Orihime in Hiding Chapter 10
Chapter 10- Four Down
It wasn’t what Ishida wanted to do. It was far from anything he’d ever done before, in fact. But he had to stay somewhere.
The For Sale sign in the small yard of the stone house at the outskirts of town was dusty and lopsided, the white back ground dirty, the black letters faded. It had been there a while. The house hadn’t been sold for almost a year.
Ishida didn’t know all the details. He’d grabbed a Parade of Homes publication that listed houses for sale in the area, and this one was one of the closest to the bus stop he’d been dropped at. His finances were limited. The round trip airfare had sapped his resources, and he couldn’t afford to both feed himself and pay for housing. One had to go.
Urahara had been helpful in giving him pointers on that issue. Still, as much as the man in the striped hat had helped human, Soul Reaper, and Quincy alike, there was something about the man that Ishida didn’t trust.
Entering the house — he didn’t want to use the term breaking-in — was accomplished through the back door near the cellar, easily accessed by the frail lock and relative obscurity from the neighboring houses. Tall mature spruce trees were planted tightly together, knitting a wall of greenery on both sides of the acre of property, covering his actions from the neighbors. The only outbuilding was a freestanding single car garage set apart from the house by the driveway.
He looked around the small enclosed porch at the back of the house, and then turned the doorknob that opened, unlocked, into the kitchen. Easier than he’d thought it would be. He set his bags down, looking at the cream walls of the kitchen. The closed-up smell of an abandoned house met his nose.
Home sweet home.
Orihime crumpled the paper with the poem in her hand, balling it tightly. Not that she thought Renji would try to read her garbage, but there were some things not to be read.
Which was why she discarded it. She couldn’t read it in front of class. Besides, it wasn’t true anymore. Not entirely. Not like it used to be. She’d been coming to terms with that lately.
Half the Shakespeare class hadn’t finished the assignment of writing a sonnet by Monday, so Mrs. Auden had given them until Friday to finish the work.
The void that threatened to overcome Orihime’s senses was washing over her again. She closed her eyes, putting a hand to the back of her neck, wishing it would pass quickly. The moments of fading lasted a little longer recently, came on more often than before. She couldn’t pass it off as jet lag anymore.
She opened her eyes as she heard footsteps in the hall. She looked to the open doorway to see Renji.
He jerked a thumb behind him. “Leah and Mag are here.”
She nodded and followed him down the hall. It was Wednesday already, and after touting Leah and Meg’s virtues of trustworthiness, Renji had agreed she could meet them and Danielle for a two-on-two game of volleyball at the junior high school’s court. With him.
She hadn’t argued, knowing it was pointless, and not really wanting to be on her own anyway, but it was starting to look odd. He agreed, but hadn’t offered any alternative. Staying human was a priority.
Until they reached the bottom of the staircase.
Renji had felt a slight ripple in the energy force, a sudden density that hadn’t been there before, just enough to make him want to go outside to look around, like on Sunday afternoon, but it was unnecessary.
Ikkaku was already on the front porch, looking in the screen door as Leah and Meg stared back at him, frozen perturbed expressions on their faces.
Orihime clutched Renji’s elbow as she pointed to the door.
“Renji!” the bald man cried, grabbing the door latch and opening it before anyone could speak.
Both Leah and Meg emitted a shocked squeak as they looked from Ikkaku’s entrance to Renji and Orihime. Meg added a gasp when she saw Renji.
He looked to the startled faces of Orihime’s classmates, and then shot a glance back to Ikkaku. “Hey! Charlie!”
Ikkaku pulled the door shut behind him, and Leah and Meg immediately made room for him at the small doorway.
“Charlie, cousin,” Renji said, grinning and slapping the fellow human-shinigami on the shoulder.
Meg recoiled as if she were the one receiving the slap.
“Hi, Leah, Meg,” Orihime said, pulling them farther into the living room. She fought off the last of the dwindling surreal feeling. “Where’s Danielle?”
Meg pulled her eyes away from Ikkaku and Renji as the Soul Reapers stepped out onto the porch. “She’s meeting us there.”
Leah tilted her head to see the men on the porch. “That’s Renji’s cousin?”
Orihime forced a smile. “Uh-huh. I’ve only seen him once before.”
Meg was looking the bald man over. “He doesn’t have any shoes on, Inoue.”
