Karin and Yuzu invite her to take one of their beds to rest, since there are no free beds left in Kurosaki-sensei's clinic. Rukia smiles, curtseys, and sneaks to Ichigo's closet.
She likes that closet. It's just the right size for her, cozy and dark, with a thin ray of warm light piercing the darkness, and, thanks to the spare futons stocked inside, very comfortable. And no one but Ichigo and Kon ever knows to look for her in there, so hopefully the shinigami cleanup crew will forget her for a while.
Ichigo never took out the desk lamp and the piles of romance novels and girly magazines she arranged along the wall. She gives a tired, sincere smile at the sight, and then slides the door closed on her little world. Safe inside her closet, she curls up on her side, face to the wall, cradling her sword against her chest.
They've done all the pain and tears and blood, all the fighting and losing and getting back up and getting hurt and getting healed already, back in Hueco Mundo. She has laid Kaien-dono's ghost to rest, and she thinks her heart might finally be healing now, just like her body was healed. Ichigo is alive. Aizen is not. Inoue is safe, smiling anew, and knows never to leave her friends behind in order to protect them ever again. (Hopefully, Ichigo won't need a beating to keep from conveniently forgetting that same thing, the next time a bigger monster comes around.) All is good.
She's too tired to sleep. Her mind drifts from Espada to Vizard, battles she missed but can imagine just fine, battles she joined in a hurry, unable to see anything but the current enemy -- Sado and Ishida's blood, Nell's screams, Grimmjow... She hopes he survives, if only because Inoue and Ichigo seem to want him to.
"Ohh -- no, I couldn't, I couldn't -- Kurosaki-san!"
Inoue's voice pulls Rukia from her musings. She's in the corridor, and... The way she frantically apologizes -- she sounds almost back to normal, at least. Maybe a little scratchy, a little tired, but ... Alright. Healing.
"I insist, Orihime-chan! You must save Ichigo's honor as a man and not let him die without having had a girl in his bed--"
There's a funny clonking noise, and then Karin's unimpressed drawl. "Sorry, Orihime, I sent that lazy oaf Renji to take over the other bed in my bedroom. There's nowhere else. Just take a futon in Ichi-nii's closet and sleep on the floor somewhere if it bugs you."
"But Ichigo's manly honor --"
"Dad, shut up. We gotta go, Chad's moving around again, the idiot."
There's more babble, Inoue apologizing, Kurosaki-sensei whining as his daughter drags him down the stairs, and then silence again. Rukia thinks that she should sit up, exit the closet... Maybe pretend she was just passing through, or something.
She's too tired to move.
The bedroom door opens and closes; silence again. And then there's a soft knock at the closet door.
Rukia squints when the panel slides open, just enough for Inoue to peek inside. "Hello again, Kuchiki-san. I hope I'm not disturbing you?"
Rukia manages to smile. "Inoue. Just let me --"
Instead of moving back to free the way out, Orihime pushes the closet door open a little wider and climbs in.
"Ooh! This is so neat! Like a secret hiding place!"
Tired or not, Rukia can't help but chuckle at her enthusiasm. It's good to hear it again. Inoue sits with her legs folded primly and her head bowed low, and looks around with the fresh interest of a child allowed in a tree house for the first time of her life. It's sad that her body doesn't reflect her state of mind, because the upper shelf is a little too low for Orihime to sit straight.
"You're going to get a crick in the neck."
"Oh, no, my neck is very strong!"
Rukia stifles a giggle in her hand. She missed Orihime's brand of silliness. "It must not be very comfortable. Perhaps you should find another position..."
"But this is Kuchiki-san's bed!"
"I don't mind, Inoue."
Orihime considers her for a few seconds, and then she plops down on her side in a swirl of long hair, her back against the door, legs folded. She smiles up at Rukia, who still reclines lazily against a folded up futon. "You're right, this is much more comfortable."
They fall silent in the semi-dark. Rukia watches the dust motes dancing in the thin ray of light; Orihime watches... Rukia doesn't know. She must not see a lot from there, apart from Rukia's hip.
"Kuchiki-san... it's been a long time, hasn't it?"
"Since you arrived in town. It feels like you've always been here..."
Rukia keeps silent; she doesn't know where Orihime is going.
"And this has been Kuchiki-san's bedroom for all this time, hasn't it?"
