23 (candy) Disclaimer: Bleach
is owned by Kubo Tite and affiliated corporations. Spoilers:
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Orihime hears about the date while she is wiping down the blackboard in homeroom after school. The windows facing the large green sports field are open, allowing a skin-tingling breeze to enter and ruffle her hair, carrying on it the fragrant scent of flowers blossoming in the springtime sun, the spicy aroma of freshly-brought octopus balls, and the faint whispers of a trio of girls from homeroom who are sitting on the roof of the school.
She listens absently as she hums a tune, her hands working as her mind wanders to other topics. Effortlessly, like slipping into her favorite fuzzy bunny slippers she slides into a daydream. She is riding on a puffy gray cloud, her hand outstretched to feel all the colors of the rainbow that arches over the school. The wind through her hair is better than warm water trickling through it, and she thinks of Tatsuki, and how her hair doesn't whip across her face because it is short and spiky. She commands the cloud, in a polite but excited voice, to take her to Tatsuki's. Tatsuki loved flying, and Orihime is sure that she will love it more as a passenger on top of a soft-as-down cloud instead of on the uncomfrotable, crowded plane.
Soon the cloud carries her to Tatsuki's place. Her best friend exits the house, her mouth falling open like a nutcracker's, her eyes as wide as teacups as she stares up at Orihime on the cloud.
"Come up her!" yells Orihime, standing and waving, ignoring Tatsuki's pleas to sit down until she finds a way to get her down.
"Tatsuki-chan, it's fun! You should try it, Tatsuki -"
The sound of Tatsuki’s name on a pair of lips not her own pulls her out of her daydream and back into the classroom. She frowns and stops wiping the blackboard, searching the room for the person who had said –
"…don't believe…Tatsuki…hanging…never in a million…mistake..."
Orihime's ears perks up, and the chalk-stained cloth falls from her hands as she rushes to the window, straining to capture the words that are being drowned out by the erratic blowing of the wind.
"…they're friends…Orihime would die…making a mountain out of…"
Baffled and intrigued but nonetheless eager to hear why she would die, Orihime shoves a desk next to the window and steps onto its seat. She pushes open the top window pane and locks it in place. Cautiously, she heaves her body onto the sill and hangs her head out the window, her hair fluttering in the breeze as the words fall into place, making the sentences completely understandable.
"I'm telling you, they weren't being friendly!" The voice is overly excited, a female-version of Keigo's energetic sproutings. "They looked like a couple! He paid for the tickets, they sat next to each other –"
"Whatever," interrupts a gruff voice, "I doubt Ichigo would go for Tatsuki, especially when he has Orihime hanging on his every word."
"That means nothing," says another voice, this one calm and controlled, as if she were bored with idly gossiping about her classmates. "Some boys like girls that are tough. My boyfriend left me for a yanki
The two other girls make comforting noises.
"Oh, that was a long time ago. I was merely trying to make a point."
point is that they're friends. Friends go out with each other all the time!"
"Yeah, but not like this. I know for a fact
they weren't on a friendly outing. You should have seen -"
Behind Orihime, the classroom door opens, the sound silencing the gossip and propelling Orihime out of the window, almost making her lose her balance in her haste to get down before someone caught her eavesdropping.
She grins abashedly at her visitor. "I thought you were at karate practice, Tatsuki-chan."
Tatsuki stares at her with a cocked eyebrow. "Sensei fell ill. Why were you hanging out the window?"
"Just… trying to enjoy the smell of spring!" chirps Orihime as she retrieves the cloth from the floor. Her cheeks are hot and sweat beads on her forehead. Words form then crumble in her mouth, condensing into a ball of perplexity that makes her throat ache. "Are you here to help?"
From the corner of her eye she sees Tatsuki shrug. "Do you want me to?"
"No, that's okay. I'm almost finished." For some reason, she is unable to look at her friend directly, afraid that if she did so Tatsuki would see the confusion bubbling inside her, so she continues speaking to the chalkboard. "I'll meet you later tonight, okay? Come have dinner with me! I'll make you something really good!"
"I can do that. Do you want to watch a movie?"
"Sure! What do you have?"
"The Princess Bride
. My mom – urk
Orihime, temporarily forgetting her confusion, jumps on Tatsuki and wraps her in a hug that would have made Chiruzu jealous. The Princess Bride
was one of her favorite movies. It was romantic and funny and above all, love triumphed in end. It gave Orihime hope that she too one day will be with her true love. "They looked like a couple."
Orihime squeezes Tatsuki tighter to dispel the voice in her head.
