From Tatsuki's perspective


"Won't your mom get mad?"

You run your fingers through your hair, the newly trimmed ends springing back into place with each pass of your palms. There is a pair of scissors in his hand, and small piles of inky hair on the ground around the both of you. You're sitting on one of those metal foldable chairs, the seat hot on your thighs, and it's the thick of summer. The sun beats down on your shoulders and the skin will surely be singed to red by the time you get home. There is a tree and a swing and a doll laying on the ground by your feet, you don't know if there's a rule against being here doing this but you know there is a rule against doing this and you don't quite understand it yet. Part of you has always envied the fiery locks on his head, how they tickle his ears and slip past your fingers when you try and pull it out. He's better at some things than you but he's not better at this—this boiling need to know, to build up on and break down to.

"Yeah," you say, and try not to imagine the look on her face. Where will the bows go? How will she make her little girl look pretty again? There are not enough dresses in the world that can hide the fact.

"You're not like other girls."

.x.

Maybe you did know, in having him mangle your hair that way she'd have no choice but to take you to the hairdresser and have it straightened out. Maybe that was your plan all along, the way she hisses it was. But you're sitting in that black leather chair watching your reflection in that big silver mirror and the person cutting your hair has tattoos, and feathery blue hair, and long spiky lashes, and they are so pretty. Angular and silver-edged and clothed tight in mystery, the way you think you want to be one day. They snip at your hair with such care your eyes round out, you breathe in soft—today, you look the way you thought you should.

Your hair tickles your ears.

.x.

When school starts up, they don't know what to make of you. There's a band-aid on your knee, and you don't brush your hair anymore. This skirt is neatly pleated because your mother says it should be, and you sat there by the doorway polishing the scuffs out of your shoes until they shined. You don't button your coat, and all of your pencils are chewed along the end.

He sits with you at lunch and his hands are wrapped up, something has changed about him and neither one of you likes to acknowledge it. Someday soon, you know, there will be rifts between you big enough to echo through. But today, he sits with you at lunch and barely eats at all. It is enough, for now, to know he still thinks you a friend.

The next couple of weeks, the other girls sneer at you from across the classroom and you make it your business to show them all up the only way you know how. And from that day on, no one beats your record on the tracks, or the games, or the jungle gym in the playground.

Not even the boys.

.x.

Middle school, your mother has resigned to this. She goes to your tournaments sometimes and the ribbons are there on that shelf, neatly lined up by picture frames of you, and her, and your father big and tall. Maybe you'll grow like him one day.

Maybe not.

Ichigo is different. The day you take the time to really look at him for the first time in years is the same day you realize he does not look the same anymore. The rounded edges of his eyes have sharpened, and his mouth once soft and gentle is now perpetually turned to frown, this ugly scowl you do not recognize anymore. He is taller than you, and most other boys in your grade. The string of his body pulled taut, a snapping thing—they try to pick a fight with him, and more and more he comes out of them unscathed. And on those days he shows up bruised, patched up all too neatly by no doubt his bumbling father, you catch him leaned over a water fountain pressing cool, wet fingers against the wounds, unflinchingly soothing himself back down for the next time.

And the next time, the next time you catch him swinging fists his knuckles catch on someone's teeth and pop them right out their face. They scatter on the asphalt and it's the day you realize Ichigo is different, a stranger that pulls sharp and familiar on the strings of your heart.

Funny, you think maybe you loved him once, the way one does so young, so caught up in their own—both your hands are covered in blisters and the last time you and him sparred he had you pinned, the weight of him far too heavy to move alone. You think maybe you loved him once, that timid boy with soft and rounded edges.

It is an uncomplicated thought, and it eases right off your shoulders as he meets your gaze from across the way—these large and echoing rifts you know will never be filled again.

You punch him once, weeks later, and the spotted bruise it leaves on his cheek provides you comfort.

.x.

You have friends.

They share their lunch with you and they talk, on and on, about this or that. They like your hair, and your toothy grins. They like the way you look at boys, they like that you scare them away—today you meet a girl with short hair and pretty little hairpins and it all comes to you so easily. She meets the you you've always wanted to be, battered fists and bloody noses. The other kids don't stand a chance and it is the last time someone pulls her hair, the last time she loses a piece of herself in this way.

