Orihime in Hiding Chapter 15
Orihime in Hiding – Bandages and Brandy
It wasn’t until her break that Leah was able to put more attention into thinking back on the incident that afternoon. She’d spent the first part of her seven hour shift chopping broccoli and scallions for turkey quiches for the next day’s special, and quick-frying thinly cut steaks for sandwiches when the sous chef, Pauly, had taken his dinner break for twenty minutes.
She sat on the staircase in the alley behind the Manic Groove that led to the restaurant’s back entrance to the banquet hall above. Her break had come during a lapse in the rain, and she sat on a thick layer of folded cardboard between her and the wet steps.
From down the alley behind her came Frank, the afternoon dishwasher. He was a lean, questionable guy in his early twenties, and rumor had it he dealt stuff from his permanently parked van farther down the alley. He met her at the staircase, his hands jammed into the hoodie he always wore, and, from the looks of it, seldom washed.
“Hey, Leah. What time did you come out here?” he asked, his half-glazed eyes looking her over with appreciation.
He thought about this for a moment, as Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music, White Boy drifted from the Manic Groove’s back door. “Quarter of what?”
She sighed. “Seven. Six-forty-five, Frank.”
“Oh. Got ya.” He frowned, an ear cocked to the music. “How does Connie get away playing this shit? Aren’t you insulted?”
“I’m not a white boy.”
“Hey, yeah, so I noticed.” Frank wandered in the back door and shook her head. He gets stranger every week, she thought.
She looked up. The sky was gray and damp, the heat held down by low clouds heavy with rain. She watched them move slowly from the southwest, her thoughts drifting to Orihime. She’d meant to convince the exchange student to say something about the headaches to Mrs. Smith earlier that afternoon, but there had been no chance. Mrs. Smith was no where to be seen. She frowned, determined to make Orihime tell someone about the headaches.
Maybe Renji. He seemed concerned enough about her. Leah’s thoughts went to the bandaged arm he’d told them was a dog bite. She didn’t believe him. Not entirely. Orihime had insisted it must be a dog bite, too, but Leah still had her doubts.
She thought back on the tattoos. She knew they extended beneath his t-shirt collar to the back of his neck; she’d seen that before. But that afternoon was the first clear look she’d had at them minus the head rag. The black marks went all the way back into his red hair, startling her in number and design, nearly evicting thoughts from her mind of mentioning Orihime’s headaches to him.
“Are you ignoring me or daydreaming, Leah?”
Danielle’s voice broke Leah’s mind to the present. She looked at the blonde girl who was standing at the restaurant’s back door, hands on her hips as she tapped a foot.
“Oh, hey, Danielle,” Leah said, sitting straighter, swishing the melted ice and soda in the cup.
Danielle nodded knowingly. “What’s on your mind?”
“No one.” Leah groaned. She’d meant to say nothing.
“Oh? Like no one no-one, or no one like that guy that hangs around Inoue all the time?” Danielle’s face took on a secretive, omniscient expression.
Leah spared her a narrow look. “Well, they’re not dating or anything. I asked. She said she’s not involved with him.”
Danielle glanced at her watch. “Charlie?”
“Charlie was the bald guy, Renji’s cousin.”
Danielle nodded. “Renji. That’s right. Looks kinda extreme, if you ask me.”
Leah shrugged, grinning. “What’s wrong with extreme?”
“Nothing at all. I just didn’t know that appealed to you. Tattoos. I mean, the guy really has them.”
“It’s not just the tattoos, Danielle.” Dang it, Leah thought. How stupid.
Danielle smiled. “Yeah. He’s –”
“Don’t say hot.”
“But he is.”
“I’m so sick of everything being hot.”
The blonde girl nodded. “Have you got a better word?”
Several, Leah thought, but none she felt like saying aloud. She settled for one. “Intense.”
Danielle gave a giggle. “Yeah, that’d work. Oh, Nan said there was a guy in asking about you Tuesday.”
“Tues — You’re just telling me now?” Leah stood up and drank down the last of her diluted soda as Stevie Wonder’s I Wish started over the restaurant speakers, marking the seven o’clock hour.
Danielle dug into her black pants pocket for a hair-tie. “Hey, I just seen Nan yesterday, and I forgot until now.”
“Who was it?”
Some guy asking about you, not much else.”
“What’d he look like? Someone from school?”
Danielle shook her head, pausing to gather her hair into a ponytail and twist the tie around it. “No. Asian, Nan said, day shift.”
Leah tossed her paper cup in the garbage can at restaurant wall and followed Danielle to the back door. “What’d she tell him?”
