Title: How the Light Gets In
Rating: PG-13 for violence, mild language
Disclaimer: The characters and settings of Bleach belong to Kubo Tite and his publishers.
Dedicated to girls and girlfriends everywhere, but especially to mine.
Give up your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything;
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen, from "Anthem"
There had been a terrible fight. There had been a terrible victory. Kurosaki was gone. Ulquiorra was gone. Ishida's arm was gone. There had been captains, and then there hadn't been captains. Things kept happening, one after another, one horrible thing after another for so long that she could hardly separate them. But now something was happening again. A grotesque figure was rising like the sun over the edge of the tower. A man. Yammy. Ishida was badly injured, and Kurosaki-kun was gone; everyone was gone. There was no one left to fight Yammy.
This is the end of everything, Orihime thought, in wonder and terror and a bit of relief.
She had not wanted to be rescued from Hueco Mundo. She had gone of her own free will, after all, and she had expected to spend the short remainder of her life there. She never expected that they would come after her, not once. It hadn’t occurred to her that they would try. Really, why would they bother? She was useless to them.
It was hard being useless. Especially when there were people—when there was a person—you desperately wanted to be useful to. To be needed by. And it hurt, knowing that you were—oh, not worthless, oh, no. Not worthless. Just—superfluous. More than is necessary. Because after all, weren’t they fine without her? Kurosaki-kun and Rukia-san went so well together. They worked so well together, were so plainly happy to be together, in a cheerful partnership that did not admit outsiders.
It hurt to see them together.
And it was bad to feel that way. Orihime had never known she could feel that way. There seemed to be another whole Orihime inside her. The person she knew was polite, kind, cheerful, happy Orihime. But inside was this resentful, angry, jealous person. This ugly, ugly person.
Orihime did not want to know that other Orihime. That was not who she wanted to be.
So she had tried not to think about it. But it took more effort not to think about it than she had imagined, and the more she tried not to think about it the more it troubled her, like a splinter slowly festering in her mind.
Orihime had tried to be cheerful in spite of this—no one liked to be around a grump, after all—but despite her best efforts there were days and days when a suffocating sadness draped over her like a wet tarp.
Then she’d come to Hueco Mundo. Why was she here? Sometimes it was hard to remember what had moved her feet to follow Ulquiorra Schiffer. Things had just happened, one after the other, and there she was.
She would give anything to turn the clock back and return to a time when the worst thing she had to worry about was that Kurosaki-kun would never think twice about her and she had two pages of English vocabulary to learn and she was out of quarters for the laundry.
The utter ordinariness of those days now seemed like a lost perfect paradise. After the homework was done and the dishes were done and she had paid her respects to Sora, Orihime would retire to her spot by the window and dream of the great things she would do someday.
Someday she would be an explorer and discover a new planet and be adored by the aliens there. She would create a cure for cancer and her life would be written about and she would be the friend of prime ministers and princesses. She would marry an ambassador and live in Paris and have twelve beautiful children who would worship the ground she walked on. She would be a great actress and win awards and every man who saw her would fall in love with her. She told herself these stories when she was alone--and she was alone so very, very often--and they grew into a little world. It was a comforting place to live, especially when you were lonely: when you were so lonely that you would do anything for a bit of noise, another voice; when your hands longed for the warmth of an embrace or the touch of skin besides your own. Recently Kurosaki-kun had shared that world with her, and that was terrifying and thrilling in equal measure.
But it was a good place, that world she visited in her daydreams. In it Orihime was always safe, always successful, always happy, always loved. There was no end to the wonderful futures Orihime mapped out for herself.
In none of them did she return the dead to life. Or recreate missing arms from a faint glimmering idea where an arm had been. Or contemplate destroying a mystical artifact capable of toppling the kingdom of heaven.
Yet here she was. Orihime now lived in a world where fantasy, dream and nightmare were so perfectly intermingled with actual fact that she sometimes had doubts about her mind, and in this state of diminishing sanity she felt like something essential to her self was disintegrating.
Sometimes Orihime felt as if there was nothing left to her. As if her strange new abilities had burned her from the inside out, like a lightning-struck tree. As if she was just a scorched, empty skin through which power flowed.
