Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha. This story was written for fun, not profit.

A/N: This is a sequel to Ten Easy Steps, although it can be read alone. Just pretend the vague inconclusive ending is on purpose. /


Angels Dancing

Eleven-year-old Kazuo Higurashi propped his chin on his hand, tuned out whatever his teacher was droning about now, and attempted to will the clock to go faster. Or at least to move forward. He felt like he was stuck in some sort of loop, where he was forced to repeat the same torturous literature lesson over and over again for all eternity. Like in that movie Amiko made him watch all the time. The one with the guys and the thing and why wouldn't the clock go faster, damnit?

"Bored," he muttered under his breath, slowly sinking down in his chair until only his head was visible over the top of the desk. "Bored bored bored bored borrrrrred."

It wasn't that Kazuo didn't like literature. He just liked it to happen to other people. Preferably people who actually cared what the cherry tree was supposed to represent, or whatever his teacher was talking about now. Symbolism was stupid. A tree represented a tree, just like that window on the far wall represented a possible escape route and the bicycles padlocked to the rack on the other side of the schoolyard represented something he would much rather have been doing.

He glanced at the calendar tacked up on the wall and bit back a groan. It was Wednesday, which meant he had training with Uncle Shippo after school. After that would be chores and homework, because his dad's few rules had to be strictly followed, and it looked like there wasn't going to be time for anything fun today.

Being Kagome's son really, really sucked sometimes.

"You're falling asleep," his best friend whispered out of the corner of her mouth. Amiko Matsushita was tall and athletic and probably didn't have to worry about things like full moons and fighting lessons. They had lived on the same block and gone to the same school since they were little, and Kazuo had yet to notice any of the snickering rumors swirling around them.

So he just made a face at her. "I am not."

"Are too." Amiko slumped in her seat, hiding her smirk from the teacher with her notebook.

"Am not. I'm just bored."

"You're always bored."

"I'm more bored than usual," Kazuo amended, tracing his much-gnawed pencil across what was supposed to be his notes. The lined paper was full of stick figures that might have suggested a vivid imagination in any other child -- creatures with pointed ears and tails, horrible demons, heroic battles, and everything else that ran in his very peculiar family tree.

Amiko raised an eyebrow. "I can tell," she said, peering at the doodles with her chin propped on her hand. She didn't bother to look like she was paying attention, which made Kazuo very glad that they sat at the back of the classroom. The last thing he needed was a call home. His dad was big on doing well in school, so getting in trouble with his teachers meant an automatic grounding. Or worse, no video games.

He anticipated Amiko's question and shrugged, heading her off before she could start interrogating him. "I don't know what they are," he mumbled as he shoved the sheet of paper back into his notebook.

"Just stuff you made up?" Amiko asked.

"Yeah, I guess." He shifted uncomfortably, because it got harder to lie to her every time she asked about his stick figures and doodles. Lying, even by omission, had never sat well with him. The fact that Amiko wouldn't believe him just made things worse.

She stared at him for a moment, head tilted to one side. "Why're you so grumpy all of the sudden?"

"Because the clock's going backwards and I wanna go home." That was mostly true, anyway.

Amiko made a face. "What's the fun of home? You should come over to my house. Kenji got this cool new video game where you're a kick-boxer, right, and you get to – "

"I've gotta go to my uncle's," Kazuo interrupted, before she could start detailing the finer points of her older brother's newest acquisition.

"What, again? Why?"

"Because I do." At least he would be dealing with Uncle Shippo and not Uncle Souta. Uncle Shippo was a kitsune who helped run about ten different businesses and could always be counted on for a bunch of really bad jokes – the sort that were so awful that they somehow became funny. He didn't really expect Kazuo to work hard, as long as he listened to all the stories and tricks and promised not to tell anybody who wasn't "in the know," as he put it.

