Author's Notes: This chapter will focus more on Ishida and Nemu, and thus will be less caffeinated than usual… at least, that's how I hope it turns out. A transition chapter in nature, this was the most difficult episode for me to write thus far. Once more, suggestions, reviews, and pointers will be much appreciated.
Disclaimer: I do not owned Bleach or the characters contained therein.
Recap from last chapter: Shattered by his friend's misgivings about his manhood, Ishida gives in to Mayuri's marriage arrangement between him and Numu, Kon plays an involuntary game of tag with Kenpachi, a secret society's plan to whack Ishida crumbles before it begins, and all indicators show that Renji is about to get lucky with Yoruichi.
Chapter 3: "Those are vitamins, Inoue-san."
Rukia was not feeling exactly like spring and sunshine this morning: There was a shortage of help at the fifth division HQ, where work had been accumulating at a national-deficit pace. But had it just been the incessant stream of paperwork that seemed to undergo spontaneous generation, her face would not be scrunched to the effect of frightening away passer-bys. It was the fact that her captain, Abarai Renji, had gone AWOL since the day after the weekend midnight bash, last reported sighted heading into the remote outskirts of the Rukongai accompanied by that man-thieving, family-wrecking, no-good-eye-catching wench, Shihouin Yoruichi.
Not that she was angry, or jealous, or anything of the sort.
Her concern was strictly professional; It was certainly not her personal emotions which led her to take the matter up to the chief commander. And it was strictly professional when she became a little upset when Yamamoto merely chuckled after hearing her case and said, "Abarai-kun is still young, and young men will have their flings once in while. Back in the days I used to… " And it was certainly not personal emotions which made her excuse herself before her self-absorbed commander had a chance to finish recounting his own exploits during "the glory days." She walked away as cool and composed as any respectable professional of her office would have conducted themselves… and let fly the first unlucky shinigami she came across, who happened to be Hanatarou, off the balcony, into the blue yonder, and ending up in the hard pavement six stories below. Some time later, when he had regained consciousness and was applying restorative magic on his dislocated hip, Hanatarou gazed up at the azure expanse above where fluffy white clouds drifted, and with the wonderful sensation of Rukia's soft touch still emblazoned in his memory and the side of his face, he murmured to himself with a dreamy smile, "It is good to be alive..."
A pity that Rukia could not share Hanatarou's rosy outlook on life: "That idiot… wait till I get my hands on that red head of his. Then I'll… censored and censored censored, etc." Drawing up in her mind the most cruel and unusual methods by which to cause Renji long lasting suffering, Rukia set out to track down and recover her captain.
All strictly professional of course.
Miles away, inside the massive geo-front, Renji felt a chill go down his spine, but soon returned to the busy task of satisfying him and his partner's mutual physical needs. Minutes later, lying on his back, breathless and his body slick with sweat, Renji turned towards the slightly less tired woman besides him. "One more round, Yoruichi?"
"That depends on if you have any stamina left to entertain me with." said Yoruichi, wiping away the sweat drops at the nape of her neck.
The challenge was not missed by the fiery redhead, who grinned widely in response. "You underestimate me, lady. Who's the one who's got you breathless and begging for more?"
"Don't go bragging just yet, captain, I haven't shown you all my tricks yet." Turning to face the redhead, Renji saw the gleam of unfulfilled need in Yoruichi's eyes and the teasing curve at the corner of her mouth, and the fire inside his body was rekindled.
"Show me then!" And with renewed gusto, the two leapt into each other for their eleventh round of intense and heated… sparring, no doubt to the great disappointment of a number of viewers in another dimension who now greatly resent the author for leading them on in the false hope of eventually being rewarded with a scene depicting the two hotly engaged in a steamy and indecent affair.
In this manner Renji trained with Yoruichi, receiving the workout of his life while blissfully unaware of the forthcoming storm approaching in the form of a small dark-haired shinigami.
Far away from the scene of impending domestic dispute and likely manslaughter, back in the inner courts, a small group of female vice-captains had gathered in Hitsugaya's office to send off their friend and co-worker, Nemu, with a small celebration. Matsumoto Rangiku, the enviously well-endowed lieutenant of the tenth division (Affectionately dubbed "Our Busty Beauty" by her own fan club, Her Majesty Matsumoto's Men.) had volunteered her captain's office for the occasion, citing among many advantages the devilishly comfortable sofa big enough to seat five or sleep one. In order to assuage "Shirou-kun's" embarrassment of being the lone male, she had invited Ishida and his companions as well, an invitation which Ichigo and Orihime accepted in the reluctant archer's stead. At the moment, Rangiku had finished topping off everyone's cups and raised her own. "Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to propose a toast to Nemu-chan, for being a good friend all these years and providing a listening ear when the rest of us were talking too much. Best of luck to her and her new man, kan-pei!"
