This is for the Tanabata Festival contest at the Five Lifetimes, One Love forum. An extra special thanks goes to PerennialLurker from Bleach Asylum, who beta-read this piece and suffered through all the changes that it underwent, both big and small, with me. She's certainly on my Awesome-People list ^_^
An Orihime For Ichigo
Karakura Town was glowing, not just from its usual amalgamation of building, street, and car lights, but from the colorful lanterns that hung on the many stalls along the streets. The entire town was alight in a multitude of hues. It gave the tanzaku stuck on the bamboo poles and the variegated yukata of passers-by a beautiful radiance only seen during Tanabata.
It made her glow, too, or so Ichigo thought. Those rainbow lights gave Inoue Orihime an almost ethereal appearance, and Ichigo couldn't take his eyes off of her as she browsed through stalls selling delicious treats and hand-made crafts. The smile she wore never left her face as she chatted with shop vendors and other customers, and despite Ichigo's preference for scowling, the corners of his mouth would upturn whenever he saw that infectious grin of Orihime's.
But then, he mused, a lot of things about her seemed to rub off on him whenever he was near her, like her calmness, or even her compassion she was so known for. Whenever they touched, he could feel her unyielding but serene strength flow through her skin and into his. He reveled in it, and he'd be a liar if he said he didn't enjoy it.
Stop it. You know where this train of thought leads to, and it'll only make you miserable.
Reminding himself about his misery did nothing to ease the painful swelling in his chest. The entire situation was depressing, cyclical, and in his mind, pointless. No matter what he did or said, even if he found the courage to tell her, Inoue Orihime was out of his league and far too good for him. That belief only worsened his already glum mood.
This is why I tell myself to stop thinking about it, he thought bitterly.
He crossed his arms as the wind picked up and blew over him, ruffling his rusty-colored yukata. In his peripheral vision, he saw Orihime shudder in the wind, wrapping her arms about her. If only I was over there, I could-
He slapped his forehead with his palm. I really need a distraction.
There is a higher deity that likes me. Ichigo turned to see Rose approaching him. To his surprise, he was also wearing traditional garb. "Rose. I didn't know you guys were coming."
He nodded. "Yes. We were bored, and Mashiro wanted to go shopping, so we all bought these robes and decided to enjoy a night out."
Ichigo's eye twitched, and when Rose looked at him questioningly, he explained, "Sorry. I have a hard time picturing Shinji in a yukata. Especially with a tweed cap on."
Rose laughed. "He's not wearing it, I promise. He tried, but Riza made him leave it behind." He scratched his head, and smiled. "So, what were you staring at before?"
To Ichigo's horror, he felt his cheeks flush a faint pink. "Uh, nothing really. Just-"
Whether he wanted to see for himself or just didn't believe Ichigo, Rose looked around him, and raised an eyebrow when he laid eyes on Orihime. "Ahh. She's quite a sight tonight."
Ichigo whipped his head away to hide his ever-growing blush, and shrugged. "Uh, who? Inoue? Y-yeah, she is pretty." He silently cursed himself for two reasons, they being that one, he did a terrible job at playing dumb; and two, he had the audacity to describe Orihime as merely "pretty".
Her hair was tied in a loose bun, perhaps in an effort to manage its length and keep the wind from making it knotty. Her yukata was light silver, printed with light blue flowers that swirled on the fabric. Taking another peek at her, Ichigo squinted at the pattern, and after a moment realized that it matched her hairpins. The outfit fit her perfectly, displaying her physique without being too revealing or distasteful.
He unconsciously tilted his head to the side as he watched her flush faintly in response to something a shopkeeper said.
Ichigo suddenly blinked, remembering that Rose was still standing next to him and that he was staring at her again. His eyes darted to his fellow Vizard, and he groaned inwardly at Rose's knowing smile.
"It's okay," he assured Ichigo, "it's normal to stare at a pretty girl."
Was it? Ichigo's gaze fell to the ground. "Yeah, if she wasn't my friend. Besides-" He paused, and shook his head. If he continued, he'd reveal way too much. "Listen, I'm gonna go talk to her and see if she's heard from the others. I'll see you around." He nodded to Rose, trying to ignore the elder Vizard's concerned look as he hurried towards Orihime.
A wave of guilt engulfed him. He liked Rose, because he was one of the Vizards that didn't constantly pick on, nag, or hit him. But Ichigo couldn't look at his face, with that worried expression and those eyes that seemed like they could peer into his mind and expose the truth. A truth Ichigo was simply not willing to share with Rose or anyone.
"Kurosaki-kun." Orihime's voice pulled him from his thoughts. He looked up, and smiled softly as she approached.
"Inoue." He inclined his head towards her, still smiling as she walked up to him. "I didn't know you were coming alone."
She nodded. "Tatsuki-chan was delayed at home, and told me to go on without her. I'm supposed to find her later, after I meet up with everyone else. You're the first one I found, though."
Ichigo frowned, and he lifted his head to scan the crowd. "I was hoping you found someone. Have you tried searching anyone's reiatsu?" he asked quietly.
Orihime's eyes closed, and she bowed her head in concentration. After a few moments, she slowly opened her eyes. "It's hard. With so many people and reiatsu, even those that are small, it's tricky. I think there's someone close by…"
"I was just talking to Rose before, so maybe-"
The pair blinked simultaneously. Orihime's wide brown eyes scanned the shifting crowds for the source of the voice, as did Ichigo's.
A ways down the street, they finally spotted Rukia waving to them, standing on her toes to make herself visible among the pedestrians. Rukia's yukata, a dark purple with black carnations daintily strewn about the fabric, made her blend in all too easily.
"Ah! I see Kuchiki-san!" Orihime exclaimed.
Ichigo nodded, and they walked over to her.
Rukia grinned when they met. "You two look great. Although, Ichigo? Is that a neckband you're wearing?" she asked, peering at his neck where he sported a neckband the same color as his yukata.
"Yeah." He fingered it. "Yuzu thought I'd look 'dashing' with it on, or something, so I just wore it."
