The dream was back, the one he didn't want.
In the dream there was pain, always; sharp, bright, nigh-unbearable pain. Ishida curled himself around that pain instinctively, the way wild animals do. Oh, God, oh, Heaven, it hurt. He was dying again. Couldn't it be quicker?
Apparently not. The winged espada enjoyed killing Ishida, and he drew each death out as long as possible. As the dream continued, those deaths came ceaselessly, one after the other. Only the means varied.
In this one Ishida was meant to choke to death on his own blood. He managed to roll to his side and open his mouth to allow the hot liquid to trickle out unhindered, tasting of iron and bile. Disgusting. No, he'd rather bleed to death. Ishida had learned that he couldn't stop the dream's inexorable progress, but he always managed to choose some part of his death. The manner. The time. The place. If he could live a little longer than Szael expected, or die a little quicker; if he could crawl or roll or drag himself to a different spot; if he could exert his own will over even one tiny aspect of this continuous vivid nightmare, he had beaten Szael.
At least that's what Ishida told himself. Cold comfort was better than no comfort at all.
And now that he had made his tiny act of defiance, Ishida felt ready to die.
Unfortunately, this one took a long time. Hours. It was forever before Ishida felt the welcome pull of oblivion, and he opened himself up to it gratefully.
And then again, into the dark.
The dream was back, the one he didn't want. But this time there was a voice calling his name. Not Szael. A different voice.
He forced his eyes open and his brain toward bright consciousness, to be immediately assaulted by high-pitched, inhuman shrieking. "Uryuu," came the voice again. "Uryuu, please? It's your turn to get him."
He rolled over and stumbled out of bed more on instinct than anything else; his feet were headed towards the corner of a dark room. Ishida took quick stock of his condition, here in this dream. The unyielding band that had been clamped around his head had eased. His limbs were his, too, not the tightly-wired wooden legs of a marionette, forever dancing to someone else's tune. In his head there was a memory of pain, but the pain itself was gone. This was the first time the dream had started with him standing and unbroken. Ishida was pathetically grateful.
"Thank you," came the voice again. It was grateful too. It was also tantalizingly familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. Still, the dream was caused by Szael, which meant that whatever it was, it was bound to be something unspeakable. Ishida turned around, stomach clenched tight with dread and despair, and braced himself for whatever new horror awaited him.
Inoue Orihime was in the bed.
Inoue Orihime, her hands tucked under a pillow, blinking sleeping at him. "I had a hard time waking you. It's funny, you're usually up before I am."
Ishida's mind, still clawing its way out of the dark, was thrown into further confusion at the sight of Inoue-san. She was the most private of his fantasies, the secret he had never told anyone. He had been careful. He had never betrayed with a word or a look or a single melancholy sigh that he was in love with her. But he was. Had been for months. Just the sight of her made the back of his throat ache with longing, even now. Szael must be deep, deep inside his head to have found this.
"Uryuu," came Inoue-san's worried voice, "aren't you going to get him?"
Him? Him who? Some corner of Ishida's mind drew his attention back to the shrieking, piercing and shrill, that had been running just under the current of his consciousness. He turned his head to that corner of the room, to see a tiny white bassinet embroidered with blue Quincy crosses. The bassinet swayed slightly and the shrieks grew, if anything, louder.
Ishida had learned not to fight the dream. Best just to let things play out, to save
his strength for the crucial moment. He moved to the bassinet, his mind racing. What was going to happen next? This was so very different from anything the dream had done to him before. Was there a monster waiting in that container? He braced himself to manifest a bow, just in case.
In fact, the bassinet was occupied not by a hellish demon but by a garden-variety infant. It was red-faced and squalling. Ishida stared at it for a moment, utterly bewildered. What was he meant to do now? Carry it to Inoue-san, presumably. Ishida was afraid to touch this tiny, extremely angry person, but his hands seemed to know what to do. Amazing, how competent those hands were; they scooped up the child and carried it to the bed, and moved to lay it down gently alongside Inoue-san.
And then he stopped, standing dumb and transfixed. Inoue-san had removed her pajama top.
