Renji lay in bed, eyes wide open and staring. He'd been reliving the most terrifying moment in his life over and over again once he retired to his makeshift chambers.

Never in all of his years as a shinigami did he feel so dishonorable; never had he crossed the line of loyalty and trust until now.

Renji lied to his captain.

He shook his head as the vivid memory replayed itself over again. How could he? Kuchiki Byakuya was his captain, his superior officer asked him a direct question…and he told a bold-face lie.

But really – was it? Did Byakuya know what happened? Did he realize why that bruise existed, and merely wanted Renji to come clean?

It was a big risk, and in the end, Renji wasn't even sure it was worth the effort to hide. The more the lieutenant thought about it, the more he wanted to get the whole sordid affair off of his chest.

It was his sense of self-preservation in the end that kept him from speaking, the thought of what his captain would say and do kept his tongue still about the incident.

He couldn't tell him, and that was the biggest disappointment of all.

Renji felt horrible about it.

The vice captain rolled over on the cot and planted his face in his pillow, a sorry attempt at drowning the sound of his own voice as the conversation played over again in his mind.

Abarai, how did you receive that mark?

What mark?

The bruise on your neck.

I must've got it at the beach earlier.

It was there before then.

Oh that's right. Jinta and Ururu were playing baseball earlier…he must've clipped me pretty good. Kid's got a great arm with a bat, but terrible aim.

That had to be the worst lie.


In the history of lies.

Probably even worse than saying he ran into a doorknob.

But Renji looked on as Byakuya seemed to digest the information, carefully watching the expression on the shinigami's face as the captain stood there; timeless, emotionless, before he replied.

Very well, Abarai. Notify me in the morning of our plans.

Silently, the captain walked to his quarters, stopping briefly to nod at the fukutaicho.

That was it.

Renji thought for certain the captain would call him out on the explanation. Get mad, yell, something…but all he did was walk into his bedroom and close the door.

The vice captain stood for a long time, contemplating what just happened before making any movement toward his own room.

Renji groaned and flipped over on his bed. He wasn't sure what time it was, but by the lightened sky, he could guess it was almost morning.

Apparently sleep was not on the agenda. At least the overpowering feeling of inadequacy had a drastic effect on his libido – no tantalizing thoughts of his captain this night. At this point, however, he wasn't sure which was better; losing sleep from erotic thoughts of Byakuya, or losing sleep over disparaging thoughts about lying to his captain.

Today's a new day, he tried to comfort himself. Surely whatever we do will be enough to forget about this whole incident.

Somewhere in the back of his mind there was a snicker.

Byakuya's eyes snapped open for the umpteenth time since he had retired. His mind had not ceased since talking with his fukutaicho.

His curiosity had been piqued to say the least; Renji had at least confirmed his suspicion when confronting him about the bruising on his neck.

Up until now the captain had refrained, near forgotten the use of his reiatsu detection capabilities…however once he asked his fukutaicho that simple question, he carefully monitored the lieutenant's reaction.

The fluctuation in response was surprising, and curious, as well. Renji was a good actor, Byakuya had to give him that…but he was definitely hiding something.

It was then that the 'why' of it wandered into his thoughts. Why did it matter that Renji was carrying on with some sort of secret relationship? And why would Renji having a personal association with someone else have an effect on him? It wasn't that Byakuya had any remote interest in him…

Dismissing the fleeting notion, Byakuya turned his thoughts back to this unknown secret. Maybe it was time to give Renji a gentle nudge in the right direction; see if his fukutaicho might break under a little pressure.

The weather was uncharacteristically gloomy, Renji noticed as he stepped outside of the safe house. There wasn't a cloud yesterday; now rain threatened to fall, infusing the morning air with a scent of wet earth and something summer.

Renji pulled his hair tie tighter, double checking its stiffness. The sky threatened to open at any moment, accentuating its warning with more than a few fat drops of rain. There was nothing he hated more than getting his hair wet in a storm.

Besides, the threat of anyone else noticing the bruise on his neck was moot – who didn't already know?

Shouldering the bag of unused swimwear, he stepped down from the porch and headed down the street. Silently he made his way to Urahara's Shoten, absentmindedly listening to the sounds of dense verdant trees blowing against a swift wind – he had to pull strands of crimson hair away from his face more than once as the currents of air whistled past him. The water that had absorbed into his clothes made him shiver; the weather had taken on a chill. Renji was almost relieved as he stepped inside the Shoten and slid the door closed behind him.

"Ah, Renji-kun!" A cheerful voice greeted him. The reception was warm and friendly, contradictory to both the cold weather outside and his own internal conflicts. Still the voice cheered him up a little, and he returned the greeting.

"Hey, Urahara-san. I'm just here to clean up." Renji didn't break his stride as he walked over to the corner in which the broom sat.

"Hold on, Renji – you're soaking wet!" The store keeper rose from his customary perch and tapped him with a constant sidekick, his fan. "Take this off."

Renji looked down at himself, noticing the wet spots on the shoulders of his jacket. "Huh? Oh…I'm fine, Urahara-sa-"

"Nonsense," The man's eyes shone brightly under the brim of his green striped hat. "You're going to catch a cold like that – how will you be able to clean up the shop if you get sick?"

"Oh, sorry…" Renji trailed, wrestling the grey coat over his head. The bag of swimsuits came first, then as the jacket came within reach, Urahara took them both and hung his jacket on the coat rack. "I guess I forgot about the whole gigai thing."

"It is remarkably easy to get used to, isn't it?" Urahara flipped open the fan and despite the chill in the air, began to wave it inwardly.

Renji made a noncommittal noise as he returned to the chore of sweeping, bristles against the wooden floor the only sound between them.

"So," Urahara began, apparent in his attempt to make conversation. "What have we got planned for today, lieutenant tour-guide Abarai?"

