TITLE: His Freedom

PART: Three Part C of Three (final)

AUTHOR: Simply Kim

WORD COUNT: 12,084

CHARACTERS: Kuchiki Byakuya. Abarai Renji. Unohana Retsu. Ukitake Jyoushirou. Shihouin Yoruichi. Urahara Kisuke. Hisagi Shuuhei. Zaraki Kenpachi. Kurosaki Ichigo. Ishida Uryuu. Ishida Ryuuken. Kurosaki Isshin.

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


"Stay."

Urahara's eyes widened. It has finally happened. Instantly, they softened, gazing down at the bloodied figure staring up at him almost beseechingly. He finally reached out willingly in this time of need. Slowly, a grin formed on his lips. This was a once in a lifetime occurrence – it would be better to milk its worth.

"Is it really okay with you that I stay?" He started innocently, his eyes sparkling with good humour. "Do you want me to hold your hand like those soap opera people in the –"

His grin widened even more as Byakuya closed his eyes, exasperatedly, he presumed. He snuck a peek at Unohana and Isane, winking comically as they giggled. It was fortunate that the former had just finished the last stitch and was securing the sutures, or else it would spell disaster.

"Don't push it."

"It would definitely help, Byakuya-bou." The Fourth Division captain quipped teasingly. "It calms the heart, holding ones hand."

Byakuya gave her a warning look, which made her giggle even more. Probably noting that he wouldn't win, being the centre of three people's amusement, he sighed, his expression settling to that of dry humour. "Zaraki is a very lucky man…"

"Byakuya-bou," She said sweetly, giving him a menacing look. "Please watch your words, you are in my territory. Minazuki is also hungry at this time of night, maybe your flesh would suffice?"

"T-taichou…" Isane murmured in a scandalised voice.

"Isane." The Fourth Division captain turned to her subordinate. A syrupy smile plastered on her face.

It made her tremble. It meant she was irritated. "Y-yes, taichou?" She asked, backing away a couple of steps.

"Zaraki-taichou is a very good friend of mine is he not?"

"Y-yes…"

"There's no reason for this man to take that friendship out of context, am I right?"

"Umm, yes, Unohana-taichou…"

Urahara burst out laughing. "Come now, Unohana-taichou, try to be more patient with him, he's injured after all – no need to disable him further…"

"This is only temporary." Byakuya huffed, steel in his eyes as he transferred all his ire to the glare he gave him. "I am not disabled."

He made a show of sighing deeply, rolling his eyes up in a gesture of impatience and then shaking his head in mock vexation. "Ah, Byakuya-kun, Byakuya-kun," He intoned, grabbing a limp hand and ignoring the other's deadly glowering. "You can stop feeling all lonely and huffy now… we are here, I'm here, holding your hand –"

"I'm not."

It was the sobering tone that made Urahara pause, eyes boring deep into the younger one's own. "I know." He gave a hesitant smile, putting down his hands carefully so as not to aggravate his wounds. "Because you finally got what you wished for."

Byakuya's eyes softened and he turned away, focusing on the empty space by the window.

"Yes."

OxxxOxxxO

"He's having a hard time accepting the fact that he can get past his captain now." Kira Izuru sighed, inspecting Wabisuke critically with one eye closed for effect.

"Ch'!" Ikkaku Madarame, the official ambassador (Ayasekawa seemed to be encroaching on his territories these days) to the latter half of Gotei 13, growled. "That guy is so unsure of himself nowadays. I like him better when he's determined and all before that Rukia thing! He's much more…"

"Vengeful and ambitious?" The blonde finished for him, finally sheathing his sword and plopping down on the nearest available seat.

"Yeah, that."

Hisagi Shuuhei, current captain of the Ninth Division, gazed at the other two thoughtfully. "Maybe he doesn't want to be captain." He said slowly, rearranging his hakama carefully, frowning when Ikkaku snorted in distaste.

"Yeah right." He revealed bemusedly. "That guy has always wanted to do his captain in, y'know – keepin' Rukia to himself is a huge bonus too, since that guy is, like, smitten with her and all."

"Maybe he really had a change of heart." Kira murmured quietly.

Silence reigned in the room, each person retreating into his own thoughts. Shuuhei was about to say something resembling an agreement when he felt an uncommon signature reiatsu heading straight towards his division's preparation room – the same place where they were.

They were taking the graveyard shift with the Eleventh Division and he was making sure his zanpakutou was in top condition. However, he noted that this reiatsu was very different from Zaraki – or even Kusajishi. And yes, even the peacock pest who had been following him recently.

He started in alarm and his hand immediately grasped the handle of his sword. He had an idea who it was, but considering the fact that said person whom he suspected such spirit belonged to didn't visit this area often, rarely in fact, he couldn't be too sure.

When the telltale swish of white and slow progressive steps sounded, he immediately knew his instincts were never wrong. His body relaxed and he was standing straight, respectfully keeping his distance from the door. Soon enough, Yamamoto Genryuusai appeared, his eyes registering the young captain's awareness and nodding his head appreciatively.

A small smile dotted his lips, partially hidden by his moustache, as he spoke. "Hisagi Shuuhei."

He bowed low in response and straightened up once again to his full height. "Yamamoto Genryuusai Shigekuni." He murmured politely. "To what do we honour this humble visit, taichou?"

"I need you to do something for me." The old man allowed, his smile widening a bit at his distanced tone. With his free hand, he motioned for the other person lagging behind him to move closer, stepping back as the other reached the doorway.

Shuuhei could feel the abrupt change in his vice-captain's reiatsu as familiar white locks billowed in short waves.

"Yo, kimi."

He was still wary of this one, but it was no secret to anyone that he had his respect. Sooner or later they would be crossing paths as allies anyway, so Shuuhei wasn't about to prolong the inevitable. After all, this was the person who took the blow for him when his former captain attacked him during the Great War.

"Ah, Ichimaru." He allowed, gesturing to the thing in his hands. "What's that?"

Gin grinned with his usual dry humour and held it up. "You've been wearing one of these since you became captain and yet you're asking me that?"

He chuckled, shaking his head slightly before sobering up and turning towards Yamamoto. "Taichou," He started. "Is it about that, what you wanted to ask of me?"

"Yes, Shuuhei." The old man nodded almost imperiously. "Put it in a ceremonial box and bring it to the assembly later at eleven."

It was Kira who asked, voice faltering. "Meeting?"

"Yes, Izuru-fukutaichou. We are having an assembly tonight. At the conference area by the First Division offices. It is a special one."

Shuuhei finally spoke up curiously. "What is it about?"

"There are going to be major changes…"

OxxxOxxxO

"You've got to be kidding me…" Renji muttered as he stared dumbly at the thing he was holding in his shaky hands. "Is this some sort of trick?"

"No, it's real." Yoruichi smiled at him hesitantly, her eyes remaining watchful even as she did. "That thing you're holding in your hand is a symbol of power transfer, you must accept it."

The redhead gritted his teeth in anger. "I refuse." He growled out, loud and clear, reverberating inside the hall. "I didn't ask for this."

"Your captain endorsed you. He wrote your name on the master list of candidates and you have his referral. It was only a matter of time before you became one." Yamamoto revealed. "That is going to be yours, at least until you finish with the preparations."

"I recognise this, Yamamoto-dono." He murmured, sounding so lost that Yoruichi had to look down at her feet to stop herself from hurting as well. "It's the one I accidentally poured red ink onto ten years ago… Look, the edges still have that pinkish colour…"

It was Ukitake who spoke up, gently, soothingly. "Byakuya instructed us to give this specific one to you if everything goes well. And such must be granted."

