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Megitsune

Chapter Text

“Well, it’s not much, but it’s home,” Kaede sighed, looking around her tiny apartment.

The walls of the small room were painted a rather vanilla shade of beige, with equally cheap light-wooden cupboards and counters lining one of the walls. The stove and refrigerator that bookended the counters were stark white, with a tiny white microwave and a small black coffee machine sat on opposite sides of the forest green countertop, a plain kitchen sink placed neatly in the middle. Kaede noted with amusement that there was a large, red fire extinguisher hung up on the wall next to the stove. Just off the kitchen area was a four-person square dining table and curved back chairs, made of the same light, yellow wood as the cupboards. Next to that was a rather barren area, with a small grey TV on a cherry wood stand tucked in the corner near the thermostat, and a green pullout couch along the opposite wall where the door was. A tiny end table sat on the left side of the couch. Kaede supposed that, for a bachelor pad, it was quite large.

She immediately loved and hated it.

When the social worker had shown her the apartment options, Kaede had instantly been drawn to the Western style of this little one. It had also been the cheapest, which was odd, given that it was the largest.

She could still hear the feigned interest in the old caseworker’s voice as he had said, “I don’t know about that area for you, young lady. Lots of gangs hang out in that part of town.”

Having grown up in one of the nicer areas in Tokyo, Kaede had not even given it much thought at the time. Her life couldn’t get any worse, she had mused to herself. It was close to her mother’s family, but not too close. Kaede preferred it that way. She didn’t want to be a jog across the road. They’d feel the intrusive need to coddle and include her then, and the thought was almost too much. Though she was 15, an age where most of us secretly longed to be loved and coddled, Kaede knew her days of being coddled were long over.

About three months before this very moment, Kaede Saito lost her entire family in an apartment fire.

She had been out late with some friends after cram school, and was the only one not home. Her mother, step-father, and younger sister all perished in the flames, leaving Kaede alone in the world. The province had deemed her dying grandparents unable to care for her (wisely, since they had both passed not a month after the fire), and all other relations that remained were too distant to even have known anything about Kaede or her family. Even the family the government was relocating her to be near had never heard of her until this very event. Her mother Tsukino’s cousin, Masaki, had died many years ago. It seems both families had become estranged from their shared relation, the Kurosaki clan. The Saito family had split off at the time of Kaede’s great grandparents, and Masaki much more recently. Ironically, Masaki’s husband and children were the only close blood relations still alive.

Kaede looked down at her slim black wristwatch. It was 10:35. She was supposed to head down to meet her newly known about family at 5:00pm. She figured she should spend the remainder of her morning in the apartment. She looked over her large black backpack, and the single duffle bag that had gotten her from Shinagawa Ward of southern central Tokyo, to the downtown of Karakura Town. Shoving the duffle bag up against the wall and throwing her backpack into one of the dining chairs, Kaede quickly determined that she should probably buy a dresser, at least for her clothes. She hadn’t really considered the lack of storage space until this very moment. Her new school uniform, grey (as if to mirror and mock her in its drabness), ended up hung in the coat closet at the very front. She decided just to leave all her other clothes in the duffle for now. She didn’t really want to look at any of the new garments anyways. As pretty as they were, she wished for her old things back.

Delicately, she pulled a white picture frame out of her large backpack. In it was the only picture of her family that she had left. They were stood side by side in front of a store window at Christmas time, smiling for the camera. It was from their trip to Harajuku to visit one of her mother’s wealthy friends from school. The tree in the window was the most beautiful thing Kaede had ever seen, with white, pink, and blue lights, silver tinsel and beautiful, jewel-coloured baubles. Her mother and sister had bright, beautiful smiles in pictures, while Kaede and her step-father had always looked painfully awkward in front of the camera. Her laptop, tablet, and smart phone had all been with her the night of the fire, and this picture had been on all of them. She had taken it as a sign to print that one for a frame.

Which reminded Kaede; she needed to get the wifi network and password from the landlord. And groceries, she needed those too. While she was at it, she should see about getting herself a job; the insurance money and the meager amount of the life insurance that hadn’t gone to fixing the family’s old condo would only last her so long. It was shaping up to be a slightly busier day than she had originally hoped.

A vibrating in the back pocket of her jeans drew her attention from the day’s tasks. It was two quick vibrations, soon followed by another two. A heartbeat; just like she’d picked. It got her attention, but it freaked her out every time. She pulled her phone from her pocket in excitement, and immediately felt nothing.

It was Mitsuki Hatsuniro, a friend of Kaede’s from Shinagawa. Before the incident, they had gone to Koyamadai High School together, 9th Grade, class 1A. That was really all that Kaede remembered about her, to be frank. Mitsuki wasn’t really Kaede’s friend, per se. She was more like someone who enjoyed complaining and bragging to Kaede, but never listening.

The text read, “OMG, you’ll never guess who just got asked out to a group date at the karaoke bar!!! Shinji invited me ;P so excited~!”

No inquiries as to her move, nor her mental or physical condition. Kaede had to smile a little at that. Some things never change. She decided not to answer. Mitsuki would always assume that Kaede was there, and that made them both feel connected in a way. Mitsuki liked to make everything about her, but she was always there when Kaede needed company. On further reflection, Kaede decided that they were friends after all. Just a very specific kind of friends.

On even further reflection, Kaede realized that she didn’t really have a lot of friends. None of her classmates had spoken to her since her family passed, and her cram school friends had vanished too. Though, perhaps she had wanted them to. The ticking of the kitchen clock drew her attention. It was only 10:40.

“Well, pointless to wait around like this,” Kaede sighed aloud.

Kaede ruffled through her duffle bag until she found a tiny beige leather purse. It was one of her favourites, a gift from a trip her mother once took to the United States. It had only survived the fire because she liked to keep it in her backpack to add some fashion to her navy-blue school uniform. The saddle bag sat perfectly against her long, round hips. She headed into the bathroom to look herself over in the mirror. She wore plain cropped jeans, and an extremely relaxed black t-shirt she remembered picking out with Mitsuki and some other girls before she moved. Kaede couldn’t even recall the names of the other two.

I need to get better with names, she told herself, I can only depend on myself now. And people seem to appreciate when you remember their names.

Mitsuki had been agog and aghast when Kaede had mentioned that she was moving into a downtown area. That’s why she was wearing the bag of a tee in the first place. It hung from her shoulders and breasts like a curtain of cotton. Was it comfy? Yes. Did it minimize her accursedly heavy bust? Absolutely, and drew attention to her soft, delicate collarbone. Is that a good thing? Definitely.

Make sure the clothes you buy aren’t too fitted,” Mitsuki had exclaimed on their shopping expedition, “You don’t wanna be harassed every time you leave your house!”

Kaede had laughed when Mitsuki had told her that. She was a tall for a girl, with broad shoulders and thick, muscular thighs; hardly the look of a wilting flower. Mitsuki had said that didn’t matter, since “gangsters like a tough-looking woman”.

As if Mitsuki knew anything about gangs; her father was a detective, but she had grown up in the same high rise block as Kaede. In the most expensive building. Privileged was an understatement when it came to describing Mitsuki. Besides, harassment was about dominance, not attraction, so it wouldn’t matter what she wore anyways.

Still, Kaede supposed it was finally time to put her theory to the test. Adjusting her thick-framed glasses on her pert nose, and pulling her ashy brown hair into a high bun, Kaede grabbed her keys from the shabby green countertop. With a final deep breath, she headed out into her new world.

Kaede was quick to find her landlord in the basement apartment, especially with the word “landlord” printed on a paper outside his door. His name was Hirotobi Iwanobu, and he made sure to mention plenty of times that his wife’s name was Hanabi. He was a short, portly, balding man who looked like he probably had a grandchild or two. His cane appeared to be home carved, and his sweater had been hand knit by his “beautiful wife”. Mr. Iwanobu gave Kaede the network and password with little fuss, and told her to run right on downstairs if she ever had any trouble.

“Thank you so much,” Kaede said to him with a bow.

“Not a problem, dear. Now make sure you keep all your doors and windows locked at night, and-Ah, Sado!” the old landlord’s attention turned to the stairwell behind Kaede, “I see you finally came by for that rice my wife Hanabi promised you.”

Kaede turned to see who Mr. Iwanobu was looking at.

Kaede was certain she had never seen a human being that big. His brown skin almost glowed, and he towered over them from the bottom of the stairs. His thick, dark brown waves hung down in his eyes, and the rest of his hair was just long enough to frame his chiseled jaw and fully lips. And not just his jaw was chiseled; the man reminded her of the tigers in the Tokyo Zoo. Lean, coiled muscle. His brown eyes made the resemblance even clearer. His gaze was highly intelligent. Constantly observing his surroundings, carefully storing and compiling everything he saw.

Like the tigers, he was crazy beautiful.

Though, despite his looks, the pink floral button-up seemed to create a dissonance. Kaede looked back to her landlord with wide eyes, but the old man didn’t seem nearly so taken by surprise as Kaede was. He even hobbled out of his doorway to greet the big man.

“Oh, Sado, this is Kaede Saito,” Mr. Iwanobu smiled at the large man, motioning towards Kaede, “Kaede, this is Sado Yasutora. You two will be neighbours from now on!”

Kaede looked back at Sado Yasutora, and found he was looking her dead in the face. Sizing her up, determining whether or not she was a friend. His stare was intense; even more so than people told Kaede hers was. Kaede did her best to meet his gaze squarely, and return it with her own, equally analytical gaze. Mitsuki called it her “predatory stare”. Her mother had always told her such eye contact was rude. Sado did not seem to think so though, for he did offer her a small smile and bowed his head. Kaede was startled by the sudden change, but returned his bow.

“Sado is living in the apartment next door to you,” Mr. Iwanobu told her, “Since you two are at the same school, it might be nice to make friends with one another. He’s a nice, respectful young man, so I can assure you there’ll be no funny business.”

Kaede stared at Mr. Iwanobu with wide, unbelieving eyes. Sado looked like he had to be in his very early 20’s. Maybe he was a young teacher. A young, hot, teacher.

“Really? Wow,” Kaede tried to be casual with her neighbour, “What class do you teach?”

She saw Sado’s eyes go a little wide. Kaede was suddenly struck with the feeling that she had made a mistake.

“Teach?” Mr. Iwanobu looked at her strangely, “Sado is a student, like you. You’re in the same grade. You’re the same age.”

“What?” Kaede gasped, “No way.”

She looked her new neighbour with absolute amazement. There was no way Sado was 15. Absolutely no way. Then again, people often thought Kaede was older from the way she managed to carry herself in front of adults, and Sado had a rather calm, collected air to him. As she re-examined his face, she could see that he did look closer to her age when you really took a good look at him. Still too handsome to be 15, but he did look younger upon a second assessment. His shoulders looked like they had some more filling out to do, as did the rest of his powerful body.

“Which class are you in?” Kaede asked him.

“Class 3.”

Sado had replied in a deep tone that Kaede had not thought possible for someone their age, yet the slight, occasional crackling added even more youth to the picture. She felt a sudden excitement course through her at this revelation. She had a golden opportunity to make a new friend.

“That’s so amazing! We’re in the same class,” she gushed, her eyes bright and a smile flooding her face, “I was so nervous about going to a new school where I don’t know anyone, so I’m glad I’m meeting you now.

“Allow me to introduce myself properly,” Kaede gave another small bow, nearly bouncing on her heels, “My name is Kaede Saito, but please call me Kaede. I look forward to being neighbours.”

The large boy blinked at her, and he felt his neck getting warm. She was cute. She reminded him of a puppy. 

He wanted to tell her to call him by his nickname, but couldn’t even manage a reply. All he gave her was a grunt and a nod. A man of few words. Kaede could roll with that.

“Now, Sado, Kaede lives alone, so please make sure you watch out for her,” Mr. Iwanobu told him.

Kaede looked sharply at the old man, but he seemed oblivious.

“You shouldn't just tell me that, Mr. Iwanobu,” Sado told the old man.

“Well, I just thought, since you’ve been so good about scaring off any loitering men who follow our female tenants, it would be alright,” Mr. Iwanobu stated quite innocently, “You told me to always let you know if you’re needed.”

Maybe the reason he needs to do that is because you’re so liberal with tenant information, she thought.

Kaede forced a smile, “I appreciate the concern, Mr. Iwanobu, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Mr. Iwanobu did not look convinced, but let it go.

“Well, if you say so,” he muttered before turning back to Sado, “Anyways, how about you come in and get those bags of rice, sir?”

Sado nodded, and tried to walk around Kaede. Kaede, of course, tried to move out of the way at the same time, and they bumped right in to one another.

“Sorry,” they both muttered quickly.

 An awkward dance commenced. The longer it went on, the more embarrassed the two felt. Mr. Iwanobu chuckled a little and headed into his apartment. When she and Sado finally squeezed past one another, Kaede turned around on the stair.

“Thanks again, Mr. Iwanobu,” she called into the apartment.

“My pleasure, dear,” his voice echoed back, “You take care! Come running right on down if you need anything!”

Sado was heading in too, before Kaede’s voice stopped him.

“Oh, Sado, wait a second,” she said, “What time are you heading to school tomorrow morning?”

He turned back to stare at her. Why did she want to know that? Kaede seemed to have read his mind, for her ears turned a very bright shade of red.

“I mean, I don’t know if I’ll have time to figure out where the school is around here, and I was just wondering if you maybe, sort of, wanted to walk together tomorrow?” she spoke quickly, tugging on the hem of her top, “I’m sorry if that would be presumptuous of me to assume that you would want to walk with me tomorrow or anything, but-uhm… Would you like to walk with me tomorrow? I am terrible with directions, and I honestly have no idea where I’m going.”

Sado didn’t know if she was serious or not.

“Are you sure you want to walk to school with me?” he asked her.

“What do you mean?” Kaede frowned, “Why wouldn’t I?”

He knew then that she didn’t get it. This might really screw her over socially. But her big, grey-green eyes were pleading with him. He could hardly look at her focused stare for more than a few moments, but he had already been caught in it once. Her nervous wiggling sealed the deal.

“Ah-alright, sure,” he said with a nod, “We can leave at 7.”

Kaede gave him a million-watt smile.

“Thank you!” she cried, “That would be great!”

With that, Kaede turned around and began bouncing up the stairs. Sado watched her go, a little perplexed by her attitude. Most kids who lived by themselves weren’t nearly so chipper. When she reached the top of the stairs, she spun around to look back down the stairs.

“Bye, Sado,” she called, “I’ll meet you at the front!”

And now, Kaede was off to the store. She didn’t think she’d be able to muster up another smile for the rest of the day. It was so much more taxing than she remembered. At least this time, the effort had been beneficial. She’d sort of made a friend.

 


 

Later that afternoon, Kaede stood just outside the doorway of the Kurosaki Clinic. Her phone’s GPS had lead her there, with the address her uncle, Isshin Kurosaki, had sent her through the social worker. It was about ten minutes to five, and already, the front of the clinic was shut down. Kaede scowled at the hours sign, which said they were opened until five. What sort of medical center closed early?

She wandered around to the larger part of the building, and quickly spotted another door. The porch light was on, and Kaede could hear laughter from inside. She slowly headed up to the door, and knocked three times.

“Be right there!” a man’s voice rang through the wood.

“Hey, try to be normal for five minutes, okay?” a young girl could be heard as well, “You don’t want to scare her off!”

Soon, the door swung open. The man who had come to greet her was rather tall, even taller than she was, with black hair and a beard. He had opened the door with a grand old smile on his face, but, when he saw Kaede, it fell away. He stared at her with wide eyes and a look on his face Kaede couldn’t place. She wondered for a moment if she had the wrong address.

“Uhm, good evening,” she nodded her head politely, “I’m sorry for the interruption, but would this be the home of Isshin Kurosaki?”

The man just continued to stare at her. It was making Kaede extremely uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry, I must have the wrong address,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck, “I could have sworn this was the place. Anyways, have a great evening.”

As Kaede began to take her leave, the man finally spoke.

“No, wait!” he cried, “I’m sorry about that! You must be Kaede, right?”

Kaede turned back to him, and saw that his smile had returned, but it wasn’t nearly so jovial. It was still more welcoming than anything she had seen in a while. Kaede knew then that he had to have been a handsome young man, in his day.

“Yes, I am,” she replied, “Are you my uncle, Isshin?”

The man nodded, pulling back from the door.

“That I am,” he said, “Come on in! I shut down early today so I could help the girls prepare for your visit. You’re just in time to meet everyone. My son, Ichigo, just got home. You guys are about the same age.”

Kaede hesitated. She suddenly wanted to go right back home to her new hole in the wall. That is, she did, until the smell of home cooking hit her nose. Kaede hadn’t had a homemade meal since her old classmates had stopped bringing her extra lunch boxes out of sympathy. She let her nose guide her through the doorway.

The Kurosaki home was nice, if not a little sparse compared to what Kaede was used to. Or maybe that’s because it was so big. The high ceilings and hardwood floor were very well-maintained, and the open concept main floor overwhelmed her a little. Having grown up in a condo, Kaede was not used to this much space.

In the kitchen area were two young girls, probably both around ten. The one who sat at the table had Isshin’s black hair, and the other one at the stove looked a bit closer to Kaede in colouring. The two had brown eyes, and those matching gazes stared at Kaede the way Isshin had. Isshin came up beside Kaede, and broke the awkward silence.

“Karin, Yuzu, I’d like you to meet your cousin, Kaede,” he placed a hand on Kaede’s shoulder, “I’d like for you two to show her around the house. Maybe introduce her to your brother while I finish up some work.”

The two girls nodded, not once taking their eyes off Kaede. Isshin gave Kaede’s shoulder a pat before heading off somewhere. Kaede was too busy with the staring contest she and the younger girls were having to notice where he’d gone. The awkward silence stretched on for a while.

“So,” the girl with black hair was the first to speak, “You’re our cousin, huh?”

“Uhm, yeah,” Kaede replied, furrowing her eyebrows, “My name is Kaede Saito. I think we’re related through your mom? It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” the girl with brown hair finally smiled, “I’m Yuzu, and this is Karin. We’ve heard so much about you from Dad.”

“Well, I’m afraid I haven’t heard much about the two of you,” Kaede forced herself to return Yuzu’s smile, “How old are you guys?”

“Well, I’m eleven,” Yuzu told her enthusiastically.

“Oh wow, that’s a pretty great age,” Kaede bluffed for the sake of conversation, then looked to Karin, “How about you, Karin?”

Karin simply glared at her.

“We’re twins,” she stated curtly.

“Oh…”

Kaede found herself taken aback by that look. What was this kid’s problem?

“How about you, Kaede?” Yuzu asked while stirring a pot, “Dad said you’re Ichigo’s age.”

“Yeah, I am,” Kaede nodded, “I think we’re going to be in the same class starting tomorrow.”

“Speaking of Ichigo, is he still up in his room?” Karin asked her sister.

“I think so,” Yuzu replied, “Do you want to go get him? He can show Kaede around while we make dinner.”

Karin nodded and got up from the table, nearly dashing up the stairs. Which left Kaede all alone, with the friendly twin. The older girl felt relieved.

“I’m sorry about Karin,” Yuzu told her, “She’s very sweet once you get to know her.”

“I’ll trust you on that one,” Kaede said.

“Dad said you might resemble our mom a bit, but we never thought you’d look so much like her,” Yuzu’s voice was light, but her grip on her spoon was heavy.

“Aunt Masaki?” Kaede was surprised, “I mean, Mom always said I looked like my aunt, but I thought she always meant her sister.”

“Maybe your aunt looked a lot like Mom too. Apparently, it was easy to tell that your mom and my mom were cousins. But you’re too tall and strong-looking, and your eyes are the super different part. Mom’s eyes were brown, rounder,” Yuzu turned from the pot to give Kaede a smile, though it was as forced as their conversation felt, “Why don’t you sit down?”

Kaede nodded, but found herself immediately entranced by Yuzu’s little strawberry barrette. Yuzu was clearly getting self-conscious.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Your barrette,” Kaede nearly squealed, “It’s so cute! Where did you buy it?”

“You really like it?” Yuzu’s eyes turned big and bright, “I got it from my mom! She really loved strawberries!”

“Well, if you’ve got a brother named “Ichigo”, I would assume so,” Kaede laughed, “It’s super cute! I kind of want one now. You should definitely find some sort of cute piece of clothing to match it or something.”

“Like a red top?”

“A red top?”

“With a collar?”

“Hmmm…maybe a sweater with a white button-up underneath?”

“I love it,” Yuzu cried with a smile, “We should go shopping sometime! Karin never wants to go buy girly clothes with me.”

“Well, shopping is something I’m always good for,” Kaede brushed some stray hair back for effect, “Let me know when you want to go. I’d be happy to join you on a little excursion sometime.”

“I would love that!” Yuzu cheered.

“Careful. Once you promise to go shopping with her, you’ll never get out of it.”

Kaede turned towards the new voice, and saw a young man standing on the stairwell. His hair was bright orange; Kaede couldn’t help but stare at it. She was meeting all kinds of memorable people today. Karin came from behind him to reclaim her seat at the table, scowling at Kaede all the while. Kaede figured things out pretty quickly.

“You must be Ichigo,” she said, giving a small bow, “I’m Kaede Saito. It’s nice to meet you.”

The young man stopped and stared at her for a moment. Kaede was certain she would never get used to the way the Kurosaki family looked at her. She was about to get the whole “family resemblance” thing out of the way, but Ichigo surprised her.

“You’re tall,” he said quite suddenly.

Kaede turned red in the face. What was the point of that? He was still a little bit taller than her, so, clearly, she wasn’t that tall. She hated when people pointed it out as if she didn’t know.

“Ichigo,” Yuzu scolded, “You should be polite to Kaede!”

“Right, sorry, sorry.”

Ichigo thrust a hand in her direction, surprising Kaede greatly. Nonetheless, she shook it.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Kaede,” Ichigo grinned at her, “Come on. I’ll show you around.”

He turned without another word, heading off down another hallway. Kaede gave a little sigh, before following him.

 


 

“And that’s Yuzu and Karin’s room, Dad’s room, bathroom…”

Kaede rolled her eyes a bit. Ichigo had already shown her the clinic, which was the main portion of the tour, and the rest of the house was pretty standard. Kitchen, bathroom, living room, office, and all the other usual stuff was contained in their household. Kaede just wanted dinner to be ready; this was too much social interaction for her.

“This is my room,” Ichigo said suddenly, opening a door, “We can hang out in here until dinner’s ready, if you want.”

Kaede quickly nodded. Anything was better than going back downstairs with Karin the glaring gremlin. She followed Ichigo inside. The room was quite spacious.

“Is this why people live out in the suburbs?” Kaede mused aloud as she gazed about the space.

“Pretty roomy, huh?” Ichigo smiled, flopping down on the bed, “I get the big room, since I was here first. I feel like Karin’s gonna steal it when I finally leave home though.”

“I don’t blame her,” Kaede said, dropping her purse next to the desk, “It’s got a lot of space. My place it probably just a bit bigger than this.”

“Where do you live?” Ichigo asked, sitting up.

“Just over in the west apartment block,” Kaede said, “You know, the one near the downtown?”

“Right. I’ve got a friend who lives around there,” Ichigo replied, “I’ve seen his place. It’s got nothing on this, as far as space goes.”

Suddenly, a buzzing noise sounded through the room. Kaede looked down at the desk and saw a cellphone jumping around.

“Toss it here,” Ichigo told her.

Kaede complied, plopping down in the desk chair. She tossed Ichigo the cell, and pulled out her own.

“Hello?” Ichigo answered his cell, standing up from the bed, “Oh, hey man, what’s up?”

Kaede scrolled through her phone as Ichigo spoke. Plenty of texts from Mitsuki, and a couple of emails from the high school about school events taking place in the next couple of months. Nothing important. She wasn’t sure what she had been expecting.

“Eh, I’m not doing much. Just hanging out with my cousin,” Ichigo pause to listen, “No the new one. Starts at our school tomorrow. ….She’s in our class. …You’ll get to meet her tomorrow. …Listen man, I’ve gotta go. Yeah, I’ve gotta. ….’Kay, talk to you later. Bye.”

Ichigo hung up with a great sigh, then turned his face towards Kaede. It held a great deal of sympathy. Kaede was suspicious.

“What’s that look about?” she frowned.

“When you get to school tomorrow, stand extra tall,” he told her, “Like, stretch. How big can you make yourself look?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just, trust me. Think big.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Kaede’s phone blared with the most obnoxious alarm a phone could possibly concoct. It resembled a strangled duck crackling through a fog horn. Kaede rolled out of bed with a groan.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuck…” she moaned, pulling her pillow over her face.

She had stayed too late at the Kurosaki’s. Way too late.

It had all started when Ichigo had challenged her to a racing game. Nobody challenged Kaede to a competitive game and left the task until she had thoroughly destroyed them. She’d stayed so late Isshin had had to drive her home in their ambulance. Which had cut the travel time substantially, but still. A total of six and a half hours of sleep had left her brain in a fog between rested and deprived.

She lay there for about a minute, listening to the fog horn duck. She hated it with every fiber of her being.

 


 

When Kaede finally made it to the front, it was about 7:15. She was late. She was so certain Sado would have gone ahead without her, but, to her surprise, he was still there. He was leaned up against the stairwell on the main floor, listening to something through a pair of large headphones. Kaede was immediately jealous of the boys’ uniform. It looked like Sado had a bright yellow shirt on under his drab grey jacket. He got to wear pants. His shoes weren’t the ugliest thing she’d ever seen either.

From the stair above him, Kaede glared down at her ill-fitting grey blazer and mini skirt with disdain. Who was the asshole who picked these uniforms? The woman who had come to the assistance center from the school had told her she would have to get her uniform a size up in the shirt and jacket, and get them tailored down in the waist. The pleated skirt only needed to fit her waist, which had made it easy to handle the shirt problem. Kaede couldn’t afford a custom tailoring for the jacket, so the blazer hung from her bust like a limp blanket. The high-waisted skirt was just the right length on her that even the slightest breeze would bare her undies to the world. She’d decided to wear shorts underneath, and she’d opted for thick black tights over the knee-high socks she had received. Even with all that extra coverage, she’d never get to bend over without worry.

Eyes finally landing on the regulation brown loafers, Kaede could feel her soul dying. Yeah, she could run in those shoes. But god, they were ugly. She desperately wanted to run back to her room and grab the only pair of ballet flats that had survived the fire. Going from her old uniform to this school uniform was almost too much for her. The bow she had to wear around her neck was literally strangling her.

But she had to leave it. She needed to look cute, but professional, and still blend in. Everyone would see her for the first time today, and they were going to judge her. This was the beginning of the rest of her life. She had no one to go home to, no one who would love her forever. Everything mattered from there on out; she couldn’t afford to mess up.

Kaede meandered down the last set of stairs, waving at Sado when he caught sight of her. He nodded back, taking off his headphones and throwing them in his bag.

“Sorry I’m late,” Kaede said with a smile, “I had a lot of trouble getting out of bed this morning. Ready?”

Sado nodded once more, and they were off. For the first five minutes or so, they walked in dead silence. It was killing Kaede. She liked the quiet, but this was almost too much.

“What were you listening to?” she decided to ask him.

“Hm?”

Sado seemed surprised by the sound of her voice. Maybe he’d been spacing out.

“What were you listening to?” she repeated.

Rather than answer her verbally, he reached into his bag and pulled his headphones back out, offering them to her. Kaede took the headphones, sitting them on her head. They almost fell off her, if she didn’t hold onto them. It only took Sado a second to find his phone.

When he hit play, Kaede heard what sounded like an old folk song her grandma used to listen to. Her nose automatically wrinkled; was that really what he was listening to? Suddenly, the folk song began to sound like a skipping CD, then the beat kicked in. Kaede’s face turned from one kind of disbelief to another as she felt the rap shimmy down her spine. It was amazing.

“What is this?” she asked.

Sado showed her the phone screen. Future Listning, Issugi from Monju, EEAR. Kaede hadn’t heard anything like it before.

“Oh my god, I love it!”

His wince told her she was shouting. She immediately pulled the headphones off.

“Sorry,” she smiled sheepishly, handing them back, “I really like it.”

“It’s alright,” he replied, taking his headphones, “I like them too.”

“Have you heard Moe and ghosts?”

Sado shook his head.

“It’s this female-lead rap group,” Kaede explained, “They’re big on unease and gender-swapping in their raps. …The “ghost coast hip-hop group”?”

Sado tilted his head and shrugged. He was curious.

“Really?” Kaede was agog and aghast, pulling out her own phone, “Wanna hear?”

So Sado plugged in his headphones, and Kaede hit play. At times, it had that same off-beat kilter to it that he liked about Issugi, but it was something entirely different.

“Definitely “ghostly”. I’m not sure I like it,” he confessed when it was over.

“What?” Kaede was insulted, “Ginga is great!”

Sado just shrugged, but handed her the headphones again, scrolling through his phone. They spent the remainder of their walk trading songs back and forth like cards.

 


 

School was relatively close in the end, and Kaede felt a little silly freaking out over the time earlier. Class didn’t start until 8:00, and school was a 20-minute walk from their building. Everyone was already there by the time they arrived. People wandered around the school gates, near their lockers, and in front of the building. Other students would stop to stare at her and Sado as they passed. Kaede had to admit, they were probably quite the sight.

They were attached by the headphones to each other’s’ devices, like the embodiment of the tech-phobic adult’s greatest nightmare. A web of non-communication, and yet the most peaceful communication Kaede could dream up at this point. No need to fake a smile or force herself through a conversation. Just music.

When they came to Sado’s locker, Kaede looked around for her own locker. She saw she was in the wrong bay completely, and pulled her headphones from Sado’s phone. He looked at her quite suddenly, a little startled by the movement in his pocket.

“I’m in a totally different part of the locker bay,” Kaede smiled up at him, “Thank you for walking with me this morning. I need to go to the main office too, to get myself signed in, so I’ll see you in class?”

Sado removed his own headphones.

“Do you know how to get there?” he asked.

“Class, my locker, or the office?”

“Well, all of them, I guess,” he blinked, “I can take you if you want.”

“Oh no, that’s fine,” Kaede said quickly, “Really, thank you, but I don’t want to be a hassle this morning. I’m sure you have friends you want to go see.

“Besides,” she giggled a bit, pointing behind him, “There are signs everywhere.”

Sado looked and saw the signs that he very much knew were there. He had just wanted to walk with her some more. She was good company. She didn't expect him to fill the space with idle chatter. Unfortunately for him, Kaede had a delightful independent streak.

“Well, see you later,” Kaede grinned, giving a little wave.

Sado waved back and returned to arranging his locker. Kaede watched him for a moment from the edge of the bay, before heading off. He was taller than the locker bay. That would be useful.

 


 

The school’s main office was a rather sterile environment, in every sense of the word. There was a hospital waiting room-style window, with black plastic chairs lined up along the walls around it. A single door was all that connected it to the outside world. The white walls were supposed to make the space look bigger, but it just felt like a box inside of another box. Double suffocating. Kaede had been staring at them for well over an hour.

“Just sign here Miss Saito, and we’ll have someone escort you up to your new class, alright?”

The woman at the office window looked at Kaede through round, tortoise shell frames. Glaring would be a more precise description though. Her fashionable outfit and lovely face stood in sharp contrast to the attitude Kaede was getting from her. Kaede took the photocopied papers from the secretary’s outstretched hand, and couldn’t help but shiver as her eyes narrowed even further.

“Th-thank you, Ma’am,” Kaede managed to squeak out, “But that’s not necessary. I don’t want to be any trouble.”

“You Kurosakis are always trouble,” was the growled reply, as a pen was thrust towards her, “Just wait here and don’t start any fights.”

Kaede had no idea what she’d done to deserve that. She wasn’t a Kurosaki, she was a Saito. Kaede sighed and sat in the stiff plastic chair nearest to her, signing her admission form. How did that woman even know she and Ichigo were related? Kaede looked down at the other papers she had received. There appeared to be a copy of her enrollment form, listing Uncle Ishin as her emergency contact.

They know his father by name. Yikes.

Maybe she should have taken Sado up on his offer to walk with her.

“Miss Saito?”

Kaede started, shooting straight up from her seat. The lovely secretary who had once been on the other side of the window now stood before her. Kaede wondered at the height of her shoes. She had to concede that she would be cranky too, if she had to work all day in stiletto heels. The secretary’s nametag read “Nobuwara”. She snatched the signed paper from Kaede, leaving the rest for Kaede to shove into her bag gracelessly.

“Since I cannot find a spare instructor, I will be escorting you.”

Kaede did her best not to gulp. Ms. Nobuwara didn’t wait for her, rushing on ahead. Her speed in those shoes was impressive. Kaede nearly jogged to keep up.

“Now, if you ever get lost, there are signs all over the building that will guide you back to the main atriums of each floor,” Ms. Nobuwara explained, not even winded, “From there, you can find signs to guide you to nearly every part of the building. Signs, signs, signs; we’re a campus full of signs. You’ll figure it out.”

Soon, they were taking the stairs. Three floors up, down hall 3, classroom A. Ms. Nobuwara knocked on the door. A few moments later, another young woman, whose aura was much less severe than Ms. Nobuwara’s, answered with a smile.

“Ah! You must be Kaede!” she said, “I’m Misato Ochi, but you can call me Miss Ochi.”

Kaede could barely manage a breath before Ms. Nobuwara stormed off. What a powerhouse of a woman. She was everything Kaede wanted to be in life.

“Umm, Kaede?”

Miss Ochi’s voice awoke her from her admiring. She had been staring at Ms. Nobuwara as her murder stilettos and powerhouse attitude strolled back down the hall. A male teacher had scuttled out of her way like a cockroach in the light. Kaede looked back at Miss Ochi, eyes wide and shining.

“I want to be like her when I grow up,” she said.

Miss Ochi laughed nervously, moving aside to motion Kaede through the classroom door. She could hear the students murmuring to one another as she passed through.

“Class, I would like you to welcome our second new student of the month,” Miss Ochi lead the way back to the front of the classroom, “Miss Saito, if you could please introduce yourself?”

The murmurs increased to a chatter as Kaede took her place in front of the class. As was customary, she wrote her name on the blackboard. The hiragana was as plain as always, in a symmetrical three for three, and she had managed to avoid shaking. She also did the Kanji, for the sake of wasting time. She had always sucked at writing the “to” in “Saito”; she felt like her wrists almost would get caught on the kanji for wisteria. She turned her eyes on her new classmates, scanning the room.

She immediately spotted Sado, who looked comically tall in his back-row desk. He smiled at her, offering a small nod. Ichigo was next, easy to spot with his bright red hair. He was occupying a third-row seat by the window. He looked like the kind of person who normally spaced out, but he was doing his best to be respectful of her introduction, it seemed. The desk in front of Chad, but next to Ichigo, was unoccupied, and very likely to be her seat.

“She’s kinda tall,” she heard someone whisper near the front.

Of course.

“Good morning! My name is Kaede Saito,” she bowed her head, somehow managing to appear graceful, “I look forward to working with all of you in the future.”

Too formal. Very awkward. Nicely done.

“Kaede has just moved here from the Shinagawa District of Tokyo, in order to be closer to family,” Miss Ochi blessedly took over, “I expect you all to treat her kindly, and help her catch up on our latest units, got it?”

“Yes!” the entire class called back enthusiastically.

“Now, does anyone have any questions for Kaede?”

Kaede began to panic. Why would she do that? WHY?! The hands flew up, nearly all at once.

“Hmmm, let’s see… Ah! Yes, Keigo?”

The slender boy she picked stood immediately, with a flip of his unruly brown hair. Keigo…that was Ichigo’s friend.

“Yes, hi, Kaede, big fan,” he gestured to all of her, “How tall are you?”

Kaede wrinkled her nose.

“Um, 169cm? 170, maybe?”

Keigo looked at her, considering, then nodded his head.

“No further questions,” he said with a wave of his hand.

As he flopped down in his seat, she saw Ichigo nodding his head vigorously, giving her two thumbs up. Miss Ochi went up to the blackboard, erasing all of Kaede’s characters.

“Now, you see the empty desk?” Miss Ochi didn’t even look at her, “In front of Yasutora. Chad, can you wave please? Now, today class, we are going to be discussing…”

Sado lifted his arm, offering the most minimal wave he could muster. His name wasn’t Sado? Had she been messing it up all morning? Curses! Kaede strode back to the desk, and settled herself into the chair. While Miss Ochi was droning on, writing equations on the board, Kaede began writing on a scrap of paper. She casually tossed it over her shoulder, hoping she wasn’t aiming too horribly.

The little paper flew well above Sado’s desk, hitting him square in the chest. He had been spacing out, and jolted a bit when he felt the ball of paper. He looked around. Nobody was looking at him, and Miss Ochi was still writing away on the board. He unfolded it.

“Sorry I messed up on your name,” it said.

He knew who that was. He quickly scribbled a reply.

“You didn’t,” he wrote, “Everyone calls me Chad. You can too.”

He barely needed to reach to toss the note back to her. He bounced the ball of paper off her math text, landing it right in front of her. Kaede startled a bit, before clearly unfolding and reading it. She gave a thumbs-up to her right side, clearly visible to him, and unnatural enough to be a clear communication.

 


 

Class was uneventful. Math, poetry, and English all passed by. Kaede was grateful she could keep up as easily as she did; the teaching style was at odds with what she was used to, but it seemed Miss Ochi and the other teachers were truly interested in whether the students knew what was going on or not.

When the lunch bell rang, Kaede realised she had completely forgotten her own lunch. Her stomach growled lowly, but she opted to ignore it. Instead, she pulled a book out of her bag, intent on relaxing in her desk with it. If she could distract herself, she would forget she was so hungry.

“Hey! Saito, right?”

 She looked up, and saw a girl with shoulder-length hair. The colour was a deep, reddish chestnut, which Kaede was certain she had probably tinted to give it dimension. Her cat eye red frames sat neatly on her petit nose, and her large brown eyes were full of excitement and life. She was pale, and, with her fashionable haircut and the designer logo on the side of her glasses, she was the closest thing to familiar that Kaede had seen since moving.

“Um, yes?” Kaede smiled, unusually nervous, “You’re Honshou, right?”

“That’s me!” the other girl pointed at her own face with a delicate hand, “Please, call me Chizuru! It’s so nice to see another admirer of fashion frames around here. Those are from last fall’s Prada collection, aren’t they?”

Kaede meekly adjusted her reading glasses, prepping for some strange style-off. She had been drawn to the thick black frames and squared shape, which had been in vogue at the time. But, once she nodded, Chizuru surprised her yet again.

“Mine are from the same collection!” Chizuru exclaimed, full of a seemingly boundless energy, “I almost bought those, but then I saw the red, and well, it was game over!”

Kaede was liking the vibes she got from Chizuru. She wondered what the other girl’s agenda was, given that almost everyone else had headed out of the room.

Is she trying to make friends with me?

“It’s so nice to have another girl in this class! The boys always seem to get their claws into the cutest girls on their first day,” Chizuru had continued without pause, “Did you want to come up to the roof to eat lunch with us? It’s super nice out, and it won’t be the sausage fest your cousin would provide.”

Kaede considered her offer for a moment. It didn’t shock her that Chizuru knew Ichigo was her cousin; this seemed like the sort of place where everybody knew everything about everyone. Kaede wasn’t sure how she would handle a big social setting, and it showed on her face. Chizuru’s smile seemed to relax a bit.

“Look, I get it if you’re not so sure, but I think it would suck if you sat here alone on your first day,” she admitted, “I know I come on a bit strong.”

That sounded familiar. It was something the students at Kaede’s old school used to tell her. They’d say she was overbearing, or came on too strong, or was too intense. It was just bullshit.

“No, not at all!” Kaede was quick to shut that nonsense down, her gaze firm as she made eye contact with Chizuru, “You’re being way more welcoming than anyone else. Don’t ever let anyone give you that shit. You’re just passionate, and there’s nothing wrong with that! That fire is going to get you somewhere that people without it will never go!”

Chizuru looked shocked, then her ears turned bright red. There was a fire in Kaede’s eyes that made her heart skip. Like a canon ball, or a volcano. Kaede felt her own cheeks getting hot. She’d blown her shy, polite girl cover, almost immediately. She opened her mouth to apologise, but then Chizuru started laughing. Not mockingly, but a genuine, exuberant laugh.

“Oh man, I’m going to fall in love with you if you talk like that,” Chizuru wiped a tear from her eye, “Which would suck, ‘cause I really like you! You’re going to be an awesome friend, I can tell.”

Kaede was blushing even deeper now. She was sure she had turned a lovely shade of tomato red. Chizuru laughed harder.

“No worries, I’m into someone else right now,” Chizuru waved her hands in front of her, “Orihime Inoue is the only girl for me.”

Kaede remembered Orihime from class. Classically femme, very cute, HUGE breasts, and aggressively heterosexual.

“You know, chasing straight girls ends in heartache,” Kaede chided gently, closing her book, “No matter how drool-worthy they are.”

Chizuru sighed, “I know, but a girl can dream. Besides, Tatsuki’s gay panic is a personal favourite of mine.”

Chizuru paused, abruptly. She pointed at Kaede.

“Don’t tell me-! You’re-!”

Kaede nearly leapt across her desk to grab hold of Chizuru’s shoulders.

