It was difficult to concentrate.
Watching Captain Ukitake fight was difficult. Not only did his reiatsu blanket over her like the thickest of blankets (not suffocating, but it could, oh how it could), just watching was like trying to watch a frog catch a dragonfly.
Blink, and you missed it.
And Rukia was not very good at not-blinking.
Not that she really needed to watch him though. Logically, Rukia knew that any opponent that did manage to fell the Captain was not one that she could hope to face. Yes, she had been getting stronger, yes, she was definitely strong enough, had been strong enough for a while and had finally been granted a rank befitting of this strength, but she was a Lieutenant, and even amongst Captains, Ukitake stood apart.
She was finally a Lieutenant. He had finally agreed, had finally acquiesced, had relented with the slightest of proud smiles.
She had heard the message over Tenteikuura, and a tiny fragment of her heart had sunk when she heard and felt that he had had his bankai stolen from him.
That tiny fragment was called worry.
She was worried. Well, worrying was useless. There was nothing she could do but have faith in his abilities – he was strong, more so with Senbonzakura than without, stronger than…
All around her she could feel reiatsu disappearing.
A shining petal drifted down in front of her and her heart clenched unexpectedly.
She should stay. Should stay and watch over her Captain. It was what any good lieutenant would do.
Her footsteps were swift, swifter than they had ever been.
Renji would know where he was, but he didn't want to tell her anything, that much was clear.
Renji's face was pale, strained, grim. Blood was dripping down his face, tremors shaking his limbs as he collapsed to the floor, panting.
He was tired, he was sore, he was hurt, but he had made it through.
She knew he would have. Renji was a survivor, was always a survivor, would always be a survivor.
He did not flash his usual 'I'm alright' smile at her, but she put it down to the stress of battle. Everyone was a little shaken these days, after Lieutenant Sasakibe had passed so abruptly and the notion of war had loomed on the horizon.
And why would you be here if you were not shaken?
Her eyes flicked over to their opponent.
The Quincy was dead in front of them, a crumpled form blanketed in a cowl that was no longer white but instead stained a deep scarlet-maroon.
A thin, almost skeletal hand protruded oddly from under the cowl, wiry fingers clasped around a round, silver medallion.
A single petal lay next to it.
For a second, she forgot how to breathe.
She couldn't feel his reiatsu.
Not the usual wash of the forest, not the slightest probing tendril when he thought she was hurt.
Just an empty space where his presence should have been.
She could have mistaken him for anyone, would have given so much to have mistaken him for anyone else, but she would know that ripped glove, that bloodied hand, that broken sword from anywhere.
She did not know how, or when, or if she made it back to Captain Ukitake's side that day.
If anything could be said about the men in her life, Rukia realized wryly, it was that they were very good at either dying or getting grievously hurt.
As she shuffled papers around on her make-shift desk in the room that had just been christened the Sixth Division Office away from the Sixth Division, she cast a glance over to the bed that held Renji.
He had not been too severely injured and was merely still here at the Fourth Division for two reasons. Firstly that he had just had his wounds treated, and secondly that his commanding officer was in another bed a scant three meters away.
Hooked up to at least five different machines.
All of which were beeping in quiet assurance that he was still alive, beeping in acknowledgement that he was barely alive.
Which was why she was here too.
Logic dictated that it didn't matter where she was, since her presence really wouldn't have any impact on his well-being or recovery, but there was something reassuring about being in the same room as two of the people who she cared deeply for, about being there in some tangible way for them.
The past few days had passed by in a blur. They had probably won. Somehow. It probably had something to do with Ichigo, who was recovering two doors down.
People had died, she knew. Countless ranked and unranked shinigami. The name Fujimaru ran through her head. Sixth seat? Possibly.
People had died.
More were going to die.
She cast a worried glance over at her brother.
No. She should not have such thoughts.
Unohana had restored his reiatsu to the best of her ability - a weak, flickering presence hung around his bed, and she had healed the wounds that Senbonzakura had torn into him - the scars dotted his hands, mingling with the ones he had from training until they were indistinguishable.
