note: First, jumbly AU. Orihime's pov but entirely ichiruki. Hope you enjoy!
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center.
Margaret Atwood, Variations on the Word Sleep
Kurosaki Ichigo is a mystery.
Orihime sees him around campus the week before classes start, getting a cup of coffee at the café or reading under the shade of a tree. She memorizes him: the bright orange of his hair, the strong slope of his shoulders, the way he stands so tall. She isn't the only one.
There's an intensity to Kurosaki Ichigo, to his scowls and his tight eyes, that draws everyone's attention. Orihime doesn't remember ever seeing him smile, but it makes him more appealing, because now she can spin stories for him, reasons for why he looks so tired sometimes, so old. Maybe he is a fairy prince, Orihime thinks, banished from his land because his cruel and evil stepmother didn't want him taking her throne.
When she mentions her theories to Tatsuki, her best friend just snorts.
"He's probably a gang member, Orihime. Don't get involved with people like that."
That's what the other students say too, but even if he is a gangster, she's sure that he's one of those mobsters with hearts of gold, kind of like a modern-day Robin Hood! She'd read the English fairy tale when she was younger, and Kurosaki-kun, Kurosaki-kun would just make the perfect Robin—and she could be his Maid Marian. She wouldn't just stay home while he was out stealing from those evil robber barons though, she would go with him and, and if he was ever hurt, she could be the one to heal him.
She could be the one who finally makes him smile.
Orihime thinks it must be fate when she sees him in her first class. Fate, or the wishes she'd made on dandelion heads and flower petals. It's introductory biology, one of the few core classes that she has to take. Suddenly she's very glad that Tatsuki managed to convince her to come to university in Tokyo and not to one of the monk enclaves in a prefecture to the east. She'd wanted to be a super-hero monk and kill demons like that pervy one in the anime about a guy with dog ears that Chizuru-chan had made her watch, but without being perverted of course because Orihime doesn't think she'd do a very good job of peeping or looking up a lady's skirt, although—
"Come back to Earth, 'hime."
The girl smiles sheepishly, and lets her best friend guide the two of them to free seats in the front. She's sort of disappointed that she won't get to sit next to Kurosaki-kun, but she guesses it's ok, she wouldn't have been able to concentrate in class anyways, and then her grades would drop and she'd get kicked out of school and have to join a Yakuza gang and—
"Ahahaha… sorry, Tatsuki-chan."
When the class ends, Orihime tells Tatsuki that she'll meet her outside for lunch because she has to stay behind and talk to the professor. Tatsuki frowns, but eventually shrugs and leaves with a wave. And because Orihime doesn't want to lie, she does go up and ask the professor a quick question about their syllabus.
Afterwards, Orihime keeps an eye on the students filing out the door while she fiddles with her bag and papers; it only takes another moment until she sees the tell-tale orange. "Ah, Kurosaki-kun!"
The boy stops a few feet from the door to turn and appraise her with bemused eyes. "Do I know you?"
"E-eh, not really, but I heard what you said during class and I thought it was really interesting…"
The professor had asked him all of one question, and it was a request for him to move one row higher because the student behind him couldn't see. Kurosaki-kun had said yes.
Orihime tries very hard to keep her smile sunny. To his credit, Kurosaki-kun doesn't run away; instead he only shrugs, but he doesn't look very interested either. He walks away without a single backward glance, and Orihime bites her lip and only hesitates for a split second before she jogs forward to catch up to him.
"Kurosaki-kun!" He turns at his name, his messenger bag swinging with the sudden momentum as she stands doubled over from her quick dash down the hall. It hits her.
In the face.
Orihime can't believe her luck; she's sitting across from a reticent Kurosaki-kun with an ice cream cone in her hand with Tatsuki-chan next to her. After he'd apologized for putting the blossoming bruise on her forehead, he'd offered to buy her lunch since he was heading there with a friend anyways. She'd readily accepted, and after meeting up with an annoyed Tatsuki they'd found Sado-kun waiting for Kurosaki-kun at a nearby café that students like to frequent.
"Um, thanks again Kurosaki-kun."
The boy in question starts at the sound of her voice, like he hadn't been sitting at the same table with them for the past ten minutes. Orihime wonders what he had been thinking about, and decides it must've been very sad to put that expression on his face and that slouch to his shoulders.
"He's the one who hit you in the face, Orihime, you don't have to thank him," Tatsuki cuts in before he can finish.
Kurosaki-kun looks like he wants to say something for a moment, a scowl making a deep V between his eyes. In the end, he just looks away.
Orihime fidgets in the uncomfortable silence that follows.
