XVIII. Blazing Cherished

"Oh. My. God."

Renji tried not to cringe too obviously as he climbed through the back door of Yumi's SUV the following Wednesday, the first day of school succeeding the winter recess.

"What's wrong?" Kira asked, following and hauling Ichimaru, whose fingers were hooked around one of his belt loops, in after him.

". . .I forgot my lip gloss," said Yumi, through suspiciously shiny lips.

Renji studiously avoided the rearview mirror as he hunched down into his seat, surreptitiously checking his reflection in the window to make certain his forehead tattoos hadn't rearranged themselves to read I HOOKED UP WITH MY HISTORY PROFESSOR OVER BREAK, although he'd played that afternoon over and over again so many times in his mind he wouldn't have been too surprised if they had.

He still had trouble believing it had actually happened. He'd so often daydreamed about what the insides of Kuchiki-sensei's -- Byakuya's -- thighs would feel like pressing against his hips (tight, hot, urgent), what those well-manicured hands would feel like in his hair (knotted near the roots and pulling, fuck), that he wasn't entirely sure where his fantasies ended and his memories began.

"Tell me everything," Yumi demanded once they were at school, having barely contained himself long enough to pull Renji away from the group the moment their feet hit the asphalt.

Renji didn't, of course. Not everything (he stopped when Yumichika started biting his knuckles), but. . .enough.

". . .and after, it was just kinda. . .quiet and awkward. We just cleaned up and got changed and he dropped me off outside Rukia's complex."

Yumi nodded, his attention rapt.

"So. . .yeah. We did stuff, but we didn't actually. . .you know." He made a vague, rolling gesture with one hand.

Yumi's eyebrows raised. "Good. Because if you can't even say it then you certainly shouldn't be doing it."

"Oi, cut me some slack, here! This is all new territory for me."

"Ah, yes, my intrepid little explorer," Yumi beamed. "I'm so proud of you!"

"Shhh!" Renji hissed. "Not so fucking loud! Or so fucking gay, goddamn. I ain't gonna start askin' to borrow your makeup or anything. I mean, does it even really count, what we did?"

"Of course it counts," the androgyne sniffed. "Contrary to popular heterosexual belief, sex does not automatically equate to penetration."

"Right," Renji agreed, but looked confused. "It doesn't?"

"No, it doesn't. In fact, some gay men go their whole lives without engaging in anal intercourse. And as for lesbians, well, there's a species I will never purport to understand, but I'm sure they would each of them tell you that a gold star does not a virgin make."

Renji was fuzzy on what stars of any color had to do with anything, but he was reasonably sure he got the gist of was Yumichika was saying, and so he grunted in assent and moved on.

"What about Valentine's Day and White Day, then?"

"What about them?"

"Well, if I give him something on Valentine's Day, does that make me the girl? Or if I give him something on White Day, will he think I think he's the girl?"

Yumi looked at him blankly. "You are both men," he said, slowly, as if explaining something to a child. "Or male, in any case."

"I know that!" Boy, did he ever. . . "But I don't wanna offend him or anything. But I also don't want him to think--"

"Abarai-kun, if something as inconsequential as a holiday has the ability to invert your genitalia, you have far greater things to be concerned about. If you want to give him chocolate on Valentine's Day, then give him chocolate on Valentine's Day; if you would rather do so on White Day, then do so on White Day. Or neither day, or both. It's not compulsory, it's a gesture of affection. I'm sure Kuch--"


"Oh honestly. I'm sure the object of your affections would be shrewd enough to discern the guilelessness of your intentions and not mistake them for some ill-conceived notion of your sexual superiority."

"Good," said Renji, "'cause that's the last thing I'd want him to think."

"Trust me, you needn't worry."

Oblivion intact, the redhead loosed a relieved breath, stretched and folded his arms behind his head as they walked. "So I've found my way onto Rukia's shit list."

Yumi's eyes widened until his lashes grazed his brow bone. "She doesn't know?"

"Know? No! No. God, no. I just didn't call her, and apparently when she talked to Byakuya about picking me up, she didn't hang up on him with an assurance than he would, so when she didn't hear from me after a while she called Yoruichi and, uh, caught her at a very bad time."

"She woke her up?"

"No, no, she was awake."

"Oh?" Yumi frowned, then gasped in realization, "Ohhh."

"Yeah," sighed Renji. "Oh. And so when she and Urahara-sensei went down to the police box to pick me up, and I wasn't there. . ."

". . .Rukia-chan was left with egg on her face and a newfound inability to ever look either of them in the eye again?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

"The poor thing."

"Hey, she brought it on herself! It's not like she couldn't have swallowed her pride for five minutes and called Byakuya again to ask if he got me."

Yumichika pressed his lips together. "Hmm. I believe I'm going to have to side with Rukia-chan on this one, Abarai-kun. She did, after all, swallow her pride to call him for you in the first place, which has honestly left you indebted to her in more ways than she knows."

Renji opened his mouth, wanting badly to argue with that -- then closed it, knowing he couldn't.

He had so much groveling to do.

". . .her birthday's coming up."

"Then might I suggest that the Chappy & Friends store come to exceedingly value your patronage in the very near future."

"Aa. . ."

They quieted when room 906 came into view, and Yumi paused a few feet from the door to allow Renji to approach it on his own. He looked back over his shoulder.

"Wish me luck," he said quietly, then reached for the handle, tried it--

--and found it locked.

"Good luck," Yumi offered.

