It has been a while, in the midst of all this chaos, since Renji last visited the hospital. Coming up with excuses is far from difficult: there is a lot of extra work at the division, since he has no lieutenant. Seike is no longer withholding Kuchiki clan business, so his workload at home has likewise increased. As long as he doesn’t dwell on thoughts of the hospital and the man lying there, he is comfortable; his visits serve no purpose except to waste the time of fourth division staff and agitate a feeling of existential confusion that, left alone, has finally faded. Renji remembers who he is, now. He remembers his family, remembers his upbringing, remembers his duties. And he is so caught up in his own life - his life, whatever others may say - that it’s easy to forget that there is another man out there who could challenge his claim.
But Kuchiki Byakuya is not used to being ignored. That much Renji knows well: since he took on this body he has gotten use to being at the centre of life in the division, and at home. Everything must pass through him; hardly a moment of his life goes unobserved. Perhaps the true Byakuya has come to crave such reminders of his importance, even in the depths of his comatose state - or perhaps he is bored, or simply being difficult. But on a cold, wet Tuesday morning, about an hour before sunrise, Byakuya gives up on lying in stasis, and does something that will catapult him back to the centre of everybody’s attention.
He stops breathing.
Renji goes straight to the hospital when he receives the message. Rukia goes with him, and although they do not talk on the way, he doesn’t miss the pallor of her face or the way she bites her lower lip. Immediately upon arrival they are shown through to the intensive care unit, and Unohana-taichou tells them that Byakuya has been successfully revived. Notably, she does not assure them that he has been stabilised.
“What’s happening to him?” Rukia’s voice is...flat, and eerily calm. Her face is still very pale.
Unohana just shakes her head gravely. “The deterioration began last night,” she explains, in the kind of bedside voice that carries the promise of imminent tragedy. “His vital systems have begun shutting down. The cause is still unclear. We are working to combat the damage as fast as we can, but-” There is a delicate pause, while she glances sadly over at the mess of tubes and gaunt flesh on the bed that used to be Byakuya and, before that, Renji. “It is as though his body is disintegrating from the inside out,” she goes on. “If we cannot find and stop whatever is causing it, there is only so long we can continue to compensate.”
If Renji focuses, he can still detect the faintest, flickering trace of Byakuya’s reiatsu in the body on the bed. This cannot be right, he thinks. When he left it last, that body was strong - strong enough to face any threat, or fight off any sickness. How can it have become so broken, so fast? “So you mean that he is dying,” he says, and there again is that familiar twisting weight in his stomach that he’s all but learned to disregard. It’s harder now, though he lets no outward sign escape him.
“We must not give up hope,” says Unohana. “I will continue to give him my fullest care while Kurotsuchi-taichou works on discovering the cause.” Renji nods curtly, and Unohana’s eyes are curiously sharp as she continues to look at him. “And you, Abarai-fukutaichou? We cannot ignore the possibility that your wellbeing is also in danger. Can you report any unusual symptoms you have been experiencing?”
At a time like this, Renji isn’t sure he approves of his own health being scrutinised. But she has a point. “I am quite well,” he assures her, his eyes still glued to the figure on the bed - but it’s hard to miss the thoughtful narrowing of Unohana’s eyes, or the look that passes between her and Rukia.
“He’s been like this for a while now,” he hears Rukia say in that same flat, unnaturally calm voice.
“I see.” Unohana steps up right in front of Renji, holds his gaze, and something about the way she’s looking at him is shockingly perceptive and intrusive. The knot in his stomach tightens. “I think I had better speak with Kurotsuchi-taichou,” she says, and finally pulls away. “If any concerns arise in the meanwhile, please raise them with my staff.”
She leaves, and then everything is silent but for the steady, rhythmic beeping of the machines at the side of the bed.
Rukia’s face is chalky white; she seems barely to be holding herself together. He should say something, but there’s nothing he can say that she will want to hear. Her eyes remain pointedly averted. “You don’t have to be here,” she says woodenly. “I’m sure you’ve got other more important things to see to.” And it’s a jab, certainly, but more than that it’s a plea - a plea for solitude, a plea for permission to cradle her brother’s limp hand in her own and speak her fears to the empty room and cry.
And so he leaves her. Leaves the ward, leaves the hospital, doesn’t stop to say goodbye or thank the staff or pay any attention to the muffled sound of Kurotsuchi’s raised voice as his ‘discussion’ with Unohana unfolds. He wanders out onto the streets of Seireitei with nowhere else to be, and tries to look purposeful. Tries to look like he knows where he is going. Tries to be calm and composed, even though a man who everyone expected to die a heroic death on the battlefield is dying instead from an untraceable disease, and taking his body with him. Even though the knot in his stomach is so tight it feels like it’s ripping him apart, and his knees are ready to buckle. Even though he no longer knows what he’d even be feeling, if he let go the last shreds of calm he has stubbornly clung to.
