The Haunting

Just yesterday…

 

“Alright,” Keigo declared, slapping some brightly colored leaflets onto the table, his excitement evidently overflowing. “Have I got the greatest scoop or what!”

“What the hell is he babbling about so early in the day?” Renji inquired from next to Ichigo where he’d plopped down in order to steal some lunch from the other boy.

“It’s best to just humour him,” Tatsuki returned dryly before, somewhat cautiously, each of the eight teens reached forward and picked up one of the glossy pamphlets that lay in the middle of the table.

After a few moments, Ishida broke the silence that had ensued.

“This is what you called us here for?”

Keigo frowned slightly at his tone but, never one to be easily deterred, quickly collected his thoughts and started excitedly.

“Since we’ve all been so busy recently, I, Asano Keigo, have taken it upon myself to find something fun for us to do with this unexpected week’s worth of holiday… and this is it! We, ladies and gentlemen, will be relaxing this week in a haunted house so prepare yourselves for a bit of spookiness!”

“You want us to stay in a haunted house for a week?” Renji clarified, raising a tattooed brow at the boy before glancing quickly over at Rukia who was still reading.

“What do you think, Ichigo?”

The orange-headed boy looked up at the big Mexican from his sheet and replaced it before answering smoothly.  “I’m not going. I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

“Iiiiiiiiccccccccchhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiggggggggggoooooo!”Keigo began melodramatically, “Why must you continue to crush my dreams with your cold-heartedness? Aren’t we friends?”

“I won’t be able to go either,” Mizuiro voiced, “I already made plans to attend the Screamfest movie night with my girlfriend.”

Keigo wheeled around to face the dark-haired boy, a hand over his heart.

“Et tu, Mizuiro?” he questioned before falling to Sado’s shoulder in a melodramatic weep, mumbling, “They’ve all abandoned me…I’m so alone…ahh…to have friends…”

“Did you even read this?” Ishida asked suddenly and Keigo’s head popped up, his eyes as dry as ever.

“O-of course I did,” he returned affronted by the insinuation that he hadn’t.

“I bet he didn’t,” Ichigo returned, “He probably just happily accepted it from some strange looking man handing out posters at the mall like he usually does.”

Keigo paled slightly at this but managed to stutter, “N-no I didn’t.”

Ishida and Ichigo both shot him looks that clearly said they didn’t believe that one bit before Ishida tore his gaze away to explain.

 “This poster says that this is actually part of some sort of competition. It says here that in celebration of the Western Halloween holidays, there will be a haunted house competition. Anyone who has received a flyer can invite up to  dozen friends to the address listed at the back,” at this they all turned the page, noting for the first time the address listed there, while Ishida continued, “It seems there are 12 houses to be used in the competition, located all around town. Cameras have been posted for recording and basically, all they want is for the group to stay in the house until the end of the week, from tonight until Sunday night, and if they can make it through the whole week, they win the prize- US$3000 each.”

Renji whistled at the sum. He had long since learned about the conversion rate of $US dollars so knew enough to know that that was quite a nice sum of pocket change.

 “Tch…just to stay in a house for the week….something’s off with that,” Ichigo returned, “I don’t think that’s all there is to it.”

“I’m certain it isn’t,” Ishida confirmed, pushing up his glasses, “But I also don’t see the harm in us checking it out either.”

“I guess it might be fun,” Tatsuki added somewhat hesitantly, “Besides, it has been a while since we all hung out…”

 

And as easy as that, it was settled and Ichigo found himself now standing outside the rusted gates. Beyond the gates lay their destination- an old house, older than most of the abandoned houses along this street and in worst repair than most as well.  A dim, slightly green tinged light was flowing from inside, casting the shadows outside into a kind of eerie twilight, tingeing the many cobwebs and the curling mists with its sickly hue. The two trees standing beside the old building, each looking just as creepy as the house with their bony like projections and half naked limbs, creaked and bent in the cold wind, spreading its shadow like an eerie painting unto the sidewalk.

“They certainly went all out,” he muttered to himself then, taking note of the lone, cobwebbed rocking chair in one corner or the verandah as well.

“They certainly did,” Tatsuki agreed from his left, “just look at how realistic those cobwebs seem…and this mist….eerie. I can’t wait to see what else is inside now.”

“They even have a mannequin in the window,” Orihime put in.

“Where is it?” Tatsuki asked and Ichigo sighed mentally at her enthusiasm. Trust her to get excited over something like this…

“I don’t see any mannequins,” Ishida cut in then.

“Its right there,” Orihime started then broke off into silence when her hand just directed their gazes to an empty space.

Dropping her hand, she furrowed her brow, her face showing confusion before she stated with a little laugh, “It must have been a trick of the light.”

However, Ichigo caught the way her eyes strayed to the window again, her frown deepening and when he turned to follow her stare, he could almost understand why.

Something had been there.

All of his senses screamed that at him and though he was able to see ghosts usually, not being able to see or sense anything now except for that feeling in himself, it made his own frown deepen. He suddenly had a very, very bad feeling about all of this.

“Well no use just standing out here,” Ishida’s voice cut into his thoughts, “Let’s go in. It’s getting cold.”

In unvoiced agreement they all started towards the house.

A sudden brisk wind started up as they neared the house, causing the old building to groan in protest and his skin to pimple with goose-bumps beneath the dark material of his sweater. Muttering a curse, Ichigo pulled the hood closer around his neck. As he did so, his eyes fell on the huddled form of the ginger-haired girl next to him and then back to the path. Almost in fascination, he watched then as the thin fingers of fog drifted toward them, lifting from the ground like ghostly waifs only to curl around them like amorous asps, before breaking apart again as they strode up to the veranda. 

The door opened without keys, the hinges releasing a loud groan and they all trooped in only to stop in surprise at the darkness inside.