Renji exhaled a laugh, the unexpected 'title' catching him off guard. "Actually…nothing." His cheerfulness deflated a little with the verbal confession. "I can't think of one thing to do that would keep the captain interested and occupied…Let alone hold some sort of lesson in social interaction."

"How did things go at the beach?"

Renji squirmed a little at the question. "Okay, I guess."

Urahara laughed abruptly. "I'm sure that 'okay' in regards to the Kurosaki family is something positive!"

Renji scratched the back of his head, letting a smirk grace his features for the first time that morning. "It was pretty fun, after I got the captain to loosen up a little."

Urahara watched Renji's reaction with an amused expression, then abruptly closing his fan, tapped his chin with the delicate folded paper. "Hmm…so, you've come up short for today." Urahara spoke aloud, a thought driven sound in his voice.

Byakuya arose as Renji left for the Shoten. It had only been a handful of seconds before the captain was wondering what business his fukutaicho had with the shop keeper, and according to his midnight thoughts, the assumptions were not pleasant.

It was much easier to dismiss these irrelevant ideas, however, then the erotic visions of his lieutenant. Byakuya quickly averted his attention to something else, hoping to not get caught in the trap of those feelings.

Still, remnants of those ideas flitted through his mind as he did routine morning chores. It took his full concentration to pick out his clothes for the day.

Byakuya's thoughts turned to the fact that Renji had not returned yet. Whether or not it was simply his misconstrued translation of time, he couldn't tell.

In an attempt to distract himself, Byakuya walked into the kitchen, intent on finding out what was involved with 'cooking'.

Byakuya settled on a simple stir fry for lunch – in all his life he could count the number of times he cooked for himself, so something simple would be in his best interest. Besides, a lot of the ingredients were already in the house – even a large sized skillet he could use to mix vegetables in.

A cutting board and knife were laid out, including a numerous amount of food items. Though he never cooked a day in his life, he at least knew the types of vegetables that went into the meal.

Chopping was a chore, and very slow. The knife was sharp, but not anywhere near what he was used to using. He entertained the thought of unsheathing Senbonzakura to make quick work of the task, but dismissed it just as quickly. Must be Renji's lackadaisical attitude rubbing off on me, he thought, and continued his work.

"Here we are!" Urahara piped up, returning from an adjoining room. In one hand he held his trusty and ever present fan; in the other there were several sheets of grey toned paper wrapped in a neat bundle with a band. "You can have this, Renji-kun, Tessai has declared he's finished with it."

"What is it?" Renji asked before getting a good look at it. "Oh," he spoke, grabbing the offered paper in his hands, "This is the Karakura newspaper, right? I remember this," Renji turned a thoughtful expression. "How does this have anything to do with me?"

"Take a look inside," Urahara gestured, flicking the fan in its direction. "There should be plenty of local events going on this week. Have Kuchiki-san pick out something he wants to do."

Renji smirked and rolled the paper in his fist. "Thank you Urahara-san, I owe you one."

"Don't mention it – it seems that you're getting plenty of run around with your boss, so it's the least I could do." he spoke tipping the wide brim of his green striped hat.

As Renji gathered his belongings, the store keeper added while walking into his office "Although it would be nice if you could organize some of the storeroom boxes when you return..."

Renji's eyebrow poked upward. He knew there had to be a price.

Instead of arguing, he turned homeward. Renji was sure Byakuya was up already, and he didn't want to keep his captain waiting any longer than necessary.

The lieutenant's mood improved when he noticed the menacing storm clouds had left, leaving behind white wispy forms in the sky. The day was looking better already, both literally and figuratively, he thought, as he deeply inhaled the humid air.


Byakuya flinched as his hand grazed the hot skillet; the pain that radiated up his arm was quick but efficient, causing him to pull his hand back in alarm.

Cooking, he thought, was progressively becoming a detestable task.

The captain's opinion began to change though, as the smell wafting up from the pan met his nose. Despite the tedious amount of preparation, the sizzle of vegetables offered a promising result for his efforts. Giving the items a stir, he smiled at his own abilities; maybe he could challenge Renji when it came to his 'iron chef' title.

As Renji stepped up to the house he could detect the scent of food in the air.

Somebody must be cooking, he thought. That's a great idea, I'm sure the captain could go for something to eat by now.

As he hopped the stairs, the smell localized at the front door. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that it's coming right from our kitchen – but captain Kuchiki doesn't cook.

Renji's eyebrows furrowed as he turned the doorknob. Most definitely coming from their house – and it smelled great…but that meant only one thing: Someone else was in the house!

"Taicho, I'm back," Renji called out loudly. Prepared for anything, he made a cursory glance around the room, even checked for unfamiliar reiatsu.

The only spiritual pressure he could detect was the Kuchiki noble – and that signature was in the kitchen.

The only way to describe the aroma from within the house was 'heavenly'.

"Taicho," Renji's voice made a comical sound as he spoke, "I didn't know you could cook!"

Byakuya turned slightly, acknowledging the fukutaicho ogling the sizzling pan on the stove. "Just because I don't, doesn't mean I can't." Byakuya couldn't tell if it was the fire from the range that caused his cheeks to heat, but he did feel the boost to his ego.

"How about that!" Renji openly smiled. "And it smells good! Er – I mean why wouldn't it?…eh heh…" The fukutaicho was tripping up on his words again; hoping to drown out his feeling of stupidity, he reached for the spoon to give the food a stir.

At the same time, Byakuya was making an identical motion, grasping at the handle just as Renji did.

Simultaneously they dropped the spoon back into the pan.

Renji covered up his surprise by commenting. "The pan is hot!"

Byakuya nodded solemnly, looking at the burn on his skin.

Renji's eyes widened as his eyes followed Byakuya's stare. "Did you burn yourself? Aw geez, Urahara will never let me hear the end of it!"

Renji practically scooped Byakuya's hand in his, dragging the captain into the bathroom.

"Abarai, what are you –"

"Does it hurt?" Renji's fingers ghosted over the red mark. "Are you okay?"

