TITLE: His Freedom

PART: One of Three

AUTHOR: Simply Kim

WORD COUNT: 4,329

CHARACTERS: Kuchiki Byakuya, Abarai Renji, Unohana Retsu, Ukitake Jyoushirou, Shihouin Yoruichi, Urahara Kisuke and Kuchiki Rukia. Mentions of Kurosaki Ichigo, Shiba Kaien, Kuchiki Hisana, Hisagi Shuuhei Ayasekawa Yumichika and Ishida Ryuuken

PAIRING/S: Abarai Renji + Kuchiki Byakuya. Mentions of Kuchiki Byakuya x Kuchiki Hisana and Hisagi Shuuhei + Ayasekawa Yumichika

GENRE: Alternate Universe/Angst/Drama/(A bit of) Humour

DISCLAIMER/S: I'd love to have the creativity and talent Kubo Tite does. Unfortunately, I don't, so I don't own any of these characters or the series... just this story.

NOTE#1: This is a companion fic to "His Crime" and "His Choice", thus, set in the same universe. I just had this idea before – What if there comes a time when Renji would overpower his captain? Well, stranger things have happened, thus, the idea is toyed thoroughly in this lengthy fic.

NOTE#2:Blah or Blah is for emphasis. /Blah/is for conversations over the phone or flashbacks (if any). /Blah/ is for the conscience or whatever inner voice there is talking. Blah is for thoughts or random Japanese words. Some of these words are footnoted at the end of every page (I'm beginning to understand the need for footnotes in fiction. Thank you dear friend, you know who you are. XD).

NOTE#3: The Bounto Arc didn't happen. The past scenes here are heavily manga-based.


HIS FREEDOM


Barely a week had passed after seeing the end of Aizen's treachery, when the news, as terrible as it was amazing, spread. As Soul Society reached forward, in an effort to move on to the future with acute solidarity, the time for sorting out the strong and the weak began. Each division was besieged by fierce combat, each person on his own, to claim a position in the Gotei 13.

Most outcomes were expected, such as the retained positions in almost all divisions, since every individual became stronger as tribulations swept over them in volleys for a definite period of time. However, there were those that were so surprising they didn't seem real. Take the Eighth Division as a good example. No one expected the vacancy of the second chair. Kyouraku finally convinced his precious Nanao-chan to settle down with him. As a result, she decided to devote her time to making up for what was lost while struggling with her emotions way back.

No one expected Kira to work under Hisagi Shuuhei either. The former Third Division vice captain abandoned his team to join the Ninth Division under his senpai. However, as circumstances would have it, they were instructed by Yamamoto Genryuusai to handle the official-less Third Division for the meantime since Kira was one of the people who held an administrative position in it before for the longest time.

Each Soul Society day, unbelievable conquests kept piling up. The bureaucracy was doing wonders for the first time in a hundred or so years, and paperwork was running smoothly – too smoothly in fact, that one person seemed to be having a hard time coping up with all the fast processing. It was surreal, for the lack of a better word.

Abarai Renji was someone who hated paperwork. He never wanted anything to do with them and would have avoided them often if not for the stubborn quality and almost obsessive-compulsiveness his captain had when it came to writing and signing said pieces of useless paper. Those times when they were piling up on his desk directly from Kuchiki Byakuya's office right next door, he wished he had Ichimaru Gin for a captain.

But of course that would never happen, since, as a credible and sly appointed spy of the Soul Society royal family, the creepy all-smiling former division captain was nearly reinstated, if not for his refusal to have him placed in his old position once again. Renji thought it must've been a huge thing for him to do that since he seemed like someone who loved to have people catering to his every whim and indulging his inner sadist by torturing his entire division through... paperwork.

Renji frowned. No, it was not a good idea to wish for someone like that as his captain. He was trying to avoid paperwork after all. He shook his head and glared at the towering pile in front of him. "What am I supposed to do with all this?" He growled in extreme annoyance.

"You are supposed to sign all of them, Abarai-fukutaichou."

Renji's eyes widened and he turned to where his own 'office' was adjoined to his captain's. Sure enough, there he was, gazing at him as blankly as ever, his esteemed superior. No expression, no nothing. What gave him away were the words he used to communicate.

He called him 'Abarai-fukutaichou'.

And if his memory served him correctly, he did that when he was extremely displeased and close to sliding his zanpakutou out of its sheath and calling out its true form, ready to slice him to pieces if he so much as made one wrong twitch. He shuddered inwardly. It happened before; when he was three days old in his position... when his work was not satisfactory and he made a mistake of challenging his captain. Sweat beaded his brow. "Umm... Kuchiki-taichou... good afternoon..."