She nodded, but kept quiet for a minute, examining the band and poking at it once or twice. Finally, she leaned back and said, "Not sure if I like it or not. But anyway, let's get going. Everyone's waiting." She beckoned them to follow, and started working her way through the crowd.
Orihime began hurrying after her, but abruptly paused after taking the first step. "I like it a lot," she said softly to Ichigo, smiling at him before taking off after Rukia.
Ichigo flushed, but he warmed at the compliment, especially considering its source, as he followed the two girls through the swarm of people.
Rose sighed heavily as Ichigo disappeared from sight. "What do you think?" he asked to seemingly no one.
However, there was someone he was addressing. Shinji stepped away from the stall he was browsing through. He swiped away a piece of lint from his off-white yukata before casually strolling up to Rose. "I think I'm inclined to agree with ya," he answered, frowning at the spot where Ichigo was only a minute earlier, "He's fuckin' miserable, ain't he?"
"I told you," Riza chided. She approached from behind, surrounded by the rest of the Vizards. "He's been pining after her for months."
Mashiro tilted her head, and looked up at Shinji. "Why doesn't Berry-tan just tell her?"
Kensei sighed. "Because that would be the smart thing to do."
She glanced over at Kensei quizzically, and scratched her head. "Huh?"
"It's typical teenage behavior," Love added, "and it's Ichigo. He's dense, he's young, and he's, well… you ever noticed how shy he is around her?"
Shinji snorted softly, but smirked. "Yeah, I have. I go to school with 'em, remember?"
Hiyori sighed irritably. "So, now what? Baldy's just gonna get worse."
"You have a point," Rose said. "and that could negatively affect his training. He does infinitely better when she's around."
"She does infinitely better as well," Hachi murmured with a hand to his chin, "I've spent a lot of time with her, trying to help her improve her Shun Shun Rikka. From what I've gathered, she cares a great deal about him."
Riza laughed wryly. "That's because she's in love."
Shinji, Rose, Love, and Kensei swiveled their heads towards her, faces slack with surprise. "What?" they exclaimed in unison.
"What, you didn't know?" Hiyori raised her brow. Met only with blank stares, she threw her hands in the air. "It's obvious!"
Mashiro nodded. "Uh-huh. I even knew!" she said with a beaming smile.
"Whoa, hold on." Love pointed a finger at the three of them. "Who told you this?"
Riza snorted. "No one," she said, her face twisting into lines of annoyance at the insult. "If you watched her closely, especially around him, you would have picked up on it."
"Women's intuition: don't doubt it," Rose muttered under his breath.
Shinji's face went carefully blank as he looked up at Hachi. "Does that sound right to ya?" he asked, ignoring Rose's warning.
And because he did, Hiyori leapt and kicked him in the stomach, forcing him to double over. "You idiot! Didn't you hear what Rose just said?" she snapped.
"I was double-checkin'," Shinji wheezed, clutching his stomach as he struggled to stand.
"I don't think it's much of a stretch," Hachi answered. His expression was pensive, and for a few minutes, he seemed to mull over the idea, tapping his fingers against his chin. Without warning, he began to chuckle lightly. "Yes, it's quite possible. Looking back, I see what Riza means."
Shinji nodded, managing to stand shakily on his legs. He glared at Hiyori before looking down the street. "So, she's in love with 'im and he's infatuated with 'er. That makes things a lot simpler."
Kensei glanced at him questioningly. "What do you mean?"
Riza smirked, smoothing out her red and white yukata. "If I'm guessing right, you're going to play matchmaker." When Shinji nodded, she chuckled, even though the others gaped. "Oh, count me in then. It'll give us something to do."
Love looked at Shinji warily. "Hang on-"
"I know, it sounds moderately stupid to most of ya, but," Shinji turned and moved back until he was facing all of them. "Think of it this way. One, it does give us somethin' to do. Two, we succeed, and we get ta tease the shit outta Ichigo for months. Three, it might get 'im to lighten up." He rolled his eyes. "If anyone can do it, it's Orihime-chan. Four, he'll stop mopin' and he might even train better with us." He glanced at each Vizard individually. "That enough incentive? Oh, and it'll make Orihime-chan happy, and we're all suckers for 'er at heart."
Hiyori glowered at the thought. Despite her best efforts to resist, the tiny Vizard had warmed up to Orihime over the months since the Winter War ended. Even Mashiro liked her, although it only took one conversation for her before she befriended the girl.
"Fine," Hiyori muttered, not bothering to argue with Shinji since, as much as it irritated her, he was right. "I'll help."
The others nodded in compliance, and Shinji grinned.
"Okay, O' Devious Schemer," Rose remarked dryly, "what's your plan?"
Shinji turned on his heel, and nodded in the direction Ichigo took off. "First step is ta observe, and maybe even garner some help."
Love narrowed his eyes slightly. "You mean…"
"I get the feelin' that their buddies might be up for helpin'."
Ichigo, Orihime, and Rukia turned onto another street. Rukia looked around, frowning as she stood on her tip-toes to see around the pedestrians. "They were right – oh! Oi, Renji!"
Further up the street, which was on an upward slope, Renji, Ishida, and Sado were hanging out in front of a shop. Renji's head turned until he located Rukia, and beckoned them over. Orihime and Ichigo trailed behind Rukia as she wove through by-standers and shoppers, quickly making her way to Renji.
The two caught up to her a few moments later. Orihime beamed as she waved. "Everyone's here! Well, almost." She pressed her lips together as she glanced behind her. "I haven't seen Tatsuki-chan yet."
"We'll find her," Ichigo assured her. At least, he hoped he sounded assuring. He knew Orihime wanted to spend Tanabata with all of her friends, especially Tatsuki.
"You think so?" she asked, looking up at him.
He nodded. "She can't be that hard to find. It's Tatsuki."
"There you are!"
Inoue jumped at the voice, and Ichigo tensed up inadvertently. For a split second, he thought it was Tatsuki. However, when they spun around, they were face to face with not Tatsuki, but Rangiku.
