"I'm terribly sorry, Byakuya-sama, but unfortunately it is impossible to use the Manor's bathing facilities at the moment."
Byakuya paused in undoing the kenseikan and looked at the servant kneeling outside the doorway to his chambers. A distant echo of annoyance prickled his inner calm, like a pocket dog baying at a dragon in repose. He had just begun to look forward to having a bath. "What seems to be the problem?"
"I'm terribly sorry," Tengo repeated, his head bowed low. "Vice-Captain Kusajishi used the water reservoir to dye Captain Zaraki's spare haori pink for the spring festival, and Sanae only just discovered it when she went to make the preparations for your bath." Seeming to take Byakuya's stunned silence as an invitation to continue, he did. "It will take us until tomorrow evening to drain the polluted water, clean the reservoir, and allow the hot spring to fill it once more."
"I see," Byakuya said. "Did Sanae catch the Vice-Captain in the act?"
"She did not; a note was pinned to the bench in the dressing area. Explaining Vice-Captain Kusajishi's purpose, presumably."
Byakuya nodded and dismissed Tengo with a gesture.
His father, and his grandfather before him, had taught him that if the servants made any mistakes, it was his fault for not having given the correct instructions or established clear enough rules. Faulting the servants for a poorly run household was akin to blaming the limbs for decisions made by the brain.
It would not do to be angry at Sanae for not having discovered the problem sooner: she had gone to make the preparations at the exact time specified on the schedule that Byakuya himself had reviewed at the beginning of the week. It would not do to be angry at Tengo for not having come before Byakuya began to anticipate his evening bath with pleasure. The Ito family may have served the Kuchiki clan for generations, but they were not mind readers.
It was utterly useless to be angry at Yachiru; might as well rage at the wind for blowing.
Still, he really wanted to be angry. Byakuya did not like it when his expectations were not met, and there were so few occasions for unsophisticated pleasure in his life that he could barely abide anticipation being cut short.
"Tengo," he said in a low voice, and the door to his chambers slid open once again.
"Yes, Byakuya-sama," Tengo said, bowing.
"I will use the Seireitei public bath this evening," Byakuya said. "Inform the kitchen that I will take my evening meal later than usual."
Although it made Byakuya feel terribly petty, he rather enjoyed the hint of dismay in Tengo's tone. There was no inherent shame in using the public facilities, but the manor being its own fortress was a point of pride for the servants and guards. That Byakuya had no choice except leave the grounds to accomplish what he wanted would be punishment enough, even though he did not intend it as such.
He just wanted to take a proper bath.
Byakuya had been to the public baths once before, with Ginrei, who had been determined to teach his teenaged grandson everything about the world, even if it meant mingling with hoi polloi.
The place had not changed very much since then: the same crumbling ceiling paint in the front entrance, the same faded changing room benches. The inside was mostly empty; he must have arrived during a lull in custom, or perhaps too many people were still busy with festival preparations and would be bathing much later than the customary hour.
He moved to undo his sash when he sensed Renji inside the men's baths and immediately hesitated: things between them had become awkward since the end of the war. Byakuya's fault, mostly.
Captain Commander Kyouraku had wanted Renji to head a special division of the newly formed trainee corps as provisional captain, but Byakuya had refused to let him go, claiming that he did not consider Renji's training to be complete. That was only partially true. Although he did believe Renji could still use polishing, Byakuya could have tested Renji's mettle against the new Senbonzakura; he suspected he would not have found either Renji or Zabimaru wanting. Both had proven themselves formidable in real battle.
But after nearly dying at the hands of the Wandenreich's Äs Nödt, Byakuya had vowed to strengthen his relationships: with his sister, his weapon, other members of his household, his second-in-command, the men and women of his division. Being asked to let go of Renji before he could accomplish his intent had caused him to balk. In the end, he had prevented Renji's advancement for an utterly selfish reason.
