A/N: Renji and Rukia's little street kid friends are never named in the manga so I've given them names: Hibiki, Kaito, and Tashi.
Attaya is a type of tea that has to be experienced to believed. Thanks to singeivoire for introducing me.
Renji awoke to early morning sunlight streaming through the window of the Sixth Division's barracks and a timid knock on the door.
"Lieutenant Abarai, sir?" Rikichi's timid voice came through the door.
"What?" he growled, throwing an arm over his eyes to block out the light.
"There's someone here—"
"Renji! Wake up!" A loud, obnoxious voice overrode Rikichi's.
"Don't you know better than to wake up a lieutenant this early, Unseated-shinigami-san?" he drawled, not moving his arm.
The door flew open to reveal Rikichi cringing in the background while Rukia's small form dominated the frame.
Renji clutched his bed sheet to his chest. "Rukia, what the hell—?'
"Have you forgotten what day it is?" she said in a grim voice.
"Day?" Renji pushed the sleep-tangled mop of crimson hair out his eyes and glanced at the calendar on the wall. Oh.
"Shall I get rid of her, sir?" squeaked Rikichi.
Renji waved him away impatiently. "No, no, she's fine. Go back to your duties."
Renji stood up from his futon, yawning, and reached for his hakama, gi, and obi.
"What?" He glanced over his shoulder. Rukia was glaring at him, her face bright pink. Renji glanced down. He was wearing little more than his loincloth—it had been unseasonably humid the night before and besides, most people didn't barge in on a lieutenant's private rooms.
"Oh please, you've seen me in less," Renji snorted, "or have you forgotten the summer of the ten-inch growth spurt?"
Rukia scowled at him. "I still haven't forgiven you for getting so tall so quickly."
Renji snickered. "Hibiki and I were racing for who was the tallest for awhile there. I think he might have won if…" He trailed off.
Rukia looked away. The mood in the room suddenly somber, Renji grabbed his clothes and slunk behind the screen in the back of the room to change.
"Did you bring everything?" he called over the screen, shrugging into his white underrobe.
"Yes," she said, her voice quiet. "It's going to be a nice day for it."
"Isn't it always? It's not like Soul Society has bad weather like the living world."
"Besides that, idiot. Ukitake-taichou gave me special leave." She paused. "Did nii-sama say anything to you?"
"No," he grunted, arranging his obi around his waist. "Didn't say anything one way or the other when I requested time off, but I'm going to assume that it's okay." He finished dressing and walked back around the screen, tying his usual white bandana around his head. "If not, then screw him."
"Renji!" Her voice scolded him, but the way her eyes were shining said much more. Renji smiled lopsidedly and gestured toward the door.
"Shall we go then?"
Rukia picked up the basket she'd left in the hallway outside his room. "Yes."
They walked through Seiretei in companionable silence, the only sound their footsteps and the occasional call of someone greeting them. They nodded politely but did not stop to chat. Not today.
Stares followed them as they walked through the Runkongai—78th district; home. After all, shinigami were a rare sight in the slums—let alone two at the same time.
Even after more than forty years inside Seiretei, away from the filth of the streets, Renji could feel the old itch in his feet; the desire to run so fast that no one could catch him. The feeling of a shadow hovering over him, adults who they stole from, ready and more than willing to beat him senseless for theft.
Rukia glanced up at him, her mouth curving in a small smile. "Feels like the old days, eh?"
Renji's eyes widened; then he smirked. Rukia had always been able to read him better than anyone.
"Want to lift some stuff from Jin-ojisan's table back there? For old time's sake?"
Rukia laughed softly. "Not today, Renji." Her small hand brushed against his—to anchor them, perhaps, to what was now and not then—and they kept walking.
Late in the morning they finally reached the crest of the hill where three small graves lay grown over with weed and thistle.
"Ohayo," Rukia murmured, trailing her fingers across the grass of each grave.
Renji sat back and watched as she unpacked the basket. This was their ritual, but this part was hers; had been for as long as he could remember… though the first time it had been out of necessity.
"Where are we going?" grumbled Renji as he, Rukia, Hibiki, Kaito, and Tashi moved through the outskirts of the 78th District, slinking through the backstreets like dogs with tails between their legs. "We should be trying to get something to eat."
"The shops are all closed, baka, and the merchants have packed up their stalls," Rukia said, clutching a small parcel tight to her skinny frame. "And since no one stole anything we could eat…" She let the sentence hang.
Renji scowled at his dirty feet. It had been a bad day. The shopkeepers were unusually on guard and none of their tricks worked. Their little gang would go hungry tonight. Not that it mattered all that much. After all, no one died from starvation in the Soul Society… but they were hungry all the same and their underfed bodies craved nourishment. Rukia especially seemed more sensitive than the others. She was tough—Renji would never deny that—but there was something fragile about her. Sometimes he felt that a strong breeze might pick her up and take her away.
"I'm sorry, Rukia," sniffed Hibiki, his bushy hair obscuring his eyes. "It was my fault at Jin-ojisan's stall. I didn't tie the knot tight enough."
Rukia's expression softened. "It's okay, Hibiki. None of us were in top form today. Come on, we're almost there."
