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There are too many people here, and before now she has never considered closed spaces a scary thing. It is far too many minutes before she can find a way out from the clusters of people, and too soon before she is swallowed by another. There are very few she recognizes, and even less she remembers the names of. Somewhere in this house there is a friend that can rescue her from this place, she knows. It’s just a matter of finding them.

Nobody had necessarily forced her to come, and by all means this is not her type of scene—home, now, underneath a blanket with a good book in her hands feels much more inviting than this—but the thought of missing out on another one had not bode well with her. The contempt was never voiced, but she could feel the way the other girls were judging her, and despite how quick her friends from high school were to defend her she could not help wilting in defeat at their passive aggressive remarks. It was easy to convince her to join in this time around, and when they had all roped her into a small shopping spree and a quick little makeover, she knew it had been a huge mistake.

She has only been here an hour or so, but she wants so desperately to escape she can feel it down to her bones.

“Here’s the thing, though,” she recalls one of her newer friends saying when she had voiced her doubts earlier. “People go to these things to mingle, essentially. And nobody says it, but leaving the party alone is a huge…no.”

She deflates at the very thought, and then attempts to reel it back into determination. Regardless of gender, if she can just find one person she knows well enough to ask this favor of, she can leave here without breaking any of these silly rules.

There lies the problem. The more she looks, the less she recognizes. And avoiding those she doesn’trecognize is as much a problem.

Refusing to dress the way her companions had insisted on earlier had been as much a challenge. Some black cocktail dress that clung to the body with some blocky heels she doubted she could have possibly walked in; she settled for a neat little skirt, high stockings, and a pretty blouse with a modest cardigan for the cool weather. This had, of course, produced her looks of disdain and exasperation, but she couldn’t bring herself to be moved by it this time around.

She will not debase herself by dressing in a way she personally is not comfortable with. Always, she had been taught to be ashamed of her body, and now they suddenly want her to flaunt it as if she’d never been in the first place. The very thought infuriated her.

They had, upon seeing her reproachful expression, backed off and allowed her this choice.

This doesn’t do much to stop people from showing interest in her, and it is as she is trying to talk her way out of a confrontation that she hears a very familiar voice pipe up from behind her.

“Inoue?”

Oh, if angels could walk the earth.

She makes to turn and face him, but had not anticipated how aggressive the other man is. She is grabbed by the arm and forced to a stop.

“Who’re you,” the other man demands, but it is no question. She glances at the hand wrapped hard around her bicep and then up at the man it belongs to, and he is trying very hard to look intimidating. And he could be, she thinks, potentially. He must be as tall as her savior, if not taller, and he has thick facial hair and a scar on his upper lip. He smells of cigarettes and booze and he’s got a tattoo on one arm. He could definitely pass.

But Ichigo has always been a force to be reckoned with.

“Nobody,” he says, and he doesn’t at all attempt to deepen his voice or make himself look bigger. His tone is smooth and even and yet it oozes with malignance so thickly the other man seems to physically balk. “Unless she says so.”

She is nowhere in her right mind when she suddenly blurts out, “My boyfriend.”

And just as Ichigo’s face falls to shock, she quickly holds out her other hand for him to take. Of course, the other man only lets go when Ichigo takes it, and she frowns at the floor; she feels as if she is being handed off like a child. How degrading.

But as soon as they are out of sight, Ichigo does release her hand to say, “What.”

“I,” she begins, and then quickly reconsiders her wording. “Leaving this place alone is illegal and I don’t wanna get arrested.”

What—

Perhaps that was the wrong way of putting it, too.

She waves her hands through the air between them and sputters, unsure of how to put it. The way her friends had explained it had made complete sense at the time, but now that she’s thinking it through it doesn’t really. Certainly, these parties are only a platform for college students to find quick hookups with little to no effort, but Orihime has never been interested in these sorts of things and so she finds it hard to justify ever attempting to assimilate to them in the first place.

But this only begs the question: Why is he here?

Of all people, she would’ve thought he’d be the last to come to one of these things. She has never pegged him the type.