“He doesn’t like to wear them.”
Leah nodded, the strangeness of the household was starting to shock her less with each visit. “Are you ready to go?”
The junior high school had been the high school for over twenty-five years, but was turned over to the lower grades when the current Brooklyn High School was built four years ago.
There were a few new courts surrounding the large brick building, including one for tennis, two for basketball, and one for volleyball, which had grass growing between the cracked asphalt.
On the walk over they eventually separated, with Renji and Ikkaku falling behind, and Orihime and her friends pulling away. The junior high was a few blocks from the high school, nearer to the elementary school.
Ikkaku had gotten as comfortable as possible in a pair of brown fatigues and a loose fitting gray t-shirt that boasted a panther’s head on it. Slung over one shoulder was a cloth bag over three feet long. Renji could see the edge of a sword hilt sticking out of it. He eyed the six foot-long rattan bo in the bald man’s hand that he was using as a walking stick.
“What are you doing here?” he asked as they continued down the sidewalk in the late afternoon sun. “Replacing me?”
Ikkaku sent him a dark smile. “Nope. Checking up on you two. Captain Zaraki was out a few days ago, but he couldn’t find the place.”
Renji nodded. “Just checking up?”
Ikkaku’s smile turned sly. “And to make sure you’re not getting too patina’d.”
Renji scowled. “You mean rusty.”
Ikkaku clapped a hand on his shoulder. “At least you admit it!”
Ahead of them Leah and Meg turned at the outburst, then faced front again, leaning in to speak to Orihime between them.
“You’re human now, Madarame,” Renji reminded in a lower tone. “People can see and hear you.”
Ikkaku nodded. “That’s why we should change now.” His fingers edged to the ring on his left hand.
“Oh, no you don’t. Twice the spiritual energy would draw attention. If there’s one thing this place is, it’s spiritually empty.” Renji ran a hand over his head, returning the stares of two junior high age boys on bikes on the opposite sidewalk across the road. “You’re stuck in human.”
“It’s so confining.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I’m not going to be around long enough to get used to it.”
Renji glanced at him sideways, his tone softening. “How is she?”
Ikkaku shrugged, his smile dimming a bit. “The same. Well. Busy.”
Renji swore under his breath. “That doesn’t tell me anything.” His eyes went to the girls ahead of them. Orihime and Leah were in capris and t-shirts and Meg had on a pair of sweat pants rolled to her calves and a short sleeve hoodie. “Has she even noticed –”
“That you’re gone?” Ikkaku grinned wider as they passed the last residential block and the walk turned to the school district.
“That’s, that isn’t …” Well, it was what he meant, anyway.
“Yup. She asked about you. Oh, and Orihime, too.” Ikkaku jabbed the bo in Renji’s rib.
Renji grabbed the rattan stick and a shoving match ensued, halting their progress, until Orihime’s sing-song “Yoo-hoo!” from ahead broke them apart.
Ikkaku returned the wave Orihime sent before the girls turned back around and they proceeded on.
“Kurosaki asked about Orihime, too, but you didn’t ask about that, did you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“He said you better take care of her.”
“That’s what I’m doing.” Renji was growing anxious for something to do, and he figured Ikkaku would be up for a spar.
Ikkaku scratched his head. “Why Charlie?”
“It was all I could think of.”
They reached the junior high parking lot, situated off a side street near the elementary school. It was a small complex, and Renji was beginning to think everything in Brooklyn was small compared to Karakura Town.
The tennis court was sandwiched between the two basketball hoop courts and one for volleyball. Already a tall thin girl with dull blonde hair in a pony tail was waiting beside a bike, turning a volleyball in her hands.
A chorus of “Danielle!” went up from Orihime, Leah, and Meg as they met her at the net, and Orihime waved to Renji before they wandered onto the well-worn asphalt court.
Renji paused as they did, his eyes taking in the surroundings. Not much to see, really. A few kids rollerblading on the one-way street leading from the elementary to a street converging into town. Three boys of about eleven years-old were shooting hoops at one of the basketball courts. The schools were accessed by the one-way street and the main double lane side street they had walked up. The elementary school was small, brick, and sat away from the junior high by a circle drive with a flag pole and small flower garden in the center. Behind it, not quite out of sight from the volleyball court, was the staff parking lot.
