Sora & Orihime.

Sora turns eighteen in seven minutes.

He's got some of Orihime's clothes packed, some of his own clothes packed, and Orihime all bundled up for when the clock strikes twelve. There's an old apartment waiting for them, clear across town, in a run-down part of Karakura that was all he could afford on his first year college dropout salary.

Mother and Father glare at him from across the living room and Orihime clings to his pant leg while he firmly puts himself between them and her. Mother's within reach of two books and Father's already rolling up his sleeves.

Father says something like, Unappreciative little bastard, which Sora fervently hopes that Orihime won't remember well enough to ever repeat and Mother just says quietly, almost hisses, Get the hell out of my house.

Sora bends down, scoops Orihime up and strolls out the door like he's been longing to do since the day he was old enough to understand 'walking away'.

"We're five minutes ahead of schedule," he says airily, shifts the duffel bag to his other shoulder, smiles at Orihime and tells her about the robots who're cleaning up their new home right now so it'll be ready when they arrive. And the fairies that help them. Because he likes robots, and girls like fairies, and he's never had any stories read to him as a kid so he's not sure what else is out there. Orihime seems to like his stories better, anyway.

He adds a bit about a brigade of mystery house-cleaners who drop by at random, because robots and fairies are apparently a little too much for her willing suspension of belief because robots and fairies don't like each other.

Sora amends a little desperately that he's sorry for lying to her, it really is mostly the mystery house-cleaners, the robots only help out once in a while, and the fairies only come when the robots are on vacation.

Orihime accepts that with a pensive little nod, as if that all made perfect sense, and slips her tiny hand into his.

Sora gets a call from their grandmother after two days of being on their own.

He explains as best he can that there's no possible reason he would ever have to go back to that house and that Orihime stays with him, no matter what happens, because he's the only one who can protect her. Grandmother wires him enough money to sustain them for half a year. She tells him that she can't make it to Karakura to help out because of her health, but if it ever got to be too much for two kids, that they could always come and find her.

Sora says that he wants them to be self-sufficient and that he's done depending on adults, but she dismisses him and says that it's only to get them on their feet. He sits in stunned silence with the phone in his hand until she laughs and tells him gently that she understands. After all, he and Orihime are the only family she has left worth speaking to, and she knows a few good places that might be interested in hiring him.

He asks Grandmother how she found them, and she tells him that their landlord was an old friend of hers, and it was a lucky coincidence that he chose the apartment he did. Sora hands the phone to Orihime and relocates to the kitchen so Orihime won't need to see her big brother grinning like a lunatic.

He gets the job. A position at the very bottom of the corporate chain, so low that he doesn't even need to wear a suit, but he works harder than anyone else and it all makes sense to him. A promotion isn't so far out of his reach.

Sora learns to cook because they can't live on takeout and premade bento boxes and rice and umeboshi forever. They never had to learn to cook -- only to sneak leftovers out of the fridge if dinner wasn't quite enough. He drops by the convenience store and picks up a small book of recipes and figures that that'll have to do. The first time he tries cooking from it is on a weekend, and he takes Orihime with him to the grocery store and meticulously buys everything on the ingredients list.

By the time he finally gets back to the kitchen, Orihime's bruised the tomatoes, gotten fish juice all over her hands, and cracked two eggs because he thought it would be a good idea to let her watch the groceries while he stopped to tie his shoelaces. It occurs to him that kids can get into a whole lot of trouble in very little time -- even a good kid like Orihime. Sora whisks her off to wash her hands, spends five minutes picking shells out of the bowl he'd cracked the broken eggs into, and has the tomatoes so roughly diced it looks like he'd just squeezed them to bits with his hands.

Dinner isn't salty enough, tastes a bit too much like onions (which is odd, because he hadn't bought any), and the fish is soggy because he hadn't cooked it right. But the rice is good and either way, it's the first time in a long time that either of them have been so full.

Orihime says she likes it better than anything they've eaten so far, and she says it so sincerely Sora almost wants to cry. He doesn't, though.

