Firelit Fang

(This one is going out to Hotaru Nakama *HAPPY BIRTHDAY*, who asked for a Renji-centric fic placed after the Winter War. I thought that it would be a great opportunity to show the training that Byakuya and Renji did that made Renji so epic in the current manga chapters. Whew! I get hot just thinking about it! Oh, I love that redhead…and his sexy captain too!)

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Chapter 1: Embers

Renji stood quietly in the shade of a nearby building, close enough the see and hear what was happening a short distance away, where Rukia stood with Ichigo, Chad, Uryu and Orihime, but far enough away to not be noticed.

But even if I was ten dimensions away, I would still feel it…

It was the first time he remembered not being annoyed by his lack of ability to easily sense changes in the reiatsu around him. It was a relief that he didn't have to feel the last bits of Ichigo's power as it faded away. He couldn't even imagine what Rukia was feeling, standing there in front of him, knowing that as he stood there looking back, he was losing his ability to see her.

How can he be so calm and seem so 'okay' with this? Ichigo lives to protect his nakama, and as of this moment, there are a lot of those people who he can't even see or sense anymore! I can't even consider being made so helpless that I couldn't fight anymore. Ever since I was a kid, all I've known was fighting…fighting to survive, fighting to protect my loved ones, and fighting to become stronger. Ichigo was one of those people I looked up to at times when my own strength failed. So damned powerful, unafraid, determined. It didn't mean that he won every battle. He lost his share. But the thing was, he never stopped fighting.

And because he never stopped fighting, he always came through in the end. But how will he fight now? What can he do to protect anyone? He can't even protect himself anymore. It's the kind of time like in the living world movies, where another strong person would step in to protect everyone. But who is that person going to be? It sure as hell isn't me. I'm not anywhere near strong enough. Sure, I sharpen my blade every day. I say the right words and make lots of noise about getting stronger and being able to do something like that, but…

Even after all of this time and all of these battles I've fought…

He felt it then, the rise of that powerful presence, the heavy weight of unrelenting reiatsu weighing down on him, the stoic gray eyes that remained calm and focused, even as he killed.

I still haven't even come close.

He felt the touch of those calm, quiet eyes and tried to force down his emotions, to make his face that calm, to keep his hands from shaking, to keep his heart from pounding faster and tears from coming to his eyes as Rukia became invisible to Ichigo and he slowly walked away from the place where she stood, and joined his human friends.

"It's over," he whispered numbly, "It's really over…"

It took him a moment to realize that Byakuya had moved and was now standing beside him. His eyes were focused on Rukia, who stood silently where Ichigo had left her, her violet eyes proud, sad and amazingly still dry.

But then, Rukia wouldn't cry in front of Byakuya.

"Why are you still standing here?" Byakuya said, breaking the silence between them and making him catch his breath in surprise.

"Why am I…?" he sputtered.

"One would think," Byakuya went on, "that a longtime friend would not simply stand by and observe a friend in torment."

"Maybe she wants to be alone," Renji said, his eyes on Rukia, "If I go down there, she's only going to call me an idiot and kick me around to get the frustration out."

Byakuya remained perfectly composed and did not answer. But knowing Byakuya as well as he did now, he knew instinctively what the noble was thinking.

You are an idiot. Get down there and take whatever abuse she hands out like a real friend would…because she needs that comfort. And even if she yells at you and calls you names, at least you know that your love reaches her.

He felt a pang of something that felt like sympathy as he heard the deeper unspoken truth beneath Byakuya's words.

She is hurting and I can't be the one to go to her. She would only shut down and refuse to show her weakness, because that is what she has learned from me. You connect with her in a way I can't. Help her. Be the friend I cannot be.

It was that sad thought that brought him out of his reverie and made his feet move…carried him across that distance and brought him down to rest beside her. He knew better than to say anything. There were some times, he knew, that saying anything would be saying the wrong thing, so he stood beside her and kept his thoughts to himself. Rukia seemed not to notice him at first. At least, she didn't acknowledge him at all. It was like she was holding her breath. And then, he sensed Byakuya's flash step and the fading of his powerful presence.

Of course she wouldn't let down in front of him…

But with Byakuya's leaving, she would relax enough that he could coax her into moving again.

"Come on," he said quietly, "Let's get out of here. You mission here is over."

He paused for a moment as she stared straight ahead and said nothing.

"Unless maybe you want to go to Urahara's place to get something to eat first."

He knew almost as the words left his mouth that it had been the wrong thing to say to her.

