This wild abandoned star
A romance in twenty
Rating: A soft and chewy Mature (R) for sex and swearing.
Category/Genre/Characters: one-shot; drama, waff and a dash of crack; Orihime, Renji, & co.
Disclaimer: Bleach is (C) of Kubo Tite.
Son of Disclaimer: All sexual content depicted is between fictional, consenting parties.
Timeline/Spoilers: The king is dead, long live... Set after the war. Slight spoilers through Hueco Mundo/Fake Karakura.
Summary: After heartbreak, the only way is forward. Renji is cast adrift, and Orihime needs to anchor someone.
x x x x x
1. Out of sorrow entire worlds have been built
It's a cold, fragile spring after the end. They are sixteen, stranded and heartbroken. The love and resolve they shared saved the world, but the blows cracked some of them too deep to piece together.
Tatsuki shoos the others back when the train roars into the station. These last precious minutes are for Orihime, and Ichigo still has no idea why. Her tongue sits in her mouth like a lump of sandstone. She can't swallow to limber it. His scarf is blue wool in perfect contrast to his tousled hair.
"See you, Inoue." He smiles as the crowd surges around them. "I'll call. You take care of 'em all, right?"
"Be careful, Kurosaki-kun." She bites her lip. The scarf hangs askew; she tugs it back around his neck. "I l... I'll write! I will, for sure! I have your address on the coffee table and Enraku is looking after it so it won't get lost."
He exhales in a whump of breath as she hugs him. Because he is going away and they might not see each other after the year is done, just this one time, she clings with all her might.
"That's—that's good," he stammers. "I'll wait for 'em. You look after yourself." He pulls away, she can't contain him, the draw of the world is too strong and Karakura brims with memory. She holds back her tears until Tatsuki's arms come up around her. She is so tired of crying, but her heart takes the opposite stance, and Orihime's head never could mount a defence worth a laugh.
2. To be done with all this measuring of truth
The Central Forty-Six is reinstated late in the spring. It begins the laborious task of restoring lawful order in Seireitei, and spreading a veneer of the same throughout Rukongai. It turns a hawkish eye to the Gotei Thirteen, which has run the whole of Soul Society under martial law. It rakes out the delinquents and the dissenters. Peace will come to all.
Renji kneels on the tatami in a flawless seiza, the knuckles of his right hand pressed to the floor. His sword is laid beside him.
"Abarai Renji-dono. The court martial has decreed the following sentence for your violation of orders and abandonment of post in a time of war." The hooded enforcer rattles off the words in a monotone. Renji can only see the hem of his snowy, ankle-length robe. "Your rank will be suspended and you will be placed on probation until further notice. Charges for incitement to rebellion are under investigation."
His head shoots up. "Rebellion? What the—"
"You brought with you Kuchiki Rukia-dono, then an unseated shinigami subordinate to you."
He could say It was her idea. She came to him her arms full of heavy tan cloaks and seeping nervous resolution. The sneak to the gate was almost a childhood caper for windowsill delicacies, the underlying gravity subsumed in the thrill of a dare.
His captain stands stiff and wordless to the side. Duty and love lie hopelessly tangled, and the final truth that either of them knows is that this must not hurt Rukia.
Renji bows his head again.
"Your captain has interceded on your behalf. The appeal will be considered along with your service record. In the meantime, you are to surrender your vice-captain's badge and your zanpakutou to Captain Kuchiki."
He reaches for the thick silk binding the badge to his arm.
3. Whom he may never see again
"What did they say?" Rukia blows into the sitting room like a gust of winter wind. He keeps his door unlocked. Once he told her she would never need to knock.
"Took my badge and my sword. I get to stay in the quarters for now."
"I will be only temporary, Renji." Her presence froths with a tempest of emotions; he's not fooled by the glaze of calm.
"I wish," he growls. "The Captain-General needs somebody to blame. I got a big mouth and a bad attitude. He's gotta pull the force together. He figures he can string me up as an example, he—"
"You did not have to come," she rasps.
"What, so I should've grinned and let you go to Hueco Mundo on your own?"
"I was unseated, expendable! We both knew Ichigo had gone ahead!"
"You got a seat now, Rukia!"
"That has nothing to do with your court—"
"Yeah, only every fuckin' thing!" He sounds ugly and jagged in his own ears. "The fuckers dared to use you against me, you, when I crawled every damn step up there just to be worth you again!"
Her retort muffled, her hand flies to her mouth. She was never supposed to know, could never know the unfathomed depth of his regard. The way her eyes go wide and dark betrays her comprehension.
"I can't give you a thing now." He hears himself speaking, against reason, against sense. "Got no rank, no... not a thing. Your brother's workin' to get some of the weight off me. He's not gonna be happy afterwards."
"No." He doesn't know if that's a agreement. "Renji... I am sorry. I will speak to him, but I can't... make you any promises. Not now. Not like this."
His jaw works, but no sound forms beyond a choked spasm of breath.
"My apologies," she mutters formally. He thinks if she now bows to him he will shatter, but she brushes past him into the day, the white badge on her arm haloed against the black sleeve.
"Yeah," he says. "I gotcha."
4. We could navigate out position by the stars
Orihime hears from Ichigo in footnotes and bywords, a snatch of how-are-you when Tatsuki calls him, or a tatter of thank-you-doing-well peppering one of Sado's postcards. She writes him letters that she never sends. Enraku guards a basket of them by June and summer vacation. She plants morning glories on her tiny French balcony, the mosquito net rigged so that the tendrils loop around it to sunlight. They open in great scarlet and pink blooms.
They all fade from the top twenty of the school into the nebulous hundreds. Soul Society finished its work immaculately: no one remembers the days that Karakura lost as an otherworldly war raged for its living souls.
