Orihime in Hiding Chapter 21
21- To Market
In a darkened room in Las Noches, fourteen small points of light were highlighted on a monitor screen, clustered around a mitten-shaped landmass on the Northern American continent. Eleven of them were red, three green. The red ones had been green at first, blinking out, and then turning red over the past few weeks, as failures in the Living World were noted and recorded.
On a separate monitor, the screen showed blank. If turned on, it would simply have shown the last known whereabouts of a now defunct tracking chip that had grown cold and nonfunctional, outliving its tentative, unsuccessful usefulness. Nearby, a small positional receiver awaited a push of a button from one of the remaining three holders of the green lights on the first monitor.
It was a simple set up, the man watching the screen knew. Simple to arrange, simple to manage.
Simple to corrupt, if one was of the mind to corrupt it.
The fourteen mercenaries had dwindled to three. Even with the hairpins and coordinates delivered to the Quincy boy, the odds in Inoue’s favor were slim, but they were getting better. The watcher had expected something more of a reaction by now; some trigger-eager slip of a button, some half-planned attempt at maiming the target in an attempt to capture her.
But it hadn’t happened. This time, Aizen had picked the more obedient huntsmen, if not the most intelligent or patient.
It was the last trait that kept the man’s attention on the receiver. Orihime Inoue’s whereabouts weren’t entirely a mystery to him, but it had become one of the more engaging games in the dreary existence that had become Las Noches. The door opened behind him, and the man at the console touched a button, sending the three green dots scattering into different directions on the first monitor.
“Nope. Not a thing.”
Aizen looked to the monitors for a moment. “I want Inoue back before the War begins. If this fails, we’ll go to the back-up plan.”
The rain outside had eased off to a light shower in Brooklyn. Leah opened her eyes slowly in the morning of semi-darkness that lingered too late with the overcast skies. Her cheek rested on a warm surface, hard yet relaxed, comfortable.
Comfortable. That’s what made her open her eyes. The dimly lit room of Orihime’s living room met her gaze, the TV displaying some weekend morning talk show.
“… one of the more spectacular wins in a double-overtime game…” the television host was saying.
For a moment she only stared at the happy, perky faces of the male and female host couple, not recognizing either. She looked to the bald guest they were interviewing.
Mark Messier looks a lot like Charlie, she thought. She focused, looking down at the hand covering hers. It was strange, but still familiar, and after a few seconds, she chanced a look at the arm over hers. It took a moment to comprehend anything.
When she did, she raised her eyes to Renji, hoping he wasn’t awake. Please don’t be, she thought. He wasn’t.
For a moment she watched him sleep, his head cocked away on the back of the sofa, snoring softly. The angle of his neck showed the tattoos that dissolved behind his head.
That’s what they were. No play of lighting, no bend of his neck, no strange crease in his shirt, she knew. Tattoos. She couldn’t determine much of a pattern of the dark thick black marks. Akin to jagged sharp shapes, but unlike any she’d seen before.
Not that she had much of a reference point.
His button up shirt was loosened a few buttons at the top and she could see more dark staggered black marks beneath, to one side of his chest, but indistinguishable with her limited view. No one had those markings without a story. She wondered what it was.
Her fingers unconsciously curled beneath his. Don’t wake up, she thought desperately, watching his hand close over hers.
Then she looked to him.
Renji looked back at her, eyes only half open in sleep, returning her confused look.
And then it cleared.
Leah caught her breath as his hand tightened, fingers entwining around hers. She hoped he wouldn’t feel her pulse jump in her wrist. His look softened as his hand loosened, his bandaged forearm still in contact with hers.
Her attention went to the television as her cheeks heated, and then she stood up abruptly.
He watched the blush bloom over her face, grinning as she turned away. “Who won?”
Good grief, who played? she thought. It was an important game. When did she fall asleep? She looked to the television. “He looks like your cousin.”
He stood up and glanced at Messier on the screen, nodding. “Ikkaku.”
“Oh. I meant Charlie.”
He looked to her quizzically, and then nodded. It was too early in the day to start lying. “Yeah, Charlie.”
For a moment they traded uncomfortable looks, and then she pushed a hand through her hair, digging into a jean pocket for her hair-tie with the other hand. “I’m supposed to be at work.” She looked to the clock on the wall. “Shit. My Mom is going to kill me. I didn’t go home.”
He nodded, watching her twist her hair into a ponytail. “You’ll be in trouble?”
She nodded, then shook her head, over-tightening the blue hair-tie until it threatened to snap. “She worked the night shift in the triage unit, so she might not know.” A look of distress crossed her face. “Ugh. Brad.”
“My brother.” She shook her head again. “He’s probably not home yet.” She looked into the kitchen as Orihime’s low giggle drifted out. “Will you say bye to Inoue for me?”