Sado-kun sounds terse, and Kurosaki-kun jerks to his feet at his name. She watches, wide-eyed, as he fumbles around in his pocket for money, the sound of it hitting the table loud. He stalks off soon after, the heavy glass door of the café swinging open and shut, open and shut in his wake.
"Ah, sorry about yesterday."
"No, it's fine! I enjoyed my ice cream very much, and the bruise is starting to go away too! Tatsuki-chan put lots of ice and some of her special cream on it and—"
"Uh, look, Inoue, let me make it up to you today. I'm having lunch with Chad again and you and your friend can come too. I'll pay."
"U-um, if you insist, Kurosaki-kun!"
"See ya later then."
"Why did—ah, never mind."
Their lunches together become routine. Sado-san always accompanies Kurosaki-kun, and once in a while their friend Ishida-kun comes too. Granted, Kurosaki-kun doesn't talk much, but Orihime is just happy to be in the same room as him, let alone sitting at the same table and sharing lunch.
She never does get to find out why he looks so sad though. Sometimes she gets to walk to lunch alone with him because Tatsuki-chan has to go take care of something first, but Orihime's never sure what to say, so she says it all. She tells him about her brother and her friends back home, why she always wears the same hairclips even though he's never asked. And Kurosaki-kun is never rude, but he never tells her anything in return either. Orihime wonders if he's even listening.
She has no right to feel frustrated, she knows that, and she's thankful that they're friends, that she gets to see him every day and talk to him and walk with him, but she very badly wants to make him smile, just once, and she doesn't know how. She doesn't even know how to begin. Orihime worries that she might be a bad person or that she might be wanting too much, but when she finally tells Tatsuki one day her friend huffs and says that there's no way, and that she deserves better than that orange-headed gangster.
When all she manages to elicit from Orihime is silence, Tatsuki sighs like she's giving in. "'hime, if it means so much to you I'll see what I can dig up on this guy, ok? Now stop looking so damn sad."
Orihime gives her best friend a brilliant smile in return.
In the end, it doesn't matter though, because one day as they're walking to class together, they find a girl waiting for them outside the building.
She's tiny, and reminds Orihime of pixies and porcelain dolls. Her eyes are the prettiest, darkest shade of blue she's ever seen, and they are looking right at Kurosaki-kun.
In those three syllables is the talisman that Orihime has always wanted to give to Kurosaki Ichigo so very, very badly, because in that instance, for the very first time, she can hear no shadows in his voice.
The girl had called him by name, Orihime thinks.
They're sitting in class now, and Kurosaki-kun is in his customary seat in the back. Orihime wishes that she could see his face, and find all her truths in it. She doesn't know what happened after the exchange of names, the shock in his expression; Tatsuki had ushered her into the building, and even though she craned her neck very, very hard, the crowd had hidden Kurosaki-kun from her eyes.
He'd walked into class a few minutes late, muttering an apology to the professor before taking his seat. His head had been dipped, and she hadn't been able to quite make out his face.
Orihime drifts off before she can help herself, the professor's words fading into a tuneless buzz in the back of her mind. Instead of listening to the lecture, she wonders what Kurosaki-kun had been thinking. She wonders who Rukia is. Maybe she's a messenger from the fairy kingdom, or a princess and she has come to take her brother back to free her home from the grips of the evil queen and—
Orihime swallows and wishes that it were the truth.
Lunch is awkward.
Even though everyone is sitting in their usual places, eating the usual food, nothing is really the same. After introducing herself as Kuchiki Rukia, Kuchiki-san joined them at their table, and the only free seat had been from across Kurosaki-kun.
Who hasn't taken a single bite of his food.
Kuchiki-san herself takes tiny sips from the steaming cup of tea she'd ordered, seemingly oblivious to Kurosaki-kun's stare. But Orihime is sitting next to her, and she can see the shorter girl's fingers clenching and unclenching around the cup, clenching and unclenching. Over and over again.
Orihime doesn't think anyone could eat with the tension this thick in the air. She feels like she could drown in it, walk into it and polish a knife against it, this thing between Kuchiki-san and Kurosaki-kun. She wishes she knew who Kuchiki-san is to him, who could cause him this much…
His eyes flicker to her, but only for a brief moment before they slip back to Kuchiki-san—Orihime can't hold his gaze, can't hold him at all.
Tatsuki's lays a hand against her arm, but Orihime isn't hurt, she's brave, she forges on: "Kurosaki-kun? Aren't you—aren't you going to eat?"
He looks at her a little longer this time, but only so he can shrug. This time his eyes drop back to his lap, but it's not an improvement because now Orihime gets to watch Kuchiki-san watch him.