Later that evening, Orihime struggles to prepare a proper meal, but her fingers are clumsy and numb. She adds too much peanut butter candy to the crunchy rice, makes the sauce for the nutty tuna a bit too thin. By the time the doorbell rings, Orihime is tired of channeling her guilt into the meal and wants nothing more than to fall into bed and hope that the day's events disappear into oblivion.
But the taste of her bittersweet meal forces her to confront reality. She is too nervous to eat, nibbling on bits of dry fish and watching Tatsuki grimace throughout the meal. But her best friend is her best friend for a reason: Tatsuki's plate is clean when the oven timer dings that the nutty apple pie is done.
A somber smile crosses her face as she scrambles from the table and onto her feet, conflict making her nearly feverish as hurries into the kitchen to remove the pie from the oven. She immediately cuts into the steaming-hot pie and serves both slices with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
She tries to avoid thinking about her schoolmates' conversation, but their words continue to ring in her ears like the low melancholy wails of her neighbor next door. Her throat is constricted, her chest so tight that breathing has become almost unbearable. Thoughts she never thought she'd have manifest in her head, mutinous storm clouds that threaten to burst in tandem with her tears.
As she spoons ice cream into her mouth, Orihime thinks about Tatsuki's relationship with Ichigo. All the little snippets about their friendship that Tatsuki offered when Orihime was able to harvest her courage and squeak out a question balloons and takes shape. She knows that they used to be close, but the death of Ichigo's mother - and puberty - wedged them apart. She knows that Ichigo had been (and still was) an immensely loyal friend. Tatsuki had told her about the times Ichigo had went after boys that dared call Tatsuki anything other than her name. She remembers Tatsuki's exasperation when recounting how determined Ichigo was to beat her in and out of the dojo, how wistful her smile would be when she related how Ichigo's eyes would well with tears whenever Tatsuki came out on top in anything.
And though it hadn't hurt her at the time she had listened to Tatsuki recount her childhood, her heart ached fiercely, like someone had taken a red-hot iron and thrust it in her chest. Tatsuki had a history with Ichigo, and despite the many adventures and secrets she shared with him, Orihime envied that. Tatsuki understood Ichigo more than Orihime ever could.
And it hurt
. Oh, God, how it hurt
Sitting in front of her friend, picking at her nutty apple pie, Orihime feels her eyes sting with emotion, her throat tightening to keep at bay the words she wants to fling across the table like punches.
How could you, Tatsuki-chan?
The next day, Orihime awakes to an aching stomach and puffy, red-rimmed eyes. Her entire body is stiff, as she spent all night curled into a tight ball, her knees drawn up to her chest as if she was trying to prevent her heart from bursting out her chest. The painful throbs of a night spent trembling in both sadness and, though she does not care to admit it, anger propels her out of bed and into the shower.
She makes her shower extra hot, and the heat soothes away the pain in her muscles, but her chest still hurts, so much so that she considers remaining home from school.
They looked like a couple.
Tatsuki and Ichigo went on a date!
The words strike her like a lightning bolt. Emotion wells in her throat and nearly chokes her. She sits down on the edge of the bed, the room spinning around her as her thoughts once again turn chaotic and viciously perfidious. She thinks of Tatsuki and her indelicateness, of her short choppy hair the color of coal. She thinks of her scabbed knees, her red, dry elbows, and her slightly calloused hands, of her angry eyes and too-gruff laugh...
What does he see in her? she wonders, then clutches her head in horror. Never before had she nursed such vicious thoughts, and it makes her ill that they are directed toward her best friend.
It makes her heave so suddenly, so violently. She leaps off the bed and rushes to the toilet, collapsing in front of it just in time to lose last night's dinner. Tatsuki and Ichigo. Together.
Her friend knew how deeply she felt for Ichigo. Everyone
knew how she felt about Ichigo, yet it was Tatsuki to whom she confided. She had spent many nights awake on the phone with Tatsuki, discussing the contrast between Ichigo's scowl and friendly eyes. How many times had Orihime confessed to planning their wedding and naming their children? How often had she told Tatsuki about her fluttering heart and sweaty palms?
Orihime leaves the house far too early, desiring nothing more than to avoid both parties until she dealt with her emotions. The walk to school in unmemorable, but each step stings, as if a carpet of needles had been laid upon the sidewalk. With each step, Tatsuki's absence is felt. With each step, she is reminded that her best friend is with the man she loves more than air, sun, and nourishment.
With each step, she is reminded that he chose her
. Would the pain ever cease?
She arrives at school early, and much to her surprise and displeasure, the classroom is partially full with chattering students. Vaguely through the fog of depression she hears the mutters and whispers, feels comforting but cold hands and consoling stares. People are asking her what's wrong, why her eyes are so red, why her face is so ashen as if to appear heavily powdered. It hurts her face to turn her lips up into a smile, but she tries to because knowing that her friends are worried about her intensifies the pain all the more.