The dim light leached all the color from Inoue-san's hair as it spilled over her smooth white shoulders, but it was not her shoulders that held his attention. The subject of Inoue-san's breasts came up regularly in the boy's locker after P.E., and Ishida was certain more than one of his classmates would have happily sacrificed a finger for the chance to be so close to a half-naked Inoue-san. Perverts, Ishida had thought them. Now he reconsidered, standing at the side of the bed looking at those rose-tipped breasts, utterly unable to look away. Perhaps this was worth a digit or two. What use was the pinky, when it came right down to it?
Inoue-san did not seem to notice his distraction. She took the baby from him, tucked it in close to her bared breasts and smiled up at Ishida. "You're still asleep, aren't you? Come lie down."
She was breastfeeding the baby. Ishida lowered himself gingerly to the bed, trying to avert his gaze—this was all far, far too intimate—but his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the sight, like iron filings to a magnet. And he was still in the dream, right? So it wasn't real. It wasn't like it mattered if he watched. The baby rested a tiny hand against his mother's fair skin and suckled noisily. "Ryusuke, you pig," Inoue-san said, but tenderly. "Slow down, you're going to choke. Mommy isn't going anywhere."
"Ryusuke," Ishida whispered. It was a boy. Ryusuke. Inoue-san was clearly his mother. And here she was, lying half-naked on a bed with him, apparently perfectly comfortable with such a strange state of affairs. A question asked itself in his head. Ishida resisted it for a long moment, until it became an unbearable, hot, burning itch in the back of his mind. Then he blurted out gracelessly, "Is he—is he mine?"
Inoue-san turned big, amazed eyes to him. "Of course not. He's ours." She smiled down at the baby, her eyes soft. "Our beautiful little man."
Ishida cupped the little black head with his long fingers, feeling the impossibly soft hair, the tiny beat of the pulse in the baby's scalp. Ryusuke. His son. His and Inoue-san's. Fingers caressed his hand. He looked up, startled, and met Inoue-san's eyes.
She was smiling that gentle, soft, warm smile. "Thank you, Uryuu."
"For Ryusuke. And for making a family with me."
There was a sudden, hard tightness in his chest.
"I love you," said Inoue-san.
That broke something inside him the way Szael's most inventive cruelties never could. A hot tear slid down his nose. Ishida closed his eyes, turning his head away from the woman and the child. This was all part of the dream. He was going to die any minute, and when he did this would all evaporate. It wasn't real, any more than previous tortures or perversions had been real. It existed only in a combination of chemicals and electricity inside his head.
"Oh, Uryuu!" Inoue-san laid a warm hand against shoulder. "I'm so sorry. You're tired too. Here, let me put him down."
He felt the bed dip down, then rise, and then she was gone, and the bed was empty, and he was alone again, bereft, and it was unbelievable how much that hurt. When he finally woke up from this damn torture he was going to kill the espada with his bare hands. But moments later the bed dipped again and a warm, yielding, sweet-smelling softness was stretched against his side.
Inoue-san had not replaced her top, and Ishida was electrified by the feel of her skin against his own. It wasn't real, but it felt real, and his body was certainly reacting as if she was real. This was all so unfair.
Inoue-san laid her head against his shoulder. "Love you," she whispered again, her hand resting against his heart.
Ishida wrapped his arms around her, his hands greedily roaming Inoue-san's skin. It was important to take control of the dream, wasn't it? And not just let Szael call the shots. He breathed in the smell of her hair and felt the tightness in his chest ease; another breath and it disappeared altogether. His enemy had badly miscalculated. The prospect of a night cuddled up to a half-naked Inoue-san was not at all scarring. What was the worst thing that could happen? His brain would overload from sheer delight? Heart attack from overwhelming desire? He would wake up again?
"Inoue-san," he said, and then stopped short, because what was he going to say to her, anyway? I know you're not real, but in this one instance I'm quite happy to be delusional? Maybe that was what Szael wanted. Dying repeatedly couldn't lead Ishida to despair, so perhaps Szael meant to—what? Sap his strength through wish fulfillment? Ishida turned the idea around in his head for a minute but couldn't get it to make sense. This just did not seem like Szael. But what other explanation could there be?
Inoue-san tried to lever herself up on one elbow, but Ishida tightened the arm around her back and slid the other hand down to caress her hip. If he was going to be trapped in this dream anyway he didn't intend to miss one moment of being pressed up against the dream-girl.
"Inoue-san?" Her voice was puzzled. "It's Ishida-san, thank you very much. And anyway, it's Orihime." She wriggled enough distance between them—a kind of delicious torment in itself—to lever herself up on one elbow. "What's wrong, Uryuu?"
