by Kel

A Bleach Alternate Universe fanfiction

Rating: T for violence, some suggestive themes

Disclaimers: Kubo Tite's the genius behind the characters. Some elements closely resemble those of Joss Whedon's Firefly/Serenity series. I think I lifted a few things from George Lucas, too. Anyway… not all of this is mine.

Summary: In the future, the Core and the Colonies are butting heads, wreaking havoc on the shipping trade. Couriers between the worlds are hard pressed to find work, and a when small group of people find themselves caught in the middle, they'll also find that saving themselves won't be enough.

Additional Notes located after the chapter.

Sparks arced across the corridor, and skittered across the steel-grid decking. The ship listed, her bulkheads straining, and a box of tools slid across the floor with a terrible screech. Somewhere down the hallway, there was a thud and small explosion. A tall woman, long blonde hair pulled back loosely, yelped as the floor abruptly righted itself. She fell sideways, caught herself against the wall, and hit a button with the heel of her hand. "Madarame! Try flying straight! I didn't fix the navigational control for nothing, you know."

A string of cursing made tinny by the intercom was the only answer she received. With a grunt, she let go and the cursing stopped abruptly. She wiped her grimy hands on her thighs, thankful that she was wearing dark colors and sturdy cloth. The ship pitched, and she fell forward, yelping again as she landed on her hands and knees. She bit her lip against the many curses that came to mind, and braced her foot against the bulkhead as she climbed to her knees. The floor rolled again, and the toolbox slid down the corridor toward her. She grimaced at the racket it made and caught it as it coasted past her. "Renji?" she called over the straining metal and crashing equipment.

Renji peered around a corner, his tattooed forehead smudged with grease and dirt and his impossibly red hair hanging lank around his shoulders. He was on his hands and knees, an old-fashioned screwdriver clutched in on hand. "Tools, please."

She pushed the box back toward him and he snagged it with his free hand.

"Navigation back?" he asked as he rummaged through the box.

"Yeah," she answered. "Madarame's trying to fly."

The ship lurched sideways and Renji's head knocked against the bulkhead. Blinking wildly, he scrambled to catch the toolbox as it started to skid. "I'm gonna shoot him out an airlock. Call him, Rangiku."

Rangiku shot him a long-suffering look and stumbled across the shaking floor back to the intercom. "Ikkaku!"

This time, he answered with less cursing. "What?"

"Our fearless leader," she said, "wants to know why you seem to be having some difficulty flying."

There was silence on the other end.

"So help me," Renji muttered, "if he's done something stupid…"

Rangiku blinked at the intercom. "Eh, Madarame?" Silence. "Hey, you. Person on watch and supposedly flying? Why'd the rest of us get a rude awakening?"

"…we hit a meteor."

Rangiku exchanged a confused look with Renji. "Just one?" he called, looking around at the damage.

"One… dozen or so."

She pressed her lips together. The floor fell out from under her and she flailed for purchase. Behind her, Renji cursed colorfully as the toolbox jumped. Rangiku regained her feet and angrily punched the "talk" button. "What the hell is going on, Madarame?" She could almost see the bald man scratching the back of his neck. "And keep your bloody hands on the controls."

"How did you…"

"What is happening?" Each word was clipped and angry.

"We're in an asteroid belt. You know the one."

For a moment, the only sound was the shaking of the steel decking and the occasional muted crash. When it was apparent that Renji was a little too flabbergasted to speak to the problem, Rangiku addressed it. Her voice was calm – too calm. "Why, pray tell, are we in the asteroid belt that we agreed that it would be bad to go into?"

Ikkaku's voice was full of pride. "I was outrunning the patrol."

Renji's hand came up to cover his face and he began muttering threats that, frankly, Rangiku would rather not hear. She closed her eyes, temper boiling over and all trace of the forced polite tone she had used was gone when she yelled at Madarame. "You thrice-damned idiot! We aren't carrying anything illegal this time!"

"We… aren't?"

