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[personal profile] queenofchalices
Title: Til Death Do Us Part: Chapter Five - Worry
Series: Bleach
Rating: R
Warnings: het (IchiHime), ANGST, dysfunctional relationships, adult themes
Spoilers: This is set ten years after the series, so spoilers up to the end of the HM/Arrancar Arc. Then it’s AU.
Disclaimer: These characters belong to a lot of Japanese people, namely people like Tite Kubo and Shonen Jump. You'll notice how none of those are me. The LiveJournal format that you'll probably be reading this in (if you're one of my friends) is rough draft and is subject to revision. Consider this a 'sneak peek'. If something sits the wrong way with you, let me know. This will probably (never) be updated weekly, until I eventually drop it like every other project ever. Not responsible for epileptic seizures or allergic reactions. May contain eye-and-brain-bleeding levels of radioactive ANGST and/or peanut products. Please sit a reasonable distance from your computer screen.

Author's Note: I finally got around to updating another fic! I don't want to neglect Moon Over the Tower since I'm in a good groove with it, but I thought it'd be a good chance for me to update another fic now that I've got a good head start on Moon! Now that my life has settled down a bit, I'm looking forward to being able to update more! But I'll probably just update this one and Moon until I finish one or the other. Then I'll move on to one of my other fics and work steadily on it.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

"And that concludes this week's business."

Orihime sat towards the end of the table, furthest away from the speaker. She watched wide-eyed while the sharp, black-haired lady conducted her business. Even though Yachiru was the stated president of the Shinigami Women's Association, Ise Nanao actually ran the meeting for all intents and purposes.

Orihime followed the serious woman with her eyes. She was awestruck at how efficient and in control the young shinigami seemed to be. Part of her wished she could have that much control over her life and circumstances. If she had, perhaps things never would have reached this point.

"Booby-tan!"

The cheerful voice knocked her out of her depressing reverie. Orihime looked down just in time to see Yachiru's pink head rocketing straight into her midsection. She caught the small girl with a "woomph" as they collided, almost knocking them both to the floor. The little girl gave her a big, toothy grin as she looked up to Orihime's face.

"Yachiru-chan!" Orihime exclaimed, giving the pink-haired girl a hug, "How have you been? I missed you!" The girl held up a bag of konpeito to Orihime's face.

"You got here at a good time, Booby-tan!" Yachiru chirped, settling on Orihime's lap with a bounce, "We just got our budget for the year, so now we can get lots and lots of candy!"

"Taichou! Please be serious!"

The black-haired woman marched over to the two long lost friends with a frustrated sigh. She looked down at them, adjusting her glasses and staring in disapproval.

"A-Ah, Ise-san!" Orihime said, a light blush coloring her cheeks. The smaller woman turned to her with raised eyebrows.

"Good evening, Orihime-san," the Vice President acknowledged her, "I'm glad you could make it." Then, turning back to the tiny pink-haired girl, "Taichou, you can't be serious about the budget!"

Orihime watched with a small smile as Yachiru and Nanao fussed at each other over whether or not to spend the year's budget on chocolate rabbits or konpeito. It was sweet and lively and made her feel like she was back in high school and surrounded by friends again.

As she looked around, Orihime saw the other women enjoying themselves. Soi Fong and the third seat from Rukia's division, Kiyone, were picking food from the buffet table and fussing at each other. Her taller sister from Fourth Division, Isane, was carrying on a polite conversation with Momo. Rukia was doodling something in her sketchbook. And Rangiku...

"Guess who, Orihime-chan!"

Orihime's eyes were suddenly covered as Rangiku grabbed her from behind. She found each of her shoulders supporting the weight of Rangiku's breasts as she leaned over her. Even without being able to see her, Orihime's smile grew broad as she turned in her seat to try and face the older woman.

"Rangiku-san!" she exclaimed happily as Rangiku released her face. She saw the blonde's expression light up at her words.

"Uhooo, good guess, Orihime-chan!" she gushed, "You're so smart!" Orihime blushed and chuckled quietly as Yachiru stood up from her lap to address Rangiku.