"It's his favourite." Gin pitched in, tone uncharacteristically quiet.

Renji felt like he was being swallowed by an Arrankar for all the darkness swimming in his head. "I don't get it." He started, vice cracking. "The Third Division offices are all vacant…"

"You are not fit to be that division's captain, Abarai Renji." The old man said kindly. "You are best placed in your own territory, mingling and directing people you know and have been a part of for so very long."

"But what about –"

"Renji." Yoruichi knelt down before him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

He looked up, eyes as blank, contrasting with the pain evident in his face. Why this? Why not just transfer me and –

"The request is absolute, thus, it will not be contested and will be irrevocable. Everyone voted for this, with the exception of the absent Kurotsuchi." She smiled, her eyes softening. "Hold your head high. You are now to lead your own pack."

"Yoruichi-taichou… what's gonna happen to my captain? If he loses his position, his clan will banish him… he's going to live outside our walls – he doesn't even know how to cook for himself… I can't accept this…"

She opened her mouth to console him, but the First Division captain beat her to it. "Stand up, Abarai Renji!" The command came. "Your division awaits your arrival. They had been informed before your duel this afternoon." His eyes lit up and a smile stretched his cracked lips. "Ukitake Jyoushirou will inform you of the rest. Seeing you now and interacting with you this way, I believe Little Byakuya had chosen well."

I don't understand... He thought as Yoruichi helped him up to his feet. Why did you choose for everything to end up this way? Why me? He clutched the soft fabric in his hands. Everything seemed to fade away and the only thing he could see was the huge splotch of white resting in his hands… the splotch of white whose insignia blatantly trumpeted its former owner's defeat.

The insignia that would now be on his back, signifying his guilt.

Renji's vision blurred, his eyes felt hot and he wanted to scream out all his frustrations to the three worlds. He pressed the pristine cloth in his hands to his face, tears finally breaking free and saturating it. As he smelled that familiar fragrance of garden blossoms, more tears came pouring out, and soon, he was back on his knees, crumpled on the floor as pain ripped him into pieces. Kuchiki-taichou…

"This may seem cruel, but I am certainly looking forward to working with you… Sixth Division Captain, Abarai Renji."

OxxxOxxxO

It was the longest walk of Renji's life.

It was near midnight and he was so confused and grief-stricken that he didn't know what to do but follow the Thirteenth Division captain as they progressed side by side down the hall to the latter's rest house. His eyes were puffy from crying and his vision was bleary from restlessness. He was wasted.

At least, Ukitake's hand strategically placed on his shoulder, leading him, guiding him, and steering him to the right direction. It calmed him somewhat, and with Gin's reiatsu right behind him, a little of his anxiety begin to fade.

A little.

Soon, they finally stepped into the room and Gin closed the door behind them, making sure it was locked so no one would bother as the gruelling hours of explanation lay in wait.

They sat down, Ukitake on his futon and the other two sitting down on the wooden floorboards right across him.

And then there was silence.

No one spoke, each trying to reach into their own consciousness and find a way to get their messages clear across to the one who had seemingly been the focal point of this change.

Finally, Ukitake let out a huge pent-up breath and smiled gently. "You want to ask why." It was a statement, not a question, and it immediately prompted the redhead to sit up straighter and hang on to his every word.

"Yes." He admitted, a determined look passing his eyes. Renji wanted to understand this, understand this situation he was thrown into and understand the mind of the person behind such uncanny upheaval. "Please, Ukitake-taichou."

The blonde exchanged a knowing look with Gin and he nodded, turning back to his charge. "Whatever you hear from me – from us – tonight, please keep an open mind and try to understand. I know you have been observing your captain for many years now and he's doing the same with you, so more or less I feel that you are going to accept this fully – sooner or later."

Renji nodded slowly.

Ukitake's eyes turned rueful. "It's because of freedom."

The redhead's eyes widened. "Freedom?"

He nodded. "Yes, freedom."

"The Third Division is now official-less after I resigned and my vice-captain switched over to the Ninth." Gin started, his smile disappearing. "Our primary duty is to guard Seireitei, and we haven't been doing that efficiently since we know nothing but that unannounced visitors are trespassers and trespassers must be dealt with immediately. We lack information."

Ukitake nodded. "And so does the rest of us. We at the Thirteenth investigate, but if an attack is swift and straightforward, with creatures we don't have the ability to identify, Seireitei would be destroyed completely no matter how strong we are or we are to be. An investigation is simply a waste of time." He leant forward, resting his elbows on his bent knees in supplication. "We now lack vital data. And that is because no information is readily available and statistics are not compiled efficiently. Do you know why, Abarai-kun?"

Renji shook his head. "Because no one does the tracking and the compiling?" He guessed quietly, fidgeting.

"Exactly." He nodded, leaning back against the wall once again. "The current system we have is inefficient."

"When we encounter things we do not understand, we lose lives, Abarai-kun." Gin added, shifting to a more comfortable position. "The last time someone tended to that was when Byakuya's father was still alive."

"Why's that?" Renji asked curiously.

"Well," The Thirteenth Division captain sighed. "There are noble houses here in Seireitei and the Kuchiki is one of them. Each has its own duty. The Shihouin provide assistance in times of need, thus, they control the Corps. The Shiba clan paves the way for us to get the necessary information. They have contacts from inside and outside Seireitei. Mine takes care of investigations and ancient weaponry. We gather raw data which we forward to the Eighth and Twelfth Divisions. The Kuchiki is supposed to compile the information after the processing done by the two and is in charge of disseminating information to all of us.

But after Byakuya's father died, everything changed." Ukitake grew pensive. "The clan decided it would be better to hold major power in Gotei 13 and further their clan through force. Since Byakuya was the next in line, he was forced to do what they wanted and through time, he suffered the most, seeing people he loved die and people he cared for betrayed, for the sake of power. He was virtually chained to this aspect of his existence."

"I visited him countless times before to make him feel a little less lonely, but I guess it only made him more irritable… Zaraki too, when they crossed paths, he seemed to dislike him." Gin chuckled, standing up and slowly making his way to the window. Renji noted the thoughtful look on his face as he stared outside. "That man puts others first before himself. He takes too much pride in his oaths that he's always at a loss when he had to make humane decisions. And then he makes the most logical one at the expense of his own happiness.

Three days ago, Byakuya ventured outside to seek me out and demanded I read and sign a proposal he made. I couldn't say no, because for the first time in my life I saw quiet fire burning in his eyes." He continued. "Besides, the things he thought of were a lot better than the system being implemented right now."

"Things?" Renji echoed dumbly. This was too much to take in just one sitting. Already, his head was hurting and they still weren't mentioning anything about him being captain.

Gin turned back to him and grinned. "The Third Division still guards the gates, but must aid in compiling and studying the annals of history. The group will join the Kuchiki clan in maintaining the books and organising catalogues. Boring job, but pretty interesting since we are talking about history here." He sauntered towards the locked door. "They will be split. Half would serve through guarding the gates and the rest are to serve in the Kuchiki Manor's extensive libraries. That's why even as a captain, Yamamoto scoffed at you being in it."

The redhead's eyes narrowed. "Oi, Ichimaru-san, I'm not that inept –"

"The paperwork you submit is always returned. Even Yamamoto-taichou knows about it." The Imperial Spy snickered, hand mockingly covering his mouth as he did. "Oh well, that's that I guess – at least for my part. I have to go back and talk to the old man about some more stuff. Sayonara, gomen da, ne?"