“Where’s the damn light?” Renji asked and the sound of shifting and shuffling sounded before all of a sudden, the dark halls lit up in a dull hue.

“Whoa,” Tatsuki breathed, “just look at this place! Let’s explore it before we do anything else…”

Ichigo glanced over at her, his brows furrowing deeper at her behaviour.

“That might be a good idea,” Rukia voiced, speaking for the first time.

“Hmmm, at least we’ll know where we stand with things,” Renji agreed.

Why bother? Ichigo wanted to ask but refrained. The house was pretty much, as far as he could see, like every horror movie house they’d ever seen. Large and dark with paneled walls. A grandfather clock –check! Old style furniture (check), creaky floorboards (check), patterned rugs everywhere (check), paintings on the walls (check), old books, white covered furniture filled with sheets of dust and various animal heads hanging from strategic locations- all check.

“I’m almost expecting to see a rusty suit of armor jump out at us from somewhere,” Ishida mumbled beside him.

“Hmm,” Chad agreed silently.

“Let’s just go see what else is around here,” Renji put in, “then we can start to settle in. I have the feeling it’s going to be a long week.”

As they started off, something shifted in the periphery of his gaze. Ichigo paused, his attention drawn to the now empty, undisturbed space.

“Kurosaki-kun?”

He turned at Orihime’s voice, glancing back briefly at the space before turning fully towards her.

“I’m coming,” he said striding towards her, the others standing slightly behind her.

As he reached her, he noticed her eyes going to that same spot over his shoulder and just as he did, a cold feeling of apprehension washed over him.

The niggling feeling didn’t leave him as they trouped from room to room. In fact, it only intensified. With every room it came at him stronger. He just couldn’t escape the feeling that something was very off. What it was, he wasn’t sure and the fact that he couldn’t see or sense any spirits only made him edgier.

There was also the very definite feeling that time was standing still.  In fact, more than once he had been tempted to look down at his watch to see if the hands were moving but he had refrained from doing so, almost sure in his mind that it was just one of the tricks to this house for the competition.  Besides, that wasn’t the most pressing issue. That…that would be the inexplicable feeling that they were being watched…

…and not just by the numerous portraits hanging in every room, the eyes of which seemed to follow them, but something else... or rather someone else that he couldn’t see or sense.

“Is it just me, or is anyone suddenly feeling very tired?” Ishida asked as they returned to the main hall.

Tatsuki stifled a yawn at that.

“I do feel sleepy,” she responded when all eyes turned to her, “but I suppose that has more to do with all the intense training of this week for my upcoming tournament and lack of sleep finally catching up to me than anything else.”

She stifled another yawn.

“Well, just in case anyone else is tired, let’s sort out the rooms,” Ishida suggested, “the rest of us who aren’t can just lounge around here or find something else to do.”

Sounds of agreement echoed around the room and within the next few minutes, the sleeping arrangements were hammered out. They had found three bedrooms. The girls decided to take the one with the double bed and a bunk bed in the corner and left the boys to decide on who slept where. This was quickly decided though as Ichigo, not ready to sleep, opted to bunk on the large couch in front of the TV downstairs and Renji would share a room with Ishida since the other room only had a double bed.

That settled, Sado declared he would like to explore the dungeon they’d found downstairs some more; Renji stated he wasn’t ready for sleep and was going to check things out outside before he turned in and Ishida wanted to locate the cameras.  The girls, having decided to call it an early night and explore tomorrow simply bid their goodnights and went upstairs.

Left alone, Ichigo walked around eyeing the portraits on the walls for a while, until bored, he settled down to watch the television. Not surprisingly, all that was on was horror movies of various genres and with a sigh, he settled down to watch Amityville.

Upstairs, Orihime shifted, trying to get comfortable, half envious of the soft breathing echoing from the other occupant of the room. (Rukia had said she was going to look in on something and left and had yet to return.)

Staring up at the white ceilings, she sighed. She couldn’t sleep.

She was in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar place and …maybe coming here had not been such a good idea. She’d been having really bad nightmares lately and the strange feeling niggling at her ever since she’d gotten here was only making sleeping harder for her. On top of the fear of falling into those same bloody nightmares, she could feel her senses on alert for something else and her stomach, coiling in apprehension, wasn’t helping any either.

A cold wind ghosted over her arm and she shivered in response, pulling up the sheets around her chin even more securely.

Inoue Orihime, she scolded herself firmly then…stop it. Nothing is wrong. Your overactive imagination is just getting the best of you. All of this is just stuff that has been set up…there is nothing to be afraid of.

And yet, despite all her pep talk, a few hours later, eyes wide open, pulse pounding in her brain, Orihime jerked upwards from the bed. The sheet pooled messily around her waist while a cold sweat dripped down her cheeks and, her eyes, still trapped in the images of her nightmare, stared unseeingly ahead of her.

Subconsciously, she recognized that it had just been another dream- another nightmare not unlike the ones she’d been having of everyone dying- but her senses seemed to contradict that idea. Unlike the other nightmares that would go when she got up, this one hadn’t and unlike them, it hadn’t been her friends’ dead, glassy eyes she’d been staring into, not their dead bloody body that had become painted on her retinas but her own. Furthermore, it hadn’t gone away.

She could still hear it, the sounds from her nightmares, almost like they had followed her into the land of wakefulness to continue their torment.

Her eyes shifted as the strange sounds played again, flying to the door as the poundings started, then upwards at the footsteps on the roof. The sound of a slamming door startled her into clutching the sheets tighter, reflexively, protectively around her because inside, unconsciously, she knew…it was coming…the sound that scared her most in her dreams- the sound of a hulking man-beast walking towards her, the heavy feet dragging with every step and then that sound- that muffled, rasping sound that sounded suspiciously like her own voice calling for help.

And then it was quiet, done almost as soon as it started.

