This story stemmed from a suggestion from the lovely Cuzosu, who came across this pairing from a questionnaire. I've always loved Renji, and Juushiro is a character whom I'm just beginning to feel comfortable with, so...the two of them combined? Bring it on!

Evening was Ukitake Juushiro's favorite time of the day. It was when birds flocked back to their nests, when the sun gently reeled in her rays, caressing the earth with the last of her warmth, when the sky began to blush a delicate tint of pink and orange.

It was also when the lake looked its most majestic—the smooth mirror-like surface of the water glittered in the receding sunlight, shining as though dusted with the finest jewels.

Juushiro always chose the longer path back from his office at the Thirteenth division to his private home because it allowed him to walk past the lake. He would've liked to be able to live close to his division, but alas, his illness and its tendency to strike at the most unexpected moments made it necessary for him to rest somewhere away from the public eye. It wasn't that he was ashamed of his condition—he just preferred not to alarm his subordinates unnecessarily.

Today, like any other day, he strolled along the narrow dirt road slowly, taking the time to ponder over the day's events and allow his muscles to relax. He had a perfect view of the lake from his vantage point. But today, his view was disturbed by a small speck of movement at the edge of the water. His curiosity peaked.

As he veered off the path and approached the lake, he was finally able to discern the details of the moving form. Standing just far enough out of sight and earshot, Juushiro watched the swirling tattoos come to life as the young man flexed his arms and snapped his whip-like zanpakutou forward.

If Rukia's Sode no Shirayuki was the most beautiful zanpakutou in Soul Society, then Zabimaru was the wildest—both a sword and a whip in its shikai form, it was as unpredictable as its master. And in its bankai form, Zabimaru was one of the most magnificent weapon that Juushiro had ever seen.

Juushiro stood there and watched silently as the jagged blades cut mercilessly through the air, howling as it toppled trees and boulders in its path. As quickly as the whip was unleashed, it was retracted with equal grace and strength.

This young man had improved greatly since Juushiro first knew of him. Yes, knew of. Juushiro could count in one hand the number of times he actually spoke to Abarai Renji, but he had heard stories—how he had grown up with Rukia in the slums of Rukongai, how he worked constantly and relentlessly to rise through the ranks.

Yet, there was one thing that bound them together—their conviction to save Rukia. And it was during that time that Juushiro truly noticed the man. He knew that, for a time, Rukia and Renji had drifted apart, but the redhead had not hesitated to give his all to rescue his childhood friend. Such honorable and loyal friends were scarce.

Juushiro frowned as Zabimaru made a gash in the ground with a loud crack. Renji's skills had improved, but there was an air of imbalance in the way he wielded his weapon. His strikes were confident, accurate, but they were too harsh. Renji would not last long in battle with the way he fought now.

But, as Juushiro continued to observe, he began to sense that the lieutenant was not so much training as he was venting. Juushiro began to see the anger that saturated every thrust of those muscular arms and the strain in those narrow, tired brown eyes. So much power, so much pain, so little control.

Without the need to hear it from the man himself, Juushiro had a good idea where these hurtful feelings came from. And he could not help but wonder—was he the only one who noticed? Where were Renji's friends? Why was he out here alone?

Was he hiding?

Juushiro knew how dangerous it was to suppress emotions like this. Even the strongest of men would succumb to this invisible poisoning of the soul. If left unheeded, the Abarai Renji that Rukia knew would cease to exist.

With that thought in mind, Juushiro intentionally raised the level of his reiatsu, politely announcing his presence to the lieutenant. Well, "polite" was perhaps not the most accurate word in this case, given that he had been secretly watching the man for quite some time.

Renji sensed the captain at once. Returning his zanpakutou to its dormant form, Renji sheathed his weapon and approached the white-haired, haori-clad man.

"Good evening, Ukitake-taicho," he said, eyes wide with surprise. Unconsciously, he turned his head left and right, searching for the ever-present Third seats of the Thirteenth division.

Juushiro couldn't help laughing. "They're not here, Abarai-fukutaicho. I am on my way back home."

Renji grinned sheepishly at the captain. "Didn't realize I was being so obvious, Ukitake-taicho," he said.

Juushiro bit his tongue before he could let slip the other observations that he had made. Instead, he smiled and commented, "I see you're training hard. It must be very intense, seeing how you seem unaware of your injury." He pointed to Renji's forehead where a smear of blood was mixed in the sheen of sweat.

"Oh," Renji reached up and touched his head gingerly. "Doesn't hurt." He seemed surprised when his fingers came away red.

"Well, we should have that looked at," Juushiro said. "I'm just on my way home, if you don't mind, I can tend to it there."

Renji looked slightly taken aback at the offer. "I don't want to be a bother, this is nothing," he said hastily.

"Don't be silly, it's no bother," Juushiro said, giving the younger man a friendly smile.

After a brief moment of hesitation, Renji finally nodded. "I need to pick up my stuff," he said, then he went back to where he had been standing earlier and retrieved several items—a bottle of water, towels, and a small cloth bag that looked like it may have contained food.

They climbed up the grassy slope and found the dirt road that Juushiro had been following. Renji stood back to let the captain lead the way, and then they walked. The silence was a little awkward; Renji didn't quite know what to say to Rukia's captain. The man was legendary—one of the oldest captains in Gotei 13, one of the first graduates of the Shino academy, personally trained by Yamamoto-soutaicho himself. Renji's mind ran through everything he knew about the captain walking by his side, and realized that he didn't really know the man at all except for these textbook-like facts.

Renji stole a glance at Juushiro and wondered briefly what the man was really like. What was it like to be so powerful yet be at the mercy of an incurable illness? What had he seen in the hundreds of years that he had served as a captain of the Gotei 13? And most importantly, what did he feel about the betrayal of the three captains?

Lost in his reverie, Renji did not notice that the captain had stopped in his path until he nearly collided with the man's back. Startled and embarrassed, he bowed in apology.

"There is no need to be so formal here," Juushiro said, gesturing to the entrance of his house. "Come, let's look at that cut of yours."

Definitely to be continued :)

So, what'd you think?