Dragonflies in Summer
A Tatsuki fic.

In summertime, daylight stretches forever. Time is lazy and long. At 5 am when Tatsuki's fumbling for the alarm, the sky's already awake. When she trudges home late from practice, the shadows are as thin as diluted miso. Midnight takes a vacation for three months once June arrives. Nothing is completely dark.

In the summertime, Tatsuki can find faith in many things. She'll never admit to any of them.

Not aloud.

Tatsuki knows that days are passing. Weeks, months, all faster with each fresh year. But when she's running laps in the sticky heat, and Orihime is sitting on the fence flapping a round-moon fan to keep cool -- then she finds herself hoping that summer will never end.

The easy sentimentality secretly embarrasses her. She's too rational to believe they'll stay kids much longer. Sometimes she even feels stupid about it, because those kinds of thoughts make her slow and mushy, and prone to looking at the covers of goofy books where everyone finds a happy ending. Even the bad guys.

But then Orihime smiles, and Orihime laughs, and Tatsuki figures it'll all work out anyway.

Tatsuki likes many things about Orihime. Ever since they were kids, the other girl's always managed to turn any situation bright, all through unyielding optimism. She has a knack for putting people at ease. Orihime never judges, never tells Tatsuki that long skirts might be more feminine, or maybe skirts at all. Orihime's presence stamps approval on Tatsuki's cockish ferocity. Whenever the schoolteachers have finished another lecture about how girls aren't supposed to turn handstands on the roof of the cafeteria building, and Tatsuki's scowling, Orihime tugs on her elbow and whispers in her ear about how cool it looked. So brave. Just like a superhero.

Tatsuki's relieved by that. She especially likes how she feels around her friend. That's supposed to make the attachment selfish -- thinking someone's great because they make you great too -- but when she's near Orihime, Tatsuki can't help but feel wonderful.

Bullies sneer and say that Inoue's brainless, that it's nothing special for a person like her to remain upbeat. Tatsuki knows better. It takes effort to be that happy, and Orihime's had more than enough reason to cry.

Friday means extra endurance training. Running helps build up cardiovascular strength, and Tatsuki's found herself short of breath during the last couple of spars. Summer heat melds her clothes to her body. She turns the first few laps mechanically, running on automatic; practice always goes faster whenever Orihime's keeping her company, because there's so much else to think about. For one thing, Orihime asked for sushi for dinner. Now -- instead of how much her feet hurt, or how quickly her shorts are riding up -- Tatsuki's trying to remember the nearest parlor that also does a good ramen bowl, or at least some udon dish.

"Tatsuki, Tatsuki!" Pointing her finger towards the fields, Orihime leans forward, dropping her fan in her lap. It teeters, sliding off one knee and down her skirt. Tatsuki traces its descent with her eyes. "I thought I saw a dragonfly out there!"

Jogging to a halt, Tatsuki grabs for a towel and starts to wipe off her neck. "I've never liked them." Truth be told, she doesn't care either way. The claim's just made to be contrary. "Dragonflies. They die too fast. Autumn rolls around and poof, they're gone."

Orihime gives her head a shake. Her barrettes catch the overworked sun and lend it a sparkled edge. "But they're so pretty! So many colors, and they fly like they're in outer space. I bet they live off flower pollen and rainbows and honey, just like bees!"

"Dragonflies are carnivores, Orihime." The emphasis is drawled, nasal as a comedy show. Finished with her cooldown routine, Tatsuki sniffs and pads over to the fence. "They eat the bugs we don't like."

The news doesn't deflate any of Orihime's enthusiasm, but the girl pulls down her lower lip with her finger, looking vaguely disappointed. "Oh?"

"Yeah. And when they're done, they'll be coming after you. Better be careful!" Tatsuki laughs as she finishes the warning, balling up a fist to deliver a light smack to her friend's shoulder. Orihime ducks away, feigning terror, and promptly topples off her perch with a mock-shriek.

Tatsuki pitches the towel in her direction. It billows open in the air, dancing like a drunken moth.