Tatsuki makes a barrier between her and the world. Sado sometimes fetches her for walks, either very early or very late. She likes that she doesn't need to talk to him, but may whenever something unplugs the words in her head. When Uryuu comes to visit her, he pelts her balcony railing with pebbles until the tinkling notes draw her to the door. Surrounded by swathes of fabric and spools of thread, they sit in her living room and drink green tea. He wants to make her a sundress with the flowers.
Morning glories can't be found in any cloth store in Karakura, but she sings the virtue and beauty of poppies to him until he relents.
5. But the stars have all gone
Vice-Captain Kotetsu ignores his request to be left awake during the setting of the bones. She makes him drink a syrupy concoction that almost sends him heaving; a gentle whiteness takes over every thought. Works way better than saké, is his last flash of coherence.
He comes to with his arm bandaged and bound in a sling across his torso. He's been given a private room, maybe a scribal holdover from his officer days. The divide drives him mad, this nothing place, this waiting span that grates on him worse by the day. He needs to be something again, before he forgets how to be someone.
Individuality was a point of pride to him. Whatever else, he was Abarai Renji, and any punk that disagreed could take the matter up with his fist or sword.
There's a sword stand in the room. A shinigami isn't lightly separated from their blade. Zabimaru wouldn't quite slot into the rack, he thinks incongruously, being longer than the average zanpakutou to account for his height.
He lets his good arm drop off the side of the bed.
"Knock knock?" Light flickers into the room as the door slides open. "I won't be long! I was visiting Unohana-san, and heard you were here."
To his astonishment, Orihime bustles in in a billow of skirts and long-stemmed flowers that drip off her elbow in a sweep of scarlet, white-veined blossoms. Renji blinks away the layers of stupor from the anesthetic. "Ah, hey."
She plonks a covered dish onto the bedside table. "I got you some taiyaki. That was right, wasn't it? And... I'm not sure if you do it here, but you're supposed to bring flowers when someone's in the hospital." She holds out the armful of irises. "They're gladioli. They reminded me of you. I think their name means 'little sword' in... in Latin, so... I thought that was appropriate?" A nervous giggle bubbles from her throat.
"Thanks." He's surprised, again, now by the sincerity of his own tone. "I don't got a vase, but maybe I can bug a nurse for one?"
"I'll ask!" Two minutes later, she patters back with a ceramic water jug. "They said I could borrow this. Everyone's very kind here. Um, and how are you feeling? What happened?"
He huffs in helpless amusement. "Slow down a bit, Inoue! Pull up a chair..." An arduous turn of his head reveals no likely seats in the room. "Eh, you can sit on the bed, doesn't seem right to make a pretty girl crouch on the floor."
"Are you sure?" She ruffles the flowers into the makeshift vase and comes to perch on the edge of his bed. He shifts his legs to make room.
"I don't say shit I don't mean. M'fine, bit woozy with Vice-Cap'n Kotetsu's horse tranquilliser. Broke my arm in a brawl, nothin' serious."
"You didn't start it, did you?"
"Ya know, I don't start fights, I..."
"I'm not sure I believe you, Renji-kun," she chimes in. "You used to bump heads with Kurosaki-kun all the time."
"Hah, you got me." He lifts his good hand in a cease-fire gesture. "By the way, how's Ichigo? Seen him lately?"
She wilts at his question, then gathers herself with a deep breath. "No. He went away to study for this year. But he calls Tatsuki-chan, and Kurosaki-sensei, and I hear from him sometimes! He's all right. I don't think anything could bring him down, you know?"
Renji nods, well as he can with the pillows placed to support his jolted head. "Uh-huh."
Her fingers hover at the bandage covering his temple, then along the sutured gashes down his cheek. "Um... how bad is your head? Would you like me to..."
"Don't bother yourself." He lays his hand over her wrist, the bones straight and delicate under the skin. She has very small hands. "I know how you feel 'bout usin' your powers. I'll be outta here this time tomorrow. Could use some quiet thinking time, anyway."
Apprehension glows in her face and is dimmed by blessed relief. "I'm sorry. I would... I should help you."
"You brought me tasty edibles and some swanky flowers." He grins. "C'mon, do me a favour, turn that mouth up. There's the Inoue I know."
"All right." Her smile creeps in like a blade of grass splitting the spring snow. "Here she is, every bit of her. Reporting for duty, sir!"
Since she laughs at that, pealing and kind, he joins in her fragile mirth.
6. Look away, look away, look away
The casual observer might overlook it, but a blazing staredown is taking place across the dingy Rukongai bar. The only courtesy shinigami robes earn you here is that everyone assumes you to be a tough son of a bitch when the inevitable brawl explodes across the smoke-stained room.
The wine-stained thug doubles in his vision. That doesn't mean Renji isn't considering him.
"Abarai-kun," Kira says with unassuming patience. "You aren't helping your case. I know it's difficult, but you can't afford to start more trouble." Renji is blurry on how Kira came to sit on the other side of the table. He might not put it past Hinamori, in her hard-won resolve, to have sent his old friend to keep an eye on him.
"M'okay," he mumbles. "What the hell am I s'posed to do? Can't look the captain in the eye, and Rukia..." The alcohol has numbed him enough to speak the name. "Rukia's with the Kuchiki now, glory an' honour an' standing, all in a neat bundle."
"Yes," says Kira as he stoppers the saké jar. "I don't think you can pile the lowlives here high enough to reach her right now."
"Your captain is trying to help you. Have you even looked at Kuchiki-san once since your probation?" Kira has a terrible penchant for pointed words, given how mild he is otherwise. "This is worse than before."
Renji has heard all this logic before. The prospect of sinking a fist into something that will squeal in pain is much more inviting now. He's neither gloomy nor vengeful by nature, but there's a knot of hurt in his gut that won't unwind at anything: drinking, fighting, fucking, he's tried them all by now.
"It isn't about you. It's about lawgivers trying to establish themselves after a war, and going about it in many of the wrong ways."
"That was a second chance. Took forty fuckin' years, an' I screwed it well an' true."
