Title: Stunted Forward Motion
Author: Celeste
Feedback: yes!
Universe: Bleach
Theme/Topic: 10,000 word challenge
Rating: PG-13
Pairing: RenjixByakuya , mentioned IchigoxRukia and some Byakuya+Hisana and Renji+Rukia.
Spoilers: Whole Soul Society Arc
Word Count: 11,274
Time: Days and days and days. --;;
Warnings: Spoilers for the Soul Society Arc and slight spoilers for around… 193 to be safe?.
Summary: Sort-of companion piece to "On the Next Go Round"- Byakuya and Renji battle loneliness and rejection.
Dedication: Ann- because she challenged me.
A/N: I say companion piece because it sort of follows events I set up in "On the Next Go Round" but at the same time, that story doesn't have to be read for this one to make sense. Hopefully. Done for a fic challenge/contest thing over at because Ann thought I should give it a shot. I totally procrastinated until the last minute, but I got it done! Miracles do happen. Even you know, if they're a bit shoddy. XD
Disclaimer: Not mine, though I wish constantly.
Distribution: Just lemme know.


He almost feels horrible for thinking it, but as he sits beside Renji and sips his sake, he can't help but feel glad as well, because there's someone else in the world who understands how he feels even if that feeling isn't exactly the most pleasant one in the world.

Renji is drunk, and smiles at Byakuya in a half-vacant way, raising his glass and smacking his lips and slurring his words even worse than he does when he's with his thug friends and they're talking about women.

"Ne…women, eh taichou?"

Byakuya sips his drink calmly. "What about them?"

"'S okay…don't need 'em, right? You'n me… just ain't in our stars, I s'pose."

"No, I don't suppose they are," Byakuya allows with a certain level of amusement. It had taken his sister's marriage for he and Renji to find common ground strong enough to stand on side by side as friends, and while he should sympathize with Renji on the matter, he's been lonely enough for many years now and can't help but appreciate sharing his pain with someone who knows the same kind.

When Rukia left them both behind to marry Ichigo, the competition had ended and Renji had to cede victory to his long time rival, forcing a smile at the wedding and kissing the bride on the cheek as he wished her a very happy life.

Byakuya understands that sort of pain, the kind where you make yourself smile at the person you love and have them look back at you as something less, as perhaps, a dear friend and not someone they can ever love in return. Byakuya, like Renji, knows what it is to love and be everything but a lover to the person that matters most.

And so they drink sometimes, on those especially lonely nights, sitting together on the porch of Byakuya's quarters and staring at the sky, drinking sake and taking each other's company to try and stem off the overwhelming feelings of loneliness that just take them on certain nights without any rhyme or reason. It's been their secret ritual for seven years now, and while the time has been long, the pain doesn't seem to really change regardless of how much they talk about it or how much they try to drink their problems away.

"So… how're the rugrats?" Renji asks after a moment, setting his drink down and resting his chin on his knees as they watch the fireflies zip out over the still pond in the courtyard's garden.

Byakuya supposes that even if Renji resents that Rukia didn't choose him in the end, his vice-captain can't help but love Rukia's children all the same, if only for the fact that Byakuya thinks that Renji sometimes imagines what a child between he and Rukia might have looked like, had things been different.

"Ichiro is six," Byakuya responds absently, swirling his drink in its dish with a precision that means he hasn't drunk nearly enough yet tonight. "He's long graduated from the rug," the sixth division captain adds with a fond smile, because while he feels for Renji, he is also a proud uncle, and he loves Rukia's children for entirely different reasons than the redhead. "The other two aren't far behind their brother."

"Oh…well. Okay then. Didn't know the runt had a birthday since I last saw 'im," Renji muses aloud. "Gotta send him a late present or somethin'…" he says, and with a tone of longing that echoes Byakuya's own.

"Aa."

They sit in silence for a while, and Byakuya finally stops swirling his drink around and just knocks the entire dish back, letting the warm burn of alcohol stop him momentarily, from feeling the cold chill of loneliness.

Renji raises his own dish at his captain's act and knocks it back shortly after him, and after a while several bottles are empty between them and they can't watch the fireflies very well anymore because it's hard to follow them with their eyes.

"I saw Hisana the other day," Byakuya manages, because sake seems to lend him the courage he needs to be able to speak about what's bothering him.

Renji blinks dumbly. "What?"

It sounds absurd, and Byakuya knows they're both a little bit drunk, but he feels the need to say what's on his mind anyway, because if he's drunk when he does, it might seem less ludicrous in the morning when he's sober. "I saw her today. Well, not her… but I saw…"

Renji stares, his mouth gaping a little, and before Byakuya can, he chokes out, "Next life! You saw the… you saw the reincarnation?"

And that's what he'd been looking for but unable to say, and the hardest part thus dealt with, he tells Renji about his little nephew's first-grade teacher and the conference he went to just to be able to see her.

"Man…what're the odds? You… you hadta… man. Ain't that a bitch?" Renji marvels after the story is told, pouring Byakuya another drink because he, even in his drunken buzz, still knows that his captain needs maybe a few more before the night is through. "Ain't life a bitch?"

Byakuya is inclined to agree, and graciously accepts all the alcohol Renji sees fit to pour him.

"So she was married?"

"With a son."

At that, Renji hisses like he himself has been burned, and Byakuya knows it's horrible, but he's just very glad right now, to have someone beside him who really understands how he feels.

"Life's a bitch," the redhead murmurs around the rim of his drink, looking up at Byakuya with alcohol glazed eyes and offering a lopsided smile. "Shit… we're two damn unlucky sonsabitches ain't we, taichou?"

And Renji bursts out laughing at that, because between the two of them, they have to laugh sooner or later or just be driven mad with everything.

So Byakuya smiles back and chuckles a little and toasts his vice-captain's last statement as a matter-of-fact.

It's a little strange, granted, that Kuchiki Byakuya runs to his vice-captain when he's unbearably lonely, runs to his vice-captain when he needs comfort and alcohol and a sympathetic ear. It's a little strange given how vastly different they are. Byakuya, a prince of Seireitei and Renji, an urchin of Rukongai. But oddly enough, all of those differences melt away when they're side-by-side like this, the only thing between them the various empty bottles of sake consumed in the night.

And Byakuya feels that years of this has led to what he considers a solid friendship built on the common ground of their grief. He and Renji are two of a kind, really, and the bond that has developed out of their most painful experiences is stronger than any line between prince and pauper that there might have been earlier.

In the end, both of them are agonizingly lonely.

And that's enough.

It's enough to overcome the extensive differences of their upbringings and the varying experiences of their past, enough to cut through the animosity that had once been between them before, back in a time that might have been a lifetime ago.

It's enough so everything that happens between them on these nights is tempered by the fact that some nights are worse than others, and Byakuya knows that when Renji is drunk and reaches forward to kiss him, it's only for the touch of someone else, anyone else, and nothing more.

