Off Course (Renji x Rukia)

After some down time in the shinigami's fight against Aizen's forces…

Renji and Rukia received an urgent call to go to Karakura and investigate the rapid disappearances of the hollow count at an alarming rate. It wasn't like how a shinigami operated and due to the supposed danger, Soul Society felt it necessary to send in two of its best operatives trained to work in the human world.

Renji for one was excited. He had been meaning to buy a new pair of sunglasses after Byakuya "accidentally" broke his. Plus…he glanced at Rukia standing beside him as they waited for the Senkaimon gate to open.

What was she thinking? It was hard to read her face these days.

Rukia felt eyes upon her and glanced to Renji staring. "What? Do I have something on my face?" she asked curiously and began rubbing her cheeks.

Renji blushed. "Uh…no. Just don't go running off shopping when we get there."

Rukia glared. "That was only one time! Besides, you're the one always looking through catalogs for those funny looking glasses. Funnybrow…" she grumbled.

"Funnybrow?" Renji shot back. He rolled up his sleeve ready to challenge her insult.

Byakuya coughed, reminding the two to stay quiet while they waited for the gate to open. The last thing he wanted to hear this early in the day was Renji's futile bravado.

"Funnybrow!" Yachiru's voice called behind them.

Rukia and Renji turned around. "Oh, Kusajshi-fukutaicho," Renji said out of habit. "Why are you here?"

Yachiru looked lost for a moment, but she smiled happily. "I'm looking for Ken-chan. I think he got lost again. Have you seen him?"

The gate began to open. Rukia and Renji shook their heads. "Sorry. He hasn't passed this way," Rukia said. "Excuse us."

They began their way through the portal. The hell butterfly floated behind them.

"Byakushi!" Yachiru exclaimed when she suddenly noticed the silent nobleman standing beside the Senkaimon gate. She jumped at him, knowing he always had sweets on hand for her.

"I have not seen the 11th Division Captain, nor do I have any intention of helping you find him," he said immediately.

Yachiru swung from his haori, not listening. If she shook it enough, perhaps candy would fall out.

Byakuya's brow twitched. He forced himself to maintain composure. Quickly, he withdrew a sweet bun just for occasions like this and tossed it away.

The bun passed through the gate as it closed and Yachiru dashed after it. Too slow. Yachiru frowned and hit the closed wooden doors. Furious that the mean gate would swallow Byakushi's snack for her, her power flared up.

"Kusajishi-fukutaicho!" the attendants warned and rushed to stop her. "Kuchiki-sama, please stop her!"

Byakuya frowned. Quickly he pulled her away from the gate and stuffed a second bun into her mouth. He was fortunate to have brought extra just in case.

Satisfied, Yachiru calmed and climbed onto Byakuya's shoulder. It wasn't as big and strong as Ken-chan, but it would do. "Let's go play Byakushi!"

Byakuya glanced at the girl distastefully. He would at least get her away from the gate before she caused any damage. The 6th squad captain stared at the door as it disappeared completely. Hopefully, the bun flying through there wouldn't cause any harm. It was just a sweet bun after all.

As Renji and Rukia waited for the gate to reopen in Karakura, something soft hit Renji in the back of his head. He paused and looked behind to see a sweet bun plop on the ground.

"What's this? A message from Kuchiki-taicho?" Renji picked up the bun and showed it to Rukia.

Rukia looked at it curiously. Then she gasped and pointed. "Renji…the Jigokucho!"

Renji turned the bun on the other side to see the black butterfly squashed under the bun. He paled. Without the butterfly, how would they traverse between worlds? Would they be stuck in this waiting room until someone realized they were missing?

He glanced at Rukia who was already trying to pry the door open. "Rukia stop. You don't know what that'll do."

"Well I'm not sitting here all day. Come on Renji help me with this."

Renji gave in. She was right after all. He did't want the humiliation of needing rescue from his captain anyway.

They pulled at the edges of the doors until finally they slid open. Light poured in and the two relaxed with a sigh.

"That was close," Renji commented. He gave one last look at the butterfly. Poor guy. Well, Kisuke would likely have on for them. If not, they'll have to use the Dangai to return.

"Umm…Renji. We have another problem," Rukia was frowning and pointing off in the distance.

