Title: We've Got a Long Way to Go

Author: Windy

Summary: Renji's lived a long life, it's kind of daunting to find that he's nowhere near being dead, not by a long shot.

Characters/Pairings(in order of appearance): Renji, Rukia, Rukongai kids, Kira, Momo, Byakuya, Zabimaru, Ikkaku, Ichigo, Yumichika, Rikichi, Hanatarou, implied RenRuki, subtle IchiRuki

Word Count: 7,623 ( ;A; when did it get so long?)

Warnings/Spoilers: Rated PG at most for language and implied violence, no sexual stuff, a bunch of spoilers for the whole SS Arc from Volume 7, the title has very little to do with the story itself.

Thanks Goes To: Eranith & Lily. Thanks so much for reading through this and beta-ing it. ;A;

Notes: This is a birthday present for Navi-chan I hope you'll like it, Navi Thanks for giving me a reason to write something like this; it was fun to write, and I hope it's as fun to read.


Ⅰ.

Renji doesn't really remember his birthday. In fact, he hardly remembers being alive at all. What he does know is that he's stuck in a shitty ass hellhole disguised as the 78th District, Inuzuri.

And it is in that hellhole that he meets Rukia.

"You brats come back here!"

"Renji-!"

"Shut up! Just keep running!" he orders, legs aching, lungs begging for mercy.

They're stealing water from the bitchy man who owns the dirty little smith. It's a dog eat dog world, and Renji's not going to go down without a fight.

He panics when he sees the smith carrying a sickle. Tetsuo, Manta, and Yusuke run frantically. Renji knows that death day is today, and not even five minutes away, until he appears.

Or…she, but regardless, the kid kicks down the dirty blacksmith and runs away, demanding that they follow him. Tetsuo and Yusuke stare at Renji, asking if he knows the guy.

"Come on! Unless you wanna lose that water you're holding!" the kid screams.

Renji runs after the figure, only to find out that he's a bossy overbearing girl.

His childhood memories are laced full with her.

What's your name?" he questions, still suspicious. What ulterior motives did she have in mind? Was she working for the grown ups?

"Rukia."

"Last name?" The interrogation continues.

"Don't have one," she simply answers, picking at a loose thread on the hem of her sleeve.

"The hell do you mean you don't have one? Everyone's got-"

"I mean I don't have one, bastard!" she screams, crushing his foot with her heel.

Renji keels over in pain as she stomps away. That's the first that he learns of her many secrets.

He spends half of his time wanting to throttle her, and the other half of his time being amazed by her, resulting in the fact that he spends an ambivalent time with his emotions. He's pretty sure that he'll never really understand the enigma that is Rukia. Secretly, he's enamored by her, but like he's going to tell anyone that. She talks and acts like a man, but there is always an air of grace about her. When he learns that she has spiritual powers as well, he lashes out on her, feeling incompetent. He downplays her talents and watches in exasperation as the guys shamelessly admire her.

After time passes, he comes to realize that she's a lot more special than she lets on. He figures that he'll use the day that he met her as his birthday. After all, he doesn't remember being anything all that great before he met her.

"Guess what?" he asks, exactly one year after their first meeting.

"What?" she irritably responds, sticking her big toe experimentally into the water.

He doesn't bat an eyelash; he's gotten too used to her habits. "Today's my birthday." He grins, sticking out his chest. "I'm a man now."

She snorts, manner so unladylike. "I doubt that there has ever been a man without balls to walk this earth."

He glares at her, good mood soiled. He very nearly regrets telling her in the first place. He should've known that the bitch would pull a stupid stunt like that. Renji stomps into the river, loud and clear. He needs to claim her attention somehow.

"Oi, Renji."

"What?" he bites out, covertly enjoying the way her nose wrinkles in disdain.

"Happy birthday." She grins at him, before she splashes him with the dirty stream water.

Ⅱ.

"Let's make it a game," she says, grinning.

"What!?" he cries out. This girl is psycho; she needs mental help. Renji is one hundred percent sure of it. Looting is a byway of survival until they found their families, not a fucking game.

"Every loot we plunder, whoever steals the most, gets to sleep closest to the window," she proposes, not listening to his protests.

They know the blistering summers of Rukongai. Everyone fights over the window spot. The five of them agree to this game, even though it seems to backfire on them, as Rukia always sleeps next to the window. The manipulative little-

"Come on Renji!" she hollers, her bag in hand.

Renji forgets about the hairy giant that chases them with a broom; he only sees Rukia, running with a confident smile on her face.

He's never been outside of Rukongai, but he swears, with her it's like being in a wonderland.

Ⅲ.

The kids die.

The adventure land that Rukia had created for them crumbles, along with their hopes.