He knows no name for the emotion; he only knows that it would choke him.
There is nothing he wants more than to be left alone right now, and so naturally he is found almost at once. He can think of no reason for Yumichika and Ikkaku to be so near the fourth division unless they are either badly injured or have heard the news; and since they are both standing, he braces himself for the second as they wave him down and hurry over. Yumichika looks irritated; Ikkaku just looks determined, and they both stop right in Renji’s path and stare at him without bothering with any kind of greeting.
“You should have told us,” says Ikkaku.
There are a lot of things Renji could tell them. I’m not your personal assistant is among them, as is How dare you speak without addressing me properly; he settles on, “It only just happened,” and when they only continue to stare at him he realises, with a surge of something that feels a bit like horror, that they’re not actually talking about Byakuya’s current medical state.
“Yachiru told us,” Ikkaku goes on. “When we found out that you - uh, when we found out Kuchiki-taichou was in hospital. Thought she was just having fun at first, but the captain backed her up and everything.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Yumichika’s lips are very thin, arms folded indignantly across his chest. “We’ve been seeing you around all over the place. Stopping with you to chat. Wondering why you always had to rush off so quickly. We didn’t realise anything had changed.”
Renji is not in the mood for this. Really, he’s not. “Nobody was supposed to realise,” he says shortly. “We had quite enough to deal with without the scandal and confusion a public announcement would have caused.”
“You idiot.” Ikkaku’s voice is uncharacteristically harsh. “We’re not talking about a public announcement or nothing. Just us, you know? Your friends. We could have helped out. We sure as hell could have given Kuchiki less of a tough time.”
“It’s all on you,” adds Yumichika sniffily. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things we’ve let slip to him, thinking he was you.”
They’re angry. Far angrier than they have any business being, as far as Renji is concerned. “I fail to see why your own loose tongues are any grounds to shout at me,” he snaps, and tries hard not to think about what, exactly, they might have been telling Byakuya. “Why should I have told you? It has nothing to do with either of you.”
“When you lost your goddamn virginity,” Ikkaku snaps back, “you came charging into our rooms at three in the morning to tell us about it. You’ve always told us stuff, whether it had to do with us or not. Why’s that different now, all of a sudden?”
For a moment Renji can only stare, because it’s ridiculous. It’s so ridiculous that he’s almost tempted to walk away and leave them where they stand, because there’s a man dying back at the hospital and everything around him seems to be falling apart and he cannot even bring himself to feel anything over it. And he has never felt colder in his life than when he looks into Ikkaku’s eyes and says, “I owe you no explanation. Now stand out of my way.”
Yumichika’s expression is pure disgust. “Come on, Ikkaku,” he says, tossing his head and curling his lips in a angry sneer. “Don’t bother with him, if he’s going to be like that.”
“No.” Ikkaku stands his ground, hands balling into fists as they stare each other down. “This is bullshit, Renji. You’re not even gonna talk to us, now? Yachiru said you’d taken Kuchiki’s body, not his goddamn attitude.”
The anger rising in Renji’s veins is a welcome change from his cold detachment. “I told you to stand aside,” he repeats, and when Ikkaku still doesn’t move, he turns aside contemptuously and moves to step around him. He will just ignore it and sweep past, he thinks, because Ikkaku clearly wants a fight and it is not worth Renji’s time to give it to him. And he’s willing to overlook the vulgar words Ikkaku shouts at his back. He’s even willing to overlook the hand that tries to snatch at his sleeve, stop him from turning his back.
He’s not willing to overlook the punch, though. And when Ikkaku hits the ground, stunned and spitting out blood, he thinks he hears an approving hum from somewhere in the back of his mind: a faint, distant sound that echoes from the place where Zabimaru used to live.
He wipes flecks of Ikkaku’s blood from his knuckles, and leaves.
Much later, when Rukia has gone home and there is nothing left to pretend he has to do, Renji goes back to the hospital. He takes a seat at the side of the bed and watches the unmoving pile of flesh-that-is-technically-Byakuya, and listens to the steady beeping of the monitors beside him, and feels for the last faint traces of Byakuya’s reiatsu. Something has changed in the past few hours - or perhaps it changed long ago, and he has only just come to realise it. But everything around him is quiet, and there is nobody left who can give him the answers he needs. There is only him and this other man, this silent, fading man who has made property out of family and enemies out of friends, made cold out of warmth, and a tangled wreckage out of Renji’s soul.