"Inoue," she tells you, pressing cool and soothing fingers to your throbbing knuckles. "Inoue Orihime."

.x.

She doesn't let you into her home for a long time, and does not meet your gaze when you ask after her parents. There is enough story behind these naked walls, you do not bother pushing for more. She sits with you on her sofa and this feels right, the words exchanged turning to comfortable, to I feel like I've known you awhile.

She clicks right into your group of friends and this is where she stays, timid and soft and melting at the edges. Her hair grows and grows and one day, lips tugged into a great, big smile she tells you, "You're my favorite person."

That is enough for you. The last match you won, she stood by the sidelines and told you how proud, how absolutely breathless she is. You moved fast and easy and everything falls right into place, there is new meaning to life and you think maybe it's her.

.x.

How easily dismantled, how feeble these things can be. This high you've ridden comes screeching to a stop, toppled over by this.

You wear shorts on the wrong day at the wrong time and you ask your mother if you can shave your legs, fingers skimming the black strands on your shins as if they do not belong there. And of course, there is relief dripping off of her voice as she tells you yes, she tells you of course, and a part of you shrivels up inside.

The blades catch and you patch up what you can with these ugly band-aids, tug your socks up high before school and keep you head low at your desk. Everything is changing, all of a sudden. Your friends are wearing perfume and one of them is coating her lashes up thick with mascara, and all of the boys are looking at Orihime—so pretty, so effortlessly clean and sweet and soft. When you're sitting at her kitchen table, you glance at her legs and the hair is so thin you nearly miss it.

"You don't shave?" you ask, and her eyes go round in thought.

"It'll only grow back," she tells you, and then pours you a glass of water. "Maybe one day. Maybe later."

You think maybe you'll get better about this. You keep your hair trimmed short and only sometimes pull a comb through its inky gnarls. You smear lip balm on to keep the dead skin off and when it gets too cold you use the lotion your mother keeps buying you. Every day you take the razor to prickling skin and wonder if the process will ever get easier, if this will ever be worth the effort it takes.

Today, you eat a salad. It tastes like the grass you used to eat when you were real little, long-haired and primped up and hating every second of it.

.x.

High school, Ichigo complains about growing pains and you can't relate. His shirt doesn't fit and he says something about going shopping with his old man later that day. His shoes are torn up and his hands are dry and he yawns without covering his mouth and you are so beset with envy you have to swallow your nerves.

"His fault," he grumbles, scratching at the prickles of hair popping up at his chin. "If he weren't so tall…"

You recall your father, larger than life, and clear your throat. "I'd count you lucky," you confess, and he eyes you warily. "I'm never getting any taller."

Or so your doctor tells you, you've never taken his words to heart but this time, it rings through you with finality. Like someone telling you you've nowhere left to run, like a wall fast approaching at the end of a tunnel. Most girls stop growing at the age of sixteen, count another year and a half and you're about finished. Hardly scratching above five-foot, and Ichigo is trickling toward an entire foot taller.

Nothing like his friend, this massive boy you once mistook as man.

"Well, you're a girl," he tells you, and as you're preparing to be angry at him for this, he continues, glancing away, "You can't control how your hormones choose to shape you. No one can; in this case, they chose to make you small. At least your mom's shorter than you."

This is somewhat of a comfort. In all the time you've been alive, you've always perceived yourself as bigger than you are. And, for a time, you had been. For a time, even he had been smaller than you.

There are girls in your class that are mere inches shorter than he, and there are girls who are so slight you think maybe they're seconds from slipping through the cracks in the pavement.

Sometimes, when you're standing in front of the mirror, you're okay with how things are turning out.

.x.

Fifteen, the shape of your body is just so. Your chest is tender and soft and everywhere else, you've fine-tuned. The times your mother coerces you into a dress or a pretty little skirt, it fits you strange and you find a great pleasure in this.

You've stopped shaving every day.

.x.

Part of you has always been aware of this, one of your friends smiles thinly and says she kissed a boy, or a boy kissed her, or something along those lines and suddenly it becomes about this. They sit straighter in their seats and swoon over this or that, some boy shaping out handsome—and you remember this one used to stick gum under the desks, you remember that one used to pick his nose and that one used to push girls at the playground. How easily they all forget, these clumsy boys with their big, clumsy hands.