Sora looks at the mess he made in the kitchen and thinks about putting it off. But it would just build up and build up and build up and then it would mold and then he'd need to touch the mold so he grabs a small chair, a pair of rubber gloves and asks Orihime if she wants to wash the dishes with him. He figures that if he makes it a game now, Orihime won't figure out that it's more of a chore until much later.

Orihime has her own futon. She falls asleep, gets up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, then crawls under Sora's blanket without realizing it. She wakes up in the morning and asks him if he was lonely and moved her so they would be closer and Sora doesn't have the heart to tell her that she's maybe a little crazy, because he's not sure whether or not it was normal for kids to do that.

He ends up just pushing their futons close together to make one big futon, but Orihime always ends up on his side anyway and sometimes on his other side, which confused him for a pretty long time.

She doesn't get nightmares very often, though. Orihime doesn't wake up in the middle of the night in tears, which is one of the few things Sora's grateful for. He knows what to do when Orihime cries because she needs a diaper change (which hasn't been for over a year) or when she's hungry (which stopped happening altogether fairly recently) but he's not so great at comforting her when she's scared, because all he can promise is that he'll protect her. Everything's gonna be okay. Nothing's gonna hurt her. Lots of things make weird sounds at night. There's nothing to be afraid of.

Sora used to just burrow under the covers when there was a sound from somewhere outside his room, because Mother and Father would check on it. Not out of any concern for them, he knows, but because they didn't want anyone vandalizing the house. There's no one else to do that, here. Now it's Sora who crawls out of bed to make sure that that bang was just a kid setting off firecrackers, and those tapping sounds are just tree branches against the window, and that creaking is just...

He doesn't know what makes floorboards creak when no one is stepping on them. Or what makes door hinges squeal when someone isn't opening or closing doors. He never sees anyone. He thinks it might be the humidity.

Or ghosts.

Sora sits up, looks around the room to check that there's no one at the door, pulls his blanket up to his neck and reaches for Orihime's hand. He contemplates getting a cat.

"Life is hard," Sora says as he sits down at the table.

"The boys who stand in front of the store say that a lot," Orihime replies almost matter-of-factly. "What happened?"

Sora briefly wonders if she means the delinquents who sit around and smoke outside the convenience store. They look rough but seem like okay guys, Sora supposes. He hopes his doting on Orihime won't have the unfortunate consequence of making her susceptible to kidnapping.

"It's just been a long day."

His supervisor chewed him out for misplacing a decimal, a car splashed him on the way to the office so he'd spent the whole day with muddy water dried halfway up his thighs in the office. He'd skipped lunch to redo all the calculations he'd done with the misplaced decimal. The lady he'd been paired with for the next project got sick and would be out for the next few days so he had to handle it all himself until she's back.

Orihime brings him an orange juicebox and his sweatpants to cheer him up. Sora thanks her profusely and Orihime looks as satisfied as if she had just saved the world from some alien insect threat. He thinks that would be a good story sometime, if Orihime ever asks for one. He hopes she doesn't grow up too weird because of his stories.

"Well," Orihime says as she clambers onto his lap, "I stepped on a bug by accident today. Did anything good happen?"

One of his co-workers brought him tea over the lunch break and wished him luck. His boss chewed him out but added that he'd been so conscientious until then, and maybe he wasn't getting enough sleep? Another one of his co-workers was a single mother, who told him how to make a few of those simple, nutritious meals he'd had so much trouble finding recipes for.

Sora wonders how miserable he would be if it weren't for Orihime making him think happy thoughts, even when he just wants to brood for a bit.

"Yeah, lots of good things. You hungry, Orihime?"

"Can we have bread with honey again?"

Sora kisses Orihime on the temple and sets her on her feet. "Only when we run out of food again. You're too young to be living like a college student."

"What're we having? Can I help? Do we need to buy stuff? Are you okay now? Is life still hard?"

"Something special, I'd appreciate that a whole lot, we have everything already, and yes I'm okay now."

Orihime scrunches her nose up and holds up five fingers, then wiggles her thumb. "That's only... four... answers."

"Life can be hard sometimes, I guess." Sora stands up and starts listing ingredients in his head. "It's not so bad most of the time."