A/N: Hello all, and welcome to the final installment of Soul Mates! That's right, for anyone who has somehow missed it, this is the final chapter. And while that does sort of sadden me, at the same time, I'm quite pleased with myself for this one! But it doesn't matter what I think, and you can't form your true opinion until you've read the whole thing! So what are you waiting for? Go read!
Disclaimer: Despite fervent wishing, I still do not own Bleach.
Epilogue: Toward Tomorrow
Ichigo stepped into the bakery shortly before ten o'clock, unsurprised to see that there were no customers at the tables or that the display case had been nearly picked clean. He let the door shut behind himself as he moved toward the counter.
The older man standing behind the register paused and looked up, a familiar smile tipping his lips when he recognized Ichigo. "Evening, Ichigo," he called casually.
"Evening," Ichigo replied easily, nodding in greeting.
The woman standing only a few feet from the other man stopped what she'd been doing and glanced over with a smile. She'd been working at the bakery for a while, and so she and Orihime had gotten close. "I'll let her know you're here," she offered, setting down the rag she'd been holding before turning and moving to the door that led to the back.
Orihime was drying her hands when Kimiko slipped into the back room, calling, "Your guard-dog's here."
Orihime giggled as she let the towel drop into the dirty basket. "I'm pretty sure the technical term is 'boyfriend', Kimiko," she teased.
"Uh-huh," Kimiko replied, leaning her hip against the oven and crossing her arms. "That's sort of my point, Orihime."
"Eh?" Orihime asked, her head tilting slightly to the side.
"How long have you been living together now? Four years?" Kimiko asked. She paused only long enough for her confused friend to nod before adding, "If I'd been living with my boyfriend for four years and he hadn't at least hinted at proposing, I'd take it as a sign and start looking."
"Looking?" Orihime repeated as she slipped her purse over her shoulder and started toward the door. "You mean you think I should ask him?"
"No," Kimiko said as she walked alongside her. "I mean looking for a replacement. You deserve a guy who's willing to commit."
Orihime pushed the door open with a quiet laugh and replied, "Oh, I'm not worried about that! It'll happen when it happens!"
"Orihime," Kimiko began, her voice dropping reflexively.
Orihime pulled her into a quick hug, said, "Thanks, though. Good night!" and started toward her patiently waiting boyfriend. She paused to offer another "Good night!" to her boss, still standing at the register, and then her attention focused on the figure before her.
Ichigo offered her a small smile and, as he reached for the door, he said, "Hey, Hime. Ready to go?"
"Yes!" Orihime assured him brightly. She returned his smile as he held the door open, letting her lead the way outside. His arm wound around her waist as soon as they began walking, and she leaned slightly into him as she asked, "How was your day?"
"Slow and boring," Ichigo replied honestly. "What about you?"
"Well," Orihime began as she thought over her day. And then she sucked in a breath, coming to a stop suddenly, and spun to face him as she asked, "Do you remember that bake-off we had the other day to decide who gets to host the booth at the Tanabata festival?"
Ichigo nodded, teasing, "How could I forget? The apartment still smells like cupcakes."
Her smile was as bright as he'd ever seen it and she was practically bouncing as she exclaimed, "I got it! I won the bake-off, so I get to host the booth!"
His own smile curved his lips and he said, "That's great, Hime. I'm proud of you."
The words were barely past his lips when her control snapped and she threw herself into him, her arms winding tightly around his shoulders. His own arms came around her just as her feet left the ground, legs bending at the knees.
"I'm so excited!" she declared unnecessarily.
Ichigo chuckled quietly as he held her aloft. She had been thrilled enough, the year before, when her bakery had finally purchased a booth for the Tanabata festival, so he knew she was undoubtedly through the roof at the prospect of hosting that booth.
Orihime finally took a deep breath, calming herself, and Ichigo gently set her back on her feet. She was still smiling when their eyes met again and she asked, "You'll come visit my booth, won't you?"
