A/N: Written for the September round of flashfics on Livejournal, for cccpirate. Rated for Renji's filthy mouth and for some ghey. Possible spoilers. Definite canon-bending. Don't say you weren't warned. :)

Enjoy the fic, leave a comment if you feel so inclined.

-Eia

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lord before lover

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He who does not feel his friends to be the world to him... does not deserve that the world should hear of him.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

xxxx

Kira Izuru had always been a bit odd.

Renji and Hinamori, being his best friends, had long since understood this and forgiven him for it, but that did not make him at all less odd. Quite the opposite. Those who knew him grew to realize that he was much odder even than he appeared.

For example, he had a strange compulsion to count things. If someone presented him with a bag of candy, before ever thinking of eating it he would take them home, spill them onto his table, and meticulously count each of them.

Odder yet, he kept record of things he counted-- in a book, in his room, in a chest that no one was allowed to sit on, let alone rifle through.

Sunday, September 17th

2175: Heartbeats per minute at rest: 65.

2176: Death threats Renji made: 23.

2177: Blushes Hinamori suffered: 14.

2178: Clouds in the sky: 28.

2179: Steps between walls, width-wise, of grand lecture hall: 43.

2180: Braids Tousen-taichou has in: 9.

2181: Stitches around right sleeve of school uniform: 168.

2182: Times Renji swore: 35.

2183: Minutes Hinamori maintained blush for after Incident with tattoos: 11.

2184: Members of the eleventh squad with more than two brain cells: 2 (?).

And so on and so forth. Some time during their second year at the Academy he had let word slip of its existence, and Renji had pestered him mercilessly for months afterwards until he'd finally consented to bring it out, stammering and red-faced.

Renji marveled loudly at the bizarre and sometimes entertaining things Kira had kept track of which Renji had never even noticed or thought to think about. Hinamori was quieter about it, but the smile and merry twinkle in her eyes were clear enough.

Of course, Renji made fun of him, but it was in such a good-natured way that Kira didn't regret trusting him with this secret.

xxxxx

Another example: Kira loved insects, the bigger and scarier the better.

He had an affinity with them that made most people stare and retreat carefully in discomfiture.

In his house, on top of the untouchable chest, he kept an enormous jar with a beautiful red-banded spider the size of his palm. He'd had to search long and far to find it, for small creatures with enough soul density to make it through to Soul Society were few and far between, but it was worth the time and effort. Her name was Zahyrah, which he'd learned somewhere meant 'dawn' in Arabic.

Dawn in Soul Society was usually a subdued and colourless affair, there being no pollution or distortion in the atmosphere to bend the light.

She reminded him of the dawns he didn't really remember.

Hinamori, when she first met Zahyrah, turned white and stayed in the room only as long as she needed to in order to be polite. Renji, in contrast, was utterly fascinated by the silent but gracefully deadly way she prawled about her jar as though mapping the boundaries of her life over and over again. Possibly he felt akin to her since they had the same colouring-- red and black in jagged lines.

It made Kira smile a bit to see Renji circling the jar excitedly, poking at the glass and talking animatedly to the resolutely silent spider. He didn't feel quite so separate from the rest of humanity, for a few minutes.

Therefore, when Renji left, Kira thanked him.

Renji asked him for what, puzzled.

Kira only shook his head and squeezed Renji's arm for a moment, smiling to himself and stuttering out some form of farewell.

Renji never pushed him farther than he needed to go.

xxxx

Kira wasn't sure what it was about the girl's words that wounded him so deeply, but for some reason he found it impossible to leave his house the morning after, or any of the seven after that.

I hope we'll see you again, she'd said. He'd liked her-- a lot-- and was friendly to her whenever possible. This time, he'd commiserated with her over the stress of the upcoming exams, and that was what she'd said as she walked away at the end.

To him, it sounded as if she didn't expect him to pass, as though she thought him a nice enough guy but without the balls necessary to be a real shinigami.

