Left of Center (Kurosaki Ichigo/Inoue Orihime) [Bleach]
Pairing: Kurosaki Ichigo/Inoue Orihime
Spoilers: For the entire manga to date (chapter 1 to 236). Tread carefully.
Email: annwyd [at] gmail [dot] com
Notes: Um, I sort of went over the wordlimit here. My apologies. D: I am never doing a main pairing here again.
Bleach is a shounen manga by Kubotite. It's one of the big popular titles these days, but don't let that fool you--it's actually rather complex. Here's the basic premise: there are two worlds, Earth and Soul Society, and grim reaper-like individuals called shinigami mediate the flow of souls between the two.
The hero's name is Kurosaki Ichigo. We're mostly concerned with him, and with a girl named Orihime.
Our hero, of course. He's a teenage boy with ridiculous amounts of power buried within him--standard fare for a shounen series, really. He becomes a shinigami when Rukia (the female lead. Yes, she is) grants him her powers in order to save his family from a Hollow--and things fail to go back to normal afterwards.
Ichigo seems fairly normal, but only at first. So he's a snarky teenage boy. Well, and he can see ghosts. Oh, and since his mother died protecting him from a Hollow six years ago, he's had a desperate, driving need to protect everybody. At first, he convinces himself that he only wants to protect his family, but it turns out that the need goes much deeper than that. It is this need that being a shinigami satisfies for him.
Too bad it can't be that simple. As if the quest to save Rukia from execution wasn't enough, Ichigo's powers have awakened a hidden demon inside him--and it can only get crazier from there...
Orihime is introduced in the second chapter, along with her best friend, Tatsuki. She's immediately characterized as cute and spacy, prone to zoning out. She's pretty and sweet and cute in everything she does. This is not an uncommon character type in anime, manga, and even Japanese video games--the sweet, lovable girl who may seem ditzy but turns out to be smart, often with some romantic connection to the hero.
Such characters often tread the line of Mary Sue if not properly fleshed out. In Orihime's case, what saves her from that fate is the fact that her tragic past (naturally she has one!) has changed her in an unconventional way. Instead of either brushing it all off or being crushed under its weight, Orihime has built herself a fantastical mindset, so that she views reality through a slightly skewed lens. She's not completely out of it, and she can function all right, but...she's really not entirely sane, either. Her spacing out can get her in real trouble, even getting her hit by a car at one point, but her daydreams and flights of fancy are far better than many other ways she could have dealt with her past.
Orihime is someone who's been protected all her life--first by her brother, then by Tatsuki, and finally, more and more as the series goes on, by Ichigo. She doesn't object to this in principle--but as she grows up and confronts the real world, she finds herself wanting to return the favor and protect those she cares about.
Pairings in Bleach are rarely a blatant matter. Aside from three married couples (where at least one half is now dead), there are no concrete, mutual romantic relationships yet.
There are, however, a few such relationships implied here and there, and quite a lot of one-sided attractions of varying degrees. Orihime's feelings for Ichigo, Chizuru's for Orihime, and Shunsui's for Nanao are probably the most blatant (...well, and Kon's for Orihime's breasts); Renji's for Rukia and Soi Fong's for Yoruichi are hard to miss; compelling arguments can be made that Ishida has feelings for Orihime, Hanatarou for Rukia, and Rangiku for Gin. It's all a bit of a mess.
However, through it all, the longest-running and most consistent romantic feelings in the series are Orihime's for Ichigo. They start at her introduction in chapter two and have continued unabated throughout the series. Even in arcs where their relationship takes a backseat to the action and to other relationships--such as through the Soul Society plotline--KT still makes sure to affirm that there remains a subtle connection between them.
Before I begin, I'd like to outline my goals in this essay.
Goal the first: to prove that Ichigo and Orihime do have a solid bond throughout the series which would be a good foundation for a future romance.
Goal the second: to show that Ichigo/Orihime is a viable pairing both in canon and for potential fanworks.
Goal the third: to explain why I believe that Ichigo/Orihime is the most likely canon pairing for both characters.