Byakuya just blinked at him, waiting for his next move.

The action just made Renji more nervous. He scratched the back of his head. "Erm, I just haven't seen this much paperwork before, so, I was wondering..."

The Sixth Division captain nodded in seemingly complete understanding. "Place half of them in my office immediately." At that, he turned around and gracefully made his exit.

Renji blinked.

And he blinked again.

Eh? Came the initial response.

Then the horror sank in.

I'm going to die... well, okay, so maybe not since he turned back... but he asked me to carry half of this pile in his office... Oh yes, I'M GOING TO DIE.

With obvious dread, he scooped up half of the papers stacked on his table and lugged it into the other room. He was sure something untoward would happen, and he was even more certain of it when he saw his captain standing by his window, staring at the flowering sakura outside.

A thoughtful Kuchiki Byakuya meant doom.

As he set down the stack, he felt the sudden shift of eyes on him and immediately, he cringed, waiting for the worst to come.

"Renji." Byakuya said just that, his name. The Sixth Division vice captain straightened, body stiff, tension building in his nerves as he awaited the next words. "Join me after work for tea."

That was unexpected.

The redhead blinked. "To drink?"

"I believe that's what you normally do with tea, Renji." The Kuchiki heir answered ambiguously. "Come with me after work."

And as he stood there gaping like a dying fish, Byakuya shooed Renji out of his office with a dismissive wave.

Apparently, Renji had all day to think of ways on how he could escape if his captain decided to try poisoning him.

OxxxOxxxO

"He said what?"

"Gah!" Renji shoved a piece of bread into Ikkaku's big mouth to stop him from speaking any further. As loud as he was most of the time, Madarame Ikkaku was someone whom he knew could keep secrets – and this was something that was worth keeping.

As his friend gurgled in protest, he couldn't help but be thankful of the fact that the Eleventh Division had the day off. If he kept what had happened all to himself, he was going to die of agony.

"So, whad'ya think?"

"I don't think he'd skin you alive or anythin'." Came Ikkaku's thoughtful response after gulping a bit of water. "But man, you're still in deep shit!"

Renji groaned, flopping on his back and staring at the sky, greatly worried. The grass was probably staining his clothes but he didn't care. His ensemble was black anyway. "What am I gonna do? What's he gonna do? Argh! Fuck it!" He sat up suddenly and grabbed a piece of tuna off the third chair's plate. It was already in his hand before the other could react, and snarling, he placed his plate as far away as possible from the problematic vice captain.

"Lay off, fucker!"

"Be more sympathetic, will you, you bald idiot!"

"That was some good fish!" Ikkaku protested, quickly eating his plate out lest the contents be swiped again. "You owe me! Just because you're the one who's most likely to get scalped later doesn't mean you could just take whatever you want!"

"Fine!" Renji swore, turning sideways and glaring at the calm sky. "Be that way!"

"Oh, you're such a big baby! That wimp Hanatarou-whatever from the Fourth Division must be leaking his energies to you..."

"Shut up – we're not friends, so there!"

"AH? Well you spent a lot of time in their headquarters and he was catering to you, it's bound to happen!"

"Ikkaku, damn you, you spent more time than I did in that, that... friggin' room! And stop goading me and just tell me what to do!" Renji turned back and flung a dried twig in his general direction. "I'm dying here!"

"Which is going to be least of your worries later when Kuchiki-Taichi is through with you."

Renji groaned for the umpteenth time, head dropping down on his hands, showing his aggravation. "Fuck you, baldie."

"You're welcome."

OxxxOxxxO

He was still engrossed in his own problems when he heard a chorus of howls and whoops coming from his left. Intrigued and completely curious, he decided to stop worrying for a while to see what it was about.

After all, nothing as rowdy ever came up from the side of the Twelfth Division.

"You are not worthy of being reinstated if you do not defeat me, Urahara."

The creepy voice from the one and only Kurotsuchi Mayuri echoed, effectively silencing the crowd with all its scathing quality. As Renji finally settled after pushing his way through the crowd, he could see the small smile adorning the new captain's face. He stiffened. Urahara Kisuke might be an easygoing guy, but even he had limits. And after working alongside him for quite some time, he had gathered almost all his habits and analysed it his own way. He might be semi-useless when it came to his captain, but with this guy, he was quite certain.

That smile was doom.

