A cloak of darkness wrapped around his naked body, caressing his wounds. It licked away at the scarlet saltiness that covered his head, and body. The darkness wasn't suffocating nor was it a threatening presence. It was welcoming, filled with warmth and tenderness. If this was death, then he embraced it. He wanted death to shroud him in its mantle of darkness, to shield him from the world of the light, and extinguish the tiny flame of life quivering inside of him.
"Wake up," said a faint voice. But his limbs were too stiff, and they refused to move. He desperately tried flexing his fingers and twitching his toes, but he didn't know if he had moved them or not. He was paralyzed in this all consuming void of blackness, his consciousness the only thing intact.
"I can't," thought Renji, projecting his consciousness into the vast black space.
"You must," whispered the voice. "Remember, your reason for living."
"You sound familiar," thought Renji. "Zabimaru?" The voice didn't answer, yet Renji knew that it was not Zabimaru, however something about the voice reminded Renji of his zanpakutou spirit.
"Hello?" he called out. "Hello!" he said more urgently. The voice didn't respond but Renji suddenly noticed that the blackness, was not so black anymore. In fact it was a dark murky grey that was getting lighter by the minute. Does that mean my eyes are open? he asked himself. Renji tried blinking, and to his utmost surprise found that he could indeed open and close his eyelids. To his delight he also found that he could flex his fingers and wiggle his toes. He was standing on something solid, though what, he still wasn't sure. As the sky lightened, colours began to appear. The greyness above his head, turned into violet, then a deep indigo blue, which became lighter as the sun appeared from above the horizon. Everything seemed accelerated and the sun rose above his head within a minute since it had peeked from the horizon. The solid dark object he was standing on turned from dark grey into a brown dirt road. Patches of yellowish, withered grass burst randomly decorating the winding path adding just a touch of life. Outlines of buildings and shops became visible as Renji watched in awe drinking in the sight of an entire village transforming in front of his very eyes. Human shaped outlines were starting to form, and gave way to small children with dirt smeared faces running barefoot, old vendors trying to sell unwanted items, and stray skinny dogs prowling around trash cans.
"Inuzuri," Renji whispered to himself his brown eyes widening. He seemed to be invisible to the people of the city, as they paid him no heed despite being clothed in a shihakusho.
"Hey! What do you brats think you're doing," yelled an old man brandishing a stick at four children. Renji gasped as he saw a young boy with crimson hair tied in a ponytail holding a large pot that he had taken from the vendor's table. The younger version of himself started running, his friends panting trying to keep up, as the old man chased them throughout the town. Then all of a sudden a small girl with short black hair, wearing a purple kimono slide tackled the old man and knocked him off his feet. Both Renjis watched as she stepped on his head several times with her tiny feet before leading the way far from danger. Renji tried running after himself but his legs felt heavy, and in an instant the scenery changed. Instead of being surrounded by filthy people in the dirt packed road Renji found himself in a small wooden shack with many children. He watched a larger boy take a small bag of sweet candy away from a younger boy who was wailing on the floor. He watched Rukia walk towards the boy who was twice as tall as her and kicked him, knocking him down to the floor. After reprimanding him for his filthy behaviour she gave the small boy the bag of candy that Renji had given her earlier and went outside. Renji was about to follow them outside, when the scenery changed once more and Renji was watching himself struggling to catch fish with Rukia, as their friends cheered beside the fire. He couldn't help but smile as he watched the scene unfold. It was one of those rare but fond memories that he had created in that filthy town. They were a family of orphaned children that found each other and struggled to survive. Renji watched as the scene started to blur and he found himself standing beside the graves of his old friends. The sun was setting behind the horizon casting long shadows, as Renji and Rukia discussed becoming shinigami. He remembered this grim scene with such fierce detail. In such a harsh town that was not made for kids, they had both lost their precious friends, and decided that nothing was left for them in Inuzuri.