Never mind strengthening their relationship, the remorse Byakuya felt for having done such a thing had been forcing him to turn aside from Renji more often than not. Madarame Ikkaku had become the trainee corps captain, so it wasn't as though Byakuya could change his mind and take it back. Of course, his relationship with Renji would never improve at this rate, either. Not if he kept walking away when he should face Renji honestly.
Byakuya tugged on his sash with renewed determination. He had never been a believer in omens, but he couldn't help wondering if there were something... prophetic in Yachiru's appropriating the Kuchiki mansion's open-air bath for a messy crafts project. Otherwise, what would have been the chances of Byakuya ending up at the public baths in Seireitei while Renji was there too?
Zero, he thought with acerbic amusement. I would never have come here if it hadn't been for Yachiru.
But now that he was here, it would be a waste not to approach Renji. They had almost no opportunities to encounter one another outside of work, and Byakuya would never shirk his duties to try and unravel the interpersonal tangle he'd inadvertently created. A tangle of which, he was certain, Renji remained utterly unaware.
Undressed, with a towel slung about his hips, Byakuya entered the bathing area, where Renji sat with his back to the entrance, shampooing his hair.
Renji's failure to notice his presence perplexed Byakuya for a brief moment, but then he realised that Renji bathed here regularly. A captain-class reiatsu or seven would mean nothing in particular -- whereas Byakuya would become unsettled to sense so many shinigami nearby while bathing. Besides, Renji isn't obligated to stand at attention for every captain in his presence. Just his captain. And of course it was unthinkable for Renji's captain to appear in a place like this.
Still, it felt so very strange to be ignored by Renji. Like getting the cold shoulder from a beloved pet, or finding a precious possession in the wrong place. No sooner had the thought formed than Byakuya winced. After all that the two of them had weathered as comrades-in-arms, how could he even think such a thing? Renji was neither a pet nor an item.
Renji leaned closer to the shower head and began to rinse the shampoo out of his hair. Darkened by the water, it cascaded down his tattooed back unevenly, like scarlet paint spilled by accident. Byakuya's mind snagged inexplicably on a memory: Renji, bloodied by Senbonzakura's onslaught, his hair a wild tangle, his eyes full of fire despite his assured defeat.
He blinked to dispel the visual. His mouth had gone dry, and he felt as though something had vanished from his very core: in one fleeting moment, his stomach had twisted into a knot that tightened the longer Byakuya beheld the contrast of deep red and black against Renji's skin. He averted his gaze. What was the matter with him? He had come here to try and mend their relationship, not complicate it further by becoming entranced with an aspect of Renji's appearance.
Renji gathered his hair at the nape of his neck and turned to wring it out, then finally noticed Byakuya and jumped. His leg struck his wooden bucket of bathing supplies and sent it clattering to the floor.
"C-Captain! Is something-- did I mess up on that last report?"
"I have come to bathe, just like you," Byakuya said. "I did not find any issues with your facility clean-up progress report today, though your penmanship remains terrible."
"Oh." Renji seemed to struggle with something for a moment, his eyebrows drawing together, but he said nothing else.
"Well, excuse me," Byakuya said, dragging a stool over to an empty shower stall a few paces away from Renji. He opened the paper-wrapping on the bar of soap bearing the Kuchiki family emblem: it was all he'd brought, as he had not wanted to be seen walking around Seireitei with bathing paraphernalia.
Byakuya washed his hair first, then his private parts, keenly aware of Renji hovering nearby. It wasn't just that he could feel Renji's reiatsu: he was almost physically aware of Renji occupying space just a short distance away. He wasn't sure why Renji's presence would have this strange effect. Perhaps it was simply the novelty -- after all, the two of them had never bathed together before. He decided to contemplate it during his quiet hour later that evening.
He was tempted to ask why Renji was standing behind him rather than immersing himself in the bath, but at the same time he did not wish for Renji to leave. If they got into the bath together, that would be an ideal time for Byakuya to explain what had happened with the would-have-been promotion.