"O-oh! Rangiku-san! I didn't know you were here!" Orihime squeaked in surprise.
Matsumoto smiled slyly. "Why, of course. I get to see you and everyone else so dressed up. Look at you," she cooed, bending down to Orihime's height. Her eyes roved over her form, inspecting the yukata and clucking her tongue playfully. "Very nice, indeed." She tugged and pulled on the sleeves and the fabric around the waistline. "One good look at you wearing a pretty smile and you'll have men throwing themselves at you!"
Orihime chuckled, but it sounded more like she was being strangled than laughing. "Um, Rangiku-san, that's very kind, but-"
"Aw, c'mon." Matsumoto playfully nudged her with her elbow. "You might even get a date with one."
Ichigo felt his blood pressure (and probably his reiatsu) spike as anger and jealousy welled up inside. It was foolish, he told himself, but the mere thought of some asshole walking up to her and hitting on her just because she looked good, not caring about her personality or anything else, made him want to punch someone. Her suitors would only care about her physical attributes. One sentence from her about her wild imaginings, and they'd probably laugh cruelly at her.
His imagination could be just as vivid as hers, he realized. He knew it had gotten too carried away, because the images in his head were stirring his inner Hollow. He pushed the thoughts away, and forced the Hollow back as he tried to calm down.
Feeling more in control, although still extremely annoyed, Ichigo glared at Rangiku, and ignored the questioning looks from his friends. "Why would she want to date someone she doesn't know?" he asked quietly, but his tone held a vehemence he didn't realize he had until after he spoke.
Rangiku hardly looked concerned. "It's called getting to know people." She rested her chin in her hand, and raised one slender eyebrow at Ichigo, looking curious. "Why so irritated? She's your friend, isn't she?"
Ichigo's expression went from angry, to confused, to baffled, to thoughtful, and then back to irritated in less than a minute. He finally sighed, and looked away from Rangiku. "She is. That's why I'm concerned. People are drunk and giddy and idiotic tonight. I don't want some random man asking her out. You should be more concerned."
Rangiku pouted in annoyance. "Pfft. You're such a party pooper. It's not like she's going to be marrying them or something. Besides, she can always say no. Right, Orihime?" She nudged her with her elbow again, but this time didn't get a response. The older woman frowned and nudged her again. "Orihime?"
Inoue blinked, and shook her head. "Wha-? Oh. Sorry, I, um…" she laughed, the sound tinny and small. "My brain was hijacked by zombie fairies and they ran off with it. They were taking it down my arm so they could catapult off my fingers with it, but you must have stopped them!" she said, giggling happily and smiling brightly, her earlier embarrassment seemingly gone in a heartbeat.
In reality, Orihime had been too busy being flabbergasted at Ichigo's reaction. She told herself repeatedly that he was just concerned, but something about it was off.
Ichigo had always been an easy read, at least to her. Ever since they returned from Hueco Mundo, they'd grown closer. He became more readable as time passed, almost to the point where she could all but read his mind. Of course, their close bond was a two-way street, and Ichigo was startlingly insightful when it came to her own feelings.
She loved it, enough that she felt greedy, because she always wanted more time with him, and delighted in how close they were. She could picture herself sitting on a big chair, a greedy miser counting her coins and twirling her mustache as she laughed diabolically. Her imagination ran with the image, and her face unconsciously reddened as Ichigo was added to the picture, chained to her chair. The more minutes he spent with her, the larger her coin pile grew.
In her daydream, she bent down and patted Ichigo on the head. She slapped hand over her mouth, and squeezed her eyes shut. That's just – it's…
"Inoue," Ichigo said softly, "what's wrong?"
If it was possible, she would have turned a deeper shade of red. She nervously opened one eye, and glanced at Ichigo. "Nothing! Nothing. I, um, had a, er… hot flash!" she squeaked.
Ichigo's face went blank. "Aren't you a little young to be having hot flashes?"
"Well, I am really hot, and my head is spinning and I feel like I could float away, but it could be the little fairies trying to steal my brain again or-"
Ichigo suddenly reached out and took Orihime's hand. He said nothing as she protested, instead leading her to a stall. He nodded to the vendor, and pointed to a bottle of water. "I'll take one of those."
Orihime's eyes widened as the vendor grabbed a bottle and handed it to Ichigo. She began to ask how much it was, but Ichigo was already pulling out his yen. He counted them out, and gave them to the vendor. "Thank you," he said before giving the bottle to her. "Drink. That should help."
She grasped the bottle in her hands, and screwed off the cap. She didn't realize how thirsty she was until she took a swig. Her throat was absolutely parched. She took another few gulps before she finished, wiping excess water from her lips with the back of her hand. "Thank you, Kurosaki-kun."
He nodded, eyeing her warily. "You're looking a little better, at least."
"Was I that bad?" she asked.
He scratched his head, and glanced away. "You kind of looked dazed, and then it seemed like you were going to pass out or something."
Her expression fell, and she looked down at the ground. "I'm so sorry," she murmured guiltily. "I didn't mean to make you worry."
"What? No, no! That's not what I meant at all. I just-"
She shook her head, cutting off his explanation. "It's all right. It's just, well," she smiled sadly, "I seem to worry you a lot, don't I?"
Words seemed to fail Ichigo. He looked at her, as if trying to find the words to say somewhere in her eyes. He sighed deeply. "Inoue…"
"Oi, you two!" In an instant, Rukia was next to them, and grabbed Orihime's sleeve. "Rangiku's finally gone. Let us hurry before she comes back with the camera."
"Eh?" Orihime let herself be dragged by Rukia, while Ichigo followed after them. "Where did she go?"
It was Renji who answered, "She went to bug Hitsugaya-taichou. She promised she'd come back with a camera, and then we'd spend the whole night standing still while she takes a million photos." He accented his point with a shudder.
Orihime nodded, remembering the last incident where Rangiku was allowed to have free reign over a camera. Standing out in the sweltering sun, her legs aching, wondering how much longer it would last… it was something neither she nor the others wanted to experience ever again.