That included Kazuo's dad and Amiko, unfortunately. It felt wrong, to not tell either of them that he knew how to use a real sword and a real bow and how to fight with the claws he grew during full moons. But maybe that was how the world worked. He didn't know exactly why he was being taught a lot of stuff that an average eleven-year-old couldn't possibly need, any more than he really understood why his mother had been so great. The only example of a mother he really had was Amiko's, and it was hard to compare that sweet-natured, patient woman with the stories of Kagome Higurashi. It was as if Mom and Mother were two different people.

Then again, Father and Dad were two different people, so maybe that wasn't such an outlandish idea after all.

His thoughts were derailed by Amiko, who threw a pen at him. "Are you even listening to me?"

He scowled at her and rubbed his head. "Now I am. And ow."

"Don't be a baby," Amiko retorted, and then laced her fingers behind her head and grinned at him. "I said that we can ride our bikes back home together, even if you can't come over."

He shrugged. He wasn't sure why she was bringing this up now. They had always ridden their bikes home together, ever since they were little. "Sure."



There was a moment filled up by their teacher lecturing, possibly while Amiko paused for breath. When she did speak again, there was a decidedly evil glint in her eye. "Did you know Keiko and Ami think you're my boyfriend?"

Kazuo fell out of his chair.


"I was kidding."

"Uh huh."

"I was!"


"I got in trouble too!"

"I know! I was there, remember?"

The conversation followed the two friends down the block, bouncing off buildings and letting every passing pedestrian in on the fact that Kazuo and Amiko were having one of their squabbles. Again. Or rather, Amiko was having a squabble and Kazuo was waiting to get a word in edgewise. This wasn't unusual. Amiko was perfectly capable of having a squabble all by herself in the middle of an empty room.

"My mom's gonna kill me, you know!"

"Your mom? I have to tell my uncle why I'm late and you're worried about your mom?"

They careened down the street as they argued, narrowly avoiding three cars, six fellow students, and one rather unpleasant-looking dog. The conversation followed them.

"You're mad at me!"

"I am not!"

"It's 'cause I threw the pen at you, right? You're scared of pens, aren't you?"

"Oh, shut up."

"Scaredy-cat! Scaredy-cat! Scaredy -- HEY!"

Amiko braked and skid to one side, narrowly avoiding crashing into Kazuo. He hardly noticed. He was stopped dead at the intersection between two side streets, balancing his bike with one leg as he peered intently at something off to his left. When Amiko started to argue with him, he glared at her until she fell silent.

This had happened to his mother too, or so Uncle Shippo had said. There had been times when she had stopped and looked for things no one else could see. Kazuo had no idea if her stomach had turned over, or if she had felt like hundreds of eyes were staring at the back of her head. It wasn't really something he could articulate -- just a sense of wrongness, of something being out of place. This had happened off and on for years, but he had never gotten used to it.

Something in the back of his head tingled, and he looked up sharply in time to see a shadow flit across the roof of one of the low, flat-topped apartment buildings that lined the street. The twisting feeling inside him got a lot worse, but he didn't look away. He wasn't stupid. His mother had done a lot of good things, but she hadn't beaten every bad guy, and whoever had killed her probably still had friends out there. As Uncle Souta had pointed out, plenty of her old enemies would love to get a hold of him.

"What is it?" Amiko asked quietly, at least for her.

The shadow flickered and vanished, taking the peculiar feelings with it. After a moment, Kazuo released his white-knuckled grip on the bike's handlebars and caught his breath. He hadn't told his dad, but he worried. He worried about school and his friends, because that's what he was supposed to do, and then he worried about what he would do if something from Uncle Shippo's stories came back. There were times when he would wake up in the middle of the night and shake, because he had dreamt that something had found his dad or Amiko, and he hadn't been able to do anything at all.

Amiko rested her hand on his arm and squeezed. "What's the matter?"

Kazuo shrugged. It was gone, whatever it was, and fretting about it now wasn't going to do him any good. No point in telling Amiko.

"I thought I saw something," he said as he climbed back on the bike. Almost as an afterthought, he turned around to look at her. "I'm really not mad at you. Honest."