The fact that Byakuya lets it be him is testament to his own loneliness as well, after all.

When the last bottle empties between them, Renji crawls forward and touches his captain's face with a small, drunken smile, looking up at the other man with a sort of unfocused desperation that makes Byakuya instantly open to him, makes him relax his shoulders and close his eyes.

It's all the invitation he ever needs, and Renji reaches forward and grasps a handful of his captain's clothes in his fist, pulling the older man down roughly and kissing him with an aggressiveness that almost makes it impossible for either of them to imagine the women they'd loved in the place of each other.

It's a messy thing, but it's something.

And so Byakuya opens his mouth to Renji's tongue and lets himself be pushed onto his back with a little sigh, the taste and smell of alcohol enveloping them both in a haze of cloudy perception that for a moment, lets them feel something other than lonely.

It isn't always purely pleasant feelings between them in these times of course, but it's better than nothing, and there's something about the roughness of Renji's hands tearing his expensive clothing from him that's real and solid and different enough from every one of Hisana's tentative touches such that Byakuya doesn't feel bad about gripping Renji back with his arms and legs or kissing roughly or biting his shoulder, clutching at his vice-captain with all the power he possesses without having to hold back, without the fear of frightening or breaking the other man.

It's all very different from Hisana, and he thinks that sometimes, it's exactly what he needs.

Renji always falls asleep when they're finished, right on top of him and snoring in his ear like he's in the most comfortable drunken slumber in the world despite them both being sticky with sweat and cum, the air thick with alcohol and uncomfortable heat.

It's always up to Byakuya to push Renji off of him and clean them up, to dress them again and carry Renji to his quarters before he staggers back to his own in a rather undignified fashion.

He collapses, exhausted, into his bed and sleeps deeply until morning, momentarily relieved of his horrible solitude and grateful that there's someone out there who understands him enough to give him nights like these.

Come morning Renji is always there bright and early to wake him up, a good vice-captain despite the fact that he might be slightly hung-over, bringing tea and a quick fix breakfast and marveling about how drunk he must have been last night because he can't remember a thing.

Byakuya smiles indulgently and takes his tea from the other man, ignoring the slight pounding of his own head because there is work to be done today and he can't begrudge Renji for not remembering what happened the night before as he thinks he prefers it that way anyway.

It's not that he believes that there would be any awkwardness between the two of them should Renji remember, but it's rather because Byakuya feels that last night is irrelevant as of today, because those nights should remain in their own space and time and not spill over into his duties as a captain.

He takes refuge in alcohol and his vice-captain on the worst of his lonely nights, but every day he is the commander of the sixth division shinigami and that takes precedent over any personal issues he might be going through at any one time.

So Renji never remembers and Byakuya always does, but as far as Byakuya is concerned, it changes nothing because there can be no love involved, no real sentiment other than the mutual relief of loneliness between friends and comrades.

Perhaps it is cold of him to think of it that way when Renji doesn't even have the chance to remember and judge for himself, what it is between them, but Byakuya feels that it is best not to examine things too closely in this case, because while he is very fond of Renji, he feels no desire to try and make more of what is obviously drunken desperation, especially considering the last time he tried to make something more of simple affection, the only result being the knowledge that his most precious person would never feel more for him than just that.

She hadn't been able to love him.

And now, he doesn't think he is capable of love anymore himself. He doesn't want to chance pursuing it again should the results be the same as before.

For now, he is satisfied in being only a captain and a friend.

It's as simple as that.

"Oi, taichou… ready? We're gonna be late," Renji urges from around a mouthful of pastry, inadvertently spitting a few crumbs into Byakuya's face as he does. "Er…whoops."

Byakuya arches a brow at his vice-captain, half disgusted and half amused at having been thrown from his musings in such a crude manner, and is about to reach for his napkin when Renji does instead, looking sheepish and wiping the offending flakes from his captain's face like it was the most natural thing in the world. "Sorry 'bout that, taichou," he reiterates, setting the napkin back on the table.

"It's fine," Byakuya responds, looking down at the uneaten pastry that remains for him on the tray.

"'s apple," Renji offers, pushing it towards his captain. "Lucky, I got the last one before they sold out this mornin'."

"Thank you."

It had been discovered some time ago that in addition to their mutual stories of love lost, the other thing they had in common was a fondness for certain apple pastries from a certain Rukongai bakery, and on occasion, Renji would trek out in the wee morning hours to obtain the treats for the two of them on the days when both men were sick of commissary breakfasts whose main aims were nutritional rather than taste.

The second half of Renji's pastry today reveals cherry filling, and Byakuya looks at it oddly for a moment.

"Er, just thought I'd try somethin' different this mornin', is all," Renji says by way of explanation, dismissing his captain's furrowed brow. "Now hurry up, taichou… ya got a captain's meetin' later this morning, remember?"

"Of course."

Byakuya takes his pastry and bites into it and thinks nothing more on any of it because it's time to get back to work now.

Deep in the back of his mind however, he knows that Renji's had cherry before because he remembers the other man stating exactly how much better the apple was once over a breakfast like this some time ago.

"I'm visiting again next week," Byakuya says a few days later, carefully watching his vice-captain's reaction because he's not sure if this is one of the better days or if it's just one of the bad ones. "I um… did you want me to bring anything for Ichiro?"

Renji smiles a little at the kid's name, though there's still a residual flash of regret in his eye when the subject is broached.

"Yeah, I'll go pick up somethin' for the brat and get it to you before you go," Renji assures him with an awkward laugh.

"Very well."

He doesn't know what possesses him to ask the next question when he knows very well he should just leave it be, but before he can stop himself, Byakuya finds himself asking his vice-captain, "Do you want to come with me?"

Renji chokes a little on his own air and bursts out coughing at the inquiry, looking strangely up at his captain after he's regained some sense of self. "What?"

Byakuya frowns to himself as if he's just realized the mistake he's made and shaking his head, he looks at the other man apologetically. "Sorry, I…"

"No, it's… ha, I should probably go sometime soon really, but um…"

"I shouldn't have asked."

"No big deal, taichou," Renji assures him, though the redhead's eyes suddenly feel a little bit lonely.

Byakuya moves to voice his regret at having been so insensitive, but Renji, seemingly reading his mind, holds up a hand to stop him.

"I'm sure I'll head over for a visit soon, just need to you know, sort some things, taichou. 's not a big deal, really. Thanks for askin'."

Byakuya doesn't really know whether to believe him or not, but there's something strange about the way Renji looks at him when he speaks, and so Byakuya feels that it's best to simply withdraw, and with a small nod at his vice-captain, he departs into his office, closing the door behind him and wondering what exactly, possessed him to provoke the other man like that.

Rukia always accused her older brother of being too clingy when it came to certain things, challenging him to maybe try something new and stop trying to keep things from changing.

