They met up again in the dark stairwell, behind the classroom block.

Ichigo clasped his hands loosely. "Why do we do this?"

"Because your hair is too damn eye-catching?"

Ichigo raised a mocking eyebrow. "First of all, we're in shinigami form. If we're seen, that means the person is either a friend or foe. Secondly, you're the last person to tell me I'm shy because of my hair color, you mangy, mammering ape."

Renji scoffed as he sat down beside the teenager. "So why do we do this?"

Ichigo shrugged eloquently. The redhead tossed his mane back, aware that the stress of being shinigami substitute and potentially one of the best shinigami fighters ever was weighing heavily on Ichigo. Too heavily.

Three nights ago, while fighting a few hollows in the school field, Ichigo had crumpled at the end of the battle, shaking violently. Renji wanted to take the boy back home to get him to rest, but Ichigo had fought him with an intensity akin to their second battle. Then he had began crying, really bawling, and a flustered redheaded lieutenant promised to stay with the teenager until he felt better. They had sought refuge in this stairwell in the school, Renji keeping a protective eye over his friend.

"How long you wanna stay here tonight, hmm?" Renji asked, idly rolling his neck. There was a persistent creak that didn't want to go away. Perhaps Renji could ask Rukia to locate the knot when they met up for lunch tomorrow.

"I dunno," said Ichigo, breaking into Renji's thoughts, "Part of me wants to never come here again, but part of me wants to stay here forever."

He looked so lost Renji was moved to pat him on the shoulder. "I'm here with ya."

"Gross much?" snorted Ichigo, but without real bite. He was glad for Renji's company. When the redhead decided to be nice, he was very, very nice. And when they argued, it was the bickering banter of old friends, although Ichigo hadn't known Renji for all that long.

Renji laid Zabimaru aside, next to Zangetsu. He had always wanted to know if swords talked to each other like their owners did, but never remembered to ask. He was also supposed to ask something else tonight... what was it? Ah yes.

"Ichigo, what's wrong with ya?"

Could've been more tactful, Renji. Way ta go.

Ichigo shifted one step lower. "Nothing I guess. Just... I dunno. Everyone around me's going through life as usual and I'm... fighting hollows. Fighting arrancar, Espada, fighting every night. I guess I'm kinda drained, y'know?"

"No." Renji had always believed in honesty. "But I ain't a broody teenager, nor am I some substitute shinigami who has a human life and a shinigami life. Don't look to me for empathy, a'right? All you're getting' is some sympathy. I'll help if I can."

"Thanks, I think." Then the orange-haired teenager asked something that had bothered him for some time. "Uh, Renji. Something I gotta ask."

"Shoot."

"Are you and Rukia... y'know?"

Renji smirked. "Ya thinkin' of asking her out?"

"Just answer the damn question, will ya?"

"We used to be," replied the lieutenant honestly. "Before Kuchiki-taichou adopted her, Rukia and I were together. But forty years' separation ain't that easily bridged. We're more, like, brother and sister now."

"I see."

Renji poked Ichigo in the kidneys. "So ya thinkin' of asking her out?"

Amused, Ichigo scoffed. "Please. She's like three feet tall. I'm just curious."

The two sat some more. The heavy silence waited, thickening in the dark space.

"Why were you curious?" Renji suddenly asked. "Is that partly why you're stressed out?"

The teen didn't answer; Renji thought Ichigo meant to ignore the query. That was the only reason why he jumped when Ichigo spoke.

"You two are so close, I just thought you had something going on between you two."

"Oh."

"... and it wasn't her I'm worried about."

Renji blinked. Did I just hear that?

Ichigo's face was turned away from Renji, so the redhead could only see the orange, spiky hair and the knuckles of Ichigo's left hand on his right bicep. The white, tightened knuckles that gripped the sleeve of his uniform.

Shifting to sit on a lower step, Renji asked quietly, "Did you just say what you just said?"

"Fuck, forget it." Ichigo pushed off the step.

"No." Renji reached up and yanked the teenage boy back down. "Tell me. Are you thinkin' of asking me out?"

"Shut up," muttered Ichigo and tried to twist his arm out of Renji's grasp. Renji wasn't having any of that though. Ichigo gave up and said defiantly, "I didn't say that."

