Abarai Renji couldn't see any reason why a few -- just a few -- fucking bandages should be able to stop someone from doing paperwork. Especially when those same fucking bandages didn't stop his Captain from wandering into the office, standing there while Renji rose and bowed, picking up the latest reports on the desk, making a cool but caustic statement (flawlessly classical, of course) about Renji's handwriting or grammar, and then strolling out again with his scarf blowing behind him and his coat drifting round his ankles.

He'd be prepared to sit down and measure his bandages against Kuchiki Byakuya's set and he'd swear he had more of them. There was no fucking reason why he should be doing the paperwork.

Except, of course, that Kuchiki-taichou had told him to.

He sat there for a moment, ink brush in his hand, enjoying a couple of memories that involved swords and knees and a brief look of actual, genuine surprise in Kuchiki-taichou's eyes. The sun was warm against his face. He could hear shinigami from his Division drilling outside. He wanted to be out there and showing them exactly what the fuck they should be doing.

Except, of course, that he had to do the paperwork.

Incursion in 75th District, ryoka suspected, squad dispatched to investigate. He tossed the report from the Not Sure What The Hell This Is pile to the Wait For More Info Before Annotating file, and checked the desk. Only a few left. Three in the No Bloody Idea pile, five in the Wait For More Info pile, ten in the Due To Be Criticized By Captain For Bad Grammar pile.

Perhaps he could take a few minutes off . . .

There was a garbled shriek from outside. Renji snatched his zanpakutou from where it was lying on the desk, leapt to his feet, thrust the door back, and raced out to the courtyard.

The scene there was a scatter of small images. The thing at the centre; target, identified, still for a moment, turn right, that's where it must have entered from the puddle of blood on the ground and the scatter of bodies and they were people who he knew, shit, he hoped that it wasn't fatal, someone had better be fetching Fourth Division, turn left, two of the juniors cornered and holding their swords up in a way that looked more like prayer or waving fans than any serious concentration of killing intent, shit, he knew he should be spending more time working with the idiots, turn centre again and focus.

It was one of those Hollows that had kept a mostly-human form, torn black fabric ragged across its body and tangled round its legs, hands like long mantis claws, hole in the chest, half as high as the nearby roofs, face a mask, except -- it was wrong, wrong in a way that Renji found hard to define. It wasn't a normal Hollow, and though any graduate of the Academy knew that there were no such things as "normal" Hollows, there was something fundamentally different about it. The twisted mask that formed its face seemed to be set in a scream rather than in the usual sneer.

Blood ran from its body as well as dripping from its claws. At least the juniors had managed to do some damage.

"Ho!" Renji called to it, and watched it slowly turn its head to focus on him. "Hey, you! Shithead! I'd give you my name, but . . ."

He moved, sliding through the air like hot steel, and --

-- no, this thing wasn't fast enough, it was good, but not even as good as he'd been before trying to match the Captain, and he didn't even need to summon Zabimaru to slice a long cut across its body and up under its armpit, so that as it tried to turn and catch him the slash gaped open and blood gushed across the paving-stones --

". . .you won't need to remember it," he finished as he landed, bringing his blade back round into a guard position.

The Hollow screamed, a thin empty gasp of a sound, and tried to clutch at itself as it sagged to its knees. There was no more will or intent left to it.

Renji readied himself for a quick stroke to the creature's mask. No need to cause it more pain than necessary.

Even as he slid a foot forward and began to move, the creature seemed to shrink in on itself. Body mass melted away in a wave of white matter that crumbled onto the paving stones, leaving behind a Hollow no larger than the usual human, and as he watched in shock, its mask dissolved, seeming to ooze back into the darkness of eyes and mouth . . .

. . . and it wasn't a Hollow any more. It -- no, he -- was Rikichi, one of the junior members of his Division, and he was dying.

Renji began to say, "What the fuck?" but gave it up halfway through as a bad job, sheathed his blade, and ran forward to catch Rikichi in his arms and cradle him to the ground. Blood ran over his hands and soaked into his robe. "Fourth Division!" he yelled. "Someone get the damn Fourth Division!"

Rikichi tried to reach up and get a handful of Renji's robe, but his hands were already too weak, too uncoordinated. "Vice-Captain?" he choked, his eyes vague. "Abarai-fukutaichou? Is that you, sir?"

"Yeah, it is," Renji informed him, moving a hand to try to hold the gaping torso wound closed. Never mind that it wouldn't do any good, that it was too late, that he was just too fucking good at killing people. That wasn't the point. "Just -- hold on, Rikichi. The healers are coming."

"It was wrong, Abarai-fukutaichou," Rikichi murmured. His eyes weren't focusing. He sounded like a child who had been punished unfairly. "We went out and found it and we killed it but it did this to me and I was the only one who came back and then people were saying something and it hurts."

"Shut up," Renji told him brusquely. "We'll get it, Rikichi, you hear me? You did your job."

Rikichi gave a little gasping breath. "I -- did okay, Vice-Captain?"


Rikichi wasn't breathing any more.