Through the squishing bodies around her desk she watches as more people come in. Ishida raises an eyebrow at the girls surrounding her desk while Chad nods in her direction, his brow furrowed with concern. Keigo and Mizuiro soon enters, both jovial and joking until they note that the girls have congregated at her desk. There's some shoving and complaining and then both their faces appear amidst the throng of girls. Both their brows snap together in horror.
"What happened!" exclaims Mizuiro.
"Who do we have to beat up?" asks Keigo as he cracks his knuckles.
The laugh escapes her before she can clamp down on it, and like a collective sigh the scowls on her classmates faces relaxes, their shoulders sagging in unparalleled relief as Keigo attempts to cajole from her another set of laughs.
For a moment it seems as if she can store her sadness into a corner pocket of her heart for the remainder of the school day and deal with it later that night when she returns home. Before she notices it the teacher has arrived and she's standing and bowing and shuffling through her textbooks, Chizuru's husky voice flirting past her ears.
She does not look around the room for Ichigo nor Tatsuki.
They are not there when the bell rings for class to begin.
She goes to the gym for lunch because she wants a quiet place in which to think. The girls are in the courtyard (Tatsuki will be there) and the guys are on the roof (Ichigo will be there) and it just makes sense to avoid both places until she knows she won't disintegrate into a million tears upon seeing either of them.
The gym is closed for extermination, and she turns around to find another spot when the voice that haunts her dreams wafts from the back of the building. She pauses mid-turn, unsure if it is all in her imagination or if he is there, but curiosity gets the best of her, and before she can think it over she is walking toward the back of the gymnasium, one hand trailing along the wall as if she fears the ground will give way beneath her feet.
And it does. For standing behind the building are the very two people she had tried hard to avoid. Ichigo stands in front of Tatsuki, his hands shoved in his pockets, his face pale, his eyes glittering with a determination that makes shiver.
In front of him is Tatsuki, her arms folded across her chest, her face one of complete misery, but her eyes are hard and defiant, and for the briefest of moments Orihime fears they are going to exchange blows.
Ichigo blows out an angry breath. "You can't end something that never got started."
"So why are you so upset?" Tatsuki shoots back.
"Because you can't end something that never got started," repeats Ichigo. "That's crazy, Tatsuki! I mean, I... I care for Inoue, too, you know. I didn't set out to hurt her. But what am I supposed to do? Ignore my feelings and hope they go away?"
"They... might," she says haltingly, "This is all sudden anyway. It feels like you just woke up and BAM! Suddenly I'm more worried about deflecting your gropes rather than your punches."
"I've never groped you!" he snaps. "And that's not how it happened." His voice drops until it was barely a whisper, and Orihime has to creep closer to hear him when he mumbles, "It started with me wondering what it would be like to be a drop of sweat on your neck...."
Orihime and Tatsuki recoil, one in horror, the other in disgust.
Ichigo's expression reddens. "Well, that's what Mizuiro said to say to you!"
Tatsuki's lips soften into the beginnings of a smile. "Don't listen to him. His advice is out of your league."
"It's not that bad." He rubs the back of his neck, his face reddening until Orihime fears he will start hemorrhaging from his ears. "Dammit Tatsuki! Just talk to her!"
"I can't!" she cries. "She's my best friend, Ichigo, and she's been in love with you since she met you. Besides, I've always thought that it was a given that you two would get together. Hell, you guys just fit."
Ichigo cocks a skeptical brow. "Really? So what, you've taken up matchmaking?"
Tatsuki blows a frustrated breath. "No, but it just seemed… natural somehow. You're both…" Her face reddens, and it seems as if she struggles to finish the sentence. "You're handsome, she's beautiful. You're hard and she's soft. You're abrupt and she's not. You guys just… fit
. Far more than we do," she finishes quietly.
Ichigo's face reddens an unnatural shade, a sneer affixing to his face as his fists balls at his sides. "So I'm not good enough for you?" he asks.
Orihime's knees go soft, and she falls to the ground. His voice is not only harsh but desperate, as if he's pleading with Tatsuki to snatch her words back and erase them from his memory. Never before had Ichigo appeared as fragile as he did now, not even after his numerous, death-defying fights with shinigami and arrancars.
"I didn't say that," says Tatsuki, looking everywhere but at the young man standing in front of her. "I just think that that date and that kiss –"
"All of them are just the first one?" he snaps.
