Ever since her departure from Urahara's shop and her old life, Riruka has taken a liking to rooftops. Atop the city, she can be stealthy. She sees much, but hardly anyone ever sees her. People rarely look up at the sky.
Riruka means to leave town, she really does, but she keeps finding excuses to stay. While a hitchhiker in the Shinigami Rukia's body, she saw things that damn near destroyed her view of the world, and now she wants to find out who she is. She can't do that if she stays her old self. And something tells her the answers are here in this little town, though for the life of her she doesn't understand how they could be.
She's traded in her old clothes for baggy jeans and frumpy-girl blouses. She's even taken to wearing her glasses -- much as she hates them, they do add to the disguise. Plus it's kind of nice being able to see things without having to walk right up to them. She doesn't really have anyone to hide from, but she feels better being unrecognisable. Safer. She's left all her attachments behind -- all her cute, beautiful things as well as all the people.
Gone off the grid, Yukio would have said, Riruka thinks with an unwelcome pang and shakes her head vigorously. As if she'd miss that stupid nerdling with his stupid low blood pressure and his stupid round eyes.
She wonders where he's gone.
She wonders if he felt that unimaginable surge of spirit power a few nights ago. It still makes her shiver, and every day she has resolved to go to the source of it to investigate, but every day she talks herself out of it, because it came from a direction she dares not approach: Kurosaki Ichigo's house. Ever since then, she has felt a deep, enduring unease slip cold fingers around her heart. She's felt it many times before, but never quite so strongly. Ginjou once told her it meant a Hollow was destroyed somewhere in this world or the other one. The Fullbringers' powers came from Hollows, after all, so such resonance was inevitable.
For her to feel it in all her waking moments, though -- what could be happening?
Riruka rises to her full height and gazes towards the source of the power surge.
The night sky is as dark and quiet as ever -- until it splits open with a metallic screech that should set off every car alarm in the city, but doesn't. Riruka senses things -- Hollows? -- moving out of the gash with incredible speed, and her own Light Bringer activates before she can think. She zooms towards the opened skies, half hoping to get there in time to see and half praying she will be too late.
The sky closes before she can look in the hole, but she can see who came through it: Ichigo. Chad. In Ichigo's arms, dressed in the most ridiculous pair of short shorts Riruka has ever seen, Orihime.
Still not thinking, just reacting, Riruka follows them. Chad is shouting into his cell phone, but she's not close enough to hear what he's saying. Where in the world did they go? Why does Chad sound so frantic? Why is Orihime's body so doll-like and lifeless; given her obvious and massive crush on Ichigo, shouldn't she be clinging to his neck in joy?
Lifeless. That would explain a lot about the situation, but still Riruka doesn't turn away. Now that she's seen them, she is awfully reluctant to let them out of her sight for some reason. It's almost as though she's missed them. No, of course not. What she missed was seeing familiar faces. Who'd miss two big dummies and a healing item?
They land on the roof of a hospital in the northern end of town, right on the helipad. A lanky teenager in glasses -- that archer guy, what's his face, Ishida -- runs out to meet them, unfolding a collapsible stretcher. After him hurries a man almost identical to the boy, but with light-coloured hair. Riruka lands behind a rooftop shed of some sort and cranes her neck to listen.
"No, don't roll it yet," the man barks at his son. "I have to examine her to make sure it's okay to keep moving her. Kurosaki, you carried her like this all the way here? Have you no sense?"
"What happened?" Ishida asks. "How did she end up like that?"
"She stopped it, Ishida," Ichigo says. "She stopped the war."
"What?" the fair-haired man -- Ishida senior, obviously -- asks, his head snapping up from listening to Orihime's chest. "How?"
"I'm not really sure," Ichigo says with a helpless shrug. "That King Quincy dude was making this speech about paying back for all the blood, how Soul Society is responsible for the imbalance because they destroyed the Quincies and blah blah blah--"
"I'll have less blah blah blah out of you," snaps the boy Ishida. "King Quincy dude, as you so quaintly put it, happens to be right."
"Yeah, sure, whatever, but I'm talking about Inoue here, so stop your whining--"
"She used her power," Chad breaks in. "She rejected the reality in which the Quincy were destroyed along with all the Hollows they vaporised, and suddenly there they were."
"There who were?" the man Ishida demands.
"The Quincies. And the Hollows," Chad says. "Everyone."
"I need to go back," Ichigo says. "It's a fucking nightmare over there right now..." He glances at Orihime with a complicated expression on his face.
"Quincies," the boy Ishida says very quietly.
The man Ishida begins to wheel Orihime towards the building. The three boys exchange puzzled glances as they stare at his back. Riruka wants to follow him, to follow Orihime, so why won't these idiots just follow the doctor or whoever he is?
"You can come out now," Ishida calls, looking straight at Riruka's hiding spot. "Unless you want me to come and get you."
"As if," Riruka says with a sniff, stepping out from behind the shed.
"Riruka?" Ichigo exclaims. "How--?"
"How the hell did you recognise me?" Riruka snaps, tugging at the collar of her old-lady shirt. "You could at least have been polite and pretended you didn't know me for like, two seconds. Oh dear God, why are you covered in blood?" The words are out before she can stop herself.