"Ah, now you're just maundering." With a deft movement, Kira pulls the jar away beyond his reach. "Speak to her. While you're sober."
Glowering, Renji pushes himself upright, only to have Kira echo his motion. The man by the counter leers malefically as Kira presses a hand on his shoulder. "Abarai-kun..."
Renji sloughs off the grip. The earthen floor of the tavern yields under his sandals, springy and easy to step on. If the room tilts, at least his feet are well planted.
7. And never more think of me
Orihime never dreams of the faces of those who were slain. Her sleep fills with their screams inside her as she unmakes them one by one. Going to bed with earmuffs doesn't seem to help.
Her sleeping alcove grows stuffy in the July heat. She drags her futon and thinnest sheets into the living room. Lying curled up in the tender coolness of the night, she wonders if she might reach inside herself, and reject her heart until it would be smooth and young and know nothing of sorrow.
8. For I am sick at heart, my dear
Karakura languishes under a heady, smog-laden haze. A wind whirls and capers through the street stalls and the foliage of the gnarled cherry trees, albeit its effort to ease the air is vain. The sweltering day doesn't bother him; the riverbank is shaded, and the current cools the vicinity. He isn't sure how he strayed here, but he is still fond of the living world. He can skim past people, an errant gust of smoke or dust—and nothing can touch him in turn.
The fragrant grass has burnt to gold and silver-green. The rush of cars, the burn of gasoline on the nearby motorway is filtered by the screen of old trees.
The grass muffles footfalls, too. He peers up to a pair of bare calves that disappear under the hem of a skirt covered in a riot of orange-sienna poppies.
"Yeah." Twisting up to lean on his elbows, he takes in the twining flowers on her dress, the thick, wind-curled plait of her hair, and the straw hat perched on her head. "What's up, Inoue? Long time no see."
"Oh good, you weren't sleeping." The corners of her eyes cinch. She looks thin, the smooth curves of her cheeks dimpled. "Or were you napping, like a watchdog? I thought I felt someone familiar, and took a detour... though if I take the riverside path to the bridge, it'll actually be a shortcut!"
He reaches up to tilt her artfully frayed hat. "That's a nice one." If there is one thing Renji can appreciate, it's a fine taste in headgear.
"Isn't it?" She picks it up and twirls it on a finger, spinning the gauzy, blue ribbon bound around it. "Tatsuki-chan got it for me, to go with Ishida-kun's dress.
"I'm talking your ear off, am I not? Sorry. How... how's everyone in Soul Society? I think Kuchiki-san still visits Kurosaki-kun..." Her eyes narrow. "I haven't heard anything in at least three months. You must all have so much to do."
"Busy, busy, busy," he agrees. "Well, most people are. Rukia sure is."
"Right! I suppose you wouldn't be napping right beside my secret cherry hideaway if you were busy," she says. "Oh, you can stay. I don't mind. I was going home, but I thought maybe I wanted ice cream, and there's a really nice old woman who has a stall right after the bridge..."
It'd be easy to get lost in her chatter, to drift along the fancies and associations and see where they land you in the end. She has made a grin tug at his mouth again.
"Ice cream? Oh, yeah, cold, sweet stuff." He remembers this. Rukia did manage to afflict him with some of the living world's delicacies.
"Do you want to come? It's all right, I'll treat you."
"You got a hideaway for eatin' it, too?" Renji beats dry dirt off his hakama. "Might be too weird to be seen with a floatin' bunch of ice cream."
"We'll manage! I can always get yours first, then pretend I dropped mine and go back for another. It's a foolproof plan, don't you think?"
He walks in the grass alongside the gravel path as they set out towards the stall. The late afternoon is quiet, most sane people driven inside by the heat, but Orihime enlivens the trip by pointing out the place where red dragonflies come in the evening, and the place where she fell into the canal at twelve and was heroically rescued by Tatsuki-chan, even though she floats very well, and the deserted warehouse that would be splendid for ghost-watching, and the best point for watching the fireworks next week, although she might climb to her roof at home.
It takes him a second look to realise the green flash up on the bridge looming ahead is not a dashing child or a car, but a skirt flapping in the wind. Orihime is listing all the ice-cream flavours at the stall, vanilla strawberry chocolate hazelnut mint green tea potential carrot that she's wanted to try all summer...
"Inoue." He tugs her into a halt. "What's that?"
"There's someone up there!" Suddenly, she is all amazement, her mouth round with worry. "I..."
"The hell's she doin'?" The horisontal support beams of the bridge protrude to form little precipices beyond the steel railings.
"Oh, no. She can't be jumping." Orihime shrugs off her satchel and drops her hat on top of it on a bench. "Renji-kun, get me up there." In two seconds flat, Inoue Orihime assumes a position as an emergency hero, her shoulders squared under the straps of her sundress.
"Up there? You sure? It doesn't look like the footin's too solid..."
"You can stand on the air, right?"
"Well, 'course I can." His skills did not go with his sword, bound and sealed in Captain Kuchiki's office. There's a pang of awareness at her words, as if he's indeed forgotten.
"You can be my safety net. You'll even be an invisible one." She smiles her brave little soldier smile. He smothers a welling of memory. "If I fall, you can swoop to the rescue. Like a movie hero."
"Take off those fancy slippers," he says, grinning, decision made. "Or you'll fall for sure."
Her things fall in an askew stack on the bench as he sweeps her up into a flash-step. Saving dead souls was or is his job, one living one won't make a difference.
9. For all the sorrow it will pass, my dear
They alight on the bridge in a whisper of motion. He is very fast; she has no time to even breathe.
Orihime works one leg, then another over the railing. The rust-roughened steel digs into her palm. She isn't sure what she might say; her mind is full of worried evening news reporters and social commentators, useless statistics of lives ending in her own age bracket—she does read the newspapers, contrary to popular belief. Even if she sometimes embellishes on the facts of the news items, this a deathly serious matter, and may she be pardoned the panicked pun.
