Blood. Corpses. Death. Defeated. Written reports by shinigamis involved in the last war.
It is not the Shinigami who had lost, though, but Aizen's.
Finally, the bastard had enough.
The battle fruited. The Gotei won.
However, the ones who outlived death never knew what life beyond every war.
Including the Sixth Squad captain Byakuya Kuchiki.
The noble's immaculate facade and elegant grace did not change even once. He is one extreme example of a void man, a soldier who followed orders, an aristocrat setting rules to oblige with silent chain chaining his voice, chaining his arm and life, never did he chose what's good for him, nor ever did he chose what's best for him. That is what he lives for, that is what the real meaning of his name. Obedience. Half of his life was nothing but discipline, a mere figurehead. Now, the war was over, he must return to where they needed him most, and thus of all reasons, Byakuya wished he was dead.
Whoever Gods watching him right now, they do not intend to give him the opportunity.
Not yet, at least.
Now, with his torn, bloodstained haori and Senbozakura by his hand, he looked beyond the emptiness of the horizon, as lifeless Arancars and unnamed bodies scattered across the dull white sand...
Of which now pooled in red.
He closed his eyes and perceived what was there...
The war was over and he should rejoice it, but how, if all he sees was...
The Sixth Squad Fukitaicho was not at his side right now. Of the entire mission, this has been the strangest battle Byakuya ever engaged in. No one is guarding his back, no one is complaining about how arrogant the noble really was. He disregards the guarding of course since Byakuya was powerful enough to defend himself, but Renji...
Byakuya sighed. Renji is Renji. His insights and annoying outburst made him an emblem of all prodigies, of which, and surprisingly, Byakuya was so proud of it.
However, Renji Abarai was gone, dead for almost two years after the Karakura town incident. Abarai was infected by a disease, which lately turned him into a killer, a remote creature of Aizen. He killed most of the shinigamis, innocent people and the likes. This was a huge impact for the Gotei, let alone for Byakuya as the captain Renji used to work with. Sotaicho demands the incarceration of the lieutenant of Squad Six immediately, disregarding the pleas and beseech of each and everyone closest to Abarai, for the reason soldiers of the Gotei must have no exception for such sympathy, so the protector of Sereitei must obey, including and especially Byakuya. Renji's previous glory would never save him from his existing ill. He turned into a killer and, if the opportunity arises, thus accountable to die. All eyes on the noble when Central 46 bid them the task, and they knew behind those egotistical steel-gray eyes was pain. Abarai-fukitaicho and Kuchiki-taicho developed more than kin relationship, and Byakuya prayed someone could stab him in the chest the time he heard the command. Sotaicho said it was the best of all. If Renji was gone, the disease will die with him. If not, then the plague continues. Byakuya must choose between his duty and his heart. It was hard for him as for everyone else, but he must do what was necessary.
And when Renji attacked Kurakura Town, that is when Byakuya's decided what he thought was best for all.
All was hazed, blurred. The only thing Byakuya remembered that time was Senbonzakura, his own sword, plunged into the tattooed monster's possessed body, and the words "thank you" splits Renji's blooded lips before closing his eyes. It took days before Byakuya to peel away from the lifeless form of the comrade. His reatsu flared each time a shinigami was somewhere near the proximity of Renji.
And the agonizing scream... no one ever heard Byakuya Kuchiki scream all because of that choking pain.
That was two years ago.
Byakuya held up his hands and stared at it, the hands that killed a hundred - a thousand, and yet there is only one he could remember.
Two years, that long.
The voice of an unseated officer interrupted his thoughts. His reiatsu burned about, but immediately seized it. Mentally shaken, Byakuya realized he was standing more than half an hour in front of a dead creature. He composed himself and glanced towards the Squad Four shinigami's stunned eyes.
"Oh my - you're bleeding, Taicho!"
Byakuya turned away and wiped the foreign blood from his alabaster cheek. "It's not mine," - but I'm bleeding inside.
"Of course, sir. Is there anything you need?"
"No," he said in a sterner voice. "Go tend the others."