“SHHHHHHHH!” Kaede came as close to yelling as a whisper could be, “Yes, my attractions swing heavily across all sides of the gender spectrum, now keep your voice down!”

“Oh, girl! Welcome to paradise, then,” Chizuru whispered back, “We’ve got a seriously above average class in the looks department. I swear, they put something in the water 15 years ago.”

The dangerous gleam in Kaede’s eyes told Chizuru she had already noticed. Chizuru sat in the chair in front of her desk.

“You know,” she said casually, “I’ve never had another queer friend before.”

Kaede knew that statement was anything but casual, as she settled back into her seat. Growing up in this small town, it hardly surprised Kaede that Chizuru had only had straight friend options. It was hard enough to find queer friends in her old high school, and there had been well over 2000 students. With Karakura High School totalling in at a student population of 551 people (552, with her arrival), it was normal to be the only out queer kid in class. Kaede grinned at her, sliding her phone across the desk towards Chizuru.

“Then let’s not waste the opportunity,” she said, “Chizuru Honshou, would you do me the honour of being my first contact official friend at Karakura High School?”

There was a rakishness to Kaede that she hadn’t displayed in her introductions. A sharp, masculine energy, shining through her pretty, feminine features. She was slouched over, resting her head on lightly clasped hands, eyes focused and intent, head tilted. She didn’t realise it, but Kaede had this natural pull to her. Not at all Chizuru’s type, but undeniably magnetic. Chizuru picked up Kaede’s phone.

“Kaede Saito, it would be my honour!” she declared.

As Chizuru tapped her information in, Kaede heard footsteps nearing their placement.

“Kaede, there you are!”

She looked up, and saw it was Ichigo. Had he come to find her? She caught a glimpse of Chad standing outside the doorway. She hadn’t realised that they were friends.

“Hey, cousin,” she said, “What’s up?”

Ichigo seemed surprised by something. Crap, Kaede had forgotten to put herself away. She straightened up, putting on a placating smile. Ichigo was getting the strangest sense of déjà vu, looking at her.

“Chad and I noticed you didn’t come up for lunch,” he said, “Sorry we’re so late; we both assumed the other invited you. Seems you’re making friends already though.”

Chizuru stood, grabbing Kaede’s bag and book. She deposited the novel safely into the bag, and hung it on the back of Kaede’s chair

“Well, that’s three people asking you to come upstairs,” Chizuru nudged Kaede’s chair with her hip, “So you have to come now.”

Before she could protest, Ichigo was pulling her up gently by her arm. He straightened her out, and Chizuru pushed her cellphone back into her hands. Surprisingly enough, Kaede hadn’t been too opposed to the contact. There was no malice behind either of them; a welcome change from how she was used to people touching her without asking.

“You want to eat with us, or the girls?” Ichigo asked.

“Uhm, I have no food,” Kaede admitted sheepishly, “I don’t have enough money to go to the store either. That’s why I was reading.”

“Did I say anything about buying food?” Ichigo asked, almost snappy.

Kaede noticed then that he was holding two tied up lunch boxes in his other hand. One handkerchief was pink, and the other was blue. Like baby blankets. He presented them to her, gracelessly forceful, his elbow locking his arm straight. Maybe her more natural disposition was genetic.

“Dad asked Yuzu to help him make one for you too,” he said, “He would rather you were living with us, but that old man wants to respect your privacy. Perks of not being his son, I guess.”

“This is for me? Which one?”

“The pink one. Yuzu was totally insistent. Since Karin and I match, she wanted to match with you. If you want a different colour, make sure you tell me, cause Yuzu’s gonna be real upset if you don’t match.”

Kaede was going to tear up.

“So, let’s go,” Ichigo turned and headed towards the door, “Everyone’s been dying to meet you.”

 


 

Following Ichigo, Chad, and Chizuru up another flight of stairs from the classroom, Kaede was soon greeted by the great outdoors. Or, to be more specific, the great, fenced off school roof of Karakura High School. It seemed this was where everyone wanted to be at lunch break. There was a large group of girls she recognised from class, sitting on a picnic blanket, and several other mixed size and gender groups spotted along the massive rooftop. It was a bonus of the school being wide, rather than long. The other campus buildings seemed to sport similar finished rooves, with plenty of other students hanging out. Their building seemed to have the best view though. It overlooked the river.

“Wow,” Kaede gasped, “I can’t believe I almost stayed downstairs.”

She flipped her ponytail gracefully, loving the way her hair caught the light.

“Right?” Chizuru grinned, “As if I was going to let that happen. I’m heading to the picnic blanket, if you want to come and-.”

“Ichigo! You dog! You brought girls!”

Chizuru had been oh-so-rudely interrupted by none other than Keigo, who was rushing over to them from the fences. Chizuru frowned, and Ichigo seemed equally unimpressed.

“Yeah, Chizuru, and my cousin. Would you relax, you creep?” Ichigo scowled, “You’re making us look bad. Right, Chad?”

Chad nodded, and Keigo put a hand to his heart in jest. He quickly changed directions though, rolling up to Kaede with about as much smoothness as he could muster. He was only slightly taller than her.

“Hey, what’s up? Keigo Asano,” he flipped his hair again, “You can call me Keigo. Or the man of your dreams. Whichever works for you.”

“So, Keigo?”

Kaede smiled cutely, and felt utterly alive at the way Keigo physically deflated. That’s what he got for talking over Chizuru. She was unaware how much it showed on her face though, or of the small, delighted cackle that passed through her lips. Her three companions stared in unison.

She’s a demon.

Ichigo suddenly realised who Kaede reminded him of. He looked over at the fence, spotting the girl I question.

“Hey, Rukia,” he called, “Come meet my cousin!”

Kaede followed Ichigo’s eyes, spotting two people sitting up against the fence. A girl and a boy, pondering over juice boxes. The girl was petit, with neat, thick black hair, and eyes that nearly looked violet in the sunlight. An unusual colour, even when compared to the silvery colour of Kaede’s own eyes. At least hers weren’t a genetic anomaly. The boy was petit at well, with similarly black hair and eyes that seemed green-ish, though they were still dark. His hair fanned out at the ends, denoting a serious frizz problem.

The two looked towards them when Ichigo had called out. They stood, brushing themselves off and coming towards them. Kaede was used to being taller than a lot of people, but the girl was startlingly short. She couldn’t be over 150cm tall. The boy was only a little taller though. Kaede looked down at them, painfully aware of her height in that moment. The girl smiled brightly, curtsying.

“My name is Rukia Kuchiki! How do you do?” she chimed, “You must be Kaede Saito. What a pleasure it is to finally make your acquaintance!”

Kaede was taken aback by the sunny disposition that had just exploded into her presence. Something was very odd about this, and Kaede found she could only curtsy back.

“How do you do?” Kaede was straining to remain upright.

“And this is Mizuiro Kojima,” Ichigo said, clapping the short boy on the shoulder, “You remember them from class, right?”

Kaede barely remembered anything from class, much less people who likely sat at the very front of the room. She extended a hand to Mizuiro though, which he shook promptly.

“Nice to meet you,” he smiled, “Please, call me Mizuiro. My hobbies include-.”

“Womanizing,” the three other boys spoke in unison, before laughing out loud.

“Hey!” Mizuiro turned bright red, looking up at Kaede shyly, “Please don’t mind them. Besides, I like older women, and they know that.”

Kaede laughed as well.

“It’s okay, Mizuiro,” she said, “I’m sure you’re not that bad.”

Mizuiro puffed his chest out triumphantly, pointing a finger up at his much taller friends.

“See?!” he cried, “I’m not that bad!”

Kaede suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned and saw Chizuru, peeking over at her.

“I’m going to go sit then,” she smiled, “But I’ll leave you here? You’ll have to join us tomorrow, once you’re sick of looking at boys.”

Kaede nodded, and Chizuru was off, waving at the group of girls on the picnic blanket. They were all from their class, Kaede realised as she looked over at them. She recognised Orihime immediately, and her friend. Tatsuki? That felt right. The girls on the blanket were all so pretty, Kaede couldn’t help but feel she might be awkwardly out of place.

“…aede? Kaede!”

Ichigo’s calls startled Kaede out of her thoughts. He motioned towards the fence with his head. The others had gone on without them, settling down on the ground in a circle.

“Ready?” he asked.

Kaede nodded, following after him. She settled down between between Rukia and Chad, settling herself in a kneeling position. Her legs were going to go numb pretty fast. She really hadn’t thought this sitting nonsense through, and was doing her best not to flash anyone. Ichigo stood over her for a moment, then extended the little pink lunch bundle towards her. Kaede gulped, taking the lunch from him with shy hands.

“Thank you for the food,” she flushed in embarrassment, “Please tell Uncle Isshin I’m grateful for the thought.”

“Don’t tell that old man anything,” Ichigo snapped, heading to settle himself down next to Rukia, “It’ll go to his head. I’ll bring one tomorrow too though.”

Kaede disagreed with the sentiment, but she had noticed how odd Ichigo and Isshin’s relationship was. They weren’t a typical father and son, but that was probably a good thing. They seemed to be brutally honest with one another, which Kaede had sometimes wished for with her parents. She untied the knot, and found an equally pink bento box set inside the handkerchief. The tiny container was for chopsticks, and the big one had little bunnies hold rice cakes in the bottom right corner. Kaede giggled when she saw that.

“Is this Yuzu’s backup set?” she asked.

“I told you she wanted to match.”

Chapter Text

Kaede remembered a lot about the world from when she was small, but there were some things that always escaped her. Things that had seemed important. Like the day her father left, or when he great-grandfather had died. Days that adults told her about, but no one ever really remembered in greater detail beyond their titular significance. Kaede didn’t remember things like that.

One thing she always remembered, was the wolf.

The wolf lived somewhere between a dream and a waking nightmare. It was a black mass, like shadow, but it wore the white mask of a wolf. This mask was almost a face though. A great tongue lolled from the side of its maw, slippery and wet. It had a gaping hole in the middle of its chest, as if to signify the emptiness it embodied.

Kaede had always been just out of its grasp, ever since she was small. Her mother could make it go away, and very rarely did she think about it past the age of six. But now, here it sat, in her new apartment, staring at her. It had been doing this, every night, since her parents had died. She thought she was starting to lose her mind.

“Kaede,” it would murmur, voice sweet and soothing, “My pretty Kaede.”

Over and over again, her name would roll past its teeth. Tonight, it loomed over her bed, eyes a glowing red.

“Kaede.”

Kaede startled awake, gasping for air. She sat up, looking around her in a panic. There was nothing there, save the beige walls of her apartment. She looked at the clock. It was 3:00am.

Her breathing began to even out, and she settled herself back into bed. It was just another dream. She worried they would never stop. She closed her eyes.

Kaede.”

She sat up again, looking around. Nothing. She was not going to be sleeping that night, nor the following night.

 


 

School continued, uneventful as ever, for about a month or so. It was the same routine, every day. Kaede would get up, lay back down, and get up again. Brush her teeth, wash her face, then get dressed. She would think about making breakfast, then quickly realise she didn’t have the time. She’s grab her jacket, and that ridiculous bow, running out the door to try and catch Chad. He always waited for her, even though she got progressively more last minute. They’d walk to school, attached by the headphones, and then go their separate ways.

Math, poetry, and English were in the morning. Kaede would eat lunch with Chizuru and the other girls, always handmade and delivered by the Kurosakis in that little pink box, but once every couple of days, she hung out with Ichigo’s group. Then physical education (it was track and field season, which Kaede adored), biology, chemistry, and physics. She would say goodbye to everyone, walk home with Chad, and promptly collapse. She ate dinner with the Kurosakis on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

Kaede was beginning to get the hang of all her classmates’ names and faces. There were Ichigo’s friends: Rukia, Chad, Keigo, and Misuiro. The group was equal parts chilled out, and yet completely lacking in any sort of chill factor. Keigo tended to have the most overflowing energy of them all, while Chad seemed to balance him out with his completely subdued presence. Mizuiro, like Kaede, was very go-with-the-flow. Rukia seemed to be relaxing into a calmer persona, but Rukia and Ichigo had an interesting relationship. The two would often sneak off together somewhere, or go missing for half the day. Kaede and the others figured they were probably dating, and wondered what Rukia’s parents thought of her dating someone who looked so alternative. It was fast too; Rukia had apparently only been there a couple of weeks longer than Kaede.

Then there were Chizuru’s friends: Orihime, Tatsuki, Ryou, Mahana, and Michiru. This was a group Kaede never felt 100% welcome in, but at least she was making friends. Orihime had taken a liking to her, always inviting her to hang out on Sundays, or offering her something bizarre she had thrown together for lunch. Kaede hadn’t really taken her up on either sort of offer yet. Tatsuki’s trust was coming much slower, though that was due to Kaede and Chizuru getting along so well. Turns out, Chizuru took absolute joy in making Tatsuki’s blood pressure skyrocket at every opportunity.

The other girls were tolerating her, which was good enough for Kaede. Ryou was always busy training for track, and Mahana was on the baseball team, with that eating almost all her time. Kaede couldn’t relate. Michiru she knew very little about, until she and Orihime began talking at lunch one Monday about something in their “arts and crafts club”. Kaede was beyond intrigued.

“There’s a club for that here?” she asked.

Michiru was a bit startled that Kaede had spoken, but soon turned on a brilliant smile. She reached into her skirt pocket, and produced the tiniest stuffed teddy bear Kaede had ever seen. She could barely supress a squeal. She slapped her hands over her mouth.

“Did you make that?” Kaede spoke through her fingers, muffled by her own attempts to subdue her excitement.

“I did! We do all kinds of fun crafting things,” Michiru giggled, “I made this the other week. I can’t decide if I should be a charm or a desk ornament.”

“I think a charm on your bag would be super cute,” Orihime clapped her hands together.

“A cute little teddy bear for cute little Michiru,” Chizuru concurred.

“I don’t know, I think your desk might make more sense,” Tatsuki reasoned, “That way it doesn’t get wrecked.”

Ryou and Mahana nodded in agreement. Kaede put a thoughtful finger to her lips, furrowing her brow as she thought about it. A bag charm would get dirty, but a desk ornament meant it was useless. She slammed her hands together when the idea struck her.

“I would use it as a pin cushion,” Kaede decided.

The others looked at her strangely. A silence passed between them. Poor Michiru seemed frightened by the idea.

“A-a pin cushion?” she murmured, looking sadly at her bear, “It is really that bad?”

“Wait, what?” Kaede was puzzled, “No! It’s adorable! That’s why I suggested it; it can double as a functional desk ornament. Pins and sewing needles won’t hurt it, and you can bring it with you to club. I use an old Harvest Moon promotional rabbit as my pin cushion. Cute, and functional.”

That seemed to steer everything back to normal. It certainly brightened Michiru’s expression. Kaede felt a tension leave her body that she hadn’t realised had been there.

“You sew, Kaede?” Ryou asked, with a flip of her silky black hair.

It was apparent, from her exaggerated disinterest, that Ryou didn’t care all that much whether she did or not. Perhaps she was hoping to catch Kaede in a lie. Kaede wouldn’t have been able to give her the satisfaction though, whether she had picked up on Ryou’s intentions or not.

“Yeah, of course,” Kaede replied, “My mother was always insistent I learn. It was one of the few “feminine” things she found useful. I used to have to beg her to even teach me how to cook something, or do laundry. It was a lot.”

She pulled her phone out, and flipped to a picture of a plush kappa. Its skin was baby blue, and its frills were a complementary pastel green. She passed the phone to Ryou, who quickly passed the phone to Mahana, going back to her own bubble gum pink cellphone. Mahana continued passing the picture around.

“I made that for my friend before I moved away,” Kaede explained, “It’s okay from that angle, but he’s all lumpy on one side. I’m not very good at cutting patterns.”

“You should come to Arts and Crafts Club,” Orihime suggested, “You haven’t joined a club yet, right?”

Kaede shook her head, and Orhime and Michiru exchanged smiles.

“Good, we’ll see you on Wednesday, after school,” Michiru declared cheerfully, “Please bring your sewing kit!”

 


 

Kaede was glad to get home that night. This Monday had felt a tad longer than the others. But, despite having finally organised time with some of her other classmates, she felt lonelier than normal. Maybe it had been talking about her mother today that had done it, but Kaede felt her lonesomeness acutely. She dreaded going to sleep tonight; the wolf was becoming persistent. She could swear she was awake sometimes when she saw it, though that was probably from the lack of sleep.

She sighed as she and Chad reached the third floor of their low rise. He could tell something was bothering her. She hadn’t spoken a word their entire trip. That was unusual nowadays; normally, they would at least exchange some sort of conversation on their walks together. He watched her grip her doorknob and turn her key. However, instead of opening the door, she just put her forehead against it, letting go of an even heavier sigh. Normally, he would just go inside and get ready to see his other friends, or make some rice and study, but something about her posture planted him there in the hall.

“Hey,” he said, his voice soft and low, “Is everything okay?” 

He’d startled her. He could tell from the way she twitched before standing straight again. She looked at him, and he finally noticed how deep the bags were under her normally bright eyes. Ever little movement her body made screamed“insomnia”. Her expression did the pondering for her. She was wondering why he was asking.

“You seem…down,” he shrugged, “You don’t have to tell me.”

Kaede sighed again. She seemed exhausted by the thought. She let go of the doorknob, leaning on the railing outside the apartments. Chad leaned up next to her, though he was more sitting on the railing, precariously easy to topple in that pose. Tall people problems.

“Okay,” Kaede agreed, but looked at him sternly, “Promise you won’t laugh?”

Chad raised a hand, as if to say, “scouts honour”. Kaede knew she must have been tired, to be considering divulging. She was going to sound crazy.

“I haven’t been sleeping,” she paused, not for effect, but because her brain was genuinely lagging, “Like, at all. I keep having nightmares. And I swear, I’m getting so tired, I can still hear the damn thing when I’m awake.”

“The thing?”

“It’s a wolf,” she said, throwing her hands up in frustration, “A weird, shadowy, wolf-looking thing, and I hate it, and it stands over my bed, and I just want it to go away.”

Chad blinked at her for a moment. Kaede felt her ears getting hot, and wondered why she had even done that. The lack of sleep was giving her massive social anxiety. But then he nodded, as if in thought. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out his cellphone. He tapped on it for about thirty seconds before presenting it to her. It was an “add contact” page.

“If you can’t sleep, call,” were his only instructions.

Kaede looked between the phone, and his usually stoic face, hoping for to see something. But he seemed to just be waiting for her to take the phone.

“Are you sure?” she wondered, “You know I could wake up anywhere between 10pm and 3am, right?”

Chad simply nodded, with another shrug, nearly placing the phone in her sluggish hands. Kaede obliged his silent request, and caught the hint of a smile on his face. It warmed his entire countenance, though it was barely a shift in his facial muscles. She thought he was quite pretty. Kaede tapped her name and number in, and handed it back. He read it over, looking for any worrying spelling mistakes, before nodding and tapping away at something. Just as he was pocketing his cell, Kaede’s gave that heartbeat buzz in her own pocket. She pulled her phone out, and saw a text that read “Chad”, from a new number.

“Thank you,” she said.

Chad nodded again, before standing and offering her his hands. Kaede felt her cheeks flush as she took them. His hand was twice the size of hers, with familiar kinds of callouses. He gently guided her upright, helping her stay steady when she nearly leaned too far forward. His tough, almost chalky fingertips light a lightbulb in her brain.

“You play guitar.”

It wasn’t a question, and it startled Chad.

“Bass,” he corrected.

How did she know? He watched Kaede’s ears go red as she snatched her hands back.

“I can tell from your fingertips,” she looked away, but presented her own hands once more for inspection, “Mine are the same, but not quite at your level. I mostly play piano, but my guitar is what I have left. I’m not very good though. I suck.”

Their piano had been wrecked in the fire. Even if it hadn’t been, Kaede likely would have had to sell it with the condo. There was no way she could have moved an upright all the way out here. Talk about heavy, and expensive. Kaede realised she had just been standing there for the past few seconds, staring. He was waiting for her to go inside first. He always did that. She began to inch towards her door.

“Well, thank you for the help, and the offer,” she said, opening the door, and shuffling inside.

“Call,” he reminded her.

Kaede grinned, and it was genuine. That expression brought back some of the energy in her appearance, he noted.

“I will,” she promised.

Once she finally closed the door, Chad stayed out for a minute or two longer. He waited until he was sure she didn’t need help, or that she wouldn’t be coming back out. Something had felt strange, when she had opened her door. Like a chill had gone up his spine.

 


 

The wolf was back. It loomed over her in her bed, saliva dripping from between its teeth. It was disgusting. It started singing, to the tune of “Sakura, Sakura”, as long, gaunt, clawed arms began to encircle her. As if it hadn’t been creepy enough while repeating her name in the corner. She squeezed her eyes shut. If she ignored it, it would go away, and she would wake up.

“Kitsune, kitsune,” it sang, “Under the summer sky, she burned the flesh out from my eyes.”

Kaede was still dreaming. She had to be, but something was different about this one. She could smell the rot on its breath.

“Can it still, or can it not? Flames that burn, it has forgot.”

It touched her. For the first time, in almost ten years of seeing this thing, it had touched her. Kaede tried to wake up, but couldn’t. What was happening? She started to pull herself upright, and one of those long claws pierced her shoulder. She could feel it, sliding in between her bones. She screamed.

That was the last thing she remembered.

Kaede was slammed back into consciousness, unable to recall what had just occurred. She looked at the digital clock, glowing red in the darkness. 1:28AM. She was surprised; normally the dreams came several times a night, and she would have woken up at least once by now.

But this one had been different. She could still feel that claw running through her shoulder. She immediately pulled her t-shirt off her shoulder, and saw nothing. This one had been the worst dream she had ever had, and yet she was still intact. She hadn’t thrown herself out of bed, or kicked the sheets like she usually did. She realised then that she was shaking, very badly. She curled into the pillows, trying her best to make the vibrating stop. A light on her bedside table caught her eye. Her phone. She reached for it with shivering hands. It was a text message, from 10:49pm.

“CALL ME,” it read.

It was from Chad. Had she screamed out loud? But the time didn’t make sense, if she had. She stared at the phone, heart racing. Why was she seriously considering this? It was 1:30 in the morning, there was no way he was still up.

“But I promised,” she murmured aloud.

Besides, nothing ever seemed to work after a viciously bad nightmare.

Kaede pulled up his contact page, and tapped the only number she had. She decided to put the phone on speaker; it made hearing the other person easier, and she was not in the mood for headphones. She needed to be able to hear what was around her right now. It rang twice before connecting. She could hear the phone being shuffled around, and then a sudden thump. It sounded like someone was swearing to themselves on the other end.

“…Kaede?” Chad finally answered, sounding still half-asleep, “Are you okay?”

Kaede was surprised to hear him, even though she had just heard him having a major struggle with the phone. Why had she even called? What was wrong with her? She had stopped shaking though.

“Kaede?”

“Oh, s-sorry,” she found her voice, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have called.”

“I told you to.”

She could only guess he had shrugged while saying that.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked, nearly yawning through the end of his question.

She shook her head before remembering to answer him verbally.

“Yeah,” she murmured, “I had the nightmare again. Well, not the same one, but that same…thing.”

“The wolf?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, give me a second.”

Kaede wondered what he meant by that, hoping he would just drift back to sleep if he was tired. Suddenly, there was a knock at her front door. Three in a row, short and powerful. Kaede jumped nearly out of her skin, yelping in surprise.

“Can you come let me in?” Chad asked over the phone, “It’s cold.”

He wasn’t outside. Was he? But his voice had echoed, like it usually does when the person you’re talking to is nearby. Kaede’s eyes widened when there was a second set of knocks. She leapt out of bed, rushing to find an oversized sweater. She ended up finding a hoodie from junior high, in that standard XXXL the school would order to save on bulk. Sweat pants were next, no time for a bra. No need either; the sweater concealed her well enough.

“I’m coming,” she called, throwing the sweater over her head.

A few more seconds, and she was opening her door. There stood Chad, in his own sweater and sweatpants. Both had the high school logo on them. It occurred to her then at the things they gave out would not have looked nearly so oversized on Chad. He was what, 2 meters tall? He raised his hand in his usual greeting gesture.

“Yo,” he said.

“H-hey…What are you doing here?”

Kaede couldn’t believe he was there. There was no way.

“You can’t sleep. I figured you could use some company.”

Halfway behind her door, Kaede reached out, grabbing the front of his hoodie. It was thick and soft; cotton with a fleece lining. She gave a tug, and his whole body move forwards. He was real. She looked up at him to greet him properly, but found the words died in her throat. His eyes were wide, and his ears were flushed. Kaede realised what she had done, and quickly let go.

“Sorry, making sure you were real,” she cried, “Please, come in!”

If I haven’t freaked you out already.

“Thanks,” he nodded.

Kaede opened the door fully, and moved out of the way. He came inside, ducking to avoid the doorframe. The smell of citrus caught her nose as he passed, and something else. Chad kicked off his shoes and Kaede turned on the small kitchen light. Full brightness was too much for her right now, and Chad seemed grateful for the dark as well. He sat down at the table, which he continued to look oversized for. Kaede’s once spacious apartment was beginning to feel like a dollhouse.

“Want some tea?” she offered, “If you’re going to be pulling an all-nighter with me.”

Chad nodded, and Kaede quickly set to work. She pulled down her kettle, and a small teapot she had picked up from the convenience store. It was surprisingly cute, with blue flowers and a built-in steeper. She reached for the only tea she had right now, a citrus green tea, and scooped the leaves into the steeper. She liked well-whisked matcha as well as the next girl, but dried leaves were more convenient.

“So, are your parents going to be okay with you sneaking out to stay with some girl until sunrise?” she asked, filling the kettle in the sink.

Chad look surprised once again. Kaede set the kettle to boil, and picked up the pot to place it on the stove. She looked ready to collapse, but just kept working. That wouldn’t do. At least he’d had some rest.

“Didn’t anyone tell you?” he wondered, getting up and wandering towards her.

“Tell me what?”

“It’s just me.”

Kaede nearly dropped the pot, but Chad’s hand was right there to catch it. Kaede hadn’t even heard him get up.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted, whether for his being alone, or the teapot, she didn’t know.

“Don’t be,” he paused, as if weighing his next syllables carefully, “It’s…been a long time.”

He very gracefully placed the teapot on the stove, gently nudging her out of her own kitchenette with his presence.

“I moved here from Mexico, when my abuelo died.”

“Abuelo?”

“Grandfather. He raised me when my parents died, and then I ended up here with my grandmother, on my father’s side. She died pretty soon after that. I’ve been living here since I was…13?”

“That’s why Mr. Iwanobu is so over-friendly.”

“He…means well. Most landlords won’t take kids like us.”

“True.”

There was silence for a while after that. Kaede knew she was running on empty when he handed her a steaming mug. Chad put a hand on her shoulder, guiding her to the table.

“You’ve been standing there for 15 minutes,” he said, “Sit down. Drink that. Go to sleep.”

He was…soothing her?

“Thanks, Mom,” she laughed, curling up in the kitchen chair.

They sat in silence for a while, just sipping tea. It was 2:07, according to the microwave.

“About five months ago, I lost my parents and younger sister in a fire,” Kaede murmured, “My grandparents were supposed to take me, according to Mom’s will, but they were on their way out when my parents died. The only people left alive were Ichigo’s family, but I didn’t know them at all, so I asked to get my own place nearby. It didn’t feel right to just move in, be a burden. I’m going to sound like a complete edge lord, but… I’m the only one left.”

The silence that followed stretched a bit too long. Kaede looked over to Chad, and found him looking back at her. His eyes were flecked with gold. They looked more like honey in the warm light of the shove. Kaede used to wonder if she had made him uncomfortable when he would fix those eyes on her, but she knew now that it wasn’t that. She could never tell you how, but she just knew. They had more in common with one another than with most other people. Maybe even more than either of them realised.

“How do you do it?”

“Hm?”

Her voice had startled him. He’d been looking at her, but the pull of her eyes had been too much to focus on anything else. Grey, like steel, yet tinged with green and full of life. She smiled at him.

“The “just me” thing. I’ll never get the hang of it.”

She looked like she was about to fall out of the chair, curled up with her mug like that. She had never asked for anything after the first day they had met, until now. She put the mug on the table, and her head hit her knees. She was cute, and tough. She could always keep going by herself, if everyone let her.

“It’s never just you,” he smiled, though Kaede couldn’t see, “There are other waiting to help you. You just have to ask.”

Kaede didn’t say anything, and he figured at first that she was processing. Until she started to rock forwards. She was out like a light, and about to topple. He tapped her on the shoulder. With a squeal, she was back, and straightened out with enviable speed.

“What happened?”

“You,” Chad first pointed at her, then thrust his thumb towards the pull-out couch, “Bed.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Kaede sighed, standing up, “I’ll let you out.”

They headed towards the front together. Chad didn’t even put his shoes on, simply picking them up. He opened the door, but looked back at her before he was fully out.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” he asked.

Kaede nodded, “Bright and early! Goodnight!”

He stopped moving, and reached out for her. Kaede was surprised when he pet her head. Her curls were soft, and her eyelids seemed heavier at just that motion.

“Sleep well.”

Kaede locked the door behind him, and the world seemed to grow fuzzy. She felt like her muscles were relaxing, for the first time in a while. When she settled back into bed, she could still feel his hand on her head. He was warm.

The wolf never came back.

Chapter Text

Since that night, Chad and Kaede no longer walked with headphones in. They hadn’t even agreed on it verbally, but neither of them felt like listening to music the next day. Or for the rest of the week. Instead, they would chat, or make plans to hang out.

The days of the week rolled by once again, but their bookends were so much more memorable. Tuesdays, they would study together, since Thursdays were usually for quizzes and assignments. On Wednesday, Kaede went to Arts and Crafts Club, and Chad would wait for her. Kaede would always find him in the locker bay, reading or napping. Then, he’d walk her to the Kurosaki house, promising to come if she needed him to. Isshin always drove her home after though, growing increasingly protective with every instance of Chad walking her.

“I thought Yasutora was a friend,” Isshin had snapped at Ichigo one night over dinner, “Why is he walking Kaede instead of you?”

“Because I have stuff to do, Old Man,” Ichigo had replied, the two finishing their food aggressively.

Thursdays, they took for themselves, hoping to recharge before the weekend. Fridays were for Chizuru, and Saturdays for hanging out as a group. Sundays were a day of rest, and then the week began again. 

Mid-terms were fast approaching, and poor Kaede was starting to get a bit scatterbrained. When Kaede forgot her textbooks, there was Chad with his to share. Kaede had started taking Yuzu’s old bento box home, and always packed extra when making her own lunch. Chad would forget to eat; when he set his mind on something, he lost any semblance of self-care. They both napped during lunch sometimes, and would help one another with miscellaneous chores around their apartment building. They made sure to look out for one another. Overall, they seemed much closer than they had before, and everyone was starting to notice. Not just their friends, but others as well.

At lunch, Keigo had held in his curiosity long enough.

“Hey, Chad,” he began slowly, “I hate to ask, but…why is Kaede sleeping on you like that?”

Kaede was indeed passed out, resting her head on Chad’s thigh. What had finally caused Keigo to snap, was the fact that Chad had just put his jacket over her. His friends couldn’t imagine someone that solid being very comfortable, but Kaede looked happy as a clam. Her pink cheek was squished, and she was happily mumbling away. Something about time over distance? Rukia, Ichigo, and Mizuiro all nodded along at Keigo’s question. They were beyond curious.

“She’s…tired?”

“I think you know that’s not why we’re asking,” Mizuiro smiled.

 


 

At the end of the day, Chad and Kaede nearly waddled down to the lockers. It was Thursday. Rest night.

“I think,” Kaede sighed, “I’m going to take a nice long bath. What about you?”

“…A nap,” Chad responded.

They grabbed their shoes and headed out the front entrance. As they walked, Kaede couldn’t help but dream about what sort of bath she would want to have. She had some bath oils and salts she had gotten as sympathy gifts. Which one to choose? There was rose, cherry blossom, wisteria, lavender, and rosemary. The rose and lavender made her sneeze, but the rosemary wouldn’t quite hit the spot. The two moved in silence, too tired to talk; a common Thursday occurrence.

When they reached the gate, Chad stopped. Kaede bumped right into his back, startled back to reality. Something, or rather, someone, had decided to interrupt the first stretch of their walk. A lot of them. A group of upperclassmen were crowded around the gate, watching Chad and Kaede together. Chad had noticed them earlier in the week too, but normally they tried to be covert. They stared openly now.

“Hey, Yasutora,” one of them called out, “Can we steal you away for a bit?”

Kaede frowned, and opened her mouth to say something, but the one who had spoken raised his hand to silence her. He had a patchy goatee and bad skin, with sunglasses that completed the picture of “rat” for her.

“Now, now, Little Miss Saito,” he sneered, “We just want to borrow him. Won’t take more than a few minutes. You can wait, can’t you?”

Kaede nearly shuddered. How had he known her name? It was when he raised his hand that Chad had caught the telltale glint of a weapon up his sleeve. What kind, Chad didn’t know. Best case, a baton. Worst case, a knife. The upperclassmen were watching their surroundings, counting witnesses.

“I mean, you could come with us too,” goatee’s sneer turned to a grotesque smile, “We don’t mind cute girls.”

Not happening.

“I’ll go. Alone,” he told them, before looking down at Kaede, “Go home without me, okay?”

Kaede could tell from the look on his face that something wasn’t right. She didn’t know these guys from anyone else on the street, though she had seen them around before. She knew Chad and Ichigo were always dragged into some fight or another, but there were about seven of them, asking just for Chad. She grabbed his arm. He looked down at her, surprised to see how wide her bright eyes were. Kaede could hear her heartbeat in her ears.

“Please don’t go,” she whispered.

He put his hand on top of hers for just a moment, before gently removing her fingers from his sleeve. He did his best to give her a reassuring look.

“If it’s not me, it’ll be someone else,” he said, turning away, “Someone could get hurt.”

Kaede watched him go, his broad back looking impossibly small. When the upperclassmen surrounded him, Kaede couldn’t see anything else.

“But you could get hurt.”

Once they had rounded the corner, Kaede knew what she had to do. She fired a text off to Ichigo, then took off after them. She hoped her cousin would see it, but she couldn’t count on him. Following behind by half a block, Kaede did her best to remain hidden. She worried she had lost them a few times once they hit the downtown, but Chad’s shape was like a beacon to her. He stood out, no matter where they went. She could always find him.

At last, there was a turn that didn’t make sense. A side-alley, off a grid-locked, small business block. Nothing to disturb them, and an easy getaway, should they need it. Alleys like that were usually open on both ends, to give the garbage trucks options. It was before dinner rush, so nobody would be going in or out. Kaede checked her phone. Nothing from Ichigo. Of course not; he’d taken off with Rukia after school.

Kaede was on her own.

Meanwhile, Chad was having his guts punched in. His arms were restrained, though he wasn’t fighting them much. Better to let them wear themselves out. Most people gave up on him pretty fast; he could always outlast most people’s fists. He’d vowed never to fight for himself, but it always tested his patience when he took blows from people like this. At least no one else was in danger; that was good enough for him. Besides, his lack of retaliation seemed to be more frustrating to these creeps more than anything.

“Damn it!” one of them screamed after punch him for a third time, cradling his fist, “What the hell are you made of? Fuckin' freak!”

Goatee was losing patience. This was not going well. They had been planning to beat him up, make the little punk scared. But there he was, just watching them, when most people would be ready for the emergency room. Goatee put a hand up, signalling for his lackeys to stop. He walked right up to Chad, but didn’t hit him. Curious choice. Goatee examined his nails, oddly casual.

“Why do you keep hanging out with that girl?” he asked.

Chad shrugged, which only made him angrier. Who shrugs off the blows of seven people? Time to have some fun.

“I think this dirty foreigner has his head screwed on wrong,” the leader cackled, “He actually thinks he can hang around one of our girls and get away with it.”

Chad frowned.

“She isn’t your girl,” he said.

Kaede belonged to no one. That much was perfectly clear.

The gang leader howled with laughter. His underlings joined in for effect.

“All girls are our girls,” the leader hissed, “Especially the pure ones.”

When he pulled out a large knife, Chad didn’t even flinch. He’d always had a grim fear he’d be stabbed in an alleyway by xenophobic racists someday, so this was hardly a surprising turn of events. It happened every couple of months or so.

“Doesn’t matter, in the end. We’re going to make sure you can’t fuck her, or any girl, ever again. We can’t have any more dirty halves like you running around.”

“Uhm, excuse me?” a delicate voice echoed through the alleyway.

Chad and his aggressors looked over to see a feminine frame. A squint revealed it to be Kaede. Shoot. Chad had left her alone at front of the gate. She must have followed them when he’d agreed to walk off with these guys.

As Kaede came down the alley towards them, Chad thought she had to be crazy.

“Kaede, what are you-?”

“Excuse me, but I think there’s been some sort of misunderstanding,” Kaede smiled at them all, her hands clasped cutely to her chest, “I’m sure if you could just put down the knife and let my friend go, then-.”

“Why don’t you just run along, Cutie, while we teach your boyfriend here a lesson?” goatee boy sneered, “This isn’t any of your business.”

At that, Kaede’s placating smile disappeared. Her hands dropped down to her sides, and she stared at them with a piercing gaze. The change was instant, and frightening. She nearly shimmered with rage.

“You’re threatening him,” Kaede stated, “Which makes it my business.”

The upperclassmen exchanged glances, and cackled gleefully. Who knew they’d get to beat on the cocky half in front of his little girlfriend? It seemed like a win to them. Goatee backed off of Chad immediately, and two more of his lackeys grabbed onto Chad. Four of them reduced his chances of being able to pull free, but he could still do it. Goatee passed off his knife to one of them, and began closing in on Kaede. The obvious leader of this small mob circled her, eying her like she was a slab of meat. Chad felt every muscle in his body ready themselves for action. This could get ugly.

“And just what do you plan to do about it?” Goatee grinned, grabbing Kaede’s arm in a vice grip.

Kaede winced, which gave him the fuel he needed to grab tighter. Once she was sure the skin on her arm would be red, Kaede finally looked back at her captor. Her eyes held a wicked glint.

“Famous last words,” she hissed.

With every ounce of body strength and air she had, Kaede gave the loudest, most piercing shriek possible. The bully let go in shock, but Kaede didn’t let up. She ran towards the open street, shouting all the way.

“Somebody help!”

“Grab her,” goatee boy cried.

Two of the boys holding Chad let go to follow the order, and that was a fatal mistake. Chad threw the remaining thugs off with ease, but not without taking a slash to his arm. He kicked back from the slasher, and soon had the one of the ones who had taken off after Kaede in a headlock. The rest of the gang took that as an excuse to jump Chad, dog piling him to the ground.

“Somebody help us, please!” Kaede cried out into the street, “Help! Please! Ahhhh, he’s got a knife! Somebody, help!”

It was less than half a second before people started to gather around. The bystanders were quickly taking pictures, and some were furiously dialing something on their phones. One man near the front was already on the phone with police. Goatee looked over at the knife in one of his friends’ hands and paled. They were done for if the cops came.

“Crazy bitch!” he cursed, retreating off towards the other end of the alley, “Let’s get out of here!”

The struggling between Chad and the other boys immediately halted, and soon the whole group was high-tailing it.

“You better run!” Kaede hollered after them, “Back to whatever dumpster fire you slithered out of, fuck-o’s!”

Chad stood and watched in awe as his attackers sped off onto the other street, not even daring to look at Kaede. He couldn’t believe they had just tucked tail like that. He felt a cold hand on his arm, and jumped. He thought he might be in trouble. But the large crowd had already begun to disperse, and it was only Kaede.

“Are you okay?” she asked him, “They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

Her forearm was a painful red, but she was worried about him. For the first time, he was mad at her.

“What was that?” he replied with his own question, “You could have been stabbed.”

“I’ve gotten pretty good at using social perceptions of women to my advantage. One of which is the “harmless little girl” assumption,” Kaede’s expression was grim as she examined his arm, “So they cut you after all. Come on, let’s go to the hospital. It doesn’t seem to be anything a bandage and some good food can’t fix, but you have no idea where that knife has been.”

“It’s ok, you’ve-.”

“Done enough?” Kaede finished, “Hardly. They were attacking you because you were with me, right?”

Chad went very quiet at that. Kaede shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I asked you to walk me without thinking. I think I knew, deep down, that you thought it was a bad idea. I wish I had known it would cause you so much trouble, because I wouldn’t have asked.”

Chad stared over at the far wall of the alley. Kaede’s expression was unbearably sad, but he was at a loss. As they stood in that suffocating silence, a man came towards them. It was the man who had been on the phone with emergency services.

“Are you kids alright?” he asked them.

Chad waited for Kaede to answer for them, but she didn’t. He finally looked down to see she was in tears.

“Physically,” Chad replied, sounding much more pathetic than he usually did.

The man nodded. He was a middle-aged gentleman in a tan coat, his hair combed over to cover his receding hairline. He was observing them, and his eyebrows nearly shot up into his artificial hairline when he saw the wound on Chad’s arm.

“They cut you after all,” he sounded grave, “I told the police that the situation seemed to be resolved, but you should file a report, after you kids find a clinic to get that checked out. Have you ever seen those kids before?”

Chad shook his head.

“I think they go to our high school,” he replied, “But no, I’ve never seen them before.”