They make three little graves, the two of them. They figure that it's something that they must do because when souls died…well, where did they go? They have no shovels - instead they use their hands, feet, and whatever else they can find. It takes days to complete the task, and he's surprised that the mounds of dirt are so little when they are through. Hadn't he dug more dirt than that? Was that all the effort he could muster for his friends?

He and Rukia spend weeks there, next to the grave site. It's at the top of this hill in Inuzuri, the one that overlooks the entirety of Rukongai.

Renji tosses a few sticks into the fire, trying to go through with the habits of the past. When he looks at the graves, he feels an onslaught of fresh tears threatening to pour. He clamps a hand over his mouth and tries to blink away the moisture gathering at his eyes by sheer will.

He feels Rukia take his head and place it in the crook of her neck. She puts an arm around his shoulder; only, it doesn't quite reach all the way around. So she settles for draping it across the back of his neck. It hurts his back and her collarbone digs into his temple uncomfortably, but he doesn't move.

Rukia sighs. "It's okay to cry, you know," she says softly. She begins an oddly comforting rocking motion.

Renji says nothing. He only wishes that he could be strong enough, just like her, so that one day, maybe she could lean on him like this too.

The next day she says to him: "Let's become shinigami, Renji."

They're sick of settling. That's all they ever do in Rukongai: settle. Settle for the least murky water, for the housing that seems least likely to collapse, for the least rotten food. They will pursue dreams now, and maybe the two of them could become more than just no-name tramps of Rukongai.

Ⅳ.

They start out at the academy together. Day after grueling day is spent poring over books and mastering swordplay. It takes them less than one lesson on their first day to know that they need help. He's pretty damn sure that if he learns nothing else in this academy, he's learned that he sucks at kidou. They strike a deal at lunch: he'll help her with sword technique, if she'd help him at kidou.

Their deal lasts for their whole first year together, until one day, he learns that he's moved up a class. He's been promoted to the advanced classes in Class A. He would be working with upperclassmen now. He asks quite tactlessly, where Rukia's letter is.

She has none.

"Hey, we should go celebrate! I'll buy lunch or dinner or something," she offers, a fake smile plastered on her face.

Right. He never did catch onto tact. Putting a hand on her shoulder he says, "Hey, we still work together. Yeah?"

She seems surprised, then, he sees her eyes brighten up just a little. "Whatever. Do what you want," she retorts callously.

He's happy to find her in his room the next day, holding a tome full of kidou spells. Her legs swing in the air as she lies on the flat of her stomach, reciting the incantations. Renji takes a seat next to her and grins widely. He says nothing as she explains the techniques and spells that have his brain in a knot.

Ⅴ.

When he moves up to Class A, he's blown out of the water. They teach him everything that he never even could have imagined.

As soon as he gets a day off from classes, he runs off the campus into the Seireitei. He asks the woman sitting at the counter to schedule an appointment as soon as possible.

The tattoo artist peers at him curiously when Renji shows him where he wants the tattoos. He doesn't say anything; he can't explain it to himself all that well either. Renji feels the marks on himself as the needles prick his skin painfully, and he decides that he's marking himself so that he will never go back to being that sniveling tramp in the 78th District Inuzuri.

He vows that he will become something great.

Ⅵ.

He meets new friends at the academy: Kira and Momo. He likes having new friends. He is renowned for being an outstanding underclassman in Class A, and so he is quickly surrounded by a new group of people. Only, Renji lets it get to his head.

His new friends monopolize his free time. He eats with Kira and Momo, spars with Kira and Momo, goes on missions with Kira and Momo. Some days, he wonders what Rukia is doing, but one of his other classmates engages him in conversation before he really gets a chance to think about her. It pokes at his consciousness in the back of his mind, but he pushes it back further.

Their study sessions have decreased to a bare minimum. He doesn't truly realize the repercussions of his actions, and neither does he try to. He ignores the awkward silences that sprout when they accidentally meet in the hallways, because when he apologetically steps onto the practice field first every Wednesday, the silence ebbs away, and they begin to act like Rukia and Renji again. He forgets that they never talk anymore, that they haven't eaten together in weeks, and that they never argue about how stupid his eyebrows -didn't- look. He thinks, for a while, that, yeah, he's okay with that.

On a Tuesday after a particularly frustrating kidou class, he realizes that he will spectacularly fail if he does not get more help. He complains about it at lunch, and Momo offers to help him.

He is enthralled that Momo the kidou master offers to help him, and he consents all too willingly. He spends the whole day after classes, trying to figure out how the sets before level thirty and after level thirty are any different, and then actually using them.

After a productive day, he thanks Momo, unlocks his door, and drops his books on the floor next to his bed. Honestly, he thinks that kidou should be an opt-

He sees her neat script on top of her kidou text.