It was probably so devastatingly only because it echoed what he believed about himself-- mediocre... a really nice guy, but too effeminate to get the job done... weird and uncomfortable to be around.

He didn't cry. He wasn't that pathetic. He did, however, spend several hours speaking softly to Zahyrah and hoping devoutly than no one knocked on his door.

He got his wish, in a manner of speaking-- Renji didn't so much knock as blast the door off its hinges.

"Izuru? I know you're in here, you dumbass."

Kira wanted to cry even more, but refused himself the weakness. "I don't want to talk," he answered just loudly enough for Renji to hear him.

A loud snort answered him from the kitchen. "Like I care, and like hell you don't."

A moment later his bedroom door shuddered open, having opted to surrender rather than shatter under the force of Renji's determination.

Kira continued stroking Zahyrah's jar, doing his best to pretend there was no obnoxiously loud redhead blundering about his bedroom yelling at him about not listening to stupid airheads and having pride in his own strength without constantly needing praise from outside sources because that was wimpy and Kira wasn't wimpy, Renji didn't make friends with wimps, and wimps didn't save their superiors from hollows during exercises that were supposed to be safe, wimps didn't wield kickass zanpakutou that made even upperclassmen nervous, Kira wasn't...

Hardly realizing he was doing it, Kira stood up, walked calmly towards Renji's pacing figure, and dropped his head onto his hard chest without saying a word.

Renji shut up, and made a series of undecided half-movements that might have been almost running away or almost putting his arms around him.

"I hate being this weak," Kira explained, hardly stuttering at all because he was so, so tired. "I hate being not-quite good enough. I hate the way people look at me when I almost make the top ten, like they think I'm just a cardboard substitute there to spur on the real talent to victory. I hate being nearly-adequate. I get good marks, but not top marks. I'm good at kidou, but not as good as a dozen other people. I'm not average, but not quite good enough to be exceptional. I'm sick and tired of people looking at me and thinking 'too bad, he was almost there.'"

"Shut the hell up," Renji said coarsely, startling Kira. "Who cares if you ace their dumb little scenarios? Who cares if you get a zillion marks on their stupid fucking tests? When it came down to the crunch in real combat, you did what you had to do and saved some asses. In that sense, you've got all those pansies whooped. Me'n Momo don't see you as inferior or whatever, and really, who else's opinions are worth caring about?"

Kira sighed and sagged against Renji, who didn't budge. "Logically I know you're right, but it doesn't really help."

"Kira-kun," Hinamori whispered from the doorway.

Kira looked up dully.

She took a deep breath and clenched her fists, evidently about to say something bold. "I think the only reason you aren't at the top is because you spend so much time thinking about being in the middle," she said with great conviction. "I think you'd be wonderful if you only believed you could be."

"Momo, that's lame," Renji said with a laugh, but it wasn't a mocking laugh. It carried the sound of accord-- Renji agreed with her, even if he wouldn't say so.

Hinamori bowed and retreated, uncomfortable with the obvious emotionality of the scene.

"She's right, y'know," Renji remarked, almost offhand. "If you spent less time freaking about about being second and used it to study, you'd be first."

Still unconvinced, Kira nodded anyway and drew away to sit on his bed and drew his knees towards his chest.

His friends had the confidence they'd had to learn growing up in the rough-and-tumble suburbs of Rukongai. If they hadn't made themselves strong, they would have been crushed into the dust of the streets. He, however, hadn't had any such motivation-- growing up as a minor noble of Soul Society, he'd been given most everything he needed and had always been allowed to lean on tradition. Renji and Momo stood on their own, with the backbones they'd grown themselves. Kira hadn't needed to grow one, but now he lamented the lack.

Renji, careless of Kira's delicate sphere of personal space, thunked onto the bed next to him and put a powerfully muscled arm around his waist. "Izuru," he said. He didn't usually use Kira's given name, only if he was saying something he wanted heard. "Don't disappear like that, man. We were really worried about you, you jackass."

