The settlement, really nothing more than a few cottages surrounded by a low wall, was silent and eerily forbidding as they arrived. The crumbling houses, with their weather beaten sloped roofs, were crouched in the deepening darkness and exuded the strange uneasiness that only come from cold and empty buildings. A barrier spell along the wall, no doubt designed to repel lesser hollows and other predators, was just beginning flicker and fade as they came near. Uryu noticed several of the cottage doors standing open while spaces that appeared to usually hold carts or animals stood empty.
"This place has been abandoned," he said, adjusting man across his shoulder.
"Recently," Nemu added. "The dwellings have not been looted or burned."
Nemu reached out and slid aside the barrier as they walked through the gap in the wall. She turned around and strengthened the failing spell, reinforcing it with another of her own before she returned to Uryu's side as he surveyed the tiny village.
"I suppose we have our pick of where to stay then," Uryu commented.
"That one," Nemu said, pointing to a small cottage in drastic need of repair, "It is the most defensible."
"Naturally," Uryu sighed. He followed Nemu as she cautiously made her way inside. The night seemed to hurry them inside, pressing in against the door as they closed it.
Later, Uryu rubbed his chin in concern as the patrolman continued to toss fitfully, mumbling slightly to himself on a thin mattress in the corner of the tiny cottage they had appropriated. Uryu checked his bandages again and made sure he was as comfortable as they could make him before returning to the small fire blazing in the hearth. Stirring a hanging pot, he pushed it back over the flames and tested a kettle sitting on the bricks near the embers.
"Tea?" he asked Nemu as she carefully examined everything in the patrol force travel pack. She nodded without looking or saying a word, which Uryu accepted in stride as he poured water from the kettle into one of the battered cups they had found. Finishing, she rose from the laid out contents of the pack and knelt down near Uryu, drawing her sword from the sash at her side and deftly slicing the air with her fingers again, just as she had done in her own quarters. A black tear opened up, and into it Nemu slid her sword, sealing it up again with a flick. She then accepted the tea cup Uryu had held out wordlessly, holding it in her hands and allowing it to steep, as if opening up a hole in space was a normal everyday occurrence.
Uryu's initial disquiet had slowly given way to interest in such an unusual ability and style of combat. Pouring himself a cup of tea as well, he blew across the surface as he regarded her. "I don't believe I've even seen a zanpakuto like yours, although my experience is somewhat limited to Ichigo's and Rukia's. Hers is an ice-type, I believe you call them, and Ichigo's... well, his is just big and sharp."
"The Substitute Soul Reaper carries what's known as a combat type. You are correct about Rukia Kuchiki's, hers is a kido-type, elemental subset, ice variant," she replied softly.
"So what type is yours?" he asked, ladling soup from the pot over the fire into a pair of bowls.
"Genjitsu Suraisa is very willful," Nemu said. "He has not permitted an in-depth analysis of his spiritual pressure." Normally she would have simply answered questions and ventured forth very little information beyond that. However, for reasons she didn't quite understand, she continued to explain. "I have attempted to discern the nature and extent of his abilities, but he has defied precise classification. It is clear he is kido-type, at least partially. Even if he were agreeable, it is likely that the nature of his shikai would make further identification difficult."
"I thought your sword's spirits can talk to you," Uryu replied, handing her a bowl. "Why don't you just ask?"
"My sword will only speak to me while I am asleep," Nemu said quietly. "It can be... unpleasant."
"Ah, which is why you keep it, uh... him, it that black space?" he guessed.
"Yes, some of what Genjitsu Suraisa imparts is very disturbing. Sealing him away tends to reduce the effects." She stared into the simple soup he had made for them before beginning to eat. Between the fight with the hollow forcing her to release her sword, using flash step to cover the distance to the village, and erecting a barrier along the wall, she had expended enough spirit energy to leave her starving.
"With a weapon so temperamental, it is remarkable you attained shikai release," Uryu said, blowing across a spoonful of soup. Her dreams must be truly terrible if Nemu would describe them as disturbing, a girl who didn't bat an eyelash at the more grotesque and loathsome actions of her captain.