Orihime crouches down, at shoulder level with the girl. She is tall and gangly, watching the silver water below, treacherously far and low. Down there, someone may be observing. Orihime is here, within reach.
"Hello," she begins. "Are you all right?"
"Ahh!" All colour flees the girl's cheeks. Her jaw trembles; her eyes are wide and very dry, hollow and tired. "Ah, um, I..."
"I didn't mean to startle you. That would be a bad thing now."
Something kindles in the black solidity of her gaze. "Please go away."
"No," Orihime says. "That's dangerous. You do know the water's shallow below there, don't you?"
"It is far enough."
"Oh no, no. I'm very sorry right now, but I can't let you do that." To keep talking is the most important thing. Attention keeps you hanging on; Orihime knows this with frightening intensity.
"I can't do it. This is all I can do."
"It cannot be that terrible!" Orihime puts her free hand on her mouth in sympathy. "I... Tell you a secret, I didn't clear all my exams, either. It worked out. What school do you go to?"
She can't turn her head to check on Renji. His presence licks at her skin; she can all but imbibe his rapt attention. He is there. She can count on that.
"Look, there are options." She tries to think, fast-swift-clever, pell-mell down the lane of reason before the girl lets go. "Even for people like us. It feels like the end of the world, but it isn't. I promise, really truly cross my heart."
"You don't understand!" The girl jerks away from Orihime's fumbling words and fingers.
Her foot slips.
Orihime lurches in a great plunge that drops the pit of her stomach and lifts a shriek from her chest. Her fingers clamp on the girl's. They scrabble together for footholds and handholds and then stare at each other not breathing at all. As a car hums by, the honk of its horn is like a leap of whalesong, a foreign call from another world.
"Th-that was scary," Orihime stammers. Her toes curl on the end of the metal beam. Her grip is steadfast and strong. Sweat trickles between her fingers.
"Yes." The whisper is thin and powerless. Her heart is in her eyes at last; tears well down her cheeks. "Yes."
Orihime reintroduces her lungs to air as kindly as possible. "Would you—would you like to come up with me?"
She holds on and on to the girl's hand. Renji steps up behind her, his aura enveloping her close as an embrace. Setting her foot into his offered hand, she hoists herself back onto the bridge. Her fingers are smeared with rust. There's nowhere the skin would be pierced. That calms her a little.
People cluster along the length of the bridge. Heads press together, fingers point, someone raises a mobile phone. Orihime galvanises herself into damage control.
"It is fine!" she calls out. "Thank you, don't worry! I'm very sorry we disturbed your day. Everything's all right, she slipped."
"Yes," the girl echoes her feebly, splayed on her knees on the bridge. Reaching for a tissue, Orihime remembers she left her satchel so Renji could carry her faster.
"Thank you, Renji-kun. I'm glad you didn't have to catch her," she murmurs.
"Caught you, though," he whispers, his hand a spot of comfort on the small of her back.
"You did," she gasps. "I think... I think I want that ice cream now." He says nothing, only stands there steady and strong.
Hesitant, she waves to the girl when she has found her feet again. Orihime feels like running after her, but that might seem like stalking. The wide-eyed elation in her might be enough to carry her home. If she is very fortunate, she will have family, friends, someone to carry her onward as well.
Renji's hand slides up to her shoulder. "Ice cream? Sounds like a plan to me." Patting his fingers, Orihime resists leaning back into him.
Carrot ice cream still hasn't appeared. They have green tea and chocolate chip instead.
10. Out of longing great wonders have been willed
The summer takes its meandering course. Orihime fills a vacancy at a corner konbini next to the school when the owner's nephew throws out his back in a freak accident with a box of lime jell-o. She isn't allowed on the high shelves, but her smile brightens up business on many dust-draped mornings. The unfortunate online order of two hundred canary cages remains her sole slip at the computer; its prompt cancellation by the more technically-minded Tatsuki—on an off day from delivering the newspaper—keeps her at the job beyond the first week.
After an incident with a jar of dirt, Renji takes care to shrug through the mosquito net and well onto the floor before announcing himself. More often than not, she already pokes her head into the living room.
Sometimes, he can stand, eyes shut, and soak in the spring sunlight of her aura, the brown sugar and street dirt and the desert sand that nevermore seems to leave her skin. She is soft and yielding, but resilient, a riot of sorrow and hope and delight.
Most of the time, she catches him first.
Chad brings her a second-hand DVD player one evening. Her sofa and the outlying floor fill with friends and cheerful debate of the scariest ghosts on film. On other nights, she introduces Renji to the miracle of modern cinema. They discover a shared love of Alien, though disagree on the superiority of Aliens versus Alien 3, and bond over the experience of having fallen asleep during The Seven Samurai. Renji later blames the panfuls of bread she baked the same day. The avocado turns bitter and gummy in the oven, but they squabble over the loaf with the chili and banana mush.
He nods off leaning on the cushion barricade erected in the middle of the sofa. When her attempt to bolster the structure collapses it, his head lands gently on her leg. She sits and strokes his hair, and together they miss the entire last fifth of the film.
11. Bind my dreams up in your tangled hair
"Here." Orihime proffers him her latest handiwork; he strains to remember if he's ever seen her sit with her hands idle for very long. She doesn't seem to be very good with lulls, but he'll be the last person to hold that against her.
Renji touches the interlocking reds and whites on the woven band, threaded through with polished, carved shell beads. It tapers into knotted cords for fastening. "You got clever hands."
"Give me your arm." The way she assumes to be in his personal space doesn't even baffle him anymore. Extending one bare arm, he lets her tug the band snugly around his bicep, where it intersects the broad black stroke of the tattoo.
"I don't think it's as good as the ones at the firework festival market." Her hands linger on the knot. "I'll learn, though. I'll make you anoth—"
"Hey. It's freakin' fine, an' I'll wear it with pride, ya hear?"
"Good." Her mouth widens into a smile. "Thank you, Renji-kun."