"Then who were you thinking of?"

Now Ichigo was definitely blushing. Renji could sense how embarrassed the boy was. "I dunno. I just... never mind."

Renji held on tighter. He already had one taciturn captain, he had no need of another such person in his life. "Communicate, moron."

"I just wanted to ask you out, fine? Happy?" Ichigo blurted. "Does that make you a happy Renji? I'm a weirdo, alright?"

The lieutenant frowned in concentration, although there was no way Ichigo could see his face. Then he chuckled. "Kinda."

"Leggo, idiot," muttered Ichigo irritably.

Renji propped his cheek up with his hand, elbow resting on his knee. "Never thought you'd wanna go out with a guy though."

"I'm not gay," said Ichigo, a little too fast. "It was just a random thought."

"Never said you were," said Renji calmly. "Besides, labels don't matter worth a shit."

He had lived long enough to know what mattered was the person people loved, not the gender. He had loved Rukia, and then for a time he and Shuuhei had had a very comfortable relationship until Shuuhei got posted to the ninth and he to the eleventh.

"Yes it does," retorted Ichigo heatedly. "It's not... it's not right."

Renji smiled to himself. Ichigo was still young, so he had a right to be naïve. "You won't know whether it's right, Ichigo, until you try it out."

"I doubt that."

Oh you do, do you? Suddenly Renji was compelled to show Ichigo the narrow-mindedness of that line of thought. Quick as darkness, Renji reached over to Ichigo and grabbed the back of his right hand. (1) Before the teenager could protest or struggle, Renji pressed his mouth to the warm palm.

Ichigo stilled. Shock? Fear? Confusion?

The redheaded shinigami opened his mouth to allow his tongue to taste the odd salty/bitter flavor of Ichigo's hand.

"Wha- what are you doing?" asked the substitute shinigami. He made no move to withdraw his hand though – not that he could even if he wanted. Renji's hold, trained from a poor childhood in Rukongai, was tighter than steel when he needed it to be.

The lieutenant's reply was to lick the first joint of each finger, slowly, gently, then tracing his tongue up to the knuckles. Then he bit each knuckle just hard enough for Ichigo to shudder with every bite.

Ichigo's hand tightened and relaxed. His breathing was just that little bit heavier. Then Renji let go of Ichigo's wrist and asked, "How was that?"

"What on earth was that about?!" Ichigo didn't want to shout, but his hissed whisper reverberated in the stairwell nonetheless. "What was that supposed to prove?"

Renji rolled his eyes. "You're really dumb, moron. I did that so I wouldn't rob you of anything, but I think now I'm gonna have to do this."

Standing up the older shinigami pulled Ichigo to his feet and then pulled the boy against himself.

"Ow! Fuck, that was..." His breath caught as he felt Renji's exhalations on his cheek. "Fuck... What the hell are you doing now?"

"Shut up." And then Ichigo felt warm pressure on his mouth, and his mind blanked out for an instant. Then cogitative ability trickled back into his head: he was in this stairwell in school, and he was due home soon. Toushiro would want an update of the patrol with Renji. He could feel himself growing hotter because Renji was holding him too tightly. And he was being held tightly because he was being kissed forcibly by his friend Renji.

His first kiss is taken by Renji!

His hands pushed at the broad shoulders, but then Ichigo realized – somewhat belatedly – that he wasn't pushing, he was gripping; Renji's lips were slightly too dry; and that Renji's tongue was running along his lower lip and it felt unbelievable...

Renji grinned when Ichigo relaxed into the kiss, the strong arms finally shifting up to wrap around his neck, and that instead of muffled curses he was hearing very hungry moans instead. As he rolled his tongue deeper, Renji wondered how Rukia would take the news that Ichigo chose Renji over her.

--

A/N: I don't like writing Ichigo in BL situations, because he's still young (underage, remember?). But on the other hand, no harm him getting into a good lip-lock with scrumpable Renji.

In any case, Ichigo bawling was something I thought would happen only in the still of the night. He's always given so much responsibility that I think readers are forgetting that he's still just a kid, and the fate of the world is a lot of pressure. Even Buffy went a little nuts.

(1) Quick as darkness: borrowed from awesome writer Terry Pratchett. Light is fast, but wherever it goes darkness is already there waiting for it :)