Rukia feels embarrassed now, for some weird reason. She sees nothing wrong with forcing Ichigo to cede her a piece of his bedroom -- it made sense to sleep close by, in case of emergency, and there weren't a hundred solutions -- and this closet seemed like a horrible waste of space to her. Had she found such a space as a child, they would have been four or five kids in there, piled up for warmth and companionship, and they would have loved it. "Well... Yes."
"It's too bad we haven't had a housewarming party. We could have brought you presents! Like perhaps shelves, or a little stove, ohh, or a chandelier! Paintings for the walls -- the Mona Lisa!"
Rukia laughs, again. "It's alright. We can't have a party in my closet. Who would fit?"
Orihime's voice goes quiet, melancholy, her wild enthusiasm evaporated. "Kurosaki-kun could, if we tried."
Rukia tries very hard not to picture Ichigo squeezed in there with them, body twisted in an uncomfortable position, long legs stretched across the narrow space, grumbling all the while. He's not the tallest man she knows, but nevertheless... "He would take up all the space," she replies, and pretends it doesn't hurt to think about.
"Wouldn't that be nice?"
Orihime still sounds quiet, wistful. Rukia stares straight ahead, like perhaps she can ignore the talk she knows is coming if she doesn't look down at Orihime, curled up in the fetal position at her side.
"What does Kuchiki-san feel about Kurosaki-kun?"
Rukia was expecting it, but she still flounders. "I -- I. Well. He's an idiot."
Orihime stifles a soft giggle in her hand.
"... He's a real idiot. But. I guess he's alright to stand at my back." She exhales slowly. She hasn't let herself think of it. They're partners, she shouldn't tangle that up with romance, duty gets hard when feelings interfere; besides, Ichigo is human and alive, and she is not. "... I'm proud of the way he fights, the people he protects -- don't tell him," she adds, a feeble attempt at a joke.
She didn't expect Orihime to sit up in a leap. The girl hits her head on the upper shelf with a loud clonk, but barely seems to notice. "Oooh, that's so moving! ' I could not love thee, Dear, so much, loved I not Honor more!'"
Rukia blinks; Orihime gives her a kind smile.
"It's a poem."
"Ah. That..." It fits. It does. Ichigo wouldn't be Ichigo if he didn't place his duty to save everyone who needs it before everything else. She wouldn't love -- she wouldn't approve of him so much if he didn't. He wouldn't be Ichigo then. "...Yes. That's... yes."
There's another pause, pregnant with things unsaid, itching to burst out. Rukia breaks the moment first.
"You'll make him happy," she says, and it's true, and she believes it like nothing she ever believed before. Orihime will make him laugh, offer him the world in a smile... They can be alive together, grow old side by side, he'll protect her body and she'll heal his spirit, she'll beam when, flustered, he holds her hand... Rukia has nothing to offer but more battlefields, back to back.
Inoue is watching her. Rukia expected hurried denials, stammering, maybe even pained pleads, but there's no reaction. Unsettling.
"Inoue... He cares for you. He's so gentle with you... He just hasn't noticed because he's an idiot... He would -- you would give him back so much I've taken, dragging him in the middle of all this mess..."
"Don't talk like this, Kuchiki-san, please. He -- he was always special, wasn't he? They would have found him anyway. You gave him the means to defend himself." Orihime is smiling; Rukia can hear the tenderness in her voice. "Why, without Kuchiki-san, he would have been gobbled right up! Oh, can you imagine how much he would scowl -- even in their stomach. How dare they, like he's chocolate! Oh, he'd be black with almonds..."
"He'd give them indigestion, I'm sure," Rukia replies. She's too tired to make it sound amused enough. "... You'll be good for him, Inoue."
Orihime shakes her head no, just a little; Rukia almost misses it. "I would like for this to be true very much," Orihime says wistfully.
"Just wait and see. When he wakes up," Rukia adds with steely determination, "I'll tell him to stop being an oaf and take you out on a date." She will. She really will. And they'll have fun, he'll be a knight and she'll be a princess and they'll be happy to put all the romance novels Rukia owns to shame.
It's a pretty idea, to love someone for their way of loving everything before themselves. But it's not enough. He needs someone who makes him realize it's alright to be loved back, who puts him first before everything else.
"He needs you, Kuchiki-san. To stand at his back and push him when he falters and hold him up when he stumbles... I'm not -- I tried to do that, and I'm not -- I can't. I can only comfort him, but it doesn't fix his problems. It's not enough. You can make him get back up and try again--"
"But he succeeds for you. To protect you."