An inarticulate cry of frustration lodged in her throat, and instead of all the things she wanted to say to Madarame, all that escaped was a sort of choked whine. She smashed a fist into the bulkhead next to the intercom, and turned to Renji.

"Out an airlock," was all the red-haired man said.

Rangiku's mouth worked and it was a moment before she could speak again. "I'll call Shorty." She turned toward a ladder and had a foot on the bottom rung before Renji answered her.

"Don't call him that. He'll never get us the supplies we need if you do."

The ship listed and Rangiku clung to the ladder for all she was worth. As she resumed her climb, Renji could hear her muttered about idiot thugs, asteroid belts and old ships. "Oh, hey," he called before she was out of earshot.

She ducked back down, eyebrow raised. "Yeah?"

"Check on Zabimaru for me, would ya'?"

Had she something in her hands, she would have thrown it. "Check on your own damn parrot!" With that, she was out of sight, gone to call her boss for a bit of help.

Renji sighed, and climbed to his feet just in time to be thrown back to his knees. With a narrow-eyed gaze, he looked around – sparks were still flying into the air, the occasional thud and muffled explosion could be heard, and a high-pitched whine that said something terribly wrong with the engines was developing – and looked down at the screwdriver still in his hand. He threw his hands up in disgust, and hoped Rangiku could convince Shorty to send a whole repair crew.

Hitsugaya wondered briefly if he could pull off getting lost – accidentally, of course – planetside. Surely the warehouse on the surface was due for a safety inspection or some such nonsense. He blinked at the stars out the porthole and wondered why, exactly, it seemed that space port designers were trolls who loved dark and enclosed spaces. It was like doing business in a dank cave, sitting at his desk – a desk he felt lost behind, thanks to its stature and his lack of same – and plodding through paperwork.

Paperwork. He snorted. Antiquated term, but it fit. He tapped the screen a few times, chin in one hand. Doing the monthly inventory report was not exactly his idea of fun, but, then again, one did not run an entire branch of a courier business and have fun. He ran a hand through brilliant white hair, and scratched the back of his neck.

Not that his job was anything more than a glorified secretary. He snorted, tapped the screen again, and nodded to himself. The inventory list for his warehouse was up, and he glared at the screen, daring the computer to give him trouble this time. He'd gotten a bit of dressing down after the last month's reports were late; the computers in his god-forsaken hellhole of a space port had somehow crashed. He'd been more concerned with keeping life support running – space was cold, damn it – than turning in his monthly reports on time. Hitsugaya yanked open a desk drawer and pulled out an old ledger, its leather edges worn. The book came down on his desk with a loud thud and Hitsugaya smirked. There was nothing more satisfying than throwing the account book around (especially when his carefully recorded numbers did not match the computer's reckoning).

Shunsui, the last time he'd shown up, had laughed his fool head off when he saw Hitsugaya was keeping a separate account record with paper and pen. Technology, he'd said, was a blessing; means you didn't have to actually write anything down. Hitsugaya hadn't answered; he liked it this way, and he could proudly say his branch records were the most accurate of any of Yamamoto's courier branches. He could also say that none of his side ventures would ever show up in Yamamoto's logs; the monies were carefully accounted for, and they would never approach the main office servers.

He pushed a button, and another screen unfolded itself from the desktop. He set that to connect with the main branch servers, and thumbed through the ledger. He ran his finger down the columns, checking the last payments credited. Automatic transfers for the crew salaries – most useless bunch in space; he couldn't remember why he hadn't fired that lot yet – and the warehouse workers took up most of the page, but two lines up from the bottom was the one he was looking for. (He snorted; the next entry was a payment from to a different wholesaler for parts needed that Yamamoto didn't send.)

The main branch had been sent its share of the money and, in return, Hitsugaya would receive the supplies they thought he needed as well as the product to transport. Same amount every month, same stock sent every month. Same pointless monthly report that always said the same thing. Hitsugaya grabbed his pen and made a note in the ledger margin: month end.