I left at around 9:00 or so.

I left notes and stuff in the bakudou section.

But I suppose Hinamori would be a better teacher.

Later, I guess.

-ルキア(Rukia)

Ⅶ.

The next Tuesday he comes to his room promptly after dinner. He takes out his kidou book and sits on his bed, cross legged. He checks the clock on the wall, and he's annoyed. She's late. She was never late; she was always early, ever the punctual one. He waits around, an hour, two hours, three hours. He finds himself lying in all sorts of odd positions: the cranny between the bookcase and the bed, in the bathroom, under his desk, head hanging off the edge of his bed.

She never comes.

Renji goes to talk to her the next day, but finds her room to be locked. He scribbles an apologetic note and shoves it under her door, unsure of what will happen.

When it's the week of the kidou final, he finds her in the middle of the training ground. One hand is poised on her hip and the other holds a hefty kidou text.

She gives a haughty laugh. "Well, Mr. Funny brows, I do believe that you will need a mentor for your upcoming exam."

Ⅷ.

Renji passes the exam. He's more than thrilled to find that Rukia's managed to make something out of his meager kidou skills. He's sure that she's moved up a class as well, and they can go out to the Seireitei this weekend and celebrate.

"Rukia! Rukia!" he calls out to her, opening the door to her room. "Rukia, I passed the second exam, and they said that-"

He sees her forlorn figure standing with a group of men. She looks at him with troubled eyes.

"Oh, this does not seem to be a suitable place to speak," says the elder man, voice snide. "We await your answer."

He's shocked by the presence of the man with the dark hair. Kensekan. A noble. What could a noble possibly want with Rukia? His head swarms, trying to piece the situation together.

"Renji…I-"

He silently prods her on, brows furrowing in worry. His gut twists.

"They want to adopt me into the Kuchiki Clan."

No. This isn't happening. His eyes widen, unsure of what to say. What can he say to her?

"I'll graduate immediately and be put into the thirteenth division…" she looks up at him, gauging his reaction, seeking an opinion.

He does anything but that when he puts a hand on her shoulder and says the most stupid thing possible. "Hey, that's great! If you're a noble, then you'll be surrounded with endless riches! And you'll get to eat whatever you want! I'm so jealous!" he puts on a forced smile, voice too hearty to be genuine.

She stares up at him, incredulous. This isn't the answer that she was hoping for. "Really?"

"Yeah!" he insists. He doesn't want to ruin this chance for her. She's finally found herself a family; who is he to stop her from finding happiness?

She brings her hands to his and throws it off her shoulder. With tears in her eyes, she musters a low "Thank you" before she leaves him.

He stands there, alone with only himself for company. He balls his fists and stares down at the ground, hoping that it can do something. He thinks that his logic lacks the logical requirement, but he really doesn't give a damn.

No matter what he does, he's still alone.

Ⅸ.

"Renji. Renji."

He's asleep, and he'd like to stay that way until the sun freaking rises. He thinks that it can't even be five in the morning yet; there are no birds chirping nor does he hear the sounds of the morning classes sparring below.

"Renji." The voice sounds impatient.

He groans, thoroughly annoyed and fed up with the voice. It can shove its mouth up its ass as far as he's concerned. He pulls his pillow over his ears and curls into a ball. If he can't see it, it can't see him; the problem is solved. He lets sleep creep back into his consciousness.

"That will not help you." The voice is louder than ever. "How can you ignore the essence of your soul?"

The friggin' voice is right; it doesn't help. He sits up, bones creaking, eyes heavy, and head spinning. Wasn't it three in the fucking morning? Why was someone even in his room?

"Are you so blind, Renji?"

He wrenches one eye open. Who the hell is preaching all this crap ab-?

There's a baboon…sitting at the end of his bed. What he was expecting, he's not so sure either, but it definitely wasn't a baboon.

"Who the hell are you?" he asks, eyes now fully open.

"Do you truly need an answer to that question?"

The freaky baboon's mouth doesn't move. Okay, another word out of its mouth and he's grabbing his zanpakutou.

"I have always been with you."

Renji reaches for his blade, only he finds that he's grabbing at thin air. He stares at the figure on the edge of his bed, mouth gaping.

"Now do you see?"

"Uh…you're…"

"I believe that you are ready to hear my name. Together, we can do many things, Renji. Let's go outside. I promise that it will be worth your time."

It, he, uh…the baboon holds his blade in its mouth. It drops the sheathed katana onto his lap before jumping down to the floor, leading out the door. Renji's mind begins to wrap around the situation, brain still hindered by drowsiness.

"Wait! What's your name?"

"Zabimaru," it –he- passively replies.

