Series: sequel to Nexus
Rating: M for 'Much Smut'
Spoilers: read through Soul Society & Arrancar Arcs
Summary: One year after Nexus, Ichigo and Renji face personal challenges and a new crisis that threatens everyone.
Word Count: 60,000ish
Warnings: There is more talk about the war with Aizen that I wrote around in Nexus. There are mentions of character deaths during the war, but they're mostly minor. Should also be noted that there's some definite Shuuhei/Yumichika subtext, and off camera Hitsugaya/Hinamori.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach, I'm just borrowing it for a while.
Distribution: Also posted to my LJ. Please ask if you want to share it :)
Dedication: To my wonderful beta Shelagh, for putting up with my writing process and for drawing the amazing art that goes with my stories. She keeps me on the path of reality when my feet try to take me down sugar plum lane. And for Sara, our partner in fangirling and BL love, for helping us stay silly and sane. And I suppose even for my husband, who has had to endure my mental love affair with Renji, my extended hours on my laptop writing this beast, and my ups and downs while writing it. One night we got drunk and he let me read all my fics out loud to him in one night (yes, even all of Nexus) - my voice was ruined the next day, but we had a great laugh. He laughed in all the right places, and wouldn't let me chicken out and stop reading at the sexy bits. :)
And as always, to all my fellow Renji/Ichigo fangirls/guys out there. We know it's impossible, we know it's silly, and we know it's damned hot!
A/N: I said Nexus ate my life - I was wrong. So very wrong. The idea for Apotheosis came to me while I was still writing Nexus, and I scribbled down a couple pages of notes as I went along. Nexus was posted at the end of August, and it's now December. I've only taken a handful of days off writing this story - I even took my notebook to work and scribbled lines and scenes as they came to me. This is definitely an obsession. And I loved every minute of it. I hope you all do, too.
Chapter 1 - Resurgence
Forever was long enough not to worry about the future.
But sometimes forever really weighed heavily. Ichigo stretched out on his bed, tired and alone – alone, as was usually the case, because the only person he'd ever share it with lived in Soul Society and they only got to see each other one weekend a month at best.
It was worth every lonely night of the past eight months, every bad dream without comforting arms to hold him and remind him that the pain was shared and would gradually fade with time. It was an altogether tolerable situation, but that didn't mean they had to like it.
He missed Renji intensely. It had been nearly three weeks since his lover's last visit to the living world – a visit that had been cut short by an emergency in Soul Society. Those emergencies were coming more frequently, according to the letters he got regularly from Renji and occasionally from his other shinigami friends.
One of those letters sat open on the bed beside him, and its contents gave him a lot to think about. Ichigo picked it up and scanned it again, though he already knew it by heart. Renji's writing style was a little tidier than his speech patterns; his voice filled Ichigo's mind as he read.
Hey. It's been a rough week. Two more patrols went to Hueco Mundo after another one of those freakish monsters attacked. Was a joint mission, us and the 9th. No one was hurt – this time. These things are getting weirder. They're bigger, uglier, and harder to take down. We're stretched pretty thin. Wish ya had some spare time coming up, could really use ya. Can't be helped though – your next break's not for another month, right?
It's not all bad here, though. The guys are determined to have a good time in between fights (though they like that part, too). Sometimes they're a little too determined – ya should've seen the look on Kuchiki-taichou's face when the Shinigami Women's Association auctioned off a picture of him skinny dipping! Ikkaku was the one who spilled the beans to Nemu that he was out swimming – and don't ask me how Ikkaku found that out, 'cause I dunno. I'll ask him when Unohana-taichou releases him next week. Hah.
Speaking of that, gotta go plan next week's patrol schedule.
Miss ya. See ya in a couple weeks.
More attacks. Ichigo's sigh turned into a yawn. The situation in Soul Society was getting more tense with each new attack. He worried for his friends fighting what was turning into yet another war, only this time the enemy was still unknown. They could only hope it wasn't another smiling, friendly face creeping up to stab them in the back…
His arm slid off his chest to hang over the edge of the bed, the letter slipping out of his fingers and fluttering to the floor.
Battles raged all around them. Huge Hollows shook the ground with their steps as wave after wave of shinigami leaped into the fray; here and there flashes of blue and red flickered in the sea of black and white, as even the students at the Academy were drawn into the fight for the very survival of the Soul Society.