The sudden closeness made the dizzy feeling that Byakuya had until now been suppressing came bubbling back to the surface. The burn on his cheeks was still there, but this time he was nowhere near the stove. The musk of his fukutaicho was alluring, his crimson eyes attractive in even the dim lighting of the bathroom…and his voice…

"I'm fine…" Byakuya kept his voice steady as he responded to his lieutenant.

"You've got be careful," Renji's voice teetered on the edge of fretting as he reached into the medicine cabinet hidden behind the bathroom mirror. "A gigai can scar up pretty easily. You should have seen the look on Urahara's face after I told him that Ichigo rammed me into a tree…he was pretty steamed." Renji chuckled as he pulled a few supplies out and shut the door, sticking one of the objects into his mouth – it was a flat, paper looking thing. The other was a tube that the shinigami promptly opened, only then removing his hand from Byakuya's.

The captain noticed the absence of warmth before Renji was holding him again, this time spreading a thick, cream-like substance over his burn. Tearing at the paper thing with his teeth, he produced a smaller object from inside the sleeve.

"The cream might sting a little," Renji warned, "but it'll keep the skin from getting damaged. Urahara showed me this part enough for me to remember," he smirked.

Byakuya frowned. "It does…sting. It didn't bother me before – why would the treatment cause more pain than the injury itself?"

Renji's eyebrows furrowed in thought. "You know, I have no idea. Maybe to let you know it's working?"

"Hn." Byakuya simply stated, watching Renji's practiced movements as the thin plastic was placed sticky side down on the burn.

"Bandages." Renji muttered, cleaning up the mess. "Amazing little invention."

Byakuya puzzled over the Chappy design on the piece of plastic.

"Leave that on there for a couple hours so it has a chance to soak in." Renji stated, once more rubbing the plastic material around Byakuya's finger to secure the bond. It was then Renji realized how close he and his captain were standing.

Food. He was hungry for food, he mentally chastised himself, not his captain.

Quick to return to the kitchen with stir fry still sizzling in the pan, Renji turned off the heat and pulled a few dishes from the cupboard. "Wow, Taicho, if this tastes as good as it smells, this'll –"

Byakuya was right there as Renji turned, and he had to stop short to avoid hitting the other man with the plates in his hand. Quietly, the other man handled the dishes.

"I believe that since I prepared the food, I should be entitled to serve it as well." Byakuya set everything out on the table as he spoke. "Sit."

Renji gulped. It was definitely like his captain to take the lead, the dominate nature of the noble was very intimidating – however the situation left him awkward and confused – normally it was the fukutaicho's job to accommodate for the captain, not the other way around. Wordlessly he plopped in the chair, unable to come up with a reasonable response.

Bowls and chopsticks were set properly as Byakuya dished out the food. It wasn't until the table was set that Renji spoke again.

"I thought maybe we could pick out an event together from the newspaper." Renji pressed the rolled parchment closer to the center of the table. "You should have a say in what kind of social activities we do."

Byakuya glanced at the article by Renji's hand and slowly nodded.

"Good." Renji smiled, thankful there was no argument from the stoic man for once.

The real test came once they finished the meal and cleared the table. The newsprint was so tiny Renji thought he'd go cross-eyed from simply reading the headlines – and there weren't even any pictures.

Renji gestured over the newsprint. "So, do you see anything interesting?

Byakuya listlessly stared at the list of events and advertisements. "What about this? It specifically states here that it is adult entertainment."

Renji was pretty sure that he choked, but he wasn't drinking anything. "I'm not sure that's what that means, taicho."

"Then what exactly would it mean?'

"Hey – how about this?" Renji abruptly pointed to another event, purposely avoiding the question.

"That is an advertisement for silverware."

"Really? Oh…heh heh," Renji scratched at the back of his neck nervously.

Dark eyes scanned purposely over the articles, settling on something in the middle of the page. "Then what of this event?"

Renji squinted at the black lines of print. "I didn't know the Bon festival was going on right now," he smirked. "Why, Kuchiki Byakuya, look at you picking out good things to do. I've taught you well!"

"Please refrain from acting as though I'm a child."

Renji's grin widened. Getting under his captain's skin was starting to become an enjoyable past time, now that he could tell when the Kuchiki noble was truly aggravated or not. That tinge of pink on his cheeks was definitely a sign of embarrassment no matter how well Byakuya tried to hide it with his stuffy arrogant attitude. An urge too overwhelming to ignore won out.

"C'mon, young man," Renji stressed, knowing full well the shinigami was centuries old, "Let's get ready to go."

The Bon festival was much grander than the Karakura Times lead on. Streamers lined the streets, decorating lampposts and fences with multiple ribbons of color. Pinwheels carefully placed in wire framing spun lazily in the wind, the red color mesmerizing as the blades turned.

Renji felt a little more accustomed to the kimono he picked out for the event, however the material felt odd against his skin. Absentmindedly he though it might just be the gigai's reaction to the soft, durable material, and left it at that.

Byakuya seemed to have no objection to his own kimono, Renji mulled as he looked over at his captain. The lieutenant did have to admit that kimonos here in the real world were quite literally a world apart when it came to color and style; the soul society, though fashionable, lacked in appearance as these kimono.

Renji averted his eyes as he found himself staring at places he shouldn't be, noting the curves of his captain's body subconsciously.

There were plenty of sights to see, observing the many stalls lining the park selling souvenirs and candies just like a carnival.

"Taicho," Renji pointed excitedly. "They're going to have a fireworks display at dusk!"

Byakuya nodded, apparently missing the importance of said event.

"Wait…you've never seen fireworks," Renji contemplated, rubbing his chin in his fingers, "so you wouldn't know what the big deal is – you see," Renji began explaining, "they set up a show made of explosions – like kido almost, but much cooler." The redhead gestured with his hands the gist of what happens in the air.

