A/N: Okay, so I know that the idea of the wedding is quite overplayed and cliché, but that's almost the point. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: (insert the usual crap here).
He had barely gotten used to the fact that in a few months' time she would be called Kurosaki Orihime when she came by his apartment asking a favor.
"Ishida-kun, I was thinking," she began, "that since you're so great at sewing, perhaps you would consent to making my wedding dress? We're having a western-style wedding, so I want a white gown, and I was thinking, who do I trust to make the most beautiful dress? Ishida-kun, of course!"
And what a favor it was. It was killing him enough to know that she would never be his, but to make the dress she would wear on the day she was forever taken away from him? That was just too much. But she was grinning at him like mad, and she was completely unaware of what the project would do to him.
"I would be honored, Inoue-san."
He draped his arm over her, trying to catch his breath. "You're getting to be out of shape," she said, teasingly, but without any malice. "You were doing better when I was running you all across the town every day."
"I was better all around when you were with me." He replied, knowing full well what it would start, but not being able to help himself.
"Again, with this, Ichigo?" she said, gearing up for the inevitable fight. "You know why I have to leave. You know why you can't come with me. Just get on with your life without me."
"No, I don't know why we can't be together."
"Ichigo, I'm dead, for starters," she stated as if she had gone over this a hundred and more times. "And I will not let you follow me. There's too much for you here. You still have a life to lead."
"It's nothing without you." He said.
"Oh, save the sap. You know I'm not into it. We can't be together, and that's final. Now, you can either shut up and hold me, or I'll just leave, and neither of us wants that."
"Wow, Rukia, you always know how to sweet talk me." he said, but he definitely let it drop.
He was killing himself. He wasn't quite sure where he was finding time to obsess over this dress, but it was probably from the small amount of time he would have spent sleeping. The dress had come to symbolize her, however, and memories of her went into every stitch. He made it from the finest silks he could get his hands on, and he threw his entire focus into it. Damn it, if she was going to get married, he was going to make it so that she had the most beautiful dress of any bride.
Every time he worked on it, even though he was focused on the cloth, the back of his mind seemed to wander. From nowhere, he would be struck by a memory he hadn't thought of in so long. He wondered, did she remember the time when he fixed her favorite teddy bear almost as good as new? Did she ever think about chocolate-melon soda afternoons? When her mind wandered, did it ever end up once again in Soul Society with him?
He shook his head and kept working - after all, he had a deadline to meet.
She was sure the unusual contents of her bowl wouldn't bother Tatsuki. After all, how long had she had to get used to it? Orihime sat on her couch, and they babbled about wedding plans. She was ready, so ready. How long had he loved Ichigo, to now have everything she ever wanted come true?
She showed Tatsuki the sketch of the dress, and the woman was suitably impressed. Orihime herself was completely in love with it - she couldn't wait to actually see it. Every once in a while when Ishida would pass a milestone on the dress, he would send her a picture of it.
"It was awfully nice of him to agree to make your dress." Tatsuki stated. "I'm sure he's probably quite busy with his medical residency. I wonder if he's actually sleeping."
Orihime felt flooded with concern. She had somehow neglected to think of how busy he was before she had asked him. Perhaps she had pressured him into it? Tatsuki noticed the look on her friend's face and hurried to cover for Ishida. She understood as well as anyone ever would just why he never wanted Orihime to know of his feelings. "I'm sure he wouldn't have done it if he didn't have the time, Orihime-chan," she comforted. "This is what he likes to do - I'm sure he's loving the excuse to make a whole dress. He probably hasn't stopped studying for years. It'll be good for him to do something he wants for once."
Orihime still looked troubled, so Tatsuki decided to change the subject. "So how's Kurosaki doing these days?"
Oddly, Orihime looked even more upset. "He's been distant lately," she said. Then, realizing how it sounded, she hurried on. "I'm sure he's just stressed. Lots of wedding planning, you know? Also, he's doing his residency, too. It's just a tough time for everyone."
She realized that if she was listening to someone else saying her words, she would wonder just who they were trying to reassure. She shook the thought off and moved on.
Ichigo loved her. Right?
She felt like a teenage girl again. How silly was she, sitting here pondering all these stupid, useless feelings? She had told Ichigo to move on, and he was doing it. Or at least trying.
She looked down at the wedding invitation that Urahara had personally delivered. His usual mischief was no where to be seen, and if she didn't know the man better, she would have thought him almost sympathetic. After all, he was the one she got her gigai from, and he knew that she was in Karakura every day she had off.