"Ooh, ya blocked it, tha's real good." Ichimaru Gin's slick drawl grated on Ichigo's ears. With a brutal twist, Ichigo sent the traitor's blade spinning off to the side.
"Shut up and fight. I don't have time for smartass remarks." Ichigo leaped and swung a two-handed blow at the smirking ex-captain. He was already exhausted from a full day of fighting, but he found new strength in his determination to carve that expression right off the bastard's face.
Ichimaru dodged easily. "Maa, ya need ta do better'n that!" A casual flick of his wrist sent Shinsou flying out again, skewering a small shinigami in a student uniform through the neck before whipping back to face Ichigo.
Ichigo snarled. His eyes burned with white-hot resolve as he swept Zangetsu down. "Getsuga Ten—"
"Way of Binding Number One – Sai!"
Ichigo fell with a curse. He struggled desperately – he'd broken this kidou before, but this one was crushing his chest, and his energy levels were so low and there was no time…
Ichimaru's grin was malicious as Shinsou shot directly toward Ichigo's furious eyes.
A sharp breeze whispered across Ichigo's face a fraction of a second before he registered the flash of black and red that appeared in front of him. He heard the crack as Ichimaru's blade lodged itself in one of Renji's ribs.
"Just returnin' the favour. I owed ya one for yesterday." Renji tossed a pained grin over his shoulder at the comrade struggling behind the shield of his back. His uniform was little more than tattered, bloody shreds, and stray hairs were falling out of the spiky tail that was equally streaked with blood. Both arms hung broken at his sides, next to the empty scabbard at his waist – pieces of Zabimaru littered the battlefield thirty meters away.
"Ren-ji…" Ichigo croaked, unable to breathe around the binding kidou. The only reason Renji's head was still attached to his body was because Ichigo had been there yesterday to deflect the nearly lethal strike of an arrancar minion.
"Oops, I seem ta be stuck on somethin'." Ichimaru twisted his blade; Renji choked. "Abarai-kun, that sure seems ta hurt, yah? Maybe ya should leggo an' let us finish up. I'll get ta ya next, don' worry."
Bright red blood splattered defiantly across the front of Ichimaru's robes.
Renji spat another mouthful of blood on the ground. "Higa Zekkou!" he rasped.
"Eh?" The ex-captain flinched as several of the glowing shards pierced him, but the oily smile was quickly back in place, if a little strained. "Ohh, too bad, still ain't good 'nuff!"
"Dai Guren Hyourinmaru!"
"Wha's this now? Y'all wanna play, too?" With a vicious jerk, Ichimaru retracted his blade; Renji crumpled to the ground beside the weakly breathing Ichigo.
"Playtime is over, Ichimaru." Hitsugaya's voice was cold fury, matching the glittering wings behind him.
"Ahh, yer so stuffy, Hitsugaya-taichou. Yer lieutenant knows how ta have a li'l fun, dontcha Rangiku?"
"This ends, now, Gin." Her voice carried deep pain and regret, but remained firm. Matsumoto knelt briefly; her muttered incantation broke the binding on Ichigo's chest.
Three forms shot into the air at the same time.
Ichigo gasped, sucking in air desperately as he and Renji stared up at the fight above their heads.
"You… ok?" Renji's voice was barely a whisper.
"Don't talk… know he got… your lung." Ichigo rolled over and tried to apply pressure on the hissing wound in Renji's chest, but he had no strength left. He settled for placing his hands over the gaping hole and pushing them down by laying his own body on top of them. "I see… Hanatarou comin'… hang on."
"Take more'n… that weasel… t' finish me." Dark eyes blinked rapidly at the sky. "They... get him yet?"
Ichigo looked up. The movements of the three combatants were almost too quick to follow. His eyesight blurred as the blood rushed in his head; he heard the thin whistle of Shinsou… then a whisper of sand over silk, followed by a cry of surprise and pain.
"Ryuusenka!" Hyourinmaru roared toward Ichimaru. The cone of arctic death engulfed the ex-captain.
Ichimaru's scream was cut short as he was encased in a tomb of ice. All was still for a second, save for the crackling sound of the icy prison solidifying.
Then it exploded. Frosted shards flew in every direction.
"Yep." Ichigo made a face as bits of frozen flesh rained down over them. "Eurgh, gross."
