Thursday came, four days after Kurosaki Ichigo and Inoue Orihime met.
"I went home as soon as I heard the news," Tatsuki said, eyeing her seated friend with concern. "I first saw it on a newspaper. Ichigo, engaged? I thought, 'no way'. But I kept seeing it on tabloids so I called Ishida. He said it wasn't his business. I called Ichigo. He didn't want to talk about it. My last resort was his father and of course, he spilled the beans. But I thought I was hearing things."
Tatsuki put her fists on her hips.
"Orihime, what is this all about? I know you have a crush on Ichigo—" Orihime stiffened, blushing. She looked down, a sheet of hair falling forward, covering her pink cheeks. "But back in high school, you kept your distance. Even though we had the same circle of friends, you distanced yourself from him. And now…"
Tatsuki made a vague hand motion. "You're going to marry him."
Orihime said nothing, fiddling with the hem of her flowery skirt. The stitching unraveled and she now played with the frayed thread.
"You've loved him for so long. But you've never tried to talk to him when we were in high school. You were terrified of him— no, you were not terrified." Tatsuki's eyes softened.
"You're not scared of him. You were terrified of him getting close to you."
Finally Orihime lifted her head. She raised a hand and tucked her hair behind her ear shyly. "Tatsuki-chan, I've wanted to tell you for a long time but…" She trailed off, uncertainty clear on her face.
"Orihime, you know that you will always be my friend and I will always support you. But if this," here Tatsuki made another gesture, "marrying Ichigo will cause you great pain, don't do it."
"I have to do it," Orihime insisted, staring at her window dappled with sunshine. It was ajar and breeze blew through the room, curtains fluttering like white flags.
Tatsuki sat on the cushion next to her friend. "I saw Ichigo the other day and when I mentioned your name, he looked mad or something. Did something happen between you and Ichigo?"
"Yes," Orihime answered quietly.
Tatsuki's expression darkened, menace lacing her tone. "What is it? Did he hurt you?"
Orihime looked up to her friend and shook her head. "No, no, Tatsuki-chan, he didn't." The fierce look on Tatsuki's face faded into a look of confusion.
"I…" Orihime dropped her gaze. What would Tatsuki think? She had carried this secret for so long, always afraid to lose friends - the few ones she had acquired over the years, the same people who became Ichigo's closest friends.
A gentle nudge from Tatsuki jolted her out of her reverie. Orihime took a deep breath.
"His mother… died because of me."
Tatsuki's expression was blank then became puzzled, looking as though she were remembering something. "Hang on. Masaki-san died in an accident. She…" Her eyes widened. "You… You're that girl?"
"Yes." Orihime lifted her gaze, her eyebrows furrowed. She looked tired all of a sudden, a weariness that did not come from physical exertion. "Do you hate me now, Tatsuki-chan?" she asked in a wobbly but clear voice. Tatsuki's eyebrows slid up.
"What are you talking about? It was an accident and it was Masaki-san's choice to save you! It wasn't your fault."
Orihime shook her head. "If I had just listened, if I had just…" She squeezed her eyes shut, ducking her head. Tatsuki held her hand.
"He blames you for her death, doesn't he? He…" Tatsuki paused, frowning and uncomfortable to utter her next words.
"He hates me." Orihime finished for her friend, opening her eyes. "Yes, he does. He has the right to," she added when Tatsuki tried to refute her claim.
"Oh, Orihime… Why then? Why are you doing this? Tying the knot with the person who hates you? This is ridiculous! And what's more? He's willing to marry you!"
Orihime sighed tiredly and looked around. Her gaze landed on the shrine in the corner. Her brother's portrait stood next to a delicate silver picture frame with a picture of an attractive woman. Behind them was a short vase filled with blue flowers with white centers. Her new apartment had two rooms, a kitchen and small receiving area. It was on the fourth floor, next to a vacant room.
"Orihime," Tatsuki urged. "Tell me. I have a feeling you're hiding something."
"I'm sorry for not telling you."
Tatsuki shook her head, patting Orihime's wrist. "It's all right. It's not something you can freely discuss with someone, even with a friend." Orihime smiled gratefully. "By the way, this might sound odd but didn't Ichigo recognize you as the girl his mother used to take care of when we were in high school? I never saw him look at you with anger. I even saw him stare at you sometimes."
