Renji had known Rukia forever, an eternity, generations—for so long that he wasn't sure he could pinpoint a time when they hadn't been together. That was why he didn't consider, not even once, the possibility that she might not always be there. Sure, she might leave for a few months on business, but a few months to a shinigami was barely any time at all. They were beyond time. He'd always known that he and Rukia were inextricably tied together and that nothing, especially nothing, could break them apart.
Though a few things came incredibly close. One person, to be exact, came (is coming, Renji corrected) incredible close.
Renji remembered his name well; it was something ridiculously multifaceted, and, Renji added, incredibly dumb. Kurosaki Ichigo.
Of course he knew about Kurosaki. Of course he knew that he had two sisters, a dad, and a deceased mother. Of course he knew that he had killed twenty hollows in the last month. Of course he knew his eye color, hair color, height, weight, face, voice. He probably knew it as well as Rukia did. Even better. Because he knew Rukia and knew the things that Rukia knew, and if he didn't, he went to great lengths to seek whatever it is that he was missing.
Of course Rukia was important to him. He wasn't stupid enough to deny it.
Which only meant that he wasn't going to let someone, the one, important to him waste away.
Unknown forces, those tightly woven, roughly formed, deeply rooted connections, were what beckoned him to her this night. It was late, so late that the sky had turned a shade of black that Renji never knew existed. His feet seemed to be separate entities, dragging his entire body towards where she was. Closing the undesirable gap.
When he was five paces away from the cell, he could tell instantly that she was awake. Her eyes shone in the darkness, an eerie color that could not have been found anywhere in nature. Her body lay curled in a fetal position; her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms pressed together tightly in front of her face. Renji found the position to be very unlike her.
She was the first to speak.
"It's a bit late, don't you think?"
"Thought I'd take a walk," Renji said curtly, unbuckling his sheath and placing it on the ground in front of him. A sign of peace. Her bright eyes widened slightly in the darkness.
"Around the prison grounds?" she asked.
"I can walk wherever I walk!" Renji shouted, sitting down roughly on the ground. The bars were just an arm's length away from him. "Don't patronize me!"
"I'm sorry," she said.
Renji scowled. "Stop with the woe-is-me puppy-dog act. You're better than that."
"Oh?" Her legs extended slightly until she was positioned completely on her side, facing him. "Can I take that as a compliment?"
"Take it however you want," Renji snapped. At this, the woman smiled slightly and approached him. She sat dangerously close to the bars, so close that Renji could have reached out and touched her.
"Why would you come here?" she asked again, her head tilted in inquiry. She was smiling, but her eyebrows were knitted in confusion.
"I told you already!" he snapped at the ground. "I'm just walking!"
"You're not walking now," she pointed out.
"Because I'm talking to you, idiot!"
Rukia smiled. He glared.
"Thank you for coming, Renji," she said sweetly. "I'm glad that you're worried about me."
"Who's worried about you?!" he exclaimed. "Visiting someone isn't the same as worrying! You're disgusting!"
"That's a childish thing to say."
"Well, I can't help it when I'm around you!"
She began to chuckle then, something that Renji hadn't heard for a long time. A very long time. Even if it was completely devoid of any really happiness.
"Tell me a story," Rukia said suddenly, childishly clutching the bars and goggling at him with a complacent smile. "You used to tell me such interesting stories."
"No I didn't," Renji said, crossing his arms, looking angry. "I never told you stories."
"You did," Rukia said, a little softly. "I liked them."
"What, you mean the story about that time I—God, you still remember that?"
Her smile broadened. "Of course."
He scoffed, but smiled. Rukia took this as a sign.
"Tell me a story." She reached out and grasped his sleeve firmly. "When we were small and hid in the alleys to sleep, your stories would always lull me go to sleep."
"I don't have any stories," he said, trying to tug his sleeve out of her grasp. She grew more persistent, slightly distressed.
"Please, Renji. One story."
She pulled him so forcefully that his shoulder jarred against the bars. He winced and was about to turn and shout at her, until she grabbed his hand. Her small fingers wrapped themselves around his through the bars. Firmly.
"Jeez," he muttered. "You're too damned persistent."
Renji sighed, and took a deep breath. "Well, there's this one story I know… it's really popular. It's about this princess named Rapunzel—heard of it?"
