath, becoming once more as cold and unfeeling as the winter wind tearing at them. But he looked at her, probably about to apologize, and she could still see his pain.

She was overwhelmed with the urge to hug him, and did so before she could think that this was her and Ishida, and they were probably the least touchy people in the world. She wrapped her arms around him, telling herself it would only be awkward if she let it be, standing on her toes to pat his back between his shoulder blades in what she hoped was a comforting way, her head coming to rest below his shoulder.

Just when she began to contemplate beating him up for making it awkward, he reached around her, leaning into her, holding on and seeming to soak up the offered comfort like a sponge.

"It's okay, Ishida. Things will get better. Inoue may not always seem it, but she's brilliant, and she'll realize what you're offering soon enough. Just don't give up on her," she spoke into his chest.

"It's so hard," he whispered.

"I know. But I also know her better than anyone, and I know she'll come around."

He took a deep breath and said shakily, "okay, I'll trust you,"

She gave him one last squeeze and they stepped apart. She was briefly proud of them for somehow managing to get the disengage part right, amateurs though the were.

"Now let's get out of here before someone gets the wrong idea."

As he laughed at her joke and opened the door to the roof for her, she looked at the already fading footprints and the now-completely-straight tie, she knew that if they ever mentioned this again, it would be a very, very long time off.

"I just wanted to tell you first," Kuchiki said, intent on the blade of grass she was decimating with her fingers. "You know, before all the others."

"I-that's" She was also focused on the blade of grass, trying not to feel as if it was her heart in the other girl's fingers, being plucked at, twisted, and torn. "That's very sweet of you, but there was no need. I don't require any special treatment."

Kuchiki looked hesitant. "I don't mind, you know. How you feel. I actually feel pretty terrible about it."

"But he's happier with you. And we both want him to be happy," Inoue said, only in that moment realizing how true her words were - he'd always lit up when Rukia had been near.

"We do. Thank you so much, Inoue-chan."

"It's nothing," she said, and then her eyes filled again thinking of someone entirely different.

Looking back on it, Ishida should have known he'd been set up.

Ichigo's stupid friend had been blabbing again with some of the others in the corner. Ichigo was lounging, in the other corner, a book over his face, trying to block everything out, while Chad sat next to him, actually reading his book. Inoue sat with the other girls by the windows, Arisawa and Honsho arguing about something, Inoue oblivious, and the others rather pointedly ignoring it.

The offending comment from Asano rang clearly through the classroom, and the accompanying gesture was not missed as Ishida turned around in shock. Before he could even stop to think about it, before Kurosaki could throw the book off his face, and while Arisawa and Honsho struggled with each other as to who was going to get to Asano first, Ishida was upon the boy.

Ishida was usually so rational, so calm in battle, that the flare of rage almost scared even him. Without even thinking, he was jerking the boy out of his seat by his tie. "Would you care to repeat yourself?" he growled.

"No! Absolutely not!" Asano managed to squeak.

"Then let me make myself clear. You will never speak of Inoue-san in such a fashion again."


Ishida let his fist unclench and Asano, who had not been supporting his own weight, fell back into the desk. Ishida walked over to his own desk and returned to his schoolbooks, ignoring all the stares he could feel on his back.

Never had he thought that Asano would be so stupid as to provoke his wrath for the clear purpose of showing Inoue he still cared. But as he looked around the class and noticed her shoot him a quick grin, he realized that it was too late now.

He might as well smile back.

They had to rebuild their relationship from the ground up. The going was slow, but it takes even longer to put back together than to create in the first place, because now you have to deal with the rubble and debris, and things don't always go back together the way they should.

He started eating lunch with them again. He sat apart from her, to be sure, but he was there. He laughed at the antics of the group, somehow relaxing in the midst of the chaos, and she thought again of how lonely he must have been while they weren't speaking.

Before long, she gathered the nerve to call him for the first time since the rough patch.

"Hey, Ishida-kun, we're all going to dinner tonight, would you like to come too?"

She said it in a hurry, afraid that she might not have yet earned back the privilege to call him yet.

"Sure, that sounds nice."

"Great!" she said, and knew they had taken another important step.

Things were approaching normal when they had been walking down the stairs with the others after a long day at school and she tripped and fell into him. He caught them both quickly and once she regained her balance, he leaned down to pick up her books. He handed them over, and she was filled with gratitude. Not only had he let her use him to prop up her fragile emotional state, but she had foolishly cast him aside, and he let her try to make up for it. He still cared for her, and it made her heart swell. "Thank you, Ishida-kun," she said, trying to infuse as much meaning into it as she could.

