Renji ran his fingers through the tail of his hair, combing out tangles. The wind up on this tower block was vicious. Impressive, but vicious. "Nice work, getting us on this mission, sir," he said cheerfully.

Kuchiki-taichou glanced sidelong at him, eyes heavy-lidded and dark.

"So, um, how do you want to play it, sir?" He might still be new on the job, but he knew that his Captain wanted to be called sir in every sentence, and preferably every other word while he was at it. "If we wait a bit longer, then it'll be past midnight by the time we bring her in, and you can take her to the Kuchiki mansion before anyone notices, and be sorting stuff out with the Chamber of Forty-Six in the morning . . ."

"She will be held in the Sixth Division cells," Kuchiki-taichou cut in flatly, "as is proper."

Renji frowned. "But won't everyone know about it if you do it that way, sir?"

"Renji." Kuchiki-taichou turned to give him his full attention. "Are you suggesting it should be done any other way?"

In retrospect, he should have heard the sound of rope being unfurled for him to hang himself with, and shut his mouth there and then. But he never had been very good at taking hints. "Well, sir, if this guy stole her powers, it doesn't sound like it's her fault as such, so there's no need to put her through the whole under-arrest thing . . ."

Kuchiki-taichou's voice was as unfeeling as a winter night. "Your Rukongai beliefs shame you, Renji. Do not speak of them again."

"But, sir --"

Kuchiki-taichou moved before Renji could see him do it, with the speed of a Captain and a grace that was all his own, and pinned Renji against the parapet, one hand on his throat. "Renji."

Renji swallowed. His pulse was jumping. He admired this man, he hated this man, he wanted to outdo this man, but here with the night air blowing around them, with Kuchiki-taichou pressing him back against the concrete bar, he was conscious of a different set of feelings. In Rukongai he'd seen the dogs bare their throats in submission. Here -- here -- he wanted to mark the other man's skin the way that the tattoos marked his own skin. He wanted to touch Kuchiki-taichou's face. But most of all, he wanted Kuchiki-taichou to do it all to him and more.

"Renji," Kuchiki-taichou continued, taking his silence for assent, "I am aware of your unfortunate upbringing in Rukongai. I realise that Eleventh Division will have made matters worse. Let me be clear." His fingers tightened. "You will not contradict me. You will show proper respect for me. If I give you an order, you will obey it. If I ask for your opinion, you will give it, but you will not take that as any kind of intimacy. Your honour lies in understanding your duties and responsibilities as a vice-captain, and in absolute obedience to me. Am I understood?"

"Yes, sir," Renji whispered. Please, sir . . .

"Am I understood."

"Yes, sir." Renji had to struggle to force the words out clearly. He knew that Kuchiki-taichou's fingers would leave bruises on his throat. He wondered how deep a mark they'd be.

Kuchiki-taichou released him and turned away. "Neaten your clothing," he said dismissively. "And then we will find Kuchiki Rukia. And the law will have its due."

"Yes, sir," Renji said, his hand lingering at his throat.