“What’s in the bag?” Renji asked Ikkaku, who was watching Leah and Meg pull their hair up into ponytails as Danielle tried to dribble the volleyball on the court.
“This is what you do all day?” Ikkaku pointed to the court.
Renji growled. “Yes. That’s my assignment.”
“Huh.” Ikkaku shook his head, watching Orihime refasten her hairclips. “You must be bored out of your skull.”
“Speaking of skulls –”
Ikkaku turned on him, scowling. “Let’s see how much training you’ve lost in the last two weeks.”
The parking lot behind the elementary school opened into a grassy stretch of about fifty feet square, and from it Renji and Ikkaku could see the sports courts. Shouts from the boys shooting basketballs and laughter from the girls could be heard at the distance. The few residential homes whose yards backed up to the courts were separated by tight shrubbery head high.
Ikkaku dropped his pack, and then sunk to his heels beside it. “No! Not my Little Debbies!” From the sack he withdrew a dented cardboard box of snack cakes bearing the image of a smiling girl with a straw hat in the corner. He pulled open the end, shaking out the two contents inside. He held up the pair of plastic wrapped snack cakes. “Have you tried these?”
Renji looked closer at the strawberry and cream cake rolls. “No.”
Ikkaku stood up and handed him one before tearing open his own treat. “They’re very delicious. I already ate the chocolate ones on the way over from Manchester.”
Renji looked at the wrapped snack cake. “You walked from Manchester?” He’d seen it on the map in the telephone directory. “That’s five kilometers.”
“I know. I couldn’t get a ride.” Ikkaku stuffed the entire snack into his mouth and chewed. “Ichigo,” he said with a grin.
Renji lost interest in the snack. “Yeah. No thanks.” He handed it back.
“You don’t know what you’re missing, Abarai.”
Renji decided to ignore most of the ways he could have interpreted that remark. “Factory-made pastries? Orihime’s friend hand-makes these in her sleep. I’ve had better.”
Ikkaku looked to the two-on-two volleyball game in progress a football field’s distance away. “Which one?”
“Leah.” He nudged the bag with his foot. “What else have you got in there?”
Ikkaku caringly replaced the snack cake in the box and put it inside the bag, and then withdrew a black hardwood boken. He tossed it to Renji and stood, swiping his own bo.
Renji examined the practice sword, which had the dimensions of a real katana, its hilt wrapped with leather, the bronze tsuba a spoke-wheel shaped round. Reduced to a wooden sword, he thought.
Ikkaku stepped back and switched his rattan bo expertly. “Let’s see how far you’ve slipped, lieutenant!”
Renji looked to the volleyball court. Satisfied that Orihime was indeed safe, he gripped the weighty boken, testily swinging it a few times, and looked to Ikkaku as he circled.
The bald man stopped and drew back into a crouched-ready position, and then launched at Renji.
Orihime and Leah both reached for the volleyball at the same time, chiming “Got it!” simultaneously, their heads colliding at the net. Leah had never received such a crushing blow before, not even when she’d gotten thrown from her Aunt Dorothy’s horse when she was younger. She steadied on her feet and rubbed her temple, looking to Orihime.
“I’m sorry!” the Japanese girl said, one hand at her own head. The volleyball rolled away to the end of the court.
“Whoo-hoo!” Danielle cried as she high-fived Meg. “That’s game point!”
“Are you okay?” Orihime asked as Leah held her head.
“Yup.” Leah tried to blink away the stars dancing through her vision.
“We’re even,” Meg said, panting, pulling her shirt away from her chest. “A game apiece.”
Danielle put her hands on her hips. “Up for a tie-breaker?”
Orihime and Leah nodded.
Meg reached for her water bottle at the chain link fence dividing the courts. “In a few minutes. I’m steaming.”
They all settled at the fence, sorting out water bottles, Leah and Danielle retying their ponytails.
Leah nodded to the elementary playground that was partially in view. “Aren’t those some of your rugrats, Meg?”
Meg looked to the playground, nodding at the fourth-graders running about on the equipment. “Part of the tribe.”
“Meg baby-sits for half her neighborhood,” Leah explained to Orihime. “She’s always watching someone’s kids.”
Meg nodded, leaning back against the fence. “The Mason’s are expecting twins next month.”
Orihime sighed, still breathing hard from the exercise. Beyond the elementary school she could see Renji and Ikkaku, the second mock battle in progress. She knew it was the second because she’d heard Ikkaku’s triumphant shout ten minutes ago at the end of the first joust.
