Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach, because I'm not Kubo-sensei. The bleach I own keeps my whites white. The poem belongs to Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

LAX was like any other airport. People came, people went. That was the nature of the place. Businessmen and women strode quickly by, armed with only a practical briefcase as they scurried on to the next deal. Families milled around while hassled parents dealt with unruly and squabbling children. Pilots and flight attendants walked calmly by, bored with the entire routine. Tempers ran high and patience ran low.

But every once in a while, one could catch a glimpse of something more. A father, home from a long business trip, running to pick up and hug his small child. Parents, anxious to welcome their college student from a long trip from a faraway campus. Lovers, separated by the miles, reuniting for a brief and shining moment. Those moments were special.

Like this one. "Finally." Ishida Uryuu's voice was tinged with smug satisfaction as he watched this farewell scene. A faint inhalation had him looking at the girl who stood at his side. She did not notice his gaze, for her attention was also fixed on the couple kissing so passionately in front of them. "Are you all right, Inoue-san?" he inquired softly.

Inoue Orihime let out a startled laugh, her charcoal eyes flicking up to meet his. "I'm fine, Ishida-kun, why do you ask? Look, Kurosaki-kun finally came. Rukia-san must be happy." Her cheerful phrase was at odds with the overly bright tone of her voice.

He placed a long, elegant hand on her shoulder. "But are you happy, Inoue-san?" The words were out before he could stop himself.

"Of course! Ishida-kun worries too much." But her smile wobbled and her eyes were glassy with unshed tears. All of her hopes had been dashed in one brilliant display of emotion, but to tell the truth, she'd known it was coming. Orihime wasn't blind: no one saw the love between Ichigo and Rukia more clearly than she. She swallowed and whispered, "If I had to lose Kurosaki-kun to anyone, I'm glad it was to Rukia-san."

She couldn't be jealous, not of Rukia. Rukia was her friend, and above all, she made Ichigo happy. "As long as Kurosaki-kun is happy, so am I."

But you're not, Ishida thought, utterly helpless. And how can I be happy when you are not?

Not for the first time, he called himself a fool for investing so much in her emotional wellbeing. He was a fool for following her to UCLA in the same manner that she followed Kurosaki. He could have gone anywhere: Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Washington University, Duke – the list went on. Granted, UCLA was no small thing with an acceptance rate of 4.5% for med school, but the fact remained that he'd had his pick.

It was funny. Now that Ichigo and Rukia were finally together, the path had never been more open for him to pursue Orihime. What was even funnier was the fact that he was not going to do anything about it. He would not force his affections on someone who did not want them. His mother had raised him to be a gentleman – so he would suffer in silence.

"Kurosaki-kun!" Orihime's exclamation brought him out of his brooding. "Where have you been? We've been so worried about you!" She was of course referring to Ichigo's disappearing act after Rukia's recital.

"Nice of you to finally show up, Kurosaki," Ishida said sardonically. "I'm so thrilled that you're not quit the imbecile I imagined you to be."

"I'm fine, Inoue. Shut up, Ishida." There wasn't much force behind his statement. He waved to Rukia, who was now in line with her brother-in-law. He turned back to the pair and looked closely at his roommate. "Thanks."

Ishida arched an eyebrow. "I am shocked, Kurosaki. You actually thanked me."

"Yeah well, don't expect it to happen again," was the wry reply. His eyes strayed back to Rukia. "We'll make it work," he said softly, more to himself than to anyone else.

Orihime, who was watching the whole exchange, looked down at the ground. The surge of sadness and regret was almost overwhelming.

Orihime chewed thoughtfully on her bottom lip. "No, no," she mumbled softly, using her gum eraser to carefully rub out a section of her sketch. "Too flowing, it'll hinder the movement." She grabbed one of a handful of sketching pencils and got to work.

"How is the design coming, Orihime?" Mara Giles, one of the top designers at Randall Designs, leaned over her shoulder. "Ah, is that Dolly's rumba costume for next week?"

"It is, Mrs. Giles-"

"Orihime, how many times do I have to tell you to call me Mara?" the older woman scolded. Her forbidding face broke out into a grin, making her look more approachable. "I put no stock in formality, especially in the case of such a promising intern such as yourself. Kisuke was right to recommend you to us."

She blushed. She did owe Urahara Kisuke a lot for her current paid internship at Randall Designs. It was a dream come true for Orihime – straight out of graduation with a paid internship at one of the top ballroom design studios? A chance to design costumes that would appear on Dancing With the Stars? Amazing.

"Er, yes, Mara-san." She couldn't bring herself to call the older woman by her first name alone. Mara Giles was legendary in her own right – Randall had had to do some fancy bargaining to get her to come work for him. To call her by her first name was almost sacrilege to Orihime. It would be like calling her "Roots" – the affectionate nickname that only Randall was allowed to use.

The older woman rolled her eyes. "Close enough. Let me see your sketch…ah, I like the darting, but you might also want to try this…"

Ten minutes later Orihime had a clean sketch that both of them were happy with. "Very nice," Mara said with approval. "Get that down to the seamstresses after you pick out the fabric, all right?" A framed photo on the desk caught her eye. "Friends of yours?"