"Remember," whispered the voice. "Remember what each memory taught you," The scene started to slowly change, and Renji watched himself confronting Ichigo. He watched as his blade snapped in half, and his crimson hair spilled all over his back, the blood gushing everywhere. Renji remembered the fierce determination with which Ichigo fought, and the strong sense of justice that helped him wield his zanpakuto with such power that he was able to win against Kuchiki Byakuya. Renji smiled, glad that he had lost this fight. It helped him realize that the enemy was not his friend but Seiretei who condemned an innocent shinigami without proper evidence and a fair trial. Kurosagi Ichigo's determination helped Renji see who he should fight against and who he should protect. The scene changed once again, the orange sky giving away to broad daylight. Renji watched himself drenched in blood, kneeling at the mercy of Kuchiki Byakuya. He watched as Byakuya glided towards one of the pink blades wedged in Renji's flesh, and draw it out, spraying blood everywhere. Byakuya glared down at him, his merciless eyes glinting in the sunlight.
"Do you still insist on stupidly saying that you will save Rukia," he asked coldly.
"I swore to myself that I would protect her!" Renji roared ripping the pink bladed sword out of his flesh and charging towards Byakuya. Renji watched himself run wildly, as Byakuya's eyes widened in surprise, unable to move. He drove his blade into his captain's heart but instead of seeing Byakuya's blood seeping through his white haori, Renji's blade cracked, and shattered as Renji crashed to the ground. The scene blurred for the final time, and once again Renji found himself standing in darkness.
"You must awaken."
"Who are you?"Renji called into the darkness. He started walking forward, his arms stretched out in front of him. "I don't know how to wake up. Tell me what I should do,"
"Remember. Remember what is important to you, what you need to protect, and what you need to achieve." Renji closed his eyes, and relived those memories that he was shown. "You almost succumbed to death's eternal sleep. It's not your time yet." Renji thought about his friends that he needed to protect, the goals he had yet to achieve, and all the people he would be leaving behind. As his will to live grew stronger, Renji could feel the veil of darkness lifting. He opened his eyes, and saw his reflection grinning back at him.
"You did it," the reflection whispered.
"Huh, the voice was you?"
"I am your will to live. The flickering flame of hope that you felt when you first realized you were dying." Renji watched as the image in the mirror started to fade, and a whiteness so bright shot out of the mirror and pierced his heart. Renji reeled back clutching his chest as he fell into a blinding whiteness.
The light, it's so bright. It hurts my eyes, thought Renji.
"I think he's coming around," whispered a voice. "I wonder what he's saying, he keeps mumbling and groaning."
"Give him some time, I'm sure he'll wake up soon," said another voice.
I'm alive, thought Renji. A soft moan escaped his lips.
"Renji?" said a voice softly. "Renji wake up." Renji's eyelids felt heavy, but he didn't want to succumb to the sweet grasp of sleep, so he opened them slowly. A blurred face, with thick orange hair tumbling down her back was staring at him earnestly. Renji slowly shifted his eyes to the right and saw a man with a very large brown face, and square shaped glasses peering at him.
"I'll go get Urahara," Rangiku told Tessai. It took Renji a few minutes to remember that he was in a terrible accident after fighting the Menos Grande, and that he was now under Urahara's care. Renji let out another groan as he tried to raise himself upward but slumped back down, after struggling.
"You shouldn't strain yourself. You have sustained terrible injuries Renji," came Urahara's drawling voice. Renji tried to speak, but his throat was parched, and his lips were cracked. He longed for a glass of water but couldn't form the words in his mouth.
"Rangiku, please get Renji a glass of water," Urahara said. Renji looked up at him relief in his eyes, and gave him a small nod of thanks. Renji managed to raise himself up on one elbow and gulped down the glass of water that Rangiku handed to him. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand Renji coughed.
"What happened?" he rasped.
"After you fought the Menos Grande you let your guard down and didn't realize that there were three Gillian behind you that blasted a cero," Rangiku told him. Renji remembered the flash of red light, being thrown into the air and then the gruesome crash as he made contact with the ground. Renji lightly touched the back of his head which was heavily bandaged.
"Is my zanpakutou okay?" he asked.
"Shuhei brought it here," said Rangiku pointing at Renji's zanpakutou that stood leaning against the wall. Renji noticed that most of his torso was bandaged as well as his legs.
"You fractured your skull and broke several of your bones," said Urahara as he watched Renji trace his fingers over the bandages. "It was a miracle that your spinal cord wasn't damaged otherwise you would have been paralyzed."