“Can we…get out of here?” she asks, folding her arms and shooting furtive glances toward a couple further down the hall getting frisky. “I don’t…wanna be here anymore.”

She is surprised when he places his hand very lightly at the small of her back and guides her along with him, and soon they are stepping out the front door. Just before the door shuts behind them, she glances back to see some upperclassmen grin at Ichigo suggestively, and she feels dread pool at the pit of her stomach.

Is Ichigo here to pick up women? Did she get in the way of that?

“This is okay,” she says, voice tight. She turns on him and raises her hands reassuringly. “I’m gonna head back to my—”

“Why are you here?” he asks, and reaches out to touch the arm that had been gripped so tightly by the other man. His tone isn’t accusatory, but there’s an emotion there she can’t identify. Something cool and yet burning, the way one would feel when they’re hurt.

She can’t wrap her head around it. “My friends…they wanted me to come this time. So, I did, but… I didn’t really want to.”

There will always be a strange sort of comfort to be found with him. Words come easy, all too natural, and it might just be because they’ve known each other for years now. But, more likely, it’s because he’s still got her so wound up it’s hard not to babble on when he doesn’t seem inclined to interrupt her.

“I guess I wanted to fit in with them, and even though I know what the purpose of these parties are I didn’t wanna disappoint them again so I agreed to it, but I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in my life so I had to get out of there, but I didn’t have a way to without embarrassing my friends so I’m really glad you showed up because then I can just pretend I did leave with someone, but I’m so sorry now they’re gonna think you and I went off together and did things and I’m wondering why you’re here, too, I didn’t—”

“Same reason as you.”

“Huh—wha?”

He shrugs, but looks decidedly uncomfortable. “My friends kept pressuring me to come, so I did. Something along the lines of me needing to get l—well, a girlfriend. Basically.”

An odd pang starts at her chest, but she smiles around it. “Any luck?”

“No, and that’s a good thing,” he sighs. The air is becoming colder and she can see him casting concerned glances down at her legs. “I was actually relieved to find you, too. Gives me a reason to get out of here.”  

“So, you know the rule, too!” she exclaims, and for the split second he looks bewildered she intensely regrets reacting that way.

“It’s stupid,” he says, kicking at the ground a little. “But, yeah.”

“I know it’s asking a lot,” she says, wringing her fingers. “But they were my ride here and—”

“Of course I’ll drive you home, Inoue,” he cuts in, fishing out his keys and leading her along the sidewalk down the line of cars parked out front. “We’re friends.”

.x.

The growl her stomach emits is a godsend, no matter how embarrassed she feels at it. They take to driving around for a place to eat and as they learn every nearby restaurant is packed, they pull up on the side of an empty street to contemplate their next move, thumbing through their wallets for bills and canceling out what they cannot afford.

“What about that place we all went to that other time?” he asks, leaning back in his seat as she recounts their money. “You know, the… The one over the summer with the foreign waitress?”

She folds the bills and tucks them collectively into his wallet. “They always close early. But! It’s okay! We can just go to a fast food place, I don’t mind!”

“N—I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he shakes his head, scratching behind his ear. “We barely see each other on campus, it’d be nice to go somewhere special with you.”

“I don’t mind if it isn’t somewhere special,” she says, and then smiles when he looks at her thoughtfully. “If it’s you I’m with, I don’t mind where it is. We’re friends!”

He returns her smile. “Okay.”

.x.

There is a small convenience store somewhere downtown where they sell her favorite brand of candy, and a little ways down from that there is a drive-in they both mutually agree they cannot afford. They purchase snacks, sugary drinks, and a few choice sweets before they seek out an obscure parking spot on the other side of the fence where they have a view of a screen, albeit somewhat blocked off by metal signs and lines of different sized cars. He spends a few minutes trying to find the right station and despite the static, they can make out the dialogue well enough to pass. When they’re finally settled in, they tear into their food loudly and with little regard to social decency.

There isn’t much to be ashamed of anymore at this point in their friendship.