Orihime glanced over and smiled. Over winter break, she had gone up north with Ichigo, Rukia, and Ishida for a week of skiing and snowboarding. They had taken a brief side trip to Redwood National Forest to see the amazing trees and of course, General Sherman. Another tourist had kindly consented to take their picture. In the process, Ichigo had made a crack about Rukia's height in relation to the famous tree. The end result was a photo of Rukia punching Ichigo, Ishida pushing up his glasses in frustration, and her, completely oblivious and holding up the ubiquitous peace sign.

It was one of her favorite memories. "That they are," she said cheerfully.

Mara picked up the frame and examined it. "Looks like a lively group." She grinned. "Oh, he's a cutie."

The redhead blushed. "Kurosaki-kun? Oh yes, he-" she cut herself off when she realized her boss was looking not at Ichigo, but Ishida. "You mean Ishida-kun?"

"Don't sound so incredulous, Orihime," was the laughing reply. "Don't tell me that you don't find him the least bit attractive?"

"I-" The photos were shoved under her nose, leaving her no choice but to carefully examine them.

Strange, she thought, but she'd never really thought about Ishida-kun. She'd known him for so long that she almost seemed to forget what he looked like, but he really was quite handsome. His features were refined and elegant, his carriage confident yet understated. He was an impeccable dresser. Anyone else would have looked ridiculous in the contrasting plaid pea coat and paisley scarf that he wore in the pictures, but he had the kind of bearing that pulled it off perfectly.

And he really did have lovely eyes, she remembered. Dark, deep midnight blue shot through with flecks of silver. It was a shame, really, that he hid them behind his glasses. Sometimes the light reflected off the glass and it was as though he had no eyes at all. "Yes, I suppose he is," she said faintly.

Mara grinned. "I'm telling you, Orihime, if I were thirty years younger…" She winked at the intern as she sailed off.

Orihime stared bemusedly at the photo and shook her head. It was time to go and get fabric samples. Ten minutes later, she'd forgotten all about the whole conversation.

"I would like to try teaching a new dance," Urahara said thoughtfully.

"A new dance, Urahara-san?" Orihime asked, pulling her hair into a ponytail. It was unusually hot at Second Life that day, due to an unexpected heat wave that had moved into the area. The humidity, which was usually awful because of L.A.'s pollution, was now unbearable. To top that off, the air conditioning was broken and wouldn't be fixed for at least another day. Urahara had cancelled the kids' class that day so that they could stay in their air-conditioned homes.

"Yes. I have not taught anyone how to dance bolero and I find that I miss it." He grinned. "And since it's a slow dance, it won't be so hard on you two, eh?"

Ishida shrugged and ran a finger around the collar of his shirt. He was so damn uncomfortable because of the heat, but he wasn't about to take his shirt off. He had to retain some modicum of respectability, even if he was on the verge of passing out.

Urahara rubbed his hands together. "Shall we start, then? Bolero has always been one of my favorite dances, and it will suit you two very well, I think." He switched on the music player and instantly the studio was filled with slow, haunting music. The words were in Spanish, weaving seamlessly between the strings of the guitar.

"It sounds so very sad!" Orihime remarked.

"Indeed it is, Orihime-chan," the older man said. "The dance of the bolero tells the story of the pains and pleasures of love." If he saw the way both of his students flinched slightly, he showed no sign of it. "Now, let me show you the basic step…"

The next hour seemed to crawl by, it so agonizingly slow for Ishida – as slow as the 4/4 time they kept for the dance. It was close to torture for him to see every movement of hers in such excruciating detail – the way the slip pivots showcased the delicate ripple of muscles in her calves, the flash of red as her ponytail whipped around her, and the graceful arc of her arms. Arm styling was crucial to the dance, for their arms helped tell the story – come closer my love, leave me my dearest one, stay with me forever. The music was slow and dreamy and seemed to play along his skin, heightening each sensation.

He realized immediately that dancing the bolero with Orihime was a mistake. It was too smooth, too powerful, and too romantic. The bolero is about the pain and pleasure of loving someone. He knew both, and to dance like this with her was too much. There was so much communication to be had with a dance like this and he was afraid that he would communicate too much.

Forward basic. He pulled her into a quick half turn until her back hit his chest, as per Urahara's instructions. Taking both of her hands in his, he swept them up over their heads before sweeping their right hands behind them and crossing their joined left hands over her torso. The embrace was so terribly intimate – his nose was in her hair and he inhaled, taking in her scent of vanilla and melons. It was too much. He spun her away to the left, letting go of her hand.

Orihime stumbled slightly, blinking. "Ishida-kun?"

Urahara stopped the music. "Is something wrong, Ishida-kun?"

Ishida was quite certain that he was shaking. "I need some time," he stammered quietly before rushing off to the men's locker room.

Urahara's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "That may have been too much," he sighed.

"What did you say, Urahara-san?" the redhead queried.

"Ah, it was nothing." He fanned himself and an idea struck him. "You might want to check on your partner and see if he's all right, Orihime-chan."