It's been a long time—almost two months now, he counts every day—since he's felt a weight on his left arm. They sprawl comfortably across the floor of Orihime's living room, which has the advantage of facing northeast; her flowers apparently suffer some, but the evening shadows slide in to lift the day's sheen of heat sooner. She was in a rush that morning; the drifted sheets of her bed still lie out on the floor.
"I oughta get ya somethin' in return, right?" He cranes his head to rest on a seat of the sofa. "Can't do much fancy stuff with m'hands... less you'd like to learn a sword trick or three."
"Oh, no, it was a gift!" She slumps into the adjacent seat, leaning over to meet his eye from above. "You are amazing, though. They'll all figure it out, just you wait."
They don't talk about the reason behind all his free time, the same way Rukia or Ichigo is simply elided in the conversation. It isn't some unspoken lump darkening their days, but they nudge each other into graceful curves around it. Except when someone stumbles in mid-step.
Dragging a hand across his face, Renji sighs. He's in a false body, having spent the day in the sun, in and out of every imaginable store on Orihime's personal staggering map of the town. Now, he longs for the lack of weight and limit of his shinigami form.
"Sorry," she whispers. "I didn't mean to."
"Never mind." His breath crawls through the bars of his hand.
She slides down beside him, her arm pressing into his, her chin on his shoulder. "Don't... please don't. It will get better, I know it. It can't be forever. Even when it's all wrong, and you've done everything you can think of and still things don't... don't look up, you have to..."
Renji meets her gaze, like he's staring into the sun and knows he will go blind.
"Look up," he repeats. Her hair falls free, long and loose and impractical, as he threads his hand through it.
"Look up," she repeats, a third time, a charm.
For a fraction, he wonders if she's ever kissed someone; then she reaches for him and he is lost in the clement force of her feeling.
He traces his mouth down the dip and swell of her body. Her knees part without hesitation as she bends into his every touch, raw and hungry for the warmth, the nearness, the attention. She wraps herself around him like someone drowning. Her eyes are squeezed shut and her mouth open; she is transfixed, mournful, exquisite.
Head buried in her shoulder, he turns away, to ride out the tide of his own sorrow and desire, as she shudders enfolded in his arms.
12. Can you see it, babe?
The dawn sun pokes tawny fingers through the blinds. She has never shared her futon before, but finds it empty now as her eyelids part towards the shadows on the ceiling. A breeze rustles the morning glories.
He has folded himself in the cramped length of her sofa, one lanky shin hanging over the edge, red hair tangled over the heap of cushions. The tattoos ripple along his exposed back with the rise and fall of his breath. Orihime runs a curious hand down to his hip, pausing at the hem of his stolen bedsheet.
He sleeps too tight for her to disturb. She wouldn't have the heart for it, so she pads away to find a bath, and clothes, and leaves him to his dreams. Once the soft, buttery waft of the waffles has filled her kitchen, she sets the table for two with the simplicity of having an overnight guest. She has grown into the habit of coffee and milk in the morning, but puts a pot of tea to brew just in case.
She goes still when she hears the old sofa springs groan. Fabric rustles, then bare feet stalk languid over the carpet.
"Good morning!" she calls through the doorway. "Umm..."
The clockwork of her thought jitters. Words burst in every direction in merry whirligigs of politeness and platitude.
"Hey." The languor of that word spells out his intimacy with this sort of situation, at least to her flailing mind. His grin is soft, and he's wearing one of her sheets. That makes it impossible to muster scorn at him, if Orihime were even familiar with such a sentiment.
"Um," she begins again. "I didn't think to run a second bath, I'm sorry! There's towels in the cupboard and the blue bottle is the shampoo and the orange one the conditioner. I mean, you'll probably want both, what with... the long hair. Yes?"
With a throaty sound that could be a laugh or a thank-you, he melts away from the doorway. Orihime leans her hands on the counter and strictly tells her cheeks that the tomato impression is quite overblown.
13. Leave your regrets and impossible longings
Mrs. Shinmura from the ground floor runs into Tatsuki on the weekend Orihime is visiting her aunt. Tatsuki, here to water the morning glories, is surprised to find herself at a cross-examination conducted by a single, small lady of sixty-three. Some days earlier, a handsome young man—and such a tall one!— left Orihime's flat at 9:34 in the morning. Mrs. Shinmura didn't even know young Miss Inoue was seeing someone! The someone looked a bit too much like a gang member for comfort, she should say. Then again, that Sado boy also has the look of a thug and the heart of an angel, so perhaps it'll all turn out for the best.
"I didn't..." Orihime mumbles to Tatsuki once she's returned. "We didn't kiss, or anything."
" 'Hime..." Tatsuki is caught between solicitude and utter astonishment. Orihime soldiers into the opening.
"But it isn't like that! He-slept-on-the-sofa-and-I-made-him-breakfast."
"And your corner gossip caught him practically climbing down from your balcony," Tatsuki says with the gentleness she gives no one but Orihime. "Look... I wanna know what happened, that's all. Are you okay?"
"Of course I'm all right!" The assurance leaps onto her tongue, shining and sincere. "It... well..."
Even so, Tatsuki's gentlest Look can cut straight to Orihime's heart. Cradling her glass with both hands, she haltingly explains everything. So what about Ichigo? hovers on Tatsuki's lips, but she loves Orihime, and the words never come.
"I'm all right," she says again. "I'm not really sure what now. Isn't that strange? I was so terribly sure then."
"I gotta admit my experience's not really exhaustive," her best friend says, "but I think that's part of the programme."
14. And scatter them across the sky behind you
Autumn sweeps across the pavements. Her job at the konbini runs out, but the promises to take her back next spring flow fresh. Contented by that, Orihime ventures back to school. Her birthday passes with little fuss, for which she is grateful.