He'd gone through the lists and the accounts and was almost ready to sign off on it, and send the completed report to the main office when he noticed the discrepancy. It wasn't much – a crate or two of missing items – but it was enough to give him pause. He hesitated; sending in the report late again might be bad for business. Yamamoto could, and would if the mood struck him, give a branch bad business in retaliation. Then again, his crew had been unusually productive of late, and that last shipment that wasn't officially in Yamamoto's books had given him some extra funds.

He frowned, then leaned over the desk and grabbed the headset there. Without bothering to put it on, he thumbed the small talk button. "Hanatarou?"

The timid floor manager croaked an answer after a few moments, and Hitsugaya sighed. He wasn't quite sure what had possessed him to hire such an unassuming boy for his warehouse floor.

"I need an inventory check."

There was a pause, and some crackling; port to planetside communications on these old headsets weren't the best. "Is there a problem?" Hanatarou asked, his voice breaking and Hitsugaya knew the kid was thinking he had to be at fault somehow. He barely suppressed a frustrated groan; was it really beyond him to hire competent people?

"I need to check something." Hitsugaya looked up as a chime sounded. "Have it to me by tomorrow morning." He put down the headset without acknowledging Hanatarou's answer and frowned at the flashing message on one of his screens.

Incoming call.

Perfect. Probably his miscreant crew looking for another job. Or Yamamoto's second, giving him a friendly reminder that the reports were due today. He checked the id; miscreants it was. With a sigh, he tapped the screen a little harder than he needed. "What?"

"Hey, Shorty."

Her voice was like music to his ears; bad, grating, off-key music. "Matsumoto." He raised an eyebrow; her strawberry-blonde hair was disheveled and her eyes were lined and tired. That though, wasn't what alerted him to trouble: a smear of grease decorated her chin and the collar of her shirt was torn and dirty. He'd never known her to make a call without looking completely presentable. Instead of reprimanding her – he hated the nickname she'd given him – he just sighed and asked, "What's wrong?"

"Our delivery's going to be a tad late," she said without preamble and with a smile.

Her forced cheerfulness had him wincing. "Do I even want to know what happened this time?"

"Probably not," she answered, and launched into a story that left him wanting to smack his forehead. Repeatedly.

With a sigh, he went back to the ledger and inventory lists. "I'll arrange a shipment."

"And repair crews?"

He snorted. "I should just let you to your own devices."

Matsumoto smiled brightly. "So, you'll send some people."

"This would be easier planetside," he replied, ignoring her. "Can you get to a colony?"

She shrugged. "Ikkaku says we're not too far from Beta-121. We can land there; there's a good sized town in the western continent. Belio, I think it's called."

He nodded. "Send me coordinates when you land; our people will already be on the way."

"What about our cargo?"

"Let it be late; I'll contact the owners. I don't have anyone else available to pick it up right now, and I'm not about to pawn it off on another branch."

"Sounds good; you'll get coordinates when we do." Matsumoto smiled again, her blue eyes looking a little less weary. "Thanks, Shorty."

"Don't call…" The connection was terminated. He growled at the screen. "Don't call me Shorty."

Belio was not a pretty town, but Rangiku was long used to the absence of beauty. She stepped carefully over a smile pile of debris, her bootheels sending up small puffs of dust. Beta-121's rainy season had come and gone, leaving her western capital parched and dry. Even Belio's townspeople looked weatherbeaten, their skin tanned and leathery. It was not a place Rangiku would enjoy, but she had frequented many such places all too often in her work.

She had secured the ship – such as it was; no one could fly it now anyway – and left an hour after Renji had dragged Ikkaku away. The Lily sat only a half click out of town, her beaten and dirty hull no prettier than the town she rested beside. Someday, Rangiku promised. Someday she'd get prettied up. Until then, though, Lily was reliable and fast, until Ikkaku got it into his fool head to plunge her nose first into an asteroid field.

