A/N: April flashfic for cccpirate. Probably the first time I've written the same pairing more than once, and it's not even a pairing I ship. Ahaha. Anyways, this story is made of angst, angst, and more angst, so beware.

Janken, by the way, is sort of like the Japanese version of rock, paper, scissors.






Some days he thinks, if she says thank you one more time, he's going to do something stupid.

He knows she's grateful. He doesn't want to hear it. Instead, he'd rather have her not have any reason to be grateful to him. Every thank you means he's sacrificed something for her again, and quite frankly, he's tired of it.

Unfortunately, Abarai Renji is very bad at giving up on people, and especially bad at giving up on Kuchiki Rukia. It's getting bad for his mental health that he can't let go, even when she's so obviously already gone. It doesn't matter where she's gone-- she thinks she's gone to Ichigo, but Renji can see that the truth is a little less clear cut. If she's gone to anyone, it's more Orihime than anyone. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that she's gone, and that Renji still can't convince himself of that.

So, because he's never really been the independent type despite all his posturing, he goes and finds Kira. Coincidentally, Momo is there too, but that's okay. They were a team once, and that sort of understanding between people doesn't dissipate easily. He can still talk to them. That trust they built up over the years of training together and fighting together is still there.

It's such a weird clash of personalities, the three of them. Kira is so cripplingly self-effacing, Hinamori so quiet and unsure of herself, and then there's Renji, so obnoxiously loud and pointedly self-confident that he provides enough noise-- to both eyes and ears-- for all three of them by himself. However, in return, Kira and Hinamori have enough thoughtful practicality between them to make up for Renji's impulsiveness. That's why they're such a wonderful team. Brains, brawn, and beauty, Renji had used to joke. Aside from the fact that Hinamori is more than just a pretty face, it's a pretty accurate way to put it.

He flops onto the floor of Kira's modest flat and twists his face into the most gruesome position he can muster. Kira just sighs and goes to make tea. Renji hasn't even said anything yet, but Kira understands just fine. "The good stuff, Izuru!" he yells. He only calls him 'Izuru' when it's just the three of them, but it's worth it for the tiny quarter-smile that Kira pulls out whenever he does.

Hinamori comes and sits next to him. She puts a hand on his arm, hesitantly, but doesn't ask what's wrong. She probably already knows, being clever like that.

Renji accepts her presence with a rueful smile, bumping her shoulder with his affectionately. She's such a gentle soul. He has trouble reconciling this Hinamori with the one he's seen on occasion when she has cause to be angry, the wrathful, tearstained angel with a blade not nearly sharp enough to cut painlessly.

Kira returns with the tea, handing a tiny, tastefully designed cup to Renji. The fragile porcelain thing vanishes into his fist, looking as completely out of place as it is possible to be. His is a hand made for rough, hand-carved sake bottles and belt-loop water-decanters, not petal-delicate teacups. Nevertheless, he drinks from it respectfully and makes a point of enjoying the flavour. This is what friendship does to Abarai Renji, and Kira is observant enough to notice.

"It's Rukia," he says out of the blue a good half-hour later.

Hinamori's hand returns to his arm and squeezes half-instinctively. Kira just meets his eyes. Neither of them ask him to elaborate, knowing that he'll say what he needs to when he feels like saying it.

"I don't really know what to do," he mumbles eventually, looking at the floor. "You guys know how I feel about her, and I kinda think she does too, but she always pretends not to notice. I can take a hint, y'know, and I'd leave her alone if I could, but... she always seems to need me even if she doesn't want me there, so what am I supposed to do? Who's gonna protect her if I turn away?"

There was an obvious answer to that, but Renji can't accept it. Ichigo will die to save her, he's proved it over and over again, but he's so freaking young. It's easy to forget it sometimes, with his serious eyes and frightening power compared to her occasional silliness, but Rukia is nearly a hundred years old now, and he hasn't even finished his second decade yet. How can Renji trust him to protect Rukia when he isn't even old enough to drink in most countries?

Put simply, he can't.

Therefore, he is compelled to continue protecting her until someone comes along whom Renji can safely deliver her to.

Unfortunately, no such person has yet appeared, and Renji is really reaching his limit. It is too hard to protect her without making her uncomfortable by loving her too openly. What he really wants to do is sweep her off her feet, pin her to a wall, and kiss her until they both forget their names, but she would never forgive him if he did that. Not ever. However, not doing it is really goddamn hard sometimes.

"Help me out here, guys," he says weakly, looking around at Kira and Momo.

