The summer heat was nearly unbearable.
Inoue Orihime was certain she was melting in it, her skin sloughing off with each drop of sweat she shed, and eventually she would be a puddle on the couch, only her empty clothes a reminder she was ever there.
"I'm going to get some ice cream," she said to herself, peeling herself off the couch. Her other roommates were at school - she was the only one who had Tuesday evenings free. She tied her hair up as she headed to the front door, sliding her feet into flip-flops and opening it.
She was greeted with a little girl who was staring at her door. She was so thrown by the encounter that for a moment, she didn't think anything was wrong.
"Good afternoon," Orihime greeted, smiling.
"Do you live here, nee-san?" the little girl asked. She was holding a toy katana with one hand.
"Yes, I do," Orihime responded, the weirdness of the situation hitting her. "W-where's your mommy or daddy?"
"At home," she responded, like this should have been obvious.
"Do you live in this building?" Orihime asked.
". . . Can you show me where?" Orihime offered her hand for the little girl to take, discreetly wiping it on her shorts first.
"Yeah! It's around here somewhere." The girl laughed as though this was the funniest joke in the world, taking Orihime's hand with her free one and leading her away.
"What's your name?" Orihime asked. "I'm Orihime."
"Zaraki Yachiru! But Ken-chan sometimes calls me Yachi and sometimes calls me Chiru. And sometimes calls me kid."
"Nice to meet you, Yachiru-chan," Orihime said, smiling down at the girl even though she was clearly looking the other direction. "Um . . . Are you sure you know where you live?"
"Of course I do! Maybe it's upstairs?" Yachiru seemed entirely lost.
"Yachiru-chan, do you remember the numbers on the outside of your door?" Orihime asked, a little desperately. She had always been good with kids, but this girl was an enigma.
"That means you live on the fourth floor," Orihime explained. "We're on the second floor."
Yachiru looked at her blankly. "Yeah?"
"W-well, your house can't possibly be on the second floor if it's on the fourth floor." Orihime felt a little like she was trying to explain some sort of logic puzzle. Can an apartment simultaneously exist on the second and fourth floor? . . .
"Come on," Orihime said, giving up on trying to explain this. "Let's go to the fourth floor, okay?"
"Okay!" Yachiru said, sounding delighted.
"So why were you outside my apartment, anyway, Yachiru-chan?" Orihime asked as they climbed the stairs together.
"Ice cream," Yachiru said, reaching into the front pocket of her overalls and pulling out some coins. "We don't have any, and Ken-chan said I could get some from the convenience store, but I got lost."
"Ice cream, huh? I was just about to get some myself. It's pretty hot out today, isn't it?" Orihime said, internally reeling over the fact that this tiny girl had been sent out on her own to buy ice cream. She's way too young for that! Even if it's her first errand!
"Do you have any, nee-san?" Yachiru asked, staring up at Orihime with a face that said she took this matter as seriously as world peace.
"U-um, I was just on my way to get some when I found you," she said. "But maybe your daddy and you and I could go together!"
They finally got out of the hot stairwell, emerging into the refreshing, air-conditioned hallways. Orihime wiped a bit of sweat from her hairline. "Okay, you said 435, right, Yachiru-chan?"
"Um . . . Yeah! I think!" Yachiru said, in a tone that said she had no idea if she had said 435 or not.
"W-well, let's start with 435, and if it's the wrong house, we can go from there . . ." Orihime said, trailing off at the end. She honestly had no idea what she was going to do if they didn't find Yachiru's dad. Should she call someone? Who?
Luckily, apartment 435 was easy to spot - the door was wide open and there were boxes scattered in the hall just outside it, like someone was moving in. Orihime peeked around the doorframe to see the hugest, most muscular man she had ever seen struggling to put together a TV stand.
"Is that your daddy, Yachiru-chan?" Orihime whispered, not really wanting to draw the man's attention. He looked terrifying, like he belonged in a gang or something.
"Yep!" Yachiru chirped, skipping through the front door without a care in the world. "Ken-chan!"
Orihime shouldn't have questioned the girl on the identity of her own father, but Yachiru had gotten details wrong before, so she stayed behind, lingering in the doorway, just to be certain this was the right man. She certainly didn't want to leave Yachiru alone with such a scary-looking person if she was wrong.
"Already? That was quick." The man turned, revealing a face with a long scar down one side of it. A chill ran down Orihime's spine.
"No, I didn't get ice cream," Yachiru said, and the man sighed. "But I brought nee-san!"
Then Yachiru turned and pointed at Orihime, drawing all the attention to her.
Orihime involuntarily let out a little "eep!" sound, all her muscles stiffening in fear as the huge, scarred man looked up at her.
"Did she get lost or somethin'?" The man asked, standing up and lumbering towards her. Orihime forced herself not to run away.