When the boy was gone, the noble frustrated a sigh and sheathed his sword. That is not what he expected. Usually Renji will come up from nowhere and, out of a habit, say something obnoxious only to annoy him, and the words "know your place, fukitaicho - I don't want to repeat myself" were the only thing he could share back. Now, there is no one there to aggravate him, nor riled him. Only muted winds and white sands greeted his face. It was genuinely tragic. No brusque redhead, no more cursing prose and preambles, with wolfish grins he always had even if he failed the first atempt of hitting the enemy down. Although Renji Abarai's own quality constantly irked Byakuya Kuchiki, the noble was splendidly becoming fond of it. He admitted he misses him - without showing malice, of course - as Renji's own friends once shared the same sentiment few months back while they gathered for his death anniversary. No one can replace their Abarai as a friend, they told Byakuya, while Byakuya, looking as serene as ever, for "Abarai's endearing reliability" he said in return.
And it was proven. Since the tragedy, Byakuya had done his duty for two years without a temp, or viable shinigami to replace his lieutenant. He does not need it, he claimed, or at least he thinks he doesn't. Or perhaps he does not want to change everything. He wants Renji's memory to remain as it is.
Childish. Completely childish, he mused while glancing at the horizon, smiling inwardly at the thought. How about selfish? Yes. Perhaps. Must be. He was so selfish he kept all the aches and the depression around, succumbing to the void and loneliness and placed it in his heart, not even a quarter to escape.
And he lied before Renji's friends, too.
No. He shook his head. No lies. He just... silenced himself. Because he didn't lose a friend, because friends will never break your heart.
Byakuya was mourning because now he knew his heart was broken, and the worst part, he could not shed a single tear.
Why? Because he can't. Because he doesn't want to. Because until now all he wanted was...
Stupid. This was all stupid, Byakuya cursed to himself. Then again, was it wrong to cherish Renji's whole being, speaking to him as if he was alive? Byakuya shook his head... of course not. Renji is too much for him to forget.
Setting the memory aside, Byakuya looked away from the lonely sight in front of him. He was about to walk towards the camp when a voice shattered his reverie...again.
"Yeah, I know. Wish Renji was here too to enjoy this."
The noble started slightly but hid it perfectly nonetheless. What is it with these people popping up each time you do not need them? Not only that, the mentioning of the name was unexpected too. Nobody spoke about Renji, let alone in front of the now enraged captain. This Kurasaki boy's presence always gives him the nerve in a wrong place at the wrong time.
"Would you please refrain mentioning the Fukitaicho's name."
Ichigo raised a brow at Byakuya, somehow shocked. Then the realization dawned at him. "Holyshh - You too?"
Byakuya glanced back at him, long and hard. In full haughtiness, he said, "Hisagi-fukitaicho and Kira-fukitaicho seemed shared the same opinion with you before grasping the realization, I see."
"Er? Oh! That. Well, it's been a long time, yah know," he shrugged and then slumped back to the sand. He was dirty, filthy head to toe, tired and worn-out. He felt Zangetsu's weight all over his body, so he strikes his sword, pinning down the grains of Hueco Mundo. They kept their thoughts on their own for a while. Perhaps sizing each others opinion, and Byakuya started to feel the awkwardness of the situation. He must leave immediately. He knows that, at any moment, Ichigo would blurt out something like...
"Bullshit. I don't understand you people."
Byakuya winced. Shunpo, easy to use, and now's the time.
But no. Because Ichigo was now standing before him, blocking his way.
"Typical," Byakuya said impassively. "You don't understand everything."
"And you do?"
Byakuya's gray orbs narrowed slightly, just a touch, but from Ichigo's point of view, that was the version of Byakuya's sprouting another head from the shoulder so that the sixty-two teeth can bite his head off.
Yet it didn't stop there. Though it was a warning, he wanted a push further. Byakuya's fuming now, he can sense it.
"Know what, I find that ridiculous, and can't believe you believed in that crap."
Byakuya stood in his full height. "What. In God's name. Are you implying about?"