Chilled and sweaty, she pulled the sheets from the rest of her body, intending to get some water and a book, since she knew she would not fall back to sleep so easily, only to stop in surprise. She could not move her legs! A chill raced over her body, her heart speeding into overdrive as her feet lay unmoving in the bed despite her efforts to move them. She tried harder, her confusion giving way to panic as her body continued to refuse to move- bound it seemed by invisible ropes that immobilised her completely. Unable to sit up, and panicking at the crushing pain in her chest when she attempted to do so, Orihime tilted her head towards Tatsuki, pleading silently for help but it was not forthcoming. The other girl slept on, oblivious to the plight of her friend.

A new feeling washed over her then and her heart lurched, her stomach quaking simultaneously in response.

Slowly her eyes shifted to the foot of the bed, searching for the source of the new sensation. At first she saw nothing but a faintly swirling darkness but she knew, as surely as she was alive, that something was there- a panting thing--a man, yes a man--was standing there.

She tried to calm herself. She’d seen ghosts before, fought hollows, been to Hueco Mundo and back…surely this was nothing to get worked up over, she told herself but it all rang falsely to her ears.

She couldn’t feel any presence from the form just standing there but his aura was forcing her down, keeping her paralysed and immobile on the bed.

What do you want? she wanted to ask but though her throat worked, trying to form the words, no sound accompanied them and when he finally raised his head to look directly at her, the words disappeared.

It was like staring directly into the eyes of death and yet she was unable to look away from the flaming red orbs glaring back at her. She felt as if her soul was being yanked from her body with those eyes and probably it was but she could do nothing to stop it. Over the roar of her own heartbeat, she could clearly hear the thing’s labored breathing, as if it were gasping for breath as it moved closer, tendrils of the dark mist surrounding him, curling out to her.

“Help me,” the scream rose unbidden in her mind in a voice that she didn’t quite recognise as her own… “Help me!”

******************************************************************

Ichigo jerked awake, getting to his feet in one quick movement, his brows furrowed. What the hell was going on, he wondered slightly disoriented. He could have sworn he heard Orihime’s voice just a moment ago, screaming for help and yet….

His ears met with the deafening silence of the house now and his scowl deepened. Had it just been a dream, he wondered as he turned to lie back down, frowning. But he could have sworn he had heard her…

The next morning when Orihime dragged herself into the breakfast room, she did not seem like herself. The night’s event echoed loudly in his mind at this and he noted concernedly just how exhausted she seemed- almost as if she had not slept a wink all night- or rather for several nights.

As his brows drew together in a concerned frown, Tatsuki also took note of her friend.

"Another bad night?” she asked gently, moving to gently rub Orihime’s right shoulder, “You don’t look like you had much sleep. More nightmares?”

Feeling everyone’s eyes suddenly turn on her, Orihime forced herself to smile brightly.

“Iie,” she responded, “I got into this book and couldn’t stop. Before I realized, it was morning and …I- I just didn’t get to sleep…”

It was a lie and Ichigo knew it without knowing why he did but he let it go, wondering to himself why she had done that but saying nothing.

Accepting her explanation, even is somewhat skeptically as he gathered from Rukia’s look to him, talk resumed as to the plans for the rest of the day.

Ichigo tried to pay attention and provide input as necessary but more than once, rather than paying attention to the conversation, he felt his eyes drawn to Orihime. Looking somewhat pale still, tendrils of her ginger-colored hair falling over her eyes, she seemed preoccupied with something- so preoccupied it seemed she was incapable of doing much else than push her now cold bacon and eggs around the plate with her fork, her appetite forgotten. He wondered if she was even aware of what she was doing….

He was still thinking about her appearance and unusual quietness later that afternoon as he stepped out of the shower. It was abnormal for him to ever see her so quiet and looking so pale and shaken up and yet, she hadn’t shared anything with anyone it seemed as to why…and then there was the fact that she’d lied. Orihime was never one to just lie and to her best friend at that…something was definitely wrong.

He’d casually asked Tatsuki a little after breakfast if she knew what was going on but the other girl hadn’t. She had admitted that Orihime had been having trouble sleeping lately due to nightmares. However, she hadn’t revealed anything about the content. It was enough though to make him even more concerned. Was she still having problems about the whole Hueco Mundo ordeal, he wondered stepping into the room Sado had taken for the week-end, where he’d stored his stuff, or was it something else?

He sighed then at the blankness in his mind from the question and shifted to start drying out his hair with the towel. It was then, arm lifted up to do just that, that he first saw her.

She was nothing more than a pale mist, a still form just staring at him from the dark holes that once held eyes from her position in front of him. He found himself doing pretty much the same thing, just staring back at her and wondering why the hell he still couldn’t sense a damn thing. It was as if she had no presence whatsoever…not even the tiny ones he usually felt from other souls.

She kinked her neck with a little pooping sound, looking at him like a bright bird, studying him in a way that made him uncomfortable enough to ask, “What are you looking at?”

He received no response to his question and thought she might not even have heard him until, stiffly, she took a step toward him, her eyes never leaving him.

Three steps away from being able to just reach out and touch him, she started to fade away rapidly, her misted body just blowing away like smoke in a wind that should not have been present in the closed room.

“...save her…you have to…” the wind whispered in the wake of her departure and Ichigo was suddenly even more confused and apprehensive. Just what the hell was going on and who the hell was he supposed to save? Was this part of the competition?

He counted off the visit as that, a one time attempt by the people putting on the competition to scare them but was mildly surprised when he saw her yet again the next morning when he woke up, the pupilless orbs just staring at him until she faded away. Then he saw her again the next day, this time as he was exploring the cellar. She was sitting this time, again just staring at him as he came in. He tried to ignore her and go about his exploration of the many items displaced all over the walls and floors but it was rather unnerving with her continued stare. When he turned to confront her, her misty body was just fading away in a nonexistent breeze, the echo of the morning’s message resounding softly in her wake.