"What now?" Renji looked around. They were definitely in the human world. But something was strange. It didn't look like Karakura Town. They were in a dark narrow alley between two towering buildings packed so closely he doubted more than one human could pass between them at a time. Trash sat off to the side. It didn't look maintained for a week. Renji scrunched his nose. He could hear cars and horns on the street. People shouted and sirens wailed. Weren't they supposed to arrive in a quiet field?

"Where the hell are we?" Renji muttered.

"Eek!" Rukia yelped. Her hand flew to her zanpakuto. Renji jumped to see her attacker.

A dark gray rat decided to run across her foot. Renji burst out laughing and pointing at his comrade.

"Ha! Scared by a little mouse? Just stick close to me then if you're frightened," Renji chuckled and approached Rukia protectively.

Rukia crossed her arms with a "hmph". "No thank you. I can handle myself better than you in a place like this."

Renji's brow twitched. "What? I'm not the one about to wet my pants from a rat."

Rukia ignored him. She was already walking toward the street. "Quit wasting time Renji, we have to figure out where we are."

Renji shouted. "Hey! That's my line. I'm the superior officer here! I should lead!"

Rukia paused for a moment. "Fine…you're right."

Renji blinked. He was just joking. Did she have to take things so seriously? "Much better," he said and walked out into the street.

A car raced at him clocking at least 50mph. Renji jumped back, his heart pounding. "What the hell?"

Rukia laughed and pointed this time. "Afraid of a little car? Funnybrow-fukutaicho."

"Grr…" Renji ground his teeth. He refused to be one-upped by her…again. "Let's just go. Look for a sign."

They wandered up and down the streets, but every thing they saw only confirmed that they were not in Karakura. As to where they were, they found many signs, but couldn't read them.

"It's all in a different language. And just look at the people. They don't look the same as the people in Karakura," Rukia mused.

"Yeah…I think I remember something Sasakibe-fukutaicho mentioning in the bathhouse…" Renji commented. "I think we're in the West."

"West? How far west?"

"West enough to not be in Japan…Anyway, let's get some place where we can regroup. Can't risk a spiritually aware human seeing us."

Rukia agreed.

No sooner did she nod then a foul smelling woman missing several teeth rushed up to her and tugged at her arm.

"Death! The angels of death have come for us! Just as I warned!" she turned to passerby and pointed an accusing finger at them. "See for yourself! Death!"

Rukia looked at the mad woman with a worried expression. She clasped her hands together. She didn't understand everything the woman was saying, but she could guess. "I'm sorry. We're here on official business. Not to send people to Soul Society. Speaking of which, where are we?"

The woman screamed and withdrew a hand made cross of paper clips. "Foul demons! Do not spread your curse upon this head!"

"Um…Rukia I don't think you're helping," Renji said. "Let me try."

He pulled Rukia away. No sooner did he open his mouth did the woman began to beat him with her bag.

"Satan himself! With the demonic script penned over his body and hair that burns like coals! Begone begone from this world!"

Renji grabbed Rukia and sped off. The onlookers only saw a raving mad woman.

Renji sat atop a skyscraper panting. "Jeez that woman's bag was heavy."

"Ah…Renji?"

"Hm?" he glanced down at Rukia still in his arms.

"You can put me down now."

"Oh…right. Sorry," he blushed again.

Rukia dropped from his arms gently and brushed herself off. She surveyed their surroundings. There were buildings higher than the one they stood on. Large antenna raised from several, the tips of which disappeared in the clouds. From this height, the trees looked like broccoli and the cars like toys. It was loud, congested, and reeked of body and pollution. Rukia stared in wonder. She'd never been to a human city like this.

"Hmm…I don't see any hollow or this city's shinigami. I wonder is the problem isn't just limited to Karakura town," she says.

Renji looks over the roof as well, but he can't concentrate being so near to Rukia at the moment. His hands were still warm from carrying her.

"Perhaps we should split up and search," he said abruptly. "We can meet up back here before nightfall and report our findings."

Rukia agreed without hesitation and leapt to the next few buildings. As Renji watched her disappear, his heart sank.

"You could have at least suggested it'd be a better idea to stay together," he frowned and turned to leave in the opposite direction.