Kaede’s fingers twitched against his skin. Her red-rimmed eyes spoke for her, snapping furiously beneath the glassy surface. Kaede now remembered exactly who they were; they’d been watch Chad for at least two weeks. The one with the patchy beard had bumped Chad’s shoulder in the hallway then, and she had thought it was an accident at the time. It was clear now. He’d been targeted. The man in the jacket noticed her sudden tension.

“I see,” the man said, “If you want to handle this on your own, that’s fine. But please be careful. You’ll make your friend worry.”

Kaede’s stomach dropped at that. This wasn’t about her. Chad nodded, and the man turned to leave.

“Wait,” Chad called after him, “Thank you.”

The man simply waved without turning, as if it were no big deal. When they were alone, Kaede finally let go of Chad’s sleeve. Her head was lowered, and she gazed off into nothingness. Deep in thought.

“Come on,” he said, “We’ll get this looked at.”

He watched her eyes snap back into focus, and they headed off in silence.

 


 

When they reached the downtown clinic, the nurse at the desk jumped out of her seat when she saw Chad’s wound. He had taken off his jacket to use to put pressure on it, and the jacket was stained bright red. She was only a few seconds before she was out in the waiting room.

“The doctor will see you right away,” she said quickly, ushering Chad in, “Would you like for your friend to come with you?”

Chad looked back at Kaede, tilting his head as though to ask her. Kaede was a little taken aback.

“It’s up to you,” she said, bringing her hands up in front of her, “I can wait here, or I can go with you. What do you want?”

Chad said nothing, but nodded at the nurse. She took that as a yes, and motioned Kaede in behind Chad. No sooner than they had been seated in the examination room, the doctor rushed in. He was a young man, and his name tag said “Dr. Matsude”. He was quick to flip open a tiny folder and examine the cut.

“Well, Mr. Yasutora, you were lucky,” Dr. Matsude told him as the nurse cleaned the cut with a cotton swab, “It’s pretty shallow, and the cut is clean. You’ll probably need stitches though. You’ve got quite a few bruises forming on your face too. If you don’t mind my asking, what happened?”

“I fell,” Chad stated with finality.

He was just going to lie about it, even to the doctor treating him. Kaede frowned down at her shoes, and it didn’t go unnoticed.

“Can I talk to you outside for a moment, please?” Dr. Matsude asked Kaede, “Miss-uh…”

“Saito.”

“Miss Saito,” he nodded, “A moment, please?”

Kaede nodded, and the doctor stepped out. She looked back at Chad for a moment, and his eyes almost pleaded with her. Don’t say anything. Kaede felt a tug go through her heart. She turned and followed the doctor out, closing the door behind her.

“Alright, Miss Saito, it seems like there may be something more going on here,” Matsude said to her, “Would you be willing to talk to me about it?”

Kaede opened her mouth to speak, but the memory of Chad’s face made her stop short. She looked down again, unable to come clean. Anything she said could end up causing problems, so she chose to say nothing.

“I know a knife wound when I see one,” Dr. Matsude sighed, “What happened? Should I involve the police?”

Kaede said nothing. She felt like an idiot, and a coward. It made her sick.

“Miss Saito?”

“Like he said, he fell,” she replied, “Everything’s been resolved.”

That last part hadn’t been a lie, and she tried to communicate that with her face. The doctor nodded, seemingly satisfied. When they headed back into the room, Chad was just standing to leave.

“Now, make sure you don’t get those stitches wet for the next few days. You can either come back here or go see your family doctor to get them removed in about a week,” the doctor instructed, “Maybe stay with your friend tonight, in case you have an adverse reaction to the tetanus shot.”

Chad nodded. They thanked the doctor and the nurse, and left the clinic.

 


 

As they walked home, they were silent. Normally, Kaede would ramble on forever about nothing in particular. But today she was quieter than usual. They were midway home before she said a word.

“Do you want to stay at my place, like he suggested?” she asked him, “I could make my mom’s pasta sauce. You like tomatoes, right?”

“How did you know?” he blinked in surprise.

“Every day, you bring a different dish with tomatoes in it for lunch,” Kaede shrugged her shoulders, “When you buy from the school store, it’s always pizza or a sandwich with tomatoes. They’re the one commonality between everything. It’s not hard to draw a conclusion from that. That's why I've been packing those raw grape tomatoes every day.”

Kaede was much more observant than she gave herself credit for; Ichigo would never have noticed something like that. In fact, in the few years he had lived in Karakura, he was sure no one had. Chad smiled, but Kaede found she couldn’t return it with her own for more than a second. Her face became clouded with sadness, and she looked down at the ground in front of her.

“What is it?” Chad asked her.

Kaede stopped. Chad stopped too. There was another stretch of quiet between them. When Kaede finally spoke, it was so quiet a bird’s chirp would drown her out.

“Why?” she asked softly, “Why wouldn’t you say anything? Why would you lie about that?”

Chad had figured she would ask.

“Because I have to,” he told her.

“But why?” Kaede looked up at him, “Why do you have to lie? The doctor even knew you were the one who had been attacked.”

Chad inhaled deeply, and let go of an even deeper sigh.

“Because admitting that I knew them won’t help me,” Chad explained, “No one will listen to me.”

“But they were attacking you,” Kaede growled, stamping her foot in indignation, “I don’t get it!”

Chad laughed at her miniature tantrum. Kaede frowned.

“I’m serious,” she said, “Why won’t they listen?”

“Look at me,” he said.

And Kaede did. For the first time since the day they had met, Kaede really looked at Chad.

He was big. Very big. Over two metres tall, she guessed. And muscular. He looked tough, so she supposed that was part of everyone’s problem with him. His cheekbones were prominent, and his mouth and lips were pronounced and full. His jaw and chin were sharp, and he had one of the strongest noses she had ever seen. It was unbelievably attractive.

And then, of course, there was his skin. His brown skin, that Kaede thought was beautiful. He had told Kaede his mother was Mexican, and Kaede wondered in that moment if she had been the source of Chad’s good looks. Did she have those same honey-brown eyes, and those chiseled cheekbones? Was she tall, and slender, with the same thick, dark brown curls as her son? Was life in Japan hard for her, like it was for Chad?

The lightbulb clicked on.

“Oh! Racism.”

“Yup.”

“Duh. I’m such a-I’m so sorry.”

How stupid. She felt utterly incompetent. The disrespect he dealt with was unbelievable. The fact that it took her this long to realise why he’d lied was even worse. They were supposed to be friends. The more she thought about it, the more pained Kaede felt.

“Aren’t you angry?” she asked.

“No,” Chad shook his head, “I used to be, but not anymore.”

Oh god, that just meant he was used to it.

“I’m proud of who I am,” he told her, putting a hand on his chest, “And no one can take that away from me.”

He pulled something out from under his shirt. It was a necklace with…a coin? He took it off and handed it to her. It was a coin, neatly polished and well cared for. Solid gold, minted in 1934.

“A coin?”

“A peso,” he said, “My abuelo gave me that, when I was young. When he died, I made a promise, to him, and myself. That I would only use my strength for others. That coin reminds me of who I am, where I come from. It’s worth more to me that my life; this coin, and that promise.”

The look of conviction in his eyes made Kaede feel just a little better. At least he wasn’t caving in to despair any time soon. She handed it back with a nod, mostly satisfied. Still, there was something she had to know.

“Then, is there anything I can do?” she asked, “To help you?”

Chad pondered that as he returned his peso to its rightful place. That wasn’t a question anyone had ever asked him before, about something like this. He came up with the answer quickly.

“Keep seeing me the way you do,” he told her.

Well, that was a little non-specific.

“What does that mean?” Kaede frowned.

Chad’s features didn’t convey the amusement he felt at that question, but there was quite a bit of it. As he walked past her to continue their journey home, he decided he’d let her figure it out on her own. However, Kaede was utterly unamused.

“No, seriously, what does that mean?” she asked.

Chad just kept walking.

“Chad? Chad!”

Chapter Text

Hey, I’m going to be late today. Go ahead without me.”

“Huh?”

Kaede scowled down at her phone as she pulled her shoe on. It was 6:55, and she had been planning to beat him to the front, for once. She texted back immediately.

Is everything okay? You always wait for me, so I don’t mind,” she wrote.

She began to tie her shoes more slowly, knowing she would be much earlier than she liked to be. Her phone vibrated again.

It’s okay, go ahead without me. I’ll see you at school.”

Weird. Kaede decided to physically call him. No telling what was wrong, if he was telling her to go ahead. He could be under a pile of cars and he wouldn’t tell her. As was customary, the phone rang only twice before he answered.

“Hey. I’m fine.”

“Hey, I didn’t ask you that.”

“Yet. I promise, I’m fine.”

“Then tell me where you’re going, instead of school?”

“It’s…a surprise.”

Kaede scowled.

“If you come in hurt-.”

“I know. I’ll see you soon.”

Kaede was struck with the sudden feeling that when she saw him next, he’d be in bandages. When he wasn’t in class for the morning, that feeling only grew. He didn’t answer her texts, and last week’s gang incident had Kaede completely out of her mind by lunch time. She couldn’t even concentrate on her friends.

“Okay, but we seriously need to go see "Your Name",” Chizuru was barrelling through like nothing was wrong, “I mean, I hear it’s aggressively straight, but still a tear-jerker.”

“Why is it a problem if it’s straight?” Tatsuki frowned.

“It’s not, but I’m tired of being expected to only ever related to people who prefer men,” Chizuru nudged Kaede, “For reasons I will never understand.”

Kaede didn’t even register the nudge, simply wiggling from side to side before resettling. Everyone was staring at her, but she couldn’t have been farther away. She sat perfectly still, slowly and robotically shovelling food into her mouth.

“But like, what if he’s dead?” Kaede wondered aloud between bites, “What if he’s dead, and I’m just sitting here eating freeze-dried eel?”

The other girls began laughing, which woke Kaede right up. She looked utterly confused.

“What? What did I miss?”

Meanwhile, Ichigo and the others were trying to enjoy their lunch in peace. Keigo was, as usual, beyond excited that Rukia was even entertaining their presence. Kaede looked over across the rooftop to spot someone she didn’t recognize. Frizzy, bleached hair, a lip ring, and a skinny little friend to back him up. Another fight was coming, she could feel it. With a sigh, she began packing up her lunch.

“Where are you going?” Michiru asked her.

“To save my cousin from another suspension,” she said.

She didn’t need to though. Like trouble had summoned him, there was Chad, with a well-timed throw. She watched as the frizzy boy nearly flew across the roof.

“Rei-chan, I warned you not to do that!” his slight friend ran after him, screaming.

Wow…

As Mizuiro and Keigo circled him in awe, Kaede noted that something seemed off in how Chad was carrying himself. He was stiff. It set off a warning bell.

“Looks like that’s all taken care of, and you know that Chad is alive,” Mahana grinned, “Two birds with one stone. Now sit down and finish your eel.”

Kaede frowned, but opened her bento box back up. She even plopped over onto her butt. From her spot on the blanket, Orihime noticed that Kaede’s entire posture had relaxed, right down to the hairs on her head. She found it odd, since Kaede was normally so guarded. Kaede was slowly becoming an open book, and Orihime hoped it meant she was relaxing into her environment a bit more.

“Fine, but I’m still going to go give him a piece of my mind when I’m done,” Kaede grumbled.

“Yeah, yeah,” Mahana laughed at her, “Are you two dating or something?”

Kaede felt her ears go red.

“A-absolutely not!” she huffed, though she grew redder by the second, “I was just worried. He tends to get himself into trouble, that’s all.”

“So, you’re not his girlfriend?”

“No, no, no! More like a very concerned friend. Anyways, all done, bye guys!”

With that, Kaede packed her food up once again, moving at lightning speed. As she sped off towards the other end of the roof, the other girls shared a look.

“Sure,” Tatsuki snorted, “Friends.

Meanwhile, Keigo and Ichigo were busy grilling Chad all on their own. He hadn’t even gotten to sit down before they were on him.

“You’ve gotta be more careful man,” Keigo admonished him, “You could have killed Ooshima. Thanks for saving us though.”

Chad hadn’t thought of that. He got to put the grocery bag he was carrying down, but his unpacking had to stop there.

“You’re injured?” Ichigo was surprised to see it, “What happened?”

“My head,” Chad pointed to it, “is from yesterday. A steel beam fell on my head. My hand is from this morning. I went to buy bread and got hit by a motorcycle.”

“A steel beam? A motorcycle?” Ichigo was yelling now, “What the hell are you doing?”

“The guy on the bike got seriously injured, so…”

His friends were looking at him now, completely stunned.

“So, that’s why you’re late,” Keigo murmured.

“What the hell are you made of?” Ichigo was muttering as well, “Iron?”

Chad was already exhausted with the conversation, and took something off his shoulder. It was a birdcage, with a cockatiel inside of it. The bird immediately distracted Keigo and Ichigo, and he was grateful for that.

“Ooooo, what’s with the bird?” Keigo marvelled, “Is that a parakeet?”

Cockatiel.

“Hello,” the bird chimed, “My name is Yuichi Shibata! What’s yours?”

“Oh, wow! He speaks so well!” Keigo nearly squealed, “My name is Keigo Asano! Can you say Keigo?”

“Keigo! Keigo!”

“Where’d you get the parakeet?” Ichigo asked.

“Yesterday,” Chad was almost sighing at this point, “I…got it.”

“Hey! You quit explaining because it was too much work again, didn’t you?” Keigo snipped, “That’s a bad habit!”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did! Just tell us!”

Chad flushed and looked away. He saw Kaede running towards them from the girl’s picnic blanket. That long ponytail waved behind her like a flag, loose curls bouncing around her face. When she reached him, she seemed genuinely happy to see him. Keigo was saying something about being ignored, but it filtered away into background noise.

“Hey, you made it! I’m glad you’re okay; you had me-,” she caught sight of his bandaged hand and head immediately, “Oh my god, what happened?”

“I got hit by a steel beam last night, and a motorcycle this morning,” he shrugged, “You should see the driver.”

Kaede seemed utterly incensed. She grabbed his injured hand gently, yet firmly, inspecting it. It seemed to be barely a sprain, given how nonplused he was by her grip. The look she turned on him was ferocious.

“Oh yeah, “I’m okay, Kaede, don’t worry”,” she cried, scolding him, “You could at least return a text message! “Hey, sorry, yeah, I’m not fine.” That’s it! All it takes! I’m so glad you’re okay!”

He blushed, and took his hand back to rub his neck, as if to hide the rising heat.

“I was fine when you called.”

“Um, your head seems to stand in stark contrast to that statement,” Kaede was seriously unhappy, “Do you have a concussion? Who even let you come to school?”

“Dr. Matsude was on duty again. He said I was fine.”

“Of course, that man would let you go.”

“I didn’t want you to worry. I’ll be fine by the end of the day. He said I can take all this off after school.”

“That’s not the point!”

He wasn’t used to someone being so concerned about him, and Kaede was rather energetic in her concerns. Normally, he’d wait for Ichigo to fill her in on his morning, or keep his actual condition to himself, but he was telling her like it was a confessional.

“Hello, Pretty Miss!”

Kaede startled. Who said that? She looked all around, before landing a menacing glare on Keigo. He blanched.

“It wasn’t me!”

“Here, Miss!”

Kaede’s eyes finally landed on the bird cage, and the lovely white cockatiel inside. It stared up at her with shining eyes.

“My name is Yuichi,” it said, “What’s yours?”

Kaede was at first stunned, and then delighted. She immediately dropped, getting right up to the birdcage on hands and knees.

“What a pretty cockatiel,” Kaede beamed, “Where’d you get it?”

“Pretty miss,” the bird chirped, “Pretty miss!”

“Aw, that’s so cute!” Kaede grinned, placing a hand on her chest, “Kaede Saito.”

“Miss Kaede,” Yuichi tittered, “Miss Kaede!”

Chad sat down next to her, opening a package of bread. He pulled a scrap off for Yuichi, then put another small piece in Kaede’s open hand. She passed it to Yuichi through the bars, delighting in how the bird cooed the word “delicious” over and over again.

“My friend, Harutoki, got him in an inheritance, but the last three aunts who had him died,” Chad explained, “He was trying to find someone who wouldn’t get spooked by something like that. So, I said I would take him.”

“Of course, you’d agree to that,” Kaede frowned, “But we aren’t allowed pets.”

“It’s just until Harutoki can find a rescue for birds that will take him. I know we aren’t allowed to have pets, so I’ve been bringing him everywhere with me. I had to run to the store this morning to get him something to eat.”

“That’s why you told me to go ahead.”

“I was already out when I texted you, and I knew I wouldn’t make it back in time to walk you.”

“You don’t have to “walk me”. I’m not a puppy.”

As she and Chad fed Yuichi, exchanging their mornings with one another, Keigo, Mizuiro, Ichigo, and Rukia looked on in mild or moderate annoyance.

“Wait, so he’ll tell her the whole story?” Keigo asked no one in particular, “Just like that?”

“Kaede is a cutie,” Mizuiro teased, “He’s helpless against her attack type.”

 


 

It was Wednesday, which meant club and Kurosakis. Chad parked himself in the classroom today, with Yuichi beside his desk. Which was weird; he’d been waiting for her outside most days. Maybe it was getting too hot? Kaede had been surprised Miss Ochi was cool with it, but Yuichi had been remarkably quiet all afternoon. Like he somehow knew how to behave in a classroom.

“Are you sure you don’t want to take Yuichi home and call it a night?” Kaede asked him, “I can walk by myself. You seem tired today.”

Did he look that tired? Chad shook his head, pulling a book out of his bag. He showed her the cover, which was in Spanish. Kaede recognised a couple of the words in the title.

“The Count of Monte Cristo?” she tilted her head, “You continue to amaze me. I can barely keep my English straight.”

Chad simply shrugged, leaning back and opening it.

“It’s my first language,” he said once he found his page, “Go to club. I’ll wait. I don’t mind.”

“…Am I your excuse for extracurricular reading?”

He was gone though, a million miles away. Kaede sighed.

“I’ll be back.”

 


 

Club was uneventful, though Kaede did manage to start making a not-lumpy kappa doll. Orihime and Michiru had been instrumental in fixing the pattern and stitching issues. It turned out she was messing up the stuffing hole under its arm. When she returned to the classroom, Chad wasn't even reading his book. He was staring out the window. He jumped when he heard her voice, but, otherwise, everything proceeded as normal. A slow, stiff normal, but normal nonetheless.

As they walked to the Kurosaki Clinic, Kaede couldn’t help but feel like something was very off. Chad barely spoke the whole trip, to an extent that was odd even for him. He seemed distracted.

“Are you sure Dr. Matsude said you were cleared for a concussion?” she asked as they came up to the final crosswalk, “You seem really out of it.”

“I’m alright,” he brushed off her concerns, “You were right. I think I’m just tired.”

Kaede was unconvinced, but decided to let it slide. He would tell her later if something was wrong. When they got to the corner, Kaede turned to him and gave a little wave.

“Thanks for walking me,” she said, “Seriously, go home and go to sleep. My uncle can drive me later. You better not wait for a text.”

Chad smiled, “I’ll sleep. Have fun.”

Kaede crouched down in front of the cage. She stuck a finger inside, and was delighted at how Yuichi snuggled into it, twittering happily.

“Bye, Yuichi,” she cooed, “Be a good boy.”

Kaede stood and turned to cross the road, but, as soon as she stepped out onto the crosswalk, Yuichi began to act up. He squealed and squawked, feathers flying inside the cage. Chad lifted him for a closer looked, and Yuichi was soon clinging to the side bars, practically screaming.

“What’s wrong?”

“Miss Kaede! Miss Kaede!” Yuichi shrieked, rattling his cage in a fit, “Miss Kaede!”

What was up with the bird? It was then that Chad noticed a van nearing the intersection. It wasn’t stopping. It wasn’t even slowing down. There was another car starting to move, a grey sedan. He looked out onto the crosswalk, and saw Kaede’s ponytail swishing behind her.

Everything moved in slow motion. Chad dropped his things onto the sidewalk, Yuichi included, and called out to her. Kaede stopped to turn, and saw what was coming at her. She froze. The van crossed into the all-way, hitting two pedestrians on the other side, and the grey sedan was breaking, laying on the horn. A third car had entered the intersection, completely unaware of the danger. Chad dashed into the street. He grabbed Kaede by the arm, curling himself around her.

The van t-boned the sedan at a breakneck speed, propelling both vehicles into the third car. Chad barely managed to turn his back in time for the two of them to be slammed off their feet. Kaede felt all the air leave her lungs. She heard herself screaming. She felt them hit the concrete and bounce.

They must have rolled over fifteen meters before stopping, Chad not once losing his grip on her, until the very end. Kaede was at a standstill on the ground, and Chad rolled only a few feet further before finally stopping. Kaede opened eyes she hadn’t remembered closing, coughing to try and get her airway working again. The wind had been knocked out of her. She was staring at the sky. She sat upright in a flash, though her muscles ached in protest, her head spinning. Her hair fell into her face; her elastic had likely snapped.

Once she could breathe again, she looked herself over in amazement. She wasn’t just alive. She was unharmed. Her tights only had a single rip in them. Screams and shouting drew her from her daze, and she whipped her head around. Across the block, there were bystanders, running either towards or away from the pile-up. Other pedestrians had been hit or injured, the three cars involved all piled together in a mangled heap. Those people were dead.

Kaede continued scanning her surroundings, until she found who she was looking for. There, on the ground, with his back torn open and bleeding, lay Chad. He was breathing, but it was haggard and shallow. Her heart stopped.

“Sado?” she called, “SADO?!”

She crawled over to him, not trusting her legs to work. She was getting scraped and cut up on glass and other debris, but she barely felt it through all the adrenaline. The world around her was still dancing, but the only thing she could see was her friend. When she reached him, she slapped the ground in front of his face with her open palm. He barely twitched.

“Somebody, HELP!” she shrieked.

No one was even paying attention to them, all eyes focused on something or someone else. She got right down on the ground, next to his face, laying herself out flat. If he was going to live, she had to get him responsive. Bleeding and unconsciousness didn’t bode well.

“Hey, can you hear me?” she yelled, “Sado!”

His eyes slowly opened, and Kaede let go of a breath she didn’t realise she had been holding. His gaze was bleary at first, but when he managed to focus on her face, he suddenly looked relieved. He reached out, putting a hand on her head. She could feel his calloused fingers relaxing into her lose hair.

“Are you okay?” his voice cracked, likely from all the dust in the air.

Kaede felt the air leave her again, but for a different reason. He had saved her life. He was hurt because of her. Because she froze.

By the time opened her mouth to reply, Chad’s hand fell limp from her head. He was out again. She could hear the police sirens approaching, but she knew an ambulance would be a while to follow. Whoever called it in probably assumed the worst injuries belonged to the dead. She had to get him into the clinic. It was right down the street; Uncle Isshin would know what to do.

She forced herself slowly to her hands and knees, determined to get help. When she was upright, she looked Chad over, assessing the best way to move him, if any. Given that he could move his arms, she knew his neck wasn’t broken. But everything else was a mess. She couldn’t see anything past the blood. She felt like her brain was broken. She was freezing again.

“Kaede!” someone cried out from behind her.

She started at that. Turning, she saw her uncle running towards her. He must have seen the chaos from the clinic’s front window. When he reached her, Uncle Isshin wrapped his arms around her.

“Oh, thank god,” he said, “You’re not hurt, are you? What happened?”

Before Kaede could even answer him, Isshin released her as suddenly as he had embraced her. He looked her over quickly, before nodding, satisfied. He began waving his arms at the other bystanders.

“Hey, everyone,” he yelled, “Take any of the wounded that can be moved, and run them to the clinic on the other corner! We’ll run triage for emergency services until they arrive.

“Can you help here?” he asked Kaede then, “I need you to help carry whoever you can. Too many people took off.”

Kaede felt her nerve come back at that. She nodded, and Isshin gave her a thumbs-up, taking off towards the mangled cars. There was a mother and child nearby, with the child unconscious. They were a priority for him, so Kaede turned back to her priority. Everyone else who needed help seemed to be partnered up anyways. She got back down to Chad’s level, slapping the pavement in front of him again. This time, his eyes opened right away. Kaede was amazed.

“Are you okay?” she repeated his earlier question, “Can you feel your legs? Is anything numb?”

Even though she was shaking, there was a determination in her eyes that Chad had never seen before. He decided he should at least try to match her. Nothing was numb, and he could work through the pain in his back. He put his hands under his shoulders, and slowly began to push himself up. When Kaede saw that his legs were working too, she felt hopeful again. That didn’t mean he was out of the woods though.

For the first time since she had met him, Chad’s arms were unsteady. He was losing a lot of blood.

“Hey,” Kaede nearly whispered, “Let me help you.”

She quickly placed herself under him, hoping to prop him up. He worried he might crush her if he lost his balance, but Kaede was strong enough that he wasn’t in danger of that. It was his turn to be amazed as she wrapped his arm around her shoulder, slowly pulling him up where his own legs were failing. He could only sort of hold himself up with how dizzy he was, but Kaede was not letting him go down. She put her arm around his back, and didn’t even flinch at the wetness from the blood. She couldn’t afford to drop him. Most people couldn’t move him alone. Had she always been this strong?

“Towards the clinic, okay, big guy?” she smiled through any strain she might be feeling, “I won’t let you fall.”

They slowly hobbled back towards the intersection. Kaede saw Karin running out of the clinic doors with a stretcher for someone, Yuzu holding the doors open for her. Those kids were eleven, and they were helping? Talk about a family business. As Karin ran back in with her retrieved patient, Yuzu was doing her best to direct people.

“Yuzu!” Kaede called out to her.

Yuzu looked over, spotting Kaede and Chad. She rushed over, immediately grabbing Chad’s other side. Kaede knew Yuzu wouldn’t be able to hold him if he passed out, but her tiny bit of help was welcome. Kaede’s legs were starting to shake; Iron Man here was heavy.

“What happened?” Yuzu huffed as they hobbled.

“I’ll tell you later,” Kaede was doing her best not to pant, “Let’s get him inside. Is Ichigo home?”

“Dad told him to stay out of the way.”

“When we get in, call him out, cause we’re going to need him to carry people.”

The two girls barely got Chad inside, and Yuzu’s knees buckled as soon as they were in. This threw Kaede off balance, and, of course, Chad had to have a dizzy spell along with all that. All three of them crashed to the ground. Isshin heard the commotion and rushed out into the waiting room, pulling Chad’s body off the two girls. Yuzu was up and running without a thought, but Kaede was shocked when her uncle pulled Chad up with little to no issue.

“Ichigo! I’ve got a job for you!” he screamed, “Get out here! We’ve got a big one!”

Ichigo emerged from the back as well, but skidded to a halt at what he saw.

“Ch-Chad?!” he noticed Kaede on the ground as well, “Kaede? What happened?”

“No time,” Kaede admonished him, pulling herself up off the ground, “Take him in! Questions later!”

She heard Ichigo calling after her as she rushed back out. Chad was with a doctor, so now she could help other people now. She managed to make it outside as the first ambulance was arriving, and spotted a fire truck and three squad cars. She held the door for the last of the minor wounded, waved a few people in their direction, and then she was no longer needed. The fire truck had the jaws of life out now, though the lack of hurry told her it was to extract corpses. How had she walked away from that?

She looked at the crosswalk, where she had been standing, and saw her schoolbag. There was a tire tread right across it, but, remarkably, her bento set had only been knocked out of it. It was all over the place, but the pieces all looked to be alright. Stranger and stranger. She looked both ways before walking over to her scattered things, picking them up slowly. The blood on her right arm was drying into her skin, making the hairs on her arm dry into an awkward position. She felt like she was in a dream, wondering when she would die and wake up.

When her own things were gathered, she looked around for Chad’s. His stuff was still on the far sidewalk, bag burst open, much like hers. However, miraculously, Yuichi’s cage sat upright, the cockatiel sitting on its golden perch. Unlike the bag, the cage was in perfect condition. Kaede stared at it, unable to believe her eyes.

“…Now I know I’m dreaming,” she muttered.

“Miss Kaede, Miss Kaede!” Yuichi tittered, flapping his little wings.

He sounded…relieved? That couldn’t be right; the bird barely knew her. Wouldn’t it be more worried about its own state? If it even possessed that level of sentience. Kaede shrugged. What did she know about birds? She picked up his cage, and a searing shock coursed through her head. Was she injured after all? She saw the air in front of her shimmering and swaying. But she blinked, and it was gone.

“Miss Kaede,” Yuichi was still going on.

“Yes, yes, I’m here,” Kaede turned her attention to the cockatiel, “Are you okay, Yuichi? You’re not hurt, are you?”

“Yes, yes,” Yuichi parroted her, “Not hurt!”

“Good. Come on, little guy,” Kaede kicked the books back into Chad’s bag before picking it up, “Chad’s going to be glad you’re okay.”

When Kaede got back in, Ichigo seemed to be coming to find her. Karin was out front, passing out bandages to the people who were still waiting. Kaede didn’t spot Chad among them, which meant he was probably being seen right now. Ichigo took the bags from Kaede before he even spoke. Something in his face filled Kaede with dread, but she couldn’t tell you what. Ichigo seemed to consider taking Yuichi from her ask well, but didn’t try it.

“Are you okay?” he asked her instead.

“I’m fine. How is he?” Kaede didn’t care about anything else right now, “Is he going to be okay?”

Ichigo sighed heavily, before jerking his head towards the back. He turned, and Kaede followed him into a room. There sat Chad, no shirt, facing the door. Isshin’s face conveyed nothing but deep concentration as he appeared to be blotting something, but Yuzu lacked her father’s experienced poker face. That poor kid had seen a lot today; she looked pale. Yuzu was the first to spot them though.

“Is everyone in yet?” Yuzu asked without greeting.

“The ambulance and fire trucks are here,” Kaede said, putting Yuichi on an empty bedside table, “I let the last of the less serious patients in before grabbing our stuff.”

At the sound of her voice, Chad and Isshin both looked up. The two seemed equally relieved to see her. Isshin looked back down at his work.

“I’m glad you’re still okay, Kaede,” Isshin worked automatically as he spoke, “Sometimes a head injury can take you by surprise, even when you don’t hit it directly. Have you been dizzy at all?”

“Not a bit,” Kaede lied smoothly, “Anything else I can do?”

“Can you wash your hands and switch out with Yuzu? I need her and Ichigo to go out with Karin; everyone back here has been taken care of and put to bed. They’ll need to direct the paramedics I’ve called for a few people in here. Chad’s my last before I hit non-emergency.”

Kaede was already washing her hands in the corner by the time her uncle finished talking, though he was so engrossed he probably didn’t notice. She scrubbed the blood off her arm quickly and roughly, impressed by how quickly it came off. She was there almost as soon as Isshin had finished speaking, and Yuzu gave up her chair next to Isshin’s work table without a fuss. Ichigo and Yuzu were gone in a flash, likely to Karin like their father had ordered. When Kaede looked to Chad’s back, she was stunned by what she saw.

From the tops of his shoulders, to the base of his spine, the skin had been ripped from Chad’s back, almost in strips. The tissue was exposed down to the muscle in some spots, and it looked like a bad burn in others. He could have been killed. She swallowed the scream that threatened to spill out. Her vision tunnelled for a moment.

“Can you hold the gauze roll while I bandage this?” Isshin’s voice returned her to the real world, “I’m sorry to ask. I know it must all be pretty scary.”

“Hey, I’m family,” Kaede tried to speak lightly, but it barely came out above a murmur, “I’ve been told this stuff’s a prerequisite.”

Isshin’s smile was grim as he continued to work. Soon, he had Chad’s whole torso bandaged up. Kaede felt like she had blinked and he was done. Did her uncle even need her? Before she knew it, he was even heading for the door.

“Okay, now, time to get a line started,” Isshin turned to look back at them briefly, “Kaede, can you help him into bed? Make sure he doesn’t run.”

Kaede blinked at that, but Isshin was gone before she could ask any questions. There they sat, just her and Chad, alone. Neither of them knew for how long, but Kaede was the first to snap out of it. She stood and placed a hand on Chad’s shoulder. He jumped so violently that he started to fall forwards. But, just like outside, Kaede had him. Instead of hitting the ground, his head hit her stomach, and he pulled himself upright again. Kaede crouched down to make eye contact with him. He still seemed half out of it.

“Hey,” she said, “Come on, let’s get you into bed.”

He moved where she coaxed, without much protest, if any. Soon, he was in a bed that was barely long enough for him, trying his best to focus on something, anything. His brain felt like mush; he didn’t need to be here. There were others hurt worse than him, and he’d be putting everyone in danger like this. He saw that now.

Before either of them knew it, Isshin was back, and Chad was on a saline drip. He’d barely felt the IV, though Kaede had gone a little green just watching. So, she tried to focus on something else. She saw, on Chad’s left shoulder, something she hadn’t expected to see. A tattoo. A snake over a heart with wings, a banner imposed over both. “Amore e Morte”, it said. Spanish? No, the spelling would be wrong; that much she had picked up from peaking over Chad’s shoulder while he read. Jeez, how many languages did he even speak? She had no idea.

“So, we’re keeping you overnight,” Isshin spoke once he had everything set up, “No ifs, ands, or buts to be had about it. If you do okay tonight, and nothing looks bad in the morning, then I’ll send you home.”

Chad was not happy with those orders, and Kaede could tell. Her uncle gave her a pat on the shoulder, and what she assumed was his best attempt at a meaningful look, before heading off again. Now that she’d seen them in action, she had to admit, the Kurosaki family was as impressive as any emergency room team. Chad was still glaring at the ceiling when Kaede put a hand on his arm. That chilly sensation brought him back to her. She leaned over onto the bed, resting on her elbows.

“Hey,” she said softly, “Go to sleep. It’s okay. I’ll be right here.”

In spite of himself, Chad felt his eyelids getting heavy. He couldn’t feel much, but he felt Kaede’s arms against his own, and her fine hair tickling his skin. It was like silk. Kaede smiled as he finally seemed to doze off, and rested her own head down next to him. She’d have to thank him when he woke up, but for now, he needed rest. He’d looked like the devil was on his heels.

 


 

A gentle knock on the door woke Kaede with a start. It was dark out, and she had fallen asleep. Chad was still there, still out like a light. She turned in her seat and saw Ichigo at the door, holding what looked like a bowl with dinner. Kaede rubbed her eyes, utterly confused.

“What time is it?” she muttered.

Ichigo smiled at the sight of his cousin’s attempts at escaping sleep. It reminded him of Yuzu or Karin, right down to the way she yawned and stretched. Blood-wise, she might have been more distant than some people’s cousins, but Ichigo was starting to feel like he had another little sister to look after. She was certainly about as much trouble as one.

“It’s past 9,” he told her, “You’ve been sitting here for hours. Dad said for you to eat, and he’ll either take you home or set up the futon in Karin and Yuzu’s room.”

He handed her the bowl, practically forcing it into her hands, which Kaede was grateful for. It was fried rice. There was even a spoon. They had thought of how out of it she probably was.

“Where did you guys even find time to cook?” she asked.

“It’s microwave rice,” Ichigo shrugged, “We freeze leftovers all the time, just in case.”

“Smart.”

“Tell me about it. Seriously though, are you sleeping over or going home?”

Kaede looked from Ichigo, back to Chad. She was taking a long time for give an answer she had already prepared.

“I’m staying here, if it’s not too much trouble.”

She could just feel Ichigo frowning at her, but Kaede didn’t care.

“I can’t leave here without him, not after that.”

Ichigo blinked at her. Kaede’s breathing began to get quick and stilted, like she was fighting tears. She was failing though. He saw fat teardrops rolling down her cheeks.

“Don’t tell me-?”

“I was in the road,” Kaede sniffled, doing her best to be quiet, “I froze up. And he-.”

She took one hand off the rice bowl and covered her mouth, trying not to sob. She didn’t want to wake him up. She could feel her shoulders shaking from the effort. Ichigo took the bowl from her, and Kaede rushed out of the room without another sound. He checked to make sure Chad was undisturbed by their conversation, then followed her out.

 He didn’t have to go far; Kaede had simply collapsed just around the corner, in the hallway connecting the clinic to the house. She was leaned up against the wall, crying softly into her hands. Ichigo sighed, sliding down the wall next to her, which caused her to stop for a moment. He extended the bowl once again, and Kaede took it eagerly this time. They sat in the dark as she shovelled food into her mouth. She couldn’t tell if it was super salty, or if she was literally leaking all her water for the day out her eyeballs and into her food.

When she finally finished the rice, she was crying less heavily, and seemed a little less distressed. She bumped the back of her head into the wall, and immediately recoiled with a squeak. Then, she started laughing, of all things. Ichigo looked overwhelmingly concerned; Kaede was cracking up.

“Why the fuck am I always crying over him?” she whimper-laughed.

Ichigo smiled at that, despite the situation.

“Well, now I have to kick his ass,” he grinned, “Big Brother Code and all.”

Kaede looked over at him finally, still half laughing, half crying. Ichigo pulled himself up gracefully, then extended a hand towards her. She allowed him to pull her to her feet.

“But, you know, if I let you stay down here, he’ll probably defend himself for once,” Ichigo joked, “Come in, have a bath, and go to sleep. I bet you could even convince Dad to call you in for a day off tomorrow.”

Kaede couldn’t contain her smile at the thought. Maybe she had made the wrong call, not living with the Kurosakis. Besides, Chad was perfectly safe there. Everything was going to be fine.

Or, so they thought.

Chapter Text

“Karin, Kaede, time to get up! The alarm just went off!”

Kaede could feel some small hand shaking her. She squinted in the morning light, though Yuzu seemed to take it as glaring. She was wearing her uniform already.

K-Kaede, it’s morning,” she stammered.

“What time is it?” Kaede murmured.

“6:30?”

Kaede felt whatever nasty expression she was wearing deepen, like the sinking of a stone in the mud. She was exhausted, beyond all sense of exhausted that she had ever known. She rolled her face into the pillow, doing her best not to scream. She’d forgotten she was sleeping over at the Kurosakis. The previous day came back to her in a flash, and she pushed herself up.

“I’ve gotta go check on him,” she said it so quickly, no one could have caught it.

Yuzu had missed her statement, instead moving to Karin’s bedside. Kaede stood, probably a bit too quickly, and looked around for her clothes. Her uncle had loaned her a massive sweatshirt, and Kaede couldn’t remember much after that, she had been so tired. She quickly spotted her uniform, clean and hung up in the open closet. It was in near perfect condition. Thankfully, it had been too hot for jackets yesterday, or that would have been an expensive nightmare. She was amazed she hadn’t gotten any blood on the shirt, but here it was, sparkling clean.

“Did you guys wash this?” Kaede asked Yuzu.

“Oh yeah, Ichigo’s needed a clean too, so Dad did them both. Your shorts and bra are on the dresser. Your tights were garbage, though."

Kaede found her undergarments exactly where Yuzu had said. They felt soft, and smelled like wildflowers. She changed discretely under the sweatshirt, before pealing it off and going for her uniform.

“You guys are too sweet. I’ll go get breakfast started then, as a thank you.”

“Something’s wrong with Karin.”

Kaede followed Yuzu’s gaze while she buttoned up her blouse. Yuzu was right about her sister; Karin was shivering. Kaede went to sit on the edge of her bed. Karin barely noticed.

“Karin?” Kaede called to her softly, putting a hand on her leg, “Karin? You okay?”

Karin’s vibrating relaxed somewhat, and she finally opened her eyes. She looked over at Kaede, who did her best to smile.

“Are you alright?” Kaede repeated.

Karin could only shake her head. Kaede reached up to feel her forehead. She wasn’t particularly warm, but she was sweaty as heck. Without thought or intention, she stroked Karin's bangs away from her face, like she used to do for her little sister. The action surprised them both, but Karin was not complaining. She looked happier than Kaede had seen her. Which just made Kaede worry more.

“Should we go get your dad?” she asked.

“N-no, it’s okay,” Karin finally spoke, “I’m alright. I’m just…not feeling well. I’m going to school, but...”

Karin could tell from the look on her face that Kaede didn’t totally believe her, but the older girl didn’t push it any farther either. Kaede figured anyone Karin’s age would feel like crap after last night. She stood, wiping her hand subtly on her skirt. Yuzu looked worried, and Kaede tried to offer some comfort with a gentle pat of Yuzu’s own hair. The motion made Yuzu’s shoulders relax. Kaede would have to make this a habit.

“We’ll bring you some miso and rice, okay?” Kaede said to Karin, “Is there anything else you want? Eggs?”

Karin shook her head, “Nothing heavy, please.”

Kaede nodded.

“Okay, we’ll be back. Get some rest.”

She and Yuzu headed down to the kitchen, where Uncle Isshin was up, and just finishing his morning coffee in front of the TV. They were covering yesterday’s accident.

Yesterday’s pile-up is just one of several traffic accidents in the suburb this past week. Thankfully, despite intense injuries, there were no fatalities. Citizens are calling for a review of traffic board and intersection standards. This comes on the heels of an inquiry launched into the heavy number of gas explosions that have occurred throughout Karakura’s downtown over the last few months.”

When he saw them, Isshin smiled in a way that made Kaede’s chest ache. This whole morning was so…familial. She remembered why she didn’t live with them quite quickly.

“Morning,” they spoke at once.

