It's that time again! At long last.
I finished the actual writing Nov 5/07, then spent a lot of time editing. The first chapter was posted Dec 3/07.

As before, chapters will be posted Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The time is subject to change depending on RL scheduling issues, but I anticipate mostly mornings.

And ooh, you're all so lucky, there's a lot of art with this story. Unfortunately, you'll have to check out the chapters on LJ or ygal for the links.

Title: Covenant
Series: Amaranthine (third in series; sequel to Nexus and Apotheosis)
Author: Akuni
Universe: Bleach
Genre: Drama/Romance
Rating: M for 'Much Smut'
Pairing: Renji/Ichigo (note: I always write them reversible)
Spoilers: read through Soul Society, Arrancar, & Hueco Mundo Arcs
Warnings: By this point, everyone reading this story should know that this is futurefic, with all that that implies – character development, interpretations of events not yet seen in canon, etc. There's more talk of the war with Aizen, and mentions of character deaths during the war.

Word Count: you wouldn't believe it if I told you yet ;)
Summary: Three years after Ichigo began a rewarding life as a full-time shinigami captain, an unexpected challenge changes things for everyone, and Ichigo and Renji face their biggest trials yet.

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach, I'm just borrowing it for a while.
Distribution: Please ask if you want to share it. :)

Dedication: To everyone who's stood by me this past crazy year and cheered me on. And for me, 'cause I did it!

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!

Special thanks go to…

Sekra, for her MSN stickman porn-art keeping me giggling at work.
Cheza, for sending me cookies and wallscrolls and funny icons.
Mosh, for putting up with so many grammar questions without context.

And of course, massive love for Shelagh, for being my ultimate #1 partner in crime… for being the sounding board for all my plot ideas and all my wibbles over characterization and scenes… for spending entire days snickering together as we posed the body doubles and searched for sexy references on the net… and for taking this whole journey with me.

A/N: Well, once again I have underestimated what it really means for something to take over your life. This fic ate my life for nearly a year. Phew!

Other pairings in this story include Hitsugaya/Hinamori (pre-established marriage, off-camera), and several others that are written in a 'reader's choice' sort of way. Platonic friendship or mild romantic subtext, I've left it open for readers to interpret however they wish, without anything too overt to squick anyone.

The relationship between Renji and Ichigo as portrayed in this story is a mature one, established in the previous stories in this series. The sexual content is pretty vanilla overall (no surprise, considering I don't generally write anything kinkier than lovebites), but the guys are quite happy to explore their physical attraction to each other in different and interesting ways. I'm not going to put warnings of what they get up to on every chapter; if they start doing things that aren't to your taste, just skim ahead until they're done and carry on with the bulk of the story.


Chapter 1 - Camaraderie

(I'll defeat you one of these days!)

"Promises, promises," Ichigo grunted as he hauled the mask off his face. Sweat rolled down his neck as he struggled with the Hollow inside him.

With a final shriek of defiance, the Hollow let go. (Hah! Next time, aibou… better stay sharp if ya wanna stay worthy of my help.)

"Thanks for that." Ichigo found he'd fallen to his knees in the dirt. He staggered to his feet as he let his bankai fade, rolling his shoulders awkwardly to settle Zangetsu properly on his back.

"Done?" Renji was sweat and grime from head to toe, leaning on Zabimaru as he waited for Ichigo to finish his internal battle.

Ichigo nodded wearily. "Yeah, all done." He gave his partner a lopsided grin. "I win, again."

Renji snorted as he sealed and sheathed his zanpakutou. "Che. 'Course ya won. Always will." They started back to join the teams they'd left in their lieutenants' capable hands while they led the most dangerous enemy away from the terrified souls in the ravaged 60th district of East Rukongai. It had taken both of them using bankai and Ichigo bringing out the Hollow in order to put the thing down before it did any more damage.

"Yeah I know. Gotta prove it every damn time, though." Ichigo sighed and ran his hand through his hair – he regretted that instantly, as his hand came away soaking wet. "Damn it… I need a bath."

Renji grinned. "That an offer or a request?"

Ichigo laughed. "Maybe both?" Now that the battle was over and the Hollow had retreated, he relaxed the steely grip he held on his reiatsu and allowed a nearly unnoticeable thread of spirit energy to link him to his partner. He felt pride, and approval, and the thin layer of desire that a fight often brought to the surface.