Sitting away from the center of activity at his own desk and eyeing the cup of sake in front him dubiously, Hitsugaya remarked to no one in particular, "It was probably just you who did all the talking…"
For reasons afore mentioned, Ishida had a cup of tea instead of sake, which, judging by the undivided attention he gave it, was the most interesting thing to look at in the world. He was aware however, that as the wine flowed and bottoms went up all around, Nemu had not touched her own drink, which she merely held in her hands. Rangiku, already on her third shot, leaned towards the conspicuously abstinent girl. "Oh… don't be a poor sport, Nemu. This is your party! We can't allow you to leave with your fiancé in a sober state now can we?"
Nemu appeared slightly hesitant. "I… don't like alcohol."
"Yes, we all know that Nemu. Rangiku just got carried away with herself." said Ise Nanao, the proficient and collected vice-captain of the seventh divison, as she glanced admonishingly at the guilty blonde. "How about some tea instead?"
"Thank you, Nanao-san." Rangkiu, pouting from "No-nonsense" Nanao's slap on the wrist, turned her attention to Nemu's raven hair, using her fingers to toy with the end of the long braid, a gesture which Ishida found inexplicably charming.
As Orihime stood up to pour Nemu a cup of tea, Hinamori Momo turned towards her quiet friend with a concerned expression on her face. "Kurotuschi-san, it's wonderful that you are getting married but… are you really okay with this? I mean, wasn't it all planned by captain Mayuri?"
The conversations came to a hush as everyone turned their attention the subject in question; even Histugaya stopped pretending to be disinterested for a moment in order to hear how Nemu felt about the matter. In the stillness, her sedate voice resounded clearly in Ishida's ears. "Mayuri-sama had told me a few weeks after the battles had ended, that he intended to wed me to Quincy-san. I replied that if that was his wish, I will abide by it." This statement made the bespectacled young man decidedly uncomfortable and at a loss, a sentiment not limited to him alone, as evident from the downcast look on Hinamori's and the others' faces in response to Nemu's confession. Just as he began to mentally berate himself (the eleventh time that day) for his rash decision, Nemu continued on, apparently not finished. "But… though I would never go against Mayuri-sama's will, I was glad that he chose to betroth me to Quincy-san, because…" and here, in a spectacle seen rarely even among her closest companions, Nemu lips curved lightly into a warm smile. "because… Quincy-san is a very kind person."
Ishida was speechless, his eyes wide with surprise at the girl with long-braided hair who sat next to him. Hitsugaya settled himself back into his chair, a little smile of his own forming on his face. Ichigo whistled loudly to break the silence. Rangiku, Hinamori, and Orihime expressed themselves much more openly; unable to contain their relief at knowing that their friend was not trapped into a hopeless relationship, they caught Nemu between themselves in a fierce bear-hug, pressing their faces against the surprised young woman; Rangiku positively squealed with delight. "Kyaaaa! I love you so much Nemu-chan! Listen, if four-eyes here ever treats you badly, you let me know! Rangiku nee-sama will be on top of him so quick he'd never know what hit him!" Ise coughed, wordlessly reminding Rangiku to mind her manners, who in turn released her prey and laughed sheepishly before apologizing. "Sorry, I wasn't talking about you, Nanao-chan."
"... That wasn't what I was referring to, but never mind." said Ise, who as the most straitlaced and sensible of the group had long grown accustomed to Matsumoto's ways. Turning towards the abashed Quincy, she smiled reassuringly and said. "Congratulations, Ishida-san, I wish you utmost happiness in the new life you are about to begin with Nemu. I'm sure you will look after her and make her very happy."
"Of course! And Kurotsuchi-san will make a wonderful wife for Ishida-kun!" Orihime added enthusiastically, her arms still wrapped around Nemu's neck.
"Thank you… Inoue-san. I will do my best." Turning towards her fellow shinigamis, Nemu said. "You have treated me so kindly these years and have been such good friends… I will miss you all very much."
"Oh don't say that like this is our last meeting! We'll be sure to visit you and your hubby when we get the chance…" Rangiku grinned deviously. "Maybe we'll decide to barge in when you two happen to be spending some quality time together… fufufu." Ichigo chuckled when Ishida face-faulted, nearly spitting hot tea all over his crispy-white outfit.
