“You’re brooding again, lover,” Gin sighed, from where he leaned against the door frame.
This was getting ever so tiresome. Sōzuke was wearing a path in the tatami of the captain’s quarters at the Fifth with this constant pacing and plotting. “I have to find a way to use the girl,” he was saying, “to threaten her in just the right way to make Renji jump and bite at his master.”
Gin shook his head. What was is about Sōzuke that made everything simple so difficult?
Kill the girl. Take the Hōgyoku. That was all that really needed to happen.
But something so straight-forward would never please dear, stupid Sōzuke. It would be a thousand times smarter to just to sneak into the barracks and kill her dead.
They gave the girl a chair. How simply beautiful would it be to discover her hanging by the obi they never removed, looking like a tragic, desperate suicide? Then, since apparently you need intense heat to get the stupid hollowfication device, you whisper in her brother’s ear that a funeral pyre would be just the thing to honor her. After all is said and done, you sift through the ashes as everyone’s tucked into bed, tears drying on their eyes, and viola: mission accomplished.
Even if mistakes were made, no one would look too hard into a suicide. Suicide was terribly embarrassing, and, besides, it would seem obvious the poor little thing felt guilty about having brought shame to the noble family that had been so kind to a ragged, unworthy Inuzuri bitch. Tut, tut. So sad… so sad, indeed.
All over in a day, with everything neat and wrapped in a bow.
And the very last thing Sōzuke would ever think to do.
“Mmm, yes, brilliant, baka-chan,” Gin muttered as Sōzuke continued to yammer on about his overly complicated plans, “Except you’re going to get us both killed. Fucking with Kuchiki-sama is going to end with your ass in a sling.”
“What?” Sōzuke stopped a moment to blink like an owl behind those ridiculous glasses. “Don’t be silly. This is just something to distract everyone, like my planned murder.”
“Oh, yes,” Gin said with a bright laugh. “The fake death. Best. Plan. Ever.”
Sōzuke frowned. He looked so cute like that, so serious. “Are you mocking me?”
Gin loved that Sōzuke couldn’t tell. “No, no, of course not, darling. Your brilliance just makes me giddy sometimes. You should really come here and kiss me. I’m feeling swept off my feet, weak in the knees.”
“You’re an ass, Gin.”
“Oh, very well, you could kiss my ass if you’d rather.” Gin turned around and wagged his butt at Sōzuke. “In fact, why stop with kissing? You could do any number of wicked things to my ass.”
“Mmm, lovely offer, but I can’t afford to be distracted right now.” He ran his hand through his soft brown curls and for a brief moment, with his hair swept from his forehead, almost looked… real.
Gin purred his best seductive plea, “I’d wear the hat. You could accidentally call me ‘Kisuke.’ You know how I love that.
“I can’t play right now, Gin. Go home and torture Kira if you need some fun.”
Gin shook his head sadly. “That one’s nearly broken. I’m going to need a new toy soon.”
“Too bad you didn’t know about Renji, eh? He would have been a challenge for you.”
Gin snorted a laugh. Such a dumb bunny, his lover was. Byakuya Kuchiki was the only one for Renji Abarai, which was why Renji was putting up with all of Byakuya’s shit. Renji would never have fallen into Gin’s bed, not in a million years and not for all the gold in heaven. Renji’d had his sights set on one person and one person only.
Oh, and Sōzuke thought he could play them. Silly, silly man. No, that was not a gamble Gin would bet on. For a rich boy, Byakuya had so few precious things. Anyone could see how lonely he was, how much he needed Renji’s devotion. If pushed, he might even fight for it. The sister he seemed to be letting go, but the lover…? That would be all his treasures gone.
Still, if Sōzuke was right about what he’d overseen, Byakuya was doing a fine job pushing his prize away all by himself.
Gin was tempted to pull Byakuya aside and explain to him the art of creating a perfect sub. Hurting them only went so far. In fact, too much pain and humiliation and the whole thing could backfire and make someone like Renji angry and bitter.
No, what you needed to inspire true loyalty was love.
People would walk through fire for love.
Fear only got them as far as the leash could yank. After that, you ran the risk of breaking the chains.
But, love… love was boundless.
And it cost nothing to give. If you treated your lover with perfect kindness and showed them nothing but gentle affection, then the sudden, unexpected sting of the whip really made them jump. It was lovely, really lovely. Then when you returned to sweetness the next minute it was the perfect mindfuck.
Byakuya needed to do less pushing, and, instead, do more pulling--drawing closer, cuddling, sweetening up.
