It all started with a "Good morning!" Well, actually, a lack thereof.
When Ichigo's life wasn't absolutely insane, it felt extremely routine. Ichigo didn't mind routine. It didn't matter if every day was the same; generally his days were full of things he liked well enough. School and his job were fine, he liked his friends, loved his family... Alright, so there were incidents now and then, but even those were becoming commonplace now.
Senior year was changing things. He had a job, for one thing- not for fun or to move up the corporate ladder, just to save some money for college. Which college, he didn't know. He just has a basic thought in the back of his mind: he didn't want his family to pay for it. He honestly hadn't given much thought to going to college; it's just that he'd given absolutely zero thought to not going. It seemed expected, like the thing to do. So there was studying to be done and entrance exams to be taken.
Ichigo wasn't exactly not paying attention, it's just that- ok, he wasn't. He was treating school as he had always treated school. Yes, he was taking it seriously, but he wasn't going overboard. Counselors were pushing colleges on students. Students were pushing colleges on other students. Everyone was making decisions. Why was it such a big deal? There was always later, he could decide later. Whether Ichigo knew he was uncomfortable with these changes consciously or not, he did realize it was interfering with the little comforts he took from the routines in his life.
Some things didn't change much. Chad was still quiet but supportive. Ishida still regarded him in passing, but generally they weren't extremely close with each other. Tatsuki could still be seen much of the time overworking herself in practice behind the school.
Some things were better. Keigo, while still being somewhat dramatic, had been forced to tone down of late; presumably to study. Mizuiro still talked with Ichigo as he always had, which felt comforting. But now he'd started to randomly add advice about women in. Ichigo enjoyed his jokes and almost always laughed at them. He didn't notice Mizuiro raise an eyebrow when he laughed.
But the negative changes, oh the negative changes. It was easy for him to ignore them, except for one.
"Good morning, Kurosaki-kun!"
It was how his school day always started. Usually followed either immediately or throughout the day by, "Did you know that... Hey, yesterday I... So I was watching TV the other day and I thought... What is Kurosaki-kun doing later?"
It was his one super talkative friend, Inoue Orihime. Always a strange thought, always a bright and cheerful word; she always had something to say. And he realized after a short time of knowing her that he didn't mind it at all. That's just the way she was. Things had changed lately though.
"Good morning, Kurosaki-kun! Good morning, Kurosaki-kun... Good morning."
She didn't say his name any more. She could have been greeting anyone. And in fact, that is how she was greeting them, all the same. And then it changed from 'good morning' to nothing. All of his morning greetings were now exchanged in silence, unless Keigo was in a loud or whiny mood. Greeting Keigo, a nod at Mizuiro, a nod at Chad, a nod at Ishida (if they were paying attention to each other), a nod at Tatsuki, and then to Orihime... nothing. She didn't look around or talk much, just took her seat and waited for class to begin. It made things quieter... so why wasn't he happy?
For a while he tried hard to think- had he done something to her? He didn't think he had, but it might have been one of those guy things that he didn't even know he was doing wrong. Well, it was time to pay more attention then.
She walked in the classroom. She wasn't smiling. He frowned. She didn't look around; she looked to her desk and at the books in her hands. She did stop to think about something but it was only briefly and her expression didn't change. Then she kept walking. Chizuru approached her. Ok, so this was going to merit some kind of response. Chizuru popped on half a smile.
"Himeeeeee~!" she said, pinching both the girl's cheeks.
Orihime smiled- it looked pasted on. Ichigo was not an expert at smiling by any stretch of the imagination, but even he could tell it was a poor fake.
"Good morning," Orihime said. There wasn't any cheer in her voice.
"Um... yeah," Chizuru replied and released her.
Orihime finished the walk to her seat silently. Ok then it wasn't him, she just... wasn't talking.
Another week passed. No hellos. Not a word. How long had it been since all this started now? Three weeks? Ichigo shoved his hands in his pockets as he walked home from school. He scoffed to himself. There was some kind of problem. He knew nothing about the situation though. He was paying more attention to her now that she wasn't talking to him than he did when she was.
I wonder if I'm a bad friend..?
Ichigo cared about his friends, he knew he did. He just wasn't always sure how to show it. People were complex, feelings were complex... He wanted to know things; he didn't want to guess at them. He wanted solid feelings to grasp on to; he hated gaping questions and those little flits of feelings that were so vague which he sometimes got here and there. They were just confusing. Important people, people he wanted to protect, he understood that. How to help a friend emotionally? He didn't understand it so well.
Ignoring feelings was just...
Ah. Ignoring. Ichigo paused. She hadn't been talking to him, but he hadn't been talking to her either.
Right, if I miss saying hello to her in the morning... then I just need to say hello to her in the morning.
Ichigo felt like a moron, the problem was that easily solved. But he didn't feel lighter. Something was still there, something he wasn't seeing or something he was forgetting. What was it he couldn't think about clearly?