She feels old and brittle enough without birthday cakes. When Tatsuki and Uryuu jostle one in through the door between them anyway, she laughs, and basks in their love and the royal argument involved in setting the cake on her coffee table. Her aunt sends her a new mobile phone as a birthday gift. After Tatsuki painstakingly shows her how to set a different tone for each calling number, she spends an evening fitting theme songs to her nearest and dearest.
Two weeks later, Orihime rushes across the flat and dives at her satchel. Tissues and hairbrush and paperclips and fabric samples and magnifying glass and pens and Swiss army knife go flying as she grabs at the phone while it still rings.
There is a crackle and a whizz, then a familiar voice, a notch lower and darker than when she last heard it. "Hi, Inoue."
For three seconds, she is speechless. It doesn't help she heard his musical cue all the way to the bathroom. "K-Kurosaki-kun!" Ichigo called, he finally called, and he is calling her alone, with no Tatsuki or Sado standing by.
"How's everything? I kinda just wanted a familiar voice. All's good over here, but..."
"Oh, we're fine!" she hastens to say. "I, um... Ishida-kun's been tutoring me, I think I told you I was having trouble with chemistry, but it's all solved now, and..."
"Yeah, glad to hear it. School's pretty tough over here to, but I'm... hanging in there, you know?"
"I know. So... yes, so are we all! Things are almost the same as always. Have you... done anything interesting?" Oh, but it seems so easy to brush away the things she wrote in the letters, weeks and months ago.
"Went to see the castle outside town. Bit of a disappointment, I guess." He huffs, in the way he has to say it is not a big deal. "You couldn't see too many places inside, and the exhibit of all the armour and stuff was closed. I gotta go again next year."
"Ahh, that is such a pity! I hope you can go again. It sounded so fascinating." She reaches back to a postcard Sado passed on to her, addressed to him, but obviously meant for communal consumption. "Sado-kun told me you'd wanted to go."
Bit by bit, she breaks into full-blown, merry chatter, sharing news from each friend in turn. They all are a skein, spun together by love that doesn't ask its name, but is. That sustains the conversation more than anything.
"I'm already fretting about exams, but it should be fine," she finishes with a gulp of air at the end.
"You'll kick ass, Inoue." A chuckle punctuates his words. "Tell Chad I'm gonna be home when he plays next month, will you? He's not allowed to start before I get there."
"I'll make sure of it!" She nods to the empty room. "We'll wait for you. I'll confiscate his guitar and put Ishida-kun to stand guard if that's what it takes!"
"Thanks." She can hear one of Ichigo's honest, slow smiles taking shape. It warms her even across the endless span of phone line. "Gotta go now, I still got some studying to do. You take care, 'kay?"
"I will. Take care, too, Kurosaki-kun."
" 'Course. See you later."
She lays the phone in her lap. Her hands sit unmoving until the cool plastic is warm and sheened with damp against her palm.
15. And all the interesting shadows
Orihime taps the flickering torch with the heel of her palm. The beam of light draws a dejected arc along the wall of the warehouse.
"It doesn't feel quite the same, when I know I can see them."
"I'd tell ya there's not a beep of spirit activity within the mile, but that'd just ruin the fun." Renji balances on a strip of metal grid walkway jutting out from the wall. She catches him in the beam. The night cold steams both their breaths into puffs of fog in the light. "Guess the air of mystery's not really the same."
"It's all right, Renji," she says. "You have to leave some things behind. I... I'm okay with growing up, at least that way." She'd never tell him to come down before he hurts himself. She only holds her breath until he leaps from halfway up the wall, landing with showy grace in spite of the false body.
It doesn't really matter that ghost-hunting might never be the same. Orihime couldn't ask for a better partner for nighttime jaunts across the nooks and corners of Karakura. He can climb every balcony and fire escape, wrench open every door to bare their dust-riddled secrets. More than that, his joy at it is real, the thrill of the beckoning darkness the same as her own. It dissolves the clumsiness between them before it can even form.
Autumn is for spirits, her great-aunt used to say. When it snows, they go to sleep, and Yuki-onna alone wanders the snowy wood. The harvest moon, though, is bright and ripe with prayer.
Renji is solid, planes of dark shadow and green, borrowed jacket under her torch. Even though he let her tuck his hair under cap and hood to keep the airborne dirt from it, the ponytail now flows down his shoulders.
She doesn't think shinigami are seasonal. In the depth of her heart, she worries a little.
The warehouse is gloomy enough without her misgivings, and they have already combed everything but the back room sealed off with chain and padlock. "Home to shower, then cocoa," she decides. "We've seen this one, haven't we?"
His laughter calls echoes from the broken windows and the rafters. "I'll mark it on the map."
16. I said to the man who'd been sleeping rough
"The evidence suggests there was strategic merit to your... early departure to Hueco Mundo."
Renji stands straight and tall this time. The judicer before him speaks low through his ceremonial hood.
"I hear you, honoured sir."
"We have inspected Captain Kuchiki's appeal," the man carries on, with a useless, pregnant pause at the end.
"Right." He forces his voice to stay even.
"You will be restored in your former position for a trial period of four months, to be made permanent if your behaviour and service merit it at that point."
Will the eminent assholes at the Central say sorry for messin' up my life for months? he wants to sneer. The fury, the frustration, the aimless drifting where only the patience of friends anchored him to any semblance of sanity, the dry desert summer that all but sucked the life out of him; who will replace that? Who will make up for his lost time?
"You have accomplished much in a short time. It is our desire to see you continue in the same vein."
He bends his head to acknowledge the compliment and to hide the twist of his mouth. "Thank you."
It is as if he cannot dare to believe this, for good or ill, just yet. He couldn't refuse the prospect, yet doubt gnaws at him that it will be snatched away the moment he moves to accept it.
"Is... is that all? Sir?"
The judicer's posture or voice does not change. "You are dismissed, Vice-Captain Abarai."
Slowly, smoothly, Renji dips into a deep bow.