He reached over his shoulder to place the soap into the waiting attendant's hand, but of course this was the public bath, and there was no one waiting to help him wash his back, and the soap fell to the tiles with a wet thunk. Byakuya sighed.
"Do you want-- um, may I?" Renji asked. When had he got so close behind Byakuya?
"Yes, do," Byakuya said, realising why Renji had been waiting. This sort of thing probably happened here often: subordinates being expected to wash their superiors' backs if they bathed at the same time. For some reason he disliked the idea of Renji having washed someone else's back.
Renji snatched a clean washcloth from the shelf next to the shower area, wet it, and went to work on Byakuya's back. His hands were strong, his movements precise. Once, his fingers pressed against a knotted muscle in Byakuya's shoulder, and Byakuya, unprepared for the deep ache, made a small, involuntary sound. He had thought he'd worked all of those out earlier that afternoon, following sword practice.
Renji paused and pressed a little harder: for a wonder, the knot dissolved, drawing another unbidden sound from Byakuya: a sigh.
"Where did you learn how to do that?" Byakuya asked. Was the water temperature a little high or was he starting to feel feverish?
Renji shrugged as he wrung out the washcloth without looking at him. "We all kind of learned, at the academy. Hisagi-san, Izuru, Ikkaku-san. You know. The guys."
"I see," Byakuya said. "I didn't think you had any surprises left for me."
He re-fastened the towel around his waist and rose, intending to face Renji and tell him about the promotion-that-wasn't, face to face. He needed to do this: he hadn't realised how much it was truly weighing on his conscience. What other reason could there be for Renji's presence alone to unsettle him that much?
"Ren--" he began, but Renji's lips stopped his voice, and Renji's tongue stole his breath. Stunned by the immediate arousal flooding his lower body, Byakuya kissed him back almost reflexively. He hadn't kissed anyone like this since-- well, since a very long time ago. He hadn't realised he wanted such a kiss until just now, and it almost frightened him how badly he wanted it.
No amount of quiet contemplation would ever have sufficed to get him to understand that this was what he desired -- what he had desired for quite some time. Now he understood why he really hadn't wanted Renji to leave his side, why he didn't like Renji washing another's back, why his body felt so hot when Renji got close enough. Some answers could only be found with quick, decisive action: a swift slash of a weapon, a word the wind carries, a kiss.
Is this really happening? Byakuya raised a hand to Renji's chest to feel his heartbeat, to confirm that he wasn't just having a strange vision -- but Renji must've taken it as an attempt to push him away, for he tore his mouth free and staggered backwards, upending his bucket once more.
"I'm-- sorry, I'm sorry, Captain, I-- Shit. Oh, shit. I'm the worst." Renji's towel had loosened, and he held it to his crotch with both hands, his face pink.
Byakuya forced his breathing to steady. "How long, Renji? How long has it been since you wanted that?"
Oh, but he was being awfully presumptuous, wasn't he? Who was to tell that Renji wasn't simply weak to any kind of physical stimulation? Perhaps he might've impulsively kissed just about anyone. Byakuya had never fraternised with Renji, so how was he to know what kinds of things he did in his free time?
"I'm sorry," Renji said, staring down at the floor. The shampoo bottle had rolled to rest by his right foot.
"That does not answer my question," Byakuya said, finding it difficult to contain his exasperation. What he really wanted was to get back to the kissing, but they couldn't very well do that if Renji got it in his head to flee. And Byakuya would not go after him; there were limits to how far he would indulge childishness.
"I don't know," Renji muttered. "A long time. I'm sorry."
"Why are you sorry?" Byakuya asked, annoyed now. "Was the experience inadequate?"
Renji's head snapped up. "What? Don't be a-- um, I mean. That's not it at all, Captain. You're my superior officer, and--" He trailed off with a brief shrug.
"And?" Byakuya prompted.
