holding out your hands to the living

If Rukia had been forced to pin down exactly why she'd first chosen to help Inoue Orihime, she would eventually have realised that it was a feeling of responsibility.

She hardly knew Inoue well enough to call the girl a friend. She liked her, of course; everyone did; Inoue was the sort of person who one liked as an automatic reaction. She was the sort of person who was quite pure and sincere, all warmth and affection and kindness. It would have been an act of deliberate stupidity not to like her.

But taking her to Soul Society, and asking Ukitake-taichou to open up the training ground (and she was so relieved when he simply gave permission and didn't ask why), and the tedious effort of practice and repetition and encouragement . . . it was what she would have done for a trainee under her command, she realised eventually, and the only reason that she didn't recognise this sooner was that she had never had a command before. It was what Shiba Kaien had done for her, in her ignorance and impatience and nervousness, and then she had been too raw to appreciate it properly, but had assumed it was merely what every new member of the Division lived through.

Inoue Orihime was her responsibility.

And then came the day when Inoue asked her a question.

It was between two practice bouts. Ukitake-taichou had been watching earlier (Rukia assumed that he had come along to make sure they didn't hurt each other), but had gone to a meeting or some other work, leaving the two of them alone on the training ground. They were sharing a bottle of water and a bagful of onigiri. The late morning sunlight turned Inoue's hair into a halo of flame, and shadowed her body through her sweaty tshirt.

"Kuchiki-san," Inoue said, "how are you and your brother getting on?"

Rukia choked on her water at the sheer impertinence of the question, then looked at Inoue. She was all innocence, all simple concern. The question was simply meant as something . . . between friends.

Even Shiba Kaien wouldn't have asked the question that simply and with that honesty.

"We're getting on better these days," she said cautiously. "My honoured elder brother is sharing more things with me. We talk more than we used to."

Inoue laughed. "I'm trying to imagine myself calling my elder brother 'honoured elder brother' to his face. I think he'd have thought it was funny and ruffled my hair."

Rukia tried to remember Inoue's brother. She'd only seen him as a Hollow, of course, but there had been that moment when he'd shattered his mask and she had seen his face. "He cared about you very much," she said gently. "That was why he came back. Even if you hadn't called him 'honoured elder brother', you honoured him in your actions, and surely that's what counts."

Inoue's laughter -- too brittle, now Rukia thought about it -- trailed away. "Do you think so?" she said tentatively. "I do wonder -- I mean, sometimes I've thought of looking around here and seeing if -- that is, I don't know what I'd say if I did find him, but sometimes I wonder if I could just ask . . ."

Rukia thought about all the questions that she would have wanted to ask Hisana. If only. If only. "I'm not sure that it would help," she said, as honestly as she could. "I think one of the reasons that they don't keep records of where people are sent is that so they can start to move on from their last life, before they get reborn again. If you did find him here -- if he hasn't already been reborn -- then you might see him once, but you'd want to see him again, and again, and then where is the life that you're living now? Would he want you to give it up for his sake?"

"I would," Inoue said stubbornly.

"I know you would," Rukia said. "But is it fair to make him feel guilty because you do?"

Inoue thought about that, reaching out for another onigiri. "You're very wise, Kuchiki-san," she said. "I'm glad you're my sempai."

"I --" Rukia began, and broke off, because she realised that Inoue was right. That was how they stood to each other. More than that. "I'm your friend," she said, and that was true as well.

Inoue smiled at her like a sunrise.

Teacher and sempai and friend and who knew what, given time.