"Tch," Ichigo grunted with a grin, his hands on her hips and his forehead almost touching hers, "I'd like to see somebody try to stop me."
"And you know the best part?" Orihime began, her hands fiddling with the collar of his shirt, "The booths close before the fireworks, so I won't miss the display!"
"That is good news," Ichigo replied with a light laugh. He caught her return laughter with a kiss, tugging her to him but keeping his hands planted on her hips.
Orihime melted against him, her arms curving around his shoulders, and for a moment she was surprised when he pulled away instead of deepening the kiss. And then her brain restarted and she could only smile.
Holding his gaze, she breathed, "Let's go home, Ichigo."
The week before Tanabata passed in a blur, with Orihime spending the majority of her free-time on perfecting the recipes for the treats she was supposed to provide, and Ichigo sacrificing himself to be her guinea pig. He was pretty sure he hadn't eaten that many brownies, cupcakes, and cookies in such a short span of time since his childhood.
But he didn't care if he was going to have to spend an extra hour at the gym. Her smile was worth it.
And Ichigo was incredibly glad that he didn't have a night class to worry about as he helped her carry the boxes of treats across town for the set-up. The booth itself had been put together earlier in the day by a crew that the bakery had hired, but it was up to Orihime to fill the display case and back shelves before the festival officially opened.
Of course, since the festival hadn't opened yet, Ichigo had to leave as soon as the final box was set in an accessible place. So he dropped a kiss on her forehead, told her to save a few of the treats for paying customers, and took his leave.
Orihime spent the next hour getting everything exactly the way she wanted it, humming a subconscious tune the entire time.
When the last treat was in its place she stepped out of the booth, walked several feet, and turned to face it. Her hands landed on her hips as she studied the outcome of her work, and she nodded in satisfaction. "There," she declared, "I'm ready."
Her statement was echoed by a sudden surge of light all around her, and Orihime realized that she had finished in the nick of time.
The festival had begun.
With a squeak, Orihime quickly returned to her booth and flicked her own lights on before taking her place. She watched with a small smile as the first few families and groups of friends began to trickle in. And, as she watched, it really hit her.
She had never dreamed to experience Tanabata quite like this. But I love it already.
Over the next few hours dozens of people detoured to her booth. She got to meet new families with young children, children old enough to wander the festival grounds without supervision, and couples of all ages. It was a whole new way to celebrate her favorite holiday, and she loved it.
"So, be honest with me," Tatsuki declared as she stepped up to the booth between customers. When Orihime turned a surprised, happy smile toward her, she added, "Has Ichigo stopped by yet?"
"Of course he has," Orihime said with a laugh. "He was only here for a minute, though; he said he was going to snag his family and make them spend their money on me. But he bought a brownie before he left."
Tatsuki chuckled and nodded, saying, "I suppose I can accept that. Speaking of, I'll take two."
Orihime quickly complied with her friend's request, pulling out two large brownies and wrapping them in pastry paper.
As she handed over the money, Tatsuki asked, "You won't have to miss the fireworks, will you?"
"Nope! The booths close about ten minutes before!" Orihime assured her.
"Oi, move over, Tatsuki, you're hogging the counter," Ichigo called with a grin as he walked up. His father, sisters, and one boyfriend were trailing along behind him.
Tatsuki rolled her eyes at Ichigo and turned back to Orihime. "Well, I'll see you in a while, then," she said before she took her leave.
Yuzu ran up to the counter eagerly, exclaiming, "Hi, Orihime! Do you have my cupcake?"
Orihime laughed lightly. "Of course I do!"
As she proceeded to put together the family's order, Ichigo leaned against the counter and asked, "How's it going so far?"
"It's going great!" Orihime assured him as she worked. "I've had lots of customers, and I'm already out of two types of cookies!"
Ichigo's lips twitched as he said, "That's good."
"Now, Ichigo," Isshin called around a mouthful of the treat he'd just purchased, "we can't be taking up all of Orihime's attention tonight!"
Ichigo gave his father a pointed look before turning back to Orihime and saying, "I guess we're going now. I'll save you a spot on the hill."