Her big eyes were fastened anxiously on his own. She was so pretty, Ishida thought. So pretty it hurt to look at her sometimes. And there was something he dreaded more than waking.
He couldn't watch Szael hurt Inoue-san.
Ishida felt sick. Of course that was Szael's plan for this dream. What kind of brutal and horrible end did he have planned for Inoue-san and Ryusuke? Any minute now, any minute, the dream would warp and change, and something terrible would happen to this beautiful woman with her loving eyes and the tiny baby she claimed as theirs.
"I need to wake up," Ishida murmured. If he woke up now, if he changed the dream again, maybe he wouldn't have to see it. Maybe he could escape before Szael killed her and the baby.
"No you don't," Inoue-san sounded troubled. "Go back to sleep, Uryuu. No more nightmares tonight."
"I don't want to hurt you. Inoue-san—"
"I haven't been Inoue-san for years," she interrupted. "Well, I suppose Zaraki-san still calls me Inoue-chan, but he doesn't count, not really, does he? I was thinking the other day that Zaraki-san is like a boulder rolling downhill. It's very difficult to change his course once he gets going. And when I first met him I was Inoue, so that's what he still calls me. But why would you call me Inoue-san? Unless something's wrong. Is something wrong, Uryuu? Are you unhappy about something? Are you unhappy with me?"
"Inou—Orihime," Ishida corrected himself hastily, at her stricken look. "Don't think—"
"Maybe it's too much, me and Ryusuke both," she fretted aloud. "Maybe you need some time away where you don't have to listen to a baby crying. He does cry a lot. Maybe we should be separated? Only then people would think we're getting a divorce. You don't want a divorce, do you?"
By all that's holy, they were married. How had that happened? Her eyes—his wife's eyes—were filled with tears. "No, no, no," he stuttered, desperate to stop her before she cried. "Don't, don't. Stop. Don't, Orihime."
She blinked hard. "Ryusuke and I could stay with Tatsuki, if you needed some time away from us. Except Tatsuki hates my cooking."
"In—Orihime—I don't want you to leave," he managed, his voice hoarse around the edges.
Orihime dropped her head back down and rested her wet cheek against his chest, heaving a vast trembling sigh of relief. "That's good, because I don't think I could leave you. Unless you really wanted me to. Sometimes I'm afraid you will. Want me to, I mean. I'm glad you don't."
She didn't want to leave him. But for her safety, he should leave her. Ishida threaded his fingers into her hair. He should leave this house, or whatever it was—did they live in a house or an apartment? If he left, the dream would follow him, and when his death came it wouldn't come to these two most precious persons.
"Thank you for loving me," she murmured.
Ishida couldn't stop himself from snorting, because that was almost the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard, even after several years' acquaintance with Kurosaki. Her breath fanned over his chest in bursts of damp, uneven warmth and Ishida felt a reflexive thrill deep in his gut.
"I don't know why you keep thanking me," he said, trying to distract himself from all the possibilities that offered themselves in the presence of a bed and a half-naked woman. Carefully, he moved his hand from her hip back up to the slightly more neutral territory of her upper back. He wasn't the kind of guy who would take advantage of Inoue-san, even in his own dream.
"Because I need you to love me," she said, as if this was perfectly logical and reasonable. "Do you love me?"
Ishida flushed. Well, this was only a dream, after all. The real Orihime would never find out. "I love you," he admitted. "I really do."
He might have said something else but the words were lost in the heat of her mouth. Ishida was lost too, instantly. He was overwhelmed with sensation. His mouth was filled with the taste of her, a sweetness like wildflower honey. His nostrils were filled with the scent of her, the faintly floral and chemical scent of shampoo overlaid with the unique odor of her own warm skin. His hands were filled with the softness and suppleness of her, overflowing with her hair, heavy and smooth.
He could not have formed one single coherent thought if his life depended on it. But his brain kicked into sudden alarmed life again when her hand slipped into his underwear. And when her hand closed over him, Ishida's heart thudded against his ribcage with terrifying speed and terrible force. Maybe he was going to die of a heart attack in this dream after all.
Worth it. Absolutely, totally worth it.