And they were doing a lot of fighting recently. More than three years had passed since Ichigo had taken his position as captain of the 3rd Division and settled his life in Soul Society. It had been well over four since that summer spent sharing his tiny flat with Renji, the two friends tumbling unexpectedly into love between Ichigo's medical school exams and Renji's mission to the living world.

Medical school was a thing of the past, and the crisis that had brought Ichigo to Soul Society was now an accepted fact of everyday life. The Gotei 13 had finally achieved a careful balance, learning to handle the never-ending emergencies and alerts with skill and alacrity. The 3rd and 5th Divisions saw battle frequently, and were lead ably by their captains, who had been at the front of some of the most devastating engagements the Soul Society had seen in centuries.

Said captains were tired and hungry as they met their lieutenants coming the other way.

"Area's secured, and the cleanup crew is on the way," Rukia reported crisply. "No fatalities, three wounded but already tended and sent home."

"Four wounded in our Division. Two were treated and released, but the other two had to be sent on to the 4th Division." Kira wore a small frown. "They were too tired, I could see it in their movements."

Ichigo thought for a moment. "We'll hafta rotate the schedules again to keep everyone fresh. Can you get a copy of the current roster for me tomorrow, please?"

Kira nodded. "Of course, Taichou. But don't worry about the schedule, I'll see to it right away."

"Tomorrow's soon enough, we can go over it together then," Ichigo told his lieutenant, but Kira shook his head.

"My desk is clear, I haven't got anything pressing right now. You, on the other hand, have a captains' meeting first thing tomorrow, and a sparring session with Zaraki-taichou before lunch – which means you'll be under the 4th Division's thumb for a good chunk of the afternoon. I'll take care of it."

"Damn, that's right. Ok, thanks Kira, we'll look at it the day after next, then." The 3rd Division lieutenant nodded again and flashed away.

"Zaraki-taichou again already, huh?" Renji laughed as they headed back to Seireitei. "I dunno how ya managed not to kill each other after all these years."

Rukia snorted inelegantly. "'All these years', Renji? He's only been here for three, you make it sound like centuries."

"Laugh all ya like, Renji. Guess you forgot he wants to fight Hihiou Zabimaru again this week, too," Ichigo smugly reminded his partner.

"The man is insane!" Renji groaned. "I like training, but I don't think every session should end with a trip to the infirmary!"

"Speaking of the infirmary, I need to go check on my people. I'll meet you guys back at your office in a few." Ichigo waved and veered off toward the 4th Division.

§

After seeing that his wounded were taken care of, Ichigo joined his friends at their Division headquarters. He knocked briefly before entering Renji's private office, though the relaxed aura projecting through their link told him it was unnecessary.

The 5th Division captain was leaning on his desk, shuffling through a handful of papers. He handed half the stack to his petite lieutenant, who tucked them tidily into her robes.

"Everyone ok?" Renji asked.

Ichigo nodded. "Yeah, mostly minor stuff. Broken ankle is the worst of it." Renji nodded approvingly. The Divisions were taking heavier casualties these days, but they prided themselves on the fact that their members were not often on the critical list despite the amount of action they saw.

"Are you guys still up for that meeting later?" Rukia asked, looking at their battered state.

"Just as soon as we get cleaned up and get some lunch," Ichigo said firmly. "We'll meet ya back here in two hours."

"One hour," she countered quickly. "We can eat while we talk."

"No way." Ichigo shook his head. "Look at me!" He spread his arms, showing off his ruined uniform and torn cloak.

"Hour an' a half," Renji offered. "We only got one bath."

Rukia gave them a sly look. "One hour. You can share the bath, and I'll get the food."

Renji raised one inked eyebrow at him, and Ichigo nodded. "One hour, and you bring good food to our place, from that place Rangiku-san told ya 'bout."

"Deal!" Rukia shot out of the office with a challenging grin.

They were out the door less than half a step behind, flashing to their quarters as fast as was reasonably acceptable for a non-emergency situation. Once home, they shucked their uniforms in a hurry and raced for the bath.

"She does this on purpose, yanno," Ichigo remarked, scrubbing himself vigorously. "She's just waitin' to catch us slackin' off so she can hold it over our heads."