"I understand, but, um – oh!" While being pulled by Rukia, Orihime stumbled and lost her balance. She closed her eyes, and readied herself for the inevitable impact with the ground.
It never came. Her eyes opened, and she found herself just inches away from the street below her. She felt a strong arm wrapped around her stomach. Her face instantly went red as she realized it was Ichigo who had caught her.
"You all right?" he murmured as he pulled her up, keeping his hand near her until he was sure she was safely on her feet.
She nodded shakily. "Oh, yes. Thank you, Kurosaki-kun." She smiled at him, although a part of her was slightly disappointed that he was no longer holding her. The image of her as the greedy miser popped back into her head, and she nearly winced.
Rukia stepped forward. "I'm sorry, Inoue," she said, her eyes wide and apologetic. "I know it's hard to run in a yukata, and I-"
Orihime shook her head. "No! Please, don't be. Knowing me, I would have tripped of my own accord anyway." Her klutziness was her own fault as far as she was concerned, even when being pulled.
"Guys! Where are you?"
All six of them froze as Matsumoto's voice drifted from an unknown direction. Renji looked at his friends, and mouthed, "Run."
Orihime panicked. She was going to stumble and fall, she just knew it. While she wasn't a slow runner, she was wearing a kimono, and her klutziness already reared its ugly head once. It would do so again, without a doubt. "Um-"
She gasped as she felt Ichigo lift her up, and, just like he did after he defeated Grimmjow, flung her over his shoulder. "Let's go," he said to everyone, and began to sprint.
Ishida spluttered something, and Orihime watched as he took off after Ichigo, the others right on his heels. "Kurosaki!" he yelled, "That is no way to handle a lady, especially Inoue-san! You – you do not just fling them over your shoulder like some barbaric caveman and take off with them!"
Ichigo rolled his eyes. "It's easier! Besides, Inoue can't trip and hurt herself this way."
"I don't mind, Ishida-kun," Orihime added, and attempted to smile congenially. "He's done it before."
Her intended effect to pacify him backfired. Ishida just became even more livid. "What?" His eyes widened, before he flushed red in anger.
Ichigo snorted, and doubled his pace as Ishida ran after him. As they dodged staring onlookers and even the occasional animal, Renji, Rukia, and Sado did their best to keep up, but it was proving difficult.
The reason: they were laughing too hard.
Down at the bottom of the hill, Mashiro was covetously eyeing a sweet treat being sold at a candy stand. She spun around, and opened her mouth to whine at Kensei to buy it for her when she spotted something from the corner of her eye. She blinked, and looked up the street. "Hey, Kensei?"
"What?" He glanced at her. "I'm not getting you anything."
"Why is Berry-tan doing that?" she asked, forgetting all about the sweets she wanted. She pointed at Ichigo, who was running up the hill, Orihime over his shoulder.
Kensei frowned, and looked at where she was pointing. For a second he said nothing. Then his mouth twitched, and he burst out laughing. "Shinji!" he called out in between laughs. "Look!"
Shinji was gathered with the others, munching on chips and sipping juice. He raised a brow when Kensei began laughing, and looked at where Mashiro was pointing. He spewed out the juice he was drinking when he caught sight of Ichigo hauling Orihime, Ishida hot on his heels. He clapped his hand quickly over his mouth, trying to not spit out anything else as his body shook in laughter.
Hiyori's mouth dropped, and she even elicited a few chuckles. Love shook his head, baffled as Ichigo disappeared with Orihime over the top of the hill. "Is… is he just that oblivious, or-?"
"I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he probably has a good reason." Rose suppressed his laughter, although his eyes were still bright with it.
Riza took a bite out of her kabob. "Dunno about the rest of you," she said after she swallowed, "but I'm going after them. I'd love to hear his reasoning, we have a plan to execute, and I have a feeling the Quincy's going to kill him." She shook her head. "It's hard to remember a time when we didn't have those kids as entertainment, even though it wasn't that long ago."
Shinji sighed dramatically, trashing his chips as he stretched his back, juice in hand. "Let's take a walk then." He took a sip from his drink. "Yo, Kensei. Think this is gonna work?"
Not long after they decided to play matchmaker for Ichigo, a thought struck Kensei. It laid the foundation for a plan, which he quickly shared with the others. Now that they had finally found Ichigo, the time to carry it out was nigh.
Kensei nodded confidently. "It'll work." He glanced over at Shinji, and added in a low voice, "Especially when you have an inner Hollow to contend with."
Ichigo probably would have run like that for a lot longer. He was enjoying carrying Orihime over his shoulder, even though he knew he shouldn't. The soft feel of her thighs against his cheek, her weight on his shoulder… it was a piece of heaven.
It all came to a screeching halt when he saw Tatsuki in front of him, talking with Keigo and Mizuiro. She had the worst timing, in his opinion, when she turned around to see him running at her, Orihime in tow. Her face was a cross between bafflement, amusement, and a promise of imminent death.
He stopped running, staring at her wide-eyed. He carefully set Orihime down, and took a step back. "H-hey, Tatsuki."
Orihime looked behind her, and smiled gaily. "Tatsuki-chan! I was looking for you!"
"Uh-huh." Tatsuki came closer, giving Ichigo the strangest look he had ever seen. "What the hell was that?" she asked, her voice neither angry nor humored. If anything, it was merely suspicious.
Her best friend flushed. "Kurosaki-kun was carrying me because I've been a klutz all night, and we had to run away from Rangiku-san. Then an army of chair-wielding robots came after us, and-"
"Okay, I think I understand," Tatsuki quickly said, patting Orihime's arm.
The others emerged from the crowd, Ishida still spitting mad and the rest still highly amused. Ishida stomped up to Ichigo, and in a rare case of aggression outside the battle field, whacked him over the head. "What is wrong with you?" he snapped.
Ichigo gritted his teeth, and rubbed his head. "She didn't mind!" he argued, glaring stonily at Ishida.