Byakuya looked nonchalantly at Renji's grandiose motions. "I see."

Renji's enthusiasm deflated a little. "Couldn't you seem a little more excited?"

"I am." Byakuya kept walking, apparently admiring the sights.

Renji's eyebrows quirked upward. "You are?"

The captain's expression was the fukutaicho's answer.

"Besides," Byakuya responded evenly. "How would these fireworks be any different than what that rogue Shiba clan uses?"

Renji puzzled, then laughed out loud. "I believe that I've just witnessed a miracle!"

Byakuya's eyebrows furrowed, contemplating Renji's outburst.

"You…you just told a joke!" Renji's face tinged red with laughter. "I don't think I'm going to recover from the shock!"

Byakuya's stoic expression couldn't even leech the amusement from Renji's face. "It wasn't a joke."

"Sure taicho…whatever you say," Renji smirked, a chuckle on his lips, "but that was still funny."

The rest of the festival went off without a hitch, the two shinigami enjoying the celebration of life and death, a comfortable theme around them. Inevitably Renji drew Byakuya to the fireworks display and found a spot in the grass, a clearing of trees making the perfect place to wait.

A chill had developed in the air as the sun went down, causing a shiver to run down Renji's spine. He should have worn more layers he thought ruefully; however the longer he sat, the bunched material of the kimono acted as a blanket of its own.

Byakuya's warmth didn't go unnoticed by Renji as the two shinigami sat side by side, waiting for the event to begin.

"I do have to warn you before it starts, taicho," Renji stated. "It's going to be loud."

Renji should have heeded his own words however, as the first explosion nearly sent him onto Byakuya's lap in fright. Instead he found himself awkwardly grasping at the captain, eyes as wide as saucers.

Sizzling fireworks splashed across the sky, painted the grassy clearing in vivid shades of color. Midnight eyes came to rest on crimson ones, the firelight of pyrotechnics dancing in those deep blue orbs. Their bodies were close, practically nothing separating the two shinigami.

Renji's breathing went shallow. Everything he'd been ignoring until now shot through him like adrenaline. His heart was beating so hard in his chest that he could swear Byakuya could feel it. He was grasping his captain so tightly, yet why hadn't the stoic man pulled away?

The scenery painted a beautiful picture and Renji was compelled to hold on just a little longer. It had been days since that encounter, yet the vice captain still could imagine Byakuya's soft skin on his.

Closer still their bodies pressed together; heat combined between them; their lips were so close, yet miles seemed to separate the two…

"The fireworks!" Renji piped up, tearing his eyes away from his captain. He needed to break this perfect moment; erase those unethical ideas from his mind. His heart sunk at the prospect of hiding his feelings again, the shame of those unwanted yet powerful emotions surging, burning under his skin. Renji itched to stroke his hair, touch his captain like he did so many nights ago.

Why did he need to spend an entire week alone with Byakuya in Karakura?

Byakuya felt the heat curling low in his stomach, his nerves singing one long, hollow tune throughout his body, the buzz of electricity surging down to his fingertips. Hands clenched tightly for the inevitable; this was a pivotal moment, the blood pumping so loud in his ears he though he would go deaf. Here, he was so close to breaking the code – finding out just what Renji was keeping secret, yet the fukutaicho avoided the finishing blow yet again, diverting his eyes to the sparks of light in the sky.

Byakuya could feel it writhing just below the surface, his vision focused intently on his subordinate. Rarely did the captain feel so goaded by his own feelings that he would snap, but this was the breaking point, a moment that never happened with the Kuchiki noble.

The captain's eyes narrowed as he spoke. "What are you hiding, Renji?"

Renji blinked back surprise from those malicious words, both at the intonation and the context. "W-wha-?"

"Don't play coy with me," The captain's gaze never faltered. "While we are on a mission and you are under my direct command, I will know who he is."

He who? Renji started. He opened his mouth soundlessly – Byakuya was accusing him of something? Worse yet, as Renji mulled the allegation, was his captain saying what he thought he was?

"It's obvious." Byakuya crossed his arms against his chest. "The secrets. The deception. Could you be entertaining that boy Kurosaki Ichigo?"

Renji's surprise began to wear off, leaving the vice captain in a state of shock and confusion. Was that what this is all about? Byakuya must not have known about the sordid affair from a few days ago, rather implicated his own fukutaicho as an escort of some kind!

"Or maybe Kisuke Urahara," Byakuya mulled, "With that man's eclectic tendencies, I wouldn't be surprised."

"Captain," Renji's voice dropped an octave, almost a threatening tone.

But the captain was on a roll; endorphins were high, the fever pushing, daring him to continue. Heat spread across his face, he felt like he was suffocating. This is the moment, the pinnacle.

"Maybe someone else I don't know."

Renji was used to the blunt manner of speaking from Byakuya, even accepted it as normality. But not like this; so sudden and unexpected - not after what he almost did. The fukutaicho needed to reason and deny the allegation, however he felt his temper rush in first, ready to take on Byakuya's line of questioning directly.

"I don't know who you think I am, or what you think I did." Renji growled.

"Then Renji, offer me a reasonable explanation for your actions. Or is that impossible while you're thinking of someone else?"

Renji gritted his teeth so tightly he felt them grind together. "What's gotten into you? For the last time, I'm not hiding anything from you. And what does it matter if I am, huh? It's none of your business."

"Everything you do is my business, lieutenant. You will not flit about carelessly while we are on assignment from soutaichou Yamamoto. Your reckless actions will not endanger my position as captain."

Renji knew it was wrong, but he couldn't help it. Far pushed past the point of reasoning, he said it before he'd even realized.

"Your position?" Renji thundered, an incredulous tone in his voice. "You think I was the one being foolhardy? Fine. You wanna know? You, captain. You're the one!"

The look of confusion on Byakuya's face was priceless, further fueling Renji's desire to rub it in. "I've been trying ever since the first day we came to Karakura to keep it secret and pretend it never happened – but of all the self-centered and arrogant thoughts put in your head, you're going to blame it on me!"