"Ah who am I kidding? We're just friends. Barely that anymore after all that's happened…" He couldn't stop wondering what Rukia thought of him. It had been over 40 years since they even had a normal conversation. Now it was either bickering or formal association. There was that one time…right when he was trying to protect her from Aizen. He had carried her the same way a few minutes ago. That time she didn't seem to mind…Had he misinterpreted?

Renji stopped on a street corner and punched himself in the head. "Gah it's too complicated! Women…" he grumbled and kicked a nearby bottle.

It flew off and hit a pedestrian. The man looked around wildly for the culprit before cursing at a young kid standing next to Renji.

"Oops…" Renji left before things could get violent.

A place with this many people was bound to have hollows or pluses. Rukia stayed on the rooftops until finally she ran into a plus.

"Hi. Can you understand me?" Rukia asked the plus. Sometimes language barriers fell when it came to spirits communicating with each other.

"Huh? You can see me?" the girl asked.

Rukia sighed in relief and nodded. "Yes. Can you tell me where I am?"

"Riverdeer City," the girl pointed off to a murky looking river that wound around the city's outskirts. "It use to beautiful I heard. Say, you must not be from around here. Where are you from?"

Rukia didn't feel like explaining Soul Society and she wasn't about to another shinigami's job of performing a soul burial. "Karakura Town," she lied. "I'm trying to get back there. Do you know where it is?"

The girl shook her head. She had never heard of it.

Had she seen anyone dressed like her running around? No.

Rukia decided she wasn't going to get anywhere with this plus. It was getting late too. "How did you die?" the girl asked.

"What?" Rukia was shocked, but tried to play it off. "Um…I don't remember."

"Oh…I was with a friend of mine. We were crossing the street when a car hit us. He tried to protect me but…well I'm looking for him. I don't know if he's still alive or not," the girl's eyes began to fill with tears.

Rukia's brow furrowed. It wasn't that she didn't feel sympathetic for the girl's plight, but she didn't have much time to help her. From the looks of the girl's broken chain, the accident must have happened months ago.

"Did you check the hospital?" Rukia asked. "Or his house?"

"I tried, but I couldn't get very far until now. I thought I could get a better view up here. I'm kind of lost too," she admitted.

Rukia told the girl to hand on to her back. "Just tell me where to go and I'll take you to him."

Renji paced the roof of the meeting building, his arms were crossed and his mind was working a mile a second. Where was she? It was already hours past sunset. Rukia was always punctual. Did something happen to her? Renji worried at his lieutenant badge. If she was hurt, he'd never forgive himself. After all, what use was being a shinigami or a lieutenant, what use was getting stronger if you couldn't protect the person dearest to you?

Renji stopped mid pace to think of the words that just flashed across his mind. Rukia was the person dearest to him. That was no secret, but he had always simply acted on that understanding without contemplating all that it entailed. She had been all he known as a child and he her. Life before Rukia was…a gray haze that quickly faded with time.

"Rukia…where are you?" He closed his eyes and tried to sense her reiatsu. Surely she would have signaled if she had been in danger.

Nothing. Or more accurately there were too many things about this city that interfered. No wonder they hadn't run into many spiritual beings. It was hard to tell where anything was in this deadspot of spirit energy.

"Renji. Don't fall asleep standing up. You look silly," Rukia's voice broke through his concentration.

Renji's eyes flew open. He strode to Rukia and clasped her by the shoulders. She looked up at him with a nervous smile. She couldn't tell if he was going to hug her or hit her for being late.

Renji stared at her eyes for a long moment before slowly letting the tension in his arms ease.

"What the hell took you so long?" he said finally. "Of course I'd fall asleep waiting on a slowpoke like you."

"Slow? Well you go ahead and think that but I've just been all over this city searching for one lost boy," she said and told Renji of her encounter.

"Seems like he had died from his injuries at the children's hospital. He didn't look for her because he thought she had survived. They were…sad, but happy that they were able to see each other again."

"Did you do the soul burial on them?"

Rukia shook her head. "I couldn't. They had just found each other. If I did that, there's no guarantee they'd see each other again."

Rukia thought of how desperately she and Orihime had searched for her brother Sora. "It's better if you stay close to the person you care for," Rukia decided.