Orihime leaned over the kotatsu and traced a coffee mug ring with her fingertip. "I think, back then, he didn't recognize me or had forgotten me." She smiled wistfully, a sad sort of smile that ironically enhanced her features. "I don't think Kurosaki-kun remembers me as his classmate. He now remembers me as the person who caused his mother's death."
Tatsuki frowned at that and opened her mouth to say something but she just shook her head. It was not her business, her story. Instead, she asked, "So? What's the deal with the marriage thing?"
Orihime explained her situation, including her promise to Masaki. When she was finished telling her the story, Tatsuki was flabbergasted.
"Wow." Orihime giggled at her best friend's astounded reaction. "Okay… So a will names you as the sole heir. But if Ichigo marries you, it will be revoked. And if he doesn't, you will inherit the whole Kurosaki family fortune?" Orihime nodded. "All of it?" She nodded again. That was what Urahara-san had told her.
"Damn. No wonder Ichigo's willing to marry you."
Orihime nodded. "He doesn't have any choice, does he?"
"And so are you."
She smiled brightly and raised her fists in front of her. "Don't worry about me, Tatsuki-chan! I'll be alright!"
"It's hard not to. But I know, despite your gentleness, you're strong." Tatsuki sighed deeply. "But you…"
Orihime stood to fix the curtains, tying them with a ribbon. Outside, the sun slowly set, swallowed by the earth and the sea.
"It doesn't matter." Standing by the window, in the orange sunlight, Orihime smiled at Tatsuki. "I know that Kurosaki-kun hates me and I don't expect him to return my feelings. I understand and it's okay. He doesn't and will never love me, but I love him and that's enough. I will take care of him – if he lets me – and make sure I don't get in his way."
Orihime… Tatsuki gave her friend a worried look. Why do I have this feeling that I'm about to watch some tearjerker live show drama?
She shook her head. She will be there for Orihime and maybe, if she got lucky, hit Kurosaki Ichigo and get away with it.
Friday came and the news of Kurosaki Ichigo's engagement, reached its pinnacle.
Tatsuki warned Orihime about the press who, according to Tatsuki, were merciless dogs, salivating over scandals and news that they will sensationalize in order for their paper to sell. They will hunt her down and tear her to pieces – figuratively.
"Well, you're marrying the Kurosaki Ichigo."
"I know he's famous, but…"
"Just be ready, okay?"
"Un! Don't worry, Tatsuki-chan! I can take care of myself!"
The kettle let out a whistle. Orihime went to the kitchen. The screech softened as she turned off the stove.
"I know you can but I can't help worrying about you." Tatsuki followed her friend to the kitchen and saw Orihime looking out of the window.
Overhead, thin clouds rolled over the sky like waves. Gently, lazily.
"Hmm… Today's a good day. Hey, Tatsuki-chan, let's go to the park! Oh, that'd be perfect. The bakery where I'll start as an assistant baker is just a few blocks away from the park. I'll show you how to get there."
Those same rolling clouds continued their lenient travel across the sky. Twenty-seven stories above Minato, Ichigo observed them, casting shadows over the buildings. They mingled with other clouds and together they rolled, light sifting and spilling through the white mist.
"What an unlucky girl," said a female voice.
Gritting his teeth in annoyance, Ichigo refused to turn and acknowledge the visitor. He had gotten good in ignoring her whenever she came around, which was often. At times, her presence was a welcome distraction. But his temper was volatile these days. It would be hard to ignore her provocation.
Kuchiki Rukia, a representative from Kuchiki clan, a business associate, smiled cheekily, ignoring Ichigo's foul temper.
"To marry you and spend a lifetime babysitting you, oh Kami bless her soul."
The ergonomic chair squeaked meekly when Ichigo finally turned to glare at Rukia. "Funny," he snarled, eyes narrowed.
Ignoring Ichigo, Rukia turned Sado. "Do you know the girl?"
Ichigo glanced at his friend from the corner of his eye. Sado nodded. The orange-haired man grunted and averted his gaze, turning his face away from his best friend's gaze.
"Really," said Rukia, looking thoughtful.