She doesn't think she'd call it love. That's something you find in shojo manga and after-school dates. But sometimes, in the secret hours of the night, when Tatsuki gets restless and crouches on her porch watching insects fling themselves against streetlights -- then she takes the word out again. Love, love, love, she whispers, feeling a curious satisfaction blossom inside her chest. I'm in love with Orihime.

Then she scrunches her face up and rolls her eyes at herself, and goes to lie back down again, punching the pillow affectionately until it lets her sleep.

- - - - -

Orihime hates to wear shoes in the summer, unless Tatsuki makes her. The girl prefers to walk barefoot on grass, crossing hot pavement and wet gravel with equal serenity. Her smile glows; Orihime could be a flower, soaking up life into her body, up through her feet. Even in the groggy Saturday morning, when the adults are squinting from their hangovers and grumbling into their newspapers, the girl is brilliant with cheer.

Tatsuki carries Orihime's sandals all the way down the sidewalk, but sets them down expectantly when they get close to the convenience store. There's too much of a risk that Orihime will step on something gross: broken glass, discarded pull-tabs from cans, some stranger's piss stains.

"Just be glad I'm here to help." Tatsuki tosses out the quip as she holds the shoes in place, left next to right while Orihime slides her feet into the straps. "If it was Chizuru, she'd take advantage of the opportunity to sneak a look up your skirt like this."

A giggle. "She wouldn't!"

"She would!"

In the middle of wiggling her toes to make sure the fit is comfortable, Orihime pauses. "Chizuru is so…" the girl muses aloud, tilting her head up as she searches for the right word in her endlessly tactful vocabulary, "Um, enthusiastic sometimes, isn't she?"

"Yeah," Tatsuki laughs, and her mouth is suddenly dry. "Yeah, she is."

If that comment had been made by anyone else, then Tatsuki might worry. But Orihime treats Chizuru fairly, just like she gets along with Mizuiro, and Ichigo, and everyone else in their lopsided social rectangle. They're friends. They're all friends.

Chizuru isn't troublesome as a person. It's what she represents that's harder for Tatsuki to overcome.

Chizuru is an ugly reflection, an end result that Tatsuki fears as she fears the grey strands in her own mother's hair. There isn't anything wrong with the local lesbian, strictly speaking -- if you ignore the way she gropes anything with breasts indiscriminately -- but Chizuru isn't Tatsuki, and will never be the same. The two don't fit in the same category. The biggest difference is that Chizuru's public about her preference for girls, and to be honest, that kind of thing isn't what Tatsuki even bothers to think about.

Most of the time.

And besides. Even when she's surrounded by any number of people, Orihime's busy watching Ichigo.

That doesn't bother Tatsuki either, not like it does Chizuru. It's exactly because she cares about Orihime that Tatsuki wants things to work out. For Ichigo to see just how beautiful her friend is. For everyone to fall head-over-heels with Orihime while they're at it, to help her and protect her and take care of her whenever Tatsuki's distracted.

Because Tatsuki's not like Chizuru. And she'd get thought of the same way, if she wanted to date Orihime.

Maybe.

Thinking about Chizuru bothers Tatsuki all through grocery shopping. She volunteers to carry the basket, grunting under her breath as Orihime adds random objects that weigh the plastic mesh down. The handles press lines into Tatsuki's hands. She swings the weight experimentally and hears plastic wrappers crackle.

They finish up the list and pay. Tatsuki grabs the bags without keeping track of their contents, but as they're leaving the store, she finally takes an interest and peeks in. The items baffle her. Hot sauce, dried seaweed, and more.

"Why did you buy two containers of milk, Orihime? Are you drinking that much in a week?"

Her friend twirls around, arms out; she'd been skipping ahead, singing the theme song to a popular quiz show under her breath. "I thought we could use the extra to make homemade rice pudding. Wouldn't that taste great on a day like this?"

Tatsuki squints up at the sky. It's clear. No rain. No humidity, either.

"Sure, I guess?"

One pot and a lid unearth themselves from Tatsuki's kitchen. She lets Orihime measure out the ingredients at first, following no apparent recipe save instinct. Rice and milk get mixed together on low heat; Orihime frowns at the results before adding a half-cup of water. She gets two spoons to stir.