Renji grinned. "That's what sisters do best. Think ya'd know that already." He tossed his washcloth into the laundry pile and fetched two fresh towels.

Ichigo snorted as he rinsed off the soap and refilled the bucket – this time with cold water. "Yeah, but I never expected I'd wind up with a third, especially not an older sister." He upended the bucket of cold water over Renji's head, leaving him spluttering and swearing.

Ichigo ducked the swat aimed at his ear and climbed into the steaming tub, leaving Renji to deal with his sopping hair and wet towels on his own.

"So gonna pay for that… later, when I ain't frozen." Renji sighed, his shivers easing almost immediately as he quickly slid into the hot water. He ducked his head under briefly before attempting to comb the knots out of his hair with his fingers.

"C'mere, lemme do that." Ichigo shifted to make room for his lover, who moved over and settled gratefully between his legs. He ran his fingers through the crimson mass, working out the tangles as Renji sighed again in contentment.

"You doin' ok? After the fight?" Renji turned his head a bit to look at him.

"Sit still, don't wanna leave you with a bald patch." Ichigo tugged the handful of hair the other way, forcing Renji to face forward again. "Yeah, 'm fine. You know he just likes to test me. You'd be able to tell, anyway." He finished with the knots at the ends and worked his hands up the muscled, tattooed back so he could massage Renji's neck and scalp.

"Oh yeah, just like that." Renji's vocabulary was quickly limited to gratified groans and growls, and Ichigo chuckled at just how easy it was to reduce the powerful, respected captain to inarticulate pleasure.

When Ichigo finished his ministrations, he idly stroked handfuls of the bright red strands floating in front of him, content to enjoy the comfort of the bath for a little while longer before they had to get back to work. The energy swirled low and peaceful between them, soothing away some of the weariness of the day.

"That was great… really needed that." Renji stretched and turned with a lazy smile. "Wanna turn around now so I can do yours?"

He let Renji's hair drift out of his hands. "I said sit still! You can't afford to lose any more hair, it's already receding." Ichigo smirked.

"Shaddap, ya know it just grows that way," Renji objected, fighting a grin.

"They call that 'male-pattern baldness', yanno." There wasn't room to duck the handful of water Renji flicked at him.

"Don't think ya gotta worry, Ichi. Been like this for decades, pretty sure it ain't goin' anywhere anytime soon." Renji knew just how enamoured he was of the long red mane, and used it to his advantage without hesitation.

"Good, 'cause I'd really miss it." Ichigo slid his hands back into the wet, heavy mass and pulled Renji closer. The tingle in his lover's energy was a clear indication that he was amused and aroused, enjoying the light-hearted mood.

"Ya know, if we hurry…" Renji looked at the clock on one of the shelves. "We still got time."

"Mmhmm." Ichigo covered Renji's mouth with his own, a decisive response to the suggestion. He flicked his tongue over his lover's lips, deliberately teasing.

Then Renji was in his lap, their bodies pressing together in a way that made them gasp and clutch each others' shoulders. Soft pants deepened into moans as they moved together; the room filled with the smell of soap and sweat, and the sound of splashing.

"Want you inside me." Renji's breath was hot against his ear.

Ichigo groaned, and desire flooded them both. "No time?" he asked, even as he shifted around to accommodate the request, gripping the slim hips in front of him.

Renji moved with him to find the right position. "We make time," he insisted. "We earned it. An' we can do quick." A low sound rumbled in Renji's chest as Ichigo worked his fingers inside and Renji's rough hands stroked them both.

The slow push into his lover was almost his undoing. Ichigo trembled as he held himself still, waiting for Renji to lower himself all the way.

"Yeah right, quick." Ichigo's breath hitched as Renji finally settled into his lap. "We always… oh hell you feel good… always get carried away." Their soft laughter was muffled as their lips met again, and they started moving purposefully.

They joked, but they really could do quick when they had to. Passion flared and tension built swiftly between them.

"Needed this, too…" Renji gasped against his lips, his body already beginning to shudder with the heat racing through their energies. "Told ya… quick…" He stiffened around Ichigo and kissed him again as pleasure crashed over him.

Ichigo dug his fingers into Renji's back as he was swept along by the shared ecstasy. Dark eyes flashed at him as he released with a low growl, thrusting hard a few more times to prolong the sensations for them both.