She and Yuzu headed straight to the fridge, and Yuzu began to load Kaede’s arms up with breakfast ingredients. Eggs, green onions, leftover miso broth, and roe were on the menu this morning. Kaede was already drooling; normally, she just skipped breakfast.

“Morning. Is there an echo in here?” Isshin laughed at his own joke, “I see two of my favourite girls. Where’s Karin?”

“She feels sick,” Kaede spoke before Yuzu had the chance to, “Said she’s still going to school though. Thank you for cleaning my uniform. You want roe or an egg with your rice?”

The girl was not giving him a chance to talk. She was probably still worried about her friend; her eyes had been red when Ichigo had brought her in the night before.

“You’re welcome, and roe,” Isshin stood from the kitchen island, “Can I get one of you girls to bring it in to me when it’s done? I need to make some calls and do the morning rounds.”

Kaede perked up at that, nearly dropping the eggs. Thankfully, Yuzu was there to take some of the load to the counter. It seemed as if Kaede had barely noticed.

“I’ll bring it,” she chimed.

“I’m sure you will. Yuzu, be good today; tell Karin to call if she needs to come home.”

“Yes, sir,” Yuzu gave her dad’s back an exaggerated salute.

As soon as Isshin was safely out of the house, Kaede and Yuzu shared a look.

“Are you sure we should have said she’s sick?” Yuzu wondered.

“That’s what she told us,” Kaede shrugged, checking her pockets in vain for a spare elastic, “Besides, she clearly doesn’t want to worry anyone, and she didn’t seem like she was in any danger.”

Yuzu seemed satisfied with her reasoning, and soon she was filling and timing the rice cooker. They worked quickly and quietly, finishing the miso in record time. The rice was next, and soon, all the bowls were made. As they worked, the news report kept cycling through the big city news of the morning, which included the previous day’s pile-up. Somehow, every time they mentioned it, the number of cars involved increased.

When everything was finished, Yuzu was still running fast ahead of her. She took off to the stairwell, hollering up into the house at a volume Kaede wouldn't have guessed she could produce.

“Ichigo! Breakfast!”

Kaede was quick to scarf down her own food. She’d been feeling on edge since she woke up; something in the air was wrong. Like yesterday, but farther away. It was urgent in her mind, and something was pulling her out of the house this morning. She didn’t like it.

Ichigo was just coming down the stairs by the time she finished inhaling.

“Morning,” he paused half way to the table, smirking at Kaede, “You’ve got a little…”

He pointed to his cheek, and Kaede was suddenly all too aware of the grains of rice stuck to her face. She wiped them off quickly, Yuzu giggling at her the whole time. Ichigo sat down across from them at the island. Yuzu put his bowl in front of him, like a caretaker. Ichigo was looking around though, and barely noticed before his sister was already back at the stove.

“Where’s Karin?” he asked.

“She said she wasn’t feeling well, so she’s still in bed,” Yuzu answered, still scooping some miso into bowls.

“For that kid to not be feeling well…” Ichigo frowned as he took up his own food, “That’s pretty rare.

“Speaking of rare,” Ichigo turned a look of fiendish delight on Kaede, “You’ve got your hair down. What’s going on with that? He won't notice; I promise you, the guy is as clueless as they come.”

Kaede inhaled so suddenly, she choked on her food. Coughing, she pounded her chest with her fist to loosen the rice clump in her throat. She happily took a bowl of soup from Yuzu to try and help. Of course, she was sure she had scalded her tongue with that. Being an older sibling herself, she knew full well the implications of that question.

“For your information,” she huffed, wiping a tear from her eye, “My elastic snapped.”

“Sure, sure,” Ichigo waved his hand dismissively, “Enjoy flipping those soft little curls all day.”

Before Kaede could hurl something equally obnoxious at her cousin, likely involving his bizarre relationship with Rukia, the door adjoining the house to the clinic burst open. There stood Isshin, not even gone for twenty minutes, panting like a dog.

“Ichigo! We have a situation!” he cried, “Chad’s gone missing! I can’t find him anywhere!”

Getting on each other’s nerves could wait, it seemed. Ichigo and Kaede were both up in a flash. They sped to the front door, not even needing to share a glance.

“Wait, guys, you should eat!” Yuzu called after them.

Within thirty seconds, shoes were on and bags were grabbed. Ichigo let Kaede out the door first. Isshin was coming right behind them though.

“Wait, you kids should slow down,” he urged, “You have no idea where he is. He may come back.”

“Which is why you should be here,” Ichigo told him, “Call us off school today, Dad. I get the feeling we’re going to be looking for a while.”

Isshin wanted to argue, but nodded. He could tell Ichigo knew something, and he wasn’t about to share.

“Is the bird still in the room?” Ichigo asked.

What an odd question.

“No, he took all his things.”

Ichigo seemed to stare off for a moment, likely tabulating wherever Chad could have run off to. Isshin looked out the door, past his son, at his niece’s back. She was standing at the base of the steps already, glancing around the neighbourhood for any sign of their friend.

“Alright,” Isshin sighed, “Just…keep her safe, okay? And call when you find him.”

Ichigo nodded, and was gone, like that. Isshin stared at the door for a while after it had shut.

 

Meanwhile, Ichigo and Kaede were formulating their game plan.

“Where to first?” she asked.

“Better to split up, cover more ground,” Ichigo said to her.

“What if he’s passed out?”

“Not likely, but call me if you find him.”

“Okay, I’ll take the school?”

“You take the apartment, I’ll take the school. Knowing that idiot, he’s probably gone home, but just in case. You should wait for him there, and call me if he comes back.”

Ichigo felt bad lying to her; Chad was always on time for class, so he was most likely to find him there. Besides, he wouldn’t want to put Kaede in danger, so that double confirmed that he wouldn’t be anywhere near that apartment building. Chad knew he was being targeted by something, otherwise he wouldn’t have suck off. It was smarter to send her home, where she’d be safe.

She was already attacked once. That’s not going to happen again.

Kaede took him at his word, and ran off without a complaint. Damn, that girl could move when she wanted to. Maybe she was hoping to catch him. Kaede was, frankly, running on pure frustration at this point. Chad was dead meat when she got her hands on him.

“You’d better be home."

 


 

Kaede wasn’t sure how long she was running for, but soon she was completely lost. She had totally forgotten how to get home. She knew she had taken a wrong turn when, instead of looking more urban, the neighbourhoods just looked increasingly suburban. She finally stopped moving frantically when she passed a park she didn’t recognise, one that was bordered by the river on the other side.

Kaede swore to herself, coming to a dead halt at one of the corners. She pulled out her phone’s map. GPS not available, it read, please turn on location settings.

“My location settings are on!” Kaede cried aloud.

She looked up for a street sign, but something else caught her attention.

“Hey, isn’t that…?”

Kaede saw, out of the corner of her eye, the tail of a bright yellow shirt. Her eyes widened.

“Chad?!”

It didn’t require a thought. She pocketed her phone and took off. Miniskirt be damned. Kaede darted around the corner, and saw that unmistakable back. With a huge blood spatter across it.

“CHAD!” she screamed, “Wait! Stop!”

He looked over his shoulder at her, for only a second, then seemed to double his speed. Kaede was insulted. She tried to pick up the pace to match. He was holding something.

“HEY! STOP IT! YOU’RE HURT!”

Her cries were already breathy and haggard. She was out of shape; she’d stopped working out after her parents died. It was coming back to bite her. She rounded another corner to follow him, and promptly lost her footing. With a scream, she tumbled into the sidewalk. Everything stung.

“Kaede!”

She opened her eyes, and saw she had acquired her target. Chad was over her, looking rightfully concerned. She was covered in scrapes, but otherwise appeared to be fine. She grinned at him, gleeful.

“Caught you,” she said.

His look changed from concerned, to angry.

“What is wrong with you?” he demanded, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“I could ask you the same thing!” Kaede snapped right back at him, bolting upright.

She had gotten right in his face. The green in her eyes was on fire, her loose hair bouncing around her wildly. Sparks could have been shooting out of those eyes.

"Your hair-."

"Focus!"

Chad didn’t fight her. He extended a hand, and Kaede took it gratefully. He pulled her to her feet, checking her over for anything worse than scrapes. She saw that Chad had his bird with him.

“Chad, please, correct me if I’m wrong, but have you been carrying Yuichi is entire time?”

Chad froze. How transparent. She smiled sweetly, though it was anything but. She grabbed his shirt collar, and brought him in closer. She stepped back from the street to the sidewalk, just to get a little higher.

“You mean to tell me, you left the clinic, and ran around with your back torn open, WITH THE BIRD?! At least,take it home!”

“I’m sorry, Miss,” a small voice caught her ear, “Mr. Sado couldn’t stop because he didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“Stay out of this-!”

She whipped her head around. There was no one there. Just that bird cage.

“Uhm, excuse me, Miss! Down here!”

Kaede looked down at that little white cockatiel, and it made eye contact with her. The bird made eye contact.

“Miss Kaede,” it spoke, sounding even more human than it had yesterday, “I’m sorry! Mr. Sado has only been trying to help me. I’m sorry we’ve worried you.”

Bird? Talking? Bird. Talking. A pain in her skull, like a malate beating the back of her neck. The world started to spin. Chad and the bird slid out of focus.

“Miss!” “Kaede!”

She came back around, staring at the sky. She hadn’t hit the ground though. Chad had caught her, one-armed. Her heart skipped a beat. She immediately righted herself, at a speed she hadn’t thought herself capable of.

“Sorry, I could have sworn I heard that bird talking,” Kaede chuckled nervously, “Anyways, I think we should head back. I get that you’re like, indestructible, but my uncle was getting ready to call search and rescue, so-.”

“Kaede.”

“Yeah?”

She noticed then that a shadow had been cast over them. Chad grabbed her once again. He swung her behind him, and she felt air rush past them. A cloud of debris encircled them, filling Kaede’s lungs with road dust. She opened her watery eyes between coughs. There was a massive crater in the ground. Right where she had been standing.

“It’s him,” Yuichi cried, “Run! Run!”

Kaede and Chad didn’t have to be told twice. They booked it down the street. Chad kept looking back at her to make sure she was there, but Kaede was not going to be a burden. Besides, the crashing and smashing occurring behind them was not a bad incentive to keep running.

“Him? Who’s him?” she asked.

“No time! No time!” Yuichi squeaked.

Kaede nearly tripped again when they rounded the corner, but Chad had her like before. Taking her hand, he had her righted in an instant. The lamppost she had turned close to crashed down just past them. Chad pulled her off into a small side-street, up against the dividers between the houses. He pressed himself into the shadows, Kaede right up against him.

“What-?” “Shhhh.”

He clapped his free hand over her mouth, eyes wide as he stared out into the street. She followed his gaze. That was when Kaede saw it.

There was a place on the street where the light refracted back in on itself, distorting the homes and cars just past it. The shape was monstrous, and Kaede could make out limbs and a head. It was half-crouched like a frog, but somehow humanoid. Despite lacking a visibly corporeal appearance, it cast a long shadow down the road ahead of it. What the hell was that?

What, in the name of GOD, is happening?” Kaede squealed into his hand, “What is that?”

The shape's head began to turn about, and the two held their breath. It seemed to lose track of them, or whatever it had been looking for, and wandered farther up the road. Kaede felt the sigh of relief Chad gave rustling her hair, and the hard muscles in his chest relaxing, just a bit. He loosened his hold, but didn’t quite let her go. Instead, he whispered into her ear.

“You go up to the next street,” Chad ordered, “I’ll draw it back to the river.”

Excuse me?” Kaede pulled his hand off her mouth, though she managed to keep her protests to a whisper, “We are not splitting up! First rule of an action-adventure RPG: never separate the party!”

Her first instinct was to pull from video games? Were they not in peril, he would absolutely be grilling her on that. Kaede looked around them for something, anything, that she could use to form a distraction. There were garbage cans next to them, with the lids off and on the ground. They probably belonged to one of the homes. Kaede moved out of Chad’s grasp to pick one up. She displayed it to him proudly.

“Second rule: always bring your rogue,” she quipped, pointing at him with the lid, “You can’t tank your way through everything. New plan: you toss this as hard as you can down the opposite way, and we go up to the next street together.”

Chad was frowning at her, about as much as he could, with that stoic face of his. Kaede could just feel him disagreeing with her. She raised the lid above her head.

“Or, I crash this on the ground right now, and we’re both fucked,” her thin smile was threatening, “Deal?”

With a sighed, Chad relented. He took the lid from her, and, with one hand, fired it over the divider, back the way they had originally come from. Kaede didn’t hear it hit the ground, but whatever was chasing them clearly had. That shimmering shape flew past their shadowy hiding place, making a whole lot of noise while it did. Kaede gave Chad a horrified stare.

“How far did you throw that?” she murmured.

He didn’t answer her, walking slowly and quietly up between the homes, as she had suggested. Kaede assumed that meant she was along for the ride now.

When they were a few blocks away, Chad put his hand onto a wall. He was leaning, panting. Kaede was pretty sure she'd never seen him pant before; the man ran laps during P.E. like he was training for the summer Olympics. Kaede put a hand on his shoulder, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.

“You need to go back to the clinic,” she said, “Now.”

“No,” he protested, “You’ll all be in danger.”

“…Is that what I saw yesterday? On the street corner? Is that thing trying to kill you?”

“I’m sorry, Miss. It’s all my fault.”

Yuichi had spoken suddenly. Kaede had nearly forgotten he had been swinging from Chad’s hand. She didn’t know what Yuichi was, but she knew now that he sure wasn’t a bird.

“And you, what is going on?” she demanded, “Why is this your fault? What are you?”

“He’s…just a kid,” Chad said, pushing himself upright, “Come on. We’re exposed out here.”

“…A kid?”

Kaede watched Chad pull Yuichi’s cage up to his chest, a protective arm around it. Yuichi looked up at him, and Kaede saw the trust he held for Chad. 

“Can I tell her on the way?” the little bird asked.

“If you two can keep your voices down,” he nodded, “I don’t know how far it’s gone, but it’ll be back.”

They started down the street, Kaede thankful to have her walking town map back with her again. He always knew where he was going.

“So, Yuichi, what’s your story?” Kaede asked.

“So, that thing chasing us, he has my mommy,” Yuichi was tittering softly, “And if I can avoid him for three months, I get her back. Then we can be together! Mr. Sado has decided to help me, but that man won’t stop.”

A flash passed through Kaede’s eyes when she looked at that bird. She saw a little boy when she blinked, just behind her eyelids.

“You…you’re a human, aren’t you?” she said, “That man…”

Another flash behind her eyelids; one that Kaede wanted to forget. Blood, a knife, a face she couldn’t remember seeing herself. Her head was pounding.

“That man…became that thing?”

“Yes,” Yuichi sounded sad, but didn’t seem to grasp the situation fully, “He killed my mommy, and took her prisoner. But, if I find people to take care of me for three months, and I don’t get caught, he’ll let her go, and bring us both back to life.”

That didn’t sound right. Kaede’s brain felt like it was turning to mush. How had she even known any of that? It felt like a forgotten dream. Besides, resurrecting someone shouldn't be an option. There were rules. Rules that Yuichi’s whole story stood in terrible contrast to.

“Back to…? That’s not possible.”

Kaede came to an abrupt halt as her brain kicked into emergency overdrive. They hadn’t been hit by those cars. That whole thing was a distraction. It was probably like the motorcycle that had hit Chad the previous morning, or the steel beam the night before that. She now recognised the shape of Chad’s wounds for what they were: claw marks. Chad stopped and turned back to her. Kaede’s eyes kept darting between his face, and the cage.

“That…I’m sorry, are we really buying this today?” Kaede asked him, “All of it? Full price? No returns, refunds, or exchanges?”

“He’s a kid,” Chad shrugged, “And he’s not lying to me, from what I can tell.”

“Are you serious? Just because he’s not lying to you, doesn’t mean a word of what he says is true,” Kaede was rubbing her temples as she spoke, trying to ease the sharp pains in her head, the flashing behind her eyes, “That means that Harutoki’s old aunts didn’t die, Chad. They were killed. We are dealing with an experienced people-hunter here.”

“He’s in trouble. That’s all that matters. You can go home, if you want.”

The aching was causing a spike in her annoyance at every little thing. She put her hands over her eyes, slowly and gently massaging them with the heels. That helped, but her chest was aching, her stomach in knots. She was going to throw up. It would be smarter to turn back. But she wasn’t throwing the towel in that easily. They couldn’t just leave Yuichi to his fate, and something was trying to kill them.

“Of course, I’m going to stay, and help,” she grumbled, inhaling through her nose then out her mouth, “I just wish I wasn’t this close to vomiting while I do it.”

She stood upright then, sticking her finger through the bars of Yuichi’s cage. He snuggled up against her finger, as he had before. Kaede saw the young boy more clearly now; a small child starving for affection. She could relate.

“So, what’s the plan?” she asked, “The full plan, long-term. We can’t run like this forever.”

“You can see it, right?”

Kaede wished she could see less of it.

“Sort of. It’s more like I see a shape,” she frowned, “I can see it moving, make out its parts.”

“Better than me. We’ll hide Yuichi, and then, I’ll beat it.”

Kaede had been nodding, but stopped when he said that. She looked up at Chad, and he was looking at her in a way she had never seen from him before. Total trust.

“Be my eyes,” he said, "and we'll do this together."

Kaede felt the heat creeping into her cheeks. Her heart was hammering. She was quick to snap herself out of it though. She didn’t have time to stop and reflect.

“Got it,” she grinned, in spite of the situation, “Though I think we might be nuts.”

He returned her smile, but only for a moment. A crashing was heard right around the corner. Not just any crashing either. That was the explosive footfall of their pursuer. Too soon. Yuichi was in plain view, and they had nowhere to put him.

“How did he find us so fast?” Kaede asked, “I thought-.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Chad was already turning, “Run!”

Chapter Text

Chad and Kaede were running for their lives. Running like hell. There was no way they could tag-team that monster without ditching Yuichi. Every time Kaede looked over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of something new about their attacker. Flat, wide teeth, broad for snapping. Wings, folded against its body. She didn’t like it.

Kaede and Chad rounded another corner, but stopped when someone called out to them.

“Chad! Kaede?!”

It was Ichigo. He and Rukia were racing towards them. He’d called Rukia for the search too? Chad and Kaede exchanged a brief glance, before rushing away from them.

“Hey,” Ichigo yelled, “Wait! Stop!”

“Sorry!” Kaede called over her shoulder, “I’ll explain later! Go home!”

“You know he won’t listen to that,” Chad told her.

Kaede would have to apologise to him later. She knew she would sound nuts, but she couldn’t get him or Rukia involved.

“Is he following us?” she asked.

Chad glanced back without slowing.

“No, but I see Kuchiki.”

“Shit. We need to lose her.”

“Follow my lead.”

Chad turned suddenly, and Kaede nearly tripped to turn with him. Rukia was still on them though. Kaede could hear her shoes clopping. The monster’s steps were strangely absent. A blessing, really. They made several more turns like the first one. Kaede was dizzy, so she couldn’t imagine how Rukia was doing. Her steps were falling further and further behind.

One last turn, and she was gone. Chad and Kaede slowed to conserve energy, almost in sync. A familiar kaboom caused them to come to an abrupt halt. It was coming from back around their last corner.

“What was that?” Chad wondered.

“Someone’s being attacked,” Yuichi piped up.

Chad and Kaede turned their eyes on Yuichi, then looked back at one another.

“Rukia!” they cried in unison.

“Stay here!” “You go ahead!”

They spoke at once, again. Their surprise faded to warring frowns, then to defeated sighs. They had planned to do this together, after all. Chad put Yuichi on the ground.

“You,” he said, “Stay here.”

Yuichi was looking back and forth between them.

“What are you going to do?” he murmured.

“Go and help,” Chad told him.

Kaede nodded, but Yuichi called out before they could go.

“Don’t do it, Mister!” he shrieked, “It’s too dangerous!”

Kaede watched as Chad seemed struck by something. He returned to Yuichi, and moved his cage up onto someone’s fence. Yuichi started screaming even more protests.

“No, that’s not it! NO, NO, NO!!”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant, Chad,” Kaede sighed, “Come on. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“No, wait, please! You can’t see ghosts well, right? Please, you’ll be killed!”

Chad took off anyways though. Kaede looked at Yuichi.

“Sorry, kid,” she turned quickly, “We’ll be right back!”

As they headed off, Kaede could hear Yuichi calling them. But nothing he said was going to stop them from finding Rukia.

When they rounded the corner, both were stopped dead by what they saw. Rukia was there alright, pinned against a wall, dangling above the ground. Kaede could make out the crawled arm that pinned her, and she could see Rukia was bleeding. She knew Chad would be able to see that much, at least.

“How far is its head?” Chad asked her, “From the ground.”

Kaede considered his reach.

“Above your normal range, but we can fix that,” Kaede declared, “You go high, I go low?”

He liked the sound of that. Chad nodded, and they took off on a sprint towards Rukia. Chad raised his fist for a blow, and Kaede dove head-first towards the creature’s legs. Rukia watched as Kaede took the feet out from under the hollow, careening it into Chad’s waiting fist. The creature flew back, hitting the cement with a crashing thump. Kaede had heard it scream, in a human voice. Rukia dropped to the ground, amazed by what she had just seen. Chad seemed equally amazed. He reached down to the ground, where Kaede was on her front. He picked her up under her arms, slowly righting her.

“Did I… hit him?”

Kaede lifted her head, and spotted the shape in a heap on the ground. She grinned as Chad placed her on her feet.

“Yeah, you did,” she cried, “Don’t let up yet! Now-.”

However, Chad was gone before she could give further instructions. He had gone punching in the wrong direction. Kaede gave a growling sigh.

“Not that way!” she called, chasing after him down the street.

Rukia and her attacker watched in befuddlement.

She can see it? Rukia thought to herself, That shouldn’t be possible.

The creature, which Rukia could see as plainly as anything, started laughing to itself as it got up. It stretched its arms, turning its head side-to-side.

He scared the crap out of me,” the creature said.

Kaede didn’t even have to tell Chad where it was. She watched his head perk up, and his feet plant for a full-scale turn-around. The shape, when she looked, appeared none-the-wiser.

I thought he could see me,” it said, “But I guess it’s just a-.”

Bam! Chad’s first connected with the creature’s face yet again. Kaede couldn’t contain her delighted squeal.

“Yeah,” Chad flexed his hand in consideration, “I hit him.”

Kaede turned her attention to Rukia, who appeared to be stunned. Being a relative of Ichigo’s, Kaede being able to see, or at least sense that thing was not the surprise. But Chad shouldn’t have been able to figure out where it was. He shouldn’t have been able to see or hear it, and yet, he’d hit that monster square in the face, twice. Kaede jogged to Rukia’s side.

“Are you okay?” she asked, circling Rukia to scan her over, “You’re bleeding.”

Rukia scoffed at her, grabbing hold of Kaede’s arm.

“Never mind me,” she urged, “We have bigger problems right now!”

Now, that was what Kaede would call a massive attitude change. The Rukia she had been talking to for the past few weeks had seemed a little empty upstairs. This Rukia was sharp, tough, and calculated. Kaede liked her better.

“Alright, Miss Rukia,” she gave an impish grin, “I take it you can see that thing too?”

“Yes, I can, but how the hell does he even know where it is?” Rukia demanded, pointing her other finger at Chad.

Kaede frowned, “You know, I have no idea, ‘cause he can’t even see it.”

That was made evident by the way Chad began punching off in the wrong direction, again. Both girls sighed.

“Humans are such a pain,” Rukia grumbled.

Suddenly, the creature they had been fighting took off from the ground. As its wings stretched out, Kaede could see its shape in full. What she had perceived to be frog-like, as actually very bat-like. She was starting to be able to make out colours, with the blue sky as a backdrop. Its white fur, with a black collar of fur surrounding its slender mask, glinted in the light. A gaping hole in its chest. Just like the wolf. The colours came and went though, causing a flash of pain behind her eyes. She could hear it cackling, like a hyena.

“I fuckin’-I hate these things,” she growled, covering her eyes, “They make my head spin.”

“Then get out of here,” Rukia ordered, before yelling over at Chad, “Run away! He’s flying!”

“…You can see ghosts?”

That was what he pulled from that?

“I’m sorry, I’m pretty sure he’s concussed,” Kaede reasoned, “Most people would be, after the week he’s had.”

Rukia was sure she couldn’t be more thrown off by his behavior right now. Was he afraid of anything? He was just looking around, seemingly in a half-trance.

“That doesn’t matter right now,” Rukia cried, “We can’t attack him from this distance, so-!”

“Which way?”

“What?!”

Chad looked at her again, as if it were obvious.

“He’s flying, so which direction?”

“What can you do if you know that?” Rukia seemed to be asking herself more than Chad, “You can’t see the Hollow, right?”

“Huh, is that what it’s called?” Kaede snorted, “Sounds lame.”

Chad headed over to a hydroelectric pole, knocking on it twice with his knuckles. Kaede was as lost as Rukia must have been. When Chad put his arms around the post, Kaede clapped her hands together in front of her face, tapping her lips with them.

“Chad, what are you doing?” Kaede asked.

“This.”

Suddenly, a groan reverberated through the wooden telephone pole. Kaede watch the base begin to splinter, wood snapping audibly. Oh no.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you-?!”

GHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

With a mighty yell, Chad snapped the entire pole from its base. Kaede and Rukia could have screamed. The pole tilted backwards, then forwards, but Chad had it perfectly steady after that. Neither of the girls could believe it; that pole had to be 10 meters tall, and at least two feet thick. How much did that weigh?

“What is he…?” Rukia wondered.

“My friend, thank god,” Kaede was red-faced and frowning, tugging the ribbon from around her neck, “Did it just get really hot?”

Rukia immediately scowled up at Kaede. Human teenagers were so uncool.

“This is no time to be thirsty,” she snapped.

Chad looked over his shoulder at them coolly. He wasn’t even winded.

“So, which way?” he asked.

Kaede wordlessly pointed into the sky. That stupid monster, the Hollow, was right in Chad’s path, probably just as stunned as they were.

“J-just swing down!” Rukia ordered.

Chad did as he was told, hitting the shimmer in the sky at full force. The pole split in half, and the Hollow was slammed into the concrete. The physics of that attack were just wild. Not only could Chad snap a telephone pole, but combining its weight with even a little force should have killed that thing. Kaede reasoned it would be dead, and they could go home.

The shape sure wasn’t moving anymore, but nobody felt any safer. Rukia headed over to its prone form. Kaede followed her, though stopped just behind Chad. It might be dead, but there was no reason to stand in front of the guy who stood the best chance of keeping things that way.  He looked over his shoulder at her, the remnants of the pole resting on the other. If she hadn’t been planning on staying behind him already, the look he gave her would have kept her there. Rukia stopped a foot back from the shiny lump, victorious yet cautious.

“So, give up?” she asked, crossing her arms, “I have a guy coming to get rid of you soon, so why don’t you stay down until then, huh?”

“Oh god,” Kaede gripped the back of Chad’s shirt, “It’s not dead?”

Rukia actually laughed at her, biting and cold.

“Not even close,” was her reply, “But it’s going to stay still until Ichigo arrives.”

“Ichigo?” Kaede was surprised, “Ichigo is the guy? For real?”

Before Rukia could answer, the sound of laughter rang out around them. To Kaede, it sounded distant and echoing, but had no true direction from which it came. Rukia scowled down at the monster.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded.

Heheheh, nothing, nothing really,” the voice answered her, mocking, “I’m just wondering why you think you’ve won, when I’ve already devoured two whole Shinigami before you?

That didn’t sound good. In fact, Kaede suddenly got the distinct impression they were being watched. By hundreds of little eyes.

It’s that kind of thoughtlessness that always ends up getting you Shingami beaten. Beaten by us!

A breeze, just past her ear. She felt it before she heard it whistling. Something, or a lot of somethings, knocked her friends off their feet. Kaede, without knowing how or why, had managed to rush out of the way. She looked down at Chad and Rukia, who both had their faces in the pavement. They were pinned, by lots of nasty little shapes. Kaede felt a chill of disgust wiggle up her spine.

“Run!” Rukia cried out, struggling against her tiny attackers, “Find Ichigo!”

The big one now had its eyes on her. Kaede saw it crouching low for a pounce. She could see its jaw opening and closing, almost like a marionette. She heard a hollowed-out inhale, as though the creature were taking in the scent of the whole street.

You’re better than I thought,” the Hollow said, “Get over here. Your boyfriend is unappetising.

Her stomach dropped. Kaede wanted to run, but something told her not to take her eyes off that monster. She didn’t know where to go. If she tried to run straight away, she would lose, every time. Instead, she planted her feet, shoulder-width apart. She took a breath through her nose, then let it out slowly through her mouth.

Bend you knees, she thought her way through it all, fists ready, arms up, don’t look down.

Her change in posture was making Chad and Rukia panic. They started fighting even harder to get free. Chad didn’t like where this was going; she wasn’t frozen like she had been on the sidewalk yesterday. She looked determined.

“What are you doing? You fool!” Rukia called, “Run!”

You think you can take me on?” the creature howled with laughter, “You’ve got guts! This time, I’ll eat you for real!

Suspicion confirmed; it had attacked them yesterday. Rukia was confused as to what made Kaede so appetising. There was nothing peculiar or special about her level of spiritual power. She figured the Hollow had been drawn to Yuichi, but that would only bring him one soul. Yuichi was bait, after all.

The hollow dove for her, and Kaede spotted her chance. She waited until the last instant, then dropped to the ground. It sailed over her, wings spread for a glide. Kaede scrambled to her feet. She tried to run, but something tripped her up. The Hollow had her, and grabbed her by the ankles, lifting her into the air with one hand. Kaede shrieked, trying her best to hold her skirt up as she dangled. So much for a “dodge and flee” maneuver.

Hah! You thought I didn’t see that coming?” it cackled, peering at her face, “You got away once, and I’ve always got a back-up plan!

The Hollow was laughing madly. It poked her in the belly, hard. Kaede crunched up, but refused to drop her skirt.

Oh, come on, you’re just my type,” the hollow sneered, “Helpless. Why don’t you relax a little? Scream for me?

Kaede was not about to give it the satisfaction. Instead, she spat right in its nearest eye. The Hollow yipped; it wasn’t laughing anymore. It started shaking her up and down, like a salt shaker. Kaede was going to be sick, but she refused to scream.

You little bitch!” it yelled, “Just let me eat y-!

The Hollow was interrupted by a punch to the face. There was Chad, saving the day again. He must have freed himself while she was providing a distraction. When she dropped, he caught her mid-air. The Hollow reared back, holding its face in its hands.

You muscle-brained idiot!” it screamed, “Do you have to answer every, little thing with your biceps?!

“You okay?” Chad asked, placing Kaede down on her feet again, “You didn’t hit your head?”

Don’t ignore me!” the Hollow howled, taking off into the air once more, “Damn it!”

Chad was either completely ignorant of the screaming, or ignoring it. Kaede found she could only nod dumbly at Chad’s inquiry. Chad smoothed her mussed-up hair, before turning himself in completely the wrong direction. Rukia was up too, and rushed towards them. He must have freed her before saving Kaede.

“No! Not that way,” Rukia yelled at him, “It’s in the air again!”

Chad immediately began looking at the telephone poles again, but when Kaede looked up, she saw that the Hollow was too far up.

“A post won’t reach,” she said, looking down at Rukia, “Any bright ideas?”

Rukia considered Kaede, before shaking her head and looking off elsewhere. When her eyes landed on Chad, she seemed to have an instant plan.

“Just one,” she said.

 

“Hey, Kuchiki…are you really going to go through with this?”

Chad had asked it dubiously, and Kaede had to agree. Currently, Rukia was scrunched up in a ball, with Chad holding her up, ready to launch her like a cannonball. Kaede’s job was the watch, and not get into any more trouble. Oddly, the Hollow was still circling, likely trying to figure out the best way to eat them all without losing its teeth.

“This?” Kaede was incredulous, “This was your only plan?”

“Yes, and it’s brilliant!” Rukia insisted, “Chad’s Herculean strength, mixed with my expertise; exploiting that is the only way. Now shut up and throw me!”

Chad sighed heavily, “You know, this feels like an awfully dumb strategy…”

“You do not have the authority to say that to me,” Rukia pointed a finger at Kaede, “How do we adjust for the wind with his range?”

“I’m not a Chad Calculator!” Kaede stamped her foot.

The two continued to stare at her though. Kaede sighed.

“Adjust an extra 45 degrees to the right for all instructions.”

“Let’s go! Aim me for two o’clock!” Rukia ordered.

“Which way is two o’clock?” Chad asked.

“That way! …No, too far! …Okay, now a 40-degree elevation! …Not that high! I’m not a firecracker!”

This was getting them nowhere. Without warning, Kaede began pulling and pushing on Chad and Rukia, adjusting them until Rukia was in position.

“You need to be off slightly, to account for an East wind, and the fact that you’re on his dominant leg,” Kaede huffed, adjusting Chad’s head for directional purposes, “Jeez, you two are terrible at this.”

When she was done, Rukia could find no errors. Given what Kaede has said, the aim was perfect. Kaede’s spatial awareness was far above average, which just made Rukia feel embarrassed.

“Y-yes, there, definitely. Let’s go! Ready?”

Kaede began the countdown.

“Three, two, one, FIRE!”

Chad hurled Rukia into the air like a rocket. Kaede had been dead on, and Rukia was going to stick the landing. Until something shot out and hit her. It was enough of an impact the Rukia began to tumble down, her momentum completely cancelled out.

Chad was there to catch her, but barely. He had to dive for her, but he made it. Rukia was safe on the ground, but covered in something…wriggly? Rukia pulled on a gross-looking grub, but it held fast to her skin, leaving an angry red suction mark and blood around its mouth. Oh, Kaede did not like the look of that.

“Are those…leeches?” Kaede squeaked.

That’s right! And not just any leeches!” the Hollow had landed in front of them, “They’re my targets!

A high-pitched noise, like a dog whistle, came from that monster’s mouth. Was his tongue vibrating? Before anyone knew what was happening, the leeches began to vibrate as well. Before anyone had time to think, the one attached to Rukia’s head burst. That blood was Rukia’s.

“Rukia!”

Rukia was knocked back by the force, but that didn’t deter Kaede. She was on Rukia in an instant, helping her up, checking her head. After yesterday’s car crash, Kaede wasn’t bothered by that little blood.

“What happened?” Chad asked.

 “Surprised, Shinigami?” the Hollow whooped, “Those leeches are miniature bombs! They only explode when I whistle through my tongue! It was so careless to think all I could do was fly!

“Bombs,” Kaede relayed, “Get back!”

However, Kaede remained in place. Rukia was holding her head, trying to sort herself out.

“Are you okay?” Kaede forced Rukia to look up at her, “Where does it hurt?”

Rukia was stunned. Another person who didn’t seem afraid of obviously frightening things. Chad had been told to back up, but, like Kaede, he remained well within an explosive range.

“What is wrong with you two?” Rukia murmured with a shake of her head, “Do you have any idea how stupid you’re being?”

Kaede grinned, “Nope. We’re just stupid, I guess.”

Chad had figured out what direction their opponent was in once again. Kaede had figured out how he was doing it; whenever he seemed far away, he was really absorbing his surroundings, trying to pick up on the smallest sound or change in the light.

Not so fast, Big Guy,” the Hollow stepped back to reveal something, “How about this?

Yuichi was at its feet, a tiny shape attached to the cage. Chad stopped dead. Kaede paled. They had completely forgotten him, in all the chaos. This had been a distraction.

“Oh crap, Yuichi!”

“Why’s his cage here?” Chad frowned deeply.

“I’m sorry, Mister,” Yuichi whimpered, “I got captured.”

Chad was shocked, but didn’t move. He felt so stupid; of course, this was all a ploy to catch the kid. Something told him to hold his ground.

So, you do understand! Pretty smart, Big Guy,” the Hollow pointed a ghastly claw at the girls, “Now, it’s your turn to be smart, Shinigami. You run around, let me have some fun, before I come back to pick your friends off. One. By. One.

Kaede got up to Rukia’s ear.

“What’s the plan?”

“Chad, don’t move,” Rukia stood, with Kaede’s help, “He’ll blow the cage if you take a single step.”

“What about you two?” Chad’s shoulders were tense.

“Don’t worry, I promised I wouldn’t mess up,” Rukia crouched low with a sudden burst of speed, “Kaede, get down!”

Rukia propelled herself down the street, away from the Hollow. Kaede wondered why she’d been told to duck, until she saw the Hollow sailing towards her. Like before, Kaede hit the dirt, but didn’t sacrifice her footing. She was relieved when it passed right over her, though that was short-lived when she saw the numerous little creatures she had to contend with. Those, like the Hollow, were becoming clearer every time she looked at them. Little frog-like beasts, with fangs and speckled crests. Chad and Kaede were currently surrounded.

“Oh, great…”

Kaede assessed the situation, counting the little bastards. There were…fifteen, no, sixteen of them. She could see a slit in the forehead of the one nearest her, with something moving just below the surface. According to logic, based on what Rukia had said about blowing the cage up, these things were leech carriers, as well as minions. Odd. Kaede had never imagined monsters like that having friends.

She knew she couldn’t take these things on alone; they had managed to knock Chad to the ground, and pin him. That didn’t mean she was helpless though. From her crouched position, she felt around for something to throw. A small pebble was by her feet. Not much, but all she needed. With a flick of her wrist, she threw it at the little Hollow gripping Yuichi’s cage. She hit is square in the crest, stunning it for a moment. That was their chance.

“Chad, grab the cage!”

She didn’t need to tell him twice. With a speed that could only be matched by his strength, Chad grabbed hold of the cage. His speedy grab was enough to make the little Hollow drop off. He pivoted on one foot, racing back to Kaede. With one arm, he grabbed her around her middle, and hoisted her over his shoulder. The little Hollows tried to jump him, some fired leeches, but all of them missed, their attacks crashing into one another. He pivoted again, gaining even more momentum, and ran to the opposite corner Ruika had turned. Kaede in one arm, Yuichi in the other, he was gone before any of the little Hollows could react.

As they turned towards the river once again, Kaede was laughing hysterically. She couldn’t even find it in her to be amazed that Chad still had so much energy. Of course, he was the coolest. They were a super team. Like always, they had worked in harmony. They were alive!

“HAHAHAHA! EAT SHIT, TINY BOMB-MONSTERS!” she howled, “You have been defeated by the invincible Saito-Yasutora Alliance! May we reign a thousand years!”

“We need to help Rukia,” Chad reminded her.

WOOOOOOOOOO!”

“Kaede!”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard you!” Kaede looked over her shoulder, “Hey! I see Rukia! Rukia!”

Rukia looked beaten, bloody, worse for wear, but otherwise alive. She turned when Kaede called out to her. She was standing over someone, who was passed out. Red hair…

“Ichigo!” Chad cried as they finally pulled up next to Rukia, “What’s wrong with him?”

“Perfect timing,” Rukia said, “Can you take everyone to safety? This guy too.”

She pointed at Ichigo’s prone form. Something seemed off though. Kaede could hear shouting, and the scrape of metal against concrete. What was going on? She began to squirm, which was the only clue Chad needed to put her down. When she was on her feet, she looked over to where Rukia had been watching. She saw a shape, fighting with the shape of the Hollow. It looked like a man, holding a big stick.

“Don’t worry,” Rukia turned back to the fight, “Ichigo is in the middle of a battle right now. You two just get Yuichi and his body out of here.”

That was Ichigo? Kaede could see it now; the shape of Ichigo’s wild hair, his relaxed yet ready posture. She turned to Chad, who just looked confused.

“Give me Yuichi. You take him,” she reached her hands out, “We’ll take them to that park a couple blocks over.”

Had she actually remembered a landmark? Chad was impressed. He handed her the cage without hesitation, before turning his attention to Ichigo’s body, tossing it over his shoulder. Kaede looked down at Yuichi, who had been strangely quiet.

“Hey, kiddo, sorry we left you there,” Kaede smiled softly, “Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry, Miss Kaede. It’s all my fault.”

Kaede’s expression dropped into one of surprise. Yuichi looked up at her with sad eyes.

“Because of me, the nice lady and Mister Sado got hurt,” he sounded like he was tearing up, "You almost got eaten. I'm so sorry!"

“Yuichi…” Kaede suddenly shook the cage, “Don’t even start that with me!”

“Wh-what?”

Kaede brought the cage up high, to look that little boy…bird in the face. There it was, for another to see. The fire in her gaze.

“You. Didn’t. Cause. This,” Kaede enunciated every word with aggressive vigor, “You have nothing to apologise for! You’re a kid! Don’t forget that!”

Yuichi was staring, and so was Chad. Kaede’s eyes were starting to fill with tears.

“He told you he could bring your mom back to life,” she whimpered, “I would do anything, anything, to have even a chance at seeing my mom again. This is not your fault!”

“Miss Kaede…”

“What did you just say?”

Kaede turned her attention to Rukia, who seemed to shimmer with rage. She looked past Kaede, directly into the birdcage.

“Did that…that thing, tell you he could bring her back to life?” Rukia was shaking, “Did it tell you that there was a way?”

Kaede clutched Yuichi’s birdcage to her chest. She sniffled, trying to hold back more tears, as she nodded.

“We thought we could beat it,” she said, looking over at Chad, “At least, we hoped we could. I knew it was bullshit; we both did. But Yuichi was clearly being used.”