"Oi, Kurosaki, don't ignore her like that. It's rude." Tatsuki snaps. Orihime's quick to shake her head, ready with a oh no, it's fine, Tatsuki-chan, but the damage is done, and for the second time since she's known him, Kurosaki-kun leaves in a flutter of bills, his lunch untouched.
Orihime knows what to do though; she should get up, go to him, try and heal the fairy prince, get her Robin Hood to smile. But she's barely pushed back her chair and Kuchiki-san's already halfway to the door. She watches the dark haired girl catch up to Kurosaki-kun through the glass, watch her touch his arm, stop him and halt him and draw something from him that is not disinterested apathy, disinterested politeness. She can't hear what they're saying, but it doesn't matter because Kurosaki-kun is actually listening, isn't walking away.
Soon, Kuchiki-san seems to realize that they're in the middle of the road, because she stops talking—yelling?—and starts walking again.
And Kurosaki-kun, Kurosaki-kun follows.
"Orihime, sit down and finish your food. Forget that loser."
Orihime is startled to find that she's standing up, half-turned towards the door in the act of leaving. She is barely conscious of the entire café watching her.
Apologizing, she sits back down, but every now and then she can't help but look towards the door. Tatsuki mumbles something like let Kuchiki deal with it, and at the mention of the girl's name—Kuchiki-san Kuchiki-san Kuchiki-san—Orihime can't help the downcast slip of her mouth.
Sado-kun had been quietly finishing his food on the now-empty side of the table the entire time, and as Tatsuki once again reassures Orihime of Kurosaki-kun's stupidity, of his idiocy, he puts down his chopsticks and empty plate, money already on the table.
"Kuchiki-san and Ichigo have history together," is all he says before he too gets up and leaves.
They walk right into the end of Kurosaki-kun and Kuchiki-san's fight. Or maybe not a fight, Orihime can't tell. They could hear yelling coming from inside the dorm, even all the way down the hall. Tatsuki scowls, kicks open the door after one brusque knock, and the yelling stops. The walls are thick enough that Orihime hadn't been able to make out the words, but when the door opens, they're faced with a very flustered looking Kuchiki-san moving out of Kurosaki-kun's grasp.
"Ichigo, I need to go, w—we will discuss this later."
The girl gathers her bag and jacket, giving Orihime and Tatsuki a nod of hello.
Kurosaki-kun sighs, runs a hand raggedly through his hair. He doesn't look at Orihime; he barely acknowledges that they're inside the room.
"Fine, but take the keys Rukia, and fuck if you think you're running out on me again. This time I'm gonna be coming after you."
The girl in question pauses before the door, looking over her shoulder with a smirk. "I wouldn't expect anything less from a moron like you, stupid."
There's an awkward silence after she leaves. Tatsuki glares at Ichigo, who still seems oblivious, far away. It's not the kind of look that Orihime's used to from him though. Instead, the crease between his eyebrows is gone, and his mouth isn't curved into the line of a scowl.
He looks as close to happy as Orihime has ever seen.
Kuchiki-san starts going to classes with them.
"They were close, and when Ichigo found out Kuchiki-san had to leave the year before university, he was very devastated."
Tatsuki snorts at Sado-kun's choice of words. Orihime though, Orihime's nails bite harder into the flesh of her palm as she urges Sado-kun to continue with a tight smile.
"She wasn't supposed to have come back. The Kuchiki are a very influential family. Rich. Strict. Kuchiki-san was supposed to go to the States with her brother, but I'm not sure if they planned to induct her into the company or marry her off."
"Marry her off? People still do that?" Tatsuki cuts in, right behind Orihime's little gasp of dismay.
"The Kuchiki are…very, very high up. I'm still not sure how Kuchiki-san managed to convince her brother to let her come visit, much less go to university here."
"Well, I'm just glad Kurosaki-kun doesn't look so sad anymore…"
Orihime ignores Tatsuki's sidelong glance, and keeps on smiling.
She sees them between classes a lot; most of the time they're out on the quad, under the same tree that he used to sit under alone. A lot of times they don't even touch; they do course work side by side, or sometimes he reads while she doodles and sketches on the grass next to him.
It's not what they do or not do that makes Orihime feel like dying a little every time she sees them together, it's the fact that Kurosaki-kun doesn't scowl as much anymore, not really, and he teases more, talks more, is less biting and hard and angry and more—
He's happy now.
"Is Kuchiki your girlfriend?" Tatsuki's blunt question seems to catch Kurosaki-kun by surprise.
It'd certainly caught Orihime off-guard.