She nodded and stared up at the roof for a long moment before she rode after him.


Kazuo's dad was a pediatrician who worried about things like putting disinfectant on cuts and wearing helmets and kneepads. So he wasn't at all surprised to see him standing in the doorway with his arms folded, waiting for his son to finish careening through traffic

"Your uncle Souta called," Hojo said as a greeting. "And you know better than to ride your bike like that."

"Uh huh." Kazuo hopped off the bike, grimacing as his overstuffed book bag banged into his hip. "Can you tell him I'll be at Uncle Shippo's tomorrow? I swear?"

His dad sighed loud enough for the entire block to hear. He didn't like Uncle Shippo or Uncle Souta very much. But all he said was, "Why were you late?"

Great. Here went the explosion. "Ikindagotintrouble."

"Ah." And there was nothing else -- no scolding, no frown, no threats to the video games. His dad just rested his hand on his shoulder for a moment. He looked so disappointed that Kazuo wished he could make a hole open up and swallow him.

"I'm sorry?" he ventured.

His dad was quiet, as if he wanted to say something and wasn't quite sure how to phrase it. In the end he just shrugged and clapped him on the shoulder again. "Don't worry about it. Go get a start on your homework before dinner."

Kazuo felt too bad to argue. It was stupid. He could fight off youkai and use a sword no one else had wielded in five hundred years -- and his dad could still guilt-trip him. Sometimes he wished he had inherited that trick instead of a tendency to go all silver-haired and yellow-eyed during full moons.

Speaking of which. "Hey, Dad?"

"Hm?" His dad poked his head out of kitchen.

"I -- " Now what? Say he was seeing shadows flitting around in broad daylight? This was much harder than with Amiko, where at least knew he could lie about everything, however much he hated it. He still didn't know exactly how much his dad knew, or what was safe to tell him.

A few months ago he'd had a nightmare where his mom's ghost had shown up at his dad's funeral and scolded him for getting everyone killed. He had spent the night staring out his bedroom window, half-expecting some unnamed terror to swoop down on his home.

"Be careful," he said at last, and busied himself with locking the doors so he wouldn't have to see the expression on his dad's face.


Uncle Souta called later that evening, right in the middle of Kazuo's math homework. His dad handed the cordless to him without a word and went back to drying the dishes, even though Kazuo knew he was eavesdropping.

"Well?" his uncle asked irritably without so much as a hello. "Did he tell you I called before?"

"Dad? Yeah."

"Shippo said you weren't there this afternoon. What happened to you?"

Great. "I got in trouble with my teacher."

"What? Why?"

"I dunno. Me and my friend were playing. Just 'cause." He saw his father raise an eyebrow and knew Mrs. Matsushita would be getting a call later that night. Amiko was going to kill him dead tomorrow. It would be all over the news. Gruesome murder-by-pen, details at eleven.

But his uncle didn't seem the least bit concerned. "Don't do it again," he said. There was all kinds of noise in the background, beeping horns and people chattering away.

Kazuo sighed and turned his back on his dad, lowering his voice as much as he dared. "Where are you?"

"Tracking down a youkai. Not a big one." He said it as if it was nothing, even though Kazuo could imagine the confused stares from passers-by – the sort that meant they were wondering exactly what mental institution the crazy guy had escaped from. Uncle Souta said he was too lazy to bother with being secretive or subtle, but privately Kazuo thought that was because he wasn't very good at it, especially when he was cranky. Which was always.

Either way, he knew what his uncle expected him to do. "Do you need my help?" he asked, wincing as he felt his dad's stare lock on him like some kind of super-precise homing beacon.

Uncle Souta didn't seem to care about that, either. "Nah, but I want you down here anyway. It'll be good practice. Lemme get you the address."

He almost protested that he had math homework to do, since he wasn't exactly at the top of that class – but then he remembered the shadow flittering across the rooftops and suppressed a shudder. Whatever that had been, it hadn't been a little youkai, and it was still out there somewhere. Maybe helping his uncle would make him feel a little less useless.