"I don't care! It was rude, barbaric, juvenile, uncalled for-"
"It was not! I was just making sure she didn't-"
A strange gurgling sound interrupted them. They blinked, and looked for the cause of the source. When their eyes met Keigo's, he laughed anxiously and rubbed his stomach. "Sorry. I haven't eaten anything all night."
Rukia, taking the chance to intervene and stop the feud before it escalated, walked in between Ichigo and Ishida, and pushed them away from each other. "None of us have. Does anyone know of a good food vendor or store around here?" she asked.
Orihime nodded. "I do! There's a little stall just down this way," she motioned towards a street, "and it's pretty cheap. I'll get us some food, if you'd like."
Keigo smiled appreciatively. "That'd be great! I'm so hungry. Mizuiro dragged me around everywhere," he whined.
Mizuiro glanced up from his phone, and looked at Keigo in surprise. "If I'm remembering right, you were the one who wanted to see everything, Asano-san."
"Again with the formality." Keigo hung his head.
Tatsuki rolled her eyes, but ignored the two otherwise as she nudged Ichigo. "Why don't you go with her? Make sure she picks out something normal?"
"Er…" he glanced at Orihime, and then nodded, "you have a point." He looked back at her. "I'll go with you. Maybe we can go and see what they have, and pick out a variety of stuff?"
She gave him the thumbs-up. "Sounds like a plan! All right, everyone! We'll be back!" Orihime promised. She walked ahead excitedly, with Ichigo strolling after her.
"We'll pay you back!" Tatsuki hollered before they disappeared into the crowd.
Once they were gone, Tatsuki parted her lips to speak, and turned to Rukia. She shut them again when they made eye contact, hesitating all of a sudden.
"What is it?" Rukia asked gently.
The girls gave each other confused looks before turning to find the mystery voice. They spotted Shinji, who stood a few feet off to the side, beckoning them to come closer.
Rukia motioned to the group questioningly, and when he nodded, she gestured for everyone to follow her. The eight of them approached Shinji, but it was Renji who spoke first. "Now, this isn't something you see every day," he remarked, pointing at Shinji's yukata.
Shinji rolled his eyes. "I was a captain once, ya know. I did wear this kind of stuff."
"I didn't figure you guys to come to this kind of thing. Festivals, or any big group gatherings." Tatsuki toyed with her bottom lip, and glanced skyward. "Not calling you recluses, but that's the impression I always had."
"Fair enough of one. We typically don't," Shinji said with an indifferent shrug. "We decided to get out this year. Good thing, too. Food's to die for."
Rukia nodded in agreement. "Festival food is the best. Ichigo and Inoue are getting food for us right now, actually."
"Oh?" Shinji grinned. "So, they're not here then," he stated matter-of-factly.
"Yes," Rukia answered cautiously. "Why?"
Before he could answer, the group heard someone hollering, and another person protesting sharply. The crowd parted to let the two people through. "Shinji!" Hiyori yelled out, pulling behind her a very annoyed Matsumoto. "Found her."
Rangiku jerked her hand out of Hiyori's grip, and glared at Shinji. "What is this about?"
His stance was stoic, cool, and composed. Rangiku was very rarely angry, and either Shinji didn't know the potential extent of her wrath, or just didn't care. "I need your help with somethin'. Yours and everyone else's."
Her face was set into a deadpan glare, but she motioned with her hand for him to continue.
"Thought ya might be interested. Ya see," Shinji leaned back against the wall of a building. He relaxed his body before continuing, "I know yer a good friend of Orihime-chan's, and that ya like Ichigo. So do we, and well, the eight of us decided we're a little tired of seein' 'em be so mopey."
Rangiku regarded him for a moment, frowning confusedly as she tried to understand his meaning. Then her women's intuition kicked in, and her face lit up, her earlier annoyance vanishing. "Oh! Why didn't you just say that before? Count me in!"
"Wait a second. You're going to try to hook them up?" Renji asked incredulously.
Shinji shrugged. "Why not?"
Tatsuki seemed as skeptical as Renji, but her mind was set. "Count me in. I'm their best friend."
"Count us all in," Rukia added.
Rangiku grinned happily with a faint trace of mischief (or perhaps mild evil). "Great. What's the plan?"
"Gather 'round, kiddies," Shinji grinned. "and I'll tell ya."
Ichigo considered the convenience store run a success. They found and bought food and drinks, nothing too weird, it was inexpensive, and he managed not to make an idiot of himself in front of Orihime. He resisted the urge to brush up against her when they went to reach for the same thing, or to hold onto her for too long when she tripped on a packet of food that was left on the floor.
Still, he couldn't shake off the strange anxiousness he felt when he walked outside. He mentally marked it off as being in close proximity with Orihime. He did his best to ignore it as he listened amicably to her ramblings, nodding along to her crazy stories and unable to fight his amused smile.
When they got closer to where they left the others, they both heard the unmistakable sound of Rangiku's laughter. They glanced at each other, sharing a look of panic.
Ichigo clutched the bag of food he was holding nervously. "Maybe she doesn't…?"
"Well," Orihime shrugged helplessly, "only one way to find out."
They nodded, and like soldiers heading into the heat of a fierce battle, braced themselves as they fought through the throngs of people to get to their friends. Once they found them, they saw, to their immense relief, that Rangiku was camera-less. Relaxing instantly, they marched forward, waving to everyone as they held up the bags of food and beverages.
Keigo was the first to reach them, exclaiming his joy as he dug through the bags. The others followed after, and the food and drinks were soon divvied up.
Everyone conversed amongst themselves, babbling about school, friends, Soul Society, and the opposite sex. Rangiku didn't contribute much to the conversation, which Ichigo found odd. Instead, she would nod along at times, occasionally make a comment, but usually just stared off somewhere, as if she were searching for something. As everyone finished up eating, she grinned suddenly, and glanced down at Orihime. "Hey! There was this neat jewelry stall I saw. Wanna look at it with me?"
Orihime nodded. "Sure!" Not in the least bit suspicious of Matsumoto's impromptu idea, she tossed her garbage into one of the bags and headed off with Rangiku.
