idnh_azuresky (idnh_azuresky) wrote in bleachness,

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Happy Birthday, Ishida! *grins*

This, while not the first Bleach Fanfic I've written, will be the first I'm sharing with the world - my debut, so to speak. Oh, and my first IshiHime. Hope you enjoy!

Title: After Winter: Spring is Coming
Rating: For Everyone :)
Word Count: 5,634
Summary: After the storm, picking up the pieces may be more difficult than anyone had expected... yet... "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?"
Note: Divided into four smaller parts.

They don’t know when she first started calling him Uryuu, or when he first stopped thinking of her as beautiful.

The sun was beating down on Ishida Uryuu as he looked up at the familiar building, apprehension rising and choking him. He ignored it as he pushed open the door to their old high school, climbing the stairs that they had tread with all their youthful exuberance, going out to the roof he’d first visited when Ichigo had invited him at lunch.

He needed to do this.

She was already standing there, leaning on the railing, pushing her body out farther than he was comfortable with. He let the door shut behind him with a bang.

Immediately, a smile was on her face as she swirled around. “Ishida-kun, you’re here!”

She always closed her eyes when she smiled. Her auburn hair never glinted or shone, but was instead translucent under the evening sun. She always wore that smile. Her expression never truly seemed as exuberant as she acted.

Inoue Orihime was beautiful.

“Inoue-san,” he greeted her. Apprehension was rising again now, and he couldn’t push it down now, not in front of her, for some reason.

She walked closer, with that gentle smile still plastered on her face, her hands clasped behind her. With those questioning but easy-going eyes, she looked like the school girl from when he’d first met her.

He needed to do this. She’d never ask him first herself.

Ishida told himself not to ball his hands into fists. He wasn’t still some awkward, geeky teenager so nervous about even apologizing to a girl. Yet the words out of his mouth were far from the ones he needed to say. “Thank you for coming, Inoue-san... I know it must’ve been hard to take time out just to come see me.”

“Oh, it was no trouble!” she replied happily. “Besides, as a university student from Tokyo, I’m sure Ishida-kun’s much busier than I am! I’m just taking a couple of courses in the neighbourhood college.” Her eyes were cast down now, and she looked at the ground with a sadder smile, that melancholy curve of lips everyone around her was so familiar with.

Sadder or not, she’d always wear a smile. She’d always look wistful. Ishida hoped fervently that he could keep things always that way, at least until he was gone from Karakura to university once more, but...

But, well, he needed to do this, as he reminded himself for the umpteenth time.

With that said – “Being a Tokyo university student, I’m afraid, just means there are too many clubs and parties to be dragged to,” Ishida said, unable to stop himself from stalling. “City life’s just much different and, well, frankly, I’m not sure staying in Karakura isn’t better. Besides, what are you talking about, Inoue-san? We all know how much scholarship you received to go to that college!”

That gentle smile. God, let that smile stay, for always. “So did Ishida-kun,” she reminded him softly.

“Yes, well...” He was getting off-topic now, rambling on and on. Inoue, he knew, wasn’t going to bring him back on topic. She was just that easy-going and kind. He could have called her up like this, out of the blue, after all these months, and they could stand here for hours and talk about absolutely nothing, and she’d let him.

But, ah, he couldn’t.

“Inoue-san...” he began hesitantly, the prepared words sour in his mouth.

She turned her gaze back to him, her eyes wide with her customary innocence, and all Ishida could think at the moment was that, again, she was so beautiful, and he was probably going to ruin that with his next words.

Except – instead of the words he’d prepared again and again on the train ride home from Tokyo –different ones fell from his mouth, impulsively and instinctively.

“Do you hate me now, Inoue-san?”

There, he’d done it. For a short moment, her eyes widened. A small, barely audible gasp inhaled through her lips. For a short, short moment, her smile dropped.

Then that apologetic, close-my-eyes smile returned. “I could never hate you, Ishida-kun,” she said gently. “For whatever reason would you say that?”