"See, this princess," Renji began, his eyes falling upon her hand in his, "this princess was trapped in a tall tower with no door, no stairs, no nothing. Only one window at the very top (it was a tall tower). I forgot why," he scratched his head, "I mean, I only heard this once or twice, but how she got in there isn't really important."
Rukia gave a little snort.
"Anyway, this princess was stuck up in this tower, right? I think a witch trapped her up there or something… yeah, yeah I remember, there was a witch. I'm sure there was one. Hey, shut up, you're supposed to be listening."
"Sorry. I'll stop." Rukia tried to keep a straight face. Renji glared.
"So this princess—she's been locked up in this tower for many years, all her life," he said, trying not to look at his hands. "And her hair grew really, really long. And she had nothing to do but comb it (I guess that's what girls do). Don't ask about food or the toilet or anything, because I don't know either. All I remembered was that she was lonely. Really, really lonely."
"Of course it's sad. All she had was that old hag of a witch, and even though the bitch, sorry, was mean to her, Rapunzel cared about her because she was the only one she had. Even if she were hated, she still loved her warden."
"That's nice of her."
"I guess. I always thought she was an idiot. But yeah, in her heart, Rapunzel was always waiting for someone to come and rescue her. A prince, to be exact. Oh, crap, did I mention that her hair was really long?"
"Oh, okay. So her hair was so long, it became sort of a ladder thing, I guess, and that was how the witch got up the tower, see? Whenever she'd be out, gathering herbs or something for magic, she'd have to call out 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let down your hair!', and Rapunzel would have to let down all of her hair and let this really fat witch climb up it every day."
Rukia grinned. "This is a very interesting story."
Renji shrugged, and scratched his head with his free hand. "Yeah, well, it's one of my favorites."
"Mmm." She laid her head against the bars, inches away from where Renji's shoulder was.
He coughed. "Um, yeah. Well one day, this really, really handsome prince… he was just riding around on his white stallion I think, and saw the witch climb up this rope of hair. And he thought, 'now that's odd', and looked up and saw that the hair belonged to this really pretty girl. He feel in love instantly. Like that." He snapped his fingers.
Rukia laughed. "With only one look?"
Renji shrugged, "Yeah, he wasn't too bright either."
"So does the prince… save her?"
"Wait, don't go so fast," Renji said. "First, he pretends to be the witch, climbs up her hair, and talks to her for awhile. They both fall in love, and they come up with a plan to escape together."
Renji furrowed his brow. "Um… wait. Yeah, I know they escaped in the end, but I forgot how. I'm sure the witch tried to stop them…"
Rukia pulled her fingers from his grasp. "You told me a story that you don't even know the ending to?!" she exclaimed. "Does the princess get freed?!"
"Yes, I told you, yes!" Renji exclaimed, a little annoyed. "Don't worry, the prince comes and saves her and they live happily ever after…"
Renji looked a little bewildered. "Is that really important? As long as it's happy, right?"
Rukia bit her lip. "But it's impossible to get her out; he couldn't climb up the tower and then climb back down with her, plus there's the witch, who undoubtedly put up all sorts of enchantments around the tower to prevent this sort of thing," she said frantically. "And what if she doesn't even want to go out? You said it yourself, she cared for the witch too…"
"And the prince barely even knows her and he's risking his life and neck out for her? That's stupidity!"
Rukia gave him an irritated look. "What?"
"Kurosaki can do it."
Rukia fell silent. Renji felt something rise in his throat. He plunged on.
"If anyone can do it," he said to the ground, "it'd be him." He oddly felt the need to fill the silence. "That guy," he said, "that guy really cares about you."
"That idiot," she said viciously, glaring at the floor. "That idiot. I told him not to come. That fool."
Renji sat, his back against Rukia, with a great sense of doom weighing down on him. "Caring for you is foolish?"
"Why," she asked, her eyes wide and desperately confused, "Why would anyone care for me?"
"That's something," Renji said, "You can ask him. When he comes.'
He got up.
"He can't." Her voice was hollow.
Renji had known Rukia for a long time. He didn't remember a moment in his life without her. She was always, always, going to be there. Even if forces greater than the two of them tried to wrench them apart, Renji would cling on. Because they were beyond anyone, everyone.
He was inextricably tied to her. There were forces far too great for anyone, even him, to comprehend this fact. It was because of this, because of this complexity, this puzzle, this paradox that Renji began to realize that he really did love her.
Which was why he was so willing to let Kurosaki have her.
"Good night," Renji said, already at the threshold of the exit. "Good bye."