Renji pointed an index finger into Byakuya's chest. "Well you know what, captain? The other man is you. When you got drunk that night, you pinned me on the couch and had sex with me!"

"…enough, Renji." Byakuya's voice was softer, less demanding than it had been. Renji didn't care.

"Damn it that's not enough! I've felt humiliated and embarrassed about it for days to protect you! And you throw it back in my face – you know what, taicho? Screw this." Renji struggled to his feet, avoiding the ends of his kimono on the way up.

It was only until now that Byakuya spotted a few wide eyed onlookers scattered about the clearing, watching the imminent break-up between him and his vice captain. All he could do was watch silently as the other shinigami marched away.

"Finish your damn mission by yourself." Renji tossed the comment over his shoulder, not even pausing to look at the seated captain once.

In any other circumstance he could tell if an attack was imminent –footsteps in the hallway, a change in the air currents …anything could tip off a surprise assault.

Nothing had quite prepared him for a gigai wearing shinigami to come crashing through his window at three in the morning.

Well not exactly crash.

It wasn't three in the morning either, the blue neon of his alarm clock read one fifteen. It was a school night.

Normally he would simply kick his father in the face and roll back over, but the teenager was put off by the bright red hair pulled back into a spiky mess – unless his father begun some strange fetish with attacking him in wigs, this was not Kurosaki Isshin.

"What the hell…Renji?" Ichigo rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand, making his best attempt to clear his fuzzy vision. "It's one in the morning!"

"I know, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to go." Came the less than shrewd reply.

Ichigo blinked. The substitute soul reaper expected a smart-ass response, maybe a wisecrack or two from the lieutenant…a second glance at the intruding shinigami offered a sobering sight. Was that a melancholy Abarai Renji? Between smirking and grinning, Ichigo could never imagine a frown like that on the lieutenant's face. He corrected himself; once when Rukia was going to be executed, but that was different…

"Couldn't you think about it a little harder, then?" Ichigo goaded the shinigami into some witty retort, "I've got school in the morning, and if what Rangiku says is true, I won't be able to sleep while you snore like a mule."

"If it were that simple, I would have," even in the darkened room, Ichigo could see the gleam of mischief in his eye, "but I couldn't resist the urge to interrupt your beauty sleep."

Maybe a depressed Renji was better after all.

"You're supposed to be ruining Byakuya's beauty rest aren't you?" Ichigo scratched the back of his head. "By my estimate that guy needs a couple bad nights of sleep, he's making the rest of the male population look bad."

Renji's expression soured. Chalk one for Ichigo.

"We got into an…argument," Renji seemingly picked his words carefully, a trait not altogether common in the tattooed shinigami.

Ichigo fluffed his pillows, committed to going back to sleep soul reaperless and by himself. "How is that different from any other time? You yourself said a mission like this wasn't going to go well."

Renji rolled his eyes. "Yeah well, things went a lot worse than expected."

Ichigo's eyes narrowed slightly. "What do you mean 'a lot'?"

Renji tried as best he could to explain the situation, even though he knew he couldn't go into detail. "When we first got to Karakura, something happened, and I've been trying to cover up the whole thing even though I wasn't the one who did it."

Ichigo seemed for lack of better words, lost. Instant recognition crossed his face, excitedly he spoke "Does that mean you can blackmail Byakuya?"

Renji eyes rolled again. "No, because if did that, it would incriminate me."

Ichigo thumbed his chin, eyebrows furrowed in thought. "I guess I can't exactly suggest anything if I don't know exactly what happened."

Renji swallowed hard. Telling a fifteen – or was he sixteen now? – year old the sordid problems of sexual intimacy seemed a bit – harsh, to put it plainly. Had Ichigo even been laid? Renji shuddered; he did not need that idea floating around in his thoughts. Even worse, he did not need Ichigo thinking about his sexual problems with a certain shinigami captain. Even he didn't know what was going on in that department.

Other feelings sprung around that subject; Renji wanted to tell someone about the strange corrupt attraction he had toward Byakuya, maybe even debunk the notion that those feelings were genuine in any sense of the term, and resume this mission-gone-wrong with a clean slate. Maybe Byakuya would even ignore the incident – despite Renji's loathe for the captain's nonchalant attitude, the fukutaicho would be in utter bliss if the Kuchiki would pretend that nothing happened.

Renji stuttered, piecing together a story as close to the truth without revealing too much about his predicament. Protocol. Soul Society regulation. "Kuchiki Taicho broke a code of conduct and I caught him on it. I pretended nothing happened, until he tried to blame it on me."

Ichigo blinked. "Byakuya broke a rule?"

Renji nodded wordlessly.

"That's not even possible. Are you pulling my leg?"

"Does it look like I'm pulling your leg, you moron?"

"Huh. Unbelievable. So you're not going to tell Soul Society."


"Even though Byakuya would have no hesitation in doing the same to you?"

Renji fidgeted with the hem of his kimono.

"Wow, you've got some balls, Renji." The teen sarcastically jabbed at the shinigami.

"Shut up."

After a moment of silence, Ichigo sighed. "I guess you can bunk here tonight."

Renji smirked. "Thanks."

"Just keep it down, I don't need my dad lecturing me on inviting people into my house."

"Sure thing." Renji stretched, his tall frame encompassing the length of Ichigo's cot.

"What're you doing?" Ichigo squeaked, trying to mute his hysterical voice as Renji sprawled out on his bed.

"What, you're going to make a guest sleep on the floor?"

Ichigo flailed his arms in a silent protest – the last thing he needed was his family getting involved in this. "No way, Renji! My room can't accommodate one soul reaper let alone two!"

"Well, I can't fit in the closet like Rukia did when she was here. She's a midget compared to me."

Ichigo's eye twitched. If he frowned any harder he'd pull a muscle.

