A/N: Probably the end of this short fic, as far as I know. Muse is preoccupied with other stuff – no idea why.
"May I come in?" Rukia asked outside the study.
Byakuya put down his book. "You may enter." When the slight girl had come in and closed the door, Byakuya sat forward. "What is it, Rukia?"
"Nii-sama," she began, and then wrung her hands. Her face flushed bright red. "Nii-sama, I need your help."
"What kind of help?" asked Byakuya. He was slightly surprised: Rukia never approached him for assistance before.
The girl stared at her hands. "I... I wonder if you could help me find out whether Renji is, um... has he been staying for overtime often lately?"
Byakuya stamped the guilt in his heart down. "No more than usual."
"And, um... I know that he doesn't converse much with you, but have you noticed him, uh, talking about other people, maybe? Or spending more time with certain people?"
Oh dear lords. Byakuya lowered his gaze. "I do not pay much attention to his comings and goings." Well, maybe his comings, but definitely not his goings.
:Kuchiki-sama, you have a dirtier mind than I initially thought,: said Senbonzakura in her lilting voice, clearly amused. :Who would believe that of the stoic captain?:
Be quiet, he ordered his zanpakuto.
Rukia nibbled her lower lip. Byakuya felt bad that he wasn't being honest with her, but frankly he had no idea how to broach the subject. At least he had kept his distance from Abarai ever since the snowed-in day, and neither alluded to the events that transpired inside. Abarai had retreated to the professional aloofness they had before the Rukia incident, and Byakuya was only too happy to let him.
Finally Rukia looked up. "Never mind then, Nii-sama. I shan't bother you further."
"You are never a bother, Rukia," he said quietly, and nodded at her half-smile before she left and slid the door shut again. Then he let his head roll back with irritation at himself. He did love Rukia as his own sister – she was a reminder that Hisana had lived and had loved him, that Hisana had not been a fevered dream of a lonely soul.
At the thought of his late wife Byakuya swallowed a small familiar lump in his chest. With Hisana there had been love before passion, and she had always seemed too frail in his arms. There had been a glow and warmth of a banked fire when they made love.
But with Abarai... He had indulged in his baser passions with Abarai, and part of him hated that his red-haired lieutenant could cause him to lose control. Byakuya hated it, and it thrilled him darkly that he was capable of such overwhelming desire and emotions. He had never thought he was able to feel in that way.
However, Byakuya was aware of the difference. Byakuya loved and missed Hisana, and would always recollect their days together with regret and glad contentment. Byakuya craved and thirsted for Abarai: the heat of that ruby gaze and the silken locks in his grasp, along with the molten bronze of the sculpted body...
Byakuya took pride in recognizing beauty in all forms. But he had crossed the line now. Abarai was Rukia's. He had seen it in the way the redhead fought for her freedom, in the way he had faced down Byakuya to the point of death. He saw it every time his lieutenant and Rukia walked together along a corridor, when she punched his arm, or when he ruffled her hair.
"What have I done?" he murmured with frustration.
Abarai Renji should be outlawed, thought the Sixth Division captain irritatedly. Or there should be a rule stating shinigami should train fully dressed.
That lieutenant had stripped to his waist while training the rookies in the division dojo. It didn't help that Abarai practically radiated heat like a furnace inside the room. His skin was flushed and gleaming, while his hair was slightly messed up by the exertions, like the very best of bed-heads.
It also irked Byakuya that more than half of those in the dojo were gawking openly at the taut, muscled body and the tattoos that blatantly invited people to try to trace them. He could not show his annoyance though, since he had been the one who told his lieutenant to run the training program so the greenhorns would learn how to hold their swords without stabbing the people next to them. Byakuya didn't enjoy the job.
"A'right! Any questions?" the red-haired shinigami bellowed.
The rookies shook their heads and stood with their training partners, and began the parrying routine Abarai had drilled into them for the past ten minutes. Byakuya breathed out and headed back to his office. If he had to be honest with himself, he had stood there not to check on Abarai's teaching methods but to just admire the man.
And what about Rukia?
Byakuya hissed out a breath. He had to maintain this gap between them. It was better for all involved.
As Byakuya wrung out his hair before stepping into his bath, he remembered the first time he met Abarai Renji.
The boy – he had been a boy then, for all his height and build – the boy Abarai had stood at the door while Byakuya finished informing Rukia of her adoption. Rukia had no say in the matter, not when it was coming from a noble family. At the time Byakuya had not paid any attention to Abarai.