It is Kira who eventually speaks, though Momo's eyes say that she has an answer she is unwilling to voice. "Well, it appears that have three options," Kira says quietly, with hardly a single stutter. "You can either stay the way you are now, halfway between alternatives, you can devote yourself completely to her and ignore her wishes, or you can let her go and trust her to know what's best for herself."

"I know that, damn it," Renji growls, but without rancor. "That doesn't make it any easier to decide."

It's entirely possible that Momo knows him better than anyone, though she keeps quiet about it. It's she who suggests a game of jan-ken-pon, with a faint whisper of a smile that slips across her face and vanishes almost before he has a chance to notice it. "I will be the second choice," she says quietly, "where you stay with her. Kira will be the first, where you keep things the way they are until you break. You be the third choice... letting her go. Whoever wins will be the one you choose."

Renji laughs, sounding a little strangled and rough. "I can't make a choice like that based on a game of rock-paper-scissors," he tells them with a half-hearted grin, "don't be crazy."

"Nobody says you have to," Hinamori says calmly, "it's just a game. Play along."

There's not really anything he can say to that without looking like a bad sport, so he puts out his fist and chants saisho wa guu! with them to synchronize before starting, feeling like an idiot and wishing he hadn't come. It's a little too late for that, of course.

"Ready?" Hinamori asks, and Renji and Kira nod together.

"Jan, ken, pon!" they say together, and reveal their decisions.

Kira chooses scissors. So does Hinamori.

Renji chooses rock.

"Best of three?" he asks weakly.

They play again. Renji wins.

And again. Renji wins.

"There's no way I'm deciding this on a game of rock-paper-scissors," he repeats, a bit desperately. "No freaking way!"

Hinamori smiles sadly at him. "You don't have to... but Renji, you know it's way past time for you to--"

"Don't say it," he interrupts, meeting her eyes with something just barely short of a glare. "Don't."

She swallows what she was going to say, but even though the words never hit the air, Renji can still hear them echoing mockingly around his ears like malicious whispering spirits. He knows she's right. He's known it for a long time.

Sure, Ichigo's young. That doesn't mean he's any less devoted, nor any less powerful. Quite the opposite. He's already proven that he can do better than Renji can while still a green beginner, and he will only get better with time and experience. Renji will never come close to matching him again. He isn't necessary anymore, no matter how badly he wants to believe otherwise.

Rukia doesn't need him, and she has never wanted him.

Renji draws his knees up to his chest and rests his head on them, curling his arms around his shins to pull himself into a tighter ball. They might be his friends, but he refuses to let them see him cry. Nobody is allowed to see that. He stills the shaking of his body as much as possible, but he's not stupid enough to think that Hinamori won't notice, or even Kira for that matter.

Sure enough, a moment later he feels Hinamori's arms settle feather-light around his shoulders, and then Kira's around them both. He's not insensitive enough to ignore the fact that Kira is setting aside his aversion to physical contact in order to comfort him, or that they both probably have better things to do than nurse him through his obsession, but damned if he can stop the shuddering of his lungs or the hot streaking tears.

"Sorry," he chokes.

"It's all right," Kira tells him, and Hinamori just tightens her arms a bit to say the same thing wordlessly.

They sit there til nearly nightfall. Eventually Renji gives up trying to hide and weeps unabashedly, grieving for the end of a love that never really got a chance.

When the sun's light finally turns rosy with the impending end, Renji dries his tears and gets up suddenly, startling Kira and Hinamori, who are by this time already half-asleep.

"I'm going," he says shortly.

They understand, he knows. They'll be waiting here for him when he comes back in case he needs to cry some more. He really hopes not, since crying is definitely not manly and it makes his face feel soggy. It's messy and girly and he really, really hates it.

Therefore, he resolves not to cry again no matter how it goes next.

With that in mind, he strides resolutely out of Kira's flat towards the steady white flag that is Rukia's reiatsu. She's not far away, and even if she was, her spiritual signature is something that he can find even if she's half a world apart from him. It comes from the long habit of searching for it unconsciously in order to make sure she's safe. That's one habit it'll be damn hard to break when this is done.

He finds her on a bridge high between two buildings in the central court, looking out over the dusty sprawl of Rukongai and the pristine circle of the Seireitei within its implacable wall. There's an indefinable expression on her face, something between longing, nostalgia, and revulsion that he can't really put a name to. He can tell, at the very least, that she would rather be somewhere else, and it's not hard to figure out where that somewhere else is. It doesn't even matter to her, he knows, as long as the kid is there.

That really hurts.

