Hey!! Hand-gyded here again. This time with a more dramatic story. Apologies to all fight-scene lovers. This is not that kind of story. There will be a few fight scenes, I promise. Just not in this chapter. This story won't be based on a villain's plot. To be frank, there is no real villain since it's neither an action nor adventure story.
This is one of my more serious fics and it is a 10 year romance follow-up from One Too Many. It's just a chance to see the complications that came with Ichigo and Inoue's relationship (what was left of it, anyway). I hope you'll all have the patience to read out the beginning scenes before the rest of the characters jump in. And please resist the urge to slice of my head when you find out what happened to Inoue. It's just a story. .:pleading earnestly:. I'm begging you guys. This story was supposed to be released last year Christmas. .:drops to knees and sobs:. I KNOW! I'm SUCH a procrastinator. A whole half year! That must be like a record or something. But I'm really going to try to finish this. I really hope you all enjoy it. Thanks.
Flustered hands pulled back the strands of bright orange hair that obscured his vision before reaching to fluff up the oversized cushions in his sofa.
He glanced at his wrist-watch, 'Three minutes left...'
An out-of-place glass caught his eye and it was promptly whisked away into the kitchen, washed, rinsed, dried and placed upon a shelf. He returned to the living room, his eyes scanning everything. Anything else?
His eyes averted back to the device on his wrist, its seconds-hand gliding smoothly yet threateningly towards the silver stud standing for twelve.
'Only a few seconds left'.
He sighed. For no apparent reason, he was like a nervous host, anxiously awaiting the arrival of his guest. So what if this would be his first time seeing her? It hadn't been that long. What? One, two, three...ten years? Shit. It had been that long? How much had she changed? As much as he had? Sure, he saw her on the tube practically every weekend on cable: Sports Central TV, TV Sports and MAC (Martial Arts Channel). He'd even seen her once on a breakfast show. She was all over the place! A lot had changed...had she?
Another glance at the watch. Now, she was late.
'Big surprise.' Ichigo thought with a faint smile and walked to the window. Resting his arms on the window ledge, he looked out through the frosted glass into the snow covered town. Sidewalks, rooftops and trees bore the weight of the white stuff, totally exposed to and thus reflecting the silver beams of moonlight. The effect was a breath-taking shimmer, characteristic of Christmas in Karakura.
Christmas. Supposedly the most magical season of the year. That is, for the average six year old who still believes in fat jolly men donning red fur coats with bleach white flowing beards. For the teenage girl who recently fell in love with 'that boy with the cute smile and dimples' and is going to, for once, actually see the beauty in the hymns played every year on the radio...because he's by her side. And maybe for the single mother who got that job she'd been applying for and this year, will be able to provide a Christmas worth remembering for her kids.
But for him, Christmas was just another excuse for a holiday. Nothing more. Where was the magic in drinking eggnog, sleeping in late and spending money on relatives that could afford a thousand more of what ever you bought them? Everyone was going to end up back in their offices to regain all the money they'd spent during the holiday anyway. What was the point?
Maybe...there was no point.
Just like there was no point cleaning up his home more than usual just because she was staying over. But he'd done it anyway. Love makes a person do funny things...even if it's just amity. Besides, he didn't want her thinking he lived like a pig.
The sharp ring of the doorbell slapped him out of his musings. She was here.
He poked at the fireplace with a poker, trying to release the roaring fire's fullest warmth, before proceeding to the door to open it.
And there she stood. In the corridor, melting snow in her hair, water running down her face and seeping through the tiny gap between the collar of her jacket and her neck. Her eyes locked unto his, before a grin slowly spread across her face, "Ichigo?"
Before Ichigo could answer, she walked in briskly, dragging her suitcase behind her. "It's freezing outside! Thank God for fires, huh?" She let her baggage drop as she flopped unto the carpet right before the fireplace, stretching her hands towards it.
She sighed tiredly, "Much better."
You'd think she lived there.
Ichigo shut the door and walked up behind her, "Ten years and you greet me with that? And...Hey! You're dripping water all over my carpet! There're towels in the bathroom, for crying out loud!"
