Pairing: Kurosaki Ichigo/Inoue Orihime
Spoilers: None. Set two years after "Bleach", so a little AU, but there are no real references to events in canon.
One Last Declaration
He heard the question in her tone and ignored it, just gripped her hand more tightly and hurried down the sidewalk. She must have been terribly surprised, and Ichigo felt badly about that. It wasn't that he didn't want her to know where they were going; just that his throat was so tight and his heart was fluttering so painfully in his chest that he thought if he tried to speak he would never be able to get them all the way there.
For her part, Orihime seemed to accept his silence, seemed to trust that he wouldn't have been dragging her down the street without a good reason. Ichigo appreciated that. They were only a block away now, and then the hill would come into view... The gates...
He was sure she'd understand when she saw the gates.
Colors blurred by on the streets, and he realized he had broken into a run. Orihime squeaked behind him in surprise and started to run, too, but she was having trouble keeping up with him, and if there hadn't been so many people on the street already glancing curiously at two orange-haired teens running like mad, he would have skidded to a stop, picked her up, and picked up the pace.
Briefly Ichigo wondered what she would think -- would she laugh, stroke his hair the way she always had? Would she think it sweet, foolish, or ungentlemanly of him to manhandle a poor girl like that?
They came to the gates, and Ichigo stopped so abruptly that Orihime ran into him and began to babble. "Oh no, Kurosaki-kun, I'm so sorry, my legs were just in 'running mode' and I couldn't stop. Maybe I should have my brakes checked? What would they do for a person, tell you to buy new shoes? I wonder..."
"I'll get you some," he said without really listening. And even there, his voice almost failed him.
The gates were wrought iron and intensely familiar. They would creak when he opened them; the grounds themselves were always so pretty, he'd never seen so much as a dandelion, but their mysterious caretaker never seemed to think about oiling this gate. Ichigo swallowed, trying not to feel impossibly small, impossibly nine-years-old again. He couldn't open this gate, his father was always the one who opened this gate, it was too big and heavy for him...
"You'll just... get me new shoes?" Orihime said unexpectedly.
When he turned to look at her, she was a soft, solid shade of pink. It was as if the color of her blouse had crawled up her neck and filled her face. For a beat Ichigo only stared at her, feeling very lost. "What?"
She looked down at her hands, braiding fingers nervously. "I just... say things. I know they're weird sometimes. You don't have to listen! Or -- or you could pinch me, you know, if I'm about to say something weird. Or maybe," and her eyes lit up, "you could build a weird-detecting device, and attach it to my neck like a collar... And it'd sound an alarm, and then a whole bunch of men in black suits could come on stage, and I'd start wailing, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll never--'" Orihime stopped abruptly and reached up to rub the back of her neck. "See, there I go again."
Ichigo blinked. That hadn't really helped his sense of disorientation, and now he wasn't quite sure how to admit he hadn't been listening before, or how to reassure her that he didn't think she was weird and didn't mind her tangents and -- and actually thought they were sort of cute.
He had to touch his own lips to be sure he was smiling. Smiling, and seventeen again, and no longer so afraid of the wrought iron gates. He pushed one open, took her hand once more, and began to lead her up the steep incline.
"Kurosaki-kun?" Her voice was hushed now, carefully quiet even though he could hear her panting from the exertion of the walk. "What... where are we going?"
They were so close. It should have been harder now to look at her, harder still to speak, but the tightness in his chest had eased along with everything else. She was so... she was so Orihime, he finished the thought helplessly. "You'll see."
The stone was smooth and gray. Her name was fading, but Ichigo felt Orihime go very still beside him and knew the words were still distinct enough to make out from where she stood.
He reached out, tracing the first smooth character of that name. "Hi, Mom."
Of course, the stone said nothing back, and his mother did not appear in front of him the way so many spirits did. She wasn't here, not really, and Ichigo was glad of that. But they weren't entirely alone, either. Graves were rarely truly abandoned. Something, maybe a trace of what he'd call reiatsu now, lingered there indistinctly like the exact scent of his mother's perfume that he could no longer remember.
Whether it was real or just from the four of them, visiting every year and thinking of her and wishing for her -- well, he wasn't sure. And maybe it didn't matter. Maybe the important thing was just that it gave him some kind of focus, and didn't feel as silly as talking to the empty air. She would know, either way.
So he told her. "This is Inoue." He paused, smiled a little, and corrected himself. His mother wouldn't have wanted to call her Inoue. His mother would have wanted to call her... "Orihime. Dad's already met her, but I thought you should meet her, too. Because she's--" Ichigo stumbled a little, feeling his face heat up, and forced himself to continue, "--Because she's important to me. And I think, you know, I might. Marry her someday or something."
Beside him, Orihime made a funny sort of soft choking noise. She didn't embrace him, didn't clasp his cheeks and kiss him full on the mouth like in some silly TV drama, but the curl of her fingers as she squeezed his hand was every bit as embarrassing as if she had torn open his shirt and shoved him roughly to the ground. He had to fight not to twitch and look around to make sure no one had seen, that this incredibly intimate moment was as private as it felt it should be.
More to the stone than to her, he said quietly, "I just... thought you should know."
Orihime was watching his face. He tried not to wish she would look away; it was too easy to imagine she thought he was crazy or stupid or both, introducing her to a tombstone. What if she had only squeezed his hand to distract him while she plotted her escape route?
But she nudged him aside, and moved closer to the grave, still holding on to his hand with shocking gentleness -- and bowed her head. "Pleased to meet you," she told it, voice funny like she was crying, and Ichigo was instantly horrified; what had he done that was so terrible it was making her cry? But Orihime went on, softer still: "I'm a bit clumsy, and probably not very good at any of this, but I want to... take good care of your son. I'll do my best."
Ichigo couldn't quite look at her. "We're both weird, huh," he murmured instead.
She only laughed quietly. "You're not weird, Kurosaki-kun. If you hadn't already met my brother, I'd..." She spun and smiled at him, blindingly radiant, incredibly beautiful, and he had to look at her, if only for an instant. "I'd drag you right back to my apartment and introduce you to him too. Just like this."
Again she squeezed his hand, and Ichigo lowered his eyes to focus on the fingers threaded through his own. He really would buy her shoes, he thought suddenly. Shoes and the ingredients for her strangely-not-lethal ginger celery stew and anything else she ever wanted even just for a second as long as they lived. Sure, they would never have any money, and paying for the essentials would be hard if he kept buying every shiny thing that caught her eye, but it would be worth it, if she smiled like that even once a year.
"I'm a little weird," he promised her, shaking off the thought with a tiny grin.
But that was okay. They could be weird together.