In the men's locker room, Ishida was far from all right. As he splashed cold water on his face, he wondered how long he could possibly do this. It was becoming harder and harder with each passing day to be around Orihime. When he was with her, it was like being on a rollercoaster – he soared to the highest heights and plummeted to the lowest lows, all in a matter of seconds. It had been so easy to promise himself that he would not pursue her, but now he knew just how difficult it was to keep such a promise.

He glanced down at himself and swore. Not only was his shirt sweat-soaked, but now it also had water splattered all over it. He made his way over to his locker, stripping off his shirt as he went.

Orihime hesitated outside the door, biting her lower lip thoughtfully. Would Ishida-kun be mad if she poked her head inside to check on him? She discarded the thought as quickly as it came. If there was something wrong with her friend, she had a right to see if she could help him get better. She pushed open the door. "Ishida-kun…" her voice trailed off, dove-grey eyes widening as she took in the sight in front of her.

Her longtime friend stood with his back to her, bare from the waist up as he rummaged inside his open locker. He had a surprisingly beautiful back, she thought idly as her eyes traced a line from his wide shoulders as they tapered to a wonderfully narrow waist. Muscles rippled beneath his pale, pale skin as he reached for a clean shirt and began to pull it over his head. He turned as he did, allowing her to glimpse a delightfully defined stomach before it was obscured by a white polo shirt.

"Inoue-san!" he yelped, backing up hard against the lockers.

Orihime started. "Oh! I'm so sorry, Ishida-kun, I was just coming to check on you!" she babbled. Now he'd think she was some sort of voyeuristic pervert. She drew forward, still spewing apologies, when she realized something very important.

He wasn't wearing his glasses.

Oh, but his eyes were truly such a breathtaking color. She had a blown-glass bowl at home, one that she'd purchased from a local artist. It was cobalt blue, deep and rich – and the exact hue of his eyes. And she was right – there were flecks of quicksilver there, along with a ring of pure ice around the iris. She mourned the fact that her eyes were so boring and grey – she was sure they never turned pretty colors like his did.

"Inoue-san." The tone of his voice sounded like he'd been saying her name for quite some time. How long had she been staring? "What are you doing here?"

"I was just checking to see if you were all right, Ishida-kun! You looked so very red in the studio," she replied, smiling brightly.

"Ah, that." He shifted uncomfortably and put on his glasses, much to her disappointment. "It was quite hot in the studio."

"It is, isn't it?" she agreed. "Well, I'm glad to see you're all right, Ishida-kun!" She strode briskly towards the door. "Although perhaps you should just dance with your shirt off! You boys are so lucky that you can do that, I'm so envious!" Her laugh floated back at him as the door swung shut. Ishida sat down on a bench, pinching the bridge of his nose.

He did not need to think of Inoue-san without a shirt.

The next few months were like a fuzzy dream. Ichigo and Ishida, as third-year medical students, were deeply involved in clinicals and rotations. Ichigo was leaning towards pediatrics, Ishida towards neurology. Orihime spent most of her time as a design intern working on the set of Dancing With the Stars – now that the season was in full swing she had to churn out at least two costume designs a week. The three of them still managed to make time for the studio, though their burden was considerably eased with the arrival of Urahara's friend, Tsukabishi Tessai and his two students, Jinta and Ururu.

Thus it was with great pleasure that the holiday season came upon them and they were allowed to take a well-deserved break. They were all heading back to Japan for Christmas. Ichigo was anxious to see his family and above all, Rukia. Ishida was going home to see his father while Orihime was going to stay with her best friend Tatsuki and her family. And surprise of all surprises, Urahara was joining them to see Yoruichi.

The blond studio owner closed his newspaper with a snap at the flight announcement. "Well, they're boarding now, so I will see you kids in Japan! Have a nice flight!"

Ichigo glowered after him. "Show-off. He didn't have to rub it in that he's in first class." He was not looking forward to shoving his long frame into coach for the next twelve hours or so.

"At least you're sitting with us and not some strangers, Kurosaki-kun!" Orihime said happily, her knitting needles clack-clack-clacking away as she made scarves for Rukia and Tatsuki.

"I just want this flight to be over as soon as possible," he muttered, already antsy.

Ishida was looking at his boarding pass. "Looks like I have the aisle seat," he remarked.

Ichigo sat straight up. "No way! Oi, Ishida, switch places with me."

"Why should I do that?"

"I'm taller than you and the aisle seat will let me stretch more."

"The last time I checked, you're only one inch taller than me, Kurosaki."

"Come on, Ishida, gimme that ticket!" He grabbed at the boarding pass, reaching right over Orihime. In the past, her reaction would have been to turn beet red and stay stock still, terrified and yet intoxicated by his presence. Instead, she merely leaned back as far as she could, giggling softly to herself as the soft clicking of her needles never faltered.

"Nah-ah!" Ishida held it out of the way. "You need to decide if you want to trade a window seat for an aisle seat." He paused. "Unless Inoue-san-"

"Oh, you know I can't sit by the window, Ishida-kun!" was the tinkling reply. "I'm so dreadfully scared of heights that I'd hyperventilate! No, I'm perfectly fine in the middle."

