A Speck of Sand or Maybe a Star
5. Not connecting
Orihime was in Soul Society for three whole weeks.
After coming back to Earth, she wondered if maybe she’d gotten someone else’s destiny by mistake.
“Everything was more amazing than I even imagined it would be,” she told her brother’s photograph, “but….”
There were some things she wasn’t sure she could tell even Nii-chan. Things about Kurosaki-kun. Were girls supposed to talk to their brothers about boys they liked?
“There were moments when I felt high in the sky but ….”
Orihime wondered if she could describe the moment when she was literally high in sky. It was a spectacular feeling after the spirit ball exploded and everyone was floating in midair. Orihime had mustered all the emotion in her heavenly body and shouted “Kurosaki-kun!” as she reached for him, and he too had called “Inoue!” but ….
Nii-chan’s black and white photograph wore the same pleasant expression it always did.
“Something didn’t connect,” Orihime said softly, and she knew that she wasn’t connecting with her brother either. She really needed to talk to a woman about these matters but ….
For the first time in her life Orihime missed not having a mother.
Orihime and Kurosaki-kun’s fingers had just missed, and they had landed, separated for days, in the Seireitei. And then after the rescue of Kuchiki-san, there was so much other excitement and the 11th division wanted her to play football against Renji-san’s team and of course the 4th division needed help with sports injuries and ….
“Now that we’re home, he still seems so far away…” Orihime breathed a small sigh. “Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think Kurosaki-kun is himself.”
She had listened to his voice as he chatted with classmates in the hallway, and his same gruff retorts and same simple kindness had been there. But once, just before Algebra, she caught his glance; she had searched his eyes and sensed an absence in them.
Orihime’s voice got quieter. “I wish,” she said, well aware that her wish was the one she had made long before the Soul Society adventure, “that I could get closer to Kurosaki-kun and help.”
She went to bed that night feeling a sense of disquiet that would soon grow into full-fledged dread. There came a battle that hurt everyone’s spirit and made Kurosaki-kun so depressed that not only Orihime but the whole school noticed. Kurosaki-kun was a slump-shouldered, mumbling mess after that battle.
Two Arrancar arrived, a small green-eyed one and a giant one who destroyed Tatsuki’s entire karate class with one breath. Kurosaki-kun hadn’t arrived on the scene yet, and Orihime stood alone. Sado-kun’s arm had been torn off like a doll’s. The air smelled of blood, and Orihime, recognizing that this was her moment, her chance to truly help, stood and faced the intruders with Kurosaki-kun’s image in her mind.
I don’t know what is troubling Kurosaki-kun but if I fend off these two then he can have a little peace of mind. That’s probably the best I can do for Kurosaki-kun.
She fired her offensive weapon, but Tsubaki was smashed into pieces like specks of dust.
That wasn’t even the worst part; the worst part was that when Kurosaki-kun finally came, his reiatsu felt dark and dangerous. The horrible black aura finally left, and when the battle was over, what was still frightening was how upset Kurosaki-kun was over not having been able to protect anyone.
He wouldn’t speak to anyone at school until ….
“You can stop worrying,” Orihime said to her brother’s picture one evening. “Remember how I told you how moody Kurosaki-kun has been? He’s all fine now. Kuchiki-san came back from Soul Society and she knew just how to cheer him!”
Orihime hugged her arm which was still in a cast after the terrible battle. She knew that her happiness sounded fake. The truth was that she sincerely was happy that Kurosaki-kun was back to his courageous and strong old self, but there was something else she wasn’t happy about.
At a moment when Orihime should have been ecstatic, when Kurosaki-kun came to her and announced that he would protect her against all the terrors that were threatening
“After all, Kuchiki-san is incredible,” Orihime told her brother. She didn’t know what else to say. It was as if another girl’s virtues and not Orihime’s had made Kurosaki-kun speak those beautiful words.
Moonlight streamed into the room in the slanted diamond shapes of the window panes, and Nii-chan only smiled.
Is there something wrong with me? Orihime wondered.
Orihime told her brother’s picture about being “a little jealous” about Kuchiki-san, but there was no relief in the confession.
