Dedicated to the Borg, to whose old cracked out chat logs this story owes an obvious debt, but especially to the Pei Yi half, for beef-related reasons.
* * *
The Idiot's Guide to Rescue Situations
* * *
Okay. Establish the facts.
Fact: he (Abarai Renji, one) had an itch, intensely annoying, one, in his foot, left, one.
Fact: he couldn't scratch it.
Fact: this was because he was currently suspended a head-spinning distance above the ground, pinned to the biggest execution rack known to man or dog, with his only chance of release lying in the terrible swift plunge of the Sokyouku.
... Okay. The facts sucked.
Renji still wasn't completely sure how the hell he'd wound up here, but he knew it was Ichigo's fault in some way. Goddamn stupid strawberry bastard. If he hadn't been such a dumbfuck, Renji wouldn't have let down his guard that first fatal night, and he wouldn't have lost. He would have wiped the floor with that Hollow, gone back to Soul Society, checked in with his division like a good little shinigami, and everything would have been fine.
What he would not have done was spend two months running around the human world trying to get a ridiculously overpowered jackass kid to lend a hand once in a while with saving his own world from dead monsters. And if it still didn't make any sense how Renji got from point A (crushing juiceboxes and frightening schoolgirls in the course of pursuing his duty) to point B (impending death, with everyone who was anyone in the Thirteen Court Divisions watching the fun) -- well, hell, it wasn't like anything else to do with Ichigo made any sense. Logic didn't apply when Ichigo was involved.
The kid's fault. Definitely.
Renji adjusted his artistic expression of boredom for added apathy, and went over his options for the three thousand and seventy-second time since he'd realised he was going to die. They hadn't grown any more interesting or varied since the last time, but it was something to do. He wasn't looking down. Not to see those sanctimonious bastards tutting over him -- and he had so much potential, too -- and not to see the vice-captain of the 6th division doing an excellent imitation of a piece of statuary: head bowed, hands at her sides.
Because of course Rukia was there, trotting obediently along after big brother to monitor the execution of the felon. He hadn't expected anything less of her. She looked the same as ever, that inexplicable similarity to her brother surfacing again, as it did at times of stress and strong emotion. Black hair, white skin: the line of eyebrow, nose, mouth as familiar as his own, yet always alien. He could've guessed the Kuchiki would have recognised in her one of their own.
She hadn't looked at him. Not that he'd expected it. But -- fuck, he was going to die, it wasn't like admitting it was going to make a difference now -- he'd wanted her to. One look, one last jolt of the connection there'd always been between them -- but maybe that was more imagined than real. He didn't need her, never had, but he'd always wanted ...
And Rukia didn't let herself want.
Renji felt his mouth stretch, muscles pulling tight in a grin. Fuck them, anyway. Like they could do anything worse to him than he already did to himself.
* * *
Consider Vice-Captain of the Sixth, Kuchiki Rukia, waiting in her brother's shadow.
At times she felt she had been waiting for as long as she could remember, but for what, she had not known. Even the white band strapped around her arm had carried with it no particular triumph. She had depended on its meaning something, but here she was, as she had always been -- friendless, ignored by her brother, and the division laughed at her behind her back still. She had heard the whispers about the adopted princess and her unnatural acceleration through the ranks, despite an ordinary showing at the Academy and an undistinguished trial with the 13th division. Nobody believed she had got where she was today because she deserved it.
And it was true. She had not deserved it. All that work, the days training, the nights spent wading through paperwork, and for what purpose? She had no reasons. Doubtless they saw that, her colleagues and subordinates, knew the baselessness of her naked ambition. They would not have laughed otherwise.
When would things change?
When I stop waiting.
She had all her reasons now.
She had just had to listen.
("Release me," the voice had said: a beautiful, sexless voice, with a howl buried in it like the wind on a winter's night. "Let me dance. I will loose upon that child Zangetsu a devouring flame."
"No," Rukia said, listening to the vast silences of the Kuchiki house. Fifty years. She had never felt at home here. "He is not our enemy."
