Ichigo studies Inoue like a particularly convoluted book, something by Virginia Woolf, with its winding prose and jumping geography, the ocean to one side and terrible longing on the other. Inoue says that it's only that confusing because its a Japanese translation; she says it would make perfect sense if it were in its original form. Ichigo believes it would only make perfect sense to Inoue, and not even Virginia Woolfe.
After years of observation, this is what Ichigo knows:
Inoue will always wear the barrettes her brother bought her. They are the only things she does not misplace, except for one time when he spent six hours looking for them in a downtown mall with her, and ended up buying Krazy Glue to reattach one of the broken petals. Ichigo thinks he did this so Inoue would stop crying, but there might be more than that.
Her favorite fruits are strawberries, and she tries to grow them every summer. Everyone thinks it's a particularly cute part of her personality, to see Inoue bent over terra cotta pots budding with red berries before she whirls around to Ichigo and says, "You're getting bigger every day!"
Inoue liked to walk, long distances and anywhere, as long as there is grass and road and sky to be had. One day, Ichigo walked with her, and did not wind back home until the moon was large and looming in the sky, pregnant with silver light and big against the blue night.
Ichigo does not know any of the standard information, not her blood type or favorite food, not what she thinks about when she's bored or what is her favorite color. He knows what he knows from experience, what he takes from what she does instead of what she can tell him, rattling off points on her fingers without consequence.
Rukia likes to say that he is trying to woo her, but Ichigo mostly thinks that Rukia is full of archaic crap regardless what she's talking about, and ignores it. The ghosts that follow him sometimes smile behind their hands and make clever little comments about the pretty girl that's always about. It doesn't help when his sisters join in taunting.
The boys in their class--their school--like Inoue because she's open-hearted, sweet, and wears a D-cup, according to their best approximations.
Ichigo's not sure why he likes her, or if he does at all. But he does like the way she smiles carelessly, thoughtlessly, even when there has been so much tragedy in her life. Ichigo likes how she looks in her striped Lawson uniform when she gets back from her part-time job, waving a bag full of goodies, puddings and cookies and juice scrounged from the store for free. Ichigo likes even better how she shares them with him, sprawled out on the tatami mats on her apartment floor, watching TV and talking about nothing at all.
In some ways, it makes a lot of sense, and Ichigo thinks that he is underthinking this, that there should probably be more teenaged angst involved. But it would seem like a lie if he created tension for the sake of it when both of them have always been so mellow around one another.
One day, where there are hearts and flowers pasted everywhere, and at least three girls run up and then away from him in the hallway, Inoue asks if he'd like to come over and watch a movie.
Later, Inoue says, "Ichigo? Do you like me?"
So Ichigo says, "I'm a Shinigami. Part time. It kind of sucks."
Inoue says, "Oh. Well." And pausing, she opens another carton of strawberry pocky, sucking on the pink ends of one of the sticks before adding, "That explains a lot, though."
Ichigo rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling. "I figured you should know."
Inoue crawls over to his side, and her hair hanging down and curtaining them.
"Ichigo?" she asks. "Who is your best friend?"
Ichigo shrugs and admits, "Maybe Rukia."
He waits for something, maybe tears, but Inoue only smiles, bright and unabashed glad for him, and Ichigo feels that skip-beat in his chest, unfamiliar and wonderful and strange.
She says, "That's wonderful. Rukia's a good girl."
"So you don't care that I harvest souls," Ichigo deadpans, staring up at her. Inoue's features look strange straight up and upside-down, a little awkward and misplaced, but still lovely and imperfect: the nose is a bit flat and the lips too thin, but her eyes were still bright and alert, shining.
Inoue tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, and a shaft of light falls over Ichigo's face. "Not really," she says. "It's' not like you're selling drugs or prostituting little boys to old men on the street and--"
Ichigo blanches at that, and says, "Right," before she can go off on one of her famous tangent thoughts, which will, inevitably, have him peddling Fool's Gold in Vancouver, knowing Inoue.
She asks, "So?"
Slipping right back into the stream of conversation, seamless and careless and completely without embarrassment. Only Inoue, Ichigo thinks fondly, and thinks that he might like it very much if only Inoue was, and only Ichigo knew. There is something attractive about that exclusivity, about having a secret between them for them. This is a sign like many others. Like how Ichigo remembers everything that Inoue ever told him, and likes to listen as she tells him more; how he worries all the time about protecting her, from the perverts she's too naive to avoid, the con-artists she's too slow to ignore, and hollows, who she's been known to embrace and sweet-talk in the past. Ichigo likes Inoue safe and talking, eating pudding and articulating her points with her spoon.
Ichigo likes Inoue.
"Yeah, I think I might like you," Ichigo says after a beat. He blinks, worried, and asks, "Is that all right?"
Inoue smiles again, the way that makes Ichigo feel a little lightheaded. "It's fine." She takes a breath, and then ducks down to kiss him on the forehead, and Ichigo feels her soft hair and mouth on his skin all at the same time. "Is that okay?" she asks when she pulls back up.
Ichigo closes his eyes and smiles, lazy and slow. "Yeah."
Inoue is, Ichigo knows now, like a very long sentence with very few semicolons, filled with incomplete thoughts and adjectives, with colors and texture and a history with two daisy hair clips and a mindless smile, even if her mind is what works the most quickly of all.
Ichigo will remember all of this and more, he promises.
And when he kisses her--properly, this time--later, she tastes like the strawberries she grows during summer.