Suddenly Ishida felt himself grow light-headed, and then came the distinct inrushing toward the center of his gut that marked the end of a dream. Ishida realized with fury and despair that he was going to miss the best part of the whole damn thing. But oblivion pulled at him and would not be denied. Ishida cursed as he went again into the dark.
When Ishida opened his eyes again there was light and a familiar face.
"Back with us, kid?" Renji looked relieved. "Say something, would ya? It would make us feel better. Cause the only time you shut up is when you're unconscious."
Us? Who else was here? He licked his dry lips and asked, "Is this real?"
Renji cast a worried look over his shoulder. "I don't think you healed him all the way, boss. You better take another look at him."
"Give him his glasses, Renji-kun."
Inoue-san's voice. Ishida surged to a sitting position, almost hitting Renji in the face. Inoue-san was here?
"Yes, boss," Renji said, and handed Ishida his glasses. They were cracked, but they were better than nothing. They must have fallen off when he—when—what had happened, exactly? Ishida looked around wildly. A grand, empty space. Echoingly high ceilings. It didn't look like anything he'd seen before, but it sure wasn't the dream. Was he finally awake?
"That guy's dead," Renji said, smirking. "The boss unmade him, or something. It was a beautiful sight. Sorry you missed it."
"Szael's dead?" Ishida asked faintly. "You killed him?"
"Not me, it was her. Weren't you listening?"
No, he wasn't. Inoue-san had just stepped into view.
She was dressed in arrancar clothes. Surprisingly, they suited her. She looked like a stranger: older, elegant, austere. Weary, grave, yet somehow also at peace. She looked like someone who had been broken and remade. Only her kind, anxious eyes were familiar. Roaming his face eagerly, they stopped at his glasses. "Oh, Ishida-kun, I'll fix that for you," she said, reaching a hand out to take the glasses gently from his face. "Renji, I'll fix these and then we'll go, all right?"
"Yes, boss!" Renji grinned at her. Ishida noticed that Renji's hair was down and Inoue-san's was up, held off her face with Renji's own head band.
Inoue-san held her hands out over the glasses and repaired them without the appearance of effort. "Here, Ishida-kun. This should be better." She bent down and slid the glasses back onto his nose. The earpieces trapped his hair behind his ears—people who didn't wear glasses themselves never put glasses on properly—but he didn't bother to adjust them, trying to read something, anything, in her tired face.
For a long moment she looked back at him, frowning faintly, before gracing him with a tired smile. "I'm so glad you're all right, Ishida-kun. I was so worried when I saw you lying there."
Ishida cleared his throat. "Tell me what happened?"
"That guy had you wrapped up in his wings," Renji said. "And then he flew off with you. I came after you and then the boss found me and healed me. That guy had taken you to where the hogyoku was, so that's where we went too, and after she took care of him she went after the hogyoku. But it gave her some trouble. Then we had a run-in with that traitor Ichimaru. He gave us some trouble too. Then Ichimaru ran off, probably to that bastard Aizen. And we don't want to be here when they come back, so now we've got to get out of here, if you can convince your legs to carry you." He turned to look at Inoue-san. "You try to get him up while I check the corridors, okay, boss?"
Renji slammed his way out the door. Ishida's mind reeled, trying to parse the man's cryptic explanations into something that actually made sense. Had Renji really said that Inoue-san had killed Szael? Tried to destroy the hogyoku but failed? Fought Ichimaru and escaped alive?
"I don't know why he keeps calling me that," Inoue-san said, looking at the door Renji had disappeared through. "Boss, I mean. I guess he thinks it's funny. Renji-kun has a strange sense of humor."
"You must have impressed him," Ishida said in a strangled voice. He grabbed her wrist and levered himself to shaky and uncertain uprightness. "Where are the others?"
"Kurosaki-kun went to find Rukia-chan and Sado-kun," Inoue-san said. Her face was sad, but her voice was steady. Ah, yes. Inoue-san, he reminded himself firmly, was not in love with him. She was in love with Kurosaki. "We're going to meet up with them, and come back for the hogyoku."
"Can you tell me what happened? With more words than Abarai?"
Inoue-san began a recitation that was nothing short of marvelous, though Ishida processed very little of it. He closed his eyes, steeling himself against the sound of her voice. It would be a very bad idea to start mistaking Orihime, who was a dream, for Inoue-san, who was real.