“You have left me in a terrible mess,” he tells Byakuya, safe in the knowledge that no-one is really listening. His head is spinning and he’s still reeling from the encounter earlier, from the hushed whisper that hissed out from the back of his mind, calling for the blood of a man who he used to call ‘friend’. He knows himself. Knows better than this. Remembers his upbringing, remembers his duties - remembers how hard he fought against this, in the beginning, and knows that he has nothing left to gain by pretending he hasn’t lost the battle. “Your life is...stifling,” he says, and looks down at the slender hands in his lap and tries to recall what it felt like when they weren’t really his. “There’s so much anger in my heart, and you’ve left me no room to express it. Is this really how you live? Too weak to suppress your feelings, too stubborn to release them?”
He waits for Byakuya to contradict him, but there is no answer save for a quiet, doleful beep from the heart monitor.
And he is angry, angrier with every passing moment, with every answer that doesn’t issue from Byakuya’s lips. “You’re pathetic,” he goes on, after a long minute has passed by in this cloying silence. “Lying there and letting yourself rot from some imaginary illness, while your own subordinate does all the difficult work for you. Aren’t you ashamed, to leave me like this?”
Still there is no answer.
His head is light. The knot in his stomach is tighter than ever, and the seams it holds together are beginning to rip apart. Something dark and wet and salty is dripping out, infusing his bloodstream, and he knows his hands are trembling but he cannot seem to stop them. “Rukia despises me,” he goes on, and his throat is nearly as tight as his stomach now; his voice wavers, but Byakuya needs to know, needs to recognise what has happened, to make sense of it when Renji no longer can. “It is several years overdue, I suppose. Not that anybody has been counting.”
He half expects Byakuya to wake up, to argue against this, but nothing happens. The thing inside him is overflowing now, welling up in his throat and he thinks he’s going to be sick, but when he opens his mouth it’s only more words that pour out. “I admired you, once. I believed you held the answers to everything, and only chose not to share them. I believed your heart was as pure as gold beneath all that you showed to the world. But I was wrong, and you have made me forget how to love without pain and secrecy. You have driven away everyone who might have cared that I have lost myself.” He remembers sitting like this at a bedside before, choking on words he couldn’t say then - and he remembers lying there silent and listening, waiting, wondering what they were. Wondering if I forgive you will be among them. “Taichou,” he grits out through teeth that no longer want to move apart, “I...always wished that I could be like you. But now, I regret that wish more than I have regretted anything in my life.”
But the words are too late. Byakuya does not stir.
There’s movement behind him. Renji silences his shaking voice and listens as the door slides open and an attendant slips into the room. “My apologies for intruding, Abarai-fukutaichou,” she says, “but Unohana-taichou wishes to see the patient. She will be here momentarily.
Renji’s voice is not to be trusted; he just nods, and rises to leave. His cheeks are damp, he realises, and he quickly and furiously dabs them dry before he dares lift his head. He is just in time to see Unohana walk into the room and, behind her, a shockingly familiar face - Urahara Kisuke, looking even more inscrutable than usual behind the deep brim of his striped green hat.
“Ah, Abarai-san,” he says lightly, cutting across the unvoiced first syllable of Renji's planned excuses. “Just the person I was hoping to speak with.” He glances at Unohana, who nods serenely, and the next thing Renji knows Urahara is settling a casual hand on his arm, as though greeting an old friend. “I am sure Unohana-taichou needs her space with the patient. Perhaps you and I might take a walk together?” He swings his cane in his right hand between thumb and forefinger, tracing a pendulum curve.
It is not a suggestion, not really; Urahara's intrusive hand is not gripping at all but Renji can still feel the strength there. And there would be no point resisting, even if he wanted to. What would he stand to gain? He knows what it looks like when the world falls apart around you. He has seen it many times, through two different sets of eyes - and what Urahara offers now isn’t quite hope but it isn’t not hope, either.
And so he allows himself to be steered, swiftly and firmly, from the room.
What follows are the longest several hours of Renji’s life.
First there are the questions. Strange questions, complex and often self-contradictory questions, questions that leave a sour taste in Renji’s mouth and renew, with a vengeance, the lurking sense of wrongness inside him. What do you remember about your childhood? Your parents? What was it like, growing up in Rukongai? How did you come to meet your wife? Can you tell me about your promotion to lieutenant? How about your promotion to captain? All of them are delivered in the same calm, clinical tone, and all of them lead him towards the same realisation: he knows the answers to all of them, but only half of them feel real. The other half are like excerpts from someone else’s life, or perhaps a book he read once, but the memories lack clarity and require a great deal more focus to dredge up.
Urahara only nods, unblinking, and jots down a series of quick notes on his clipboard.
