It was so quick, nothing really, like the blink of an eye or the pulse of a heartbeat. The pain wasn't there but the knowledge was. It provided a certain clarity to the moment, a reassuring sense that it'd turned out okay, the way it was supposed to.
This was right – no matter how harsh or unfair it seemed – and she was glad for it. Glad she had the opportunity to save him. He'd put himself in harms way for her so many times, bled for her, died for her, and now she was finally graced with the opportunity to return the favour.
In that moment she didn't feel defeated or sad towards her fate because Ichigo had survived and that was all that really mattered. He would go on to save the others, he was the only one strong enough to save them all, and here she'd finally been given the chance to do her little bit too.
She no longer felt so useless now that she was drifting down from the heavens with the hard ground rushing at her back. She felt free, enlightened by a sense of purpose and the satisfaction she felt at having fulfilled such a destiny. Aizen's blow had been decisive, enough to steal her life away, but he hadn't won – not by a long shot.
Her grey eyes searched the never ending sky for his silhouette in vain. She'd lost track of him, his dark shadow and the white mask of the grim reaper that frightened her so. It was only then that she realized he'd been beside her all along. She hadn't been floating like she'd first thought – he'd been carrying her, lowering her gently to the ground.
His mask was gone too. Staring down at her was a face she knew well, the charming face of the orange-haired awkward boy she'd befriended, grown to love and given her life for.
"Kurosaki-kun…I'm so glad…you're not hurt," she whispered once he'd settled her against the pavement.
She averted her eyes from his horror struck gaze and felt a blush of embarrassment colour her cheeks. "I'm thankful too Kurosaki-kun…because you see me now too."
His brow furrowed as it was accustomed to do and she shook her head to halt the strain of questions ready to fall from his lips. Closing her eyes briefly, she fought the crushing sensation that filled her chest with each breath. She was scared to open them again, afraid that the face staring back at her would be the same yellow-eyed demon who made her body tremble and shake in the wake of its power.
The evil that emanated from that body in great waves felt nothing like the boy she knew. They weren't the same person, that hollow and Ichigo, they were two very different beings indeed. One was rough and vibrant, the other fluid, raw and dark. She prayed he wouldn't lose himself to the power and was thankful that when she opened her eyes it was still Kurosaki's face was hovering above hers, his expression filled with concern.
She offered him a warm, simple smile, comforted by the knowledge that his was the last face she would see. His hands gripped her body tighter, as though he could keep her alive by force of will alone.
"Kurosaki-kun can you please promise…Promise me you won't die? I don't think I could be happy in that place knowing you were gone too."
His head jerked in a shaky nod and he swallowed thickly before responding with a hushed, "I definitely won't die. I promise."
She smiled at that. Kurosaki wasn't the type of man who made promises he didn't intend to keep. If he said he definitely wouldn't die, her heart was inclined to trust him at his word.
She looked past his shoulder at the flickering golden barrier encasing them. Outside their protected dome the battle had come to a standstill. Shinigami floated in midair with their zanpakto poised above their heads and arrancar were frozen in the sky, their bodies twisted in a death spiral leading head first to the unforgiving earth.
He didn't seem to notice that she'd halted time for them so they could share this one last moment together without interruption. He was too focused on her, his gaze intense as he appeared to hang on her every word. For a long time she'd wished for moments like this one, moments where she was the only person reflected in his kind eyes. The reality was bittersweet. Her wish had been granted, but at a hefty price and both of them knew that it couldn't last much longer.
"Kurosaki-kun… I was wondering if I might ask a favour?"
He nodded quietly, silently urging her to continue.
"Um…I was wondering if perhaps…if you might…if it's not too much trouble…I'd very much like to kiss you."
After a brief hesitation his eyes grew large and his eyebrows lifted nearly into his hairline. Stunned into silence, he stared down at her incredulously and she tried not to blush beneath his gaze.
There was no sound of rejection in his tone, just a sentiment of innocent disbelief mixed with confusion. She wished she'd found the courage to say something sooner but that strength had always evaded her. With nothing left to lose, she wasn't prepared to move on without first seeking to fulfill this one last desire. Feeling her cheeks grow hot, she glanced away and closed her eyes.
"I've liked you for a long time, so long I can't even remember when I started feeling this way."
It had been a long time since their first days of junior high when Tatsuki had introduced them. He'd always been brooding and serious, the opposite to her vibrant eccentricity, and yet she'd been drawn to him for reasons she wouldn't come to understand until much later. Reasons that made him the type of man she grew to love and the type of person she'd give her life for.
"I've always admired you Kurosaki-kun and I was happy for a while because you thought of me as a friend. I was thankful just to be close to you like that because your spirit is so warm – it feels like a roaring fire sometimes."
Even before he'd been introduced to the world of a soul reaper, she'd felt safe in his presence, reassured by the knowledge that because she was his friend he would protect her. He was like that with all his friends, Sado-kun and Tatsuki too. It made her feel special that he considered her to be part of that elite group. Meeting him and becoming his friend had changed her life.
"I've wanted to tell you that I love you a lot of times, but none of them ever felt right and I always lost my courage at the last second."