But when the redhead rose through the ranks, Byakuya noticed him. It had been subtle at first, but eventually Byakuya noticed that whenever he passed by Abarai, the youth's reiatsu would grate against his own. Initially it was like an ant's foot stepping on granite, then it firmed up and became more steady, and soon Byakuya paid attention to the brash young flame-haired shinigami's whose eyes trailed his progress and whose reiatsu yearned to swallow Byakuya's own. The challenge was more pronounced when Rukia was with him. Even though the difference in power was painfully obvious, Abarai wanted to overtake him.
Byakuya thought it amusing, in an unfunny way. Then the young shinigami headed to the Eleventh, and then Byakuya sensed the leap in reiatsu standard. No doubt it was due to daily exposure to Zaraki's insane reiatsu pressure; you either became stronger or you crumble.
Someone like Abarai would never crumble, no matter how hard or how often you beat them down.
It had been a whimsical thought on Byakuya's part, asking for Abarai to become his lieutenant. He wanted to see how far Abarai would take his challenge. Judging by the events of Rukia's supposed execution, Abarai would take the challenge all the way.
The heat from the bath was invigorating. Byakuya leaned his head back, looking up at the waxing moon. The half-sheltered bath was one place in his mansion he could truly relax; only was there no one else to watch him.
Only in this bath was he truly alone.
He smiled faintly when he recalled the first time Abarai stepped into his office. Overly courteous, stiff, uncomfortably formal... the sigh of relief that Abarai had given when Byakuya told him he could be less formal and should just treat the office as a place to work, not as a marriage interview.
That hint of humor had made Abarai chuckle, who had almost choked on his own laugh until he saw Byakuya's eyebrow lifted in query.
Now and again Byakuya found himself employing dry wit when communicating with Abarai. Not that there was a need to, but Byakuya wanted to put Abarai at ease. He hadn't realized it then, only that he found it irritating when Abarai was too formal or distant with his captain. Perhaps Byakuya, even then, had wanted something akin to friendship – but was too proud to say so.
"But it's just friendship that you want, is it?" Byakuya murmured to himself. He smiled wryly. There was no point denying it: he wanted Abarai.
It was lust Byakuya was experiencing. He had been severed for a long time from his physical needs.
It wasn't love, he knew that.
He loved Hisana, enough to elope with her, enough to face down his father before the other captains, enough to even contemplate joining Zaraki's division and denying his own surname. She, on her part, had followed bravely, never once resenting him for putting her in danger, never once fearing for their relationship, never once faltering in her decision to be his. For her physical frailty, Hisana was stronger and more resolute than anybody Byakuya knew.
Abarai could almost measure up.
Byakuya shut his eyes. Abarai, Abarai, Abarai. Why do my thoughts keep circling back to him? I am older than he by a good deal. I should know better.
I do know better.
So why do I keep surrendering to my baser passions whenever there is a reasonable excuse?
Am I not better than that? Is he not worth more than that?
He stepped out of the bath. It was long past time for bed.
Abarai's hair should be cut, Byakuya decided irrationally when he caught his mind wandering for the seventh time that morning. That color was enough to distract anybody. Yet Byakuya could not fault Abarai: the lieutenant was working industriously, head bent at an angle, slight frown between his brows, the brush held incorrectly.
Byakuya strode over. "How many times do I have to remind you?" he inquired, standing on Abarai's right.
"Taichou?" Abarai looked up, startled by the captain's silent approach. "Remind me of what?"
"How to hold a brush." Byakuya breathed out slowly. "Why do you think I enrolled you into the calligraphy society?"
Abarai grinned lopsidedly. "Punishment?"
Byakuya glared. Abarai subsided and tried to correct his grip. Byakuya watched as the younger male tried to write with the proper hold for a minute before his patience gave out.
"You hold your brush this way," he said, reaching out and grabbing Abarai's faltering right hand. "Use your whole arm to write, not your wrist. The wrist should remain locked, like this." Byakuya demonstrated.
Abarai seemed to be leaning back a little and his arm was stiff. Byakuya stared at the redhead. To his amazement Abarai blushed.
Byakuya narrowed his eyes. "You're blushing."
"Am not," Abarai muttered a weak denial.
"Why are you blushing?"
"Because... because you've never corrected the way I wrote before." The whisper was so soft Byakuya's senses had to strain to hear the words. "And if you did... definitely not in this way."
Tension shot up. Byakuya could feel the heat of Abarai's rough skin beneath his fingers and in his palm. He noted the difference in skin shades. He also noticed the pink on his lieutenant's cheeks. And Abarai's unique scent was far too enticing. The older shinigami suddenly let go of Abarai's hand. The brush tip dotted the document and added unintended punctuation.