Why is it that everything around me recently spells D-O-O-M? He thought, aggravated. He watched closely at the contracting of Urahara's facial muscles and decided he didn't want to be anywhere near.

"Hey, buddy," He stage-whispered to the one next to him. "Give 'em a lot of space. If we don't..."

And the Twelfth Division staff seemed to realise the gravity of the situation with those words. Eyes widening, he motioned for the crowd to start moving away slowly.

Soon enough...

"Kakimushire, Ashisogi Jizou."

It took only a few moments before purple putrid smoke began swirling around them, prompting him to cover his mouth and nose with his flowing sleeve. To think that the Quincy actually defeated this guy... he must've been a hell of a masochist then! Renji's eyes were watering now, and it made him hard pressed to see what was happening. He blinked repeatedly until his vision cleared.

Just in time, Urahara unsheathed his cane, the same smile still on his face. As the fight began, sword against sword, the imminent clanging screaming painfully in his ears, he realised one thing – it seemed the reinstated Twelfth Division captain was playing with his current vice-captain, the demoted masked menace.

He didn't even need his shikai.

And he wasn't being affected by Ashisogi Jizou's deadly breath at all!

For once in his life, Renji thought if it was stupid to try measuring up to someone like his captain, who would definitely be less strong than Urahara Kisuke. He had seen Aizen and his terrible bankai. He had seen the royal spy Gin and the degree of power his Shinsou held upon complete release. He had seen Ichigo, in all his glory, winning against Aizen Sousuke.

All were powerful men with an amazing amount of skill. So why was he still comparing himself with his captain and thinking he couldn't match up to him in any way? After the incident before the treacherous plan was revealed, he lost to him. But he had grown more powerful hadn't he? So why was he still stuck with his earlier pledge to be stronger than his own captain when he held his own after all these traumatising events?

He glared as the monstrosity that was Mayuri's bankai appeared, prompting him and the others to move. And as he turned tail and scurried off to find a safer place to watch, he heard Urahara releasing his zanpakutou for the first time since he came back to Soul Society.

"Okiro."

Awaken.

Maybe, just maybe, he could finally end up his issue with his own strengths and capabilities – even after the Rukia episode.

OxxxOxxxO

Kuchiki Byakuya was still staring at the mountain of paperwork on the desk, provided, it was not exactly his desk but his vice-captain's. A small frown creased his brow, and his fingers twitched involuntarily.

He may be one of the most stubbornly responsible people around, but he was not a masochist – well, not all the time anyway. His hand was itching to finish the paperwork for the day so he could retire in peace. He was looking forward to tea with his co-officer, but it wouldn't push through if everything were not done completely and thoroughly.

He hated backlashes.

His gaze turned to the clock ticking, mounted steadily on the wall – a present from Rukia who was now staying in the human world for a while, getting herself educated with the help of the newly-developed advanced gigai, Urahara had given her.

Byakuya wished he had the same freedom to do that. But he had no means of retiring from his work unless Yamamoto Genryuusai approved the weeklong vacation he asked for after everything began falling back to place.

It irked him that even if the paperwork came pouring in, his request papers were still not delivered to him. He understood why, and for some reason, he was even glad that the old man was intent on making him stay to help out in maintaining the fragile stability the universe had.

It was two hours past the end of lunch break, but Renji still hadn't reported in. If he didn't know him well, he would've thought he was pulling "A Matsumoto" on him and ditching his work like the new Fifth Division captain was wont to do while serving under Hitsugaya-taichou before.

He sighed. Renji never did this to him, he thought, staring back at the mountain of documents. Even if the man absolutely abhorred paperwork, he still accomplished them the best he could. Byakuya was secretly glad of that, even though he had to work overtime to redo those that weren't up to par – like the one when he battled a hollow and accidentally 'scratched' his shoulder when in fact it was well known that he was bleeding to death the moment he came back from the assignment.

Wrong word usage and wrong descriptions...

He even had bad handwriting to boot – not to mention kanji trouble.

His eyes strayed once again to the clock and sighed. "He's late." He finally murmured the obvious, sauntering forward to the desk.

It seemed he would be stuck with more than half the share at the rate things were going.

Maybe it was high time to stop expecting too much from everyone around him.

Maybe it was high time to stop expecting too much from his vice captain.

OxxxOxxxO

They said it was the same as when the Quincy human laid Mayuri to waste, except there was no liquefaction involved to turn the demoted captain to green slime. A small measure of pride coursed through Renji's veins then – he had fought side by side with Ishida Uryuu after all. But then, there was a small part of him that felt envy – envy that a living creature would make a mark on a place where he couldn't, after living there for hundreds of years.

