A/N – I am experimenting with character voices and personalities, here. I'm not quite sure whether I hit the right notes, but it was fun trying.
Disclaimer – I don't own Bleach, any of its canon characters, settings or situations. Don't sue.
It was a warm night.
Renji knelt – formal seiza – in a private room in the most exclusive restaurant in Seireitai. Given a choice, he would rather have been at the vice-captains' favourite haunt in the Rukongai, where he could have sprawled at his ease and slipped out of the top half of his uniform – and damn the Gotei 13's dress codes – but Kuchiki-taichou had suggested the venue, and Renji had been too bemused to demur.
At least they were drinking sake, and not tea. During his years at the 6th, Renji had learned to endure the tea ceremony and other excruciatingly subtle noble pursuits, but he was at heart a gutter brat from Rukongai – he had no real patience for such niceties, and no interest in them at all.
Across from him, Kuchiki-taichou knelt, perfectly composed, looking as though he had stepped straight out an ancient illustration. He took a slow, measured sip of his sake, and set down the bowl with graceful precision, before focusing his full attention on Renji.
"Abarai-fukutaichou," Kuchiki-taichou said, in his utterly impassive voice, "I must offer you my thanks."
Renji stared, open-mouthed.
"You kept our division steady while I lay healing in 4th division. It could not have been easy, after the recent upheaval."
It was not quite clear whether Kuchiki-taichou referred to the upheaval of Aizen's defection, or the upheaval within the 6th division that had resulted from the captain and vice-captain at such open odds. Renji rather thought he meant the latter.
"It was nothing," he managed to say, flushing a little. "It was my responsibility as vice-captain."
The officers below him had looked to him for leadership in Kuchiki-taichou's absence. And Renji, lean and hungry, proud and independent, had found himself suddenly the focus of all their expectations. Leadership was no longer simply a matter of day-to-day concerns and paperwork, but setting an example, rebuilding pride and morale, trying to find a way forward after the great upheaval.
It had not been easy. At times, the burden of their expectations had weighed on him unbearably, and he found himself yearning for the days when he had had no cares, no responsibilities, nothing but burning ambitions and a stark, simplistic view of the world. But over the years, rank and responsibility had tamed him, experience had shown him just how tangled relationships and expectations could become, and his burning desire to surpass Kuchiki-taichou had changed to reluctant admiration and some understanding.
"I must admit," Kuchiki-taichou murmured, "there were some who questioned my decision to appoint you as my second, Abarai-fukutaichou. They said that you were still feral at heart, that you had no sense of discipline to temper your strength and ambition."
Renji went white, his ready temper sparking furiously. He tensed, coiled, his hand flying to Zabimaru, but Kuchiki-taichou held up a restraining hand.
"I did not agree with them," he continued relentlessly. "And your actions these past few weeks have borne out my predictions."
Once again, Renji could do nothing but stare. "That was not what you said when you unleashed Senbonzakura on me, taichou."
There was a moment of silence. Kuchiki-taichou took another sip of his sake, and beyond the screens that partitioned their private room, Renji could hear the soft sounds of other patrons and restaurant staff.
"You know I would challenge you again, if circumstances called for it," Renji said fiercely. "I value my position and responsibilities within the Gotei 13, but I value my own honour and conscience above all."
"I would expect nothing less of you," Kuchiki-taichou said finally. From his tone, it was impossible to determine whether he meant it as compliment or insult. "War is coming, Abarai-fukutaichou, and we will need to present a united front. With this new understanding between us, are you willing to work with me once more?"
Renji nodded slowly, and then bowed, formally, accepting the responsibility of vice-captain once more. Kuchiki-taichou bowed, deeper, in return, the only true acknowledgment Renji would ever receive.