"My zanpakuto is not temperamental," Nemu strongly corrected. She looked up to see Uryu raise his eyebrows at her tone. "Forgive me," she amended quietly, "It is a common misconception among the other seated officers that my weapon... does not like me."
"So they think that's the cause of his willfulness?" Uryu said, dabbing the corner of his mouth with an improvised napkin.
"Yes. Truthfully, Genjitsu Suraisa is eager to be wielded and released. It was he who took the time to teach me the ten steps of his shikai, and now demands to focus on bankai release if I don't seal him away."
"The steps, that's the sequence you referring to when you spoke to Captain Kurotsuchi? I thought you said you had only progressed through the fifth, there are ten?"
"Each step has a price that he demands in return for increased power, I dare not pay more than what the fifth step requires," Nemu said. Her increased resilience was taxed at the fifth step, though she believed she could briefly maintain steps six or seven.
"It's not your weapon holding you back, it's you holding your weapon back?" Uryu said. He watched Nemu nod at his assessment, her green eyes staring deep into the low fire in the hearth. "I suppose that is why you're hesitant to train for your bankai release?"
Nemu stole a glance at Uryu's face. It was obvious he didn't realize what exactly she had to trade for each step of her shikai. She couldn't blame him though, few others in the Soul Society did. She considered her answer carefully before saying, "The effect of my weapon's bankai release is still unknown."
"Oh, I see," Uryu said, noting but not commenting on her choice of words. After finishing his soup, he busied himself in retrieving his mantle and coat from where he had hung them and worked at cleaning the injured man's blood stains out with a bowl of hot water and soft brush. Once sufficiently clean, he draped them over a chair and sat down in another one, the fire in the hearth warming the cottage to the point where he felt perfectly comfortable in his shirt and slacks. Putting his feet up in a manner he never would've dreamed of doing at home, he pushed his chair back onto its rear legs and settled into a comfortable recline. His eyes wandered over to Nemu as she carried a bowl over to the injured man. Though her face remained expressionless, there was a definite tenderness in the movements of her hands as she gently tipped a few spoonfuls of broth past the man's parched lips.
When she turned back Uryu noticed the slit up the outside of her thigh had fallen casually open, her cream colored, well toned leg peeking from beneath the black silk of her kimono. The leg that Uryu had been using to brace himself buckled unexpectedly, causing him to nearly topple from his perch. "I could repair that tear, if you'd like," he recovered, leaning the chair back down.
Nemu looked down at the side of her kimono as if she had just realized it was still slit. "That will be unnecessary."
"At least let me hem the top so it won't tear anymore," Uryu said. Any higher and he'd begin to worry about unintentional indecency due to a mild breeze, let alone flash step or the rigors of combat.
"If you feel you must," Nemu said.
Uryu stood and retrieved the small kit he kept with his equipment, drawing out a needle and a spool of black thread before turning back to Nemu to see her untying the sash at her waist and preparing to unwrap her kimono. "Uh, really Nemu you don't need to do that."
"Nonsense," she replied, slipping the garment off and handing it to him.
If Uryu considered her black kimono to be short, he didn't really have the vocabulary to describe the white nagajuban she wore beneath it aside from shorter. Choosing to focus on stitching a hem into the cloth, Uryu required every ounce of his considerable self-control to keep his eyes on the needle and thread instead of on Nemu, now dressed only in a thin white robe and her blood red choker. His concentration was shaken when she knelt down on her unrolled mattress and pulled the tie from her hair, combing her fingers through the dark tresses that spilled down her back like a silk waterfall. With quick, precise movements, he watched her re-braid her hair, binding up the rich length of shimmering blackness back into its typical, tightly restrained, plait. Uryu quickly tied off the end of the thread and stood to hand the black kimono back to Nemu.
"Please just hang it over the chair," she said, pulling her braid over her shoulder and securing the end, "The barrier outside will alert us if anything approaches." She filled a bowl with water from the kettle and began using a cloth to wipe off her face. Drops of water were sent sliding down the skin of her neck and disappeared beneath the collar of her thin robe. One in particular caught Uryu's attention as it cleared her choker and traced a line down her throat and over her collar bone, pausing briefly before sliding down her front.