"You'll smother her with those things, Ran-chan!" the little girl scolded, reaching over and grabbing a handful of Rangiku's breasts as she lifted them off Orihime's shoulders. Rangiku looked only mildly annoyed while Orihime continued to blush madly.

"Yachiru-chan!" Rangiku huffed, "Hasn't Zaraki-taichou taught you not to grab other women there?" Yachiru looked genuinely thoughtful for a moment.

"Well," Yachiru said, blinking her red eyes at Rangiku slowly, "Ken-chan did say that he wouldn't mind grabbing your boobies sometime!" Orihime's face practically caught fire at Yachiru's innocent declaration. Rangiku simply looked like she was going to explode.

"Taichou!" Nanao gasped, steadying her glasses, "That is completely inappropriate!" Yachiru was undeterred.

"I thought it was funny!" the pink-haired girl exclaimed, "And they're fun to squish!" To demonstrate, she gave the blonde's breasts another big squeeze over Orihime's shoulders. Rangiku squealed angrily in response.

"Taichou."

Before a fight could break out with Orihime literally in the middle, a calm voice drew everyone's attention away from the little scuffle. Orihime looked up from the little girl in her lap to see a serene black-haired young woman staring back at her. Her hair was pulled into a braid behind her and her green eyes were half-lidded, observing Orihime keenly. She held a round tray before her thighs, which were only half-covered by her short shihakushou.

"Refreshments have been served," the placid young woman continued. Yachiru hopped off Orihime's lap with a delighted squeal, leaving a puzzled redhead behind to stare after her bemusedly. But since she hadn't been introduced to this girl before, she figured now would be as good a time as any to say hello.

"O-Oh, I don't think we've met before," Orihime said with a smile. The black-haired girl gave her an impassive blink.

"No," she replied simply, "We have not. I am Kurotsuchi Nemu. You are Ishida Orihime-san, correct?" Something about her tone of voice was unsettling, but Orihime put it aside for the time being.

"Not anymore," she corrected the other woman with no hint of regret, "It's just Inoue again now, since I'm dead." Nemu simply stared at her for a moment. Some imperceptible change took place, although Orihime was ignorant as to what it could be. So she smiled awkwardly, wondering if the other woman was actually going to say anything else.

"I see," was all she finally said, "Very well, Inoue-san. Welcome to the Shinigami Women's Association."

"A-Ah, thank you," Orihime stuttered uncertainly as Nemu turned to walk away.

"Don't mind her, Orihime-chan," Rangiku said from over her shoulder, "She's always like that. Probably comes from living with that father of hers, poor thing."

Orihime remembered the grotesque man with a small shudder. She remembered the name, even if she didn't exactly remember Nemu herself. Still, she wasn't quite sure what to make of the other girl's strange behavior. Maybe she was just really socially awkward? Before she could think too hard about it, though, Yachiru returned with a sandwich in hand.

"Come on, Booby-tan!" the little girl exclaimed, "They brought egg sandwiches! Those are the best kind!" Forgetting her earlier apprehension, Orihime rose to follow her.

_______________________________________________________________


Ichigo knew pacing wasn't helping anything, but he just couldn't help it.

He couldn't sit still. He knew it shouldn't worry him, but this was the first time Orihime had been out of the barracks for more than a shopping trip. It made him uneasy for her to be gone so long. Worse still, she was with that Ise. He half-expected her to return and thwack him in the face with a book for not having his desk clean enough.

He wasn't sure why the prospect had him so worried. He knew Orihime was a sweet person and wasn't someone who'd just start nagging out of the blue. Sure she could be impressionable, but he knew there were outer limits to her behavior that she wouldn't cross. Maybe he just didn't entirely like the idea of her excluding him again after so many years apart.

That thought settled a blush on his cheeks. When did he get so possessive of another man's wife? Just the thought of her being married sent a groan through him as he clutched his head mid-stride. He could tell this whole affair was going to end badly.

"Yare yare," a voice floated in from the veranda of his quarters, "You look like you're going to wear a hole in your floor if you keep pacing like that." Ichigo stopped pacing and groaned again; he knew he would be getting an angry hell butterfly in the morning already.

"What is it, Kyouraku-san?" Ichigo said with just a hint of exasperation. The scruffy, pink-clad Captain swooshed into the room from outside, sake jug and bowls in hand.