They held on for only a few moments before separating carefully and settling back into the bath – which was much shallower now. Water had splashed all over the floor, and Ichigo was aware that what remained was no longer suitable for soaking.

"Eh… I guess we're a little cleaner than we were before," Ichigo laughed, resting his head back on the edge of the tub.

"Oops." Renji's grin was unabashed as he climbed out and soaped off a second time. "C'mon, we gotta get dressed. She's already five minutes la—"

A loud knocking at the door had Ichigo scrambling out of the bath and snatching the soap out of Renji's hands.

"Where are our clean uniforms? Damn it, these towels are wet!"

"Ya dumped cold water all over 'em, of course they're wet, an' I dunno where the uniforms are. Probably waitin' with the rest of the laundry on the bed. I didn't have time to put 'em away yet."

"Go find the uniforms, I'll get towels." Ichigo rinsed quickly.

"Hey guys, hurry up, the food's getting cold!"

"Hang on, we're comin'!" Renji hollered as he dashed to the bedroom and grabbed for fresh uniforms as Ichigo dug in a cupboard.

As rushed as they were, Ichigo couldn't resist cracking a joke. "What, again?" He caught the clothing Renji flung at him, returning fire with a clean, dry towel.

Renji snorted a laugh. "Yeah, if you're offerin'. Always up for another round." He rubbed the towel over his dripping hair, soaking up most of the moisture before throwing his robes over his shoulders.

"Or two, or three," Ichigo chuckled, hopping on one leg as he pulled on his uniform.

"It's freezing out here, open the damn door before I blast it!" A loud thump accompanied this demand.

Renji flew out of the bathing room, still tucking in his robes. "Yeah yeah, keep yer shirt on!"

Finally dressed, Ichigo followed, watching with amusement as his lover yanked open the door and ushered the very cold looking Rukia inside.

"You're late," Renji told her, relieving her of the large bag. Ichigo snickered quietly to himself as he gathered plates and cups from the kitchen.

"I'm late?" Rukia scoffed. "You're still wet!"

"Whaddaya expect, ya only gave us an hour! Ya know this hair won't dry in an hour." Renji ran his fingers through the damp length and pulled it back into a low, soggy tail.

"Right," Rukia snorted as Ichigo handed her a plate.

The three of them dug into the food, nearly clearing their plates before starting the informal meeting they'd planned to discuss the latest recruits due to graduate from the Academy.

"How many do you think you'll be getting?" Rukia asked, snitching the last dumpling from right under Ichigo's nose.

Not to be outdone, Ichigo tipped the last of the tea into his own cup before she could reach for it. "I hope only a couple, after the batch we had last time," he replied. "You guys?"

"We figure 'bout a half dozen," Renji mumbled around a mouthful of rice. "Dunno where we're gonna put 'em all."

Rukia laid her plate aside. "I don't know whether to be glad or concerned about the number of recruits we've been getting," she admitted. "There never used to be this many new shinigami at once."

"We can use everyone we've got, but Renji's got a point. The 3rd Division's barracks are pretty full already, and," Ichigo made a sour face, "since we've got less, ah, turnover, than we did before, there's not a lotta space."

"We've got Rikichi checking out suitable places for temporary housing. Can find room for yours, too, if ya get too many more," Renji offered.

"Might have to if we get as many as last time." Ichigo shook his head. "I'll hafta find someone who won't mind playin' babysitter to 'em. Discipline's getting to be a problem in some of the other Divisions, and I don't think we're gonna avoid it much longer."

"Yeah." His companions both nodded. "Just yesterday I caught a young one from the 6th peekin' in the baths, an' makin' no secret 'bout it," Renji added with a wry look.

Ichigo snorted. "Do you think it means anything that there are so many recruits?" he asked.

Rukia shrugged. "Hard to say. We lost a lot of people in the war, but this… this is more than the Gotei 13 has had in a long time."

"I think people wanna help," Renji said thoughtfully. "They see their families suffering and they know we can't be everywhere at once. They want a better life for themselves and the people they care 'bout." He smiled crookedly. "Think we can all relate to that."

They ran through a few scenarios as they finished every scrap of the food Rukia had brought, but in the end they couldn't make any firm plans until they knew what the recruit assignments were going to be. Which would only be about an hour before the shining, eager faces were lined up in their courtyards.