Uryu, certain his voice would crack if he attempted to use it, nodded wordlessly and stepped to the chair to fold her black kimono beside his own white coat. He glanced over to Nemu to see slide her legs beneath her blanket and lay on her mattress, hands clasped together but her eyes still open, obviously unable to sleep. Looking up out the grimy window, he could see nothing but his own reflection, the light from the fire and the stifling blackness of night rendering any type of watch to be futile. Spreading his own mattress and blanket out not exactly next to but not exactly far away from Nemu, he deliberately put the solid pillar of the cottage chimney at his back and made sure he could see both the door and the window without having to turn. Only after placing his equipment belt near his hands did Uryu lay down, though he did not think sleep would come easily to him.
"Nemu, what do the records in the archives say about what happened to that hollow you mentioned earlier?" he asked into the quiet that fallen between them, keeping an eye on the door and window.
"Before the creation of the Department of Research and Development, before he had even become a captain, when Kisuke Urahara had been an unseated Soul Reaper assigned to the world of the living, he kept records of unusual activity he encountered over the course of his duty. These records are some of the earliest of those associated with R and D. One of them details a hollow of atypical size and ferocity, which was obviously suffering from some type of parasitic infection, encountered in an area of unusually high spiritual energy. The hollow was defeated but a brief investigation on his part proved fruitless as the energy dissipated soon after, however a large number of human souls required konso in that area at the same time, requiring his attention. He was unable to establish a direct connection between these three situations, the hollow, the energy swell and the humans who had died, but he believed there was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest it. He even named the entity, thinking it was some new form of arrancar. He clearly thought himself humorous, for he specifically referred to it as 'Amigo'."
"A Mi-Go? Do you think whatever it was affecting that hollow this evening was this Mi-Go that Urahara had encountered all those years ago?" Uryu asked.
"I think that if we did encounter the same type of parasite, the one we found today had not fully developed. If that's true, then I also think it unlikely to be a singular encounter, but rather the first of many."
Uryu did not reply, only moving to settle his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose and adjust his shoulders to a slightly more comfortable position as he kept watch. It was going to be a long night.
Lightly touching his shoulder, Nemu was crouched down at Uryu's side as the odd, ethereal noise echoed again through the village, joined now by others across the forest. She looked up, out the window towards the deep darkness of night beyond for some indication of the source of such a call, but saw nothing. The fire burning low in the hearth threw long shadows across the walls of the small cottage that seemed to move and dance in time with the unnerving noises outside. She looked back down to find his eyes open, staring intently at her over the top of his glasses. She had not felt him move a single muscle through the hand that still lay against his shoulder, but he was gripping a Seele blade handle in each hand none the less.
"There is something outside," she whispered to him, bending closer. She found herself caught abruptly by his eyes, pure pools of deep azure, and felt something odd stir within her as they shifted away from her to look out the window. Her fingers tightened around the scabbard of her sword as the eerie calling noises began to grow again, this time from many points around the village.
Uryu listened to the chorus of calls echoing through the still air of the early morning, seeming to ebb and flow like a rolling tide. "Those are whippoorwills, Nemu," Uryu said, "Just a bird."
"Birdsong does not follow such a pattern," Nemu said, "Listen to them." She turned away from him and held very still.
Uryu did, detecting something amiss even as Nemu spoke. He moved to his knees as well, straining his ears as the cries of the birds began to slide together, each of them calling out in unison, louder and louder. A wheezing, rattling breath caught his attention as the wounded patrolman shifted on his mattress. His chest fell slowly as the air left his lungs and Uryu heard the calls of the whippoorwills grow in intensity.
"The wounded man," Uryu said quietly, watching as he strained to take another breath and the birds outside calming their frenzied calls, as if waiting for the man to breath out again. "They are calling in time with his breathing."
Nemu looked over and watched the man's chapped lips part as he groaned out another breath, the birds outside immediately resuming their echoing chants. She rose and moved closer to him, checking his bandages and feeling his skin. "He is getting worse, he needs more medical attention than I am capable of on my own."