She slipped her jacket off and tossed it over her shoulder, into Ichigo's face. "Let me just warm up a bit, okay?"
Ichigo muttered something before throwing her jacket into the sofa. And to think he'd thought this moment would be awkward.
"Want some hot chocolate?" He was going to the kitchen.
"Sure. Got any marshmallows?"
"Yeah. Hold on a sec."
Soon, he was back in the room, two steaming mugs in both hands. "Here."
She stood up to receive hers, graciously taking a long sip of the heavenly substance. After savoring it for about a minute, she opened her eyes and stared into Ichigo's.
Ichigo stared back, a small smile playing on his lips as they stood facing each other, the firelight elongating their shadows against the surrounding walls. Finally he said, "Long time no see, Tatsuki."
Tatsuki ran her hand through the shoulder length ebony hair she had decided to grow about a year ago. "You're growing a beard?"
"Me?" Ichigo rubbed the stubble on his face, "Nah, just need to shave is all."
"Yeah?" Tatsuki took another long sip, "You're beginning to look a lot like your dad."
"You're not the first one to tell me that." Ichigo grumbled and took a seat.
"Hey, almost forgot. Thanks again for letting me stay here." she said, joining him in the sofa, "When you get sick of me, tell me so I can go get a hotel room."
"Like that'll stop you." her childhood friend muttered.
"Probably not. You invited me first though, remember? So if I get on your nerves, you only have that kindness beneath your cold demeanor to blame." She stood up again, "But seriously, this is a nice place you've got here!" She whistled at the 103 inch plasma television, "Really nice apartment. Duplex? I think I saw a staircase, coming in here."
Ichigo nodded, "Five bedrooms. You can choose later. Screw the apartment. Tell me about your trips."
"...'been to five countries. I'll tell you about them later. Screw the trips. I wanna choose now."
With a sigh, he stood, mug still in hand. "I'll show you around. But as I do, you tell me about your trips. Deal?"
"Whatever." She grabbed her luggage, already one step ahead.
The first room was large, beautifully furnished with golds and browns. Another unreasonably large television screen lay imbedded in the wall and at the end of the room, glass doors opened up unto a balcony.
"I'll take it." Tatsuki said, impressed.
"Like hell you will." Ichigo said, pulling her to the next door. "That was my room!"
The rest of the rooms weren't as luxurious, but beautiful in their own respects. And as she toured, she told him about work.
"The dojos are doing pretty good. You should know that already. I've been interviewed on like...I dunno...a zillion channels this month." she said as-a-matter-of-factly, not sounding at all interested in what she was saying, "The one in America, I'm sure you heard, had it's reputation kinda damaged 'cause of that Instructor-Student sex scandal and all. But the other four are doing okay."
Ichigo nodded..., "That's good to hear."...before opening the final door, revealing the room's contents.
"Hey, I like this black and white colour combination thing here." She said, her eyes traveling from the curtains to the bedsheets to the carpet, "I think I want this one. Plus it's got its own bathroom."
"Suit yourself." Ichigo said, now getting to the main reason he'd began asking all those questions, "Uh...I just wanted to know. When you went to America, did you get to see Inoue?"
Tatsuki did a double take, like Ichigo shouldn't have even wasted breath asking a question like that; the answer being obvious. "Of course I did. And yes she's doing okay... in her thirty acre mansion." she added with raised eyebrows.
Ichigo's hand involuntarily scratched at his stubble, "Uh...yeah, I heard about the thirty acre mansion. Her candy products are pretty popular here in Karakura. One of her restaurants' uptown too. Four star, I heard."
"But haven't seen?" Tatsuki asked, a little surprised.
"The hospital keeps me busy."
Tatsuki shook her head, "Yeah. You never have time for much, do you? Only when your friends are on the verge of death. But if they're alive...that's all that matters, huh?"
Ichigo remained silent, slowly swirling his mug of now cold chocolate.
A sigh, before "How's your dad? Is he fine? And your sisters. Is it true Karin plays for a third division team in Brazil?"