Next comes the waiting. “Try not to stray too far from the hospital,” Urahara tells him, and once the bustle of activity around Byakuya’s bedside drives him off, Renji makes a place for himself in a quiet, familiar waiting room not far from the emergency ward. Seike comes over from the manor, bringing tea service and a grim-faced Rukia, already out of uniform, a warm jacket thrown over what looks like her bedclothes. There’s a faint scent of straw lingering about her, and her front is dusted with fine white hair - enough to tell Renji that whatever else still lies between them, the rabbits have not yet been disposed of. But she takes a seat across from him and doesn’t meet his eye, and the hours pass with nothing to break the silence but the occasional scurrying sound of footsteps from an unseen worker outside the room.
And they wait.
Dawn has nearly broken when the door at last slides open, and they are joined by a familiar face. Yamada Hanatarou dips a polite bow to Renji, then turns to Rukia with and says, “Unohana-taichou sent me to find you. We believe that Kuchiki-taichou is going to recover!”
Rukia’s eyes dart up at once. Hanatarou beams back at her and adds, “You’re welcome to come and see him now, if you like.”
Both are too tired and excited to be fully on top of their manners, and it’s probably for the best that neither of them witness the fleeting sigh of relief that passes Renji’s lips as they hurry ahead of him out the door. He follows at his own pace, which is slow and calm and perfectly deliberate, and it isn’t even about his image any more. It’s about the powerful superstitious feeling that tells him he mustn’t rush, mustn’t show too much excitement yet, or else the hope he has now will be snatched away from him. But when he makes it to Byakuya’s room, it’s exactly as Hanatarou said: Byakuya still lies there as motionless and as faded as ever, but there’s a faint tinge of colour back in his waxy cheeks and, more to the point, he is breathing independently again. The ventilator has been removed, and wheeled off to the side of the room to make room for Rukia to drop down by the bed and cradle her brother’s hand in her own.
“He should be able to wake before terribly long,” comes a singsong voice from the corner of the room. Urahara is propped against the wall, closed fan tapping out a tight rhythm against his opposite wrist. One corner of his mouth is turned up a fraction, and the picture it makes with his half-hidden eyes and stupid hat is disconcerting, but right now he is one of the most welcome sights Renji has ever seen.
“What was it? What did you do?” he asks, and Urahara just smiles wider and dips his head as if in modesty.
“It was his reiryoku causing the problem. With no offense meant, Abarai-san, Kuchiki-taichou has a bit more of it than you, and it was putting all sorts of strain on your body. Am I right in guessing that he was training quite heavily, before he was admitted here?”
Urahara is speaking as though it’s all perfectly simple, but Renji doesn’t understand. Everything has happened so fast. Byakuya was literally on death’s door when he saw him last, and now his chest is rising and falling evenly and there’s faint but unmistakeable life in him again. “He trained regularly, yes,” he says, casting a sidewards glance at Unohana, who is standing by the window looking on at them with polite attentiveness. She just nods, encouraging him on. “We always trained together, though, and he never used much reiatsu. It was mainly simple drills, light sparring, nothing overly strenuous.”
“Naturally,” says Urahara, flicking his fan open and using it to wave dismissively, as if he knows all the hows and whys of this already. “I don’t mean to suggest that your training sessions caused the problem, although they may have sped it up quite a bit. Do you remember your first year at the academy, when you were taught the basics of reiryoku control?” Renji frowns - something drops into place in his mind - and Urahara smiles encouragement. “You’ve understood it, I see. Whether it is in use or not, the full power of a person’s spirit is always contained within their body. The process of containing high-level reiryoku places almost as much demand on the body as exerting it in the form of reiatsu. Your body is accustomed to your own reiryoku, and can hold it virtually without effort. Being filled with reiryoku stronger than yours, on the other hand, requires much the same exertion of strength it would take to stand against that person’s reiatsu in a fight. And since the pressure is constant, and internal...well, it’s no surprise your body has been shutting down. If the power gap between the two of you had not been so narrow, I shudder to think what would have happened.”
Urahara is clearly in his element, and he caps his speech with a theatrical shudder and looks about the room expectantly, waiting for his audience to process this explanation. Unohana looks as serene as ever; Rukia is frowning, puzzled; Renji blinks twice and says, “How did you cure him, then?”
“Oh, I’m afraid he’s not cured yet,” trills Urahara. “He won’t be cured until he’s back in his own body, which I plan to arrange for very shortly. But in the meantime, just to take the pressure off…” He steps up to the bed and flips open Byakuya's hospital kimono with the edge of his fan. Underneath his collarbone, nestled amid all the other tattoos there, is a new mark: a small camellia, dark against his sickly pale skin.
“A simple limiter ought to keep the strain off that borrowed body of his,” Urahara finishes with a flourish.
And apparently, that’s all there is to it.