Rukia scoffed, “You humans will believe anything.”

Rukia had quite the expression on her face. One of derision. Kaede and Chad shared another glance, before looking back at Rukia. 

“For the right people?” Kaede's smile was so sad, “You could ask me to kill, or to be killed. I wouldn’t hesitate.”

Chad nodded; it was no question for him, either. Kaede’s hold on the cage was so protective, that Yuichi couldn’t help but coo. It reminded him of his mommy. He felt so safe.

Rukia watched Kaede for a moment, something stirring inside of her. Disgust? No, maybe jealousy? She wondered if that was what it meant for Ichigo. To love his family so much, he’d die for them. That was what had spurred him to take on her powers, after all. Were the Kurosakis just like that, or was that something all humans shared? Had Rukia ever felt like that about anyone?

A piercing shriek rang out around them, pulling them from their conversation. When Kaede looked back out into the street, she saw the Hollow was holding its face. What had happened? The shape that was Ichigo was holding something long and dripping.

“His tongue!” Kaede exclaimed, “Ichigo got his tongue!”

Chad and Rukia huddled up to the streetlamp with her to watch. The Hollow was writhing.

You bastard!” it howled, “My tongue! Give me back my tongue!

Instead, Ichigo used that long stick to pierce the leg of the Hollow. Meaning it was a sword. Kaede would have to ask him about this whole monster hunter thing afterwards. The Hollow continued to wail.

My leg! My leg!

With this, you can’t move. Without your weapon, you can’t fight,” Ichigo’s voice was calm, pinging, dangerous, “How does it feel? Can you savour it a little? How does it feel, to be one of the murdered?!

“Murder…”

Kaede couldn’t have hugged Yuichi any closer, though she tried. A murderer, that made sense. Someone who enjoyed it too, for Ichigo to be so angry. The flashing images she had picked up from Yuichi before made sense. Being stabbed to death; what a terrifying way to go. Yuichi’s mother hadn’t been able to fight him off. She shuddered.

The Hollow ripped its leg free with a scream, though Kaede saw he left most of it behind. It took to the air, but could only get so high with a takeoff like that. She started to come out from behind their shielding corner, to better see what was happening. Ichigo crouched low, his sword at the ready.

That’s right. You’re scared, right? So scared, you’d rip your own leg off to escape!

Was he going to follow it up? That was exactly what he did, so fast, Kaede blinked and he was in the air.

Never forget that terror!” Ichigo raised his blade, “Hammer it into your brain, and DISAPPEAR!

He swung, and the air around them all stilled. As Ichigo and his prey began to fall, the Earth beneath their feet began to tremble. From the ground, higher than a high-rise, sprang a pair of doors, crimson and black. Those, Kaede could see as clear as anything. They were decorated with two skeletons, and bound together by several great chains. She looked over at Chad and Rukia. Chad was in equal amounts of awe.

“You see that too?” she whispered, before turning her eyes back towards the doors.

Ichigo hollered back at them, “What the hell is that?”

“It’s Hell,” Rukia emerged from their hiding place as well, heading calmly towards Ichigo, “I’ve told you the Zanpakutou cleanses sins with a slash, and that is how Hollows can enter the Soul Society. However, the Zanpakutou can only cleanse sins committed after death! Those who’ve committed great atrocities in life are doomed to Hell.”

Another rumble shook the Earth. The chains with bound the door began to snap off limply, one by one. The Hollow was before them, seemingly unable to move.

“Look now,” Rukia pointed, “The Gate of Hell are opening.”

As if by her command, those red doors flew inwards, and a great blackness waited on the other side. From there, emerged a blade of equally great size. It pierced the shrieking Hollow, and behind it, Kaede could see eyes. The great eyes of a creature even bigger than those gates. It cackled madly, the Hollow being pulled into the darkness. Once it disappeared within, the gates slammed shut, and crumbled into dust.

The world around them moved out of stillness. Kaede tried to laugh, but it sounded strangled.

“S-s-s-so…Hell, huh? Nice place…”

“Miss Kaede, you’re shivering,” Yuichi chirped.

“How are you not?!”

Chapter Text

In the park, down the street from where the Gates of Hell had materialised, Kaede was seated on a swing. She watched as Rukia examined Yuichi. She was muttering to herself, something that sounded like spells, eyes closed and brow furrowed in concentration. Ichigo was back in his body, leaned up against a safety railing. Chad was with them, waiting patiently for Rukia’s diagnosis. Rukia was a very adept spell caster; she had taken care of hers and Chad’s wounds before stating she might be able to put Yuichi back in his body. She just had to find it first, which was going to take some time.

In the meantime, Kaede was grilling Ichigo about their stupidly eventful afternoon. Mostly for personal entertainment.

“So, explain this to me one more time. Shinigami, like, death gods, are real? And ghosts? And that thing we beat was a Hollow, which eats other souls? And Rukia is a Shinigami, but you’re taking over for her until she gets her powers back?”

“Yes, for the fifth time,” Ichigo shushed her, “Now will you drop it?”

The sun had set while they waited, the moon high in the sky. Rukia had been doing this for hours at that point. Kaede yawned.

“Hey, not that I’m not loving the scenery,” she said, “But how’s it looking over there?”

“…I’m sorry,” Rukia sighed, opening her eyes, “It’s a shame, but I’m afraid the Chain of Fate has been disconnected, and too much time has passed. There’s no way to return him to his body.”

Kaede had figured, but that didn’t stop the sadness she felt for Yuichi. The little guy looked heartbroken.

“No way…” he murmured.

“Hey, don’t be sad!” Rukia cried, “The Soul Society is a great place! You’ll have nothing to worry about, like being tired or hungry! It’s nine times out of ten way better than this world!”

“Oh really?” Ichigo had a sly look on his face, “You don’t say?”

Rukia looked at him as if he were about to out her for lying. Ichigo thankfully had no intentions of that, though.

“That may be true, but at least, if you go to the other world, you’ll get to see your mom again,” Ichigo grinned down at Yuichi, “She can’t come here, but if you go there, then this time, your mom will be waiting for you, for sure!”

Yuichi gave a soft gasp. He had been convinced. Rukia looked nearly touched.

“Alright,” Ichigo pulled up a sleeve, “Let’s get you sent off!”

Everyone guessed that this meant goodbye. Kaede stood from her swing. Yuichi was looking over at Chad, suddenly overcome with a kind of wistfulness.

“Mister Sado, thank you for everything,” Yuichi gushed, “Because you carried me around, I didn’t get hurt at all!”

“Hmm…It was nothing.”

Ichigo and Rukia gave him a look, but he could see Kaede smiling at him. They wouldn’t have noticed, but Kaede could see Chad’s ears turning colour. It made him happy, to be thanked. She wandered up next to him, and gently bumped up against his arm. Yuichi turned his eyes on her next.

“And, Miss Kaede? Thank you.”

Kaede knelt in front of the cage, putting her finger through the bars, one last time. Yuichi cuddled against it, sighing contentedly.

“I hope when I see my mommy again, I can tell her all about all of you,” Yuichi cooed, “I’ll miss you, Miss Kaede.”

“I’ll miss you too, Yuichi,” Kaede was fighting tears, “Stay out of trouble, okay? Tell your momma you love her, every single day.”

Yuichi nodded vigorously, “I will! I guess I should go now. Thank you very much!”

Kaede turned to look at Ichigo. His body was up against the play structure, and there he stood, in full Shinigami shine. Kaede could see the cut of his robes now, and the shape of his sword. Yuichi too was beginning to develop a shape outside the cockatiel body. A little boy, with soft brown curls, couldn’t be more than four or five years old. Chad could see him too.

“Hey, Yuichi.”

His call gave Yuichi pause, and the little boy turned. Big brown eyes, to match his hair, blinked up at Chad.

“When I die, and go over there…is it okay if I carry you around, one more time?”

Chad was serious, and Kaede couldn’t tear her eyes from him. Big softie. Yuichi smiled brightly.

“Sure!” he chimed.

Ichigo and Rukia smiled at that. Kaede moved out of the way, and Ichigo stood in her place.

“You ready?” he asked Yuichi.

The little boy nodded, squeezing his eyes shut. With the butt of his sword, Ichigo tapped Yuichi’s forehead. The little boy, and the birdcage, vanished in a flash, a black butterfly taking its place. It flew off, into the night sky. For the first time all day, Chad felt like he could breathe again. Yuichi was going to be okay.

 

The group was headed back towards the Kurosaki clinic, as had been their intended goal for the day. Kaede was still interrogating Rukia about all the cool Shinigami stuff she had just been exposed to. Oddly enough, Rukia didn’t seem even a little bit frustrated, though Kaede was an enthusiastic pupil. Unlike Ichigo.

“Okay, so what other kinds of spells can you do?” Kaede asked, eyes alight.

“Well, there are approximately one hundred kido spells that all Shinigami have to know before we can graduate from the academy,” Rukia explained, “However, I was top of my class, in both spells and combat.”

“Ooo,” Kaede clapped her hands in delight, “Rukia, the party wizard!”

“Wizard?” Rukia frowned at her in confusion, “What’s a wizard?”

“Oh, you know, a spell caster!” Kaede was unperturbed by Rukia’s expression, “I mean, those spells you use are so long and complex, nothing natural about them at all. You can tell they’ve come from years of training and preparation. You could be a warlock, but they usually ally with creatures like the one Ichigo just busted, so that’s a no. And sorcerers have a natural affinity, but they don’t know a lot of different spells because of it. All talent, little to no training.”

Rukia blushed brightly. Kaede could really tell how hard she had worked? Ichigo elbowed Rukia teasingly, and the small Shinigami huffed at him.

“Oh yeah?” Ichigo was grinning, “So what am I then?”

“Fighter,” Kaede said it without pause, “No question. Either a monster hunter, or a battle master. I’m leaning towards monster hunter, since that seems to be more or less what you and Rukia tag team on now, but you’re still a good candidate for a battle master. You figured that hollow’s move set out pretty quickly, and counteracted it with cunning.”

The other three had slowed, while Kaede continued at full speed. Who knew Kaede was so enthusiastic about RPGs? She continued ahead, her hair bouncing wildly as she did. She had noticed they were now all behind her, but she was too excited to finish now.

“And you,” Kaede spun to walk backwards, pointing at Chad, “You are a paladin.”

“A paladin? Like, a knight?”

Chad wasn’t sure how he felt about that classification. Knights struck him as stuffy, usually white men, who liked to impose their will on others. He’d read The Once and Future King, and had no interest in behaving like that. Kaede shook her head at him though.

“Not a knight, specifically; those are different. A paladin can be a knight, but knights aren’t necessarily paladins,” she turned back around just in time to avoid a streetlight, “I’d say you’ve taken an oath of either devotion or redemption; I’ll have to see you in action more to figure out which. You’ve sworn an oath to protect others though, and that gives you your power. Also, your proficiencies are most likely athleticism, insight, and intimidation.”

Wow, she had him figured out. It was a little embarrassing; for everyone except her, that is. At least, Chad hoped he wasn’t the only one feeling embarrassed.

“Wouldn’t I be a paladin then?” Ichigo was puzzled, “I got this power by making a promise.”

“Yeah, but Rukia says you had power before,” Kaede shrugged, “You’re...OH! I’ve got it! Eldritch Knight! You can access a small list of wizard spells!”

Rukia made a noise, and Kaede pointed right at her.

“I’m right, aren’t I?!”

“You’re such a nerd,” her cousin teased.

Ichigo sidled up next to her to scruff up her hair. Kaede squealed and laughed, batting his hand away. Chad and Rukia shared a look and a small smile. But they also knew this would come to an end once they reached the clinic. Rukia’s smile fell away quickly.

“I’m sorry this has to end,” she told him, looking ahead once more.

“It’s alright,” Chad said genuinely, sounding oddly unsurprised, “You and Ichigo have a job to do. I know you wouldn’t be erasing our memories if you didn’t have to.”

Rukia was startled.

“How did you-?”

“I guessed. It…feels like a secret.”

He’d answered too quickly. Rukia was starting to wonder if he remembered the last time, somehow. When he and Kaede had been ripped out of their shells. He shouldn’t; her tools didn’t rely on her spiritual energy, so they should be just as effective as they had always been. Did Kaede remember too?

“Hey, you two don’t…?”

When Chad looked down at Rukia, the words died in her throat. She knew she wouldn’t be able to get a read off him, even if he did remember. Rukia could see they were coming up to the Kurosaki clinic.

“…Nevermind.”

Once they had reached the front door of Ichigo’s house, Kaede had barely turned around before Rukia pulled out a little black stick. It was rectangular. She first pointed it in Chad’s face. Something clicked, and a bird’s head popped out, in flash of light and a puff of smoke. Kaede screamed when Chad hit the ground, unconscious.

“What is that?” she squeaked, “Chad?!”

Before she could get an answer, she was blinded by a flash of light herself. Everything went dark.

 


 

The wolf was looming over her bed, saliva dripping from between its teeth. It started singing, to the tune of “Sakura, Sakura”, as long, gaunt, clawed arms began to encircle her. As if it hadn’t been creepy enough while repeating her name in the corner. She squeezed her eyes shut. If she ignored it, it would go away, and she would wake up.

“Kitsune, kitsune,” it sang, “Under the summer sky, she burned the flesh out from my eyes.”

Kaede was still dreaming. She had to be, but something was different about this one. She could smell the rot on its breath.

“Can it still, or can it not? Flames that burn, it has forgot.”

It touched her. For the first time, in almost ten years of seeing this thing, it had touched her. Kaede tried to wake up, but couldn’t. She started to pull herself upright, and one of those long claws pierced her shoulder. She could feel it, sliding in between her bones. She screamed.

The wolf lifted her into the air, still skewering her shoulder. It threw her across the room, and Kaede hit the wall with a thud. Kaede couldn’t breathe when she hit the ground. Puling herself up slowly, she looked back at the bed. The wolf had turned to look at her, but that wasn’t what was freaking her out. She saw a body in the bed. Her body. Something tugged in her chest. Kaede looked down, and saw a chain, attaching her to her body.

“Wh-what’s happening?”

The wolf was lowering itself to the floor, getting ready to pounce. Kaede looked between it, and the front door. If she ran, she could make it. Crazy dream or not, she was not about to die.

There was a knock on the wall.

“Kaede?” the call was muffled, “Kaede!”

Chad? He was still up? Had he heard her scream? She turned towards the wall, pounding back on it.

“Chad?” she called back, “Chad! I’m in here! Don’t come out!”

“Kaede? …I’m coming over! Don’t move!”

“Wh-no! Ch-!”

Kaede tried to call out, but something slammed into her, and careened her into her apartment door. She heard herself screaming again. She at least had the presence of mind to cover her head. The front door was knocked open by the force with which she had flown. Kaede tumbled out onto the balcony.

“Kaede?”

She opened her eyes. Chad was outside with her, looking into her home. The apartment was dark, and silent, but Kaede could see the red eyes of the wolf, gleaming from the shadows. It slowly stalked forwards, causing a creak in the floorboards. That was all it took for Chad to make up his mind though. He headed in, his foot going right through her. Kaede rolled over painfully, trying to push herself up.

“N-no!” she coughed out, “Don’t go!”

Her pleas didn’t quite reach him, and yet something told him not to go too far. Chad stopped right in the entryway, turning back around. He walked out once again, heading over to the railing outside the apartment. As he looked around, Kaede was doing her best to stand. The wolf was sliding through the doorway now, bending around the space to fit itself.

“How lucky,” it crooned, “Another snack…”

Not happening. Kaede pulled herself up completely, spreading her arms to block Chad’s back.

“I won’t let you!’

The wolf bared its teeth.

“Too bad.”

It raised its paw, swiping Kaede right off the balcony. She didn’t hit the metal bars, but something else on the way down. Whatever it was wrapped itself around her, and broke her fall from the third floor. When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

She came face to face with Chad, who was looking right at her. He was bleeding, and panting, but alive. Sort of. Kaede was quick to notice a chain coming out of his chest too.

“Kaede? Where did you come from?” he asked, “What’s happening? You’re bleeding.”

Before she could answer, there was a crash just beyond them. She looked up to spot the wolf, blocking off any hope of escape. It had knocked them both over and followed them down. Chad followed her gaze, and couldn’t help but stare.

“What…What is that?”

“The thing! The thing!” Kaede cried, shaking him by his shoulders.

The wolf crouched once more, and Kaede knew what was coming. Chad didn’t need to be told though. As soon as the wolf leapt, he rolled them out of the way. It crashed into the planters at the front of the building, crushing them to dirt and dust. Kaede was dizzy by the time they finished tumbling. Chad tried to pull himself off her, but something kept him from standing. Rather, it dragged Kaede up by the chest with him.

“Ow!” Kaede yipped, “What the…?”

Their chains had gotten tangled. Great, just great.

“What is this?” Chad frowned.

As he tried to untie them, the wolf launched another attack. There was no time; it was going right for him. Kaede moved without thinking.

“Look out!”

Pain. Then, black.

Kaede awoke to the sun on her face, curled up on the futon in Yuzu and Karin’s room. She felt the strangest sense of déjà vu. The last thing she remembered…

“Chad!”

Chad had been missing. Kaede shot up so fast that she made herself dizzy. She looked around the bedroom, and saw she was alone. Where were Yuzu and Karin? It didn’t matter. She was still wearing her uniform from the day before. She glanced at the digital clock. 1:45pm. It was the middle of the afternoon. What had happened?

Kaede headed downstairs to the kitchen, and found no one. The whole house was as empty as it had sounded. There was a note tucked under the rice cooker. It read:

"Dear Kaede,

I hope you got a good sleep. Ichigo tells me you found Chad yesterday. You passed out on the front step. He thinks you hit your head after all. Don’t worry about going to school. I called the day off for you. I left you some spare clothes in the upstairs bathroom (Sweats! Horray!), so have a shower. Stay there until I get home to clear you, okay? Chad’s back in the clinic. I’m running a course this afternoon, but feel free run on in and see him.

Love,

Uncle Isshin

P.S....I made you a bowl this morning. Eat up! There’s lunch in the fridge, too."

Kaede squinted at the paper. That sounded wrong, but she could even begin to figure out how.

“Huh,” she mumbled, “Okay…bath time, I guess.”

In the shower, Kaede kept trying to recall the events of the previous day, but something was blocking it all out. She’d found Chad? That didn’t sound right. She had been looking for Chad, but she hadn’t found him. She certainly hadn’t hit her head on anything. Had she? A sharp pain ran through the inside of her eyes, shooting straight to the back of her neck. She covered them immediately. Pictures began to flash in her mind. She remembered something else. She hadfound Chad, and a whole lot more.

Little boy, knife raised, mother’s blood, Chad’s blood, Rukia, Ichigo, monster bat. The Gates of Hell.

“Yuichi…” she murmured, “I was…I-.”

It was all coming back. The whole day. And not just that day, but another one.

Her last dream about the wolf…it hadn’t been a dream at all.

And both times, she knew someone (this time, Rukia) had wiped her memory of all the weird parts. Or tried to. She looked up, blinking against the assault of hot water. Her head didn’t hurt anymore. Was that what had caused the pain? Had she just passed a wisdom saving throw? She shook her head, rubbing her face with her hands. She couldn’t just believe it. She needed proof.

When she was dressed and mostly dry, she headed down to the kitchen, towel twisted over her head. She opened the fridge, grabbing up what her uncle had left for her. It was salmon, seaweed, and rice, all mixed together. She unwrapped it, grabbed a spoon from the drawer, and brought it to the couch in the living room. She didn’t care if it was cold.

She turned on the television, and flipped to the news. She was hoping to get some account of what had happened yesterday. When the commercial break ended, she saw something familiar. The screen read: “Mysterious destruction in quiet neighbourhood!” Pictures of the park, the streets where they had fought, and the electrical pole that Chad had splintered clean apart. How had he done that? More importantly…

“Why can I remember that?” Kaede frowned, shovelling food into her mouth.

She plopped her dishes in the sink, before stealing a pair of Ichigo’s flip-flops. They were too big, but she just needed to get into the clinic. She had to see Chad. See if he remembered all this too.

When she found his room, Chad was wide awake. He was sat up in the hospital bed, his likely ruined clothes traded out for the clinic’s standard issue t-shirt and pants. He was reading “The Count of Monte Cristo”, in Spanish, just like yesterday. She wondered if he had to re-read the sections he had read while Yuichi was with him. His torso had been bandaged once again, though his IV wasn’t hooked up to anything. Kaede knocked on the door, laughing out loud when he jumped. He fixed her with a look of surprise, which Kaede just found even funnier.

“Sorry, sorry,” she was still giggling, “Did I scare you?”

Chad didn’t answer, because he felt like he couldn’t. Kaede looked like she had just crawled out of a warm bath, wearing grey sweatpants and a matching sweater. Her hair was starting to fall out of the towel on her head, which big ringlets framing her face. There was something so familiar about her look in her grey eyes. She looked around the room, as if searching for something besides him.

“I…” she seemed to be searching for the right words as well, “Where’s Yuichi?”

That name set off flash of pain behind his eyes. Like a migraine.

“Yuichi…?”

“The bird?” Kaede frowned, “I mean, he wasn’t a bird, he was-.”

“A little boy. He’s gone.”

As he finished her sentence, the migraine was gone, and a flood of memories took its place. Chad could remember the entire day. More than that too. He suddenly saw an image of Kaede, on her side, bleeding into the street in front of their apartment complex.

The wolf was real. Chad still couldn’t believe his eyes, even while he had dodged an attack. It crushed the planters, and was coming for them again. He tried to stand, but he and Kaede were stuck together. He didn’t know what these chains were. All he knew was that it hurt her when he moved. They had to get untangled first.

“Look out!”

She pushed him down to the ground. A tug to the chain in his chest, Chad looked up too late. While he had been trying to untie them, Kaede had taken a blow for him. She was lying next to him, eyes screwed shut, on her side, in a growing pool of blood. Her blood.

Howling laughter; the creature had achieved its target. The wolf was turning back around, drooling in great rivers. Chad was stunned, frozen solid. Kaede opened her eyes, turning them up to his face. Slowly, she tried to force herself up, elbows under her, then knees. Chad was still trying to figure out if this was a dream.

“Run, please,” she gasped in pain.

“Kaede!”

That wasn’t his voice. The wolf took off as a man in black robes ran towards them. Red hair... What was Ichigo doing there? What was he wearing? Rukia, the new transfer student, was following him. Ichigo followed the wolf as it took off, but Rukia ran towards them. She was saying something to him, asking him something, but Chad couldn't even hear her. This had to be a dream.

 Just as he finished telling himself that, Kaede dropped again, a grotesque splosh occurring as she hit the puddle. Before he could even reach for her, Rukia had been on him, with that little memory stick.

“Lights out,” she said.

A flash of white light. He felt the world slipping away.

“Kaede.”

Kaede saw Chad’s expression visibly change, to one of horror. He dropped his book with a gasp, eyes wide. In a flash, he was on her, gripping her shoulders. She was surprised by his speed, the look in his eyes, everything.

“Ch-Chad?” she put a small hand on his chest, “What is it?”

Her delicate wrists and arms, her dainty hands. He was filled with a foreign sort of desperation.

“Don’t do that again.”

“I don’t-.”

“Never,” his eyes found hers, gaze firm and commanding, “Never shield me again. You…”

Before Kaede could ask Chad what he was talking about, he had pulled back from her, turning his eyes away. His eyebrows were knit together so tightly, Kaede could practically feel how upset he was with her. Her hand pulled back to her own chest, clasping itself there.

“You’re so much smaller...than you think you are.”

Kaede didn’t have to wrack her brain for very long to figure out what he was talking about. She hadn’t shielded him yesterday, or at any point during their time with Yuichi. The only time she had, was when the wolf attacked them.

“So…you remember that?”

He turned from her, walking back to the bed. His shirt was hung over the bottom rail, though he knew it was ruined. The blood was probably crusted, and he knew the back was ripped open. It had been one of his favourite shirts, too, with a yellow sunflower pattern. With a great sigh, he sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Why are we always ending up like this?”

Kaede was surprised to hear him say that. She wasn’t sure if it was “always”, but they were starting to show a pattern. She headed across the room to his side.

“You mean, sore? Bleeding?” Kaede flopped down next to him, “Running for our lives while creatures from the beyond hunger for our flesh?”

Chad couldn’t contain his smile at the way she wiggled her fingers with that last statement. She was trouble, and he was growing ever more certain that she knew it.

“You remember too?”

“I wish I didn’t,” she shrugged, “I deeply dislike the memory of being stabbed by weird claws. I wish I could forget those visions Yuichi gave me… Should we tell Rukia her memory thing is busted? I feel like that's an important tool.”

“Probably not. Better for her to think we forgot everything.”

Kaede nodded, turning her eyes towards her feet. As bashful as she was feeling, as uncertain as the world around her had become these past few weeks, she knew she had a friend who was in it with her. She wasn’t alone. She was suddenly very glad her uncle had called them off from school.

“…You saved my life that night,” she said, “If you hadn’t …Why? You barely knew me, really.”

“You were in trouble,” he shrugged.

Kaede supposed that was true, but that wasn’t an answer. She knew she could never forget the face he had just made at her, when he scolded her. So stern. She couldn’t help the laughter that burst forwards. The way he was frowning at her now was even funnier.

“You were so mad at me!” Kaede exclaimed, “I’ve never seen you so angry!”

Chad flushed. The anger, the helplessness, had sort of snuck up on him there. She had been badly bleeding, half passed out, and she’d still told him to run. He would have had a better chance of surviving that than her. She didn’t seem to realise how small she was compared to him. The memory of those claws hooked through her; he’d thought it was a nightmare.

“You charged in there like nothing was wrong,” he finally grumbled.

Oh, that was his problem? Kaede snorted.

“Oh good, we match,” she teased, “Seriously though, thank you, for protecting me from the car crash. I don’t think I’ll even be able to thank you as many times as I need to.”

“Then, I should thank you too,” he said, “For yesterday. You didn’t have to go looking for me.”

“Uhm, obviously, I was going to go looking for you,” Kaede was nearly incredulous, “As if I was going to just let you run off after saving my life. What kind of shit friend do you think I am?”

He looked relaxed at that, and it was the first time in a few days that he had. It made Kaede feel warm inside.

“So, what now?” he asked.

Kaede knew what that meant. What were they going to do with their returned memories?

“I guess…we try to live like normal?” she offered, “Let Ichigo and Rukia handle things? They seem like a pretty good team. I guess we’ll have to pretend we still think they’re dating.”

“I don’t like lying to Ichigo,” he said thoughtfully.

“Me neither…but, it’s not a lie if he doesn’t ask,” Kaede pointed out, “Besides, even if they do ask, what good will it do them? They’ll just be worried about us constantly, and that means they can’t help other people. We’ll just have to be careful now, that’s all.”

Chad nodded; she made a good point. It would be their secret, for now.

Chapter Text

Everything around them seemed to be settling into a normal routine again. Ichigo and Rukia would disappear every now and again, and though they had agreed to go back to thinking the two were dating, Kaede couldn’t help but get a little defensive when Keigo teased at their absence. More weird things would happen every now and then, like Ichigo hitting on girls (highly uncharacteristic), but life mostly continued as normal.

The only things they couldn’t write off as normal were the shapes and shadows that danced in the corners of their vision sometimes. Karakura, as it turned out, was a hotspot for spirits with unfinished business. That was becoming more and more evident to both as the weeks went on. What a hub for trouble.

Kaede had continued to sit with the other girls at lunch, though she found herself more and more drawn to Orihime was the weeks went on. Kaede didn’t know what it was, but something about the other girl had a hold on her. Not in an attraction way; more like a kindred spirit sort of way.

“…You’re staring at Orihime again,” Chizuru elbowed her at lunch one day.

Kaede startled out of the trance she had been in, and nearly glowered at Chizuru. Her friend was taken aback by her expression.

“You know it’s not like that,” Kaede said sourly, “Something seems off with her lately. Tatsuki too.”

Chizuru blinked, squinting to view them across the picnic blanket.

“I’ll admit, they seem lower energy than usually, but I’m sure that’s nothing the end of exams won’t fix.”

So, Chizuru hadn’t noticed. Kaede sighed heavily, glumly eating her pickled plums. She didn’t even like pickled plums, but there was nary the usual grimace that normally accompanied her ingestion of them. Chizuru could just feel how off her friend’s energy was.

“Looks like somebody needs a girl’s day,” Chizuru sang.

Her proposal immediately drew the attention of every other girl at the picnic blanket. There was an audible gasp elicited by every single person there. All five sets of brown eyes were sparkling, as they gazed at Chizuru in open-mouthed awe. Even Orihime and Tatsuki had lost their low-energy exterior.

“Okay, so, obviously, we’re going out as a group,” Ryou was the first to speak, “I’m thinking the usual, full-day itinerary, plus some new girl extras. What sorts of things do you like to do, Kaede?”

Kaede was surprised she had been asked, and it showed on her face. Ryou scoffed, but not in an unfriendly way.

“Come on, Space Cadet,” she teased, “We all wanna know. You just listen to us, every day, all far away and stuff. My first guess is shopping, but you’re not super high-energy about it.”

Kaede looked puzzled, which just made Chizuru giggle. Maybe hanging out with Chad was starting to affect her definition of “high-energy”.

“She’s right,” Tatsuki grinned at her, “You’re the newest group member, so we want to know what you like. For example, Mahana and I are going to want to do the batting cages. Michiru and Ryou love to shop, so we do a full circuit of the mall. Then, because Orihime and Chizuru are super into food, we eat something new for dinner.”

“We try to hit everything, so that nobody is disappointed,” Mahana nodded in agreement, “So, what sorts of things do you want to do?”

“Uhm…I like everything on that list. I’m okay with that.”

“No! Kaede!” Orihime nearly sang her name, doing her best to put on a stern face, “You’ve got to pick something that you like, something not on the list! We want to know what you like!”

Everyone nodded at her. No escaping it then. Kaede frowned, scouring her brain for something. It came to her quickly, but she debated on whether or not to share it for a few seconds. She looked around the circle, and saw hopeful and patient looks alike.

“Maybe…the arcade?”

Kaede knew she was bright red, but nobody laughed at her. The other girls all nodded at one another, before looking back at her.

“Oh, maybe there’ll be some hot guys from other schools,” Michiru giggled, a cute blush colouring her cheeks.

“Ew,” Chizuru stuck her tongue out, “No.”

Kaede forced a tiny laugh out at that. She mostly wanted to play the old “Jurassic Hunter” games, with the time travelling jeep and shotgun defense dinosaur chases. If they had them. Any point and shoot game would do; those were the only ones she was really any good at.

“That’s a great idea, Kaede,” Ryou declared, whipping out her cellphone, “I’ll make a group event! Should we do the one in the mall, save on travel time?”

“Oh, oh, maybe they’ll have “Jurassic Hunter”,” Mahana was getting fired up, miming the game’s shotgun control.

Kaede gasped, “That’s what I was thinking!”

“I haven’t played that since I was a kid,” Tatsuki chimed in.

“Me neither!”

“What’s “Jurassic Hunter”?” Orihime asked, “Like, “Jurassic Park”?”

“It’s part of that craze, so mostly,” Kaede explained, becoming nearly scholarly, “You ride in a time-travelling jeep, checking out different periods of the Mesozoic Era. You have to survive being chased down by a super predator from each period. If you can beat the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic Period levels, you win!”

“It sounds like a thriller,” Chizuru said, “Though I had no idea you were so into arcade games, Kaede.”

“Well, it was the only arcade game Mayu ever played with me,” Kaede shrugged, “I used to run the gunner position, while Mayu would drive. She was really good at stuff like that.”

“Mayu?”

“My little sister.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you had a little sister,” Orihime beamed at Kaede, “Would she want to come with us?”

“Oh, um…”

Kaede exuberant smile, which the other girls had found so infectious, fell away to an empty, unhappy pause. Had Ichigo not told anyone about this? They knew she was his cousin. Maybe nobody had asked.

“She died,” Kaede’s voice was barely above a whisper, “All of them did. …It’s just me now.”

Orihime gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. From the looks on their faces, no one had even guessed why she might have moved to Karakura, half-way through the school year. Even Chizuru, who had been doing her best to get to know Kaede, was surprised. Kaede couldn’t blame them for not knowing; it wasn’t as if she advertised it.

“I…” Orihime was clearly stricken, “I’m sorry.”

The others all nodded their heads.

“We had no idea,” Ryou said, “We just thought you were kind of…”

“Shy?” Tatsuki finished, “Distant? Reserved?”

The others nodded again. There was silence. Kaede seemed a thousand miles away. Someone put a hand on her shoulder. It was Chizuru.

“You don’t have to come out with us, if you don’t want to,” she smiled at Kaede, though it barely reached her eyes, “If it’s painful.”

Kaede looked around, at her other friends. At least, she knew now she could call them friends. They were all watching her. Not with looks of pity, like she had gotten used to, but sympathy. Orihime seemed empathetic, more than sympathetic, her hands making fists in her lap. Kaede leaned forwards, putting her hand on top of Orihime’s. When she looked up, Kaede smiled at her. It was kind, and genuine.

“I appreciate the concern, but I think the best way to make peace with old memories, is to create new ones. It can make the relationships you make after seem even more precious.”

With that, Orihime was smiling back at her.

“Me too,” she nodded, “I figured out the same thing.”

That made sense; Orihime had lost close family as well. Kaede squeezed her hand.

“Then I guess we’re in this together. As friends.”

Orihime’s warm brown eyes teared up briefly, but she blinked them away, throwing on an overblown smile. Kaede recognised it for what it was. As they all settled back into the normal rhythm of lunch, Kaede vowed she would try to participate more.

 

That night, it was dinner with the Kurosakis’. In a rare show, Ichigo had stated he would walk with her. Kaede and Chad were both surprised. In fact, Kaede actually caught him frowning. She looked around, briefly concerned she might be cornered by him and Rukia, but Rukia was nowhere to be seen. Which meant she could push Ichigo’s buttons in peace.

“Missing your girlfriend today?” Kaede teased.

“No! Dad just mentioned I should walk you home sometimes,” Ichigo crossed his arms emphatically, though the look he gave her was nearly demonic, “If you’d rather have Chad walk you though, I get it. I’ll let Dad know.”

That was low! He knew Uncle Isshin would have his nose glued to the front window of the house, like the anti-boy periscope he was.

Kaede flushed, “Alright, fine.”

She looked up at Chad. He smiled at her, an unusual sight to Ichigo. Chad would normally just nod; he was making an effort to be expressive with her.

“It’s fine with me,” Chad shrugged, “Do you need me to come get you after?”

He’d been oddly paranoid about her being out without company, even since the Hollow attack. He’d been told he was unappetising, but Kaede was, apparently, delicious.

“No need,” Ichigo cut in before Kaede could speak, “My Dad drives her home. You know that.”

Ichigo had noticed the conveniently-timed protectiveness, but it was always hard to tell what Chad was thinking. Besides, it just made Ichigo feel protective in turn. No way was he letting one of his baby sisters date a clueless guy like this. Chad was a great friend, but not sufficient boyfriend material. Kaede sighed as the boys locked eyes, heading towards the classroom door. This was getting to be a thing every time she and Chad wanted to do anything together. Her life way beginning to feel like a cartoon.

“I’m walking away from both of you,” she declared, turning into the hall, “Come on, Ichigo! I’ll see you at home, Chad!”

 

When they finally made it to the clinic, Kaede was thrilled to see her family. As awkward as she had felt before with them, she was starting to feel they really were her family. The Kurosakis had been nothing but warm and loving towards her.

“Oh! Kaede! Kaede!” Yuzu cried, taking off towards the entryway.

“Hey!” Kaede caught her little cousin, who had leapt at her for affection, “How are you doing?”

She spun the dainty little girl around in a circle, making Yuzu giggle in delight. The two were laughing still as Kaede put her down, petting Yuzu’s head.

“Hey, where’s my hug?” Ichigo was smiling, despite the tone he had used.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Yuzu blushed brightly, latching on to her big brother.

“Don’t fall for it!” Kaede heard Karin before she saw her, “Hey, Kaede.”

“Hey, Karin!”

Karin, as aloof as she liked to appear, also crowded into the entryway. She presented her head to Kaede, for a pet. Kaede giggled into one hand, patting Karin’s hair with the other. Satisfied, the eleven-year-old turned on her heel, and headed back towards the living room. Kaede was suddenly struck with the realisation she hadn’t been swept up in a big hug yet.

“Where’s Uncle Isshin?” she asked, kicking off her shoes.

“He’s working at the general hospital tonight,” Yuzu padded back towards the kitchen area, “Are you sleeping over, Kaede? We wanted to watch a scary move tonight, but Karin doesn’t want to if you’re not going to be there.”

“That is not true!” Karin’s scream could be heard through the wall.

“She’s gotten super attached to you,” Ichigo whispered.

“Yes,” Yuzu concurred quietly, “Though she’ll never admit it.”

Kaede stifled a laugh, but spoke loudly enough for Karin to hear in the next room.

“I think I can, tonight, but I have to leave before lunch tomorrow. Are my P.J.s still here?”

It was Friday, so that would be fine. She had a job interview, but that wasn’t until late afternoon. A diner in the downtown had a “Help Wanted” sign up for weeks, and Kaede had finally gotten a call. Her life seemed to finally be coming together.

“I washed them for you,” Yuzu was so proud, “We’re gonna watch “The Shape of Water”!”

Kaede blushed brightly. She and Ichigo exchanged horrified looks. The romance about the fish man?

“That’s not a horror movie,” Kaede mock frowned, before clapping her hands, “How about “Spirited Away”? You guys haven’t seen that, right?”

“Is it scary?!” Karin yelled from her place on the couch.

“Sometimes!” Kaede called back.

“Hey, I haven’t seen it either,” Ichigo joined in, before Yuzu could protest, “I hear it’s a must-see! Waaaaay better than-oh, what is it?”

“It’s “The Sha-“.”

“See, forgot it already,” Ichigo headed off into the living room, “I’ll pull it up on the TV.”

Yuzu frowned, though quite innocently. She turned back to the rice cooker, and Kaede shook her head. Yuzu was prepping the stove to grill fish; she was always acting like a little adult. Kaede came and grabbed the chopsticks right out of her hands, nudging her away from the stove with one hip. Yuzu opened her mouth to protest, but Kaede wasn’t having it.

“Oh no, you don’t,” she chided Yuzu gently, “It’s Saturday. Go be a kid, for five minutes. I’ll make dinner.”

Yuzu sighed in defeat, leaning her forehead on Kaede’s arm. It made Kaede smile; Yuzu was so snuggly, but part of that was probably due to her being much younger. Mayu hadn’t been a very cuddly kid after the age of six, but Kaede hadn’t wanted her to be cuddly at that point. They were only three years apart, so Mayu had usually been competing with her anyways. She always wanted to be the best, the most independent. The memories weighed heavy on her heart. Yuzu seemed to notice, wrapping supportive arms around her cousin. Kaede hugged her back with one arm, the other lifting the fish for a browning check.

“Soup or salad?” Kaede asked.

“Salad, please. It’s getting too hot for soup.”

“What do you want for desert?”

“We have dango in the freezer.”

“Want molasses?”

“Yeah!”

With dessert sorted, Yuzu nearly bounced over to the living room.  She deserved a break; it wasn’t her job to be an adult yet.

Once dinner had been prepared, the four kids settled onto the living room couch, pajamas on and food spread out across the coffee table. The Miyazaki film kept Yuzu and Karin enraptured the entire time, while Ichigo and Kaede could feel themselves getting all nostalgic. They had been maybe six when the movie came out. Kaede could remember seeing it in theatres with her mom, Mayu being too little for the scary parts. Ichigo had gone to see it with Tatsuki and her mom; Kaede hadn’t realised they were childhood friends.

"I thought you hadn't seen it," Yuzu cried at that story.

"SHHHHHHH!" Karin bopped her sister on the knee, "She's trying to get the medicine into the dragon boy!"

When “Spirited Away” finished, Karin and Yuzu wanted to watch another movie. And another one. And another one.

By the time Isshin got in from his shift, the house was dark and silent.

“Hey, guys,” he called, “I’m home!”

When no one replied, Isshin figured they were gone to bed. Which would have made sense; it was probably 11:30pm. However, he saw the dinner dishes were out on the counters, a mess none of them would have left on purpose. Meaning they weren’t upstairs either. He quietly kicked his shoes off, hanging his lab coat on the front hook.

When he tiptoed over to the living room, he saw that they were all asleep on the couch, a mess of dinner dishes all around them. Ichigo on the left side, feet on the coffee table. Kaede on the right, curled up under a blanket with Karin, who appeared to have snuggled up under her arm. Yuzu was leaning on her big brother, though she had turned her face into his shoulder, probably to block the light from the TV. Isshin’s heart felt full. He quietly gathered the dishes, doing his best not to wake anyone.

Once the kitchen was clean, and the dishes put away, he opened the fridge to find a whole spread waiting for him. He could tell from the single-plate arrangement that it had been Kaede’s handy work. While his food reheated, he looked at one of the many pictures of Masaki they had around the house, this one hanging in the kitchen, by the calendar. It was one of their wedding photos, Masaki smiling brightly. She had been pregnant with Ichigo when that was taken, though they hadn’t known it yet. She’d worn a Western-style wedding dress. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

“You know,” he said aloud, a smile on his face, “You always said we’d have more kids.”