He saw her again when he suddenly turned later that night from the television. She was sitting on the couch then, directly opposite from him, but again doing nothing other than staring at him.

“Look,” he began, his tone annoyed, “this is getting annoying. What the hell do you want? Why don’t you go stare at somebody else like Renji? Better yet, that priss Ishida? I’m sure he’d welcome the company...”

Again, she did not answer him and the dark holes of her eyes just continued their staring until she was fading off to wherever it was she disappeared to, that same message lingering in the air.

He sighed, annoyed at the clichéd ploy and settled under the blankets more comfortably, dismissing it from his mind and settling back into his earlier task- trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Orihime…

Dismissing her and her warnings turned out harder than he anticipated however as that night, he found his sleep was extremely troubled. For whatever reason, he kept hearing Orihime screaming for help in his head, the voice clear in his mind, very familiar yet not quite hers and then that voice, lingering in the background, saying over and over again, “…save her…you have to…save her.”

He wasn’t the only one suffering from nightly visitations however.

For the third time in just as many nights, Orihime found herself unable to move, awake and alarmingly aware of the dark presence at the foot of her bed, sucking at her energy. At one point, she thought rather fancifully that, in the darkness, she could just make out a reddish glow bouncing off the foot of her bed but she was not quite sure it wasn’t due to some kind of delirium due to the strong smell of blood tonight.

Her blood.

Her head spun dizzily, her vision blurring as more energy seemed to seep from her body…

I can’t, she began then but never finished her thoughts.

She must have passed out or something she realized later, when, yet again, she found herself jolting upwards her breath coming out in harsh gasps and pants from a heavy pressure in her chest. 

As she struggled, breathing rapidly to calm her racing heart and ease her breathing, her eyes stared into the darkness. The dull light from the full moon outside her window that, tonight, was almost red behind the perpetual shroud of clouds that cloaked the land, threw everything into an eerily unrealistic light. She could still make out the shapes in her room easily enough but only barely so. The room seemed itself just seemed to be filled with an unnatural darkness that clung to every corner and wall. 

Inhaling deeply, she closed her eyes briefly before opening then again to stare at the silhouette of the great chair that sat just before the window overlooking the road and realized, slowly, with a gasp, that someone was sitting there. In the ensuing silence, she heard the labored guttural breathing over the sound of the night crawlers, breaking through the wind buffeting the house. Her eyes flew upwards then and she could not tear her eyes from the ghoulish grin frozen on the man’s face anymore than she could stop her body from shivering then when she felt his eyes on her, boring into her.  

Slowly, conscious surely that it was being watched from the way those eyes never strayed from her, the figure rose, stood tall and thin, moving stealthily to her left and towards the wall only to be swallowed by the darkness that lingered there. Yet she knew it was not gone, could still feel his gaze on her as she sat in the bed, her heart beating rapidly.

"Who’s there?" she asked weakly, “What do you want? What do you want with me?”

No answer came forward but she knew he was there still, could sense him moving slowly through the wall towards her until she felt the icy tendrils of the mist that was him caressing the side of her face. She jerked at the touch and was rewarded by icy cold, solid feeling hands grasping her arms tightly. The grip was tight, painful and almost at the point where she feared the bone might snap but then her hands were released. The icy limb shifted to her hips, digging deep there, making her gasp silently as a fierce burning started to work it’s way up her spine.  Stop it…stop….she wanted to scream at the increasing pain but then, just as suddenly as he had come, he was gone. 

After that, it was near impossible to fall back asleep. She could not shake the feeling that as soon as she closed her eyes, he would be there again and so she just sat, wide awake and bundled in her sheets until light started streaming through the window.

That morning, when she dragged herself down the stairs for breakfast, her skin pale, her eyes dark, it was hard for the others to miss. Rukia, in the midst of taking a seat, nearly dropped her plate on seeing the haggard girl and Tatsuki had looked equally if not more concerned.

“Orihime,” she said then as the girl took a seat, “I really think you should talk to somebody about these dreams. It can’t be good for you if you’re not getting any sleep…”

She trailed off as tears suddenly filled the girl’s eyes.

No one was able to say anything at that point, unsure on all sides of what they could even say since they were not exactly sure what was going on.

Orihime felt her eyes sting even more at their obvious concern, knowing they wanted to help but knowing as well that they could do nothing to help her. How could they defeat the demon in her dreams?

“I…I’m not very hungry,” she choked out now, getting up again without even looking at her breakfast, “I think I should go back to bed and get some sleep.”

She got up to go and without thinking, Ichigo reached out and grabbed her arm, almost pulling back in shock at how cold her skin felt to the touch.

“Inoue,” he started and her eyes misted even more but the tears didn’t spill over to her cheeks. Instead, she gave him a tremulous smile.

“I’m okay, Kurosaki-kun,” she told him softly, “I-I just need to rest a little bit…I’m just feeling very drained.”

“…you have to save her,” the voice whispered out of nowhere and Ichigo spun around, surprised, to stare at the empty space.

When he turned around to look at her again, it was just in time to see the girl’s eyes glaze over and her body suddenly go limp.

**********************************************************

“Something’s going on here,” Ishida commented as they sat huddled together a half an hour later, all of them trying o figure out exactly what was going on, “something we aren’t aware of.”

“No shit Sherlock,” Renji returned and Ishida glared at him, ready to answer him until Tatsuki’s voice broke through.

“I thought it was only the dreams,” she said softly, “It was the only thing she said….that she was having nightmares about all of us dying- all of us dying because of her- horrible deaths she said, all because of her.”

Unseen, Ichigo’s hands clenched tighter at that piece of news, his blunt nails digging bloody half-moons into his palm.

Oblivious to this, Tatsuki continued.

“I tried to reassure her that something like that wasn’t going to happen and things did seem to be getting better until…until….god…those bruises…my god…”

“Bruises?” Ishida questioned and Rukia nodded, her expression solemn.