"Idiot!" she snapped, "I'm standing here after I've just disappeared from my best friend's life and all you can think of to do is to go have some food?

"Hey!" Renji squawked defensively, "I thought that I was your best friend! And anyway, I was just looking out for your best interests. Wouldn't want you to faint from pining away after him, you know."

He should have known to duck, but missed his cue entirely and instead saw her incoming foot a second before it struck him in the head.

"OW!" he yelled, "What the hell is wrong with you anyway?"

"How dare you say that!" she yelled back, swinging her fists at him, "You big, stupid insensitive jerk! I'm not pining away! He's my friend and I'm sad he can't see me anymore! And you could be a little sympathetic. But who am I kidding? This is Abarai Renji we're talking about! Abarai, the big bad 'gonna be a badass someday, but right now usually ends up on his ass, Renji!'"

"Knock it off, Kuchiki," he said, trying to express detachment as he swallowed the lump in his throat, "You're just feeling sorry for yourself. Yeah, he can't see you and he's not your big, powerful awesome friend anymore, but it's not like he died or anything. And besides, if he's not strong anymore, it just means the rest of us have to get stronger to make up for it."

"Huh," Rukia huffed, "Not like you could ever be anywhere near as strong as he…"

She broke off and went silent, her eyes widening as she realized what had come out of her mouth.

"Renji…I'm sorry," she said, backpedaling quickly, "I didn't mean…"

He wasn't sure when he had decided to flash step away. He only knew that one second he stood at her side and the next, he was out of hearing and flash stepping blindly, unable to escape the storm of self-loathing that wrapped around him.

"Not like you could ever be anywhere near as strong as he…"

"Damn it!" he breathed, trying to shut the words out.

"This is Abarai Renji we're talking about! Abarai, the big bad 'gonna be a badass someday, but right now usually ends up on his ass, Renji!'"

"Damn it!"

It only hurts this much because she's right.

I couldn't protect my friends in Inuzuri. I couldn't save Rukia. And of all the ones who went to Hueco Mundo, I was the one who just kept getting the shit knocked out of him and couldn't win a fucking battle!

She's right…I'll never be strong enough! No matter what I do, I always fall short.

Damn…

He passed through the precipice world in a daze and crossed over into Soul Society, unseeing, uncaring, unaware of anything around him. He stumbled through the main gates and into the Seireitei, not meaning to go anywhere, but somehow ending up back at the sixth division. He opened the door and was already inside when he regained his senses. He froze in the doorway, uncertain about what in the hell he was supposed to do next. He was a failure, a complete fuck-up, who had no business pretending to be any different.

"Are you coming in, or did you change your mind?" Byakuya said without looking up.

He realized suddenly that just hearing Byakuya's voice spurred him into action…like the good, obedient little dog he was. He felt himself deflate inside as that strong presence wrapped around him again.

Why in the hell do I do that? Why do I react like that? Like every time I even breathe in his presence, I'm doing something wrong…

"You came back quickly. I am surprised. I would have thought that you would spend more time with Rukia."

Why?

All she ever freaking does is insult me.

"She said that she needed some time to think privately."

"Ah, I see."

He dropped into his chair and picked up the first of the reports on his desk. His mind registered each word on the page, but the meaning of all of the words put together escaped him as he kept hearing Rukia's words repeating in his head. He felt Byakuya's eyes touch him briefly, questioningly, but the noble said nothing. Yet even so, Renji felt heat on his cheeks and wondered what he had done that had attracted the noble's attention. He focused harder on the page, then just signed off on it and dropped it in the outbox and picked up another.

"Is something wrong?" Byakuya asked.

Oh shit…what now? What did I do? How did he…?

"Renji?"

"Huh? Sorry Taichou. I was reading. What was that?" he asked absently.

"You have been staring at the same page for five minutes and your reiatsu is riled. So I asked if something is bothering you."

"Oh…not really. It's nothing."

Byakuya looked down at his desk for a moment, as though trying to decide what to do, then he looked back up at the redhead.

"Go," he said quietly, "Go home, Renji."

"What?" Renji asked, frowning, "Why?"

Byakuya blinked slowly.

"You are unfocused and unlikely to accomplish anything in your current state. It would be better for you to leave and come back when you have dealt with whatever is troubling you."

"But…"

"Go."

Renji let out a heated breath and rose.

"Would you like a cup of tea before I…?"

"I said, leave."

"Hai, Taichou," Renji said, anger burning beneath the words.

His reiatsu flaring hotly, he grabbed Zabimaru and left the sixth division.

