I. we used to be so close
He was smiling.
She could forget anything else; her parents, her friends, her techniques, her past, her present, her future, but at that moment, she knew that this smile would never fade from her memory, no matter how long time wore on.
She also knew she'd never forget what she thought at that moment.
Why the Hell is he smiling?
Five minutes later, she wiped the smile off his face with a straight kick to the head.
It felt good, she remembered.
Years later, she wondered why.
Sometimes, Ichigo hated the dojo.
"He's so weird."
"They say he can see ghosts."
"Ghosts? Wow... spooky..."
"And have you seen his hair-"
Ichigo frowned, and pretended he didn't hear them.
After all, Tatsuki stood in front of him, that predatory grin on her face. It infuriated him, and made him reckless.
"I'm gonna beat ya this time!" Ichigo vowed, and charged forward, screaming his childish battle cry.
Two minutes later, he was flat on his back, and her foot was pressing against his chest rather dangerously (but he trusted her, more than anyone else save Mother).
He groaned, and opened his eyes blearily.
Her eyes glittered with beauty.
"Maybe next time, Ichigo." She smiled, and, despite himself, he smiled back.
But sometimes, Ichigo loved the dojo.
II. but the dawn is cold now
She finds him after- everything has changed-his mother-what is death?- squatting by the river. There is no smile.
There are words she can say-Ichigo, stop it, please, I'm still here, look at me- like"It's going to be okay" or "Your mother's in a better place now", but those words are false and her voice is dying in her throat.
Ichigo's eyes glitter like brittle, breaking amber.
She doesn't realize she's crying until the world fades away.
He returns to the dojo a week later, but Tatsuki wonders where Ichigo went, and who this cold eyed stranger is.
She wonders why she cares, but knows she's pretending ignorance.
This Ichigo's movements are stiff but strong, as though there is some deep hole he's fighting out of (or maybe it's into a grave), and Tatsuki loses before she begins.
"You didn't really try." Ichigo complains, accuses.
Tatsuki looks away, and knows he's right.
But she didn't want to win anyway.
III. a broken throne
"I'm quitting." Ichigo mutters, looking away (he's always doing that). He's taller now, his eyes aren't as brittle and broken but hard, like tempered steel.
Tatsuki has refused to train with blades for two years now. Sensei begs and pleads for her to consider it, but the steel is hard and unyielding, and she has no interest in it at the moment.
"You're the best, y'know." Tatsuki remarks, her voice distant. "But being the best doesn't mean crap if you don't fight."
She notices the bruises on his knuckles, their counterparts marking the faces of half the thugs in Karakura. She wonders when it was that those fists overtook that smile.
"You're the best now." Ichigo's voice is oddly solemn.
Tatsuki pauses, and looks away.
"I guess I am," she mutters, and the lie is bitter and choking.
She wishes she hadn't kicked that first smile away, and wonders where it went off to.
IV. bury what you hold dear
Tatsuki is not sure what to make of Orihime's bizarre attraction to Ichigo. She couldn't exactly say much, as he was (it should be is, shouldn't it) her oldest friend, and thus badmouthing him was just bad form.
So she kept her peace, and didn't even try to stomp it out the way she'd crushed dozens of hopeful suitors looking to hold Orihime's hand (or, more accurately, her other body parts).
I met him first, she knows, and that's something no one can take from her.
It's not much, and it's not enough, but it has to do.
Tatsuki is a tough girl, after all.
V. and tear it all down
Everyone has a breaking point, and Tatsuki knows she has pushed hers as far as it will go.
She wakes, and knows that Orihime is gone, and Ichigo is the only one who knows what to do. So she grabs him, demands that he finally let down the wall, let her back in.
She has a fistful of his shirt, but his eyes are still as steely as ever, and Tatsuki knows she cannot shatter steel.
So she begs, and pleads, and if she could, she would have cried.
But Ichigo is deaf to her now (or maybe he's been deaf since the beginning).
When Tatsuki punches him in the face, hears the breaking of the glass, she knows that her fists are not enough anymore.
Ichigo walks away, and from the back, he reminds her of a dead man walking.
VI. when every breath was hallelujah
Ichigo returns a week later. He looks like Hell and walks like a broken doll, but Orihime walks beside him, and all's right with the world. Chad flanks Orihime's left, like a wolf guarding a cub.
Ishida is down the hall, but his eyes never wavered, and his fingers seemed taut and drawn, as if holding a bow.
Tatsuki watches, and when Orihime grabs her, Tatsuki grips her just as tightly-I'm sorry I was too weak to save you- maybe even more, and wonders if she'll ever stop holding on.
She lets go then, and meets his eyes. They're still steel, but Tatsuki knows that it's just sword and strength behind them. She steps forward, never wavering.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs quietly, bowing his head. His voice is solemn.
"For what, stupid?" her voice cracks, and she wonders what Ichigo would do if she held him.
He looks up at her, and it feels like the second time she's seen his face.
It feels right.
It feels good.
The next day, she announces to her astonished Sensei that she's going to train with the sword at last.
VII. a place for you and me
She was graceful- more than that, she was beautiful amid the dancing, flashing sword, as at home with it's fierce wonder than even he was.
Something in him nags, and he walks across the room as she dances, and picks up another sword. It's not Zangetsu, the weight of power resting against his palm, but plain and dull steel, lacking spirit and strength and duty.
In a way, it's oddly comforting.
Tatsuki cocks an eyebrow, but doesn't ask. She knows he can use it.
The question has never been about that.
Ichigo lunges forth, his blade moving like flash lighting, his movements expert. Tatsuki dances with him, and they hear their blades clashing again and again.
They are reminded of childish battle cries and the pain of being thrown down on a mat.
Tatsuki is good, Ichigo realizes. He isn't amazed- it fits her, and he's more pleased than anything to learn that.
Of course, he also realizes something else- a real sword drags on his corporeal body the way Zangetsu cannot when he is Shinigami.
She flicks her sword and suddenly he feels the grip of his weapon leave his hands.
He relishes the lack of fear, the lack of raging disappointment at defeat because he knows it's just a sword and this is just a fight, where no one is dying and no one who needs saving.
Tatsuki's sword, dull as it is, presses against his throat.
"Maybe next time, Ichigo." She smiles, and he responds in kind, to the surprise of both.
Oh, she thinks as she feels as though the world is right again, there it is.