Orihime shakes her head. "For both of us, Kuchiki-san. For all of us, all of our friends. That's who he is." Orihime is biting her lip; her next words come out pained. "I wish I could protect him too. But he doesn't really need me to."
Rukia pokes her side; Orihime squeals and jerks up, only to flop back down again, clutching her side with a wounded gurgle.
"None of that, Inoue. You're strong. You did a lot."
They shouldn't argue about who can physically protect him best, anyway; that's something that belongs to all of Ichigo's friends, whether they're interested in more or not.
"Perhaps we should ask him," Orihime eventually says.
Rukia hums an assent, despite how much she doesn't want to. She doesn't like the idea of baring her soul and enduring rejection. She would be perfectly content with a lasting status quo. She knows that Orihime suffers from it, though.
She just hopes Ichigo doesn't turn purple and splutter himself into an early grave. She can especially see his reaction at realizing that Rukia -- partner, trainer, bossy little midget -- also happens to be a woman, who wants him like a woman wants a man. The idea would be mildly entertaining if she wasn't in the middle of it.
"Perhaps. God knows the question isn't going to come to him otherwise," she adds with a snort. "
She closes her eyes; she wishes she could sleep. She doesn't want to think about the incoming mess. At least, if Ichigo chooses Orihime, Rukia will have things left. Being a shinigami... Being his partner... His friend -- if the thought that she loves him doesn't make things weird between them. She isn't sure she could stand that.
If he chooses her -- she doesn't want to hope for it -- then Orihime...
"Do you remember the first time you ate with us at school?"
Rukia blinks. Orihime sounds embarrassed now. That was unexpected. "... Yes?"
The girl at her side breathes deeply, like she expects... Something. Steeling herself.
"I would -- might still feel -- and -- if Kurosaki-kun wants to play, too, I mean a game isn't any fun when one of the players doesn't want to play, but -- if he did, and you did, and perhaps... Two against one, it would be a victory for team Girls, wouldn't it?"
Rukia isn't even sure what Orihime is babbling about at first. And then she remembers.
"... Would you... please be on a team with me? At least until we -- until he decides to choose, or we decide to let him go -- I don't want to, not now, not yet, I know I'm so selfish and -- but -- maybe I just need a little while longer, to learn to let him go..."
There are tears hiding in that voice, pain and desperate hope.
Rukia's hand finds Orihime's in the dark, and she squeezes.
Rukia doesn't know what to say, so she doesn't say anything. She turns on her side, and she caresses Orihime's hair as Orihime cries.
Resting in the infirmary is such a pain. It smells of antiseptic; Chad talks
in his sleep more than he's ever talked anywhere else; Ishida nags him; and
Ichigo can feel Grimmjow staring broodingly at the ceiling even through the
privacy screen. And then there's the main deterrent : his father.
He's almost healed anyway, and his bed calls from a mere flight of stairs up. So he takes out the perfusions and sneaks out of the clinic.
There's someone in his room; he knows even before he touches the door handle. He stomps in; if it's Kon, he's punting him at Yuzu. No one in sight... Ah.
He slides the closet door open without knocking. "Hey, Rukia."
Rukia is there, yes, tiny and frail-looking in her white under-kimono. She's curled around Orihime's upper body, a hand in Orihime's long hair, another on her cheek. Orihime's arms are around Rukia's waist, and her torn pants and funny butt-cape bunch up to unveil way too much thigh.
He stares, in shock. He has never really thought of either one of them in terms of cuddling before, much less together. But they look so cozy -- intimate -- and he wonders if perhaps he interrupted something there.
"Oh, hello, Kurosaki-kun!"
Ichigo would never in a million year think anything like that about the situation, but there's a little Keigo bursting with excitement on his shoulder, and he yelps, flustered. "Were you kissing?"
"Do you want us to?" Inoue inquires with innocent interest.
"W-what?! No!" He turns away quickly, cheeks burning.
Orihime makes a humming, thinking sound. "I wouldn't mind, I think. Kuchiki-san is kind and very pretty..."
Ichigo's brain does its best to dribble out of his ears.
"Inoue!" Rukia chides her. Ichigo is definitely not turning around to check her expression, but from the tone, he'd say she's smiling. Of course she would find his pain amusing, the pest.
"So, uh. I see Inoue was visiting. Alright. I'll..."
"Come in," Rukia invites him, except it doesn't sound as if he's got a choice.
This time Ichigo looks over his shoulder. "... What?"