Byakuya sat quietly long after the fireworks had ended. Cold leeched into his skin and his bones ached from the enduring pose, yet the captain hadn't moved.

It appeared that his fukutaicho was making a habit out of walking away from a superior officer, a trait he made note of for disciplinary actions once returning to Soul Society. The reason for it, however, Byakuya was trying to ignore; the loop of protocol and regulations eased his thoughts – until he came back to why Renji left.

Kuchiki Byakuya, noble of one of the strongest and influential houses in all of Soul Society, propositioned his subordinate and apparently fornicated with him. How that would appear to the members of his house…he shuddered at the thought.

Time worked its way back into his reality; the nighttime air had grown a bit thicker and damp, and his gigai responded by sending chills along Byakuya's skin, alerting the man to his current predicament. Finally stretching his muscles, the captain began a long lonely walk back to the safe house.

Why hadn't he stopped his fukutaicho from walking away? He was a captain, Renji's superior officer – he could have given a direct order to detain his lieutenant. An awkward feeling settled in his gut about the true reason Byakuya didn't call to Renji.

He was embarrassed.

A taicho of the thirteen court guard squads is a position of distinction and superiority; to reach such a distinguished position, decades of training and perfection is required to become even a candidate of its prestigious title…in less than one week, Kuchiki Byakuya managed to sully this esteemed identity beyond the point of reconciliation.

Byakuya was fallen; a derelict soul in a decrepit city. Redemption seemed an unattainable goal at this moment. What could he possibly do to correct this situation? How could a noble have allowed himself to enter such a ruined state?

Out of bleak hopeless thoughts came an unlikely solution: The one person he could contact without informing Soul Society of his crimes, one man who could guide him to some adequate solution to his violations.

Kisuke Urahara.

Byakuya froze suddenly as if he had been slapped with cold water. Did he, of all people, just consider confiding in an exiled criminal?

Slowly, one foot at a time, the noble's footsteps changed course towards Urahara's Shoten. What better way to get out of this predicament than to contact a person that had been in a similar ordeal himself?

Urahara's Shoten was surprisingly lit, considering what time it was when Byakuya finally stepped up to the storefront. Hands tucked in the folds of his purple kimono, he suppressed the urge to shiver – the nighttime air had chilled considerably, and without any insulating warmth the atmosphere was becoming bitter, even to Byakuya.

Even in the cold, the desire to enter seceded. The captain was left with a raw overwhelming impulse to leave, however the need to rectify the situation with his fukutaicho kept him rooted to the spot. Indecision played the humorous role of making him stand and stare at the screen door for seemingly hours.

Miraculously the shoten entrance opened, though magic was far from the reason. A striped green hat and shadowed eyes met the Kuchiki; both men's greeting consisted of a long, cold stare.

Urahara was the first to speak. "Do come in, Kuchiki Taicho. My door is always open for old acquaintances."

Kuchiki Byakuya would have been content to spend the rest of the evening alone attempting to work out his own problems. As a matter of fact Byakuya was reconsidering sharing any information with the shopkeeper at all – maybe this was a big mistake.

As of lately, the captain felt as though he was making too many of those…no, he had to talk about this situation with someone of consistent knowledge apart from Soul Society. The faster the situation could be resolved, the quicker he could put such disgraceful actions behind him.

"If you don't mind me asking, captain," Urahara politely asked as he motioned the man to sit, "Where is your lieutenant? For being your escort here in the real world, it seems rather odd that he's not with you."

Byakuya stared, half-lidded eyes listless and unfocused. What could he say? His fukutaicho was angry with him for accusing him of sexually accosting every male in Karakura?

Instead Urahara nodded his head in understanding. "I think I know what's going on here. It's obvious, given your expression."

Byakuya almost betrayed a look of surprise. Did he let his guard down? Had Urahara's reiatsu detection capabilities improved since he left Soul Society?

"It's understandable. Given Renji's attitude, I wouldn't be surprised." Urahara produced a fan from within his robes and with a flick of his wrist it opened soundlessly.

Byakuya was aware of the perspiration that broke out along his brow. Cautiously eyes he shifted his eyes to look at the shopkeeper. Byakuya swallowed as quietly as he could, but the lump in his throat remained.

"I mean, how different can two shinigami be? How on earth – or forgive me, Soul Society – could such a divergent pair of shinigami exist in the same room let alone the same squad?"

Byakuya almost breathed a sigh of relief. Urahara was not reading his mind.

There were many things that perplexed Byakuya about Urahara; he seldom ever understood the man and they hardly agreed on anything; but the shop keeper had a point. The raid on Seireitei had strengthened that fact, drawing a solid line between the two shinigami in ideals and philosophy. Yet somehow despite these inconsistencies, they remained in the same squad…why Byakuya hadn't sent the fukutaicho to another division never really crossed his mind.

"And you know – with certainty, I might add, the Renji himself trains to best you one day." Urahara's eyes glinted under his broad rimmed hat. "I would figure that if not intimidating it would at least be a nuisance wondering if your fukutaicho is trustworthy."

Byakuya felt a twinge of something he couldn't quite explain. It seemed rather outrageous that Urahara of all people would accuse Renji of being deceitful, given his past. The captain kept his indignant stare, attempting to calm his thoughts. Byakuya was almost surprised by the sudden prominent feeling that Urahara inadvertently triggered.

Byakuya trusted Renji.

It was a rather odd and uncomfortable feeling to admit to himself. After all, his entire life was based on the contrary; he never placed reliance in anyone.

But isn't that what he had done? By accepting this mission, by insisting that Renji be his guide, he had inadvertently admitted that he trusted him.

That was the issue, wasn't it? Things slowly clicked together in his mind. It was easy to accuse Renji of some nonsense because it would inevitably cause him to distrust his fukutaicho. Noting the hint of smile on Urahara's face, Byakuya got the feeling Urahara always knew more than he let on.