Something about it wasn't sitting well with Ichigo. He did consider Matsumoto to be a bit of a bad influence on Orihime, but this was something else entirely. Tempted to say something to her about it, Ichigo mentally scolded himself for being paranoid, and let the two women walk away.
Through slightly narrowed eyes he watched them as they pointed out what caught their eye. After a few moments, Ichigo grew more confident that Matsumoto's intentions were innocent, and turned away.
"Thanks for the food and drinks, Ichigo," Mizuiro said, crumpling his bag of chips, "When would you like me to pay you back?"
"Whenever. It's no big deal," Ichigo answered, unconcerned.
Keigo hesitantly raised a finger to draw attention. "I'll need a rain check. Lack of a job plus a cheap sister equals no money."
"Again, I don't mind," Ichigo insisted. He crossed his arms and tried to look stern, hoping to get across that he wasn't just being friendly. He meant it, and his posture remained stoic, even under the questioning and guilty faces of his friends. One by one, they consented and nodded, until only Ishida remained looking concerned. Ichigo shuffled up to him, waving his hand in front of his face as Ishida stared off into the distance. "Same goes for you. I really-"
"I thought she was kidding about other men going up to her," Ishida murmured quietly. He batted Ichigo's hand away, and frowned seriously at him. "I don't care about paying or not paying you back. It's Inoue-san that's worrying me. Look."
Ichigo followed the path of Ishida's finger. His stomach did a somersault when he finally saw what Ishida meant. Rangiku was missing, and in lieu of her was a young man, around Ichigo's age, flirting with Orihime.
It made Ichigo's blood boil, the way the boy was leaning so close to her and grinning like he won a prize. He would have loved nothing more than to walk over there and wipe that grin off his face. The mere thought of it filled him with a dark pleasure: a tell-tale sign that his Hollow was surfacing.
"What would you like me to do?" he asked Ishida through gritted teeth, "Send him flying through a few stalls?"
"Yes." Ichigo's head snapped towards Ishida, surprise etched into his face. Uryuu sighed, and looked away as he pushed his glasses back. "Well, perhaps not quite that way, but at least get him away from her. She's obviously uneasy with him around."
Ichigo couldn't argue with that. Orihime's hands were clasped in front of her, she was blushing, and she wasn't making eye contact with the man. From all the time he spent with her, Ichigo knew that those were nervous habits of Orihime's. But he also knew she could be a little shy around people she just met, especially guys. Maybe she just liked him, he thought, and she was just nervous because of the situation.
As if he could read his mind, Ishida said, "Don't even suggest that she likes him. She's uncomfortable, and you should know better. Really, if you're going to be a barbarian, be a chivalrous one."
"Fine," Ichigo snapped, peeved that he was still considered some kind of uncivilized couth, "I'll at least check, okay?"
Ishida nodded, and Ichigo stormed off, sending one last glare over his shoulder before he elbowed his way through the human traffic. Barbarian my ass, he thought, Maybe it was unconventional, but I was doing it for Inoue's sake, not because I like throwing girls over my shoulder or something. …Well, I sort of do with her, but-
He slapped his forehead. I'm going to kill Ishida for this.
"So, what do you say?"
Ichigo skidded to a halt, realizing that he was close to where Orihime and her companion were standing. He quickly ducked to the side of the jewelry stall, and stayed hidden behind a display while listening in on the two.
"Say about what?" Orihime asked.
The boy smirked. "How about you be my Orihime, and I'll be your Hikoboshi? Your name's Orihime, right?" His hand drifted down, and toyed with the ends of her hair. "And my name's Hiroshi, which is sort of close to Hikoboshi, eh?"
Orihime gasped. She pumped her fist into the air, and exclaimed, "It must be a conspiracy!"
Hiroshi laughed softly, scratching his head as he regarded the over-excited Orihime. "You're an eccentric one."
"Ah, that's what everyone says." Orihime laughed it off. "But, um, conspiracy or not, I'm afraid I can't be," she said quietly, her shoulders drooping.
"Oh," Hiroshi glanced away.
"It's nothing against you, really!" She waved her hands in front of her. "I think you're a great guy, but… I sort of already have a Hikoboshi."
He nodded, and then quietly asked, "Does he know he has an Orihime, I wonder?"
There was a brief flash of pain in her eyes. Ichigo's heart clenched tightly in his chest as Orihime shook her head. "No, he doesn't. It's my fault, though." She shifted the dirt on the ground with her foot, no longer able to look Hiroshi in the eyes.
Ichigo quickly seized the opportunity, and approached the two. "Oi, Inoue, is he bothering you?" he asked, sounding tough and puffing out his chest a little. It was the same routine he performed whenever he went into his punk façade, something he had gotten far too good at.
Hiroshi smiled politely. "My apologies. I think I'll bow out. It was nice talking to you, Inoue, and I hope your Hikoboshi opens his eyes." He looked pointedly at Ichigo, and the young Vizard found himself taking a step back in surprise as Hiroshi ducked into the crowd. The hell…? Ichigo thought confusedly.
Orihime put on a fake smile as she turned towards Ichigo. "Kurosaki-kun! I didn't know you were here."
The fact that her smile was forced, and the hurt that still lingered in her eyes told Ichigo how much pain she was in. Over some guy too dense to see what's in front of him. I had no idea she was infatuated with someone, though. He really didn't know what to say to her. He had no words to comfort her, because he didn't have any answers or assurances. "Oh, yeah. The others saw that guy talking to you, and we thought he might have been bugging you," he said, feeling stupid for not addressing the real issue at hand.
She shook her head. "Nope. Flirty, but he was being nice, really. I-" Her face fell. She went silent as she scrutinized Ichigo's face. He tried looking away, but her gaze held his. It was a little uncomfortable, he noticed, whenever she looked at him like that. He ascertained from past experiences that that look she held him in was when the one she wore when she was searching him for answers. She saw his troubled features, and was breaking down his barriers, little by little, until she figured out what he was hiding. He knew their close bond was the culprit and the reason why she could.