She winces. "All of it. Just all of it. It's all wrong and we should pretend it never happened. Kissing you was an irrational, impulsive, stupid mistake that could cost me my best friend. And after thinking it over…" She shakes her head, and her voice cracks when she says, "I can't lose another friend. I lost you, and I'm losing her to you. Right now, I need her more than I need this –"
"That's bullshit, Tatsuki!" He doesn't yell, but his voice is as sharp as a whip, as cutting as a cero
blast. "I care for Inoue, too, and you know I'd die for her in a minute, but I'm not going to force myself to feel something that I don't. And I'll be damned if I pretend as if what I feel for you doesn't exist. If we talk to her –"
"I would rather not." In contrast to heated emotion in Ichigo's voice, Tatsuki's is as cold and unyielding as glacier. "This isn't some Romeo and Juliet shit. This is two hormonal teenagers being selfish. Do you want to see Orihime hurt?"
"No, but –"
"Do you think I would be happy with you if she's not happy?" She runs a hand through her mussed hair. "I love her, Ichigo, and I know you don't understand. And you'll probably hate me after this, but it's… I don't have the strength to do that to her. It would be like cutting off both my arms and legs."
Ichigo snorts, but it lacks everything
. He looks devastated and heartbroken and Orihime wants to reach out and comfort him more than she wants to draw her next breath.
But he doesn't want her comfort. What he wants is standing in front of him, arms clasped around her middle, gaze averted toward the lush grass carpeted the field. He steps toward Tatsuki, and Orihime's breath catches. The look on his face is one of frustration, but underneath that is desire, lust - he either wants to grab her or kiss her.
The realization turns the shattered pieces of Orihime's heart into dust.
Then he exhales, and his face returns to its normal color, his shoulders sagging under the weight of rejection. Wordlessly, he turns and stalks off, heading for the gate at the back of the school.
Orihime's eyes follow him. She watches him as he jumps the fence and takes off running down the sidewalk.
A chocked sob yanks her attention.
And Orihime dies for the second time in as many days.
Eyes squeezed shut to prevent the falling of a single tear, Tatsuki falls onto her knees in the dirt, looking completely shattered.
A dream not deferred but annihilated, vanquished in the space of a few minutes on during lunch period on a Tuesday.
Ichigo would never be hers, would never return her affections, would never hold her close and whisper sweet nothings in her ear. With one sentence her world had shifted, and Orihime was unsure of what to do to correct it. She is in pain, both her soul and body, but neither could be cured by anything other than him.
It hurt her so much to admit that.
But far worse is the pain that comes from seeing Tatsuki collapse after the argument. Her strong friend was a shell of herself, her body as limp as a rag doll. Orihime had wanted to go to her side, wrap her in her arms and console her with love and words of encouragement. But she hadn't the strength at the time, for she had been scared and afraid of what Tatsuki might have done, of what she might have said.
Only then did Orihime realize that far more than Ichigo's love, she wanted Tatsuki's.
And far more than making Ichigo happy, she wanted to make Tatsuki happy.
For that reason, Orihime is walking to Tatsuki's house at one o'clock in the morning, after having gathered the courage to confront her fears and her best friend. The night is still, quiet, so peaceful she feels as if she could lie in the lust greenery in the playground and fall asleep underneath the clear starry night. The air is suffused with the scent of cherry blossoms. Orhime closes her eyes and inhales deeply, her thudding heart calming and steadying.
Tonight, she is prepared to let him go.
Tatsuki's bedroom window is dark, but that matters not. Sometimes, Tatsuki lies awake at night, unable to sleep because she is thinking too much.
Orihime hopes that the same was true this night.
Quietly, she climbs over the fence lining the yard and hurries across to the table on the patio. She hops on the table and stands on her tiptoes to grasp the edge of the roof underneath Tatsuki's window. It takes some effort, but finally she is sitting outside Tatsuki's bedroom window, peering into a darkness blacker than the night surrounding her.
Four gentle taps on the window, and the curtains shift.
Orihime shyly waves at Tatsuki.
In no time the curtains are thrust aside and the window opened.
Tatsuki pokes her head out. "What are you doing out here?"
"I needed to see you," says Orihime breathlessly.
"And it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?" she grouches.
"No," says Orihime. "Now let me in before someone sees me!"
Tatsuki steps aside, muttering under her breath something about respecting people's right to sleep in peace.
They settle on the bed, Tatsuki resting her back against the wall, Orihime sitting across from her, legs dangling over the side of the bed.
Tatsuki motions for her to speak.
Orihime takes a deep breath and prepares to let go of her fantasy, of the one desire she has nursed more than any other.
Because she now realizes that she has found something far more important to hold on to.