It had been months since he had last heard that line, but it still made Renji bristle. Settling on a vague wave, he watched as the fox-faced former captain stepped out of the room, closing the door quietly.

He turned to Ukitake, now smiling at him fondly. "What?" He asked defensively.

"You don't dislike him as much anymore." The captain commented.

"Well, he was useful." Renji muttered grudgingly. Shifting his position. His legs were beginning to get numb from sitting on it for too long. Apparently he had never gotten used to this kind of sitting – even after all those infernal afternoons drinking tea.

"He's a good man." The blonde allowed. "That's why Byakuya also asked for his help in this. They're quite the same, you see. They put others before themselves. He willingly betrayed people so he could do his assigned work… even if he knew the world would end up hating and not trusting him because of it."

"…" Renji just nodded, unable to say anything intelligent.

Silence.

And once again, Ukitake breached the wall of tension hanging between them. "Do you know why Byakuya chose to end things this way?"

"Freedom." He answered flatly, looking away. "His freedom."

The other sighed. "Looking at you now, I guess I'm right in thinking it's caging as well." Ukitake scooted closer towards him, eyes alight with worry. "But Abarai-kun," He murmured. "If everything that had just transpired didn't happen, how do you see yourself five years from now?"

The question shot ice up his spine. It was the same question Byakuya had asked him weeks ago. "I –"

"Do you see yourself still lagging behind your captain? Taking orders from him and being regarded only as second best?" Ukitake asked gently. "Your character does not permit it, Abarai-kun. I know you plan on becoming one of the strongest if not the only, so you could help and protect those you care for the most. If another Aizen, a more powerful Aizen, comes and you remain as you are, would you be able to protect?"

"But I don't need position for that." Renji retorted, shaking his head. "I have mastered my bankai without being captain!"

"I know, Abarai-kun." Came the gentle response. "But do you remember all those times when you felt powerless knowing you only have a limited area to move around in? Do you remember the whole Rukia episode?"

"I –"

"Do you remember the time you ventured into the Fifth Division's territory when the hollow you were battling with managed to slip away from your grasp?"

Renji's eyes widened at the memory and he reached out to clutch at Ukitake's sleeve. Tightly. "He got into trouble because of me, didn't he?"

"Yes. He remained under probation until this afternoon."

He let go and his eyes narrowed. "I knew it! But why didn't he say something? He said it was nothing – and I believed him!" Then he stilled, a hand covering his mouth in seeming realisation. "Then all those times –"

The blonde nodded, gazing at him sympathetically.

"Why?"

"Because he also wants you to grow without worries. He took full responsibility of all your actions because he sees you worthy. He recognised your potential and acknowledged your strength." Ukitake revealed. "And now that you know how to move on your own, he figured it was time he passed his division in safe hands and continued the work his clan was originally entrusted with."

"It's a relief knowing he won't be exiled by his clan, but why this way? We could've settled it without worries or spilling blood –"

"Byakuya told me a lot of things about you these past few days, Abarai-kun." The captain's voice was soft and almost wistful. "He said you are limited by your perception that he's the one you should look up to – the one you must try to surpass. He said if you didn't understand the fact that he is just like everyone else, fallible, you wouldn't be free from the bonds you tied not to his real self, but to the person you perceived him to be."

"But that's…"

"If you somehow defeat him, he said, then, it would mean that not only are you stronger than he is, but the better person to lead your division because you have enough conviction and determination to reach your goals."

Renji was silent as he digested the other's words. After a few moments, he spoke. "But it's too cruel, isn't it, Ukitake-taichou?"

Ukitake shook his head, laying a hand on his bowed head.

"Through the years you two worked together, he had been teaching you lessons, Abarai-kun. He had always been preparing you for this, and that's why no matter what you do, no matter how many times you try to trounce or kill him, he would fight you to the best of his abilities and never think of harming you completely – he never did. Now, he had but one last lesson to teach you..."

Renji looked up at him, eyes filled with something akin to self-loathing.

"This is the most important lesson you have to learn…" The Thirteenth Division captain shook his head and patted his red locks reassuringly before pointing straight to the approaching dawn visible through the window. "After passing the greatest test of your life all that remains to be done is move on. Stand firm and tall, step forward and bear the responsibility of your actions henceforth."

He smiled and nodded encouragingly.

"Hold your head up, live your life and perform your duties following your own path… because Abarai-kun, from this point forward – you are free!"

OxxxOxxxO

The pain was excruciating but it was nothing he couldn't manage.

With careful fingers, he poked his side and his skin encountered heavy bandaging. It stung even more and he immediately murmured soft words of apology. Sighing, he stared up at the ceiling – the same ceiling he had been staring at since Urahara and the others left for the assembly.

He wondered briefly how Renji took the news. Byakuya felt guilty about not asking for permission, but it was better this way. After all his efforts, his former vice-captain was still refusing the promise of captaincy even if it was all too evident that he wanted it – and had been wanting it for a long time now.

A while ago, Unohana poked her head briefly in the room to check on him as well as update him on what had happened. She said he may not be an official part of Gotei 13 anymore, but he needed to know everything because he was also involved in it.

She was right.

And he was going to stay involved even after everything settled down. He was looking forward to picking up his late father's work and watching his former division flourish under Renji's capable hands.

Renji.

The guilt was there again and his pierced side throbbed in response. He had placed a huge responsibility on his shoulders, but he was sure he would carry it the best way he knew how. A small smile stretched his lips and he opened his eyes, turning his gaze towards the sky visible through the window.

Dawn will be here soon. He thought fondly.

A promise of a new day…

OxxxOxxxO

Renji just got out of the Thirteenth Division premises when a sudden presence alerted him and his hands immediately went to the hilt of his zanpakutou. With cautious eyes, he scanned the area…

"Very good, Renji."

Only to settle on the familiar tattooed face of his former academy senpai. Slowly, he relaxed his stance and bowed briefly.

Hisagi Shuuhei chuckled and took lightning steps forward, a hand reaching out to ruffle the other's ponytail. "Wanna join me for a walk?"

"A walk?" Renji was stumped. "This early in the morning?"

The Ninth Division captain grinned back in response, moving on ahead in a silent invitation for him to follow. Thinking it would probably rest his jangled nerves a bit, Renji decided to relent, hurrying his pace and eventually catching up to the one he had followed his academy days.

They walked side by side in companionable silence, each immersed in their own train of thought as the early morning dew clung to them, showering them through the small gusts of dawn's gentle wind.

Renji had to wonder why they were doing such thing this early morning. Maybe his senpai knew how he was feeling, especially since this was all too sudden for him… or maybe he just wanted someone to accompany him and he was the first soul he came across. He was still deliberating on what it might be when Hisagi's voice cut through his contemplations.

"Do you see that mound over there?"

He looked up and followed the direction the other was pointing at and nodded, confused. He had no recollection of ever venturing this far out in such a short period of time. He was so immersed in his thoughts that he hadn't been paying too much attention to his surroundings. An embarrassed flush tainted his cheeks, and he was thankful that Hisagi didn't notice in the dim light of the slowly rising sun.

It took only a few lightning steps to get there and soon enough, Renji was looking down on a strange marker protruding from the mound earlier. Said marker was cloaked by the thick mist which was probably why he didn't recognise it earlier.

"A grave?" He turned to the other man, who nodded at him almost absently, eyes glued at the wooden epitaph.