Byakuya begins to stir not long after. His eyes are still closed, but he is moving more: first he starts to twitch his fingers in Rukia’s grasp, then his lips start to part around unspoken words, and then he turns his head on the pillow and says something, some indiscernible string of sounds that make Rukia’s eyes light up hopefully.
And after a whole night of sitting up in the waiting room, choking on anxiety and desperately hoping for Byakuya’s recovery, all of a sudden Renji doesn’t think he can bear to see him. He excuses himself, and wanders back out through the empty halls of the fourth division until he reaches a quiet courtyard, where he can see the first fingers of dawn sunlight plucking at the edges of the darkened sky. Urahara’s words are still ringing in his ears and they’re different from Unohana’s, or Kurotsuchi’s: they’re a promise, not an idle reassurance. The whole ordeal is coming to a close; he can feel it. Urahara will find the solution and then Renji be back in his old body, back in his old life, and there is no earthly reason why that thought should bring him anything other than joyful relief.
No reason that he should feel nauseous, even panicked, just thinking about it.
Something has changed inside Renji. Perhaps it is to be expected; perhaps you simply cannot spend so long living another person’s life without being touched by it. The truth is that Kuchiki Byakuya’s life is a mess, in ways Renji had never before imagined, and he despises Byakuya a little bit for concealing such dark, ugly chaos beneath his eternal outward calm. Renji is not sure if he can justify turning this life, this much power and influence, back over to someone so patently ill-equipped to handle it; not sure if he himself is ready to let it all slip from his grasp, having felt it for himself. Not sure he can stand to watch Byakuya walk away with the life he has become so familiar with, to know what he is thinking and no longer be able to think it for him.
It is comfortable out here, with the cool morning air stirring gently around him and the waking chirp of birds spilling in from beyond the division walls. He does not want to go back inside and risk facing a conscious Byakuya. Does not want to leave the hospital and risk seeing his friends, those strange men with their brusque manners and their insistence on calling him by his given name and their refusal to respect privacy or boundaries. Does not want to stay here and risk being found by the others, with their unwelcome insight and their empty reassurances. Does not want to look inside himself, where he can still hear the rumbling, growing ever louder now, of the strange and familiar soul that paces through his inner world and waits for his acknowledgement.
Lost in thought, he hardly registers Rukia’s approach. It must be something powerful that has motivated her to leave her brother’s bedside at a time like this, but she shows no sign of reluctance. Her footsteps are soft, almost silent, and she pads out to where he stands and reaches out a cautious hand to settle on his arm.
“You don’t know what to think anymore, do you?” she asks quietly, and he doesn’t bother to cast her hand off, doesn’t bother to step away because there is no longer any comfort in distance.
“I need this to be over, Renji,” she whispers. “You don’t realise the toll you’ve been taking.”
He does realise, though. “It will be no different if we switch back,” he says, and finds his voice hoarse and curiously strained. He doesn’t know if she fully understands, that nothing has really changed since he took on this body - that Rukia still has the same brother she has always had, except she calls him now by a different and a less respectful name.
But Rukia just shakes her head. “It will be completely different,” she says. “You’re not actually Nii-sama, Renji. You look like him and perhaps you think like him now but you’re not him, not really. His thoughts, his manners...they just don’t suit you the same way.”
“They suit me well enough,” says Renji, a little stung despite himself. It’s not as though this has been easy for him, he wants to tell her - he’s had to work hard, and surely she can appreciate that he’s lasted as well as he has. But Rukia just shakes her head, and there’s a desperate sadness behind the mask of her expression.
Her grip on his arm is tightening a little, encouraging him gently back towards the door. “Urahara needs you for a few more tests,” she says. “He thinks he’s close to finding a solution. Will you come?” He looks down at her; her gaze is firm, and doesn’t waver. “I need this to be over,” she says again.
And even if there’s nothing else left that Renji truly understands, he can understand this. This is duty, he realises - this is family. In the end, it doesn’t matter what he feels about it. What matters is that things are put back the way they are supposed to be, which means that he must hold his head high and nod once, proud in his resignation, and allow Rukia to guide him back to where he is needed.
There’s no other word for it: Byakuya’s awakening is simply awkward.
“Taichou!” he says, once he has detached himself from Rukia’s frantic inspection. And then, “Wait, no.” Then he sits and frowns down at his own hands for several very long seconds before looking back up and saying, “Renji?” in a tone of unconcealed skepticism.
Renji has already used up all his relief, in first receiving the news that Byakuya was going to make it through. He has used up all his remaining affection in agreeing to stay here and greet him on waking, despite his near-overpowering urge to be wholly and conspicuously elsewhere. All he has left now is irritation, and this he puts to good use: looking coolly into Byakuya’s wide, clueless eyes, he can muster up only a faint sort of contempt for the painful vulnerability and confusion radiating from a man he’s sure he used to find intimidating.