"I'll be there," he said – but before he could ask for directions, his dad set down the dishtowel, reached over, and deftly snatched the cordless from his hand. Kazuo felt a spike of horror that had nothing to do with strange youkai and everything to do with the prospect of being grounded. His normally genial dad became a cruel tyrant when groundings happened, depriving Kazuo of dessert and video games for days on end – sometimes for as long as a week.

He couldn't survive without dessert. He just couldn't.

But there was nothing he could do. His dad and his uncle were at each other's mercies, and all he could do was slink back to the kitchen table and hope they forgot to notice him.

Which, given his dad's tone, wasn't likely. "This is Kazuo's father. He'll go where? This is a school night."

Kazuo grimaced and tried to will the linoleum to open up and eat him. Much as he and Amiko had schemed, they'd never found a way to get past the dreaded "school night" defense – and however strong and crafty Uncle Souta was, he probably hadn't either. He seemed to be trying, though, because he was Uncle Souta and liked to be contrary.

As Kazuo attempted to watch out of the corner of his eye, his dad started to pace back and forth across the tiny kitchen. There were long pauses in his conversation, no doubt while Uncle Souta told him what to do with his school nights. Obscenities were almost certainly involved. Graphic detail probably figured in there somewhere.

Oh, man. This wasn't going to be pretty.

"Do you use that language around my son? I see. Where are you, anyway?" His dad's brow furrowed into a disapproving frown. "I see. And you expected me to let him wander around unsupervised at that hour?" He shifted the cordless to his other ear and pinned it with his shoulder, folding his arms across his chest. His hands were still wet and soapy from the dishwater. "You certainly don't qualify as supervision. No, I don't care what his mother did. He's eleven."

Like that's gonna work, Kazuo thought, sinking down further in his seat. His next training session was going to suck. He could tell already.

"No. No. Don't be difficult. I'm well aware of that. She told me. Don't drag Kagome into this." His dad's frown had been replaced by a strange, unreadable expression. It was old. It meant something, and it bothered Kazuo that he wasn't sure exactly what that "something" was.

He knew plenty about his dad, but what all that knowledge amounted to was that he was boring. It was hard to get more ordinary than a pediatrician. There was probably some class in medical school about how to do taxes and go grocery shopping and fold your socks – all the little details that filled up a life and left no room for claws and glowing yellow eyes.

But his dad wasn't like that, because somehow he had made room anyway. He had figured out how to dye silver hair and how to hide tufted, furry ears. Kazuo wasn't entirely sure what they taught in medical school, but he suspected there probably wasn't a class on anything like that.

It was weird, how he could know lots of stuff about someone and still not understand them one bit.

He didn't even realize the argument was over until he saw his dad put the cordless back on the counter. Despite his better judgment, he fidgeted in his seat, the shadow on the rooftop mingling with his dream-mother's scolding at the funeral. "So should I go see what Uncle Souta's doing?" he asked in what he fervently hoped was a flippant, offhand sort of way.

"No, you shouldn't," his dad said as he turned back to the dishes. "Finish your homework."

"How'd you do that?" He'd heard of people flat-out ignoring Uncle Souta, but he'd never heard of anyone making him shut up.

"Do what?"

"Nothing." He shook his head and hauled his notebook and pencil across the table, absently kicking his feet. For a moment he wished that his dad would clap a hand on his shoulder or ruffle his hair, but there were some things no normal, self-respecting eleven-year-old would ask for. And Kazuo's relationship with his dad was nothing if not normal.


Uncle Souta came to visit very late, long after Kazuo should have been asleep. But he had slept lightly, tossing and turning in the throes of a nightmare full of shadows and his scolding mother. It was well after midnight when he jerked awake and lay staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling, his heart hammering against his ribs.