She laughed a little at the idea of Ichigo choking at Inoue's suggestion that they invite Rukia. She was sure the dimwitted fool wasn't able to come up with an excuse for not sending the invitation without seeming odd. After all, Inoue believed that they were good friends, didn't she?
She looked down from the cliff right above the small port city where she was supposed to be keeping watch, and she let the letter fly on the wind.
"Oh, my goodness, Ishida-kun!" She squealed from his bathroom where she was changing. "This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen!"
He had secretly imagined himself getting his feelings off his chest at this meeting. She would, of course, politely reject him, and he would send her the dress, completely perfect, with a note explaining that he would not be able to make it to the wedding.
He was fitting the dress to her today, would make changes in the last week before the wedding, and then he would of course be on hand the day of in case of any emergencies. But he wasn't sure that he really wanted to be.
Then, sweet torture, she stepped out into his tiny living room. She was magnificent in every single way. Though he could see a few places where the dress needed to be modified, he didn't really care. Folds and folds of lace and silk fell away from her, the most delicate lace caressed her shoulders, and she had the train gathered in her right hand.
"I was able to get the zipper up, but I can't tie all that intricate stuff in the back on my own," she said, and turned around, pulling up her hair with her free hand. "Do you mind helping me?"
He had to remember that he was just her tailor right now, not the man that thought that every inch of her soft skin was sacred. He tied her up oh so carefully, and she turned back around.
"As weird as this is, I need you to stand on my coffee table." He said, and she started to laugh. "I have to get you up a little higher so I can see better any changes that need to be made."
It wasn't a very tall table, and with a little help, he managed to get her onto it. He stretched the train behind her, and couldn't help but look in awe.
She looked every bit a goddess. She was beauty personified, sweetness and light, all he had ever wanted. "I feel like a princess," Orihime laughed.
"You are," he answered boldly, and then immediately busied himself with making corrections so she couldn't see his blush. He had to admire his own handiwork - there were no major problems. He pinned and pulled, adjusted and re-adjusted, until he was completely satisfied.
"So, how do I look?" she asked. He realized then, that there were no mirrors in his living room, so he went and pulled his long mirror from the place where it had been hanging in his bedroom. He held it up so that she could see everything, and she gasped. "Ishida, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever worn," she gasped. "Thank you, so much."
He wanted to tell her everything. He wanted her to know just how he felt. But as he looked at her, he decided that he would rather settle on being her friend. After all, it was better to at least have a little of her affection than none at all. He took a little solace in the fact that he would be the only person to experience this moment, the first time she saw herself in her wedding dress, and that was the way it would always be.
"It was nothing, Inoue-san."
He stood in front of his mirror, fully dressed, even though there was at least an hour to go. He was just ready to get it over with.
Inoue was a good girl. She would be a good wife. She would give him several children, and she would be very happy. But whenever he closed his eyes, he saw someone completely different.
Rukia had made it quite clear that she didn't want him, so here he was, marrying someone he was fond of. Someone he was friends with. Someone he cared for a great deal.
Someone he didn't love.
He gave a quick thought to running out of there, running to Rukia, throwing caution to the wind. But he knew that would only make her push him further away. He would have to be content with what he had.
Soon enough, the elderly priest told him that it was time for him and Chad to make their way to the altar. He would not run, he decided. He would walk to the only future available to him.
The only hiccup of the morning had been when she had torn her dress. She had panicked, and by the time Ishida had shown up she was crying. She didn't know quite why something so simple had sent her to tears, but when he walked in the door, the first thing he did was to wipe her eyes.
He ignored everyone else in the room, walked straight up to her, took out his handkerchief and gently wiped all the tears from her cheeks. "Come now, Inoue-san, this is supposed to be the happiest day of your life," he whispered. "It's just a small rip. It's nothing."
He helped her up onto a chair, and had the tear mended in a flash. As soon as he was finished, the crowd of women around her pushed him out, worrying about hair and make-up. As he left, she yelled "Thank you, Ishida-kun!"
Later, hair done, face fixed, everything perfect, Tatsuki walked ahead of her down the aisle. She remembered what Ishida had said earlier as she moved herself to stand in the precise center of the doorway as the bridal march began. "The happiest day of my life," she murmured as she began her slow, implacable approach.
'Too late, too late, what if I'm too late?' Rukia asked herself over and over again. She was moving as fast as she could, using all the power she had available to her, but she still worried she hadn't started out in time.
That morning, a chance remark from Matsumoto as she left for the wedding had set her to thinking. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair to her, to Ichigo, or Inoue. Especially not Inoue. She hadn't been given any choice, and they had treated her horribly. She had been cheated on, lied to, and she was now marrying a man that would never love her the way she wanted to be loved. She probably wouldn't even talk to either of them again, but Rukia knew now that she couldn't wait.