“How do you feel?” he asks, trying to make it clear from his manner that the answer doesn’t really interest him.
His subtle cues in body language are apparently lost on Byakuya, though, who blinks up sluggishly at him and says, “Fine, I think. Hazy. I don’t really remember much. Uh...how long have I been here?”
Long enough to addle your senses, Renji wants to say. He is not in the mood to deal with this, on top of everything else that’s going on, but he keeps his expression impassive and answers: “Several weeks, now. You were found unconscious in your own bed one morning and brought here for emergency treatment.”
Enough of Renji’s ill temper must be bleeding through into his voice, because the look Rukia gives him is sharp and disapproving. “Please don’t mind him, Nii-sama,” she says. “He’s been having a bit of an identity crisis.”
“Really?” says Byakuya in a tone of polite interest. “That must be awfully unpleasant for him.” And that’s when Renji decides that no, it really isn’t just his bad mood speaking, and Byakuya’s mind really isn’t all there yet. Even his accent is scrambled, stuck on a very strange note halfway between crisp propriety and clumsy Rukongai drawl. His eyes, when they turn back to Renji, are glazed.
Unohana seems to be reaching much the same conclusion. She was keeping to the side of the room so as not to interrupt the family reunion, but steps forward now and catches Rukia’s eye with a kind smile. “We must let Kuchiki-taichou get some rest,” she says, then turns to Byakuya and adds: “Please do not let anxiety get the better of you, Kuchiki-taichou. I am sure you have many questions, and they will all be answered in due course. For now, though, I need you to focus on recovering your strength.” And it’s a mark of Byakuya’s unwellness that he raises no protest, just eases himself obediently back down onto his pillow and allows his eyes to drift shut.
“His lingering symptoms are psychological,” she tells Renji and Rukia, once they are all out in the corridor. “His body is healing more quickly than expected, but it may take some time for him to adjust to his present condition. Remember, his soul and body were not yet fully integrated when he fell ill. The integration difficulties can only have been exaggerated by his long period of unconsciousness.”
“There is no need to worry about ‘integration’ any more,” comes a voice from the end of the hall. Urahara is strolling towards them, cane clacking jauntily against the floorboards with every step he takes; his hat sits atop his head at a higher angle than usual, exposing more of his face. Something clenches painfully in Renji’s stomach and somehow, he knows that this is it. “I believe I have the solution,” Urahara goes on, stopping before them and beaming. “If all goes well, we can begin the body reassignment as soon as Kuchiki-taichou is strong enough to be moved down the hall.”
“That can be arranged,” says Unohana-taichou, at the same moment that Rukia bursts out, “How did you do it?”
Urahara waves a theatrically modest hand in front of his face. “I haven’t done it yet,” he protests. “The theory is worth nothing until I have successfully completed the transfer. But,” he adds, raising one finger as Rukia opens her mouth again, “since you ask: I have made several key modifications to the technology that allows for the creation of mod souls. Specifically, I have isolated the function which allows the artificial soul to transfer between vacant bodies, and I believe -” he lays a delicate, slightly worrying stress on the word - “that a similar process can be used to extract the souls of our two gentleman here from their present bodies and place them back in the right ones.”
Rukia’s eyes light up at this. But Unohana frowns, and she seems to consider these words carefully for a moment before saying, “Kurotsuchi-taichou and I experimented extensively with mod soul technology in our own investigations. We were unable to find any satisfactory difference in matter composition between the inner soul and its outer casing - its body,” she adds helpfully, catching Renji and Rukia’s perplexed expressions.
“I understand,” says Urahara, which is a relief because Renji most certainly doesn’t. “Technically,” he adds for the benefit of his bewildered audience, “mod soul technology relies on the fact that human bodies exist as discrete enclosures for the souls that reside in them. Shinigami are already souls, and so this outer enclosure - the ‘body’, as we would call it - is ordinarily seen as an attached part of the soul itself.”
“But clearly that is not the case here,” Unohana prompts him politely. Her expression is mild, but her eyes are bright and deeply focused.
Urahara bows his head. “Perceptive as always, Unohana-taichou.” He turns towards her now, ignoring his less astute listeners as he returns to the main issue of his scientific discovery. “In my analysis, I was able to detect a very thin, continuous fracture in the fabric of both souls. I cannot definitively prove that this fracture marks the line between outer body and inner soul, but both fractures follow the same pattern, and I have not been able to find similar injuries in the other whole, undisturbed souls I have examined for comparison.” He waves hand and fan expressively while talking, and it’s evident that this is the main source of his cheerfulness.