17. All the things for which my heart yearns
On the threshold of the training hall, Orihime is caught. It seems she is privy to a rare moment of calm and concentration, stranded from his usual wildness and energy. He flows through a sustained, meditative form, a current of movement from one side of the room to the other. Zabimaru slides through the thrusts and waves without sound, sharp steel to silent air.
Once he stops, she dares to clap in appreciation.
"That—that was wonderful. Sorry. I kind of... got stuck watching."
"Heh, you gotta see me do that in flash-step 'fore it's worth much." Renji bends his head in a bow, but she can see how it is half an act, if one for her amusement.
"Oh, stop it," she chides. "It was amazing, end of discussion."
"Okay, okay." Tilting his head away, he steps to the side of the room to retrieve Zabimaru's scabbard. She folds her hands in front of her. Soul Society isn't a frequent destination for her anymore, but she keeps in contact with the Eleventh, and Unohana, and, a bit more seldom now, Rukia. Orihime cherishes the other girl, but the many dark threads wound around her at present constrict their bond.
She shakes off her musings. She will go see Rukia after this, she decides. She hopes the thread that runs to Renji is merely knotted, not fraying. It can still be spun anew, so strong and shining no one will even notice the wear.
"Just droppin' by, are ya?" He looks her up and down. She maybe only imagines the twitch in the corners of his eyes.
"I was... sometimes Unohana-san wants me to look at an injury. There was someone who had been lost in Hueco Mundo for a week. It..."
"Ouch." He frowns in sympathy. "I don't need any gory details. Did ya get it?"
"I did." Step by step, she realigns herself with the power she cannot cut free of herself. At home, it subsumes itself in the routines of school and work and friends; she knows that one day, she must have peace with it. In his rough-and-ready way, Renji helps, even if she never tells him.
"Enough for me." With a guffaw, he snaps the sword into the scabbard. "So... anythin' I can do for you? While we're on my turf for once?"
She lets out a giggle that rings only a little too loud in the training hall. "Ahah, thank you, I..."
She would have been happy to stand and watch him, knowing he knew she was there, secure and untroubled in each other's presence. She has understood the summer night on her tangled futon was not about either of them; to wish for anything more is too much, too fragile, too precious. The world doesn't abide such hope, let alone two worlds.
Still, she needs to reach. "Um. This might be strange, but..." She inhales deep deep creaking her ribs. "Would—would you teach me swords?"
"Swords? You sure? It's not the prettiest of businesses, ya know." He loosens his shoulders, shaking himself like a dog. "I know you know."
"It's all right! I just... I thought if there was a real reason for me to come here, or..."
His narrowed eyes go wide in turn. He shrugs into his black outer robe, then leans closer until they stand eye to eye. "Orihime. The gate's not exactly ever closed to you lot. We all had some tough times, dealin' with the fightin' and then dealin' with not fightin' anymore, but... you didn't think we'd drop ya like a hot coal when we were done?"
"No, I didn't think so." No, no, that is wrong, and she doesn't want even think about it. "Of course not. I'm... Never mind." She grabs her arm, squeezes marks into the skin through the fabric of her borrowed kimono.
"Ah," he says. "Well, if ya wanna try, no time like the present."
Even hopeless cases may get grace. Orihime smiles up into Renji's face. "Yes, sir!"
18. Gives joy in diminishing returns
It is sort of dumb, standing in the doorway watching Rukia. Even with her back to him, almost hidden by the booth, she will know he's there. Her sleeves are blue today, not black, draping her narrow arms in pendulums of indigo threaded with white and silver.
She says nothing when he saunters inside and slides to sit across from her with every affectation of cocky confidence. Hands curved around her tea mug, she dips her chin in a quiet greeting. "Thank you. For asking me."
He squints, jarred, if not thrown, by her opening. Old familiarity comes to the rescue, and new-found peace with himself. "Figure better me than you. It was me who started this."
"I did not make matters much better."
"True," he says, tasting the sounds. She has her tea, and surely some of the waitresses criss-crossing the common room are eyeing him meaningfully, but he'll decide whether or not to order a drink in just a minute.
"I think... the war taught me how to be a Kuchiki," she says. "I miss being Rukia."
"Guess I wouldn't know." He threads his fingers together behind his head. "Stole my surname from the hakuda teacher at the Academy. You remember, the old grizzled lady, angry as a bear in spring?"
"I do remember."
He counts the beats of silence. "Rukia..."
"You do remember, then." He always liked her eyes, the wood-spring depth and clarity of them. Now, they are wide with demand and entreaty, since Rukia never could quite separate the two. "What happened, Renji? You explode in my face, and... then nothing."
"What do you think?" He could be snide, he could be hurtful; he deemed it his first priority that she must be protected. There's a limit to the truth he can muster. "The probation happened." He can say the word now, only because it is past.
"You couldn't talk to me when they took your badge?" she snaps, but she isn't wholly surprised.
"You couldn't talk to me when they gave ya yours?"
That jolts her. "It was a rushed promotion," she begins. "With the captain so ill, we couldn't afford any more vacancy..."
"Cut the crap, Rukia. Please."
"Forgive me. I didn't mean to." Her fingers curl on the chipped wood of the table's edge. "It was easy to repeat such excuses to myself."
"So we both did some stupid shit. Wasn't the first time, isn't gonna be the last." They are both aware that there was a measure of calculation involved. The blame was diverted to him so she might slide away unscathed. It burns in her; he imagines she will have unbent her Kuchiki propriety to speak her mind to her brother, in the least.
He doesn't blame his captain. He would have done the precise same thing in his place. Rukia is, as she always was, the linchpin of his existence. He would drift lost without her.
The difference, he supposes, is that while she returns his love and faith, she may never take his heart.
"Yes." Apprehensive relief twinkles in her gaze. "We might... try doing it together in the future. It does seem to ask for good company, don't you think?"
"Very well. I have your word now."
"See you keep it safe," he says, only a tad bit low.
Rukia raises the cup and takes a drag of her tea. Renji leans forward and lets his spine straighten and ease.
