A/N: This is a second attempt at a birthday fic for singeivore. Her first request for Naruto/Sakura and a spork turned into utter failure. Lucky for me she's a forgiving sort of person, so she gave me Ichigo/Orihime as an alternative.
Of course, never having written Bleach anything before, I was even more nervous. So bear with me as you read.
Happy (belated) birthday, singeivoire!
Takes place sometime in the "after" of everything in the manga. No real spoilers, only made-up ones.
"I expect you each to have a copy of the book by the end of the day," Ochi-sensei said, scrawling the details of the assignment on the green chalkboard. "Your report—if done by yourself—should be five pages double-spaced. If you choose a partner, eight pages with a clear demarcation of which halves you both wrote. The report is due next week."
Ichigo leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head. Piece of cake assignment—as long as the Hollows decided to keep their ugly heads down. But then again, Renji was in town so maybe he should just let Red Pineapple-head handle it—if he could. Ichigo smirked to himself.
"IIIIIIIIIIchigo! Good buddy, good pal—"
Keigo paused mid-bounce on his way to Ichigo's desk and pouted. "You don't even know what I'm going to ask!"
"You're going to ask to be my partner," Ichigo returned, not opening his eyes, "which means I'll end up doing all the work like the last time we were partners for homework."
"That was in third grade!"
"Not gonna happen."
Keigo blew him a raspberry. "You're no fun. Hey, what about you, Mizuiro—"
"No thanks, Asano-san."
"There you go again with that ridiculous formality! What am I to you, the garbage collector?"
"Well, if you want the truth of it…"
Ichigo blocked out his friends' bickering and willed the clock to tick faster. Ten minutes left in class.
"Sorry, Keigo," rumbled Chad's slightly accented voice. "Ishida and I are working together for this one."
Ichigo's brow twitched in time with the ticking of the minute hand. Five minutes left.
"…hope the library has a copy!" Orihime's cheerful voice drifted over to him. "I already spent my allowance this week."
Ichigo frowned. He knew Orihime got some sort of government stipend, but that couldn't be much—probably just enough to pay her rent and buy groceries. This book they were reading—Harii Pottā to Kenja no Ishi—was a popular one. He only knew that because Yuzu babbled about it incessantly for a week when she first read it and often complained that the Karakura Library never had it in. But Orihime should be fine; if she partnered up with one of her friends, she wouldn't need to buy the book at all.
"…Sorry, Orihime, I'm already partnering with Sakura…"
Oh yeah. He'd forgotten that Tatsuki was out of town visiting a relative—who would Orihime choose then?
Ichigo sat up and opened his eyes. Chizuru was on the prowl, bespectacled eyes locked on Orihime across the room. Damn that crazy girl… Ichigo glanced around the room, but everyone else appeared to be partnered off and chatting the last few minutes of the class away. Chizuru closed on Orihime, preparing to pounce.
Ichigo stood up with a sigh and, shoving his hands in his pockets, sauntered over to her desk. "Oi, Inoue."
Orihime turned around and locked eyes with him, a faint blush rising on her cheeks. "Kurosaki-kun?"
"Want to be my partner for this project?"
"Hey, what's the big idea?" Keigo wailed behind him.
"Shaddup," Ichigo tossed over his shoulder. "Renji might need a partner when he's done fight… uh… when he gets back. Ask him."
"A-Abarai-kun? The guy with scary tattoos and even scarier muscles?"
Keigo wailed inarticulately again, but Ichigo turned his attention back to Orihime who was still staring up at him. Chizuru was also staring at him, her eyes narrowed like a cat who spied the dog drinking from its bowl.
"S-sure, Kurosaki-kun," Orihime stuttered.
"Great. We'll go to my place after school to get started. I think my sister has a copy of this book somewhere."
Ichigo turned to go back to his desk but was accosted by a flame-eyed Chizuru.
"What exactly are your intentions towards my lovely Orihime?"
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Finishing a project and getting a good grade." He sidestepped her and reached his desk.
"You dare lay a finger on my Hime-chan—"
Ichigo slung his pack over his shoulder as the bell rang and walked toward the exit, ignoring Chizuru's outraged cries behind him.
Orihime kept a steady patter of conversation as they walked to Ichigo's house. He made no attempt to keep up; having learned long ago that she didn't necessarily need someone to talk back, just listen.