“Something’s hurting her,” she said and then turned her eyes to Ichigo, “Ichigo, do you remember that time in the park?”

The boy nodded glumly at the memory of the bruise on the girl’s leg.

“They were several like that,” Rukia continued, “all over her body….like something was holding her tightly...on her arms…her hips” Ichigo felt his heart slow, “and then, there was a cut- a long cut along the inside of her leg…”

Tatsuki jumped to her feet then, her eyes almost frantic- A Tatsuki he had never seen and never wanted to again-, “We have to get her out of here! We have to…”

Rukia stood up and put a hand on shoulder and Renji sighed.

“It ain’t that easy,” he said then, “While you guys were getting Orihime into bed, on a hunch, I checked the doors. They’ve all been locked from the outside.”

“So we have no way out of here?” Ishida enquired, his voice surprisingly calm.

His question met with silence as each person processed exactly what this might mean, then Ichigo spoke.

“Whatever is going on, she’s the only one being targeted,” he said then, his voice more solid than he thought was possible considering the turmoil inside him, “until we figure a way out of this then, we have to protect her.”

He didn’t need any answers to know they were all in agreement with him.

“Rukia,” Renji said then, “Did you sense anything weird?”

Rukia thought for a moment before slowly shaking her head.

“No,” she reiterated, “It’s been strange…a lot like when I first met Ichigo and everything seemed to be coming to me through a thick haze…:”

“We’re probably all being blocked off from sensing anything then by some overwhelming spiritual force,” Ishida surmised.

Ichigo frowned.

“I’ve seen her,” he said quietly and all eyes turned to her.

“Seen who?” Rukia asked and Ichigo, rather hesitantly, his frown deepening, told them about his visitor, including at the end, the whispered message.

“Could she be taking about Orihime?” Sado questioned and Ishida pushed up his glasses before answering.

“It’s very possible,” he stated, then turned to Ichigo ,”Is there anything else, Kurosaki?”

Ichigo shook his head. It was enough that he had told them this much he told himself- as long as he wasn’t sure, he wasn’t going to tell them about hearing her screaming in his dreams right now.

“She’s feeding off of her,” Renji said suddenly then and Ichigo’s eyes flew to the red-head. “The bruises….the cut, the paleness of her skin and the coldness of her body…it all adds up.”

Rukia glanced over at him before speaking.

“Sometimes this happens with souls who come back to see loved ones and such,” she offered and the room fell silent again until Tatsuki spoke.

“But Orihime doesn’t even know about this place,” she interjected.

“But she may look like someone who does,” Ishida offered and again silence reigned.

“I don’t think it’s her,” Ichigo put in then, causing all eyes to go to him again, “It’s just a feeling…but I don’t think it was her.”

“Then who?” Ishida asked.

“I don’t know,” Ichigo almost shouted at him, before reining himself in and running his hand through his hair in agitation, “Damn it all! How the fuck can we protect her from something like this if we don’t even know what it is?”

The raw emotion in his voice caused all of them to look at him but lost in his thoughts, the boy did not notice- nor did he care. His only concern was that something was obviously hurting the girl dead asleep upstairs, hurting her physically and mentally, and, while he had sworn to protect her, he was helpless to do anything to help her, despite all his powers.

********************************************************

He was up and waiting for her that night. He wasn’t sure she would come but even so, he waited.

And she did not disappoint him. As usual, she appeared, a quiet dark mist slightly in front of him, staring at him from the dark holes of her eyes.

“What’s going on?” he demanded immediately moving towards her, “something’s going on and you know what it is, don’t you?”

The misted form cocked her head to one side and continued to stare at him in that eerily familiar fashion.

His hands curled into fists and he closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath.

There was no reason why he should be so greatly affected by this to the point that he wanted to strangle the information- any information from the misted form- but he was. Just remembering the cold clamminess of her skin, the pale skin, and the talk of the bruises....

His hands clenched, his knuckles going white…

Damn it all… why was this happening to her? Hadn’t she been through enough already?

No…he wasn’t going to let this happen.

Last time he had been powerless to do anything until after the fact, unaware as he was that she was even gone…but this time- God help him- he was not going to have her disappear from right in front of him…

Determination lighting his eyes, he opened them and stared at the form, unsurprised to see that she was so close to him, he could smell the putridness of her breath on his face.

Her head cocked to the other side, studying him again for a while and then the mist that was her arm reached forward.

He almost flinched as the cold air touched his face but held himself firm, letting the girl touch him.

The head cocked to an almost horizontal position and he could almost swear that if he could indeed see her eyes, they would have had a deep penetrating look in them as it felt like she was trying to see into his very soul.

Whatever she was looking for, she must have found it for the next moment, the mist shivered and unmistakably began to take on a more solid form. He still felt no sense of a presence but it was somewhat comforting when those dark orbits suddenly blinked and he found dark pupils staring at him from a pale yet astoundingly beautiful face framed by long, straight dark hair.

“He feeds on her dreams,” the new form whispered, “He will devour her from her insecurities…he is already feeding from her…he will feed until he has totally devoured her soul…you must save her…you must…”

“How?” he found himself asking.

The woman shook her head.

“He devoured me…I do not know…but she must never be left alone until you are able to leave this place…you cannot leave her…”

She moved in closer to him, her breath smelling of rotten things and death, cold against his cheek.

“The secret is in her dreams…I can send you there…do you want to go?”

Those dreams again…the nightmares…

He hesitated, feeling suddenly uncomfortable at prying into her private thoughts.

“She will die,” the woman said then as if reading his hesitation, “she will become like me- doomed to roam this place with no soul, no hope of rebirth…no salvation and no rest.”

Something dark flashed in him, an uncomfortable feeling of loss and pain that made him shudder at her words.

“Do it,” he said then, his voice firm.