I don't know what his fucking problem is! I would've finished everything eventually. And it's not like that stack of stupid useless papers will disappear while I'm gone. It'll just grow bigger and bigger. Not like he'd actually show a little mercy and see to any of it himself…or god forbid, let the third seat do some. No. He'll leave it for me and I'll be in that damned office for two days straight to catch up! How am I supposed to focus on what's wrong, knowing that mess is waiting for me? I'm going have to neglect my training to catch up. But maybe he thinks it doesn't matter. Maybe he knows that training me is like pissing on a fucking firestorm…useless…waste of effort.

His eye registered the open door of the pub around the corner from the sixth division and he walked inside and sat down at the corner table. Everyone he knew was still working except for Rukia, who was off licking her wounds.

But the wounds she has are at least notable. She got them fighting hard and accomplishing something. She killed an Espada. What did I do? What did I really accomplish in Hueco Mundo? Going for the record for being knocked senseless the most? Flashy techniques that accomplished little more than delaying the inevitable? Shit…

The bartender smiled and set his favorite drink in front of him and the redhead emptied the glass and nodded for the man to bring him another. The bartender gave him a sympathetic smile and brought him two more. He drank them more slowly, cognizant of the fact that there was no one to carry his sorry ass back to his apartment if he lost consciousness. He leaned back against the wall and tried to lose himself in the music that was playing.

This is useless. Sitting here, getting drunk, isn't going to make me stronger. Neither is going back to that stupid office and burying myself in paperwork. But what can I do? What the hell can I do?

He glanced down at Zabimaru and thought back to the times when he had felt most driven, where he had improved by leaps and bounds until finally, he reached ban kai. But since then, his resolve had faded. He still knew he needed to be stronger. He still fought to protect. But he spent more time handling other things, making schedules, filing reports and working to help other shinigamis excel. But he had ceased to push himself the way he had before…

"Is Zaraki taichou back yet?" someone asked from nearby.

"No," said another voice, "He's still out in Hueco Mundo somewhere, kicking the shit out of every hollow he can find. That's his punishment for losing his haori there."

Lucky bastard…he'll probably come back even more badass than he already was. That's a punishment? Huh…wish I had that punishment…

Renji froze with his glass raised to his lips. He caught his breath at the thought that went through his head and almost discarded it immediately.

Get real! I'd probably get thrown in the brig and demoted, knowing my luck. Unapproved trip to Hueco Mundo? Going AWOL? Even if it did make me stronger, I would…

He felt Zabimaru flaring softly at the idea.

"Shut up," he muttered softly, "We'd get court-martialed. They'd probably throw me into the maggot's nest and forget I exist."

You call this existing? complained Snakey, Ever since we came back, you've just been sulking about Kurosaki losing his powers.

"Well, it was kinda hard to overlook it while it was happening in front of me," Renji said, frowning and finishing off his drink, "You bastards would realize that if you had half a brain between the two of you!"

He shut their voices out of his mind and got up to pay his bill. He left the pub and walked slowly back to his apartment, but as he started to climb the steps, the weight he carried seemed to grow heavier and heavier until he stopped on a landing and leaned his back against the wall, unbidden tears coming to his eyes.

What's wrong with me?

It's like there's this big, stupid wall inside me that I keep trying to tear down, but just can't break through.

What the hell will it take?

What do I have to do?

He stood alone in the stairwell, his eyes locked sightlessly on a place in front of him and his heart in shambles.

What am I going to do?

How do I fix this?

Hell, I don't even know what's been broken…

But, he realized, something had indeed broken inside him, and it was the shattering of that part of him that set his feet into motion. Before he quite realized what was happening, his feet were in motion. He flashed stepped wildly, not even thinking about where he was going. He barely remembered passing through the precipice world and flying across the park, then turning towards Urahara's shop. He blew in through the doors, ignoring Jinta when the kid shouted, "Hey Moocher! Where do you think you're going?"

The shop disappeared and he dropped down into the training room, which still seemed to bear traces of Ichigo's reiatsu. With tears rising in his eyes, he activated Kisuke's garganta and ran blindly through the underground cavern, his reiatsu flaring wildly around him. He dropped down onto the cold, dark sands, his zanpakutou in his hand and blazing with power. He turned in the direction of the strongest hollow reiatsu he could sense with his limited capacity and flash stepped in that direction, not even trying to hide his presence.

Back in the Seireitei, Byakuya's head lifted suddenly and the frown on his lips deepened.

"Renji…" he mouthed almost soundlessly.

He froze for a moment, his brush poised over the report he was working on.

A moment later, he was on his feet and moving.