The Outsider

Renji has learned many things over the course of many years. People always assumed him to be stupid, but it was a useful image at times so he maintained it. And while he might privately admit that he is far from the brightest person on the planet, he could probably tell most people a thing or two.

Never accept anything in a cup, glass or bottle from anyone even vaguely associated with the eleventh division. Even if it appears to be sealed. Never.

Don't trust people named Jeremy or Trevor until they prove otherwise.

Tip-toeing is a load of nonsense, and Ikkaku, while a total dumbass in the first place, only further proves his title with that idiotic dance of his. If you really want to sneak around, you put your weight on your heel first, then slowly transfer it to your toe. You keep your balance better, your weight is spread out so the floor will creak less and you make less noise in the first place. It also helps to walk next to walls.

It hurts like hell to get stuff tattooed on your neck.

And sometimes life sucks. And you can't do a thing about it.

Renji glances at Rukia discreetly from the corner of his eye. She crouches down gracefully, balance never faltering, to lay the flowers upon the grave, staring unseeingly at the marker. Those blue eyes unfocused, face relaxed, communing with something deeper than both of them. The black hair she took such careful care of blowing gently in the evening breeze, one of the only things he had ever noticed she was at all feminine about, taking great care and fussing over the black mane, although she would never do so in the presence of others. Eventually she rose and proceeded to the next grave, repeating the ritual, spending her time equally at each. She was always very fair.

He stood back, feeling detached, as was usual.

They had managed to get away to do this every year for as long as he cared to remember. It had always been the same day. The pair came to pay respects not only to their dead friends and family, but also (he felt) to their pasts.

Sometimes it felt like he lived his whole life in the past.

He only existed these days. He fought, he drank, he slept, he ate, he slept, he laughed and shouted and went on to the next day. But there was no purpose. He spends his nights memorizing the cracks in his ceiling, reliving every moment he spent in her presence, her face, her rare smiles. A box of faded memories he had tried time and time again to shove under his bed but still ended up taking out to examine, the starlight providing nothing but dim illumination, edges frayed and fading, running his fingertips over things he has long since committed to memory.

He lovingly caresses the time they had happened upon a swimming hole when they were young, and Rukia jumped off the overhang and onto him, and they both narrowly escaped death by drowning and laughter.

He can feel the texture of her kimono as he tried to mend it while she slept, as the small bit of stolen thread grew ever smaller as it broke time and time again.

He reminisces about the taste of the stolen apples they risked their necks for and tasted even sweeter because of it.

She has been his only family for so long now.

Renji turns from her small back as she dusts dead leaves from the graves, sitting down to dangle his legs over the cliff edge. He resists the urge to kick them back and forth. He does have his pride as a man after all. Reveling in the feel of the air under his feet, he wonders vaguely what would happen if his sandal fell off right now.

Without looking, he can feel Rukia take an identical seat beside him, a cautious bit of space in between them. She does not kick her legs either. Renji remembers when she would climb into his lap without a second thought, and struggles to recall just how her slight weight had felt.

The Rukongai stretches on below them and on every side, as much a part of them as the hearts beating in their chests. It's crude, in its own way both beautiful and cruel and dark. They had thought, in their naïve way, that nothing but the beauty would remain if they could simply work their way up in the world. But the only thing that changed was that people's threats were now veiled in offhanded compliments and sarcasm, decorum acting as either a tether or a shield to those who knew how to manipulate it.

It had been mystifying to Renji at first. If you had a problem with somebody, you hauled out and punched them, they punched you, you punched each other for awhile and tried to figure out who had gotten punched the most when you couldn't punch anymore. Whoever was the loser didn't pick a fight with that guy anymore, and it was all okay again. But in the Seireitei… it was like poison. Lies were spread, reputations tarnished and rumors established, a spiders web of intrigue and guile, so convoluted that oftentimes even the makers themselves could not untangle it. Eventually he found a few others like himself with the eleventh company, but…

He wishes he could just go back to stealing his dinner.

"So… how's it going?" The question squeezes itself out, feeling small amidst the silence.

Rukia nods, glancing at him briefly with relieved eyes. "Pretty good."

He is such a coward.

He is so weak.

When did she stop confiding in him?

"Anything big happen lately?"

"Not really." Her gaze softens though, staring out at someone only she can see. "You?"

"Finished my tattoos on my ankles, and it hurt like hell- too bony."

She smiles and gives a small chuckle, just the response he had been hoping for. He elaborates. "I think I'll get some done around my wrists now, to match. That and I'm feeling like a little punishment." It wasn't a lie.

Rukia laughs a bit more.

Renji remembers when the whole tattooing issue first came up. It had been their first day at the Soul Reaper Academy, and their guide had had a very prominent abstract pattern snacking up his shoulder, neck and half of his face. Upon his departure she giggled. Now that was something that didn't happen often.

He had made the first addition to his eyebrows the very next day, with the explanation that it was to celebrate the next chapter of their lives. And she had giggled again, commenting on his swollen face and giving him the nickname that would follow him around for the rest of his life It had kind of gotten out of hand since then.

His whole body branded, her laugh in every one of the millions of pinpricks, and she didn't even know. It was better off that way though.

Eventually they rise and begin the long walk back, Rukia struggling to fill it with effusive chatter about the weird and wonderful things she had found in the living world, music players and billboards and taillights and mopeds, and the occasional offhand remark about how he would start limping any minute now from those new tattoos, or how he would never learn moderation about his body art, and a comparison to Shuuhei.

At the limits of the Seiretei they both promised to meet again like this next year, as they had every year.

Renji couldn't remember talking to her more than just a brief wave in passing, and an exchange of hellos until today. It had been the same way last year. And the year before that.

Strawberries familiar voice calls out to both of them, and he comes running up.

Rukia's smile is killing him, small bits at a time.

Ichigo chats with Renji for a moment, and they discuss the red-head's newest distraction, soccer, briefly and Japan's chances in the World Cup. He had made a point of sneaking off to the living world to steal papers so that he could at least keep up on the standings. Ichigo is rooting for Britain, just because he's contrary like that, and they argue until Rukia makes some remark about Germany, and they all fight for awhile.

Rukia eventually says something about how it's getting late and the couple depart, Ichigo's arm wrapped about her small, delicate shoulders, as Rukia says something about the superiority of German sausage, and Ichigo replies that she has never even been out of the country, and Rukia tells him that neither has he. He frowns, but it doesn't reach his eyes, and her smile does. She punches him in the shoulder and leans into him until he staggers and he asks what the hell is up with her and they both laugh at some joke only they could comprehend.

They shrink into the distance, as Rukia blathers on about some story involving Orihime that Ichigo has obviously heard one too many times and Renji has not been told once. Renji shoves his hands in his pockets and walks towards that distant, cold room in the sixth division barracks, undecorated save for a bowl filled with water and a flower he found floating in the river. And wonders when exactly he became the outsider.

A/N: HAPPY EARLY BIRTHDAY REN-CHAN! XDD In other news, can you believe a RenRukIchi triangle/angst fest with Renji on the losing side is my idea of a birthday present to the guy? He is my favorite Bleach character after all. But, then, that's all I ever write for Edward anymore anyway, so I dunno. Guess I'm just stuck in angst mood. Or the plot bunnies are feeling angsty. Or fair is getting to me. Hmm.