The single word reverberated in his ears with a pounding intensity rivaled only by the incessant throbbing in his head. As more blood trickled into his right eye and seeped into his mouth through the crack of his lips, he cursed silently; he would give an arm and a leg for Ikkaku-san's magic ointment right about now.
If they were still working.
Renji braved a glance at the fist not holding his sword. The flexor tendons at his wrist were showing; the wound deep and gaping. He suppressed the scream threatening to erupt from his chest as he curled his fingers slowly into a ball; it hurt even more than his broken ankle, but at least he still had use of the arm.
If he could get over the pain.
He swung his Zanpakutou forward again with as much force as he could muster, but the hollow that had almost gnawed his right foot off was quick to evade what could have been a devastating blow, and charged again. Renji stood his ground and waited.
Shush, Renji pleaded with the inner voice; he had grown weary of it. Negotiating with the saner part of oneself was only of prospective value when both parties were entitled to a favourable outcome, if not exclusive victory to the one more in need. And now Abarai Renji needed to win, if he wanted to live.
With a deafening roar, the Hollow pounced, lunging for Renji's throat, but at the very last moment, Renji sidestepped its massive claws, and flash-stepped over its shoulder, and onto its back, before plunging his sword into its hindleg; the Hollow reared its head in agony, and Renji backflipped high with his near-paretic foot jutting out in an awkward angle, Zabimaru held vertically in the air.
And with a roar of his own, Renji brought his sword plummeting down, and the cracking sound the Hollow's mask gave when it broke brought a mirthless smile to his face.
He had been fighting in shikai form for the past hour. He could not hold his Bankai for very long; Zabimaru had suffered much damage from the battle against the fifteenth Arrancar, Yylfordt Granz (or whatever his or her name was-the bastard was a bit effeminate) The sudden onslaught of Hollows into a densely populated city two prefectures away from Karakura Town had alerted the 12th Division and by orders from above, the 6th Division was immediately mobilised, much to Renji's dismay; he knew fighting in full power was going to be very difficult, if not impossible.
An order however, was still an order. So Renji had taken half the men, and the other half followed the Captain to the other end of town, where another group of powerful Hollows had poured in. From far away, he could sense the huge rise in reiatsu belonging to none other than Kuchiki Byakuya.
Looks like Kuchiki-taichou's still fighting.
"And so am I," Renji growled. He could only hope the captain was having better luck than him…but then again, Kuchiki Byakuya was never one to need any luck to win his battles. He frantically swept his eyes across the span of the children's playground below him. Some no longer moving, the bodies that littered the ground were too many to count.
Damn it, he cursed. This was not supposed to happen.
His heart leaped to his throat. Someone was still alive! He risked a glance down in the direction of the strangely familiar voice.
"Rikichi!" Renji's eyes brightened, but darkened again when a surge of energy from behind warmed the back of his hakama. He whirled around. To his horror, the Hollow's attention had now diverted to the small form dangling from the broken edge of a huge rainwater drain at the far edge of the park fifty feet below; the Hollow had also heard Rikichi's cry.
Everything that happened then passed in a blur; one second, Rikichi saw the vice-captain standing his ground high up in the air, the next second they were in the water face-to-face, with Renji's arms wrapped around him.
"Renji…san…" Rikichi found himself at a loss for words, the carcass of the Hollow was lying on its side on the bank, half its torso hanging out into the water, now stained a deep shade of pink. He watched the Hollow disintegrate into thin air, and yet the water around them kept turning darker and darker.
Rikichi checked himself. The blood was not his. A deep-seated fear began to gnaw in his gut. He squirmed out of Renji's arms.
"Oh no…" he gasped aloud. "Renji-san…"
"It is nothing," Renji growled. With a mighty push, he single-handedly propelled Rikichi up the bank and onto the safety of dry land.
Renji held his breath, and counted to three silently in his head. He tried not to think of what he was about to do and reaching down gingerly, he pulled the two-foot-long claw embedded in his side with one hard, sharp tug. The hoarse scream he let out was dampened by the sound of gushing gouts of fresh, red blood splashing and mixing with dirty rainwater.
"Renji-san, why?" Rikichi let out an anguished cry as he realised what Renji had done. His eyes smarted as he took in his idol's battered condition. "Why did you take the blow for m-"
"No! I can fight! Let me stay-"
Renji surprised him by shoving him hard in the upper arm, slamming Rikichi onto the ground.
"Five of your teammates are already dead," he growled. The vice-captain's fatigue and many injuries were beginning to debilitate him; that much Rikichi could see. The blood-stained hand holding him down was shaking.
"Find Kuchiki-taichou." Renji's hand left Rikichi's shoulder, only to ball into a fist against the bloody wound in his right flank, his voice tired and pained. "And don't leave his side. You will be safe with him."
"Rikichi, will you listen to me?!" Blood sputtered from Renji's lips, and he watched Rikichi's eyes widen in horror. "Gather the wounded and go! Now!"
Five more. And at least two were Adjuchas-class Menos.
Five against one.
He was in trouble.
Renji gripped his Zanpakutou tighter, and held it straight out in front of him.