Goal the fourth: to make note of hints, clues, and interesting subtext that fans of the pairing might enjoy.
There are, however, some things I am not trying to do here.
I am not trying to prove that Orihime is more important to Ichigo than Rukia. I am not trying to prove that Rukia/Ichigo is a Bad Pairing. I am not trying to prove that Rukia, Ishida, Tatsuki, Chad, or anyone else who gets paired with either Orihime or Ichigo is a no-good terrible horrible person and character. And I am certainly not trying to force this pairing upon anyone who has their heart set on disliking it.
With that said, let's begin.
We are first introduced to Orihime's feelings for Ichigo in the second chapter. Considering that the first chapter was devoted to establishing the premise of the series as well as the two main characters, that's not a bad start.
When her best friend Tatsuki--who is also Ichigo's friend--asks Orihime why she likes Ichigo, she doesn't cite his looks or anything like that. Instead, she explains that he's funny. She enjoys imagining his scowling face in various bizarre forms. And thus we are first introduced to one of the most charming aspects of the pairing: Orihime's feelings for Ichigo may seem like an ordinary cute schoolgirl crush, but there's always something a bit zany about them. I'll return to this theme again--it's part of why I like the pairing.
When Ichigo arrives at school, Orihime greets him effusively--and he comments that she looks "happy as always." This is, in its own way, telling--the fact that she always seems happy around him is a good sign. Especially, as we will find out later, given her rough past.
So far, so good--but we've been given no indication that Ichigo actually cares about Orihime in the slightest. For all we know, she's just a random classmate to him. Certainly he hasn't said anything about her so far. He's been too busy struggling with the issue of how to use his newfound shinigami powers--he's emphatic about denying that he cares enough to protect anyone other than his family and people who are in mortal danger right in front of him.
This changes subtly when she sneaks up behind him to greet him when she chances upon him when walking home from grocery shopping. No, I didn't need to include that. I just think it's really cute, and what would be the point of doing this essay if I didn't point out all the cuteness inherent in this pairing? Anyway, the key point here is that even though Ichigo is currently angsting over how he doesn't want to have to protect anyone but his family, he actually goes out of his way to notice that Orihime is hurt--and to freak out when he learns she was hit by a car. In fact, when he sees she has a mysterious injury on her leg as well, he insists that she go to a doctor and expresses confusion when she blushes at his concern. (So he's dense; no surprise there.) He even offers to walk her home.
In her shock, she refuses--but then, it's just as well. Both of them still have a long way to go before they can be ready for each other, as I'll explain later.
We will later learn that Ichigo has a very strong drive to protect people, but for now, he's a boy who Rukia practically has to shove into doing shinigami duties, and this is an anomaly. While the bond between Ichigo and Orihime is obviously not (yet) romantic on Ichigo's side, it is clearly mutual on some level.
In fact, we now learn just what that bond is. It turns out that Orihime's brother died three years ago in a car accident, and she brought him to the Kurosaki clinic. It was too late to help him, but Ichigo remembers being the one to open the door and see her standing there with her brother's body.
For a boy who was so traumatized by the loss of his mother, that's not something he's about to forget. In fact, even though he's rather forgetful about people in general, he never forgets Orihime. He may not understand it, but he has an unusual bond with her.
And then he discovers that Orihime is being attacked by the Hollow formed from the soul of her dead brother, and he rushes to protect her. (Orihime herself is busy fantasizing about a date with Ichigo that turns into some kind of insane race. But that's par for the course for her.)
Orihime finds herself and Tatsuki under attack by the Hollow. She struggles to protect Tatsuki (for the first time, we see her trying to protect others instead of being content to be protected herself), but it's useless. Fortunately, Ichigo arrives just in time to save her. And he declares: "If you want to kill Inoue, you better kill me first." Pretty strong words from someone who was dragging his feet at having to protect people outside his immediate family not so long ago.
Even now, Orihime is happy to see Ichigo. Ichigo hesitates, unsure of how to continue the attack--and then the Hollow tells him that Orihime is already dead, her soul separated from her body. This provokes Ichigo to attack again--and when he seems injured, Orihime now tries to protect him in turn.