"Tessai has a spare room prepared for guests if you care to stay." Urahara motioned with his fan. "It would be my honor."

Despite Ichigo's bed being rather comfortable, Renji couldn't sleep. It wasn't for lack of trying – he did for the record shut his eyes tightly and even tried counting sheep with no results. Given the current situation, he was content to stare at the ceiling, arms crossed behind his head.

Without the distraction of unconsciousness, he was only left with Byakuya and the seething anger he refused to indulge in. How in the hell could his captain blame him for everything that happened in Karakura?

Worse yet, how could he have blurted out so candidly about the sordid affair they had on the first night? Of all the words running through Renji's head, 'stupid' kept finding a way into the vocabulary. This Karakura mission was a stupid idea. Giving Byakuya alcohol was a stupid idea. Having sex – and then lying about it for days…yep, that was stupid too.

Renji would've sighed out loud, but reconsidered as he glanced at Ichigo asleep on the floor; by the sounds of his breathing he finally managed to doze off and he didn't want to accidentally wake him. Instead he elected to stare some more, hoping that his conflicted mind would allow some sort of reprieve…

It was then he felt the pulse, space distorting and bending under the guidance of some external force.

Something just crossed into Karakura through a dimensional portal.

Byakuya's eyes snapped open. He felt a dimensional ripple, a telltale crack in the barrier over Karakura. There was only one certain force that could accomplish that task; if that was the case, the town was in jeopardy.

Resting was out of the question. Leaving his gigai in Urahara's shoten and care was opportune: Phasing into his shinigami form, he wasted no time setting a course to intercept. The menace had to be dealt with quickly despite whatever personal issues were at hand before an innocent was harmed.

Ichigo's bleary eyes could make out a silhouette sliding his window open. Memory of earlier events that transpired – and more importantly why he was sleeping in a camping bag on the floor – returned to him. "Renji," he called before the darkened figure could step outside, "Where are you going?"

Moonlight shone on his face as Renji turned his head toward the sound. "Don't worry about it, carrot-head – it's just a hollow. Consider this your night off and get some sleep."

Ichigo nodded and pulled his blanket back over his shoulder.

"Oh, and don't do anything weird to my gigai," Renji added before he shunpo from the windowsill.

Ichigo entertained the idea of a magic marker mustache before he closed his eyes again.

Renji was concerned. This wasn't any ordinary hollow fodder that breached the real world barrier. Though the signature was localized to one, maybe two arrancar, he hadn't felt that kind of pressure since the Espada had made their initial attack in Karakura. Best to isolate this instance as quickly as possible, before anyone got hurt – it was his duty as a vice captain in the Thirteen court squads. Soul Society lifted the restriction on bankai usage, however he was sure he could handle the problem without such drastic needs.

Sandals lightly touched the roof as he surveyed the area. This is where the signature came from, however the spirit particles had since degraded. There was no customary trail of reiatsu to follow – it couldn't have left the area. Where did it go?

There was a sudden gust of wind before the energy flared – it was here. Renji glanced around quickly, triangulating its location…right behind those buildings.

Byakuya touched down on an adjacent edifice, fully aware of the arrancar spiritual pressure ahead of him. There were two high level signatures, of that he was certain.

The captain almost hesitated as he felt the strong reiatsu of his lieutenant moving in on the source…he really did not want to contend with a hotheaded shinigami while such dangerous enemies posed a threat on Karakura. Maybe he could quickly end this before a conflict could occur.

There was a sudden distortion, almost too fast for Byakuya to comprehend. The shinigami barely had time to raise his sword before a scimitar came crashing down onto his blade, sparking and crackling energy in its wake.

"Ah….shinigami." the hollow purred, shifting the blade to scrape across Byakuya's. A trail of white hot sparks flew from the blade, sizzling in the air like electricity. The hollow moved closer, tasting the captain's blade. "Hmm…Kuchiki….Byakuya," it rolled its lips as if savoring the name. Senbonzakura is a powerful zanpakuto…I believe we should take this one back to the master."

Byakuya's eyes widened. How did it know his name?

The hollow smirked. In the moonlight it appeared to be a young man, apart from the telltale broken piece of bone from where its mask once was. Two jagged bones stuck out like horns from underneath blond, almost white, short wavy hair. Steely eyes matched the pale tresses, and the sneer on his face only made his stare more maniacal than ever.

"I know. That's how I was trained." Suddenly, the arrancar laughed. "Won't Paz be so happy to hear about this amazing find! I can't wait to rejoin him!"

Byakuya did his best to wrench Senbonzakura out of his grasp, even flash stepped away in attempt to loosen the hollow's hold. Though he appeared a young man, his grip remained firm.

"If you refuse to hand over your zanpakuto," the hollow purred, "I'll have no choice but to destroy you."

Renji scanned the landscape, looking for the hollow intruder. Everything seemed in place, yet an eerie foreboding sense stuck with the lieutenant, a feeling that crept like ants along his skin.

Was this only an intuition, or could the hollow be exerting enough spiritual pressure to throw his reiatsu off balance?

"No, no no…"he heard a voice, quiet, like a person mumbling to himself. "This won't do at all!"

Renji snuck around the corner of the building, perplexed at the sound. Was he mistaken? This didn't sound like a hollow at all…

There was ripping sound, followed by a loud thud. As his line of sight met that of the scene in question, Renji had to refrain from lashing into action instantly.

On the ground was an unarmed shinigami. From the markings on his armband, Renji could tell that this was one of the Karakura guardians; Soul Reapers stationed in the city to take care of everyday hollow activity. This one lay on the ground, terrified of the young man standing over him – this was the hollow presence he felt from before…but how could so much power resonate from a boy?

Back turned to the vice captain, the hollow continued prodding the cringing shinigami. "This pitiful zanpakuto doesn't even have a speck of usefulness. How can I go to Amano without something worthy?" The young man tsked, holding the guardian's blade as if he were disgusted to even touch it. "You're not even worth killing, you…"

Suddenly the young man straightened, as if sensing something in the air. "Ah!" he exclaimed. "How wonderful! My very own shinigami. Amano will be so happy!"