"Long story," Chad supplies helpfully, and Riruka would very much like to turn him into a stuffed piggy and make him dance. It's times like these that she truly regrets abandoning her collection.
"The hair is pretty much a dead giveaway," Ichigo mumbles.
"What happened to Orihime?" Riruka demands, jamming her hands in her pockets. "What's this war she's supposed to have stopped? What are you people doing, zipping around between worlds like you own the universe?"
"She's gone," Ichigo says, sinking down onto the rooftop asphalt, his giant-ass sword clattering to his side. "I mean, physically, she's alive, but--"
"Her mind is gone," Chad says. "Someone said she wiped out her own soul."
And Riruka understands what has held her in this town all these long days. Ichigo may have saved Ginjou, but it was Orihime and Rukia who saved her.
Before meeting Orihime and taking a ride in Rukia's mind, Riruka thought love was just a fancy name for the desire to possess: all her beautiful, cute, useless toys, the boy who wouldn't love her back, even her bratty little sister.
But Rukia and Orihime showed her what it really means to love: to treasure without owning. Love is putting yourself between danger and the one you love because there is no other way to act. Because their existence is so important and precious to you that you would pay any price to see your love safe from harm.
Now Orihime has gone and hurt herself in the worst way possible, and Riruka is pretty sure she is the only person who can fix that. What holds her here is a debt, and now she can try to repay it.
"Take me to her," she says to Ishida, who has been observing her quietly with those unsettling dark blue eyes. "I can help her."
Orihime is sitting up in bed, a vague expression of surprise on her face. Ishida's father is writing something on a clipboard when the four of them enter the room.
Riruka bites her lip as she stares at Inoue and remembers her smiling and telling Riruka she was a good person. All because of a couple of doughnuts, honestly. Anyone could give out doughnuts; that didn't make them good people.
The elder Ishida looks up at them with a disapproving frown. "I realise you're anxious about your friend, but this is a hospital -- who might you be, young woman?"
"Shut up," Riruka tells him. She can't tell who utters the little gasp behind her, but for the time being she doesn't really care. She plucks her Fullbringer gauntlet out of her pocket and dons it as she strides up to Orihime, and then she lets her fist connect with the top of Inoue's chest and steps inside Inoue's mind.
The darkness is so overwhelming Riruka actually lets out an undignified little squeak as she tries to get her bearings. Then she sees the windows -- Orihime's eyes -- and through them she sees Ichigo, the two Ishidas, and Chad, all bent close, their faces distorted as through a ball of glass.
She dismisses them and looks around, straining her eyes despite her glasses. Tries to visualise the mind-room that she conjures whenever she uses this ability -- she hates the ability, so the mind-room is full of the absolute cutest things in the world to compensate for the indignity of having so little control over the body she's in.
The room refuses to appear, and the darkness endures, but as Riruka strains her vision, she becomes aware of a faraway voice.
I did not die? it asks.
"That's right," she calls to it, trying to figure out where it's coming from. "If your soul leaves your body, you die. You aren't dead, so you're still in here somewhere."
The voice sighs. And that's different -- it's responding to her. If Orihime is aware of her, that means she is in the same not-space where Riruka goes, just as Riruka suspected. The not-space is the safest place in the world, and that's another reason Riruka hates this ability so much. To someone who just wants to be safe and warm forever, being here is addictive.
"Answer me!" Riruka shouts. "Orihime! You're so high and mighty and ever so polite, you're not going to ignore a house guest, are you?"
Just let me go, Riruka-chan. It's very nice to see you again, but I wish you'd let me go.
"If you wanted to go, you would have gone," Riruka says, folding her nonexistent arms. "So quit your bellyaching and go back where you belong. All those dummy friends of yours are worried about you, though I can't imagine why."
It hurts, outside.
"Of course it does. Living hurts. You don't need me to tell you that."
I don't want to be hurt. I'm tired, Riruka-chan.
"Did you know Ichigo carried you princess-style all the way to the hospital?" Riruka asks with a sly smirk.
Kurosaki-kun, Orihime sighs.
"That's right. Kurosaki Ichigo. Didn't you say you'd heal him no matter what? How do you propose to do that if you're not around? By the looks of him out there, he could do with a bit of healing."
Kurosaki-kun is hurt?
"Him and Chad both look like they took a stroll through a couple of meat grinders."
Light floods the not-space, and Riruka is surrounded by her beautiful things.
Through Orihime's eyes, she sees the astonished faces as the glassy quality vanishes and the eyes become tiny screens again.
"Kurosaki-kun, you're injured," Orihime says out there.
Ichigo's face crumples with relief, but in his eyes Riruka sees what she now knows Orihime can also see. He loves her, but not the way she loves him. It was the same when she'd looked through Rukia's eyes.
"Just how high are your standards, you little shit?" Riruka mutters to Ichigo, punching a pillow with a fuzzy bee applique. And yet she loves him still. Why is that so irritating?
Orihime's thoughts begin to filter through the walls of the place, a flood of sound and text and images. Riruka wishes she could sift through them, to figure out how she can so easily do what Riruka has only begun to learn. She wants to stay here forever, but she can't. Ichigo and Ishida know about her ability, so they'll expect her to come back out -- Orihime will expect her to come out.
As she passes through the door she makes in not-space, an absurd thought occurs to her.
I wonder if she would let me braid her hair.