Unohana nods, her eyes lighting up as though they’ve finally reached an understanding. It all sounds persuasive enough to Renji, although he doesn’t want to think too hard about what ‘fractures’ in his soul must look like. “Have you found out what caused the damage?” he asks, and Urahara turns back to face him, fan closing and disappearing up his sleeve with a swift flick of his wrist.
“One step at a time,” he says, tipping the brim of his hat back down. “My only theories so far are very imprecise - according to everything I know about the soul transfer process, this shouldn’t even have been possible. I intend to figure out how it happened, but it may take me a while longer yet.” This thought seems to rally him a little.“Kurotsuchi-taichou has generously ceded to me his temporary laboratory here in the fourth division, where I will have ample space and resources to pursue the answer for as long as necessary.” His smile is perhaps a trifle smug; Renji cannot imagine that Kurotsuchi is pleased with any of this.
“For now,” says Unohana, “I suggest that we all put our faith in the discovery Urahara-san has made. The sooner we have Kuchiki-taichou restored to his proper body, the less damage will be done to both of you.”
Unohana’s vote of confidence is enough to dispel the last of Renji and Rukia’s lingering doubts. And in the end, none of them can find any good reason for delaying any longer; they return to Byakuya’s room only shortly after to find him sitting up again, no longer confused and vulnerable but calm, collected, ready to listen to Urahara’s repeat explanation with attentive ears and an unreadable expression.
“A few last details to fill you in on before we can commence the transfer,” Urahara says, once Byakuya has been advised of the procedure and given his consent with a prompt, decisive nod. Urahara helps himself to a seat at the end of Byakuya’s bed; Byakuya looks annoyed at the presumption, but shifts his legs over to the side to make room for him. It’s eerie, Renji thinks...when he first woke Byakuya couldn’t even remember his own name, but looking at him now is like looking into a mirror. He’s back in control now, all fuzziness gone from his expression, and apparently ‘control’ means exactly what it has always meant for him - even in Renji’s body he somehow contrives to look just like himself, and the eyes he fixes on Urahara now are stern and keenly perceptive. Get on with it, that look seems to say. There is no fear, no uncertainty, no hesitation in his gaze.
And it stings, because even now Renji is still hesitating. Even now he feels as though he’s trembling inside, held in place only by his sense of duty and the shame he would feel if the others saw him waver. He doesn’t want to go through with this. He doesn’t want to know what’s going to happen to him when he steps back inside that body Byakuya has come to wear so well, and has to rise and face a life that feels further from him now than Byakuya’s ever did. And when his eyes lock briefly with Byakuya’s, something in that hard gaze seems to soften. A flicker of understanding passes between them, and Byakuya casts him the faintest shadow of a reassuring smile before turning back to the others. And, tossing aside his stoic demeanour as easily as he put it on, he sinks back against his pillow and does what he has always done so well: he makes room for Renji to save face.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” he tells Urahara, “but there’s so much to take in already. Give me a few minutes...and perhaps some privacy.”
“Of course!” If Urahara is surprised by Byakuya’s sudden shift from impatience to exhaustion, he makes no sign of it, but rises promptly from the bed and heads for the door, gesturing for the others to follow him. “Take your time, and call for us when you’re ready to recommence.” And Renji feels relief pour through him as he realises he’s been given one final chance at finding closure.
“Let’s not stray too far from the room,” says Urahara, once they’ve closed the door behind them, cane swinging in front of Renji’s legs. “Kuchiki-taichou looks healthier by the minute - he’s bound to be ready again before too long.” Renji nods along and pretends to acquiesce, but it’s surprisingly easy to slip away from the rest of the group on the pretext of ‘getting a few things ready for Byakuya’s return’. Once he’s free he has no idea where he wants to go, but his feet make the decision for him - back to the manor, back to the garden where he so often trained, where he sinks down onto the lawn and allows his eyes to drift closed.
And his inner world rushes to meet him, as easy as breathing.
Everything is exactly as he left it. Overhead, the red moon stands out luminous against the dark sky; from the ground an ancient, rotting tree stretches upwards, beckoning him in with its skeletal fingers. A faint breeze has picked up, carrying with it the scent of decaying wood and something else...something dreamy, something alive, like the scent of spring blossoms and the faintest whiff of early morning rain. And the wind carries something else too: a voice, echoing all around him, though he cannot find its source. “I have waited a long time for you,” the voice says. “You have been avoiding me.” It’s not a reproach, exactly. Just an observation, cool and calm and indifferent, cutting through his mind like the sharp edge of a blade.
“I have been,” answers Renji, because he’s done withholding such simple truths from himself. “I was frightened of you - but I’m not, any more. And I wanted to see you once, before I leave.”