"Second division team." Ichigo corrected, "Yuzu's in a boarding school in Tokyo. She has a boyfriend now; some nice English kid. I gave up trying to pronounce his name weeks ago. And dad's stupidity's being manifested to some other unlucky person in the Bahamas. Karin and I sent him there last month to get some fresh air. He gets really tired, especially now that the hospital's big time in Japan. We just want him to rest." He paused, lingering over a thought. Then he finished with an unconvincing, "I'm doing okay back here alone."
Tatsuki smiled, "I'm sure you are. That's why you invited everyone over for Christmas?"
"I thought it'd be nice." Ichigo defended, turning his back to her, already going back downstairs.
"Liar. You must be bored out of your skull!!" she retorted with a smirk and followed him.
"Get some sleep." Ichigo was tired of the conversation, ''Tomorrow, we need to be up at 6. We're picking Inoue up at the airport."
"...'haven't forgotten. Hey, Ichigo. Seen Ishida around?" The question sounded innocent enough.
"Yeah, he's okay. His Quincy clothing line's really popular in high society. He even sent me a suit for my last birthday." A corner of Ichigo's mouth rose in a half-smile as he remembered its design, "Impressive designing. I haven't worn it yet, but I will this Christmas."
Obviously Tatsuki didn't give a damn about the design of his suit, only half listening to what he was saying. When Ichigo had shut up, she ventured with a "...'he mention me...or something?"
She had tried to sound as casual as possible, but the average listener would have noted the nervousness in her voice.
Ichigo was not the average listener and was clearly confused when he muttered, "Uh...I don't know. Maybe. Should he have?"
Tatsuki, disgusted, thrust the empty mug at him. "Thanks for the chocolate. See you tomorrow morning." She began climbing the stairs again.
Ichigo's voice halted her. "Hey, Tatsuki?"
Tatsuki faced him. What did he want?
Ichigo had never been too good at things like this, "Uh...I just want to...you know...Thanks." He turned around before continuing, "Thanks for coming. You're right. The loneliness was getting to me." He twisted his head in her direction, offering a small smile.
Tatsuki's face remained expressionless for a moment, before she allowed it to melt into a warm smile, "Thanks for inviting me. I missed being home."
He nodded, before leaving.
Tatsuki remained on the stairs staring after him, the smile glued to her face.
Had Ichigo changed? Yes, he had...a lot.
And yet, he hadn't.
Not a bit.
The shadows took the shape of all sorts of unusual and absolutely unrelated things: from trees to baseball caps to man-eating monsters to whatever the mind's imagination would allow. The darkness had a mind of its own...or so it seemed to Tatsuki, who was having a hard time falling asleep. New places always had that effect on her. It usually took about two to three hours of periodic rolling to get herself into slumber land. But tonight, even that wasn't working. It was well past three in the morning, almost five hours since she'd tucked herself in and she still couldn't get her mind to shut down.
"Stupid black and white combination." Tatsuki muttered tiredly to herself as she watched a shadowy zebra dance across the striped curtains before her. She was dead tired. And she couldn't fall asleep. What kind of a curse was that? She suddenly recalled that somewhere, probably Reader's Digest or O! (or something within that literary perimeter), she had read that warm milk possessed sedative after effects at night. Not exactly the most authentic sounding tip, but by then she was ready to try anything.
With some effort, she got her feet out of the tangled blankets and unto the warm carpet beneath her.
"Oh...I'm so tired..." she groaned, getting out of bed. She shuffled across the floor, out her bedroom door and carefully made her way down the stairs.
And that was when she heard it. The weird droning sound coming from...from...She began to tiptoe to the living room, tightening her fists just incase she would be some how motivated to use them. The entire apartment was dark except from the dull bluish white light flashing on those living room walls that she could see from where she stood.
Her brain worked over time, trying to make sense of the situation. Was it an alien? No...stupid suggestion. Robber? Why'd a robber be using the television? ...The Television!
She relaxed. "Ichigo." she whispered with a small frown. What on earth was he still doing up?
She peeked around the living room doorway. Ichigo was sitting in the sofa, hunched over, the remote control in his left hand, his jaw in his right. It was clear his full attention was being taken by whatever he was so intently watching on the screen.