"Damn," Abarai swore and the spell broke.
Byakuya stepped back so quickly he might as well have used shunpo. "Redo that document and make sure you write neatly this time," he ordered, trying to cover his haste.
His lieutenant sighed and shrugged. "Yes, taichou."
Byakuya leaned against the wall behind him, trying to calm his thoughts before he had to go back to his desk and face Abarai again for the rest of the afternoon.
"I can't focus with you staring over my shoulder, taichou," Abarai suddenly said and stood up.
Guilty, Byakuya actually straightened with a jerk. Before he could seek the sanctuary of his desk, Abarai was in front of him and had locked lips with the pale-skinned captain.
The older male's mind blanked out for a beat. The kiss was slow and sensual, not rushed and heated as they had kissed before, but gentle, as if they could do it the entire day. Byakuya's mind reeled. He had never thought Abarai would make the first move – in their past encounters he had been the one giving into temptation.
"Damn," Abarai swore again, this time a husky murmur by Byakuya's cheek. "I thought I could keep away, but I can't. Taichou, forgive me."
"Fo-forgive you?" Byakuya realized belatedly that his hands had circled Abarai's broad shoulders and his hands were tangled in silken crimson.
"Forgive me... I can't stop wanting you. I've been thinking of kissing you ever since that day we were snowed in. I just want to kiss you and hold you like this forever," the redheaded shinigami admitted hoarsely.
Byakuya was surprised, and touched, that Abarai was shaking very slightly. He was nervous; his reiatsu thrummed with fear and anticipation.
"I know this is... There's probably some rule somewhere about a subordinate coming on to a superior, but I'm going crazy not touching you. The entire week... I tried to work off that energy in training, I asked Rukia out, I went out with friends... I got drunk... and all I could think of was you." Abarai breathed in, breathed out, and pressed his face into Byakuya's cheek. "All I could think of was you."
The captain stroked his hand down Abarai's broad back, the soft red hair a contrast to rough-woven cotton shikahushou.
The lieutenant clung to his captain, fingers leaving small indentations in Byakuya's flesh. There was hint of a sob when Abarai mouthed the next line against the slender nobleman's cheek. "I never wanted this."
That silenced Byakuya, even his breathing. He closed his eyes, focused on his heartbeat, and counted to ten before inhaling slowly, as if coming out of a meditative trance. In those few seconds, he saw clearly.
I never wanted this.
Abarai was conflicted, as he should be, and Byakuya was the cause of that, as he should not have been.
Abarai didn't ask to be attracted to Byakuya until Byakuya showed his desire for Abarai.
Abarai never asked to be involved with Byakuya in ways other than captain and lieutenant until Byakuya crossed the line.
Abarai never wanted to be more than the follower until Byakuya closed the gap.
Abarai never wanted to be torn between Rukia and Byakuya until Byakuya offered him the choice.
I never wanted this.
What about now? Does he want... Byakuya forcibly shut down that train of thought. He carefully extricated his hands from crimson hair, and withdrew from a warm embrace.
"Don't," he whispered when the younger male's grip tightened for a fraction. It encompassed all of Byakuya's resolve to utter that single word again. "Don't."
His redheaded lieutenant paused, hovering in indecision, and then respected his captain's decision. He stepped away, allowing the nobleman space to walk, proud and humbled, to the captain's desk. The two of them regarded each other across the span of an office, across half an existence, across the impassable chasm of a person's feelings on which they would not trample. Across all the rights and wrongs and rules and regulations and principles and values... Byakuya and Abarai understood each other.
The captain almost smiled, though something in him hardened and shattered. "We need to complete the forms and charts before evening today."
Abarai sat down at the same moment Byakuya did, and both men returned to their tasks.
Four months later, Abarai and Rukia were engaged.
Byakuya had gifted the happy couple with a house by a lake, one of the many holiday homes he no longer had a use for; presented Rukia with a set of kimonos for official social gatherings which she, as a lieutenant's fiancée, would need to attend; gave Abarai a book on calligraphy and a book on personal finance.
"I accept you," Kuchiki Byakuya said, very quietly, at the engagement, "as a brother and into the family."
Abarai grinned. There was only the tiniest bit of regret in his voice. "Thank you."
A/N: It had to end this way. I cannot endure Renji being a disloyal person and cheating on Rukia – it's not Renji if he did so. Neither is Byakuya a man to disregard his wife's sister's feelings nor is he a man to dishonor his calling.
But damn. ByaRen is such a sexy pairing.