And, as usual, Sōzuke had likely misread the desperation in that alley scene he’d relayed so breathlessly. Byakuya’s chain was reaching its end. If he didn’t switch tacks soon, it would break.
But, at least, Gin and Sōzuke had gotten to reenact that moment. So, so thrilled Sōzuke had been to play the master; such a perfect game for someone with such a huge ego in need of stroking.
Ah! Of course! Instead of the hat, Gin should offer that again!
“Oh, yes, Renji on his knees,” Gin said, feigning breathlessness. “Can you tell me again everything you saw in that alley? I just… I can’t get enough of it.”
Ah, finally. That got Sōzuke’s interest—and other things—up.
The next morning, Renji made his way into the Kuchiki kitchens some time after breakfast. Byakuya was apparently sleeping in, since they were still preparing chawanmushi, an egg custard with gingko seeds. Peering over Miki’s shoulder, Renji gave an appreciative sniff of the shitake mushrooms she was adding, “Kind of fancy for breakfast, isn’t it?”
She gave him a playful elbow in the ribs, “And it’s not for you, Renji Abarai, so just keep your nose out of it.”
He backed away, with his hands raised guiltily. “I’d never interfere with such a skilled chef.”
“Hmph, well,” she said, still pretending to be angry with him, but clearly warmed by the compliment. “I may have made too much for just his lordship. If you wait, there might be some extra.”
He smiled at her and settled himself at the counter, next to the half-filled tea tray. He noticed a lily root had been set out and wondered if he should offer to help grate it. But, Miki wasn’t shy about asking Renji to pitch in.
She glanced at him. “Are you hung over? You seem underdressed somehow—oh! I know what’s missing! Where’s your zanpaktō?”
“In my quarters. It is peace time, you know.”
“I know, but you’re never without it. Not having it makes you look… well, sloppy.”
Renji wasn’t sure what to say to that. As he was formulating a response, he had to move aside as one of the staff set the tea on the tray. Someone even brought in a cut flower from the gardens, “You’re really going all out, Miki. What’s the occasion?”
Miki glanced at him over her shoulder, her hair its usual riot of orange-blond curls which were barely contained by a thick braid. “Don’t act dumb, Renji. You know how depressed the master has been with the Lady Kuchiki in so much hot water.”
For a second, Renji didn’t realize Miki meant Rukia. The Lady Kuchiki? Damn.
The cook left her pot simmering for a second and turned to give Renji a serious once-over. “He certainly kept you here late last night. An entire bottle of the good sake wasted, too!” she admonished with a shake of her head and a wag of her finger, “And you didn’t even eat what I sent up. I don’t know why he lets you do things like that. Passing out in his private quarters! People are going to get the wrong impression, you know.”
Apparently, Aio hadn’t mentioned that she’d seen Renji in his bed clothes. He was going to have to find a way to surreptitiously reward her for her discretion. Renji shrugged, “It’s like you say. I guess the captain needed company.”
“Oh,” she said, her irritation evaporating quickly. “Poor lamb.”
“Can I ask you something? How do you feel about all this mess with Rukia--er, Rukia-sama?”
Miki went back to stirring as she talked. The smells coming from the custard were making Renji’s stomach growl despite the fact he’d already eaten at the mess. She clucked her tongue, “It’s a terrible tragedy. I worry that it’s going to destroy his lordship. It was before your time, Renji, but he was gutted by his wife’s death. The only thing that’s brought him joy has been having Lady Rukia around. Now… oh, it just doesn’t bear to think of! Besides, I always liked her. She was always so kind to us downstairs. Very classy, that one, a real gentlewoman, so elegant.”
Renji nodded, it was one of the things he admired about Rukia, too. How she always had grace and poise even in the middle of Inuzuri’s hell. “I think we could help her out a little. I don’t want to do nothing that would get the captain in trouble, you understand, but I wonder if you could be sure to pass on to the staff over at the Thirteenth….”
Renji laid out his whole plan to Miki. She agreed that there was no harm in just letting people who cared for Rukia know about her plight. And apparently, a couple of people Byakuya had fired had ended up over at Ukitake’s estate. “He took them in, you know, that Ukitake is so tender-hearted. And, really, his lordship can be overly strict in the interpretation of what’s proper. They were in love! Think of how hard it would have been to care for a baby if they’d been cast back into the Rukongai!”
“Yeah,” Renji agreed. He was peeling the sweet potatoes Miki had set in front of him. “He can be a real—“
But Renji was interrupted by the arrival of Aio. “Change in plans,” she said to Miki, while trying to catch her breath. “Breakfast for two.”
