Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. All characters associated with the series are the property ofTite Kubo, I am simply borrowing them for my own amusement.
Ichigo huffed in annoyance and kicked a rock, his eyes following its progress as it skittered along the empty street. Zangetsu lay across his shoulder, a comforting and familiar weight, as he tried unsuccessfully to will a hollow into existence. He was restless, edgy and tired but he knew if he returned home he'd be unable to sleep. He hardly slept at all anymore. He would lie in his bed for hours, staring at the ceiling, his mind blazing with thoughts of Aizen, Soul Society, his family and friends; it was just too much to bear in the emptiness of his room. Better to be out looking for Hollows, because the fights exhausted him and left him blissfully unable to brood. He could sleep when the exhaustion took him.
The problem was that Hollow attacks were dwindling. Hitsugaya had relayed Soul Society's belief that this was an ominous sign, an indication of Aizen's continued preparation for a future assault. This was definitely a problem, but for Ichigo it was a more immediate issue. Without Hollows to fight he had a surplus of energy without an outlet, and that meant endless nights of wandering the empty streets. There was always training, Renji had offered to play the role of sparring partner anytime Ichigo said the word, and he said it often, but it still wasn't enough. He secretly suspected that Renji's offer stemmed from the same sense of restlessness he felt, more than a genuine desire to fight.
Finally abandoning his attempts to summon a Hollow through force of will alone, Ichigo settled for expanding his spiritual awareness, searching for wayward ghosts. If he couldn't kill something then the least he could do was help someone move on to a better place. His brow furrowed, he was never that good at sensing spirit force, and doing so in this manner was taxing even at the best of times. Extending his consciousness like fingers through the city he traced the different spirit threads, searching for the familiar tug of a ghostly presence. Finding nothing in the immediate area he pushed further, his body going deathly still in the cold chill of the darkness. He was about to admit defeat and resign himself to yet another night of deep ceiling tile contemplation, when he happened upon an unexpected, yet equally familiar reiatsu. Scowling, he turned his head in the direction of its source, seemingly lost in thought for a moment before finally setting off down the street.
Fifteen minutes later Ichigo found himself wandering along a hauntingly familiar riverbank, eyes fixed straight ahead, trying not to let his memories drag him under. It was hard enough to deal with the problems plaguing his present without dredging up the past to join them. By the time he spotted the lone figure ahead, his fists were clenched so tight that he was trembling, nails cutting into his palms.
He stopped for a moment, his internal battle temporarily forgotten as studied the other man. Renji was sitting with his back against a large tree, staring out over the water, lost in thought. Zabimaru lay casually against the thigh of one leg, and the arm resting atop the upturned knee was idly twisting the tie that usually contained his shockingly red hair. Freed from its restraint, the wild cascade now drifted around his shoulders and face, caught in the gentle breeze off of the river. He looked so much softer and more vulnerable in that moment and Ichigo found himself wishing he'd just gone home to his ceiling tiles after all. He suddenly felt like an intruder and turned away, wanting to escape.
"Yo, Ichigo." Even Renji's voice lacked its customary sharpness as it drifted to him across the heavy night air.
"Oh, hey, I was just….um…" he struggled for something casual to say but fell silent when Renji turned to pin him with his dark gaze.
"…wanderin' the streets leakin' spirit energy like ya do every night?" Renji supplied helpfully, a smirk playing across his lips.
"How do you… shut up! What are you doing out here, anyway?" Ichigo was still a bit unnerved by this version of Renji and was relieved when the other returned his attention to the water.
"Same as you, I guess."
The younger man stood rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do next. He could, having managed to exchange somewhat polite words, now excuse himself and return home without feeling like he was fleeing. On the other hand, home held only the promise of another sleepless night of worry and, even though Renji was acting strangely, he was still a potential source of distraction.
"Ya gonna stand there all night starin' at me, or are you gonna sit down?"
