Disclaimer: Kubo is king. Kubo is to thank for giving us these wonderful characters, which represent a part or all of us in this walk of life. My first offering into the world of Bleach, which I sincerely hope you all enjoy.

I've used Japanese honorific's and terms from the manga for accuracy.

Snow fell lightly around her, covering her boot tracks as she pulled her jacket closer for warmth. It was the coldest winter recorded in the History of Karakura Town and yet, the streets remained crowded with people bustling by for their normal routine.

Laughing she brushed a snowflake, landing on her nose and quickly glanced at her watch. She was early, too early and that was never a good thing for her nerves.

"Ne, Kurosaki –kun, is always late." Orihime exclaimed with a small smile entering the little coffee shop, where they decided to meet.

She eagerly inhaled the warmth of the strong coffee brewing and slid in at an intimate table in the back with a frosted window view. Knowing Ichigo, he was off on some emergency Hollow call and peeled off her jacket, shaking out the snowflakes melting in her auburn hair.

The server, a young man in his twenties, seemed only too eager to assist with her order and after, learning every single drink and sandwich on the menu. He unwillingly retreated when she couldn't decide and placated him with her trademark smile, which resulted in a complimentary cranberry scone and hot chocolate a few minutes later.

After all this time, even at twenty two she still felt awkward from the male attention she always received. It drove her nakama insane, especially when they were out as a group. She lost count how many times she restrained Kurosaki – kun and Ishida- kun from handing a beating to a leering man or men. Forgetting in the heat of the moment, she was more than capable of dealing her own version of pain to the perverts. It was in their nature, she smiled inwardly to protect their friends.

It was the reason, why she fell in love with Kurosaki - kun all those years back. Yet after all their journeys and battles together, she never found the courage to tell him those three words. Utterly simple and yet the most frightening sentence in any language. By now, if she couldn't gather enough strength to tell him, then it would be more than five lifetimes she'd need to express her feelings for him.

She knew she was letting time past and with each fleeting second, it could take him further away from her into the arms of another. Yet, she respected that intuition that delayed her from saying it. It was a powerful weapon which served her well in the past. However, she was no longer that naive sixteen year old, with dreams of robot Orihime and Tatsuki to pummel anyone who hurt her. She was an adult, with harsh decisions to make on her future and whether Kurosaki - kun would play any part of it. Today, she would finally divulge the secrets of her heart and pray to the Gods he would not shatter it.

Rangiku –san urged her every year since she turned eighteen to tell him, but she always and respectfully did not comply with her advice. While she adored the older woman and considered her a mentor in the arts of fashion, culinary cuisine and love, she begged for patience in this matter.

Kurosaki – kun had seen too much war and death in their young lives. She wanted the best for him, to stand by him in his ordeals and in his darkest hours comfort him ideally as a lover but she knew he didn't view her in that light. His entire life was committed in duty to Karakura Town and Soul Society to assist in the never ending battle of good and evil.

He allowed them to fight beside him now, but always felt the need to protect her over the others. At first, she understood his reasons, but told him after a particularly ferocious battle, where she unleashed Tsubaki to protect Rukia and Nel, it was necessary for her to use all of her powers of the Shun Shun Rikka. While still protective, he complied and now allowed her more space to fight. It was an upward struggle to let Tsubaki attack in full fury. However, she was tired of the timidity which endeared the others to protect her at their own expense and worked towards portraying a stronger front.

Growing up and experiencing everything as part of the nakama gang, she developed a steely unwillingness to retreat in the heat of battle and yet she fumed inwardly, how could she have not been able to tell him how she truly felt? Under the smiles and laughs, the layers of bricks and walls she developed after Hueco Mundo threatened to override her true nature.

What exactly was her true nature? She wanted to protect, to love, to support everyone and especially her scowling orange haired friend. He, who had seen so much destruction and darkness in his life, deserved a chance of happiness. She just wanted a chance to be just that and to let down her walls for him alone.

Tatsuki berated her for her stubbornness by not even attempting to be interested in other men but how could she, when her heart was firmly set on Ichigo and would always be. There was a fleeting moment when Ishida, threatened to sell her out, if only to expedite the situation but she prevented him with subtle threats of revealing his feelings to Nemu. He hastily retreated after with many apologies yet, it wasn't too long after he gave in to his feelings and told the twelfth division fukutaichō. Today, they divided their time between both worlds to see each other.

She was happy to see her friends settled in loving relationships and cast aside their worry for her when she didn't fall under that category. Life was too vast to be worried about not finding the one and she was content in waiting, yet there were times when she wondered when she too would feel the bliss of a loving and healthy relationship.