Rangiku snorted as she turned into an alley, looking for the bar she'd been told about. Renji had neglected to tell her where exactly he and Ikkaku were going, but she knew her crewmates: they'd make a showing at the seediest bar in town. It wasn't long before someone on the street told her about The Blue Door and Rangiku had sighed. Bar owners had no imagination. They slapped a coat of bright paint on an old door in a seedy alley, and thought they were clever.

It made their establishments easy enough to find, though. Probably the whole point.

Rangiku paused with her hand on the door. It would most likely be too much to ask that this place show some semblance of class, but she hoped anyway. She shoved it open, wincing at the bell that rang obnoxiously above her head. Every eye in the place – with the exception of those that belonged to parties too drunk to notice the bell – fixed on her, and she hesitated. A moment of uncertainty, and then it was gone as she strode forward, imperious gaze fixed on the bar (and a silent resolve to smack Ikkaku later for the sniggering he was doing in that booth in the corner).

She leaned against the bar, waiting patiently for the bartender to finish up with a couple other customers, and glanced at the monitors on the far wall. Better showing than the last bar she'd been in; she wasn't a prude, but she honestly believed porn was better with a smaller audience. This place was showing newsreels. Still not her first choice of programming, but maybe by the time they got to the next place, she'd find something she liked. With a glance at the not-hurrying bartender, she turned her attention to the monitors.

And promptly disregarded the diva on the screen babbling about the Core's latest fashions. She turned her attention to the small print scrolling across the top of the screen.

Four murders in the Core's capital; all high-ranking officials.

Mysterious disappearance of philanthropist Randall Thorpe stumps investigators.

Rangiku raised an eyebrow at that one; Shorty might not be pleased with that. He and Thorpe had an agreement that kept them both afloat. She wasn't sure of the details, but they'd run more than a few errands for Thorpe Enterprises, Inc. TEI had once been their biggest client.

She glanced at the bartender, who was still not looking in her direction. She'd raise a glass in honor if she had one. She wanted to be totally smashed, and recovering from her hangover by the time Shorty's repair team arrived.

Core and Colonies have yet to reach governance agreement.

Rangiku snorted. Old news. The Core and the Colonies had never gotten on well, and things were worse now that several Colonies enforced tariffs not approved by the Core. It made running a legitimate courier business difficult, at best. Of course, running one on illegimate means was much, much easier.

The bartender was walking toward her, and Rangiku caught one last headline before he spoke.

Investigators come closer to arresting Montoya family head.

"Whaddya need?"

Rangiku regarded the tired-looking barkeep with a raised eyebrow. "I need a lot, but some hard liquor'll do nicely for now."

He actually smiled at the lame joke and Rangiku grinned back. "Long day?" she asked.

He snorted. "People are up in arms 'round here, what with the Montoya news." He rummaged around under the counter. "Bel's whiskey do ya?"

"Is it good?"

"Bel's? Best 'round here."

She nodded, pointed to the monitor. "What's with the Montoya news?" Never hurt to see what had the locals jumpy, especially if she was going to be stuck here awhile.

He raised an eyebrow as he poured her a shot. "You didn't hear?" He pushed the glass to her and didn't bother waiting for an answer. "The Montoya family's close to falling, and the boss has put out last minute hits to save himself. Revenge. That sort of thing. Whoever he has been wanting dead."

Rangiku frowned, the glass halfway to her lips. "Why'd that got people here upset? I wouldn't think Belio'd be top of his list."

The barkeep shrugged. "You never know. Montoya's been off since this arrest news came out. Strung up a guy who spilled a drink. Put out a hit on some guy he didn't like the looks of. He's all over the place. He stopped on Beta-121 once and people here are paranoid."

Rangiku rolled her eyes before downing the shot.

"More?" The 'keep held up the bottle of Bel's.

Rangiku smiled.

Renji watched his crewmate work the barkeep for information with a knowing smile. The girl was good; he had to give her that. It was no wonder Shorty kept her near; Rangiku had a knack for finding out information, and she could get anyone to open up to her. The only problem was that she'd come back with too much, and sorting out the good stuff took all three of them.

