The problem, Orihime decides, is that she really just can’t stay away from him.
Maybe this was fate. Cruel, but destined, and blowing raspberries in her face like a petulant child. It wasn’t the first time Orihime had been given a clear view of one Kurosaki that managed to distract her endlessly (see: high school), but at least this time around she was a little more prepared. Just a little.
“Inoue, how’re the tables coming along?”
“O-oh, fine, sir! Apologies!”
She bends over immediately, all elbow-grease and determined brow as she wipes down the booth by the front door. She manages to at least finish this one before getting all faraway-eyed staring out the window again.
Across the lightly-trafficked street, hidden under one single tree, was the little coffee shop that Kurosaki-kun worked at part time. She knew his easy routine by heart — he’d get off from college, bike his way down, and then spend the afternoon-to-evening serving up all sorts of strong concoctions that she couldn’t stomach (unless there was lemon in it, of course, she was a sucker for lemon in her coffee). When things were slow, he’d grab a table and hunker down with a binder and pencil and thick textbook and get homework done.
It was a funny wonder they’d never run into each other. Then again, her place closed an hour after his, and she always found herself coming up with good excuses not to go into his place on her lunch break (why go to a coffee shop when she didn’t like coffee, after all?). But in her heart of hearts, she knew it was a little more than that. A slightly painful and wonderful little more than that.
“Inoue, if you’re not feeling alright, please let me know…”
Orihime’s head jerked up, panicking as she apologized profusely to her kindly old manager. Mr. Yamakawa had owned this diner for a long time, and continued to run it himself, even though his eyes were barely discernible beneath his wrinkled face, and his back hunched like he carried a child on it all the time.
He was too nice to her. Really. She was always spacing out like this, to her dismay, and his endless patience was generous. But Orihime couldn’t refuse a paycheck, and as long as she had her little spot by the window, she knew she would be okay.
The hours dragged on slowly — there was a large family that came in after a funeral and a million dishes to be done afterwards. By the time she was tugging her apron off and preparing to lock up, it was fully dark outside and had dropped several degrees.
Breath misting in front of her as she shivered in the night air, Orihime stopped for a moment to gaze up at the stars. It was a cool and crisp evening, and the sweater she brought in the afternoon wasn’t cutting it, but she didn’t let it bother her.
She remembered that she should probably start walking home. Turning, her body immediately collided with something unyielding, and she nearly tumbled if it weren’t for the vice-like grip that caught her arms.
“Shit, are you okay? Sorry, I wasn’t paying att—… Inoue?”
It took a moment to register the warm scent of coffee beans and familiar maleness, and the rough timbre of his voice. But at 10:06, Orihime realized she was absolutely, definitely, 100% standing in front of Kurosaki Ichigo.
For whatever reason, his body reacted physically before his mind could catch up. He could have sworn he was tired and dead on his feet literally seconds before, but there was the distinct rush of lava in his veins that he knew to be adrenaline, and his heart was running a marathon to catch up.
Inoue. What the hell was Inoue doing here? At this time of night? His fingers flexed tighter as he gazed down at her, and felt the softness of her under him, and let go so fast it was like she burned him.
Clearing his throat, Ichigo averted his gaze and took a half-step back, pretending that the distance helped to quell his insides.
She was just as small as he remembered.
"Uh, I mean… Hi, Inoue.” Scratching the back of his head awkwardly, his tongue felt like cardboard in his dry mouth. It was all made worse by her appearance. Her bun looked to be falling to pieces, and her mouth was the same rosy shade as the cold apples of her cheeks. And, per the norm, she was wide-eyed and staring at him. “Sorry about that. What are you doing out here this late?”
Smiling a little sheepishly, her hands bundled in front of her chest and she bit her lip. “Nice to see you, too,” she said, and he felt himself smile.
“I, um… just got off work, actually! I was about to head home.”
“Work?” Ichigo blinked. Stupidity sunk in for a moment — duh, of course she worked, there was nothing strange about that — but he had no idea she worked around here. It must not have been for long, since he’d never seen her. Looking around, he didn’t see anything that caught his eye, so he asked, “Where?”
Her face reddened further.
“Well… Here, actually! Yama’s!”
The seconds ticked by, and Ichigo’s eyes widened.
“You mean, like… this Yama’s?” He pointed directed behind them.
“…For how long?”
“Ah, I think it’s been a year and a half now! Basically since we graduated.”
Turmoil raged in his chest and he didn’t know why. Emotions were palpable for him, always, but sorting them out was not his strong suit. He only recognized a vague anger, a very familiar need to protect, and the worry that came with it — but it was all muddled with other things.