They've been silent for several minutes -- Orihime concentrating on the esoteric mystery of rice-steaming, Tatsuki watching her -- when something breaks inside Tatsuki's chest. She can't keep the truth inside any longer. It makes her weak.

"Hey, Orihime."

"Mmmm?"

The other girl looks up, spoon in her mouth. Rice dots the side of one cheek, like tiny spots of sugar-frosting. Her eyes are wide and guileless.

Tatsuki tries to say something, tries to think of the right words, but her courage makes a little wiggle inside her and slides away. "Nothing. Heh," she adds, and the laugh is toneless. "You're doing it all wrong. Let me mix it."

She elbows her friend over with a sigh. The rice is too bland when she lifts a portion to her tongue, so Tatsuki adds sugar, diluting it with a splash of milk when the grains try to clump up. She flavors it to her own personal taste -- barely half a scoop -- but Orihime wrinkles her nose and kicks her heels, rocking on the flower-painted chair until Tatsuki pours five more tablespoons in.

Tatsuki would go anywhere Orihime went, if she could. Be a constant guardian at her side, that whole routine. But there are places both of them travel on their own, and Tatsuki knows this even as she waves Orihime off for the night, plastic bags rustling as her friend takes away containers of milk-rice along with her weekly supplies.

It gives her a little twinge each time to see Orihime walk away. Tatsuki tries to keep herself from smothering the other girl, but it's hard. Caring about Orihime isn't a possibility, but a fact: an old, comfortable realization that Tatsuki had slipped into while they'd both been growing up, one that ignores the limitations of time.

She doesn't have to check to confirm that it's still there. Even when Orihime is gone, Tatsuki knows she carries the girl around in her heart.

Sometimes the weight is heavy, but Tatsuki compares the burden to training weights. It makes her stronger to shoulder the emotion, strong enough to the point where it doesn't feel cumbersome at all. Time is passing; they'll both become adults. Orihime will marry some guy and have a dozen great kids, and Tatsuki still won't stop being in love.

- - - - -

Sunday means extra practice at the dojo. Tatsuki rolls over in bed and faces the bleary morning rays, which look like they've been out all night partying -- they're that flaccid. The lack of enthusiasm is easy to sympathize with. Tatsuki yawns twice while she's brushing her teeth, and nearly chokes on a mouthful of spearmint.

She pulls on her uniform sloppily, and has to retie it twice.

They begin by lining up on the mats. Seniority gets the front rows; lower ranks get the back. Half the class shows up barely in time, clutching vending-machine coffee cans, rubbing at their eyes. Everyone's distracted.

Tatsuki kneels until her ankles go molten and her feet turn numb. She keeps her hands on her thighs as she listens to the dojo sensei ramble on, and only comes back to herself gradually, as if her soul were a ship finding home through the fog.

Once the morning meditations are complete, she excuses herself from paired spars. Instead, Tatsuki heads straight for the supply boxes in the back room. She wraps extra sandbags around her wrists and arms and legs, adding pound after pound until the boys in the dojo gape and make bets that she won't be able to move without breaking the floor.

But she can. And she does, creaking towards the rope-tied blocks that are lined out in the yard. She keeps her chin up high. The weights make her bones ache, but Tatsuki reminds herself just how tough she is, how she's beaten down girls who used to slap Orihime around, boys who wanted to take advantage of a large cup size.

She's strong.

Worries bleed away as Tatsuki goes through her initial warm-up exercises. She moves quickly into basic block techniques, and then shifts to attack postures. Orihime's supposed to give her a call in the afternoon when she's done. Everyone's planning to get together and hit up one of the local movie theaters for some horror flick that Mizuiro kept talking about. Summer won't last forever, he'd said, laughing. Better get it in while we still can.

Ichigo might be there. Chizuru too.

It's all right.

Each punch is a burn in her knuckles. The weights bunch up on her arms. Sweat glues her shirt to her chest and paints her face and throat, but Tatsuki thinks about Orihime and feels clean all over.