“Two?” Renji said, setting the paring knife down. “Who's with the captain?”
“Oh, I’m glad you’re here, Renji,” Aio said. “His lordship said to bring up something Captain Aizen might like. He was your captain once, wasn’t he? Do you know what that might be?”
Renji shook his head. “Aizen? He’s not on today’s docket. What the hell is he doing stopping by unannounced? What the fuck happened to the Third? Is the gate completely open to interlopers?”
Aio shook her head nervously. “I… I don’t know. I knew it must have been a mistake. You’re always so good about the schedule and letting us know what to expect, but, Renji, please help: what does Aizen like?”
Stirring up trouble, that’s what. Renji snarled to himself. “How should I know? I never had breakfast with the captain when I was there. I wasn’t even seated.” But, everyone was looking panicked, so Renji put up his hands to calm everyone. “But, look, Miki’s chawanmushi smells fit for a king, it’ll serve just fine for—“ a snake like that bastard, “—an unannounced guest.”
Aizen at this hour? Byakuya continued to blink in barely contained irritation at the sight of the mild-mannered captain’s smile. What on earth could Aizen want with him before he’d even had his morning tea? He’d had to send the serving girl for an extra setting for breakfast and they were running out of small talk. Dear gods, would he be forced to make conversation over an entire meal with this man?
Byakuya already hated having to invite Aizen into his private quarters. He would have preferred that they meet in the office, even for what appeared to be a social call. Here there was no desk to sit behind, no distance to put between them. Byakuya’d had to sit beside Aizen on the cushioned bench, which felt not only too familiar but also strangely vulnerable.
Finally, Byakuya had to ask, “Did we have an appointment, Sōzuke? Only, my adjutant must have neglected to--”
“No, no,” Aizen continued to smile pleasantly, though something about it had been putting Byakuya on edge for the last twenty minutes. “I’m afraid I’m barging in entirely unannounced. I’ve been concerned about you.”
“You? Concerned for me? Whatever for?”
“This terrible business with your sister,” Aizen said, his voice dripping with compassion. “It must be very difficult for you.”
“Ah,” Byakuya said standing up, with the intention of ushering Aizen out the door. “I would thank you not to intrude in my family’s business.”
“But, Byakuya,” Aizen said, not getting the hint and staying resolutely in his seat, “This affects more than just your family. Ms. Rukia is a member of the court guard. She’s very well liked by everyone, and we all want to help you both in any way we can. Perhaps if you and I went to Central and made a case—“
“No, thank you,” Byakuya said, now staring at the door, in the hopes that Aizen would catch his meaning. “I have already approached Central.”
“And? They must have been sympathetic. Are they planning to reduce the sentence?”
Renji was coming up the stairs. Byakuya could sense his presence, his clear intent. He must have heard of Aizen’s breech finally.
Byakuya glanced back at where Aizen sat, “I have not yet been given an adequate response.”
It was a half-truth, but all Aizen needed to know. Byakuya had no intention of telling this man that he’d failed to even gain entrance to the Council of Forty-Six.
Renji interceded at just that moment, giving Byakuya an excuse not to have to say any more. Boldly, the lieutenant gave only the barest knock before sliding the door open, “Captains,” Renji said, with short bows of acknowledgement.
When he came up from the bow, Renji caught Byakuya’s eye and held it for a moment. Byakuya gave the slightest nod. Yes, I need a rescue.
“Right,” Renji nodded in understanding, “Sorry for the intrusion, gentlemen. I’m afraid I have to call my captain away. We’ve got a tight schedule today, sir. We really can’t even afford a moment’s delay.”
“My deepest apologies, Sōzuke, but it seems I must cut this visit short,” Byakuya said.
“I understand, of course,” Aizen said, finally rising from his seat. “Duty calls.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Renji, would you be sure to escort the captain out?”
“My pleasure, sir.”
“If you really need to get in with him, you’d have a much better shot through proper channels, sir,” Renji said at the door. “Have Momo—er, vice-captain Hinamori contact me next time. I’ll get you on the schedule.”
“Yes, I’m beginning to see that’s the only way.” Sōzuke nodded politely and made his way away from the barracks.
Well, that was disappointing. He’d failed to get much of a rise out of Kuchiki at all. If there was bad blood between the captain and his lieutenant after that alley business, it was impossible to tell. They were utterly formidable when working together. It was even more imperative he tear apart their cohesion.