Unfair?

No, not really.

He just had issues, was all.

He heard Benihime being sheathed, and he finally found the will to move forward, going back to the office to finish his work. All was well, and he was actually taking time on the long trek there when someone called out behind him.

"Oi! Renji!"

Surprised, he turned around and saw Hisagi Shuuhei waving at him.

"Senpai!" He waved back and was about to turn and head to where his senpai was standing when the latter asked the most frightening question of all.

"Are you coming with us to have a drink?" The Ninth Division captain called out, making him stop in his tracks cold. A bead of sweat dripped from his brow. "We'll meet you out back in the usual tavern, twenty minutes tops!"

At that he turned tail and ran the fastest he could.

Oh, shit!

OxxxOxxxO

He was on his way to signing the last paper from the formerly humongous mound when a loud clang issued forth from the other room. When the burst of profanities came next, Byakuya instantly knew that Renji was back.

Three hours and fifty-five minutes late.

Five minutes before the end of their shift.

With a final hand movement, he signed the paper using his calligraphy pen, another gift from Rukia that was the envy of the other captains except for Ukitake who had somehow gotten one from her as well on his birthday. It was understandable – after all, he was her captain. But he still couldn't understand why he had to have the white one when Ukitake's blood red one was more stylish?

Composing himself, he stood up and made his way to the connecting door, stopping by the delicate frame and watching his vice captain search frantically for the 'missing papers' until he hopelessly settled to one spot, muttering unintelligible painful sounds. Byakuya deduced he was thinking of ways on how he would escape scot-free from his mistake.

And he was really looking forward to hearing what the excuse would be.

Renji was pretty constructive when it came to excuses for his mediocrity.

"Abarai-fukutaichou." He called his attention, making the other visibly cringe. Slowly, Renji turned to him. Byakuya could see horror in those dark eyes. He felt like an extremely grotesque arrankar.

"K-Kuchiki-taichou, I was, erm... watching a fight..."

"A fight."

"Umm, yeah, between Urahara-taichou and the bastard – erm, and Kurotsuchi, and I well, I lost track of time..." The redhead explained sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck

"And you forgot your responsibilities."

"Well, yeah, sort of..."

Byakuya was silent. He gauged his vice captain's words and decided to believe in him... and to look at the memos first thing tomorrow morning just to make sure... or he could ask Yoruichi or Ukitake. Solemnly, he nodded. "Fine. Clean your desk up and sign the last paper, right next to my name."

"Right next to your...! But taichou, I'm not on the same level as –"

His brows furrowed, and with a dignified swirl, he turned back and walked back to his table.

"That's an order, Abarai-fukutaichou."

OxxxOxxxO

He's angry, but for some reason, I'm still breathing.

Renji decided he would never understand his captain... and he decided as well that he would look for the reason why it seemed he could never understand him, eliminate it, and analyse better so he could fulfil one of his lifelong vows.

As he stared at the retreating back and the division insignia scrawled in tasteful calligraphy, he thought how wonderful it would be to wear something as dignified-looking as the captain's coat.

Unbeknownst to Byakuya, he had tried the spare coats hidden in one of the drawers twice, and even though it was ill fitting since he was broader than his captain was, he felt indestructible.

Sighing inwardly, he shuffled forward. It wasn't as if he would be wearing one anytime soon.

Never doubt a good thing. He scolded himself. Better get to that stupid document... signing beside his name – whatever is Kuchiki-taichou thinking?

OxxxOxxxO

"There!" Renji declared with a flourish, brandishing his brush with exuberance. "Done, taichou!"

All this time, Byakuya was staring at the top of his subordinate's head as he signed the document; now that it was done, dark pools that knew much pain stared back at him in confusion. Probably because looked lost.

In fact, he was – inwardly at least. To say it more accurately, he was 'at a loss'. He could still remember that day when he rescued Rukia, needlessly in fact, from Ichimaru Gin's Shinsou, and then afterwards, those same eyes were watching him as he lay down to sleep and sit up to gaze at the window for long periods of time.

As different as they were, Abarai Renji reminded her of Hisana. Hisana was not a thug at heart, but her survival instincts were honed to almost perfection. When she fell, bounced back fighting, always aiming for the impossible and actually snagging the prize most of the time.

Yes, he did remind him of Hisana, so much so that he couldn't kill him even if he tried. He had said whenever they would duel way before, that he was not going to hold back... but that was a fallacy in itself. When it came to Renji, he always kept breaking his own rules.