Renji shook his head, shoulders slumping. "And you're too noble for someone like me. I might hope to best you in battle, but neither a stray dog nor a monkey can hope for the moon, right? I remember it well."
Byakuya should have agreed. Had this happened just two years in the past, he would have. Before Kurosaki Ichigo had come and ripped a gash through Byakuya's whole world, he indeed had seen Renji as… less than significant. But those days were long gone, and while he did not yet consider Renji his equal, he could see his way to it.
He stepped closer and touched the right side of Renji's face with his fingertips."That which wishes to know a monkey's hands is no moon at all, Renji."
Renji's eyes went wide. "Cap--"
This time, it was Byakuya's turn to muffle Renji's words, and he did so with a greed only familiar to those who know what they're about to taste. Byakuya closed his eyes and gave over to the citrusy scent of Renji's shampoo, the heat of his skin, the aching sweetness unfolding in his belly at the slippery warmth of Renji's mouth. Renji gripped the small of his back one-handed and pulled him closer; his other hand still clutched the towel to his front, and Byakuya's own towel began to slip.
He caught it, just barely. "Come," he said, nudging Renji towards the bath.
"We'll get caught," Renji said, obeying.
Byakuya made a face at his back. "I am not suggesting we engage in sexual activity in the public bath, Renji. I simply no longer wish to mind this damnable towel."
"Besides," he added, getting in beside Renji. "I am not accustomed to bathing in the presence of others. If someone enters the men's changing room, I shall know it at once, should we… forget ourselves."
The water was too hot for his liking, and the harsh glare of the overhead lights was far from pleasant. This would have been much nicer at the manor, where steam from the water surface would disperse through the air and make everything feel a little magical.
Renji was staring at him with a mixture of awe and confusion. "Captain, are you just humouring me? Because of that trainee captain thing?"
Byakuya blinked back surprise. "You-- knew?"
Renji nodded. "The Captain Commander told me about it ages ago."
That scheming... person. "You-- ah. You aren't disappointed?" Byakuya asked with a sidelong glance at Renji.
"Over what? So I didn't become trainee corps captain, so what? I didn't want the job anyway."
Byakuya turned to look at him. "You didn't."
"I won't surpass you by becoming captain of some other division," Renji said, eyes boring into Byakuya's. "One day I'll fight you for the title of Sixth Division Captain, and I'll win."
All at once, Byakuya felt rather ashamed of himself for having lacked the wisdom to understand that this would have been Renji's answer to the Captain Commander in the first place. Not only would he have to navigate a new kind of relationship from now on; he would also need to teach himself not to try and think in Renji's place.
"That's all I want," Renji added, his face set with determination.
Byakuya allowed a slight smile. "Oh, is that all you want?" He fixed his eyes on Renji's mouth. "To answer your question, I am certainly not merely humouring you."
Renji bit his lip. "That's just unfair," he complained, leaning closer so Byakuya could kiss him. "If you look at me like that when we fight, I'll never win."
"Maybe you just need to increase your tolerance," Byakuya suggested, his lips moving against the corner of Renji's mouth. By doing this kind of thing as often as possible, he didn't say. He didn't need to. Something told him that in this, unlike in many other things, he and Renji would have no problem understanding each other.
"Just not in the bath," Renji said with a mulish yet resigned cast to his voice.
"Not in this bath," Byakuya amended.
"Speaking of which, you never told me what brought you here tonight."
"The Vice-Captain of the Eleventh Division," Byakuya said glumly. "She used the Manor's baths to dye Captain Zaraki's outfit for the festival. Do not dare to laugh, Abarai Renji."
To Renji's credit, he tried not to; he really did, but little muffled bursts of laughter escaped him as they finished their bath, dressed in the company of a newly arrived troop of Fourth Division men, and walked together into the clear, breezy evening.
Then Renji invited Byakuya on a date to the festival, so all in all the Seireitei public baths adventure ended in Byakuya's favour.
It's my win, Yachiru.