Renji never expected Rukia to bring it up, but she did.
They were alone, hanging out in his dorm room. ‘Room’ was probably too generous a term, as it was little more than a huge space shared by a half-dozen of the students from the outer districts. Renji didn’t mind, however. Thanks to the mysterious Captain Kyōraku and his scholarship, it was so much more than Renji could have afforded on his own, which was, quite frankly, nothing.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Rukia asked quietly, quite out of the blue, considering that they’d just been gossiping about a student romance that had imploded quite publically just after second period. Her eyes were focused on her lap and the hands that fidgeted there.
“‘Okay’? Why wouldn’t I be okay?” Renji was stretched out on his cot, his head resting on his pillow, his arm folded underneath.
“Because of… the other day,” she spit out, her eyes snapping up and glittering wetly. “I mean, I heard from Kira that you didn’t emerge from sensei’s office for more than an hour. What was that little Ieyoshi twirp doing with you that long?”
Expending his impotence, Renji thought with a wicked smile. “I’ll tell you the truth: not much of anything, poor kid. If he really wanted to leave his mark, he would have smarter to borrow a brush and write his name on me.”
Rukia watched him with wide eyes as he spoke. Now she worried at her bottom lip. She chewed furiously for a few more minutes before asking, “What do you mean not much? He did nothing for an hour?”
Renji snorted a laugh. “I wish.” When her cute, heart-shaped face crumpled into a confused frown, Renji sighed. “No, Ruika. You know what happened.”
“I….” She shook her head, either because actually couldn’t imagine or because she could--and didn’t want to believe it. Knowing Rukia, Renji figured it was the latter. “Can you talk about it? I mean, how bad was it?”
Renji gave Rukia a long, hard stare. She’d stopped twiddling her thumbs and chewing on her lip, and, instead, watched him intently, seriously. Her eyes searched his face, as though looking for answers there. “You really want the gory details?” He asked, “You sure?”
She looked ready to cry, but she nodded. “But only if you want to tell me.”
Renji didn’t really. What he wanted more than anything was to forget the whole stupid affair. But, he supposed she felt responsible for what had happened to him after she left, particularly given that her brother all but goaded the little noble into thinking he needed to leave Renji ‘marked.’
“Yeah, okay,” he said, pulling himself upright with a grunt. He settled beside to her, his feet on the floor and their knees just barely touching. “I’m telling you, though, if you’re going to feel pity for someone, it really should be him. He’s the one who ended up completely humiliated.”
“Renji,” she admonished, as if she thought he was just talking trash, trying to be tough.
“No, I’m serious. It was sad.” She still looked at him like she didn’t believe him, so he started the story in earnest. “Okay, fine. It went like this: sensei said something like ‘Do you? Do you need to mark him for your honor?’ and, of course, the little asshole said he did.”
Renji took a deep breath. The next part was kind of awful, and he shuddered a little at the memory. Rukia put her hand on his thigh.
“Right," he continued after he'd gathered his resolve. "So sensei has me take my shirt off because the fucker wants to, you know, whip me like a dog.”
Her hands flew up to cover her mouth. “Oh, Renji!”
“Yeah, fine, that part seriously sucked. I hated being on my knees like that, holding onto the desk because I refused to let anyone restrain me.” He shook his head to banish the memory which had brought a fresh flush of anger to his skin. “Okay, but here’s where things get better. He can’t do it, Rukia. I don’t mean he can’t bring himself to hit me, because he could… a lot. But he can’t hurt me--not really. I mean, I felt it, but I can tell. My reistsu is completely rebuffing him. He’s not getting what he wants. He can’t even leave a single welt no matter how hard he tries.”
Rukia’s mouth went round with horror, and she seemed to be holding her breath. He smiled at her sincerely.
“It like those guys,” Renji said with a little laugh. “You know the ones I mean, right? The ones who seem all ready to go, but when the pressure’s on, they’ve got nothing. You feel sorry for them, don’t you? By the end, I was tempted to say, ‘hey, it’s okay, man. We can try again some other time.’”
Rukia laughed heartily at that, but gave Renji a side-long glance. “He really couldn’t? You’re not just saying that to make me feel better, are you?”
Renji could have blustered and acted offended that she didn’t believe him, but it was totally the sort of thing he’d lie about just make her feel better. So, he just reached down and loosened his belt. Pulling down the kosode, he let her look at his back. “See for yourself.”
It was clear something else caught her attention, however, as her eyes jumped to his shoulders. She started to reach for his bicep, but stopped herself. “What the hell? When did you get tattoos?”
“Oh, um,” he coughed. “I kind of forgot you didn’t know about those.”