You don't fall into this, and part of you has always been aware. You're not quite sure what you should be.

Orihime confesses, fingers knotting up in her lap—so pretty, so finely molded up the way one should be, the way they say you should be—that she likes a boy, too. You're sitting on the grass and the others have yet to return with their food. The breeze touches your cheeks and your fresh shaved legs, and strands of her hair kiss at her flushed cheeks. "I think—I like him a lot."

Ichigo is by no means a handsome boy, you don't think. He's sitting on these concrete steps picking tiny shards of glass from his knuckles and he's frowning deep and ugly. When he punches, you see the muscle strain tight against bone and he hasn't been back to the dojo in years, this line of his body an unfamiliar one. The style he's accumulated is new, self-taught from all the brawls he's been forced into by boys who cannot read the tension of his body quick enough. Ichigo is wound up tight, a chained dog salivating, snarling for release. He growls and snaps and when you draw near he hides the cuts on his callousing knuckles with the other hand.

Still nice, you suppose. He greets you the way old friends do, and leans back on his swelling hands as if they don't hurt half as bad you know they do. He's shaped different than the rest, sharp and lean and alert. His shirt creases here at his middle and stretches over his broadening shoulders and he probably doesn't know that the prettiest girl in school looks at him like he's the only one worth a shot.

And how funny, she has the greatest pick of all and this is the one she chooses, this wounded little mutt looking for a fight at every turn.

He spits out blood when you aren't looking and he has all of his teeth, this cut on his eyebrow.

No, there's not a chance in the world he knows Orihime has a crush on him.

"You are so," you begin, searching for just the right words. "Stupid."

He cocks an eyebrow.

"Stupid," you repeat, and then sigh. "So dense, so full of yourself."

"Is this because of the scores?" he asks, wiping at his mouth. "Look, I studied hard for those results, don't think I didn't—"

"No, stupid," you cut him off, and then think quickly. "Besides, Orihime got much higher than you."

A test, you know. You've gotten to know these things and you can't remember how you did, but he won't pick up on it. If he knows her by name, that will appease somethinginside of you.

You care enough, at least.

"Naturally," he replies, and you're relieved it's flown right past him.

Stupid boy.

"She works even harder for it," he says, and then rifles about through his bag for a bottle of water. "I saw her—at the library. Studying. Hardly looked up once."

"I didn't know you knew her," you bait.

He takes it all too easily. "She's in my class—and aren't all the boys in love with her or something?"

"This wasn't about the scores," you brush off. "You're just—stupid. Can't see what's in front of you."

"You're standing right there," he snaps impatiently. "What are you getting at?"

"I shouldn't have to say what."

"Why," he asks, tugging at his hair, "are girls like that?"

How validating.

.x.

It's a Tuesday night, you're sitting on the edge of the bathtub and your back already hurts. It's been a little while since the last time you've shaved, and earlier that day you ran your hand over your knee in the middle of class and felt the scattering rise of black hair pushing back against it. Midway through one leg, you tap the razor against the porcelain and sigh heavily into the steaming water.

There are better things to be doing. An exam has fallen Friday of this week and there are notes to be taken, whole chapters to be read. There's a pot of left overs downstairs you'd rather be eating, some movies you've yet to watch, some novel or another you'd only skimmed back once in middle school and then never opened again. Anything, rather than this.

You have to go slow, or you'll catch the skin at your ankle.

Some boy you had never spoken a word to had told you, voice cracking in the middle, that you're pretty. It had rung through you hollow, unnatural. The words had sunken down at the pit of your stomach and you had been repelled by this sudden rush, a fluttering thing. Perhaps relief—someone somehowhad picked up the bits and pieces you had attempted to both shed and adorn and named them pretty.

Just the way your mom said they wouldn't—or would, one day, if you only put some perfume on, if you only wore that dress, if you only grew your hair out; how pretty you look with your hair long.

You catch the skin at your ankle.

.x.

How strange. Reality seems to ripple, somewhere, at the back of your mind. Or before your very eyes.

