Setting: Towards the end of the SS arc. Because that's where Ishida and Orihime are at their best, ne? :D
Hime to Ryuu
(The Princess and the Dragon)
It was starting to rain.
As his vision blurred, Uryuu grabbed hold of the rocky facade, closing his eyes as he struggled to get his body back under his control. Pain shot through every limb with each step he took, yet still he persevered, knowing that if he stopped now he would probably never begin again.
At his side, his shooting arm hung like a dead weight, feeling as though it were made of lead as it swung limply against the tattered remains of his stolen hakama. Beneath the skin, every nerve ending twitched and buzzed with fire as the last shreds of spiritual energy burnt through the limb, and to the weakening Uryuu it felt like with it went the last of his strength and his resolve.
The path ahead of him was clear, with no obstacles in his way. The sky overhead was as blue as it had been the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, yet inside Uryuu's battered heart a storm had begun, rain pelting down against his senses as he struggled to right himself in order to continue forward.
He was only fighting against himself now, yet somehow it was the hardest battle he had ever had to face.
He opened his eyes, raising his gaze to the horizon as he made out the swaying white haze that was the place he knew Rukia was held captive. Exhausted as he was, he knew it was the only place he had to make for. Yet if he was honest, he also knew that he wasn't persevering in order to follow Ichigo's directive and rescue the Shinigami from her prison. Though his pride drove him forwards, it was one other hope that kept one leg moving in front of the other as his steps grew more and more uneven with every haggard breath.
The voice echoed in his ear and Uryuu flinched, starting as if expecting to see someone on the slope ahead of him. There was nothing there, however, and Uryuu cursed, putting his uninjured hand to his head as he struggled to keep himself in check.
He had sent her away for her own safety, but also because he knew that the fight against Kurotsuchi would be savage and deep down inside he did not want her to see him act that way. She was innocent and naive, he thought bitterly to himself. Always believing in the best of people, and never quite having that killer instinct to take the opponent down. She would have tried to stop him, he knew, from releasing his full power and launching it helter-skelter at the man which, for that brief moment in time had occupied all of his hatred and resentment towards Shinigami. The darkness that had soared up inside of him, blanking him to everything else would have scared her, or worse, driven her away.
She was a gentle person who did not like to fight. And he had fought to win with ruthless recklessness.
If she had seen that then she would probably have never looked at him again, despite the fact he had fought for her sake as much as for his own.
Although whether she would have looked at him anyway was a question Uryuu had been trying to push to the back of his senses for some time. If not for Rukia's abduction to Soul Society, if not for Ichigo's conversion to Shinigami - would she have ever even noticed him? Would they ever have had conversation beyond the stilted few words exchanged in handicrafts club as he repaired stuffed toys and stitched up a storm?
Somehow those memories seemed aged and colourless now, a feeble comparison to the bold colours of the azure sky above his head and the slick crimson blood that licked down his injured limb and dripped to the ground below. Try as he might, he could not focus those thoughts into something tangible. It seemed like a different world - a dream world - the edges of which had begun to fade the moment he had opened his eyes and seen the colour of battle in Soul Society's Edo-like streets. His images of Karakura high school at that moment seemed not only a world but a lifetime away from here and now.
They had come here because a Shinigami was in danger, and he had put his own values entirely on the line in order to uphold his Quincy pride and fight against injustice. But instead he had found himself in the enforced company of the most elusive of spirits he had ever met - a girl who was beautiful in an unconscious way, kind with unassuming ease, and with an emotional depth that far outweighed her physical weaknesses and happy-go-lucky demeanour.
At this thought, Uryuu pushed against the rock helplessly with his good hand, as if trying to physically force the idea away. He was weak, he berated himself, and through the cracks and seams of his shattered consciousness he could feel the creeping tendrils of his true feelings, raw and unrelenting as they pushed further and further into his thoughts. Though his eyesight had become indistinct and blurry even behind his glasses, one image resounded with perfect clarity through his mind, again and again and again until nausea assailed his senses.