But now she learns that her attacker is what's become of her brother, and she has to deal with that. It turns out that her brother is particularly angry at Tatsuki and Ichigo because these two, by making Orihime feel happy and protected in her day-to-day life, diminished the amount of time Orihime spent praying to her brother's spirit. Instead, Orihime would talk about Ichigo--and she was clearly happy when doing so.
In his rage, Orihime's brother prepares to kill her--but Ichigo stops him and explains that the reason a big brother is born first "is to protect the little brothers and sisters that come after him." A big brother should never do what Orihime's brother is trying to do.
In retaliation, Orihime's brother declares that Orihime is his and his alone. He won't give her up to anyone--especially not to Ichigo. Given that he has just declared Orihime to be more like a daughter than a sister to him, it's rather reminiscent of a shotgun-toting father threatening his daughter's latest suitor.
But Orihime hugs the monster that her brother has become and explains to him that the reason she talked to him so much about Tatsuki and Ichigo was because she wanted to show him how happy she'd become. Realizing this--and seeing that even now, Orihime still wears the hairpins he once gave her--her brother chooses to let Ichigo destroy him and send his soul on. In other words, although it is not explicitly said, he goes back on his earlier vow and does, in a sense, give Orihime to Ichigo.
Of course, just because Orihime's brother has indirectly given his blessing to their relationship doesn't mean everything's roses from here on in. Although Ichigo has come to accept his need to protect people a little more, and Orihime has begun to stand up and protect those she cares about, they've both still got a long way to go.
After this arc, the relationship between Ichigo and Orihime takes a backseat to the plot for a while. This is only to be expected--it's a shounen manga, after all, and action comes before romance. But it is notable that after this arc, Rukia observes that Ichigo seems to have gained some of what it takes to be a shinigami. He won't truly accept his need to protect people until confronting his mother issues, but helping to save Orihime has brought him closer to that point.
In the meanwhile, a lot of important plot and character stuff happens. I don't really have the space to explain it all here, but I'll point out that for Ichigo, the important thing is that he confronts his mother issues for the first time, and we see that his desperate desire to protect people comes from his inability to save his mother when a Hollow killed her. On Orihime's side, we see that when Tatsuki is threatened, Orihime steps up to protect her--another step forward in her own development--and opens up her own mystical powers in the process. As it turns out, these powers were awakened by proximity to Ichigo--but she had them all along, locked up inside her.
However, while the "Memories in the Rain" arc primarily explains Ichigo's mother issues and does not, on a simple plot level, involve Orihime at all, Kubotite goes to great pains to give Orihime a connection to it. On the day before the anniversary of his mother's death, she is the only one to notice that Ichigo is much tenser than usual--one of the first signs that she can read Ichigo better than others, in fact almost eerily well.
That's not the most important IchiHime-related development this arc, though. That comes when Tatsuki explains Ichigo's past to Orihime--his love for his mother, his devastation when she died. Afterwards, Orihime walks home in the rain, contemplating Ichigo the whole way. She decides that in the rain like this, she can understand Ichigo a little better--and we are treated to her gazing up at the sky as she contemplates this. The cute silliness of her earlier crush is gone. Now she is genuinely concerned with Ichigo's pain, genuinely interested in connecting with and helping him. One could even argue that she is now truly falling in love with him.
But the next really major plot development is when Rukia is dragged back to Soul Society to stand trial and be executed for the crime of giving up her powers to a human. Ichigo, naturally, chooses to go after her--if it's really a choice at all. He can't let the person who gave him the power he needed to start protecting people be killed for helping him, after all. He has debts to repay.
It is within this framework that one of the most important IchiHime moments so far takes place. Ichigo is uncertain about the task that lies ahead of him, about whether rescuing Rukia is the right thing to do and whether he can accomplish it. Now Orihime comes to the rescue. She first raises concerns about the complications of the endeavor, but then she encourages him to go, saying that it needs to be done. And Ichigo, realizing the truth of her words, responds with his gratitude.