Ishida didn’t quite know why. But he slowly crouched down, so that he was sitting on the ground, looking out at that red sunset through the railings instead of over it. The action, like that question, was instinctive – he hadn’t been thinking it would give him a better view of her legs or anything like that, and not like it does, and –

Now he didn’t have to look down at her. Now he was sitting lower than her, and she had to look down at him. Now he didn’t have that crushing, suffocating feeling that with just one wrong word, one wrong pause, he could break her.

Like that Espada, Ulqiorra had. Like Kurosaki had.

“Four years ago,” Ishida began, quietly, “four years ago, when we were at Hueco Mundo – when we were escaping back to Karakura town, I – I took you with us.”

Her hair was translucent in the evening sun. “You saved me,” Inoue said. “You rescued me, Ishida-kun. If you’d left me there, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

He couldn’t bear to look up at her anymore. He couldn’t look away from her.

“Inoue-san...” He wanted to close his eyes. “I... I know you wanted to stay there.”

The silence was more than he could bear.

“Well,” her voice is the slightest bit quieter than her normal and she looked apologetic again, “I was the one who was saying that again and again all the way over here, so I suppose you had to know.”

Ishida’s hand grazed the cement floor. “Don’t you hate me for that, then?” he asked, his voice rougher than he himself had heard for years. “Don’t you hate me, for dragging you away from that place, where Kurosaki was fighting?” Where Kurosaki was dying, he’d almost said.

“You saved me,” Inoue repeated. Then she was the one turning her gaze away, while his bore into the side of her face, her beautiful face. “I did want to stay, back then,” she whispered in the tone of someone confessing, as though no one had noticed her state when he’d brought her back to this town, her pleas to go back, her despair, her hysteria. “Kurosaki-kun was fighting because of me, and... I didn’t want to leave him. It – things weren’t looking so good.”

No, it hadn’t. When he’d arrived, past their friends who were fighting off the exequias outside, at the tower where Inoue was, Ichigo had been taking the beating of his life. He hadn’t been sure how he could have helped his masked friend who was doing all he could do to just check his opponent’s movements.

Ichigo, on the other hand, had known. “Take Inoue!” He’d screamed at him, not even glancing at where the Quincy was, parrying Ulqiorra with rapid movements he could barely see.

Other shouts had followed. Ishida didn’t quite understand all the gargled cries coming from the orange-haired idiot. But he’d got the gist of it. He had to take Inoue and run, and leave Ichigo behind to follow them later.

The moment he moved towards Inoue, an explosion erupted two steps away from him. Ichigo had taken that furious blow, protecting Ishida so that he could reach Inoue in safety and leave. He had also gotten his first shot at the Espada; when Ishida had glanced over, Ulqiorra was nursing a wound he hadn’t seen previously on him.

The Espada had placed stopping the Quincy from reaching Inoue above protecting himself from Ichigo.

More garbled noise from Ichigo. Ishida was by Inoue’s side in a second. She didn’t even look at him at first, staring at the two battling it out right above her head with wide eyes that held none of the innocence.

“Inoue-san,” he’d called to her. She’d turned to him then, and it wasn’t a sight Ishida was likely to forget. Something in her was breaking. The desperate urge that he suddenly had then to get her the hell out of there had nothing to do with the fact that both their lives were at stake. “We have to go,” he said.

It was then that she’d said it.

“No,” she’d said. She wasn’t smiling, wasn’t looking at him with wide eyes, wasn’t addressing him as ‘Ishida-kun.’ “No. No. I can’t go. Not when Kurosaki-kun’s here. Not when Ulqiorra’s here.”


He could recall the bitter taste of shock and the world stopping around him. It happened nightly ever since the war.

“I dragged you out of there.” Ishida repeated. He didn’t look at her. Memories were strong enough to drown out the reality. “I saved you, but I forced you. Don’t I deserve to be hated, for that?”

“Ishida-kun.” With a start, he realized that she was sitting right in front of him – crouching down, so that she was no longer looking down at him, so that they were eye-level. “Ishida-kun. I couldn’t hate you. How many times did you save me? I...” Almost blindingly, her hand reached out, and almost unconsciously, he gave his to her.

She lowered her head. Their hand was clasped together. He had no idea why. Maybe they weren’t just high schoolers now, trying to figure out the world as they felt their way through their lives.