Jealousy--surely there was another name for what she was feeling.
It occurred to Orihime that maybe she was lonely. She wondered how it could be that a person who was well-liked and had many friends at school could feel lonely. She really hadn’t felt lonely in Soul Society--it was only later, after the coming back to Earth, after realizing that her dreams of fighting alongside and protecting Kurosaki-kun hadn’t quite come true that she’d felt this way. As her admiration and feelings of tenderness towards Kurosaki-kun had grown, so had this feeling of wanting to be closer to him.
But why was it that Orihime’s exuberance and delight for all things great and small in the world feel like it was crumpling?
I don’t like fried eggs, Orihime thought later that night as she brushed her hair. I don’t like gummy candies that look like fried eggs… what else? I don’t like sweaters that are too purple and sometimes I don’t like… me. She gave her hair one last fierce punishing stroke and sighed loudly. A girl who dislikes herself--is she worthy of being loved? Is a girl who thinks such thoughts obsessed with herself or is she just hungry and does she need tofu-chocolate mochi at midnight to help her sleep? Is this what liking a boy is supposed to be like? Nobody told me it makes you feel dreadful half the time….
Orihime put down the brush and was about to undress for bed when there was a knock at the door. And so it was that Orihime was miraculously given a chance to talk to a woman about matters of the heart. Matsumoto Rangiku invited herself into the apartment and jumped into Orihime’s bathtub. When Orihime told in frantic phrases about how Kuchiki-san had helped Kurosaki-kun and the tears began to fall, Rangiku appeared in the hallway in a cloud of soap bubbles. Eyes narrowed, chin up, Rangiku-san looked like a stern goddess ready to spout advice.
Instead she tickled Orihime and nearly scared her to death.
Orihime was vividly aware that this wet naked body trying to comfort her was a blessing of sorts, but she blushed at the intimacy of the moment. Later, when the words of wisdom and advice came, Orihime wasn’t quite sure if this beautiful death goddess with hundreds of years of experience knew what she was talking about. Truly, how could she know the depth of Orihime’s self-doubt? Still, after being hugged by Rangiku-san and told that it was brave to confront one’s feelings of jealousy, Orihime felt a little better, ate some seaweed ice-cream and tried very hard to be cheery but ….
Look at Rangiku-san, thought Orihime. How can I ever be as confident as she is?
Orihime instinctively knew it was a bad habit to compare herself to others, but she did it anyway.
On the battlefield, she had seen Ishida-kun’s amazing prowess with the spirit bow and wondered if she hadn’t trained hard enough and that’s why she wasn’t able to fight. After the return to Earth, she had seen Kuchiki-san’s amazing ability to bring Kurosaki-kun back from depression, and why was it that Kuchiki-san could make him smile like that? Did she have a connection to him that Orihime didn’t, or was Orihime lacking in some essential womanly skill?
Doubt, doubt, and more self-doubt ate away at Orihime’s dream of becoming the one who fought by Kurosaki-kun’s side and always brought him happiness.
And then, on this same night that Rangiku-san praised Orihime for confronting her fears, Orihime saw something that made her turn away, shut her eyes and want to bury her fears away. If she only could. If she could only dig a grave for those fears, pile mounds and mounds of dirt on them and then hit the dirt repeatedly with her shovel! Sometimes Orihime despised her own imagination. A wound was simple to heal because an injury that had already occurred in the past was easy to reject, but what about the great unknowns of the future?
There came another terrible battle, and Orihime was rejecting a terrible wound Kuchiki-san had taken from the enemy. The fallen girl was enclosed in a golden sphere, covered with Orihime’s wishing away her damage and pain.
Orihime saw Kurosaki-kun looking at Kuchiki-san as if she were the Sleeping Beauty and he the Prince. His eyes were so full of longing, sadness over not having protected her, and something else glistened in them that was not tears--
There was no way to easily escape the smell of rotting flowers this time.
This time the bitter battle concluded with people feeling hopeful instead of despondent. The urgency of war was in the air, and everyone ran off to train with the sense of purpose that Orihime had lost. She felt adrift and moving towards no specific goal. She had never been less sure of who she was and what her role in this life was supposed to be. And when Urahara-san told her that she was not needed on the battlefield (“A warrior who has lost his strength,” he said, each word its own poison, “will only get in the way”), Orihime wanted to wish away her own wish to have a wonderful life.