Renji swallowed hard. Had it sensed him?

Too fast for Renji to follow, the hollow was behind him, hot breaths sending chills down his spine. "And what's your name, shinigami?" The hollow growled in his ear. "No wait, let me guess…" Inhaling deeply, the arrancar's breath moistened Renji's neck. "Abarai. Renji." Without looking he could hear a smile creep across his face. "What a high rank you have, shinigami. You're zanpakuto smells magnificent."

Renji stiffened, not daring to look over his shoulder. Instead he was already planning, noting his surroundings and attack. Within milliseconds, Renji watched for any sudden move the hollow was going to make and calculated his assault. In that same measure of time, Zabimaru was unsheathed and in shikai, the massive blade aimed for the surprised hollow.

Instead of metal clashing with bone as Renji expected to feel, his sword precariously hovered in place, caught in the delicate hand of the young man. Steel blue eyes glinted in the streetlight, masked by the silver crop of hair hanging in his face. Two white chalky horns curled out from underneath the bangs, one slightly chipped at his apex. His clothes were similar to the ones Aizen and his espada wore; white robes rose to a stiff collar, framing the boy's face.

The hollow turned his head to the side slightly as if chastising Renji, before twisting the arm that held the blade. Slowly, one of Zabimaru's spikes dredged across the boy's arm. The hollow's eyes gleamed as he spoke. "Awaken, Konpaku Setsudan."

Renji's eyes widened in horror as Zabimaru disappeared.

Byakuya slightly faltered as he felt the wavering reiatsu of this fukutaicho. The battle between himself and this hollow named 'Amano' was not going easily; it was safe to assume that Renji would fair similarly; however, as soon as the captain felt the fluctuating spiritual pressure, it took all of his attention to divert a direct hit from Amano's sword.

"I see my brother has found himself a soul reaper as well…" The hollow offered a broad toothy smile. "If I were you, I would be worried too – Paz can be a little…reckless with his toys."

Byakuya's eyes widened in response. If something happened to Renji…

He wouldn't let that happen.

"Enough of this. I grow tired of this dull city. Time to return home." With a flick of his wrist, Amano drew a thin line of blood along his forearm with the blade. "Awaken, Konpaku Setsudan."

Byakuya looked on in shock as his zanpakuto dematerialized from his hand – and reformed into the hollow's waiting grasp.

"I don't know how you managed to get a hold of Zabimaru," Renji growled, "But I'll be having it back, arm attached if need be."

Shunpo exchanged between both hollow and shinigami, Renji calculated the best position to regain his weapon. He made his move, securing his hold on Zabimaru. The vice captain smirked in triumph – until he noticed the small cero forming in the hollow's hand.

The impact was point blank as Renji attempted to dodge the beam. Barely managing to avoid the major brunt of the blast, he came away with scorched clothing and burnt skin. Staggering to his feet, he glared daggers at his opponent.

"Hn… It seems that I'll need more. Your spirit is very hard to dominate, shinigami." Pushing Renji against a building, the hollow twisted his elbow into the shinigami's robes, securing his hold. "Separate, Konpaku Setsudan."

Renji tried to focus, his mind reeling in pain. Nearly doubling over from the razors ripping though his insides, he struggled against the arrancar's hold. It felt like the hollow was…tearing Zabimaru out of him.

Using the tines of Renji's own sword, Paz sliced though the shinigami's forearm in a similar fashion to the wound he inflicted on himself only moments ago. Renji growled in pain as Zabimaru left his mark, more from the ache of his own weapon slicing through his skin. Is this what it feels like to be killed by my own zanpakuto?

"Never thought it would come to this, shinigami?" The hollow smiled. "How does the sting of your own blade feel? I always love to hear the reaction of the process."

Renji grimaced and pushed back against the hollow. "I don't know what the hell you're trying to do, but you're messing with the wrong Soul Reaper." Channeling his spirit power, he launched the incantation. "Hadono sanjusan, Soukatsui!"

The vice captain was never good at kido. All through his academics the other students ragged on him as 'The Backfire Kid' and 'Kido Corpse' Strangely enough, however, it worked to his advantage - enemies at close range shared the same fate.

The explosion shattered the space between the two, detonating the air in a blast of energy. Renji could hear the hollow's clothes sizzle as the young man stumbled back, the white clothing burnt and discolored.

"Sneaky little rat! I'll…" the hollow seemingly resolved his anger instantly, resuming his dignified reserve. "Let's see what you'll think about this, then. Zabimaru?"

Slowly, the zanpakuto morphed, steel tines releasing their rigid hold on one another. Effortlessly, his hand came down, the simple gesture sending Zabimaru into a whip-like slash.

Renji moved quickly, but the enemy that had become his own zanpakuto was fast. Too fast, he grimaced, as the tines caught and ripped his uniform, exposing his chest.

"Almost got you, shinigami!" The hollow smirked, the twisting blades not once pausing in air. "Now – for the finale!"

The blades spun and danced, twinning themselves around Renji. The vice captain remained on guard, watching for the next lash of the whip – he had to be ready.

Nothing could have prepared the shinigami for the next words parted from the hollow's lips. His eyes widened in horror as Paz spoke.

"Higa Zekko!"

Renji cried out as he was impaled by his own zanpakuto.

Was this what it felt like to die? Alone in Karakura would've been the last situation he imagined. It hurt to breathe; he was sure the liquid creeping at the corner of his mouth was blood as his tongue licked the thick, robust trail.

As Renji's consciousness faded, he struggled to say aware of his surroundings. His body, however, rejected his need to stay focused, slumping haphazardly against the nearest solid form.

As his eyes closed, he thought he could make out listless, floating forms against the sky; crimson petals of a flower, he mused, before everything went dark.