"Here lies Touzen-taichou." Hisagi murmured. He glanced at the younger Shinigami and smiled ruefully. "No, not the physical body – I disposed of it during the Great War myself…"

Renji stiffened. It was a touchy issue, but this man was opening up to him. A great deal of respect flooded his insides and he nodded in acknowledgment. The Ninth Division captain recognised it as a signal to continue and he turned his gaze to the brightening horizon. "This is where Touzen-taichou buried his friend, the one he pledged allegiance and justice to. But for me and Komamura-taichou, this is the place where he buried his old self.

I used to talk to the one underneath this patch of earth and ask him why taichou turned out the way he did. I didn't get any answer, but after a few days of deliberating, it dawned upon me that this does not only represent life lost but also a life filled with much pain and suffering – a life of heavy burden. He buried it here so he could follow his own path, the path to his own justice." Hisagi said softly, early morning wind wafting through his hair, making them rustle quietly.

At that instant, Renji thought his senpai looked really old, older than his Shinigami years, and he felt a twinge of sympathy in his heart. "Hisagi-senpai…"

As if burnt, the other turned to him, fire flaring in his eyes. "You feel for me, don't you, Renji?"

The redhead took an involuntary step back, eyes widening as he registered the twinge of madness in the depths of the other man's soul. They stared at each other, one pushing forward, the other faltering under the scorching pain of darkened eyes that knew much guilt and suffering. "No, I –"

"You do." Then, as if zapped, it went away, threading through the wind as if it never manifested. "But Renji, don't you think you're seeing it in just a single angle?" He dropped down on one knee and stared at the unmarked epitaph. "I have thought about it for a long time now… and I deduced that I've been looking at it the same way you now do."

"Senpai…?" Renji murmured slowly, unsure of what he meant.

"I am not pitiful." Hisagi started. "Nor is Komamura-taichou. In fact, we are both lucky we knew someone like Touzen-taichou." He stood up and brushed his yukata. "Because we understood that the true meaning of the word 'free' is the act of burying your past burdens and starting anew, living conscientiously and doing things that most content you."

It felt as if some weight dropped from his shoulders. "Do you think I'm lucky, senpai? The 'me' that stands before you now?"

As the sun cast its first rays on Hisagi Shuuhei's tattooed face, a genuinely confident grin spread across his face. "Yes. You're real lucky." Came the unwavering response.

"Why?" He couldn't help ask as his companion reached out once again to pat him reassuringly on the head.

"Because you were blessed with a captain who didn't just want to free his own self from suffocating bonds, but desired to unshackle those who are important to him as well."

OxxxOxxxO

"Byakuya-kun,"

He immediately turned towards the door and lifted his hand in response. It was Ukitake –

"Yo, Sleeping Beauty!"

And Urahara.

He rolled his eyes. "Why did you bring him?" He muttered, directing the question to the older Shinigami. "He still needs training."

"So cold, Byakucchin!" the mad scientist intoned, clutching his heart as if in pain. "You do not understand my feelings – how could you say something like that to someone who cares for you –"

"You're the one who doesn't understand that your theatrics are annoying."

"Maa, Maa," Ukitake grinned sheepishly, holding up his hands in surrender, tone placating. "Urahara-kun, please try to be more quiet, Byakuya-kun, try to be more forgiving, ne?"

"Fine." The two chorused, exasperatedly.

The older blonde laughed, shaking his head, wondering how he had been in charge of such stubborn kids. He pulled a chair, set it right beside Byakuya's bed and sat down gracefully. "Well, Unohana-taichou told us you wanted to talk… what is it about?"

"I want to go back to my house."

Both men sobered and stared at the patient thoughtfully.

Byakuya was now staring out the lightening sky, eyes rueful, lips curved down as if melancholy. What was it that was plaguing him so bad? Why did he want to go home when he could recuperate here under the capable hands of the Fourth Division?

But to some extent, Urahara understood. He took off his hat and played with it absently. There were times when solitude was vital, and he wouldn't blame Byakuya if he was feeling like he wanted to be alone.

Seeing people you do not know personally going in and out of your room and treating your wounds didn't do much for a defeated man's morale. He could still remember facing Konjiki Ashisogi Jizou in an unofficial battle before he was formally exiled to the human world. He remembered wanting to be alone with no one but Kurosaki Isshin and Shihouin Yoruichi for company… and oftentimes the other people from his division.

He didn't technically lose the battle, but he didn't tell the stupid clown that the old man had sealed some of his powers away by law, something that would be taken away upon his reaching the human world.

Now, this man lying down so solemnly before him was most probably feeling the same way, if the lack of lustre in his eyes was any indication. This one however seemed to stem from something much more than just pride.

"Are you sure, Byakuya-bou?" He asked softly, surprising Ukitake and prompting the latter to glance at him quickly before settling once again on the contemplative form of the Kuchiki heir. He was eyeing him, every movement recorded in his mind, most probably, Urahara noted.

He couldn't blame this man either. After all, he had practically raised him, along with Shiba Kaien. Since the latter's fate had been short of brutal, he probably didn't want this surviving one feeling all depressed and even more defeated than he already was.

As if on cue, the former captain turned back to them and a small reassuring smile stretched his lips minutely.

"It would be best if I stayed away from here for a long while."

OxxxOxxxO

The induction was supposed to be scheduled that morning, but he asked Hisagi to tell Ukitake to hold it until he returned in a few days. He knew the paperwork would be stacked by then and he would get an earful from Yamamoto Genryuusai, but he had to find peace for himself first before everything else.

They parted ways half an hour before breakfast was served in the refectory. Renji had a lot of things to think about, lots of things to figure out so he decided to wander off alone… and maybe pick up a few cents from those who may have a lot of say on this matter.

Like Rukia, which was virtually impossible since he didn't exactly know how she would react and he didn't want to die any time soon… Urahara was here, but he knew he would be even more confused what with that guy's weird riddles and suggestive looks…

And then there's Kurosaki Ichigo.

His eyes lit up at the realisation that maybe, just maybe, the guy would be willing to listen to his woes. After all, he had defeated Kuchiki Byakuya in battle before and the latter losing to someone else would be an interesting incident.

They had been sort of partners during the war and they had gained mutual respect in battle. They had also talked about many things, concerning blades, brains and brawn… and those things that come between, like life and that other cheesy L-word.

He snorted as he set off towards the gates.

He'd definitely understand.

OxxxOxxxO

It was not as bumpy as he imagined it to be.

Soon enough, he was back on his own bed, head resting on his own goose-down pillow and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of his own room.

He wanted to see how things would progress; he wanted to hear from this place what was transpiring from the scared mount, where the induction would take place this morning. However, Ukitake told him a not-so-baffling fact:

Abarai Renji asked for it to be moved when he returned from god knew where.

In a way he understood why the younger Shinigami wanted to do it that way, why he wanted some times off before plowing through his duties. Even before, when faced with something big, he had always wandered off alone, talking to people on his way about what he was experiencing and generally thinking about it until he found some clarity, some semblance of stability in his emotions…

Just like what happened with Rukia – twice. First before they met the Kurosaki boy and the next when he obviously wanted to snag her for his own happiness.

And in both times, he noted with a small measure of guilt, he had dabbled in the affair and doubled the redhead's troubles even more.

He sighed, propping himself up even as some of his muscles pulled in protest. He winced, but continued anyway, a wry smile creeping into his face as he finally had his back to the wall.

Looks like he wouldn't be rid of me after all. He mused. In some ways, you never did change… it'd be a miracle if you will.

"Isn't that so," He whispered almost inaudibly. "Renji…?"

OxxxOxxxO

ACHOO!

Came the particularly loud sneeze. In the corner of his eye, he saw a white ghost-like cat bristle, sunning away scared, and scampering up an unfortunate family's red-lanterned window.