It’s hope, she thought, running through the lonely world in tears. It’s hope that makes me feel disappointed. If I didn’t have this hope then I could just forget about my dreams and be satisfied.
Satisfied being lonely.
Satisfied being weak and powerless.
Satisfied watching Kurosaki-kun’s back in a battle and never getting closer.
Orihime ran through the lonely world smack into Kuchiki-san who gasped, “Inoue!” and asked her why she was crying.
Kuchiki-san of all people! Orihime wanted to be like her! Just standing next to her, Orihime felt so unwieldy and graceless and full of ugly desires.
Kuchiki-san was so sweet and concerned. She cursed Urahara for his words and cupped Orihime’s face and reminded her of her part in the rescue in Soul Society. She told Orihime that the only useless warriors were the ones who lacked resolve.
Hacchi-san said something similar later, but it was more difficult to understand. Something about making things the way she wanted them to be. The words seemed more complicated by the fact that they were spoken by a giant with pink hair, and Orihime only nodded politely and pretended to get his meaning. In any event, with Hacchi’s advice, and Kuchiki-san’s offer to go train with her in Soul Society, Orihime vowed to become a better person, one worthy of taking her place at the front lines in the war to come.
Now I’m going to go and not look back….
For what seemed like time outside of the pull of fate and the anxieties that belonged to the world of the living, Orihime enjoyed running up and down vast unpopulated areas outside the Seireitei with Kuchiki-san following, hurling kidou balls of fire. Even as Orihime would stop, drop to her knees and fire Tsubaki over her shoulder back at Kuchiki-san, she felt no rivalry with the girl. This type of fighting was fun; it was playing; even Orihime’s fearlessness felt like a game, but maybe when the time came to display true courage, the real thing would have taken root in her nature?
“My brother wouldn’t approve,” said Kuchiki-san once when the girls were bathing in
“Oh no,” Orihime protested. “The barracks of the 13th Division are fine.”
“I would like you to see my brother in a proper setting,” Kuchiki-san said. “He is amazing. Maybe we will go to the house one afternoon for tea.”
Kuchiki-san’s fondness for her brother reminded Orihime of her own, and sometimes she felt that she and Kuchiki-san were more alike than different but that was only sometimes. Kuchiki-san spoke of being a street rat in the Rukongai and how Renji-kun wanted a better life for them inside the Seireitei where he’d heard you didn’t have to steal food.
“Renji’s motive for becoming a death god came from his stomach,” Kuchiki-san said, smiling, “but he brought the both of us out of this dusty terrible place to where we could rise to our better selves.”
Don’t look back.
Orihime remembered the heat-and-serve cup of shrimp and noodles placed on the table every evening by Kasan and wanted to remember more about that time. There had been that bad flowery smell and that dreary sense that Kasan and Tousan didn’t care. But there had always been food even if it was heat-and-serve…. Orihime resisted comparing her family home to whatever horrors Kuchiki-san left when she joined the
Maybe when I die I can become a shinigami like Kuchiki-san and Kurosaki-kun!
She had never thought much about dying, but she had never been afraid of the idea. She was only a little afraid that she would not be able to accomplish much as a human fighter with her limited powers.
Don’t think about dying, silly, she thought to herself in a world full of spirits of the dead. I’m sure that warriors aren’t supposed to think about such things. Not if they want to go to battle feeling like they can’t be taken down! Think about flags waving and trumpets playing! Think about brave knights and shiny armor and ….
She and Kuchiki-san never spoke of Kurosaki-kun. Maybe Kuchiki-san didn’t think of him because she was so concentrated on her training, but it struck Orihime as odd that his name never came up.
The unspoken seemed to hang over Orihime like the waxing moon in the sky over Soul Society those weeks. It was just there, a slowly growing inspiration. She never said it aloud, but the reason she wanted to get stronger was so that she could fight alongside Kurosaki-kun.