"She was a high school classmate." Perceptive as always, Sado noticed Ichigo tense. A muscle in his jaw jumped and his eyes had darkened.
"A former classmate," murmured Rukia, watching Ichigo. "Interesting."
"What are you here for?" Ichigo demanded between clenched teeth.
Rukia shrugged. "I'm curious about this completely unprecedented affair. I want to hear it directly from you if it's true."
She was three years older than him. Her posture was graceful, her features sharp and intelligent. She commanded respect, and even though her stature was small, Ichigo knew she was physically strong. Although, she wasn't a child of a Kuchiki, merely adopted through the marriage of her older sister Hisana to current head of the Kuchiki family Byakuya, Rukia had acclimatized the ways of a full-blooded Kuchiki.
Ichigo was not impressed. If anything, what she said furthered his annoyance. "I don't want to talk about it. Leave. I don't want a baboon barging in my office because of his animal senses."
Rukia lifted an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"
"He," he grumbled, "is part bloodhound and part baboon. I'm sure he can sense you and the last thing I want to see is—"
The door burst open and a tall man with shocking red hair appeared.
Ichigo groaned, hitting his forehead with his palm. "Damn it."
Rukia turned around. The tall newcomer grinned wolfishly.
"See? I told you! Now get out and you-" Ichigo glared at Renji. "Go back to work!"
Renji frowned. "What's the matter with ya? Oi, don't be like that! You'll scare off your pretty bride."
It was only ten in the morning and he was already having a massive headache. "God damn it. Just leave me alone!"
"Pretty bride?" inquired Rukia, curious, so very curious.
A grin split across Renji's face. "This guy's so damn lucky!"
Sado frowned, looking concerned. Ichigo scowled, already having an idea where the conversation was leading. "What the fuck. Don't tell me—"
Wearing a wide grin, Renji whipped out a newspaper. "Today's front page: Kurosaki Ichigo's bride!" He pointed to the photograph. "Wow, Ichigo, her brea— ow! Rukia!"
"Pervert." Rukia snatched the newspaper from Renji's hand after she'd slapped his arm, looked at the front page and turned to Ichigo with a smirk. "So you like big-breasted women?"
Ichigo growled, got up from his chair and stalked across the room to seize the paper from Rukia's grasp.
"Shut up and leave!"
"And she's a redhead! Wow, Ichigo, you like fiery women, don't you?" added Renji, grinning suggestively.
Ichigo's expression went blank before it darkened. "One more word and I'll fire you."
Renji snorted. "Geez. So grumpy."
Ichigo gritted his teeth. "I said one more word and—"
"I'm going, I'm going. Say, Rukia," Renji said, bending down a little to grin at the woman. "Do you wanna—"
"No flirting inside my office! Get the fuck out!"
Neither of the two subjects of his wrath cringed, used to Ichigo's temper. "Stop yelling. We can hear you just fine," chided Rukia. Ichigo ground his teeth, nose flaring. The pair soon left and Ichigo closed the door, still seething. Remembering the paper he'd grabbed from Rukia, he unfurled it. His countenance further darkened.
"Shit. Fucking tabloids!" he fumed. "How the hell did they even find out?" With heavy steps, Ichigo returned to his desk, tossing the paper on the desk carelessly, creating a loud slapping sound. He flopped down heavily and turned his chair so that he was facing away.
"What are you going to do?" asked Sado.
"What else?" Ichigo grumbled. He met his best friend's eye. "What do you think, Chad?"
The taller man shrugged. "Do what you think is right."
"Tch." Ichigo ran a hand over his thick hair. Few locks stood up, others fell over his eyes. "That's the problem. What I fucking want is not to get married. I offered her money—"
Ichigo faltered, cringing at the look Sado was giving him. "I was angry, okay? It just… happened," he muttered, scowling off to the side to avoid his best friend's gaze. Sado frowning disapprovingly was as rare as the blue moon, and as much as he hated to admit it, it bothered him that he resorted to such thing. And perhaps what annoyed him the most was the fact that he did it to her.
"But you already agreed, didn't you?"
Ichigo seemed to swell with anger. Sado reached for the paper. He read the headline then gazed at the stolen blurred picture of an auburn-haired woman.