"Ah yes, that reminds me." Isane Kotetsu, the vice-captain of the fourth division reached inside her uniform jacket to bring out a delicately embroidered pouch woven of bright red silk. "Captain Unohana sends her felicitations, and wished to give you these as a wedding present." Taking the small bag in her hands, Nemu opened the package and rolled out several small purple pills as everyone studied the bag's contents curiously. "Thank you, what is it?"
"It's actually for both you and Ishida-san, one the captain's own special formulas. She told me to tell you that all you have to do is to dissolve one in your food or tea, and then…" Isane cleared her throat before she continued. "Err… well, 'enjoy the ride' was what she said. And oh, captain Unohana doubts that it'll be necessary, but if you two are really… well, 'going for the long haul,' she says you can use two for 'extended and lasting performance.' "
Overhearing this conversation, the tenth division's captain shuddered hard in his chair, making a mental note to himself from now on to examine his food for special additives if and whenever the always-smiling (and increasingly frightening) fourth division captain was in the same room. Nemu accepted the gift placidly, showing no sign of whether she understood the message which Isane tried to convey oh-so-subtly, "Thank you, I will try it out some times." Ishida was beside himself with mortification, his pale complexion in flames. Chad, ever the understanding one, patted him on the shoulder in wordless empathy. Ichigo was struggling to not embarrass his friend any further by clamping his mouth shut as his bodies shook with suppressed laughter and tears came to his eyes.
Orihime was her usual self, that is to say, she was confused; unable to grasp the odd behavior of her companions and the embarrassment of the females present. "So… captain Unohana made medicine for Nemu-chan and Ishida-kun? Why? They aren't sick."
Rangiku chuckled merrily when no one spoke up. "Fufufu… my dear Inoue-san, is that an act or are you really that innocent? That isn't medicine, that's…" Her sentence fell off when a blood-chilling sensation which could only be from her captain's razor gaze landed upon her back. Having discouraged Rangiku from needlessly wagging her tongue, Hitsugaya attempted to diffuse the awkward situation by misleading the clueless teenager.
"Those are vitamins, Inoue-san."
Catching on to the young genius' intentions, Ichigo played along. "Umm, that's right! The doctor lady made them for… fortifying the body! The different climate back in our world, you know, might take Kurotsuchi-san here some adjusting to."
"Oh… in that case, maybe I should take one too. I've been feeling a bit anemic lately…"
"NO!" shouted everyone present in unison.
A few hours later the party adjourned, and at the command of the ladies, everyone was evicted from the premises (including a very annoyed Hitsugaya for being kicked out of his own office) to allow Nemu and Ishida some privacy. Sitting across from Nemu in the suddenly quiet room, the silence became almost too much for Ishida to handle. His usually keen and discerning mind was in a gridlock, still unable to fully come to terms with the fact that he was now engaged, in the traditional sense of the olden days, and still in high school! He could hardly bring himself to look into the face of the girl in front him, but when he did, he saw that she had her hands folded neatly in her lap and her head bowed demurely, an image of such exquisite loveliness that in his raptness he quite forgot where he was. His mind traveled back to what was their first and only previous meeting, when both of them had sustained suffered near-fatal wounds after Nemu had stopped Ishida's swift movements with her body to allow Mayuri to attack; their blood had spilled and mingled so the other's was indistinguishable from their own. Ishida raised his hand to his shoulder and traced down the diagonal path which the blade drew across his chest.
Yet even then, with angry splashes of red contrasting frightfully with her fine complexion and cuts on her face from Mayuri's malicious trouncing, Ishida had thought her beautiful: Despite his hatred towards her superior, he had never harbored negative feelings towards the strangely captivating lieutenant who had saved her enemy's life. Though still unable to comprehend the reason why, Ishida recognized in Nemu's singular devotion to her cruel master something in common to the reverence he held for his late master and grandfather. He also remembered that had it not been for her antidote, the venom from Mayuri's attack would have consumed him and he would not be here today, savoring a peaceful moment alone with the girl who rescued him and fascinated him ever since.
"Ano… Quincy-san? Is something the matter?" Nemu inquired, startling Ishida out of his dreamlike state, whose embarrassment at having been caught in self-absorbed reflection caused him to stammer awkwardly as he fumbled for an explanation.
"No! No, nothing's wrong! Forgive me, I was just… well, I'm still shocked how sudden things came about." He laughed nervously. "I mean, seemed just like yesterday that Mayuri and I intent on killing each other, but now he's become my father-in-law, funny huh? Hahaha… ha…" In his mind, Ishida was kicking himself and wishing that the earth would open up and swallow him.