“I... I was always grateful, for each time you saved me. Especially that time... but that was the only time I hadn’t said thank you. But I was. So...” She raised her head then, and Ishida’s heart almost stopped before crashing to the ground. He hadn’t just wiped out her smile. There were tears glistening in her eyes.

Then she smiled. With tears running down her cheek, her eyes closing as they always did, she smiled. “So thank you, Ishida-kun. Thank you.”

He’d needed to apologize to her. Perhaps she’d needed to say that, say thank you, to him.

So they sat there, facing each other. They didn’t move closer; they didn’t let go of their hand. He’d loosened his grip; she’d held on tighter as she let the last tears drop.

They’d needed to do this. They’d needed to let go of the regrets.

It was much, much later, when the sun had gone down, that she’d spoken.

“Thank you, Ishida-kun.” He couldn’t see her eyes in the dark, but he knew she wasn’t looking at him. She’d be staring at the ground once more, that apologetic look on her face. “Thank you, for... for letting me say that. I needed to say that to you. Thank you.”

No, it should be him thanking her, for taking away his guilt, for letting him say he was sorry, though he hadn’t even said it to her this evening. But she had lifted his guilt away anyways, and for that, he was grateful.

But there was something different. The weight on his chest had been lifted; the weight on hers had not, even now, not completely.

“Do you still have other regrets, Inoue-san?” he asked, softly.

There was a catch in her breath. He still could not see her.

“What regrets, Inoue-san?”

Ishida didn’t know how, but he knew she was lifting her head to look at him now, even though he couldn’t see her, even though she couldn’t see him.

He could feel her shake. And as they sat there, Ishida promised to himself that he’d help Inoue-san let go of all the regrets she held tightly in her heart.

The halcyon days were gone, but at least the regrets may be taken away.

Their steps were crisp as they walked into the unaware shop, their expressions as determined as those of any soldier walking into battle. Everyone stopped, even the strangers sitting on the far side, to stare at the two as they marched in, going straight for the completely startled young man at the counter.

This was, after all, Ishida Uryuu, the cold-eyed Quincy archer who could both cut down shinigami captains and the Espada and sew a teddy bear in six seconds flat. Beside him, after all, was Inoue Orihime, the beautiful girl with powers stranger than fiction that could defy death and reject the hougyakou.

With an expression worthy of such a fighter, Inoue stood erect in front of the counter, her head held up high. Yet could that flash of emotion across her face have been anxiety?

He stood beside her. He didn’t push her forward from behind. He didn’t block out the world from front of her. He stood beside her.

Though he could have sworn she had glanced at him for just the briefest moment, she had not. Inoue leaned forward to the stunned young man behind the counter. “I’ll have them all!”


This time, she did glance at Ishida. “I’ll have them all!”

The half-terrified worker glanced down, at the thirty one buckets of ice cream. “...All of them?” he asked, weakly.

“Yes!” Happily, Inoue nodded up and down. “All of them, please!”

“O-Okay. Er, you, sir?”

Ishida blinked. “I’m not really here to –”

“Oh, Ishida-kun! You must try them all, as well!” Inoue turned to him, smiling brightly, and something in him clicked as he felt her bouncy happiness. “You haven’t tried them all yet, either, have you?”

He pushed his glasses up. The worker might want to kill him – scooping up thirty one kinds of ice cream is not an easy job – but why not? “No, I haven’t, Inoue-san. Well, I’ll have to. I’ll have them all!”

A spark was in her eyes as she happily turned back to the worker. Her auburn hair gleamed under the fluorescent light.

“Do you have red beans and wasabi?”

Much later, after they had finished every last scoop of their ice cream, they boarded the bus to the national museum two hours away from Karakura town.

“I always wanted to be a teacher. I thought teaching would be so much fun! I could give my students lots and lots of homework, in revenge of what our teachers did to us, and when they complained, I could push up my glasses, just like Ishida-kun does, and I could give a stern look, and say, ‘I’m your teacher!’ Then they couldn’t say anything!”

Inoue kept on talking. Ishida kept on listening.

“I always wanted to be an Astronaut, too. Wouldn’t it be amazing, Ishida-kun? To see all the stars up close? To see the Earth up close? And it doesn’t ever rain in outer space! Well, meteor showers, but that doesn’t really count, does it, Ishida-kun?”