So wait, I miss...
The door to his home swung open and he barely caught it with his hand before it hit him in the face.
"Hey old man." He grit his teeth.
"You're going to crack my head open!" He walked in the house.
"testing your skills," his father and Karin finished at the same time.
"Welcome home, Ichi-nii."
Yuzu peeked out of the kitchen.
"Onii-chan! Dinner's in about 45 minutes."
"Ah, thanks Yuzu."
Ichigo went to walk upstairs, trying to remember what he'd been thinking about before and failing.
"You watching TV with us tonight?" Karin called after him.
"No, I've got too much homework."
"Oh!" his father exclaimed, "That's right, entrance exams are soon. Where are you planning on applying?"
And Ichigo froze.
(About one month ago...)
"Entrance exams!" Ochi-sensei said, pointing to the huge letters written across the blackboard.
"Now, how well you do on these reflects on me. I don't care where you want to go, it doesn't matter to me, but you're going to need good scores to get in anyway, right? Right. You know, unless you're going to one of those worthless colleges."
The class was silent as usual, wondering how their teacher kept her job.
But college! Orihime thought. It's like... it's like... level up!
Orihime tried to imagine what she'd look like at her new level. Maybe glasses and a blazer? Yes, yes, she nodded, very professional looking.
She took notes during class but couldn't help scribbling in the margins.
Ok, so Sado-kun will be on the football team. And suddenly he'll cut his hair! And all of the girls will all be like 'Oh his face, why did he hide it all this time?'
She glanced up.
And Ishida-kun... Ishida-kun will be on the- uh- sewing team? Is there a sewing team? Ishida can make a sewing team.
Ah, new notes. Orihime jotted them down in the way that made the most sense to her.
And Tatsuki-chan, she would be head of the karate team. No, that's boring. How about at night she dons a luchador costume and becomes the super hero of the campus! Yes! And fight injustice, and...
More notes. Algorithm. Orihime noted that in both her notes and as Tatsuki's superhero name.
The other girls and I can all start her a fan club.
Orihime tucked the idea of the fan club into the back of her mind. She looked at the problem on the board. Things like this didn't automatically make sense to her, but she found a way to adapt them into her mind. Also, they had an extremely good teacher. Orihime liked her. She felt like she knew the students well.
She solved the problem, hoped she had the correct answer, and looked around the class as the others tried to finish. Slowly, surely, her gaze fell to Ichigo. He stared up at the board and down at his paper and made a few marks, then furrowed his brow.
Hang in there, Kurosaki-kun! A slight smile spread across her face.
Oh right, what would he be in college? Super hero had been taken. Well, he was kind of a super hero any way, that wouldn't be a change. What then? Kurosaki-kun will be... Kurosaki-kun.That was good enough for her. To be with Ichigo on a college campus... wow! It would be so fun!
"Sado-kun!" Orihime stood up abruptly as soon as the lunch period began.
Chad slowly turned to face her. "Hm?"
"You must cut your hair and join football when we go to college!" she said and pointed at him confidently.
He thought for a moment.
"Oh," was his reply. He crossed his arms.
"I can if you'd like... I was planning on going home after school."
Orihime lowered her arm. "It's fine if you live at home while you go to college."
"No," he said slowly, "I mean home. To Mexico."
Orihime paused as this registered. Well sure, why not? It's where he was from, wasn't it? Maybe he had family there or friends. Maybe he really missed them.
"Oh... so you won't stay here?"
Chad shook his head.
"Well..." Orihime didn't know how to react. She'd never had a friend leave for a foreign country before.
"Oh. Well, I'll miss you, Sado-kun!" She did her best to smile. He smiled back at her, genuinely.
"Mou, the handicrafts club is hardly having meetings anymore, everyone is so busy," Orihime pouted at Ishida while picking at a knot.
"It can't really be helped," Ishida picked up another needle and examined it. "We have to get ready for graduation."
Orihime nodded. "Oh, did you know that Sado-kun is going back to Mexico after we graduate?"
Ishida didn't frown, but his face slightly fell. "Yes, I thought he might."
"He won't go to college with us, it's a sad thought."
"I doubt he would have gone to college with me anyway," Ishida said rooting around in his thread box.
"Inoue-san..." Ishida pushed his glasses up uncomfortably and leaned forward. "The plans were for me to take over the company hospitals eventually. They have special kinds of schools for that kind of thing, you know?"
Orihime hadn't known. Well, not exactly. But it made sense.
"Oh..." she said slowly.
She clapped her hands together and smiled. "You're following in your family's footsteps! How cool!"
Ishida leaned back and shrugged, seemingly indifferent.
"Why, where do you plan on going?" he asked.
"Oh, I was going to go to... Or rather, I was planning to go to college with, uh..."
"With whom?" Ishida asked, feeling he already knew the answer.
"Wherever everyone else was going," Orihime said, tugging hard on her thread.