She knew Kurosaki - kun had been busy for the early part of the year. He had taken on a sabbatical to Soul Society to learn the ways of Seireitei, since he had accepted the Sōtaichō proposal of training with the older Taichō to refine his raw talent in case of future emergencies. She knew instinctively, it was a measure to ensure a smoother integration into Soul Society when his human body died. Death was not a scary thought to her, after knowing what was on the other side of the veil. Unohana-san had already promised her a seat in the fourth division when it was time for her own journey.

Kurosaki – kun's year long absence had left an indescribable void that it physically hurt. She had no reason to venture into Soul Society and engaged in protecting the town from any Hollows, which were very few. Besides she didn't want to be a distraction to Kurosaki - kun as he trained to develop his skills. Even Rukia and Abarai – kun's visits had stopped since he left.

Rangiku –san was the only one who visited frequently and even she couldn't shed any information on his welfare since it was held in the smallest of circles, where even Toshiro – kun didn't have access to. Her only assurance was he was seen in fleeting moments and appeared to be coping under the rigorous conditions.

"I'm guessing you're waiting to tell him when he gets back?" Rangiku asked through a spoonful of red bean ice cream. Her tilting laughter echoing across the room at Orihime's discomfort.

"Hai" She responded with a blush. "It's now or never Rangiku – san." Her face a lovely shade of crimson at Rangiku's continued teasing.

"It's about time." The blonde said twirling the ends of her hair, watching the younger woman with an appraising gaze. "Even Byakuya agrees you need to tell him." She added a wistful smile on her face, clearly recalling some fond memory of the sixth division Taichō

"Kuchiki Taichō agrees?" She blurted out in surprise as Rangiku smirked in return.

"He's very perceptive you know .." She drawled laughing at Orihime's mortified face. "He thinks Ichigo, needs you to balance all that pent up frustration." She winked suggestively and Orihime choked on the ice cream as Rangiku proceeded to tell her in graphic detail, methods of helping Ichigo.

Snapping back to the present, she smiled softly thinking how happy Rangiku had been that day, when she admitted, she was taking it to the next level with Kuchiki Byakuya. It was a shock when she first revealed they were secretly seeing each other, but thinking about it, despite their different personalities, they had much in common. Loss of a loved one, being the deciding factor that drew them together.

"Gomen nasai." A soft voice interrupted her reverie. It was the server back with a goofy smile. She didn't have the heart to deflate his hopes. "Are you ready to order?"

She glanced at her watch. Kurosaki - kun was really late. It wasn't like him to be this tardy but it was rude to order when he wasn't here as yet.

"Sumimasen, my company hasn't arrived yet. Please allow me a few minutes again." She softly replied and the server backed away with a hasty bow as if her presence has burned him.

She was surprised when she got a call from Kurosaki - kun yesterday. It was strange he had returned and didn't inform the group. Probably was spending time with his family, it had been more than a year since he saw them.

Family she thought with a pang of regret and blinked away the mist around her eyes. Sora had been gone for so long it seemed like another lifetime. Sometimes she wondered what it would be like to grow up in a loving home for a longer period. The happy times with her onii – san were the most precious memories she cherished. Yet there were moments where she feared they were slipping into dusty corners as she sought to fill her life with other people. Tatsuki and her family were a healing balm but despite their warmth to welcome her into their lives, after all this time, it felt alien. She wanted a family of her own to fill that empty space within her.

"Enough Orihime, these thoughts are too sad!" She berated internally.

The sound of Kurosaki – kun's voice filled her with a sweet thrill and she fought the excitement creeping into her speech as he asked to meet her at the cafe. There was something he wanted to discuss with her. Absence made the heart fonder she thought as they hung up and proceeded to immediately call Tatsuki.

She sensed his reiatsu before even seeing him and her breath caught in her throat as he came in, scanning the cafe. His eyes softening upon recognition and she fought the urge to throw her arms around him in an enthusiastic Nel-like greeting.

The few steps towards her table felt like a lifetime and she observed him with a clinical detachment. He looked different, more assured and confident as evident in his poise and gait. His eyes gleamed with the wisdom of ages and he seemed content as he slid in across from her. A rare smile on his face, softening his features, sent palpitations to her heart.

"Inoue." He greeted watching her appraisingly. Unconsciously scanning for any injuries during his absence and her grateful smile relaxed him.

There was none but Kurosaki - kun who could drive her into a bumbling school girl with his intensity and again she felt she was succumbing to his charm. One look from him was enough to drive all logic from her mind and inflict it with rambling incoherent thoughts that saw them running through green parks with sakura blossoms raining all over them. She stilled her straying mind and focused on his moving lips.

"It's been too long Kurosaki –kun" She heard herself from an echoing vantage point. He briefly looked away somewhat abashed at her directness but allowed another smile. This time it unnerved her.

"Too long." He replied softly. "I've heard you've done great work protecting the town while I was away." He continued tilting his head to watch her.