She tried not to think about him, though, when exchanging fire with Kuchiki-san and practicing her offensive technique. Tried not to think about Kurosaki-kun the same way she tried not to think about Death.
The war was supposed to begin weeks later in the winter, but for some reason an alarm was sounded one afternoon in the middle of a training session. Captain Ukitake became suddenly unlike his usual pleasant self and started shouting commands, so Orihime believed that the war was truly starting, and Kuchiki-san said she would go ahead and wait for Orihime but….
Orihime didn’t see her again.
Everything was not supposed to have ended so quickly.
Orihime’s brother had died at the still youthful age of twenty-seven, and Orihime had always imagined living long past that. She had, in fact, imagined being very old and losing all her teeth and having to be fitted with solid gold dentures.
Life was supposed to have been long and the ending was supposed to have been happy. An amazing man was to have played a major role and so too would have many food and flavor combinations.
The green-eyed Arrancar, though, signaled the end of Orihime’s life when he said that there was no negotiation, that he was going to kill her friends unless she came with him. It didn’t matter where they were going to go--Orihime understood that she would be leaving Earth forever.
Orihime hesitated for a fraction of a heartbeat--I can resist, there is another way.
Then the green-eyed Arrancar said in a quiet, confident voice that allowed for no other reality, “Come with me, woman.”
She wasn’t afraid. She was even grateful. She was somehow being useful and saving her friends’ lives this way.
And when in a surprising turn, the Arrancar gave her twelve hours to get her affairs in order and say goodbye to one person and only one person, Orihime felt her soul fill up with gratitude for each second of her life thus far.
Twelve hours, fifteen years. I suppose I could do the math to allot how much time I should spend remembering each year of my life but … I think I’ll just go live life a little bit longer in
Orihime went to the Onose river and counted her blessings along with red dragonflies. It was the height of the dragonfly season, not too cold yet, and a perfect time to be satisfied with one’s failings and to say goodbye to life’s struggles. The dragonflies had only weeks to live themselves.
Hours passed, it seemed, in the intake of a single breath. Was that how ephemeral life was too? Orihime was glad she had paused by the river to give thanks for it.
And the person to say goodbye to had to be none other than one special boy. Orihime wanted to consecrate the moment--she could be bold because she was never going to see him again. Grateful for this opportunity, feeling she would be a fool to pass it by, she leaned over his sleeping figure, grasped his hand, and bowed her head to kiss his face.
Orihime’s face burned from being so close and her lips hovered a moment over his but…
“I can’t,” she whispered and moved away, tears falling.
Again, no connection, or at least not the kind she truly wanted, because her hand still held his, and a tear landed on his cheek.
If she had kissed him sleeping there, would it have made a difference? A true connection?
Orihime made her peace with the moment. If there was no connection, there was no loss either. Her longing stayed unchanged in her heart. She would leave with the enemy without ever having fulfilled her dream in life, but she would take her longing with her.
6. The lust
The end was not the end.
Every scene in Hueco Mundo was swiftly connected to another, and while Orihime felt she did have moments here and there to reflect, it felt like connecting the dots on a page in a child’s workbook. There was no telling what the final picture would be.
Everything was happening so fast.
Each moment a horror but also an illumination. Stars, stars, stars in a vast sky. Somehow connected.
This time she was not separated from Kurosaki-kun, not at all. He had come to save her. He had come for her. Orihime saw him close up--bleeding, bones snapping, the true face of a warrior.
Or what was his true face? Orihime saw his mask with the skeletal teeth and it reminded her of her brother’s lost soul. They were in the land of lost souls and so close to being lost themselves.
Orihime could sense that here there was something more terrible than even physical pain or death. What could that be? All the Hollow souls were full of terrible, aching longing--was there any pain worse than Hollow desire?
When she called out to Kurosaki-kun, “Please don’t get hurt anymore,” he turned around to look at her, and she felt her heart brush against his--a connection! Later when explaining the heart to the green-eyed Arrancar she now knew as Ulquiorra, she felt that his questions helped her define her own heart. The connections were what made humans matter to one another. She needed connections; her strength was that her heart was close to not only Kurosaki-kun but to all her friends who had come to hurt and bleed for her--
Oh, her friends, her friends, her wonderful friends to whom she would leave her heart if she died. Sado-kun cut down by a scythe. Kuchiki-san’s body held high on a trident. Ishida-kun and Renji-kun tortured--organs burst and tendons sliced. She would do the same for them. She had wanted to do the same ….