“This looks like professional work,” she said sagely, finally letting her fingers brush along his skin where the ink made tiger stripes.
By ‘professional,’ she meant yakuza. She’d know, too. She’d dated plenty of mob guys, after all. She obviously recognized the fine craftsmanship that went into that kind of body art. He couldn’t deny it; anyway, she’d already guessed, “Yeah."
“You didn’t!” she was horrified and angry all at once. She banged her fist onto the top of his head. His hands flew up automatically to protect his face, but they were tangled in the partly undone kisode. She continued to hammer on him. “You joined a family! Renji! We swore we would never! Never, ever, ever! No matter how bad things got! You promised me!”
“I didn’t join! I never took sake with any of them. I did one job! One! Oi, stop hitting me! Weren’t you worried that I was wounded five seconds ago?”
“That was before I knew you were a huge, fucking idiot!” She gave his head one last, hard bang before sitting back and crossing her arms in front of her chest. She turned away and threw her bottom lip out in a huge pout. “I can’t believe you worked for them! And for something so stupid!”
“Hey!” he pointed to the stripes, “This is not stupid, all right?
She turned back and Renji flinched from her raised fist. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Her finger jabbed into his arm. “That’s about the stupidest thing I can think of—macho posturing bullshit.”
“That’s not what this is,” he said. “This about Zabimaru.”
“Oh, not that again,” she sighed overly dramatically, and flipped her head away from him. “Your crazy fever dreams aren’t real, Renji. How many times do we have to go over this? There isn’t any dumb nue demon calling your name.”
“He’s not dumb, and he’s here.”
Her anger seemed to dampen a little, and her delicate eyebrows knitted together in a frown. “What are you talking about?”
Renji shouldered back into his shirt. “Remember how I told you about that weird captain with the pink kimono? Well, he believes me, even if nobody else does,” he shot Rukia a meaningful look to let her know how much it hurt that his best friend thought he was crazy about the single most important thing in his entire life. “He says the nue is somehow also my zanpaktō.”
“I don’t understand that. You’re not making any sense. How can you already have a zanpaktō?”
“You do, too,” Renji said. And I bet she’s beautiful, he thought but didn’t say. Though maybe a little cold, calculating. “Get this: zanpaktō are born when a soul reaper is born. Yours is already here, waiting for you, just like my Zabimaru.”
Rukia pulled her feet up off the floor to hug her knees tightly to her chest. “How do you know this? Did your crazy captain fill your head with these weird theories?”
“No, the librarian did.”
“You know she’s teaching me to read, right? So she asked me what would motivate me; I told her, ‘anything to do with zanpaktō.’ I’ve read dozens of books. All sorts of stuff, too, from technique manuals to history books.”
Rukia smiled a little and shook her head. “Renji Abarai, you’re the last person I would have thought to end up a bookworm.”
“I know, right? Though, don’t get too excited. It’s not like I’m rushing out to read philosophy or poetry. I did try to take on this one book about mediations and zanpaktō, and it made my head hurt. Plus, I only understood every other word.”
“Now that’s the man I know and love.”
She tossed that four-letter word out so casually, it was almost painful. He knew she was smart enough to notice how much he cared for her, but they’d skirted around anything serious their whole lives. So Renji scratched the back of his head and got back to the original conversation, “Yeah, well, the point is, Zabimaru is real. He’s been real since the day I came into this world.”
The look she gave him seemed to say ‘good for you,’ and she nodded as though she understood. She didn’t really; Renji could tell by the way she could only hold his gaze so long before staring at the floor. “I still say it was stupid to take a job with those people just to get a bunch of crazy tattoos.”
He shrugged. “I can’t regret it. Anyway, it was no big deal.”
“So who did you have to beat up?”
“Old man Eda. That guy who ran the gambling den. I guess he didn’t pay tribute or something. I didn’t ask details.”
Her face was pinched again. “Of course you didn’t. You’re pretty dense, but not suicidal. I hope you left him alive.”
“Of course I did. I’m not a murderer.”
“No, you’re just a hired thug.”
“Once, Rukia. Damn it, once.”
“Sure, Renji,” she snapped, her eyes coldly penetrating. “Tell me the truth: is your demon riding you to get more ink? If we were still there, how far would you have gone for it?”
All the way. Renji had to drop his gaze, though, in case she could see the truth. He wasn’t sure what that made him, either. He didn’t want to think about it, so instead, he said, “But we’re not there. He was never there. He’s been here all along, and he called me to Academy. He brought me up out of that place.”
“Make sure that stays true, Renji. Otherwise your demon is going to drag you straight down to hell.”