"Hey, Inoue," he said as they approached his house, interrupting a flow of praise for a new dish she had made the night before—udon noodles with honey, raisins, and pickled avocado.
"Just a warning," he said scratching the back of his head, "my dad's really weird—"
"Oh yes, I remember Kurosaki-san!" Orihime smiled. "He was so brave and wonderful in Hueco Mundo, wasn't he?"
Ichigo's eyebrow twitched. So his dad was a shinigami too—big deal; it's not like he asked for his dad to come swooping in with his typical exuberance and slice Ulquiorra's arm off like that. Ichigo'd been doing fine… not that Orihime seemed to notice, as starry-eyed as she seemed now. Ichigo scowled.
"Yeah, he was something all right," he muttered. "But don't bring that stuff up while we're there. Karin knows a little, but Yuzu I think is still in the dark for the most part. I'd like to keep it that way."
"Why?" Orihime's big eyes stared up into his.
"I just want everything to go back to normal," he said with a shrug and then held out a hand for Orihime to stay back as he opened the front door.
Ichigo caught his father's fist, avoided the kick aimed at his stomach, and shoved the older man across the room.
"Lay off, Inoue's here."
Kurosaki Isshin looked up from the floor on the other side of the room where he'd landed in a tangle of arms and legs.
"Good afternoon, Kurosaki-san!" Orihime waved, smiling wide.
"Inoue-chan!" Isshin leapt up and, eyes starry, pounded Ichigo on the back so hard that he nearly fell over. "Has it finally happened my boy? Am I to finally welcome another daughter into our home? Oh my dear Masaki, if you could only see how lovely—"
"Shut up!" Ichigo yelled, face red. "We have homework, that's it!"
By this time Karin and Yuzu had stepped out from the kitchen to see what the ruckus was.
Ichigo managed to detach himself from his father and wearily introduced Orihime to the twins.
Karin looked the older girl up and down with scrutinizing interest. "Do you like soccer?"
"Um, I watch it sometimes, but I'm afraid I'm no good at playing," Orihime said with a small laugh. "My feet get tangled up trying to kick the ball and then I can't stop laughing at how silly I am."
"Oh." Karin looked over at Ichigo, raised an eyebrow, and returned to setting out dishes for dinner.
"I'm Yuzu," said the other girl with a bright smile. "I've heard so much about you, Inoue-san!"
"O-oh, really?" Orihime glanced at Ichigo who pretended not to have heard.
Yuzu turned back to the wok she had set on the stove, talking over her shoulder as she stirred whatever she was making. "Do you like to cook, Inoue-san?"
Orihime clasped her hands together in a paroxysm of glee. "Do I ever!"
Yuzu invited Orihime to eat with them and they chatted happily back and forth about cooking—though Yuzu seemed confused by Orihime's concoctions. Ichigo tried to eat as quickly as possible seeing as his dad kept glancing over to give him a wink and a thumbs-up.
Finally, Ichigo and Orihime escaped the dinner table and, shouldering their school bags, retreated to Ichigo's room.
Ichigo dropped his bag on the bed and gestured at the desk. "You can sit there—sorry about the mess." He kicked a pile of t-shirts and jeans under his bed.
Orihime didn't seem to hear him. She was standing in the middle of the floor, gazing around her with something like fond remembrance in her eyes.
"It looks so different in the day—"
"Oh! I mean, it looks exactly like your room should look, Kurosaki-kun," she said, giving a loud laugh, cheeks pink.
"Neechaaaaan—oof!" Kon's flying exit from the closet toward Orihime's chest was halted as Ichigo grabbed him in midair by the face and walked from the room.
"I'm going to grab the book from Yuzu's room," he explained, ignoring Kon's wriggling attempts to free himself, and shut the door behind him.
Ichigo only let go of Kon once he reached Yuzu's room.
Kon hopped away, rubbing his button nose indignantly. "What's the big idea? Just because you don't have the guts to nestle in the valley of the goddess—"
"Shut up!" Ichigo hissed, glancing at the hallway to ensure that his door was still closed. "It's not like that with Inoue and me. We're just friends."
Kon stared up at him and snorted eloquently. "Yeah, and I'm about to join a monastery—hey, what're you doing?" He struggled in Ichigo's grasp to no avail.
"Shut it," Ichigo snapped and yelled out the door. "Yuzu, I found your lion plushie!"
