I don't own Bleach.

A/N: Because I love Tatsuki and over analyzing things.

That Unbelievable, Unforgettable Smile

From a very young age I've been told that people change.

It begins at birth and continues in different rhythms throughout a person's life.

Some times it'd take longer for a change to occur, sometimes it'd take less.

Sometimes, all it takes to change someone completely, eternally, is one rainy June day.

The first time I met him was when he came into my dojo one day, and one couldn't help but pay attention to him straight away –

That unbelievably bright orange hair; that unbelievably beautiful mother; that unbelievably wide, happy smile.

"Kurosaki Ichigo", that boy happily introduced himself, practically chirping while his mother was there.

Her gone and less than ten seconds were all it took for me to bring him down and to tears.

I'll be frank – I liked picking on him.

Nobody alive or dead should be that repulsively happy, yet there he was in front of me, switching from tears into joy in a matter of seconds on an almost daily basis.

Every time I punched him, I silently asked 'why'.

When his mother would come to pick him up, I'd silently ask 'how'.

It was frustrating; 'a boy who just lost shouldn't be that happy!' I knew inwardly… or at least, so I thought.

And every time it happened, I became more frustrated, and every time I hit harder, trying to force an answer out of him.

Again, and again, time after time…

And then after one time it happened…

It stopped.

It rained on that day. It rained on the day before, too. And along with the dirt and the fallen leaves, the rain took both his tears and his smile away, leaving a harsh wounded glare and a constant frown on delicate features who until then knew only how to laugh.

It'd be ludicrous to say I lost count of the times he went to that riverbank, as I never once kept such a thing.

Whenever I'd look at him standing there, a part of me would gloat.

That's how a boy who lost should act, that part knew, and the only way to shut it up whenever he'd slump over from exhaustion was to walk away.

I never once approached him then.

Not even once.

And I know now how little that would've taken out of me; back then, though, I was sure I didn't have enough to give, so why even bother?

At the very least… it was a comfortable excuse to hide behind.

We never were really close before Masaki-san… died… but it ate at me when after, we managed to drift even farther apart.

He'd come less and less to the dojo, and I was almost horrified to see that – when he did come that last time – and lost to me – he didn't cry

I haven't seen him cry since.

He'd remain with the same sealed, emotionless expression, never once looking back even when he went away.

I realized that I, too, missed seeing his mother come to pick him up after practice.

It was about that time I stopped hoping I'd ever lose.

Afterwards, whenever I saw Ichigo, he always seemed different, a shell, a shield he constructed around himself coming to completion under the guise of a social 'image'.

Keeping people at an arm's length; keeping to himself even with those he let closer; keeping on that harsh stare even when all you saw as he walked away from you was his back.

The boy I knew was fading, and I wasn't sure I liked the man he had already became.

When I caught myself thinking this, I was in Junior high. I challenged him one last time in a long series of challenges. He always refused until that time. In a desperate attempt to get me off his back, he accepted.

I hated myself so much when I lost.

You see, the me who was merely a side viewer back then couldn't admit I lost to that person. The one I wanted to lose to was, in my mind, still smiling and laughing.

I met that person again, or the closest thing to him alive, also – in junior high.

She was being picked on in a manner so familiar to me after years of having known Ichigo.

A different hair color meant trouble, and the girl with the unbelievably warm and deep sunset-red hair kept it as long as her waists without a care in the world.

Truth be told, the one who really wanted to cut her hair was me.

Stop smiling, I thought. Stop laughing.

Stop reminding me of him.

But she didn't. No matter how many times she was picked on, no matter how many times she was harassed, she always came in with a smile on the next day, crack the same stupid jokes, eat the same ridiculous lunch, and be her usual spunky self.

'Why?', I asked myself as I watched her come into school with short hair and a huge smile.

'How?' I questioned when she greeted me happily the morning after it happened, her hair still a mess because she didn't have time to cut it properly.

The answers didn't come; they refused to, because the reality was – there were no answers.

Unable to accept that, I took her hand and told her on that day – 'let's go home together'.

And she smiled at me in the way he used to back then.