Tatsuki's eyes traveled from Ichigo to the television screen.
In the video a raven haired girl was arguing with a red head with tattoos all over his body...over a champagne bottle it seemed! The camera swiveled around, capturing Kurosaki-sama, Ichigo's dad, in the process of a ridiculous excuse for a dance. The camera swiveled around again, and caught a white haired guy talking to a girl Tatsuki could vaguely make out as Kurosaki Karin.
Tatsuki knew what video this was. She had a copy of it in her house in London. One of the most significant occasions in everyone's life: Rukia's wedding.
Why was it significant in everyone's life? Well...because that was the last time they'd done anything together. After Rukia'd returned to Soul Society with Renji, everyone'd basically gone their seperate ways. Come to think of it, that had been the last time Ichigo'd seen Inoue. Because right after the wedding, she'd jumped unto a plane to South America. She'd never been back to Japan since, much less Karakura town. Actually none of those who'd traveled had been back since that wedding. Five years. And she, Tatsuki, had been the first one to come back.
Again the scene changed, this time giving Tatsuki the chance of staring at a younger version of herself, having a conversation with a girl with hair almost as brightly orange as Ichigo's. Here, the video froze as a pause sign appeared at the upper right corner of the screen. And the scene suddenly zoomed in on the orange-haired girl, getting close enough to allow anyone to clearly identify her.
Tatsuki swallowed hard.
What felt like at least an hour passed by, with Ichigo firmly planted in the sofa and Tatsuki standing at the door.
Inoue's frozen frame was still on.
Tatsuki's legs were getting tired...very tired... She slowly walked to a chair behind Ichigo and took a seat.
Tatsuki froze. Ichigo's hadn't even turned around.
She ventured a whispered, "Ichigo?"
"You should be in bed. It's three." he muttered. Suddenly the room was engulfed in darkness as the television's screen went cold blank.
Tatsuki watched Ichigo's shadowy figure rise and begin towards her. Tatsuki stared numbly ahead at the blinking VCR as he neared. "I'm going to bed." he said to her, his voice barely above a breath. Then he walked right past her, leaving the room.
Tatsuki listened for the barely audible squeaks of the stairs to signify Ichigo's ascent. It was only when she was confident he had locked himself into his room that she stood, groped her way through the darkness, and returned to bed.
The ride to the airport was silent, save the consistent hum of the SUV's air-condition as it blasted warm air.
Ichigo's eyes were glued to the road, not especially because he was a wary motorist, but because the previous night's embarrassing event filled him with a kind of shame that kept his lips glued shut; shame similar to the kind a child endured when caught with his hand in a cookie jar.
And Tatsuki sat remarkably still in her seat, staring at the hotels, super marts and apartment buildings that flashed by, musing to herself how much Karakura had developed. And resisting the urge to burst out with questions like: If you're still in love with her, why the hell haven't you called her in 10 years?!
It didn't make any sense! For ten years, Tatsuki had thought she had reason to believe Ichigo and Inoue had simply fallen out of love. Then again, further reflection on the issue chucked that theory as well out of the realms of common sense. True, Ichigo cared and would fight with his life for all of his friends. He'd proved it when Rukia had been arrested and sentenced to execution by Soul Society's courts. Tatsuki had not been present during the events, but the tales of Ichigo's valor were like legends; the details of his battles like something ripped right out of a Japanese manga! Never had it been so evident that Ichigo loved his friends. And it filled Tatsuki with immeasurable pride to know he considered her one (of course, she would never let him know this).
But that was where the line, the thick undeniable line, was drawn. As brilliant as Rukia's rescue had been, Inoue's had clearly distinguished the ends to which Ichigo's will would stretch for one he loved...from the ends to which his will would stretch for one he was in love with.
Because for Inoue, Ichigo had brutally beaten his body into submission for days on end. For her he had discovered and harnessed abilities that in themselves, threatened to strip him of his sanity. For her he had repeatedly squeezed free the obscurest of strength within himself (especially when it would seem he was at his limit) just for her. For her, he had taken on villains so powerful they considered themselves capable of dethroning God Himself. And for her...he had won.