Renji sighed. A smile crept over his lips. It wasn't much, but he figured that her admission was as good as any to rekindle what they had. "Rukia…Look. I…I have something to say."

Rukia looked up at him. His hands were still clasping her by the shoulders and a serious look suddenly crossed his face.

"Rukia…I— "

Her hand flew to his lips and she pressed a finger against her own. "Shh! Do you hear that?"

Renji paused and listened. After awhile he could hear roaring in the distance. A hollow. Rukia dashed off first, leaving him no choice to follow.

"Rukia just leave it for the other shinigami," he called.

"I can't. That's in the direction of the hospital!" she shouted back to him with a frantic look in her eyes.

Renji set his jaw. If it was something important to her, it was important to him too.

They arrived at the hospital being terrorized by an unseen force. Unseen, at least, to the humans. A hollow had burst through the side of the building. Another hollow body fell to the ground and disintegrated. The girl Rukia had helped, Sara, was in the first monster's talons. It climbed up the side of the building like a lizard.

Sara screamed for help. "Tony!"

Rukia dashed forward and slashed at the creature with her zanpakuto. Sara screamed. "No! Rukia please. Tony!" she was crying and holding on to the creature.

"What? But…how? He shouldn't be a hollow yet," Rukia hesitated to attack again.

The hollow Tony saw this as an opportunity to counter attack. Renji leapt into action and blocked.

"Rukia don't space out. We're shinigami remember. This is our job."

Rukia came to. He was right. But that didn't make this any less sad. She was thinking more and more like a human.

"Sara. We won't kill him. I promise. We're going to help him, and you too," Rukia called to the girl.

"You knew this would happen?" Sara wept.

Rukia shook her head. "No. It doesn't always turn out like this. When I send you both to Soul Society, it will be hard for you to find each other again. So I wanted to give you some time. For some reason, Tony's time was shorter."

Renji held back another attack as Rukia tried to convince the girl to let go.

"He wouldn't want you to become what he is right now," Renji said. "Believe me. If a man is willing to give his life for a girl so close to him, he'd want her to be happy. He'd want her to have a chance at a better life."

Sara hesitated. She looked at what was once her friend. Tony would never hurt her. But this creature…she couldn't see much of Tony left in those red glowing eyes behind that mask. But he had turned to protect her.

"Tony," she said finally. "Thank you for protecting me from that other monster. You don't have to protect me anymore now. Let's just have a better life together, ok?" she said with tears slowly falling from her eyes.

The monster stopped its rampage. Slowly, it released her. Renji caught the girl midair and sat her on the ground.

"Rukia, now," he said.

Rukia slashed the hollow in two. For a brief second, it looked at peace. She then turned to Sara. "It's for you to go meet him. It won't be easy, but Soul Society has a way of bringing people together," she said and glanced at Renji.

The girl nodded and wiped her tears. "I'm ready," she said and offered a brave smile.

After the soul burial, the dark clouds that had loomed over the city finally decided to rain. It was warm and smelled fresh. A refreshing summer storm. Rukia looked up at the sky, feeling the rain on her skin. Perhaps it was mixed with Sara's and Tony's tears.

"Rukia. Let's get some place dry. We still need to find our own way home," Renji said finally.

Rukia nodded. "Yeah. Let's go home."

Renji smiled again. He never thought he'd hear those words from her. They hadn't shared a home since they were kids. But he supposed, in a way, all of Seireitei was their home. As long as they were shinigami and alive, they would be together.

"What? Why are you smiling? Is there something on my face again?" Rukia rubbed her cheeks self-consciously.

"Yeah…" Renji brushed his finger against her face feeling her smooth white skin.

Rukia felt a shiver at his touch, but she ignored it. Must be the rain giving her a chill.

They finally found shelter in an old apartment closed for renovations. Rukia lay down on a mattress contentedly.

"Hey don't fall asleep in wet clothes. You'll get sick," Renji said. He searched the apartment for something they could use to dry themselves. There was plenty of white plastic covering things.

Renji found some towels in a closet and tossed one to Rukia. Without thinking, they began to peel off their clothes.

Renji loosed his hair and shook it dry, grabbing another towel for it. He glimpsed Rukia's bare back and stopped first, realizing how awkward this situation could be. He didn't want to draw Rukia's attention, so he inched around a corner so they couldn't see each other.