"I just figured you could use some company, that's all," came the airy reply, "I heard you were going to be on your own tonight and thought I'd stop by." He situated himself at Ichigo's low table, laying out two bowls and pouring some sake for each of them. Ichigo sighed and plopped down opposite the straw-hatted man. Shunsui wasn't the type of guy who'd leave someone be if he wanted something, so Ichigo knew it was pointless to try and resist. "Sake?"

Ichigo took the proffered bowl with a mumbled 'thanks' and downed it in one gulp.

"Go ahead and ask," he said, cheeks burning already as he sat down the bowl, "I know you're curious." He was under no illusions about the nosy old man's reason for his visit.

"You wound me, Ichigo-kun!" Shunsui feigned offense before sipping his own bowl of sake, "I had just heard rumors you were housing a young lady of exceptional beauty in your division and wanted to see if they were true!" Ichigo reached for the sake and poured himself another bowl before quickly downing that one, too. Of course he'd go right for that topic.

"She's married, Kyouraku-san," Ichigo quickly stopped that conversation before it even started, "To a friend of mine. Besides that, she's way too young for you." The older shinigami faked distress at this point.

"I'm not that old," he practically pouted, "But I suppose that explains the pacing. I had just assumed it was your first time being separated from her." Ichigo's blush returned full-force. This old man was more observant than he let on.

"That has nothing to do with it!" Ichigo blurted out, quicker than he probably should've, "I'm just worried about what that demon of a Vice Captain of yours is teaching her!" Shunsui's eyebrow raised, but he took the distraction anyway. Ichigo figured he wouldn't be able to resist talking about his lieutenant.

"Now, now!" Shunsui said soothingly, "Nanao-chan won't tell her anything too bad! She wouldn't hurt a fly!" For some reason, Ichigo immediately pictured the thin woman using that enormous book of hers for a flyswatter. He poured himself another bowl, wondering if Orihime's vivid imagination was rubbing off on him.

"Tell me that again in the morning, after she sends me another nastygram," he grumbled, taking care to actually sip this bowl instead of just gulping it down. Shunsui simply watched, pouring another for himself as well. After another few minutes of silence, the black-haired man finally spoke, making Ichigo wish he'd just stayed quiet.

"So," he said over his uplifted bowl, "what do you intend to do about her?" Ichigo had no illusions he might actually be referring to Nanao and not Orihime.

"Nothing," he muttered over his own bowl, "She's married to a friend, remember?" Shunsui lifted his chin for a little scratch as he thought.

"So?"

"So?!" Ichigo sputtered, his sake almost going down the wrong way, "So she's off-limits!" Shunsui's look grew devious.

"Didn't you know?" he mused, "Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, Ichigo-kun!" Ichigo nearly spit his sake out; instead, it went up his nose, causing him to cough and sputter.

"I-Inoue's not fruit!" he choked out. Shunsui looked mildly concerned, but not concerned enough to put his bowl down.

"Well, where is her husband?" Shunsui asked patiently. Ichigo thought he must know very well where he was to be asking that, but simply glared while he pounded his chest instead of pointing this out.

"Back in the human world," Ichigo croaked, "He's still alive." Shunsui's face lit up at this admission.

"Oh, so they're not married anymore!" he exclaimed. Ichigo groaned. Maybe it was the alcohol, but he was already getting a headache.

"Just because she's here now doesn't mean she doesn't still love him," he murmured into his sake bowl, "Death doesn't mean her feelings have changed." Shunsui tsked and shook his head.

"Well, how is she acting?" he asked. Ichigo was suddenly dumbfounded. What kind of a question was that?

"What do you mean?" he grumbled, "What does that have to do with anything?" Shunsui looked at him in disbelief.

"It has everything to do with it!" Shunsui exclaimed with a laugh, reaching over to slap Ichigo on the back, "Is she happy here? Or does she mope around all day?" Ichigo blinked. Where was he going with this?

"Well, I..." Ichigo stammered, "I guess she's alright? She seemed kind of upset at first, crying and stuff, but now she's... pretty happy, I guess." Shunsui looked satisfied with that answer.