"I'll celebrate the day they come to Soul Society." Matsumoto had said. They. Plural. Of course, they would come, and having lived her whole life with Ichigo, Inoue would be expecting to stay with him. Would Ichigo want to abandon his wife for the woman he had loved when he was young?
She knew she had to make it in time, to tell him that the sacrifices didn't matter, the inevitable hardships didn't matter, nothing mattered but them.
She pushed on faster, practically flew up the steps, into the door, and said the one word that she could never take back.
She was ready to lay everything on the line.
When Inoue walked in the door, his heart nearly burst out of him. She was perfect, everything about her. She looked happy, and Ishida felt like inflicting violence upon Kurosaki, because he was the one that made her look like that.
The dress would have been the pride of his portfolio if he ever wanted to to try to make a living as a tailor, but it seemed to fade, now. It wasn't making her beautiful - she was making it beautiful.
It just wasn't fair. Kurosaki would never love her like she was meant to be loved. He didn't treat her like the angel she truly was.
He was finally able to take his eyes off of her for just long enough to look over at Kurosaki. He seemed to be looking at anyone but Inoue, and as his eyes swept the crowd, they locked on Ishida's. Ishida wasn't sure he could contain the pure hatred in his eyes. Kurosaki caught it, and his eyes widened. Ishida was sure that the other man knew about his love for Inoue. He also knew that Kurosaki was railing against this. Whatever he wanted, it wasn't this. Luckily, everyone else was looking at Inoue as she walked, dripping grace and beauty, to the front of the church.
He wasn't sure he could stand this anymore. Knowing what he knew now, it was just too much. Not only was Kurosaki an idiot, but he was a trapped idiot. He was lost in his thoughts for much longer than he had thought, because when he finally snapped out of it, Kurosaki was about to recite his vows.
Then something within him snapped. No one would be happy with this arrangement. Kurosaki wouldn't be happy, that much is clear. Inoue wouldn't be happy tied to someone that didn't love her. He himself wouldn't be happy if anyone but himself was loving her.
He began just the slightest shifting of his weight, the preparation to stand up and declare in front of everyone in the church, Inoue included, that it just wasn't right. He started to stand, to change the course of his life, to take destiny into his own hands.
Someone, it seemed, had beat him to it.
She was beautiful, that much would never be disputed. It was almost enough to make him love her. But she would never be Rukia, he knew. He couldn't bear to see the radiant look on her face. Did she really not know that his everything was devoted to another woman?
He began to let his eyes wander across the assemblage. All eyes were glued on her. They had all known that she was attractive, but something about her was just magnetic. It helped that the dress was perfectly suited to her. Its cut took advantage of every single curve of her body - anyone paying the slightest bit of attention could tell that it had been designed lovingly, for her and her alone, that she was the only one that would ever do it justice. It fit too well for it to have ever been on a rack. It just wasn't generic enough.
On that note, his eyes swept the crowd for Ishida. He was on her side of the hall, of course, and he looked like he just couldn't stand to see her anymore. Their eyes connected and Ichigo saw the turmoil, and it was so clear. He loved her.
Ishida loved Inoue, in a way that he never could. He let his guard down for the slightest second and let his rival see his own inner demons, as well. The prize that Ishida so craved, he didn't even want. Ishida's eyes widened, and Ichigo knew he understood. Inoue was at the altar now, and he was expected to turn around. Ichigo gave him the slightest of nods and turned like he was expected to, to face the old man conducting the ceremony.
The words were long and flowing, and he couldn't help but let his attention wander. It was wrong, all wrong, that the woman beside him was not the woman he had wanted for so long. The woman that he could never have.
In a flash of insight, he realized just how unfair this was. He didn't spare a thought on himself this time, but for poor Inoue. She looked deliriously happy, and he was sure she had no idea just how he felt. How could he have done this to her? Wasn't he supposed to protect her?
It was about time for his part of this, for the recitation of vows. But how could he swear to love her forever when he had never loved her as she loved him? He found he couldn't go through with it. The man said the first thing he was to repeat, and he found that he didn't know what to say. The 'no' was on the tip of his tongue, but what could he do with it?
Luckily, he didn't have to be eloquent.
She strode down the aisle, as implacable as Inoue had been, and everyone was too stunned to stop her. Once again, all eyes were on the woman walking toward the altar.
"This isn't right."
Ishida was standing, right in the front section where her most prized friends were sitting. Ichigo was stunned, and Inoue looked fearful. "Look, I want everyone here to know what has been happening."