It isn’t a movie she recognizes, and they’d arrived at the halfway point, rendering the plot a mystery to them both. Every now and then, one of them pipes up with a guess as to what they’re seeing but nothing quite seems to stick. An older film, as all these drive-ins tended to feature.

“I think they’re thinking of closing this one down,” he mentions, reaching across the console between them to grab a handful of her chips. “Not a lot of people show, so they don’t see a reason for it.”

Nothing about this place is particularly special, and none of the movies showing are all that exciting. It’s a good way to kill time, she considers, but far too much money for what it is. Overpriced snacks, just as they would be in a regular theater, but with none of the experience a theater brings. As per usual, the radio loses signal time and time again and Ichigo has to pause and search for the station until it catches.

And so there isn’t any real reason things go the way they do, ergo no real explanation as to why they allow it to.

The subject comes up because there isn’t really anything else to say, and with the sound of loud munching and crackling audio filling the space between them things begin to get somewhat awkward.

“Have you ever wondered about it?” she asks suddenly, and he looks at her curiously over his bottle of soda. He looks so innocent and so open for a second she feels ashamed for bringing it up in the first place. But it is too late to take it back now; she has his undivided attention and he has no intention of interrupting her. “About—the parties, before your friends forced you to come.”

He hasn’t quite caught her drift just yet. He contemplates her words and turns them about in his mind until he produces a misconstrued, “I’m not a very big fan of drinking or loud places, so not exactly.”

“No, I—” she bursts out without thinking, and when she finds he has turned his head to look at her more fully she finds herself backed into a corner and with no other choice but to continue, “I—I meant…the other part…”

It takes him a few seconds to piece together what she means, and as soon as he does he clears his throat and avoids her gaze. Her heart sinks down to the pit of her stomach, and despite knowing this is most certainly not the case she can’t help feeling as if this is his way of indirectly rejecting her follow up question. She is prepared to swallow down her emotions and brush the topic aside entirely when he says, “I won’t lie to you, sometimes I did. But, it’s never to the point where I actually…want to.”

She hums, eager to drop the subject now. The atmosphere has become strained and uncomfortable and it is now she notices the radio has turned to static again.  

“Have you?”

She nearly drops her soda. “What?”

He still isn’t looking at her, eyes focused with far too much interest on the bottle cap. “Have you ever thought about it?”

It is a few minutes before she can find the nerve to answer, and when he lifts his gaze to hers again she nearly loses it completely. She has to swallow audibly, that familiar flutter at her gut flaring up when he tilts his head encouragingly. “Sometimes.”

Silence falls between them, softened only by the understanding nod he gives as he turns back to his radio. He busies himself with tweaking the buttons and she fiddles with the puckered wrapping of her favorite candy. She is pinching the sides, tugging to open, when he says, “But do you want to?”

She exhales sharply, pulling too hard and accidentally scattering the candy all over the floor and across her lap but when she starts to apologize he only shakes his head dismissively. “I—I’ve thought about it,” she reiterates, gathering up the pieces of candy and dropping them in the discarded plastic bag.

“But do you want to?” he emphasizes, picking a few from the cup holders absentmindedly.

There lies the difference she hadn’t wanted him to pick up on.

Will he think less of her this way? Will he no longer treat her the way he does now?

“I do,” she confesses, but the expression in his eyes does not change. He looks at her with such open eyes, such familiarity it makes her heart swell just a little in size. She cannot bring herself to weave a lie up in front of him, she already knows he will not believe it. They have seen each other at their worst, nothing can make them flinch now and so he doesn’t.

Oh, that makes it so much harder to pretend she isn’t too far gone already.

“I do, but. But I don’t think I could ever do it with a stranger,” she confides with him, bowing her head. “I don’t think it can be casual for me.”

He lowers his gaze, and then reaches across the way to brush the rest of the candy still gathered along her legs to the floor. He pays little mind to the mess it will cause, placing his hand on her knee as lightly as possible and holding her gaze to ask, “What if it’s with someone you do know?”