Just like always, he slitted his eyes almost shut and glanced around his bedroom, taking stock of the desk, the dresser, and the piles of toys and dirty laundry his dad kept telling him to clean up. When he was sure that nothing was out of the ordinary, he rolled over and hid his face against his pillow. The traces of the nightmare would go away sooner or later, but until they did, there was no use trying to go back to sleep. His clawless fingers were curling as if he was expecting a fight – some kind of instinct courtesy of his hanyou father.

"Bet hanyou don't have to worry 'bout getting up for school," he muttered, and set about convincing himself that there wasn't anything to fight. He'd get in trouble if he fell asleep in class. Or Amiko would just draw on him. He wasn't sure which would be worse.

When he heard his uncle's voice drifting from down the hall, interspersed with his dad's quieter, tense words, he rolled over on one side to blink blearily at his clock. Sometimes he thought that Uncle Souta never slept, or possibly that he kept nocturnal hours like some kind of grouchy bat – but why was his dad still up? He had work tomorrow.

"…being fucking stupid. You think they're just gonna wait around 'til he's older? You think he's safe here?" Uncle Souta's voice was rough with worry and anger and too much sake.

"I think that he's not Kagome." There was a clinking sound – his dad confiscating a glass or a bottle, no doubt, because there was no alcohol of any kind allowed in the house. He was using his lecture voice, which all the local children had learned to know and fear, or at least to tune out.

Uncle Souta seemed to realize that. "You think. What the hell do you know about any of this – don't give me that look! I know more than you do, Hojo. I'm not a fucking child. "

"Kazuo is."

"And how long do you think that's gonna last?"

There was a long, uncomfortable silence, broken only by the sound of more clinking glasses. Kazuo burrowed further under his comforter and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to breathe as quietly as possible. He desperately wanted to know what was going on, but at the same time he tried to will himself back to sleep. Even though no one knew he was listening -- even though his dad and uncle were talking about him -- he felt very much like an intruder.

When his dad spoke again, it sounded like he hadn't slept in ages. "I'm the one she gave the shard to, Souta. Not Kazuo. Me."

"What, you want a medal?"

"I want you to leave him out of this…this thing you and Shippo are doing. Take the shard if you want it. I don't care."

Uncle Souta made a sound that wasn't really a chuckle. "And that's just magically gonna make the youkai leave him alone, right? Is that your brilliant plan?"

Kazuo held his breath, staring at the faint outline of the door as he waited for an answer. But there was nothing, not even a murmured, inaudible reply. He pushed himself up on his elbows and frowned into the darkness, wondering if he dared risk groundings to find out if his dad was okay – because if there was one concrete certainty in his life, above and beyond the youkai and claws and long shadow of his mother, it was that his dad always, always had an answer for things. Always.

There was the familiar scraping noise of someone pulling a chair back and more clinking sounds. Then Uncle Souta laughed in a harsh, unpleasant sort of way – the sort of laughter grownups used when they were angry or upset, but wouldn't admit it. "Thought you didn't drink."

"Shut up."

"Gonna set a bad example for the kid – "

"I said shut up."

And with more clinking of glasses and bottles, Uncle Souta did.

Kazuo felt his stomach trying to tie itself in knots. That couldn't have been his dad's voice. His dad was calm and collected, not…that. He wasn't even sure what "that" was, but it was something that should have come from Uncle Souta or Uncle Shippo's friend Kouga.

He hated lying to his dad and Amiko more than anything, but at the same time it was nice talking to people who weren't part of Uncle Shippo's "in the know." It was like he had these two parts of his life, and only one made up of full moons and youkai and Uncle Souta's stupid practice sessions. That was the part that belonged to his father, just like the video games and tracking mud in the house and trying to wriggle out of his homework belonged to his dad.

Only now they weren't so separate anymore. Maybe they hadn't ever been. There were things his dad knew that he didn't, about his mother and shards – and he had been so stupid thinking that he could keep his life cut up in pieces, that the shadow on the rooftops would respect the neat little compartments he'd made out of his life. It was selfish, plain and simple. Ignorance wouldn't stop people from getting hurt, no matter how much he didn't tell them.

