"...I'm Beside You"

Orihime resisted the ugliness of reality as consistently as it would allow her.

Kindness and friendship always won out, she reminded herself often. An unfettered imagination could blot out the cruelties of life with bright splotches of color in a gray world.

Unfortunately, there were times when reality was just too ugly to be painted over by fantasy and naivety. This, much to her horror, was one of those times.

She didn't know where Grimmjow was. After his abrupt departure a few hours ago, Orihime left the stone staircase in favor of practicing her powers on the sands below, her face the picture of melancholy. Ayame and Shun’ō were silent as they worked at the light bruising on her neck. Tsubaki, however, behaved in no such way. He spat and cursed as he blasted through practice pillars at Orihime’s behest, and Shun’ō’s frown reflected similar displeasure as he sat on her shoulder. The training kept her mind from worrisome thoughts of earlier, no matter how loudly Tsubaki’s threats of bodily harm against the Arrancar tried to yank her back.

The once welcome distraction proved disastrous, however.

Where Grimmjow was mattered little, now. All that mattered was that he wasn't here, and this horrifying Hollow was.

Reeking with the pungent odor of decay, the monster looked like it had come straight out of her nightmares. A mantle of mossy, matted fur covered its shoulders ten feet above her head. Six spindly legs tipped with dark cloven feet supported the emaciated body, while two long arms ending in hands of cruel talons hovered over its head.

And what a head it was.

When the monster burst from the sand beneath her feet, she was painfully knocked on her bottom. It rose, higher and higher until it towered over her fallen form, and she had to crane her neck to look up and into its face with wide, fearful eyes.

The Hollow's skull reminded her of a Noh mask, hauntingly expressionless and with that eerily porcelain beauty they were so known for. She was mesmerized for a moment, staring into the gleaming emptiness where there should have been eyes.

Then, the mask split down the middle with a thunderous crack, and rows upon vertical rows of dangerous fangs gaped at her, dripping toxic venom like a foaming, rabid beast. Just before Orihime rolled and scrambled away with a scream, she caught a glimpse of many long, prehensile tongues snaking out of the maw of this monster, each tipped with cruel vicelike pincers. Her blood curdled at the horrendous shriek that spilled from the creature.

"Look! Look! What a treat, look!" The voice hissed up her spine, and the fear in her heart doubled. "What a delicious looking little girl, look!" Her pulse pounded in her head, her throat, and her gut as she crawled madly on her hands and knees through the sand, the traitorous grains slipping from under her and affording her no purchase for momentum. The cursed voice was flooded with a hungry madness, both high and low, clear and muddled. She felt the tears gather at the corners of her eyes as she tried to escape it.

A massive taloned hand descended toward her quickly. She reacted.

The golden barrier exploded between her and the monster, protecting her from its touch and sending the Hollow into another fit of screams. "Look! Golden! What beautiful light, little girl!" it exclaimed in stark contrast to its agonized wails. Strange; it was almost as if there were two voices, she thought to herself.

That's when she felt the second set of jaws close around her left leg. She screamed as she felt the conical teeth pierce through the cloth of her skirt. Orihime could already feel her warm blood start seeping down her thigh as the crocodilian muzzle yanked her out from under the protection of her defensive shield, the glowing triangle vanishing as she was whisked from it.

What she'd originally thought was a stubby reptilian tail was actually a second mouth, altogether.

The jaws flung her upward, releasing her into the three-fingered talons above. They slammed her back into the ground before the creature's masked face, and the wind left her lungs as she impacted the cushioned sand.

Then, one of the creature's six cloven hooves stomped on her left leg, breaking her tibia right below the knee.

Her scream ripped through her throat as a pain like she'd never felt before radiated from the break and up her side. Her brain felt like it was going to explode like the stars behind her eyes. This was bad. This was very, very bad. There was not enough room in her mind to fit both the fear and the agony, when suddenly one thought pushed out everything else.

After everything, after all that she had been through, she was about to die. It was going to be painful, and it was going to be gruesome, and it was going to be pointless, but most importantly…

…She was going to die all alone.

And that was the most terrifying thing of all.

She cried out with the first thing that came to her upon that realization.

"Gr-" she tried. Orihime couldn't put together a single word, much less an entire sentence through the agony engulfing her. The broken name escaped her lips, just as the oozing jaws began their final descent. "G-Grimmjow!"

If she thought it was pandemonium before, then what came next was nothing less than sheer chaos.

He came at the monster like a tornado from nowhere, all fury and rage and retribution.

Orihime didn’t quite know when the Hollow released her. She was only sure that suddenly, in a moment, the hoof was off her leg and her arm stung with the carving graze of the monster’s sharp talons as they were whisked off her. She struggled to take in larger breaths, her lungs still collapsed from her earlier impact.