She smiled, a ghoulish sinister curving of her lips and before he could even reconsider, the sharp teeth that he had only just glimpsed in that smile dug into the soft skin of his neck.

His first instinct was to push her away, to stop the feeling of weakness and lightheadedness that was starting to fill him but knowing this was possibly his only chance to help Orihime, he held himself still, clenching his hands at his side when the pain became overwhelming and it felt like his energies were being sucked out to the point of passing out.

He blinked then trying to clear the spots from his eyes and when he opened them again, it was like the world had become a kind of movie. He could see he was in the room where Orihime had been placed, could see Rukia and Tatsuki asleep in the room next to her…

It was then he realized that he was seeing the world through Orihime’s eyes, watching her friend’s sleep from her spot huddled under the sheets.

“He will only appear to her,” he heard the woman whisper in his head, “the only way you can see him is if she lets you in…there has to be a connection…”

A connection…

His eyes fell to her huddled form…

Strange, now that he thought about it, there had always been a kind of odd connection between the two of them. He could always tell when she was worried and there were just these other little things that he had always been able to pick up on without quite knowing why…

The pain in his neck quickly brought him from his thoughts as it intensified.

“He’s coming,” the voice echoed in his head and his mind seemed to become one with the girl huddled in the bed.

For the first time he felt it then, the overwhelming terror that consumed her as she closed her eyes in the darkness. He could hear it then as well, sense it as clearly as she did, the sound of someone calling her name.

It was freezing too, he realized suddenly, feeling his own arms fill with goose-bumps as the girl shivered, her teeth sounding together at the sudden drop in temperature.

He sensed him then, the same time as she did and when her eyes flew towards the sensation, he saw him- a man cloaked in darkness, just standing there at the foot of her bed. He could clearly see the emaciated shape now, the hideous grin curving the lips…

Orihime tightly shut her eyes, feeling a freezing fear start at her feet and work its way up her body and straight up to her head as she sensed the man slowly approach her. She could hear and feel him walking from the foot of the bed to where she lay and instinctively she tried to disappear more into the sheets until she found that she was unable to move.

The fear bubbled like a cauldron of darkness in her stomach then, making her feel like something dark and prickly was sliding through her. Her tongue began to feel numb, as if coated by the anesthetic she had gotten from her dentist last year and mistakenly gotten on her tongue, and her mouth felt as if all her saliva had suddenly dried up and her mouth and throat had become a desert. Her heart, beating rapidly, loudly, in her chest, stopped alarmingly when she suddenly felt the cold tendrils of the man’s hands crawl over her face. He was standing right over her now and she could smell a rotting stench, hear the man breathe through his teeth, but refused to open her eyes.

She lay stiff as a board, trembling, breathing rapidly, praying he would disappear, yet trapped in the horrible darkness of her nightmares with him- with this man who by now was leaning over her.

Pulling her sheets away from her, he ran his hand over her chest, across her abdomen...

“No…no…”

The soft cry was ripped from her, in a voice again that sounded like hers and yet not hers.

“Please…no…”

His response was to dig into the soft skin of her hips like last night only with more pressure, causing her eyes to mist with tears from the pain.

“Help me,” the cry came from within again, “Tatsuki-chan…Kuchiki-san…Sado-kun…Kurosaki-kun…somebody help me!”

The dark figure smiled menacingly over her, leaning up to whisper against her face, “They won’t hear you. They won’t help you…they don’t even care. Look at them…they’re all sleeping in their happy little worlds not even thinking about you…because you are nothing to them…just a burden…”

Despite her intentions, her eyes flew open at his words. It was the first time he had spoken to her and yet it seemed he was reading a script from her own inner thoughts.

“They’ll never hear you," the creature said against her ear, "because they can’t. They don’t care enough to hear your foolish cries. So, little girl, just be quiet and come with me. You’re tired of being a burden aren’t you?" Slowly, the man climbed into the bed and positioned himself so that he was lying on Orihime, his cold body pressing her down painfully into the hard springs.

Orihime couldn’t stop her body from shaking at this or from shuddering when a small nip came at her neck…

“Help me,” her mind screamed frantically, “help me…Kurosaki-kun!”

It was at this point that he suddenly found himself back in the living room and, the image fresh in his head, he jerked up out of the couch, the movement so quick he got a headache and raced up the stairs.

He was still in there.

He knew it and knowing it made a feeling of panic and apprehension rip through him like never before. Frantically he clutched at the lock, ready to burst in but the door did not budge.

It had been locked…

“Fuck it,” he swore in a way that was not quite like him and started to pound on the door. “Inoue! Inoue open up the door! Tatsuki! Rukia! Damn it! Inoue!”

“What the fuck is your problem?” a half asleep Renji growled from next to him then, “Why the fuck are ya beating down the door like a madman? Have ya finally lost it?”

“Inoue!” Ichigo called again, his voice increasing with the power of his fist on the door, ignoring Renji until the redhead grabbed his arm and forcefully thrust him from the door.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he shouted at him and Ichigo noticed for the first time the slightly concerned looks on the faces of Ishida and Sado behind the redhead.

He opened his mouth to answer him but then there was a sudden crash from inside the room.

“Damn it. It’s hurting her,” he said and moved towards the door again.

Renji grabbed his shoulder stopping him and when he turned, his fist already raised to knock the redhead out if need be, Sado broke through both of them and with a mighty kick, smashed the door in.

The sight that met them gave them pause but only momentarily as there, right before their eyes was a figure, a yellow, fiery glow surrounding him, the darkly funneling cloud spinning out from the center of the yellow and enveloping the figure as he dragged the seemingly unconscious form of Orihime by a limp hand towards a dark ominous circle in the wall.

Understanding seemed to dawn on all of them at once but it was Ichigo who reached her first. His body just reacted and then he was there, his arms wrapped so tightly around her waist he feared he would break some ribs as he tried to stop her.