He nodded, scratching the back of his neck. “I’ll give you a ride to work.”
“No. I’ll walk. Thanks anyway.” She looked to the kitchen doorway as Ishida’s voice was heard, then back to Renji. “See you later, Renji.”
He nodded, opening the front door when she reached it, seeing her eyes go to the katana behind it. “Bye, Leah.”
He watched her leave, breaking into a jog when she got to the sidewalk amid the misting rain. He locked the door, deciding he should have driven her anyway.
Orihime and Ishida were sitting at the table when Renji got to the kitchen, their heads bowed, leaning close. They looked up at him, Orihime’s cheeks taking on a faint blush, her brown eyes still on the newspaper spread before them. Ishida pushed his drooping glasses back up his nose, a shrewd look coming to his eyes when he seen Renji.
“Sleep well, Abarai?”
Orihime nudged his side with her elbow. “Uryû…”
Renji gave him a dark look and went to the counter where the coffee pot was finishing its ritual hot-water-making process. Nearby, the rice cooker was steaming. “Who won?”
“The game?” Ishida asked.
“Yes. The game. Did you see who won?” Renji put a tea bag in the coffee cup Orihime had already left on the counter for him.
Ishida’s attention was already on the newspaper again. “No.”
“Can we go to the farmers market tomorrow?” Orihime asked, turning in her chair to look at Renji.
He poured the hot water into the cup with the tea bag, then pivoted to lean on the counter to see her. “Where are your hairclips?”
She looked guiltily to him, one hand on her hair. “I really should work with them, Renji. Tsubaki gets so upset when I ignore –”
“Not until we’re out of here,” he said immediately, watching Ishida’s expression turn defensive. “We already talked about that.”
She nodded, sighing. “They’re upstairs, in my room. Just resting.”
For a moment no one said anything, the rain outside gaining in force until it was accompanied by a rumble of thunder.
“Leah said goodbye,” Renji finally said, wishing the tea bag would work faster.
Orihime smiled. “I’ll call her later. Can she go with us to the market tomorrow?”
Renji took the tea bag out of the cup and tossed it into the wastebasket beneath the sink. “There’s not enough room in the truck.”
“Sure there is,” Ishida said, leaning back in his chair.
“I’ll ask,” Orihime said hopefully.
Renji looked to each of them, and then pinned his attention on the rice cooker near the window.
Rybak’s luck was about to change.
He didn’t know it yet, as he sat outside the Frosty Boy coffee and ice cream shop, watching the three teenage girls ordering their favorite frozen treats, wondering how anyone could eat ice cream — even ice cream coffees — in the rain at eight o’clock Saturday morning. He hadn’t gotten to the side of town that would make his patience and dedication over the last few weeks pay off. No, he was on the wrong side of Pierport to find the farmers market.
He’d checked into most of the eleven Japanese foreign exchange students in the area. He’d narrowed it down to three, dismissing eight out of hand when the names turned out to be either male, returned to Japan already, or clearly not his target. Only Inoue Sakajawa, Nana Orihime, and Inoue Moriyama were left.
It was Nana Orihime that he watched now. She stood at the coffee/ice cream shop’s order window, crowding under the overhang with the two blonde girls to escape the warm mist that had visited Pierport all morning.
Rybak watched her nod quickly at the ice cream treat, giggling with her friends, stirring the coffee-shake with the long spoon as the other girls collected their dessert drinks. She was short, her black hair cropped just above her shoulders, her slight frame smaller than her American friends.
And lacking the very distinguishing feature Rybak had studied so well on the photo of Orihime Inoue. The Japanese girl was without much of a bosom, instead being slender, nearly flat-chested. Of all the things Rybak’s target could hide or change, that was not one of them.
He watched the girls move off into the intermittent precipitation. He pulled the older model gray Mercedes Benz onto Pierport-Brooklyn Street and followed the traffic into town.
Leah tried to steady her shaking hands as she frosted the raised donut with strawberry icing thirty minutes later. The metal spatula kept piercing the sides. She sighed, frowning at the donut as Sam watched her from his table in the back work room of the Cake Cottage.
“You’re supposed to be frosting them, not cutting their throats, Leah,” he said as she punctured the side of another donut.
She shot him a look, repositioning the donut in her hands, determination evident on her face.
“What’s got you so nerved up?”
“Nothing.” Certainly not waking up next to Renji, she thought, concentrating on the donut and the elusive strawberry frosting.
“You’re practically rattling. What’s up?”
“Not that bum you work with, is it?”
“I don’t consider you a bum, Sam.”
She set the donut down, hating the way her very damp hair hung at the back of her neck. “Then which bum would that be?”
“The one from Manic Groove. Frank.”
She shook her head and reached for another donut. “What about Frank?”
“Oh, you didn’t hear?”
She looked to him, the spatula of pink frosting poised in her hand. “What did Frank do?”