He hid his face again, wondering if his mother and father had had to worry about this sort of thing. After a moment, he decided there were some things he understood a lot better than a bunch of dead parents.


Sometime around three in the morning the glasses stopped clinking. Kazuo listened to the half-familiar sounds of Uncle Souta swearing and hunting for the sofa, far too drunk to drive home. He even remembered to squeeze his eyes shut and feign sleep when he peeked in.

"You're not fooling anyone," he said, but he didn't stay, either. Every so often grouchy, crabby Uncle Souta was the one who knew exactly what to do.

Kazuo waited until he heard his uncle's snores drifting through the house before he climbed out of bed, shivering as his bare feet touched the cold floor. He heard running water before he reached the kitchen, so he wasn't at all surprised to find his dad was still up – swaying on his feet, maybe, but methodically washing glasses anyway.

As always, he seemed to have eyes in the back of his head. "It's a school night," he said without turning around. "Go to bed."

"I was in bed. You guys woke me up."

"I'm sorry. We should have been quieter. Go to bed."

Kazuo sighed and sat at the kitchen table, glancing at the bottle still sitting in the middle of it. "This is kinda empty."

"Your uncle drank most of it."

No "go to bed" this time. That was something. He kicked his foot against the table leg and watched the bottle shake. "How 'come you always do dishes when you're upset?"

His dad stopped with his hand halfway to a stray plate. "What?"

"Whenever I get in trouble at school or you have to talk to my uncles, you always do dishes."

The table leg got kicked a few more times before he noticed the drawn-out silence. He stopped mid-motion and glanced up at his dad, half-expecting a disapproving frown and an admonishment to go to bed, it's practically time for breakfast. But this was different.

His dad put the plate down and sat across from him. He was smiling a little, just at the corners of his mouth. "Do I really do dishes all the time?"

"You mean do you worry a lot?"

The smile widened a little. "I'm a dad. It's my job to worry."

"Yeah, but…" Great. How was he supposed to do this? He went back to kicking the table leg as he spoke. "You tell me when you're worried about stuff like my teachers and my homework. So how come you don't tell me when you're worried about the other stuff too?"

"You mean why do I do the dishes instead of talk to you about Uncle Souta."

Among other things, but he wasn't going to press the point. "Yeah, I guess."

His dad nodded, and suddenly Kazuo was remembered just how tired he had sounded before. Maybe he had nightmares too. "It's my job to worry, remember? Not yours. You shouldn't have to."

"I've gotta worry anyway. 'Cause of the claws and stuff." He shrugged slowly and carefully, because his eyes felt funny, and he knew if he moved too much or talked too much he might get all teary.

"Is that what your uncle told you?"

He shook his head. "It's what I figured out. That I've gotta worry about Amiko and – " Something made his voice catch, which was stupid, because he was eleven and eleven-year-olds could talk without sounding like a crybaby.

And they certainly could let their dads hug them without hiding their faces and turning into a sniffling mess, whining that Amiko didn't have to worry about youkai and shadows on rooftops and it just wasn't fair. But he did all those things anyway, because he sucked at this growing-up thing.

His dad didn't seem to mind. He just held him and guided him back to bed, and he didn't say anything at all.


For the first time ever, Kazuo got to skip school.

"There's no point in you going on so little sleep," his dad said when he stumbled blearily into the kitchen. Sun was streaming though the windows and the clock told him that he should've been up hours ago.

He nodded, feeling as if someone had taken the proper order of things and turned them all upside-down. "What about my homework?"

"Your friend is going to bring it over this afternoon." His dad placed rice and miso soup in front of him, setting aside two other bowls for the still-snoring Uncle Souta. "I had a long talk with her mother about how you two are behaving at school."

"Huh?" After the whole mess from last night, it seemed strange to worry about getting in trouble with his teachers.