He felt Sado grab on to him and felt the added strength of his friends as they joined him but their efforts seemed like nothing.

The figure kept going forward, unhindered by their efforts, closer and closer to the black hole.

“Wake up, Inoue!” he shouted in desperation, “Wake up!”

The girl remained unmoved and the figure, knowing he was there it seemed, turned and smirked at him.

“This isn’t working,” Ishida stated as they continued to be pulled towards the dark vortex, “We have to figure out something else.”

Ichigo barely heard him above the rage slowly building in him.

He was going to lose her again….because of his powerlessness, he was going to lose her again.

It was the lone thought that echoed in his mind, followed quickly by the thought- I can’t lose her again….I can’t…

He didn’t question those thoughts. No, he let it feed the feeling building up on him to the point he could hear nothing over the blood rushing in his ears, barely heard when Sado suddenly pulled the others away from him with a shout…

I’m not going to lose her again…I’m not going to lose her again….

“I’m not going to lose her again,” he shouted at the dark being without thinking, “Not even to you.”

And with that, his own dark energy rushed from his body like a blast of wind.

The others, Tatsuki and Rukia now up, huddled in the corner, wondering what was going on, until the dust cleared and a maskless Ichigo with pitch black eyes and pale irises stood before them.

A demon, as dark as the demon before him, he faced the dark being, his bearing determined, his voice clear and hard when he said, “You picked the wrong fucking girl to prey on. Let her the fuck go before I make you.”

******************************************************************

“How is everyone else?”

“Uninjured for the most part,” Ishida offered to the shopkeeper who had miraculously appeared not too long ago- and, what would you know, at the climax of the battle- , “Orihime-san was the one hurt the most.”

The orange-haired boy standing just inside the door flinched slightly at that and then without a word, just turned and walked away.

“Just leave him be,” Sado’s voice broke out in the silence of his absence as Rukia got up to follow him, “he has a lot on his mind.”

Outside, Ichigo’s hand slammed into the rough bark of the tree again, his body not even flinching from the pain or the blood trickling down his arm. Again and again his fist met the rough bark until he cursed, his head bending to touch the wood.

Why hadn’t he ever noticed it? He questioned himself in anger, had he been so blind to it all that he hadn’t noticed her suffering? Hadn’t noticed her insecurities, her doubts about her importance in their group? Why hadn’t he seen it?

Because of that, he had almost lost her again- lost her to that demon…if that shopkeeper hadn’t managed to get them out at that time….what would have happened?

“Damn,” he murmured softly in frustration, his fist hitting the bark again, “damn…damn…fuck!”

He stayed like that for a while until, as he had done for the past two days, he started back and found himself staring down at her a few minutes later

She was as wrapped up in bandages as he was, probably more so than him, and there was blood soaking a few of them still. Her face was serene, yet pale, making the red blood and dark black and blue marks on her face look even darker and starker in comparison to her skin.

His fists clenched, a few of the wounds starting to bleed again and drip unnoticed to the floor.

Once again, in her presence, he felt haunted with emotions. There was always the guilt and self anger but underlying these, there was also a bleak, unsettling feeling that made the whole mess of emotions that much harder to bear but for which he had no name.

He turned away from her peaceful face, fixing his eyes on a spot above her head on the wall. His inner self was screaming for absolution, screaming for her to wake up and say something- to blame him, shout at him for failing her again, for failing to see… It was selfish and sadistic but he wanted to hear her say it- that it was his fault. Hearing her say it would affirm his belief and he would feel slightly better knowing where she stood.

And yet, in the back of his mind, he knew unequivocally that she would not. She was not that type of person.

“Gomen, Inoue…I…I.” he whispered to the sleeping form, “despite my promise, I failed you again…”

His finders dug deeper into his palm and, drained, he slumped against the wall across from her and closed his eyes.

“I will get stronger,” he had promised her, “I will get stronger and next time, I’ll definitely protect you.”

And yet he’d failed…

Why was it that he always seemed to fail her?

The events must have finally caught up to him, as before he even recognized he was doing so, Ichigo had fallen asleep in this same position- his back against the wall, one leg drawn up, his head resting back against the wall.

And that was exactly how Orihime woke to find him.

Surprise at seeing him there held her still for a while but then the memories started to rush back in bit by bit. She heard him calling her again and despite the pain emanating through her body, her lips curved into a smile. Tatsuki had been right, she thought to herself then, he doesn’t scowl when he sleeps…and he always comes after his friends…

Her eyes saddened at the word, the smile faltering a little until she rose, gritting her teeth against the pain in her shoulder and moved towards him. Looking at his sleeping face closer, she resisted the urge to run her hand through his orange spikes, brush her knuckles against his cheek and simply moved to drape the blanket that had been warming her around him.

“Thank you, Kurosaki-kun,” she whispered to his sleeping form, “for saving me again.”

And then she turned, ignoring the pain and stiffness in her limbs and headed for the door.

“Soten Kishun,” she whispered softly as she reached for the door and almost instantly Shunou and Ayame were there.

Ichigo jerked up less than an hour later. As he reached up to rub his burning eyes , 3 things hit him: 1. he wasn’t home, 2. it was really dark where he was and 3, once realization started to set in, he couldn’t sense the girl who should have been lying in the room.

He jumped up, racing outside, ready to start tearing everything apart to find her when he suddenly came to a stop, his eyes widening slightly as they soaked in the form in front of him.

Oblivious to the small panic she had created, the girl stood outside, her face raised to the softly blowing wind, the ginger tresses floating about her.

She looked like a goddess.

The imagery fixated in his mind for a moment but then it was suddenly replaced by the earlier picture of her bloody, bruised body…

His eyes shifted away, remorse filling him.