“Said you worked in the kitchen after school. That’s it.” Danielle waited expectantly. “Well, anyone you know?”
“I don’t think so.” Leah thought back on the farmers market as they went inside the restaurant as the Stevie Wonder song ended.
“Anyway,” the blonde girl added, “he said he’d be back.”
It rained off and on late that afternoon from dinner until near dark, and Renji found enough dry time to change the truck tire the crossing-guard had shot out. It took him a full half hour to figure out how the tire jack worked.
The humidity rose with the rain, making the small house clammy as Renji and Orihime closed the windows on the south side. Orihime got her wish for raisins on half the pizza that Renji ordered an hour later, which surprised him that Pizza Bucket even had raisins to accommodate their request. After that they ate most of the baklava she’d brought home from school that day. It was actually good, he admitted to her, the sweet bean paste mixed with the filling of assorted chopped nuts between the layers of phyllo dough. Orihime had beamed at the compliment, relishing the dessert.
He settled in front of the TV in the living room later as darkness fell, flicking the channels with the remote to watch the quarterfinals hockey game while he caught up on paperwork for Soul Society. Actually, no one ever really caught up on paperwork for Soul Society, but he wanted to at least get the stack under control. The day’s events had added three new forms he had to complete. In triplicate.
The first form stumped him as soon as he looked at it. “Were there witnesses to actions while in human form?” the third question read. “List all names and addresses of Living who witnessed events while the above (see paragraph 11b, form C7) incident transpired.” He sighed. Last names and addresses? He didn’t know Leah’s last name, and ‘over the hill’ wasn’t exactly an address Soul Society would accept. He was quite sure the Society had invented a whole new category of forms just for this assignment.
He’d washed his right arm and closed the severed skin sides with adhesive bandages, using the entire box to do it. Even so, it stung and ached, the makeshift bandage of a torn up hand towel tied around his arm making for a lousy substitute for actual bandages. Of course, it was nothing compared to other injuries he’d had in the past, but without Fourth Division and their healing methods, he was at a loss.
He glanced at the TV and watched the hockey players on the ice for a few moments before wading again into the pile of forms. He’d found both guns and the short knife the crossing-guard had used in the hedges and driveway before dinner earlier, hoping Leah hadn’t spotted them as she left the house. He put them in a shoe box in the basement, along with the knives from the first intruder that had visited, who was now buried in the garage.
Renji wished he’d gotten more information out of the crossing-guard before she’d got hit by the truck. He thought he could have made her talk, even if it took half a dozen broken ribs to do it.
He didn’t like fighting a woman. Too frail, especially a human woman. Whoever had hired her, however, didn’t seem to mind. It sounded just like something Aizen would do.
He shuffled the paperwork, his arm stinging as he moved. Upstairs he could hear Orihime letting the water out of the bath tub. She’d asked to help him with his arm after Leah left that afternoon, but he had already had it wrapped by that time, and he didn’t really want to show her anyway. She was skilled at healing, but not with her own hands. Only with her powers, of which she had none at the moment.
He heard her move on the staircase down the hall as he looked over the first form of paperwork again as the rain outside was accompanied by an echo of thunder from the south. It wasn’t like he could email or fax them in to Soul Society or anything, but it was a good practice to complete the forms as incidents arose.
Leah wasn’t going to believe him much longer. Maybe she already didn’t, even with Orihime’s vouching. He looked to the hallway, but she hadn’t appeared yet.
It wasn’t until a commercial break in the hockey game that Renji realized five minutes had passed and Orihime still had not come down from the stairs. He stood up, glancing at the kitchen’s locked back door as he went down the short hallway where the bathroom and unused bedroom were. He looked up the staircase to see her sitting halfway down it.
“Hey, are you all right?”
She sat leaned to the wall, still in her school clothes, her head drooped forward, her arms crossed, hands clutching her elbows. She looked up at his voice, her face nearly hidden by her hair.
Renji climbed the dark stairs and knelt before her until they were eyelevel. “What’s wrong?”
Her face was wet as if she’d been crying, but she wasn’t, her shoulders slightly shaking, her breath coming in short, rapid pants. He moved her hair back to see her face better, and her hand shot to his.
“My head hurts. Don’t touch it.”
Her tone surprised him and he sat beside her, but his hand remained light on her hair. “Where?”
She put a hand to her forehead. “It hurts inside here, but here,” her fingers moved to the base of her skull beneath her hair, “here, too. I think I got bit by a spider, Renji.”
He took her elbow and stood her up with him. “Let’s get some better lighting.”
They moved to the bathroom and he switched on the ceiling and overhead vanity lights. The room still smelled of the peachy bubble bath she had poured but not taken. He glanced at her robe and pajamas still on the hook behind the door.