No. It made no sense that one silly argument and a bit of stubborn pride had kept them apart for 10 years. Especially...after it had taken so long for him to make his feelings known...after all the pain...after the incident...
Tatsuki sighed. There had been times when remembering "the incident" had brought a smile- a sad smile- but a smile nevertheless, to her face. Now frankly it just pissed her off. What then, had all the dramatics counted for if this was all it had eventually ended up with? Ten years of wasted time?
Silently, she turned to watch his frown deepen as his eyes scanned the airport's car park, searching for a space to park.
Perhaps only he understood. And perhaps, this Christmas was his opportunity to right things. Perhaps.
The morning air was cold and biting, the skies grey and overcast. The frost hit Ichigo the second his stepped out, nipping at any unprotected skin. The same was for Tatsuki, and as she watched townspeople hurry by, she wondered what on earth would drag them out of bed in such god forsaken weather. True, like she and Ichigo many were here to welcome or see off friends, business partners or family but she wouldn't have minded knowing exactly how many of them would have given anything to be back buried deep within their sheets. God! Of all the times Inoue's plane could have arrived at...
They walked briskly towards the arrival hall, eager to be back in the warmth. A sea of people impeded their progress, some of them going as far as to shove and elbow Ichigo and his guest. Why were there so many people out at this time of the day?! Years back, in the Karakura Tatsuki remembered, the streets would have now been slowly filling up; the stream of pedestrians barely a trickle. It saddened Tatsuki that Karakura was gradually becoming a miniature New York City.
As they forced their way through the entrance, Ichigo began to listen for announcements over the airport's PA system. And as he fought the current of people ,he also began to lose his patience with the rowdy crowd.
Suddenly, Ichigo heard Tatsuki grunt behind him. He spun around just in time to see Tatsuki fall to the floor, having recently been knocked aside.
Okay! That did it!
Ichigo's fist readied. The culprit needed to see the error of his ways and Ichigo was quite prepared to "aid" the guiltiest-looking person he could lay his eyes on: that being the blue haired man in the black suit whose lips were just on the verge of uttering an apologetic "Gomennasai". Too late. Ichigo's hand shot out, grabbing the stranger by the collar and yanking him closer. "What the heck're you doing running in a place like this?! Are you retarded?!" Ichigo spat into his face.
The stranger proceeded to stutter a string of very strained japanese. But Ichigo was in no listening mood, and his deepening scowl completely wasted the stranger of his efforts. Soon the stranger had resorted (rather pitifully) to stuttered gibberish. Or it sounded like gibberish at first anyway. But closer attention to his speech allowed Ichigo to identify the language. It was English.
"Don't worry, Ichigo. I'm fine." Tatsuki's voice came from behind.
Ichigo still held on to his captive, turning to Tatsuki with a suspicious tone, "Check your stuff. Make sure nothing's missing."
The stranger looked offended, saying in English. "You don't need to do that. I'm no thief."
Tatsuki, now a master of a number of languages due to her frequent travel, walked up to him, replying in likewise tongue. "Well if you act like a thief, you sure as hell will be treated as one."
The stranger laughed apologetically, "You have a point."
"Ichigo, you can let go of him." Tatsuki said, switching back to their dialect.
Hesitantly, Ichigo let go of the man.
"Arigatou." the man said with a sigh of relief. Turning to Tatsuki, "Please apologize to your boyfriend for me."
"I am not her boyfriend." Ichigo muttered.
The stranger was not the only one surprised.
"Ichigo?" Tatsuki turned to him with surprise in her eyes, but a pleased smile on her lips.
"I took a private night class." Ichigo looked a little embarrassed but explained. "Ever since the hospital expanded, a lot of English doctors and patients get transferred over to me. So I thought, what the heck..."
"That's great." Tatsuki grinned.