But it was amazing the way that dream lingered. It had been so vivid. So coherent. He knew Orihime—Inoue-san—was in love with Kurosaki, but that didn't stop him from wanting. And what he wanted was for that dream to be real. He wanted it more than he had ever wanted anything before.
Kurosaki was all wrong for her. He was loud and reckless and oblivious and he would run roughshod over her feelings, just because he didn't know enough about her feelings to recognize that he was hurting her. Hell, that was what Kurosaki did now. He didn't even realize when he was being cruel. Kurosaki had his good points, but he possessed very few sensitivities.
But he, Ishida, was capable of understanding her. He already did. He could tell when Inoue-san was unhappy, when she had doubts, when she was uncertain. He would be able to protect not just her body but her feelings. He would make her happy.
And she would make him happy. In fact—it dawned on him in a flash of stunning self-insight—she already did. She made him smile. She made him laugh, sometimes even at himself. She looked at him with her kind eyes and made him believe that he was as much a hero as any shinigami walking.
Yes. He was right for Inoue-san, and she was right for him. So why was he letting her lavish all her affection on an inconsiderate, insensitive, clueless shinigami?
"So when I saw you by the hogyoku, I was really worried," Inou-san was still explaining.
"Wait. Where was Szael?"
"I had already—I had already—he was dead by then," she said, sounding both ashamed and slightly defensive. She turned away from him. Ishida felt a wave of sympathetic pain and fury at the sight of her stiff shoulders and drooping head. Inoue-san should never have been forced to kill anyone. And she shouldn't have been anywhere near Szael. Still, if she hadn't killed Szael, he would still be stuck in that dream. Ishida was struck with a sudden sense-memory of her skin against his own and her hair fanning over his bare chest. He'd been cold, he was always cold, but she had been so warm. Thank God real-Inoue-san had rescued him before anything horrible had happened to dream-Orihime.
Then a thought struck him. "So it wasn't Szael doing it at the end?" he asked urgently.
Inoue-san turned back to face him, frowning. "Doing what, Ishida-kun?"
An idea flashed inside Ishida's mind like summer lightning. Szael had died while Ishida was still in the dream. Therefore it had not been Szael putting that last vision in his mind. It could not have been Szael. That dream must have come from somewhere else. And what else was in the room with him? The hogyoku. And the hogyoku distorted time and space, right? Broke down barriers? Lying in the shadow of the orb, was it possible that he had somehow seen a glimpse of the future? Not an imagined future, not something that existed only in his head, but the real future?
A real future in which Inoue Orihime lay in his bed and nursed his baby and told him she loved him.
Not a dream future. An actual future. All real. All true.
Maybe at some point—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, sometime, Inoue-san—Orihime—was going to fall in love with him. Marry him. Have his child. Sleep in his bed. Call him by name. Tell him she loved him. That she needed to be loved by him. Him, Ishida Uryuu.
A smile spread across his face, a huge smile that refused to be contained.
Orihime gaped at him for a moment, then flew back to his side. "Hold still, Ishida-kun," she commanded, and plunged her fingers into his hair, gingerly following the contours of his scalp. "Tell me what you're feeling. Where does it hurt?"
That was one theory, anyway. The other was that it had been just a particularly vivid dream birthed by his own subconscious. Maybe he sensed her when she walked into the room. Maybe she had somehow influenced his dream? In which case, his future was still unformed. Uncertain. Full of potential. Open to possibilities.
In the meantime, Orihime was running her fingers through his hair. He let his eyelids drift shut, enjoying her proximity, the concerned little noises she was making, the intense pleasure of her fingers moving with gentle purpose against his scalp.
But the concerned noises began to sound increasingly distressed. "Ishida-kun, can't you answer me? Please say something, Ishida-kun."
It wasn't fair of him to worry her so. He opened his eyes, caught her gaze, and felt his heart melt. "I'm not hurt," he said tenderly. Orihime froze with her hands cupping his head. It was so quiet, and her face was turned up to his. Her mouth was very close to his own. If he tilted his head just so…if he bent down just a little…
Then Renji slammed his way back into the room. Orihime startled violently and hurriedly pulled her hands away from Ishida's hair. "Renji-kun!" she called, a hint of panic coloring her voice. "Come quickly! Ishida-kun is seriously injured! He's behaving very strangely!"
Renji crossed the room in two long strides. "Even after you healed him? What's the matter?" The redhead did a double-take as Ishida turned towards him. "What the hell, Ishida? Are you smiling? What's wrong?"