"See?" he said, "She's happy here! If she missed him, wouldn't she be more upset?" Ichigo wasn't impressed.

"Inoue's always happy," he grunted, "It doesn't mean anything. And there's nothing she can do now but wait for him to die, anyway. What use would moping be?" Shunsui gave him a look that could only be described as piteous.

"Well, have you asked her?" the older shinigami asked, "It's obvious you care for her." Ichigo looked down at his table in shame.

"Of course not," he said quietly, "I don't want her to feel pressured or weird or anything." The other man shook his head as he finished his bowl of sake.

"Don't wait too long, Ichigo-kun," he warned, "You already lost her once, didn't you?"

As much as he wanted to deny it, it was a bitter truth. And because of Renji and Rangiku's big mouths, it was fairly common knowledge among their circle of friends how badly he missed Orihime after his forced sequester in Soul Society had begun. Shunsui was no exception. He figured the older man had heard about Orihime's stay here in the same way he found out about his thwarted affection for her; through those same friends.

"Yeah," he finally sighed, refilling his bowl yet again.

_________________________________________________________________

When Orihime finally got back to the barracks with Momo, it was all dark and still. It was well after bedtime, and the rest of the division was already all tucked in. Still, Orihime wanted to check on Ichigo.

He had seemed a bit nervous before she'd left, and it hadn't gone unnoticed by her. She'd tried her best to reassure him, and he'd given her a small, nervous smile, but there was still that underlying anxiety. She wanted to reassure him one more time before bed, just to let him know everything had turned out fine.

But as she knocked on the frame of his door, she could hear nothing beyond it.

"Kurosaki-kun?"

When she received no answer, she slid the door open just wide enough to be able to see inside the dark room. She could make out a form bent over the low table in the middle of the room, the light from the moon outside illuminating him and casting shadows over Ichigo's peacefully sleeping face. His head was pillowed on his arms and he was snoring softly. Orihime smiled to herself; when he was sleeping, he looked so young and carefree.

She padded over to the futon that Ichigo had already laid out, apparently before he'd passed out at his table, and picked up his blanket. Then she moved over to him, pulling the cover up over his shoulders. She crouched down next to him, smoothing his hair away from his forehead and smiled, suppressing a small giggle.

"You'll catch a cold like that," she whispered fondly. She lingered longer than she absolutely needed to, recalling a night far in the past when she'd leaned over him in a similar manner. And once again, she felt that same desire to just lean in and kiss him.

This time, though, instead of pulling away, she simply settled for gently kissing his temple. He huffed a little as her lips left his flesh, but other than that he didn't stir. She smiled warmly, hoping he wouldn't mind. And after another few moments of warmth, Orihime rose and went to close his veranda door.

"Goodnight, Kurosaki-kun."

____________________________________________________________

All was still in the Fifth Division barracks. A few days had passed since Orihime's Women's Association meeting, and things had returned mostly to normal. Ichigo had been reassured that Orihime wouldn't turn into Nanao and Orihime had been happy with the socializing she'd gotten to do. And her happiness had picked up everyone's spirits, even Ichigo's. Of course, he'd still gotten an angry hell butterfly from Nanao the next morning, but that was to be expected.

Now, though, it was well after midnight in the barracks. All the shinigami were asleep in bed, lights having been out for a couple hours yet. The only sounds that could be heard were those of sleepy crickets and the occasional dog. And the waning moon cast pale light and shadows indiscriminately throughout the barracks wherever an open window would allow.

It was through one of these windows that a shadowy figure slid. It crawled silently along the floors, sticking to shadow where it could and moving quickly where it could not. It knew exactly where it was going and how to get there.

A few scant minutes later, it slid the door it was looking for along its frame, making a soft 'whooshing' noise. There, on a futon in the middle of the room was the target. She was asleep, breathing deeply and causing the blanket to move with the rise and fall of her chest. She made small noises as she breathed, little squeaky sighs that caused the shadow's eyes to narrow. In a few minutes, she would be completely silent forever.

Softly, the black-clad figure padded towards the futon on which lay Inoue Orihime, safely sleeping.

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Crystal Dawn

February 2012

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