"Sorry," Kira mumbled, mostly meaning it but partially wishing Renji would leave... not because he didn't want to look at Renji, but because he suddenly wanted to look at Renji much too closely. He wanted to count the lines of his tattoos, the ridges of his stomach, the vertebrae of his spine. The comforting vice of the arm around his waist seemed far too loose, and far too little.

Of course, he would say nothing. This strange impulse happened all the time, but he valued their friendship far more than his fleeting, unpredictable desires, and was used to trampling them into the dust.

Unable to help himself entirely, however, he tilted over until his head landed on Renji's shoulder with a soft thud.

Renji chuckled. The hand that had been around his waist came up to ruffle his hair affectionately, tangling in the messy yellow strands. "Dumbass."

Kira resolved to go to school the next day, if only to see the enormous grin Renji would sprout on seeing him alive and functioning.

xxxx

When a scant two months later Kira was top of the class, hardly anyone was surprised, let alone his friends.

xxxx

Another example of Kira Izuru's inescapable oddity: he loved doing things anonymously.

The very idea of making an impact on a person without ever having to endure the spotlight such an action usually prompted titillated him, and halfway through his third year he took to leaving bizarre notes and gifts for people he wanted to affect.

It worked famously.

Hinamori blushed nearly the colour of the roses Kira'd smuggled into her locker, and clutched the bouquet like it was something precious to her. It probably was, and that made Kira smile inside wider than he'd ever smile with his face.

Gin reacted with his usual enigmatic grin and put the glass jar with the large praying mantis on his office shelf.

Renji gave no outward indication of knowing how the goggles he'd been lusting after in the shop the week before had gotten into his locker, but the next day Kira found himself engulfed in an enormous gorilla hug from behind.

"You little shit," Renji said affectionately into his ear, ruffling his hair and making him shudder involuntarily. "You didn't have to do that."

Kira stuttered and played innocent. Renji didn't buy it, of course, but being able to deny it at all made Kira feel much more secure about the gift than he would have otherwise.

Though he was invisible, he still somehow felt as though he made more of an impact on the world this way.

xxxx

The last-- and possibly most telling-- way in which Kira Izuru was odd was this: he valued loyalty above friendship.

It was for that reason that when things finally went well and truly wrong, he stood between his oldest friend, Hinamori, and the captain he wasn't even sure he liked very much, and why he put his back to his captain and turned his sword on her.

No one understood this. Kira could already see Renji's shocked face in his mind as he raised Wabisuke and set his face into determined lines.

Yes, Momo was mad... she had to be stopped, for her own sake. She didn't know what she was doing. As her friend, he cared about her enough to take her down.

More than that, however, he had sworn to protect his captain. That prerogative took precedence in his heart over the one to protect his friends.

If anyone asked him why, he couldn't give them a answer on it, at least not one that made sense.

If he thought about it, he realized that it probably had something to do with loyalty to authority being drilled into his head since he'd be tiny and crawling about the hallways of his family's mansion.

Lord before lover, they'd told him over and over again, fealty before friendship.

Eventually he'd believed them, but that wasn't all of it.

Perhaps it was just a form of cowardice. That was easier for him to believe about himself anyway. Not wanting to deal with the consequences of shirking authority for the sake of sentimentality... yes, that sounded like him.

Gin's betrayal shook Kira's whole belief system up, broke some key pillars and messed about with the foundations for fun. Kira began to wonder if it was really the right thing to do, protecting someone whom he didn't even trust rather than someone whose value in the world he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. Was Gin really worth more than Hinamori just because he was Kira's captain and she was only his friend? Did the stigma of authority really make him more worth protecting than her?

It wasn't until Ichigo came back from Hueco Mundo that Kira made his decision on the matter.

What decided him was this: the look on Renji's face as he stood behind him, in open defiance of the Overcaptain's orders and not the slightest bit repentant for it. That expression told Kira that Renji was not ashamed of choosing loyalty to his friends over loyalty to his career-- quite the opposite. It said that his conscience was clearer than Kira's had been for months. It said that he was happy, content with the person he was.