Renji looked at Orihime. "Did he hit his head?"
"I don't have a head injury," Ishida said, torn between amusement and annoyance. "I'm happy." Happy, hah. The word was much too small to describe the overwhelming elation that bubbled inside him. Ishida captured Orihime's hands in his own, and she squeaked in surprise.
"You're happy?" Renji said doubtfully. "I suppose that's possible." Renji looked down at Ishida and Orihime's joined hands, then at Ishida's face, which he still couldn't get under control. He must look like such a fatuous idiot. And yet he couldn't stop smiling. "You sure you're okay?"
"Completely," Ishida said. Orihime was tugging at her hands, trying to release herself from his grasp. He squeezed her cold fingers and she looked up at him again, startled and uncertain and so, so damned pretty. Ishida's breath caught.
Renji cleared his throat. "I'll just—go check the corridor again. And I'll be gone for about five minutes, because that's really all the breathing room we have, and you hear that, Ishida? Five minutes, kid, that's all I can give you."
"Mm," Ishida said. The door slammed, and Orihime tugged at her hands again. He let them go, but before she could back away he caught one long lock of her hair. Orihime froze, looking at him with something akin to terror, and he felt a pang of guilt for troubling her. "I should have told you before," he apologized. "The timing isn't good."
"You don't have to tell me anything," Orihime said immediately. "Don't tell me. Whatever it is, you can tell me later."
Ishida slid his fingers down the length of hair, enjoying the way it caught the light. It was a little rough under his hands—no conditioner in Hueco Mundo, he supposed. In the dream her hair had felt like heavy silk. But even here it felt springy and full of life. Like Orihime herself.
"We can talk about it some other time," Orihime went on. She was following the path of his hands with her eyes. Ishida let go of her hair with a half-sigh. He still remembered the feel of it against his bare chest. It would probably be quite a while before that happened again.
"Or not at all," Orihime said. She was nervous and babbling. How adorable. How very Orihime. "Because if something is going to be distressing to Ishida-kun we can talk about something else. Did you—did you finish your project for the handicrafts club? Because I had to leave before it was done. I should have started sooner—"
"I love you," Ishida said.
Color flooded Orihime's face, and Ishida felt ridiculously pleased with himself. That wasn't nearly as hard as he'd thought it would be. Orihime took several deep breaths, no doubt to calm herself, but it was very nice for Ishida to watch and he did so appreciatively and without hiding his interest. Orihime didn't notice that he was eyeing her chest any more than she ever noticed male attention. Or males. At least, males other than Kurosaki. He would have to do something about that.
"Ishida-kun," she said at last, biting her lip. "That espada was doing something terrible to your mind when we found him. I think you shouldn't assume that because you feel something now, you'll still feel it when you're recovered from whatever he did to you."
"Szael had nothing to do with how I feel. I've been in love with you for months."
Orihime waved her hands as if she could flap the words away. Ishida enjoyed that too. She flustered him so often; it was unexpectedly satisfying to fluster her back. "I'm—I'm sorry," Orihime said, looking miserable—and by virtue of misery, looking sixteen again. "You're my friend, my very good friend, but I can't return your feelings."
"I know. Not yet," Ishida said. "But you will."
"You can't—Ishida-kun, you can't say things like that."
"Yes, I can. Because you belong with me. I know you belong with me. You just don't realize it yet. But eventually you will. Orihime." He was the one flushed now, at the intimacy of saying her name out loud. He couldn't tell how Orihime felt about it, because it didn't seem she could get any redder than she already was.
Orihime was shaking her head helplessly. "Don't do this, Ishida-kun, don't."
Ishida frowned. "I know this is a bad time to tell you—"
"No, that's not what I mean. Ishida-kun, what I mean to say is that I understand how much"—her voice faltered—"how much it hurts to be in a love like that, when someone doesn't love you back. I don't want you to be hurt. And I don't want to be the one that hurts you."
"I know," he said. "Don't worry about it. You won't."
"Ishida-kun," she said desperately, "You don't understand. I love Kurosaki-kun."
"I know," he repeated. "But you'll get over it. Just don't take too long, all right? Because I'm waiting for you."