Granted, this isn't much. But it's more than either of them would have been capable of at the start of the series. Orihime wouldn't have been determined and devoted enough to speak her mind to Ichigo like that, and Ichigo wouldn't have known how to take it even if she had. Their relationship has already matured and grown. Furthermore, it is proof that she is capable of connecting with him, albeit in fragile, limited ways.
But it's not over there, either. As it turns out, Orihime intends to come to Soul Society along with Ichigo, Chad, and Ishida to help rescue Rukia. When asked why she's going, she answers without hesitation: "Because I want to protect Kurosaki." He has clearly become much more than a silly crush to her.
What's more, even as they are preparing to leave, Ichigo takes the time to make sure she's really determined to go. Once again, his desire to protect her and especially her emerges. Once the group has narrowly managed to slip into Soul Society, though, a different sort of protectiveness shows up in him: he tries to protect her feelings when she is scolded by Yoruichi. This is definitely unusual for the typically blunt Ichigo.
The relationship develops once again on Orihime's side as well. When Ichigo races off without thought to fight a strong enemy, both Chad and Orihime run to join him--and Orihime thinks to herself as she goes, "Hang on, I'll be by your side soon." She has taken another step forward from always being the protected towards also being the protector.
The next interesting interaction between the two of them occurs as the four are practicing for their unorthodox method of entry into Seireitei, the inner sanctum of Soul Society--as a cannonball, from above. They must focus their spirit energy to do this safely--and Ichigo is having trouble. Orihime offers to stay behind to practice with him instead of going to eat dinner--but he insists that she go. He gives no reason for this, but it's a fair assumption that he doesn't want her starving herself just to comfort him. She seems surprised and pleased that he's willing to show even that brief flicker of concern.
(Of course, she can't stop worrying over him that easily. She even insists on saving some of her food for him.)
One of my favorite moments between Ichigo and Orihime is up next. While falling into Seireitei, all six of the group as it stands currently are scattered. Ultimately, their fall boils down to Ichigo and Ganju reaching out for Orihime and Ishida, and there is a dramatic focus on Orihime and Ichigo's hands reaching out to try to catch hold of each other before they are blasted apart. When Orihime regains consciousness after her fall, Ichigo is the first thing she thinks about.
Here the relationship between Ichigo and Orihime takes a backseat for some time. The focus of the manga will largely be on fights, conspiracy, and Rukia and her backstory for some time.
The next significant moment between the two of them does not come until much later, and even then, it is from Orihime's side--Ichigo is still too caught up in his fights. But Orihime, upon coming not far from where he is fighting Byakuya in the ultimate test of his will to save Rukia, instantly knows that he is out there fighting--and she smiles. As the fight heats up, Ishida urges Orihime to flee the scene. But, still smiling, she refuses. As Ishida, who may well be developing a crush on Orihime himself, realizes the depth of her devotion, we are treated to the sight of her standing there, just outside Ichigo's most important battle to date, waiting for him. Echoes of the first Memories in the Rain arc: Orihime is not yet able to truly help Ichigo, but she still finds a way to make herself, in some small manner, a part of an important event in his life. It is as if we are being reminded that she has an unspoken connection to him.
It doesn't hurt that the instant he wins the battle, she is there to catch him as he topples over from his injuries. With tears in her eyes, she apologizes for being unable to help him more throughout his fights--and he gazes up at her and thanks her.
There is some more dramatic conspiracy, but in the end, Rukia is saved, and she chooses to stay in Soul Society with the closest thing she has to family. It is perhaps interesting to note that it is only after Ichigo rescues Rukia--thus paying off his emotional debt to her and overcoming the sense of failure he's carried within him since his mother's death--that Ichigo and Orihime actually work together for the first time, albeit briefly, to find Rukia when she goes missing. It's not much, but it is an interesting hint that Ichigo is now approaching being whole enough to handle a relationship with Orihime.