"How much did you hear?" she suddenly asked, breaking him away from his musings.
Shit. He still couldn't tear his gaze from hers, and his whole body felt like it was locking on him. All he could say was, "I'm sorry."
She smiled sadly. "Ah, I was afraid of that."
"Fuck." Shinji whammed his fist into the side of a building. "Instead of goin' into some jealous rage, he's feelin' sorry fer her. Damn it."
Love sighed. "This isn't going well," he stated, looking reasonably worried, "Do we have a Plan B?"
"I still think jealousy's the best route. He's just fighting his inner Hollow." Kensei absentmindedly scratched an itch on his shoulder. "Maybe we just need to instigate him or something."
"That won't be necessary." Hachi looked down at Kensei, but instead of explaining his reasoning, he asked, "Will Mashiro be able to keep the Kurosaki family distracted for a little while longer?"
Kensei nodded. "She was having a ball the last time I checked. I think she finds Isshin hilarious." He frowned slightly at Hachi, not following his logic. "Why do you ask?"
"You'll see. Does anyone have any idea of how to get them away from here? They should be alone, far from all these people."
Riza nodded hesitantly as she looked over at the pair. "I think I could. You want me to?"
Hachi nodded. "If you could. I think they'll be able to handle it from there."
She didn't believe him, he knew, but he had faith. He was glad that she didn't question why. She just nodded, and darted off. Hachi watched her as she deftly snuck her hand into Ichigo's pocket, and sprinted off with his wallet. Like he expected, Ichigo spotted her and shouted before he gave chase. Orihime ran after him.
Shinji glanced up confusedly at Hachi. "The hell are ya thinkin'?"
Hachi didn't meet his stare. He kept watching Riza as she led Ichigo and Orihime away from the crowd. They were headed towards the river, where hardly anyone was gathered yet. Good, he nodded in satisfaction, that should be adequate.
"I am thinking," he said in answer to Shinji's question, "that all Ichigo needs is a hint."
Shinji's face went deadpan. "Ichigo. A hint. Are ya serious? It's Ichigo."
While he understood Shinji's protest, he felt a little disheartened at his lack of faith. "Trust me, and trust him."
Hirako sighed, but didn't inquire further about it. He simply glanced up at the sky, and muttered, "Oh, boy."
Riza haphazardly chucked Ichigo's wallet towards the river, hoping it didn't actually go into the water, before she swiftly ran behind some trees near the river side. She looked behind her, and when she saw Ichigo head towards the river, she circled back towards the town, making sure to keep out of his sight.
"Oi!" Ichigo shouted, glancing around as he ran towards his wallet. Luckily for Riza, the wallet landed on dry land. He picked it up, and opened it. Nothing seemed to be missing, to his shock. All his money was still there, along with his school ID and everything else he kept in his wallet.
"Kurosaki-kun!" Ichigo turned in the direction of Orihime's voice. She hurried over to him, out of breath. "Did you catch the thief, or see who it was?"
He shook his head. "No, but they dropped my wallet. Everything's still in here," he said, not hiding the surprise in his voice.
"Odd," Orihime scrutinized his wallet, like she was expecting a laser gun to suddenly pop out and blast them until they were a pile of ashes, "I wonder why?"
"Could have been an accident, or they just got scared." Ichigo didn't know, nor did he care. His wallet was retrieved, and there was no point in tracking down the thief. "You didn't have to follow." He frowned concernedly at Orihime as he pocketed his wallet.
She blinked. "But, you would have if it was the other way around," she pointed out.
There was no use in arguing it, because she was right. He smiled softly in defeat. "Yeah. But that's my job."
Orihime tilted her head to the side. "Your job?"
"Yeah. Remember what I told you, after we returned from Hueco Mundo? How I told you I wouldn't let anything, big or small, no matter how dangerous, hurt you again? I'll protect you from thieves, too. Well, protect your stuff, at least."
While she still wants you to. He didn't know where the thought came from, although he did know why. He shrank away from her, trying to hide his anguish as he waited for the overwhelming feeling to pass and allow him to breathe again.
Orihime's eyes went wide as she saw him flinch. "Kurosaki-kun?" she asked, reaching out to him.
"Though, I guess, eventually, you won't need me." He spat the words out, wanting to take them back but at the same time, glad to be rid of them. He hadn't been honest with her about everything, but he thought he should at least discuss this with her.
He had known Orihime for a while, and in that time, he had never seen her look remotely mad. Yet, there was no mistaking the traces of hurt and anger that seeped into her expression as she frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
He sighed. "Your Hikoboshi. I… don't know who he is, but, if he's lucky enough to find out about your feelings, won't protecting you be something he'll do, and not me?" Ichigo spread open his palms in a gesture expressing his desire to be understood. "I won't ask you who he is, but… I don't know." He hung his head. "I just want to know how long you'll need me around, I guess."
Usually so expressive, Orihime suddenly became impossible to read. There were walls that Ichigo didn't know were there, and he felt anxious. He watched her carefully, not knowing what to expect or what she would say.
"My Hikoboshi…" A laugh escaped from her, but she didn't bother to cover it. It had a relaxed, joyful tone that didn't seem to fit the situation at hand. "It's funny that you mention him. I didn't tell you about him because I thought it was for the best, but I've changed my mind. Let's see… I'll describe him to you."
Ichigo didn't want to feel like he was prying, but since she was freely offering the information, he nodded.
"Okay." She began walking in circles around Ichigo, hands clasped behind her back. "He is very kind." She smiled shrewdly. "A lot of people wouldn't say so, but I know he is. He acts like he doesn't care, but deep down, he'll do anything for his family and those he considers his friends."
There was a spark of hope in him, but he did everything he could to quash it. No way. There's no way.
"Some call him a punk, but those are the people who don't know him." She delicately rested a finger on her chin. "He's stubborn, confident, and has a soft side that hardly anyone sees. He's quite powerful, but with that power he possesses a sense of mercy."
His hope was stubborn, and it was fighting back. Maybe… but why would she pick me? I'm, well, me. She could have any guy! Someone far better for her, too.