"No problem," he replied, looking away.

Tatsuki noticed when Orihime began to speak about Ichigo differently. She no longer spoke with determination mixed with equal parts resignation. She began to speak more enthusiastically, her gestures got bigger, her voice got happier. She still spoke about how wonderful he was and how much she loved him. In fact, to anyone who didn't know her well, it would seem that she was a young woman very much in love.

But Tatsuki knew her better than anyone, and she began to think that perhaps Orihime no longer loved Ichigo as much as she once had. The thing that made her surest, though, was that she couldn't remember the last time Orihime had muttered the word 'eternal.'

Orihime had spoken of all her favorite topics, overly bubbly and with grins not reaching her eyes, but she had gone weeks without talking about how she would love Ichigo forever and ever.

The best thing to do, Tatsuki supposed, was to just sit and wait. Orihime would tell her as soon as she got it worked out for herself. She always did, even if it took longer some times than others.

Inoue wanted desperately to be over Kurosaki. She was tired of waiting for something that would never come, wanted to be free once again to love as she chose.

She knew that she had been honest when she said her love was eternal. This didn't mean that it'd never change, though, and she couldn't wait. Eventually, she knew, she would feel only happiness when she thought of Kurosaki and Kuchiki being happy together. But why couldn't it come any sooner?

She walked home alone, as she had been doing all too often, and wondered how much longer she might be trapped.

It had started with a brief remark about beauty, and what had been lost. (Wasn't it always, always about what had been lost?) One thing led to another, and they were at a park in the middle of nowhere just before dawn.

"This has always been my favorite place," Ishida said.

Inoue looked around, and saw a small park with a dense growth of trees on one side, a sand box, a swing set, and a few random slides.

"It's pretty," Inoue said, though she found she wasn't moved.

"Oh, it's not about this, though I did have some fun here," Ishida laughed, more at ease than Inoue had ever seen him. "You mentioned infinity and I thought of this."

At Ishida's insistence, they waited until the sun had just started to come up, and walked a short path through the trees. It ended abruptly, and Ishida instructed her to close her eyes. He guided her up a small set of steps, she guessed wooden from the way they sounded, and they reached a railing. The sun was so bright she could see it through her eyelids.

"Okay, go ahead."

She felt it again, that swelling of her chest, the expanding of her mind. It made her wish she could paint, draw, take pictures, anything, and then she was glad she couldn't because surely she would spend her entire life trying to capture this without any success.

They were on a platform built above a river valley, and the landscape on the other side was dotted with trees, other streams running haphazard through. A mist was settled over everything, and it lit up in the morning sun. She thought, perhaps, that she had never seen anything more beautiful than this.

She turned to Ishida, his face lit by the morning sun, glasses glinting, and face flushed. He had closed his eyes, perhaps unable to take any more beauty, and was just reveling in the feel of the morning sun. She followed suit.

Inoue was getting there. She cared about Ishida more than she cared about her normal friends, but she didn't care quite enough. Not yet.

She sometimes thought of her feelings for Ishida as water in a leaky boat. She had been bailing the water out, slowly at first, but then desperately as her boat sprung more leaks. Eventually she grew tired of fighting it, and the boat was filling quickly. She could only hope that when the boat sank she would be able to swim in the lake, and that it wasn't a strange lake with sharks and jellyfish and giant squid.

But now, she was still before that point of being totally overwhelmed. And she had put him through so much that it just wasn't fair to say anything until she was more than certain.

She turned to look him, and found that he had been looking at her. He looked away quickly and she noticed the slightest pink tinge on his cheeks.

Her boat sprung another leak.

"Ishida-san, I'm so glad I caught you. Lucky you turn up early!"

Ishida stopped his walk to the school doors and turned to see one of the younger girls addressing him.

"Hello, ah-

"Minao! Minao Mayuka."

"Yes, of course. Is there something I can do for you?"

She blushed, and it was Ishida's first sign that something was wrong (aside from a girl actually going out of her way to talk to him).