But there's still a long way to go from here. Just as the Soul Society arc focused on Ichigo's motivation, Rukia's issues, and Renji and Rukia's backstory, the one up ahead focuses on Orihime's issues, Ichigo's issues, and their relationship--as well as all-new troubles.
As the new arc starts, though, the relationship among Ichigo, Chad, and Orihime has changed. Ichigo is reluctant to admit it, but for a brief moment before Ichigo's issues start to overwhelm him again, the three of them fight Hollows together. While Ichigo still has a long way to go--especially with the demon within him about to devastate him--he is a little closer to being able to accept Orihime as an equal.
But then it all changes. Hirako, the Vaizard sent to recruit him, reminds Ichigo that as long as he still has the Hollow lurking within him, he will be at risk of eventually falling to it and destroying all those he cares about. And Ichigo sinks into depression.
But as it turns out, Orihime notices this. She's always had a talent for reading Ichigo, and now she's decided, of her own initiative, to go after Hirako and demand to know what he wants with Ichigo. This is definitely an improvement over her cute, fangirlish behavior at the beginning of the series--now, when she believes something needs to be done to help Ichigo, she gets out there and she does it. She even risks herself to run after the Vaizards to try to get information out of them even after one has threatened to kill her--although in the end Chad holds her back, and the Vaizards get away, because they are tricky bastards.
The next key moment comes when Orihime and Chad fight the new enemies, the Arrankar. Chad is overwhelmed and injured, and Orihime heals him and then decides to hold the Arrankar off on her own until Ichigo shows up. Then she corrects herself: she will do this herself instead of just waiting for Ichigo. It is unfair of her to rely on him that way--the best way she can help him is by taking on the battle herself. "Kurosaki-kun," she thinks, "I will protect everyone." She has stepped up and defended others before, but never with such a fierce declaration of intent--and this time, it is Ichigo who has inspired her to do so.
But Orihime's powers are not nearly enough to stand up to the Arrankar. In fact, Tsubaki, the source of her offensive abilities, is crushed.
In the end, though, Orihime can count on Ichigo--he comes to rescue her. And he looks right at her and apologizes for being late. In turn, she apologizes for not being able to defeat the Arrankar on her own--and he tells her not to apologize.
Feeling his inner Hollow coming upon him, Ichigo warns Orihime to get away from him, but she runs to his aide anyway--and one of the Arrankar knocks her violently aside. Ichigo reacts with rage.
Once Ichigo and Orihime have been rescued and the fight is over, he tries to reach out to her once more, at school--but he can't go through even with that. He falters and backs away.
As it turns out, Ichigo is devastated by his inability to protect Orihime, Chad, and Tatsuki. His guilt and his sense of inadequacy seem to stand between him and Orihime--and we see the two of them looking downcast, cut off from each other.
It isn't until Rukia, with her instinctive connection with Ichigo, returns to the mortal world to help fight the Arrankar that Ichigo gets snapped out of his funk. And once she's gotten him to realize that closing himself off and moping will do no good for anyone, what is the first thing she does?
Why, she drags him to see Orihime, of course. Rukia may not realize the depth of Orihime's feelings yet, but she understands that there's a developing bond between Ichigo and Orihime and that Ichigo should do his best to hold it up. So she makes Ichigo apologize to Orihime for his weakness of spirit over the past several days--and Orihime is relieved that the real Ichigo is finally back.
But there is a dark side to this. Orihime is so overwhelmed by how easily Rukia connects with Ichigo that, much to her shame, she is starting to become jealous. Later, when Rangiku arrives to stay with her, Orihime confesses this jealousy. At the same time, she also flat-out states that she loves Ichigo, crying as she does so--a far cry from the cute crush she had at the beginning of the manga. It is certainly the first explicit confession of love in the series.
As for Orihime's jealousy of Rukia, it has frequently been interpreted as "Orihime sees that Rukia is Ichigo's girlfriend, so she pines over this! It is a precursor to her getting over Ichigo and moving on with Ishida!", but given her earlier ideas about relationships (see the "Hints" section), I find this kind of cliched romantic jealousy out of character for Orihime. More likely, she is upset that while she has tried so hard for so long to connect with Ichigo, Rukia does it effortlessly, and this makes Orihime worry that there is no room in Ichigo's heart for anyone but Rukia.