Her way of telling him to get over her sister, but he doesn't think it's that easy, that it should be that easy, and he'd told her as such.

She'd asked him to count the years since Hisana's death and he'd been unable to answer really, because when he'd stopped to think about it, it had been a long time.

His silence had been answer enough for her however, and she'd looked at him knowingly, telling him very matter-of-factly, that it was time to stop fearing change and to maybe go out there and try to be happy himself one of these days.

"Normal people tend to do it, niisama."

And maybe he can admit that he is a bit clingy when it comes to certain things, not wanting them to change or not wanting himself to change, and when he stops to think about it, normal people do get over themselves and move on while here he is, still years behind and not really wanting to budge.

Perhaps he'd provoked Renji because it seemed like after all this time; he was being left behind again.

He finds himself noticing more and more lately, that his vice-captain is trying to move on with his own life. Of course, it's unquestionable that Renji still loved Rukia, but the effort is there, as proven by yesterday, when Byakuya had spied Renji laughing rather flirtatiously with Matsumoto in one of the hallways, his smile a little bit forced but the effort visibly there.

And Byakuya supposes it's selfish of him, but the thought of losing his commiserator is an idea that he instantly doesn't like.

Because having someone who really understands him is sometimes, the only thing that really gets him through the worst of the lonely nights.

But Rukia had been right, and normal people, even the kind that are normal in the sort of way Renji is normal, tend to move on after a period of time. And it looks as if the redhead is making efforts to do so after only a handful of years, whereas Byakuya's time spent regretting is double that already.

Even if Renji's efforts are small, they are there.

And Byakuya feels as if he is being left behind again.

It had been cruel of him to just out of the blue, invite his vice-captain to his sister's home with him, but Byakuya thinks that he doesn't want to lose whatever understanding had come between he and Renji in their mutual pain should Renji be able somehow, to really move on.

Byakuya thinks that maybe he's afraid of it changing.

And it's horribly petty of him to try and keep Renji from moving on by throwing old wounds back into his face, picking at them with his words just so he won't be left alone again now that he's grown accustomed to having someone there for him, someone to share a drink with, someone to sympathize with and touch for the sake of being able to touch someone else and not be left by himself.

Later, there's a knock on his office door and it's Renji, with his eyes cast downward.

"Renji?"

"Say, taichou…"

"Yes?"

"You wanna have a drink later?"

And part of Byakuya feels a heady sort of self-loathing guilt build in his stomach when he hears those words, when he sees Renji, who, with his captain's callous words, has unquestionably spent the last few hours thinking about Rukia and her house in the suburbs and her three children and her doctor husband who adores her and whom she adores back.

Part of Byakuya is filled with sorrow at having brought this on.

But part of him is glad, too.

"Alright, Renji."

"Great. I'll uh, I'll bring the alcohol. See you then, taichou."

"Aa."

That evening, when Renji is deep into his cups and contemplating some deeper meaning of life, Byakuya sits beside him and listens to his every word, pouring the wine and hating himself a little because he knows that it's selfish to keep pulling Renji backwards with him like this when the redhead wants to move forward, when he's making an effort and everyone can see it.

"Oi…taichou, ya hear me?"

Byakuya blinks at the inquiry, realizing that he hasn't been paying attention like he should be, and almost apologetically, he looks at Renji and asks, "I'm sorry, Renji… what was that?"

"I said… it's possible right?"

"What's possible?"

"Carin' 'bout someone else. It's possible right? I mean, that first person… it doesn't always haveta be the first one, right?"

"No, I suppose it doesn't have to be them," Byakuya responds quietly. "Though neither should you forget them," he adds with a certain level of conviction.

"Che, course not." Renji scoffs into his cup before knocking it back completely. "That ain't gonna happen. I mean…I guess I just thought that maybe…"

"It's time to move on?"

"…yeah. Time to… grow up, I s'pose," the vice-captain agrees, grabbing the bottle from between them and toasting his captain with it.

Byakuya can't help but wonder at the choice of words there, but he supposes that the redhead is very nearly sloshed and word choice isn't exactly at the top of his priority list. Getting the rest of the way sloshed seems to be the only real thing on Abarai's mind right now, and that's far simpler to deal with than the fact that sometime in the near future, Renji is intent on leaving Byakuya alone in his misery.

They sit together for several hours more, just drinking, Renji on his side, head propped up with one elbow, studying the empty bottles in front of them both and occasionally asking the off-beat, drunken question. What his captain's favorite color is or what he does when they aren't working, where he goes to think by himself, and what he liked best about the person he loved.

Byakuya indulges his vice-chair's inebriated curiosity with honest answers, a sort of amused guilt building in the pit of his stomach as he says "black, I'm always working, my office, and her laughter."

Renji can't help but snort at that last part, thoughtlessly chortling that he wouldn't ever have pegged taichou as someone who liked laughter.

Byakuya smiles crookedly at the unintentional barb and simply murmurs, "neither did I."

And then Renji looks up at him with his own little smile, cheeks flushed and eyes ever so slightly glazed with wine, his empty cup spinning between his fingertips. "Ya know what, taichou?"

"What?"

"I think I like ya best when you do that."

The sixth division captain blinks. "Laugh?"

A look of amused disbelief flashes across the redhead's eyes. "Che, ain't ever seen that, taichou! Kinda wish I have before, but don't think it's gonna happen, really. What'm talkin' about is when you smile, when you smile."

"Oh." Byakuya doesn't quite know how to take that, and frowning, he simply says, "I see."

Renji makes a face. "There'n gone again, huh? Probably shouldn'ta said nothin'," he mourns, looking up at Byakuya with a furrowed brow. "You were doin' it just now ya know, I saw it."

Byakuya blinks. "Was I?"

"Yup. And don't say 'm drunk. I know what I saw."

Well, Byakuya had been about to say that Renji was drunk, but he supposes that's beside the point.

"Alright then."

"And it was kinda nice," Renji reiterates decisively. He grins stupidly and scoots forward so that he can rest his head against Byakuya's shoulder. "I like it."

And Byakuya thinks that Renji's probably the only one to have seen it for a long, long while, but he doesn't bother telling the redhead that.

He probably knows it already anyway.

Later, when Byakuya is wiping himself off and Renji is snoring away on his bed, he inexplicably smiles a little bit again, because he's had enough to drink at this point where it's alright to think that there's something oddly charming about how loudly and energetically the vice-captain can sleep even after the sex and the alcohol, and Byakuya finds himself feeling strangely content for brief moments at a time after their nights together, when he's cleaning up and looks at Renji, knowing that there's someone near him who understands how he feels.

That it's not so lonesome after all.

He hopes a part of Renji feels less lonesome at those times too, hopes that even under the influence of all that sake, the redhead can find something comforting in his captain's touch that makes whatever pain he feels over Rukia subside for a little while.