"Well, actually, there is. You see-"

She began to talk, and Ishida was struck by how disconnected he was. He counted the people in the courtyard, here to witness this strange event. It seemed like quite a lot - didn't most students usually get to school right before the bell? And it was cold wasn't it? He shoved his hands in his coat pockets, swearing to himself it was only because of the cold, and not because he didn't know what to do with them. He thought perhaps the only thing he felt more than disconnected was awkward

"I have liked Ishida-san for a long time. The first day I came to this school, I was lost, and I asked for directions, and Ishida-san was so nice to point me in the right direction! I knew he couldn't be as bad as his reputation said he was."

Ishida was feeling more and more out of place by the minute. Just what was he supposed to do here? How could he escape with dignity intact?

"I've grown to like you more and more as the school year went on, and you're just so brave and helpful. My friends said you're cold and unfeeling, but you're not. I know you're not."

She was cute, he would give her that. And maybe it wouldn't be all bad, would it?

"No matter what my friends say, I'll never stop feeling like this. I think I'll lo- care about you forever."


My love is eternal.

Ishida knew, then, that nothing could happen. There were plenty of excuses - she's young, she doesn't know him, she comes on too strong - but the real reason would always be how can he be her forever when he was waiting on a different forever, who was in turn waiting on a forever of her own?

"Ishida-san? Will you go out with me some time?"

He had no idea what to say. 'I'm in love with someone else,' seemed too harsh, and 'you're too young' seemed weak.

"I-well, it's just-" he floundered around.

"He can't." A new voice cut it.

"Arisawa-san?" The younger girl looked at the newcomer with big eyes.

"It's not you, it's him. Definitely him."

"What?" He could already see the tears beginning to form in her eyes, and it was cowardly, but he was suddenly extremely glad that he had not been forced to put them there.

"He likes you, he really does, and he thinks you're a sweet girl, but he just can't be in a relationship right now. He has to focus all his energy on his studies, or he'll slip in the rankings. You know how important the rankings are, don't you? He's going to have his pick from all the best schools."

"Oh, of course!"

"He just doesn't have the time. The workload is killing us."

Ishida didn't know what to do but nod, and try to look regretful.

"I understand!" The girl chirped, still watery but fighting it better.

"You should go out there, though, find someone that would have time for you. Live your life. Enjoy it."

"I don't know if I can."

"You can move on. It might not seem like it right now, but I bet there's a guy out there who thinks the world of you. And once you realize that Ishida's not quite the prize you thought he was, maybe you'll be able to see that other guy." Arisawa squeezed his arm, and he looked intently at her.

"I'll try, Arisawa-san. Thank you for being honest with me, Ishida-san." Mayuka said, and left with tears still in her eyes.

Arisawa laughed, and turned with Ishida up toward the school doors. "I would say I'm not bailing you out next time, but to be honest, I'm a little surprised there was a first time."

"Please, Inoue-san, he listens to you,"

Inoue wondered if Mayuka knew quite why Ishida listened to her. But then, Inoue herself wondered sometimes if Ishida still listened to her. If he still cared about her.

"I don't think there's anything I can do," Inoue said, trying not to sound uncomfortable. "He's..um...very serious about his studies."

"But you don't understand! I love him," the girl cried.

Inoue's heart began to beat faster. She was starting to think that maybe she did understand.

"He's wonderful, you know?" The girl was pacing now, and all Inoue could do was stand with her feet glued to the floor and watch her. "He's kind and caring. I know he seems mean, but he's just quiet. I bet he's romantic, too, or would be if he had the chance."

Wouldn't he be? Hadn't walked her home so many times? Hadn't he always been there to help any time she needed it? Hadn't she missed him so terribly much when he was ignoring her?

"I'm so desperate. Every time I think about him, I get all fluttery; when he's around, I'm nervous. I want so desperately for him to look at me the way I look at him."

Inoue was fairly certain she was fluttery now, but she wasn't nervous around him. Maybe it was because she actually knew him, instead of just putting him on a pedestal from afar? But she knew exactly what that look was, because she had seen it. She had seen it on his face when he thought she wasn't looking, and it was that look which had caused her to push him away. It was that look which she wished she could see again.

"Please, Inoue-san. I'll understand if there's nothing you can do, but he's just - he's everything I want."

She wanted to say no. But she had her chance, and she had given it away. She wasn't sure if he would give her another, or if she'd even deserve another.

"Okay, Mayuka-chan. I'll try. But no promises!"

When she approached him about it later, he just groaned and said "Not you, too."

She sat in the desk next to his. "I'm actually supposed to intervene on her behalf."

He choked a little, and she ducked her head. "You're trying to set me up with someone?"