Meg was following her gaze. “They’re not serious, are they?”
Orihime shook her head, giggling. “Oh, no. Just practice.”
Leah watched the encounter for a moment. “Practice for what?”
Orihime frowned. “I’m not sure what you’d call it,” she said slowly, trying to gain time to think of something to say. “It’s, it’s a …”
“Reenactment?” Danielle offered, swigging down her water, watching the men in the distance. “Mr. Mantyck in world history last year was always talking about the Society for Creative Anachronism. Is that it, Inoue?”
Orihime nodded. “I think so.”
“I had Mantyck, too,” Leah added. “He was the biggest history buff I’ve ever seen. Wasn’t he part of that? Lord Something-or-Other?”
Danielle nodded. “I don’t remember the whole title, but he really worked up his persona. Made us watch a video of his outfit or whatever it was from a renaissance fair. The Northwoods Horde or something.”
Meg made a disagreeable face. “I had Mrs. Stevens for World History. Boring.”
Leah watched Renji land an exceptionally hard blow to Ikkaku’s upper arm. The bald man let loose with a colorful string of oaths in Japanese. “I didn’t realize the SCA had an Oriental branch.”
Danielle giggled. “Or one for mad monks.”
Meg looked to her. “Who?”
Danielle gestured to the two men exchanging blows. “Doesn’t Charlie look like a monk?”
“Mr. Mantyck left that part out,” Leah said.
Orihime smoothed back her hair, resisting the urge to touch the sore spot at the back of her neck. At least her muddled thinking had cleared. She saw Danielle look at the watch strapped to her water bottle.
“We’ve got to start soon if we’re going to break this tie,” the tall girl said, getting to her feet. “I’ve got to work at seven.”
Meg leaned closer to Orihime. “She works at the Manic Groove, like Leah.”
Orihime turned to Leah, who was still watching the spar. “Danielle works with you?”
Leah pulled her attention away, looking to Orihime. “Hmm? Oh, yes, but she’s a waitress. Very glamorous.”
Danielle rolled her eyes and put the cap on her water bottle. “Yeah. Real glamorous. Some days I envy you and your chopping block.”
Orihime, Leah, and Meg stood up, tossing their water bottles to the fence.
Meg gathered the volleyball at the end of the court and brought it to the net. “Ready to break this tie?”
Renji grit his teeth at the rattan’s crack on the back of his arm near his wrist. He gripped the boken tighter, beating back his opponent. “Not on the watch!”
Ikkaku only grinned wider, dodging a flurry of wooden strikes. “Then be quicker, Abarai!”
Renji landed a blow on Ikkaku’s ribs when he was exposed.
“Agh!” Ikkaku danced back a step. “Damn human bodies! So easily damaged!”
Renji deflected the bo’s thrust with the boken as Ikkaku attacked again, then sent an uppercut that clipped the man’s chin. “Make you so ugly Ayasegawa won’t look at you again!”
Ikkaku rubbed the back of his hand on his chin, and then lunged again.
A laugh from Orihime made Renji’s attention shift for a fleeting second, and the bo landed with a whack on his lower ribs.
An “oof!” escaped him before he could ward off the stick again.
“Some blue to go with all that black. A distracted warrior is a weakened warrior!” Ikkaku said gleefully. “A mission is compromised!”
Renji stepped back, looking to Orihime and Leah sitting on the bench nearer the elementary school now. Meg and Danielle were nowhere in sight.
He lowered the sword. “That is my mission,” he said with a nod at Orihime.
Ikkaku looked to the girls, then back to Renji in disappointment. “Over so soon?”
“Yeah.” Renji put a hand to the spot where the bo had landed. Already he could feel the heat of swelling on his rib. “Damn human flesh.”
Ikkaku nodded in agreement. “I forgot how uncomfortable they are.”
The walk home took fifteen minutes. Leah said her good-byes and split off from Orihime, Renji, and Ikkaku two blocks from the house to take a road leading to one that turned out of town. The townsfolk were still milling about the sidewalks and in yards in the early evening, relieved the weather was warming for the spring after the long winter months.
Renji unlocked the back door to the house when they reached it and went in, followed by Orihime and Ikkaku, the last standing akimbo in the kitchen, looking around, nodding.