"Oh? And where are they going?"
"Where am I going to college?"
The girls were sitting in their usual circle the next day at lunch.
"I..." Michiru fidgeted, "I always thought I'd go where my parents went. They met there, you know?"
"I'd like to study to be a lawyer," Ryo said.
"Osaka, definitely Osaka," Mahana added.
"College, pfft," Chizuru scoffed at the idea. "I was planning on getting married."
A silence fell, all eyes were on Chizuru.
"What... weren't you all?"
"You're not... talking about... to Orihime, are you?" Tatsuki said, pale faced.
"Oh," Chizuru blushed deeply, "if she'll have me!" She rolled her eyes back in her head and fanned herself.
"Quit that!" Tatsuki said, disturbed.
Orihime laughed nervously while Tatsuki landed a punch on Chizuru's arm.
"What about you, Tatsuki-chan?"
"Oh, me?" She leaned back. "Actually my parents and I already looked into it last year when I went to the nationals championship. There were recruiters and they figured I could probably get a full ride scholarship; there was one sports oriented college especially looking at me... They're good and they really seemed enthusiastic to have me on..." Tatsuki looked at Orihime hesitantly.
All the girls exclaimed things like "Ooh a full ride scholarship, how nice!" and "I knew you could do it!"
Orihime tried to join in, but she had a sinking feeling.
Orihime slowly swung her legs back and forth. She was the last one in the classroom. With a frown on her face she doodled a picture of all her friends and herself together in college. They all looked so happy. She looked up when she heard a noise at the door.
"Oh! Kurosaki-kun! What are you doing here?"
Ichigo walked over to his desk and retrieved his bag. "Forgot this. And I was just about to ask you the same thing."
"I'm-" she honestly didn't know. She crossed her arms and thought about it. "Sitting, I guess."
Ichigo pressed his lips together. She was sure she saw the hint of a smile.
"Sure enough. It's getting late, should I walk you home?"
Orihime suddenly felt herself tingle with excitement. I should say yes this time, Kurosaki-kun can walk me home! Orihime smiled a huge smile. Then she stopped to think. Oh no I have work!
"A, ha no, that's ok... Actually I have to work. It's kind of out of your way. So..."
"Oh," he paused. "Alright then."
The smile stayed on Orihime's face but it left her eyes.
"Well," he said, slinging his bag over his shoulder, "I guess I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes! For sure."
He walked towards the door. Orihime looked down at her scribbled drawing.
"Oh, Kurosaki-kun..." she couldn't look away from her paper to face him. "We were talking about colleges today. Which one do you think you'll go to?"
"Hmm? Ah, I haven't really thought about that stuff. It seems odd to, uh, talk so soon about stuff like that Inoue," he tried to smile at her, but she wasn't looking at him. "Listen I've got to get home. See you later."
"Yeah," she said quietly. She didn't know if he'd even heard. And then she was in the classroom alone again.
She looked down at her picture and crossed out Chad.
She crossed out Ishida.
She crossed out Michiru, Ryo, Mahana, and Chizuru.
A tear drop fell and smudged the ink on the paper as she crossed out Tatsuki.
Her hand shook. There was little stick figure Ichigo, standing next to little stick figure Orihime. Everyone would be separated. She wouldn't be able to see them anymore. None of her friends. Not even Tatsuki. And Ichigo...
She dropped her pen and buried her head in her hands.
Ichigo set his bag on his desk and stretched. A new school day was starting. People filed in the door. There was Tatsuki, she couldn't be far behind- Ah, finally, there she was.
"Oi, Inoue!" he said in a voice as cheery as he could muster in a tone just short of shouting. "Morning!" He wanted to try to greet her like she usually greeted him. It made him cheerful. Maybe it would work in reverse.
She blinked and looked at him for the first time since... he didn't remember when. He couldn't read her expression, but it wasn't happy. Surprised, maybe.
"Ah, y-yes. Good morning." She looked down at her feet and let her hair hang over her face as she took her seat.
Ichigo scratched the back of his neck. Was it working? It didn't seem like it. He went over to her desk.
"So. What did you watch on TV last night?"
Orihime placed a book on her desk. "Oh, nothing. I was studying." Her voice was calm and even.
"I see." Ichigo frowned.
"Seats everyone!" Ochi-sensei hollered walking into class.
Ichigo returned to his seat, an unhappy feeling following him.
Orihime was coming to class later and later. By the end of the week she was getting there right before the teacher did. Ichigo wasn't getting chances to talk to her. He considered asking Ishida if anything had happened, but then he noticed him periodically glancing in concern at her, too. He must not know either. Besides, there was a much more reliable source.
"Oi, Tatsuki!" Ichigo called as he saw people filing out from karate practice. Tatsuki shot him a glance. He motioned her over. She did not look very happy.
"Hey Tatsuki, listen, do you know what's up with Inoue lately?"