"No! It's not like that." She tried to backpedal, but he put his head in his hands.

"Look, I can't help the way I feel, okay? But I'm not going to do anything about it. You don't have to try to set me up with someone else at the first opportunity." He sounded bitter, and she felt terrible. How had the situation gotten so out of hand?

"So, you still..." She was shocked at her tongue - that wasn't what she had intended to say.

"Of course." He bit off.

"Well, then. I...will go inform Mayuka-chan that I had no success." She got off the desk and he didn't look at her. "And Ishida-kun?" She set her hand on his shoulder when he still didn't raise his head. "I didn't want to be successful. Not in this."

Everyone knew that Inoue had been changed. She had saved the world, but she hadn't been able to save herself. Inoue Orihime still smiled and laughed, made jokes and went out with friends. But she had lost a distinct part of what had previously made her so unique.

She had explained it to Ishida once before, and he had never had the nerve to bring it up again. He understood, in the way that people who can never really understand do, that it must have been terrible, and he was sorry she'd had to go through it alone.

"I had to destroy the Hougyoku." She had said as they sat on the steps leading up to her apartment so many months ago, the day far too sunny for such dark conversation. "I just had to. It corrupts people. It has absolute power - and it bestows that power on us. We can't handle that kind of power. That's why Urahara-san originally tried to destroy it, and it's why I had to."

Ishida had nodded, glasses glinting in the sunlight, but hadn't spoken. "But it had awareness, you see. It was the awareness of something that didn't understand emotion - just will, and its will was to survive. When it realized that I had the means to destroy it, it looked inside me. And I looked inside of it. To destroy the Hougyoku, I had to absorb it first. I've heard that it didn't take very long, to those watching, but it seemed like an eternity for me. The longest second of my life.

"But you see, we weren't meant for that. Even Aizen didn't absorb it, just bent it to his own will. For that one brief moment, I knew everything. Everything that's ever been, that ever will be. All of time and space running through my head."

She had stopped here, and her had cheeks colored. Ishida was instantly worried. What had she seen in his heart?

"To the Hougyoku, emotions were nothing. While I merged with it, I knew everything it did, but I understood it, too, in a way the Hougyoku never could. I thought I was going to burn up. Knowing everything just isn't meant for us - I've forgotten so much about it even now. But for that one moment, Ishida-kun, that one, shining moment, I was infinite."

Ishida would remember this conversation later, as he was standing with her on the edge of a cliff, the rest of the group on their weekend expedition long since left behind. The wind tossed her hair as she looked around and decided that she recognized the surroundings. She stepped up to the edge, right to the divide between earth and air, and sucked in the scent of the sea.

It was at this point that Ishida truly realized what she had been trying to tell him. It wasn't about what she had experienced, it was about what she had lost. He stepped up next to her, closed his eyes, and tried to feel it, to feel the rush she had conveyed when she spoke of infinity.

She shifted her weight, in slight preparation. He began to panic - was she going to jump? How could she be sure the water was deep enough? She looked at him and conveyed that she knew what she was doing, and that she needed it. She would be safe.

When she jumped over the edge, gracefully arcing herself toward the water with her eyes closed tight, he was right behind her.

The end of the school year was upon them before they knew it, and most of the class had decided to get together for a celebratory dinner. Someone's parents had graciously reserved a room at a restaurant the likes of which Ishida hadn't been in since he had moved out of his father's house.

He was lucky in that he had a nice looking suit that needed only a little alteration, but Inoue had not been so lucky. The day the dinner had been decided upon, the last day of school, Inoue had come up to him. "Ishida-kun, I was wondering if maybe you could do me a favor?"

"Of course, Inoue-san. What can I do for you?"

"Well, this dinner is going to be very formal, isn't it?" He nodded, getting an inkling of where she was going. "I imagine they have a dress code there. But, you see, I don't really have the money to buy something like that. So I was wondering, and I'll really understand if you don't want to, if maybe you could possibly make me something to wear? The fabric wouldn't be as expensive as a whole dress and I could get that, and-"

"It would be my pleasure, Inoue-san."

And that was that. They had gone to the fabric store, he had taken her measurements (Ishida striving to ignore the awkwardness that somehow Inoue didn't seem to feel) and he had worked on it feverishly. Two days later, on the morning before the dinner, he and Arisawa were standing in his living room while Inoue put the dress on.

"I absolutely cannot wear this." She called from the bathroom.

