It should have been raining, raining torrentially, and they should have been hidden away in some darkened alley corner or a dirty side street inlet, out of the way, where no one would see them.

But it wasn't raining, it was sunny and warm, mockingly late summer with a few distinct gray clouds in the distance, and they were under the maple tree around the corner from the Kurosaki clinic. Ichigo should have been more awkward than he was, but it looked like he knew what he was doing, and Rukia was letting him do it.

"Damn half breed," Renji muttered to himself.

The anger welled in him faster than a flame swallowed a moth. He paused on the sidewalk, ready to burst his new gigai into spontaneous combustion on the concrete. He didn't pause for more than a few moments that seemed an eternity before moving on. He had relegated himself to an older brother figure to Rukia, and he was going to remain in that role if it took an unholy strength to do it. He'd sorted through those emotions long ago, when he'd come to after being beaten so soundly by Kurosaki in Soul Society as Rukia awaited her death sentence.

It still pained him, not so much as losing the prospects of becoming her future lover, but as stepping aside, again, to let her move on to a better life. Or at least a happier one. He wasn't being shoved aside as her adoption into the Kuchiki family had done him; Kurosaki's presence in Rukia's life made him rethink them, he and she, and Renji realized, all at once, that they were friends, not lovers, and friends on a level that Ichigo Kurosaki could never fathom.

He moved on, taking the turn in the sidewalk, barely aware of the snide looks the other passersby gave his appearance. He'd gotten used to that.

Older brothers had depths of protection lovers and friends didn't, and Renji had come to accept that that was what he had for that exasperating midget he called Rukia.

He stopped by chance a few streets over, several blocks from the kissing couple whose image was still blazing in his mind, looking around to get his bearings. The streets of Karakura were much the same. Noodle shops and boutiques, more of the same, each trying to eek out a living among the Living.

The strands of a pink bow drifted down before his view, settling slowly onto the sidewalk before him. He picked it up, turning the long shiny ribbon in his fingers. It had once been a bow, recently, given the curly spring it had, pulled apart carefully so as not to split or wrinkle. He looked up, and then grinned at the back of thigh angled over an open window four floors up where the figure sat on the ledge. The pleated hem of a schoolgirl's skirt hung over the side, her knee bent. It moved, not out of sight, and he suddenly knew who it belonged to.

He took the stairs two at a time inside the apartment building. Why Orihime Inoue had to live on the fourth floor in one of the more twisting buildings he didn't know. Not a straight staircase in the damn place, he thought, taking yet another tight corner in the zigzag of staircases.

He got to the small fourth floor landing and found her door, hoping it was the right one. He'd only been there a few times, with Rukia. He paused before knocking, the smell of warm cinnamon wafting from inside.

"Oh, shit, she's cooking," he mumbled as he knocked, looking to the ribbon in his hand.

There was a few footsteps inside, followed by a rattle of the lock at the doorknob, and then the door opened a couple inches. One large hazel eye looked back at him, widening before the door was slammed shut.

He frowned and was wondering what he'd done already to get her ire up when the door flung open and she looked back at him with a bigger smile than he thought he deserved.

"Abarai-san, what a surprise," she said, wiping her face with her palm, pushing her hair back. She looked past him.

"Rukia's not with me," he said as her eyes traveled the hall behind him. He held up the ribbon. "You dropped this?"

Her face fell a little as she saw it, but perked back up immediately. "Oh, yes, in the window." She bit her lip and stood back into the room, smiling more. "Come in."

He stepped in, feeling strange at the entering without Rukia at his side to excuse away a visit. He looked down at the ribbon. It wasn't much of an excuse. Maybe he wouldn't need much of one.

She closed the door behind him and they stood awkwardly in the small room. He held the ribbon out to her.

"Thanks. I guess it drifted away ..." She didn't finish, taking the ribbon he handed her. She looked down at it, pulling it through her fingers. She looked suddenly to the small kitchenette beyond the main room in which they stood. "Come in, Abarai-san. I have to get cookies out of the oven."

He nodded, watching her go into the kitchen, which was no more than a tiled area against part of the exterior wall, a small window at the sink overlooking the street outside. Also on the same wall, divided only by a short wall with an apartment sized refrigerator against it, was the window he'd seen her in, the single long curtain draped to one side by a tall bookshelf.

"Cookies. Are you expecting company?" he asked, stepping farther into the room, glancing at the sparse furnishings. A rug in the center, a folded futon with a few pillows, a low table with two cushions.

"No. I just like cookies." She reached into the oven, heat billowing out as her hands, encased in thick oven mitts, pulled out a cookie sheet. She placed it on the stove top and closed the door. She slipped off the mitts and smiled at the cookies, then looked to him. "Funny. The oven works, but two of the burners on top don't."

He nodded, returning a grin to her now timid smile. His eyes rested on a card on the low table, recognizing the greeting on the front. He looked back to her as she took a couple steps towards the table. "When was your birthday?"

Her smile remained slight as she shrugged lopsidedly, her hair lifting as she raised a shoulder. "Today."

He grinned a little more, hoping she'd complete her smile. "Happy birthday."


"What are you doing for it? Anything?" He almost regretted saying anything, recalling too late she had no immediate family on speaking terms.