It's the least he can do, he thinks, for dragging his vice-captain back into this when it's plain that he's been trying lately, to move on and "grow up," as he said, to maybe find something in life that the first time around, he ended up losing. That he can maybe catch on the second go round.

Renji smacks his lips and scratches himself absently in his sleep, rolling onto Byakuya's side of the bed and patting it like he's looking for something.

The sixth division captain watches as his snoring subordinate gives up after a moment and buries his face into Byakuya's pillow, grunting indecipherably before inhaling deeply, curling around his new cuddle toy with both arms and managing to knock the blanket onto the floor in the process.

Donning his robe, Byakuya wraps it tightly around himself, frowning slightly when he sees Renji clinging to his pillow, wondering if that will be a problem when he has to transport the sleeping man back to his own quarters.

He reaches forward and tries to reclaim his pillow, but Renji holds fast. Obviously, easing it from his vice-captain's hold isn't an option, and slightly exasperated, Byakuya braces himself on top of the bed and leans forward, trying to get a hold of as much fluffy white as he can in preparation for a fierce tug.

Except before he can, he finds himself yanked forward and on top of Renji, the redhead muttering sleepily and rolling onto his back, his hand wrapped around his captain's arm and pulling him along.

Byakuya lands atop his subordinate's chest with a rather undignified grunt, soon finding himself trapped under both of the younger man's arms, Renji's nose buried up tight against his collarbone.

Another deep breath and Renji murmurs, "'s better," in his sleep, Byakuya's hair tickling his cheeks as he settles down again with a satisfied sigh.

There is something, despite everything they've done together tonight and on previous nights, that is too intimate about the way Renji is holding him and Byakuya surmises that it really is his sister whom the redhead is thinking about right now, if Renji's semi-aroused state is any indication of what direction his dreams are leaning in.

He feels his cheeks go uncomfortably pink at that, and squirming, he works to extricate himself from his predicament as quickly as possible without waking Renji, who, even drunk, would have to recognize their current embrace as something beyond the boundaries they've long ago established in this game of once-in-a-while lonely trysts.

There's no way they can stay like this, because that means facing the morning together.

And that isn't what their meetings are about.

It takes some creative maneuvering, but Byakuya manages to wiggle out without waking Renji, though as he leaves, the redhead snorts disruptively in his sleep, brow furrowing slightly at the loss of warmth or contact or perhaps even the dream-image of Rukia.

A part of Byakuya apologizes to his vice-captain for that, for ruining the complacent look on the redhead's face and taking even his dream away from him, but being held disturbs Byakuya too much for him to indulge, and unnecessary complications could only arise should he allow the other man to stay until morning.

That decided, Byakuya stands and straightens his clothing, before moving to dress his sleeping vice chair again.

He manages to tug on a sleeve when he hears, "Mmmmph…taichou?" and promptly drops the other man in surprise.

Renji's hits the bed with a pillowy thud and like nothing ever happened, his snoring resumes shortly thereafter. Byakuya, heart in his throat, chides himself for being uncharacteristically jumpy when he's done this dozens of times before without worrying a moment about it.

Steeling himself, he finishes dressing Renji hastily and picks him up, making his way towards the other man's quarters as quickly and quietly as possible.

Renji sighs and curls up against his captain's chest with a gruff, unintelligible murmur, looking strangely content again, and Byakuya holds on to him and increases his pace, thinking to himself that this one is the longest of the many walks he's taken this way.

He just doesn't know why.

Come morning, he wakes up to the sound of Renji's fumbling at his doorway but is too exhausted at the moment to deal with it. So he closes his eyes again and hopes that Renji will maybe take pity on him and come back in an hour or so, because as nice at it is, today he'd really rather sleep than eat breakfast.

As usual however, no one is listening to his prayers, and the door slides open a minute or two later, the crinkling of a paper bag telling him that his vice-captain is really here and not hung-over enough to want to skip on their breakfast date despite last night, and really, the man shouldn't be such a morning person when he drinks that much in any one sitting the night before.

Byakuya wonders if ignoring the redhead will successfully force Renji into leaving for now.

"Taichou?" the voice is soft, as if Renji, after all his stumbling and fumbling outside, suddenly realizes that he should be quiet when someone else is sleeping, and in a classic case of too-little-too late, begins making tentative (and respectably stealthy) movements towards Byakuya's bed. "Taichou?" he asks again, this time in a whisper, only crinkling the paper bag from the bakery a little bit as he does.

Usually, Byakuya is roused easily from sleep at the first few loud noises his vice-captain makes, and today, when he doesn't stir, Renji surmises that his captain is uncharacteristically exhausted, and at a loss, the redhead stands in the middle of the room holding his pastries and not quite knowing what to do now that their familiar patterns are beginning to diverge so suddenly.

Byakuya continues to ignore him, believing that given Renji's record for impatience, the redhead will get the hint eventually and leave the room once he gets bored enough of watching another man sleep off a night of alcohol and comfort sex and strange, follow-up discomfort.

It's completely silent between them for a while then, and just as Byakuya feels as if he's finally drifting back to sleep again, there's a hand on his head, fingers gently running through his bed-matted hair. They're gone as suddenly as they were there, but the damage is done and Byakuya knows he won't be able to go back to sleep after that, not with the way his heart rate has increased and he's inexplicably beginning to feel vaguely nauseated deep in the pit of his stomach.

"Sorry, taichou," Renji murmurs after a second, taking a decisive step backwards from the bed, as if suddenly remembering that it is only a place he is welcome when the both of them are not entirely themselves.

A couple of quiet footsteps follow and Byakuya hears the pastry bag being carefully deposited on top of his desk before Renji backs out of the room and closes the door gently behind him.

The sixth division captain cracks an eye open at the sound and rolls onto his back once the coast is clear, staring at the ceiling with brow furrowed.

He touches the side of his head absently and wonders what, exactly, Renji is sorry about.

He doesn't exactly know why, but some part of him is convinced that it had nothing to do with the noise.

Byakuya stays in bed for a little while longer, though he knows that rest is completely out of reach now, he staring at the white bag on top of his desk without really seeing it and thinking to himself that it was rather cruel of him to just ignore their usual morning-after tradition today. Changing the routine meant changing the dynamic after all, and more than being simply inconvenient for Renji in that he missed his breakfast, there was something dangerous about altering previously set-patterns in Byakuya's opinion, because that meant an open invitation to create new ones.

Byakuya doesn't really feel like he likes change all that much, at least, not when it comes to how he feels about things.

Rukia says he's rather immature for it, he remembers speaking to her one time, his little sister putting her hands on her hips and speculating rather sarcastically, that her niisama was either a giant chicken or stubborn to the point of retardedness.

He'd taken umbrage at her crude assessment of his situation, but hadn't really been able to argue because after becoming a mother, she was rather an intimidating opponent to debate with.