Ichigo, in the meantime, had stopped trying to steal Ishida's ticket. He really liked window seats, too. He always marveled at how small and insignificant everything seemed when one was miles up. There was something gorgeous too, about the way clouds looked from above and how the sky was just endless. A sunset or sunrise was just unforgettable.

But then again, if anyone was a candidate for restless leg syndrome, it was he. An aisle seat meant easy escape.

Window. Aisle. Window. Aisle.

Ishida smirked, knowing exactly what was going on in his head. "Well?"

"Aisle," was the growled reply.

"Are you sure about that?"

"Just get in the goddamn line, Ishida, they're already boarding!"

The three friends managed to get themselves seated and through takeoff with a minimum amount of hassle. Ichigo was dead to the world even before the plane started taxiing the runway. He was sure to sleep the rest of the flight, waking up only for meals. He had an uncanny second sense like that.

Ishida and Orihime were left to their own devices. Orihime knitted away for the first half of the flight while he read a book. It had been so long since he'd read for fun, since school and ballroom kept him far too busy otherwise. He leafed through a slim volume of poetry, losing himself in the images, the rhythm, and the words.

Orihime peered over his shoulder. "What are you reading, Ishida-kun?"

"Poetry," was the absent reply.

"Will you read to me?" She looked up into his eyes and smiled. "I hate reading it, but I do love hearing someone say it aloud."

Ishida swallowed. "Any one in particular?" His voice was rather strangled.

"No, just the one you're reading right now." She returned to her knitting, but it was clear from her stance that she was listening.

He was afraid of that. "'How many times do I love thee, dear? Tell me how many thoughts there be in the atmosphere of a new-fall'n year, whose white and sable hours appear the latest flake of Eternity: so many times do I love thee, dear.'" He paused, gathering himself together. "How many times do I love again? Tell me how many beads there are in a silver chain of evening rain, unraveled from the tumbling main and threading the eye of a yellow star: so many times do I love again."

"That was lovely, Ishida-kun." The way he recited the poetry with his low, rich voice was almost mesmerizing. When he read, the words played softly against her skin like silk. "It sounded like you were actually saying it to someone."

"That's because I was," he said under his breath.

She raised an eyebrow: her ears were sharp. "Do you love someone, Ishida-kun?"

He looked as frightened as a startled deer for a moment, and then just sad. It struck a chord in her to see him like that. "I suppose you can say that, Inoue-san."

"I'm sorry, Ishida-kun." And she really was: the expression on his face was most distressing. "She must be an idiot if she doesn't like you!"

He glanced at her, his melancholy melting into the most peculiar expression. For the life of her, she could not read it. "She's not an idiot, Inoue-san. The truth of the matter is, she's out of my league."

"Don't be silly, you should go after her!" she scolded. "Especially if she's worth it."

"She is." He returned to his poetry, but not before she caught the softness in his eyes. Briefly, she considered asking him who this mystery girl was, the one who could make him look like that. However, he looked so drawn that she did not dare. Besides, even if this girl were worth it like he said, she would be tempted to shout at her for making him look that way. She shrugged and got back to the task at hand, brushing the thought to the back of her mind.

Somewhere over Hawaii, she packed up her knitting and fell asleep, her head dropping onto his shoulder. This was a surprise for him, because on all the flights they'd taken together, she'd always managed to fall asleep on Kurosaki's shoulder. He tortured himself for the rest of the flight, wondering exactly what it meant.

By the end, he convinced himself that it didn't mean anything. Her head had just dropped down on the nearest available shoulder, and since Ichigo was sprawled rather ridiculously across his seat, his own shoulder was the next best option. He resigned himself to second best once more and comforted himself with the fact that he wouldn't see much of her for the next few weeks. It was an awful thing, being single during the holidays. One always felt the most alone, and he didn't need to be reminded about it.

They landed and went through customs without incident. Ichigo pushed them through as quickly as possible, knowing that Rukia was waiting on the other side of the gate.

Sure enough, the moment they came through, a little black blur whizzed through the crowd and leaped into his arms, fastening her lips to his. Ichigo promptly dropped his luggage and wrapped his arms around her, pouring months of longing into the kiss.

"Ichigooooooo!" An agonized wail pierced the area. "Why didn't you tell your father that you got a girlfriend?!"

"Because Ichi-nii didn't want you to make this precise scene, tou-san," Kurosaki Karin grumbled from beneath the brim of her hat. She waved at Ishida and Orihime.

"Tatsuki-chan!" Orihime squealed, pouncing a slim, attractive woman with close-cut black hair.

Ishida watched all of the exchanges happening around him – typical airport happenings. For some reason, he just wanted to get out of there. The holiday loneliness was already happening and he did not wish to prolong the torture. He slipped away quietly, knowing that he wouldn't be missed until it was too late. He hailed a cab and left.

As the familiar Tokyo skyline fly by, his phone rang. "Hello?" he said absently.

"Uryuu-san, what the hell is wrong with you?" Rukia shouted on the other end. "I didn't even get to say hi to you, you bastard!"