The sound that follows is like a chuckle. “Pleased to meet you,” the voice says primly, though it doesn’t sound it at all. “If you really wish to meet me, you must come closer. Come. Approach the tree. It will not harm you.”
Renji hesitates. He dimly remembers the warning he received, once, from another who stood here - an ill-omened creature, a demon, standing fierce and protective before the tree’s trunk and growling, “You are not welcome here.” But things have changed now. And they only continue to change as he steps forward: the world around him begins to shimmer and blur, and a strange rushing feeling passes over him. Colour is bleeding into the sky, and the red glow of the moon is giving way to a blood-tinged dawn; a new energy is crackling about him in the air and he can feel grass beneath his feet, can smell the strong perfume of cherry blossoms in the air. He falters, and the tree crooks its fingers as though to call him in closer. “Come,” says the bodiless voice. “You wish to leave without first knowing me?”
There’s danger in that voice, now. It no longer sounds disinterested - it is urgent, almost desperate. Renji’s heart falters, but his feet are moving on their own, carrying him closer still until he’s near enough to touch the trunk of the tree. “Hold out your hand,” says the voice, and Renji cannot fight the impulse that bids him to obey. He stretches out his hand and meets, not rotting wood, but the strong, clean bark of a healthy and flourishing tree; he looks up and there are cherry blossoms blooming overhead, white, innumerable, showering gently down on him with every sway of the tree’s supple branches in the breeze.
“Is this...are you Senbonzakura?” he asks, his voice little more than a whisper of air through astonished lips. “Where are you?” But there’s no answer this time. Falling petals caress his cheeks, and the dawn light spills around him like a warm blanket. He looks up through the thick cover of the branches and he can make out...something, up in the sky, high above him. Its wings are spread wide, and the light refracts off it like a diamond. It draws no closer but it hovers overhead, soaring on currents he cannot reach.
Of course, he thinks dimly. They will not meet today, after all - there’s no time left for that. But it doesn’t matter, because Renji has seen what he needed to. A gentle sigh of relief passes his lips, and he allows his knees to fold beneath him. Here, on the ground at the base of the tree, he can just pick out the last lingering wisps of that rotten-wood scent that has become so familiar; he breathes deeply and drinks it in, and feels the musky strength of it infuse his bones.
And he finds he is no longer afraid.
The actual transfer process happens so fast that Renji barely has time to follow. Urahara has them both sit down on Byakuya’s bed and advances on them with a strange new contraption that makes the whole world go dark for a minute; there’s a rushing sound, a lurching sense of movement, and then the world screeches to a halt and everything - sight, touch, sound, taste - returns to Renji with a slamming force that knocks him flat on his back on the bed.
And as he pushes himself back up, a matted strand of red falls before his eyes and he knows that it is over.
“Did it...work?” Rukia’s voice is tremulous, and there’s another voice that answers her now, steady, calming, and more authoritative than it has any right to be.
“It worked,” says the voice.
Renji drags himself back up to a sitting position. Opens his eyes, and then he’s staring back at an awfully familiar face: it’s Byakuya, Byakuya as he should be, with straight shoulders and a proud face and steely grey eyes that look tired, confused, but mostly just relieved. “Renji?” Byakuya prompts, and for a split second Renji wonders if it’s really too late, if he can’t just reach out and snatch back what Urahara’s spinning device has taken from him. If he really, truly has to go through with this.
“Yes,” he says instead, his voice calm and steady and...jarringly wrong, and the words that form in his head are nothing like the sounds coming from his mouth. “Yes, it worked.” In the silence afforded by the collective sigh of relief that passes around the room, he pulls his hands into his lap and stares down at them - clumsy, thick-fingered, oddly shaped and distressingly unfamiliar. There’s no elegance in these hands, no precision, no refinement. Even the balance of their strength has changed.
What use to him are crude tools like these?
They are not crude. From the back of his mind comes a low, guttural growl, and the sound reverberates through him like a thunderclap. There’s something ominous about it - malicious, alien, frightening - but his panic is separate from him, somehow, and with iron self-discipline he checks his rising pulse and scours the inside of his head for the source of the growling.
Have you forgotten us so soon? This time the sound is a cutting hiss, and it’s closer now than it was before. You will remember. Of course your hands are weak, when they do not grasp our hilt.
“...and if there are any further complications, please feel free to come to me immediately.” Renji realises that Urahara has been talking, and the realisation breaks the spell in his mind: the growling and hissing recede immediately, and he is alone in his head with nothing but his own thoughts for company and nothing left to do but follow the others - Rukia, Unohana, Byakuya - as they thank Urahara and turn to take their leave. But at least now, once he can extract himself from the group, he knows where he will be going.
These clumsy hands of his will need intensive training, if they are to recover their old strength.