Renji groaned as he picked himself up from his sprawled position on the cold, hard, asphalt road and glared at the sky spitefully. "One of these days, I'm gonna halve that friggin' black ball." He swore, levering himself with great difficulty

As per usual, he had the worst luck when it came to unannounced visits to the human world.

It was evening here, whereas in Soul Society, the sun had just risen. This three-world thing was more complicated than he initially thought.

Sighing, he stood up, ignoring the protest of his tailbone, wondering absently if his gigai was damaged.

This is going to be a long night.

OxxxOxxxO

"Kurosaki Clinic… must be around here somewhere…" He muttered in irritation, eyeing the endless rows of establishments and houses lining Karakura Town. It was ridiculous, he knew. He was lost in such a small place.

He felt like Zaraki Kenpachi without the creepy eye patch.

At least he has the cotton candy of a midget to blame. He thought exasperatedly. He had stayed at the Kurosaki household twice before, but he still couldn't navigate around he twists and turns of this area. He swore, if in five minutes he didn't see it, he was gonna give up and go back to Seireitei!

Then, as if Enma Daiou himself saw his plight and made a miracle, the minute he turned the corner, there it was, in huge letters, spelling out the most precious name to his tired feet at the moment. It was next to the house with the red lantern.

It was the exact same place he landed earlier.

Cheeks flushing in embarrassment, he stalked towards the closed door and gave the doorbell an irritated push, muttering about stupid cats, stupid maps and even stupider gigai.

Suddenly, the door opened and he squinted in surprise at the light on his face. It was Kurosaki Isshin, the one and only, grinning from ear to ear as if he knew exactly who he was and why he was standing on his doorstep this time of night. He could clearly see Ichigo's little sister Yuzu peeking shyly from inside the house and gave her a small wave.

The older pervert probably mistook it as something meant for him for he squealed like a girl and opened the door wide – together with his arms – as if to embrace him. Renji took a hasty step back, arms waving denial in front of his face to ward him off.

"Wait, wait! I was waving at Yuzu!"

The other man calmed down and frowned, obviously displeased and somewhat jealous. "What, no wave for me?" he asked, trying to pout cutely and miserably failing. Renji thought he looked like a bearded fish.

A vein of irritation popped on his forehead. Taking a deep breath, he straightened to the most dignified pose he could muster and bowed respectfully to the man who had once been a part of the Gotei 13.

"Kurosaki-san." He acknowledged, prompting the other to grin at him in response. "Good evening."

"Hi there, captain!" Isshin greeted him enthusiastically, moving forward and clapping him soundly on the shoulder. "To what do we honour this visit?"

"Umm, hello…" Renji swayed for a moment, taken aback, wondering how the news spread so quickly when it only happened just hours ago. He cleared his throat. "Is Ichigo in?"

The doctor's face was enveloped in surprise and for a moment, he just stared at him, probably wondering what his son had done this time. After a few moments of deliberation, he probably found the answer he was looking for in Renji's uncertain eyes and he immediately whipped out a little black notebook from his back pocket and waved it before him triumphantly. "Well, Ichigo's not here at the moment, but I know where he is!"

"Ah, my trusty ally!" He exclaimed, rubbing his cheek on the leather-bound notebook before finally opening it, wetting the tips of his index finger as he turned over every two pages. "Now, where is it…? Irino… Iriya… Isao… Isshikawa – no wait, I jumped a few names… let's see… Ah, here it is! ISHIDA!"

"Ishida?" Renji echoed almost dumbly. "As in Uryuu? As in Quincy?"

"Hai-hai!" Isshin grinned. "Ishida Uryuu! He's gone there early this evening and called me up to say he's gonna stay over there for tonight."

After a few moments of shocked silence, Renji finally found the will to speak. His lips were dry and he felt like the world had just spun out of control. Why are those two together? I thought they're enemies after Ishida nearly killed him? Things were getting even more complicated than he had initially thought. He shook his head as if to clear it and smiled wanly in gratitude at the older Kurosaki.

"Oh," He started. "I see… uh, is it possible to, y'know, get Ishida's –"

"First house at Akamine Street." Isshin stated readily.

"How do I –"

"Easy!" Came the smart response. "Karakura General Hospital is a couple of blocks from here. Turn right at the next avenue then turn again to the first street on your right. When you see the huge white house that looks like a mausoleum, press the gate buzzer thingamabob and ask the grouchy guy who will answer the door. Ichigo's gotta be inside." The older man was snickering, and frankly, Renji was afraid the directions were wrong.

Something in his head was telling him to run away to the other direction (Or back to Seireitei at least…). With the way Isshin was grinning, he could tell something in the Ishida Household was going to eat him alive… maybe a hollow? Maybe it was an Arrankar… or maybe it was a Vaizard.

It was one of those times Renji wanted to be like Yamada Hanatarou – wimpy and all that but certainly with common sense.

Subtly, he cleared his throat and frowned, making a brave face as he did. "Hospital. Right. Right. Big house-mausoleum thing. Use buzzer thingamabob. Got it. Thank you ojiisan!" He nodded and hurriedly ran off. He had just gotten halfway to the next block when an outraged cry echoed from behind.

"I'M NOT THAT OLD!"

OxxxOxxxO

It was lunchtime when a particularly loud sound echoed in the hallway. Surprised, Byakuya looked up from his food, spoon dripping, halfway to his mouth. Steam from the soup blurring his vision as he stared at his closed door.

A strong thump heralded a series of loud heartbeats that rung in his ears. If there was enough noise to waken the dead, then he might be outside, wanting to have an audience with him.

Slowly, and cleanly, he set his spoon back into his bowl of steaming hot chicken consommé and waited with bated breath. The footsteps were loud and somewhat sounding hurried and irritated, and they approached quickly. There was something off about it, he thought. It was possible it wasn't him, but considering everything that had happened, it just might be.

And then the footsteps stopped right outside his door. His heartbeat sped up in anticipation and he swallowed, his mouth suddenly too dry for him to bear. His lips felt like they were cracking from lack of moisture and for a brief moment, he wondered if his hair looked alright. His inner voice was sounding suspiciously like a girl, but he didn't care. This was more important than anything else.

The wooden door slid open almost vehemently, and as he laid eyes on the one who had the audacity to terrorise his keepers, for the first time in his life, he felt a strong surge of disappointment.

But then it was gone.

It wasn't the vibrant red hair he was hoping for but it was something he didn't expect – at all.

Bells.

Lots of them, strung haphazardly to the ends of spiky hair reeking of cheap lily-scented pomade.

"Yo, Kuchiki-baka, 'ya dead yet?"

Irritation plagued his senses once again at the childish name-calling and sighed. "Zaraki Kenpachi of the Nameless Sword."

The Eleventh Division captain stomped forward, slamming the door behind him in distaste. "Y'know, if only ya weren't injured, I'd stab all the crap outta 'ya!" He groaned as he plopped noisily on the tatami floor a few feet away from his bed. "And by the way, 'ya snot-nosed blue blood, my zanpakutou has a name now. So what ya just said should be in past tense – just like ya bein' captain of the Sixth!"

That stopped his wit from attacking – cold. It's true… and I'm not offended at all… I wonder why…

The silence stretched, and all Byakuya had the presence of mind to do was give him a thoughtful gaze and pick up his spoon once again to take a sip of his soup. Strangely enough, if it was unappetising before, it seemed delicious now, this broth. He eyed the bow quizzically, trying to understand his taste buds by the amount of oil floating on the soup's surface.