"What kind of question is that?" he splutters, choking over the mouthful of water he'd drank just a second before. Immediately, several students nearby shushes him.
It is the library, after all.
"Why the hell are you asking me that for?" he tries again, in a much lower voice this time. Tatsuki-chan doesn't look moved, surveying Kurosaki-kun over the piles of notes spread across the table. Midterms are next week, and they'd decided to meet together to study for biology. Kuchiki-san is conspicuously absent, but everything had been going smoothly right up until Tatsuki sprang the question on Kurosaki-kun out of the blue.
Orihime bites her lip and hopes it doesn't have anything to do with the mopey face she hadn't been able to help wearing on and off for the past few weeks.
She still wants to hear the answer, though.
"It's just a simple question, carrot-top."
"Fuck, don't call me that. And Rukia and I…we're not like that." Kurosaki-kun's voice trails off at the end of the sentence, and neither Orihime nor Tatsuki misses the way his eyes soften.
Such an ambiguous answer for such a simple question.
Orihime thinks about his answer even after the study session ends, when she's taking the actual test, and still when two weeks later the results come out. Even though she'd been distracted, she'd placed high, ranking in the top twenty; Kurosaki-kun is just a few places below her, and seeing his name so close to hers makes Orihime happy.
Kuchiki-san's name is absent from the list; she hadn't even shown up for the test. She's here now though, checking the scores with Kurosaki-kun. They're at the back of the small crowd clustered around the board, Kurosaki-kun easily at least half a head taller than everyone around him. He's scanning the names with an apathetic expression on his face. Kuchiki-san bounces up and down next to him, and Orihime smiles every time she appears and disappears from view.
Apparently she sees Orihime and Tatsuki standing near the front, because the next thing Orihime knows Kuchiki-san is dragging a surprised Kurosaki-kun towards the two girls. The crowd parts easily for the couple. Whether it's because of Kurosaki-kun's intimidating height and hair color or the…expression that Kuchiki-san gets on her face when she's determined though, Orihime can't tell.
"Inoue, Arisawa! I see you both did better than the idiot over here."
"But that's only to be expected, yeah? Hey Kuchiki, Kurosaki." Tatsuki smirks, nudging Orihime. The girl in question cracks a small smile, but Orihime finds that she can't look away from Kurosaki-kun and Kuchiki-san's entwined fingers. She must have grabbed his hand when she pulled him over, but even though Kurosaki-kun scowls and splutters and glares, he doesn't break away.
Orihime wonders why it suddenly feels like she has filled her tummy with a lot of heavy stones.
"Here are the notes for today, Kuchiki-san." Orihime looks up in surprise as Sado-kun hands Kuchiki-san a folder over the plates of food. The small girl smiles and says thank you, tucking it into her bag and returning to her lunch. Kurosaki-kun frowns though, looking down at Kuchiki-san with raised eyebrows. They're sitting next to each other again.
They always do.
"Wha-you skipped another class, Rukia? It's gotta be the third this week, how the hell are you gonna pass your courses?"
Tatsuki goes silent next to her, and Orihime knows that her best friend is just as curious as she herself.
"It's fine, Ichigo. I had some family business to take care of—I've already arranged everything with the professors."
Kurosaki-kun's lips thin into a hard line, but he doesn't comment further.
After a small silence, Sado-kun coughs and makes a remark about the food. Conversation begins again, but Orihime can't help but notice how neither Kurosaki-kun nor Kuchiki-san says anything again for the rest of the meal.
It gets worse. Kuchiki-san misses more and more classes, and the skin around Kurosaki-kun's eyes get tighter and tighter, his scowl more and more pronounced, and his shoulders more rigid. His hands are clenched, all the time, and Orihime thinks she can feel his…irritation, his discontent, his distraught all the way from the back of the lecture hall every day.
She chews her nails to pieces every time she and Kurosaki-kun are in the same room, an old habit left over from when she was young, something she used to do whenever she was anxious or nervous. Orihime had stopped after meeting Tatsuki, but now she finds herself biting her nails to the quick again.
Orihime doesn't know what to do.
She doesn't know how to make it stop.
Orihime walks in on something that she should not have seen exactly one week later.
It's Saturday, and Tatsuki has karate practice, so Orihime plans on spending the day baking—the dorm oven is sort of dirty, but it'll do once she gives it a scrub. And it's been so long since she got to try any new recipes.
She's humming to herself as she walks, a loose scarf tucked around her neck against the winter cold when she hears them, just past the relatively empty quad: Kurosaki-kun's angry voice and Kuchiki-san's softer, lower tones.