Her mind replayed the night she'd spent at his bedside, crying over her own cowardice as she whispered her most secret emotions to his unconscious form. The pain she felt that night, accompanied by the utter sense of guilt at the thought of leaving her friends behind, was matched only by the tumult of emotions she'd suffered on the tragic day her brother had died. The entire time she'd asked herself the same question - how am I supposed to survive without him?
"You've done so much for me and made me so happy… I don't think I could ever repay you. That's why I feel guilty asking this of you, but I hope it's not too much because before I go to that other place I'd like to know that I did this one last thing."
Her eyes opened at the sound of his voice. He spoke her name in a hushed whisper and she turned to him with unshed tears brimming along her lash line. His expression was grave and somewhat sad and his eyes searched hers for the answer to some unspoken question.
"Inoue…I didn't-," he stuttered, at a loss for the right words to mend her wounds. She shook her head slowly, feeling somewhat dizzy, and blinked to clear the cloudy haze from her vision.
"It's not your fault Kurosaki-kun." Sweeping her eyes over the battlefield she added, "None of this is your fault."
She winced as his arms tightened around her and his fingers bit into the flesh of her back. He was trembling now, subtly, but she could feel it in his touch. She didn't want to be a burden anymore, especially not to him.
"I'm sorry," he blurted out suddenly, his voice thick with emotion. He kept his face turned away to hide a painful grimace and the glistening tear rolling down his cheek. "I'm sorry I couldn't protect you Orihime."
Sucking in a shuddering breath he turned to her, revealing twin streams of crystalline tears running freely down his cheeks. The pain in his eyes was so vivid and raw that it made her heart ache and she felt sorry for being the cause of it. He suddenly pulled her body against his, crushing it to his chest in an embrace so tight it forced the air from her lungs.
With her cheek pressed against his heart she could hear its rhythmic tempo and feel the silent sobs racking his body. Using what was left of her strength she clawed her fingers into the inky black material of his robes and clutched him to her until he drew back.
He wiped the tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand and pulled in a shaky breath as he gazed down at her. She offered him an encouraging smile that was warm and bright despite the tears brimming in her eyes. It meant so much to her to know he cared this much.
Her own heart was racing in her ears now, pumping hard and frantic inside her chest. Fixing her with a serious expression, he lowered his face until his lips were hovering over hers.
Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump.
His warm breath cascaded across her cheek, tickling her skin and sending shivers rushing down her spine. He brushed his lips against hers in a fleeting stroke and her breath caught in her throat.
Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump.
The touch of his lips against hers was warm and gentle. His kiss was exactly how she'd hoped it would be – tentative and endearing. She closed her eyes and willingly lost herself to the tidal wave of emotion that crashed through her and eagerly returned the gesture.
Two solitary tears of happiness slipped from the corners of her eyes and spilt down her cheeks. In her life there had never been a more perfect moment.
Thank you… Kurosaki-kun.
Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-…
The warm glow of Inoue's reiatsu disappeared in the same instant that the protective shield around them shattered. Sucking in a startled gasp, Ichigo pulled back and studied the serene expression on her face. He noticed rather belatedly the way her body had gone limp in his arms and his head slowly shook back and forth in disbelief.
No… It's not possible. Not Inoue too!
He stared down at her a moment longer, hoping and praying that he was mistaken. She couldn't be gone, not when there was so much still left unsaid.
I wanted to tell you I love you a lot of times…
Her words echoed painfully through his mind and wrapped around his heart until he grimaced.
Can you please promise me… Promise me you won't die?
His promise to her resounded loudly in his mind and instilled him with a sense of duty and purpose that'd momentarily been forgotten. He would continue to fight, for her sake, and he would win. He would beat Aizen and his arrancar because he'd promised her that he would and he had every intention of keeping that promise.
Laying her body down gently atop the pavement, he retrieved Zangetsu from the ground beside him and cast one last, lingering glance at the girl he'd known for years but never truly knew at all.
Above him the battle kick-started suddenly into motion. The clang of swords, war cries, death groans… they swept over him and past him completely ignored. Even the great swells of reiatsu that clogged the atmosphere and pressed down upon the air to suffocate the weak with their crushing weight could not phase him. Nodding his head to her, he made a silent promise to return once it was all over.
Conscious of how it frightened her, he made sure to turn his back before pulling the hollow mask into place. The golden eyes peering out from behind its gleaming skeletal smile burned with determination. He didn't need to second guess himself anymore or question his own abilities. He'd made a promise to her that he wouldn't die and that was enough. There was no way he could lose now.
Author's Note: Thoughts?
I'm thinking of making this part of a series that will explore possible scenarios for the final showdown between Aizen, Soul Society and the clan in K-town… Hmmm…
I realize that the way I've written this seems very pro Ichigo/Orihime. You can read it that way if you want. Personally I don't see any romantic pairing coming out of Bleach but if there were to be one I'd always figured it would be Rukia.
That didn't stop me from exploring this scene/pairing though. I figured that if Orihime was dying a kiss from Ichigo would probably be her last wish, and unless he was a complete jerk (which I don't think any of us think he is) I'm almost certain he would oblige.
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