Inside a musty closet of an adjacent room, Ichigo, who had been monitoring the exchange through a convenient set of peepholes in the wall, covered his face with his hand in exasperation. "… Real smooth Ishida, you freaking idiot! My perverted old man could have handled that better!"
"Shhhh!" Hissed Orihime and Rangiku, themselves pressed against the wall to catch the action through their own peepholes; as if the day's events had not wearied Hitsugaya enough, he now had to deal with this disturbing discovery. He decided that he would interrogate Rangiku later, after she had had her fun, though he dreaded what answer he might receive and who had been using this space to spy on his private activities.
The eavesdroppers returned their attention to the unfolding drama. At the sight of Ishida playing with his fingers like a nervous twit, Nemu said in quiet tone. "You need not be so nervous, Quincy-san. We will be spending much more time together from now, and since the human world will be a new place for me…" She bowed deeply. "Please look after me from now on."
Ishida appeared to waver for a moment, but optimism appeared to prevail over doubt when a smile gradually appeared on his face and he bowed in response. "I as well, please look after me, and… please call me Ishida."
Satisfied with the good vibes developing between the two, the crowd next door filed out from their listening post quietly. Chad, in a rare display of verbal opinion, suggested that he and his friends return to their rooms to start packing for the trip home. Hitsugaya left with Rangiku in tow, and the other shinigamis returned to their respective quarters. As the three teens walked back towards their quarters side by side, Orihime, flanked by the two men, spoke up first. "I'm glad that things seem to be working out between the two of them."
"Ah." Replied Ichigo nonchalantly. "Maybe having a girlfriend will cure that guy of his girlish habits." Before Orihime could protest that the president of the handicraft's club had very masculine habits indeed, a blurry form shot across their path and crashed through a wall. When the dust had settled, the trio could discern a barely recognizable Ichigo, with his unmistakable orange hair protruding out from under the debris, tattered and unconscious. Picking himself up by the collar and shaking him back into consciousness, Ichigo yelled, "What the… Kon! What the hell have you done to my body?"
Kon, his face a bruised and swollen mess, croaked, "Get… me… out of… this place…" before passing out again.
"Hold on a second… if you're here, that means…" Turning his head around slowly, Ichigo's worst fear was confirmed when he saw in the far distance the silhouette of none other than Kenpachi, standing atop a tall building, emanating his trademark spiritual pressure which could be felt even kilometers away.
The fearsome eleventh division captain, who had just launched "Ichigo" far into the distance like a tee off shot, squinted his eye to confirm what he saw. "Yachiru… tell me, am I imagining things, or do I see two Kurosakis now?"
"Nope, there's two of them alright."
Suddenly, the atmosphere over Soul Society seemed to double in intensity as electricity seemed to fill the air, reflecting Kenpachi's dangerously mounting excitement, a sign which Ichigo interpreted as his cue to make his exit. "Oh shit… no no, no time to heal him, Inoue. Chad, just pick him up, we gotta skip town, fast."
Back in Hitsugaya's office, Ishida, who had just begun to gain confidence that his uncertain future may turn out alright, picked up a distant rumble which rapidly increased in volume until Ichigo, screeching to a halt in the hallway outside, popped his familiar face through the screen door. "Yo, Ishida, sorry to interrupt, but we've moved the timetable up and we're heading home right now."
"What? Why? I haven't even packed yet!"
"Got your stuff right here… most of it at least. C'mon, we gotta go, right now!" Snapping his head back towards the direction from whence he came, dread came onto Ichigo's face as he spat. "Damn it, he's already here! Let's move!" Following the orange head's line of sight, Ishida at last understood the reason for panic, for down the hall came Zarakai Kenpachi, pupil dilated with blood lust and fangs bared like a T-rex bearing down on dinner, with just a trace of saliva trailing from the corner of his mouth wide with glee. Now aware of their critical situation, Ishida put aside his questions about the other Ichigo slung over Chad's shoulder like a flattened possum, and grabbing hold of a very surprised Nemu's hand, joined his friends in hightailing towards the spirit gate that connected Soul Society to the world of the living, collectively shattering several world-records in track and field in the process. A dizzying light exploded from the gate as they leapt through the portal, mere seconds before an extremely grouchy Kenpachi reached the site, knowing that he could not give chase beyond that point. In this manner, the adventures and travails of Ichigo and his companions in Soul Society came to a happy conclusion satisfactory to all (Kon not being conscious enough to object), and the heroes looked forward to a welcome respite from fighting and fleeing in the normalcy of daily life back home.
-To be continued-