Zabimaru was not going to like this, but he had to do it. He could be dead before reinforcement had a chance to arrive. Before that happened, he knew he had to chance everything, even doing it twice, something he had never attempted before in any one fight. He had been saving his energy for the last hour, he hoped Zabimaru found it sufficient and could forgive him.
"Bankai," he whispered.
"So you are not dead. The boy has a way with telling stories."
"Taichou." He groaned inwardly. It looked like Rikichi did find him after all, the last man he wanted to see. "Yeah, that he does, unfortunately."
"You were in charge of this post."
"And now five men are dead." Renji was never one to weep. Instead, he held it in, only to let his anguished cry pass as a shaky sigh. "We shouldn't have come."
"Such cowardly words." Byakuya towered over him like a large swooping bird of prey, his eyes cool and piercing. "Words that should not be heard from a seated officer of your standing. They are an insult to your sword."
Renji stared at him incredulously, before shifting his gaze onto his Zanpakutou, now lying useless by his side. "My sword could not even save my men."
"You once raised your sword to me." Byakuya's lips thinned into a hard line and the cold look in his eyes darkened. "Do not belittle it so."
Renji frowned. Either the blood loss and fatigue were making it very hard to concentrate and he was misinterpreting it all, or the Captain was…commending him. In a very twisted, roundabout way, but still.
And what in the name of all things holy was he doing now? Renji watched perplexed as Kuchiki-taichou dropped unceremoniously onto one knee next to him, uncharacteristically turning a blind eye to the deplorable state of the ground around them. He had a half mind to tell the captain that rats existed in the living world too, but he guessed Kuchiki-taichou already knew that, because one just ran over the spread of his white haori.
A long lock of glossy black hair fell over his face as the nobleman took his gloves off and tentatively inspected Renji's ankle with his bare hands. If he had not lost all sensation below the level of his shin, Renji would have gasped at the intimacy of the touch; Kuchiki-taichou had never voluntarily touched him except when actively trying to kill him, and this scene was definitely way beyond his imagination. The captain was so close Renji could smell the clean, fresh scent of the silk scarf around his neck, normally wrapped so securely, now hanging slightly out of place. Renji's frown deepened at the speckles of blood staining the usually spotless piece of garment.
He doubted the blood belonged to the captain however.
"Your loss here is not exhaustive," Byakuya murmured, reaching down to untie the sash from around Renji's waist to free the outer layer of his shinigami robes as casually as one would a pair of socks.
Renji could comprehend neither his words nor his actions. He peered into his captain's face, but Byakuya's eyes were busy roaming the extent of Renji's injuries, paying particular attention on the gaping wound on his lieutenant's stomach which was freely bleeding still.
Kuchiki-taichou met his eyes for a fraction of a second. "I lost six."
Renji's throat went dry.
Renji gasped in a breath when the ragged edges of his wound grate like sand paper; Kuchiki-taichou's kidou was suturing the gash with superb precision, contracting and pulling the broken skin in again, but that did not stop Renji from wishing he was dead. It hurt! "You…don't need to do that, Taichou. I-"
"I'd understand." Renji ground his teeth involuntarily at the pain. "Really, Taichou…Just-leave me..."
"I wish to sully neither my name nor yours by doing any such thing." Byakuya's eyes were cold, gray steel.
Renji's eyes nearly popped out. This was the person who threw him in jail for losing a fight with a certain Seireitei intruder on a suicide mission to rescue Rukia (and he was dying too!) and tried to have him demoted. This was the person who left him for dead after coming close to literally dice him for trying to save Rukia (again, he was dying!)
And yet, this was also the man who saved his newly-appointed vice-captain from Kurosaki Ichigo's blade in their first encounter with the orange-headed shinigami wonder.
"Taichou," Renji said quietly. "Why are you-"
"In the 6th Division, everyone comes home, Renji. By any means necessary."
Renji felt something in his chest break. He closed his eyes and concentrated on clearing his mind, but the tugging sensation in his flesh as Kuchiki-taichou's reiatsu worked through his joints only succeeded in lassoing him back to reality.
When Kuchiki-taichou finally stopped working half an hour later, Renji opened his eyes. His ankle felt generally better and the wound in his side, although closed, was still seeping slightly. The exit wound on his back where the Hollow's claw had penetrated however was still wide open. Renji stared at his captain uncertainly.
"I am under no obligation to heal all of you, Renji, in case you were expecting something more."
"Oh," Renji said dumbly. Well. And here he thought Kuchiki-taichou was growing soft on him.
Perhaps he did not want to be further shamed in front of the other captains; he had just lost half a division after all. The last thing he needed was a lame lieutenant. Great. He was fond off battle scars anyway, Renji thought almost sourly. But he quenched all bitterness and animosity he suspected he was about to feel; the captain had no business healing his injuries but for reasons unbeknownst to Renji, he did anyway.
"People will expect to see that you have been fighting, Renji. Whatever will they think of you if all your injuries miraculously disappear before you even get to the 4th Squad, and with half the division annihilated?"
