Strawberry Shinigami
by Katie
Disclaimer: Ichigo and Orihime belong to Tite Kubo. Written for the first challenge at Death and Strawberry.

Ichigo huffed as he walked into the local ER. Go to the hospital, he said, Ichigo thought grumpily, remembering his father's words. Beg Dr. Takahashi to lend us some mattresses, he said. Get on your KNEES if you have to, he said. I don't get on my knees for anybody, much less for some stupid mattresses. Unfortunately, the Kurosaki clinic was a little low on funds that month, but new mattresses for its two beds could not wait a day longer. And so, grumbling and cursing, Ichigo had went.

"Oi," he said to the nurse on duty. "I'm Kurosaki Isshin's son. I'm looking for Dr. Takahashi Hisota."

"Dr. Takahashi is making rounds right now," the nurse said. "Try looking for him on the second floor." She pointed to the elevators.

"Thanks," Ichigo responded, and promptly took the staircase. Take the elevator to the second floor, he thought derisively. Who the hell is too lazy to walk up a single flight of steps? He pushed through the swinging door into the second floor hallway, intending to do a room by room search for the good doctor. But then a familiar voice caught his ears. What the hell is Inoue doing here? he wondered, and followed the sound of her voice down to room 217.

"And that's when Shinigami Strawberry came to save the day!" Orihime said excitedly. Ichigo peeked through the doorway and watched, shocked, as Orihime, sitting on the edge of a hospital bed, held up a strawberry decked out in a little shinigami robe for the bed's occupant to see. "He took his sword –" Or in this case, his toothpick – "and defeated the Evil Broccoli Monster!" The Broccoli Monster had a Hollow mask, very creatively made with what appeared to be cream cheese. "The Little Grape Ghost was safe! Then the Shinigami Strawberry placed the hilt of his sword on the little ghost's forehead and sent Little Grape Ghost to the other world." Orihime popped the grape into the little boy's mouth, making him giggle and chew.

"Was the Little Grape Ghost happy there?" he asked.

"Very happy!" Orihime said immediately. "He lived in a little straw home and made lots of new friends."

What the hell is she doing? Ichigo thought. Rukia had pressed into him the idea that no human must be told about the Soul Society; so why was Orihime here telling this little kid about it? Rukia'll kill me if I don't stop her, he thought, and coughed to catch the girl's attention. Orihime immediately looked up and positively beamed at him.

"Kurosaki-kun!" she cried out, jumping to her feet. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm getting some new mattresses for the clinic," Ichigo said automatically, then shook his head. Get her alone! Talk to her! "Look, can I talk to you alone for a minute?" He watched as Orihime turned a deep, deep red and began stuttering nonsense syllables. "What?" he asked, confused. She does this every time!

"Nothing! Nothing!" Orihime said quickly. "I'll be back in a minute, Negi-kun," she said to the little boy, and quickly dragged Ichigo out of the room. Weirdo, Ichigo thought. Orihime's behavior could be downright baffling some times.

"What did you want to talk about, Kurosaki-kun?" Orihime asked once she had closed the door.

Ichigo decided to be blunt.

"What the hell were you doing in there?"

Orihime blinked with innocent confusion.

"I was telling Negi-kun a story," she answered.

"About the Soul Society!" Ichigo said, as if that was supposed to explain everything. When Orihime's face failed to light up with comprehension, Ichigo continued. "You know, first rule of the Soul Society, don't talk about the Soul Society?" Why the hell did that phrase sound familiar? Ichigo shoved the thought aside.

"Why?" Orihime asked. The question was short, simple, and Ichigo could not for the life of him think of the perfect response.

"You...you're just not supposed to!" he stammered, thinking that any answer was better than no answer. "Humans aren't supposed to know about the shinigami," he continued. "It would just...ruin everything." Right. Brilliant answer there, Ichigo.

"I didn't mean to ruin anything," Orihime said apologetically. "I just..." She sighed, and looked through the window at the little boy on the bed, playing happily with the little strawberry shinigami. "He's dying," she said quietly. "Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia."

"Oh." Ichigo glanced in at the little boy as well, suddenly seeing him in a very different light.

"He's scared," Orihime continued softly. "He's walking into the unknown, and he isn't ready to go. How would you feel if you went up to your front door, knowing that it was going to take you somewhere else? That it wouldn't be the lawn you're so familiar with? Would you be ready to step outside?"

Ichigo held his breath, unable to answer. Orihime watched him for a moment, her eyes unusually serious. Ichigo hadn't seen her look like that since the Soul Society. It was disconcerting.

"I'm just telling him what it looks like outside," she continued, looking back in at Negi. "What the grass feels like, how the sun shines...the things that make stepping out there less frightening. Nothing that would endanger Kuchiki-san or Abarai-san or any of the others. It's just a story. Something to comfort him." She shrugged. "Shinigami only ease the fear of the dead. It's our job to comfort the fears of the dying."

Ichigo blinked.

"I...I guess you're right," he said quietly. He had never really thought about the dying. His father didn't involve him in the patient work of the clinic – said he had a terrible bedside manner. Ichigo had only ever dealt with the healthy and the dead. But didn't the dying need the most help of all? He opened the door to Negi's room.

"Oi, Negi!" The little boy nearly jumped out of the bed as Ichigo called out his name.

"Yes?" he asked.

"You like candy, right?"

Negi's face immediately lit up.

"I love candy!" he said.

"What's your favorite?" Ichigo asked.

"Chocolate pocky!" was Negi's immediate response.

"Well guess what." Ichigo leaned closer. "In Heaven, you live on chocolate pocky."

Negi's eyes went wide.

"Really?" he asked. "No fruits or vegetables?"

Ichigo shook his head.

"You don't need to eat," he said. "You only eat to taste stuff, not to live. So you can spend your days just eating chocolate pocky, or whatever type of candy you need."

"Wow!" Negi seemed enthralled with this idea.

"Orihime-chan, visiting hours are – oh, hello Ichigo." Ichigo whirled around as Dr. Takahashi poked his head into the room. "What are you doing here?"

"I...err.." Ichigo stammered for a moment, having completely forgotten his original purpose. "Dad sent me here to borrow some mattresses for the clinic!" he blurted out upon remembering.

"Your old mattresses finally gave out?" Takahashi said sympathetically. "Here," he scribbled a short note on a piece of paper and handed it to Ichigo. "Take this to the nurse on duty. She'll hook you up with some new ones from storage. As for you, young lady," he said, turning to Orihime. "Go home! You've been here since school let out. Do some homework, play with your friends, something!"

Orihime giggled, abashed.

"Yes, Doctor," she said with an embarrassed grin. "I'll see you tomorrow, Negi-kun!" she said to the little boy, and kissed his forehead.

"Bye Orihime-neechan!" Negi said.

"I'll see ya tomorrow too, Negi," Ichigo said immediately.

Negi's eyes lit up.

"Really?" he asked.

Ichigo nodded, grinning slightly.

"Really," he said.

Negi squirmed with excitement, making Dr. Takahashi laugh. Grinning and waving, Ichigo and Orihime exited the room.

"Thank you, Kurosaki-kun," Orihime said softly as they walked down the stairs to the nurse's station.

Ichigo shrugged. "It was nothing," he said.

Orihime smiled, stopping with him once they reached the nurse's station. "It meant a lot to him," she said. "And to me." She flushed slightly after saying that, and then quickly added: "I'll see you tomorrow, Kurosaki-kun!" and jogged out the front door.

"Right, see ya tomorrow," Ichigo called out after her. Weirdo, he thought, but it was almost affectionate.