He smiles, forgetting sleep. "Zabimaru, huh?" He pushes off the covers in a hurry. "Let's be friends."

"Friends?" The baboon laughs. Renji knows there's something wrong with a baboon laughing, but he's really too excited to care otherwise.

"That is the least we'll be after what we'll go through." He pauses, facing Renji. "And. I am most certainly not a 'freaky baboon'."

Ⅹ.

Irony's a tragic thing, he decides. It is what has him serving in the sixth under the prissiest noble of them all.

Kuchiki Byakuya.

Renji loathes him. He thinks that it works both ways. Kuchiki Byakuya, he learns, does not give a rat's ass about his subordinates. Whenever the captain does choose to make himself known, it is not an occasion that Renji celebrates. He comes into the training room sometimes or even outside, once, maybe twice a year. He wears that same infuriatingly impassive gaze that he always wears.

Not long after his recruitment to the sixth, Renji meets him, face to face. It is in the hallways of the division, clearly by accident. He sees the captain and he gives a short bow. "Ah, Abarai," the man says to him.

He glances at him curtly then says to him, "See that you make your stay at the sixth worthwhile."

Renji's eyes tighten. "Yes, sir."

He wants to rip his face off and leave him crumpled on the ground. To let him have a taste of what it feels like to have nothing would be the sweetest revenge. Renji wants to hate Kuchiki Byakuya for taking Rukia away from his life. He had taken her away to a place where he couldn't follow.

Then Renji remembers who really took Rukia away from him. He remembers.

It's that no good, son-of-a-nothing tramp Abarai Renji.

ⅩⅠ.

When Renji sees it for the first time, he's left breathless. The shikai release is so…badass. He taps at the metal, reveling in the way it runs so smoothly under his fingertips. He feels the natural ease in his arms when the blade extends.

It feels like he can do anything.

Senbonzakura. Its owner wields it with such precise movements and there is not a bit of effort showing on his face. The blade shatters, and with the flick of a wrist, the fragments are seen flying through the sky. Seconds pass like hours as he watches, amazed. He wants to cringe when the captain's eye meet his; he doesn't. He just stands there, willing himself to glare back.

Senbonzakura makes him feel like the dog he is, down to his very bones.

ⅩⅡ.

"Madarame Ikkaku."

"Abarai Renji."

"Che. You're going down, Rookie."

That's about all the introductions that they ever share.

The match ends, the victor clearly pronounced. Renji lies on the ground gasping for air. Damn it. The elder man stands over him, shadows masking his face; he holds out a hand, bending down.

"Good match, kid." There's an evident grin on his face.

"Not so bad yourself, Ikkaku-san." He takes his hand, and groans as he's being pulled up. He's going to need some big time treatment for this battle. Renji wonders if he's still able to walk; he really doesn't want to crawl to the fourth.

"Ikkaku-san?" The man looks taken by surprise. "Hah! It's just Ikkaku."

He likes the easiness that surrounds this man. He likes it a lot. "Nah. It's Ikkaku-san until I defeat you in a rematch."

Renji hears a snort. "Defeat? Fat chance, Rookie. You're going to be adding that –san to my name until one of us dies."

He scratches his temple, sheepish at his own attempted bravado from moments earlier.

"Hey."

He looks at Ikkaku-san.

"You wanna go for a drink?"

ⅩⅢ.

He decides that he'll defeat Kuchiki Byakuya. Even if the sky falls and the earth crumbles, he'll work to defeat Kuchiki Byakuya.

He's a no-name division officer who tears through the ranks; he knows that every seated officer has a blind spot. Even the greatest of the great have vulnerabilities. He knows that even the great Kuchiki Byakuya must have some sort of weakness.

"Chasing after Kuchiki Byakuya, huh?" Ikkaku-san gives a bark of a laugh. "That's a damn lofty goal, don't you think?"

Renji looks around, trying not to be discouraged. He takes a swig of his sake. Ikkaku-san pushes his headband up. There's a cool breeze to fill in the emptiness of the conversation.

"It's a nice goal you got there, Abarai," his mentor comments. He drains the contents of his cup, and then gives him a grin of approval. "I don't think it'll be all that bad to help you reach it."

Kira, however, feels differently.

"Kuchiki Byakuya?" Kira pauses, mulling it over. "This isn't about Kuchiki-san is it?"

Renji stares at the ceiling of his quarters. He thinks that he sees a duck within the patterns. "No," he quickly lies.

Kira sighs. "It's a good aim, Renji, but if you're doing this to catch up to Kuchiki-san then…"

He leans back on his palms, listening to his friend's advice.

"You know what I think about this."

"Yeah."

"You should leave her alone. She's a noble now. Even she knows that there's a line between her and us."

Renji pretends that he wasn't staring at the newest addition to the Kuchiki Clan.