"A-ah, yes, I-I think so! Um . . ." she had considered scolding Yachiru's dad on letting such a young child run errands, in the stairwell, but looking at him, she was thinking better of it.
"Well, thanks for bringin' her back," he said, ruffling Yachiru's hair from where she was clinging to the leg of his shorts. "Should I, uh . . . Pay you . . .?"
"O-oh, no, Zaraki-san, there's no need!" Orihime quickly said. "But, perhaps . . . You shouldn't send her out on an errand again until she's a little older . . ." the words got quieter and quieter, until, towards the end of the sentence, Orihime was practically whispering. She dreaded the thought of what would happen if she made this man angry.
"Yeah, you're prob'ly right," he said, running a hand through his long hair. "Bit stupid on my part, I guess. Listen, I was sending her out to get ice cream - can I buy you something? As thanks for bringing her back?"
"Oh, I was just about to get ice cream myself-" she started to say, but Yachiru cut her off with a bright "Nee-san said she would go get ice cream with us!"
The man looked at her, and Orihime nodded jerkily. "Y-yes, I did suggest we all go together . . . But we don't have to! I don't want to impose!"
"Nah, she likes you," he said, slipping past Orihime in order to grab the remaining boxes in the hallway. "We can go together. Let me just lock up."
He put the rest of the boxes inside, locked his front door, and went to pick up Yachiru, but the girl scuttled around his body somehow and ended up clinging to his shoulder, the rest of her body dangling against his back.
"Do you know any good places?" He asked suddenly. "We just moved here. I saw the convenience store on the drive and figured it'd be easy to get to, but . . ."
"Well, the convenience store is the cheapest option," Orihime said, gradually letting her shoulders come down from around her ears. "And it'll probably have stuff Yachiru likes. The other places are too fancy for her, I think . . ."
"I like fancy stuff!" Yachiru protested, bonking her little katana against her dad's upper arm. Her dad scoffed.
"Sure you do, kid. Anyway, I never got your name." He turned to Orihime.
"Oh, I'm Inoue Orihime," she said, bowing as best she could while walking. "I live two floors down from you."
"I'm Zaraki Kenpachi," the man said, "and I own this little monkey." He gestured to Yachiru, who hit him again with her katana. "So, what do you do?"
"I'm a nursing student. I sometimes do work at the local hospital, so if you ever go there, you might see me!" Orihime smiled, trying to seem as charming as possible. "What about you?"
"I'm a fighter," he said, and Orihime had to fight to keep the shock off her face. "I also do training at the gym, but I came here so I wouldn't have to travel for matches and leave Yachiru behind."
"O-oh, I see," Orihime said, trying to act normal. A fighter?! she thought. What kind of a parent has such a violent occupation?!
They left the apartment building, then, opening the glass doors to a wall of humid heat. Orihime could instantly feel sweat forming on the back of her neck.
"Come on, the convenience store isn't far away," she said, starting to lead them to Urahara's. "Well, I guess it might not be a convenience store, technically . . ." she laughed a little, trying to break the awkward mood.
She glanced up at Zaraki, wondering if he wanted to know more. In all honesty, she'd left the sentence on a cliffhanger because she was desperate to fill the silence between them. She seriously didn't want to walk all the way to Urahara's without saying a word. But his face was unreadable, so she decided to continue on anyway, her nerves making her run her mouth.
"I-I mean, he sells convenience store stuff. But he always seems to have everything! He's got really good prices, though, so my roommates and I do most of our grocery shopping there. And he has these two kids who help out there, Jinta and Ururu, and they're so cute! Maybe they could show Yachiru around! And their other employee, Tessai, sometimes he makes snacks for the nurses at the hospital! They're all really great people, I'm sure you'll like them."
Zaraki grunted in response, but, thankfully, Yachiru seemed more invested. "There's kids there? What are they like?"
"Well, they argue a lot - I think they're siblings or cousins or something," Orihime said. "But they're good kids, really. Ururu's more quiet, but I see Jinta in the park a lot playing soccer! Maybe you could join him sometime!" As the suggestion came out of her mouth, Orihime started to doubt whether or not Yachiru was even old enough to join Jinta and his friends. She couldn't have been older than seven, but Jinta and Ururu were definitely older, if only by a few years.
"Soccer . . ." Yachiru said, seeming to muse over the question. "Soccer . . ."
"You don't have to make a decision now," Orihime said nervously. "Oh, here we are!"
The sliding door of the shop blasted out a wave of cold air as they entered, sending welcome goosebumps up Orihime's arms.
"Inoue-san," Ururu said, looking up from where she was sweeping around the till. "Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon, Ururu-chan!" Orihime said, crouching down so she was at eye level with the girl. "Do you have any good ice cream today? I have some new neighbors who want to try it."