"Does it not fit?" Ishida called. "I thought I'd gotten your measurements right! If it's just a little bit, we can fix it-"

"No, it fits." She stuck her head out the door. "It's perfect. And gorgeous. I just can't wear it."

"Orihime-chan, are you covered up?"


"Then just come out here."

Inoue's face was beet red as she walked out in the dress. It was no shorter than the school skirts, but neckline was cut low. The sleeves were gathered and covered very little of her shoulders, and the back tied up. All of it was done in a shiny deep green fabric that Inoue had fallen in love with. Arisawa raised her eyebrows at Ishida, but went to finish tying where Inoue couldn't reach.

"It's beautiful, it really is, but I don't think I'd be able to walk out of the house in this."

Ishida was about to say something, anything, to try and make her think he wasn't perverted, when surprisingly, Arisawa came to his defense.

"Hey, Ishida worked hard on this, and I can guarantee you, you'll be the most beautiful girl in the room. It's all about confidence."

"You really think it will be okay?"

"I think it's more than okay. I think it's gorgeous. It will make an impression, that's for sure."

"Okay." She turned around in the mirror. "Okay. Confidence." She drew herself up and pushed her shoulders back, trying not to blush at the effect. "I can do this."

"Alright, now go get out of it so we can go back to your place and get ready. I'm lucky I've got some sensible shoes. I don't feel like beating anyone up in heels."

Now, watching her walk into the restaurant with Arisawa, he thinks he made it just to torture himself. She has her hair swept up into a big bun, leaving the expanse of her shoulders free, and he might die, she is so gorgeous.

After dinner, people began to filter onto the floor, Inoue dragging Arisawa out for the the first few songs. He smiled at them from his chair, and Arisawa glared at him like it was his fault. Eventually Inoue released her and moved on, making her way around the floor, dancing with anyone that was available.

Ishida even danced with Arisawa once. "Ishida," she had approached him, "Chizuru's got Orihime in the middle of the floor. I can't see from here. Come dance with me so I can get closer."

Towards the end of the night, slower numbers began to play, and Inoue sat down next to him.

"Tired?" he asked her.

"No, it's just that I don't know how to dance. Not really. Not to slow songs."

"I could - I had to learn when I was younger. If you wanted, I could show you a few things."

"That sounds great!"

They walked to the dance floor, which was much less populated, and a quick look at Arisawa saw her giving him a thumbs up. He rolled his eyes at her, and proceeded to ignore her.

After showing her where to put her hands, and a few basic steps, they settled into a good rhythm. "I wanted to thank you again, for the dress."

"It was fun, really. Don't worry about it."

"It's fun to wear. Once I got over the embarrassment, it does make me look beautiful."

He wasn't sure if it was the dancing, the atmosphere, or the dress itself, but something made him pull her in closer and whisper in her ear, "you're always the most beautiful girl in the room. You don't need a dress for that."

He loosened his arms a bit, cheeks already red, but she didn't move away from him. She leaned her head on to him, and sighed.

"Thank you, Ishida-kun. You don't know what that means to me."

Then she reached up and kissed him in full view of all of their classmates.

Inoue couldn't feel it. She couldn't feel the giant hollow in front of her, almost drooling at the scent of her reiatsu. But how could that be? She had always been good at these things.

"You look puzzled. Ah, but you are not as clever as I," the hollow said. "I kept out of Aizen's war, and I hid when Soul Society came around to clean up. As I'm sure you can already tell, I hide very well. Normally I would stay hidden, but I haven't fed in such a long time, and I bet you would taste so good."

She had to move, she knew, or else she was going to be devoured. But she hadn't used her powers since she used every ounce she had at the end of the war. She couldn't get up the resolve anymore. She doesn't even know if she still has them.

But she didn't have a choice. The hollow was moving closer, and she knew it wouldn't draw it out. It wass only feet away, and still she couldn't feel it's spiritual pressure.

No one is coming to save her.

She called the words out, but with no conviction behind them, nothing happened. "Oh, how cute," the hollow laughed. "You think you're going to get out of this."

Suddenly, a blue arrow cut across her vision. "Step away," she heard Ishida call, and she was at once immeasurably grateful and terrified. She didn't want anyone else to get hurt because of her weakness.

"Two of you? Delicious!" The hollow attacked, swiftly, and Ishida dodged.

She watchds the battle, frozen in terror. Ishida is good, but the hollow is better than they'd expected. Then, under a flurry of blows, Ishida faltered, and the hollow reached out for the final hit.