As if, beneath her pretty Arrancar shirt, a hollow hole had formed under her breastbone.
So when Yammy rose--When Yammy rose, it felt like the world was ending. All her worlds.
Orihime walked forward to meet her fate. Behind her Ishida was shouting something--it sounded like "Get back!"--but Orihime was far beyond hearing. Over the edge of the tower she could see another shape, and she recognized Rukia and her beautiful sword. At the base of the tower was a sprawled, red-headed figure: Renji. Half a soccer field away, under Yammy's barbed tail, was another silent shape, identifiable even at this distance as Chad. Orihime felt her heart skip at the sight of her friend lying so still, and then her eye was caught by Rukia. Orihime couldn't hear what she was saying, but Yammy was suddenly enveloped in ice. Orihime watched his shoulders ripple underneath it. Between one breath and another the ice shattered and fell to the ground around him.
Rukia threw herself backward and lifted her sword again. A wave of ice leapt from her sword toward Yammy.
And out of a hole in the sky, a dark figure appeared. It jumped onto the ice created by Rukia's sword, riding that white wave. A small figure, dressed like a shinigami but looking all too human. Rumpled dark hair. Long arms, long legs. Slim and sure and graceful as a fawn.
Tatsuki was so out of place in the dead white world of Hueco Mundo that Orihime didn’t recognize her at first. Tatsuki’s face had the intent, meditative look Orihime recognized from karate matches. It was the look Tatsuki always wore when she was fighting. Tatsuki had a weapon in her hand, not a sword but a long, straight baton. She slid down Rukia's ice wave straight into Yammy, baton first. It struck his bare chest, and Yammy deflated like a punctured balloon. One moment he loomed above Orihime, blotting out the sun; the next moment he was bellowing on the sand.
Yammy grabbed for Tatsuki, but she hopped lightly out of his reach. Rukia lunged forward and a sheet of ice formed around Yammy, but he bellowed and shrugged and the ice fell away from him in great shards. Blood splattered white ice, white sand, but Yammy didn’t fall down. He didn’t even sway.
Tatsuki darted forward again. Her foot connected with the back of Yammy’s knee. He spun around and hissed in genuine surprise. Suddenly, Tatsuki interested him. A little warning light went off in Orihime’s head. It was dangerous to be the object of Yammy’s attention. Orihime gasped. She felt Ishida at her shoulder then. "Is that Arisawa?" he asked in amazement.
On the ground, Yammy was lumbering after Tatsuki, trying to crush her with his club, but Tatsuki darted back and forth, evading the blows. "I’ll bring your body to Aizen-sama after I tear you limb from limb," Yammy shouted. He pounded his club down against the ground; Tatsuki jerked to the side. The wind of his passing fluttered the sleeves of her kosode. Too close, too close, too close.
“I’ll tear your arms off,” Yammy shrieked, but Rukia had hurled another wave of ice. Orihime saw it impact against Yammy's back and shatter, sharp pieces of ice scattering off in every direction. Tatsuki threw up an arm over her face as the ice rained down. Yammy started forward again.
"Ishida-kun!" Orihime shrilled. "We have to go down! Please, Ishida-kun, take me down there!"
Ishida looked at her as if she was crazy, but he had already formed that little shelf of power, and she stepped onto it without hesitation. Ishida set them down at the base of the tower near the slumped figure of Renji. Orihime cast a hurried glance toward Tatsuki, but she had worried for nothing. Rukia had somehow encased Yammy in ice as he was in the act of reaching out for Tatsuki. He was frozen with his head down and his arm oustretched. Tatsuki swung him around by his hair, straight into Rukia’s sword. Soden Shirayuki slid into Yammy with barely a hiss, and the espada’s body slumped forward towards Rukia till their mouths almost met in a grotesque parody of a kiss. Rukia pulled away, and Yammy's body dropped heavily to the ground. The club shattered when it hit the ground.
“Good work, Kuchiki-san!” Tatsuki said, leaping to her feet with every appearance of good cheer. And that, more than anything else, convinced Orihime that this was not some cruel joke, that it was in fact her friend standing in front of her. Tatsuki loved fighting.