For a second, everything turns itself over and you feel it all spin right off balance.

When it rights itself, you've already forgotten it happened.

Ichigo is sitting in the same seat, everything is right where it should be.

Something inside of you has grown thinner, weakened by somethingyou can't define.

It's different. You know that it is.

You just can't say how.

.x.

That girl that follows him around now ispretty, in the sort of way you can't quite place. Some sort of delicate not quite delicate, her tiny hands and her tiny bones and her big eyes, sharp. Her skin is cream and porcelain smooth, the gleaming strands of her hair that of a raven's wings, the rippling edges of her eyes stark and bright. She blends right in and yet, not at all. Another shadow on the wall, oddly brilliant.

Something coils unnatural around her, as if she's from some other plane of existence entirely. She speaks in tongues sometimes and in the seconds you feel your head cloud, she snaps right back to this—another girl, soft in all the ways she's supposed to be.

She calls Ichigo by name, and you wonder where this familiarity came from. She is another part of your life and you feel less and less as if she never had been. A component, another fragment of who you are, now, that things feel so strangely out of place; kinda like, you think, someone took things apart and then clumsily tried to stick them back together again.

"Call me moon." Rukia—her name, that is; it's Rukia, little Rukia—with this sort of smile you can't look away from. "Call me stars. Call me galaxy."

And it only makes so much sense, you think if you stare until the sun sets she'll vanish right with it. The night will swallow her whole and all that will be left are the mere impressions of her, the very edges of who you think she might be.

"It's kinda like," he says, yawning far too deep into the palm of his hand. "Kind like having another sister—except older. An older sister. But also kinda not."

Comfortable, she doesn't treat him with any shred of kindness and maybe this is how Ichigo should be treated. Maybe you've always had it right.

.x.

Gone, as soon as she comes. Everything is popped right out of place—like those teeth, scattering on the asphalt, caught on his knuckles—and you don't know where you stand. The classroom smells stale now and Orihime greets those boys with some sort of familiarity, like something has passed you didn't catch.

Sado, big and tall and more man than boy, speaks open and kind to her and it's all trying to click into place. Your mind scrambles to make senseof this and it can't, it can't, so you settle for this.

This thing, shimmering at the corner of your eyes.

Not everything can be explained

The pretty girl that followed Ichigo around has vanished, quick as a light, and everything left in her wake has been filled by this, strung between the four of them thin and unseen.

Ichigo smiles at Orihime, and it all snaps right into place in the only way it can.

.x.

Maybe this isn't how normal teenagers live their lives. Today you sit in class and you know something is coming, in that way all gut feelings go. You cup your chin in your hand and these clouds pull across the sky lethargic, fingers pinching at the ends of your hair and tugging it down over your brow.

You will be needing a haircut soon.

Your eyes shut, and again something jolts right out of place, your mind splitting in half trying to piece it back together.

Orihime is patched up, and her arm is in a sling.

Ichigo looks like he's burning from the inside out.

The lights flicker, and you wonder if this is how things are supposed to go. When did they get like this? And when did you look away, how did you miss it so easy?

"Call me the center of the universe," Rukia's shadow sings, white fingers digging into his elbow. "Call me the glue that makes things right again."

.x.

You haven't punched him in so long, but he is so pliable under your fist you hardly feel the impact on your knuckles until he's gone, again. Everything is splitting, right down the middle. You can feel your head screeching for relief and you can hardly see straight, all these things that cannot bind themselves back together anymore spilling forth through the cracks.

There are bruises around his eyes and he looks so tired, and so defeated by something you cannot comprehend you allow pause between the rush of fear down your spine and the anger welling up at your throat.

Today you only woke and you knew. The missing pieces are ringing, sharp and hollow, at your ears. Whatever sense and reason there is to this world has fallen through, or has been snatched right out from your hands.

Maybe, this is not the first it has been.

"Where is she?" you ask, and there are not enough words to describe the way you feel, the look in his eyes before he can yank this mask right over them. "Where is she?"

Maybe the sun isn't shining the same way. Maybe the air don't taste the same anymore. Something has set itself off, or toppled over, or trickled right through those cracks in your mind, but it's gone. You cannot find the meaning in life anymore.