She doesn’t want to hope, she doesn’t want to see chance where there is none, but she cannot help it when he is looking at her like that. His eyes are so earnest and so gentle and so, so scared she feels safe, she feels acknowledged and seen for more than just the surface—of course, this is Kurosaki-kun, he’s only ever been so kind to me; I’ve only ever been a person to him—and, oh, the very thought of sharing this moment with a person like him tears down all of her defenses until she is left reeling, eyes wide and breath short and heart twisting in her very chest. There are no words to convey her emotions but she knows he is reading them, she knows he is picking them right off of her face and she cannot bring herself to be afraid of this.

“What if it’s with me?” he breathes, and her hand is folding over his, her body is drawing into him. “Do you want to—with me?”

There is nothing left to say but a clear and brimming, “Yes.”

.x.

The backseat of his car is cramped, there is nowhere to hide from the other this way. It’s dark out but for the luminance of the movie screen in the distance, these distorted images playing across her pale cardigan and the skin of their faces. The fizzling sound coming from his radio jumps to voices sometimes and it cuts into their nerves sharp and unwelcome, but neither one of them chooses to shut it off. There is nothing else but the sound of their breaths and the crisp, wet noise of their lips meeting over and over, the rustle of fabric as their hands drift questioningly over leg and back and arm. They don’t know what they’re doing, but something has been bottled up inside of them for so long it can no longer lie dormant—it drags gasps from their mouths and shoves all logic to the very backs of their minds.

He doesn’t touch unless she lets him and this burrows within the core of her warm and kindling things, pulls his hand to her thigh and promises him there are no secrets here—he has known enough of them there is nothing more to keep from him any longer. He traces stocking and then flesh and when his palm cups full over the throbbing heat of her she shudders down to her bones and tells him, “Yes.”

She tells him, “Don’t stop,” and, “More, please,” and so he does not shy away anymore. His mouth is on her throat and his fingers are pushing inside of her and she can’t breathe, she can’t think, she has never felt more torn; this alien thing clambering up within her; the security of being in the arms of someone she loves.

It all accumulates. His fingers are curling and twisting and pumping and he is kissing the corner of her mouth, so sweet. So kind. So very much like him.

The heels of her palms dig into the seat underneath her and she lifts her knees, toes curling and eyes squeezing shut. He whispers something in her ear and it sounds a lot like so beautiful, a lot like so good.

Spots of color burst across her vision, she doesn’t hear herself shout but when she comes down trembling and boneless his mouth is back on hers, warm and wet and desperate. She doesn’t remember where they drop her underwear, she is so eager to climb onto his lap she only registers the jingling of his belt buckle and the crisp foil packet he produces from the pocket of some jacket he’d left here.

“My friends gave it to me,” he explains sheepishly, and as he carefully rolls it on she shrugs off her cardigan and tosses it aside.

The challenge here is the amount of space they’re allowed, all the fabric they have to push aside and all the maneuvering they have to do in order to achieve what needs to be done so that when he finds her opening again she can sink down onto him without the blind and awkward fumbling it would have demanded from them ordinarily—what they might not learn for a very long time and so must greedily soak in now. She has to roll her hips accepting him and all the pressure it causes in her brings forth a flinch, a hiss, a soft apology from his lips and a shaky sigh.

Inoue,” he breathes, and he rocks upward, arm wrapped tight around her so that their chest are flush and their mouths can lock—it is here he slides his tongue between her teeth and presses his fingertips to the little nub hidden by her folds.

He is as hyper stimulated as she is, groaning into her throat as she grinds, digging his fingers into her skirt hurrying to meet the frantic pace she sets. She rises and falls and then rises again, curling fists into his shirt and then hair and then tugging him from her shoulder to trace kisses over his jawline. There is a quick, slick noise that emanates right where they meet, sharpest when he grounds her down too sudden and softest when he apologizes unsteadily. The car is making sounds, too, but they can’t bring themselves to slow down. The urgency with which they touch each other is almost frightening, they cannot give enough of themselves before they are begging for more—mouths hot and wet and pleading. His hand is splayed wide on her back underneath her shirt, and it burns.

He says her name with such reverence and it burns.