"It's a place that's completely different from where we are."

"Yeah. I do know," he says. He decides that it looks more like a rabbit, or a mole. "But that's just for now, Kira. One day, I'll become so great that not even the Kuchikis can look down on me."

ⅩⅣ.

"You've shaped up well, Abarai," he applauds between pants

Renji feels like his lungs have been ripped out of his chest, and if he ever does get enough oxygen, that his legs and arms will never stop shaking. He snorts, before answering. "You just like to compliment yourself." The sweat that pours from his brow gets into his eyes, stinging them. He doubts that he has enough energy to wipe it away; he doesn't try it.

Ikkaku-san gets up first, leaning against Hoozukimaru for much needed support. He notices smugly that his legs aren't the only ones that are wobbly.

"Ah, shut up," he grouses, spitting out a grotesque mix of blood and saliva. Then he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

This spar was going to take more than just a quick patch up at the fourth. Damn that eleventh division nut; he'd gotten a lot stronger than last time.

"Ikkaku-san, I-"

"Ikkaku, dumbass," he mutters, picking up his kosode.

It takes a moment for it to click before he bares his teeth in a grin. "Nah, you won this round."

His mentor looks amused for a moment. He unties his headband and tosses it to him, landing in an ungraceful heap on his face. The bandana smells disgustingly like it hasn't been washed for years.

"Wha-" he begins to protest.

"Keep it." Ikkaku coughs. "A stalemate needs commemoration too, y'know."

ⅩⅤ.

It's not a huge surprise when in a few decades' time, he's promoted to vice captain. He reminds himself that he needs to take Ikkaku-san and Yumichika out for a drink; they've done more for him than he's done for himself.

"Congratulations, Abarai-kun," Momo says, smiling. It feels like the old days in the Academy, when the three of them would achieve new heights together.

He sees the promotional letter and doesn't really know what to say.

"I, uh, yes! I mean…um." He bows down, forehead crashing into the tatami mats painfully. "I understand and gladly accept your words, Vice Captain Hinamori!"

She blushes, laughing. "You don't need to be so uptight, Abarai-kun."

"Shouldn't you go after her now?" Ikkaku-san lounges against a pillar, Hoozukimaru in hand. "It's been 40 years, and you're a vice captain now. It's not that low of a position to hold." He hears the sarcastic undertones of his voice.

"Kuchiki-san's about to leave for a mission in the real world this afternoon," Kira says.

"Oh, no! Abarai-kun, hurry!" Momo stands up, urging him to go.

Renji smirks. "No. I'll wait and surprise her when she comes back by saying 'I'm a vice captain now'."

It's another pivotal mistake in his life. He wonders, had he not waited, if things would be so much more different. He had wanted to prove himself worthy for so long. He had wanted to be her equal before meeting her again.

But Renji sees the terrible fault in that plan, especially when he sees her screaming to the dead human kid. When was the last time that he'd seen her wearing such emotion in her eyes? This isn't the stoic Kuchiki glance that he'd been a victim of for nearly forty years. It is almost like she…

Just what had transpired between the two of them these past two months that managed to blow away anything that he had salvaged with Rukia? He takes leave of his duties when he pushes her against a pole, fist around her small neck.

"If you so much as touch him, your sentence will be lengthened for another twenty years!" he screams. This is not the reunion that he'd had in mind. "Do you want to do that over a dead body, Rukia!?"

"So?" she challenges him, eyes alive, and so freaking…human. "If it's because of me, if it's my fault that he's died, then is it so wrong for me to go to him!?" Her fingernails claw at his hand unbearably, but he doesn't let go.

She looks at the boy in the way that she's never looked at him. He's more than astounded when the persistent bastard clutches onto the captain's hem. She kicks his hand away, donning the infamous Kuchiki mask.

"Just try moving one step from there! And I…" He imagines that there are tears in her eyes as she speaks. "I'll never forgive you!"

Renji knows, better than anyone, that it is a well executed façade.

The only comfort that he really has is knowing that Ichi-whatever-his-name-is is going to die. After all, Renji finds no comfort in having Rukia with him now.

He lost to that kid by two months to their entire childhood of memories together.

ⅩⅥ.

On the rare occasion in which Yumi offers to buy the booze, he willingly goes along.

"You are free to the entire bar, gentlemen," Yumichika says, face glowing. Renji wears a doubtful sort of scowl.

Renji knows that they're just trying to console him in his shitty situation. Yumi and Ikkaku-san try, for the first time in a while, to not get themselves drunk off their rockers.

"I don't really think she'll die," he says, hoping that they understand the message: he doesn't need favors or consolation from anyone.

"Either way," Yumi takes a sip out of his cup, "you should talk to her."