But he had not yet once regained consciousness.
Unohana had described it as the last hurdle, a mental battle that he had to fight alone. When they thought she was not looking, Renji and the Fourth Division Captain had exchanged a meaningful glance, and Unohana had suggested she remain in this room, "in case Captain Kuchiki wakes up so he'll see a familiar face."
Rukia was not an idiot. Nor was she oblivious. There was a reason why they wanted her in this room, there was a reason why Renji was so abnormally quiet, and she was going to find out why.
She waited patiently for him to finish up the last report before speaking.
Renji looked up from packing away the brushes and raised an eyebrow, "What?"
"What's eating you?"
"What are you talking about?" His eyes flickered momentarily over to her brother's bed.
"What happened, Renji?"
"We beat the Quincy." He knew very well what they were talking about, and was doing all he could to avoid talking about it. Well, tough luck. If there was anyone who knew him well enough to know when he was lying, it was Rukia.
As it was, she was hardly pleased.
"I figured as much, idiot."
"Well, then why'd you ask?"
Resist the urge to knock an injured man unconscious, Rukia. Resist the urge.
"You've been really quiet, you've been telling Unohana things when you think I'm not listening, and you haven't let me out of your sight in three days. Whatever it is, Renji, I want to know."
He frowned but said nothing.
"You're trying to keep me from knowing something, but if it's to do with my brother, I think I have the right to know."
Renji looked away.
"It's... nothing." He still seemed as reluctant as ever, but this was Renji relenting. Well, relenting while still steadfastly refusing to look at her.
"No, it's not nothing," she pressed.
"Look, I probably saw wrong, alright? So just drop it."
And she had him there.
She raised an eyebrow, "Saw what wrong, Renji?"
He looked back at her, but instead of the annoyance and frustration she expected to see in his eyes, Renji looked almost... sad.
"S'nothing." He was this close to clamming up, Rukia could tell, and while Renji was good at spilling the beans most of the time, when he decided to clam up, that was it. That was the final say.
But she was not about to let this be the final say.
"It's not." She dragged her chair away from her desk over to his bed, turned it around, rested her chin on the backrest and looked straight at him, "It's obviously troubling you. You keep thinking about it. Tell me."
A shudder ran through Renji. Rukia hid a grimace away.
"You know, Captain Kuchiki and I got a little bit closer after Ichigo, after Hueco Mundo. Well, not really very much closer, since he's him, and I'm me and we're 'bout as different as two people can be, but he did start kinda maybe joking around a little in the office? I dunno if it was just me imagining it, but you know, sometimes when he says something it sounds like he's scolding you but he's just joking? Sorta?"
Renji was looking away from her as he spoke. She wasn't quite so sure whether having him verbalize this jumble of thoughts was a good development or not.
"But yeah, so y'know, we talk a lil' more than the usual 'Do your work, Abarai', or 'Yes, Captain', y'know the way it was like just when we started and I hated the guts out of him. And well, we don't have much to talk about, so sometimes, rarely, like maybe once a week or less, he'd ask about you?"
Well, this was certainly a new development. Rukia had known that her brother had spoken, on multiple occasions, with Captain Ukitake regarding her progress both within the context of the squad and outside of it, but for him to be discussing her with Renji? That was surprising.
"And hey, I was kinda surprised the first couple of times it happened too, because s'not like he's actually interested to get to know you as a person or something, cos then he'd ask you right? No offense, but you know how he's like, doesn't give a shit kinda guy?"
She was almost offended. Her brother was…
"But y'know, turns out he might be human too. Took me a couple of weeks to notice, but like, he's got that look in his eyes when someone's talking about you, y'know? He's got a look for angry, a look for disappointed, a look for joking, a look for thinking, a couple more for his equivalent of 'areyoufuckingwithme', and then, he's got that one, special look for you."
Renji was looking at her now.