“Why do you think it’s a spider bite?”
Her eyes were leased with pain when she looked to him, her pout more of a glower. “I don’t know what else it could be. I didn’t get hit.”
He nodded, looking over her hair. Why couldn’t Matsumoto have gotten this assignment? he thought. Even Ikkaku would have refused this part. “I’m going to take a look at it, okay?”
She didn’t seem to care. She nodded, pulling her hair up from the back of her neck with one hand, turning her head so he could see.
Where’s Rukia when I need her? he thought, hesitating. He angled her head so the light from over the mirror at the sink highlighted her neck. Sure enough, a dime sized red mark of skin was inflamed and warm to his touch. He glanced at her reflection in the mirror, but her focus was on the floor, her expression set in a sulk.
“Ouch,” she said when his finger passed carefully over the spot.
“Uh-huh.” She made a growling noise when he felt the warm area around the red spot. “Ouch.”
“Okay.” He frowned at the spot. It was raised and hot, one corner at the bottom exposing a small tip of something metal. She flinched when he touched the edge of it.
“Ouch, Renji. That hurts. Is it a spider bite?”
“No.” He pushed her hair to one side, studying the rest of her neck and hairline to her ear, and then looked to the other side.
“What are you doing?”
He found nothing, save that her hair smelled like sunflowers — he’d expected strawberries, of course — and that it was soft as silk. He looked at her watching him now in the mirror. “It’s not a bite, Orihime.”
She looked up, turning her head out of his hands. “Then what?”
He shrugged. “There’s something in there, but it’s not an insect bite or sting.”
She looked in the mirror at herself, and then him, and then opened the drawer to find the handheld mirror they’d gotten from Happy Dollar. She held it up behind herself, angling it to see the back of her head in the mirror. After a moment of frustration and holding her head at several angles, her hair flipped up with the other hand, she saw it.
She lowered the mirror and looked to him. “Can you take it out?”
Renji’s eyes went to the back of her hair, shaking his head. “I’m not sure what it is, but one corner of something is protruding now.” He wasn’t sure how to phrase the next question. “When you were in Las Noches, did you ever have, uh, any medical treatment?”
An appalled look seeped through her face. “No,” she said slowly. “Not that I know of.”
He nodded. He wasn’t sure what kind of an answer he was looking for. He reached into his back pocket. “I’m contacting Fourth Division. Back in a minute.”
He told her to sit down and he stepped into the hall. This was out of his realm of experience — way out. Generally he was on the receiving end of medical issues, and unconscious. He punched in the contact numbers for Fourth Division on the Soul Society communicator. There was no signal. He tried again, and then, as an afterthought, the code for Research and Development. After all, he thought, scowling, it was something metal beneath Orihime’s skin.
He tried both codes again, and then resorted to Second Division, and then the private code for his own division, and Captain Kuchiki. Nothing.
Damn thing, he thought, stuffing the worthless piece of technology into his back pocket. He glanced at Orihime sitting on the lid of the toilet, her hand pressed to the back of her neck, her face pinched in pain.
“There’s no signal,” he said as he joined her at the sink. “Maybe it’s the rain,” he added, hating the weak sound of the words.
“Can you take it out?” She stood and opened the medicine cabinet mirror. She found a pair of blunt ended tweezers and handed them to him. “Now?”
He shook his head, looking at the rounded end of the tweezers. “Whatever it is is larger than a grain of rice. At least a few millimeters.”
She shrunk away. “You mean, it has to be cut out?”
He groaned. “Uh, no, but …It’s inflamed, and it’s … I think a small slit would do it.”
She frowned, one hand on her head.
He watched her carefully. “How long has your head been hurting?”
She sighed. “A few weeks.”
He turned her head again, moving aside her hair to see the red spot. He nodded. “We can’t take this to a clinic, Orihime. Not here. We could never explain it.”
She nodded, weakness grabbing at her legs as her hand braced on the wall beside the mirror. “Okay. Then what?”
The service station was half fuel stop and half convenience store. At the moment, Renji only cared about the convenience part. It was closer than Busch’s grocery store, and the way Orihime was slouched in the truck’s cab against the locked passenger door — within his view through the wide window at the store front amid the rain — he figured closer was better.
He looked at the shelves and hooks of household and medicinal paraphernalia in the miscellaneous aisle of the store, under the close watch of the clerk behind the register counter. Renji’s eyes rested on assorted cold medicines, cough syrups, bottles of indigestion liquids, and a host of other things. He picked out a small travel-size sewing kit that included a pair of tweezers with a flat, thin edge, a pack of razor blades, a bottle of aspirin, a package of alcohol swabs, and a box of adhesive bandages. Nothing else on the shelves looked to be of any use, so he headed to the counter.