He feels like snorting at that shitty ass advice when he actually takes it. She doesn't eat or talk. Every time he sees her, she just sits in her chair and stares at something that is remote to him. When she does speak, she wears a fake smile and makes fun of his eyebrows or some other trivial character trait of his, which has him fuming out of the jail cell, muttering obscenities.

Renji supposes that that's why it hurts so much when he sees her eyes light up with hope when he mentions that an orange haired shinigami has come to save her. That punk ass shinigami: Kurosaki Ichigo.

ⅩⅦ.

"That kid really is something," Ikkaku-san admits.

Renji finds himself begrudgingly agreeing. He shamelessly asks –begs– Ichigo, fisting his robes. "Save Rukia, please."

He would give anything to be friends with her again. He's sure that if anyone can do it, it's Ichigo. His suspicions are confirmed to be true when Ichigo soars in on the execution site to rescue Rukia.

And Renji's grateful to be a part of her life again. He grabs at this chance with all his might; he's made enough mistakes for one lifetime. They run away from the Soul Society together, and he knows that they're friends.

He thinks that he might be content with that.

ⅩⅧ.

"Do you think that we can get stronger, Zabimaru?" he asks, staring at the broken blade in his hands. The jail cot is uncomfortable and lumpy, and Renji wants to punch the living daylights out of his jailor.

"Of course we can. We must get stronger so we can defeat Kuros-"

"Nah," he says, almost idly. "It ain't Ichigo we gotta beat."

He extends out his hand into the air, flexing and relaxing it; the skin stretches and loosens with every movement.

"Then who do you propose we fight?" the baboon asks, taking a seat next to his cot.

Renji contemplates his answer, when he sees a yellow bird fly onto his windowsill. It annoys him; the bird has free movement and will. It can come and go as it pleases. It does not need a master's permission to move about, and so it breaks free from the chains of this world. That yellow bird has more will than Renji could ever muster.

"Everyone," he finally answers. He thinks that Zabimaru is smiling, and he wonders if baboons can even freaking smile in the first place.

Renji gets up from his cot and calls the guard over. "Yo, guard."

"Yes, Vice Captain Aba-"

He punches him really, really hard.

"How graceful," comments his companion.

Renji gives a snort before replying with a snarl. "Ah, shut up, Zabimaru."

He's breaking free.

ⅩⅨ.

"Do not insult me by letting your mind wander aimlessly. Your opponent here is me, not the Soul Society!" Zabimaru snaps.

"What?" He's the one who should be insulted. He's spent more than enough time trying to defeat the damn philosophical baboon in the first place!

"You do not have enough skill to not come at me with your all!" The rebukes go on. "Do not be so arrogant, Renji!"

He takes a deep breath, remembering his true objective: to beat Zabimaru into submission. He promises that if he does, then he will teach Renji the final secrets of bankai. Understanding what it means, he clears his mind of all else.

"I'm sorry, Zabimaru,' he apologizes, before lunging at the spirit with everything that he's got.

He screams with all his might.

He's angry. At himself for being so weak. At Captain Kuchiki for being so strong. At Zabimaru for entrusting him with so much power which he obviously failed to use. He still loses to him. Still!

"Battle me?" the Captain seems almost /amused/ at his proposition. If amused is even an emotion capable of a Kuchiki to express.

"Please, Captain Kuchiki!" he bows, hoping that it'll convince him to come outside for a spar.

Renji's gotten stronger, and he's been training every single day to defeat Kuchiki Byakuya. He needs to know where he stands.

"Very well, Abarai." He obliges.

It takes less than five minutes for the Captain to be declared victorious.

Damn. Damn. Damn it all!

"Congratulations. Your fang has actually reached me."

He lies there on the ground, crumpled, as the captain's scarf is unceremoniously draped over him.

His eyes dart to his captain's. He thinks that he sees a glint of caring in those dark eyes, but he doesn't quite get the chance to confirm when he blacks out.

ⅩⅩ.

"Renji-san! Wake up, please!"

He thinks that maybe death has come to claim him. Or maybe he's just delusional after all of this blood loss. Senbonzakura, he learns the hard way, does not leave such a thing as a "shallow wound."

"Renji-san!"

"Ikkaku-san!"

He doesn't move. The rise and falls of his chest is less pronounced, and Renji wonders if his battle with Kenpachi has knocked him dead.

"Ikkaku-san! Oi! Oi!" he yells, suddenly sorry for wondering such a thing.

He nearly jumps out of his skin when a fist grabs the front of his shihakushou.

"Oi, shut up, will ya?"

He's relieved that his mentor is able to move. "Ah…sorry," he says. Removing Ikkaku-san's fist, he pulls him up. He can't help but snidely say, "You lost to your captain again, huh?"