"It's going to be difficult for her," Sado said. Though the picture was blurred, Orihime's hair color and physical attributes were distinguishable.
"What about me?" demanded Ichigo angrily, his amber eyes smoldering. "I don't want to marry her. But I will because this fucking company belongs to my family— to my sisters!"
Sado returned the newspaper on the table, right in front of the seething orange-haired man. Ichigo refused to look down at the paper, locking eyes with Sado who looked back serenely.
"And this is what my mother wants. I won't fail her."
Sado stood up slowly, his face neutral.
"You sound like you're trying to convince yourself, Ichigo."
"Ichigo, my boy! Have you missed daddy?"
Ichigo ground his teeth. "You have five fucking seconds to turn around and walk out of my office without injuries," he hissed between clenched teeth without looking up.
"Mou, so hostile!"
Ichigo stood up abruptly, his palms flat on the desk. "Three seconds."
The lack of cheeriness in his father's tone made Ichigo look up, the muscles in his lower mandible tightening.
Unflinching, Isshin met Ichigo's fiery eyes. "Your mother had her reasons."
He cringed inwardly.
It still hurt whenever she was mentioned. The pain wasn't as overcoming as before, when the wound was still fresh, deep and bleeding. But her memories both hurt and brought joy. Ichigo would always remember her with happiness for the fond memories, as well as with sadness for the goodness of those times that will never happen again.
Blowing out a curse, he turned to the windows behind him, a hand threading through his thick hair.
"Why did you let her do this to me? To us? How about Yuzu and Karin? What about their futures?" He turned around to face his father. "You could have stopped her! You've worked hard all your life for this company."
"You, too, Ichigo, have worked hard to continue my legacy. You've succeeded far more than I have imagined. And for that, I am proud of you."
Ichigo's eyes grew wide for a moment before he looked away to hide his surprise. His father was juvenile, interfering and downright annoying but his approval meant a lot to Ichigo.
"Why did you agree to this?" he asked, tone even, after he'd recovered from surprise. "Don't you think what Mom did is absurd and unfair?"
"Nope! Not at all!"
Ichigo looked at his father as though all he wanted to do was to put him through his window. "Fuck, I'm serious! It's my life and this company at stake here!"
"So am I," Isshin said, looking serene once again. "It's simple: I trust her. I trust her then, I still trust her now." Ichigo felt something twist inside his chest at his father's serious demeanor. He turned, facing away from his father, hiding his expression.
Because he was turned, Ichigo did not saw Isshin grin and leap forward, engulfing him in a bear hug. Ichigo sputtered, stumbling forward under the weight of his father. "Get off me!" he bellowed, grabbing the back of Isshin's shirt and throwing him off his back.
"WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM?"
Isshin landed on his feet, arms raised to his sides. "Oho! Perfect landing!" he boomed with a wink, flashing him a victory sign. Ichigo felt his eye twitch in annoyance; even though he was used to his father's crazy mood swings, the old man always managed to catch him off guard.
"She chose well, didn't she?"
Ichigo gave his father a flat stare, eyes narrowed. "Can it, old man."
Isshin ignored him and clasped his hands together, teary-eyed. "My beloved Masaki, you genius! Thank you kindly for choosing a lovely daughter-in-law! That charming face, all those glorious curves and sturdy child-bearing hips!" he babbled excitedly, waving his hands as though tracing invisible curvatures. He flashed him a thumbs up sign, winking.
The urge to throttle his father was overwhelming. "Get out."
Isshin waggled his eyebrows suggestively, making groping gestures in front of his chest. "You have to admit, those gazongas are-"
Neliel flinched in surprise when a shriek filled the air, and something flew out of Ichigo's office, hit the wall and crumpled on the floor.
"Kurosaki-san?" said Neliel, confused.
Still facedown on the floor, Isshin lifted a fist, his thumb sticking out. "A perfect roundhouse kick, my son! Daddy's so proud!"
Ichigo responded by slamming the door close with a force that shook the walls.
On July 25th, they got married, ten days after Kurosaki Ichigo turned twenty four.