"If I have another, will you join me?" she asks, once a moment has passed. They seem to have both weighed it; he is content with his conclusion, if surprised by the fact.
"Sorry, I gotta head back." He raises an apologetic eyebrow. "Wouldn't do to mess up somethin' like paperwork now."
"Of course. But you owe me a talk later." Her voice is earnest, but the glint of steel in her eye satisfies him better.
"Put it on the tab, 's long enough anyway." She won't need to come collecting that one, he only needs some breathing room. The best and worst thing about Rukia is the way she sits under his skin, in all her intimacy and pointedness.
"I will see you in the vice-captains' meeting, then?"
"You betcha." He leans down to noogie her with one hand. With a small shriek, she sidles away beyond his reach.
Unfazed, he smirks at her. "Lunch on Monday, colleague?"
Over her shoulder, she casts a smile his way. "You bet."
19. They leap up, then dissipate
He yells at his recruits. He yells at his officers. He bows his head at his captain, then looks the man in the eye and makes his point without saying a word. Captain Kuchiki is astute and intelligent; they speak no more of it.
He isn't offered a captaincy when the retired divisions are refurbished and brought back into full service one by one. The relief exceeds the doubt when he hears the news. There will come a time when they will need him again. For now, he's needed where he is. In the end, loyalty has always weighed more on his scale than glory, a stone to a feather.
Sometimes, it takes a stone to the head to stop him chasing the feather, maybe. Renji lets the analogy unravel at that point, and goes to solve an inexplicable brawl between two squads dragging themselves home from the field. Knocking other heads is always preferable to his own.
One by one, he finds his friends where he dropped them. No one uses that verb but him, and he knows he is a luckier son of a bitch than he deserves. Hinamori frets even as she smiles, Kira lifts a brow at him, and Rangiku demands he salve her wounded feelings with a weekend's solid drinking. Ikkaku merely swears to kick Renji's skinny butt from here to Inuzuri and sing every step of the way if he ever goes on a moping curve without him again.
His life returns into its tracks. The side paths begin to erode, to vanish into the shifting ground, as long as he watches his step.
It is Rukia who finally points out the crux of the problem.
"Where is Inoue?"
20. (Are you) the one that I've been waiting for?
The fountain is shut down for the winter. Birds take shelter in the empty basin with its webbings of frost and last autumn's leaves. Orihime hurries slipping and sliding down the path. Her hood tears from her head and sends her hair swirling this way and that from the loose bun.
Something shone through the day, a dash of red summer. She dropped her groceries, asked the surprised store owner to stash them for her, she'd be right back, and darted across the rush-hour street without looking back.
Her heart turns a somersault as she careens to a stop. Her hand rises into a wave of its own volition.
She wants to weep, and laugh. It is a silly, breathtaking storybook moment.
"Hey," he drawls, with a familiar tilt of his head up towards her watery smile. He slouches on the tiled brink of the fountain, his head bare as if to spite the November wind.
"Hey," she breathes back.
Renji picks the strands of her wind-tumbled hair and swipes them back behind her ear. "Sorry, still don't have much of a seat for a pretty girl. S'cold here."
"I don't care." Gathering her skirt and coat, she drops down to sit on the edge. "I'm very hardy. Never got sick when I was small."
"Sure," he chuckles. "Still wish I did, though. Have a better seat. Unless..." It could be just a careless wave of his arm, a shift for a better position. She grasps it with both hands. She doesn't have to move much at all, only a little to the left, and he folds her snug against his side.
"Yes. That's much better." There is no precipice, no stomach-dropping leap. Orihime floats a little, her heart downy as cotton candy, and settles with nothing but a deep sigh.
"I loved him," she says after a long, speechless moment. "I loved him too much to let it break my heart."
At that, Renji gathers her close from behind until she is spooned against him, his knees on either side of her. "Yeah, I figured."
"Sometimes, I still do."
" S'okay. So do I." He exhales against the nest of her hair.
She kicks her boot lightly against the stone of the fountain. "Did you talk to Kuchiki-san?"
"Uh, she... Yeah, I did." Tension coils in his voice, even when he is so near.
"Good. I don't want either of you to be sad, or miserable, or some other bad thing anymore." Fishing for his hand among the folds of her scarf, Orihime locks her fingers through his chilled ones. Shoulders slumping, he relaxes at her hold. "I tried all of those and had enough really quickly."
"Not sure life works that way."
"We can still try!" She thumps him in the forearm, even as she realises she never was one for loving violence before. He might have rubbed off on her.
"Wouldn't mind that," Renji says, thoughtful. "Got used to missin' you. It... wasn't too good."
She burrows her head under his chin. People stream through the park, to and fro, helter and skelter, but she doesn't need to move. " 'Too good'? That doesn't sound pleasant at all."
"There's no poetry in me, Orihime. It's drinkin' songs or nothin'."
Her laughter shudders against his throat. "I'll take both, thank you! How would that be?"
"Greedy," he quips. "All good. You could use a bit more of that."
"I missed you so much I think I am," she confesses. "You don't even know."
"Try tellin'. I'll hear ya out."
Angling herself towards him, one hand creeping to the nape of his neck, she reaches up and tells him, clumsy, aching, wonderful.
x x x x x
Apologies and Acknowledgments: I blame Ten, Kari and Ray, in that chronological order. Ten planted the seed of a vision, Kari nourished it with warm words, and 'Pea oversaw the writing process. Props to Ama for the Kira cameo, and to Empatheia and her wondrous Orihime in Nocturne, which was an inspiration.
The Seven Samurai is a masterpiece, it can stand some loving mockery. Aliens is the best one hands down. This story skims one truly serious issue: no belittlement is meant by the brevity or the lightness.
All titles borrowed from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds without permission. Lyrics from Spell, (Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For, The Mercy Seat, Fable of the Brown Ape, Messiah Ward, Carry Me, Come Into My Sleep, Supernaturally, Easy Money.