Ikkaku leaned over, eyeing the woman at the bar. "She doing it again?"


"She found us already?"

"Can't say if she's seen us yet." Renji shrugged. "Girl always finds us, though."

Ikkaku frowned and shrugged and brought his cheap ale to his lips again. Renji let his gaze slide over the crowd in the bar, smirking when he found someone worth watching. Dark-haired. Perfect body. Tight clothes. He almost forgot he hated being stuck in Belio as the girl sauntered across the room. She turned, and he saw her face.

Perfection. He loved pouty red lips. He wondered if she was claimed. Decided he didn't care.

Clocked Ikkaku across the jaw when the man sputtered and sent damn cheap recycled ale onto his cheek. "What in the hell?" he hissed, arm cocked for another blow.

Ikkaku shoved Renji's fist aside as he rubbed his jaw. "Our girl's got trouble."

Renji scowled, but turned to look anyway. Two men – one bigger than he and Ikkaku combined – leaned over Rangiku, who looked hard-pressed to remain civil. "She can handle it."

Ikkaku snorted. "I know that," he said, "but shouldn't we at least watch?"

Renji blinked, his gaze finding the dark-haired beauty once more before coming back to Rangiku. Honestly, no woman had a thing on Rangiku when she took down a pervert. Ikkaku had a point. Watching would be good. With any luck, Rangiku didn't know they were here and they could watch without reprisal.

A grin spread across Ikkaku's face at Rangiku turned around, her hand already around the neck of a stout bottle. "Oh, this is gonna be good."

Rangiku poked the big man in the chest with the bottle, and he responded by pinning her against the bar. Rangiku took only the time to scowl before swinging the bottle.

It shattered against the big guy's temple, sending shards of glass and whiskey flying. Big Guy staggered sideways, his hand over his bleeding temple, but it was the other man who retaliated. He lunged at Rangiku, who ducked and spun to the side.

Renji watched with a sort of morbid fascination as Rangiku stood up, took a step back and ran into Big Guy, who seemed more mad than hurt.

"Not good," Ikkaku muttered as Big Guy's hand closed around Rangiku's arm.

Renji was already moving forward. He had only made two steps forward – Ikkaku still scooting out of the booth behind him – when Rangiku yelped. Big Guy twisted her arm behind her and shoved. Rangiku struggled as best she could and only managed to stomp on her assailant's toes. Before Renji or Ikkaku had taken another step, Big Guy roared and pinned Rangiku to the bar, the edge driving into her stomach.

Rangiku gasped, her free hand groping for something, anything she could use. She stilled when the smaller man sidled up to her, his hand reaching for her face.

That was when Renji punched him.

The small man staggered backward, hands flying to his now-bleeding nose. Rangiku seized the opportunity and reared back against Big Guy, who looked suddenly alarmed to have his hands full of wildly flailing woman. Rangiku was screeching, shoving against the bar, and kicking for all she was worth. When Big Guy's grip loosened, she turned, fist pulled back.

Ikkaku chose that moment to dive into the fight; he tackled Big Guy, and Rangiku's angry cursing turned into a yelp as she went down with them. Someone's elbow – she didn't know whose; for all the tangle they went down in, it could have been her own – found her gut and, between the abuse to her stomach and the table they crashed into, catching her breath was a hopeless cause. She barely registered the angry shouts from the table's occupants, or the fact that Ikkaku's little social group suddenly had two or three extra people; Rangiku was intent on getting out. That meant, of course, getting off the floor.

She scrabbled for purchase, and yanked as soon as her hand closed around something. Too late she realized it was an ankle… and a slim, smooth one at that. Renji's dark-haired girl pitched backward, landing gracelessly in the pile. Rangiku watched for a moment – hovering somewhere between mortification and amusement – as the girl slapped and screamed before she turned away. Rangiku crawled clear, and lurched to her feet. She resorted to yanking the hem of her coat from some man's hands, then straightened her shirt, frowning. It had been low cut before, but with that tear… She sighed, resigning herself to giving the men a free show and turned to find her "boys".