She had entrusted her safety to him-had been screaming to him for help…

And even so, I failed her again - I always fail to protect her, he thought again, clenching his fists tight. Because of me…because of these powers…she’s always in danger. I promised to protect her…and yet she is always the one coming to my rescue…Fuck, I can't even protect her the way she protects me. I'm always a failure. But she never gives a damn about it. She still believed in me… she believed I’d come…she called out to me…

“Inoue,” her name left his lips unchecked and she spun, surprised to see him there.

“Kurosaki-kun,” she began but he interrupted her gently with his softly spoken apology.

 “I’m so sorry, Inoue. I failed....”

“Iie,” she interrupted, “this isn’t Kurosaki-kun’s fault. If I were just a little stronger…it’s my fault because I’m so weak…I let him take over…If I were just a little stronger…”

The demon’s words laced hers in his ears and he acted without thinking again, something he seemed to be doing a lot of recently. His hand grabbed her roughly, pulling a surprised gasp out of her but he was beyond caring for such a trivial thing.

“Don’t you fucking get it?” he hissed at her, “he shouldn’t have fucking gotten that close! Not to you! I should have been protecting you…I…I didn’t even realize the first time…I …”

Orihime’s breath whooshed out of her lungs as he suddenly pulled on her arm, slamming her forcefully into his chest.

“Damn it, Inoue, I promised to protect you and yet… I almost lost you again,” he said in a voice no higher than a whisper.

Orihime’s eyes widened in shock, her thoughts racing at his words. Was he even aware of what he was saying? she wondered slightly panicked. He certainly could not be saying what she thought he was or even insinuating…

Feeling the warmth of her small body, the steady thud of her heart against his chest, Ichigo tried to steady himself against the barrage of ugly images racing through his head. Once more he heard Grimmjow’s voice insinuating something was wrong with her, saw her being manhandled by Noitora and Tesla, saw her with Grimmjow’s hand around her neck, her crying face, saw that demon over her, felt her fear, felt his hands on her, touching her…

He breathed in deeply at that memory, letting her sweet smell wash over him, calming him and his mind- causing the images to dissipate. His mind sprung anew another image in replacement- his first glimpse of her as he had come out, bathed in moonlight- an ethereal goddess.

Our goddess, his hollow affirmed, voicing his thoughts for the first time since his partial appearance that day, our goddess.

Ours he agreed without thinking about it, knowing it was already true in himself. She was his…only his. He would never allow someone else to take her. That much he had realized from this whole ordeal- that somehow, someway, without him quite knowing how, when, why or how, this girl had wormed her way into his heart and firmly fixated herself there…

But he knew that now and he was never going to let her out of his sight again…

“Inoue…”

He leaned back slightly, putting a hand under her chin so that he could look down into her flushed face.

“H-H-hai,” she answered nervously.

“I want you to promise me something,” he said, the urgency of his tone making her heart speed up slightly, “Promise me.... promise me you’ll never go anywhere without me. Or at least without Tatsuki, or even Ishida, Chad, Rukia or Renji.”

His tone was frightening, scaring her. Her mouth opened to say so, but no answer came as he shook her gently and fair growled low at her “Promise me!”

 “Hai,” she answered and getting the answer he wanted, his body visibly uncoiled from the taut tense coil that had filled him and his arms tightened around her reflexively.

She made a little squeak of protest when his hold got even tighter and raised her head, ready to explain to him that he was actually hurting her, his hold causing pressure to build up in her lungs. The words died however when he raised his head and the brown eyes she had come to know and love were replaced by dark orbits and pale irises. A small stirring of fear began in her stomach but she didn’t move. She stood still, watching those eyes washing over her until they lingered on her lips and then back up to her eyes.

Something sparked in those dark depths, something that made a small tingle race up her spine.

“Kuro-,” she began but got no further than that as his lips crashed down on hers, choking of her words as they moved over hers- hot, needy, hard and demanding.

She froze and for a brief moment, it occurred to him that, seeing his eyes at that time, she might push him away but much to his surprise, the girl did the exact opposite. Her hands came around his neck, her fingers burying in his hair as she pulled him even closer to her.

He held her tighter in response, crushing her soft frame into his hard angles so tightly it was hard to tell where he stopped and she started. It was like he was trying to draw her into himself, mold her to him so tightly that she would never be too far away from him…

In his mind he admitted, he might be trying to do exactly that. If she was apart of him, she would never be able to leave him, nothing could take her away…

Besides,  he thought angling his head to plunder her mouth even more thoroughly, he didn’t just want this- he needed this. He needed to feel her, taste her, smell her- to know on every level that she was here, still alive… still his…

One of his hand shifted into her hair, his fingertips gliding across her sensitized scalp and making her gasp. He took advantage of that opening, sliding his tongue into her mouth and sweeping it through the dark sweet hot cavern of her mouth. Her taste was something he could live on he decided, addictive…as addictive as she was all together he amended when her body seemed to just melt into his and a low moan caressed his ears.

Yes….she was delectable….addictive and all his…

When he finally pulled away many moments later, it was only to rest his forehead against hers, his breath fanning her kiss swollen lips as he watched her dark grey eyes open up.

“You are ours,” he said simply, his voice rough, “ours to haunt alone…no one else. I’ll kill any other bastard that tries…you are ours Hime.”

She smiled tremulously, her soft hand brushing his cheekbone, her eyes misting with unshed tears.

“Yours,” she agreed and the darkness started to fade away from his eyes as he crushed her to him again, drawing on her warmth.

From the dark shadows of the house, red eyes watched over the embracing teens, a familiar menacing grin lighting the misted face.

“I’ll be back,” he whispered, “hold on to her as tightly as you can for now, boy,” the thing licked its lips, tasting her essence on his tongue again, “She is mine...my toy.”

A dark chuckle followed this statement, carrying down to the teens whose eyes shot upwards at the now empty spot, wisps of darkly curling mists the only evidence of the presence that had been lingering there.

 

 

Owari