Orihime smiled sweetly at him and nodded. "Thanks," she said. Turning her gaze out, toward the rest of the family, she added, "And thanks to all of you for coming to see me! I hope you enjoy the rest of your night!"
"We will!" Yuzu assured her.
She watched the family walk off, her eyes lingering on her boyfriend, until another customer stepped up to the counter. And then it was back to work.
By the time the booths had to close Orihime was out of almost everything. And though her feet kind of hurt, and she had a killer craving for donuts, she couldn't stop smiling as she made her way through the crowd on the hillside. Probably the only Tanabata that still trumped this one was the first one that she and Ichigo had attended together, as a couple. But it was close.
There he is, she thought when her eyes finally landed on the still somewhat distant head of orange hair. She increased her pace, knowing that the fireworks would be starting any minute, and did her best to gently push her way through the throngs of people who hadn't yet settled in one spot.
And then the people seemed to fall away, and Orihime released a breath and moved a little faster. Ichigo had found a spot near the crest of the hill, though he was standing somewhat apart from their friends, and she was almost to his side now.
He turned to smile at her as she finally reached him, saying, "I was starting to worry you'd be late."
"I would never miss the fireworks!" Orihime reminded him with a light laugh. She stepped into him and leaned up, pressing a light kiss to his lips. She had thoroughly enjoyed her night so far, but she hadn't actually gotten to spend a lot of it with him. And, on this night of all nights, that just seemed like a crime.
When she pulled back she murmured, "Happy Tanabata, Ichigo," and snuggled into his chest comfortably.
His arms tightened around her and he quietly replied, "Happy Tanabata, Hime."
The fireworks began exploding into the sky almost as soon as the words left his lips, and the couple turned their gaze skyward.
Orihime sighed softly as she watched, mesmerized as always by the multiple, bright colors lighting up the sky. Watching the fireworks on Tanabata with Ichigo's arms wrapped around her was the best feeling in the world.
Everything was silent and calm around them as they watched, and then there was a pause in the display that indicated the finale was about to begin.
Ichigo's arms loosened around her as he shifted, one arm falling away entirely.
Orihime turned a curious gaze up to him, caught off-guard by his movement, but before the question could leave her lips he had lifted his arm again and was holding it out in front of her, something balanced in his open palm. Her eyes followed the movement and she sucked in a breath.
The fireworks shot into the sky again, louder and faster than before.
But she could hear none of it. Her attention was focused solely on the shining diamond ring that sat in the box that was resting in Ichigo's hand.
And then he spoke, his voice soft against her ear. "Orihime Inoue," he began, "I love you more than anything, and I know without a doubt that I always will. So it's time for me to ask…will you marry me?"
She finally started breathing again, her heart hammering against her chest, and she had to swallow before she could turn her eyes up to his.
She nodded, slowly at first, until she probably looked like a bobble-head, and breathed, "Yes. Yes!"
He smiled softly and shifted again, reaching his arm entirely around her in order to lift the ring from the box, and she held her hand out almost-shakily as he slid it over her finger.
Orihime spun in his arms as soon as the ring was on her finger and wrapped her arms around his neck as she pressed her lips firmly over his. Her fingers curled over the base of his neck, holding tightly as his arms tightened around her and he deepened the kiss, sweeping his tongue into her mouth.
The fireworks faded from the sky as the festival came to an end.
Their friends turned toward them with small, knowing smiles tilting their lips.
But the couple ignored it all as they kissed, arms locked tight around each other.
And, in the back of her mind, Orihime made a decision. This was definitely the best Tanabata ever.
A/N: Okay, it's official. I'm happy with it. But the question is: are you? You should tell me!
Also, once again, I'd like to thank all of my lovely followers for this story! Especially those of you who were thoughtful enough to leave me the occasional review! ^_^ I truly do hope you all enjoyed this one! It kinda did run away with me (I thought it'd be a little shorter LOL), but I think that's okay! Thanks again, and until next time, happy reading!