So he'd schooled his expression to its usual deadpan calm and asked her, very reasonably, what it was about him that made her assume those things.

She'd responded that she didn't need to assume because she knew and the only person in the universe who would pine over one dead woman for x-number of years would be her brother, because he's the sort that clings to the past (she should know, having picked up a penchant for it herself in her time under the Kuchiki household) and on top of all that, he's also a strict big brother who believes too much in absolutes.

So she knows that her brother believes that it's only possible for love to be true if it is eternal and for the same one person forever, and ever, blah, blah blah.

He'd frowned minutely at that, because he didn't think he was so absolute that compromises couldn't be made with him if the arguments for such were especially compelling, and he'd told her as such as he'd bounced his toddler niece in his lap and hoped she would stop drooling over his suit.

"You don't compromise until it's a life or death situation, niisama. And sometimes not even then," she'd responded easily, eyeing a stain on the counter with no small amount of suspicion as she'd prepared to attack it with a chemical laden sponge.

"I do not. I…" he paused when she threw him a significant look.

Well, maybe sometimes he did avoid compromise. But that had been a long time ago! He likes to think that he's learned how to make better promises since then. But honestly, if a man can't keep his word, what kind of world would they be living in?

She'd smirked at him and told him point-of-fact, that it would at least be a world where he could maybe get laid again sometime this century.

He'd sputtered indignantly at that and she'd laughed at him, telling him that the promise he'd made when he'd wed Hisana didn't much count anymore, and the fact of the matter was, while everyone understood that he would love her forever, no one quite understood why he was determined to love only her forever. Really, it was a little bit childish on his part as far as she was concerned.

He'd had an answer to that, really, but then Ichigo had swept in, plucking his daughter off of her uncle's lap and declaring that Rukia should leave Byakuya alone because the day he changed his old man ways meant Apocalypse for them all and he would appreciate it very much, if his wife would refrain from trying to bring about the end of days before Ichiro was fully ten.

Byakuya had glared openly at that, but Ichigo had been ignoring him at that point, tossing little Masaki in the air and making ridiculously undignified cooing noises while she gurgled and drooled on him in the manner that only happy babies can make cute.

He thinks there is something uncanny about Rukia and Ichigo's teamwork and its ability to make him feel much younger (and much more foolish) than he is.

The point of the whole thing was to try and get him to change his ways, he supposes, and when their combined efforts have thus far failed, he doesn't like very much, the fact that Renji is getting him to alter his patterns on some things, like breakfast for instance, no matter how small such a matter may be.

He gets out of his bed and pads over to the abandoned breakfast goods, uncurling the top of the bag from where it had been clenched in Renji's fist and peering in.

One apple, one cherry, and a handful of unsettling thoughts to the nature of why there aren't two apples in there like there should be.

He closes the bag back up and leaves it on the desk, moving about the room to prepare for today's workday.

On his way out, he grabs the food, tucking the bag under his arm and moving rather stiffly towards his sixth division headquarters office to see about having his morning meal with his vice-captain, like he usually does on their mornings after.

He doesn't like change.

He finds Renji in his office balancing a pencil on his nose and staring at the ceiling with a look of thoughtful boredom on his face. And despite everything, Byakuya can't help it when he reaches out and flicks the pencil off, startling Renji enough to almost make the redhead fall out of his chair.

"Ah, er, mornin' taichou!"

Byakuya nods and sets the bag on his vice-captain's desk. "Good morning."

Renji looks up after seeing the bag, something in his eyes that seems anxious at having his gift returned. "Er… taichou?"

Byakuya looks at those eyes and reminds himself that it can't be helped, because he just doesn't like change. "Shall we have breakfast, Renji?"

It takes a moment to process, but the vice-captain smiles after a second and moves his chair over, clearing some space off his desk for Byakuya to perch on. "Sure, taichou. Shall I go get some tea?"

"That would be nice."

Renji grins and heads off to get the tea, Byakuya watching him and thinking to himself that maybe his sister was right and her niisama is a big, stubborn, retarded chicken.

The redhead returns soon thereafter, tea tray in hand, and bustling about pouring Byakuya the first cup, he pauses with a little frown when he notices that Byakuya has taken the cherry pastry out and put it on his own napkin. "Er, cherry one's mine, taichou."

Byakuya blinks. "I thought you liked apple best."

"Well uh, you know how they're the most popular there, woke up a little late this mornin' ya see, so I managed to grab the last one, but there was only cherry left and the baker said it was the second most popular flavor so…"

"I could eat the cherry."

It's Renji's turn to blink, and he almost over-pours the tea when he hears that. "But uh, ain't apple your favorite?"

It is, but for some inexplicable reason, Byakuya feels like pushing the point anyway. "Does that matter?"

"Sure it does. If you like the apple, you should eat it, taichou. I can make due, ya know."

"And I can't?" The question on Byakuya's part isn't asked out of umbrage on his part, but genuine curiosity, and Renji understands his captain enough to know that.

"Well, ya could, but you know, I figure since taichou's the type of guy that doesn't like things to change too much…"

The sixth division captain's brow furrows slightly. Does everyone really know that about him?

He sighs, supposing that all evidence points to the affirmative. "Alright then."

They eat breakfast together in silence, and watching his vice-captain, Byakuya can't help but wonder what, exactly, is wrong with the cherry in the first place.

It had to be the second most popular flavor for a reason, after all.

The next few weeks are busy with the normal sort of grunt work, some major battles taking place here and there as Aizen's stream of abandoned experiments had rallied and declared war on seireitei.

It had been a mediocre battle in Byakuya's opinion, the surviving results of Aizen Sousuke's failed attempts at creating a super army gathering after they'd been left alone and fatherless by Aizen's death. They'd been bent on revenge for their defeated patriarch in this particular battle, and as embittered as they were, they were really, nothing more than a headless snake to deal with for the Gotei-13.

Byakuya's sixth division had been sent to the front line with orders to destroy the entire army with the aid of the second and eleventh divisions, but by the time they'd arrived at the field, Zaraki had pretty much, on his own, created a playground of body parts for his vice-captain to play in, and the rest was clean up work for the remaining divisions.

Quite a bit of clean up work, really, being left to kill off the enemies that had been debilitated by Zaraki's wild battle lust- a moaning head here, a twitching form there, a torso trying to claw itself to safety.

The only thing dangerous about the whole fiasco, in Byakuya's opinion, has been the following paperwork.

Because, as a result of their "late" arrival onto the field, much more forms have been generated to explain the sixth division's tardiness. These forms have to be processed and approved by the Center 46 and all other divisions involved in the incident, meaning that the sixth division has to work in conjunction with the second division, which was also, oddly enough, "late" given Zaraki's impatience to wait for backup. There's a whole bullshit bureaucratic process that has to go into the works now in order to find the proper party to blame for the "miscommunication" and as expected, Zaraki refuses to budge and admit that he acted too hastily.