At the Captain's last words, a surge of fury warmed the back of his neck and burned all the way to his head. Renji screamed in rage and punched the wall with his fist.
Byakuya watched him in neutral silence. "The injuries I have overlooked, and that now broken fist of yours will do."
Renji looked up with red-rimmed eyes, his chest heaving with exertion.
Byakuya locked gazes with his lieutenant for the longest time, before breaking the heavy stillness, as though his hurting subordinate was in need of pity and he was doing Renji the honour by giving it.
"My division is the strongest one there is, Renji. It is beneath me to carry the weight of a man who could not stand on his two feet."
Byakuya turned his head sideways ever so slightly, the silhouette of his long, thin nose casting a triangle of shadow across his pale cheek. "And I have already fixed that for you. Now walk."
His captain's pristine white haori flapped and billowed as Byakuya's pace picked up speed, and instantly a cloud of dust and dirt rose off the narrow alley in thick, heavy layers of soot.
Renji never thought he would get used to the way Kuchiki-taichou treated him sometimes - or rather, most of the time - but to half-quote his captain, it was also beneath Renji to be upset at being ordered around like a child; he was too much of a man to be bothered by it anymore.
You heard him.
Renji leaned his head against the back wall tiredly. So get your arse off of the ground.
And what? Yap at his heels? Yeah. Yay. I'll just wait till he's a bit far away,
I'll just wait till he's a bit far away,Renji thought numbly. Buck up. This is not the first time he's left me behind.
"Or maybe a lot far away," Renji said out loud, closing his eyes in resignation.
But the more he waited for the level of the captain's reiatsu to fall to indicate so, the stronger it got.
Renji cracked one eye open. At the far end of the alley, a figure stood. Against the balmy darkness of the falling dusk and the swirling clouds of dust and grime, he could barely make out-
With difficulty, Renji gripped onto the wall and climbed to his feet. He circumducted his right ankle testily, and much to his surprise, it did not hurt as much anymore. Kuchiki-taichou was right, he really did fix it for him.
"I ah…didn't know you were waiting for me, Taichou." Renji smiled sheepishly.
Byakuya merely looked at him impassively and said nothing. He took his hand off the hilt of his sword on which it was previously resting, and began to walk.
Renji reached inside his robe and placed a protective hand against the wound Kuchiki-taichou had healed. It felt hot and tender, but he knew the inflammation was now minimal and that it had stopped bleeding, all thanks to Kuchiki-taichou.
"So it wasn't our fault?" Renji asked quietly. "The men we lost?"
Byakuya stayed silent for so long Renji was ready to accept that Kuchiki-taichou was never going to answer. The captain proved him wrong.
Renji's eyes smarted. He clenched his jaw, hard. He gave a brisk, sharp nod and silently thanked the Captain for the lie he had just told.
Byakuya glanced at him out the corner of his eye, his face unreadable. "Do not think too much on it, Renji. Save it for the report later."
Renji did his best to walk with his back straight in the effort to hide his limp, but after a few metres he realised he did not have to go to such length to avoid inconveniencing the Captain.
Byakuya was matching him stride by stride.
The Master of Flash Steps, the Honorary Head of the House of Kuchiki, and he was walking slowly alongside his wounded lieutenant like-like-
Renji dropped his head to his chest, resisting the sudden, crazy urge to laugh. Equals? With Kuchiki Byakuya?
'In the 6th Division, everyone comes home.'
"You did what you could. You protected our men."
Renji's head snapped up. He could not remember a time when he had had to turn his head sideways to look at his captain when walking with him on the way to or back from any battleground, for he was always trailing behind him, if not in front if he were scouting for possible danger.
He stared at Kuchiki-taichou with unabashed openness.
The waiting, the healing, the things the Captain said…
The message was clear.
Stand on your two feet and walk.
Kuchiki Byakuya was a man of little words and lesser action. Or so Renji had thought.
Walk with me.
Before he could stop himself-
"You're so strange, Taichou."
The moment the words left his mouth, Renji's jaw snapped shut in horror. As expected, the captain's eyebrows quivered almost imperceptibly, a sign of indignance as Renji had learnt to recognise…and avoid.
Quickly he raised a palm in surrender, ready to fend off deadly flower petals. "J-just kidding, Taichou! You're perfectly normal. Ehehe..eheh…heh." At his captain's unwavering glare, Renji grimaced.
"Wrong choice of words. No, I mean - you're above average, Taichou. Waaay above. Uh. No? Okay. You're…you're…"
"Learn that silence is wise in the presence of a superior being. Now unlock the senkaimon already." A blast of heavy, icy reiatsu jarred through Renji's body with his captain's next words. "Before I unlock you."
"Right away, Taichou!"
And yet as Renji unsheathed his sword and raised it above the level of his heart, he could feel his lips twitching into the ghost of a smile-
…and as always the ethereally strange, yet perfectly normal Kuchiki Byakuya, Captain of the Illustrious 6th Division of Gotei 13, looked the other way, and pretended not to see.
A/N: My second Bleach fic; sorry for any OOC-ness, hope it's alright. Any comment would be lovely, cheers.