I decided rather instinctively – I'd protect it this time around… that smile.

Truth be told, I expected her to break down when her brother died; expected her to become withdrawn, silent, frowning – become like him.

I knew it was stupid; the circumstances and people were different, but once you see the similarity between two things, it's hard to see the difference. It's the same with people.

So there I was, all ready to put up with awkward silences when she did what I found surprising and completely unexpected –

She smiled at me and laughed.

She kept her spirits up.

She kept her daily routines.

In short…

She kept being herself.

Don't get me wrong, it's not as though her brother's death hadn't affected her; she cried more than enough. Too much, even...

'There', I thought. 'It's all over. I lost that smile again…'. But once she was done crying… once the tears had ran out… I knew she'd be ok, because she looked at me with a smile and laughed.

It's ok that she cried once in a while after that, because she also kept on smiling.

She told me once, about a month after his death –

"Thank you."

What for, I asked almost cynically.

As far as I was concerned, I hadn't done anything, but for her…

"For always caring about me."; "For always being there for me."; "For being who you are."

She went on ahead, humming to herself and all I could think of was – what would have happened had I been there for him at that time.

Would he be smiling right now, too? Would he still be laughing?

I didn't want to think about it then.

I still don't.

The reason to that is simple –

There is only one answer I can live with in regards to him… and it is that same answer that would haunt me and fill me with guilt for the rest of my life.

It really didn't come as a shock to me when, once we hit high school, Orihime developed quite the unhealthy crush on Ichigo.

That didn't stop it from being weird, still.

She was so much like the Ichigo I first met, what with that hair and that smile, even then…

And what with her trying to find out more about him, trying to be close to him, even just wanting to see him…

It was as though the Ichigo of five years ago was chasing the Ichigo of today, only to cower away once he made it under those intense frown and glare.

I couldn't help but feel all that left me to be was the Ichigo who could do nothing but stand on the riverbank, crouching once he was too tired to stand, eating himself with guilt I never understood while looking for the mother he knew he'll never again find.

Looking at the two of them, I couldn't help but smile, really.

For the first time in my life I thought I could understand him just a little bit better…

The Ichigo I couldn't stand from back then.

I myself know this is extremely rude towards Orihime, but had I told her any of this, she'd probably just laugh.

"Kurosaki-kun must've been such a cute kid! How I wish I could've met him!"

She probably would've been flattered, and gone off into a day dream with a bizarre ending, all the while blushing delicately.

To think it all started out from my selfishness… I just wanted to feel better about myself. The me who kept making him cry won't let her who's so much like how he used to be shed a single tear.

Truth be told, I don't deserve them, either of them.

Yup. That's why it'd be oh so much better if they just got together already. Though, a part of me knows I worry about those two too much as it is. Them being together would either give me an ulcer, or…

A while ago, I saw them walking through the halls together. Talking about this and that, exchanging glances I couldn't decipher…

And then he laughed.

Just laughed.

Outright, honestly, full heartedly.

Like some stupid brat, he just started laughing.

Orihime was shocked as well, from the look on her face, but pushing the blush away, she started laughing too, and they just fueled each other's laughter until both had to hold their sides and fight for breath…

Which, of course, only made them down right choke when they laughed even harder.

They really… seemed to be having so much fun…

Back then, I decided.

No matter what, I'll definitely protect her. Be a shield, a sword, a dragon if I have to be, all to make sure she'll be ok.

Because I couldn't do it for the person even now I can't admit means so much to me… because I couldn't… wouldn't… protect the Ichigo from back then, I'll definitely protect this person in front of me who's laughing in just the same way as he used to.

Because that person, this girl I ended up caring for, showed it to me.

He was still there.

I'll protect her, and then I'll meet him again, someday.

Him – that boy with that unbelievably bright orange hair and that unbelievably wide smile that I will nevermore be able to forget.


Final Notes – Yes. I LOVE writing Ichigo laugh like a kid. It makes me feel good about myself because he deserves laughing stupidly and freely more.

Don't like happy smiling Ichi, don't read my fluffier fics. Soz.