He smiled slightly "Hello Rukia-san. I see your Japanese has improved greatly." For she had, indeed, shouted at him in Japanese. "I left because my father's car was here," he lied smoothly. "I didn't want to inconvenience anyone, but I wished to leave with him."

"The hell is he talking about?" That was Ichigo's voice in the background. She must have put him on speakerphone. "Ishida never wants to talk to his old man."

"Maybe unlike a certain idiot strawberry I know, Uryuu-san is actually trying to foster good relations with his father," was Rukia's acid retort.

"The hell are you talking about, you midget? I have good relations with-"

"But Ichigo, you never told me about Rukia-chan-" There was the distinct sound of flesh hitting flesh.

"Stop eavesdropping on me!"

"That is exactly what I'm talking about!" Rukia yelled. "Anyway, don't pay attention to him, Uryuu-san. Spend as much time with your father as you want. I still want to see you though! The studio is holding a Christmas Eve ball, and I'm inviting you, all right? You'd better be there or else!"

Ishida smiled. "You have my word, Rukia-san. I will see you on Christmas Eve."

"Don't be a stranger!"

"All right then." Ishida hung up, shaking his head. Through all of his flaws, Kurosaki had managed to do one thing right, and that was winning Rukia's heart.

"Will you require a car tonight, Ishida-san?"

Ishida adjusted his tie in the mirror. "I do wish you would stop calling me Ishida-san, Noda-san. Yes, I do need the car."

His father's butler bowed slightly in the doorway. "Very good, Ishida-san. I will let the driver know."

Ishida shook his head as the wizened old man swept silently away. Noda's family had served his family for as long as anyone could remember. Ishida himself had extremely vivid memories of Noda-san following him everywhere, taking care of any messes that he'd made. In a way, Noda had been more of a father to him than Ishida Ryuuken, especially when his mother died.

Ishida's lips flattened slightly. He was grateful that he did not see his father around too often. A job as the administrator of Tokyo General Hospital required a great deal of one's time, which gave him less time to disapprove of his only child. Yes, Ishida enjoyed being able to move around his house freely without the presence of his father. Ichigo was right about that, at least.

His phone rang. "Hello?"

"Uryuu-san, I know this is extremely short notice, but can you do me a favor?" Rukia sounded frazzled.

"Of course Rukia-san, what can I do for you?"

"Can you pick up Orihime from Tatsuki's house? Tatsuki was going to take her herself, but there was some family thing and she can't anymore."

"I would be glad to, Rukia-san."

"Oh, thank you so much, Uryuu-san! Here's Tatsuki's address, I'll let Orihime know."

Thirty minutes later, Ishida's car pulled up in front of Tatsuki's house.

The gate clicked open and he lost the ability to breathe. She looked like some sort of angel in an emerald-green satin gown overlaid with sheer black chiffon and studded with sparkling crystals. Elbow-length black gloves and long necklaces of jet and jade beads completed the ensemble. Her ginger hair was pulled into an elegant chignon that sat at the base of her neck. He coughed. "Merry Christmas, Inoue-san. You…you look lovely. Is this one of your designs?"

"Merry Christmas, Ishida-kun! I'm so glad you like it!" she cried. "This design was specially commissioned and I wanted to see how it looked before I sent the sketch back to Mara-san." She eyed him appreciatively. "You look wonderful too!"

Ishida blushed slightly. "I just had it lying around," he mumbled. It was true. He'd been to enough functions with his father to have a stock of tuxedos in his closet.

"Either way," Orihime said firmly, accepting his hand as he helped her into the shiny luxury car. She suppressed a shiver of delight – she felt like a princess riding to the ball in a carriage, her prince charming beside her.

She didn't even notice that in her mind's eye, her prince's hair had darkened from goldenrod to a marvelous ebony black.

When they pulled up to the 8/13 studio, the atmosphere was as frenzied as a red carpet event: in a fact, it was. 8/13's Second Annual Christmas Charity Ball boasted a guest list as prestigious as any awards ceremony, full of celebrities (many of whom had been on Shall We Dance?) and nobility.

Ishida offered Orihime his arm. "Shall we?"

She beamed and took it. "Oh Ishida-kun, this is going to be so much fun! I feel like a celebrity! Look at all the paparazzi!" Indeed, the celebrity photographers were going crazy because the members of Arashi had arrived just before them.

"Invitation please," a guard asked them. Ishida produced the one Rukia had sent him. They were waved in and entered the frenzy.

Almost immediately, Ishida felt a hand on his elbow. "Is that you, Ishida-san?"

He turned and immediately bowed slightly. "Unohana-san, Ukitake-san. Merry Christmas."

Ukitake Jyuushiro grinned. "Ishida-kun! Merry Christmas! It's wonderful to see you!"

"Your father did not mention that you were home," Unohana said quietly, her voice barely audible above the roar of the photographers.

Ishida raised an eyebrow. "I am not surprised." His father never talked about him to anyone, as far as he knew.