When he was dry, he wrapped the towel around himself and turned back. Rukia sprawled in the middle of the bed asleep, the towel wrapped around her as well. At the sight of her, Renji's face turned as red as his hair.

He placed a pillow between them and lay next to her. In this moonlit room, she looked like an angel, pure and white. It was odd even now to watch her sleep. Normally her face was stern, though childish, and set with furrowed brows and mature glances. But when she slept, Rukia's features became so very soft. Sometimes she looked like she could break. He stroked a strand of hair from her face.

What am I doing? He scolded himself and moved his hand away quickly. Impulse. He had acted on impulse. This was the first time he and Rukia had been alone for so long. It was kind of like the old days, just before they decided to become Shinigami. They would curl up together on old mats in a shanty building listening for intruders and trying to see who could hold their breath the longest.

Renji would let Rukia win, though she'd never believe him if he admitted it. He simply didn't want to not hear her breathing. It comforted him somehow during those sad times when there was no one else around. Even now, he was relaxed just having her near.

His face leaned close to hers, listening to her breath. Those kids, if they saw each other again, would they live like he and Rukia had? Renji drew closer to Rukia for warmth. A sleepy arm wrapped around her small body. She smelled nice, didn't she always smell like this? In this moment, it was like nothing had changed for them.

Dawn approached and Rukia's eyes fluttered open. She had that sensation of suddenly being very cold after being very warm. She couldn't see Renji anyway. Rukia peered over the bed to find her companion in the corner against the wall.

"Renji? Don't tell me you slept that way?"

Renji's eyes opened slowly. Rukia was leaning over the bed, mindless of her towel being loose at the top. Renji's face tuned red again. At this rate he'd be better off with a tan. She was such a tomboy.

He looked away. "So what if I did? You took up all the bed anyway," he lied.

Rukia's eyes narrowed and she smiled evilly. "Oh? Well good. Who'd wanna sleep next to a baboon anyway?"

Seeing that he was not about to retort, Rukia gave up teasing him. "I'm hungry. Let's eat before we continue our search ok?"

Renji nodded, not ready to stand. The towel loosely hanging on his hips wouldn't conceal his sudden excitement. "You get dressed first then, in the other room," he said covering his hesitation smoothly.

Rukia grabbed her clothes. Dry. And hurried off to the next room. Renji sighed and stood, his towel slipping halfway down. He discarded it and dressed quickly. By the time Rukia reappeared, Renji was in control of himself.

Being invisible to humans had its advantages. They could get anything they wanted for free. Being former street kids also had its advantages. They could sneak around without causing a disturbances. However, they had been shinigami almost as long as they had been street kids and trained to do things the right way. Especially Rukia who now considered herself above such lowly acts. If Byakuya-niisama found out she was stealing in the human world…

So Rukia formed another plan for them to get food without stealing from the humans.

"Find a shrine?" Renji asked dubiously.

"I've seen the humans leave food at shrines as offerings to the dead. So, being spirits, it'll be ok if we take some."

Renji was still doubtful. "This doesn't look like the kind of place that'd have a Japanese shrine."

"Well it can't hurt to try. Now come on. Our rations will be gone before we know it. I don't want to have to resort to stealing for survival."

Renji shrugged. It would be quicker. And easier. But Rukia was right. They had become what they were to leave that life style behind.

Following the smell of warm food they found a soup kitchen full where the hungry and homeless filed in and out. Behind there, what they found wasn't a shrine, at least, not the kind Rukia had seen. In the back of a large intricately designed building with a cross on its doors and stain glass windows, a little golden shrine held bread and wine.

"Ah…this must be for the spirits," Rukia deduced.

She grabbed the bread and Renji took the wine. They scurried out of sight, up to the roof top of the church, and ate in the fresh open air, watching over the people below.

"This reminds me of those times," Renji chewed thoughtfully before taking a gulp of wine.

Rukia smiled wistfully. "Yeah. Except there's no angry thief trying to hit you in the back of the head with a sickle."

Renji flinched. "Yeah."

"We weren't bad kids Renji. After all, we only stole from thieves," Rukia stretched and leaned back to watch the clouds.