“No. No, it doesn’t, Inoue-san.”

“Well, but I always wanted to have a cake shop, too! I’d be covered in flour, like those bakers from movies, and I’d have a most adorable hat! And people would eat my cakes, and say, oh, you’re so good at baking, Orihime-chan...”

It was a two-hour ride. It felt like twenty minutes to Ishida.

When they finally stepped out of the bus, Inoue looked around, not seeming to have known where they were going this entire time. “Where are we?”

“Come on, Inoue-san.” Ishida felt a little awkward grabbing Inoue’s hand, like they were little children or lovers when they were neither, but strangely enough, it felt like the natural thing to do. “I want to show you the museum.”

In the biology section, they walked through the digestive system, learning about how food traveled through the human body – never mind that Ishida was in the country’s top med school. In the space section, they boarded the simulated space ship and gazed out at the digital pictures of the solar system – never mind that they’d both been to stranger places than boring ol’ outer space.

They finally ended up in the history section as their last stop, going through the dinosaurs and pausing at the earliest human.

“A. afarensis.” Inoue read out loud, staring up at the model of the bipedal man. Then she turned to face Ishida with a puzzled look. “Ishida-kun, I have a question.”

He stood beside her. “Yes, Inoue-san?”

“When we existed as monkeys – ” she pointed towards the model to show what she meant – “did shinigamis exist?”

He simply stared at her for a moment. “I don’t know, Inoue-san,” he said after a long pause. “I really don’t know.”

She suddenly giggled. “Maybe back then, they held wooden clubs as their zanpakutous!”

That was a rather entertaining thought. “Maybe, Inoue-san.”

“Ohh, I’d like to know so much!” She looked up, at the head, then lowered her gaze, a smile on her face. “I’d love to know if shinigamis had existed, back then.”

That was a regret Ishida couldn’t do anything about. “Maybe, Inoue-san –”

“They didn’t.”

Startled, both turned around at the new voice, to come face to face with a dark-skinned woman who was staring past them at the A. afarensis model, her arms crossed.

“Yoruichi-san!” Ishida’s eyes widened. Beside him, he felt Inoue still.

The shinigami still didn’t look at them as she studied the model. “Animals have souls too,” she said. “They go to Soul Society, then are reborn here. But they don’t have shinigamis. Humans didn’t either, when they weren’t much distinguishable from other animals.”

“Yoruichi-san...” Her voice was quiet, more so than Ishida liked to hear from her, and there was a tinge of something that he couldn’t quite place but didn’t like anyways.

Yoruichi’s gaze finally focused on the two. “It was only when we became civilized that shinigamis were formed – because only then hollows were formed, and something to fight them was needed.”

All three were quiet. Then the older shinigami gave them a small smile, as if to say, go on, you young kids keep on having fun as you were before I barged in, before turning around and walking away.

Ishida started to reach for Inoue. He was too late. She was already following her once-mentor, first hesitantly walking, then picking up pace, finally running after her. “Yoruichi-san!”

Without a pause, he followed her, without considering if she might want privacy, if he might not be welcome there.

Yoruichi had turned, looking startled as Inoue skidded to a stop in front of her. Inoue stared up at those dark eyes for a split second before bowing her head. “I’m... I’m sorry, Yoruichi-san!”

Ishida faltered, just a few steps away from them. Inoue’s head was still bowed, her hair falling to prevent her face from being seen. Yoruichi looked down at her once-student, emotion settling on her face for the first time in years.

“Inoue?” Yoruichi enquired, gently.

“I’m sorry.” Inoue repeated, her head still down, and Ishida could hear the tears in her voice. “I’m sorry... I’m so sorry I couldn’t... Urahara-san... the shield... I should have... I’m so sorry...”

Something was twisting in Yoruichi’s expression. Ishida stared at the two women, feeling as though he was intruding just by standing there, just by seeing.

Then Yoruichi, the ex-second division captain who had returned to save the world, who had beaten their strength into them, who had watched in sorrowful silence as Soi Fon had fallen weeping to the ground before her, who had stood stoically in the aftermath of the explosion that ended the battle as the rest of them emerged and Urahara had not – Yoruichi was pushing Inoue up, so that they could see eye to eye.