Though he's already decided, this drives the last nail into the coffin his obsession lies in, prematurely stricken. As Hinamori said, it's past time.

"Rukia," he says quietly.

She turns to face him, not surprised to see him. She would have felt him coming for a long time. "Renji," she answers. Her eyes are a bit sunken, and she's lost even more weight, as though she had any spare to lose. She looks like a tenuously materialized wraith, hardly solid at all.

He comes over to lean on the railing next to her, not close enough to touch but close enough to share a bit of warmth. "I have something to say," he starts haltingly, "so... listen until I'm done, all right?"

Rukia tenses, but nods slowly. He knows what she's expecting, but he's finally done being selfish.

"I love you," he says simply, "and that ain't gonna change. Not ever. And I know you love me too, but... not the way I love you. I've been all right with it up til now, but it's not enough, you know? I can't keep on this way, it hurts too much . So... I'm gonna go away now and leave you alone. It's really hard... really fucking hard, Rukia... but I'm gonna trust Ichigo to take care of you. If he screws up, I'll probably be right back here again doing the same damn thing, but I'm gonna give him a chance to do right by you without getting in the way. He's a good kid, he deserves that much, and... so do you. If you ever need anything-- anything, you hear?-- I'll be there in a second. I'll be your friend forever, I promise you that. I just... can't hang around in your shadow waiting for you to need me anymore, you know? So... yeah. Sorry if I'm not making any sense. I just wanted to say that."

All the while, he's been looking out into the reddening horizon, unable to meet her eyes for fear of breaking completely. Now that he's done, he risks a glance downwards, and instantly regrets it.

Rukia's cheeks are streaked with tears, and her eyes are huge and reflective in the sunset light. "Renji," she whispers, and trembles just a bit as though she's cold.

Warrior he might be, but there's no way he's strong enough to deal with this. He doesn't even have time to admit defeat before his body acts on its own, falling on her in a powerful, bone-creaking embrace that envelops her entire body with his own. He buries his face in her hair and his fingers in her shoulders, inhaling her desperately just in case this is the last time he gets the opportunity.

"I'm sorry," he says gruffly, but can't make himself let go just yet.

Her fingers snake their way up until they fasten on the edges of his uniform, tightening in the fabric and futilely trying to pull him closer. At least she isn't pushing him away, or saying something fake and cloying to try and make him feel better. She's being honest. He's really thankful for that.

Suddenly, it hits him that this really might be his last chance. He's made the decision and gone through with it-- it would just be tacky for him to do something later, so this is really, really the last chance.

He pushes her away a bit, just far enough that he can meet her eyes, and smiles ruefully. "You're just gonna have to forgive me for this one," he says, then before she can ask what he means, he leans down and seizes her mouth with his, swallowing her startled cry. She doesn't taste like much special like snowdrops or melting snowflakes or anything romantic like that. She just tastes like Rukia, but that's enough to shatter him. He weaves his fingers into her wind-cold hair and pulls her close, savouring every endless second.

She doesn't push him away, but she doesn't welcome him either. He doesn't blame her. He's actually kind of glad, because her indifference will make it much easier to walk away.

It's a little sliver of eternity before he lets her go, an iridescent shard of forever that he'll treasure despite himself.

Rukia stares at him, at a loss for words and eyes swirling with several different emotions he isn't even going to try to identify. She doesn't look angry, or repulsed, and that's enough for him.

"Sorry," he says, and makes himself smile even though it's possibly the hardest thing he's ever done. "See you around, Rukia."

Then he turns his back on her silent, stunned white presence and walks away without stumbling. He refuses to look back, knowing his own limits.

She doesn't follow, or call him back.

The end comes uninterrupted.

The moment he turns the corner and her gaze on his back breaks, he feels as though he has sloughed off years worth of dirt and grime from his skin. He feels clean, clear... awake? To his great relief, he does not feel like crying. Rather, he feels like smiling. So he does, and for the first time in decades it doesn't feel like his face is going to break. It feels natural, like it should.

Unrequited love weighs enough to break a strong man's back, and he hadn't even realized it until now. Now, it stands behind him on a bridge in front of a falling sun rather than on his aching shoulders. He can almost feel his spine straightening thankfully, freed of the crushing burden he's forced it to carry up til this moment.

The steps back number in the hundreds, but they pass in a blink until the door opens and Hinamori pulls him inside. Kira hands him a cup of tea.

They don't ask how it went. They don't have to.

Renji holds up the tiny teacup and inhales the curling steam, then smiles at them.

"This is good stuff," he says, and means every word.


A/N: fjdlsjfla Renji.