He found himself swiftly blocking a punch straight to the gut. Oh man, she hadn't been holding back.
"That's what I've been wanting to ask you!" Tatsuki took a step back and looked as if she were prepared to throw another punch. "What did you do to her?"
"Me? Why would I have done anything? I was coming to you to see what was wrong!"
"Well it must have been something you did," Tatsuki said, steeling her position, hands on hips.
"I haven't done anything. And why would anything I do have any effect on Inoue anyway?"
Tatsuki bit her lip and looked away.
"I just wanted to see if you knew if something was going on," he tried again.
Tatsuki sighed and dropped her arms to her sides. "I don't know. She hasn't been acting normal with me, either. She doesn't really talk to me much at school. She's slow about answering her phone, or else she doesn't answer at all. Every time I ask her to do something it's always 'I can't I'm studying' or 'I don't think that's a good idea right now.'"
Tatsuki sighed again and they both stood in silence.
"Well, can you, I mean... talk to her about it?"
"I've been trying!" Tatsuki crossed her arms in front of her. "She'll hardly see me."
"I wanted to hang out with her a lot. Before... you know. I kept thinking I should maybe see if there were any colleges close by I could go to with her but there's the difference in our grades and then when I got a full ride scholarship... My parents were so excited I couldn't say no."
Ichigo wasn't sure what to say. Should he comfort Tatsuki? No, she was the type who liked to take care of herself. But where did he even begin to ask for help with Orihime? He didn't know how to express his concern, let alone how to ask what to do.
"Maybe..." Tatsuki trailed off.
Ichigo looked back up at her. She looked unsure of herself.
"Maybe you should have a talk with her," she said.
"Me? If she won't even talk to you, why would she talk to me?"
Tatsuki shrugged. "It's worth a try. You want to help her, don't you?"
Ichigo nodded. That much he was sure of.
Ichigo continued his attempts to talk to Orihime. They weren't very successful. The less he talked to her, the more he found himself thinking about her.
I've been taking advantage of her presence. I didn't even know it.
He tried talking to her in school but it wasn't working. It was too crowded or they weren't in the same place at the same time or they were too busy. He figured it would be easier to talk to her elsewhere; logically school was not the best place. Maybe walking home or out somewhere or something. It was simple enough, friends did things together. When he went over to ask her though, his back tensed. He wasn't sure what he said. Was it "Go someplace with me?" Something along those lines. She paused. And he found, unexpectedly, that he'd developed a lump in his throat and his arms had tensed up too. What was the big deal, he was just asking Orihime to go somewhere with him, right?
"Uh, umum..." For a second, she sounded like Orihime again. She took a piece of hair in her hands and wrung at it furiously. She was looking back and forth, anywhere but at him.
"I can't! I'm sorry," she bowed at the waist and didn't rise. Unsure of what to do, he blurted that it was fine, made some lame excuse, and got the heck out of there. Now he was slumped down on the couch in his living room. Karin entered noisily.
"What you watching?""
He didn't respond. He hadn't heard her.
"I don't really want to watch this. Let's change it to that samurai show."
Karin looked over. He wasn't paying attention to her, just staring mindlessly at the TV.
"Oi!" she yelled in his ear. Ichigo jumped.
"What are you watching?"
"Oh, um..." Ichigo had no idea. He looked at the television for a moment to see if he could name it. Some random cooking show- nope.
"Nothing, sorry. Here you can have the remote if you want to. I'm going up to my room."
Karin took the remote she was handed and watched him as he got up to leave. She wasn't like Yuzu, she knew. She couldn't look at people and tell something was bothering them. But she knew her brother well enough to tell that something was getting under his skin.
If I point it out he'll deny it, then he'll act annoying for days. Karin scowled. He never fooled any of them. But this has been going on for... Oh, what choice do I have?
"Oi, Ichi-nii," Karin said, trying to use her most authoritative voice, "what's been wrong with you lately?"
Ichigo paused, and then turned around. There it was, that big fake smile on his face.
"What are you talking about Karin, I'm-"
"Please. I'm not stupid. I'm not a kid any more. Just tell me. I wouldn't ask if I didn't want to know."
Ichigo's first instinct was to say he was fine and to leave. But Karin looked serious. On the one hand, how awkward would it be for a younger sister to help him with friend advice? But on the other hand Karin was a girl, Orihime was a girl... she might have some insight.
"Oh, I'm..." he wasn't sure how to pick his words. "Having trouble with a friend of mine at school is all. I mean, they're having trouble, not me."
Karin vaguely knew his friends. Aside from Tatsuki, who they'd all known as children, he tended to keep them at a distance (at least from his family). She completely understood. Still, it wasn't as if she'd never met any of them. And there was one that came by sometimes who she hadn't seen recently. Yup, bingo, that had to be it.
"Is it Orihime?"
He looked caught off guard. "Uh, yeah. Nothing major though. No worries."