Maybe it was because he admired him in some way – to have that sort of passion for life... that passion to protect those whom they loved. He blinked slowly. It was the reason why sometimes he resented Rukia's existence. Never had he gotten so much ardour from people just as she had.

The only ones who ever loved him completely were his parents – but they passed away and left him alone. Shiba Kaien was one, they had been friends and he doted on him as a brother would, but he got married and didn't have time for him anymore. However, he too, unfortunately, died. His butler, the one who helped him with things was someone paid to do the job, and was just that – hired help. The other members of the family were just there to gawk and admire him. They didn't want to get anywhere close to him.

And then there was Hisana.

Hisana was someone whom he loved with all his heart – someone whom he defied laws and values for, someone he held onto, cherished completely. He thought she loved him just the same. Upon her death, as the sakura blossoms started to bloom, she wilted away and died, leaving him devastated upon her death and upon her unwanted revelations. She used him to find her sister, and he willingly, blindly thought that their closeness was completely out of love. Maybe she did love him to a certain degree, but never had she given all. She was still devoted to the sister she left alone years before her death.

But he couldn't hate her.

He wouldn't even dare hate her.

He still loved her, and maybe he always would, even if someone new would come, he was sure that she would still be a part of his heart.

Heart. He thought. Renji has a big heart. He was not as blind as to not have seen his vice-captain's desire to become the sole man of Rukia's life. Perhaps it was due to his being with her at close proximity since they were children. He knew that he hated him with all he had before. Byakuya was, after all, the one who took his love away. All the more when Rukia was imprisoned and sentenced to death.

Renji hated him because he was a coward.

Byakuya knew that. By the redhead's standards, he was a coward. Even after everything, all the revelations and his wholehearted apologies, even if somehow he had been warming up to him, there was still a degree of disdain left inside him. He knew that sooner or later the challenge would come and the duel for life would soon be in motion. He only had to wonder if he himself, even with the strength he had acquired in secret all this time, would match the rapid release of the latent potential Renji stored in his body.

"Um, Taichou?" He blinked, meeting Renji's eyes before turning away to close the window. "Are you okay?"

The gist behind vice-captain's question wasn't lost on him. But Byakuya could only nod. "Put that on top of the file in the third document rack. I'll be waiting outside, Renji."

OxxxOxxxO

Renji was nervous.

It wasn't as if he was going to die through firing squad or something. It was just... well, he wasn't quite sure why he was invited for tea. This was the first time he had ever been invited into such a refined event.

Joining the head of the Kuchiki clan for tea – and he didn't even need to gatecrash.

He was invited.

Still, there was apprehension in his heart. He wondered if Ikkaku's prediction that he was in deep shit was true. If that were so, then he would just run through back and escape his captain. But that would earn him a deathblow tomorrow – and what if he hunted him down?

Renji shivered at the thought of his captain's deadly Senbonzakura following him around in the dark. It wasn't as if he couldn't dodge them... it was just... well, creepy. And he hated creepy – that was why he steered clear of Komamura Sajin and Ichimaru Gin as much as possible. Even if Hisagi-senpai and Kira say otherwise, I won't change my mind. Who's not gonna get scared of a huge talking fox and a fox-faced sadist?

Seeing that there was no way out without getting maimed by his captain, he decided to bite the bullet and go through with it. Besides, tea was tea – and it was bitter enough to wake him up if in case Kuchiki Byakuya decided to dissect him halfway.

I wonder why? He contemplated as he strode to the sliding door that separated him from his captain. He racked his brains as to why he would want an audience with him. After a few moments of deliberation, his eyes widened as an image of the hairpiece he had accidentally smudged with ink the night Byakuya was in sickbed more than a year ago came to mind. But it was already thoroughly cleaned – I made sure of it! Maybe Rukia told him! Dammit! After all this time, he couldn't be mad about that, could he?

Heart thumping wildly, he pulled the door open and gulped at the sight of his captain's back. The ever-present scarf fluttering in the wind was enough to make beads of sweat start dripping down the side of his face. He quickly wipedthem away with the hem of his sleeve. After a few moments of composing himself, he cleared his throat, steeling himself as Byakuya turned and gave him a once-over before something unrecognisable flashed in his eyes.

"Come, Abarai-fukutaichou." Came the familiar monotone.

All he could do was nod and follow him out of the division compound.

I'm going to die.


TSUZUKU


A/N: Feedbacks are greatly appreciated!