But his dad didn't seem to think that at all. In fact, he was giving him a stern look, complete with furrowed brow and folded arms. "I know you and Amiko are friends, but you're at school to learn, not to play. I expect you to at least try to get a good education."

He slouched in his seat. This was a familiar lecture – on he practically had memorized. "I know, I know. I've gotta do my homework and learn and stuff."

At that point his dad was supposed to frown and point out that backtalk wasn't the way to get ahead in the world. Instead he absently ruffled his son's hair, a small, sad smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Just be a kid. That's all I want."

"That's what me and Amiko are doing!"

"Getting in trouble isn't what I had in mind." But the smile made his dad's eyes crinkle at the corners, just for a second, and between that and the sunlight and the normalness of it all, his mother's scolding seemed very far away.


Amiko came by right after school, just as his dad had promised. She thrust a pile of paperclipped handouts at him with a dubious, "You're not contagious or anything, right?"

He flipped through the homework before he answered her. "Uh huh. I've got a rare tropical disease. You've probably already caught it."

"Yeah, right." She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, probably trying to balance her own bulging book bag. "So guess what? Keiko asked if we're going on a date or something."

"Amiko! I'm really gonna be sick!"

"Don't worry, I hit her with my book bag."

He nodded his approval. There were some things that could only be handled with blunt force. "I will too. I'm gonna be back at school tomorrow."

"Can you come over and try my new video games then?"

She looked so excited that he almost – almost – told her that he could. All he ever did with Uncle Shippo was listen to stories, and he knew how happy Amiko would be to show off her brother's newest acquisitions. But he remembered the conversation between his dad and Uncle Souta and how old both of them had sounded. He hadn't ever realized how much worry could hurt people.

So instead of jumping at the chance, he squared his shoulders and did his best to look serious and grown up. "Hey Amiko?"


"Would you ever stop being my friend?"

She stared at him as if he had just grown another head. "Are you delirious or something? Don't sick people get delirious?"

"Would you stop being my friend?" he repeated. "If I asked you to, I mean?"

He almost expected her to tell him he was a big jerk and she shouldn't have gone to all the trouble of getting his homework for him. But she said nothing, and he stared down at the handouts so he wouldn't have to look at her. He remembered his nightmares full of people he hadn't been able to protect, and how one time he had worn through a sheet of paper scratching out a stick-figure baboon.

"Kazuo?" she said at last.

He looked up at her.

"You're so dumb."

Whatever he might have been expecting, that wasn't it. "I'm not dumb!"

"Are too!" She had her hands planted on her hips and her lower lip jutted out defiantly, and her eyes were narrowed with oh-so-familiar annoyance. "I'm not gonna stop being your friend just 'cause you tell me to. What kinda stupid idea is that? Jerk."

He didn't answer that, because even though it would have been safer for him to ignore her answer and shut the door in her face, he was almost shaky with relief.

She stared at him with her head cocked to one side. "What'd you ask me that for? Are you in trouble or something?"

"Yeah. No. Sort of?" He shook his head. Amiko wasn't supposed to know – and unlike his dad, there were no hidden secrets and no extra worries with her. She really did belong in the normal part of his life, and he was reluctant to take that away.

One time his dad had told him that he and his mother had been friends. Not good, close, Amiko sort of friends, but still normal friends. He liked to think that his dad had been his mother's normal, just like he was trying so hard to be Kazuo's normal now. Just like Amiko was his normal. And maybe that was just as important as claws and silver hair and strange shadows lurking on the rooftops.

There wasn't much point in fighting off things his mother had left unfinished if he didn't have anything worth fighting for.

"Hey," he said, "do you wanna help wake up my uncle? He's drunk on the sofa."

Amiko looked skeptical. "How?"

"We can hit him with pillows. Or dump water on him."

"Won't you dad do his big responsible lecture thing?"

Kazuo grinned, all mischief and white teeth and no fangs or shadows at all. "Just for today? I don't think he's gonna mind."