"Then who?" said Sodeno Shirayuki, because she knew -- there was always an enemy to fight. Always a darkness to hold back.
Rukia, listening, had not replied. She had shut her ears, she thought, for far too long.)
And now, dawn and a reckoning. She supposed the glorious spill of light from the east was fitting, after that long night of doubt.
She did not look at her brother, or above. No one, looking at her, could have seen the resolution that had settled frost-like upon her. This was part of being Kuchiki: the weighing of separate betrayals must leave no mark.
* * *
Consider a vast hidden space, hollowed out beneath the ground, where heroes are built on a grey sand in which old betrayals are buried.
"Can you still stand, Ichigo?"
"Ow. Fuck, that hurts."
"I heard you the first time. Yeah," said Ichigo. "Guess I kinda have to."
"Get up, Ichigo."
"I'm moving, I'm moving! This is me, getting up! -- Ow. I don't even know why I'm doing this, guy's an asshole."
"Do you want to win or not?"
Ichigo grinned, and swung at his own sword. "Why don't you tell me, old man?"
* * *
Fire blazed across the sky, lighting the faces of the people below with wonder. Kikou, the spearhead of the Sokyouku. It spread its wings to fill the world from horizon to horizon, its great golden eyes fixing on Renji, as much as to say: Look well, for here you see your death.
Abarai Renji looked his end in the eye, and felt a great and terrible resignation well up in him.
"Great," said Renji. "I'm gonna be roasted to death by a giant flaming chicken."
* * *
And there was her cue.
"Honoured brother," said Kuchiki Rukia.
Her brother did not look at her.
That made it easier. Rukia made a note to herself to thank him if she ever got the chance.
"My deepest apologies," she said. Her foot was already sliding out, her arms curving into position with all the clockwork grace she had trained for hours to attain. Sodeno Shirayuki came singing from her sheath. Doubt fell away.
The dance began.
* * *
Renji had seen the white flutter out of the corner of his eye. Now he was cursing the immovability being pinned to an execution rack imposes upon you. Fuck, he missed Zabimaru, who was probably somewhere out there right now cursing him for a fool; fuck, Rukia had got better; fuck, she was going to be in such deep shit.
He couldn't see a thing from where he was, way too high up for the people on the ground to be anything more than scurrying black ants. But he could taste the surge of power like snow on his tongue, and if he was an idiot, he was an idiot with some highly specialised skills. He would know Rukia anywhere.
And it was Rukia, nobody else, who had drawn her sword on Kuchiki Byakuya. She wasn't fighting alone -- the disturbance was spreading through the whole group; somebody had to have stopped the other captains from jumping into the fray and cutting the stupid bitch's head off, but Renji registered these things in the unimportant part of his brain concerned with self-preservation, the rest of him straining to see.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. She was faster now than she'd been even when she had descended on Karakura with her brother to get him -- and how she'd done that Renji had no idea -- but there was still no way she could take on Kuchiki. Had she gone insane? Didn't she know?
She stopped then, a tiny black dot amongst other hugely less important black dots, and Renji had no idea how he knew she was looking up at him -- but he did. The next moment, and she had slipped back into the dance again, cheating death minute by minute, while Renji shook with the shock of realisation.
She knew. Of course she knew. And knowing Rukia, right now she was thanking everyone she had ever known, thanking the whole fucking universe, thanking him for giving her this wonderful opportunity to become dinner for her brother's asshole sword --
There was no goddamn way he was going to get off this rack, but Renji kicked anyway.
* * *
There was no way she was going to survive this fight, but -- Rukia smiled, leapt, turned on her heel and stabbed upwards, with no effect -- oh, it would be a brilliant death.
Her face in the light of the fire was that of one who has seen eternity, and liked the look of it.
* * *
Of course he was going to die. (Renji tried to bite the invisible bonds holding him to his fetters, snarling when it failed to work.) He'd known from the second he'd decided to give Ichigo his powers and save his dumb orange-haired ass that the only reward he'd get for it was happy fun time babysitting a cranky teenager, with an execution waiting for him at the end of it.
That was okay. He'd made his choice. He wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he'd let the kid die.