"How long have I been unconscious for?" he asked Urahara.
"It's been a week since you fought those Menos. I notified captain Kuchiki of your situation and condition as well." Renji stared at Urahara with wide brown eyes, his heart hammering in his chest.
"You told my captain?" he asked uncertainly
"I didn't have a choice. He would have started wondering why this mission took so long."
"I should be going now," said Renji staggering to his feet.
"That's not a good idea Renji," replied Urahara in a more serious tone.
"I'll be fine," said Renji placing an unsteady foot forward and crashing to the ground.
"You need to rest for at least a few more days. Once you are able to walk you may leave," he said in a firm tone before leaving the room. Renji balled his hands into a fist. He felt angry at himself for being blinded by his victory that he hadn't noticed the other source of spiritual pressure.
"Did you and Shuhei manage to defeat the other Gillians?" asked Renji.
"Yeah we managed with help from Urahara," said Rangiku. Renji heaved a sigh of disappointment as he slowly lowered himself onto the futon.
"You should get some rest Renji. I'm sure you will be fine soon, and Shuhei will come visit tomorrow." said Rangiku as her and Tessai left the room. Renji gazed at the ceiling above him and could feel a lump rising in his throat. It was such a reckless mistake to go into the battlefield alone, acting conceited, thinking his battle skills were superior than the other vice captains because he had achieved bankai. He dreaded seeing his captain in a few days, knowing the cold piercing look Byakuya would give him. Just when things were starting to get better, thought Renji dozing off to sleep.
Renji spent the next few days recovering his strength. He managed to take a few steps using crutches but couldn't get very far without panting and dripping in sweat. His head still hurt and any sudden movements would bring a wave of dizziness. In order to keep him company Shuhei and Rangiku took turns visiting him, bringing him news of soul societies comings and goings, and trying to entertain him as best as possible. Rangiku spent some time shopping in the real world and bought Renji a pair of sunglasses, as well as a black and red headband with punk written on it which considerably cheered him up. Shuhei would strum his guitar and play music during the lazy afternoons, as Ururu and Jinta tried to come up with words. Urahara administered medicine for Renji's wounds and made him swallow a nasty foul smelling liquid which was supposed to restore his strength and speed up the healing process. After Renji had managed to walk without the help of crutches and the spells of dizziness went away, Urahara gave Renji the green light to go back to soul society.
Before leaving Renji apologized to Urahara for all the trouble he had caused and thanked him for saving his life. Walking towards an open space Renji placed the zanpakutou in front of him and turned it as if it were a key being placed in a lock. A door magically appeared out of thin air and opened only to reveal another door. A bright white light came pouring out from the second door along with a pretty black hell butterfly. It landed on his shoulder as Renji stepped through the Senkaimon, and left the real world behind.
Renji let out a long sigh of content as he stepped onto the grounds of Seireitei. It felt good to be home even though he was gone for less than two weeks. He greeted other shinigami cheerfully as he passed them, and exchanged pleasantries as he made his way to the sixth division barracks ignoring the gnawing feeling in his stomach.
"Renji!!!!" a voice yelled out. Renji turned to see a young man, much shorter than Renji with short black hair and a tattoo above his left eye running towards him.
"Rikichi!" exclaimed Renji. He pulled to a stop in front of Renji, and bent over panting heavily.
"Captain Kuchiki wants to see you in his office immediately," he said breathlessly. The knot in Renji's stomach tightened. He could feel his mouth becoming dry, making it harder to swallow.
"Thanks," replied Renji calmly. "I'll go see him right away." Despite his cool appearance Renji's heart was hammering in his chest. He wasn't sure if Byakuya would punish him for being so reckless, but what was worse was that he had embarrassed his captain as well as the sixth division. Just when Byakuya was starting to acknowledge his strength and skills as a vice captain Renji's overconfidence in his abilities had caused him to become careless and resulted in a grave mistake. He wished time would freeze, so that he could compose himself better, and figure out how to look his captain in the eye without falling to pieces. Letting out a heavy sigh Renji rapped on Byakuya's door and braced himself for the worst.