"Ooh," a voice came from the doorway. Yuzu was standing there, they hadn't noticed her. "Onii-chan is having trouble with Orihime-san?"
"What? No, I'm not really-"
"So what's the problem?"
"No, there's not really a problem, just-"
"Hmm, probably she won't go out with him," Yuzu said continuing on her merry way.
"That might be," Karin said, folding her arms, "she is pretty hot."
"Hmm, or maybe Onii-chan did something and wants to apologize."
Ichigo put on his best cross look. "Alright are we done now?"
"Relax, dad isn't home."
Ichigo shook his head and went towards the stairs.
"Onii-chan, come back," Yuzu said, "You can tell us what's going on!"
"He's throwing a fit," Karin said under her breath.
"Onii-chan, come on, you'll miss dinner!"
"It's fine," he yelled from the top of the stairs, then they heard his door close.
Yuzu turned to Karin. "Do you think we made him mad?"
She shrugged, "I was just trying to help." Karin sat down on the couch and began to flip through channels.
"What do you really think happened with Orihime-san?" Yuzu asked from the doorway.
"Oh, how should I know? I just wanted to see if I could help bring him out of his funk. I'm not good with that stuff."
"Well. Ok. Dinner will be just a few more minutes, not too long."
Yuzu had noticed his mood too, but she hadn't said anything. She wasn't as brave as Karin. But she wanted to help if she could. She briefly glanced at the poster in their living room.
Mom, what would you do?
Ichigo stared up at his ceiling. He was grateful it was quiet. He didn't know where Kon was, he didn't care. But someone was in his hallway and a knock sounded at his door. No one knocked in his house. He sat up.
Yuzu entered his room with a tray of food.
"I brought you dinner."
She hesitated. "Are you mad?"
"Mad?" he took the tray from her.
"At Karin and me."
"Pff, no, you guys were just being nosy."
"We just want to help. You've been sad lately."
Ichigo raised an eyebrow.
"Sad? No I haven't-"
"But you have! You can tell me what's wrong, maybe I can help."
Ichigo didn't want to unload on Yuzu, nor did he think she could really help. But he wasn't sure what to say, either.
"What do you want to know," he sighed.
"First of all, what happened with Orihime-san?"
"Oh." Ichigo stared blankly for a moment. Was there a way to get Yuzu out of his room without answering the question? He looked up at her concerned face. Probably not.
"Oh, she just doesn't seem like... Or- I mean, I'm not, uh, judging her or anything but she seemed, er, she seems unhappy lately."
"Uh huh," Yuzu said, feeling as if she were encouraging a five year old. "And?"
"And? Well she's not really talking to anyone so I wanted to find out what was wrong with her."
Ichigo furrowed his brow. Why did he have to explain all this? It was irritating.
"So I tried to ask her but she won't talk to me either. I mean seriously, I can't even get her for a second, she keeps saying no-"
"Oh, so you were rejected."
"Ok, ok, out we go," Ichigo rose from his bed and herded Yuzu to the door, promptly shutting it once she was out.
"Onii-chan? Hey, Onii-chan?" he heard from the other side. He did not respond. She was not coming back in.
"It sounds like she's running away from you, Onii-chan."
Ichigo still didn't respond. Running away. Running away. It triggered something in him.
Why would she run away? Why again?
His mind may not have known what to think, but his instincts were already flaring up.
What was she running away from?
Ichigo throbbed with confusion. Protect her from what? Protect her how? There weren't any threats around! How could he know what to protect her from if she wouldn't tell him?
"If you need to talk to her," Yuzu continued from the other side of the door, "and she keeps running away from you, well... Just catch her someplace where she can't run away."
Ichigo walked away from the door.
Yuzu's shadow vanished from under the door and he heard her walking down the stairs.
Somewhere she can't run away?
It had been a sunny Saturday out, the day didn't match his mood at all. Ichigo looked down again at the paper he held in his hand. Tatsuki had given him Orihime's work address and what she thought her schedule usually was. That is, she gave them to him after some hesitation.
Orihime sometimes, well, used to bring him day old bread from the shop. He wondered what kind of bakery it was. He didn't have long to find out. It was about 25 minutes before she got off. He hoped he'd be there on time. He pushed the door open and a bell tinkled.
"Welcome," a couple of female voices chimed at him, happily as the bell.
He looked around. It was girly.
One girl was stocking a shelf with newly baked bread. Another stood behind a glass counter full of decorated pastries. There were a few tables off in the corner. Ichigo grimaced. They've got frilly uniforms.
He approached the counter. He didn't see Orihime. He wasn't sure if it would be appropriate to ask for her at work. He kind of just expected he'd see her when he walked in. What if Tatsuki had been wrong about her schedule?
"Hello," the girl at the counter said brightly, "what can I get you today?"
"Uh..." Ichigo stared blankly.
"Yukari-chan!" a call came from behind a door. It swung open. "I've got another tray of daisy cookies!"