"Yeah, kid." Renji gently lowered Rikichi's body to the ground, and shut his eyes. "You did okay." His hands were slick with the boy's blood. "I screwed up."

Renji was finishing reports when a nervous messenger informed him that Unohana-taichou of the Fourth Division requested his presence. (Of course she'd request it. She was one of the few Captains who put it that way. Others required it. Zaraki-taichou, at the far end of the scale, just shouted for it, and expected you to be there before the echoes had finished dying away.) He put the inkbrush down with careful precision, and went to see what she had to tell him.

"Abarai-fukutaichou," she greeted him as he entered the reception room. "Please will you come over here, extend your less used hand in front of you, and summon your reiatsu to what you consider a medium level."

Renji blinked. He was bringing up his left hand as he did so, though. Unohana-taichou was one of the people he owed, bigtime. "Captain," he said through gritted teeth as he began to focus, "may I ask if there is any information yet about what affected Sixth Division man Rikichi . . ."

"You may." The Captain's own reiatsu flared to match his own, and the air in the room shuddered and hissed. Her face was as calm as ever, and not a single hair in her thick braid was out of place, not a single drop of blood stained the white perfection of her coat. "I regret to inform you that Rikichi could not be saved. We believe that he was suffering from some sort of after-effect caused by the Hollow that his team was trying to kill. We are checking everyone who came in contact with him, in case it should be infectious."

"Ah." Renji eyed his hand nervously. "I'm not, um --"

"No, not at all." The Captain let her reiatsu lapse, and Renji lowered his own gratefully. "You are in good health, Abarai-fukutaichou, and recovering well, though I would recommend that you continue to avoid over-exertion for at least the next week. Thank you for your time."

"Not at all," Renji said, and bowed politely as she left.

Within five seconds he was knocking on Kuchiki-taichou's door.

"We need to investigate," Renji said briskly after the necessary courtesies. "Sir, if whatever's out there is one of the weirder sorts of Hollow -- well, we don't know that Rikichi," still that twitch of guilt, that flutter of self-blame, "and his men managed to dispose of it. I recommend that I lead a detachment out there myself."

Kuchiki-taichou eyed him coldly. "Ah," he remarked.

It was just like the old days, Renji thought nostalgically. In an attempt to make helpful conversation while Kuchiki-taichou hopefully decided in favour, he cast around for topics to discuss. "I believe Ukitake-taichou of the 13th Division was visiting earlier, sir?"

A tiny line appeared between the Captain's brows, marring the classic jade perfection of his skin. "Indeed. He wished to know when Rukia would be available to return to his division."

This was one of the topics that Renji didn't want to detonate. "Mnh," he carefully nodded.

Kuchiki-taichou fixed Renji with a frozen stare. "My sister is still recovering," he explained slowly and carefully. "Of course I will have no objection to her returning to 13th Division when she is in full health again."

Renji was fairly sure what Rukia would have to say about that, too. A way of mollifying both Rukia and his Captain lit up at the back of his head like a Bankai. "You know, sir . . ." He let the sentence trail off artfully.

Kuchiki-taichou raised an eyebrow.

"I'm sure Kuchiki Rukia's assistance in an observatory capacity would be useful on this mainly investigative mission, sir," Renji suggested helpfully. "Naturally it wouldn't involve any direct combat -- and if it did, naturally I'd see to it myself -- but it would let her work her way back into the field in a method that would utilise her talents, and I'm sure Ukitake-taichou would understand if she were temporarily helping your Division in this matter."

There was a long, considering pause.

Renji kicked Rukia's door open. "Rise and shine, sleepyhead!" he yelled cheerfully.

A scroll hit him just under the left cheekbone. "I am awake. Moron."

Renji smiled happily at the glaring Rukia. "You know something, Rukia? You're my responsibility now."

A scarlet flush grew on Rukia's cheeks. With a frosty but deliberate whetted calm, she said, "Renji, if you do not tell me what precisely is going on, I will personally . . ."

Renji held up both hands. "Whoa. Hold it. That's how your brother put it. Your kind, protective brother. You know, Kuchiki-taichou?"

Rukia rose from where she had been kneeling in front of a table of scrolls. "That does it. I'm going to --"

"Who has just agreed for you to go on an investigation with me?"

A pause. "Okay," Rukia said. "Talk."

"Team sent out to investigate Hollow. One returned infected, now dead. Others probably dead. We're going to look it over," Renji explained briefly.

Rukia reached for her sword and slung it in place. "And my honoured brother agreed to let me go exactly why?"

Renji gave her a flat stare in return. "Because you are going to apply your intelligence rather than get into any fights. Which is my job. Right?"

There was the tiniest of pauses, before Rukia gave him a dazzling smile in return. "But of course, Abarai-fukutaichou. I don't doubt your . . .capabilities."

"Rukia . . ." Renji snarled.

"Or your undoubted abilities to stamp into battle and throw yourself headfirst into the fray. Onward, noble Vice-Captain! Forward! Let not your concerns for this poor shinigami . . ."

Renji grabbed her by the collar. "Come along," he suggested, "before I change my mind."