Orihime knows she shouldn't listen, that she will not want to see what is happening past the small copse of bare trees in the middle of the quad square; she knows she should keep going, ignore it, be a good girl, but curiosity killed the cat, and even if Orihime isn't a cat, not at all, the same principle seems to apply here because she's turning back and walking into the quad, onto the grass, past the trees and she sees them, she sees him—
She has seen Kurosaki-kun unhappy before, but this is different from the beginning, because then it'd been a scabbed over sort of hurt, but now he looks raw, flayed alive and red, and the expression on his face digs straight into Orihime's heart.
His name is already half-way past her tongue, her feet had already taken those first few stumbling steps forward when another name rips itself from him: "Rukia, they can't—they can't fucking take you away again. I won't let it, I won't let himdo this to you—"
Orihime's vision widens past Kurosaki-kun, and she remembers Kuchiki-san again, standing just a few feet away, looking at the boy with those blue, inscrutable eyes of hers. Kurosaki-kun is bowed inwards, like someone has punched him in the gut, rammed their fist down his throat and ripped out his heart.
Seeing Kurosaki-kun like this—seeing Kurosaki-kun like this, bent and defeated, makes Orihime frantic, nauseated with her inability to do anything. She doesn't know if she should step out, how she can shield Kurosaki-kun from the hurt that he is feeling, how to make it stop and make him look at her as she is doing so. She wants to be the one to take away his pain, she wants the ability to take away his pain, so why can't she, why can't she?
A sobbing noise tears itself from her throat, but neither Kurosaki-kun nor Kuchiki-san seems to hear, they are so focused on each other.
Kuchiki-san doesn't step closer; she just looks at Kurosaki-kun, a long, searching look. "I won't let them marry me off, Ichigo. I managed to come back here, did I not? I managed to get back to you. Ichigo—Ichigo, look at me."
Kuchiki-san moves then, and his name, the way she's saying his name, the fact that it is she who is saying his name—Orihime watches and listens as Kuchiki-san once again does what she herself cannot; all it takes is her voice, her words, and Kurosaki-kun straightens, stands and is stepping forward to meet her halfway.
Kurosaki-kun leans down, Kuchiki-san reaches up, and they tip their foreheads together, his hands steadying her around the waist, hers splayed across his broad shoulders, those shoulders that Orihime had only been able to trace from a distance.
Kuchiki-san says something then, too far to hear, but Orihime doesn't stick around to try and listen.
She bites the inside of her cheek so hard that it bleeds, and there's a burn at the back of her eyes, a throbbing pain in her chest. She turns, and she's able to walk away with steady legs with something that suspiciously feels like her heart stuck in her throat.
Orihime manages to keep her eyes dry the entire way to the store.
She has figured out why she can't be the one to save Kurosaki-kun, now.
On Monday, Kuchiki-san doesn't show up for class.
She doesn't show up for lunch, either.
Tatsuki-chan's the one who finally asks the question: "Hey, Kurosaki—where's Kuchiki?"
Sado-kun tenses, carefully putting down his food, like he's readying for something. Kurosaki-kun just shrugs though, and if he is scowling like always, if he seems more distant than usual, no one comments on it.
Orihime knows better though, that this Kurosaki-kun is much different than the one she'd first met, the one she'd found standing alone under dark blue eyes just a few days ago. This Kurosaki-kun isn't exactly happy, but he is not so sad, either.
She hopes anyways that Kuchiki-san comes back soon—and she will, because she'd said so. Orihime isn't going to worry, and Kurosaki-kun believes her too. He probably believes the hardest, because not believing, Orihime thinks, will never be an option for him.
And when Kuchiki Rukia does come back, appearing out of nowhere like a fairy tale, like a dream, like bright, shining light when you need it the most, Orihime knows she will give Kurosaki-kun the rabbit's foot, the four-leaf clover, the amulet and talisman and every other good luck charm in the world he needs to ward off all the evil in the world.
Kuchiki-san will call his name, and Kurosaki-kun will stand up and answer with a smile.
note: You have no idea how much trouble this fic gave me. I basically finished it out of sheer stubbornness (I can't stop now, I'm already 3K words in!), and I'm still not sure if this conveys the feeling I wanted it to. Inspired by Margaret Atwood's poem and Orihime's Why Me Sad chapter. I originally planned on making this into two parts (Orihime's pov through this poem, Ichigo and Rukia's pov/continuation through its sister poem, Variations on the Word Love), but I'm not sure if it's worth it at this point.
Second time doing an Orihime-pov for me, and this is the longest Bleach fic I've written to date, so I'm pretty nervous about how it turned out. Thanks for reading, and any and all feedback will be loved. :)