“Is this it?” the lanky guy behind it asked, following Renji’s gaze to where Orihime appeared half asleep in the truck.
Renji looked at the shelves of liquor behind the counter. Not a bottle of sake in sight, he realized. He focused on a bottle of dark amber colored liquid, reading the label. “One of brandy.”
The man behind the counter nodded and found the fifth of brandy and set it beside the other items Renji had chosen. “That it?”
Renji nodded, reluctance growing in him.
He made two more calls to Fourth Division, and one to Captain Hitsugaya once they were home. No signal, no answer. No help.
Orihime was sitting at the table, making an objectionable face at the bottle of brandy before her, and then at the other purchases Renji had brought from the store. She wasn’t sure which hurt more now, the small spot at her neck or her headache, which was full blown torturous.
Behind her at the back door Renji snapped the communicator shut, cursing at the device. The rain outside had picked up in force, but there was little wind. According to the radio playing on the counter by the toaster diagnosing the crop outlook for the farming season, the rain was supposed to continue all night.
“Maybe you should eat something first,” he said, delaying everything as much as possible.
She didn’t shake her head. “I’m not hungry.”
He didn’t think she would be, not after the three pieces of pizza, and baklava, and the leftover rice and burger stuffed green pepper she’d eaten, topped by chocolate syrup.
He found two juice glasses in the cupboard by the sink and sat down at the chair to the side of the table, watching her expression. “I don’t know what else to do, Orihime.”
“It won’t be too bad,” she said, attempting a smile, trying to convince herself as much as him. “Will it?”
“No.” He opened the bottle and poured the juice glass half full and pushed it to her. “Drink that and it won’t be so bad.”
She looked at the amber liquid, her nose wrinkling at the smell. “It looks like honey.” She raised it only halfway to her lips before lowering it. “It smells awful, Renji.”
He nodded, pouring himself a glass. He looked at the bottle. Eighty-proof. Forty percent alcohol. What was sake? Fourteen percent? Sixteen? Matsumoto would know. He drank his quickly, deciding it was every bit of the eighty-proof.
Orihime was reaching for the jar of honey across the table. “Can I put some in?”
He nodded and got up to find her a spoon, and as a second thought, a small glass custard dish.
Two dollops of honey later and she finally drank half her glass, each small sip followed by a disagreeable face and a short cough.
According to the wall clock, it took five minutes, but to Renji it seemed half an hour. He poured her a second drink and she tempered it with more honey.
“Do we have to listen to the farm report?” she asked suddenly as he opened the package of razor blades.
He looked to the radio on the counter. “No. I’ll find something else.” He went to the counter and poked at the radio buttons until a pop music tune came over the speakers. They usually listened to the county station for the weather report, but there wasn’t much in the way of music on it. He sat back at the table, estimating her mood as he opened the sewing kit.
“It doesn’t hurt so much now,” she said, her fingers on her neck. She made a sudden scowl at the touch. “We’re still taking it out, right?”
He nodded, although he really wanted to say No. He set the tweezers, needle, and thread on the table, pushing aside the two spare buttons that had come with the kit. The thread was no more than a few loops of white, thin, and just enough to attach the buttons. The needle had a small loop in one end, and he set it aside also, and took the tweezers, the primary reason he’d bought the kit.
“Can Leah and Meg come over after school tomorrow? Leah keeps inviting me over to make brownies, and I always say I have to ask Mrs. Smisu. Which I can’t really do.”
He shook his head, unwrapping the protective cardboard from one of the razor blades, disinclination growing. “You’re not going to school tomorrow.”
“I have to.”
“Nope.” He looked to her pout, which was only slightly hampered by a sluggish sigh. “You’re not going to feel like doing anything, I think. Drink up.”
She looked at the near empty glass. “I’ve had enough.”
He poured it half full again with brandy.
“Just drink it.” He opened one of the individually wrapped alcohol swabs, watching her down half the strong liquid in the glass.
He brought the holder full of napkins and the custard dish within reach, and pulled his chair closer to hers, taking a deep breath. She looked to him for a moment, her normally large brown eyes sagging a bit. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“No,” she said, but put one hand beneath her hair at the nape of her neck and pulled it up, resting her chin in her other palm, her elbows on the table.
He wished he’d had another drink before she was ready. This was not something he’d attempted before, and didn’t want to now. He looked at the red spot beneath her hair line, the corner of a small metal object barely breaking the surface from her skin. With the tweezers he took hold of the corner, but the small object didn’t budge.