Chapter Text

It was Monday, and Kaede had been keeping the status of her interview on lockdown. Not even Chizuru had been able to coax it out of her; anyone who asked just got an “I’ll tell you when I see you” response. A group chat had quickly been formed between Chizuru and everyone who wanted to know: Ichigo, Chad, Orihime, Tatsuki, Ryou, Mahana, Michiru, Keigo, Mizuiro, even Karin and Yuzu. As soon as she stepped out of her apartment that morning, she was ambushed.

“So, did you get the job?”

Kaede screamed, nearly scrambling up her front door in terror. A look over her shoulder revealed it to be Chad. She was as embarrassed as she was irritated, spinning on her heal.

Why are you waiting for me out here?” she demanded.

“I always wait for you.”

“Yeah, but not at my door!”

“Yes…but did you get the job?”

Kaede tried very hard to pout at him. Tried and failed. His smile was infectious, and she was soon beaming up at him.

“You bet,” she pulled a form out of her pocket, “You are looking at the newest server at Oda Diner, part-time, evening shifts only.”

Chad offered her a high-five, which Kaede gladly took him up on. She was going to be able to afford to live, not just survive. The government paid her bills and tuition, but not much else. She was finally going to be able to save up for university, and maybe get something when she went out with the girls this coming Sunday.

“I’m impressed you wanted a job,” Chad told her, “Let me know if you need any help around here. I don’t mind.”

“You’re sweet, but I think I’ll be okay,” Kaede pocketed her form again, heading for the stairwell, “Now, come on! We’re barely going to make your perfect 10-minute-early attendance record! Ichigo starts calling me now at 11 minutes.”

“One second,” he pulled out his phone, tapping away at something.

“…Are you updating the group chat?” Kaede teased, turning back to him with a flip of her hair, “I know I’m the hot topic this weekend, so…”

Chad flushed. How did she know? Kaede started laughing.

“You’ve all been texting me about it, non-stop!” she hopped onto the first step down, “Let’s go!”

The was a certainty in her step that had been missing when she had arrived in Karakura, Chad noted. She’d stopped putting her hair up this past week, and her waves and curls suited her more than any style she could add to it. It made her sharp nose and hooded eyes stand out more; she finally looked relaxed. She’d even taken the bow out of her blouse. She was still waiting for him, while he stared. Almost none-the-wiser.

“Are you cutting school with Ichigo tomorrow?” he asked, finally joining her on the stairs.

Kaede frowned. What was tomorrow?

“June 17th,” Chad was reading her mind now.

“Oh! Yeah…”

They were going to visit Aunt Masaki’s grave tomorrow, for the anniversary of her death. Kaede was sure she had blocked it out, in part. Uncle Isshin had invited her on Sunday morning. He said they were going to light some incense for her family too. Kaede sighed, heavily.

“I’m going in the morning, but I’m exempt from anything after lunch,” she shrugged, “I have my first shift tomorrow night.”

It had been a relief, and yet she felt left behind. Chad nodded sagely.

“You seem…upset by that,” he pushed their front gate open, holding it for her.

“I guess I just…” Kaede stared off, “I wish they wouldn’t force themselves, you know? They can have a day about their mom…”

She was spacing out again, her earlier morning cheer banished. He was surprised by how heavy a space could feel when she was distressed. Kaede shook her head quickly though, snapping right out of it. She needed to put this away when she was with her friends.

“So, what did you do for that “Future Self” project?” she asked him.

“I-uhhh…”

Chad looked up at the sky. He couldn’t recall doing that for shit right now. Kaede knew what the look on his face meant.

“Are you serious?” she tutted, “I was so intimidated by it. I just ended up drawing an abstract view of the ocean. I’m calling it “my ambitious view”.”

She pulled a book out of her bag, passing it to him. Oh, it was one of those thin sketchbooks. From art class. A grave aura came over him.

“I-I forgot…”

“I know. Borrow mine, make something up. Miss Ochi knows we’re together all the time, so it’s no big deal if I have it, right?”

That was kind of her.

“I don’t know…”

The future…what a far-off concept. He supposed it was a careers project, but he’d rather be writing resumes for something like that. The lack of certainty showed on his face. Kaede could relate.

“Okay, then try this,” she said, “What’s something you want to see, if you live long enough to see it? How do you get there?”

He frowned, in consideration or annoyance; she couldn’t tell which. As they walked, he seemed deeper and deeper in thought. What did he want to see? He glanced sideways at her. In the bright sunlight, Kaede’s eyes were almost blue, like the sea. They pulled on him.

“What if it’s just all of you?” he asked.

Kaede felt her cheeks flush. All their friends. Including her. He wanted the people he was close to. Kaede felt herself grinning like a doofus. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, trying to cover the redness.

“I mean, that’s probably a passing grade.”

 

When they finally reached school, Ichigo was also coming up to the gates with Mizuiro. Chad waved at them, Kaede following suit.

“Morning,” Chad and Kaede spoke in tandem.

“Morning,” Mizuiro replied with his usual polite smile.

Kaede was just waiting to be teased, or shuddered at, but it never came. This morning, Ichigo did none of those things. Instead, a huge smile plastered on his face, he waved at them in return.

“Good morning, you two,” he exclaimed, “Ready for that project we have due today?”

Kaede felt her entire mood shift at that. She had figured Ichigo would be off, but she never thought it would still be at an “I set off red flags” level. Not after six years. She briefly wondered if she would still be like this sometimes. Chad felt equally put off, but he was more used to this than her.

“Y-yeah, totally,” Kaede glanced up at her friend, “At least, I am. Chad forgot.”

Mizuiro looked nearly exasperated up at Chad.

“Seriously?” he put his hands on his hips, “I warned you yesterday!”

As Mizuiro and Chad walked ahead, Kaede grabbed Ichigo by his sleeve. Her cousin stopped, and turned on her with a much more genuine expression. One of grief, remorse, and perhaps a touch of self-loathing.

“You know,” Kaede spoke slowly, “You’re more worrying when you pretend to be okay.”

Ichigo scoffed, “Like you?”

That had stung, but it was fair. She put her hands on her hips, doing her best to mimic her Uncle’s “parent face”, as they jokingly called it.

“Exactly like me,” she declared, “Remember how much you all used to fuss over me? So, don’t you go faking a smile with me! It’s like looking in a mirror and I don’t like that.”

Ichigo’s eyes went wide at her retort. Kaede wasn’t often so honest with herself. He turned from her quickly, with a stubborn huff.

“Alright, but at least let me pretend in class.”

“Oh, easy, done. Fuck those people.”

He laughed, a real smile gracing his face.

Class rolled by, then lunch came. Orihime and Tatsuki were both looking over at Kaede, studying her every move today. Kaede was becoming abhorrently self-conscious. The first grain of rice that stuck to her cheek sent her entire anxious brain into overdrive.

“If you two want to talk to me about something, can you please just do it?” she almost slammed her bento box onto the ground, “I can feel your eyes!”

“Oh, we were just wondering if you were taking tomorrow off too,” Tatsuki closed her eyes to drink some soup, and avoid Kaede’s glare, “Right, Orihime?”

Orihime nodded vigorously, turning her eyes down to her anko and mackerel. The dish just made Kaede’s skin crawl. Though, it was a very fair question. She sighed, stowing her irritation. Maybe she was on edge because her cousin was. Who knew?

“I’m sorry,” she tried to smile at them, “I am. It’s just got me feeling super off today.”

“What’s tomorrow?” Michiru asked around her juice box straw.

“Ah, Kurosaki family stuff,” Tatsuki answered before Kaede could, “It’s been a thing since Ichigo and I were in elementary.”

“That’s right,” Ryou tapped her cheek thoughtfully, “You guys have been in the same class since elementary school, right?”

“Yeah,” Tatsuki frowned, “And it’s been a real pain.”

Though her words were harsh, Tatsuki’s tone was fond. Kaede couldn’t contain her curiosity.

“What was he like?”

Tatsuki thought for a moment.

“He was a real crybaby when we were little,” she shrugged, “But after his mom died, he was a totally different person.”

Kaede nodded, unsurprised. She had felt like a different person after losing her family, and Ichigo had only been nine at the time. That changes you.

 


 

The next day, Kaede was up later than usual. She had gotten to have a little bit of a sleep-in, which was part of what Uncle Isshin called the “Masaki Day: Self-Care Regime”. However, sleep had evaded her in the light of the full moon. Like something had rushed through her blood overnight, fire running through her brain. Dreams she couldn’t remember.

She figured it was a relax day, so she pulled on a t-shirt dress. Soft jersey was the right texture for the day, and she managed to find her sunglasses. They were black, cat-eyed, oversized, and highly underrated as an impactful accessory. They’d also hide the bags under her eyes as the day went on. Hair in a bun, glasses on, sneakers, and her purse on her hip; she was ready to go.

As promised, she made it to the Kurosaki house by 9am. Her uncle let her in, and Kaede’s nose carried her to the kitchen. In an uncharacteristic show of parental nurturing, Uncle Isshin had made pancakes. She could see her comfy outfit had been the right call. Yuzu was almost matching her today, and Ichigo and Karin had gone for function over fashion. The others looked like they had slept about as well as she had.

“Morning,” Kaede was already piling pancakes on a plate, sunglasses still on.

“Morning,” came the family chorus, a drone if she’d ever heard one.

When she sat down, Yuzu was dozing off into her syrup pouring. Kaede smiled, giving her a little nudge with her foot under the table. Yuzu startled awake, and Kaede took the maple syrup from her sleepy grasp.

“What happened to you guys?” Kaede asked.

“Couldn’t sleep,” the apparent hive-mind responded.

They ate in silence. No one had much energy. Except for Uncle Isshin.

“Alright, mourners!” Isshin gathered their plates at lightning speed, “Let’s hit the trail!”

You could have replaced “mourners” with “campers”. The kids all groaned in unison.

“Come on, guys,” Isshin pulled out Kaede’s chair, “I know it feels like a day to be depressed, but you mom wouldn’t want things like that.”

Ichigo sighed loudly, “Alright, everyone up. Karin, help Yuzu carry lunch. Kaede, you’re on board games.”

The girls nodded, standing and setting themselves to work. Isshin wondered briefly how his son had managed that.

Soon, they were out the door, for their grand hike to the Karakura cemetery. Three blocks down, up a ridiculous hill. Kaede glared at it, as though trying to will the ground to be flat.

“My calves are gonna burn, and I’m gonna get all sweaty,” she grumbled, “Not cool.”

“Come on,” Ichigo bumped up against her, “I’ll take the games bag to the…”

He had paused, as though shocked by something. Kaede followed his eyes up the hill, and her blood ran cold. Why was Rukia waiting for them on the hill?

“Yoohoo!” Rukia waved her arm above her head, “Ichigo! Kaede! What a surprise!”

“Rukia?” Ichigo turned as red as his hair.

“Who’s that?” Yuzu asked.

“A girl?” Karin awed, looking up at Kaede, “Do you guys know her? I feel like I’ve seen her before.”

 Karin shouldn’t know Rukia. Kaede wondered if the Kurosakis were missing some memories too. The look on Ichigo’s face confirmed it. He was sweating.

“You know what?” Ichigo’s voice had jumped a full octave, “I just remembered, I know her from middle school! I have the sudden urge to go see her. Right now!”

He was off, grabbing Rukia’s hand and dragging her off a side road on the hill. Karin was laughing like an old lecher.

“I see he has finally reached that age,” she had placed a thoughtful hand on her chin, a perverse smile on her young face, “We may just have to let him go…”

“K-Karin, what are you talking about?” Yuzu, innocent as always, seemed beyond confused, “Let him go where?”

“Hey,” Kaede bopped Karin on the head, “You knock that off. She’s a classmate, and you’re too god-damn young to be making a face like that.”

“Come on, girls!” Isshin was far ahead of them, “Your brother will catch up! We’ve got a dominos tournament to start!”

“D-dominos?”

“Oh yeah,” Karin’s face had gone deadpan, “You thought I was the weird one?”

“No, but I see where you get it from.”

Once they had made it up the hill, Ichigo still hadn’t joined them. Masaki’s grave was in the middle of the hill, overlooking the city and the river. There was a bamboo grove planted all around the cemetery, and she could hear the cicada calling for one another in the summer heat. She could only imagine the look of this place in the fall, or even winter, when snow might sometimes drift down from the sky.

“What a pretty place to rest,” Kaede murmured, “Makes me feel poetic.”

“Kaede, did you want to say hi?”

Isshin’s voice had startled her. Karin and Yuzu were praying, and she could see Ichigo coming up the stone steps. She looked at her watch; 12:30pm already. She started at 3:30pm.

“Sure, but then I have to go,” she smiled apologetically, “Sorry, Uncle. I wish I’d made it clear I needed a week.”

Isshin shook his head, “I think something like that will be good for you. Go ahead; she won’t bite.”

Kaede moved to kneel with Karin and Yuzu. The white marble of Masaki’s headstone glittered in the light. Kaede clasped her hands in prayer, but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. Looking over at Karin and Yuzu, she could see they looked reinvigorated. Maybe a little prayer would be good for her.

Uhm, hi, she started off with that, I don’t think we’ve ever met before. My name is Kaede. I’m Tsukino’s daughter. I…I don’t know if you even knew each other.

Stupid. This was stupid.

I’m sorry you’ve had to leave your family; I love them more every day. I hope I can be like them, one day. Able to feel warm just thinking of those I’ve lost. You seem like you were amazing.  I think Ichigo is still taking this pretty hard; please help him to live with your memory more peacefully. Please help Yuzu feel more like a kid; she takes on a lot. I hope you can help Karin rely on people too. I hope you and my family are together with all the family who went before you. I hope you’re well, Aunt Masaki. It’s nice to meet you.

When Kaede opened her eyes, she felt calm, like the air around her had changed. Which prompted her to question her sanity, just a tad, since the dead apparently pass on to a whole other realm. Yuzu had just finished praying as well. Karin was still concentrating. She and Yuzu stood quietly, though Uncle Isshin was anything but quiet as Ichigo arrived.

“Alright! Now that Ichigo is here, it’s time for the annual Kurosaki Family Dominos Tournament!” Isshin pumped his fists into the air, doing squats and yelling, “First round, is DAD versus ICHIGO!”

“Shhhh, Dad!” Yuzu scolded him, “You’re not supposed to yell!”

Kaede laughed, “Okay, I’m getting out of here, before someone calls the cops. Have fun, guys.”

Yuzu rounded on her immediately for a hug.

“Bye, Kaede,” her voice was muffled in Kaede’s dress, “Good luck today.”

“Thanks, kiddo,” she pet Yuzu’s head.

“Bye, Kaede,” Karin called from her place beside the grave, “Next year, we’re chaining you up with the old man.”

Yuzu nodded, looking up at her with her wide brown eyes. That just made Kaede’s smile even bigger. Ichigo found his way into her personal space, patting her shoulder.

“See you later?”

He had sounded so uncertain. Kaede tried to get a read on what was going on with him, but his expression remained frozen in a pleasant façade. Kaede’s face began contorting into a frown.

“Call me when you’re done, okay?” she said, “Seriously. Chad and I can hang after I finish work; the guy has nothing going on today. And yes, I count Shigeo and Harutoki as nothing.”

The façade cracked, just a little. He was surprised Kaede had the power to do that, and that she’d even noticed. For a scatter-brained nut-ball, she was oddly precise at times.

“I won’t tell him that, if I decide to take you up on it,” he ruffled her bun, chuckling, “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” she couldn’t resist shuffling her hair back into place, “Never do that again.”

“Yeah, you’ve just ordered a life-time supply. Sorry.”

Once she was down the hill, it was time to get ready. She was grateful her uncle had given her all that extra time. She’d have to bring her uniform to school. Her GPS was working today, thankfully, and she headed off.

 


 

“So, you have to fold the cutlery into the napkins, then seal them up with the papers. Only do that between customers; we need you busing tables most of all. Just bring all the dishes to the back kitchen. And no waiting tables either, no matter what that damn Mikado tells you. You have to be sixteen to run the card machines, so August will be your time to move up.”

Kaede nodded, her “totally paying attention” face plastered on in its entirety. Eyes wide, bright, eye contact, not too much eye contact. Stand tall and proud, suck in your gut, hands in a neutral side position. She was over-conscious of her fingers.

Oda Diner was a kitschy little family theme-restaurant in the Karakura downtown, nearly yellowed with age. There was tacky samurai prints and décor all over the place, patterns of bright fans on the benches. Part of the uniform was a kimono style top with a faux obi. The capris were killing her.

The owner was a short man who wore a cheap white shirt, nearly see-through from the sweat of the kitchen. It was surprising to have a boss who worked like their employees, but Kaede was hardly the first new hire of the day. He was probably trying to make a good impression, like she was.

“Alright, if you have any questions, my office is just off the kitchen,” the owner was already walking away from her, “Now, team up with Chidori, and she’ll walk you through the rest of your job. Dinner rush starts at 4:30.”

Kaede was struck with the distinct impression she was never going to see that man again. A hand on her shoulder drew her attention. She turned to see a petit girl with thick glasses and a long ponytail. She didn’t look much older than Kaede, but she looked a lot more sure of herself than Kaede thought she would ever be.

“Ready?”

This was Chidori then. She motioned for Kaede to follow her behind the counter. It doubled as a bar and cash, with a window to the back kitchen. The heat lamps nearly hummed over the metal bar, making Kaede feel a little sick. It smelled like heat feels, and left a metallic taste in her mouth. Chidori saw the look on her face and smiled.

“Don’t worry, we all get nervous on our first day,” she told Kaede, “Just keep to bussing tables for today.”

Nervous, instead of on the verge of throwing up. Kaede had a feeling she wouldn’t have to work very hard to hide her feelings around her coworkers. Chidori poked her head beneath the lamps, and Kaede felt her ears growing warm in sympathy.

“Mikado,” she called, “Come meet the new girl.”

“Which one?” a voice rang back, so much younger than Kaede had anticipated, “Glasses, fox face, big tits, or beanstalk?”

Kaede couldn’t tell you which one she was; she’d been called all those things, at one point or another. She walked up next to Chidori, but didn’t dare stick her head under those lamps.

“I don’t know,” she snapped, “Why don’t you come out here and see?”

Crash! Bang! Metal dishes clattered to the tile floors in the back. Chidori picked herself up and rushed to the kitchen door, Kaede following slowly behind. How delightful; she had to stifle her giggling.

In the back, on the floor, was a young man, who look suspiciously like an emaciated version of the owner. He was covered in ground beef and mayo, looking rightfully embarrassed. Chidori was gathering the dishes he’d dropped, and the boy simply sat on the floor, staring up at Kaede. She crossed her arms, tapping a foot in indignation. Her intended impact was lost, due to the way her work sneakers barely made a sound on the non-slip tile.

“So, am I “glasses”, “fox-face”, “big-tits”, or “beanstalk”? Don’t worry; I’ll give you five seconds.”

The boy on the floor merely shivered.

“F-f-fox face,” he stammered, “D-definitely fox face.”

Kaede supposed she could live with that; it had historically been a compliment, back when people believed in yokai. She uncrossed her arms to offer him a hand. He allowed her to pull him up, though she tugged so hard he nearly fell forwards again.

“My name is Kaede,” she dropped his hand, “I look forward to working with you.”

“M-Mikado…nice to meet you.”

Chapter Text

The shift flew by, and Kaede couldn’t wait to get home and wash the grease off her. She hadn’t realised how sweaty and gross a burger joint was going to be. Silly, in retrospect.

“I’ll have to get a matte foundation and blot powder,” she was even talking to herself on the way out, “Some absorbent socks. I definitely need to bring deodorant with me.”

She could smell her sweat. It made her a little nauseous. The sun was setting, so Kaede guessed it was around 9pm. She pulled her phone out. Four missed text messages. Two from Ichigo, one from Tatsuki, and the most recent one from Chad. Before she had thought of it, she opened Chad’s first.

Do you want me to come walk you?” it read, “Shigeo and Harutoki headed out to a party, so I’m free. We can watch Ghost Bust after. The online livestream starts at 10.

Kaede grinned. Shigeo and Harutoki were Chad’s friends outside of school. He knew Shigeo from middle school, though they only became friends after Shigeo dropped out of school to work. Harutoki had been a friend of Shigeo’s, and one thing had led to another. The way Chad described them, they sounded okay. Except when they ditched him.

I’m okay to walk,” she tapped back to Chad, “Start the popcorn though. Did Ichigo call you at all?

Kaede checked her other messages as she walked. Tatsuki was just checking in, making sure Kaede was doing alright today. How sweet of her. Kaede quickly tapped back that she was well, thanking Tatsuki for the concern, before moving on to Ichigo. His first message was asking her to hang out, but then the next one was a simple “wait, nvm”. Her phone buzzed in her hand, flashing a banner of the new message.

He and Tatsuki went to the old arcade on Main,” Chad’s reply had been quick, “Text me before you hit West 4th and Main; I’ll come get you.

That boy had a listening problem. Kaede couldn’t help shaking her head. He’d never learn. She was certain he was already putting his shoes on.

When Kaede made it to West 4th and Main, Chad was already waiting for her. As predicted. He had full sweats and sneakers, but it was more like a store window banner than a relaxed ensemble. She waved, bemused as anything when she walked up to him. Chad could make anything look like a photograph, of that she was certain.

“Hey! I thought you were meeting me after. Did you jog?” Kaede marvelled, “I feel bad with you coming all the way out here just for me.”

Though she had said that, she was secretly very glad to see him. He must have known, since all he gave her was a smile in return. He grabbed her bag off her shoulder, before she could protest. Kaede only vaguely reached out for it, before giving in completely.

“I walked,” he told her, “I’m just taller than you.”

That was true. Every one of his strides equalled two of hers. It would probably be double that tonight; Kaede was exhausted. She could feel her feet dragging as they started down the street.

“How was work?” he asked.

“Oh god, where do I started?” Kaede groaned, “The owner just peaced out in the first ten minutes! And his son works in the back, and he is so rude! Then there was this family that just made the worst mess. Ugh! …How was your time with the guys?”

“It was alright,” he shrugged, “They were more interested in the party.”

“But it’s a school night.”

“That’s what I said,” he sighed, “They just work, so they don’t really care.”

He seemed aggravated by something. It wasn’t so much anything about him outwardly, as it was the energy he was giving off. He wasn’t the type to get annoyed about his friends having fun, so it was something else.

“I take it they were annoyed you wouldn’t come?” she smiled.

“Yep.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he looked down at her, “I’d rather watch Ghost Bust with you. I can’t do stuff like that with them.”

Kaede was puzzled.

“Why not?” she asked.

“I’m “too cool” for that,” his use of air quotes undermined the title completely.

“Did they seriously say that?”

Chad nodded.

“That’s because you look cool,” Kaede exclaimed, then laughed, “Nobody would ever expect someone as good looking as you to like kid’s cartoons and ghost story shows.”

She thought he was good looking? Chad was happy they were in the dark now. Hopefully she couldn’t tell that he was blushing.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Kaede continued, “I love that kind of campy stuff too. It’s so much fun. I’m a bit weirded out by whether or not there are actually any spirits in those broadcasts. I can see some shapes lately, but I get nothing when I watch that show. But what if they don’t transfer well over the camera?”

“I wouldn’t be able to tell,” Chad said, “I still can’t see much. Sometimes the light look weird though.”

“Right?”

They made it home with fifteen minutes to spare. Kaede rushed into her apartment, showered, changed into her own lounge clothes, and hustled right next door to Chad’s. Her hair was still wet when she showed up panting. No glasses tonight; they had nondescript work smudges all over them. Chad had set up the online livestream on his laptop. The show was on TV Wednesdays at 8pm, but Tuesdays at 10pm, the Ghost Bust website hosted a free premiere. Chad had his back against the bed, and Kaede was soon stretched out across it. She finally settled onto her stomach, holding his pillow. When they were set, they hit play.

I’ll let you babes hear the spirits tonight! BOHAHAHA!

Chad and Kaede looked at one another before throwing their head back.

“Bohahaha!” they cackled.

Kaede broke down into a fit of giggles, mid-impression. They’d just missed the intro, but that was always the same. Don Kanonji, the “Charismatic Spirit Medium”, would enter from a doorway atop a grand staircase, and descend towards the studio audience. He was tall and thin, with a thick mustache. He always wore dark sunglasses, and whatever ridiculous outfit his team had picked out for him for the season. This one was a black ensemble, with a long cape, and a ridiculous velvet black hat. The hat was tall, with a fur trim, and the letters “SP” embroidered on the front.

The premise of the show was simple: people bring in haunted objects, and The Don (as he called himself) would exercise them. Whether or not there were any spirits being exercised, it was a lot of fun to watch. Kanonji was a great entertainer, and a lot of the objects were fun and over the top. The show had become super popular too, seemingly overnight. Even the Kurosakis were in on the craze; Kaede had watched it with Yuzu and Isshin first, then she’d shown Chad and Orihime. Chad had shown the show to Keigo, then Mizuiro, and now the whole group was in on it.

This week had started with a painting, where the soul of the subject was trapped inside a la Dorian Grey. Then a lawnmower, which was possessed by the dead husband of the lady who brought it in. She sobbed so dramatically as they worked through a goodbye séance. Finally, a mason jar, which had been floating around the kitchen of a new house.

Hmmm, this definitely smells like bad spirits!” Kanonji’s catchphrase was as silly as ever.

“So, a jar,” Kaede mused, “Three guesses as to what kind of spirit is attached to it. Go!”

“A poltergeist, or a scorned lover,” Chad posited, “Kitchenware is usually one of those.”

“Oooo, those are good,” Kaede rolled onto her back, “But it was a scorned lover last week. Maybe the ghost is someone who was murdered with the jar, or by the owner of the jar?”

This spirit is angry! It needs to be released from its pain! The pain and anger tell me, that this spirit…was murdered! With…the jar!

“Yes!” Kaede cried, “Called it!”

But wait, the murderer was…a lover?!

“Told you,” Chad smiled.

And now, it appears the jar is…floating?!

On screen, the jar had just taken off into the air, and was swinging around in circles. Chad and Kaede knew what that meant.

“Wire,” they said in unison.

“But still a poltergeist,” Kaede pointed out, “Plot wise, you were right.”

Don Kanonji grabbed hold of the jar, acting as if it were taking him for a ride. Then he pulled it down to the table, produced his exorcism staff, called for the spirit to be at peace, and the broadcast was over. Kaede frowned; they had barely clocked in at forty-five minutes.

“What a short episode,” she said, “I wonder why.”

This just in, next week is an emergency live broadcast special!” the host of the show, a short man with no name, was making an announcement, “We’ll be busting into the abandoned hospital in…Karakura Town, Tokyo!

A picture of the hospital flashed across the screen, Chad and Kaede looked at each other.

So that’s goodnight, Babies!” Don Kanonji took over, “BOHAHAHA!

With that, the show was done. As the credits rolled, the last few minutes seemed to finally catch up with them. “Karakura Town, Tokyo”.

“Wait,” Chad muttered, “That’s…”

“Here!” Kaede finished his sentence, squealing, “Oh my god, that’s so exciting! We have to go, all of us!”

“All of us?”

“Yeah! The whole group chat!” Kaede was already furiously typing away on her phone, “So that’s you, me, Ichigo, Rukia, Mizuiro, and Keigo… Oh! I’ve gotta invite Orihime and Tatsuki too! Do you think Chizuru would wanna come? She doesn’t seem super into it.”

She was looking at him expectantly. Chad just nodded, and that seemed to be enough for her. He was starting to tire, but Kaede was off on a roll, thumbs flying. She’d had such a bad day; he just let her go.

“Okay, and next week…I’m off? I’m off! Oh, I thought I’d have to bribe Chidori to take my shift, but I’m off!”

“…Should we get dinner?”

“Like, as a group? That would be a good idea, given that the broadcast is at 8.”

“No,” Chad almost laughed at her enthusiasm, “Now. You haven’t eaten, right?”

“Right. We didn’t even make popcorn,” Kaede tapped her phone to her lips as she thought, “Do we go for takeout? I have some money.”

“I mean, I have food. Do you like white bread?”

“Eh, not overly. Unless you have eggs,” Kaede's eyes lit up with a sudden thought, “Wait, I have eggs. And cinnamon. French toast?”

“Sure,” Chad pushed himself up effortlessly, “Go get the eggs, I’ll start everything else.”

“Okay!”

Kaede rolled herself off the soft blankets, and waddled cutely to the door. So cutely, Chad couldn’t help but watch her as she went, holding in a smile when she yawned. Little tears formed in the corners of her eyes as she did. She was too cute; it was becoming a problem.

Kaede was weirdly sleepy, but they had to eat. She reached for the doorknob, but it started turning. The whole door was shaking, like someone was trying to get in. Kaede screamed, leaping back from the door. She hadn’t even heard Chad move, but she blinked, and he was in front of her. When the door didn’t open, the intruder started pounding on it. They could hear something on the other side.

“Chad,” it was a young man’s voice, muffled by the wood, “Chaaaad! Are you home?”

The words were slurred, but Chad’s shoulders visible relaxed. He sighed heavily, looking down at Kaede over his shoulder.

“I-.”

“Chaaaaaaaaaaaad?!” there was a second one, and the banging doubled up, “Come on, m-man, be a paaaal. We know y-you’re home!”

“Uh, do you know who that is?” Kaede whispered, putting a hand on his arm.

“I’m sorry,” Chad continued his earlier thought, “I...didn’t think they were coming back.”

That meant it was Shigeo and Harutoki. They sounded like they were hammered. Kaede had never met them before, and now she wasn’t sure she wanted to. They were still going on like that.

“Cha~a~a~a~ad! We need help!”

“Should we open the door?” Kaede asked, “They’re gonna disturb the neighbours. I don’t want to cause trouble for Mr. and Mrs. Iwanobu.”

At the mention of the landlord, Chad seemed to relent.

“Just…stand back.”

Kaede moved backwards out of the entryway. She could practically hear Chad counting to five in his head, before turning the door knob. Two teenage boys fell through the doorway, and onto the floor. Kaede jumped another foot backwards as they crashed. The two that fell through were surprisingly slight, to have been making so much noise. One of them wore a backwards baseball cap, which didn’t help to balance out his wide nose and mouth. The other was sharper in features, with bleached hair hanging down to his chin. He had a thin goatee; most guys their age couldn’t grow facial hair well enough for a beard. She briefly wondered what Chad would look like with one, and stowed her weird fantasy immediately.

“Hey, thanks man,” the one in the hat reached up towards the ceiling, eyes completely closed, “Can I borrow 500 yen? I forgot I owe Tanaka money, and he kicked us out of his place ‘til I get it.”

Chad shut the door with a sigh, reaching into his school jacket pocket. As he handed that one 500 yen, the other one was just looking around in a daze. When his eyes landed on Kaede though, he came alive. He flipped onto his stomach, pointing a finger at her.

“Chad!” he screamed, “Chad! Is that her?!”

Her? He’d been talking about her. Kaede felt oddly pleased about that. Though, with the way this guy was looking at her, Kaede wasn’t sure it was a good thing.

“Don’t point,” Chad said, “It’s rude.”

“What?” baseball cap tipped his head back to look at her, “Oh-hic-yeah! It’s-uh…Kanade!”

“Kaede,” Chad corrected him, looking at her almost shamefully, “Kaede, this is Shigeo, and Harutoki.”

As he introduced them, each of the boys waved at her. Kaede found all she could do was wave back. They stared at her.

“…She’s cute,” Shigeo mused, “We weren’t even sure you liked girls. Not that it matters...”

Harutoki stage whispered towards Kaede, “But he really like cute things! So, you count!”

Kaede did her best to smile, though her patience was wearing thin. Chad opened his front door once again.

“Well, goodnight,” he said.

“So cold!” Shigeo cried.

“And don’t cause trouble in my building.”

Despite his protest, Shigeo was up quickly, pulling Harutoki with him. Harutoki, however, was putting up a fight.

“I wanna talk to Kanade!” he whined, making himself heavier and heavier in Shigeo’s grip.

“Later,” Shigeo growled, dragging Harutoki out the door, “I left a cute girl hanging at Tanaka’s, let’s go!”

“Bye, Kanade!” Harutoki called.

“Bye, Harutoki,” she waved in return.

Chad shut the door right in his face. He looked completely exhausted, leaning heavily on it. Kaede couldn’t contain her laughter.

“What was that all about?” she giggled, “You are not having it today, huh?”

“They…they have no manners. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. You aren’t responsible for them.”

“Then why do I feel like it?”

 

The next morning, everyone was buzzing on group chat about the live broadcast coming to their little suburb. Kaede had somehow become the unofficial ring-leader of their group excursion, and it was giving her anxiety. Even as they were heading into class, Chad could hear Kaede muttering to herself.

“Okay, so there’s a “maybe” from Chizuru, which means we can’t do barbeque. Keigo doesn’t like fish, the fool, so no sushi. So, that leaves hot pot, American, ramen, and-.”

“Kaede.”

Chad put a hand on her shoulder, causing her to look up. She had almost run into the doorframe.

“Whoops,” she giggled nervously, “Are we here already?”

“You’ve been like this all morning. Are you okay?”

Before she could answer, Orihime was on them.

“BOHAHAHA!” she cackled, crossing her arms across her chest.

Kaede cackled right back at her, like some sick reflex. Orihime laughed brightly.

“I’m so excited!” she squealed, grabbing hold of Kaede’s hands, “Thank you so much for organising this!”

“O-oh! No worries…”

Something was wrong. Kaede was giving Orihime that restrained, polite smile. Unlike before though, Orihime was starting to pick up on it.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, “Are you nervous? Don’t worry, it’s just a group outing. It’ll be great!”

“Yeah,” Kaede tilted her head, trying to cutesy her way out of the conversation, "Totally! Great!"

Orihime wouldn’t have noticed anything Kaede did though. She was staring past them and down the hallway, in total awe. Kaede followed her gaze, and saw Ichigo heading towards the classroom.

“Oh, he’s coming!” Orihime jolted back to the side of the door, “We’ll talk later!”

Orihime pressed herself into the wall, as flat as a pancake, next to the entrance to the classroom. Was she planning on scaring him? Chad and Kaede elected to move out of her way, just in case. As soon as they had dropped their stuff at their desks, Keigo and Mizuiro were in their faces.

“Morning,” Mizuiro greeted them politely, turning to Kaede, “Thanks for or-.”

“I’m so pumped, you guys!” Keigo yelled, slamming his hands onto Chad’s desk, “Thanks for inviting the girls, Kaede! You’re a pal!”

He tried to clap Kaede on the shoulder, but she took a very decisive step back from his reach. She hated his hands, no matter how hard Keigo tried to be friendly. She glared at him.

“Don’t touch me,” she hissed, “I invited them because they’re my friends. Not so you could embarrass me by asking every single one of them out.”

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Blessedly, something else caught Keigo’s attention.

“Ichigo’s talking to Inoue!”

Orihime and Ichigo were having a short conversation in the doorway. Something about the way Orihime held herself caught Kaede’s interest. She was waving her arms like a crazy person. Her face was bright red though.

“Speaking of shooting your shot,” she mumbled.

It looked like they were talking about the broadcast, because Orihime was doing the weird arm cross. She just seemed to be turning redder and redder, with Ichigo looking more and more like he didn't want to be having that conversation. Just when things were getting interesting, Tatsuki appeared, to save Orihime from herself. Once Orihime was gone, Ichigo finally spotted his friends. He scowled at Kaede, sending a chill down her spine. He stomped right over to her.

“Hey, cousin, what’s-?”

“So, I hear this was all your idea,” he groused, “Now I’m going to hear about that fake psychic show all week.”

“I watched it at your place first,” Kaede put her hands up defensively, “Besides, it’s a great chance to make friends with my friends. In middle school, we used to all do things together, boys and girls. Rukia and I need to maintain female friendships too!”

“And you three?” Ichigo pointed a finger at the boys, “Are you in on this?”

They looked at one another, before creating x’s with their arms, Don Kanonji-style.

“BOHAHAHA!” Keigo and Mizuiro screamed, with Chad standing silently behind them.

Kaede laughed, “You guys look like Power Rangers.”

Ichigo’s frown just deepened. He walked past them and tossed his bag on his desk. Kaede and Mizuiro shrugged, and started discussing restaurants. They tried to get Chad's input, but all he did was nod. Keigo wasn’t giving up on Ichigo though. He followed him right to his desk.

“So, you’re coming, right?” Keigo didn’t even give him time to answer, “Cause the girls all checked yes on the invite, so-.”

“I’m not going, you weirdos,” Ichigo huffed, flopping down in his chair.

“What is wrong with you? The girls all said yes, we need four for four!” Keigo thrust a thumb towards Chad and Kaede, “Besides, are you sure you wanna leave those two alone?”

Ichigo turned his glare onto them. They were just talking right now, but Kaede looked unreasonably happy about something. As if on cue, Chad seemed to notice something in Kaede’s hair, and reached for it almost absently. Kaede didn’t recoil, or look even slightly disturbed, as he produced what looked like a pillow feather from between her locks.

“Wow,” Keigo whistled lowly, “He’s getting bold.”

“Smooth bastard,” Ichigo grumbled.

It was then that Keigo was struck with a devious thought.

“Hey man, I get it if you don’t wanna go. I mean, this is a group date, after all,” he lied smoothly, “Totally not your thing.”

That got Ichigo’s attention.

“I’m sorry, a what?”

 


 

Before any of them had even realised it, the week had rolled back around. Kaede wasn’t sure how Keigo had managed it, but he’d convinced Ichigo to come with them. She’d gotten a text from him, saying he was coming for ramen, but that Uncle Isshin and Yuzu wanted to see the broadcast as a family. They’d invited her, but she politely declined. Uncle Isshin might get them kicked out, with his screaming. Kaede was excited, but still anxious. It hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“You okay?” Chad asked her as they were heading out.

“Yeah, I just…” Kaede frowned, locking her door, “Do I look okay?”

Since it was a craft club night, she and Chad had just sort of changed and ran. He looked put together, but his shirts made everything look planned. The guy could rock a floral print like nobody’s business. She’d just seen her black hoodie dress and thrown it on. She had barely had time to brush her hair. Fluffy curls were the order of the night, coming loose from the braid she’d done in a hurry. Kaede was at least happy she’d found her sneakers. Being uncoordinated or unfashionable would just ruin her whole evening.

“Yes. …That doesn’t answer my question.”

He was turning her own lines back on her. Kaede sighed, tossing her keys into her little purse. The violence of that normally small motion spoke volumes.

“I just…I’m worried, you know? What if something happens? What if one of those things shows up?”

“We haven’t seen anything in the show. It’s probably all fake.”

“Yeah, but what if you can’t take their picture,” Kaede gasped, “Oh! Like vampires!”

Chad doubted they were very much like vampires. He also doubted that saying so would comfort Kaede.

“We’ll be together,” he said, “I’m not worried.”

That seemed to improve her mood. Kaede felt a sense of comfort that had eluded her all week. He had that effect on her.

They met up with everyone else in front of a ramen place down the street from the hospital, which was having a special “Ghosts of Ramen Past” menu for the event. Seeing everyone in street clothes was so weird for Kaede, but she supposed everyone else was used to it. She hadn’t realised Orihime liked long skirts before. Rukia wore a cute dress, which look suspiciously like one Kaede had seen in Yuzu’s closet. It donned on her then that Rukia would probably have to wear children’s clothes. Were it not for Tatsuki’s baseball tee and jeans, Kaede might have felt underdressed.

“They aren’t going to show us on the broadcast, right?” she frowned down at her outfit, “Cause this outfit is not a TV outfit.”

“That’s not a TV outfit?” Tatsuki teased, “Seriously? You walked out of a fashion blog.”

That girl always knew just what to say.

“Oh, Tatsuki,” Kaede grinned brightly, throwing her arms around her friend, “You’re the sweetest! If you ever wanna borrow the dress, I think it’d look awesome on you.”

“Ooo, with a baseball cap!” Orihime clapped, “And some black high-tops.”

“I’m not a dress-up doll,” she huffed.

In spite of her tone, Tatsuki returned Kaede’s hug with one arm and a sigh, blushing brightly. Orihime grabbed on to make it a group hug. Poor Rukia tried to escape, but Tatsuki was determined not to suffer alone, and pulled her into the ring.

“I’m so glad we decided to do this,” Keigo murmured.

He pulled his phone out for a picture, but somehow Ichigo’s back was in the way.

 “Alright, knock it off,” Ichigo called to the girls, throwing the shop door open, “Let’s eat and go.”

“Oh, but can’t we just wait a little longer?” Kaede whined, rubbing her cheek on Orihime’s head, “I could just extend your suffering all night!”

“Move it!”

The girls all laughed, finally chasing after everyone else. Thankfully, the ramen shop wasn’t super busy, so they were able to head right to the bar.

“I still can’t believe you’re actually here,” Kaede teased, “I knew you were gonna go to the broadcast with the famjam, but you came for ramen. How on earth did Keigo convince you to come here?”

Ichigo just fixed her with another frown, sitting aggressively in his barstool. What was his problem? Kaede looked over to Keigo, immediately suspicious.

“What did you say to him?” she asked.

“Nothing! I just told him he should go!”

