Renji wakes to a world filled with nothing but sound. Far above his aching head, people bark orders, feet bound on the flat dirt of a road, leaves rustle and doors bang.
Renji's mouth is dry, his breaths shallow; he smells blood and the rain-soaked dust of ground-up rocks upon which his broken body lies, Zabimaru's hilt clutched in limp fingers.
Zabimaru. There was fighting. Soul Society was invaded. The Quincy Sternritter, like a late summer storm.
Renji's heart beats faster and the taste of blood in his mouth intensifies. Sunlight assaults his eyes as he blinks them open but there is nothing above him except for pregnant grey clouds. He lifts his head a little and sees the massive spray of blood on the wall across the square as his memories trickle back.
Senbonzakura's deadly petals ravage Byakuya in slow motion. Renji hears himself screaming as he charges, and then all is silent.
Blood on the wall.
Byakuya. Renji tries to call his name but his lips do not move.
By the wall, there is an unmoving body, and Renji wishes he could unsee the number on that haori.
Where is Byakuya's sword? Where is Senbonzakura? Renji struggles to move, but the blood in his mouth tastes exactly like despair. No one could be alive after losing so much blood. He cannot sense Byakuya's reiatsu, and the absence of Senbonzakura can only mean he's dead.
Where is the Fourth Division?
Renji shuts his eyes. Of all the ways he thought he could lose his captain, death was ever but a distant tenth. Byakuya, named aptly after an endless arctic night that took away your breath with beauty and chilled you to the quick with nameless fear. The man Renji hated, envied, admired, and then loved hopelessly.
After Aizen's capture, Byakuya doffed the kenseikan and ginpaku kazahana no uzuginu -- he said he was unfit to wear them, unfit to lead the Kuchiki clan. Someone who could allow an abomination like Aizen to exist alongside him for so many decades had centuries to live before he could protect his own honour, let alone someone else's.
Without these symbols of power, it became harder for Renji to keep a respectful distance. His lovesick soul interpreted the loss of status as a sign that they could become equals, that he could offer his love to Byakuya, but Renji was no fool. He learned the lesson about the monkey and the moon, and he learned it very well, so he went to his captain and knelt and bowed his head and begged for a demotion.
"Why?" Byakuya asked then. "Why, Renji?"
Renji looked up at him. "Ever since I met you, I only wanted your attention, and for a long time I did not understand what that meant, but I do now. I love you, Captain Kuchiki. Yet I know it is foolish for a dog like me to even hope--"
"Say no more," Byakuya said. "Go and finish your duties for the day. If you still wish to be demoted tomorrow morning, come and ask me again."
Stunned equally by Byakuya's tacit rejection and his reluctance to let go, Renji did as instructed. When he returned to his quarters to retire for the night, he found a letter tucked beneath the door.
You have always had my attention, the letter said. It was signed Byakuya.
Renji felt light-headed and panicky; it was as though a balloon had burst in his chest, filling him with a hope he never knew before. He did not ask to be demoted again.
The letters became a nightly occurrence, a treat he looked forward to from morning. Sometimes one wouldn't appear until he was already in bed; it would slip through the crack in the door with a rustle, and Renji would be throwing the door open to find only an empty hallway. Shunpo.
During the day, they were captain and vice-captain, and that was all anyone knew, but the letters -- which Renji kept in a special fire-safe box, purchasing which wiped out his savings -- told a different story. They were always short -- one or two sentences at the most, sometimes a single word: some commented on things Renji said during the day, some praising him, some scolding. Some contained poetry, others held snatches of thoughts that Renji barely understood, yet others left Renji breathless with confused lust:
You wore a different-coloured hair tie today. Tomorrow, tell me what happened to your usual one.
You handled those louts from Eleventh Division well.
Don't stick your chopsticks in your food.
a fell wind rages / a new spring is almost here / we can melt the ice
What is honour if it destroys hope?
Today I thought about the way your hands would feel in my hair.
One night, the letter invited him to the Kuchiki mansion, advising him to use the north-side entrance and allow the servant waiting there to guide him. Renji ran all the way there, arriving sweaty and breathless.
The servant took him to a bathing chamber. "You may wash your body here before entering the outdoor bath, Abarai-dono. Byakuya-sama is expecting you."