The paperwork is almost enough that Byakuya is willing to take the blame so long as it ends. However, Soi Fong is being less than cooperative on that front, the second division leader also refusing to capitulate and admit any late arrival on her team's part, firing a storm of forms in both Zaraki and Byakuya's divisions as a result.

This is the culprit as of late, for both he and his vice-captain's rather sour moods, he thinks.

"Taichou… I know for a fact that I already filled out and submitted this form! To the same person!" the redhead complains, waving a two-inch thick sheave of papers at Byakuya with a forlorn expression on his face. "I'm telling you, Zaraki's just tossing them when they go through for his part and that's why it's not getting processed."

Byakuya sits at his desk signing more of such forms, and arching an eyebrow, merely says, "The processing office sends necessary paperwork to the divisions from which it needs signatures. If it were Zaraki's end that was holding it up, they would send it to him. Seeing as to how it was sent here, it's our responsibility to fill it out. No matter how many times you claim to have done it, Renji."

Renji scowls. "I'm tellin' ya, I did it already."

"That may be all well and good, but the office is suggesting that you didn't, and asking if you can please do it again."

"Well I don't wanna."

"I however, am not asking, fukutaichou."

"Che! That's bullshit, taichou, c'mon. Just talk to Zaraki, I can almost guarantee that the stuff'll go through the moment you convince ole' one-eye to do his part!"

"Renji. Please go back to work."

"You aren't even hearin' me out, are ya? C'mon, taichou, quit bein' such a hardass, will ya? Just go see him about it."

"I don't have time to be traipsing around seireitei asking for kindnesses that may or may not benefit me in the first place. The office is saying that we failed to turn in these forms and so we will turn them in. Zaraki's part in our office's paperwork is null, Renji."

"It's impossible to compromise with you, ain't it? C'mon taichou, what if I asked if ya could just go and see about this for me, huh? Before I go crazy. Just bend a little, can ya? Try'n see where I'm comin' from."

"Renji, I am ordering you to return to your desk and fill out those forms now. There's a lot of work to do and I can't have the both of us wasting time asking niceties of one another."

"But…"

"Now, fukutaichou."

"Argh! You never budge, do ya? This is why no one ever wants to… ya make it freakin' impossible!" Renji exclaims thoughtlessly, whirling around and storming out of the room with the forms crumpled in his fist.

Byakuya blinks at the outburst as his office door shuts behind the redhead, not quite believing what he'd just heard from Renji.

"I do too budge."

It sounds empty even to himself, but he finds himself having to say it anyway.

The next time he visits Rukia and Ichigo is two days after that shouting incident, and over tea with his sister, he asks very subtly, if he is well, un-budge-able.

She spits tea everywhere.

And after she's mopped up the mess, she turns to look at him with a sort of heady concern, the kind he'd only ever seen her show Ichigo before, after his first few weeks of apprenticeship under his father.

He surmises that the outlook is bleak.

"What brought this on?" she asks, still slightly bewildered at his inquiry.

"Well, Renji accused me of being unmoving," he admits rather stiffly. "I just wanted a second opinion."

"Niisama, what makes you think you're anything but un-budge-able?" she asks, looking as if the motherly part of her wants to reach out with her hand and feel his forehead for fever.

He frowns at her question and sips his tea a little huffily. "Well… I… am I really?"

She nods slowly. "The most immobile man I have ever met."

He looks down at the table. "Is that… off-putting?"

She snorts, and had it been a time in the past, back when she'd been under his roof, he would have reprimanded her for such crude behavior. As it is he can't really say anything about it since Ichigo is probably the one who taught her how to do it properly in the first place.

At the thought, he can only imagine what she would be up to had she married Renji instead, and brow furrowed, he realizes that there's something distinctly unsettling about that thought, given that the things he's learned from Renji over their time together thus far mostly seem to be of a carnal nature. He's uncertain of how he feels when thinking about the possibility of his little sister and his vice-captain engaging in those sorts of things.

"Niisama, it's the most, off-putting infuriating thing in the world," she tells him with a hand on his shoulder. "I'm surprised Renji still puts up with you as well as he does."

He crosses his arms. "He yelled at me. It was uncalled for."

She shrugs. "The word around is that you two have grown to be quite good friends. What's a friend if he or she can't yell at you for your more glaring faults?"

Byakuya swallows distastefully. "That may or may not be so, but we still have…an understanding," he responds. Perhaps an unhealthy one, but the important part of it is that they understand each other, after all, and that's really all that matters in the long run, isn't it? "It doesn't give him the right to throw around such accusations when he knows very well where I'm coming from."

"Well even so," Rukia begins rather in an overly-conversational manner, "I think that if you'd like to maintain whatever sort of understanding it is that the two of you have, you've got to learn to become a little more…yielding. He's been trying too, you know."

Byakuya blinks. "He has?"

"Well, he writes me once in a while," she admits. "Though his letters never really say anything much besides the normal formalities, trying to stay friendly, I suppose, despite, well… you know. It drives Ichigo crazy because he thinks there's some sort of code Renji's using to try and communicate with me without my husband knowing." She seems mildly amused be the whole fiasco, and Byakuya vaguely wonders what her point is. "Well, lately it seems as if he's relaxing a little," she explains on her brother's mildly confused expression. "He seems more at ease when he writes me. I was…well, I was worried. After I came here, I wasn't sure if he and I could be friends anymore."

"And?"

"He seems…happier. Or at least, that he's getting there."

"Does he?"

"He writes a lot about you."

"…does he?"

"Well, not intentionally, I don't think, but he always seems to have something to say that involves you, niisama."

Byakuya realizes that he feels rather embarrassed by that. "What does he say?"

"Why don't you ask him?"

He frowns. "Rukia…"

She smiles and reaches out to put a small hand on his shoulder, eyes looking suddenly, far more worldly than he ever remembers having seen them before, a woman now, his little sister. "Niisama. Don't you think it's time to grow up a little?" she asks, patting him like she sometimes does her son, when he doesn't quite understand what's expected of him either.

"I…"

"For the record," she adds with a rather wicked smirk, "I think you've seemed a little different yourself, lately."

"Have I?"

"Well, you never would have asked me if you seemed un-budge-able before, I don't think."

He concedes that point.

"And you seem like you don't mind talking as much as you used to, niisama. I think, whatever it is that you two are doing to each other… it's good. I'm glad that you both seem… better when you're around one another." She pauses thoughtfully. "So what exactly are you two…"

It's at that point that he excuses himself to the restroom.

He may be talking more than he used to, but even still, he doesn't think he's quite ready to talk that openly yet.

She laughs at him as he makes his way out of the room, and as he leaves, he can't help but smile a little bit too.