She knew that the wish she had scribbled on a piece of paper for the Tanabata years ago was a childish one: No more sickness, only happiness. And that wish had been made in world of the living. Here in the land of the Hollow, where the dead fed on the dead and Aizen’s army prepared for the destruction of Orihime’s home world, Orihime made another wish--she felt it was futile as soon as she made it but what else could she do?
I don’t want anyone to get hurt anymore. No more hurt.
There was more hurt.
Ishida-kun’s body impaled by Kurosaki-kun’s sword flew through the air. Orihime screamed, and then her heart went cold. The Hollow-like being with a hole in its chest and no heart there seemed to notice her. The killer Kurosaki-kun had become spoke in Kurosaki-kun’s true voice saying, “Help… must help you.”
It’s my fault. Because I cried out to him to help me. She shut her eyes tight. I came here to protect him. I trained because I didn’t want to be a burden to him. Why in the end did I come to depend on him?
She was about to summon her healing powers when Kurosaki-kun aimed a fireball at Ishida-kun.
“Wait! Kurosaki-kun! Wait!”
He didn’t listen to her screams this time. He was going to kill Ishida-kun. Stars flashed before Orihime’s eyes, as if she were getting faint but she felt charged with fear. Before she could step forward, Ulquiorra rose and stopped Kurosaki-kun, sent him careening through space along with an energy blast shaped like a sick and swollen intestine. The sky thundered and flared, and there was a colorless explosion inside Orihime’s head. This time, after all the times she had witnessed Kurosaki-kun near death, Orihime was sure he had been killed.
This end was not the end either. Kurosaki-kun was alive, no longer a Hollow. Ulquiorra had saved Ishida-kun, maybe all of them from that blast Kurosaki-kun had been about to fire, and before Orihime could say or do anything else, there was arguing about the next battle--male voices shouting about what was fair and what was a victory.
In the bright stunning moments that followed, in the confusion that brought clarity, in the lurch of grief that filled her with compassion, Orihime understood that Ulquiorra was not only like Kurosaki-kun but like herself. He wanted to connect.
In his dying moment he stretched out his arm and reached for her.
She ran towards him, but her fingers clasped air.
The aftermath was long and silent, a river of something more terrible than pain or death. The horrible, aching longing. The lust, the lonely need.
And wanting something badly didn’t make it so.
7. Source of light
Orihime couldn’t stop crying. She was ashamed of her tears because the intermittent noise of her hiccupping sobs kept breaking the solemnity of the scene, and her distress just made the looks on the boys’ faces worse. They should not feel for her, she thought. They had fought bravely and she had done nothing but cry--well, she could help Ishida-kun now. Through the fog of tears and the glow of her healing shield, she could barely make out his expression, but his concern for her as he lay there was as plain as the hole in his gut and the dark red staining his white clothes. And his concern for her was like a sword in her own body.
Kurosaki-kun flew off to another fight, and Orihime would not be comforted by the friend whose presence usually brought her contentment and well-being.
“Inoue-san,” Ishida-kun began, “please don’t--”
“Sssh, sssh.” She hushed him in a tone louder than necessary, but she was angry with herself not him. “I’ll stop crying. Please don’t say anything. Please.”
He didn’t speak anymore.
How weak was her will that it took her a long time after she said she would to settle her sobs?
I’m useless, she thought, even though her heart felt the burden of other things to mourn.
She heard Aizen’s voice echo in her mind: The woman is useless to me now. You can come get her if you like.
Urahara’s voice: A warrior without offensive power will only get in the way.
Kasan’s voice as she stepped over Orihime who preferred to crawl rather than walk because crawling was faster and walking was still so new: Get out of my way, stupid useless baby. Get out of my way!