Rukia gave them both a tired smile. "Can you kids manage here for a minute?" she asked. "I'll be right back. There's something I need to take care of."
Ishida-kun, clutching the terrible wound that had been his right arm, was panting and staring at Tatsuki as if she was a hollow herself. “Arisawa! What are you doing here?”
Tatsuki rolled her eyes so hard Orihime was surprised they didn’t end upside down and backwards in her head. “What do you think I’m doing here?” She looked from Ishida-kun to Orihime. “I need you.” Orihime’s eyes filled with tears, and Tatsuki went on, “There’s this one algebra problem…”
Orihime caught her breath on a shaky laugh. “Oh, Tatuski!”
“How did you get here?” Ishida-kun persisted.
“Ichigo sent me.” Tatsuki stretched upwards, the sleeves of her black kosode fluttering apart where ice had torn them. "He's an idiot, by the way. So are you. Why the hell didn't you bring me? Wanted to keep all the fun for yourselves?"
“Oh, Tatsuki. You shouldn’t be here.” Orihime reached out and touched Tatsuki’s arm, examining a jagged cut that stretched from her shoulder around the back of her bicep. “Look at this. You’re hurt!”
“I’m hurt! What about you? And what about Ishida? He looks like he’s about to die. I don’t know whether to call a doctor or a coroner.”
“I can heal him,” Orihime said, holding out her hands. “I can heal you all.”
"Him first," Tatsuki said, indicating Ishida. "Obviously."
Orihime laughed, a little hysterically, and cupped her hands over Ishida's missing forearm. Warm golden light spilled from beneath her fingers, so different from the blue-white of Soden Shirayuki's attacks. Ishida closed his eyes and all the tension left his shoulders in a sudden rush. "Thank you, Inoue-san," he murmured.
Tatsuki peered over Orihime's shoulder, casting a critical gaze over the proceedings. "Have you always been able to do that?" she demanded.
Orihime, seeing a white wave of ice behind her eyes, was not sure. "You're amazing," she said. "You jumped out of the sky, Tatsuki. I was never so glad to see anyone. You look wonderful."
“You look like you’ve had twenty beers and a solid beating,” Tatsuki said with her usual shattering truthfulness. “What’s happened to you?”
"Oh, so many things," Orihime said helplessly. Where could she even begin to explain? She glanced at Ishida, only to find him eyeing her narrowly. Orihime thought of all he had seen at the top of the tower and looked away.
Tatsuki looked at Orihime too, her face grave. But she didn't ask questions. That was very Tatsuki. She never made you talk about things you didn't want to talk about. So it was quiet for a few moments--Orihime healing, Ishida watching her, and Tatsuki standing behind them both, kicking sand and whistling tunelessly.
The silence was broken by a sudden thunderous cracking. Orihime turned, her heart already racing with dread. All the world was shrouded in sudden darkness. Against that darkness Orihime saw, with strange vividness, Tatsuki’s small, sturdy figure. Her brown eyes with their straight, clear glance. Her rosy face from which the color was slowly draining, leaving it as white as the sand.
And Yammy’s bloody hands, gathering up the power for a cero.
Everything in the world slowed itself; everything grew heavy and silent, as if she was underwater. Orihime reached up and touched her hairpin as if in a dream, feeling sick with fear. The self she showed the world smiled amiably, bowed her head willingly, gave herself away without hesitation and without question. That was who she was, right? Sweet Orihime. Kind Orihime. Gentle Orihime.
Yet somewhere inside her Tsubaki dwelled. Somehow she was Tsubaki too.
Tsubaki, daring and dangerous.
Reckless beyond reckoning.
“Tsubaki,” she whispered.
He hovered by her ear. “Do you trust me?” he asked urgently. “Woman, do you trust me?”
Did it matter?
Because there was no time for introspection, no time for hesitation, no time for doubt. Or Tatsuki was going to die.
Orihime was desperate for power and she reached into herself for it, reached deep, very deep, for power she had never touched before. She gathered it up and shaped it and sent it out with Tsubaki, winging straight as an arrow toward Yammy, whose hands were still rising, trembling with his own power. Orihime clenched her teeth. Yammy couldn't kill Tatsuki. He wouldn't.