Through the blur of her tears, she watched as a streak of blue and flesh and white pummeled the creature's face in with his fists, mercilessly pounding every square inch of the Hollow that he could reach with a loss of control she'd never witnessed before from him. The look in Grimmjow’s widened eyes was crazed, and she could see the vein pop from his temple. His jaw was clenched so tightly, she feared he might shatter his bared teeth.

The roars and shrieks from the Hollow were growing increasingly desperate as it tried in vain to fight back. Grimmjow clearly wasn't just trying to defeat this weaker enemy; he was trying to make it suffer horribly. His furious grip latched on to one of its arms, and Orihime watched as he ripped it messily off its body, the muscles in his forearm and neck bulging with the physical effort of tearing ligament from bone. He tossed the severed limb carelessly in the distance.

In a final bid at intimidation, the Hollow split its own mask down the middle again, trying to get at Grimmjow with its horrible rows of oozing, serrated teeth. It shrieked, high-pitched and shrill.

Grimmjow's upper lip rose in a ferocious snarl as he wrapped one powerful hand around each vertical jaw, heedless of the bladed fangs that were shredding his fingers in the effort.

With a furious cry, he ripped the jaws apart from one another, effectively splitting the Hollow's head in two and delivering it to its final death instantly.

The massive body shuddered for a moment, then teetered before finally falling on its side in the sand in a heap. He stood over his kill, shoulders moving up and down as he breathed hard. The corpse twitched one last time before dissolving away into a pile of colorless ash with a tired hiss.

Orihime watched his back with wide, desperate eyes. He saved her. She called, and he'd saved her. She wanted to say she couldn’t believe it, but that was not quite right because she knew he would come for her. She'd needed him, and he came, and she was in so much pain but it was okay because he came.

When he finally turned, she had no idea what emotion filled her eyes, but it was enough for most of the tension to melt from his shoulders. His fierce gaze softened as much as it ever did, and he approached her swiftly but carefully. She tried to identify the emotions brewing behind the storm of his eyes, but it was difficult. The only things she could surely catch a trace of were fury and regret.

"Are you okay?" he asked her as he dropped to one knee at her side. He looked at her face as he asked the question, ignoring her injuries in favor of hearing her answer.

Orihime's eyes welled with tears again as her plaintive gaze moved from his intense look down to the crippling injury she sustained. "My l-leg," she started, unable to wrap a complete thought around the reality as the pain returned full-force.

She felt his strong hand on her cheek, his fingers already healing on their own, pulling her concentration away from her injury and back to Grimmjow's face. "Look at me," he told her firmly, calmly. She swallowed hard. "I said look at me, Orihime," he said more softly. He said her name so rarely that it caught her attention. The Arrancar spared a quick, critical glance at her injury, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She felt his thumb shift gently on her face, reminding her without words to keep watch of him. When she opened her eyes, his blue gaze locked with hers again.

"It's a compound fracture, okay?" he explained delicately, his deep voice stern and calming all at the same time. Clinical, even. "That son of a bitch got you pretty good."

"It hurts so much," she breathed, crushing her eyes shut again. She couldn't move her toes in that foot. Her hands had found his jacket, and she was clinging to him as if he could disappear at any moment. His arm was in her vice-like grip, made stronger by her pain. Stranger still was the fact that he allowed it.

"You need to heal it, dumbass. It'll stop hurting then," he said gently, without ire. She was trembling from the pain, adrenaline still coursing through her body even as she kept losing blood.

"I don't know if I can," she whispered honestly, turning her head and burying her face in his shoulder. He scoffed softly.

"Of course you can stupid. Just don't concentrate on the pain." He rumbled mirthfully, "You'll look like an idiot if you walk around for the rest of your life with your bone sticking out of your leg."

He wasn't funny at all, she decided.

Her eyes were still squeezed shut as she clung to Grimmjow there in the sand and tried to think of anything but the pain. He was wrapped around her now, she thought distantly, avoiding moving her leg at all while maintaining as much contact as he could. It was strange, she thought, how she liked the feeling.

She focused her attention on his proximity. One strong arm wrapped around the back of her shoulders while the other allowed her to cling desperately. Her face was still buried in his jacket, and she took a deep breath to steady herself. He smelled of musk and man and fresh sweat from his desperate battle with the Hollow just now. She remembered the electrified look in his eyes when he was attacking the monster, as if it had committed a sin so enormously egregious, and he was the demon there to extract its penance.

He had looked so scared.

Orihime deflated with a deep exhale, and her head cradled itself in the crook beneath his chin and chest, nestled against his neck. Two Shun Shun Rikka burst forth from her hairclips, erecting a healing shield around her mangled leg. She felt Grimmjow's grip relax in relief.

But his arms stayed securely around her until long after her magic was done, and she couldn't find it in her to complain one bit. She fell asleep there in his embrace, and her final thoughts before succumbing to unconsciousness were that she was the luckiest trump card in the whole world, and whether or not it was inappropriate to fall in love with a guardian angel.
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