“Got busted. Last night.” Sam gave her a sideways glance as he rolled out the mound of dough before him on the table. “Figured that’s what your mom was calling about this morning.”
Leah nearly dropped the spatula. She remembered to place it on the counter before she did drop it. “My Mom called here?”
“You bet. From work. Said you weren’t home when she called there and she wanted to see if you were here yet.” He grinned, looking over her pink shirt she’d pulled from the spare ones in the employees’ bathroom before work. “Where were you last night?”
“A friend’s house.” She quickly frosted the donut and set it on the tray with the others, completing the row. She turned her back on him and went to the baker’s rack that held the trays of blank donuts awaiting finishing and traded the tray of frosted donuts for another. She pulled one out and made room for it on her table, scooting the pink frosting tub away. “We were watching the game.”
“Oh. A late one.”
She didn’t look at him. “So, Frank got busted. Just a matter of time, Sam.” She carefully frosted the first yeast donut. “What did you tell my Mom?”
“I said you were running a little late, that you’d call her later.” He looked to her expectantly. She kept her focus on the donut before her.
“Anyway, Frank will probably get some time this go ’round,” Sam said, grunting as he leaned over the table, rolling the dough thinner. “Last time he got busted he was, what? Nineteen? Him and that other bum. Raider Bailey.”
Now Leah looked to him. “I forgot all about that. Did they bust Raider, too?”
“Nope. Not yet.”
For a few long moments they each worked quietly, watching the door to the front of the shop as the owner, Mrs. Simon, waited on the few customers. Leah’s thoughts drifted to Orihime and what little she’d learned of the Japanese girl’s predicament. She knew it hadn’t been her imagination of Renji’s watchful nature, not entirely, and now it made more sense. A little more sense.
“Leah,” Mrs. Simon said again when she got no reaction the first time from her girl.
Leah looked up quickly to the older woman standing in the doorway between the rooms. “Yes?”
“Come out and watch the counter. I’m running the order up to the firehouse.”
Leah nodded and dusted off her apron.
Sunday morning was warmer than Saturday, and the increased humidity lent a heaviness to the air. The muggy weather didn’t result in any less of a crowd at the farmers market, however, and by the time Renji, Orihime, and Ishida found a parking spot, the street between the stalls of vendors was filling.
They waded into the visitors, Renji letting Orihime pull a few paces ahead of him, Ishida at her side, watching as she showed the Quincy one thing after another from each table they came to.
His communicator beeped, startling him as he kept one eye on Orihime and one on the crowds. He pulled it from his back pocket, watching Ishida look to him and turn Orihime aside to a table of items.
Renji looked at the code on the device’s screen, then pressed a button. “Yes, Captain?”
“Just an update on the metallurgy results, Vice-Captain,” Hitsugaya said. “Where are you?”
“Uh, we’re at an open-air market in town.”
“I see. The metal band was an alloy originating in the Seireitei. It’s definitely Aizen’s work, so watch yourself.”
“You may be recalled at any moment, so be ready.”
“We will.” Renji watched Ishida show a bracelet of blue stones to Orihime, saw her nod with approval, and then her eyes widen with delight when he testily wrapped it around her wrist. “Uh, Captain Hitsugaya, Uryû Ishida is still with us.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, not a problem.” Renji dropped a few steps back from the table of jewelry. “He’s been an asset since we’ve met up.”
“Oh? Well, that’s good.” Hitsugaya paused. “Well, if you need to get an extra plane ticket back to Tokyo, let me know.”
“Anything else to report?”
Renji scowled at thoughts of the library. “Uh, there were two more. One incident.”
“Is Inoue all right?”
“Yeah, she’s fine. I think there may be a few more.”
“Can you handle it?”
“Absolutely. Just letting you know, Captain.” Renji wanted to ask a few more questions, none of which had anything to do with his assignment, or Soul Society, for that matter, but didn’t.
“Remember your reports, Abarai.”
“Yes, sir.” The communicator beeped off, and Renji stuck it back in his jean pocket, watching Ishida purchase the blue beaded bracelet from the vendor. Orihime beamed at him as he clasped it around her wrist below the silver and blue bangle Renji had attached with the screwdriver.
Across the market, halfway down the street of bustling shoppers, balloons, politicians, and scary-silly clowns, Karl Rybak pinpointed one of the shinigami for which he’d been searching for a month. He watched Renji Abarai look around the crowd, and then step closer to the two Japanese youths at the table of handmade jewelry.
For a long moment Rybak didn’t move, his twenty-five years of surveillance making him refrain from any hasty actions. He new every detail of Inoue Orihime’s features, and he didn’t have to get any closer to know the penny-copper hair and dulcet brown eyes of the young girl belonged to his target.
Nor was there any mistaking the red-haired man and Japanese boy with her.