Step, step, step.
Ishida cautiously turned another corner, reaching out with his reiatsu for any sign of the Hollow.
Step, step, step.
He was getting closer. He could feel it. This thing was huge. He slipped off the road, stealthily making his way into the park.
Step, step, step. Crack.
Ishida froze, his fingers curled around the cold metal of the cross dangling from his wrist, entirely alert as the adrenaline pumped through his veins, pounding in his ears.
Step, step, step. Crack. Rustle.
There it was again. Ishida pivoted slowly to his left, following the sound into a grove of trees. He padded silently across the decomposed leaves that carpeted the grove, attentive to every sound. Suddenly a flash of vivid orange caught his eye; Ishida pivoted in that direction, his arm extended and his hand at the cross on his wrist, pulling his bow from the air. Instead of the huge, bristling Hollow he had been expecting, Ishida found himself staring into the slightly startled face of Inoue.
“Oh, Inoue-san,” Ishida breathed, lowering his bow. “I’m sorry if I surprised you. I thought you were the Hollow.”
“No, no, it’s my fault! I snuck up on you, Ishida-kun,” Inoue said quickly, not looking at him. She was looking past him into the grove, obviously looking for something. Or someone. “Ishida-kun, have you seen Kurosaki-kun?” she asked, hope and concern coloring her voice.
“Inoue-san, I’m sure he’s around here somewhere,” Ishida reassured her grudgingly. “Besides, Kurosaki is more than capable of taking care of himself.”
“I know,” she admitted, turning to face Ishida, her large gray eyes filled with worry. Ishida flinched. He knew that worry wasn’t meant for him.
Ishida was startled from his remorse when a low, off-key, unnatural sound ripped through the air, as though a giant zipper was tearing through the very fabric of the universe. As the sound grew louder, a gleaming red ball of light grew above the grove. The Menos Grande stared down blankly over the growing Cero, its gleaming white mask frozen in a permanent grimace.
Ishida’s Quincy instincts took over. In one swift motion, he pulled his spirit bow level with one hand, aiming it at the Menos Grande. With the other, he grabbed Inoue’s wrist, pulling her closer to him and shielding her with his body, planning to use his Hirenkyaku to get them both out of the range of the Cero.
But Inoue was faster. She tore her hand away from Ishida, feeling for the flower clips in her hair. “Sauten Kesshun!” she chanted loudly, the power in her voice building as her reiatsu grew. “I reject!”
Immediately three points of winged light broke off of the flower clips and flew into a triangle formation in front of Inoue and Ishida, a golden light expanding in the center until it formed a glittering translucent shield. With another tearing sound, the Cero ripped away from the Menos Grande, rocketing towards its two opponents. Inoue watched calmly as the Cero splattered harmlessly on her shield, sliding off like water on glass.
As soon as the blast of Cero had dissipated, Ishida took advantage of it slow reaction time, and flitted into the air above it, sustained by his own spirit particles as he scrutinized the scene below him. I’ll end this in one shot, he thought to himself, pushing his glasses further up his nose and pulling back on his bowstring, readying his arrow. Easy. Even though a Menos Grande possessed a huge reiatsu, its only advantage was its size. They were slow, clumsy, only had one method of attack, and no defense or counter-attack at all. Compared to what Ishida and the others had faced, a Menos Grande wasn’t even a threat.
With a quick glance down into the trees, he allowed himself a small smile. Inoue was craning her neck to stare up at the Quincy through the trees, her gray eyes shining expectantly. She was waiting for something amazing to happen.
Ishida Uryuu was going to make that happen.
The Quincy took careful aim at the Menos Grande, which was just beginning to realize it had an enemy. Stupid Hollow, Ishida thought to himself with a dry chuckle, which died quickly in his throat. He could feel Inoue’s eyes on him. He was going to finish this with one shot. Maybe then Inoue would finally realize he could do everything Kurosaki could do and more.
He took a deep breath and released his arrow. It was a perfect shot. It flew perfectly straight at the perfect speed and with the perfect amount of power. Ishida, grinning, felt pride swell in his chest. Something was finally going right.
But it didn’t last for long. A startlingly determined voice punctured his excitement, yelling, “Getsuga Tensho!”
Ishida’s bow was called “The Sparrow” for a reason. It shot thousands of arrows that were fast, lithe, and deadly accurate. But not even a sparrow could out fly a hawk.
The Sparrow’s arrow was fast, but not quick enough. It never hit its target, and was instead drowned in a wave of curling back reiatsu. When the dust settled, Ishida stared down at the grove numbly. The Menos Grande was gone.