Byakuya is in the pool, submerged to his waist. His hair is fastened with a tie just like Renji's, and the steam rising from the water gives him a translucent, ethereal appearance. Renji has never seen him like this, and his heart is beating so erratically he can barely keep his reiatsu under control.
"Aren't you going to come in?" Byakuya asks.
"But what about the servant?" Renji asks, feeling stupid and far too young. "Is it appropriate?"
"Shedding the symbols of being the head of the clan affords me much more leeway in the company I keep after hours," Byakuya answers as he wades closer. "No one will come here now that you've arrived. Besides, there is nothing untoward in bathing together, Renji."
Easy for you to say, Renji thinks, loosening the ties on the yukata he was given. He can feel Byakuya's eyes on him as he undresses, and he's terrified.
He has fantasised about touching Byakuya for years but now that he's probably -- probably! -- about to, he feels all wrong: his body too large, his hands too clumsy and fingers too fat. He climbs into the bath with his back to Byakuya, embarrassed even more by his dick's inability to read the atmosphere.
Byakuya places a hand on the back of his neck and makes him turn around. Renji, stunned into action by the casualness of his touch, gathers Byakuya up into his arms and kisses him, blood pounding in his head, the delicate herbal smell of the scalding water clouding his mind. Byakuya's mouth tastes of mint leaves, and Renji whimpers as their tongues touch.
That's always been his problem. He reaches above his station. He doesn't know his place. He breaks the kiss and stumbles back, splashing loudly, until his ass hits the ladder.
"I presume too much," Renji stammers, watching, dazed, as Byakuya moves towards him, all languid grace. "Forgive me."
"Sometimes you don't presume enough," Byakuya whispers to him, soft pale hands improbably cool against Renji's sweat-bathed skin. His parted lips once more find Renji's in the moonless dark.
That night Renji finds out the meaning of the word 'unquenchable'. No matter how many times Byakuya cries out in pleasure beneath these clumsy, unworthy hands, it will never be enough.
Oh, but that hurts far too much. Renji opens his eyes, dispelling the rest of the memory, but the ache in his chest and the wintry chill in his gut are here to stay.
Fourth Division troops swarm around Byakuya's body. They are swift and silent as they carry him away, and Renji knows Byakuya is dead: black stretchers are for corpses. For all the Fourth Division's solicitude, one of Byakuya's bloodied hands dangles from the stretcher. That hand would never grip a sword again, nor would it reach to fold softly against Renji's cheek.
Renji sits up, half on his elbows, through pure power of will. He aches to follow the stretcher to the halls of silence so he may sit in vigil at Byakuya's side until it is time to say good-bye. But that is an honour reserved for family; that will be Rukia's place. She would let him attend if she knew, but no one could know, not even now that there'd be no more letters under Renji's door.
Every Shinigami knows that death is not the end. Byakuya's spiritual body will disintegrate; Seireitei itself will absorb him. His soul is already in the human realm, waiting to arrive shrieking and bathed in a mother's blood and pain. Perhaps it is already sleeping soundly on a soft little bed that smells of talcum powder, dreaming its new living dream. A dream that doesn't remember Renji.
He wants to think he'll meet Byakuya again, that fate will bring them together, but it's such arrogance to think that Kuchiki Byakuya's noble spirit would be bound to that of a stray mutt. Hisana-san is out there somewhere, either living out a human life or already wandering through Rukongai once more. Rukia still lives on as a Shinigami: even she would have more right to call Byakuya hers. After all, souls aren't forged in blood and bone. Family relations matter only in the material world.
Though Renji has loved Byakuya for years, he never did find out when exactly Byakuya noticed him as more than just an underling. They were only together for six months. What could a love so very young be worth against the weight of centuries or even decades?
He stares until the stretcher disappears around the crumbling remains of a barrack, his eyes glued to Byakuya's lifeless hand until it's gone.
Sometimes you don't presume enough.
Defiance rolls through Renji's guts and the tears in his eyes sting like acid. What is honour if it destroys hope? He's always been a clueless brat from Rukongai with no concept of family honour, authority, or propriety. Byakuya gave that brat his love. Who's to say Renji doesn't deserve it? Who's to make him stand aside?
His upper arm muscles give up the fight, and he collapses onto his back, shutting his eyes with the pain as he makes one silent vow.
I will find you: in any life, in any world. Go as far as you will.