"This... this thing about Renji! This mentioning the name of the dead could only unravel the soul of one to reach the other side." He snorted without humor and looked away, saw the blood not too far away, pooling from the creature Byakuya had killed. He gritted his teeth. Red. "Well, that's not the ritual we used to do for the dead where I came from. From where I came from, we honored them, and spoiler alert..." He glared back at Byakuya, pain in his eyes. "In case you've forgotten, this is the other side! And if Renji wants us to call his name more often to save his last card, I would do that just to spare his remains from the place called Sereitei."
The noble's hand twitched and balled into a fist, itching to knock that face. Control. He stepped back, shaking, avoiding those searing brown orbs. Bastard, why are you doing this to me?
However, the boy was right. Byakuya closed his eyes and lowered his head. Yes, he's right, he thought. Renji died because Sereitei judged him for the crimes he did not know. Because Sereitei was in danger. Sereitei killed Renji Abarai. I killed Renji Abarai.
Ichigo shifted a little, bit his lower lip. He doesn't mean to torment the Squad Six taicho with his words but... Aw shit, he said too much. Since the death of his friend, he too became edgy than before, putting his sudden outburst in wrong use. What an idiot. Of course, Byakuya suffered the same way as him, and the noble is more so to feel that way. They became close after Byakuya realized Renji was such a hardass. He felt sorry for the man. Least Ichigo was indeed lucky he's not the one who did the privilege of killing the red monster and took the blame aftermath. How can you sleep if you're the one who ended your friend's endearing life?
"I'm sorry," Ichigo whispered, reaching his sympathy towards the stoic captain. "I shouldn't have said that. He is my friend too, you know." He shook his head. "I just don't find this whole thing..." he waved his hand vaguely "... sensible."
Byakuya gazed at him for a moment and then nodded indecisively. He walked away.
"Are we good?"
"Do I have a choice?" Byakuya said without glancing back.
"You wish he was alive, do you?"
Byakuya shivered. Alive. He turned abruptly, almost lost his balance. He wanted to strike. He wanted to shout. His heart was pounding now. Enough! No one ever knew how much he wanted Renji to be alive, and be here, right now. Now, right this very moment. Not out of guilt. Not out of shame. Why wouldn't anyone leave him alone? You wish he was alive? Is this some sort of a joke?
But before Byakuya could speak, trampled his feet towards the young man in front of him, he saw Ichigo's head bowed. The boy's shoulder was shaking. It took a moment to realize the substitute-shinigami was... crying.
I'm not the only one…
He regarded the young man in front of him. Though with fierce power, Ichigo was like a boy who had nothing to cling to. Did he see Ichigo cried once? No. Did he hear Ichigo blamed him? No, not that he remembered. It was all the same - Byakuya's not the only one who lost someone dear. All of them did.
"Forgive me…" Byakuya began to say and wondered whom he was referring to.
Ichigo froze, head snapped up, surprised to hear the words from a man with no knowledge of emotion. "What… what did you say?"
Byakuya blinked, and was confused now. He didn't intend those words to be heard, let alone Ichigo. Too late.
"I'm so sorry," he implored. "Forgive me if I'm the one who took him away from you. I should have done more… I should have done better…"
Ichigo shook his head. Reaching up, he said, "But… you already did. You saved him."
"By killing him."
"How can you say that? You're his friend. You've been together for so long, guarding one another, back to back. If Renji was here, he will tell you the exact same thing. He knows you, Byakuya. He knows what's inside your heart long before you decided to say the things he should have known from the start. He's devoted to you. He admired you. Heck if not admired, perhaps adored you. You're his captain, and it is your duty to set things right. And one of them is to forgive yourself!"
"I lack forgiveness. And I have no plans to unlatch it to myself."
"Then you're a fool!"
The noble's brows furrowed. Am I? He had no answer. He wanted Renji to be alive only because he couldn't forgive himself, is that it?
He closed his eyes. Maybe I am.
The silence between them stretched that Ichigo could no longer hold. No use, Ichigo said to himself. If Byakuya wanted to kill himself with his guilt, who is he to argue.
The Substitute-shinigami stepped away, pulled his sword from the sand. He was already five feet away when Byakuya started to speak.
"Tell me," Byakuya began. "Why are you crying?"