Boys they were. Ikkaku was grinning crazily as he blocked a punch and whooped in victory when he retaliated with an uppercut that had Rangiku wincing. Renji was grabbling with the smaller guy, who'd managed to land a few hits, if the redness under Renji's eye was any indication.

"Some friends."

Rangiku started at the weary voice next to her, then turned a lopsided smile to the barkeep. "You wouldn't want them, would you?"

He shot her a look that had her hard-pressed to swallow her laughter. When he turned a forlorn gaze on the mess that was his bar, she sobered. "If this isn't stopped in a minute's time, I'm calling in help. Then your group's leaving."

Rangiku nodded, then cupped her hands around her lips. "Drop 'em, boys!"

Ikkaku shrugged; Big Guy was already down, and anyone else who looked angry was having second thoughts about attacking him. He grinned as he caught sight of Renji ducking a wild swing. "Need help, Boss?"

Renji ignored him, danced backward a few steps, grabbed a chair and swung. There wasn't a sound after his opponent slid to the floor. Renji looked up at Rangiku, chair still held tightly.

"We need to go," she said quietly, motioning to the barkeep next to her, whose tired gaze had sharpened into something more calculating.

"Don't come back," he said, his eyes never leaving Renji.

Rangiku motioned Ikkaku out the door, grabbed Renji by the arm. "We won't," she assured him.

"I don't know who you are-"

"Just couriers," Rangiku interrupted. "That's all. Couriers passing through."

"-but I don't want to see you again," he finished as if Rangiku hadn't spoken.

"Yamamoto Shipping, Hitsugaya," Renji called as he shoved Ikkaku out the door. "Send the bill there." He ushered Rangiku past him, flipped a casual salute and closed the door behind him. He paused, hand still on the knob and shook his head. "How many bars is that?"

"In the last month or altogether?" Rangiku asked.

His answer was a grunt. "It's your fault."

"Yeah, you're too damn pretty."

Rangiku's sharp gaze fell on Ikkaku. "Just because some perverts-"

"-decide to gang up on me …" Ikkaku said. "We know the drill. You get us kicked out of every bar we go to!"

"It hasn't been every one, and I'm not the one tackling people."

Renji held up his hands, speaking over the bickering. "Let's get back to Lily. Our help'll be coming soon."

"How soon?"

"Not soon enough," Rangiku muttered as she wrapped her coat tighter around her shoulders. Her eyes widened when she spotted a tear in the shoulder. "Damn it, Ikkaku, you better have that sewing kit handy."

"Sewing kit? Me?" He snorted. "I don't even know where it is."

Rangiku gestured to the tear. "You're the one who tackled me. You're the one who's fixing this."

"Like hell."

Renji shook his head as they kept bickering and then started walking away. By the time they realized he was gone, he'd be back at the ship, and would have that much extra time for peace and quiet.

Behind them, the brightly painted door opened a crack, and the woman watched impassively. A manicured hand rubbed gently against bruises forming on her cheek. A hand wrapped around hers, stilling her movement.

"Simple little couriers, eh?" The voice was smooth, and the woman looked up, a hint of a smile playing on her full lips. The man rubbed the palm of her hand gently. "I want you to follow them, love. See why they're here."

She nodded. He glanced out the door before closing it, and then pulled her close. "And see what they're carrying. I need to make sure."

"I will," she promised softly.

"Good." He pushed her away swiftly, but with care. "Go."

She never hesitated, and he found himself smiling as she slipped out the door.


Author's Notes: Yes, Kel succumbed to the temptation to write an AU, and make it AU she certainly did. Spacepirate!Renji? Yeah, really. For faster – but smaller – updates and more information about the storyline itself,, you can visit this story's archive on Livejournal, in the community lift(underscore)the(underscore)limit.

Thanks for reading!