The silence though, seemed to somehow unnerve the twitchy lump glaring at him nearby.

"Oi, don't go drippy on me, Kuchiki, I know ya got your angst and all, but hell if I let ya play mind games with me. C'mon, spit it out, what's in that uptight ass of yours?"

He had full knowledge that he had just been called a severe person, since he had heard that phrase a lot when Renji was complaining about the huge load of paperwork returned by Hitsugaya Toushirou a few months back. That was offensive on several levels and it was no different from the current trap the rough Zaraki had sprung just now. But as strange as the soup incident a moment or two ago, he didn't feel the least bit offended.

This was just Zaraki Kenpachi, asking him in his own crude way what he was thinking about and why he didn't fire back the way he usually did when he was being antagonistic.

A devilish thought entered his mind and he smiled inwardly, deciding to bite.

"A huge thing you wouldn't even begin to comprehend, you Neanderthal."

Slowly, the stunned look that immediately dawned over Zaraki's features was washed away and an equally devilish grin zapped his cracked lips… and then, he threw his head back and laughed, bells tinkling like a sweet melody, contrasting against the coarseness of their owner's voice.

"Hey, hey, slow down Kuchiki – ya still lack a way with words!" He guffawed, leaning forward and clutching his stomach, doubled up with apparent hilarity. "Ya could've just said 'TREE'!"

Retort obviously backfiring, Byakuya threw his spoon at him and glared.

"Die, Zaraki."

OxxxOxxxO

No fucking way am I going in there! Renji thought as he faced the greatest adversary he may have the chance of facing in his entire Shinigami lifetime. Even if he invited me, I most definitely wouldn't! He'll kill me for sure!

He was now face to face with the creepiest Quincy in the whole world. Well okay, there are only two surviving Quincy as far as I know, but hey, Ishida Uryuu isn't as scary as this guy! Does he eat Shinigami for breakfast?

Ishida Ryuuken, in all his prodigious glory.

"Umm… no, it's okay, Thank you… sir. Umm… I just want to see Ichigo…" He fidgeted. Holding up his hands in a gesture of submissiveness. He may now be a captain but making an enemy of this guy would end him up with a huge gaping hole through his torso. Beads of sweat lined his temples.

"Ichigo?" The passive face gave way to unmistakeable irritation. The man's eyes were positively fiery – in a bad way.

Like his encounter with Isshin, Renji took a hasty step back, fearing not for his virtue this time, but for his very life.

"Why do you think that… boy… is in my home?" he said the world 'boy' as if it was poison. Renji flinched. And he smiled hesitantly.

"Umm, well, Kurosaki-san, I mean, Kurosaki Isshin from a few blocks away told me Ichigo's here, so…"

That dogged Ryuuken even further. His eyes were now spitting fire. "ISSHIN?!" He growled in a low voice. "He said his stupid son is in my home?"

"Umm… yeah…?" Renji almost whispered, taking another step back. The Quincy clan sure was frightening. Were all of the members, when they were still alive that is, this fearsome?

He must be looking terribly pathetic; sweating like a pig, for the older man suddenly seemed to switch personalities and tried his best to calm himself down. After a few moments, he succeeded and back was his usual passive features… and his wise eyes. "Well," He sighed, shaking his head. "Fortunately, contrary to what Pervert-Beard told you, he's not here. Unfortunately, he's with Uryuu. He went with a bunch of other people – classmates."

Renji breathed a sigh of relief upon noticing that calm had finally settled. But he still couldn't find Ichigo. That bastard… I'm gonna kill him when I see him – Ishida or no Ishida! "Oh, I see, well, thank you sir." He bowed as politely as he could under the circumstances. "Sorry for not being able to, umm, accept your invitation to come in and rest, umm…thank you again… sir."

When he straightened, their eyes met. It took a few moments to register that Ryuuken was smiling softly. "You're Abarai Renji, am I correct?" He asked, to which the redhead nodded, dumbstruck that his name was actually remembered. "You're rougher than the young Kuchiki and you need to learn how to interact with others more…"

"…" At that, Renji's eyes widened. How did he –

"But you'll be fine." Ryuuken voiced out his thoughts firmly. "You'll definitely exceed him. He had made the right choice."

"Thank... you…?"

"Good luck then, Abarai-taichou."

"Wait… how did you –?"

"Look for someone wearing a pale blue kimono shot with golden threads. There, you'll find the Kurosaki boy."

And with that, the huge oaken door closed.

OxxxOxxxO

"Oh, so that's why weird things just happened!" Zaraki, finally finding a proper seat, rocked the wooden chair with him as he straddled it. "It's a good thing that guy's captain now – well, no offence, but he's been aiming for it for a long time, ya know!"

"I know." Byakuya acknowledged. His half-finished soup was now taken away by a kitchen helper and he was once again left alone with the Eleventh Division captain. "That's why I did what I did."

Zaraki's single visible eye gazed at him thoughtfully… critically. "I'm not too savvy on emotions and all that crap, but y'know, Renji's gonna take it badly. He's a real softy, if ya know what I mean."

"Softy?"

"Yeah. He actually got out of my nest –"

"You mean clutches."

"NEST." Zaraki reiterated, scowling. "Stop it with all those snippy comments, Byakuya-baka."

"Fine. Go ahead."

"What am I saying again?"

Byakuya sighed. "Renji being a softy."

"Oh, right." Zaraki nodded, mostly to himself. "Well, as I was saying, that guy's a total softy. He got out of my wing –"

"Nest."

The other man glared at him, promising a slow painful death… to which Byakuya only raised a brow in a gesture of defiance before finally shaking his head and gesturing for him to continue.

"He just got out, okay? Nest, wing, clutches, whatever. So, anyway, he did that because he was too into your sister. D'ya know that?"

"I know."

"But as time passed, instead of wanting to tear her away from ya, well, the shrimp decided to defeat ya as well, prove who's a better man and all that being captain crap."

That wasn't news to Byakuya either, so he just nodded and let him continue his too obvious tale.

"But after the war, I noticed he had changed, y'know, sort of like, too sweet and lovey-dovey with ya –"

The young Kuchiki's eyes widened. "What?"

"It's like you're a precious person and all that jazz." Zaraki continued, his eyes turned inwards, searching his memory for something he may have forgotten. And then, that lone eye lit up and the edge in it suddenly left, replaced by a flash of something resembling softness before hardening to its usual level gleam. "And then there was that drunken thing Ikkaku and Yachiru mentioned weeks ago –"

"What thing?"

"Will ya let me finish?" The hulking captain groaned exasperatedly. "Sheesh!"

"Fine, go on."

"As I was saying, yeah, Ikkaku said Renji looked really disturbed by something, and he was brooding like ya wouldn't believe. Then, next thing he knew, the guy was face down on the tavern table muttering like crazy. But he caught some pretty interesting stuff."

His heart was pounding. Byakuya didn't know if he was breathing or he had just died again as he waited for what it was that his former subordinate once said in a drunken stupor.

"Renji said 'furthering yourself, my foot', 'fucker, acting all cool', 'Pretty', and last was 'Byakuya'." Zaraki grinned slyly. "Friggin' weird if ya ask me... but it's different with ya, ain't it?"

This time, Byakuya really couldn't properly breathe.

OxxxOxxxO

Renji couldn't breathe.

He had just sprinted through what seemed like another labyrinth until he finally found the town plaza where the festival was being held. And then he circled the entire area for the third time until finally, finally, he had found who he was looking for.

There it was, the pale blue kimono, shot with golden threads.