"He respects both allies and opponents, he will do anything to protect those who need it, and he…" She stopped in front of him, and smiled knowingly. "Has a funny scowl that I love."
That last description was, ironically, what convinced him. The other traits she mentioned could be passed off for someone else, but he knew he was the only one whose scowl she found amusing. All that hope he suppressed surged forth inside of him, and he had no reason to stop it. "Me?" he whispered.
Orihime gave him the slightest of nods. "Yes. I understand if you don't feel the same, but I just wanted you to know that your job will always be yours, if you want." She rocked back on the balls of her heels. "I was afraid of telling you, but you seemed so upset, so I thoug-"
Not aware of what he was doing, but not really caring, Ichigo pulled her against him, wrapping his arms around her as he buried his face in her hair. "I'm such an idiot." His voice was muffled.
"Eh?" Orihime's eyes were huge, but she did nothing to fight Ichigo as he held her tighter.
"I have an Orihime. When I heard you were taken with someone, I wondered what idiot was blind enough not to see it, but I guess I'm the idiot." Then he did something he hadn't done in years: he grinned. Not in cockiness or cruelty, but in joy. "Looks like the others are right, at least this time."
Finally realizing what Ichigo meant, and noting that she, too, was just as thickheaded, Orihime laughed lightly as she leaned against him, soaking up the warmth from his body and the feeling of being in his arms. "But you'll never admit it."
"Damn straight," Ichigo said with a chuckle. He dipped his head down, and planted a kiss on her forehead. "You know, I thought I'd feel more awkward about this than I am. It feels…"
"Right," Orihime finished for him. Her hands curled up against him as she rested her head over where his heart beat. She let the rhythm soothe her. "It is a little strange, but I don't mind," she admitted shyly, casting her gaze up towards his.
Ichigo rested his forehead against hers. "I don't either."
Both went quiet, and their eyes locked and held for a few moments. Ichigo softly bit his lip before leaning forward a little further. He looked at Orihime questioningly. Taking her nod as consent, he closed the distance between them.
The kiss was shy and chaste, but full of sweetness. It lasted merely ten seconds, but it still stole their breath away when they parted. They blushed, but when their gazes met, they were both smiling widely.
The sky lit up suddenly, and the first of the fireworks exploded in a colorful array of sparks. The townspeople began to migrate towards the open fields near the river to watch the spectacle. Ichigo rested his head on top of Orihime's, and she tucked her head beneath his chin as they watched the fireworks together.
I like this, having her right here. He felt her arms hug him close to her, and for that, he laid another kiss on the crown of her head. I didn't think this would ever happen, but I could get used to it easily.
Ichigo was a little miffed that he wasted all those months, longing for her but not doing anything about it when she felt the same way the entire time. There was no point in bemoaning what was done, though, and he decided he would simply make up for lost time.
There was a peace inside of him he hadn't known since he was a child. Happiness, joy, tranquility, they were things he had almost forgotten about, which had appeared only for brief moments in the past seven years. How strange, he thought as he watched the reflection of the fireworks on the river's surface, that something good would happen here, of all places. He couldn't find the words to describe why, but something told him it was fitting.
Somewhere behind them, their friends, including the Vizards, were watching both the fireworks and the new couple. They were enjoying their victory quietly, all unconsciously deciding as a group that the fireworks were celebration enough.
"So, who was that guy?" Mizuiro finally asked after a few minutes of silence.
"Some kid we found," Shinji answered. "We told 'im, sort of, what was goin' on, and we paid him to hit on Orihime-chan to get Ichigo jealous."
Mashiro, who had managed to sneak away from the other Kurosakis, raised an eyebrow. "But he didn't get jealous."
"That part didn't exactly work," Love admitted, "but hey, at least the plan succeeded overall."
Rukia smirked as she glanced over at Kensei. "So much for the flying jealous rampage."
"Yeah, yeah," he rolled his eyes, "so he has a little more self-control than I thought. Sue me."
Riza plopped down onto the grass, and while her gaze was riveted on the fireworks, she addressed Hachi, "How did you know?"
His plan, of course, was the one that worked in the end. He seemed content as he smiled and witnessed Ichigo and Orihime's long-waited and well deserved happiness. "Faith, intuition, and a bit of luck. Ichigo is not quite as dense as we all think he is. I believe all he needed to know was that Orihime-san 'had a Hikoboshi', as that boy put it." He shrugged. "I am a firm believer in the idea that, if love is meant to be, it will happen of its own accord."
"Whatever. They're together, they're happy, and they'll stop being mopes." Hiyori laid out on the ground, stretching her back. "That's all I care about. If Baldy lightens up in the process, even better."
Rangiku smirked. "That's a more simplistic way of looking at it, but I suppose you have a point. I, for one, am extremely happy for those two." She kneeled down carefully on the ground, grinning as she looked over at the happy pair. "Just look at them!" she exclaimed, "They're so cute together!"
"I agree," Ishida said as he sat down on the field, and everyone else followed suit. "I like seeing them happy, especially Inoue-san."
Rose smiled languidly as he sat next to Love. He blinked suddenly, and looked at Rukia and company. "Oh, yes. Someday, you need to tell us why Ichigo was carrying Orihime over his shoulder. We saw the entire thing, you know."
Renji snorted. "That's a bit of an interesting story. According to Ishida, Ichigo was tapping into his inner-caveman," he explained teasingly, glancing slyly over at him.
The Quincy hissed out a breath in annoyance. "Oh, shut up. He was acting like one and you know it."
Chad suddenly smiled slightly as he leaned over to look at Tatsuki. "I guess you'll be having a word with Ichigo?"
She nodded. "Yeah, but after the fireworks. I'll let them have their little moment." As another set of fireworks shot into the sky, she smiled and looked around her at everyone. "Happy Tanabata, guys."
Hachi smiled peacefully, glancing down at Ichigo and Orihime, who were both still in each others' arms. "Yes," he murmured, "it's a happy Tanabata, indeed."