Orihime bounded out of the back carrying a tray. "Here you go-Oh!"
She turned to hand her co-worker the tray and stopped.
Seeing she had frozen, her co-worker took the tray, just in case. She looked back and forth between the two of them and decided to go elsewhere.
"Hey Inoue," he said, wishing he'd thought of something to say before hand. Should he say he came here by chance? Or that he came to talk to her?
"What are you doing here?" she looked surprised. She played nervously with the ruffles around her neckline.
"I... came because I wanted to talk to you." Yeah he'd go that route. He wasn't so good with lying.
"Oh. Sorry I'm in the middle of baking right now."
"It's ok. I can wait until you get off."
"No, you don't have-"
"Yeah, I know I don't have to. I said I came to talk to you though. How much longer will you be?"
Orihime twisted around to look at the clock above the door. Her skirt flounced as she did so.
"Um, 20 minutes, but..."
"Ah, no problem, I'll just wait."
She wasn't smiling. Again. She'd been smiling when she came through the door. What happened?
Orihime peered around as if she were looking for a good excuse. She wasn't a good liar, either.
"Ok." She hadn't meant for it to sound resigned, but it did.
"Ok then," Ichigo said.
Almost hypnotically she turned and walked to into the back again. The girl who had been stocking bread walked up to the counter and raised an eyebrow at him.
"Can I help you with anything?" One hand was on her hip.
"Yes. Three of those daisy cookies, please."
Orihime peeked out the small window in the door.
Why is he here? Why him, of all people?
Orihime felt a hand on her shoulder.
"That guy, is he bothering you?"
Orihime's co-worker looked concerned.
"No, I know him. We're... classmates."
Yukari examined him through the window.
"Not bad, but he kinda looks like the punk type. He's not violent is he?"
"Ah, no, no, Kurosaki-kun would never hurt me."
"Alright then, score one for Orihime-chan!" Yukari lightly nudged her and went back out to finish her duties.
Orihime looked longingly at the back entrance.
I could leave that way. If I took the long way home I wouldn't have to pass by the windows. Kurosaki-kun wouldn't see me.
That was foolish. He'd know. Even if she got away with it and he somehow didn't realize, he'd be so mad. But maybe that would make things easier.
Why am I doing this?
Orihime shoved her hands into the dough, her last batch of the day.
I have to.
She took the batch that was in the oven out and placed the new one in. She washed her hands and looked towards the back door. It was so tempting. But she still had one last task. She wrapped the newly baked bread and put it in a basket.
Come on, out I go.
There he was, sitting at a corner table.
Don't look at him.
Orihime felt the lately-familiar tug of a frown pull down on her lips. She set the basket down and took a loaf in her hands. These were new, so they went on the top shelf. She looked back and forth for the step ladder but couldn't see it. She looked back at the top shelf. Her arms stretched upwards. She felt her skirt shift.
Stupid uniforms! She'd never minded them before, but she did right now. And she still couldn't quite get the bread up there. She reached harder and stood on her tip toes.
Who buys loaves from this shelf any way, giants? But that was the idea, sell the older loaves first and then rotate them.
She still couldn't reach. "Hup!" she said, hopping and shoving the loaf in place. But she didn't stick the landing. She felt her ankle turn sideways.
Poop! I'm coming again, Mr. Floor!
She landed on something hard, but it wasn't the floor. She felt a hand on her shoulder, righting her position. A hand as big as her shoulder. And warm.
"Geez, you need to be more careful Inoue," he said backing away. He circled to the other side of her and handed her another loaf, then began putting them in place himself.
Orihime wanted to say something. She didn't know what she wanted to say. But she wanted to stop looking at him and get back to work. She couldn't stop looking. She wasn't sure if her gaze drew his or he only looked over at her because he was done stocking bread already, but for a moment she had to attempt, rather desperately, to handle his eyes on hers.
"Are you about off?"
"Ok," he said smiling one of his dumb fake smiles, "No sneaking away, now."
Ichigo stared at the cookies on the table in front of him. They looked like flowers, but they tasted fine. He'd finished them by the time he heard the clack of the kitchen door again and Orihime came out carrying a basket of bread. She set it down and started trying to reach the top shelf. She stretched and got on her tiptoes. On the one hand, it was sort of amusing to watch. On the other hand...
That idiot, she's going to fall.
Ichigo got up to help and when he neared her, she practically fell on him.
"Geez, you need to be more careful Inoue," he said, loading up on bread and putting it up on the top shelf for her. Before he really noticed it, he'd put all the bread up. He tried to give her an apologetic look; he'd just done her job for her. Sure enough, there she was staring back at him. Oh...
"Are you about off?"
"Ok, no sneaking away now," he said, attempting a joke. He could tell it had failed before she even turned to go in the back again.