"I reject!" She screamed, and the shield materialized. She thought she might cry from relief.

The power pumping through her veins was more than she can stand, and before she knew it, Ishida had finished the hollow and was kneeling beside her.

"Are you alright?" He asked.

She let the fire burn in her until she could feel it passing. There was no suppressing this flame. But she had lived through it, and she held her head high. She hadn't given in - maybe she wasn't that evil after all.

When Inoue found out that Soul Society was ready to announce a sentence on Aizen, she was surprised they hadn't gotten to it sooner.

When she found out what the proposed sentence was, she was surprised they had agreed at all.

The door in front of her was imposing. It said without needing words that this was a door never to be opened.

"They were going to execute him, you know, but he's too dangerous," Nemu had told her quietly as they caught up. "Father's done some research lately that suggests there might be something more past this, and he's just so powerful. He can't be allowed to continue, even on a different plane of existence."

People around her were making last minute preparations. There was less than a day left. She knew she shouldn't go in there, but she justified it by saying that he was locked up, his reiatsu stripped away.

She steeled herself and walked in the door. "Hello, Aizen-sama."

There was a spark of curiosity behind his eyes - even knowing his fate couldn't diminish that which had gotten him into so much trouble. But he didn't say anything, didn't allow his face to move even the slightest.

"I just wanted to come see you. I didn't feel like it was fair, you know, that Hinamori-chan would be the last person you ever saw. Or maybe it is fair, but it's still not right."

Surly silence greeted her. She thought perhaps that he had been a bit stung by what Hinamori had said.

"It's actually very hard to tell what's right, anymore. I second guess myself constantly. Can I be sure that what I think is right is actually right, not something that I just think is right for my own self-serving purposes? I never used to be this way. You made me this way."

She didn't sound angry, and to her credit, she didn't think she was angry. Anger wasn't what she had come for, after all.

"But I understand, Aizen-sama. I understand why you worked for the power. The power and the glory, the ability to make every bit of the universe fall before your command.

"And I want you to know that I forgive you. I know what you've done is wrong, and I know you need to be locked away so that you can never try what you did again. You can cause so much pain and suffering, as so you must never be allowed out. But what you did is what I was so close to doing. I merged with it, you know.

"Don't look at me like that. I couldn't help it. I didn't want to. That was why you came for me, my powers made me uniquely suited to it. And I had no idea what I was doing, just that you were going to destroy the things I loved and I had to stop you. So, somehow, instead of bending it to my will, we became one.

"Before that instant, I had held no real desire for power. But I almost took it then. I thought I knew what I was getting into, when I opened that gate, when I ran to where you were. But of course I didn't. I didn't know about the darkness. About the pain, the suffering. About the lust.

"I know, I know. Smirk at me if you'd like. I was a young girl. Yes, I had known pain and suffering, but my power wasn't that great. At least, I lacked the desire to make it so. I had never been in a position where power was at my fingertips, nothing keeping me from grasping it. And it changed me."

She drew herself up proudly. "I am ruled by fear now, Aizen-sama. I fear the hunger, the darkness, the need. I fear my own power. But with the fear comes knowledge. I have seen the universe. I have felt infinite amounts of joy and love and sorrow. I walked where even you dared not tread. I am broken, yes, but when I am put back together I will be so much more than I ever was, than the old Inoue Orihime could ever be."

A knock at the door rang through the cell, there at the highest room in the tallest tower on a lonely island in Soul Society. "Inoue-san! They intend to start the kido soon!"

"Thank you, Hanatarou-kun! I will be out shortly," she returned through the door, and turned back to Aizen. "I have seen the end of time, the unraveling of the universe, and it is so very lonely. So remember this, as the countless eons pass outside of these doors: I forgive you. Someone, in all of this, understood you. Someone felt the same desire you did. And when the spirit particles begin collapsing and matter gets pulled apart, when the kido comes undone and you alone are there to bear witness to the end of everything, know that you have been forgiven."

She walked up to him. He seemed to flinch away for just a moment, but allowed his eyes to flutter closed as she knelt and kissed his forehead, her white dress swishing against him.

"This is not goodbye, Aizen-sama. For in that small instant, when you are released, but before the push and pull of the collapse takes you as well, know that at some point in time, so far before, I am holding the Hougyoku and witnessing the glory through your eyes."

Later, as she clasped Ishida's hand and the forbidden kido rang out, she broke her promise not to cry.