Ichigo bit his lower lip. "I..." he turned to face the noble. "I cried for you."
"Because you can't." Ichigo took a step, inching close to the noble. "I know you wanted too but you can't. I'm here to do it for you because I understand."
Byakuya hitched a breath as he felt a wounded hand touching his shoulder. He glanced up to Ichigo's brown eyes and see something in them, something close to empathy. The noble's gaze softened. Two years from any physical contact. No wonder he felt so alien to the world he'd known. Renji held his hand more than he could count, a gesture of friendship, love and loyalty. Ichigo was building a bridge towards the unknown, doesn't care if Byakuya should open the door or not. All it takes is to let go of the lock and welcome Kurosaki in.
Byakuya twitched his lips, a smile. Renji was offering him another chance of life in the form of Ichigo Kurosaki.
"Thank you," he then said. His hand reached up to touched the Substitute-shinigami's shaking one. "Thank you very much."
Ichigo's abrupt movement made Byakuya smiled even more. The surprised Korosaki stepped back and raked his hair. "Um… Yeah…"
Byakuya searched his gaze. "Did I offend you?"
"No, no… it's just…" Ichigo scratched the back of his neck - the same way Renji when he blushed. "It's just… 'sorry', 'thank you' and the freaking smile of yours doesn't fit the epitome of your description inside my head… or anywhere near at it. Don't get me wrong, please. It's new to me… I guess."
"I see," Byakuya nodded concisely. "Well... see you around." He was about to walk away when another thought piqued inside his head. "Oh, and Ichigo..." He could feel Ichigo wanted to shrink away. It was the first he called him by his first name.
The noble opened his mouth, then closed it. They gaze at each other for a while, and when Byakuya saw the young man's jaw sagged for such suspense, he shook his head and smiled and went on his way.
"What the hell is that for?" Ichigo shouted behind his back, and then followed the captain few strides later.
Byakuya shrugged and twitched his lips - another ten signs of wonder for the boy to witness. "Nothing," he said. "I just want to see your idiotic face when you're traumatized, that's all."
Ichigo gasped. "You..."
"Really now, Kurosaki. You have guts, and I admired it. But you're slow. Do me a favor and fix that, will you?"
"You arrogant sly son of a... I'm gonna beat--"
Byakuya laughed. "We both know you can't."
Ichigo sneered. "Oh, really? Want me to prove it to you?" He pulled Byakuya's sleeve. "Wait. You thinking what I'm thinking?"
Byakuya glanced down to the hand, then back to the face. "Don't flatter yourself. You're a different kind."
"Very funny. Okay." Ichigo shifted a little. Pouting his lips and glanced up. "Today. After this. Afternoon?"
When was the last time Byakuya had a spar with somebody suited to his caliber? "Six Division grounds?"
Ichigo beamed his lips slowly, smiling, or more likely a stupid grin. "Oh yeah, you're on."
Byakuya stared at him. "Renji was right," he snorted softly. "You are a suicidal idiot."
"Yes, you are."
Ichigo laughed. "Well, I guess I learned from the master then, and to honor him, I'm going to beat your ass."
"I better go. See you later. Don't be late."
As Ichigo turned away, Byakuya glance at the pool of crimson now below his feet. He sighed.
From this day, I will start anew. But do I have to, Renji? Will you ever forgive me? What am I saying, of course you have. It is just that I cannot erase the things that happened, the way you prove your worth, the way you speak, ways of rogue principles between you and me. I just... can't. Because I am the one who created our end. Perhaps you are laughing at me now, telling me 'I told you'. Though it is certain the insult will hit home, I would not mind, as long as it came from you. However...
Are you proud of me, Renji? Proud that I don't have the audacity in me to change. Or do I have to? Give me a sign. Is it Kurosaki? You have a way to punish me, you know. And how odd it was. He was so like you. Do you think he will fit himself for such an uptight man such as me? You once told me how arrogant I was, however, arrogance is what we do best, and you and Ichigo has an exception to that.
Yes, he is the one.
I guess I can say goodbye now. Do not worry, however. We will see each other again, my friend.