"Kiss my ass, Abarai," his mentor spits out.

He feels warmth in his fingers and toes again. He looks up to see the fourth division guy that with Ichigo earlier. What the…?

"I brought him here."

He turns to see Rikichi. There's guilt brewing in the pits of his stomach. He'd slashed through his comrades in order to accomplish his own motives. Even Rikichi.

"Um…I thought that since Renji-san and Hanatarou-san had the same goals, that if I brought him here, he would heal you," Rikichi begins to explain.

Renji wants to look away. For all his criticism of Kuchiki Byakuya, he sucked ass at being a vice captain too.

"And I thought there was no way that Renji-san would lose to a ryoka. Or break out of jail to help a ryoka. And even slash us down. Then I remembered…" Rikichi smiles at him, hand raised in a salute of sorts. "I joined the Gotei 13 to follow Renji-san. So no matter what, I want Renji-san to survive. I want Renji-san to fight and be cool anyway Renji-san wants."

He's taken aback when Rikichi shoves a spare uniform into Renji's arms. He ruffles the kid's hair before he pulls on the new clothes. They were going to have a talk about this later.

"Please save Rukia-san," Hanatarou says, bowing.

"It might seem shameless of me to ask, but…please, save Rukia!"

Renji sucks in a breath, knowing that he won't be the rescuer today.

"Yeah."

ⅩⅩⅠ.

The visit to his captain's hospital room has his nerves frazzled. He feels stupid for being nervous in the presence of his own captain. He rubs his neck uncomfortably.

"You probably wish that I were dead."

"Ah, no!" he's surprised by his captain's sudden openness. Looking away, he speaks, "If you were to die, then I would have no reason to get stronger."

There is a stiff silence inside the room.

"Captain, I…"

A vein protrudes from his forehead when Ichigo rudely drops in. It totally kills the cool line that he was about to say, even more so when he and Ichigo engage in an ungainly shouting match. Damn that moron! Now that his cool line is trashed, he's even more unsure of how he's supposed to talk to the captain. He stands up, relieving some of his tension.

"Captain," he starts, hoping that the future of the sixth division will be different, "I will surpass you one day."

Captain Kuchiki leans against his pillows, closing his eyes. "See that you do, Renji."

He nearly grins at his captain's answer. It feels like, for the first time since he's joined the sixth, that he's truly met Captain Kuchiki. Maybe now, he would shed a little of his care onto him.

"Yes, sir." He takes his leave, opening the door.

"Oh, and Abarai." The captain's voice retains a bit of warmth that it never has before. He turns around. "Let it be known that it will not be easy to surpass me. I shall not make it into some simple cakewalk."

He bares his teeth in an all-out grin. "I wouldn't expect it to be any other way."

ⅩⅩⅡ.

He figures that he shouldn't have even tried searching for Ichigo's reiatsu in the first place. There is only one place that he could be.

"Hey," Renji greets, stepping onto Rukia's roof.

"Yo." He raises his hand in a nonchalant wave behind his head.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out who his gnarly reiatsu is connected with, and Renji's no genius.

"What's up?" he asks, not sitting down. He really means to thanks him, but Renji knows that he can never actually say thanks to Ichigo. The kid probably won't accept it anyways.

"Not much, I guess," he offhandedly replies. "I leave tomorrow."

He digs deeper, leaning against a support beam. "Is Rukia going?"

"Ah…" he pauses. The boy sighs, spreading eagle on his back on the tiles of her roof. "Nah."

Renji feels a glimpse of satisfaction at Rukia's decision. It's short lived when he sees Ichigo's face. His eyes are closed, frown deepening. The vice captain prepares himself for an exaggerated reaction he asks his next question.

"Do you love her?"

"WHAT?" Ichigo sits back up, looking at him, bewildered.

He wants to laugh. He's getting way too ahead of himself if he thinks that Ichigo's anywhere near to admitting to that. He remembers what it's like to be that age. It is amazing to think someone so young could achieve bankai in three days.

"N-no!" he stubbornly denies. It is seconds too late for it to even pass as convincing; much less suffice as a real answer. The boy's face is a shade bright enough to rival his hair.

Renji's in a good mood; he'll prod some more. "Well then, do you like her?"

Ichigo says nothing, supporting himself on his palms. He takes a deep breath, exhales, and then answers. "Yeah. I do." His face is unabashed and open. "A lot more than I ever thought possible."

He's surprised with the boy's easy reply, and wonders if he even remembers who he's talking to.

"Idiot! I didn't say that I 'wanted' to save Rukia! I said that I have to save her!"

"Don't make me laugh! It's because of you that Rukia lost her power! Don't you get it? It's all because of you that Rukia's going to die! What right do you have to say that you want to save her?!"