Ishida knew Unohana Retsu well: with his father working as the administrator for Tokyo General Hospital, he'd spent much time there as a child, mingling with the doctors and nurses, many of whom had become his second family. He had many memories of her always taking the time to sit with him and answer his questions. And every time her husband came by, he slipped him candy. In fact, it was Unohana who he had to thank for his current career choice. If he hadn't known her, he would have run as far away from medicine as possible because of his father. But her dedication to the field was second to none and it had passed to him.

Unohana smiled softly. "No, I am not surprised either." She turned quiet grey eyes on Orihime. "And who is this young lady?"

"Unohana Retsu-san, Ukitake Jyuushiro-san, this is Inoue Orihime."

"It is a pleasure to meet you!" Orihime shook both of their hands. "I am a very big fan."

"We have heard of you, Inoue-san!" Ukitake said excitedly. "Rukia-chan has told us much about your skills as a designer."

Orihime flushed with pleasure. "Thank you so much, Ukitake-san!"

"Please, let us go inside," Unohana said. "It's far too loud out here."

Inside, the lobby had been transformed into a cocktail area, filled with freestanding tables where people could enjoy hors d'oeuvres and champagne and simply talk. It looked like a winter wonderland with all shades of blue, white, and silver. The winter theme extended into the ballroom, which was dripping with tiny, sparkling lights that glimmered against walls covered in sheer, silvery curtains.

"Shunsui really outdid himself," Ukitake remarked. He turned back to the young couple, grinning. "I just saw Rangiku-chan. Do you mind if I steal your delightful partner, Ishida-kun?"

"Go ahead."

Orihime grinned at him as she transferred her arm to Ukitake's. The pair walked away with Ukitake explaining, "Rangiku-chan has been experimenting with costume design ever since she got pregnant. She'll probably be bothering Yuri-baa all night, so you three can have something to talk about! I believe you'll get along marvelously."

Ishida watched them go, his eyes on Orihime the whole time. He watched as they approached a buxom blonde and a wizened old woman.

"Will I see you dance later, Ishida-san?" Unohana asked.

He turned to her, his lips curving slightly. "If you save a dance for me, then I will, Unohana-san."

She nodded, pleased. "From what Yoruichi-san tells us, you have been doing a wonderful job at Urahara Kisuke's studio with that lovely young woman."

"It's not hard to dance with Inoue-san," he said vaguely.

"No, I suppose not," Unohana demurred, hiding a smile. She suspected that his mind was on a certain red-haired girl on the other side of the room.

Ishida seemed to realize what he was saying and blushed slightly. "Forgive me, Unohana-san, my mind was wandering."

"Not wandering, but set on someone, Ishida-kun," she corrected.


She glanced at him curiously. "Why perhaps, Ishida-kun?" Ishida just shrugged helplessly. Understanding, she quickly changed the subject. "How are rotations coming along?"

On the other side of the ballroom, Rukia punched Ichigo and Renji hard in the stomachs. "Will you two idiots stop arguing for once? Ichigo, you're up!"

"What the hell, Rukia!" Ichigo snarled.

"You're up," she hissed, pointing at Ishida. "You'd better get your ass over to him in five seconds or by god you're going to be sorry."

"Fine," he snapped back. "I'll deal with you later," he said to Renji before he ambled off.

"Why that little-" A small hand on his shoulder stopped the redhead from charging after Ichigo. He stopped and blushed guiltily. "Ah, gomen, Nemu."

"Rukia-san is right. There is plenty of time to fight with Ichigo later."

"Damn straight." Rukia nodded. She loved that Ichigo and Renji got along so well, since Renji had become one of her closest friends at the studio, but now was not the time. "Come on Nemu, let's get the second part of this going. We need to talk to Kisuke and Ukitake-san."

As the two women bustled off, Renji found himself all alone. "What do I get to do?" he said forlornly into the air. Then he spotted Hisagi and Ikkaku. "Oy!"

Ishida glanced over to where Orihime was chatting enthusiastically with the women that Ukitake-san had introduced her to. She was just so heartbreakingly lovely tonight, which only made the gulf between them so much greater.

"Goddamn, what is it over here, Misery Corner?" A familiar, irritating voice taunted.

Ishida sighed. "And a Merry Christmas to you too, Kurosaki. Now please leave me alone."

Ichigo leaned on the table next to his roommate. "Nope. Thing is, Ishida, you did something once for me. I hate having unpaid debts so I'm gonna return the favor."

"What are you talking about, Kurosaki?" he asked warily.

"I'm talking about you and Inoue and how you're an idiot for not trying anything to be with her."

Ishida was speechless. "What-how-"

Ichigo waved a careless hand. "Rukia told me. But that doesn't matter," he continued as Ishida sputtered. "You told me once that you were angry at me for not taking the chance that was right in front of me. I'm telling you the same thing, all right?"

"It doesn't work that way for me, Kurosaki!" the black-haired man said angrily. "With Rukia, your feelings were reciprocated!"

His roommate coughed uncomfortably. "Yeah. Rukia told me about that part too. It's a little weird." His eyes narrowed. "But you're not giving her the chance to change the way she feels, that's what I mean about not taking that chance." He shrugged one shoulder carelessly. "You never know, she just might need you as much as you need her."