“Not too bad. Has a definite Matsumoto touch.”
Renji checked the lock on the door leading to the basement. “She’d have your head for a comment like that.”
Ikkaku spied the box of donuts on the counter. “Ooh, from Little Debbie?”
Orihime looked to him. “Who’s Little Debbie?”
Ikkaku lifted the box lid, his eyes lighting up.
“It’s Leah, not Debbie,” Renji said, then looked to Orihime as she found a glass in the cupboard. “I’m going to look around.”
Renji made a quick study of the living room, unlocking and opening the front door to retrieve the late newspaper, and then relocked it and made his way down the short hall. The back bedroom and bathroom were empty, so he headed up the staircase.
His room was empty, so he looked into the bathroom to find the same, and then Orihime’s room. Everything was fine. He rolled the newspaper tighter in his hand, and turned as Orihime stepped into the room.
“Everything’s okay,” he said.
She nodded, leaning against the wall by the light switch. “Charlie is still in the kitchen.”
“You can call him Ikkaku when your friends aren’t here, Orihime.”
She nodded, and then put a hand to her forehead, squinting at him.
He stepped closer. “Are you all right?”
“Uh-huh.” She pushed harder against the wall, and then started sliding down it, her knees buckling.
Renji dropped the newspaper and caught her before she hit the floor, pulling her upright as she sagged. “Inoue, are you okay?”
She opened her eyes wider, forcing a smile. “Yup,” she said lowly, then became aware of his proximity and straightened on her own. “Of course!”
He held her at arm’s length, watching her, looking to each of her eyes. After a few seconds she shied from him, one hand going to the back of her neck.
“I’m okay, Renji. I bumped heads with Leah earlier on the volleyball court.” She patted her hair with her hand. “No damage done.”
“Okay. Maybe you should sit down for a while.”
He nodded and gathered the paper, pausing to make sure she sat down on the bed. She gave him a smile, and he went back down the stairs to the kitchen. If Orihime and Leah had knocked heads hard enough to make Orihime nearly faint, he wondered if Leah was passed out on the road somewhere. Nah, she looked hardy enough, he thought.
Ikkaku was seated at the table, already on his second pastry, a glass of water by his napkin. Renji put the newspaper on the table and found a glass in the cupboard.
Ikkaku unfolded the newspaper. “This place feels so dead.”
“It is dead.”
“I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it.” Ikkaku frowned over the front page of the paper. “How’s your English, Abarai?”
“Better than yours.” Renji sat down with a glass of water and took the paper Ikkaku held out to him.
“What’s that say?”
Renji looked at the story at the bottom of the front page, eyes narrowing at the headline. “’Attempted Bus Stop Kidnapping,’” he read. He skimmed the story as Ikkaku reached for another donut.
“Debbie makes these?”
“Leah,” Renji said automatically, scowling at the photo of the junior high age girl. “Uh, looks like two men tried to abduct a Chinese girl from a bus stop in Taylor, about sixty miles away. The bus pulled up, and the men fled the scene in a black sedan.”
“Chinese?” Ikkaku stuffed another half pastry in his mouth.
Renji nodded. “’Cho Lin Lee said she’d never seen the men before…heightened security in the Taylor schools…Suspects were apprehended several hours later and taken into custody.’” He looked closer at the photo of the girl. Typical Asian, dark hair and eyes. “How are the Kurosaki girls?”
“In hiding.” Ikkaku shrugged. “That’s all I know. Isshin Kurosaki has made those arrangements, not Tenth Division.”
“What about Ishida?”
“Still missing, but that’s all anyone knows.”
Renji sat back, considering the newspaper photo. Orihime’s hair was reddish-brown. Maybe they should dye it black, make her fit in with the stereotype. He recalled the other newspaper article story about the attempted abduction by the gunmen. Those girls had all been dark auburn, without any Asian features.
Two more men apprehended. That made it four.
What the hell was going on?
“Does she make them here? With Orihime?” Ikkaku’s attention was on the custard filled donut.
“No; in town at a shop.” Renji set the paper aside. “How long are you staying?”
“I’ve already bested you, so I can leave any time.”
“You didn’t best me. It was one-for-one. We never finished the third.”
“I would have beaten you.” Ikkaku munched on the last of the third donut.
Renji stood up. “Come on. You’ve got enough time to put the wheels on the lawnmower.”