"Umm...me? No, no it was a team effort." She responded with a vigorous shake of the head, twisting her hands in exasperation. "Everyone did their part. I helped when I could."

"Inoue." He said softly his tone demanded attention and she quirked her brow at him. Was he uncomfortable or was she imagining it?

"Kurosaki – kun, are you all right?"

He cleared his throat and nervously ran his fingers through his spiky locks. His mood was off as if he was internally fighting the words. "I'm fine." He chuckled and looked at her directly. She could become lost in those pools of brown warmth. "Inoue..." he began again. "You're a valued person in my life. Many times I wouldn't have made it to fight another battle without you by my side." He continued and her mind trailed off.

He was confessing! All those years of repressed love, she was finally hearing the words from his lips that he loved her and wanted a chance to spend his life with her. In her mind she saw them married with two orange haired children running around screaming as Kurosaki – kun played catch with them and she sat contentedly watching her family. A family she always wanted. Oh the joy that flowed in her heart, to finally believe she would find the happiness she eternally craved.

"I never imagined it would be this way but after spending so much time together, it blossomed into love. I wanted to tell you first, we're to be married in three months." His voice droned and she snapped back to the world of reality, not certain of the words he uttered

"Sumimasen Kurosaki –kun. Married?" Her voice sounded hollow to her ears. No, this was not part of the dream.

"Yes. Rukia thought I should tell you first before the others, said you deserved to know before the rest." He said, the words pregnant in the space between them. She felt the knife plunge straight into her heart and she struggled not to react outwardly. He reached for her hand and his smile was heartbreaking. "You're a beloved nakama." He continued and the words were like poison to her nerves. "My life has been filled with so much pain. To find the person, who will stand by you in the darkness, is a blessing few have found."

"Yes." She whispered. "Too few." The words came mechanically and there was nothing more she wanted to do than bolt out of this horrid place. The cold seemed more inviting than sitting at the table and hearing the outpouring of love for another from the man she loved.

"Will you not give us your blessings?" He bashfully asked and she snapped dulled eyes towards him. So content was he in Rukia's love, he didn't see the pain reflecting back at him.

"Of course!" She replied cheerfully, hiding once more under the sweet facade. Her inner world crumbling like sand in her fingers and she managed the words with the heaviest of hearts. She was Inoue Orihime, sacrifice was a second nature to her, even at her own cost.

She sat with him for the next two hours reminiscing on past times and listening to stories of his training, with snippets of his romance with Rukia thrown in intervals and didn't flinch. Too numbed with grief to comprehend the reality of the situation, they parted with Kurosaki – kun dropping her off at her apartment.

Her torturous day wasn't complete until he graced her with a surprise embrace, which left her senses reeling. To have him hold her in his arms and be completely far away from her was the worst way to end this nightmarish day. Her fibre fought against the inviting scent of Kurosaki – kun and it was a testament to her maturity, she didn't plague his jacket with tears.

The tears came in a torrent unbidden and unchecked as the powerful water fall, with the click of her door and the safety of her apartment. She crumbled like a heap of autumn leaves, ready to be swept into the wind. She hardly recognized the strong yet gentle arms around her, comforting her on the floor. Hiccupping, she looked up to see the ocean blue eyes of Rangiku's staring back at her tears glistening to see Orihime in this state.

"I only found out today and came immediately. I'm so sorry Orihime" Rangiku whispered and stroked her hair, soothing her as fresh sobs wracked Orihime's body.

"Rangiku – san." She whimpered unable to voice her thoughts and allowed the older woman to comfort her broken heart.

Hours later she stood by her window watching the snow blanket her street with its sparkling skin. Like the snow, she would form the walls again and never let it down for anyone. Love in its glory was the headiest drug known to all, it broke barriers and was the most potent weapon known to man. Remove it, and all left was a shell, living and breathing but devoid of all feeling.

She looked down at the picture taken of Ichigo and herself at a party a few years back and touched his face. Young love which would never bloom. Removing the picture, she walked towards the fireplace and threw it into the glowing embers. Watching as it curled and snapped his arm around her mocking even in its death. She would move on in time, showing everyone the cheerful Orihime, not affected by the latest developments. Yet deep within her, something died tonight, and she was unsure whether it would ever be restored.

"Sayonara...Ichigo" She whispered as the fire claimed her last vestige of innocence.

A.N. I never thought my first Bleach would be so dreadfully heavy, but it's sadly a reflection of my own thoughts and begged to be written.

Hope you all enjoyed and though I'm a Ichihime fan, the reality is, in life sometimes we never get what we truly want.

Sōtaichō – Commander

Taichō - Captain

Fukutaichō – Vice Captain

Gomen nasai - Excuse me

Sumimasen – Sorry

Sayonara - Goodbye