"I swear, I mean, he almost smiled when I told him about us stealing the water and you tripping the guy. I swear I'm not kidding. I mean, he did very quickly hide that smile, but I'm sure I saw it there. And then when you were getting your lieutenant's badge, man I swear if he were female there'd be actual tears in his eyes or something. Not that it's really obvious, but y'know how he is right?"
Yes. She did know how he was. So did her room in the Kuchiki manor. And her Chappy collection. And the gloves that she wore on her hands right now.
"So yeah, we're fighting this Quincy and y'know how we all know that they can do something to bankai right?"
She nodded. All those capable of bankai had been present at that briefing – there had been numerous new, surprising faces there, but the excitement had very quickly turned to dread once they realized the reason for that meeting.
"First thing he does is save my ass, and then he tells me to defeat the opponents if his bankai is sealed. Then the genius pulls bankai on them."
She inhaled sharply. To be fair, there always seemed to be something almost childish or arrogant about the way Byakuya had fought, jumping headfirst into the battle, but she had been surprised to hear that he was one of the first to do something so reckless.
"And well, you know how that goes, because you heard Rangiku-san, right? But I was there, like, right next to him when it happened and it's like most of his reiatsu just drained straight out, into that badge thing and then disappeared. I mean, I know it's Senbonzakura that's gone, but somehow it just felt like he'd disappeared."
She had felt that too. Renji was back to looking out the window.
"And well, I felt it, you probably felt it, but beyond all doubt he felt it. It's like there was this half-second of shock before he settles back down. I mean, even I could tell that he was shocked without having to stare at him for more than five seconds, and that's never happened. Hell, he didn't even look shocked when I almost stabbed him the first time we fought with bankai, but back then it was so clear."
She chewed her lip.
"He said it wasn't sealed, it was stolen. And I was going to release mine too, but you should have heard him stop me, Rukia."
Renji's voice drifted off a little, "You should have heard the pain and the desperation and the anger fighting with control. It sounds really stupid when I say it like that, as if one word could hold that much but it's him and there are always tiny little ways he means things in what he says but he just flat out yells that at me. He was shaking, you know, and it was so clear that he wasn't calm and collected or like just plain angry."
He took in a deep breath.
"And then he starts fighting the Quincy anyway, just with the shell of Senbonzakura. Just slashes and tries to cut away at that freak, but it's so obvious that it isn't doing anything. Hell, he'd already said that we'd need bankai to stop them but here he is just slashing away like that's all he knows how to do. For a moment I just stood there and stared because we hardly spar like that for long – it normally takes less than two minutes into our sparring for him to force me to release Zabimaru. Then he takes a serious hit, and I get worried, because this isn't really fair, it's not fair to have him fight like that and I'd hate to see him lose in such a stupid way."
She knew better than to interrupt him.
"I go to join in the battle, but he stops me again, this time he's a lot calmer, more collected, but what he says means things that I don't want him to ever mean. He's got that look that looks almost exactly like the 'you retard' look, but isn't. He's telling me to stay back, watch his battle and figure out the enemy's ability because I'm not smart enough to be able to draw out all of the enemy's abilities."
Her heart skipped a beat.
"I'm not stupid, so I know what he means by that. At a stretch it means he knows he's not going to be able to defeat the Quincy without my help, but more realistically, it means he knows he's going to lose and then I'll have to pick up where he left off."
Lose? Her brother? Her glance flicked over to the machines preserving his life, pumping his blood, providing oxygen.
"Then the freak starts talking about how his weapons induce fear."
Renji's eyes were now firmly fixed on the figure of his Captain.
"I hadn't noticed it before, but when he said that, I saw that the Captain's hands were shaking very slightly before he himself noticed and forcibly stopped them. The freak's still talking though, about fear how the Captain now fears him, but being himself, the Captain just reaches straight out and cuts at him, but you can see that he was thinking about what he'd been told."
"You didn't see him, Rukia," Renji's voice was low, quiet, almost defeated, "and I don't know what he was seeing in that one moment, but he sure as hell was thinking about you."