They hurried their skinny legs forward until they stopped at the crest of a hill overlooking the town. The evening air was crisp and cool; untainted by the smells of a dirty city. Rukia set her package down and began unwrapping it, revealing a battered and rusty ferno—a sort of miniature charcoal grill—a crumpled package of tea leaves, a paper-wrapped lump of sugar the size of Rukia's fist, and four small cups. She'd stopped at one of their many hidey holes across the city to pick the parcel up, refusing to answer any questions about its contents.
The boys crowded around. "What's that?"
"Back off! I can't make attaya with your ugly mugs hovering over me!"
"Attaya? What's that?" Renji picked up the lump of sugar, ready to bite into it like a bento. Rukia grabbed it from his hands.
"That's for later! Now sit down and let me get to work and you'll find out what it is."
The boys squatted on the ground, watching as Rukia put pieces of charcoal and scraps of paper into the ferno, striking a flint until a small fire blazed. She packed a battered-looking teapot with water, tea leaves, and the whole lump of sugar and set it on the ferno. While they waited, they played an old game—"if we were nobles."
"If I was a noble," Renji said when his turn came around, "I'd eat rock candy every day."
Rukia snorted as she poured the simmering tea back and forth between cups to mix it up. "If you did that, you'd be one fat noble."
The other boys laughed. Renji threw a pebble at her.
Awhile later the tea was finished and Rukia's small fingers expertly poured the tea from high up so that the small cups had a frothy head but steamed in the cool night air.
"Those are awfully small cups," Renji noted with disappointment.
Rukia smirked. "Oh this is just the first round, Renji. Trust me, you'll be wishing the portion was smaller."
Hibiki, being the oldest, was served first, then Kaito and Tashi. Too hungry to care about taste, they all three downed their small cups. After the scalding swallows, expressions of surprise, confusion, and fear crossed their faces respectively. Rukia giggled a little at their reactions and held the tray with the last cup out to Renji.
Renji took the cup and raised it to his lips but paused before drinking. "Hey, where's yours?"
She shrugged one skinny shoulder. "Don't have enough for a fifth cup. I'll make sure I get some of the next round. I'm fine for now."
Renji hesitated. The smell of the tea was strong and sweet, enticing his empty stomach. But… Rukia's eyes were huge in her small-boned face. She was always too small, too skinny—it couldn't be healthy. He shoved the glass back at her.
"You can have mine, I ain't hungry." His stomach growled audibly in the silence.
Rukia smirked. "Oh really?"
Renji flushed and lifted his chin in defiance. "Yeah! So take it!"
"I want you to try it first."
Renji opened his mouth but saw that she was just going to argue and signed. "Fine. We'll share." He lifted the cracked cup to his lips and sipped. The tea warmed him all the way down, leaving a sugary aftertaste that barely obscured the bitterness of the tea. But it was oddly filling for such a small amount. Perhaps it was just the warmth of the liquid that made him feel full—or the amount of sugar—but he felt alert, more watchful as he always did after a meal.
Renji swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and handed the cup to her. "That's… some stuff. Where'd ya learn to make it?"
She sipped in silence for a moment. "Before I met you guys, I hung around at this old lady's house. Never knew her name—I just called her Obaachan. Granny. Didn't have any teeth, but usually presided over this gaggle of other chatty old women. Whenever I skulked around she would give me a cup of this stuff—told me it would toughen me up. Usually I just gulped it down and ran off like a wild cat, but one time I stayed. She showed me how to make it." Rukia paused and handed the cup back to Renji. He took another sip.
"What happened to her?"
He passed the cup back.
"She died. The building she lived in collapsed." Renji thought he saw Rukia's hand swipe across her cheeks, but twilight was settling in and it was hard to see properly.
"Three days after that I found you guys. And here I am."
They sat silent for a moment, watching as Hibiki, Tashi, and Kaito played tag across the expanse of field, burning off the sugar high that was making Renji's feet wiggle. Rukia handed the cup back to Renji. He tipped the glass back for the last swallow, feeling the warmth travel the length of his skinny arms and legs. This wasn't such a bad day after all…
"Did you fall asleep again?"
"Eh? No, I was just… remembering," Renji looked back to Rukia who sat down beside him in front of the coal ferno, curling her short legs beneath her.
"Hard to believe it's been so long," she murmured, sipping from her cup.
Renji blew the steam from his tea, the foamy head fizzing slightly, and let the cup warm his hands. "Yeah." He paused. "What do you think would have happened if Hibiki, Kaito, and Tashi had… lived?"
Rukia stared out over the district, at the lazy spirals of smoke drifting across the sky. "I don't know. None of them showed any aptitude with reiatsu as we did, so it's unlikely they would have become shinigami."
"I think this is the path we were destined to follow, whether they had lived or not," she said after a moment, her small hand curving around her cup. "We both knew we had some talent… it was just childhood habit that kept us from going to the Academy. I think… I think they would have wanted us to go."
"Yeah. I still… I still miss them sometimes." Renji felt a tight knot in his throat and didn't look at Rukia. A moment later he felt her small hand cover his on the ground.
"So do I," she whispered. "But I'm glad you're still here, Renji."
Renji looked down at her, seeing the flash of steel in her gaze, ever-present despite the relaxing moment, and yet her touch was softer than silk—a paradox this woman. Much like the tea she made.
"Yeah. Me too."