From the way his eyes pinch at the ends, the whitened strains of his knuckles underneath the skin, the hard grit of his teeth, you suppose he can't, either.

.x.

Something is irrevocably changed. These parts of your mind have come apart at the edges and the scariest part is that you don't know when it started. There are slants of darkness across memories you think you should have, these things you cannot recall anymore. They slip past your reach and you think they're lost forever, sunken under the earth. Unattainable. Swallowed down by reason.

In their absence, you stare at your hands and wonder if you weren't good enough. If you were too small, or too weak, or too blind to see any of it coming. These callouses on your fingers and knuckles, the bones reformed under the pressure, the cuts and scrapes you have watched fade to scar, they mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. There is a mirror in your room and one day, when the emptiness tips itself over into you, you smash it with your bare fist and pick the shards from your knuckles the way he did that one time.

It hurts so much, you feel your breath catch and your eyes prick.

You wonder how he could've managed. If he had truly left you so far behind, so soon.

.x.

That tree is still there, but the swing, and that chair, and that doll have all vanished with time. You toe around for a strand, or two, of inky hair still left between the blades of grass. Your fingers pull through the short locks on your head and they slip right through, tickle at your ears.

You wonder if there is a rule against missing what shouldn't be missed.

.x.

This half of Ichigo's life, you don't know. It is sudden and sharp on your side, all these secrets he had kept wound close to the chest. It all unravels and you wonder where you stand, if at one time you had come so near to knowing him the way these people all seem to.

A beautiful woman, with such long, pretty hair you are both filled with envy, and an undeniable rush of fascination. Her eyes are pale and her lips are full and she looks so strong, and so otherworldly you can't breathe.

Like Rukia—she is moon, she is stars, she is all that matters in the universe.

For a split second, you're half in love.

This half of Ichigo's life, you know, you can't have.

.x.

Resettling back into this, whatever semblance of normalcy you think you may have known how to define once, is more difficult than you know how to explain. These hallways do not look the same to you anymore, and all these streets have phantoms clinging onto their corners. The memory, snatching over this reality, of the entire world collapsing into itself. Everything you know, mere piles of debris and curling smoke. You try to focus on what you know, or what you think you know—wrapping your hands in thin bandages, straining your muscles until you are sweaty and breathless and too tired to think of anything other than this.

This semblance of normal you think you once understood.

Ichigo is not the same as before.

Neither is Sado. Or Ishida.

Or Orihime.

But life goes on, you watch the boy you think you once loved, somehow, in some way, turn to stranger all over again. He doesn't vanish for periods at a time, but he doesn't sink back into things the way you're trying to. These things start back up and you find him leaned over the water fountain pressing cool fingers over wounds again, return to school every week with fresh bandages no doubt tended to by his bumbling, aging father.

Your friends go on and on at lunch and Orihime does not say a word about boys, or love, or these things you do not feel a part of. She is the prettiest girl in school, and she tells you that things have changed.

She tells you that he is the one.

Ichigo is not handsome, you don't think. He is spitting blood on the pavement and less and less he seems moved by this, less and less he seeks out the things that had once plagued him day by day. He picks the glass or the teeth from his knuckles and yawns, open-mouthed, into the air without a care in the world. There is nothing appealing about him—his body still shaping toward lean and splintered, this perpetual frown carved deep in his face—but the freedom in all that he does, the parts of him no one will ever think to question or change.

"And I don't," Orihime tells you, soft, edged with roundness. "I don't want to change a single thing about him."

You wonder how that must feel. To be so utterly accepted as is.

.x.

Maybe you miss it. You tug your hair down toward your chin, and your mother smiles at you. You can count on your fingers how often she does, nowadays. You forget more often than not to use a brush, and for the first few weeks your hair is gnarled by the end of the day. Your friends play with the longest ends and you don't know if this is how it's supposed to be.

Sometimes Ichigo is the most comfortable company you can have, sometimes you sit next to him on these concrete steps and the things you don't say become the loudest. The easiest understood. He is different, in such a way you are not capable of wrapping your head around; there are things he does not talk about with anyone other than them and you have come to know this is only natural. That half of Ichigo, you are not privy to.