She's beautiful, Rukia thought. She never got a chance to meet her personally for Ichigo refused to tell her anything about this woman. Rukia had wisely stopped pestering him for information, noticing how volatile he was when asked about his fiancée. This only proved that the engagement was something he didn't want. Rukia knew Ichigo, knew him enough to say that he was not someone who could be forced to do something he didn't want.
Rukia returned her gaze on the woman. Who would not want to marry someone who looked like her?
In a white strapless bodice and flowing skirt, Inoue Orihime was radiant. Her auburn hair was curled in a chic updo with a lily poking out of it. She wore no accessories. She held a bouquet of long-stemmed sunflowers, tied together by a red ribbon. Rukia had heard from Sado that sunflowers were Ichigo's deceased mother's favorite flowers, and from Kurosaki Isshin that Inoue – now Kurosaki, of course – regularly left sunflowers at Kurosaki Masaki's grave.
Rukia's frown deepened. The only reason she could think of was that Ichigo did not love his fiancée. Ichigo was not shallow but he was not a romantic either. He was a sensitive guy but at the same time, realistic. He got involved with few women before but none of them was able to tolerate Ichigo's frowning visage and insensitivity when it came to romantic relationships.
Perhaps, Rukia thought, brow creasing, this is due to uncle's interference.
But for Ichigo to acquiesce so readily, in just ten days, was surprising. Ichigo's stubbornness was as legendary as his ferocious temper.
Few pews away from Rukia, Tatsuki watched as her best friend fidgeted and blushed profusely at the attention she was receiving. Though she was smiling, Tatsuki knew Orihime was anxious.
Yesterday, Orihime went back to Karakura to visit Masaki. Tatsuki had offered to come with her but Orihime had refused. Tatsuki relented and hoped that eventually, Orihime will realize that it was going to be a mistake. But she came back, saying, "A promise is a promise."
Tatsuki shifted her gaze to the front. Ichigo looked as though he were having severe stomachache. He didn't even bother to tame his wild hair.
She caught Sado's eye and gave him a small weary smile. Sado nodded and turned to Ichigo to pat his friend's shoulder. Tatsuki saw Ichigo tense. Stiffly, face unreadable, Ichigo turned to face his bride.
She swore the air between her friends become thick, electrified, and heavy with tension. Isshin laughed loudly and said something which made Orihime blush and Ichigo glare.
Tatsuki heard a sob and turned towards the sound. A muscle ticked in her temple.
"My precious Hime, of all the ogres I call men, why him?" the redheaded young woman behind her lamented. Teary eyes met Tatsuki's. They flashed with indignation. "And you! How dare you let my Hime marry that… that!"
"Shut up, Chizuru," said Tatsuki flatly and faced forward again.
"…for me, Orihime-chan?"
That is the magic word. For me, for her, for Masaki-san.
The girl nods determinedly. "I—"
"You may kiss the bride."
Ichigo looked like he was having a migraine. Orihime smiled weakly, red-faced.
Amongst the crowd, Tatsuki glared, an eye twitching. Keigo, who was next to her, nervously itched away from her after catching her murderous expression. Sado wore no expression. Ishida was frowning. Rukia and Renji looked curious. Isshin was smiling.
The small crowd, a very small crowd waited. The wedding was a highly private affair, with very few guests, handpicked by Isshin himself.
Ichigo clenched his jaw, his eyes heavy-lidded.
He grew up adoring his mother. She taught him many things and one of those was to respect women. He imagined her disappointed look and it wound him. Thus, despite his private sentiments about this marriage and the woman who was now his wife, his manners prevailed.
He stepped forward.
Orihime stiffened. Her eyes had become huge and she held her slim bouquet of sunflowers tightly. Ichigo ignored her apparent discomfort and bent down to kiss the corner of her lips. The touch lingered, and Orihime felt her cheeks flush, her heart trip. Warmth swelled inside her, spreading outward to her limbs.
Ichigo pulled back.
"I now pronounce you, man and wife."
Tatsuki smiled in return as Orihime beamed at her.
Good luck, kiddo.
She flipped her phone open, took a picture, and saved it.
Hmm, Tatsuki thought. Nice. I like it.
G-guys you are all too kind and generous! Thank you, thank you so much! xx And oh i am very sorry for the delay. Stuff and things happened XD