“Don’t be silly,” she said, quietly, to the girl. “He knew what he was doing. And, well, it happened. You saved the rest of the world, with your friends, and he wanted you to do that.”

Inoue’s mouth opened. Closed.

With a smile that seemed gentler than before, Yoruichi let her go. “He knew what he was doing,” she repeated.

Ishida wasn’t sure he’d ever be able forget the next words, or the way they were spoken.

“He will come back. I know he will.”

It was after a full minute since Yoruichi’s departure that Ishida could go up to her. “Inoue-san...”

Her shoulders shook, slightly. Her smile was bright as she turned to him, as were the tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Ishida-kun. I ruined your trip, didn’t I?”

“No,” Ishida told her, honestly. “No, you haven’t, Inoue-san.”

She’d let go of another regret today. She’d never be able to apologize to Urahara-san – perhaps that had been what’s bugging her the most, the reason she couldn’t apologize was because he was dead, and the reason he was dead was because she hadn’t shielded him completely – but she hadn’t needed to. Much like the way Ishida had never needed to apologize to Inoue.

She was still smiling, and the sight could have broken his heart. “Ishida-kun?”

“Yes, Inoue-san?”

“Can we go to Mister Doughnut’s after this? I... I haven’t tried all of their doughnuts yet.”

He reached for her hand. It felt like the natural thing to do.

“Well, we’ll have to. We’ll have them all!”

“Remind me again why we’re doing this?”

Ishida glanced sideways at his friend. “Because I asked you to.”

Ichigo gave a little tch! noise, but didn’t complain further as he leaned back on the grass. He seemed a bit paler and thinner than Ishida’d last seen him, probably as a result of both growing up and going to the top med school of the country.

“Med school hard on you, Kurosaki?”

“We attend the same one, idiot.”

“Indeed. So how’s life for those lowly students who may flunk out of med school any time soon?”

“Heh.” That reckless smile was the same. “Just because you managed to return to Karakura a week earlier than me doesn’t mean you did any better on the exams, Ishida.” Ichigo pushed his sunglasses up his forehead so that they got lost among the messy orange hair.

Those sunglasses, Ishida knew, were his new pride and joy, costing more than a university student had a right to afford. “We’ll see about that, Kurosaki, when we get back. Speaking of which, when’s Sado coming back? Talk to him lately?”

“Read his email last night. Mexico’s been fun for him, apparently, but he’s returning next week. Hopefully I’ll catch him before I have to leave for that hell-hole again.” Ichigo stretched, then glanced down. “What’re they doing?”

Much farther down the hill, where they couldn’t hear anything, Inoue and Rukia were talking, occasionally laughing at something one of them had said. Ishida assumed, however, that Ichigo was asking about the fact that the girls were now on their knees, their fingers going through the grass. “Talking. Having fun.”

“That’s more than what I can say for myself,” Ichigo grumbled as he leaned back once more, though he tilted his face up to the sun. He closed his eyes, looking relaxed despite his words.

“Stop complaining. You got to see Rukia-san, don’t you? It must’ve been some time since you’ve talked to her, what with you living in Tokyo and her being a vice-captain back to Soul Society.”

To his credit, Ishida had made the comment off-handedly. He hadn’t really thought about much other than getting Kurosaki to stop complaining. This was something planned for Inoue, after all.

He hadn’t expected Ichigo to go from completely relaxed to completely tense. Eyes flying open, Ichigo sat up straight. “Ah, well, you know...” Uncharacteristically, he trailed off, before looking suddenly very busy looking for something in his pockets.

Ishida stared. “Kurosaki?”

“Hn.” Ichigo was still very, very busy, searching everywhere for that ‘blasted piece of rag’ for cleaning his precious sunglasses. “Well, you know,” he said vaguely. “My reiatsu tends to attract hollows so much.”

It was a comment completely out of the blue, but the picture was slowly coming together for Ishida. “They’ve been gathering in Tokyo a lot?” he guessed.