"Inoue-san doesn't need me. I am-"

"Yeah, I know what you are, Ishida," Ichigo interrupted. "But do you?"

Before Ishida could answer, Rukia, Orihime, Urahara Kisuke, and Ukitake Jyuushiro descended on the table. "Ishida-kun!" Urahara sang. "I hope you don't mind, but I've been telling Ukitake-san here about you and Orihime-chan dancing the bolero and he was hoping to see a demonstration." He shook his head ruefully. "They don't have a lot of occasions to see bolero here, poor things." Ukitake laughed and shook his head.

"I-ah-" Too many things were being thrown at him at once.

"We can do it, Ishida-kun!" Orihime chirped. "This dress isn't exactly a bolero dress, but I'll make it work!"

"Excellent!" Ukitake said. "I'll go tell the band!"

Ishida could only blink as he and Orihime were all but shoved onto the dance floor. Orihime smiled up at him. "Relax, Ishida-kun. We got this." He could only nod as the first bars of music played.

Orihime could only marvel at her partner as they danced. He had always been a magnificent dancer, but something was different tonight. He seemed to radiate so much anger, confusion, and hurt. Everything seemed to be expressed in the way that his hands gripped hers, lingered on her waist, or stroked along her arms as she stepped and swirled about him.

"Ishida-kun, are you all right?" she whispered as they went into a lunge, her right leg wrapped around his waist as he dipped her.

"I'm fine," he muttered, but the storm in his eyes said otherwise. He seemed to be almost tormented as he released her.

The bolero is about the pain and pleasure of loving someone.

And suddenly she understood. He was thinking about the mystery woman, the one who inspired such love and anguish in him. It was all there in the way he moved. The poignancy of it all almost brought tears to her eyes, but it also brought a new feeling inside her. Prickles of jealousy danced up her spine as she was pulled into a double-handed turn in front of him, their joined hands crossing over her as they slowly walked forward, their faces inches apart, his eyes intense on hers. The swirl of emotions turned his remarkable eyes to a near black, they were so powerful.

The jealousy surprised her. How could she feel that way about Ishida-kun? She'd known him for so long; he was just a friend.

But he had always been there for her, she realized. Always hovering at the edges of her consciousness – that was Ishida-kun. She swallowed as her heart skipped a beat. She had always been distracted by Kurosaki-kun's blazing sun, forgetting about the silvery moon that was Ishida-kun. She smiled wearily. She had been too busy mourning for what was never hers to really see the possibility that had been right in front of her.

Don't sound so incredulous, Orihime. Don't tell me that you don't find him the least bit attractive?

She really did. It was ironic though – that when she finally saw that, he was too busy twisting himself into knots for some other girl. Orihime wondered at her bad luck, a little too bemused to feel sad.

The dance ended in an embrace, his arms crossed in front of hers as her back pressed into his chest. The ballroom exploded in cheers and she smiled. But wait, they were saying something else, too.

"Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!"

How odd. Why were they telling them to kiss? She felt Ishida-kun stiffen behind her. "Inoue-san." His voice was strangled. "Look up."

She did. Dangling above them from the crystal chandelier was a sprig of mistletoe. "Oh dear," she said with a tiny giggle, and turned around. "Well, it is tradition!"

The range of emotions on his face was most astounding. Finally, he shook his head, his eyes resigned. For some reason, she almost felt hurt. He didn't want to kiss her? Was his love for that other girl so strong? "All right." Ever so gently, he put his hand on her cheek, bent down, and pressed his lips to hers.

Rockets went off in her head. No, rocket was too strong a word. This was like raindrops, crystal beads of hazy pleasure misting her face. This was silk, silk as deep and blue as his eyes, sliding across her skin. Her heart had never beaten so fast and yet her body had never felt quite so languid and peaceful. Her fingers dove into his hair and she spared a moment of irritation for the presence of her gloves. She wished to feel the strands of that midnight hair on her fingertips. She imagined they'd be softer than silk.

But then he tore himself away and stumbled back, his eyes wide and horrified. "I-I'm sorry," he blurted before pushing himself through the crowd of people. Orihime could only stand there, her hands flying up to her lips.

Ishida-kun? She thought dizzily. Ishida-kun.

"Inoue." She turned and saw Ichigo, his arm slung over Rukia's shoulder. "Go after him."

Orihime stared. Then without another word, she hitched up her skirt and ran out of the ballroom.

"Operation complete," Rukia said with satisfaction, standing on her tiptoes to kiss Ichigo. Behind them, Nanao was chastising an unrepentant Urahara and a deeply apologetic Ukitake.

"You idiots! I thought only Shunsui was fool enough to try matchmaking! Can't you see what torment you put the poor boy through?"

"But Orihime-chan will put him out of his misery!" Urahara said jovially. "All in all, I say it's a job well-done."

Ukitake could only shrug helplessly. It was true, the sheer hopelessness on Ishida-kun's face had tugged at his heart, but he'd done what he thought was best. Besides, he already found that it was hard to say no to Rukia – he'd developed a deep affection for the younger sister of Hisana.

Orihime sprinted into the lobby, praying that she wasn't too late. If he'd gone home – well, then she'd get a taxi and follow him there.