He saw the faint guilt in her eyes, then — they were just as grey as the ocean as he remembered — and knew that she knew.
There was no way she didn’t know he worked across the street all this time. He went out front and swept every day, and served outside occasionally. There was no way she didn’t know.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets. Saw her looking at the sidewalk. He didn’t understand it.
“So… Why didn’t you ever say hi? Visit or something? Are you mad at me?”
That made her flinch. She met his eyes fast and looked horrified.
“No!” she blurted out, now practically flailing. Her hair fell in her face and she pushed it back with shaky fingers. “No, never Kurosaki-kun! It’s not like that at all! I just… I just…” Actually, she was trembling like a top about to fall over.
“Just what?” Ichigo pressed as he began unbuttoning his coat. Her eyes watched his hands as she searched for her words.
“I just…” Slowly, her gaze softened, and she smiled sadly again. “I just didn’t want to bother you.”
And there was the anger again.
With Orihime, as usual, even if it reached a boil her presence could soothe it on command. Ichigo shrugged out of his heavy coat (and why the hell didn’t she have one?) and in one movement swung it around her. It was just a thick, grey pea coat, but she practically drowned in it.
“Stick your arms through,” he grunted, and she obeyed. She seemed to melt a little bit with relief.
“Are you sure this is okay, Kurosaki-kun? Won’t you get cold?”
“I’ll be fine.” End of discussion. “Now, where were we… Right, you bothering me. I can’t say I have any idea where you got that one from.” He prodded her forehead, making her squeak and almost lose her balance again. “But it’s a load of shit and I don’t like it one bit. What does bother me is that you’re alone on the street after ten with no jacket. The hell are you thinking? You could get killed out here.”
She tried to wave her hands placatingly, but her fingertips barely made it out of the sleeves. “It’s okay, really! I always walk home in the evening.”
His jaw set and he swallowed. Don’t freak out, Ichigo. Don’t freak out. Fists clenched, then unclenched, and he breathed out slowly through his nose.
"Alright,” he said, “so you walk home alone in the evening. For a year and a half, you have walked home alone, at night, when I have been working literally right across the street from you.”
“It sounds bad when you put it that way…”
He had the decency to laugh.
“That’s because it is bad. Now c’mon, I’m walking you home. Don’t argue with me.”
She had the decency not to argue.
Strolling back with a tottering Orihime beside him was in no way, shape, or form what Ichigo had had in mind for his night. It had been pure coincidence that he had forgotten his textbooks at the cafe, and after retrieving them, he crossed the street to get a slice of pizza, then promptly run into a diminutive person with incredibly… well, you know. Enough of that. Not cool, Ichigo.
But that’s where he was now. It was a quiet Wednesday, and to add insult to injury, it turned out that she lived on the same block as him.
“So,” he began, talking to distract him from the cold but also because he had not seen Orihime in a year. “Yama’s, huh?”
“Yup,” she chirped, sounding slightly out of breath. He reminded himself to slow down again — his long strides were a bit much. “Gotta pay the bills somehow!”
His step faltered.
“I thought all your stuff was paid for?”
“Ah, it was through high school. It ended when I graduated and turned 18… But I’ve been getting by!” To prove her point, she tossed her arms up to flex her muscles, invisible under the coat. Her determined look was priceless. “And I’m saving up little by little. I’m sure soon enough I’ll be able to get a scooter like I’ve always wanted, and then maybe go to college!”
His thoughts buzzed incoherently, too many questions hitting him at once. What had she been doing all this time? Why didn’t Tatsuki tell him any of this? Dumbly, he remembered that Tatsuki was studying abroad in Brazil. Did she know all of this?
“You’re eating well, right? And making rent okay?”
For the umpteenth time, their arms brushed and bumped while they walked, and Ichigo sucked in a breath at the vague electricity it brought with it.
“Mm-hmm. You don’t have to worry about me, Kurosaki-kun. I can take care of myself.”
How badly he wanted to believe that.
“‘Course, Inoue. You know me, can’t help it. You just look a little… thin.”
On cue, her stomach growled. His heart sunk.
“That was, um, that, I— I coughed! Excuse me! That sound did not come from my tummy, at all!”
“You’re having dinner with me.” This time, his anger was purposeful, and it was without a second thought that he grabbed her wrist and tugged her with him to his apartment.
Orihime was not sure how she had gotten into this mess.