It was useless, he told himself hopelessly. Kind as she was, gentle as she was...he had never known how to approach members of the opposite sex. And though he had been driven to protect her from the moment they had crashed into the hard streets of Rukongai, he knew deep down inside that she did not look for his attention.
He faltered, putting his hand against the hard stone once more as he allowed himself a brief moment to catch his breath. Between the heaving gasps of air he felt a flicker of memory stir up inside of him and for a moment he held it clearly in his sights, the pain that wracked through him momentarily forgotten as he drew strength from the pictures piecing themselves together into a coherent sequence of events.
As the memory began to take precedence in his brain, reality faded and blurred into the background and he allowed himself a moment to picture her, curled up asleep in the darkness of one of the barren buildings they had sought shelter in during their run.
She had worked tirelessly for hours on strengthening her skills while he had kept watch for outside intruders, and despite the fact Uryuu knew that Orihime was a blunt weapon in battle, her determination and diligence had impressed and touched him. She was not a fighter, yet she was stronger than he was, he knew that. Her desire to help and heal was far more powerful than any arrow he had ever shot from his bow. Somehow his pride seemed superficial, even farcical when compared with the genuine concern and emotion his red-haired companion had poured into every summoning of her Rikka shield.
She was even more innocent in her sleep, and as he drew a heavy breath into laboured lungs, Uryuu found himself picturing her every feature in turn, from her long dark lashes to her faintly flushed cheeks and the soft sound of her breathing in and out as her body sought to recover from its exhausting workout. Her hair had been scattered carelessly across the makeshift pillow, and it had been all Uryuu had managed not to touch it.
This very thought had filled him with embarrassment and he had flinched back, glad that his companion was so lost in dreams that she would never know how close he had come to violating her private space. Yet for a long time that night he had not slept, sitting and watching his companion as soft, incoherent murmurs had intermittently passed her lips. He had not been able to understand her words, and somehow he was glad of that fact. Even if it was only an illusion - a snatched instant of peace amid the chaos of their campaign - he had not wanted it to be broken
He had told himself then that he was just protecting her, but deep down he knew that that was not the case.
In all his fifteen years he had never been in love with a girl, or even managed to have more than an odd few words of dialogue with any of his female classmates. In elementary school, he had always been the kid in the playground who had shied away from integrating with the opposite sex, standing apart from his classmates as he had told himself time and time again that it was because he was a Quincy and he had other things which were more important to focus on than childhood games.
A new memory teased at him at this moment, and his feet stumbled, bringing him back to the present with a jerk.
He was remembering too much, he told himself, a mixture of alarm and resignation swirling through his brain as he forced his attention back on the road ahead. He could not stop now, nor let his weak body dictate to him the end result of his adventure. It was not time for him to recap his short life in readiness for his soul's transition from one state to another - no matter what he would not let this be his final stand.
He had fought Kurotsuchi and he had won. He had battled with his Quincy pride and given everything to achieve his goal. And now he would keep going. Most of all, he would stop the rain that fell relentlessly in his heart, and would reach out for the one thing that he knew could part the clouds and give him just that faintest ray of hope.
At this resolve, he felt his will to fight stir faintly within him, curling itself around his heart as he found his second wind to move.
Yes, he would make it to the Soukyoku. Not because Kuchiki Rukia awaited him, but because, of all places, it was the only location he was sure that he would find her.
Orihime would be waiting, if he could just make his feet keep moving one in front of the other. And even though she might not be waiting for him, he did not care.
If he could just keep the pain at bay for a little longer, he could see her again.
And somehow, weak and rent apart as he was, Uryuu knew that that was the deciding factor. If he could see her, he knew it would all be all right. Even if he died, it would be all right.
So long as he saw Orihime again before the darkness sucked out his soul, he would be content.
Just once more.
*happy birthday Ishida* ;) It's half past midnight on the 6th now in the UK ;)