But then he couldn't really look anymore.

Renji squeezed his eyes close as he saw said kimono riding high up a pale, slender leg… being held up by a darker hand whose fingers had gathered the entire thing from the hem in loose folds.

He must've leaked his energy for a flurry of movements followed and the unmentionable noises he had just been immersed into halted. Throats were cleared and he wondered if it was safe.

"Renji – what are you doing here?!" The unmistakeable voice of Kurosaki Ichigo sounded; its tone light and airy.

"Well, I was supposed to ask your opinion about something, but I just saw you doing – HIM, so here I am. Is it still X-rated?"

"Abarai-kun!" Ishida Uryuu exclaimed in a scandalised voice.

"What? It's true!" He cried out defensively. "You guys were swapping spit and heaven knows what else – wait, is it safe to open my eyes now?"

"Yeah, yeah, open them. Jeez, you're not a kid anymore, Renji!" Ichigo groaned. "Besides, we weren't swapping spit; I was just helping him, erm…"

"He was helping me get some dirt out of my eye!" Ishida retorted indignantly.

"Eh? And I suppose you have dirt under your kimono too since this guy's hand was –"

That earned him an uppercut from the orange blob that suddenly blurred out of nowhere. "Enough!" Ichigo sighed. "We get it! Sorry. But you should've waited in my place instead of looking for me like this, you know!"

"You should've tried groping Ishida in your place instead of out here you moron! What if someone other than me saw you guys manhandling – stop pointing that damned thing at me! I'm just saying!" He protested as he felt the first pinprick of Quincy energy. Sure enough, when he turned, the telltale arrow was there, targeting the invisible bulls-eye right smack in the middle of his forehead.

"Can I shoot him? Just once, na, Ichigo?" The bespectacled boy asked, glaring at him.

"No you can't." Ichigo sighed once again, calming him down with a warm hand on his arm. "Put that down. Renji, apologise."

"Sor-ry." He rolled his eyes. It wasn't even my fault. He thought, irritated. It wasn't lost on the bristling Quincy.

"I'm going to kill him." He declared resolutely, preparing another arrow. "I'm going to shoot him and my ancestors would be proud."

Panicking slightly, Ichigo had no choice but to hold down the pale arms and glare pointedly at Renji. "Look, stop it okay, guys? What is it about, Renji, why were you looking for me?" He pushed Ishida down until the latter was seated on the grass and he did the same right beside him, patting the spot across them in invitation. "Sit. Sit."

Renji sighed and sat down, feeling drained in an instant. "Well," He started. "Me and Kuchiki-taichou got into this huge fight."

Ichigo nodded. "Nothing new. Go on."

"We came to blows, and like, used bankai and stuff."

"Okay, again, nothing new. And –?"

"I won."

"Good for you."

"I won." Renji repeated, trying to get the message across to one of Seireitei's ryouka heroes.

"That's good, isn't it?"

"I'm now the captain of the Sixth Division." He said slowly.

"Congratulations – WHAT?!" Ichigo's eyes widened to the point of popping and he scooted back in disbelief. "You DEFEATED Kuchiki Byakuya?!"

"Well, yeah."

The silence that followed was thick and it remained that way until Ichigo grinned uncertainly. "Then why do you seem bothered? Shouldn't you be celebrating?"

"Well, you see, it's not that simple…"

OxxxOxxxO

It took a few minutes before everything began sinking in. His thoughts were on hyperdrive and all he could do was stare at the spot Zaraki had just left a couple of minutes ago.

The Eleventh Division captain was dragged away by his fukutaichou upon Yamamoto's orders. The little girl smiled up at him cheerily and with one painful slap on his wounded side in a gesture of goodwill, she commanded her living gargantuan chariot to wheel out as quickly as possible.

She even touched the bells on the tops of Zaraki's spikes, tittering without fear.

"Ask him about it if ya want, Kuchiki – it would probably be better if ya do." Was the man's parting words. And since then he hadn't moved an inch and continued staring at empty space.

His emotions were in turmoil.

He wanted answers, fast… but the man in question was not really present.

He would have to take a number and wait.

Silently, he bowed his head and closed his eyes, ignoring the stinging that lingered upon contact with Kusajishi Yachiru's small palm.

/"I want to be stronger, dammit – and I don't need position for that!"/

His head was filled with images of his former subordinate. And as he turned over each picture and remembered the exact time his mind decided to capture it, he realised the existence of that one important thing that he had never given the freedom to manifest all these years…

/"Ne, taichou... Are you in trouble? Is the division in trouble? Am Iin trouble?"/

A smile seeped into his face as he hugged himself.

/"Wait taichou… what are you hinting at?"/

We are not too different, you and I, aren't we… Renji?

OxxxOxxxO

The first movement came from Ishida. Slowly, he took off his glasses and meticulously cleaned them with his sleeve. Then, just as slowly, he put them back on and blinked twice before focusing once again on Renji's shadow-cast face.

"It really isn't a problem, Abarai-kun." He smiled sadly. "He did what was best for everyone."

"I know." The redhead huffed, turning away. "But this way… it's too difficult… and too difficult to bear."

"Well, Hisagi-san has the right deduction this time." He nodded thoughtfully. "However, I have to say that there isn't any problem here other than you."

"Me? I'm the one set up, you know…" He started to protest.

"That is precisely the problem." Ishida chuckled. "You keep on thinking that things shouldn't be this way because Kuchiki-san was too selfish and imposed something so arduous on you. You think you are the victim here and deserve to be listened to until you feel better about yourself… aren't you the one being selfish?"

Renji couldn't speak.

Ishida's thoughts about his issues were hard to take, but slowly, realisation dawned. His captain had been sacrificing a lot of things that was extremely important to him.

He sacrificed the time and effort he had given to the Sixth Division to ensure its growth. He sacrificed fame and glory when he chose to live behind rows upon rows of books lining Seireitei's library. He sacrificed even with the wrath of his clan just to cater to the one thing that linked the entirety of Soul Society – thoroughly recorded information.

He sacrificed his dignity for he wasn't an official captain anymore. He may be the one in charge of a lot of things, and may be on the same level as a captain, but he was just an ordinary part of the system now. The only thing that was holding his head up in terms of society was his title as clan leader and successor to the house of Kuchiki.

No title other than being a nobleman, and he needed another title to reaffirm himself as a powerful clan leader..

No nothing.

He sacrificed the fame of the combative strength he carried for he had been defeated by his own subordinate whom he was with for decades now.

And what was Renji doing?

Obsessing over the fact that he felt like a victim in a huge conspiracy.

But how was he supposed to handle this huge responsibility without feeling this pain and this guilt?

"But you feel guilty, don't you?" Ichigo asked softly. "I felt the same before when I defeated someone a lot stronger than I am – people more important than I am." He chuckled dryly. "But then I realised there was no place for guilt. After all, I never cheated."

The scenes from his fateful battle played in his head for the umpteenth time since last night. He didn't cheat. He didn't trick anyone. It was an honest battle, and he remembered fighting for his own life. It was either he won or he ended up a vegetable, or worse, dead.

He looked up at him, eyes wide.

"Stop denying the truth, Renji." Ichigo grinned as their eyes met. "You won fair and square, didn't you? You deserve this, you know. This is your prize."

"But I didn't sign up –"

"But wasn't it what you've always wanted?" Ishida asked pointedly. "It wasn't about Rukia, nor being a better man, was it? You've always wanted to win against him in a real battle, haven't you?"

I wanted to win against him mainly because of Rukia… but that was a long time ago… He had always wanted to be the better man between him and his former captain… he didn't need a title for that and they both knew it. So what was it that he wanted all this time? Was it really power?