It was 11:30, and she was finally past the verge of crying. It had been so long since she’d had a nice home-cooked meal, and after two weeks of variations of ramen, it was nothing short of transcendent. She’d used all of her strength not to ask for seconds, but Ichigo — sweet, kind-hearted Ichigo — had piled more rice and curry on her plate without a single word.
“Eat,” he’d said, and she had.
“Drink,” he told her, and she did.
Her cup of tea was finished, and there was no longer any reason to stay in his apartment. They’d made small talk, mostly — Ichigo was going into medicine, following his father’s footsteps — but regardless of the topic, his gaze on her had been unyielding in its ferocity. He didn’t seem mad, not really, but… if she had to pick what it was, she’d have to say he looked so concerned that it had just simply become anger.
But she had overstayed her welcome, hadn’t she? Not to mention eaten his food. She knew, she knew she knew she knew in her heart of hearts that the last thing she wanted was to worry anyone about her current predicament (heating was too expensive, food was too expensive, rent was too expensive…), but she couldn’t deny how exquisitely good it felt to be around Ichigo again, let alone have him worry about her for an hour or two.
“I should probably be getting back…” It was a very difficult thing to say, but she smiled anyhow and began gathering up her purse. “I can’t thank you enough for all this. I’ll be sure to pay you back sometime. Maybe if raspberries go on sale I can make a souffle!”
She had the odd feeling that she disappointed him. In the lines of his face, even in his still-intense gaze, she felt it.
“There’s nothing to pay back. You’re my friend, Inoue. I was happy to have you here.”
He walks her home anyway. The walk is less than five minutes, and he keeps bumping into her, and he keeps ignoring it, and doesn’t try to stop it from happening. And she can’t say she does, either.
She tries her best — really, she does — to slip inside before he can see the sparse, humble room. She’d sold what she could manage to make the down payment, and was left with a table and futon and then basic necessities.
But she thinks he sees. Because when she goes to work the next day, he’s there.
A few hours in, the door opened and Orihime turned to greet the customer, only to nearly drop her tray full of dirty dishes when her eyes landed on the bright orange hair they had. “K-Kurosaki-kun?” she’d stammered in surprise, and he casually walked in and took a seat.
Seeing him — here, in the diner, after all this time — made her heart funny and light in a way she could have only dreamed of. It was too good to be true.
“Wh… what are you doing here?” she asked after moment, hesitantly. He just gave her a crooked smile that turned her insides to mashed potatoes.
“It’s my lunch break,” he said easily, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. She couldn’t help but beam back at him.
“So it is!” There was a click of the pen in her hands and the whisper of paper in the other. “My name is Inoue and I’ll be your server for today. What can I get for you?”
He comes back. All the time. Nearly every day, he takes his lunch break there, and if he doesn’t he still manages to wave at her from the front of his work. It’s all so, so nice. She can barely remember to feel the weight of paying bills and more bills when there are more pressing things to think about, like the warmth of his eyes and his occasional, harsh smile.
She doesn’t like that he tips her far too much, but when she tried to turn him down, she’d found that an Ichigo who was leaning too close to your face and threatening to give the money straight to your manager to go straight into your paycheck was quite convincing.
And now, of all things, he’d developed the habit of walking her home. Every. Single. Time.
She had protested this after the first three times, realizing that he was waiting up to two hours after work just for her to get off. This time, he didn’t even need to argue — a sharp glance that made her feel like her skin was burning on the inside silenced her effectively.
So she just basked in the pleasure of having his company, for however much longer that was.
Because this would not be permanent. Such good things could not last, especially for someone as ordinary as her.
A distant relative had gotten in contact with her, and offered her a free room in their home after their eldest child moved out. They were kind, and insistent, and Orihime was very bad at saying no. Especially when rent went up, and her meager paychecks did not.
It certainly put a damper on things. She ignored the pangs of pain the thought of not seeing Ichigo again, knew she was being selfish, and that it was unreasonable of her to depend on him so much for so long.
The problem, she reminds herself as she wipes the tears from her cheeks and scrubs the counter top more furiously, is that she just can’t seem to stay away from him.
For reasons unknown, he was standing in line at the store with his purchase in hand. It wasn’t like he hadn’t bought presents for anyone before, but… This wasn’t just a present. This was an impulse buy. For Orihime. Because he wanted her to have it.
Nothing extravagant. But he thought she’d like it.
He paid and left, counting the hours and minutes until he’d see her again. Lesser men would not admit to the joy that single thought brought him — seeing her again. It was like his body strained to make up for all of their lost time where she lingered just across the street, out of his reach unknowingly.