Tsubaki moved. She had never imagined he could move like that, faster than lightning, faster than light. Toward Yammy. Through Yammy. Back around, as Yammy's hands faltered and fell, as his body sagged to the side and then split like overripe fruit, falling and falling and falling. His body, thumping to the ground, raised a cloud of white sand.
Tsubaki returned, his head held high. And he seemed to be swaggering. How did he manage that while flying? “Now that’s what I’m talking about,” he said to Orihime. “About damn time, woman.” Tsubaki patted her cheek gently as he passed by, before he reached her hairpin and was gone.
“Okay,” Tatsuki said slowly. “Okay. That was - too close.”
Orihime shuddered, her gaze fixed on the mountain of flesh that had been Yammy.
Tatsuki’s hand described a tiny arc in the air. “Was that—was that—what was that?”
“He’s part of Inoue-san’s power,” said Ishida-kun, letting out a long, slow breath. He prodded Yammy’s unmoving arm with his foot, looking unsettled. “I guess he’s really dead now.”
“Oh, jeez, I hope so,” said Tatsuki. “If he isn’t, we’d better hurry and give it another try. Before he’s conscious again.”
Orihime threw a startled glance at her friend.
“What?” Tatsuki folded her arms across her chest. “He damn near killed me, in case you didn’t notice. You don’t want to give him another shot at it, do you?”
Orihime sank down abruptly, her knees meeting the ground with a painful thump. Tatsuki was right. She couldn’t bring Yammy back. That thought was just irresponsible, wasn’t it? Because he would be the same Yammy, and he would try to stop them again. And it wouldn’t be right to let that happen. Not if she could prevent it. Even if it meant--doing what she did. Yammy's body sprawled in pieces across the sand, a silent accusation. And yet what else could she have done? There was Yammy, and there was Tatsuki, and there was nothing to choose between them.
Tatsuki’s face gentled. “Can’t you stop crying?”
“Am I crying?” Orihime wondered, reaching up to touch her face. It was wet. Apparently she was crying. But what did she have to cry about? Tatsuki was still alive, and that was what mattered.
“Inoue-san.” Ishida-kun’s voice was sober and unexpectedly gentle. “You did a good job there. If you hadn’t gotten him with Tsubaki, he would have killed Arisawa.”
Ah, wasn’t that what she had longed to hear? That she was useful? That she mattered? That she could stand alongside her comrades and fight with them?
Ishida-kun thought she was worth something. But at the moment it didn’t seem to matter. Nothing seemed to matter. Except Tatsuki was alive. That mattered. Orihime had lost so much. She couldn’t lose Tatsuki, too.
No matter what she had to do.
Ishida-kun and Tatsuki were both staring at her. Were they looking at her differently, now that they knew what she could do? What she really was? Now that all the ugliness from inside her was brought to light? Orihime was aware that she should say something, but words seemed beyond her. Something inside her was broken, maybe. Yammy had barely scratched her, but inside she was bleeding to death.
Well, it wasn’t fair of her to worry her friends. Orihime schooled her face to its usual undemanding smile. “I’m glad I could be useful, Ishida-kun,” she said. But then the broken thing inside her gave way completely. Sobs tore their way out of her body, sobs that threatened to shake her to pieces.
Tatsuki’s warm arms closed around her. “Hey,” Tatsuki said, patting her back. “Hey, Orihime. It’s going to be all right.”
Was that a promise? Because Tatsuki kept her promises. Orihime let her head drop against Tatsuki’s shoulder. Her friend’s embrace did not hold out the bad things in life—nobody could do that. But it held in all the things, good and bad together, that made up Orihime. The silly things. The laughing, happy things. The kind things. The smart things. And even the things Orihime didn’t like very much: the deep and deadly things from the hollow place inside her that made Tsubaki real.
She didn’t want to be those things: hateful, jealous, bitter, cruel, spiteful, petty. And angry; angry above and beyond everything else.
Angry about so many things.