Orihime stared at her hands and the golden glow they suspended over a mangled body. She watched the lie about her uselessness fade as Ishida-kun’s wound closed up and his missing hand was restored. She could heal the injured--this much she had done in this war and this much she could still do. The lie vanished, but some sickness inside Orihime remained. Healing Ishida-kun, Orihime became aware that only she could heal herself.
Here in this desolate world Orihime’s pains had been unburied, brought to the surface and laid out like tumors to spill their infested contents: My mother doesn’t love me, people die, I couldn’t save Ulquiorra, they pushed me down, they called me names, my mother and father beat me, I couldn’t save Kurosaki-kun, I’m not good enough, I can’t connect, I have to keep quiet or I’ll get hurt, everyone was hurt because of me, I wanted Kurosaki-kun to save me, I ran away from myself, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know … I don’t know who I really am.
Ishida-kun was sitting up. He was holding his restored hand in the palm of the other and looking at her with an expression of awe.
“I had no idea ….” His voice was breathless. Why was he so shocked? “Your powers are….”
She didn’t know what her powers were. She looked past Ishida-kun, at the landscape wrecked by war. It was dark on the dome--Aizen’s fake sky and insipid light didn’t reach here. The only light came from the strange moon, and the rest of the night was starless. Something, though, among the ruined towers reflected a spark--then again, it flashed twice more, a white dot coming and going. The spark caught Orihime’s eye and she found herself staring at the place for the light to flash again but it didn’t.
A piece of glass? Her own imagination knew no limits. Anything could give off a glimmer of hope in graveyard. A speck of sand or maybe a star.
“Inoue-san, are you all right?”
His voice pulled her to reality. She was doing it again. She was looking for a wishing star on the far horizon when the true source of light was inside herself.
Orihime put her hand on her heart and closed her eyes.
What’s done is done. I’m so sorry, Kurosaki-kun. I didn’t want to let you out of my sight. Keeping you in my sight I couldn’t see anything else. Not even my own heart, my own strength.
Maybe now, maybe because I need to, I will learn to see.
I’m sorry, Kurosaki-kun. I didn’t know what you wanted or needed, and I wanted to help so I could be important to you. I was walking in the dark and wishing on stars. I didn’t know ….
How could anyone know the depths of another person’s pain?
Nii-chan was always smiling when he and Orihime still lived at home with their parents, and his pain must have been far beyond Orihime’s childish understanding. When Orihime said he was amazing and that he should herd cows, he said he hoped to live up to her expectations. Did she ever tell him what she was going to be? Was it a princess? She had entertained hopes of being an astronaut but that was much later, third year primary. On the day she discovered that she had the same name as the girl in the Tanabata legend, what did she tell her brother?
So, amazing people should herd cows, Nii-chan had said. Shouldn’t you herd cows too?
Ha ha, no no, Nii-chan. I want to eat cucumber cows, not herd real ones.
A strong wind, like the one that had blown Ulquiorra’s ashes far away, was lifting Orihime’s hair across her face. Ishida-kun had fallen silent, as if he was waiting for a cue from Orihime for what to do next.
Then what will an amazing girl like you do?
Be amazing of course!
There was a roar of battling reiatsu below the dome. Orihime knew that her place was not to keep out of the way this time. Nii-chan, I must live up to my own expectations. She squinted against the wind and saw tiny stars beneath her eyelids and felt the excitement of tiny stars flashing in her heart.
A/N: Thank you Neha for the beta. Thanks to many others for moral support (you know who you are!). I’d originally wanted to enter this fic in a Tanabata contest where the rules precisely state "You don't have to be an IchiHime fan to enter!" but in these paranoid shipping days, I wasn’t sure how an entry from me, a yaoi multi-shipper and diehard IshiHime and occasional UlquiHime shipper, would go over. In any event, I’d always wanted to explore further Orihime’s canon feelings for Ichigo, and this fic was in my head before the announcement for this year’s contest. The contest did inspire the fic, though. The contest info for those who may want to enter is here:
I didn’t think I could wait two months to post an entry, and it’s my hope that even though Sensei is taking his sweet time getting back to the dome, my ending for this story will be obsolete fanon by the time Tanabata 2010 rolls around. Ah, one can hope.