“I can feel that,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Sorry.” He found the razor blade and considered the skin around the too-warm area of her neck. “You’ll probably feel this, too.”
“Okay. I’m ready.”
He made a small, quick slit just to one side of the metal tip, a mere four millimeters. He saw her fingers tightened on her hair, her breath catch at the cut. A small trickle of red and clear fluid seeped from the new opening. He dabbed at it with a napkin, bringing a flinch from her.
“Sorry.” He used the tweezers to grab the end of the metal, tugging gently. There was some resistance, bringing a guttural sound from her, and then the metal emerged. He held the small flat piece of metal in the tweezers, shaped like a triangle with rounded points, measuring no more than half a centimeter.
“Leah’s mom is a nurse.”
“I don’t want to bring this to professional attention, Orihime.”
“Oh, no; I just remembered she said her mom was always fixing up her brother when they were kids. All the time.”
“I don’t think he ever really wanted my help at all, Renji,” she said quietly as he looked at the metal piece.
His attention went back to her, and then to her neck. He held a napkin to the small cut that was bleeding slightly. “Who?”
He looked at her with new interest. “Why would you say that?” He carefully wiped the damaged area around the spot on her neck, the red color from the skin already fading.
“I think he just wanted to see if anyone would follow.” Her voice had grown slower, more timid. “He wanted to see who would, and how strong they were.”
He opened another alcohol swab, watching her eyes close. “No one went to Hueco Mundo that didn’t want to go. No one made anyone go.”
“He said he’d leave my friends alone if I went with him.”
“You believed him?”
She nodded slightly.
He tentatively wiped the swab around the small cut, not wanting to touch the raw area.
“I can’t fight, Renji. I thought it would prevent people from getting hurt. Not just him.” She sighed. “Not just him, but others, too.”
And there was that damn strawberry again, he thought. “This will sting.”
She only cringed a little when the alcohol met her skin, her senses blunted by the brandy.
He sighed, looking into the box of adhesive bandages. “Aizen wants war, no matter what you chose to do, Orihime.” He pulled off the plastic backs of the bandage and carefully taped it over the small cut. “Any other spots hurting?”
“No.” Her fingers moved to the bandage, her hair falling over her neck. “It already feels better, Renji. Thank you.”
He sat back in his chair, watching her sit straighter, her eyes opening, looking to him tiredly. “Don’t thank me yet. You’re going to feel like hell tomorrow.”
“I think I should go to school. I never miss.”
“No one here knows that. You’re staying home.”
He escorted her up the stairs, her steps wobbly, leaning against him and giggling a few times. When she got to her room she sank onto the bed. He set the bottle of aspirin on the night stand as she stared at him.
“I’ll get you some water.”
She shook her head exaggeratedly. “I don’t need any. My head doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“It will tomorrow.”
“Then I can take the aspirin tomorrow.”
He shook his head and left to the bathroom, listening to the rain pouring outside. He found the pink plastic cup she used in the morning in the medicine cabinet and poured it half full of water, his thoughts volleying between her lackadaisical mood and the foreign object he’d just pulled from her neck.
When he got to her room she was already slumped over on the pillow, snoring softly, still half sitting. He set the cup on the night stand and shook her shoulder.
She only responded by to curling her legs onto the bed.
He looked to the bracelet fixed to her wrist and then to her hair part of her face. He unfolded the blanket at the end of the bed and pulled it over her, watching her hands close around the edge under her chin.
He turned out the light and went back downstairs. He’d have rather faced down a dozen Hollows than have to do that again, he decided, looking to the razor and bandages still on the table in the kitchen. He sat down, the music on the radio blending with the rain outside and the sports commentators on the TV from the next room. He poured himself a glass of the brandy and looked at the metal chip in the glass dish.
He picked it up with the tweezers, the edges still flecked with tiny bits of flesh. No wonder she was hurting, he thought, turning the metal, frowning at it. What the hell was Aizen up to?
Why hadn’t she told him sooner?
He knew it was her nature, that selfless, self-defeating vein of unselfishness that ran through her. He studied the metal piece. It appeared to be only that, nothing more. It was very similar to the metal he’d seen on the crossing-guard’s wrist band.
And the intruder who was buried in the garage. He loosened the watch on his wrist and looked at the reactive metal piece that ran off his body heat. Aizen had had access to much of Soul Society’s technology, and with Gin and Tousen’s input, the possibilities were far-reaching.
He drank the brandy, not liking the possibility that was beginning to surface.
He sighed, finishing the drink and pouring more. He really didn’t want to dig up the man in the garage floor.