I find Rangiku's reaction to be rather telling as well. Solid, sensible, supportive Rangiku does not urge Orihime to get over Ichigo and walk away from him. Instead, she hugs her and informs her that Ichigo needs both her and Rukia.
But Ichigo is still getting worse. When Rukia is injured in battle with the Arrancar, Orihime heals her--but Ichigo is too caught up in his troubles to even look at Orihime. All he can see is that Rukia is all right, and relief overwhelms him. Orihime simply lowers her head in regret--it seems she still can't reach Ichigo.
For a while, the plot jumps over to focus on Ichigo's training with the Vaizards to get his inner Hollow under control
But when she asks Urahara to train, he only shoots her down by telling her that she would be useless in battle. When Orihime explains this to Rukia later, Rukia is puzzled--Urahara saying such things makes no sense. But Orihime says that it makes perfect sense, because it's all true. She is a burden on everyone else--and to her, this is the worst thing in the world.
This should hardly come as a surprise to those who've been paying attention. Many times previously, Orihime has attempted to downplay her own value or worried that she's being a burden. Now someone has told her flat out that this is what she is--of course it distresses her. But Rukia reminds her that without Orihime's decision to help rescue her in Soul Society, Rukia wouldn't be here today.
As luck would have it, that's when the Vaizards show up to take Orihime away. They've determined that her powers are similar to theirs, and therefore, they can restore Tsubaki. After this is done, Orihime is more confident--no doubt with the help of Rukia's words as well. She promises to fight alongside her friends--once again setting her up as a potential equal to Ichigo. In fact, as the chapter ends, she declares that though she has always walked behind Ichigo, now she will walk by his side.
So Orihime goes to Soul Society to train with Rukia--but the Arrancar attack once again, and even earlier than planned. Orihime races back to the mortal world, determined to help with the fight. But one of the Arrancar appears just in time to attempt to kidnap her for Aizen, who has become interested in her powers.
So now Orihime is on the verge of falling into the hands of the bad guys. It's only a matter of time before Ichigo and Rukia find out, and when they do, it won't be pretty, but it'll definitely mean some more development of the relationship among the three of them.
Themes and Variations
But all that is just the events that compose Ichigo and Orihime's relationship to date. How do they fit into the overarching themes of the series?
Some of the early introductory volume poems give us a clue. One comes from the volume whose cover features Orihime herself:
If I were the rain
could I connect with someone's heart
just as it can unite
the eternally seperated earth and sky?
In her relationship with Ichigo, what Orihime wants most of all is to be able to connect with him. And that theme of connection, of two people's hearts being bound together, runs throughout Bleach and is embodied here in this poem.
But what does Ichigo have to do with any of it? He certainly seems hesitant to accept Orihime's feelings for him--in fact, he doesn't even seem to know they exist. But I think that this poem (from the volume with Chad on the cover) clears things up a bit:
If I don't wield the sword, I can't protect you.
If I keep wielding the sword, I can't embrace you.
Ichigo is caught in a stage of his emotional development where he can't truly connect with people. He can only see them things to protect. Only Rukia is capable of connecting with him on a deep level, because she's the one person he doesn't feel the need to protect. But how sad would his life be if he never learned to connect with anyone but Rukia?
That's where Orihime comes in. She's the one who's always wanted to connect with Ichigo, from the very beginning. It would make sense for her to be the one to whom Ichigo finally learns how to connect. They do have a bond--she's always been someone he's wanted to protect. Orihime just needs to learn to become stronger and more confident, and Ichigo needs to learn how to connect to people as something other than things to protect.
It's not a sure thing that Ichigo's relationship with Orihime will be romantic in nature, of course. But it would be a terrible wasted opportunity for character development if he didn't form a relationship of some sort with her--and given all the hints, I don't see why it wouldn't be romantic. Still, whatever it is, I trust Kubotite to make it worth my while.