Ichigo cursed himself. It was time to talk to her, after all this work, and he still couldn't figure out what to say. 'Hey Inoue, you're acting weird' had been what what he was originally contemplating. But then, he'd told her that plenty of times before. He'd have to add 'Even for you you're acting weird.' Somehow, it didn't seem like the most tactful thing to say.
She walked out of the back in her regular clothes once again. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but then closed it. She headed for the door and he followed briskly to push it open. She brushed past.
He quickly exited and matched pace with her a few feet off to the side. For a moment, they walked in silence. Ichigo's intent was to find out what was wrong but this... it hadn't ever felt like this before. At that very moment he felt like he couldn't muster a smile in a million years. He never went around with a big toothy grin any way, but smiling did come a lot easier when Orihime was around. But this atmosphere... it was undoubtedly tense.
"Inoue, are you mad at me? I mean, have I done something?" He angrily rolled his eyes to the side. That was the wrong question. That wasn't what he'd wanted to ask.
She swallowed and cleared her throat before answering him. Her voice didn't sound normal.
"No, you haven't done anything wrong, Kurosaki-kun."
He thought he heard her voice break on his name.
"Inoue," he tried again. He shoved his hands in his pockets. He didn't know what to do with them. "I've been... You've got... I mean, lately, you..." He stopped. Sentence! Come on already!
"Lately you've been acting strangely. Is something wrong?"
She scrunched her face up a little; at least it looked as if she did. The light had faded fast while he was in the shop and it was difficult to see in between street lights.
"I meant, because you haven't seemed very happy. I thought, if there's a problem, well, you know..?"
He waited for her to provide some sort of an answer. Any sort of answer. Nothing came.
Come on Inoue, this is a two player game. He was already bad at this stuff and she wasn't making it easier.
He leaned his head back to think. Maybe if I open up a little bit she'll feel more comfortable doing it too? This thought seemed dangerous to Ichigo, but when he lulled his head over to the side and saw her and her downcast eyes, he inwardly sighed and told himself to man up.
"If there's something wrong Inoue, you can tell me. I wanna help you; I don't care what it is. I mean, I'm not great with this stuff, but please."
Her head dropped further. He could no longer see her face. Her pace slowed.
"Inoue, I'm here and I want to help you out. I mean, you've helped me out so much. You're always there for me."
She stopped walking. A sound finally emitted from her. It sounded sort of like a chuckle, but... it wasn't a chuckle.
"And I want to be there for you, too, you know..?"
Her arms bent at the elbow. She finally raised her head to look straight forward again. Ichigo thought her face looked wet, but before he could tell for sure, she was off.
Ichigo paused for a split second to try and think the situation over. Should he go after her?
She was running away. Running away again. Of course he was going to follow her.
"Inoue, wait!" he called after her.
Unsurprisingly, she did not slow down.
Dang, how does she run that fast? He tried to quicken his pace. He didn't seem to be gaining on her. At least not by much. And then she turned, turned to see how far behind her he was.
Ichigo felt his insides drop. His mind buzzed. He couldn't grasp on to a clear thought.
He sped up. His legs were longer, he had the advantage. He reached out and yes- finally- he caught hold of her wrist. They whipped to a stop but she would not turn around to face him. Her body crouched over.
"Kurosaki-kun, please!" her voice sounded raw. "Let go of me!"
"No! We're going to talk this out!"
"I don't want to talk to you!"
The forcefulness in her voice caused him to loosen his grip, but he didn't let go. He wasn't sure if he felt angry or hurt. But when she finally turned around, she looked sorrowful.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
"You don't have much of a choice right now but to talk to me," Ichigo said raising an eyebrow.
He looked around. There weren't any benches nearby to sit on but he spotted some unused stairs and led her over to them.
"If I let go, are you going to run away again?"
She silently shook her head. He let go of her wrist and they seated themselves about half way up the stairs, a fair distance from the road's view.
He wasn't sure what else to say. "Talk," he said simply.
"I've just been so busy lately," she couldn't stop her voice from wavering.
"Inoue..." he sighed. He didn't know what to do. "Don't lie."
She pressed her lips together tightly and her nose flared as she still attempted to breathe.
"Something's been wrong with you..." he said.
He had a chewing, scratching, dark feeling gnawing at the back of his mind. He looked at her again. "Does this have anything to do with Hueco Mundo?"
She inhaled sharply and her eyes went wide. She held herself there for a moment until her eyes narrowed and closed and she choked out a sob. She folded her body in half and shook as she cried.
"Inoue, that's over now! We're out. That's in the past. It's not going to happen again."
"But it is!" she burst out. "It's happening!"
"Why in the- Inoue, is someone after you?"
She shook her head.
"Inoue... you're not leaving again." It was a statement, not a question. "Nobody's going to take you away."
She cried and muttered something. All he really understood from it was the word alone.
"Inoue, there's no way I'm going to let you get taken away again. You don't have to be alone." He felt his hands slowly clenching into fists.
"But I do! I have to do this!"