"Eh..." the stranger looked a little flustered and attempted to speak some Japanese, "Please excuse my rudeness. My name is Matt Peterson. Ona-mae-wa? (You are?)" His Japanese sounded forced and rehearsed. And though his phonetics were nothing too divergent, it would seem that Ichigo and Tatsuki's English was better than his Japanese. He laughed nervously, "Excuse me. My japanese isn't exactly top notch when I'm nervous."
"I'm Ichigo Kurosaki." Ichigo said.
Tatsuki nodded, "Tatsuki Arisawa."
"A pleasure to meet you both." Matt said, bowing slightly and offering them a homey smile. "Again, I'm very sorry." As he grew comfortable, his japanese improved dramatically. "I'm here with my fiancee, Stephanie, on vacation. I'm supposed to be getting us a cart for our luggage and you know..." he laughed, embarrassed. "...Just trying to impress her with speedy service or whatever."
"Oh." Ichigo nodded.
"American, right?" Tatsuki inquired in English.
Matt grinned. "Yeah."
"Figures." Tatsuki muttered to herself in Japanese and turned away.
"We have to go. We're waiting for someone." Ichigo said, tired of the conversation.
"Oh?" Matt said, "So are we. We were supposed to meet some friends of ours. But we needed a cart first...um..." He seemed to realize he had mentioned this already, "...like I said, I was looking for one." Ichigo didn't look too interested and his cold expression sent Matt's words trailing, "That is...if...I...can...find...her...um...yeah..." Finally he gave up. "Nice talking to you guys." He waved and turned around, disappearing into the crowd of people.
"Americans." Ichigo shook her head.
"I've met worse." Tatsuki said and changed the subject. "I think I see an information desk up ahead. Gimme a sec."
Ichigo watched her squeeze her way to the desk, where a rather plain looking woman sat reading a magazine. A couple of exchanged words and a thank you later, Tatsuki was back.
"Inoue's plane landed about half an hour ago." she said. "So all we have to do is find her."
Ichigo swallowed and nodded. And they began to roam the huge waiting area.
'Ten years...' Ichigo thought as he walked. The nervousness was like a wad of gum lodged in his throat. 'Where does all the time go... I haven't spoken to her in ten years... Even when I invited her over, it was her answering machine I got...except that one time I got her secretary. Then when she got back to me, she got my answering machine. All the plans...every detail of her trip here...my confirmation of her flight... everything! Through answering machines... Our answering machines have a better relationship with each other than we do...
"I keep asking people if they've seen anyone with bright red hair." Tatsuki suddenly said, interrupting Ichigo's musings. "Same answer. Negative. I wonder where she could be."
Ichigo shrugged and just kept walking. Silently, he surveyed the room. Karakura had become quite popular amongst the tourists and a lot of the people present were foreigners. Like the old man in the navy suit with the silver briefcase. Pale skin. Broad nose. Inquisitive but indifferent eyes. Most probably British.
And the young black woman. Beneath her black jacket, there was a one piece dress covered in curious black symbols against a yellow-green-blue pattern. She had a cute button nose. Glasses. A necklace of cowries around her neck. African; Southern or Tanzanian.
Then there was the lady with the auburn hair...
...Ichigo frowned a little. He couldn't really see her face; her back was to him. But she wore a dark green sweater with snow white jeans. A thick white wooly jacket was slung over her shoulder, just partly concealing the brown hand bag. Whoever she was, it was obvious she had a sense of style. And it sure wasn't wasted on her body. The typical guy would've at least whistled under his breath. Ichigo? He let his eyes travel up and down the gracious figure. Whoa...she was definitely model material.
"I'm calling Inoue's cell phone." Ichigo heard Tatsuki say over the din of the crowd. Absently, he nodded.
The object of Ichigo's attention had her arms infront of her and Ichigo assumed they were folded. In impatience, most likely. Probably waiting for someone. He watched her stop a passerby and inquire of something. The man began to explain something, a suggestive smile on his face.
'Hitting on her.' Ichigo thought, smiling to himself.
Suddenly, the lady held up a hand to excuse herself. Then began rummaging through her purse. The man shrugged and walked away. She pulled out a glossy red cell phone, snapped it open and began speaking into it. Straightaway, she began turning around, looking for someone. Ichigo noted that she was wearing shades; nothing too flashy. Then she turned in Ichigo's direction. A smile spread across her lips and she began...to wave??