Kira went to visit Renji in his cell and told him as much.

Renji grinned widely, jumped off his chair, and came up to the bars. "It's about damn time you figured that out," he said fondly.

Kira blushed and lowered his head, only to jerk it up again in surprise as Renji reached as far through the bars as he could and wrapped his hands around Kira's head. Then he leaned down and aggressively pressed his mouth against Kira's forehead, keeping it there for what felt like hours to Kira.

"You're a moron," Renji said when he pulled away at last. "I'd rather live here in this shitty little cell forever than backstab one of you. Momo went nuts there for a bit, but she'd say the same thing if she were here, I know she would. I'll always have your back. Promise."

Kira fought back tears, realizing for the first time how Momo must have felt, seeing him holding a sword against her. "From now on," he said as steadily as he could manage, "I'll have yours, too."

"Well, good," said Renji with satisfaction. "Now piss off, they'll start to get suspicious if you're in here too long. Don't want you under suspicion of being a traitor too."

Nodding once, Kira flashed Renji a shy half-smile and left the cellblock, feeling better than he had in ages.

xxxx

When the time came later for his loyalty to be tested-- obey orders and let Renji die at Tousen's hands, or trust his unit to survive without him and do what his heart screamed at him to do?

He only hesitated for a fraction of a second before whispering in the third seat's ear and bolting across the battlefield to Renji's side-- where he should have been all along.

"What took you so long?" Renji gasped, panting with his hands on his knees and Zabimaru's bankai form curled protectively around the both of them like a giant bone wall.

"Foot cramp," Kira answered softly.

It took Renji a long moment to realize that he was joking, actually making an actual joke, and then he burst into hoarse laughter. "You bastard," he rasped through the blood in his throat. "You absolute son of a bitch. I'm so going to kick your ass concave when I get over this little chest cold."

It was then that Kira saw the gaping slash across Renji's solar plexus.

He swore, something he rarely did, and called for the fourth squad at the top of his lungs.

"It's just a scratch," Renji protested. "Kuchiki-taichou did way worse to me back during the Rukia thing. I'll live. Thanks for coming to the rescue. Now get your ass back out there and back up your team or I really will have to beat you." Belying his brave words, Renji next gave a shuddering wet cough and sank to his knees. "Fuck."

Kira threw himself forward and caught Renji just in time, turning him in order to cradle the wounded warrior in his lap. Terror clutched at his chest. "If you die," he whispered frantically, "I swear on my grandfather's grave I will follow you and drag you back here by your hair if I have to. You do not have permission to die."

"Izuru," Renji said, more softly than Kira had ever heard him speak. "You can't pull rank on another lieutanant, you dumbfuck."

"Watch me."

Renji laughed, a bare twitching of his shoulders. "Damn, I'm tired," he said absently. "I'm going to take a nap. Wake me up for the afterparty." His muscles suddenly relaxed and he lay still and drooping in Kira's arms.

"Renji?" Kira said, shaking him gently. "You can't sleep here, this is the battlefield. You'll die. Renji. Wake up."

There was no answer from the pale face in his lap. His chest did not move.

"Renji," Kira said more loudly. "Renji, wake up, damn it! You can't... you can't... sleep here," he said with a voice that was suddenly failing him, tears swimming in his eyes. "If you sleep here you'll die."

Zabimaru suddenly dissolved, the wall of bone around them vanishing and returning to a plain metal blade at their side.

Kira realized, all at once like a club to the face, that Renji wasn't going to wake up. Tilting his head back, he began to keen, throat too tight to allow him to scream like he wanted to. Tears coursed down his cheeks and dripped off his chin unheeded.

This was his best friend lying dead on the ground with him. This was the person he loved best in all the world, and he wasn't breathing.

The scream welling inside him finally burst, rending the bloodsoaked afternoon air.

"Jesus Christ," a voice said faintly. "Shut the fuck up or I'll break your jaw, you retard. I said I was taking a nap. Since when does that mean 'schedule the funeral'?"