Having a terrible habit of forgetting to lock the door, Ichigo knocked and entered. After a minute of checking and silence, he deducted that she wasn’t home, and opted to leave the gift on her table with a brief note.
Enjoy, hopefully. Thought you’d like it.
Happy, sniffly crying — the sort where you taste your own tears because you can’t stop smiling. She clutched the little thing to her chest adoringly, and after taking apart each piece and placing them in all manner of silly, whimsical lines, then rearranging them again.
if ever there was a king
the birds believe the boats
king of the flowers and love
She didn’t know how to thank him. It was too much. So she contented herself with writing poems about her feelings for hours and hours, because it was her day off and who was going to stop her?
Plus, writing love sonnets was what refrigerator word magnets were made for.
A small voice reminded her that she did not have too much time left to. Orihime realized that this time, she was moving across the country, and there was really no telling if or when she was going to see Kurosaki Ichigo again.
Decency prompted her to try her hand at not leaving things unsaid again. This time, he would be conscious, and she would not be crying. She would be brave.
(She didn’t feel very brave at all.)
If he had known that she would have taken to the magnets with such intensity, he would’ve bought them ages ago.
As routine dictated, Ichigo walked her home when he could (which was frequently) and had dinner with her when possible (which was often). Telling himself that he was making up for lost time had quickly turned to bullshit — a combination of slightly shaky, clammy hands and racing heart spoke otherwise.
Each day, there was different poetry, all strange and interesting in their own distinctly Orihime way.
ice cream is sometimes
above all of us
if i had a cup for every time
you took a smile home with you
i could sleep forever
And — not that she knew — but he remembered to take a picture once with his phone, and may or may not have made it his background.
He found an expansion pack and didn’t even blink in the time it took for him to snatch it and throw his money at the cashier.
Naturally, she was overjoyed, and he grew a few inches with pride. But there was something vaguely off about her today — the air around her seemed a little greyer, or less warm. She was still smiling, and babbled on about a little girl at work who had covered herself in ice cream and sprinkles, and he cut her off.
“What’s bothering you?”
He didn’t ask it in a mean way — at least, he didn’t intend to — but she flinched and his brow furrowed. This wasn’t good. He took a long drink from his tea, never taking his eyes off her, and waited for her to answer.
“Am I that obvious?” she asked in return, avoiding his gaze.
“Just a little. Now tell me what’s wrong.”
“Oh, it’s just… I might be moving out.”
He released a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and leaned over to poke her head. “Jeez, you have me worried. How soon?”
Orihime still writhed in her seat though, running her fingertip around the rim of her glass fitfully. “I suppose the end of the month of so. My contract will be up then, and Auntie said she’d be ready then.”
A landmine settled comfortably in the pit of his stomach, ready to detonate. He blinked.
“A relative, huh?” All plans of helping her pack and move flew from his mind as it dawned on him that she might actually be moving away. The gut-punch started to make him nervous. Orihime leaving? But why? “What prompted all of this?”
The thought over all her words carefully, spoke them quietly. The landmine ticked closer and closer to its end. “A combination of things… I-I guess the timing was good, because they did just raise my rent, and—”
“They raised your rent? Why?”
Orihime blinked up at him, tilting her head. “Why wouldn’t they? Isn’t that normal?”
Something in his chest clenched and Ichigo abandoned all thoughts of bombs.
He needed to leave. The all-consuming desire to kiss sense into her was becoming rapidly overwhelming and if he stayed here much longer, he would do something both of them would regret.
As he rose from the table with stiff shoulders, his hand brushed past hers and this time it was like grabbing a live wire. He sucked in a sharp breath and quickly said, “Sorry, I have to go. I’ll see you later.”
Reflexes kicking in, he moved efficiently and swiftly to the door, grabbing his backpack and keys and ignoring the sound of her voice calling his name, tugging at his heartstrings, drawing him back by his very soul.
“Kurosaki-kun, what’s wrong? What did I do?”
The door shut firmly behind him and he felt a swell of self-hatred as he jumped smoothly over her balcony and landed on the grass.
That settled it, didn’t it?
After three broken plates and a mug of coffee spilled on a customer, Mr. Yama sent her home — begging her to feel better and rest up. Nothing compared to her embarrassment.