Huh? Ichigo's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. He looked behind himself. Tatsuki was waving back.
HUH?! Ichigo turned back to stare at the lady, who was now approaching them with quick steps.
That was Inoue??
Ichigo's eyes widened in disbelief. That...was Inoue??
The woman strode right past him and flung herself into Tatsuki's waiting arms. Behind him, Ichigo could hear them laughing and squealing.
Who...who was this woman? That wasn't Inoue! This woman didn't act like Inoue! This woman didn't even have the same hair colour as Inoue!! Was this some kind of joke? It took him every ounce of his will to turn around and watch them chatter excitedly. The woman hadn't even noticed him.
'So much for homecoming' Ichigo thought glumly.
But Tatsuki hadn't forgotten about her host. She glanced in Ichigo's direction and with a mischievous smile, whispered something into the woman's ears. Very slowly, the brunette turned around to face Ichigo. Then with one hand, she carefully began pulling off her silver rimmed shades. And as the glasses came off, just as Ichigo could not take his eyes of this gorgeous woman, he could neither deny it. This woman...was...
"Inoue?" Ichigo breathed.
Inoue stared back, sinking into Ichigo's caramel eyes, her smile growing wider with each passing second. There was silence between them for a moment. "Kurosaki...Ichigo?" she finally uttered. Her hand reached out, and gently brushed against his jaw. Ichigo felt shivers go down his spine.
Then suddenly: "I didn't recognize you at all!" she exclaimed, taking Ichigo by surprise with her tone. She had absolutely ruined the moment. "You're growing a beard?!"
Ichigo blinked, "Um...not really."
"You look so different!!"
Ichigo almost choked on his own saliva, "Look who's talking! What did you do to your hair?!" This conversation felt awkward! Ichigo had never spoken to Inoue in this tone. But she didn't seem to mind. If anything, she seemed relieved to see he was at ease.
"Well you know..." Inoue shrugged, "I got tired of same old- same old. So I made a few changes." she shrugged again, her hair bouncing. "It's no big deal."
The transition to English had been brief but Tatsuki's eyebrow still went up regardless. "No English, Inoue. We're home. I want Japanese! Japanese every freakin' second!"
Inoue stopped, a little stunned. "Um...that's going to be a bit of a problem."
Tatsuki's eyebrow went higher, "Because..."
"I..." Inoue stammered, "...sorta...invited someone over."
Tatsuki was dismayed. "Inoue!!"
The newcomer turned to Ichigo with pleading eyes, "I'm really sorry Ichigo. He's not exactly the kind I can leave alone."
"He?" Tatsuki was further dismayed.
"His family is great and all but they aren't the jolliest people to spend a jolly season with..." Inoue explained, "...besides, he would've burnt the house down. He can't cook to save his life."
"Um...sure." Ichigo said, scratching at his hair. "I've got extra room. No problem." Ichigo didn't mind too much.
Tatsuki on the other hand did mind. "Inoue! This was supposed to be a reunion between friends..."
"He won't be any trouble Tatsuki, I swear." There was doubt in Inoue's voice though.
Ichigo watched the conversation, a grim line drawn on his face. The conversation was so American it made him nauseous.
It took some persuading , but Tatsuki finally accepted the idea that there would be a stranger living with them.
"Okay. Okay." Tatsuki said, throwing up her arms in defeat. "Let's get your stuff, find your friend and get out of here."
Inuoe pointed behind her. "My luggage is over there. We just need a trolley. My um... friend, was supposed to be getting us one."
"Oh yeah?" Ichigo said. "Your friend's really clueless, huh?"
Inoue smiled. "What makes you say that?"
"Well, he's supposed to be getting you a cart right?" Ichigo thumbed in the direction of the information desk Tatsuki had just recently been too. Not too far from the desk, a long very conspicuous chain of gleaming carts sat with a sign next to it that had "CARTS" printed in 5 different languages, English included.