He speaks of them as if they are far away now, and this, too, you cannot understand.

But Ichigo is different. He listens the way he used to, way back when things made sense, and he doesn't pick a single side until you lose your words, until you forget where it all turns to.

"Funny," you say, recalling a time before this one, in which this held little meaning at all, "I don't think I'm like other girls."

His chin is in his hand, he rolls his eyes smoothly and your gaze flickers. You're not sure how to explain this to him without sounding cliché.

The other day, you sat at your desk and could not stop thinking about soft skin, long hair, full lips, the girl at the back of the class—how to not turn your head and stare, star struck, as she twirls her pen or smacks her gum.

How easy it becomes, falling half in love with what you cannot have.

Perhaps, he has an idea of what that's like.

Perhaps not.

.x.

Maybe if you'd never met him, these things would have never happened to you. You do not know how much more your mind can take of this, all this stretch and snap, all the stress your nerves have undergone. You cannot pick apart your memories, the reality from the fabricated. You do not know whether the things you think you remember actually happened.

It plants the seed of paranoia, deep in the pit of your stomach.

Is anything really as it seems?

These parts of Ichigo's life have always been colored different, too bright, too odd. You are reminded of the first time, pretty little Rukia with the moonlight skin and midnight eyes—that has to be the first sign. That has to be the reason why it felt so strange at the back of your tongue, why it settles odd in you. The way that smile shivers through you warm and familiar, how the eyes reflected back everything, and yet nothing at the exact same time.

Unnatural, misplaced in your world.

These memories glimmer brighter than the rest, and you can't focus on anything else. He is there, every step of the way. This tall, beautiful man teaching you to ride a bike, pressing wrapped ice to your swollen hands, buying you your first soccer ball, playing with you at the park.

Cutting your hair, under the shade of that old tree.

Your mind is pulled in two different directions.

Did all that actually happen?

Why is Ichigo so desperately angry?

You don't know where it's coming from, your eyes flicker over the fiery hair tickling his ears. You feel something squeeze in your chest. Familiarity ripples through you, and for a second you don't know what to do with yourself.

Tsukishima, that warm and eerie smile, carved into every crevice of your mind. Every corner you turn.

When everything turns to black, you wonder if maybe you regret meeting either one at all.

.x.

He's different than the rest of them, you want to think. The bristly beard along his jaw and chin, the straw hat and the loosened ponytail, the way those robes fit him like a second skin. As if he isn't what he is. Just some old man, ambling along the street smiling thoughtlessly at fluttering birds and laughing children. His fingers scratch at his chin and his eyes, they are too full of somethingto be human.

Wisdom.

Or maybe pity.

You only half pay attention, this exposure is too much. He is too much. You can't remember how many times you've told yourself it is the last time, how many times you've promised not to let this part of Ichigo's life back into yours.

How funny you thought you had any choice in that matter. To have Ichigo in your life is to accept this part of him, too. The older you get, the more involved you become.

But, worse yet, is the idea of nothaving Ichigo in your life.

That hasto be the tradeoff. You take it all, or nothing. There is no middle ground, no scraps to choose from. Ichigo is Ichigo, and everything that comes with him.

You can't imagine a life without him.

.x.

Maybe this is good. You fold the slip into that novel you haven't bothered reading since middle school and pretend not to think about it. They're all four gone, it leaves a massive gap in your group of friends and you try not to think too deeply about this.

"How did your day go?" you want to ask, pausing as you pass by her apartment complex. "Did you do anything fun today? Did you eat too much red bean paste again? Are you still madly in love with that loser?"

You hold a hand to your chest, and try not to feel too homesick.

.x.

"I want to cut my hair again," you say, and he takes his time turning his attention to you. "I want you to cut my hair again."

"Won't your mom get mad?"

You have managed to grow it past your shoulders, you take more time combing it than anything else in your morning routine. Your mother has bought you countless hair ties, ribbons, pins, clips; these expensive bottles of shampoo, silvery bottles of spray. They're lined on your shelves and you stare at them sometimes, tuck your hair behind your ear and glance at the new mirror leaned against the wall.

Your mother tells you you're pretty.

"Yeah," you say, and you know exactly what kinda face she'll make.