How many times do I love thee, dear? Tell me how many thoughts there be in the atmosphere of a new-fall'n year, whose white and sable hours appear the latest flake of Eternity: so many times do I love thee, dear.

Her. Ishida-kun – no, not Ishida-kun – Uryuu-kun loved her. It was so painfully obvious to her now. She called herself a million times over a fool and skittered to a halt besides one of the doormen. "Excuse me," she panted. "Did you happen to see a man run by a few seconds ago? Ah, tall, lanky, with silver glasses?"

The old man grinned. "Oh, I saw him all right. Almost ran out the door before he stopped himself. Muttered something about not leaving her behind, it was too rude, before he ran up the stairs." He pointed to the stairs behind him. "Almost stopped him, but Unohana-san said to let him be."

"Arigato!" Her heart almost full to bursting, she followed in his footsteps. That was Uryuu, always thinking about someone else even at his own expense. She found herself at the end of a long hallway – but there, there, at the end of the hall, one door was open, the moonlight casting its pale light on the floor. She pounded down the corridor and burst through the doorway, panting.

And there he was, his hands braced against the window frame, his entire body language speaking of the utmost self-loathing and agony.

"Uryuu-kun," she breathed.

Ishida jerked away from the window. "Inoue-san. Sumimasen, forgive me-"

"What on earth are you apologizing for, Uryuu-kun?" She loved the sound of his name on her tongue. "Kissing me?" She shook her head. "And you shouldn't be apologizing, Uryuu-kun. That falls on me."

Ishida snapped his mouth shut, struck dumb. Why on earth was she calling him Uryuu? In the almost ten-year span in which he'd known her, she'd never called him anything other than Ishida-kun. "Inoue-san-" he began.

"Please don't talk, Uryuu-kun. Let me explain myself." She almost seemed to glide towards him, her eyes glowing silver in the moonlight. "I'm such an idiot. I mean, I know that I can be ditzy and strange sometimes, but I've never considered myself stupid until now."

"You're not-"

She put a finger on his lips and they both shivered at the contact. "Please. Let me talk. I've looked for something my entire life, but I looked in the wrong place, expected it from someone who could not give it to me. But you, Uryuu-kun, you've been waiting all along to give it to me, at the expense of your own happiness."

He looked away. "The only thing that matters is your happiness. I won't burden you with my feelings, Inoue-san. I-" He swallowed. "I'll go. I can transfer schools. Johns Hopkins and Harvard, they'll still take me, I know."

Her eyes filled with tears. He was willing to let her go, she realized. He loved her so much and yet he would still walk away if he thought that was what she wanted. She was so selfish, she realized. Johns Hopkins. Harvard. He'd given them up for her, sacrificed those things even when she was unwilling to let go of her hopeless dream of Ichigo. Well, no more.

"I don't want you to go…though if it's best for you, you should go." She smiled tremulously. "I don't want to hold you back any longer, Uryuu-kun."

He looked surprised. "You're not holding me back, Inoue-san." He sighed. "Listen, you need-"

She shook her head vehemently. "Can I tell you what I need, Uryuu-kun? I need someone who depends on me as I depend on them. I need someone who listens to me and understands me, even when I'm at my craziest. I need someone who looks at me the way you are, right now, in a way that makes me feel like my heart is coming out of my chest. I need…the one who loves me. I think that's you, Uryuu-kun."

Ishida was speechless. Was she really saying what he thought she was saying? Could he really believe it?

Orihime took his hands. "I need you."


"I think you can call me Orihime," she whispered.

"Orihime." How long had he waited, hoped for this moment? "I love you. I've never loved anyone else."

She beamed, twining her fingers with his. "I think I've been waiting a long time to hear you say that, Uryuu-kun." She removed his glasses and touched her lips to his. This kiss was much better than the one in the ballroom, she thought dizzily has his arms came to wrap tightly about her waist. There was nothing but love there.

When they finally separated, she pulled his head down until his forehead rested against hers. "You know, your eyes are so dreamy beneath those glasses of yours, Uryuu-kun," she teased.

He raised an eyebrow. "Really? Would you rather I kept them off?"

"Oh no," she laughed. "It's better that you keep them on. I'd like to keep that secret to myself, thank you very much." As he grinned and leaned down to kiss her again, she thought giddily that he had just given her the world. But she also had the world to give him, so it was an even trade.

Outside, snow drifted down in soft white flakes as the sounds of holidays drifted out onto the streets.

A/N: IshiHime is done - just in time for the holidays! I figured that there needed to be at least one holiday-themed installment of the series, especially since each story seems to reflect the time of year in which I'm writing it. If you don't know what bolero looks like, check it out on youtube! It's such a lyrical, heartbreaking dance, and so perfect for these two. Much love to my beta, poptate, who is going to Mombasa this week, lucky girl! She deserves many props for getting this beta-ed in between getting ready. Much love to MatsuMama as well for putting up with all of my finals week meltdowns! As to the next installment of the series, I'm thinking Grimmjow and Soi Fong. I haven't written crack in so long and I miss it!

Happy holidays, everyone!