Besides all that serious stuff, though, there are plenty of cute hints for the Ichigo/Orihime pairing--and loads of cuteness in general. Everything Orihime touches, she makes adorable, after all.
One of the first such hints occurs when Kon is in Ichigo's body and is near the classroom Orihime is in. She leaps to the window, declaring, "I smelled Kurosaki-kun!" This is insanely cute--and it lets us know that Orihime does have a really weird way of noticing things about Ichigo. This becomes especially clear shortly afterwards, when she sees Kon-as-Ichigo and realizes that it isn't Ichigo at all.
One of my favorite moments is when the girls of Karakura High are talking with Rukia about whether she likes Ichigo romantically. Rukia denies it--and Orihime, instead of being relieved, is disappointed. If both she and Rukia had liked Ichigo, it would have been two on one! (It is also judging by this reaction of hers that I find it highly unlikely she'd be jealous if Rukia did turn out to be Ichigo's girlfriend somehow. More likely she'd suggest they dogpile on him and take turns doing terrible things.)
Another adorable moment happens once they're in Soul Society. A number of souls in the alley gush about how cute Orihime is--and speculate as to whether she's single. However, at this point, we are shown a panel of Orihime and Ichigo standing next to each other--and the souls conclude that she's probably already attached. In the context of all the other hints about the two of them, I find that pretty telling.
After the return to the mortal world, there is another entertaining hint. When Ichigo hauls Hirako the Vaizard off to demand explanations from him, Hirako is in the process of being rather too friendly with Orihime. Hirako is indignant at being dragged away--and he declares that it's not like Orihime is Ichigo's girlfriend, since he thinks it unlikely that Ichigo would get such a cute chick. Ichigo denies it--but he also adds that Hirako should apologize to Orihime later.
Still, perhaps the most telling moment of all comes after the Soul Society arc, when Ichigo brings Rukia to stay at his house. Isshin and Yuzu are all being dramatic over how he's brought home a girl--but Karin isn't the least bit concerned. In fact, she says she won't be concerned about Ichigo and girls until he brings home an Orihime-level girl.
I actually started off in Bleach fandom shipping Ichigo/Rukia. I found their instant bond absolutely irresistible. Because of this, I missed a lot of the early IchiHime interaction. By the end of the Soul Society arc, however, it had become clear to me that Kubotite had little intention of going into romantic territory with Ichigo and Rukia's bond.
So as I continued reading Bleach, the IchiHime clues became more obvious--and more interesting to me. When Orihime confessed her love for Ichigo to Rangiku, I became truly intrigued by the pairing. And when I reread the series, the hints became more obvious.
Ichigo/Orihime still isn't An Absolute Favorite Pairing or anything, but it's one where the more I talk about it, the more I like it. It's not hard to get swept up in all the little hints and subtext in their interactions--especially when they're so damn cute.
IchiHime fanworks are rather scarce in Bleach fandom--the majority of fans are more interested in IchiRuki and IshiHime. Still, there are some.
Several cute ficlets by kumagoro_usagi. I find they capture the feel of the pairing very well.
Anything by harukami:
--"Popping the Strawberry", "Strawberry Jam", and "Strawberry Tart"
--"The Dad-in-Law Party"
"However It Starts" by nekokoban
"Last to Know", "Planning and Preparation" and "The Strangest Girl" by laliho
"To What Is" by damning_dance
"Sunflower Sewing" by moonsheen
Strawberry Angel (not the greatest art, but cute)
"I hereby claim..." (light nudity) and a quick sketch by halcyonjazz
Our Love Like This by the_z
Under the Rain... and Stars by giethe
I think I've said all I need to say at this point--save where the title of this essay comes from. It's from a song of the same name by Suzanne Vega.
I think that somehow,
Somewhere inside of us,
We must be similar,
If not the same.
So I continue
To be wanting you,
Left of center,
Against the grain.
I find that it embodies the peculiar, offbeat, yet terribly sweet nature of Ichigo and Orihime's relationship very well.
If anyone else has any further recommendations, they are very much welcome. ♥