Allowing Renji to make the decision for him, Ichigo closed the distance between them and dropped unceremoniously onto the grass, laying Zangetsu within easy reach. He turned his head slightly and found that Renji had locked that disconcerting stare on him once again.
"Ya look like shit," Renji muttered matter-of-factly, though there was no real hostility in the tone. "When's the last time ya slept?"
Ichigo huffed irritably, looking out over the river, "You're one to talk; doesn't look like you've been sleeping much yourself."
"Hm." Renji shifted Zabimaru to the grass at his side and stretched his long legs out in front of him, crossing his ankles.
The two sat in silence for awhile, both lost in their own thoughts, watching the currents drift lazily by. Ichigo shifted awkwardly, aware of the stiffness settling in his muscle form both the cold and fatigue. He rolled his neck, trying to work out a kink, and felt his shoulder brush against his companion. Renji twitched faintly and leaned towards him, bringing their bodies back into contact and sharing his warmth, though whether consciously or unconsciously Ichigo couldn't tell.
"My mother was killed by a Hollow along this river." He wasn't sure what prompted this admission, but somehow it seemed important and there was no taking it back even if it wasn't.
"Ya, Rukia said somthin' about that once." Renji admitted quietly.
"It wanted to kill me, but she got in the way."
He felt the shoulder shift against his and could feel the weight of Renji's dark gaze, though the other man remained silent. Ichigo's eyes slid closed as the breezes stirred tendrils of fine red hair that reached out to brush against his cheek.
"I used to think it was my fault, you know, because she got killed trying to save me, but I guess I was just a kid and she was my mom and that's the way things happen sometimes. I don't know."
His eyes were still closed, and in the darkness the tickle of hair against his skin felt almost like the gentle caress of fingers. For a moment he longed for that kind of compassion, for someone, anyone, to just brush away his worries and tell him that everything was going to be okay, even if it was a lie. His mother had done that for him once upon a time, but she was long gone, he had forgotten how to smile, and his problems were far too large for kind words to heal.
"She and I have a lot in common, I guess. She died protecting me, and I'm probably going to die protecting the people I care about. At least that's how I'd like to go, if it comes down to it."
He turned toward Renji and found him still watching quietly. It was almost surreal. Renji, quiet and subdued as he listened to him pour out his problems.
"Who are you and where's Renji?" the younger shinigami smirked.
"Shut up, dumbass! I'm tryin' to be supportive!" Renji growled, jerking back around to face the water. Ichigo snorted, a bit relieved by the outburst and silence stretched on again.
"I didn't want to be a shinigami." Ichigo flinched at the sound of the voice and turned, finding Renji staring down at his hands, his face hidden by a curtain of hair. "Me, Rukia, our friends, we were all gonna stick together, grow up together. We had all these plans that we'd worked out, sat up laughin' about at night." His hands clenched, the knuckles going white for a second before he relaxed again. "Then they all died and I realized that the only way I'd ever be strong enough to protect anyone was if I trained. No real choice there."
Renji reached up to brush the hair back behind his ear and Ichigo could see him frowning against the memories.
"I became a shinigami to protect my family, and now they're in danger because I'm a shinigami. How's that for ironic?" Ichigo tossed out, trying to distract him from the haunted look in his eyes.
The older man chuckled dryly, "Is that what keeps you up at night?"
Ichigo rubbed a hand across his eyes and up through his hair, "It's part of it. Them, Inoue, Chad, Ishida, the people at school, the people in Soul Society…fucking Aizen! I can't be everywhere!"
"So you wander around, tryin' to keep an eye on everyone, wearin' yourself out 'till you're no good to no one?" Renji's gaze was unusually shrewd.
"It's all I can do, and it's better than staring at a wall and wondering if everyone's okay, or if someone's bleeding in an alley, or dead, or missing…" Agitated, he started to rise but Renji caught his sleeve and yanked him back down, hard. "What the hell, Renji!"
"Shut up for a minute; I'm tryin' to find it." he dug through his pockets for a second before pulling out what looked suspiciously like a cell phone.