Angry at her parents for not loving her. Angry at Sora for leaving her. Angry at Kurosaki-kun for being reckless; angry at her friends for being foolish; angry at Rukia-san for being older and stronger and more capable than she was; angry at Tatsuki for making her use Tsubaki. And angry at herself. Because she'd had to look inside herself and see all the things that made her feel small and unworthy and unlovable. There were such terrible things inside her. It hurt to look at those ugly things and acknowledge that they were part of her. That those things, too, were Orihime.
But Tatsuki—oh, Tatsuki didn’t care what she was, that was the miracle. Tatsuki looked at every thing that Orihime was and saw nothing out of place, nothing of which to be ashamed. Sheltered in the circle of Tatsuki’s arms, it felt okay at last to be wholly and completely Orihime.
“I was worried, seeing how you were all super-powered now,” Tatsuki said into her ear. “I thought maybe it didn’t matter that I was here. But I guess you still need me after all.”
Orihime laughed, and then cried some more. Finally the fit seemed to fade, and Orihime found to her surprise that she felt better. More like herself. Well, maybe not exactly like herself. Not like her old self, the self she knew. But she felt like somebody she wouldn’t mind getting to know. Orihime wiped at her face and then, ineffectually, at the shoulder of Tatsuki’s hakama. “I’ve gotten snot all over your nice clothes,” she mourned aloud.
“Whatever makes you happy,” Tatsuki said, and Orihime laughed, and it seemed that something in the dead world of Hueco Mundo changed at sound of her laughter. Or maybe it was just something inside Orihime.
Over their heads, Ishida-kun cleared his throat. “If you’re done with the female bonding,” he said, “we should go get Sado.”
Tatsuki got up, and Orihime cast a sad glance at the vast bulk of Yammy.
“No way,” Tatsuki said immediately. “I don’t care if you feel sorry for him. Or if you’re feeling guilty, which you shouldn’t feel anyway. None of that matters. It just isn’t practical, Orihime.”
“I guess you’re right,” Orihime said. “I guess I could come back later, when Soul Society could put him in prison.”
“Or you could just leave him laying there as a warning,” Tatsuki said.
Orihime looked at her friend in surprise. “That seems—cruel.”
“Not cruel, just rational.” Tatsuki was unperturbed. “Do you really want him lurking around behind our backs? It’s a good thing I’m here, Orihime. When I’m not around, you forget how to think.”
"Time to go," Ishida said impatiently.
The girls got to their feet. "Such a tightass," said Tatsuki.
Ishida snorted. "Do you really want to leave Kurosaki by himself any longer? Can you imagine what trouble he's getting into alone?"
Tatuki grinned. "I know exactly what kind of trouble he's getting into. Want to hear about it?"
There was a story Tatsuki was dying to tell, obviously, and Orihime would hear her tell it. But there was a story Orihime wanted to tell, too. She would tell it mostly to herself. She was ready, now, to tell it.
Once upon a time there had been two people, an inside Orihime and an outside Orihime. Only one of them was real, and for a while Orihime had been confused about which one it was. But she wasn't confused anymore. She knew the truth now. It was time to go on and become something else. To be brave and strong and alive enough to find out what could happen next. It was time to leave her dream world, to laugh at the ridiculous Orihime who had lived in it and get to know the other Orihime—the one riddled with flaws and ugliness; the one who lacked so much and felt so empty.
And an idea was beginning to float its way to the top of her head, one that she would have to think about it in days to come.
When it came to souls, perhaps it was not what you had that was important, but what was missing. And it was what you did about the hollow parts that would be the making or breaking of you.
It was true for Orihime. Maybe it was true for everyone.
Q: How does Renji get knocked out?
A: I don't know, but I figured Adam would appreciate it. And as this is a story about girl power, Renji would have gotten in the way. Poor Chad was collateral damage.
Q: How did Tatsuki get to Hueco Mundo?
Q: Where did Tatsuki get the Yammy-shrinking stick?
Q: Why is Tatsuki dressed in shinigami duds and not in the school uniform in which we last saw her?
A: The shinigami duds look cooler. Let's just assume Keigo puked on her clothes at some point and she needed to change.
Q: Where did Rukia go?
A: Bathroom break.
You can read more stories by vesperh at her fanfiction.net account here.