"It was that look he has reserved for you, but he looked so horrified, as though he'd just seen someone kill you or something, then he stops right there and you know how he never stops, especially not right in front of the enemy. Then the bastard starts talking about irrational fears and instincts and how he really can't run away,"Renji inhaled sharply.
"And I could see that you weren't the only thing he was thinking about, there was a lot I'd never seen before on his face, written clearly in his expression, but that look was still there and he was definitely agitated, probably freaked out. And then the Captain all but screams and takes a swipe at the Quincy. I've never once heard him scream before. He's barked orders, he's yelled orders, but he's never screamed like that and just… it's just wrong."
He shook his head slightly, as though in an attempt to rid it of that image.
"The Quincy jumps away and pulls out that badge that he'd used to steal Senbonzakura with."
Renji's voice dropped again as he turned away, "And drops the Captain with Senbonzakura Kageyoshi."
There was no time for her to properly react as the machines behind them came beeping angrily to life and the healers came rushing into the room.
A curtain was drawn between the two of them and the object of their conversation, obscuring everything from view but leaving no words to the imagination.
The first time he awoke, she was taking a brief bathroom break.
When she returned, Renji was on the verge of having a full-fledged panic attack trying to persuade him to stay in bed, while he was almost done with stripping wires off his body, gripping the railing of the hospital bed so hard his knuckles were white.
The panicked, devastated look subsided from most of his face moments after she appeared in the doorway, but the shallow breathing and the uneasiness only faded when she moved over and wrapped her arms around his surprised shoulders in a very impromptu and probably highly inappropriate hug.
He said nothing, but only moved to push her away after five seconds of stunned silence.
"It's good to see you awake, Brother."
"No," his voice was slightly rough with disuse, eyes softening in the way she had long since noticed and that Renji had only recently picked up on," it's good to see you, Rukia."
The first time she noticed his presence outside her room at night, she flung open the doors worriedly, wondering if something was wrong. His startled expression meant that he had not expected her to notice his presence, but reiatsu in that much turmoil, especially reiatsu that was normally calm, guarded and darn near impossible to read, would be instantly noticeable to any seated officer, not least his very own sister.
She took in his deer-caught-in-the-headlights look, observed the sloppily fastened obi and the lack of socks. It was clear that he had darted straight out of bed and to her room.
In return, he blinked.
She began to speak, "Are you….", but quickly remembered herself. Now was probably not the best time to confront him about this. No doubt he was frightened, possibly even spooked. At best, he would be jumpy. At worst, he would probably refuse to say anything at all and just leave. If he wanted to talk to her about it, he would talk to her about it in his own time. It was probably not good to force the issue.
"…hungry?" she finished awkwardly.
He blinked again, restraining his wildly beating heart and crazily flailing reiatsu.
"Well, uh, I was just about to uh, head to the kitchens myself to uh," here she had the grace to look slightly guilty, hoping he would buy the act," get a midnight snack. Do you want to come?"
Her grin was half sheepish and all fake. She didn't want to go back to sleep. Couldn't. The way he had suddenly pulled in his reiatsu so tightly it just about disappeared had just conjured to mind the memory of him face-down in a pool of his own blood. The masterful control he had over his own reiatsu now meant that she would not be able to sleep for the rest of the night.
He saw right through her fake grin, but nodded anyway. The rotting face that had woken him, and that still haunted his every resting moment told him that he would not be able to sleep that night.
They sat at the kitchen table until the sun rose, drinking tea, eating crackers and not-talking about how they were so scared about the times they'd almost lost each other.
A\N: To be honest, I'd written this at about the same time as Please, Just Stop, but it felt a little like I was milking that chapter too much, so I never posted it. 511 made me feel like reading something mildly depressing/hopeful again, so I dug this out and eventually decided to post it.
It's quite AU, in my opinion. And awfully optimistic, given the current climate in Bleach.
Hope you liked it.