No.

Then what was it?

"Through thinking it over? What was it that you wanted, Renji?" Ichigo laughed. "Do you need me to answer for you?"

Renji stared, eyes now clearer than it ever had been since that fateful afternoon Kuchiki Byakuya performed a tea ceremony for him. A smile was now easing through his features, brightening as if a huge burden had just been lifted from his shoulders.

He shook his head firmly.

"I think it's kind of romantic, Abarai-kun." Ishida chuckled, reaching out to pat his knee reassuringly. "Kuchiki-san wants to embrace those whom he loves. And now he has finally gotten his wish. He's going to embrace Soul Society with both arms… most of all, the one he had chosen personally to lead the flock he doted over since he was instated decades ago… he wants to embrace YOU."

OxxxOxxxO

It took him a few days to find himself.

His conversation on his first day with Ichigo and Ishida made him realise a lot of things and that was what had led him to acceptance.

This was his fate and it was inevitable.

Before he slipped into the portal, flanked by his ryouka friends, he spied a small inconspicuous figure lurking behind a sakura tree. If his eyes had not been fast enough, he might've missed it.

A grin brightened his face and he nodded in acknowledgment.

Kuchiki Rukia was there, a winning grin on her own face, holding up her thumbs in a gesture of approval. She supported him, and that was her way of saying it was okay, that she was looking forward to seeing him as a captain when she gets back to their own world.

And for Renji, that was the proverbial icing on the cake.

They may not have conversed, but at that moment, he felt like another huge burden was lifted from his shoulders.

"Try not to get squashed by that stupid cleaning ball, you hear?" Ichigo called out as he slipped a foot into the portal's undulating silken surface. "And say hi to Byakuya for us!"

And he was in, running towards the other end of the tunnel. He was lucky this time – it wasn't being cleaned. He ran as fast as he could and soon enough, he was exiting the cloying space, eyes adjusting to the light and staring dumbfounded at what he found right outside the travel gates.

"What are you guys doing here? Aren't you supposed to be working?"

The only response to Renji's question was an exceptionally loud cheer that he thought must've reverberated throughout Seireitei.

"Our new captain is finally here!"

And they piled on him happily, their laughter and excitement not lost on those who saw them celebrating.

OxxxOxxxO

He had learned from Ukitake that Renji came back a couple of weeks ago, and he presumed that he had been taking care of the backlog on paperwork since he had been away for three whole Soul Society days.

And that was probably why he hadn't the time to visit him while he was resting in the manor. He could imagine the horror he must've felt as he saw the mound of paperwork waiting for him, and a small smile stole into his face.

It would've been really amusing.

It was a known fact among the people around him that he was waiting for someone. And it probably registered on everyone's mind that he looked positively disappointed when he saw the new visitors he had in sick bed didn't include anyone who had lightning tattoos on his face.

He was waiting for Renji.

After receiving that glimmer of hope from Zaraki, he thought that for sure, he wasn't alone, wasn't the only one feeling this way. It was the same feeling that drove him to understand his former vice-captain further. It was the same feeling that urged to ask him to go out after work for tea. It was the same feeling he had long since felt, the last of which was when Hisana was still alive.

But it wasn't as if Ikkaku's story was proof.

After all, Renji might've just been thinking of some random person when he said 'pretty', and must've been too affected by his suggestion of becoming captain that his mind immediately switched over to his image and he unknowingly blurted out his name.

But this hope was enough.

He didn't exactly know where and when it would happen, but their paths were sure to cross one of these days. It may be futile, but even if the chances are close to zero, I still haven't lost him. He reminded himself. When we meet I'll know for sure if we are created the same way.

Byakuya tiptoed, returning a book he had been reading to the topmost level of the nearby shelf. He had been told that he could finally work now, and so he didn't waste any more precious time wallowing in despair over not seeing the one person he wanted to see all this time.

Finishing his task of returning the other three books, he walked away from the shelf and was about to get some more from the shelves further back when the door suddenly opened.

His steps halted and he stiffened in shock.

The reiatsu was familiar and its signature sucked the air out of his lungs. Slowly, he closed his eyes, steeling himself from turning around and seeing for himself that this moment was real.

He had finally come for him.

"Ichimaru-san said I can find you here."

"Renji." He started almost breathlessly. "Why are you here?"

There wasn't any answer, and in that single moment, he felt his blood frozen into ice.

"'Why is he still alive?', 'Why did everything turn out this way?'" He murmured. "Are you asking those questions?"

"I don't need to. I did ask them before, but now, I don't need to anymore – I understand." Came the soft response. There was a flurry of movements behind him and the door was immediately slammed shut. "I finally understand everything you represent, Kuchiki-taichou…"

"You cannot call me that way anymore, Renji."

"Nor should you call me without a proper title, but you're doing it anyway." He could hear his voice clearly now, and he knew he was fast approaching. Byakuya wanted to run, but his feet remained rooted to the ground, as if he was bound by an invisible x-mark on the marble floors.

Warmth was around him now, and he could feel Renji's breath on his neck, moving slowly forward until it assaulted his cheek. Strong arms bound him from behind and at that exact point of contact, cheek against cheek, his eyes snapped open. They were wide and unfocused. "You came to laugh at me." He whispered softly. "You came to see how I look like without the formal white coat."

"Yeah, I did… and to tell you that I will now be the one who wears your coats. No more secretly trying them on." Renji chuckled, and the arms holding him shook slightly. "This is what I've always wanted, Kuchiki-taichou…"

"…"

The redhead tightened his hold on him and he buried his face in the crook of Byakuya's neck. "This is what I've always wanted and you know it, don't you, taichou"" He whispered brokenly, voice muffled and every word embedded on his pale skin. "Be a captain, someone in equal terms with you in both paper and name. I wanted to be the one whom you could rely on when in need, someone who could formally ask for you when I am in need and someone whom you could ask for without questions when you're in need…"

"Renji…"

"It's best like this, isn't it?" Renji buried his head even deeper that Byakuya thought he was in danger of smothering. "But even if it is, you'll always be my captain, Kuchiki-taichou."

"Yes." Slowly, he shifted and turned around in his embrace, facing Renji completely. "Zaraki Kenpachi would not be happy when he hears that."

There was surprise in the redhead's eyes and Byakuya saw it. Slowly, a kooky grin bloomed on the former's face. "Then don't tell him I said that, ne, Kuchiki-taichou."

"I'll try not to let it slip." His eyes softened as he surveyed the light in Renji's face. He allowed himself a small smile and shook his head. "You're still growing, I see. You're now taller than I am."

At that, Renji laughed. "Yeah. But I won't be as tall as Komamura-taichou's bankai… I hope –!"

For the moment, he had enough conversation. Byakuya tiptoed slightly and touched his lips lightly to his, leaning back to gauge his reaction.

The redhead blinked down at him… and blinked again. Another version of his kooky smile appeared. "For real?"

Smitten. Byakuya thought almost impishly. We are not too different, you and I, Renji. Deliberately, he stepped out of his arms and moved towards the door. He wasn't going to read anymore – at least for today. He was already two books more than his daily quota anyway.

"Would you join me for tea, Abarai-taichou?"

Renji stared at him incredulously for a moment before running after him.

"Wait, Kuchiki-taichou! You're not gonna kill me, are you?"


ENDE


A/N: Finished! Finally, after nearly a year of hiatus, it's finally finished! Now I'm moving on to ShuuYumi:) Feedbacks are greatly appreciated:3