-- Of course, now he was beginning to change his mind about that, but he could hardly blame himself. He hadn't known how much of a jackass the kid was then.
It was fine. He'd made his fucking peace with it. No matter what that asshole Ichimaru had said, he'd known his friends were going to be safe, or as safe as anyone could ever get in Soul Society. And death? Death was nothing. He and death were like that. Because hell -- might as well be honest here, death didn't give a shit about your petty pretences -- Renji could stand pretty much anything so long as Rukia was okay.
The stupid bitch.
The spearhead of the Sokyouku reared up.
"Oh no you don't, birdbrain," said Renji. "I'm not dying yet. Break already, you stinking piece of shit!"
The execution rack remained obstinately whole. The bird tucked massive wings of flame against its body.
"Where the fuck is Zabimaru when you need him," muttered Renji. "No no no stop right there -- hey, look, your kimono's open!"
"You're gonna regret this! You'll look stupid and all your friends will laugh at you oh fuck I can't believe my last words are gonna be this retarded, shit -- "
"Didn't your mom ever tell you not to swear?"
Renji squinted against the glare, face still screwed up in a last terrifying snarl. His jaw dropped.
"Yo," said Ichigo. He seemed to have got a cut on his face. He was wearing the dumbest-looking cape Renji had ever had the misfortune of seeing on an annoying protegé. And he was, incidentally, holding the Sokyouku off with nothing but a ridiculously oversized sword at his back.
"Cat got your tongue?" said Ichigo cheerfully. He was enjoying himself far too much for somebody who'd just done the equivalent of stepping up to a guillotine and bending over. Outrage brought Renji's voice back to him.
"What the fuck took you so long?"
Ichigo blinked. "What?"
"'Oh sure, I'll come in at the last minute and show off my stupid new fashion sense,'" yelled Renji. "Did I teach you that? I don't think I taught you that! While you were busy shopping around for your fancy cape, some people were risking their fucking lives here!"
"Jeez, forgive me for thinking you could manage! I shoulda guessed there was no way you'd be able to get out of this mess on your own!"
Renji sputtered. "The entire fucking Seireitei was against me! What the hell was I supposed to do, fight off thirteen captains with my bare fists? I was outnumbered! Unarmed! Not crazy!"
"I didn't let that stop me!"
"Yeah, well, I said I wasn't crazy, remember? Now, if I was a fucking insane kid with a giant sword compensating for my tiny -- "
"Say it," said Ichigo dangerously, "go ahead and say it, c'mon."
"It's okay, Ichigo," said Renji, smirking, "I'm sure one day you'll find a girl who doesn't mind your miniscule dick."
"That's not gonna be a problem if you don't look behind you, dumbass!"
Ichigo staggered as Kikou withdrew, but despite Renji's wishing really really hard, he didn't fall.
"Recovery!" Ichigo seemed more startled than put out by the fact that a big fucking bird made of fire was drawing itself up and deciding to make another go at him. "Hell, it's like a video game."
"Except for the part where the fiery death's actually hurts! Would you just get out of the way?"
Ichigo ignored Renji, a stupid reckless grin curving his lips. "Bring it on!"
"Kid! Hey, shit for brains! Put your fucking sword down!"
"Even your mother couldn't have loved a mouth like yours!"
"Leave my mother alone, she's not the one who's gonna get us both killed! You can't stop Sokyouku twice, you moron!"
"Sure," yelled Ichigo exultantly, "not if you're distracting me!"
"Goddamn you, when I meet you in hell I'm gonna beat up any demon that comes near you just for the pleasure of cutting your balls off myself!"
The world squeezed itself up and exploded.
Then a silence, as if the world had begun again.
"Huh," said Ichigo into the ringing silence, broken by distant shouts and the too-close hissing of flame.
Renji opened his eyes.
"It broke," said Ichigo.
Ichigo shrugged. He turned and looked at Renji.
Renji really didn't like that grin. "Okay, kid. I have no idea what you think you're doing, but you've done enough. Now back off and let the grown-ups handle this."