It fueled her packing spree. Not that there was much, but between feeling like her insides had been torn out and replaced with dead flowers and maybe a few hornets, she made terribly speedy work of dismantling her closet and folding her clothes. Boxes were substituted with empty grocery bags and pillow cases. The light outside gradually faded into dusk without it feeling like any time had passed at all, and it was only after she packed the kitchen that she feebly collapsed in front of her refrigerator.
Forehead pressed to the cool surface, she thought of all the things she had written, rewritten. She summoned some form of strength from a flicker in her heart, and blindly rewrote once more.
Her fingers rattled and her eyelids were heavy. But she finished it. On her feet, she forlornly looked at her to-do list she had pinned up, felt tears well up again, and quickly opted to take the garbage out instead.
A long and complex series of violent curses left his mouth as he walked.
He looked like a fool in love to anyone — a red-headed boy with a permanent scowl and itching hands, but the bundle of slightly-crushed roses in his hands spoke volumes. Ichigo didn’t think he’d ever be so desperate to get to someone who wasn’t in immediate danger, but then again, this was Inoue, and she was capable of somehow always being a major exception in his life.
He took the stairs three at a time and the doorknob turned in his hand with ease. And everything was different.
The little she had was all but gone, seemingly piled haphazardly into bags. Panic set in. She couldn’t be leaving already. Had she already left?
Instinct made him walk to the fridge. Relief flooded his tense system when he saw the magnets, still sprawled across the front of it. Her to-do list was still there.
1. Pay rent!! :(
2. Check buses and trains
4. Call Tatsuki
5. Tell Ichigo
His eyes read number five over and over, written boldly and underlined, and then noticed the tiny arrow that came after it, pointing to her newest creation. There was barely any light, but he leaned in close and tried to make it out anyway.
there was a light
and it never went out
and it’s you
you, who skipped rocks on dry creek beds and puddles
you, who walked down the highway with wolves in your bones
you, who smiled, even as
armageddon whispered sweetly against your ear
gravity, as always, is working against you
trying to push you into the pavement
deep under the water, against my skin
where the insecurity ends and we unfortunately begin
never to sink and unable to swim
i do not have a method of travel
(dragon; horseback; car)
to take you on a well-deserved date
i cannot grow flowers, melt chocolates
i have to make this up to you
i will keep my hands soft
and press my face to your neck
smooth your hair to keep the birds out
kiss you when you’re sleeping
(i don’t have an excuse for that)
if i could just take all of the love in my body
and all the love that didn’t fit inside of it
i don’t know what i’d do
but maybe letting you have it would be a start.
There was a soft pat-pat-pattering against the linoleum and numbly, Ichigo looked down and his vision blurred with swimming, hot tears that he hadn’t noticed. He blinked a few times, wiped them off with the back of his hand, and ignored the faint cackling of his inner demons gloating at his emotional state. There were nothing but echoes of words in his head, spoken clearly and softly in Orihime’s gentle cadence, and he took a shuddering breath before reading it all one more time.
Then the front door opened and he nearly jumped out of his skin.
He straightened instantly, every atom of his being attentive and ready to spring. Orihime looked wilted as he’d ever seen, and she yelped as she flicked the light on and saw him.
Her wide eyes were stormy and red-rimmed and he couldn’t find words. He saw her gaze flicker to the refrigerator and saw the way her neck went rigid with fear.
But she didn’t say anything about that. She just swallowed, and put on her brave face, rushing to him — “Are you okay? What happened?”
The space of three heartbeats between them, he counted down until she was in arm’s reach, then caught her arms in his grip just as he had only a few months prior.
“Inoue,” he said. And he twisted her in his hold with ease, and pressed her back to the fridge as he kissed her.
All of reality blanked out of existence; it was freezing outside, but the second his mouth covered hers it was nothing but liquid heat running through him. Orihime only closed her eyes once she registered what was really, actually happening, and was wholly vulnerable to the shaking mess that was Kurosaki Ichigo. She had never kissed anyone before (and neither had he, truthfully), but as long as their lips were cemented against each others’, everything seemed perfectly right.
A short eternity later they broke apart, Orihime glassy-eyed and Ichigo’s chest heaving. He gasped out the words against her mouth.
“Come live with me. Please. I cannot stay away from you, Inoue. I-I love you.”
For a second he thinks he broke her, because her face reddens to raspberry jam and her nose scrunches and fat, endless tears appear against her eyelashes. But the second passes, and she smiles, and it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.
And she nods. Emphatically. Then she presses her face into his shirt, and feels rather that hears her say “I love you”.
And when she feels him tuck his face against the crook of her neck, hands burying in her hair, she realizes that not being able to stay away from him was never a problem at all.