"No. Tatsuki is out of town for a karate tournament." Her eyes shifted to the ribbon on the counter by the oven mitts. "I'm too old to do anything for my birthday, Abarai-san. That's for children."

He chuckled, seeing her smile fuller. "How old are you?"


He nodded. He still couldn't believe it had been a year since the Winter War had ended and Aizen, while defeated, had escaped and become scarce. Most assumed he was regrouping with a few dozen of Arrancars that had survived, but there was no conclusive evidence of anything of the former shinigami captain yet.

"Seventeen isn't too old to stop doing things on your birthday, Orihime. You just have to find new things to do."

She giggled, smiling, a blush passing over her cheeks. "I suppose you're right, Abarai-san."

"Don't be so formal."

She nodded, then looked to the kitchen. "Would you like a cookie? They're snickerdoodle."

"What's that?"

She waved for him to follow as she went back to the kitchen and found a metal spatula in a drawer by the single sink. "They're like sugar cookies, except they have more spices. Like cinnamon."

He looked at the rack of cookies cooling on the counter and then to the platter of pale golden cookies nearby. They smelled wonderful, unlike the Rukongai streets that had never carried the aroma of foods during his childhood. She slid a cookie off the sheet with the spatula and put it on a napkin and handed it to him.

"They're still warm."

"Thanks." He took a bite of the cookie, watching her eat one, too. Her hair was a little longer than when he'd seen her last, her eyes slightly reddened, showing signs of crying earlier. She wasn't wearing her school uniform skirt as he'd originally thought, but another skirt of similar color. Her blouse was peach, not quite matching the skirt, dusted at one side of her chest from cinnamon and flour.

He saw her eyes go to the ribbon on the counter, a droop in her expression making her chew slower.

"What was that?" he asked abruptly.

She looked guiltily to him, swallowing her bite. "Oh, just a bow. An old bow from an old gift from last year."

"You kept the bow and not the gift?"

She frowned, and then giggled a little. "I kept the gift, too, Abarai-san."

"Renji," he said.

She looked back to the half-eaten cookie in her hand.

"Say it," he insisted.

She smiled, looking him full in the face. "Renji."

He nodded. "Better."

She nodded, munching another bite. "I don't know why I kept it."

"A bow from a birthday gift?"

She popped the rest of the cookie in her mouth and scooped another off the sheet and set it on the napkin he still held without asking if he wanted another.

But he did.

"A gift from a friend who meant -- means -- a lot to me, but not in the same way anymore." She served herself another cookie, turning to face him, leaning against the counter. Her eyes held his for a moment. "You ever give up on things? Renji. Probably not. I'll bet you don't. I know you're determined."

He shrugged, watching her lips close around the edge of the cookie. No shy eater, not her, he thought as she took a bite. "I think the word you're looking for is hard-assed stubborn."

She put a hand over her mouth, laughing. "That's three words."

He grinned. "Yeah, it is. What are you giving up on?"

The smile left her face. "Old wants. Memories. Geez, that sounds so profound, but it's really just a girlish, childish dream."

He didn't push the subject. She'd told him enough. His eyes went to the pink ribbon that lay curled behind her. "Were you wanting to get rid of that? Did you toss it out the window, Orihime?"

She sighed, looking to each of his eyes. "I didn't throw it out. I just let it go. Let the wind take it." She stood straighter suddenly. "Oh, do you want something to drink? I forgot to ask."

"Not unless you've got a beer."

This time she laughed outright. "No, I don't."

He grinned, watching her half-snort as she laughed. He looked around until spotting the small clock on the wall shaped like a green apple. "I should go. I'm due at Urahara's to get this gigai checked. He's running tests on new models and I'm a guinea pig."

"Oh, you're staying there?"

He nodded, watching her slide the spatula under another cookie. "For a while. These new models are supposed to not breakdown as quickly as the old ones."

She placed the cookie on another napkin. "You don't know how long you're going to be in town?"

"Not really."

She put two more cookies on the napkin and handed it to him.

"You don't have to do that," he said even as he accepted them.

"I can't eat them all by myself," she said, sighing as she looked to the other cookies on the plate and rack. "Well, maybe I can, but I shouldn't."

He shook his head, chuckling. "Thank you."

She looked from the cookies to him, smiling. He stepped nearer, making her breath catch a little as he reached around her and took the pink ribbon. Her eyes followed the ribbon, and then went to his face.

"Unless you want to keep it," he said, watching her study his eyes.

She shook her head, gaze dropping to his lips as he remained closer than he needed to. "No."

"I shouldn't have brought it back." He bent and kissed her cheek lightly, not lingering, but long enough to know she smelled of something other than cinnamon. "Happy birthday, Orihime."

She didn't move, swallowing nervously at his proximity, cheeks heating pink. "Thanks, Renji."

He took the ribbon and napkin of cookies and went to the door in the small living room. When he turned she was a step behind him, her fingers on her cheek where his lips had so briefly brushed.

"Thanks for that, too," she said with more than a hint of a smile.

He grinned. "My pleasure."

She opened the door and he left into the hall. By habit she twisted the lock after him, and then dashed to the window to look out at the sidewalk. After a few moments Renji emerged from the building's main level, looking up to see her. She waved just a little, feeling silly at even looking for him.

He waved back and headed back deeper into town.