"Just come in, you idiot."
"You're kidding, the supports wouldn't hold--"
Rukia yanks him down and then in, so hard he almost rams his head into the bottom wall. He puts a knee on the edge of the shelf, a hand on a pile of futons to balance himself.
"Quick, quick, we have to batten down the hatches -- beware the Kraken, Kurosaki-kun!"
Ichigo barely swings his legs inside before the panel snaps closed, and then it's dark.
"Okay, what the hell is this about?"
"Kuchiki-san's closet is very nice, don't you think so?"
He grumbles, even as he tries to find a position that isn't going to leave him in a wheelchair. "Be nicer if I could see it -- uh."
"... That's my knee."
He snatches his hand away so fast he overbalances and knocks into the wall. His almost-healed wounds protest. He ends up with his upper body stuck between a folded futon and the wall, and tries to find something solid to push off on that isn't part of Rukia's or Orihime's anatomy.
Orihime giggles, and Rukia snorts.
"Yeah, yeah, laugh at me." He manages to squirm into a less painful position, leaning heavily on his hand, his ass up on a futon. He lost one of his slippers somewhere in the dark, and he can't straighten up properly. "So, what's up?"
Neither of them answers at first, and he starts to frown; the silliness of his abduction into the closet made him assume the situation wasn't going to be serious. But now that he thinks about it, there was definitely a kind of weird stiffness to both of them...
"... Guys?" He expects -- he doesn't know, another twisted thing Aizen said to Inoue, what happened to Rukia during her big solo fight that she still hasn't shared.
"Have you ever thought about dating?"
Rukia's no-nonsense voice is at odds with the subject. He chokes, lifting his hands defensively, and almost loses his balance. "What? No -- I don't have time to date -- why are you talking to me about that? Got a colleague of yours to fix me up with? What the hell, Rukia--"
"You 'don't have the time'?"
"I've got to save the world!" he yelps defensively. Orihime laughs. "It's true, I, I gotta train! Yes, we never know when something else might come up, right? Totally no time to date. Sorry for your colleague." Like he wants to have some stranger he doesn't even know come up to him and, uh. Expect. Things. Like. Kissing and. Things. She doesn't even know him!
"It's not for a colleague, idiot!"
It can't be Matsumoto, she'd molest him herself. Soi Fong is -- he doubts she has the time to date with her job and her devotion to Yoruichi -- and Yoruichi would be worse than Matsumoto... "-- wait. It's not? Do I know her?"
He hears a funny slap that sounds a lot like Rukia's hand meeting her forehead.
Orihime fidgets, the futon moving under her weight. "Kurosaki-kun..."
"You -- Inoue?" Ichigo chokes out. He didn't expect it; and wonders if he should have. He doesn't know what to think. She's -- she's Inoue. She's gentle and silly and she has crazy ideas about sacrificing herself to make her precious people happy, like they can be happy knowing she's not, and... He never questioned it. She's Inoue.
"... Kon bribed you, didn't he?"
Rukia's foot connects with his chin, and this time his head gets to ricochet off the upper shelf before it hits the wall.
"You fool! Do you think I'd--"
Orihime's hands are fluttering nervously, patting Rukia's arm to calm her down. Ichigo slumps against the wall and stares, floored. Rukia? Like Rukia, the smallest bulldozer in the world, suckiest artist, most strong-willed person he knows -- that Rukia?
"Kurosaki-kun? ... Are you broken?"
"... It's an illusion, right? Aizen got me again and I didn't notice..."
He braces himself for another kick; it doesn't come. That's when it starts to dawn on him that they're really not having him on.
"So... Kurosaki-kun has never really thought about either Kuchiki-san or myself in such a way..." Orihime is trying to sound positive; it comes out a little shaky.
"Well..." He sits, looks away, slumping a little. "Sorry."
There's no answer. He feels horrible. How cruel can he be, to not even be aware of the feelings or someone he knows, someone he cares for -- two someones, even. How did he miss it?
Is he going to have to choose? Alarmed, he lifts his head to look at them -- and knocks his skull on the upper shelf again; he's going to end up with more bumps from this little adventure than from the whole Hueco Mundo thing.
"Kurosaki-kun? Are you alright?"
"Ahh -- yeah, yeah, I'm fine."
Inoue leans forward, trying to look at his head, but he bets she can't see much. She's close; he wouldn't have even noticed before. Now, he blushes.