"Your Soul Society communicator?" Ichigo stared at it blankly.
"Yeah, look." He leaned over and flipped it open, holding it between the two. "They're all fine."
He pushed a button and Ichigo saw a map of the street his family's clinic was on, another push of the button and there was Inoue's street, and Chad's, and Ishida's. Text scrolled along the bottom of each image indicating the area was all clear.
"You've been watching us all?" Ichigo frowned, shifting his gaze from the screen to the man holding it.
"Of course, idiot, that's part of my job." Renji looked thoroughly annoyed as he dropped the phone into Ichigo's lap. "It's not like I set up surveillance in your room, just watching the area. See for yourself."
Ichigo spent several long minutes cycling through all of the monitored areas. "How'd you know where Ishida lives? I don't even know that."
Renji laughed, the first really amused sound of the night, "I followed him home one day. He bitched the whole way, too, about shinigami stalkers and people not treatin' him with respect. It was worth it for that alone."
Ichigo couldn't help but smile as he suddenly felt lighter than he had in days. Beside him, Renji launched into a blow by blow reenactment of his encounter with the bespectacled Quincy, complete with a fairly decent impression of the other's incredibly irritated voice. Ichigo found himself laughing out loud, though his eyes remained glued to the tiny screen in his hands. Renji, seemingly encouraged by his response settled more comfortably into the tree and began to regale him with humorous tales from the various divisions that he'd served in, and even a few from his academy days.
Slowly the tension began to drain from Ichigo's body, and as the threads of worry that had been holding him up slid away, the exhaustion started to creep in. He didn't even realize that he was nodding until he felt something slip behind his back and his world did a funny little roll. His eyes popped open and he found himself staring at knees, Renji's knees to be exact; the redhead had pulled Ichigo's head into his lap.
"What the fuck...?" he slurred, blinking and briefly trying to right himself before a strong hand pushed him back down.
A curtain of hair fell around him and he looked up to find Renji leaning over him. "You were startin' to fall and I thought it might be safer if you were closer to the ground."
"I can't just lay here with my head in your fucking lap, Renji!" He wanted to sit up again but the older man was still leaning over him, and exhaustion had rendered his arms far too heavy to push him away.
"Sure you can," the redhead's grin flashed briefly in the dark, "I ain't gonna tell no one, and besides, you really need the rest."
The hair drew back as the other straightened, but he found himself unable to move away. His body felt like it was made of stone. Even his mind seemed sluggish, incapable of finding a suitable reason to not be lying out under the stars cradled against another man, though he was certain there should be many. He had almost given in completely when he remembered the others, the people who were counting on him, out there somewhere in the city. Renji must have felt him tense because a moment later a hand cradling the communicator slipped into view.
"I've got them all right here, Ichigo. How 'bout you just let me keep an eye on them for tonight."
Ichigo grunted something noncommittal as he watched Renji thumb past the streets through half closed eyes. A gentle tickle along his scalp seeped into his sleep addled brain and he realized that the other shinigami had brought a hand up to run through his hair. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the little voice that remembered why he shouldn't have his head in Renji's lap was grumbling about this new development, but it was quickly silenced as long fingers began to move through his locks in soothing, nonsensical patterns. His eyes slipped closed as he gave in to the painfully soft caress of the fingers, and the aching promise of sleep. There was a soft click as Renji closed the communicator and Ichigo felt a warm hand settle on his side, just below the bend of his elbow, comforting and protective.
"Why are you doing this?" the words were badly slurred.
There was no answer from above as the fingers continued to work their magic, ghosting across his ear and the back of his neck. A few moments later it didn't matter, the last wisps of consciousness faded away and the darkness took him. Renji continued to drag his fingers through the unruly mop of orange hair even after the boy's breathing evened out, staring out over the water. He was strong enough to carry them all now, if only for one night. This is why he had become a shinigami.
A/N: I'm still undecided as to whether I want to continue this story or simply leave it as a oneshot. I think that it could work either way. I suppose I'll leave it up to the reviews :).