"Good." Renji coughed.
"Abarai-san! Ichigo-san!" Hanatarou's excited voice carried across the battlefield as he fell to his knees before the badly injured shinigami…
Renji inched his way down the roof and stepped lightly on the windowsill. He didn't think he had a hope of sneaking up on Ichigo this time, despite having his reiatsu locked down as tightly as he could. Ichigo knew him too well – he'd be able to feel the imbalance in his energy immediately.
When he crept into the flat, however, Ichigo was still sound asleep. That should have brightened Renji's mood, but instead it made him wonder. He concentrated a moment, and felt the faint distress in Ichigo's reiatsu.
Huh. Not a nightmare, but not a great dream, either. He noticed the paper on the floor next to the bed, and recognized it as the last letter he had sent from Soul Society only days before. A tiny trickle of warmth began threading its way through him.
Renji relaxed his controls, letting his reiatsu extend and mesh with the thin tendrils of energy already winding their way toward him from Ichigo. That made him smile a little – whenever they got in range of each other, their reiatsu wanted to reach out and blend together. It had taken a bit of practice to learn to control this phenomenon and confine it to appropriate moments. This definitely qualified as appropriate.
Ichigo's distress lessened immediately, and Renji felt the warmth grow and spread through him, softening the cold, hard spot that had been pressing on his chest since earlier that day.
But he didn't want to think about that right now. Renji shed his clothes quickly and slid into the bed next to his lover. The aura of safety and calm that enveloped them was just what they both seemed to need, and Renji was pleasantly surprised to find himself slipping into a relaxed sleep, despite the horrors of the day.
"He's going to be fine," the 4th Division lieutenant assured them. Ichigo and Rukia let out twin sighs of relief as she continued.
"The blade missed the heart, and Hanatarou healed most of the damage." Isane's voice faltered. "Abarai-fukutaichou was one of the lucky ones."
Sorrow welled up beneath the relief. Ichigo didn't think he could handle losing any more friends in this war…
Ichigo twitched in his sleep. Calm settled over him as the memory of loss drifted away and was replaced by something warmer.
"Guess I'd better go. Gotta return this gigai." Renji had packed up his research notes and stood looking around the small flat one last time. It was going to be strange without Renji around, after an entire summer spent in each others' company.
"You can't leave yet," Ichigo caught Renji's wrist and tugged him to stand in front of where Ichigo was sitting on the bed.
"They're expecting me in—nngh…" Renji groaned as Ichigo swiftly bypassed the clothing barrier. With his hands and mouth, Ichigo traced the flesh that was becoming as familiar to him as his own.
"I'll make it quick, then," Ichigo mumbled, looking up and winking. Renji could only offer a moan and a slight nod, eyes half-lidded and jaw slack. He buried his hands in Ichigo's short hair, wavering slightly on his feet. Ichigo focused solely on the task of bringing his lover to a hard, fast release, and he was not disappointed; in no time at all the hands gripping his head tightened as Renji's entire body stiffened, Ichigo's name tumbling desperately from his lips.
Ichigo very deliberately licked his lips and grinned at the dazed shinigami swaying before him.
"Four weeks is gonna seem like forever!" Renji grumbled. He pulled Ichigo to his feet and wrapped his arms around him. Ichigo was a bit surprised, but entirely happy to return the gesture. They'd never actually hugged before; they'd grappled and wrestled, yes, and they held each other frequently in bed, but never a simple hug. It might have been awkward, but somehow it wasn't.
Ichigo held back a sigh as they broke apart. "Guess it really is time to go now."
"Come with me?" Renji asked. Ichigo nodded wordlessly.
They reached Urahara's all too soon, reluctantly pulling in their energies before they entered the shop; it was a shock after so long always having at least a light link between them. The gigai was returned without ceremony, and Urahara led them to the basement to open the gate.
Ichigo looked around, remembering the dozens of training sessions over the summer. The laughter, the camaraderie, and, during the final weeks, the subtle edge of something more.
Ichigo lifted his hand in farewell.
"See ya." Renji turned toward the portal, then stopped.
"Dammit." He spun and took the two steps back. Seizing Ichigo's face in his hands, Renji kissed him fiercely. Their reiatsu melded and flashed all around them as they stood locked together for a moment.