“Maybe.” Giving up on his search, Ichigo swore briefly before taking off the prized glasses and tossing them carelessly onto the grass. “I couldn’t take care of them all, seeing as I had to study, and everything,” he said defensively. “So they needed to send a vice-captain to Tokyo.”

The picture was complete. “They sent Kuchiki-san?” At his friend’s reluctant nod, Ishida couldn’t help the smirk nor the question. “But still, that doesn’t mean you get to see her that often, does it now?”

Ichigo was scowling, deeply, now. “Don’t be dumb,” he said, snappishly. “I can’t let that idiot fight by herself, can I? The midget’s gotten so careless now, vice-captain or not, especially since she got her new gigai –” He stopped.

Ishida’s burning desire to point out the huge fallacy in Ichigo’s logic was immediately drowned out by the desire to smirk. So they’d been out together in gigais, had they?

Seeming to realize his mistake, Ichigo opened his mouth – doubtless to make the situation even worse – but was interrupted by the girls’ screams as they re-joined the two of them.

“Ichigo!” Slightly panting from the run up the hill, Rukia fell to the ground beside him, grinning happily. “Look what I found! Orihime says it’s good luck to find something like this, in the human world!”

Ishida felt a smile creep up his face as he saw his two friends, sitting side by side, closer than he’d have thought normal. They’d come a long way, he reflected. But they’d been together for the ride, and they were together now.

“Huh. A four-leaf clover.” Ichigo didn’t sound as enthusiastic as Rukia would have liked. “Mighta been nice to have that for my exam.”

“Idiot. I thought you said you could pass it on your own.”

“Luck’s always nice. Anyways, four-leaf clovers are just superstition.” Ichigo stretched casually.

Rukia simply stared at the idiot for a moment before holding the plant out. “Here.”

Ichigo glanced only briefly at the clover before turning back to her. “What?”

“It’s yours. Keep it.”

Ichigo raised an eyebrow, then leaned forward to pluck it out of her hands. “You sure you don’t need it? With your ability to get into trouble, any kind of luck would be more helpful to you than to me.”

Ishida missed Rukia’s comeback as he felt someone sit on the grass beside him, and shifted his gaze to see Inoue. She was smiling fondly as well, her eyes traveling to Rukia and to Ichigo, just passing over them, before coming to a stop on him.

She held something out to him, her other hand going to the back of her head. “Heh... I couldn’t find a four-leaf clover like Rukia, Ishida-kun... So I brought you three normal clovers instead!”

His gaze fell on her hand. There, he counted nine leaves in total, as she held out three clovers.

When he looked back up, she was smiling sheepishly. “Oh! I understand, Ishida-kun, if you don’t want them! I mean, they’re just clovers.”

Ishida actually got the feeling that it really was okay if they’d left the clovers in the field. They were just normal clovers. She wasn’t going to be all hurt if he didn’t keep them forever with him.

That was why he reached for them, though he didn’t take any, just lingering above her hand, and asked, “Do you know the meaning of three-leaf clovers, Inoue-san?”

The questions had startled her. She tilted her head slightly. “The meaning of three-leaf clovers?”

“Yes.” His fingers brushed the nine leaves in her hand. “People know only about the four-leaf clover – it represents luck. What they don’t know is that three-leaf clovers represent happiness... Everyday happiness, that they miss because they’re always only searching for luck, even though real happiness is always around them.”

Her eyes were wide. He felt more like a dork than ever as he finally grasped one leaf.

She let go. Ishida watched as two clovers fell to the ground, while holding one in his hand.

Kurosaki. Ulqiorra.

He didn’t know why the names came unbidden to his mind. He cleared his throat. “Er, thank you, Inoue-san.”

She smiled, her eyes closing. His gaze shifted over to their friends, to find Ichigo watching him a slight smirk, similar to the one he himself had been wearing moments ago. Suddenly awkward and, yes, embarrassed, he opened his mouth without even knowing what he was going to say.

Rukia beat him to it. “Come on, let’s go now. The noodle shop around the corner’s still open, isn’t it?” Her laughter was clear in the afternoon air as she jumped up, dragging Ichigo with her, and began to run down the hill.

Ishida heard Inoue’s laughter as well as they followed their friends. He felt his lips curl up as well.