"So..." Rukia and Orihime start talking at the same time; they stop, and Orihime giggles nervously. "Have you ever thought of... Any other girl like that?"
"No! There's no one else." 'Else' implies there's someone, though, and he kind of wants to splutter a bit.
Orihime nods, humming -- it's her 'thinking' noise. "I'm glad. And boys?"
"It's a possibility. Kurosaki-kun is a very handsome young man, after all. I am sure he has many admirers of both genders!"
Ichigo shudders. He can already barely deal with the thought of two girls he knows liking him -- 'many'? 'Both genders'? Gurk.
Rukia nods ponderously, fingers stroking her chin, eyes gleaming somewhat evilly. "Indeed. I always thought Captain Zaraki--"
"Rukia!" Ichigo finds his lost slipper and shakes it threateningly. "Don't even -- my brain!"
She gives him and his slipper a haughty glare. "You wouldn't dare."
"Oh no! Is Zaraki-san looking for a mother for Yachiru-chan? You would be an awesome mother, Kurosaki-kun, I'm sure of it, you're so kind --" Orihime goes on to mutter things about "aprons" and "darlings," which he tries his best to tune out. Rukia chokes on badly stifled laughter.
"Gghhk." The mental picture is stuck. Ichigo considers the possibility of braining himself on the wall to make it go away. "Inoue -- no."
"Oh, so Zaraki-san isn't courting Kurosaki-kun?"
Ichigo rubs his forehead. "... No. He's not." Definitely not. Ever. Ever. Ever.
"Oh, good! So... May we be allowed to court you, Kurosaki-kun?"
"Kurosaki-kun deserves chocolates and flowers and hand-holding and kisses. And -- love and care, and being held, and smiled at... So... Can we please... Both of us...?"
She's sitting with her legs folded to the side, fingers knotted together on her lap. She's deadly serious. Her eyes even look a little wet. Ichigo looks at Rukia, who sits just as still beside her, and watches him, stiff like a rock.
He swallows, tries to laugh. "Geeze, what's gotten into you two? I'm not that much of a prize. And Rukia, I thought Renji--"
He's not too sure about what happens next, except that he ends up crumpled in a corner with Rukia sitting on his back. On second thought, maybe he should have said that a bit differently.
"Don't drag other people into this to hide behind, coward!"
"Coward?! Why you midget-sized bitch --"
Rukia is incensed. "Will you, or will you not, allow us to court you?!"
"FINE!" he yells back, frustrated.
There's a pause, where Rukia blinks, as if she hadn't expected it, and then she sits back and crosses her arms, satisfied. "Well. Good."
Ichigo didn't expect it either. He pauses in the middle of straightening up as the enormity of what he just agreed to hits him. He just. He said. ... Court him.
Rukia and Orihime. Court him. Because they want --
Orihime's flying tackle catches both him and Rukia. She clings to his neck, pressed against his side; the strength of her hug pushes Rukia in his arms, and Ichigo stiffens in shock. "Kurosaki-kun, thank you!"
Of course, that's when the shelf's supports decide to break under their weight.
The flimsy sliding door isn't any help; they tumble out of the closet in a mess of arms and legs, amidst a racket of splintering wood and crushed boxes. Ichigo's head takes yet another hit, and his almost-healed wounds protest. ... At least he broke their fall. He groans tiredly; what a day.
And opens his eyes on a plunging view down Rukia's kimono. When he tries to tear his eyes away, it's only to discover that his upper arm is being cuddled in Inoue's cleavage. Their legs are tangled with his.
"I'm so sorry -- Kurosaki-kun, are you alright? Kuchiki-san?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," he grunts, blushing hotly. "It's okay, just--" ... move aside, he wants to say.
But they're almost nose to nose, all three of them, and Orihime's eyes are gray and Rukia's are deep purple. He never really noticed before.
"Idiot." Rukia smiles, a little mocking, vaguely embarrassed, and she leans down to press a kiss on his brow. Blushing, Orihime imitates her, lips brushing his cheek.
The door is kicked open and bumps on the wall hard enough to leave a dent. "ORIHIME-CHAN, I COME TO THE RESCUE!"
The whole of Karakura Town knows that Kurosaki Ichigo is dating two girls at
once in the day that follows, but since they also know that his father ended
up in his own clinic for spreading the news, they make sure to gossip quietly.
His friends would gladly punt him into orbit for it, but Rukia is more than capable of doing the punting on her own if she so desires, and it has been too long since Orihime looked so happy.