Renji pulled back. "There's no one for me but you," he stared into Ichigo's eyes intently. "I ain't gonna… I won't—"
"I know, me either. Just you." Ichigo forced his hands to let go of robes he'd grabbed in their embrace.
Ichigo felt the half-smile on his face matching the one on Renji's; then their connection was broken and Renji was through the gate, and Ichigo was left standing alone.
A discrete cough reminded Ichigo that Urahara was still there. He turned to face the older shinigami, prepared to defend against a snide remark, but the wistful expression Urahara wore softened Ichigo's glare.
"It won't be easy, Kurosaki-kun," Urahara said. "But nothing worth having ever is, is it?"
Ichigo nodded, not trusting himself to speak around the lump in his throat. He recognized the old pain in the other's words, and knew it would soon be his own to live and deal with.
But it wouldn't be quite so bad. Ichigo thought about it as he walked home. He wasn't barred from Soul Society, and travel between the worlds was easier, especially for war heroes who chose to leverage their privileges. Which they most certainly would.
It would be lonely sometimes, but they'd both be very busy in between visits, which would help somewhat. And Ichigo had an entire summer of memories to hang on to – and because many of them were made in his flat, he'd be surrounded by them every day. The thought made him smile.
As he stepped into his empty flat, he was pleased that he could still feel the warmth of their combined reiatsu…
But that wasn't right… Renji had already left…
Ichigo half-woke at the odd turn the dream had taken. He became aware of the heat wrapped around his back and the warm, familiar body pressed against him. Now fully alert, he concentrated quickly. His startled senses confirmed Renji's solid, comforting presence beside him.
Renji stirred as Ichigo turned in his arms. "Mmhh?"
A wave of surprise and delight overwhelmed Ichigo completely; he threw his arms around Renji and held him tightly.
"You're here." The words were mumbled against Renji's neck.
"Got leave. Had t' see ya."
The exhaustion and relief in Renji's tonemade Ichigo pull back to look him in the eyes. What Ichigo saw there worried him. He concentrated again, and felt the unhappiness threaded through Renji's energy.
"What happened? Why're you on leave?"
Renji sighed, and pulled Ichigo into a closer embrace. He rested his chin on Ichigo's shoulder as he began his explanation.
"We had another attack this mornin'. Bad one." Renji paused for a moment. Ichigo felt the ripple in his energy, but knew better than to interrupt; he simply let his reiatsu swell and bolster the shinigami.
"This time it was in the 78th, so we got sent out. Ya remember we're from there. Was a long time ago, but we still remember."
"It was awful." Renji tightened his arms around Ichigo. "Another pair a' fire-breathers." Ichigo tried to smooth out the energy spike that accompanied this news, but it was difficult given their previous experience with fire-breathing Hollows in Rukongai.
"Everythin' was gone. Charred. Smelled like… well I don't gotta tell ya." Ichigo nodded against Renji's shoulder. "Place was a hole, but it was our home then, yanno? Rukia took it pretty bad, too. Unohana-taichou insisted we take two days t' 'rest an' recharge' before goin' on another mission. Rukia's stayin' with Kuchiki-taichou so one a' us is around t' stay in touch with the Division."
Ichigo didn't miss the implication that Rukia had offered Renji the chance to take his leave in the living world to see him. He squeezed Renji's shoulder and made a mental note to thank Rukia the next time he saw her.
"So I got two days, startin' in the mornin'." Renji's energy was steadier now, and he released Ichigo from the crushing embrace to lean their foreheads together. "Not a lot a' time but I needed t' come home t' see ya."
"I'm glad you did." Ichigo didn't like the idea of his friends needing what amounted to a mental health leave, but he couldn't help but be grateful for the unexpected visit. He leaned forward and pressed his lips against his lover's. "Welcome home."
Their combined energies swirled around them, smoothing away the raw, spiky edges and settling into a more balanced pattern. They were both much comforted by the presence of the other, and soon slipped back into a peaceful sleep wrapped in each others' arms.
Chapter 1 omake
Akuni: Welcome back! We are pleased to once again present some omake for our story. There will be some special guests this time around, so stay tuned!
Ichigo: At least I still have my clothes on this time.
Akuni: mutters Not for long…
Ichigo: What was that?
Akuni: Oh nothing!
Renji: snickers Sweet.
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