"Is there anything I can do to help," Uryu asked, listening to the birds growing closer and more desperate outside. "It's like they know... They call louder and louder, like they're waiting for his last breath..." He shook himself out of his distracted stupor to pay attention to what Nemu was saying.
"...empowered that way, even my low level healing spells should be able to stabilize him. It may be dangerous, but it is our only option if we are to save this man's life."
"What do you need me to do?" Uryu asked, slipping his weapons away and looking closely at the gravely wounded patrolman, his breathing becoming more labored and shallow.
"Of your original companions, it was noted in our reports that you had finest control over your spiritual pressure. You will need it in order to bridge a circuit with my own. Place your hand against my soul seal, match your pressure to my own, and they should begin to resonate."
"Your soul seal?" Uryu stammered, watching her loosen the top of her white robe. "Isn't that directly between your..."
Nemu turned around and let the robe fall off her shoulders, exposing the smooth sweep of her back and the gentle curve of her spine. "It is between my shoulder blades, hurry Quincy, we do not have much time."
"Right, between your shoulder blades, of course," Uryu said, visibly relaxing. He watched her kneel next to the injured man, holding out her hands as she began to channel healing kido energy into a soft blue light that bathed the area around him. Uryu obediently knelt behind her, his fingertips rubbing together nervously as he moved up close. Placing his hand against her back, timidly at first, he immediately felt a thrumming of pure, powerful spirit energy beneath his palm.
"Now," Nemu said, an uncharacteristic sigh slipping into her voice as she settled against the warm hand on her bare skin, "Please adjust your own spirit energy to match mine in terms of rhythm, amplitude and frequency."
Saying was far easier than doing, Uryu found, for he remained distracted by the cacophonous bird calls outside, the man who lay dying on the cottage floor, and perhaps more embarrassingly, the fire-lit expanse of Nemu's naked back. Removing his glasses, he shut his eyes and concentrated only on the gentle thrumming of power he felt beneath his palm. He matched his breathing to hers, finding the rhythm and frequency of her spirit energy first, like a pattern woven deep through her heartbeat.
Shifting slightly on his knees, he knit his brows into a scowl Ichigo would've been proud of as he focused his own spiritual energy into a similar pattern. It was like sliding puzzle pieces around until they snapped into place. The sensation of their patterns aligning was like an electric shock through his mind, leaving his teeth buzzing and colored lights shifting behind his eyelids. He felt his head fall forward as the muscles across his shoulders and arms began to relax, letting his tightly contained spiritual pressure unwind to match the depth of her own. The buzzing in his teeth abated as he felt their spirit energy coalesce, lensing into a unified pattern and resonating with a pure, crystalline clarity.
"Excellently done, Uryu," Nemu whispered.
Uryu opened his eyes to find her closer than he remembered, the gentle curve of her back and shoulder where it met the loose white robe was somehow only inches away. Her head was tipped away, exposing the tender skin of her neck as she let the energy flow from the tips of her fingers. He could see her eyes had closed halfway, her lips parted gently as she let the energy surge through their shared connection.
Feeling as if she was standing in the middle of a rushing river, the sensation of his Quincy energy absorption ability flowing into her was almost overwhelming. The energy, hot and scintillating as it skimmed along her skin, quickened her heartbeat and made her head feel light. She dipped down into the current, letting more of his energy pour through her, and felt a sensation unlike anything she'd known before fluttering across her skin.
Warmth enveloped her body, caressing her with a feathery light touch at the surface but was so deep and rich she could almost taste it on her tongue. Never before had she felt such a pure, honest spiritual pressure. Too often confronted by the sharp metallic tang of her captain, the oily ooze of Hiyosu or the chalky blankness of Akon, she found herself eagerly enfolding such a sensation into her kido channel, welcoming the warmth and serenity as they spread through her.
It made her feel... happy.