Rukia shook her head. "We've done all we can here. I'm going back to headquarters to finish the paperwork." She looked at the mess on the table and grinned. "I cooked, you clean."

Renji nodded. "Yeah yeah, we'll clean."

Ichigo waved as Rukia stood – but she surprised him when she turned and walked in the opposite direction from the front door. Uh oh… "Er, where're you going?"

Rukia stopped and gave him an odd look. "To the bathroom, I want to wash my hands."

We didn't get a chance to clean up! Ichigo stood quickly. "Ah, no, you don't wanna do that. It's a mess. Why don't you wash up in the kitchen?" Oh hell, all over the floor…

She rolled her eyes. "Ichigo, I've seen how you guys live, everyone's place is a mess when things get busy. I've seen wet towels and dirty uniforms bef—"

"Just use the damn kitchen, Rukia!" Renji interrupted. He'd moved to block the bathroom doorway, arms folded across his chest.

Rukia stared at him, and then back at Ichigo. Her eyes narrowed as she took in the scene. "Oh for…" she shook her head and snickered. "You two…"

"Kitchen." Renji jerked his head.

"Yes, Taichou," she said mockingly as she stepped toward the other room. "Try to keep your pants on while I'm gone, guys." Though the line between personal and professional was never crossed, they often teased each other about their positions in private.

"You sure you really need a lieutenant?" Ichigo asked loudly, grinning broadly at Renji.

Renji winked back. "Unfortunately."

"You could always promote Rikichi. He's, what, 4th seat now?"

"Yep, an' a real hard worker, too—mmph!" Renji was cut off by the wet splat of the dish cloth hitting his face. Ichigo laughed as his partner spluttered. That is, until the second wet cloth smacked him in the side of the head.

"Why you!" Ichigo grabbed the cloth and pitched it right back at their smirking friend.

Rukia shrieked and leaped for the door. She wasn't quite fast enough to avoid the splash as it hit the floor behind her feet. Ichigo laughed again as she scrambled out of range.

"I'm going now! Renji, don't forget we've got training this afternoon."

"Yeah we're right behind ya, just gotta… eurgh…" Renji wiped the water out of his eyes, and flung the cloth at her, "…get cleaned up again." Rukia grinned and slammed the door shut just in time – the soggy missile slapped against it and slid to the ground with a squish.

Renji snickered. "Almost got her!"

Still chuckling, Ichigo cleared the debris of their lunch while Renji finished getting ready and dealt with the mess in the bathroom. They usually split the household chores, but, as Rukia had noted, no one really bothered much when things were busy. Not for the first time, Ichigo wondered about just hiring someone to come in and clean, but the thought of a stranger going through their stuff was a bit unnerving.

Renji emerged from the bathroom, properly dressed and with his now-dry hair back in its habitual tail. "Ready?" He slipped into the clean white cloak he took out of the wardrobe and wriggled his feet into his sandals.

"Hang on, I gotta get my…" Ichigo pulled another pristine cloak out of the wardrobe and shrugged into it. "There, now let's go."

It wasn't how things were usually done, but several captains – including Ichigo and Renji – now had spare cloaks. With the amount of hard action they saw, their original cloaks were so often out for cleaning and mending that they were eventually issued a second as a spare, so they wouldn't have to walk around out of uniform.

It wasn't an option for captains to walk around out of full uniform during wartime. All senior officers – captains and lieutenants – were required to wear their full uniforms and rank insignia at all times when not in their private quarters. All lower ranked shinigami were given the names and descriptions of the senior officers, and instructed to obey any order from them without question.

"All right, fun's over, back to work."

§

Omake

Chapter 1

Akuni: Welcome back, everyone! It's been a while, but we're finally ready to continue the Amaranthine story.

Ichigo: What is it with you and getting me naked right away?

Renji: ./grins hugely/

Akuni: ./points at Renji/

Ichigo: Oh. /grins back/

Akuni: You guys asked for awesome, amazing sex. I could take it out if you really have a probl—

Ichigo: ./hastily/ No!

Renji: Hell no!

Akuni: That's what I thought. /smug/

Art

See the story posted on LJ or ygal for links to the art that goes with this chapter.

Music

The music for this chapter is 'Forever' (instrumental version) by Queen.