She looked Ichigo straight in the eye, though she was clearly still addressing the assemblage. "Ichigo and I have been in love for years. There's just so much distance between us. He wanted to come live where I do, but I loved him too much. I refused to let him abandon his life here.
"That's because I didn't know what love truly was. I realized that you have to learn to take as much as you give. Sometimes more. I caused all of this, because I wouldn't let him do what he most wanted to, out of some misguided sense of protecting him. I loved him too much to let him love me."
She began to address Inoue, who was crying now. "And I'm sorry, Inoue. You have to believe I'm so sorry. But I didn't realize it until this very morning. And I can't let this happen, not just because I love him so much, but because I love you, too. You deserve more, so much more. And I know you'll find it."
Ichigo was still looking at her with that slack-jawed look she loved to see on his face. "So, Ichigo. What do you say? Would you like to come with me?" She held her hand out to him.
The silence demanded to be noticed, and everyone was waiting for his answer. He looked from Orihime to Rukia several times. One way or the other, a heart would be broken in the next 10 seconds.
There he was, just looking at her. Then at Kuchiki. Then back at her. She knew she wasn't supposed to cry in public, but she couldn't contain it. She knew he was going to leave her. She knew she would be standing there alone.
Why? Why did he let it get this far? Why didn't he just say, 'I'm sorry, Inoue, but I don't love you?'
She had always known that he and Kuchiki were close, but she never expected anything like this. Looking back, this revelation cast light on so many things that seemed isolated and small. She could see how unhappy he was; all that she had written off as stress was surfacing in her mind.
She would not be passive in this, she decided. She had realized a long time ago that there was a time and place for the passive route, but other times, you had to take control. She would give him this. She would not have him staying to spare her feelings. She would let him go, absolve him of his guilt, and let him be truly happy.
"Go to her." She whispered. "I'll be fine. It's better this way."
With that, she gathered her train, and strode with dignity intact out one of the side doors.
She even managed not to look back.
He looked to the door where Orihime had just left, had just walked out of his life before he could walk out of his. He looked across to where Ishida was already moving, the only person in the place who could even think of stirring.
There she was, in the middle of the aisle. Hand still outstretched, looking like an angel offering him everything he'd ever wanted.
Was there any other choice?
He went to her, took her hand, and started running. Everything they were leaving behind was a mess for another day, but today would be a celebration. Today he would rejoice. Today he would begin living the life he actually wanted.
He feels her, running out of the church. Though she's gotten quite a head start, she's weighed down by the dress (he sure as hell hadn't designed it for running), and she was never quite as fast as he was, anyway. He followed her reiatsu to a place where she apparently felt that she had gone far enough. It was a bench in a tiny park, only about a block all the way around, but completely deserted by virtue of all the children having school.
He approached, and she stiffened - she hadn't been actively looking for him, but she could feel that he was close. She didn't run, however, and he sat next to her. He was sure they looked like quite a pair. She was really the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, completely objectively. He had outdone himself on the dress, his crowning achievement that he was sure he would never surpass. He was, himself, dressed in his usual white, a perfectly tailored suit with a gentle blue shirt. It almost looked as if they had planned it that way.
The only thing wrong with the scene was the fact that she was crying. It wasn't large sobs, however, but quiet, dignified, more regretful than anything. "How could I have been so stupid?" She asked.
"You were nothing of the sort. You trusted someone you loved, and you got hurt. It happens. But I think that if you wait for a while, you will look back one day and find that everything turned out for the better. That you turned out for the better, Orihime-san." He decided at the last second that perhaps the customary family name was really the most improper in this circumstance, though it was a little embarrassing to address her so intimately. After all, she was supposed to be Kurosaki Orihime by now. Calling her Inoue seemed like he would be rubbing salt in a fresh wound.
She seemed to understand. "Thank you, Uryuu-kun." She said, and leaned in to him. "It is all a matter of time, now."
He was standing behind her. She knew, somehow, that he would be. She knew that he would be moving before even Tatsuki. She knew that he would be caring and gentle, and everything she needed.
She couldn't help but blame herself. Perhaps things wouldn't be like this if she had been more observant, if she had been more beautiful, if she had just been more.
He quickly dispelled this, in a way that would have sounded like empty platitudes from anyone else. Coming from him, however, it sounded as if he really believed it. She knew, deep down, that this sadness wouldn't last. Life would move on, she would move on, and she would find someone to move on with.
She leaned into the caring man next to her. "Thank you, Uryuu-kun."