Ishida risked a glance down at Inoue, clod dread stirring in his stomach. He would have recognized that reiatsu anywhere. Anyone would. There wasn’t another one like it in all of existence, a delicate yet powerful blend of Hollow and Shinigami. Sometimes, Ishida wished it wasn’t so unique. Then maybe the person it belonged to wouldn’t seem so special. So special to her.
His stomach dropped. Inoue’s eyes were shining even more brightly than they had been before, but she was not looking at him. She was looking straight through him, staring at the person that had just destroyed the Menos Grande.
Ishida turned around slowly, regret and a simmering anger tying a knot in his throat. He watched as Kurosaki Ichigo dragged his fingers down across his face, the Hollow mask dissipating, his eyes changing from black and yellow to their usual brown. Ichigo turned to look at Ishida, a crooked smile forming on his face. “Gotta be quicker next time,” he remarked before flash-stepping down to the ground, the tattered robe of his Bankai robe flapping.
“Hmph,” Ishida grumbled before following the Shinigami down, landing next to Inoue.
“Kurosaki-kun, that was amazing!” Inoue shrieked. “But you’re bleeding!” She reached up, her hands automatically feeling for her hair clips.
“No, no, Inoue. Don’t bother, I’m fine,” Ichigo said hurriedly, distractedly grabbing her wrist. “It’s nothing serious. I didn’t even need my mask or Bankai, really. There were just a few adjuchas running around. But I lost track of Rukia along the way, and I was in a hurry to go and find her. I thought she came this way…have you guys seen her?”
“Uh…no,” Inoue replied dejectedly, suddenly very interested in her shoes. “We…haven’t.”
“Ok…really? Wow, it’s been a while since anyone’s seen her. I’m gonna go find her…y’know, make sure she’s ok.” Ichigo gave a quick smile and nod to Ishida and Inoue, but the smile did not reach his eyes, unable to replace the worry. Within seconds, Ichigo was gone, just as fast as he had come.
Inoue stood where she was, still immensely impressed by her shoes. Her long hair fell in front of her face, providing a curtain between her and the world. It did not fall fast enough, however, to prevent Ishida from catching sight of the single glimmering tear that rolled down her cheek.
Ishida could feel his heart breaking. He was in pain, she was in pain, and Kurosaki was the cause of it all. Kurosaki is such an idiot. You want another reason we can never be friends? She’s right there. Look at Inoue, she’s in love with you! You knocked me out before I even had a chance at the girl you’ll never want. We all know that you will never be able to see beyond Kuchiki-san.
Inoue’s voice broke into Ishida’s thoughts. “Ummm… Ishida-kun?” she said, her voice shaking as she tried to hold back unseen tears. “If…if everything is alright, I’m going to…head home. Bye…Ishida-kun.” With a rattling sigh, Inoue quickly turned and began to make her way home, still careful to avoid Ishida’s eyes.
Suddenly, Ishida was desperate. Desperate to help her. Desperate to help himself. “Inoue-san, wait!” he called after her, loping a few steps forward to catch her arm. She turned towards him, finally forcing herself to meet his eyes.
What Ishida saw shocked him; he kept himself in check, not letting his surprise show. Ishida stared up at him with stormy gray eyes, but they weren’t her stormy gray eyes. They didn’t hold any of the happiness, confidence, or passion he had come to love. Now, they held only sadness. Regret. Pain. Desperation. Hopelessness.
“Inoue-san, I…I…” Ishida faltered. He could feel his courage ebbing as he buckled under the weight of her empty stare. He knew she couldn’t see him anymore. There was only one person left on her mind now. “I…I’ll see you in school tomorrow,” he sighed in defeat. How could he possibly tell her now?
“Ok,” she mumbled. “Bye-Ishida-kun.” The tears were threatening to fall again. She gave a half-hearted wave and sprinted in the direction of the road, leaving Ishida to stand alone in the darkness.
Inoue-san, I love you, he thought in the direction of her retreating back. I always have, and I always will.
With a rattling sigh of his own, Ishida began to run in the opposite direction, blinking his eyes rapidly. He wasn’t going to let his emotions overtake him. Not here. Not now.
Ishida didn’t feel like a Quincy anymore. He felt more like that Menos Grande. He was the Cero, and Inoue was her own shield. Nothing he said or did had any effect on her. He couldn’t break through to her, couldn’t break the shield. He just slid off, like water on glass, unable to make any impression at all.