Tomorrow is your last day of high school. This will be irreparable. No taking this back.

There's a dress in your closet, under this thin plastic cover. It's blue and pretty, the skirt full and trimmed with tulle. There's a bow around the middle and the collar is high. Your mother brought it in at random and you didn't say a word against it, it is the one time she can get what she wants. The heels are silvery, and there's a box of matching pins she pushed into your hands this morning and in that moment, you felt your heart drop.

"You can get your hair cut any time," he replies, scratching behind his ear. "She can't stop you."

"I will," you assure, folding your arms. "Just, for old time's sake."

The trick is finding a metal chair, you plop yourself down as he rifles through his bag for a pair of scissors. They aren't any special, old and blunt and awkward. His fingers tug at the ends of your hair and it is a few minutes before he sets to work snipping them off. Not too short, not like when you were children. He doesn't nick your ear or neck, smoothing down the ends toward your chin.

You glance down at the inky locks of hair surrounding the both of you, the single strands caught on his fingers.

"It looks awful," he comments, and then chuckles. "Well, as usual."

He taps the scissors against the back of the chair and stoops to stash them away again.

"Let's get you to a professional, before someone sees you."

.x.

You shave your legs for the ceremony, dab perfume at your throat and slip your feet into the pair of heels. It is the least you can do.

Your mother won't look at you.

.x.

"What if I told you I like girls?" you ask, not quite meeting his gaze.

He's wearing a sharp suit, a solid black with white dress shirt. He'd trimmed his hair with you the day before, and he looks, you think, almost presentable. He doesn't straighten his tie, or button his blazer.

He yawns openly into the buzzing air, not a shred of shame.

"Am I supposed to act surprised?"

You stop short, but he only gives you a look.

"Doesn't affect me," he shrugs, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Didn't even think it was a secret."

The dress feels itchy, it scrapes at your knees and thighs, strains across your ribs and chest. Draws your breath short. Your toes already hurt, these heels pinch them close together and make it difficult to walk. You wobble awkwardly, and when you notice the comfortable flats Orihime wears you suddenly question your decision.

She is so beautiful, hair pinned back and coiled about her shoulders. She beams at you, feathers her fingers through the hair at the back of your head and surrounds you in her sunshine. You melt under the attention, and everything feels as if it's falling back into place. For once, right where it should be.

"Do you think," you ask, stifling your relief. "Do you think my mom will…?"

"Certainly won't approve," he allows, glancing above your head for a moment. "But, it's you. Can't change that."

.x.

"Let me ask you a question."

"Shoot."

It's a makeshift party, right by the manmade river. Nobody wants to go home yet, but there's nowhere else to go. You only break to scrape what you can for snacks, meet at the middle to sprawl out on the grass and watch the sky color pink and purple and warm. Spots of conversation, separate or melding. There are no lines today.

He's working through a bag of chips, leaning back on his elbow to stare at a fluffy cloud. He licks his lips, and stuffs more chips in his mouth.

"What do you plan on doing now?" You glance down toward the others.

Orihime is huddled close to Sado, sharing a box of cookies between them. A couple of the boys are attempting to skip stones on the water. Nobody has said anything about anything. Colleges, or career paths, or the places they'd like to go one day, soon.

"Everything's slowed down," you point out. "You have to…assimilate."

"That's not so bad," he sighs, dusting off his fingers. "I've always wanted to go to university. Don't really wanna be a doctor, but. If I can't settle on anything, it's what I know best."

"You wantto?"

"I never said I didn'twant a normal life."

You consider this, tapping your fingertips together. You stare at that cloud, and then switch your attention back down. "Would you ever settle down?"

He doesn't even hesitate. "I do want a family. Later on."

"Married, with kids and everything?"

"Yeah," he shrugs, not meeting your gaze. "That's… I'd like that. I wanna get there."

"Would you attend mywedding?"

"I didn't peg you the kind to settle down," he jokes, and you jab him in the ribs. He winces, but he's grinning. "Of course I will, won't bring any gifts though. What's with all this talk, by the way?"

"Well, considering everything, this is kind of a new chapter in our lives, you know? We've been friends for a long time, I don't want this ending any time soon. Not to get all emotional, I just want you to be in my life for the rest of it. And I wanna be in yours. Through thick and thin—school, and work, and marriage and kids and all that, you know?"