"This," said Ichigo, with malicious satisfaction, "is gonna hurt you more than it's gonna hurt me."
"Wait, what the hell d'you think you're doing? Ichigo? Ichigo! You can't break the rack with thaaaaaargh -- "
Ichigo leaned on his sword and looked down, wincing at the thud.
"Whoops," he said.
* * *
Thinking was a little difficult through the haze of ouch the world had become, but Renji had a history of functioning in impossible conditions, and he was thinking like a fucking philosopher. He was thinking that the Sokyouku would have been preferable. At least then it would have been over faster.
"Ow fuck ow."
"Say what you like about that child," said a voice approvingly. "He's got style."
"I'm gonna kill him. I'm gonna kill hi -- " Something clicked in Renji's brain. He bolted upright, almost colliding with --
Her. It was her.
There are times when you have to give in and admit that the universe has got you bent over the cosmic desk without lube.
"Rukia," said Renji blankly. Rukia looked at him, her expression opaque.
She was so close. He could have touched her if he'd just raised his hand.
"I am sorry," she said. "I ... forgot."
"I should have remembered earlier," she said. "I was afraid. Of losing."
"You," said Renji. "You don't."
"I should have been afraid of being lost," she said. Her voice was almost inaudible now -- but he had always been able to hear her. "Forgive me."
"It's not -- " It wasn't even an issue.
And how sad was it, that that last look would have been enough? Enough, more than enough, he'd have asked nothing more of her. Renji felt his mouth stretch, into a grin or a sneer. Pathetic.
But hell, if Rukia hadn't figured that out about him by now, he wasn't going to be the one to tell her.
"Moron," he said. "What about your brother?"
Rukia considered. "He'll live."
Renji barked with laughter and got up. He was almost sure she couldn't tell how much the movement hurt, but before he could begin to congratulate himself, he looked around.
"What do you think?" said Rukia, as Renji struggled to drag his jaw up.
"Rukia." Shining blue ice, acres of it, stretching away as far as the eye could see. In the distance other shinigami tussled and slid, yelping at the cold. The last mists of morning had cleared away, and the sun was beginning to beat down on them, but the surface of the ice beneath their feet wasn't even wet.
It was freezing.
"What. The. Hell," said Renji.
"It's my bankai," said Rukia. She sounded like a loving first-time pet-owner cooing over a wolf. "Isn't it pretty?"
"Oi," said Ichigo from on high. "Sorry for breaking up the party, you know, last thing I wanna do's spoil the mood, but you think the tender reunions could wait for later? We got pressing business to attend to."
Renji bristled, forgetting awe. "Maybe if you didn't break every fucking bone in my body -- !"
"Rukia!" She looked up. Ichigo grinned. "Think you can get him away on your own? I got a few loose ends need to be tied up here."
Rukia grinned back. The back of Renji's neck prickled.
"Don't ask foolish questions, boy!" Rukia trilled.
Her hand shot out. Oh shit, he knew he didn't like that grin --
"Rukia, what the fuck are you -- ow ow fuck!"
"Stop whining," said Rukia dispassionately. She started to run, dragging Renji behind her -- he was twice her size, how did she even do that?
"Argh! Let me go, you crazy bitch! I can walk!"
"So you're -- ow! -- gonna drag me -- argh goddammit -- all over Soul Society?"
"You have a problem with this?"
"Oh no no no, except yeah kinda absolutely!"
"Be silent, they're gaining on us! -- Ah!"
He didn't like the 'ah', either.
"What is it?"
Renji, twisting in Rukia's grip, saw that she was beaming. It was hard to tell whether the glare coming off the ice was brighter, or Rukia's smile.
"The cliff!" said Rukia.
"... No. No. Rukia! Not the cliff, not the cliff aaaaargh -- "
"Oh, stop complaining," said Rukia. She was flushed despite the cold. Renji wondered if her bankai would have this effect on her every time she released it, then had to stop that train of thought when he felt heat start to creep up his neck. "This is only the beginning!"
"Oh great," said Renji, as they sailed off the side of the cliff.
The funny thing was, he meant it.