He dealt with the last box of his things, and prepared to cross forever into Soul Society. His body would be converted for the last time, and he would begin his training as soon as he was settled.
She was there with him, though she would not be converted. She already was as he would be. He felt a little remorse at leaving his life behind, but he was sure it was nothing compared to what he was gaining.
She hugged him. "I'll see you on the other side."
She left and he prepared to enter the gate. Just as he was about to walk through, he heard a quick shout of "Wait!"
He turned around, and there she was. Inoue Orihime in all her glory. He had let her know that he would be leaving, but he hadn't honestly expected her to show up. He had said all his goodbyes, and it seemed somehow appropriate that he had saved this one for last.
She walked up close to him and hugged him as hard as she could manage. He could tell she was crying. "I'm so happy for you." She said, and he knew that she meant it. "I expect visits! And an invitation to the wedding, whenever you get around to asking her. Don't forget that I can go through the barrier, too! Keep in touch, okay?"
She released him, and stepped away so he could walk across. "We'll always be friends, no matter what."
He stared at her, and was struck at the depth of this woman. He never loved her more than in that moment. He went in for another hug, this one more fierce, more final. "Thank you, Inoue."
She pulled back again, and gave him a real, true smile. "Go on, now, I don't want you to keep her waiting."
He leaned down to kiss her cheek, then strode across the barrier.
She was still dealing with the baggage from the wedding-that-wasn't. She had to return the gifts, write explainations, deal with all the apologizing and tip-toeing around her feelings. All had been taken care of, everything was almost complete. The loose ends were all down to this one, last dress.
It hung on the back of her bedroom door, and she could still remember how it made her feel. Like a caress from a lover, it had whispered across her skin. She could barely stand it.
Yet, she didn't know what she could do with it. She couldn't just give it to a second hand store. She thought it deserved more dignity than that, somehow. It was a symbol of her lost love, and to see it hanging abandoned somewhere would just be too much.
A few people had suggested saving it - after all, she was sure to be actually married one day. It had been so beautiful, hadn't it? But she felt like it would be wrong, somehow. This was her dress for her marriage to Ichigo, not to some other man.
Whatever she did, she'd have to do it soon. She felt as if she couldn't move on with it hanging there. It was just too much.
They laid on the grass between his classes, on one of her few lazy days, just watching the puffy clouds roll past. "A funny thought occurred to me, Ichigo." she said, amusement dripping from every syllable.
"I'm sure I'll love it." he said sarcastically.
"I was thinking, isn't it usually the guy?"
"You know, it's the guy who interrupts the wedding, says that he can't live without the woman, and she falls into his arms, leaving the man she was about to marry."
"Okay, so you're backwards. What's your issue?"
She laughed. "We're backwards. It's just funny."
"You're funny." He retorted.
"Not as funny as your face." She giggled, and rolled away down the hill, just knowing he would chase her. She liked the chase, but she loved the catching.
When she posed her problem to Ishida, he had been adamant that he not keep it for her next wedding. "I'll make you a better one," he declared in a way that had made her laugh. He had been completely serious, however. He would make every single thing she wore if it was possible.
Then, he realized that there was only one way to do this. There was only one way to give a dignified end to a dress that had meant so much. So there they stood, on a cliff outside of a small port town, wind tearing at them. Her hair flew in the wind, and she looked upward ruefully. He was sure she was thinking of the trouble it would be to untangle it later. He couldn't help himself when she looked like that. She looked like an angel as the air rushed around her. "Everything alright, Uryuu-kun?" Nothing made him more hopeful than the fact that she insisted upon calling him Uryuu, and that he should do the same for her. His hated first name now sounded like a caress for his ears.
"It's just that-" he stopped, and he wondered if he really had the courage to do it, finally.
"Uryuu?" Her concern was obvious.
"You're just so beautiful." She blushed, and he almost died.
"Uryuu-kun, do you think I'm special?" She asked.
"More than you know," was the only answer he had.
"I think I know," she replied shyly. "I think I feel like Uryuu-kun is special, too. I just don't want him to feel like he's a second choice. This is different from that, but I need to take the time to heal first. I just...would you mind waiting? Just the littlest bit?"
"I'd wait forever." He declared. There was hope, now. Perhaps his unrequited love would not always be so.
She grinned. "Ready?" He nodded, and they held up the dress, and it caught the wind like a sail. "One, two, three!"
They let go and watched as the wind buffeted it out to sea, flying like a gull on the currents.
"I think, Uryuu-kun, that I am ready to go now." She said, her words laden with meaning.
"I'm with you every step of the way," he replied, and walked hand in hand with her down the path back to the city.