Visits to see the family are always helpful for his equilibrium, and when he returns to Soul Society a few days later, freshly drooled on, cried on, vomited on, and peed on, he thinks that all it really takes is some time with the youngsters to put life into perspective.

Children are far worse a thing to face than Hollows.

And so he walks into his workplace more level-headed than he's been since Renji stormed out on him during the filing incident (which consequently, did end up being Zaraki's fault, but bygones were bygones and all that).

The only thing he has to complain about really, is the niggling at the back of his brain that wonders as to what, exactly, it is that Renji writes about him to Rukia, and why he does it at all.

Is he really…happier?

Byakuya pushes open the doors to his division's main office, finding Renji working at his desk on the last remnants from the Zaraki caper that refuse to die, mumbling to himself about paperwork, paperwork, paperwork as he does.

"Good morning, Renji."

The redhead turns at the sound of his captain's voice, and a small smile flits across the edges of his lips as he salutes his leader's return. "Welcome back, sir."

Byakuya nods. "Thank you. Did I miss much while I was away?"

"Just er…paperwork," Renji answers a bit awkwardly. "Speakin' of which, taichou…"

"I'm sorry."

The vice-captain pauses mid-breath. "Eh?"

"I was informed that the form backlog was actually Zaraki-taichou's doing. So I wanted to say I apologize for inconveniencing you with it unnecessarily."

Renji is obviously shocked at imperious Kuchiki-taichou's unexpected apology, and fumbles to find words appropriate for a response. "Oh. Well, uh. Well, that's good. I guess, 'cuz I wanted to say um… sorry for yellin'. You know, I shouldn't of. Since you're my captain."

"No, you shouldn't have yelled at your captain, Renji," Byakuya agrees, ever the maintainer of strict protocol. "But I will let it slide on account of deserving it rather powerfully."

Renji blinks.

Byakuya, turning to head into his private office, leaves Renji standing agape just like that, and with a rather amused little smirk on his face, thinks that maybe it's not too bad, if changing oneself, if growing up a little, can always be accompanied by such delightful reactions.

The next morning, in the spirit of growth, he wakes up several hours early and treks to Rukongai alone, to a certain sector, to a certain street, to a certain shop, and buys breakfast for them both, making it back early enough to know that Renji hasn't left for work yet, though he will probably be wide awake by now if he's as consistent a riser during sober night-befores as he is for the mornings after the drunk ones.

So he knocks on his vice-captain's door when he reaches it, the familiar white bag tucked under his arm and a tray of hot tea between his hands.

"Er, one sec, I'll be uh…"

Some fumbling, a small crash, and several yelps are heard before the door slides open, Renji with his hair still down and his uniform hastily donned appearing in front of his captain with a look of surprise. "Taichou?"

"Good morning."

"Uh…mornin'. Somethin' going on or something?"

Byakuya arches a brow. "Breakfast?"

"Breakfast?" Renji repeats dumbly.

"Shall we have some?" the captain asks, indicating the tea tray and the white bag he's currently carrying.

"Huh? Oh. Oh! Uh, yeah… c'mon in, taichou… sorry… here, lemme take that…"

Renji relieves him of the tray and picks his way through his slightly messy vice-captain's quarters so that they can sit at his small table.

He swipes a couple of things off of the second chair and invites Byakuya to sit with a slightly sheepish look.

"Thank you."

"Er…so uh, so…what brings you here this mornin' taichou? Besides well, you know. The breakfast," he asks, reaching for the teapot as Byakuya sets the white bag on the table in front of them.

"I felt like a change today," Byakuya informs him; gently swatting his vice-captain's hands away from the pot so that he can pour tea for the both of them.

"Er, that so?" Renji asks cautiously, not certain as to what this means, if it means anything at all besides his captain suddenly going a little bit insane.

Byakuya, sensing his subordinate's thoughts, sighs a little exasperatedly. "I can feel like change once in a while, can't I?" And to prove the point, he takes out the pastries, one an apple and one a blackcurrant.

"Well, sure, I guess, so," Renji responds automatically. He looks down at the baked goods. "Hey, is that? Huh."

Byakuya decides that maybe Renji has all the right in the world to be a little bit confused by the sudden change of heart, given how rarely it's ever occurred in all the time they've known each other, and with a self-deprecating little smile, the sixth division captain gently pushes the apple pastry towards Renji before taking the blackcurrant one for himself.

Renji watches him unabashedly, staring openly as Byakuya takes the first bite.

"Well?" the redhead asks after an impatient moment of watching his captain chew.

"It's good," Byakuya responds, oddly amused by the event the redhead was making of his new choice in breakfast goods. "Different, but good too."

"So uh…if I may ask sir…what exactly, uh, brought this on?"

"Hunger," Byakuya responds dryly, taking a sip of his tea.

Renji blinks, cheeks turning slightly red at his captain's blunt answer. "Well yes, I mean, obviously, I mean…"

And then Byakuya finds himself smirking a little without knowing it. "It's time to grow up a little, don't you think, Renji?" he asks with just the slightest hint of mischief in his tone, though he feels an accompanying nervousness that's two times as strong as any amusement he might find at Renji's discomfort.

"Come again?"

"I shouldn't be afraid of a little change now and again, don't you think?"

Renji, still befuddled, goes with the safest answer. "Well, no, of course not."

"I already know I like apple," Byakuya continues, feeling ever-so-slightly cheesy as he does, "so maybe it's time to see if I like anything else as well."

"That so?"

A nod.

And then Renji clears his throat, which, given how well Byakuya knows the other man, means he's beginning to catch on a little. "Well uh, I been thinkin' on tryin' some new things myself, too," the redhead begins. "Know I don't really like cherry much, but there's a bunch of other kinds too, isn't there?"

The conversation is idiotic, it must sound that way to be sure, but Byakuya can't help but feel like it's one of the most profound moments of his life.

"The blackcurrant is good. It takes a little getting used to, I think, but after a while, it's really quite good."

"Think I'll try that next time then, taichou. Thanks."

Byakuya smiles. "Very well."

And so they finish their tea and pastries and clean up before going to work, Byakuya thinking that maybe growing up a little bit, letting things change, might not be so difficult if he makes the effort

And later, to prove the final point, he steels himself as he passes his vice-captain's desk on his way to a meeting, pausing in front of the redhead to ask, "Renji…would you like to have a drink later?"

Renji looks a little surprised at the request, but nods nonetheless. "Sure. Should I bring the…"

"I'll take care of it."

"Ah, okay. See you later then?"

"Aa."

They meet in the evening after work at the back porch of Byakuya's quarters, the captain sliding the door open to find his vice-captain already waiting, staring out across the water of the pond thoughtfully, chin resting atop his knees.

He turns when he hears his captain arrive, and allows a sad sort of smile. "Evenin', taichou."

"Evening."