He had no idea what base instinct made him do it, but when it appeared for a second that she might fall he quickly slipped his free hand around her waist to hold her securely against his chest. Her brilliant green eyes snapped open and for a moment Uryu thought he had over stepped his bounds. When she settled against him and redoubled her efforts on her healing kido spell, Uryu released a breath he didn't realize he was holding, feeling marginally better that their rather intimate position was acceptable, if slightly awkward.
"I have finished," she announced after a few minutes, letting the blue aura fade from around the man as she lowered her hands. She felt Uryu's hands retreat from around her and felt curiously regretful. "He is stable and is showing signs of recovery." The birds in the forest outside had drifted away, those few that remained called out shrill, reproachful cries as they departed, as though denied something rightfully theirs.
"That's good," Uryu said as he felt her ease herself away from him and straighten her clothing. His fingers safely tucked into his fists so as not to go wandering over Nemu again, he instead looked towards the patrolman, now sleeping deeply. "Do you suppose he'll have any useful information when he wakes up?"
Nemu looked over at him as she put her sword away and returned to her bedroll, drained and exhausted. "Because we have so little information on the phenomenon we are being sent to investigate, anything he knows would be useful." She paused, realizing her phrasing might appear insensitive. "I... I apologize, Uryu. What I meant to say-"
"No no," he motioned understandingly, "It's quite alright. It's been a long, stressful day... and night." He returned his glasses to the bridge of his nose and knelt down on his own bedroll. "We should try to rest while we can."
Nemu nodded and pulled the thin blanket over her, the dying fire and brittle walls of the cabin doing little to cut the chill of the night air. She stared at the ceiling, watching the subtle patterns of light and shadow play along the ceiling. The dancing shapes were far less sinister now, eddying swirls of light and shadow moving together, complementary but distinct. "Thank you for letting me lean against you."
"You're... quite welcome, Nemu," Uryu whispered back. He rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses and stuck one hand beneath his head as he laid back down. Sighing, and with his other hand on the hilt of his Seele blade he let his eyelids droop closed from weariness.
He was startled awake as a sudden, cold sense of crushing dread settled in the pit of his stomach. His eyes cracked back open to see the cabin lit by weak sunlight filtering in through the single window. Hours had apparently passed, it was early morning and the remnants of their fire in the hearth were nothing but cold black and gray ash. There was a stirring at his side and Nemu, having moved closer to him for warmth he assumed, push herself up on her elbow, the thin blanket sliding off her as she too looked around.
"I feel a presence at the barrier," Nemu said, blithely unaware of Uryu's mortified embarrassment at sleeping so close to one another. Instead, she immediately rose, wrapping her kimono about herself and tying her obi as she slipped her shoes on. Flicking her fingers, she quickly slid her sword from between the planes of reality and into the sash at her waist in a single motion. She picked up Uryu's coat from over the chair and handed it to him on her way towards the door.
Snapping his equipment belt into place, Uryu took the proffered garment and swept it around his shoulders. He watched Nemu pause at the door, catching something out of the corner of her eye that clouded her face with a rare look of confusion. Turning to look at what she had seen, he was immediately struck not by something odd, but by the distinct lack of something odd. Specifically, the injured patrolman.
"Where is...?" Uryu spun back as Nemu pulled open the rustic wooden door and slipped outside. The morning light was pale and gray through the mist seeping through the forest but it sparkled up from the dew that had collected upon the grass at their feet. He could see the patrolman at the gap in the low wall around the village, leaning heavily upon his staff and staring out into the trees.
The two of them approached cautiously, wary of unintentionally startling him. He was still wrapped in the blanket they had draped over him last night, holding it at his chest with his free hand and breathing out puffs of steam in the chill morning air.
"There is something out there," he said, not looking away from the forest. "It's like it's moving... behind the trees, too big to fit through them, but it does." He shifted slightly, hitching his hand on his staff.
"You should come back inside," Uryu mentioned, "In your condition, you're not strong enough to deal with a hollow on your own."
"My name is Kaisho," he said, turning to look at them from beneath his unkempt hair, haunted and unnerved. "Kaisho Anishin, and I don't think whatever is out there is a hollow."
Author's Note: Yes, that's an original character but don't worry, he's only there to move the plot along.