Keigo looked far too nervous to be as innocent as he claimed to be. Kaede noticed then that Chad and Mizuiro had been strategically placed between them. Like he wanted to be out of her reach.

“You told him something weird, didn’t you? Keigo, I swear to god-.”

“What? All I said was we should keep the gender divide equal,” Keigo smirked, triumphant in his explanation, “Isn’t that how most group events go, Miss Fancy Pants?”

Kaede couldn’t deny that; her middle school friends were always upset when there was an imbalance.

“Fine,” Kaede pushed her sleeves up, “Let’s eat!”

 

It seemed like the entire town of Karakura had shown up for the broadcast. As if they had nothing better to do. Which was true. The police had set up a large perimeter around the abandoned hospital, likely because this building had barely survived a massive fire. The building was usually fenced off, but they were letting people in just for tonight. The entire base was tagged in bright greens, pinks, and oranges. There were a bunch of vans parked around the old lot, and crew members were still frantically rigging things up around them. It was just after 7:30pm, and they were supposed to start at 8pm.

“I hope they get everything finished on time,” Kaede frowned, double checking the time on her phone, “They haven’t got a lot of time.”

Kaede was suddenly grabbed from behind, and spun around in circles. She screamed, flailing. Only one person did that without fearing for their life.

“Uncle Isshin, put me down!” she cried, “Seriously, I’m gonna be sick!”

Isshin finally lowered her, laughing maniacally. Kaede had to encourage her dinner to stay down.

“Kaede!”

Yuzu was the next to fly in for a hug. Kaede returned her embrace, spotting Karin and Ichigo following slowly behind. Neither of them looked too pleased to be in attendance, but that way to be expected. They were almost opposed to stuff like this.

“Hey guys,” she grinned down at Yuzu, “Are you excited?”

“You bet,” Yuzu crossed her arms, “BOHAHAHA!”

Uncle Isshin joined her in her fit of themed cackling, and soon the two of them were gone off again.

“We’ll drive you home after!” Yuzu called.

They weaved through the crowds, closer to the front, Ichigo and Karin trailing slowly behind. Orihime took off from their group then, chasing after Ichigo.

“Kurosaki,” she called.

Ichigo turned back to her, but Kaede couldn’t hear what they were saying. Orihime’s peachy blush made her feelings on the matter of speaking with him completely obvious. Kaede looked at Tatsuki, and the two of them exchanged a mutual sigh.

“Do you think she’s ever going to…?”

“Nah,” Tatsuki chuckled, “I’d give it a bit before that. He’ll get every hint and miss it though.”

“Oh, undoubtedly.”

When Orihime was done chatting, she nearly floated back towards them. Tatsuki poked her belly teasingly, and Orihime broke into a fit of giggles. As they started recounting Orihime’s conversation, Kaede felt her mind wandering. They needed to find a place to stand. Tatsuki and Orihime were already wandering off on their own. Keigo and Mizuiro had started posing and cackling as soon as Ichigo had come in to view, and they were showing no signs of stopping. She wished Chizuru was here, but, to quote her: no cute girls, no cute Chizuru. She felt a large hand rest on her shoulder.

“Hey,” Chad said, “There’s a space by the front.”

Kaede turned and looked up at him, before looking around. There was a space, but…

“Will people be okay standing behind us?” she was suddenly feeling sheepish.

Chad shrugged, heading off towards the spot he’d picked. Kaede had to laugh at that, as she chased behind him. He was very excited.

However, when they arrived at the front of the crowd, something felt off. The air was stiff this close to the hospital. Something was making her ears ring, and not even swallowing relieved the pressure. The people chatting around them seemed to fade out, until a single murmur was all Kaede could perceive. It sounded far away to her, but it was unmistakable.

“Do you hear that? It sounds like…”

“Like someone’s screaming,” Chad finished.

It was then that Keigo found them, with Mizuiro missing in action.

“I thought you guys would have wandered a lot further up,” Keigo whined, “Thanks for not leaving. Mizuiro ditched me for some girls! Can you believe it?”

“Asano,” Chad hadn’t even been paying attention to his complaining, “Can’t you…hear something? It sounds like a strange voice.”

Kaede looked at him quite meaningfully, hoping Keigo would answer honestly, for once in his life. Keigo stared at them blankly, before laughing nervously.

“Very funny. Quit it, you two,” he gave them a look of reproach, “You’re giving me the creeps. I don’t hear anything. It’s probably just your imagination. Go easy on me.”

He seemed nearly proud of himself. He wasn’t clever enough to lie about something like that, so it meant he didn’t hear anything.

“Yeah, sorry, that’s it,” Chad was still half out of it, “Just my imagination. Sorry.”

To him and Kaede, it was feeling like the exact opposite. As the crew were moving equipment around, the screaming was just getting louder and louder. It crackled around the air, echoing in and out all around them. It sounded like that Hollow had. Kaede gulped, her eyes scanning the abandoned building. She couldn’t see anything, but that didn’t mean nothing was there. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to kill the chill in her flesh.

“I’m gonna have an aneurism,” she was muttering under her breath, “If I see one more of those freaky things, I swear to god.”

“Hey, you okay?” Keigo asked, putting a hand on her shoulder, “You don’t look so good.”

For once, Kaede didn’t recoil. That was worrying enough on its own. She looked pale. Her vision was tunnelling as she tried to focus on her breathing. She crouched down, needing to close some of the distance between her and the ground.

“S-seriously, Kaede, are you messing with me?” Keigo cried, “Are you okay?”

She felt another hand come to rest on the top of her head. Too big to be Keigo. Too warm. It gave her something to focus on, besides the tinny yowling.

“You’re okay,” Chad’s voice was soothing, and she heard him crouch down beside her, “Just breathe.”

Inhale. Exhale. Kaede was able to push the nausea out of her mind, slowly focusing on the warmth of his hand. She covered her eyes with her own hands, blocking out the lights from the set, and eased the pain in her head. The voice was bothering her less now.

“What a miserable creature,” Kaede mumbled, “Make it stop.”

“Do you need to go home?” Chad asked.

Kaede seemed to turn the offer over in her brain. Maybe she should go home, if she felt this bad. These things always made her feel like shit. Finally, she shook her head. No, she needed to stay, in case there was trouble. She could sort of make out shapes, and her friends were here. She couldn’t let anything bad happen to them. She took her hands off her face, slowly rising to her feet. Keigo and Chad looked ready to jump at the slightest sign that it might happen again.

“Sorry, guys,” she smiled apologetically, “I just had a dizzy spell there.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Keigo challenged, “You went really pale. Is that normal?”

“Yeah, I have really low blood pressure, so maybe that was it.”

You always need to add a bit of truth to a lie, to make it believable. Kaede scanned the crowd for anyone else. She could sort of spy Karin from between the rows, who was looking a little queasy herself. Next, she found Orihime and Tatsuki, holding hands, whispering to each other about something.

“Hey, Chad,” she said pointing towards them, “You don’t think…?”

He followed her gaze, and found the others much more easily. Rukia and Ichigo were predictably agitated, off on the far end of the crowd. He found Tatsuki and Orihime next, and found he had a similar inclination. They weren’t the only ones who could hear it.

“Seriously, you two are acting weird,” Keigo frowned.

QUIET ON THE SET!” a voice boomed out over the crowd, drowning out the moans through a megaphone, “OUR LIVE BROADCAST IS ABOUT TO BEGIN!

Shit, it was almost 8. Kaede grabbed Chad’s wrist, staring at his watch. Ten seconds left, and not a soul had stood in front of them. This was it! The three friends could barely contain their excitement. The crowd began counting down in unison.

IN 5, 4, 3, 2…!

Spotlights flared to life, and Kaede immediately spotted the host of the show. He was ready, like a news reporter, in front of the cameras.

Good evening, everyone,” his voice echoed through the amps around the parking lot, “Tonight’s “Ghost Bust” is a special EMERGENCY LIVE BROADCAST, and we have come to the abandoned hospital in Karakura Town, Tokyo. They say, night after night, the cries of a vengeful spirit keep the good citizens of Karakura away from this hospital… Surely, that man will cook up something good for us tonight! AND HERE HE COMES!!

 An electric guitar ripped through the speakers, and the whole crowd started to lose their minds. Kaede had to admit, this was beyond exciting. Besides, maybe this guy was the real deal. He might be able to take care of that thing. She could see Chad and Keigo nearly bouncing next to her, and found she couldn’t help but join them.

The charismatic spirit medium of the new century! Messenger of Hell! The one! The ONLY! MISTEEEEEER DON KANONJIIIIIIIII!!!!!”

The host pointed into the sky like he was launching a rocket. Everyone followed his gaze, just in time to see someone jump from a helicopter.

HOW’S IT GOING, BABIES?!

That voice! It was Kanonji himself, barrelling down towards them from the sky. He was wearing a mic, since his voice was coming from the ground speakers, but that certainly didn’t detract from the thrill of the stunt. Kanonji was screaming as he dropped.

SPIRITS! ARE! ALWAYS! WITH! YOUUUUUUUU!!!” Kanonji pulled his parachute, and drifted safety down the rest of the way, “BOHAHAHA!

The whole crowd was shrieking. It couldn’t possibly get any louder. Chad looked down to check on Kaede, and she seemed to have almost completely forgotten about the voice. Hands in the air, screaming, leaping up and down. She caught him staring, a grinned widely at him. She was having a total blast. She was even tolerating the well-meaning grip Keigo had on her hand as they jumped together. Perhaps because it was some of the only innocent contact that boy was capable of.

Once Kanonji stuck his landing, he threw his equipment off with a dramatic flourish. The swagger was insane! The host came to greet him, and the cameras all swung around to keep up.

What a suitably gorgeous entrance into the special!” the host exclaimed, “Now let’s take a look at our haunted location for the evening: the abandoned Karakura General Hospital, East Campus! What do you think, Don?”

Hmmm, why yes,” Kanonji replied, stroking his chin as if in thought, “This one is particularly bad…The smell of spirits is outrageously strong…

Kaede gripped Chad’s arm, shaking it, as if to say, “the line, the liiiiine”.

This certainly…

SMELLS LIKE BAD SPIRITS!” the crowd hollered.

A familiar voice had come up beside them, amongst the screaming crowd. It seemed Mizuiro had found his way back to them. Keigo jumped when he saw him, squeaking.

“Hey, Mizuiro!” Kaede laughed.

“You!” Keigo was incensed, “What happened with those girls?”

“Oh, they figured out I was underage,” Mizuiro gave a forlorn sigh, “So, I came back to spend the broadcast with you guys.”

“How generous,” Keigo huffed.

Hmmm, this is quite a bad spirit, very bad,” Kanonji wandered up to the hospital entrance, pulling out his staff, “With my Super Spirits Stick, I’ll finish him off in one blow!

With a flourish, Kanonji thrust his stick forwards. Kaede had expected some sound effect, some sort of light trick. But instead, the temperature in the air dropped, and the wailing voice resumed. It was piercing, like tinnitus, but harsher. The hollowed out ringing only grew as Kanonji began to circle his staff around in the air. Kaede had to cover her ears again, dropping heavily into Chad as her balance betrayed her.

Thankfully, Chad was like a statue, and caught her with ease. The crowd around them was too enraptured with the performance to notice them. Even Keigo and Mizuiro hadn’t see her partial collapse. Kaede looked up to see Chad was sweating; that shrieking was affecting him too. Could Kanonji see the source of the noise? What was he doing to it?

Hey! Don’t worry! It only hurts at first,” the Don was still going, “I’ll send you to heaven soon, Baby!

OOOOOOHHHHHHH! He suddenly brought it out! His super-secret, SUPER SPIRITS STICK! For him to bring it out so early is truly remarkable,” the host’s voice was adding to the overload, “Does this mean that the mission is perilous?!

“I’m gonna be sick,” Kaede mumbled, “Make it stop…”

Everything around her was buzzing, pulsing. The longer the so-called “exorcism” went on, the more it felt like she wanted to be exorcised from existence.

He brought out the exorcism lyrics? Does this mean he plans to finish it off in one blow?!

The roar of the Hollow only intensified. Something was very wrong. Kaede squeezed her eyes shut, trying to focus on something, anything. It was coming at her all at once. The cold, the screams of the crowd, the high-pitched keen of the Hollow.

“STOP!” someone cried.

On command, the screams stopped. The pressure in her head went away. She looked up in time to see Ichigo, out in the set area, grappling with security. He was quickly subdued by about five men.

Ohoho! What’s this?! It seemed there’s some ruckus in the cordoned-off area,” the host was milking the drama, “An excited young man just jumped onto our main area, but he’s been caught by security!

“It’s Ichigo,” Mizuiro seemed unsurprised.

“What the heck is he doing?” Keigo cried.

Kaede couldn’t believe it. She sighed, hiding her face in shame.

“How are we related?” she mumbled.

Still, he’d made the noise stop. Were her memories not supposed to be erased, she would have thanked him.

“Commercial!” the set crew were running around like headless chickens, “Go to commercial!”

“Let me go!” Ichigo was yelling, “If you don’t, something bad might happen!”

So, her hunch had been right. There was something to do with Ichigo’s Shinigami business going on here. Rukia jumped over the rope line as well, only to be tackled herself. They were causing quite a scene.

“If anyone asks,” Keigo murmured, “We’re not with them.”

The other three nodded, their solemn vows sworn in silence. Kaede phone was suddenly buzzing. Chizuru and Ryou were in the group chat.

Sorry, was that Kuchiki and Kurosaki?” Chizuru had written.

Yeah, Kaede, spill, what’s happening?” Ryou added.

Kaede pouted.

You guys told me you weren’t super into this!

The reply from Chizuru came back in an instant.

Yeah, live broadcasts! We’re watching in peace at Ryou’s. We told you this!

Right. Kaede had been so nervous today, she’d barely paid attention at lunch today. It seemed her nervousness had been warranted though. Ichigo and Rukia were now fighting and struggling, and soon Ichigo got a good right hook to the face. At that, Chad started off towards them.

“Shit, Kaede, grab him!” Keigo cried.

It took all three of them to hold Chad behind the rope line. Even then, they were dragging. He finally stopped pulling, once he could see they weren’t letting go.

“Where are you going?” Keigo demanded.

“To help Ichigo,” he said, slowly picking their hands off.

“You’ll just make it worse!” Keigo argued, “I mean, isn’t this how we usually get in trouble? This was Ichigo’s fault, right?”

The screaming came back with a vengeance. Kanonji was still at it with his damn stick. It seemed like the entire ordeal had been quickly forgotten to him.

“Don’t!” they could hear Rukia screaming too, “Ichigo!”

“I know! Let me go!”

Their struggling was in vain, until Ichigo suddenly went limp. As a ragdoll. No one had even seen what happened. Then, another small struggle, and a bright flash of light went off. The security guards dropped, completely stunned. Rukia was gone. Kaede could see a refraction of light, a shape like Ichigo’s, heading towards Kanonji. Which meant he’d checked out to settle things.

Kanonji was body slammed across the dirt, flying onto his back, away from the site of his exorcism.

Oh no! What’s happened here? Mr. Kanonji was suddenly driven back by an incredible force!

Kanonji pulled himself up, and began shouting at the refraction of light.

What’s with you boy? Why do you interfere?! You’re just a ghost!” he paused, as if listening, “Of course I can see you! Do you know who I am? I am the charismatic spirit medium of the new-oh! I see… You’re still a fan, even in death, Boy?!

The crowd cheered, though Kaede highly doubted that the conversation was going that well. If Ichigo had intervened in that form, it was because he needed to.

BAM! An explosion, right in front of the hospital doors. It rocked the building, and stunned the crowd. If Chad hadn’t been there as a blocker, Kaede and the boys might have been swept back like everyone else. The screaming stopped.

Chapter Text

When the dust and smoke cleared, the air was breathable. The voice that had been shrieking had faded away. People were on their hands and knees, some on their butts, trying to figure out why an effect for a show had been that strong.

“Damn,” Keigo groused, pulling a twig out of his hair, “You think they’d tone it down for a live audience.”

“Thanks, Chad,” Mizuiro patted Chad’s arm, “You okay?”

Chad nodded, though he wasn’t so sure about Kaede. The boys had come out from behind him, but Kaede was staying put. She peaked around him nervously, scanning the front of the building.

“Is it dead? Let it be dead,” Kaede begged, “Please, tell me it’s dead.”

Wh-what just happened?” the host of Ghost Bust pulled himself off the ground, “When Mr. Kanonji was violently driven back, it was followed by a fierce explosion! Is Mr. Kanonji alright?

From the smoke, now being pumped artificially by the stage crew, Don Kanonji rose like a phoenix. He stood tall, posing and laughing, as if he had won something.

YEAH!” he howled, “MISSION COMPLETE!

The crowd went wild, and the earlier explosion was nearly forgotten. Kaede couldn’t believe it. Was Don Kanonji, the campy TV medium, truly capable of exorcising spirits? It seemed too good to be true. The host and audience were clamouring on, as if evil had really been defeated, once and for all. Keigo and Mizuiro were right back into the action, chatting away about what a convincing act that had been. Chad said something then, for her ears only.

“Hey,” he kept his voice low, “Wasn’t that…oddly contained to you?”

Now that he mentioned it, there had been no blood or property damage. Perhaps Kanonji was just that good, but that seemed unlikely. Either way, she finally stepped out from behind him.

“Maybe it was just a ghost,” Kaede shrugged, crossing her arms in front of her, “Either way, I’m glad it’s warmed up.”

“You were cold?”

“Yeah, stuff like this seems to make me feel sick as Hell. …Get it?”

“I’m…going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”

His response got her giggling. They were starting to feel like they could breathe. 

Then, the temperature dropped again. It was sudden, and violent, a swift wind whipping through the crowd. Kaede could see her breath, just for an instant. Even Keigo and Mizuiro seemed to notice, hugging each other and shivering.

“What the heck?” Keigo yelped, “Where is this wind coming from?”

“That’s no wind,” Kaede murmured.

She started looking around, trying to spot something, anything strange under the stage lights. Nothing there, except Ichigo’s shape. But when he and Kanonji looked up, she followed their gaze. There was something, swirling in circles, above their heads, towards the hospital roof. First, it formed hands, then arms and legs. A torso, with a hole in the middle, and the body stopped forming, just for a moment.

AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

A head came screaming from the empty shoulders, human in shape and dripping from every orifice. The head started to change its shape, finally forming into the mask of a Hollow. Kaede could see the shape of the mask as it formed, looking almost like a horseshoe crab with teeth. Kaede was gonna be sick.

“Why does it have teeth?” she whined.

Chad blinked down at her.

“Teeth?”

“Yes, it’s a horseshoe crab with arms, frog legs, and those big, flat, stupid human teeth,” Kaede bared her own for emphasis, “Why do those things always look like my nightmares and the uncanny valley had a baby?”

What is that…monster?!” Don Kanonji was staring into the sky.

“Wait, he can see that thing?” Kaede muttered.

It looked like Kanonji was probably listening to Ichigo, before striking yet another silly pose.

Of course! Who do you think I am?!” Kanonji cried, “The charismatic spirit medium of the new century, Don Kanonji! Monster extermination is outside my field!”

The mics were on, and the lights were still up. It seemed the crew was just rolling with this new plotline, whatever it was.

“Whoa! I’m sensing it; the reek of a super dangerous spirit! So then he…is the earlier spirit’s evil boss, and he’s come for vengeance!”

The Hollow was panting, and Kaede could hear his voice on the wind.

It hurts,” it’s crying was pitiful, “Hurts…it…HURTS! De-de-deee-devour…

Were they all this incoherent when they awoke? Like children? Without warning, the creature leapt from the side of the building. Kaede crouched, ready to run to wherever she’d be needed.

“Here it comes,” she warned.

I’M GONNA DEVOUR YOUR SOUL!

The Hollow was careening down towards them, arms wide, jaw open. It was going straight for Kanonji. Kaede expected Kanonji to run, like she had, but instead he stepped forwards.

Run away, Boy! Leave this to me!” he yelled, brandishing his staff, “Come on, Bad Spirit! The charismatic medium of the new century, Don Kanonji, is your opponent!

Thankfully, the clang of bone against steel rang out over the crowd. Ichigo had saved Kanonji at the last instant. He pushed the Hollow back, and a great slice rushed through the dirt. Kanonji still didn’t seem to get the full picture though. As he and Ichigo seemed to be bickering, Kaede saw Chad take another step forwards.

“Wait,” she grabbed his arm.

“But-.”

“No buts. We’ll just be a burden,” Kaede pointed at the chaos ahead, “Besides, looks like Ichigo has it covered.”

Chad looked to where Kaede was pointing, but all he saw was Kanonji. At first, anyways. Something was shifting in and out of focus, like shapes and shadows interplaying. Was that Ichigo, blocking the thing Kaede had described? The harder he concentrated, the more colour seemed to come into the image. It was Ichigo alright.

After a few seconds of watching Kanonji get tossed around, the property damage characteristic of Hollows started up. The thing rammed its head into the building, of course getting stuck. It didn’t seem to understand the shape of its own body yet, and pulled on the sides of its head in vain.

A golden chance!” Kanonji charged it.

The Hollow pulled itself free. Kanonji was grabbed by Ichigo, who took off running. To others, it seemed Kanonji was floating. Next thing they knew, a glass window in the front shattered, and Kanonji disappeared inside. When the Hollow headed in after him, the glass sprayed back into the crowd. Thankfully, they were situated far enough away, there was no danger. Keigo and Mizuiro were still entranced, cheering and screaming along with the host. That guy could really work a crowd.

When Kaede checked on Chad, she could see he was anxious. His fists were balled, his focus fixed on that window. He wanted to jump in. She felt it too.

“He’ll be okay,” she said, “He has to be.”

For the first minute or so, it was silent. Then, the crashing and crumbling started. They could Kanonji yelling and screaming. The audience was quickly losing interest though.

“Aw man,” Mizuiro pouted.

“What’s the point if we can’t see anything?” Keigo demanded, “This is not very exciting. Right guys?”

Neither Chad nor Kaede answered. Their attention was glued to the sounds of battle. Suddenly, a great explosion came out the side of the hospital. Bricks and cement came crashing down to the earth. Thankfully, there was no one in the way. Kaede could see the head of the Hollow, with a black and orange blue attached to it. Colour was coming to her now, as it always did.

“There he goes,” she pointed, “On its head!”

Ichigo seemed to be stuck to the Hollow as it clawed its way up the side of the building. Don Kanonji poked his head out the side, screaming something or another.

It’s Mr. Kanonji!” the host cried, “He suddenly appeared, from within the smoke of the explosion! He appears to be shouting something!

Curse you, Bad Spirit!” Kanonji’s mic, which had been cut off in the hospital, seemed to reconnect, “You escaped to the roof! Don’t you dare think you can escape from me!!

As Kanonji disappeared once again, and suddenly it was chaos on the ground. His mic had clearly cut out again, since they couldn’t even hear panting. The crew was running around frantically, pushing through the crowds to try and get a view of the roof. Shouting and crashing could be heard, but no one could see anything. Suddenly, the air cleared once more, and the pressure was gone. The cold, the darkness, the voice; all of it disappeared.

HE DID IT!

Kanonji’s scream could be heard from the ground, his mic still disconnected. The crowd erupted into violent, crashing shrieks of elation. Kanonji was soon visible from the edge of the roof, crossing his arms in that trademark “x”.

BOHAHAHA!!!

Everyone around them cheered and cackled in return, as if a great battle had just been won. Kaede finally let go of the breath she’d been holding. She bent over, hands on her knees. Ichigo had won.

“He did it,” she sighed, “Thank god.”

“Oh my gosh, that was so awesome, you guys!” Keigo had circled back around them, shaking a weaker Mizuiro along the way, “Can you believe it? The effects were AMAZING!”

Kaede laughed, straightening up. She deftly extracted a grateful Mizuiro from Keigo’s hands.

“Okay, let him go, before you break his neck,” she said, “And don’t go shaking us either!”

Keigo bulked at her rebuke, but was soon distracted by something Mizuiro said. She took the moment to check on Chad. He was still standing there, perfectly still. Was hadn’t he relaxed yet? She tugged his shirt lightly, as she had been doing all evening, and he jolted.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Kaede let go slowly, “It’s done. The pressure let up. Can’t you feel it?”

“Can’t you feel the other thing though?” he asked, scanning the crowd.

Kaede just blinked up at him.

“What thing?”

“I feel like…like we’re being watched.”

 


 

The next morning, the day was beginning as normal. Kaede and Chad were just stepping into the building, when something made Kaede leap out of her skin.

SAITO! YASUTORA!

Kaede screamed, leaping into the air. Chad seemed nonplused, though he was concerned for Kaede. She was panting, gripping her chest like her heart was going to burst out.

The one who’d called after them was Coach Kigane, the boys’ P.E. teacher. He was striding towards them almost ferociously. Coach Kigane was a big man, beefy, with short, square black hair. His thin moustache was an almost comedic contrast to his incredibly long, large sideburns. He always wore the school’s gym uniforms, with Karakura High School always printed somewhere on this. Summer was his “tank top and business pants” season. Kaede couldn’t remember having a single class with him either. Which meant he'd looked her up.

“Coach,” Chad greeted him with a nod.

“Don’t you “Coach” me, boy!” Kigane was spitting mad, “I was told I might catch you together. Principal’s office, both of you. NOW!”

The office? The two teens exchanged a look. They hadn’t done anything punishable…recently.

“Uhm, sir,” Kaede said, “Are you-?”

“Did I stutter, young lady?! Move it!”

“Yes, sir!”

She and Chad scuttled off with unusual speed, before they could earn any more of Kigane’s ire. Once they’d made it to the main office, they spotted their friends sitting in the white chairs that lined the hall. At least, some of the friends who’d been to the broadcast the night before. Keigo and Mizuiro waved Chad over, but Tatsuki was motioning to Kaede. Kaede waved at her and Orihime, heading straight over to them.

“Hey, guys,” she sat beside Tatsuki, “What’s going on?”

“No idea,” Tatsuki muttered back, “But Coach is pissed.”

Soon, Rukia and Ichigo rounded into the hallway, with not only Kigane at their backs, but Miss Ochi as well. Kaede felt her stomach drop.

“It’s Rukia and Kurosaki,” Orihime whispered.

“Do you think it’s about yesterday?” Kaede pondered.

Tatsuki scowled, “Then why are we here?”

“Alright, maggots!” Kigane nearly ripped the office door off its hinges, “In you go, single file!”

They did as they were told. Soon, they were lined up in front of the principal. Kaede realised she hadn’t seen him before. He swung towards them in his swivel chair. The principal was a short, rotund old man. He was balding, and what hair he had left winged out to the sides wildly. The collar of his shirt was far too tight for him, just accentuating the frown he wore. His glasses were horrendous, and it made Kaede’s eye twitch. Miss Ochi stood beside his desk, looking like she’d much rather be somewhere else. The principal and Kigane shared a look, before the principal motioned for Kigane to speak. They had a projector and a screen set up, which didn’t bode well. The coach turned on them with the rage of a thousand suns. He took a deep breath.

“I can’t freakin’ believe this!” Kigane started yelling, “Do you kids have any idea was you’ve done?!”

Silence. Was he waiting for an answer?

“Well…” Kaede spoke up meekly, “No, sir, frankly we-.”

“Well, take a look at this! It’s an image that aired, nationwide, from a live-broadcast TV show that filmed in our town yesterday! NA. TION. WIDE.

The projector clicked on, and no one could say they were surprised to see a picture of Ichigo. Ichigo himself bristled, as if he could feel all seven pairs of eyes on his back, glowering. Kigane got right up in his face.

“Well, Kurosaki,” he put his hands on his hips, “Anything to say for yourself when you look at him? Hmm?”

“W-wow,” Ichigo kept looking straight ahead, “Looks a lot like me, doesn’t he?”

“Every inch of him is you, you moron!” Kigane screamed.

“My twin brother, separated at birth,” Ichigo wasn’t budging, “Indeed, I never thought we’d reunite this way.”

Kigane just started yelling at him again, almost unintelligibly fast. Kaede let out a growling sigh, massaging her temples. Tatsuki raised her own hand.

“Coach Kigane,” she called.

“What is it, Arisawa?” Kigane asked calmly.

Kigane had stopped dead, in the middle of whatever rant he’d been going on, giving her is undivided attention. Kaede remembered then that Tatsuki was vice-captain of the school karate team, so perhaps Kigane respected her.

“I understand you called us here because Kurosaki and Kuchiki appeared on TV, but…” Tatsuki struck a proud stance, “I think you have no reason to have called Inoue, Saito, and me in here!”

“But!” Kigane paused, “You girls were with him.”

“Unintentionally!” Tatsuki cried, “While we were on our way there, we happened to run into Kuchiki, who the boys invited, so we have nothing to do with it!”

“That’s a lie!” Keigo almost sobbed, “Saito invited us!

“Please don’t put your trust in him,” Tatsuki said, “He’d prone to fits of delusion. Come on girls, let’s go.”

Orihime tried to say something, but Kaede beat her to it.

“N-no! This isn’t fair,” Kaede interjected, looking to the coach, “You can’t punish all of us for something only one of us did. And embarrassing you is not a punishable offense!”

“You were all there, so you should have stopped him!” the coach insisted, “Group responsibility-.”

Kaede interrupted the large man, pointing right in his face.

“Objection! The Geneva Convention states that collective punishment is a war crime!” Kaede shot right back at him, “I demand a board review of this case! What authorizes you to dispense a sentence without due process?!”

Kigane didn’t seem to know what to do with that level of sass, coming from the girl who’d almost leapt out of her skin that morning. Then, Keigo started screaming about his own fair trial, and Kigane started shouting in return. Soon, everyone was just yelling (except Chad, of course). The tiniest sniffles broke through the harsh noise, silencing the crowd.

“I’m so sorry,” Rukia was fighting back tears, “It’s all because I couldn’t stop Kurosaki…”

Her charade was completely capturing Kigane. Kaede could see Rukia readying a handkerchief from her skirt pocket. Clever girl.

“At the time, I was the one nearest to Kurosaki. When he jumped in, I had to stop him! I even raised my voice, which is quite unlike me, however,” Rukia then produced her prop, dabbing her eyes, “Kurosaki wouldn’t even listen to my voice like that!”

Rukia started faux-sobbing, delicately into her hands, and Kigane was suddenly a mess. His earlier bravado vanished entirely. As soon as his back was turned, Kaede saw the boys start shuffling towards the open, first-floor window of the office. Miss Ochi was the only other person who noticed, but she didn’t seem to care what they did. She probably wanted to be here as much as they did. Kigane was too busy trying to sooth Rukia to even notice.

“Don’t cry, Kuchiki,” Kigane shushed her, “Alright! Alright! You didn’t do anything wrong, it was all Kurosaki, okay?”

“Y-yes, I don’t care what happens to me, just him…”

Kigane rounded on the boys, likely to start yelling at Ichigo again, just in time to see them sprinting across the school yard. They rounded the corner at lightning speed. Chad first, Ichigo second, and Keigo and Mizuiro tied for third.

“Hey! You boys get back here, right now!” Kigane rushed to the window, “I’ll have you all suspended! Suspended I say!”

As Kigane ranted after the dust the boys had left, Tatsuki grabbed Kaede and Orihime’s hands. She pulled them towards the door. Kaede grabbed hold of Rukia as they quietly filed out, all hand-in-hand. Kaede looked towards Miss Ochi, who was waving them out with a smile. The principal didn’t even seem to care what was happening, he was so transfixed on the projection. Kaede spotted the Ghost Bust logo in the corner.

“You know,” she said once they were in the hallway, “I don’t think any of us are going to hear about this again.”

“Should we go to class?” Orihime asked.

Kaede’s phone buzzed then. She pulled it out of her skirt pocket, and grinned.

“Chad says they’re cutting the rest of the day,” she showed off the text before tapping something back, “We can meet them at the back stairs, if we want. Who’s in? I’m thinking boba and the arcade.”

None of the others needed any encouragement. They still had their bags too. The girls made it out of the building, and saw the guys waiting for them at the back steps, as promised. Kaede waved, and Keigo waved back.

“Ladies!” he flipped his hair, “Miss me?”

“Hah!” Kaede poked him in the gut, “Not even close, ditcher.”

Keigo crumpled, but laughed all the same. That was a great show they’d all put on. With everyone accounted for, they started heading down the stairs. Chad and Kaede at the back, Rukia and Ichigo at the front, the others always somewhere in between. Keigo was on Rukia like a parasite though.

“Oh man, we made an escape, and lived happily ever after. Boba and video games!” Keigo’s tone was patronisingly sweet, “And it’s all thanks to Kuchiki!”

“Oh my,” Rukia covered her cheeks bashfully, “I assure you, it was nothing.”

“He is right though. I can’t believe you did that, Rukia,” Kaede grinned at her, “What a performance!”

“Don’t praise her,” Ichigo snapped, “She was selling me out!”

“Hey, the only reason you got out of there was because of Kuchiki’s acting,” Tatsuki reminded him.

“That’s right, I was acting,” Rukia looked smugly at Ichigo, “I would never sell out my dear friend, Kurosaki!”

Somehow, neither Kaede nor Ichigo were buying that today, and Kaede could see it in Ichigo’s shoulders.

 “You were pretty good too, Kaede,” Mizuiro praised her over his shoulder, “Where’d you learn that stuff?”

“Oh, that?” Kaede shrugged, “Internet. As for the panache, I played a lot of Phoenix Wright as a kid.”

“It’s such a shame though,” Tatsuki stretched languidly, “If I’d known they were going to get mad at me anyways, I would have done something wild to get on TV. Oh! Maybe I could have been scouted as a singer!”

“Yeah right, the host would have just talked over you,” Keigo elbowed Ichigo, “Too bad for you, eh?”

“Y-yeah,” Ichigo muttered, looking somewhat relieved.

“Alright, which tea shop?” Tatsuki called upon them for suggestions, “I’m thinking Sweet Tease.”

“Oh, their red bean cheesecake is so good!” Orihime cried in delight.

“Do they have black sesame?” Kaede clapped.

“Oh, no way!” Ichigo grunted, “Their tea is too sugary. Let’s go to the stand by the clinic.”

“Date’s?” Tatsuki flared, “They don’t do boba! And some of us like sweet! Orihime wants cheesecake!”

Soon, she and Ichigo were bickering, like an old couple. Sometimes it was hard to tell they were old friends, but times like this made it clear.

“Hm, I wonder if I’ll ever bicker with someone like that,” Kaede mumbled.

“You don’t…seem like you’d enjoy that,” Chad said.

“You’re right, but bickering is necessary in a healthy relationship,” Kaede suddenly frowned, “Though, my twice-divorced mother was the one who told me that, so… Maybe she meant conflict? Like, healthy conflict?”

That earned her a chuckle. Kaede smiled.

“For a guy who was threatened with suspension, you look pretty happy,” she giggled, “Are you secretly some bad boy who likes leather jackets, motorcycles, and living on the edge?”

Chad flushed, and looked pointedly away. Kaede mock gasped. It didn’t surprise her, but he looked so embarrassed. She couldn’t resist the urge to tease him.

“Oh no, not my soft, sweet boy, who love small animals and children’s shows,” she clapped her cheeks, “First tattoos, fighting, and now this? My poor heart!”

She grabbed her chest, miming something between a heart attack and a stroke. Unfortunately, her joking caused her to miss a step. As soon as she started to fall, Chad caught her hand with ease. She hadn’t even had time to scream, and he had righted her again. Now she was blushing.

“And he rescues damsels?” Kaede was trying to hide behind humour, “How is there not a line-up every time I wanna see you?”

As if his face couldn’t get any warmer. He was suddenly, painfully aware he was still holding her hand. Kaede seemed to notice too, and didn’t pull away. Until Ichigo had turned and taken out his phone.

“I’m sending this to Dad, Kaede,” he smirked.

Oh no. Kaede raced forwards, tackling into Ichigo at the bottom of the steps. She tried to grab the cellphone, however, her cousin was just a little bit longer and stronger. She couldn’t get it.

“Give it here!” she jumped on his back, which barely phased him.

“Nope, sorry, big brother rules, must rat you out at least once a week.”

“Give me the phone!”

Chapter Text

First semester finals seemed to sneak up on everyone. One minute, you’re cutting class for tea, the next, you’re elbow deep in calculus that you just can’t understand. Their weekly routine had been entirely disrupted; Chad and Kaede spent every night studying the week before. What was once reserved for Tuesday, ate into their weekend too. It was Sunday night, and Kaede still didn’t understand how she was getting her equations wrong. Chad didn’t get it either.

“You’re doing this right…” he muttered, looking it over with keen eyes, “The work is correct. So why do we have completely different answers?”

They’d done the practice test over with a calculator to check their answeres. He was right, but Kaede was off on some other planet.

“Goddamn it!” Kaede growled, slumping onto her table in defeat, “I just don’t get it. I give up. Leave me to die.”

Chad patted her on the head, in a “there, there” motion.

“I thought you were doing alright in math,” he said.

“So did I,” she grumbled into the pages, “But it’s no use!”

“Your geometry section looks good.”

“Like that’s going to save me!”

She only looked up when Chad slid something across the table to her. Her emergency bowl of chocolate chips. Kaede frowned at it before grabbing a handful. The slow ingestion of deliciousness helped.

 


 

By the end of exam week, the past month felt like a complete blur. The following Friday, Kaede and Chad were still dead. They barely managed to trudge to school. They were crossing the main yard of campus, when Kaede noticed she was suddenly alone. She turned around in a full circle, looking for her companion.

“Chad?”

Chad had stopped, looking up into the windows for their building. Kaede followed his gaze, and could not believe her eyes. Someone was up there, looking right back at Chad. His dark hair and glasses looked familiar. When he noticed Kaede was staring as well, the man turned and continued down the hall. It came to her when she saw his back.

“Hey, isn’t that…? Oh!” Kaede remembered now, “The guy who sits in front of me!”

She knew him, vaguely. No clue what his name was, but she knew he was in Arts and Crafts Club.

“He’s been following you on and off for the last month,” Chad told her.

“Well, we are in the same club, Chad.”

“Following like…someone who doesn’t want you to see them.”

Now that did sound odd. She had noticed that he almost always came in late, and that his attendance was a bit spotty. Besides, Chad wouldn’t say something like that unless he was certain.

“Is he following anyone else?” she asked.

“You, Rukia, Ichigo… I’ve caught him following me too. He knows I’m on to him now though.”

Kaede scowled. Though she wondered how Chad had picked up on it, she was hardly surprised he was the first to notice. He was more perceptive than he got credit for.

“What a creep,” she spat, “Come on, let’s go. I’m not in the mood to give him an eyeful.”

Kaede took off back towards the school. Maybe she could cozy up to him in class. Figure out what his deal is.

“Wait, Kaede.”

Chad’s voice stopped her. She turned to see him looking unusually serious.

“Be careful,” he told her, “He...gives me a bad vibe.”

 

At the end of the day, everyone took their turns gathering around the scoreboard on the first-year floor. Other classes were there, but Kaede really only cared about one name in the moment. As she headed towards the small crowd, she saw Keigo nearly shivering as he shook Mizuiro. Chad stood with them, clearly lost on how to stop the madness.

“That’s promising,” Kaede muttered.

She elbowed her way towards the front of the crowd, clearing more and more people as she went. She started at the lowest scores, scanning the names.

“Okay, I’m not dead last, so that’s a bonus,” she shimmied along the wall, “Kay, I’m out of the two hundreds…one hundreds….”

She paused. She hadn’t seen herself yet, and she was at the top fifty. There had to be some mistake; she’d taken that math portion in a daze. But it seemed she had to be in the top forty, thirty (there was Ichigo), twenty…

“Chad,” she called over her shoulder, “Chad, I found you!”

She’d probably missed her own name somewhere, she was convinced. It seemed Chad had left Keigo’s side, since he was soon right behind her. He reached his arm around her, scanning his way up from around twenty-five. He found his name, at number eleven, then continued up. He stopped at the top of the chart.

“Second place.”

He sounded like he was smiling.

“What?”

Kaede squinted. “Rank 2, Saito K., Class 3, 892”. It couldn’t be, but it was. She’d tied with Ryou. Chad pet her head like a puppy.

“Good work,” he said.

Ichigo was soon beside them, nudging her with his elbow.

“Who said you could be so smart?” he teased, “You’re normally so spacey.”

“No way. Absolutely not. There’s no way that’s my score,” Kaede was talking rapidly to herself, “I flunked! It’s a typo; I failed math. I need to talk to someone because I definitely failed math.”

“I guess not. The calculus section was worth eight points though,” Ichigo laughed, “You probably bombed that.”

That made sense. She still couldn’t believe it. She looked closer, seeing who else had ranked with her. Orihime had come in third, and first place was some guy named Ishida.

“Do you guys know number one?” Kaede asked, “I feel like I know that name.”

Chad and Ichigo just shrugged, like a perfectly timed performance, before heading back to Keigo and Mizuiro. Kaede spotted Tatsuki, Orihime, Michiru, and Chizuru out of her periphery, likely on their way to the board.

“Guys, guys!” Kaede waved, “Over here! Orihime ranked in the top three!”

They joined her by the board, and Kaede pointed to Orihime’s name. Tatsuki didn’t even look before the praise began.

“Hooooooooooooooh,” Tatsuki grinned, petting Orihime’s head, “Third place, huh? You did great as usual.”