"It really wasn't so bad. We had our friends to help us, and we helped a lot of people in return. Kinda of like Peter Pan-kun," she smiled as she remembered one of Yuzu's favorite stories.

"Peter Pan?" Renji looked at her suspiciously. The slight breeze played in her hair as her violet eyes gazed in the distance.

"Yeah. And he had fairy side kick that could make people fly with pixie dust. Tinker Bell-chan," Rukia sat up grinning. "I know. I'll be Pan-kun and you're Bell-chan."

"Like hell I will! You're Bell-chan!"

Rukia burst out laughing at Renji's face. He thought she had been serious. "No no. Renji must be Bell-chan. After all, you keep your hair up just like she does."

Renji growled. He didn't know who this Bell-chan was, but just because they had a similar hairstyle didn't make him a dust-flinging fairy. Besides, since when was he the sidekick?

Rukia rolled on her back, still laughing at his expression made all the more comical with his tattooed brows.

"Oh you think it's funny huh? Take this," Renji poked her in the sides with vengeful determination.

Rukia laughed so hard tears welled in her eyes. "Stop! Renji stop! I can't breathe!"

"Nope. Haven't seen you laugh like this in ages," he growled still tickling her.

She tried to fight against him, tickle him back, but he had her pinned under his weight. She managed to get an arm around his neck, but only succeeded in pulling his hair free before he pinned that arm again and tickled her furiously.

Rukia cried helplessly. "Ok ok! I give in! Uncle! Uncle!"

Renji stopped and pat his hands in victory. "Hmph. Serves you right for frowning all the time."

Rukia wiped the tears from her eyes, a big grin on her face. "Ok what are your demands? You want to be Pan-kun?"

Renji shook his head. Strands of silky crimson hair fell around his face. "No. I just want you to smile more. Stop looking like the world is about to end."

Rukia sobered and gazed back at Renji's dark eyes. He was sincere.

"You're odd Renji," she said finally. "I haven't seen you smile very often either."

Renji nodded. "At some point…we got off course. And with all that's been going on, it's been hard for us to pick up where we left off. Still…I want to try because…"

Because it's hard to smile without you…

"Because what?" Rukia asked curiously, still pinned underneath him.

Renji sighed and smiled faintly. "Because— "

His confession was cut short when a Senkaimon gate appeared near them. Rukia and Renji looked up abruptly.

After the hell butterfly fluttered out, Byakuya emerged from the light.

He paused, analyzing his surroundings before his eyes finally settled on Rukia and Renji in their compromising position.

Under his captain's cold gaze, Renji felt daggers pierce his skin. Quickly realizing their state, Renji jumped off of Rukia and bowed.

"Ah, C-captain. W-welcome," he choked trying to explain what had happened.

"Quite Lieutenant, before you make a bigger fool of yourself," Byakuya snapped, his fingers grazing Senbonzakura.

His eyes turned to Rukia who stood meekly. Her face was flushed red and her robes and hair disheveled.

"Nii-sama…" she said with downcast eyes.

"We got notice that you two had yet to arrive in Karakura. I then had the 12th Division locate you and finally pinpointed your signatures here," Byakuya said and turned back toward the gate. He left out the part about accidentally killing the hell butterfly and getting them trapped in a different country.

"Let's not waste any more time," he said coolly. He would have a talk in private with his lieutenant later about decorum and his sister. If Renji could not control his urges after that…well Byakuya considered himself fortunate to have a weapon ability that ensured his victim could suffer every kind of amputation.

Rukia and Renji glanced at each other. Rukia grinned wide. They were in trouble, just like two kids caught sneaking out at night. She had to admit, she hadn't had this much fun with Renji since they were kids. Hopefully her brother wouldn't be too harsh on him.

As they passed through the gate, Rukia let her hand brush Renji's. She had a feeling what he intended to say before her brother appeared. But she'd let him say it when the time was right. Until then, they could try.

((Aww this was so sweet. There were so many times I could sense Renji wanted to kiss her. Ah but he wouldn't. He really is a proper gentleman…or a little boy _ Anyway, I really enjoyed their dialog as well as Byakuya and Yachiru interaction. Byakuya's inner thoughts are…intimidating. You can be sure what he's thinking is far more sinister than his cold features.))