He's looking at you, but you can't bring yourself to meet his gaze. Your face is burning.

"I… I want us to be friends for the rest of our lives. I want to see you happy. I want to see…allof you happy."

"That did get emotional," he points out, and you scoff. "But… I do, too."

.x.

It's strange, these things have a way of falling over you. It starts in this way, the only way you think it can. You're sitting at the kitchen table for the last time, everything in your room has been stuffed into cardboard boxes and shoved against the furthest walls to be loaded up into a moving truck later. There is a half empty apartment waiting for you across town; next week, you will be starting up university.

Your mother hands you a glass of water.

"I'll miss you," she says, and touches the tips of her fingers to the ends of your hair. It is the first time she's really looking at you in the longest time, those eyes look just like yours.

You swallow dryly. Your hands are shaking.

How long has it been since she's made that face?

How long has she stopped being mad at you?

"I'm proud of you," she tells you, tucking the longer strands behind your ear. "I'm sorry I don't say that enough."

You can't remember the last time you cried. Not like that.

.x.

"I'm gonna date your best friend."

You squint at him. There's a ketchup stain on his shirt. "Sound a little confident there, buddy."

"I like her," he says, and his face goes red. "A lot. Don't know how long, just…felt like I always have."

More and more recently, she has confided with you in this. Sometimes they spend so much time together she worries she's seeing things that aren't there. The way he smiles at her, how their hands brush when they're walking, how when they sit together sometimes he leans into her, how he laughs at the stupid jokes she hadn't quite thought through quick enough to say right.

Sometimes he buys her lunch, and sometimes all he does is sit there and listen to her talk, smiling.

"Maybe," she's told you, twisting a lock of her hair anxiously. "Maybe I'm overthinking it—it feels romantic, to me. It feels… It feels like there's something morethere."

He doesn't get into fights anymore, the scars on his knuckles have paled against his tanned skin. The scrapes and bruises that used to scatter his body have paled, given way to something refined. Something new and bright—sunshine warm. Maybe he is getting handsome, maybe this makes a little sense. He rakes his fingers through his hair and there, you recognize the barest hints of uncertainty.

Fear of rejection, sharp in his side.

"You think the prettiest girl in school is gonna go for you?"

"We're not in high school anymore," he frowns. "Don't you think I have a fighting chance?"

"Not a single one."

.x.

"Let me be your best man."

"No way, I already promised it to Chad."

"Wow."

.x.

Rukia drops in at random, and every time you lay eyes on her you have to stop and center yourself. Everything that has passed flickers behind your eyelids, spins your head right on your shoulders and spills spots of black across your vision. It all tips over and you struggle for breath, all the things your mind has overcome trickling straight back into you.

This is not a half of Ichigo's life anymore, every time that she comes she brings that strange new light with her, the sort of movement you feel has been leeched out. This is a half of a whole different reality—moon skin, star-bright eyes. She softens at the edges, melting into the background. A new part of the day you had been missing before.

The first time she announces her pregnancy, she glows all over and pulls your hands to her swelling belly. Her husband, sharp and burning and larger than life, grins big and toothy and you wonder what kind of baby they'll make. If it'll sparkle, if it'll pull everything into its orbit.

The center of the universe, coiled prettily with whole strings of galaxies for hair.

Renji has whole strings of galaxies for hair.

Rukia glows, full and swelling and soft at the edges. She is so pretty, and so unearthly.

"Call me moon dust," her eyes sigh, dark as midnight. "Call me the thing that can't be defined."

When they leave, again, everything sets back into place. Everything slows back down to where it should be.

.x.

"Let me be his godmother," you say, touching the wild tuft of hair atop this tiny little head. "He needs spoiling."

It's like someone dipped their child in sunlight, or honey—all things good and sweet and warm. You cannot look away from his big, round eyes.

He looks just like you remember Ichigo, the boy you think you loved once.

Orihime brushes a kiss on his forehead, you've never seen her happier.

"Fine," Ichigo relents, rolling a thumb over her smooth knuckles. "But only because Chad can't be both at the same time."

"Wow."

.x.