"We have watermelon bars, Coolish, Pino, and matcha ice cream bars," the girl said softly. She kept darting her eyes up to Zaraki before quickly looking away.
Orihime made her way over to the freezer, hoping Zaraki would follow. Luckily, he did, with Yachiru leaning even farther over his shoulder to get a good look at the ice cream in the case.
"I'm going to get a watermelon bar," Orihime said, plucking her ice cream out of the freezer. "But you guys pick whatever you want - I'll treat you, as a sort of 'welcome to the building' gift."
"Thanks," Zaraki said. "Yachiru, say thank you."
"Thanks, nee-san!" Yachiru chirped. "I want . . . Coolish! In strawberry!"
"I don't need anything," Zaraki said, but Orihime turned to him, moving her face into an exaggerated expression of shock.
"Everyone needs ice cream!" she said. "It's really no bother!"
He looked decidedly uncomfortable, but finally settled on a matcha bar. Orihime brought their treats up to the counter to pay, and was greeted by Urahara himself.
"Oh, Orihime-chan!" he said, gathering their ice creams and ringing them up as she dug in her purse for change. "Good to see you. Trying to beat the heat, huh?"
"Yeah, pretty much," she laughed. "I'm just glad I'm not working today - the hospital gets so muggy."
"You should invest in some dehumidifiers. I had Tessai set one up in here and it's made an incredible change. 638 yen, please."
She handed over some coins, waiting for her change. "I'll put in the suggestion in with the higher-ups. Thanks, Urahara-san."
Orihime distributed the ice cream amongst the three of them, and Yachiru immediately tore into hers, sucking vigorously at the tube on top. After a few failed attempts, she pulled away from the ice cream, glaring at it so hard Orihime had to fight a laugh down.
"Waiting for the Coolish to melt sucks!" Yachiru groaned. "Ken-chan, can you heat it up?"
"You asked for the Coolish, kid," he said, unwrapping his own ice cream bar. "You gotta deal with the consequences."
"It's not fair!" she said, stomping her little foot.
"I can give it a try, Yachiru-chan," Orihime said, setting her own ice cream bar back on the counter as Urahara watched amusedly.
"No, don't do that," Zaraki grunted. "She needs to learn to deal with these things."
Yachiru looked like she was seconds away from crying, but Orihime wasn't about to go against a kid's parent.
"If we go outside, it'll melt faster, I bet!" she said, hoping desperately this wouldn't come to tears.
Thankfully, Yachiru perked right up after that. "Okay!" she said, running out the door.
"You've got a lively one, there," Urahara said, leaning on his hand. "Reminds me of Jinta."
"I was saying they would get along!" Orihime said. "We should be going now, though. Thanks again, Urahara-san!"
He waved gently at them as they left, the searing air of outside buffeting Orihime unpleasantly.
They walked slowly back to the apartment building, leaving plenty of time for Yachiru to eat her ice cream out here, where making a mess wouldn't be as big a deal. Zaraki seemed completely content to walk in silence, but it was grating on Orihime's skin.
"May I ask something?" she eventually blurted.
"You just did," Zaraki said.
"U-um," Orihime wasn't certain what to think. Had he just made a joke? "I-I mean . . . Why does she call you Ken-chan? Why not . . . Dad, or something?"
Zaraki stuck the stick of his ice cream bar between his teeth, chewing on it thoughtfully. "It's kinda complicated."
Orihime waited, allowing him time to reveal an answer, but none came. She hardly wanted to push him on the topic, so she let it go.
By the time they were back at Orihime's floor, Yachiru was happily sucking on her ice cream, but the silence between Zaraki and Orihime was still heavy in the air.
"Well, this is my stop," Orihime laughed awkwardly. "It's been nice getting to know you, Zaraki-san. And you too, Yachiru-chan!" She knelt down to ruffle Yachiru's hair, and saw that her face was somehow covered in ice cream.
"Listen, Inoue . . ." Zaraki said, running a hand through his hair uncomfortably. "I had a pretty reliable babysitter back home, and I know a coupl'a guys here who could take care of her, but . . . If they're ever busy, do you think you could watch her for a couple hours? You seem good with her, and she likes you."
"Of course!" Orihime said. "Yachiru's such a sweet kid, I'd love to take her!"
Zaraki scoffed at that. "Yeah, you won't think she's so sweet after a couple hours alone with her. Anyway, I should let you go. Thanks again for the ice cream."
"It was no trouble! Have a good day!" Orihime waved them off as they continued up the stairwell, while she headed to her apartment alone.
That Yachiru kid was adorable. And while Zaraki was intimidating, he seemed nice enough, once you got to know him.
Orihime thought she didn't mind her new neighbors at all.