This isn’t normal, people don’t touch like this unless they feel something and she knows this somehow. Just finding his eyes through all the haze is too much, it drags the air from her very lungs and splits down her spine like flame.

She drops down hard and he is mumbling in her ear, a jerky gasp, a needy groan, a so beautiful, a so good, an oh god, an—

“—love you.”

It all comes to a screeching halt, euphoria cracking across her core and then up and out toward her limbs until she is trembling, until she is choking around a sob of his name. Her head falls forward into the crook of his neck, just as his tilts back. Frantic movement, the hard and urgent rocking of his hips and the way he clings to her so tight, so close; all comes down in a screeching halt.

The high doesn’t leave her for what feels like an eternity, and she seeks refuge in the curve of his shoulder, willing her heart to calm. He swallows loudly, massaging her hip and stroking the length of her back soothingly. It is moments before both of them can find their voices, and just as many searching for the right words to say.

Nothing really measures up to what she’s feeling, she can’t find the right way to express the gratitude and then the rush of emotion she feels at having shared it with him. She sniffles and before he can voice his concern, she surges forward kiss him chastely on the lips.

It is a stark contrast to their previous activity, but he does not reject it. He does not turn away from her and he does not look at her funny. His gaze drifts across her face and he tilts his head to kiss her hairline just as softly.

The message is clear.

Nothing has changed.

.x.

The clean-up is as awkward as she imagines it would have been. To wipe her fluids off and discover she had drenched his jeans, the disposal of the condom and the hurried redressing. He switches off the radio and they drive away from the scene of the crime nervously, holding their breaths until they are out on the streets again setting a course for—

“My apartment,” she says, collecting the trash and the dumping it in the back when he says it’s okay. “You can take a shower and I can—wash your pants, if you want.”

He considers this. He has folded his jacket over his lap and the heater is on, and when she’s sure he isn’t looking she glances at his left hand, wiped clean of her fluids now.

Her heart stutters and she turns her gaze forward. The streets are mostly empty now, it has passed midnight long ago.

“Sure,” he says, and then smiles openly at her. “That’s really thoughtful of you, Inoue.”

“Don’t mention it,” she assures, waving her hands and laughing tightly. “We’re friends!”

.x.

It is a quarter to one when she steps out of her bedroom in fresh pajamas, and the door to the hallway bathroom opens suddenly just as she settles her nerves, and she has to restart the process all over again. He is standing in the doorway with a fluffy towel around his hips and another one draped over his shoulder to dry his hair with. He looks at her curiously and offers half a smile that she cannot physically stop herself from returning.

“I like your pajamas,” he says, and she feels her face heat up. They’re silly, really. Pink and patterned with cartoons, even the slippers have little faces on them.

“Do you want something to drink?” she asks, and moves toward the kitchen.

“Something warm, please,” he requests, and she hears him shuffle about in the bathroom before switching off the light and padding over to her living room. All of his clothes are in the washer, she has nothing to offer him and she isn’t sure if she regrets this. She wishes she could clothe him, but this way she can see the ripple of muscle she had not been privy to just an hour ago, the way his back curves and the rise of his hipbones underneath his tanned skin. She is distracted by this for a second and nearly drops her mugs.

“Your clothes should be done soon,” she tells him, setting aside the cups and reaching for her tea kettle.  

“I was thinking,” he broaches, turning from the television and the news playing quietly to lean against the entrance of her kitchen casually. “Tomorrow’s Saturday and I don’t have a shift. If I’m not imposing too much, do you think I can sleep over tonight?”

Her heart skips. “Of course,” she says, filling her kettle with tap water. “It’s no trouble at all!”

“…Listen,” he says, and she knows exactly where this conversation is going. It coils dread in her gut and she has to keep herself from deflating, swallowing down the lump in her throat and busying herself with the tea packets in her hands. “About earlier—”

“It’s okay, Kurosaki-kun!” she reassures, as if preventing him from finishing the statement will in turn prevent her from having her heart broken. She knows the futility of the act, it is already bubbling at the center of her chest and it is only a matter of time before it does its damage. “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to!”