Ichigo scowled, "Inoue, if you think I'm letting you leave again-"
"They're leaving me!"
Ichigo paused, confused.
"Who is leaving you?"
"Everyone," she wept.
Ichigo was trying to let this all sink in.
"No one's leaving you," he said, confused.
"Sado-kun, he's going back to Mexico after we graduate. And Ishida-kun... he's going off to some special medical business school. And Tatsuki-chan..."
He couldn't understand the rest of what she said between sobs.
"Well what about-"
"Everyone I know is splitting up! Everyone!"
Ichigo could see tears running down from her face to her hands to her arms.
"Everyone's leaving me."
Ichigo's mind boggled. Chad was leaving? And Ishida, too? Well, he figured... no, he hadn't thought about it. At all.
"So... you're ignoring them?" he was confused.
"You don't understand," she said, "you don't understand what it's like. I'm going to be alone again." She looked terrified.
Ichigo felt his heart ache just looking at her. She was right. He didn't really get it. He understood a little; he'd suffered loss before. But to her extent, no, that was something else.
And he didn't know what to do for her. He didn't deal with girls crying. Karin didn't cry, and Yuzu conveniently dealt with herself. If she really needed you to cry on, she would just come and cry on you. But he thought, she always stops after a while. She says the closeness makes her feel better. Maybe there's something to that.
"I'm going to be alone again."
Orihime closed her eyes.
"Not again," she sounded like she was in pain.
Ichigo scooted next to her.
"I've been through this before. I thought maybe if I trained myself... No one to smile at, no one to say hello to, no one to talk to, a quiet apartment... I can train myself to be alone. I can!"
Ichigo felt sick inside. Why couldn't he have seen this coming? Done something to comfort her earlier? Training herself to be lonely- come on! That was one of the saddest things he'd ever heard her say. And here she was, her tears wouldn't stop. And he wasn't protecting her.
"Inoue..." He put his arm around her. He didn't know what else to do. Her body was shaking. Things didn't feel like they felt with Yuzu. Or Karin. Or his mother. Or Rukia. Or any other girl he'd ever seen cry. Sitting here holding Inoue made him feel... Made him feel like he was holding Inoue. It was strange.
"You're not alone."
She sniffled. He didn't know what else to say.
"You're not alone."
She leaned into him and cried. He put his head on top of hers and rubbed her back.
"It's ok. It's ok."
"It's not. I'm here crying in front of Kurosaki-kun again. All I ever do is cry!"
He felt his shirt getting wet, but at least it was warm.
"Inoue, you never cry. I can't even remember the last time I saw you cry." That was a lie. He remembered it all too well.
"I can't do anything right, I'm just useless. I make a mess of everything. All I do in the end is get other people hurt."
Ichigo sighed, "Sorry Inoue, I've got the market cornered on that one. And you've never hurt me."
"I've gotten you hurt," she sniffled. "I... I... Because of me, you..."
"You've gotten me better. You've always gotten me better. There's not even a comparison, how much you've helped versus how much you've hurt. Without you," he chuckled ruefully, "we wouldn't be here. None of us."
She was still crying. But it seemed like her full body sobs had calmed.
"You're not lying?" she said quietly.
He closed his eyes. "No."
"I'm sorry," she whispered, "I wish I was stronger."
"You're plenty strong Inoue." He scoffed. "Heck, you're stronger than me."
"That's not true."
"You're trying to deal with all the changes lately. Even though you're going about it the wrong way. You know what I'm doing? Ignoring them. Pretending they're not happening." He paused. "I'm a coward."
He hadn't realized it until he said it. He was running away from his own problems.
Moments of silence passed. It didn't occur to either of them to let go of one another. Not right now.
"It's scary, isn't it?" she said.
More silence passed. Finally, he could actually hear the sounds of the night coming from all around them. He felt congested from running and being upset. But his chest felt warm.
"What do we do?" Orihime asked. "I'm tired of it... tired of having to have all the answers."
He tried to look down at her. All he could see was a messy patch of orange-red hair.
"I don't know, but... You don't have to be afraid any more Inoue. I'm not going to leave you. I'll stay with you."
If you'll stay with me. I don't want to lose everyone either. And I don't want to lose you.
"Do..." she croaked. She swallowed. "Do you mean it?"
"Yeah, why not?" He tried to say it brightly. "Don't you think we'd make a good team?" He chuckled. He wanted to cheer her up. "Besides, it's a lot less scary if we're both doing things together than going it alone."
It felt humbling to admit he was scared.
"And you better watch yourself if you tell anyone I said I was afraid," he finished in a cranky voice.
Orihime chuckled from below. It was weak after crying so much, but it was still a relief to hear.
Ichigo slowly pulled his arm away and sat back. Orihime hesitantly pulled away too.
"Kurosaki-kun," she was wiping the final tears away, "On Monday... let's look at colleges."
"Ok," he said. She really way brave.
"I promise I'll say hello to you."