"No! Not her!" Kon thrashed around and tried to bite Ichigo's hand, but since his teeth, like the rest of him, were made of cloth, it had little effect.
"Oh, you found him, oniichan!" Yuzu squealed as she trotted down the hall. Kon went limp as she came into sight but muttered obscenities that only Ichigo could hear. Yuzu took Kon from Ichigo and hugged him tight.
"Yuzu, where's your copy of Harii Pottā to Kenja no Ishi? I need it for a book report that Inoue and I have to work on."
"Right here." Yuzu walked into her room and plucked the book—battered and dog-eared—from her bed stand drawer. "Have fun with it! It's my favorite."
Ichigo placed a scrap of paper into the book to mark it and glanced at the clock—nearly ten o'clock.
"Oooh, do you have to stop now?" Orihime said, eyes sparkling. "I want to see how poor Harii handles that awful sensei of his."
"It's late," Ichigo said, frowning, "and I haven't gotten a Hollow warning all night. That's a little weird."
"Isn't Renji-kun stationed in Karakura?"
"Yeah, for a bit, but still…" He glanced at his substitute shinigami license sitting on the desk but it lay quiet.
"Seems strange to be doing normal stuff," Orihime commented a moment later, one finger absently twirling a strand of her vivid hair.
"You know, we're sitting here doing homework and not out fighting Hollows and Arrancar and—" Her singsong voice stopped abruptly as Ichigo clapped a hand over her mouth.
"Shh!" he hissed, staring at his bedroom door. He didn't notice that Orihime's face was turning as red as her hair beneath his hand.
He tiptoed to his bedroom door and flung it open.
"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"
"My son! We were checking the door for termite damage—"
"Oniichan, we were just—"
"GO AWAY! We're trying to do homework!"
"I MEAN IT!" Slam.
Orihime was wide-eyed when he returned.
"Tch," he muttered, rubbing the back of his head. "Sorry about that. I warned you that my dad's a weirdo—"
Orihime giggled. "I like your dad. He reminds me of you!"
"It's true! You both get this funny expression on your face when you're serious—it makes me laugh!" And she did laugh, great peals that reverberated off the walls. Ichigo stared at her a minute, nonplussed, but felt a grin twitch in the corner of his mouth. It was hard to be grumpy around Orihime—even when she was being weird. It was like being caught in a beam of spring sunshine.
"Are you going to university, Kurosaki-kun?" Orihime twirled in the desk chair so that she spun like a top, her red hair flying out around her.
"I don't know. I guess," Ichigo leaned against the wall, arms folded. "I mean, it's the only way to get a decent job these days… and being a substitute shinigami isn't going to pay the bills…" He scowled.
"What's wrong?" Orihime asked, still twirling.
"Nothing… it's just…" Ichigo ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "I just want all of it to stop, you know? The whole damned thing with Aizen is over, yeah, but what's the next thing? When is that going to come along? Even tonight while I was reading I kept looking at that damned license, wondering when it would light up and start something else. I just want… I just want things to be the way they used to be."
Orihime stopped twirling, tried to stand, and almost fell over. Ichigo caught her by the arms and for a moment their eyes locked. Feeling heat rise up his neck for no apparent reason, he cleared his suddenly dry throat and helped her sit on the edge of the bed. Ichigo set his back against the closet door, folding his arms across his chest.
"I don't know if I want things to go back to the way they were," she said a moment later, running her fingers through a clump of her hair.
Orihime was quiet for so long he almost repeated his question.
"Because… because if things had stayed the same… I never would have gotten so close to you."
Ichigo stared at her and something seemed to click into place. The permanent scowl affixed to his face relaxed and something that might have been a smile twitched in the corner of his mouth.
"Heh, I never thought about it like that but… you're right." Ichigo stood up and went over to the bed, holding out his hand. "Are you feeling better? I'll walk you home."
Orihime looked up, meeting his eyes, and slowly put her hand into his. "I'd like that."
a/n: For the curious, Harii Pottā to Kenja no Ishi is the Japanese translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Sorcerer's Stone, to my fellow Americans) by J. K. Rowling. Literally translated it means something like "Harry Potter and the wise man's stone."
Thanks to singeivoire for finding out that little factoid since my own research failed.
And yes, I have had to read a Harry Potter book for a class ("Literature of the Fantastic") so it's not totally outside the realm of possibility for Ichigo's class to read it. But then again, this is fanfic, so who cares about possibilities?