Orihime stared at him, the expression on her face composed of equal parts perplexity and concern. He was being an asshole, Ishida knew it, and by all rights she should be demanding that he shut up and not put the burden of his feelings on her. That's what Ishida would have done in her place, not that anyone had ever confessed to him and given him the opportunity.
But she wouldn't do that. She would never purposely hurt him. Orihime was so gentle and kindhearted; he was going to have his work cut out keeping her from being exploited.
Ishida grasped the hem of his coat in an attempt to keep himself from doing something desperately inappropriate with his hands, like grabbing her and kissing her right out of breath. It was enough that he had confessed. He should wait and let her come to terms with the idea. He should wait and give her time to think about it. He should wait until she could return his feelings.
Oh, the hell with waiting.
In actual, synchronous, real-world time Ishida had never kissed Orihime before. He had never kissed anyone before. But in the dream he had kissed her. No, that wasn't quite right—in the dream, she had kissed him. This would be the first time he got to kiss her.
It was harder than it looked. His glasses got in the way; maneuvering around his nose and her nose also presented a brief geometrical dilemma. But he caught her around the shoulders with one hand and slid the other into her hair and caught her mouth when her lips were just barely parted. She was rigid and anxious in his arms, not soft and deliciously yielding as in the dream, but she tasted the same, honey-sweet and just a little wild. Ishida clutched her closer, slid his hands up into her hair, lost himself again in that sweetness, until a sound called itself to his attention and made him pull away.
It was not a perfect kiss. He knew that. But it was a pretty good kiss, Ishida thought. A coaxing, longing, loving kiss. It was very hard to release her, to open his arms and let them fall. That hadn't been nearly enough kissing. But Renji was coughing meaningfully outside the door, and the last thing he wanted was to make Orihime feel embarrassed in front of the other man.
Orihime stood still for a moment after he let her go, her mouth parted and eyes wide. He badly wanted to kiss her again. She was extraordinarily kissable. But Renji slammed the door open, and Orihime, blushing ferociously, darted past him without a word. In the doorway she paused in her headlong flight and said to Renji, "I'll be—I'll—
just a minute, okay?"
"Okay, boss." She bolted out the door. Renji frowned at the space where she had been, then at Ishida.
Ishida drew Seele Schneider, feeling more powerful than he had ever felt before. He was going to take his girl out of Hueco Mundo, he was going to rescue Kurosaki and Kuchiki-san and Sado, he was going to kill any espada that got in his way, and he was going to convince Orihime to let him kiss her again. Possibly in that order.
Renji was eyeing him narrowly. "What's wrong with the boss?"
"I kissed her."
Renji cast a speculative look at the door, then at Ishida. "Must've been quite a kiss."
"My heart was in it," Ishida replied coolly, sighting down the weapon.
That surprised a bark of laughter from the shinigami. "Good for you, kid." Renji sighed and rubbed a hand over his hair. "You do realize that she's--"
"Of course I do," said Ishida impatiently. "Do I look stupid? I'll wait till she gets over him. I just want her to know that I'm waiting." He let the swordpoint drop till it rested against the floor. "Waiting's useless if she doesn't know I'm doing it."
Renji looked thoughtful. Ishida smirked. He suspected Rukia was in for a surprise when she met her childhood friend again. Ishida let his weapon fade away and waited for Orihime to call them and lead them out into the depths of hell.
Ishida turned to look at Renji, and the sharp tip of Zabimaru was suddenly pressed against the base of Ishida's throat.
"I owe her my life, and so do you," warned Renji. Reflected light from the blade glinted in eyes gone suddenly flat and cold. "I won't tolerate any disrespect."
Ishida scowled. "I wouldn't offer any."
The shinigami held Ishida's eyes for a long moment before nodding acknowledgement and sheathing his weapon. "The boss could take you if you did. She wouldn't, but she could." Renji grinned suddenly and smacked Ishida's shoulder. "You shoulda seen it, Ishida. It was worth a trip to hell."
"On my way, boss!" Renji headed down the corridor at a fast lope, and Ishida followed. With any luck, they would make it back to Kurosaki. With any luck, Kuchiki-san and Sado could be healed. With any luck, the six of them would destroy the hogyoku and end the winter war before it started. With any luck, Orihime would be over Kurosaki before the New Year. Or at least before Tanabata. He'd like to see her in a kimono.
The last time Ishida had darkened the door of a church was at his mother's funeral. Still, he prayed briefly for his luck to hold.