Convinced he was hallucinating because he wanted Renji to be alive more badly than he wanted to be sane, Kira thought little of the voice. "You aren't breathing," he told the Renji-voice raggedly. "Your sword is dissolving. You're dead."

A pained sigh. The heavy figure in his lap shifted awkwardly, then a rough hand settled into his hair and yanked his head down to meet another bloody but very much alive pair of lips. A hot breath whooshed between them into Kira's mouth and lungs.

"Breathing," Renji told him sarcastically. "Honest."

Kira burst into tears and threw his arms around Renji, half-crushing him and digging his fingers into his relatively unlacerated back.

"Ow! Fuck! I'm wounded, you jerk, be a little considerate!"

Apologizing frantically, Kira let him go and helped him to stand.

"I just needed to rest a minute," Renji said, smiling despite his apparent ire. "I'm okay now, I'll go find the fourth squad. Do me a favour?"

Kira nodded. "Anything."

Renji put a heavy hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eyes. "Never ever scream like that again. My eardrums are fucking bleeding."

Fresh tears burst from Kira's eyes along with a smile from his mouth and he mutely nodded.

"You're such a wimp, seriously," Renji said fondly. "Why are we even friends?" He turned and limped away.

Kira threw himself back into the battle, wielding Wabisuke with almost joyful vengeance. It was won within the hour.

xxxx

Renji wasn't at the celebration that followed.

Remembering his request, Kira went to find him. If he missed out on the rivers of sake currently running through the streets, he would be mightily angered, and angry Renji was rarely fun.

It was not hard to find him. He was fast asleep in his bed at home, hair undone and pooled on the pillow around his head. Kira had to break in to find him, but he was long since done torturing himself over such minor moral quandaries. The lock wouldn't even need replacing, just a little tender loving care from a locksmith.

"Renji," Kira said, shaking him gently. "You're missing the afterparty."

A mumble and a slight shift in position was his only answer.

Kira hesitated. Perhaps it would be better to let him sleep if he was tired enough that the word 'party' didn't rouse him. He sat on the edge of the bed and clasped his hands, debating the wisest course of action within himself. "Rivers of sake," he murmured. "Sleep. Rivers of sake... sleep."

"For once in my life," a sleepy voice interrupted behind him, "I'm going to take forty winks over forty shots."

Kira turned and put one hand out on the other side of Renji to support himself, half-leaning over him. "I never dreamed I'd one day hear you say those words," he said with his customary serious face.

Renji chuckled and circled his waist with one arm. "Neither did I, buddy, believe me. But anyway, it's freaking cold in here. Is that just me?"

"Yes," Kira replied truthfully. "You lost a lot of blood."

"Oh. Makes sense. I think there's a spare blanket in the closet ov-"

Kira interrupted him by standing, pulling up the near edge of the blanket ("Aw, that's freezing, put it--") and crawling in next to Renji, pressing himself against his side and trying to convey as much heat as possible.

"Or that's an option, too," Renji remarked, sounding remarkly unsettled but not upset. A moment later, he shifted to press his back against Kira's chest, pulling the blanket tight around them both. "Yep, that definitely works for me. Mind staying there for a while?"

"No," Kira answered softly, face full of Renji's hair. It still smelled faintly of the battlefield, but not unpleasantly-- it was more a smell that emphasized just how alive Renji still was.

"Good. Shut up, I'm going back to sleep."

Kira slipped his left arm over Renji's waist and let his face fall to lean against the back of Renji's neck. "Good night," he whispered into the tattooed skin there. He began counting the fine hairs, but fell asleep before he hit a hundred.

The party rang boisterously through the streets around them, unheard.

xxxx

Kira Izuru was undoubtedly a strange individual, but his friends had long since forgiven him for it.

More than that, it was why they loved him.

He was in no hurry to be normal.

XxxxxxxxxxxX

A/N: Hope you enjoyed it:)

Note of dubious interest: the spider is named after my cat, because I'm homesick and miss her and am a total dweeb like that.

'Til next time.

-Eia