Tatsuki shook her head sadly, "Hold on. I'll get one for us."
"No, I will." Ichigo said, already leaving. "Keep Inoue company, I'll be right back." Originally, he had believed he was meeting the same Inoue from ten years ago. And even with her, Ichigo hadn't been sure how he was going to talk to her. So seeing this Inoue... There was no way he wanted to be left alone with this Inoue. Not yet anyway.
"Oh." Inoue sighed, looking around. She seemed edgy about something. "He gets so lost sometimes. We just needed a cart."
Suddenly, the premonition hit Tatsuki.
"Wait..." Tatsuki began cautiously, "Your friend...does he have dyed blue hair?"
Inoue looked surprised. "It isn't dyed. You met him?"
"Yeah. He is clueless."
Inoue looked nervous and Tatsuki wondered why. Inoue said, "I want to speak to him about something."
Tatsuki was just about to say something when they heard a voice behind them shout, "Stephanie!"
"Matt?" Inoue turned around.
Sure enough, Tatsuki spotted a mess of blue hair bobbing between other heads in the crowd. "You've got to be kidding me?" Tatsuki muttered.
"Hey." Matt said as he reached them, panting for air. He'd been running around again. He looked questioningly in Tatsuki's direction, then spoke to Inoue. "I can't find any carts, Steph. Maybe this airport doesn't have any."
Inoue tried to pull him away. "Matt, I need to tell you something real quick."
"Steph??" Tatsuki frowned and looked at Inoue with a 'this better be good' look.
"Stephanie literally translates into The Crowned One. It's pretty close to the 'Hime'; Princess, in my name Orihime." Inoue explained hurriedly, turning slightly red. "At first he was going to call me Sarah. But I thought Stephanie sounded cuter."
"Honey..." Matt said, "I didn't catch any of that, you were speaking way too fast. I'm still a learner, remember."
"Honey??" Tatsuki was getting more confused by the minute.
Inoue cringed...then sighed. "Matt." she said quietly. "This is Tatsuki. She's one of the friends I was telling you about."
"No way." Matt said, pleased. "Arisawa-sama, right? We met barely 10 minutes ago! How about that?!"
Tatsuki wasn't so pleased. "You liar. You told me you were looking for your fiancee!"
Matt went behind Inoue and slipped his arms around her, planting a kiss on her neck. "This is my fiancee."
Tatsuki felt her lips freeze over, and her mind go blank. "What?" she finally whispered.
Inoue gently pushed Matt away from herself, avoiding Tatsuki's questioning eyes. "Not in public Matt. I'm sorry. He thinks every country's this liberal." she said.
Tatsuki stood frozen. What was going on...?
"Don't tell me this is the friend you were talking about." Ichigo's voice said behind Tatsuki. Soon Ichigo was beside her, wheeling a cart in.
'Oh no.' Tatsuki thought, instantly wishing she had stayed back at the apartment.
"Hey Einstein." Ichigo joked. "There was a whole stack of carts..." He noticed Tatsuki's silence. "...over...um...Tatsuki is there a problem?"
Tatsuki looked up, the pain of betrayal glistening in her eyes. Her voice cracked as she spoke, "Why don't you ask our friends here?"
Ichigo looked up at Matt, confused. But Matt looked just as confused.
"Baby, what's going on?" Matt whispered.
Ichigo caught the title. "'Baby'??"
"Hoh-boy." Tatsuki muttered.
"Ichigo..." Inoue said, almost regrettably. "...this is my fiancee, Matt."
Ichigo just stared, obviously not sure if he had heard right. Then he mumbled, "Huh?"
"Hoh-boy." Tatsukii repeated, a little louder this time.
It was going to be one hell of a Christmas.
I think my ending was a tad bit sloppy but .:groans:. I'm too tired (plus I've got the attention span of a 6 year old on a soda cocktail). I think this is as good as it's gonna get. Unless you've got suggestions. Thanks for reading. Unlike with my previous fic One Too Many, it may take a while for me to update this story. I hope you all enjoyed it. PLEASE review it so I know how it went (and whether to continue at all). Thanks! Peace! I'm out!