Renji blinks when Byakuya sits down in his normal spot beside him, craning his neck to take a more thorough look around. "Where's the sake?"

"I didn't bring any."

"…oh." Renji looks at his captain strangely. "Taichou?"

His palms are a little sweaty, and he feels that he might possibly be ill, but outwardly, he only closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath.

He's decided now, and really, the only way to go about this is to force a change, even at risk to himself again. But it's…

"Time to grow up, right, Renji? Time to change."

His voice is so soft that Renji has to lean forward to hear him better, feeling nervous because Byakuya oozes nervousness himself right now, and it can't help but rub off on the vice-captain who understands him so well, the one who has always been right here beside him whenever he felt so lonely that it might've killed him if he'd had to stay by himself at those times.

"Taichou?" Renji repeats softly, concern written all over his face.

"You love Rukia, don't you?"

The redhead recoils a little bit at that, and looking away in embarrassment, he manages a, "well…yeah. I guess it's just always been that way."

"I still love her too, you know."

Renji's eyes bug a little, and Byakuya realizes that he phrased that all wrong.

"Um., Hisana. Not Rukia. Though I do love her, just differently," he starts awkwardly.

Renji chuckles a little. "Scared the shit out of me for a second, taichou," he admits, looking immensely relieved. "But yeah, I know. You still love her, your wife, that is. Only natural, right?"

"Of course."

Silence for a moment.

And then, "Do you think, Renji, that it's okay to begin to care for someone else when, at the same time, you still love that one person?"

Renji swallows, brow furrowing thoughtfully. It's a moment before he answers.

"Well… I mean… I think, that sometimes, it just happens, ya know? I mean… maybe, you don't try for it exactly, or maybe you do, but if it happens, well, if it happens it happens, right? Can't be helped… nothin' to be shamed of. Nothin' to run away from, I guess. Right?"

"Just…happens, huh?"

"Well, yeah. It's like, when you least expect it, ain't it? Just happens. And you realize you care about someone else too, ya know? I mean… well, do you um, do you know what I mean taichou?"

Byakuya, looking down at his lap, regards his hands and sighs quietly. "I think…maybe I do."

The redhead blinks almost incredulously. "You do?"

"I… it can't be helped sometimes, right?"

"Yeah."

"But, that's okay. Perhaps?"

"Well yeah. I suppose, so long as the people understand each other, right?"

"Renji…"

"Yeah?"

"Do you ever remember it, when we sleep together?"

Silence.

"Renji?"

Part of Byakuya has been expecting this, almost hoping for it really, but at the same time, he doesn't quite know what to say should Renji honestly respond that he doesn't remember, given that all of Byakuya's preparation for tonight had mostly rested on the belief that Renji wasn't always as drunk as he professed to be when they were together.

Well, perhaps then, he shouldn't do this. Not now. Moving to stand, Byakuya clears his throat and tells his vice-captain, "If you don't remember, please forget that I said anything and…"

"You smell nice," Renji blurts out, interrupting Byakuya and as he does, reaching out to grab the other man's sleeve to keep him from leaving.

It's the captain's turn to be confused, and blinking, he looks at the redhead in surprise.

"Ah, when we… well, when you'n I… I always think taichou smells nice," Renji continues, turning his gaze downward because he's unable to look his leader in the eye. "It was the first thing I thought that first night we… and I was a little drunk and I just wanted to see, if taichou tasted like he smelled."

Byakuya honestly doesn't know where this is going, so he sits silently by and lets the younger man continue.

"All I was thinkin' when I kissed you was, taichou smells nice, taichou tastes nice… I like the way, even after taichou drinks, that he doesn't taste at all like the sake. It's all I could think of, ya see?"

"Renji…I… I understand if you weren't, if you didn't mean…"

"I didn't think about Rukia once."

"Renji?"

"I didn't think about her once. But then, ya know… in the mornin'… I woke up in my own room and ya didn't say anythin' about it at work, so I thought, well, I figured you'd just wanted, well, to forget for a while. I figured maybe you'd been drunk yourself and didn't know what was goin' on and that maybe you didn't want anything, really, but maybe to forget for a while. So I…"

"You didn't say anything."

"Yeah. But I always thought, that I liked how you smelled, and how you felt. And then I thought I was bein' crazy because someone who loves someone else shouldn't be thinkin' things like that, right? I mean, it was all wrong of me, wasn't it? To forget about her, to not even think of her once 'cuz all I could think was how it was with you."

"You felt guilty."

"Because you…when you talk about Hisana, ya know? It's like…she's all there is in the world. And when I hear you talk about her, I think that I want my love to be like yours. I want it to be really true too. The one person most important to me, that I'll never betray, even if they don't love me back. But then you and I… and all I could think…. I felt bad. I felt bad 'cuz it was like I couldn't love Rukia as well as you loved Hisana. So I didn't… I didn't wanna say anything. Wanted to let you think I was the same as you, I guess. Thinkin' bout someone else whenever we…but I was really thinkin', about how nice it was to touch you."

"…oh."

"Um, so I guess I'm just sayin' that yeah. I remember." The redhead laughs sheepishly. "In the uh, roundabout way."

Byakuya smiles a little bit himself at the younger man's admission. "You were right. I wanted to forget for a while," he admits himself, not unaware of Renji's slight expression of disappointment at the revelation. "You were the only who could make me."

"T-taichou?"

"Whenever I was with you…drinking, or working, or otherwise… you were the only one that understood me enough so that I wouldn't have to keep thinking about everything by myself. You're the only one that does that. Makes me forget."

"Really?"

"Really."

Renji's face flushes and he smiles nervously, still looking down at the ground. "Oh. Well… okay then. Good. Yeah, good."

They sit together in companionable silence for the rest of the evening, watching fireflies zip across the water and stars twinkling in the sky. Neither of them have any alcohol to indulge in, but there's an overwhelming feeling of calm regardless, and Byakuya thinks that if this how change feels, maybe he can do it after all.

After some time, when Renji tentatively leans over to kiss him, Byakuya tilts his head back and opens his mouth obligingly, and for a moment, lets himself forget what it is to be lonely and enjoy for the first time, the taste of his vice-captain without the seasonings of wine or sorrow on his lips and tongue. It's awkward and tentative and comfortably sweet, as any real first kiss should be, and Byakuya thinks that this is okay, that it's okay to change like this, to change and let himself be in the company of someone who truly understands him, who knows how he feels and the pain he's been through and who will buy him breakfast tomorrow morning and encourage him to try new things.

Because this is the sort of new thing that can work, when he's here with someone else like this, someone who he can reach out and touch and who will willingly touch him back, someone who, whenever they're together, makes him forget for a while, that he's ever been lonely at all.

It's a big change, and he's never been good with this sort of thing, really.

But he's beginning to think that maybe, maybe this one will be okay.

END