“Really?” he asks, and she doesn’t miss the strange little note in his tone. Something like relief. “It was kind of a spur of the moment sort of thing, I wasn’t really thinking when I said it.”

She bristles, pausing spooning honey into her cup. “It was a mistake?”

She shouldn’t have asked that.

She shouldn’t invite this hurt like that.

“N—well, I—not exactly, I just…”

Without really thinking it through, she turns to look at him and is completely thrown off to find that he is blushing. He reddens further and avoids her gaze, suddenly looking so meek and culpable she feels her chest grow warm. “Wha—?”

“I—well—see, this is exactly what I wanted to avoid, I—I don’t know…” he trails off, reaching up to rub the back of his neck reflexively. “It wasn’t—isn’t a mistake. I really meant it, but I don’t… I don’t want to ruin what we have, I didn’t want you to feel pressured into…feeling the same.”

She can’t figure what he’s trying to say. She stays frozen where she is, searching his face for clarification and relieved to know he isn’t talking about what she thinks he’s talking about.

“It just sort of slipped out when we were—you know—and, you didn’t really react so I felt like…” He finally meets her gaze and he looks pained, as if he’s trying to wall her out. “Maybe it wasn’t welcome.”

“Kurosaki-kun,” she says, mind reeling. “What are you—?”

“Hiding it,” he interrupts, folding his arms stiffly. “That isn’t a good idea either, is it? It’s already out there, and I don’t think we can ignore it, so.”

“I—”

“I love you—a lot,” he says, and her brain shuts down. “And not like in a friend sort of way, I like—I love you in a…not-friend way. Like.”

She drops the spoon and this makes him draw back a little, eyes tightening.

“Like I wanna be with you, and, and I wanna hold your hand and sh—stuff like that. And I know I’m not that great—and you are, a lot, you’re such a great person—but I wanna. I wanna try—but it’s okay if you don’t want to, I won’t force you to do anything, I would never…” He drops his gaze and swallows, as if he regrets saying anything at all. “I would never make you do anything you don’t want to, Inoue.”

She can’t breathe, and as she frantically tries to pull her nerves together he bends to pick the spoon from the ground, placing it carefully in the sink and reaching for a rag to wipe the honey from the tiles. When he finishes, he clears his throat and steps back from her.

“We can stay friends, if you want. We don’t ever have to talk about this again, and that’s okay—”

She sniffles, and he reacts immediately.

“What’s—I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything, please don’t cry, Inoue,” he rushes out, hands reaching out and then retracting awkwardly as he rethinks. He wants to comfort her, but there are boundaries he doesn’t want to cross. “Don’t cry, I can leave if—”

“No,” she whimpers, pressing the back of her fist over her eye to quell her tears. “No, no, don’t go—I love you, too, so much.”

He drops his hands.

“I thought I was hearing things,” she says, wiping at her cheeks. “I thought my mind was playing tricks, so I didn’t—I want to be with you, too, Kurosaki-kun, I do—it hurts how much I do, I—”

The tips of his fingers brush her cheek and her mouth snaps shut.

There is awe in his eyes, a strange sort of fondness she must not have caught until right this moment. He ducks and kisses her forehead and there is wonder there, the way he lingers for a second to cradle her face between his hands. He is too slow to continue and so she leans into him, reaching for his too-warm skin and surging up to the tips of her toes to kiss his mouth, and where she expects the same sort of fever that had overcome them just over an hour ago there is a flutter, an all-enveloping rise of familiarity, an affection that has always been there hidden under the surface—he folds his arms about her and pulls her into his chest, nuzzles his nose into her hair and sighs deeply, profoundly, so very content.

“Then do you—want to be with me?” he asks, almost as if to make sure this isn’t a joke.

“I do, I do,” she mumbles into his chest. When she turns her cheek to it, she can feel and hear that his heart is beating as fast as hers. This is reassuring, so validating she wants to melt right into him.

“We’re kinda going backwards,” he mutters, and she has to laugh.

“I took advantage of you,” she confesses.

“I took advantage of you, too, let’s be honest here.”

.x.