For some reason, this all felt very familiar for him, though he knew he’d never actually spent time like this when he was a teenager. Briefly, he wondered whose regret it had been that was let go – Inoue’s for Ichigo, or his own?

Then the thought was whisked away as they scrambled down, three university students and one shinigami acting like the high school students they’d never been.

The knock on the door had been a slight shock to him. Ishida straightened up from his suitcase – he’d been packing, since he needed to go back to Tokyo now that it was the end of summer – and went to the door, opening it without thinking.

Inoue stood there, a smile on her face and a white cardboard box in her hands. “Hello, Ishida-kun!” she said cheerfully.

“Inoue-san.” He stared at her before coming to his senses and shifted so that she could come in. He closed the door behind her. “How are you?”

“I’ve been great!” She glanced around at his room with a slightly open mouth before snapping to attention. “Ah, I’m sorry, it’s rude of me, isn’t it?”

“No, Inoue-san.” He shut the suitcase close. Past being an awkward, geeky teenager or not, there wasn’t a chance in hell he was going to risk her seeing his underwear. He cleared his throat. “I was just packing, you know, to go back to Tokyo.”

She held out the white box then. “Oh, erm, I just wanted to give you this!”

Ishida took the box and, his face neutral, opened it. Inside was a large cake, plenty of icing on the side and decorated with a picture of a badly-drawn Quincy cross and lopsided glasses on top.

“Inoue-san, you...?”

“I baked it myself!” Inoue nodded happily. Then her expression turned serious – as serious as it could, with her eyes wide and her mouth open so innocently – and she leaned forward secretively. “Don’t worry, I left out my natural ingredients.”

He glanced down at the cake again. He forgot to do that for her, didn’t he? He hadn’t taken her baking, though she’d said so explicitly that she’d once wanted to open a cake shop. He was one idiot. “Natural ingredients?”

“Yes.” She nodded “That’s what I call them. Well, my baking teacher called them interesting, but I call them natural. Anyways, I know now that they tend to be very disgusting to other people, so I left them out for you, Ishida-kun!”

For some reason, that touched him more than his failure, in a painful sort of way. She knew, now, that her tastes were different, something they’d all tried to keep a secret from her. She went to baking courses by herself. She was standing on her own.

She didn’t need him.

That was great. That was what he wanted. She baked a cake for him. He was happy.

“Thank you, Inoue-san,” he finally said. He carefully closed the box and put it on his desk. “I... I’m afraid I don’t have a home-baked cake for you. I wish I could give you something before I go.”

There was something in the way she looked at him, the way she looked in the evening light coming from his window, that stopped him, rendered any movement impossible.

She stepped closer. He stared. Her eyes were downcast, and he wondered if they were wet.

He got his answer as they brushed against his cheek. Inoue stood on tiptoe as she kissed him, softly, on the mouth. His eyes closed of their own accord, his hands subconsciously going to her shoulders to hold her steady.

She tasted like autumn. Or maybe it was just the air around them.

Her lips still felt soft as she drew back slightly. His eyes opened, very slowly, to gaze down at her wet ones.

“Did you know, Uryuu,” and her voice was slightly shaky and he held her close, “That was the first time I felt beautiful? The first time that I felt it was okay to be beautiful, because then maybe, maybe it’s okay to kiss you?”

She’d have regretted not having kissed him if they hadn’t. Her voice was still unsure as she looked up at him, enveloped now in his arms.

He gazed down at her.

His mouth opened, slowly. “Did you know, Orihime, that was the first time I didn’t see you as beautiful?” The auburn hair was beautiful in the evening sun, glinting in every direction. “When I see you – I see lovely. I see amazing. I see worthy.” I see you.

And maybe that was what she needed to hear, this girl who’s so beautiful in a world that links beauty to blank stupidity and envy, and maybe they’d all underestimated her.

She buried her face in his shoulder, her body shaking, just once, before she lifted it once more to look back up at him.

Or maybe she’d gotten stronger, with him –

He kissed her.

They don’t remember when she first started calling him Uryuu, or when he first stopped thinking of her as beautiful.

But they remember when they first kissed.

Hello, halcyon days.
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