Kaede had a feeling she’d already seen the board.

“No way! Orihime is that smart?” Michiru cried.

“She really doesn’t look it, does she?” Tatsuki pointed at Orihime, “But ever since middle school, this kid could really study.”

“Okay, but let’s talk about our Miss Kaede!” Chizuru pulled Kaede in for a bear hug, “You tied with Ryou for second!”

“Wow, really?” Michiru gasped, “You must be really smart, Kaede.”

“O-oh, not really,” Kaede blushed, “I definitely bombed the calculus section. I’ll probably drop as the years go on. Besides, Ryou’s so much busier than me, so she’s the impressive one.”

The other nodded.

“She’s got brains and brawn,” Orihime smiled.

“She was also our freshmen rep for the entrance ceremony,” Tatsuki told Kaede.

“Really?” Kaede was beyond impressed, “I’m such a lucky friend.”

Chizuru gave Kaede’s head a little pet before releasing her.

“Her track team is going to nationals this year too,” she said.

“That’s impressive,” Michiru murmured.

“I’m going to nationals too this year,” Tatsuki announced.

That surprised everyone except Orihime. Tatsuki pointed at herself.

“Didn’t I tell you guys? I won the May competition in Tokyo,” she grinned, “The Karate Club is great this year! The boys are going too! After all, I, the girls who will win three consecutive national championships, have joined!”

Kaede was so impressed. She gazed at Tatsuki with complete adoration. Soon though, the picture of her buff friend, shining with confidence, was spoiled. By none other than Keigo. He nudged his way over, knocking into Kaede as he went. She turned to berate him, but Keigo was paying attention to something intently, for once. He scanned the top fifty, before a wild look came over his face.

“Once again, no traitors made it to the top fifty,” he decreed.

“It’s as you say, Captain,” Mizuiro nodded, coming up behind him.

What? Kaede looked to Ichigo and Chad behind them, perplexed as anything. Ichigo just scowled, tapping his foot, like he was waiting for something. Keigo suddenly recoiled, yelping.

“Avert your eyes, Comrade Kojima,” Keigo covered Mizuiro’s face, “Reality is cruel and vulgar! It’s too much for our naïve hearts!”

“Y-yes, Captain Asano!” Mizuiro saluted him blindly.

“What are you two talking about?” Kaede asked.

“We’re just not inviting Ichigo to playtime anymore,” Keigo snivelled childishly.

“Because he ranked twenty-third?”

“Exactly! We’re brothers in stupidity!” Keigo clapped Chad on the shoulder, “Right Chad?”

Kaede pulled her lips between her teeth all at once, trying not to laugh. As she slowly died, snickering into her hands, Chad pointed at his ranking on the board. Keigo and Mizuiro both screamed at once.

“Both of you?! What is this?!” Keigo cried, “I didn’t think you two were such devils!”

Kaede had to lean against the wall, unable to contain herself at their faces. She laughed, long and loud, pointing at Keigo and Mizuiro. Keigo was not impressed.

“What’s so funny?”

All Kaede could do was tap the scoreboard again, pointing to the top. She knew when Keigo saw it, because his face went red.

“This is all your fault!” he hissed, “Witch! Temptress! Demon! Book-smart Demon-Witch-Temptress!!”

Kaede just howled with laughter. She was in tears. She slid down to the floor, clutching her chest, trying and failing to stop. It was too funny. Chizuru had to pull her off the floor, and it took a couple of tries. She needed to calm down first. Meanwhile, Keigo fled down the hall, dragging Mizuiro with him.

“I’m never talking to any of you again!”

“So noisy,” Tatsuki huffed.

Ichigo couldn’t care less what Keigo was yelling about though. He was staring down the hall, muttering to himself. Orihime noticed, walking right up behind him. She was so tiny; Kaede forgot until Orihime stood next to someone like tall Ichigo. Or her. Though he cousin must have grown, because she had to look up a little now.

“Are you talking about Ishida?” Orihime asked him.

Ichigo jumped, clearly knocked from a daze. He turned on her, wide-eyed.

“Inoue,” he looked surprised, “You know Ishida?”

“I know all about him,” Orihime said slowly, “He’s in our class.”

Ichigo pulled a face, but Orihime didn’t notice.

“See, look, Uryu Ishida,” she pointed to the scoreboard.

There it was, next to his name. "Class 3".

“Oh yeah!” Kaede cried, “That’s how I know him!”

“You too?”

“Yeah, we’re all in the same class,” Orihime smiled.

She was repeating herself, but Ichigo still wasn't getting it. He didn’t respond, looking more irritated than he had when he was mumbling.

“Don’t bother, Orihime,” Tatsuki commented slyly, “That guy is not good with names or faces. He probably doesn’t even remember half the class.”

Kaede hoped that wasn’t genetic, because she couldn’t remember half the class either.

“Well, Ishida doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t stand out like Kurosaki’s group,” Orihime was trying to be gentle, “So, he might be hard to remember.”

“You know him pretty well, Inoue,” Ichigo said.

“Not at all! We’re just in Arts and Crafts Club together!” she clapped her hands together, “Kaede knows him too, right?”

When Ichigo turned his eyes on her, Kaede just shrugged. She knew he was in the club, but to hear Orihime had gotten to know him so well made Kaede feel extra spacey. Orihime and Ichigo headed towards the door, and started talking. Kaede felt Chad’s hand on her shoulder. He was showing her his watch. 2:40pm.

“Ah, shit,” Kaede turned to leave, “Bye everyone, we’ve gotta go!”

“Where?” Chizuru asked.

“Beats me,” Kaede shrugged, running off with Chad, “Bye!”

 

Kaede really wished that Chad hadn’t been so instantaneous on taking her to hang out with other people outside of their usual social circle. Two phone checks into their hangout time the night before, and he’d asked Kaede if she’d like to meet his other friends for an after-school jam session. At first, Kaede had thought they would be nice, normal people, like Chad. But it seemed that was not to be her fate.

“Are you sure I’ll even like these guys?” Kaede asked her big friend, “I mean, I know I asked you to introduce me to people outside of school. But the guy who knocks on your door, plastered, asking for money, and the weirdo who smells like grilled cheese are not who I had in mind.”

Chad paused for a moment, readjusting the strap for his bass case on his shoulder.

“Huh. Shigeo does smell like grilled cheese, doesn’t he?” Chad reflected.

“You are missing the point,” Kaede shot back.

Kaede and Chad were walking the downtown of Karakura to meet Harutoki and Shigeo, for a late lunch before hanging out. They’d barely had time to change and grab their instruments. This was something Chad had done with them every Friday, since classes ended at 2:30 and the lunch specials ended at 3:30.

As they strolled about, Kaede was utterly unnerved by the stares they were getting. It was a bit of a relief to know most of the people were staring at Chad. He was quite attention grabbing.

“Look at that young man,” one woman gawked as they were waiting for the cross light.

“I know,” one of her friends shot back, “He looks like a foreign model. I wonder if he does any sports issues.”

Sports issues?

Kaede couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of Chad posing for the camera in a swimsuit. She was barely able to get a non-awkward picture of him when they hung out. Though that was probably due to his propensity for giving the camera a “thumbs up”. She cast her eyes up at him very briefly.

Kaede was certain if Chad got a haircut occasionally, the girls would be all over him. Her friend was hot. Like, really hot. He made Kaede look like a wallflower, which Kaede appreciated greatly. One thing about hanging out with someone as good-looking as Chad was that nobody noticed you, and as a tall, busty girl, Kaede longed not to be noticed as often as she was.

“You two didn’t know?” the third woman muttered back, drawing Kaede from her admiring, “He’s that half thug who can lift a whole car over his head. He’s terrifying. I was walking home when he was involved in that pileup. Had the least injuries, and he was the only one not in a vehicle. I saw him push a whole van right off himself like it was nothing.”

That was a lie. Kaede had been there; he’d almost died. She'd probably been on of the people who ran away. They just kept going though.

“Oh wow, can you imagine?”

“I know, how terrifying! What a scary person.”

“He goes to school with my son. Apparently, he’s some gang banger or something like that.”

“It’s like my husband always says; they come from all over the world just to make trouble.”

Suddenly, the crossing light signaled “walk”, and the three women scurried away, giving them the side eye as they went.

What the fuck had just happened?

In the sea of people that pushed past and around them, Kaede looked up at Chad. He just stared forwards as if he had heard nothing. But Kaede knew better.

“It may not piss you off,” she hissed, clenching her tiny fists around her case strap, “but that shit rots my fucking insides.”

Chad started walking, and Kaede chased right after him. When she caught up with him, and he slowed to match her step, Kaede could have sworn he looked a little less tense than he had a minute ago. She decided it would be best if she pretended not to notice.

They could soon spy two familiar faces in the crowd. Vaguely familiar, mind you. Shigeo and Harutoki were two people Kaede had not wanted to see again, and she supposed her brain had tried to erase their faces. Who had the balls to stumble into a friend’s apartment drunk and begging for money?

“Yo, Chad!” Shigeo called, “What took you so long?”

Harutoki caught sight of them and waved. Kaede picked up her hand with great effort to give a pointed wave in return. Chad shook his head a bit. Kaede would get used to them, he supposed.  She had asked him about meeting people, and these, he had to admit, were really the only people he would ever see, outside of Ichigo and the guys from school regularly. Most of the other people he met tended to take offense to him, but Shigeo and Harutoki were a bit different. They had introduced themselves right away, and always shown Chad friendship. Even if they did act like slobbering monkeys sometimes.

“Well, would you look who it is,” Shigeo eyed Kaede from head to toe and back again, “Miss Kaede Saito has finally decided to join us. The fine city girl wants to dine with some real, working men.”

Kaede immediately decided she disliked his gaze, and shuffled back a bit. This was totally different from when they’d been drunk on the floor. In spite of herself, she regretted wearing a sundress, even though the weather was getting unbearable. She covered herself with her arms as best she could.

“Aw, come on, Little Miss Saito,” Harutoki cooed, emphasizing “little” like it was a joke, “We don’t bite.”

Now that was a side of them Chad had never seen before. Though, granted, he’d never really paid attention to the way they acted around women before.

“Do you two always talk to girls like that?” he asked them.

The two meatheads seemed more confused by the question than anything else, nodding their heads dumbly.

Chad immediately put a hand on Kaede’s shoulder and steered her off in another direction, into the crowds and away from the two dropouts.  He shot a hand up in the air with a half-hearted wave, not even looking back.

“Wait, where are you guys going?” Shigeo called out after them.

“Somewhere else,” Chad muttered just loud enough for Kaede to hear, taking her guitar case from her shoulder, “Sorry.”

Kaede was still surprised by their immediate departure, and was just allowing herself to be herded and unloaded. Chad took her silence differently though.

“I had no idea they would behave like that,” he continued, “I’ve never seen them around girls before. We can go back home and make something. …Or I can cover lunch as an apology. …Or-.”

Kaede giggled then, which made him stop dead in his tracks. She couldn’t help it. Chad was rambling. Well, as much as it seemed Chad could ramble. He was always so calm and cool. He never said more than he needed to. He never got flustered like this. Her expression made him nervous.

“What is it?” he asked.

Kaede giggled again.

“You’re rambling!”

Chad’s eyebrows knit themselves together, and he looked a little insulted. It made Kaede’s entire heart fill with glee, and it poured out on to her face.

“It’s just, I think that’s the most you’ve ever said to me in one go,” Kaede shrugged a bit.

Chad was just staring dumbly now, completely lost. Had he sounded stupid?

“You’ve made me really happy,” she smiled, “I hope you’ll keep talking to me like that. If we’re going to keep being good friends, I’d like to know about the things that trouble you. Even the little ones.”

Chad felt his cheeks getting hot, and his throat closing. He wanted to stand tall, but his eyes soon found his sneakers. Kaede tried to find his gaze again, stooping her head to see underneath his hair, but he wouldn’t let her. For all the fights he’d been in, with gangs of guys almost as big as he was, nothing scared him more than Kaede seeing his face right now.

Except for the large rumbling that sounded right next to them. Before either of them could react, the main floor windows of the building they had stopped in front of exploded forwards. Kaede was blown off her feet, and into a bus bench. She felt her head smack against the back side of it, and her eyes watered with the pain. She was amazed the only thing that hurt was her head, given all the glass she could hear skittering across the pavement.

When she opened her watery eyes, she saw that Chad had thrown himself over her, using the instruments to shield them both. Though that was all she saw before her vision began to slide in and out of focus.

“Kaede,” she heard Chad calling her, but he sounded so far away.

Kaede’s eyes turned towards the sky, and she could have sworn she saw something up there. It was a big black cloud in the sky, over the block they were on. It looked like the atmosphere had been ripped open, revealing the blackness of space. A couple of blinks didn’t make it go away either.

“Chad,” Kaede stopped to cough out the dust in her throat, “Chad, what is that?”

Chad followed her gaze, and he stared at the sky for a moment. When he looked down at Kaede, he didn’t even look a little bit panicked.

“You see it too?”

Chapter Text

Another crash shook the square. That’s when people started screaming. Soon, the whole area erupted into chaos. Chad slowly pulled Kaede to her feet, people knocking into them in blind panic. Once they were finally up, Chad allowed Kaede to use him as a crutch. She looked pale and confused.

“Chad!” a voice called out amongst the chorus of shouts and hollers.

It was Shigeo. He and Harutoki were pushing towards them through the crowd. They must have come looking for them. When the two reached them, one look at Kaede made them hysterical.

“What happened?!” Harutoki cried, “Kaede, are you alright?”

“Oh man, this isn’t good,” Shigeo tried to hold back the crowds from them, “We need to get out of here!”

A mighty roar blasted through the square. Chad placed his arm around Kaede’s shoulder, pulling her in tight to his side. He could feel her shivering. He knew she heard it too.

“What was that?” Kaede murmured.

“I don’t know,” Harutoki said, “You guys think it was a gas explosion; a bomb?”

“Well, they did get blown back, but there was no fire,” Shigeo mused.

Kaede and Chad exchanged glances. They weren’t surprised, but they couldn’t be the only ones who’d heard it. All these people had to still be running for a reason. But when Kaede looked around, no one was running anymore. The local beat force had already gathered people to the opposite end of the street, but otherwise, all was quiet. An officer was making his way towards them.

“Are you kids alright? You need to get clear of the area,” he called before rushing past them towards other pedestrians.

Kaede, Shigeo, and Harutoki started to move, but Chad stayed in place. When Kaede looked up, she saw him staring at the black tear, a foreboding look on his face. Kaede followed his gaze, and she felt it too. It definitely wasn’t smoke; the clouds moved around it with the breeze, but the tear remained stagnant.

“What is it?” she asked him.

“I don’t know,” Chad looked back at her, “But I have a bad feeling about this.”

Kaede nodded in agreement. This feeling was familiar, but she couldn’t place its origins. It was almost like a Hollow.

Kaede hissed as something inside her skull pulsed with pain. Chad tore his eyes from the sky.

“Look at me,” he told her.

Kaede did, and found her head was pounding harder. Something wasn’t right; it wasn’t even the spot where she had hit her head. Chad’s frown grew even deeper.

“One of your pupils is dilated,” he said, “Let Shigeo and Harutoki take you to the doctor; you might have a concussion. A bad one.”

“Where are you going?”

Before Chad could reply, another explosion came from the dead center of the road in front of them. Kaede, Shigeo, and Harutoki hit the dirt. The impact barely phased Chad. He just stared off into the cloud of rubble, frozen like a deer in the headlights.

At first, Kaede thought he was caught off guard, but his muscles remained coiled long after the dust had settled. He looked towards the remaining crater in the pavement. Chad slowly crouched more to their level. He passed Kaede the instruments before standing again, his eyes never leaving that same spot. Kaede followed his gaze, squinting. There, just barely, she could see it. It was as if the movement of the landscape changed at a certain point, simmering through something she could feel more than see. Another Hollow. Every time she saw one, her vision was always back to square one. She couldn’t make out anything besides a mass of shimmering air.

Why is this my life?

Shigeo and Harutoki stood with Chad, and Kaede moved to join them, but the movement of Chad’s hand caught her eye. He signaled her to stay down.

“Hey, Chad, are you alright?” Shigeo asked, putting a hand on Chad’s shoulder.

“Let’s get out of here,” Harutoki encouraged him, “This block is going up all over the place!”

Without a breath of warning, the shimmer in the air shot towards them. Chad pushed Shigeo and Harutoki out of the way, and dodged low, pulling Kaede with him. Another crash shook the place they had stood, and when the dust settled, Kaede was horrified. Their guitars, the bus bench, the concrete outdoor planters; they had all been crushed to rubble. She had been sitting right there.

Chad pulled her up with ease.

“Shigeo, Harutoki, run!” he called to them.

At his call, the shimmer turned on him and Kaede. Chad moved away from her slowly, and its gaze followed him. That was a small relief; it meant he could draw it away. Chad ran towards it.

“SADO!” Kaede screamed involuntarily.

The shimmer swung at him, knocking the entire awning off the already windowless building, and into the next storefront. But Chad dropped, sliding under the attack. He sprinted off, out of the downtown square.

“Get out of here!” he ordered as he fled.

 The Hollow seemed to weigh its options between Kaede and Chad. It chose him, and gave chase. Kaede had never seen one in such a crowded place before. What was happening? Where was Chad going?

Kaede looked around in a panic. The mayhem in the square had resumed, with cops and civilians alike running around in a shrieking pandemonium. Kaede tried to spot Shigeo and Harutoki, but they were already gone. She had been abandoned. People who were evacuating the restaurants and office buildings began to slam past her in a rush. Kaede fought her way against them, trying to push forwards in the direction Chad had fled. Something inside her was stirring. Apprehension? Panic?

Fear.

She couldn’t leave him.

Kaede made her way down the far street and bolted around the corner, heading straight down the walkway Chad had turned on to. Shop stands lined the pedestrian side street, none of which had been disturbed, so there was nowhere to go but straight. Kaede made it to the end of the shopping blocks, then hit an all-way stop. There were three directions Chad could have gone in. The one headed back to the downtown seemed most unlikely; whatever that thing was up to, Chad wouldn’t want to draw it into a crowd. That meant he either went straight, or turned left.

Kaede cursed to herself. She’d been using Chad and Ichigo to get around this god-forsaken town for the past four months; she had no idea which way Chad may have gone from there. Hell, she didn’t even know where she was!

Another large explosion rang out, down the empty street ahead of her. Without a thought, Kaede sprinted towards it. She reached the cloud of dust just as it was beginning to clear.

“Chad?!” she cried out.

There was nothing there but a ruined wall and a knocked down streetlamp. Kaede growled under her breathe; this was wasting her time. She turned to leave, but froze. She could feel, ever so slightly, hot breath trailing down her neck. Something about the air around her was strange. It made her afraid to turn around. There came a whisper in her ear.

Kaede

Kaede whipped around. She saw nothing. It was silent as death on that street. There wasn’t even a bug moving in the shrubs on the sidewalk.

“Hello?” she murmured, “Is anyone there?”

Kaede, the whisper came again, Kaede…

Kaede strained her senses, reaching out to that otherworldly voice. It was trying to tell her something. The longer she waited, the more she felt a hostile energy encircling her.

She knew that voice. It was familiar.

I found you.

Just as that message came in loud and clear, Kaede was knocked into the pavement. She picked herself up, and heard a resounding rip. Something had caught her skirt, but when she looked, there was nothing there. The bottom of her dress was caught, on thin air. She jumped back, and something pierced along her thigh. Looking down, she saw that she had been slashed multiple times, fortunately quite shallowly. A vibration, growling, reverberated against her ears.

“The wolf…”

There was no time to feel pain, and there was no time to consult logic. Kaede did what anyone in that situation might do.

She turned and ran like hell.

Sprinting back towards the all-way, Kaede took the earlier neglected turn. She could hear things crashing behind her. As she rounded another corner, she saw something flying at her out of the corner of her eye. She hit the dirt, and watched as an entire car sailed right over her head and into the pavement.

“HOLY FUCK!”

She screamed out, racing down the street. The terrifying sounds from behind her only grew louder, the longer and harder she ran. It followed her through every side street, every last-second turn, every red-light intersection she bolted through. Nothing was going to stop this thing.

Kaede could soon see the familiar streets leading up to her high school, and was relieved. There were clubs happening this time of day. She could hide. How had she even escaped it last time? For it to be here meant that Ichigo had failed to kill it on the night of the first attack.

She raced around to the back of the school. Thankfully, no sports ran on Fridays, except karate. That was on the other side of the campus though, so she didn’t have to worry about others getting caught up. She made a break for the outdoor supply closet, but one of the bleachers suddenly crashed down in front of her. She turned, barely keeping her footing, and changed direction for the school. Her panic only grew as yet another bleacher was tossed across her path.

It was hopeless! She had no idea why it always came back for her, chasing her around the baseball field, but the tears in her leg told her it would mean the end of her if she were caught. The dark energy she had felt so pressingly only grew closer with every moment, and more chillingly gleeful. The wolf was enjoying this. It was a game of cat and mouse, only she couldn’t see the cat yet. Kaede knew she was cornered, and she refused to give it the satisfaction of running her down.

She would have to face it.

She turned herself in the direction the bleacher had sprung from, and glared right at that shifting haze. This thing had been hunting her for years, and someone had always been there to make it leave. Her mother, Ichigo; even Chad had stepped in. Because she’d been too afraid to finish it herself. She planted her feet, ready to fight.

“I am not going to run from you!” she cried out in defiance, “You and I are going to finish this! So, come on!

I am not afraid of you!

Something clicked. A jolt flowed through her feet at her sudden bravery. Kaede was stunned by it momentarily, and looked down at her shoes. A flash of blue light flickered into the soles of her flats, and Kaede couldn’t look away. The wolf-like Hollow licked its lips and cackled, taking the opportunity to crouch low to the ground. It was preparing to pounce.

The mere buzzing Kaede had somethings felt, that flowed from odd places all around her, was now pulsing through her, springing up her legs, rushing through her bloodstream, and into every crevice of her body. Down her fingers, through her chest, out her mouth and eyes, blooming into her ears. She couldn’t believe what was happening, as the extreme feelings of energy and release brought on tears. She had not felt so empty of heartache in years.

The Hollow in pursuit of her was anxious to make this kill. He’d chased her for years, and now, she had no one to protect her. Kaede had no idea what was in store for her at that moment. It dashed in for the kill, jaws wide.

YOU’RE MINE!

Kaede’s mind barely registered a shadow coming towards her before a spark jumped from her fingertips, and something inside her perceived a threat. Almost instinctively, Kaede thrust her arms before her, and flames the colour of the sea burst from her hands.

The Hollow reared back with a great and mighty howl, fleeing the fire that soon spanned the length of the field. When the blast settled, and filtered away, two large streaks of the track field were burnt to a crisp. Kaede opened her eyes, and looked around in blatant confusion. Her eyes trailed to ground, wide and uncertain.

“What the…?” she murmured, her hands shaking from the adrenaline.

This time the tears that came were tears of distress.

“What’s going on?” Kaede’s voice wavered.

She had blacked out for a second there, when the fire had come to her aid. She looked at the two ditches she had managed to carve out, with just a reflex. How had she done that? She felt a tug in her chest, and followed it. A ball of fire appeared in her palm. It was blue, like the fire of folk creatures and demons. The fireball in her hand wisped and wavered. One thought, and she made it go away, just as easily as she had formed it. Another one. This time, she made it bigger, then smaller. It shaped itself to her will. It was as natural to her as breathing.

When the Hollow was certain the flames had dissipated, it rolled back onto its hind legs. It scented the air briefly, and saliva began to drip from its jaws. She was more powerful now. Long claws began to sprout from its feet, and its fangs grew even longer.

My pretty little Kaede,” it muttered madly, “My pretty maple smells like maple and heaven. Such a pretty spirit will make me so strong, oh so strong and fierce my pretty, pretty Kaede…

It continued its sick, lustful chant, heckles rising and a great tongue beginning to loll out of his mouth. Kaede could hear it now, which meant she’d be able to see it even better soon. She was overcome with an eerie calm, for someone who was facing down her long-time pursuer. The blue sparks danced between her fingers, and the florescent electrical currents flowed freely from the ground. They popped and sputtered, but were increasing in speed and frequency. She wasn’t just calm; she was focusing her newfound energy.

Kaede gazed out around the field before a shimmer caught her eye. The sparks that tickled her fingertips felt like an extension of her hands, and she began to rub her fingers together like they were soft flint strikers. Blessed heat flared up between them, and it made her wild with excitement. A blue flash passed over her eyes, and this time, she wouldn’t back down. She wondered if she could throw it. No harm in trying.

The Hollow charged again, and Kaede threw a small blast of fire, that took off towards the beast. It barely missed, but that didn’t stop her from firing off fireball after fireball. The Hollow continued dodging the blasts, but Kaede didn’t let up. Eventually, she managed to strike the shoulder. Down the Hollow went in a cloud of dust.

“Yes!” Kaede exclaimed, jumping up with excitement as she fired a final fireball.

The Hollow was quick to dodge though, and soon Kaede was knocked from her feet. A sick, agonizing snap came to her attention as the air was forced from her lungs. The pain in her right side was crushing, and her body could find no air. That thing had broken her ribs. Her every exhale was accompanied by a sobbing scream. Kaede had never felt such pain in her life. Something inside of her broke then, like a chain ripped to open links. Her vision was fogged by tears, but, in an instant, the world had become so much clearer.

Particularly when it came to the black creature in a wolf mask that loomed over her, saliva dripping from its maw. She was in her body this time, and she could see it perfectly. No ripples, no squinting. Clear as day.

Kaede only processed what she was looking at for an instant before that great wolf head came shooting towards her. She curled her legs and arms up above her in a rush of adrenaline. Kaede just barely managed a stable grip on the primary canines, and footing on the lower teeth. A growl left her lips, as she pushed back with all her might, and somehow kept the creature at bay.

The wolf Hollow’s tongue lolled out of its jaws and wrapped around Kaede's wounded thigh. Kaede felt her limbs nearly buckle at the sickening sensation, and the creature was even closer to her.

Do I have to have my feet planted to draw on that energy? she wondered.

Kaede was quick to slip into focus again. She found that her hands didn’t even have to move or rub to produce the now telltale heat.  Which meant an easy blast. As she gathered herself for a full inferno, the Hollow pushed down on her harder and harder. The dirt under her was being displaced by sheer force, and Kaede’s right side shrieked at her with every passing instant.

The scream she gave then wasn’t human by any stretch. It was something else entirely; it had to be. It was so guttural and primal, it couldn’t belong to her. Kaede’s hands glowed the blue of her fire as it flared up between her and the wolf, creating a bright blue column that nearly reached into the heavens. A blinding flash.

When the light cleared, the only thing left of the Hollow was its ashes. Those soon blew away, into nothingness.

Kaede lay on the ground, limbs still curled. She felt like road kill. The blood from the wound on her leg was everywhere. She finally forced her limbs down, thoroughly exhausted. She tried to sit up, but her rib felt like it was stabbing her in the lung. She looked up at the sky, and for the first time in her memory, it was brighter than ever before. It started fading from her sight, and fast.

The blood loss was catching up with her. Her head felt light and detached. She rolled over, trying to push herself up. She had to get up. She had to find her friend. Her arms buckled, and down she went. She heard a stranger’s voice.

“I wouldn’t recommend getting up. You’ve made quite a mess here, young lady.”

Those were the last word Kaede heard, before she slipped into total darkness.

 

“Kaede, I’m going to tell you a story.”

A six-year-old Kaede lay in her bed, in the room she shared with her younger sister. It was just until her mother finished painting Mayu’s room the baby blue she wanted. Kaede had been perfectly fine with the white walls of the condo, though had asked her mother for a temporary wallpaper with trees on it. She would get her wish three weeks later.

“Is this the one about the two ogres? Because it only works if Mayu thinks she’s the blue ogre.”

It was a story her mother told to get Kaede and Mayu to get along. But Mayu wasn’t there. How strange. Kaede didn’t even need to look to be able to tell.

“No, sweetheart,” her mother laughed, “It’s a story just for you. About a princess, and a monster.”

“Beauty and the Beast?” the little Kaede lost all interest at the notion of a vocal retelling, “It’s okay, Mommy. We can watch it tomorrow. Goodnight.”

The little girl rolled over into her blankets, which her mother found exasperating.

“Alright,” Tsukino sighed dramamtically, “I guess you won’t hear about the princess’s daring quests.”

Her daughter’s little head twitched, and soon she was rolled over, giving her mother an expectant look. Tsukino gave her daughter a knowing smile, pulling the cotton sheets up to her chin. It was summer, and Kaede would be starting in a new school soon. Tsukino took a deep breath, like she had been preparing this for weeks.

“Once upon a time, there was a princess, who lived in a grand palace. She was intelligent, polite, and hard-working. She always endeavoured to be the best princess she could be. That meant following certain rules in her father’s kingdom though.

“Rule number 1: Do not speak, unless spoken to. A princess is to be seen, and not heard.”

Kaede’s little nose wrinkled at the thought. Tsukino continued.

“Rule number 2: Excel in your studies. Know what you must about the rules and principles of government, but devote all other time to womanly tasks. Learn the arts of tea, poetry, calligraphy, music, dance, and floral arrangement. Rule number 3: Never leave the castle grounds.

“The princess did her best to follow the rules, but found them stifling. In secret, she learned the art of the sword, spoke with abandon to her personal attendants, and made sure to study medicine as well as arts. She soon grew into a beautiful young woman, as wise and fair as any emperor. She was the picture of grace, and all her people loved her. Her father was pleased, and soon began to search for a husband for his daughter. However, no man met the lord’s standards.

“The princess was grateful for her father’s harshness, for she did not love a single man who came to the palace. They were too old, too cold, too cruel for her. And so, each night, she would sit on her balcony, and play her shamisen. She sang sad songs, full of hopes and wishes, to be carried away from that place. Little did she know, that someone had heard her wishes and prayers.

“A demon, of fair face and great power, had heard the princess singing, and fell in love with her. He had listened to her sing for many a night, and watched her during the day, disguised as a fox from the mountains. And one night, as she sang on her terrace, he revealed himself to her.”

“Wasn’t she scared?” Kaede asked her mother.

“At first,” Tsukino replied, “But this demon was kind. He brought her wisteria sprigs, and did not ask her to be silent, obedient, or dutiful. He only asked that she tell him of her hopes, and her dreams. Her fears, and her doubts. Night after night, he came, bringing flowers and conversation. Soon, the princess fell in love with the demon.

“But loving him would prove to be a terrible curse.”

When Kaede awoke, she was no longer laying in the dirt of the school baseball diamond. Her eyes were greeted by a tile ceiling, and, amazingly, a total lack of pain. She frowned, raising a hand to poke her side. Her ribs were fine. Her leg didn’t hurt either. She sat up and started looking around, only to see Chad sitting next to her. He’d just been sitting there, cross-legged, waiting for her to see him.

“You were dreaming.”

The last time Kaede had seen him, he was being chased by a Hollow. She’d gone after him. Kaede was quickly on her knees, checking him over. But he was alright. He looked more than alright. He looked well-rested. He seemed to be checking her over too.

“Y-you’re okay?” she asked, “Nothing hurts?”

Chad shook his head. No, he was fine. Kaede breathed a sigh of relief, before grabbing the collar of his shirt with both hands.

“Then what the hell were you thinking?!” she shook him, “How could you?! How dare you?!”

“I thought-.”

“That I’d be safer?! HAH! NO!” Kaede huffed, “Shigeo and Harutoki ditched me as soon as you took off! And I followed you! Like an idiot!

She’d barely rocked him, but that didn’t make it any less impactful. It was almost funny; she was so much smaller than him. Kaede just got more distressed though.

“You could have been killed! You said when we’re together, you’re not worried,” she looked him dead in eye, “Don’t you think it’s the same for me?! So start treating me like your fucking teammate!”

Chad was surprised by that, as he usually was by Kaede. She was mad at him for protecting her. He put his right hand over hers. Both fit neatly into his one hand. Kaede seemed confused by the gesture, but he could feel her hands shaking. He wasn’t stupid; something must have happened to her too. He’d been told as much.

He thought back to his fight in the empty lot, and wondered if running off had really been the right choice. He’d thought he could draw the Hollow off, but what if that hadn’t worked? What if it had gone after Kaede? He had thought that lot was the best place to go, but there had been kids playing there. He hadn’t counted on that. He’d barely fought off a Hollow, all while protecting Ichigo’s little sister, Karin. If Kaede had been there, perhaps they could have worked together. She could have gotten Karin out of there. Maybe she wouldn’t have had to fight on her own.

He opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted.

“Ugh! N-no…”

Right. He’d forgotten they weren’t alone. Kaede looked around the room, and spotted a familiar frame with long auburn hair, just a few feet to her left.

“Orihime?”

What was Orihime doing there? She was tossing and turning, talking to herself in her sleep. Kaede thought she heard something about a teddy bear. She released Chad from her iron grip, heading over to her friend.

“Hey, Orihime,” she gently shook her shoulder, “Orihime, wake-.”

I said it’s impossible!

Orihime propelled herself up so fast, she smacked heads with Kaede. Kaede yelped and fell backwards onto the floor, cradling her forehead. Orihime was on her hands and knees, blinking sleepily. Kaede had thought her heart was going to pound out of her chest. When Orihime finished joining the land of the living, she finally spotted the others.

“Oh! Good morning, guys!” she chirped, sitting back on her knees.

“…Morning,” Chad greeted her.

“Why is your head so hard?” Kaede demanded.

Chad came to the rescue though, picking Kaede up from under her arms. She felt like a damn toddler when he did that. At the same time, she probably would have stayed on the floor without him. Once she was sitting upright, he looked down at Orihime.

“You were having quite a nightmare,” he said, sitting down with them, “What was it about?”

“O-oh, I…I can’t say,” Orihime turned bright red, “It’s a secret. A secret…”

Chad and Kaede shared a sideways glance. How embarrassing could it have been? Orihime seemed to notice something all of a sudden.

“Oh! Where are we? This isn’t the school!”

Come to think of it, none of them knew. Kaede hadn’t even taken a good look around whatever room they were in. They’d been dropped on a tatami mat floor, which was a soft, bamboo green. The walls had a wood trim halfway up, changing out for drywall around the wooden windows. A typical mix of old and new, Kaede could only assume they were in someone’s home. A very empty home though; there was no furniture. Only shelves along the far wall.

Just as Kaede was pondering how they got here, a panel door at the other end of the room slid open. A man stepped through, wearing a stripped bucket hat. The hat indoors was odd enough, but he was also dressed in a dark green shihakusho, and a black haori. His bleach blond hair was poking out the bottom of his hat. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in a while, but couldn’t quite grow a beard. He was barefoot, which meant this was his house. Like his home, his appearance seemed a mixture of the traditional, and the modern.

“Ah, I see you’re all awake now,” he walked towards them, crossing his arms casually.

“Who is that?” Orihime whispered to her friends.

“No clue,” Kaede muttered.

“I don’t know him,” Chad said, “But we were saved by him, somehow. He even healed us.”

Kaede and Orihime blinked, before looking back and forth between Chad and the strange man.

“Wait, how long have you been up ahead of us?” Kaede asked.

“Long enough for him to bring you back,” Chad wasn’t looking away from haori man, “Now we’re all up. Please tell us more about what you said earlier. About the reason we developed these strange powers, and…the connection that it has with Ichigo.”

“Kurosaki?” Orihime wondered, “What about him?”

“Well…” the man sat in front of them, crossing his legs, “Where do I start? …What do you kids know about Shinigami?”

Orihime tilted her head in confusion, but Chad and Kaede answered too quickly.

“Nothing,” they said at once.

“…You two are horrible liars,” the man scratched his head, “But I’ll start from the beginning. This isn’t the first time any of you have encountered those things. They’re called Hollows. You each fought one off today. And that’s why all of you have developed special powers, born from within you.”

“Wait, hold on, slow down,” Chad said.

“What’s wrong?” the man smirked, “Can’t you believe me? Or is this all too much?”

“Of course it is!” Orihime cried, “Shinigami, and…Hollows, and such. You can’t say stuff like this, out of the blue, and expect us to just believe you!”

“Do you deny it?” the man argued, “If so, you’ve got the order wrong. Hollows are those monsters with the holes in their chests, the ones that targeted all of you today. To deny their existence is to deny the pain and fear you felt today.”

Kaede could still feel the hot breath of the wolf on her skin. She hugged herself, trying not the shiver. Even now, even dead, it still had the power to make her shake. But, she’d destroyed it. She looked at Orihime and Chad, who seemed deep in thought as well. Kaede wondered what had happened to them today. This man said they had all been attacked.

“Why us though?” Kaede turned back to their host, “What happened that makes us special? By the logic you’ve presented so far, anyone attacked should be like us, but you’ve only brought three people here. What set us apart?”

The man was impressed; this girl was clever. The demon who spat fire. He had seen the tail end of her brawl, been blinded by her light. She was going to be the biggest monster in that room, of that he was certain.

“Ichigo Kurosaki,” he rolled that name around in his mouth like a gumball, “He has uncommon spiritual powers, for a Shinigami. However, he has no skills when it comes to harnessing that power. Therefore, without resolve, it just pours out wildly. That power comes out so strong, it can affect every single soul around him. Which is what happened with you two, and why you were able to fight Hollows off with abilities not normal for humans.”

He pointed at Chad and Orihime, who were both quite surprised. Kaede was even more so. All three of them had taken on one of those things, solo? All three of them were victorious. All three of them had “powers”.

“In each of your pasts, how often was it that you encountered him as a Shinigami?” he said, “You should remember by now. The power you were both born with, when you met him, was pulled from deep inside of you. Your natural power.”

Natural. Which meant that Chad and Orihime would have developed powers regardless, with the right incentive.

“What about me?” Kaede pointed to herself, “I was not included in the Ichigo-induced superpowers.”

“Ah, now you, Firecracker, are a mystery,” the man stood, moving to look out one of the windows, “If you were more like Ichigo, it would make sense, since you’re related.”

“Wait, how do-?”

“However, you aren’t a late bloomer, like him. You were bound.”

“Bound?”

“Under a powerful seal. No telling who put it there. The Shinigami binding spells leave a different reiatsu, but yours was chaos pulled to order,” his gaze slid towards her, “To break it, you must have stressed it. Many times.”

Kaede thought back, to how her spiritual awareness had ebbed and flowed these past couple of months. Like the tide, it would come in, but pull away once the stimulus of a Hollow was gone. Now though, it was like she had been seeing the world through a grey filter. Everything was vibrant and sharp.

“Ichigo and I are so distantly related,” she frowned.

“And your power is totally different. You also have no experience, yet you’ve got greater control than he does, over a seemingly limitless reserve of energy,” the man shrugged, “It’s a mystery.”

Kaede stared down at her hands. Bound. She hadn’t known anything about this. Was she really someone like Ichigo, who had already possessed a great deal of power? Their power was different though. Either way, Orihime seemed to still be processing her own news.

“We came into contact with Ichigo Kurosaki, and our powers were pulled out,” Orihime muttered, before looking panicked, “Wait…I-I’m not sure I get it…”

“It’s all right if you don’t understand. Your transformations are not some disease. You’ve simply been given the key to a door that has appeared before you,” the man said, “If it’s unnecessary to know the cause, then it’s unnecessary to lament one’s fortune. With the key in your hands, it is up to you whether to open that door. It is also up to you to go through or not, if you open it.”

Kaede was convinced he’d practiced his speech. Before anyone could answer him, the panel door slid open once more. A huge man, with a black moustache, opened the door, bowing down. He was wearing an apron with some kind of logo on it; Kaede couldn’t see.

“Manager,” his voice was as big as he was, “The kuumon has begun its convergence.”

Gibberish. He’d spoken gibberish, as far as the three friends were concerned. Their mysterious lecturer seemed to know though. They could only assume he was the manager.

“The preparations?” he asked.

“Complete!” moustache man declared.

“Excellent! Shall we go then?”

He turned, with a flourish of his haori, but stopped at the doorway. Silence. The teens soon realised he’d been talking to them.

“W-wait,” Orihime cried, “We still haven’t-.”

“Then come along and see for yourselves,” their rescuer was smiling. 

"Okay, but seriously, who are you?" Kaede called after him.

"Oh, didn't I tell you?" the man turned back to them, "Call me Urahara. Now come on, you kids."

As he turned once more and walked out, they could see past him down the road. They were in a small building, it seemed, nestled in the back of an older part of town. There were three people waiting. Two children, a boy and a girl, holding bundles as big as they were. The man who had come in stood tall beside them, waiting. Kaede was sure he’d be even bigger than Chad, once the two were side by side.

“I shall let you watch. I want you to see for yourselves, the world you are about to step into. And..." Urahara glanced at them over his shoulder, "The enemies you will face.”

The three of them looked at one another, standing slowly. All of them were uncertain, but curious. Something called to Kaede, just beyond the visible, pulling her out that doorway. A current of energy, of life, tugging on the hook in her chest. She offered each of them an arm. Chad and Orihime gave her matching looks of confusion, which just made her laugh.

“Come on, you guys, we’re together,” she smiled warmly, “I’m not worried.”

Chad and Orihime looked at one another, before each locking an arm with her. They looked like they were off to see the wizard. A breath in, a breath out, and Kaede took the first step. It was time to see what they were really made of.