"It's my fault that Rukia's going to die, I know that already! That's why I HAVE to save her!"

Renji wants to tell him that he's a fool, but he doesn't. 'Yare, yare, Rukia. You did a number on this kid.'

"Che," he scoffs, sitting down next to him. "Ichigo."

"Hn," the boy grunts.

"The next time we meet, let's meet as allies."

Ichigo stares at him for a bit, before a rude snort erupts from his throat. "Is that your definition of cool?"

Renji's eyes narrow dangerously. "What?" He has the urge to get Zabimaru from his room.

"Did you say something mushy like that to Byakuya too?"

Renji just shoves Ichigo in the head, earning an even bigger shove back in his bicep. He glares at him, to find that he's not glaring back at him. He stares out at the horizon, watching the sun not quite setting, saying its final farewell before the moon comes out to play. Almost as if it is trying to catch a glimpse of its magnificence for itself.

"Do you want her to go back with you?" he asks, breaking the silence

"The fuck are you asking question to answers you already know for, Renji?" Ichigo gripes, scratching his head.

"Who knew you'd be such a closet romantic?" he jibes, feeling the knots in Ichigo's overflowing reiatsu tangle deeper.

"Shut the hell up! At least my eyebrows are real!" Ichigo points to his own orange brows for emphasis.

They spend a good part of an hour arguing about how stupid his eyebrows –didn't- look.

ⅩⅩⅢ.

"Welcome home," he says. He pauses, unsure of what he's supposed to do. He can't really trust himself to vouch for her happiness anymore.

"Home," she says quietly, before a light frown breaks across her face. "Home," she repeats.

There is no doubt that she had not referred to this place as home in months. It's ironic that she should choose this place to be her home after everything that had happened.

"Rukia…"

"Do you want tea?" she offers suddenly, before she retreats to the kitchen, without waiting for his answer.

He feels incredibly at ease, feeling the old clockwork of his old life refitting itself into the new. Renji feels terribly, horribly ashamed when she returns with the tea minutes later, and he has a question burning on his tongue. Only he could be so selfish.

"Do you want to…go back there?" he asks.

She stares at her stoneware cup, and then she takes her dango stick and swirls it into the tea.

"I do," she answers simply.

He closes his eyes and falls onto his back, even while knowing it's not polite. He decides that she won't care; after all, he's done far, far worse.

"I really want to go back, because for the first time in my life, I felt alive. In that world, I had friends, people, who cared about me, and they loved me for me, without even knowing that I was the shinigami Kuchiki Rukia," she exclaims loudly, clearly excited by the events that she had experienced in the living world.

His heart aches at seeing her eyes look past him, past to a new place where he couldn't follow. It makes him want to go to that place too, but he'd rooted himself to the Soul Society for too long. He's almost envious of her; she had run away to the ultimate sanctuary while leaving him behind once more.

"And…I had Ichigo." She smiles, voice lowering in volume, almost confidingly. "It was as though if someone had turned on all of the lights in the room, and told me all the answers to everything that I had ever asked. He gave me my life back; he taught me how to live. I thought that he was-" she stops, noticing how he's holding his breath. "Renji?"

"Then what happened?" he asks on an exhale. Closing his eyes again, Renji drapes an arm over his closed eyes for good measure.

"Then…" she gives a sniff of a laugh, "I realized after seeing Ichigo and you fight that…that…I can't go back."

He stops wiggling his toes to give her a questioning look.

"If I go back right now, I'll only be a burden to those around me. So, I need to become stronger."

He inwardly smiles. She's starting to sound like that kid. Renji sighs, before he sits up. "Okay, okay. So, you're asking me to train you again, right?"

Her eyes narrow. "As if, Vice Captain Abarai!" she sniffs, pointing her dainty nose into the air, in the true Kuchiki fashion. "Ikkaku-san has agreed to train me and teach me all the secrets of swordplay that he had never taught to the likes of you."

He's left scowling and she laughs. "I expect to see you at the thirteenth tomorrow morning, Abarai!" Rukia informs him, a mocking scowl on her face.

"Got yourself a deal there," he agrees, before he stands up, taking a step out of the door. "Rukia?" he calls out, pausing.

"Yeah?"

"Hi." Sorry.

She looks surprised at him, then she greets back. "Hi." No need to be.

He walks out of her quarters and turns to go to his own.

ⅩⅩⅣ.

Renji checks his door to make sure his quarters are locked up properly. He navigates through the darkness of the Seireitei with years of experience. He remembers getting lost multiple times, more than he likes to remember actually. He makes an expert turn at a hard-to-see alleyway down to the bar. Yumi and Ikkaku-san are waiting for him to start the drinking contest down to hell.

And Renji's going to win.