Renji's head dropped, more in disappointment than surprise.

"Fuck. I had a feeling this might happen." He pounded hard, twice, on the door. "Kuchiki-sensei? Oi, Sensei, you in there?"

No response.

Renji sagged against the wall and combed a hand through his ponytail.

"He's avoiding you," said Yumi, leaning next to him.

"Yeah, well, it's not gonna work. There's no way I'm gonna go easy on him now."

"Oh, you're like the Little Engine That Could! It makes my heart swell. And my--"

"Don't say unnecessary things!"

Fifteen minutes later, a line of first-period students had joined them in loitering outside Kuchiki-sensei's classroom door, speculating on the unusual tardiness of their teacher. He wasn't officially late (the first bell had yet to ring); what was odd was that he wasn't early. Had he gotten sick over winter recess, and their substitute was still being prepped in the main office? Had his car broken down on the way to school? Had he overslept? Did he sleep, or did he just sort of power down for a few hours at a time, as many of them suspected of Kurotsuchi-sensei? Where was he?

"Where indeed?" Yumichika asked, not even attempting to contain his smirk.

"Shut up," Renji groused, shooting the androgyne a sideways glare.

Then, ears proverbially pricking, he cast his eyes down the hallway, to the staircase that led to the social sciences building's ground floor.

Kuchiki-sensei ascended the last couple of steps, turned and, to his credit, didn't pause at the sight of Renji, but averted his eyes as he wordlessly proceeded to his classroom door, unlocked and opened it to allow his first period students entrance. He looked just as collected, just as elegant as usual, but the faint, tattletale gray crescents beneath his eyes spoke of more than one sleepless night in the week that had passed since the induction of the new year.

Dreaming of me should leave you looking better than that, Renji thought dismally, and waited for the last student to enter the room before inserting himself between the threshold and his history teacher.

Byakuya regarded him coldly. "Abarai."

It might have been a question, or a statement, or a dare. Renji swallowed back the heavy, burning feeling that had blossomed in his chest and was creeping, vine-like, up his throat.

"Just reporting for duty, Sensei. Is there anything you need?"

He waited on tenterhooks, poised between slanting blades.

Byakuya looked at him for two excruciatingly long, emotionless seconds before answering, "No. I will not at any time be requiring your assistance today. Excuse me."

He maneuvered lithely through the space between Renji and the doorjamb into his classroom, and with clenched fists and gritted teeth, the redhead stepped aside to let the door fall shut behind him just as the first bell rang.

So that was the way it was going to be.


Yumi, who had very slowly begun to wander away when Kuchiki-sensei had first appeared, returned to Renji's side in a flash.


"What would you say to an all-night cram session tonight? Y'know, to get started on prepping for finals."

A small, amused smile curled the androgyne's lustrous lips. "I'd say you are welcome to further your scholastic advancement at my home anytime you wish, Abarai-kun."

"Good," said Renji. "That's what I was hoping you'd say."

"Hey, Ayasegawa."

They both turned to find Shuuhei approaching them. At least, he seemed to be considering doing so -- he stopped a few feet before he reached them and hung back, looking awkward and uncertain.

". . .Abarai," he acknowledged after a moment.

"Senpai," Renji nodded, then glanced between him and Yumi. "Guess that's my cue--"

"No, Abarai-kun," Yumichika halted him with a hand on his arm. "Stay. Yes, Hisagi-san? Do you want something?"

"I just, uh. . ." Shuuhei shifted his weight, the color rising in his cheeks. "Kensei thinks he might've left a pack of guitar strings at your place, and I, uh, I told him I'd ask you if I could come over and look for them. After school."

Renji bit down hard on his bottom lip in an effort not to laugh.

An unsuccessful effort.

"Bwahaha!" he howled. "Hahaha! Aah! Oh, shit, Senpai, you just made me feel so much better about myself! Ahahahaha!"

Shuuhei scowled, his face darkening further. "Fuck you, Abarai. Just. . .fuck, forget it! Just keep an eye out for them!" He stormed off, and it wasn't until he had made it down the stairs and probably all the way to Tousen-sensei's classroom that Renji's schadenfreudean outburst ebbed into tittering, mostly-controllable giggles.

"Oh, God, I needed that," he sighed, then looked contritely at Yumi. "I'm sorry, man, I really am, but--"

"Don't worry about it," Yumichika assured him, smiling enigmatically.

"Wha-- Seriously?" Renji blinked at him, disturbed. "You sick or somethin'?"

"Not at all. In fact I've rarely felt better. Your concern is appreciated, though, thank you."

"Uh. . .'kay." Renji inched sideways. "I'll just be. . .going to class, then. . ."

Yumi nodded serenely. "You do that. I'll see you in fourth."

The day passed at a torturously slow pace for Kuchiki Byakuya. In particular, his sixth period hour seemed to be taking decades.

He had left his classroom only once, to lunch off-campus at a nearby fast-food establishment, unable to stomach the prospect of Urahara Kisuke's (who was to blame for the entire situation, Byakuya was convinced) imminent, "harmless" teasing in the staff lounge -- and unable to trust that the apparently freakishly perceptive man wouldn't be able to decipher his recent transgressions as easily as if Byakuya had fallen asleep with his face pressed against their freshly-inked blueprints. The history professor's telephone conversation with Shihouin (annoyed in places, he'd noted with satisfaction) the afternoon of had been bad enough, not least because it had served to further hammer home the fact that Rukia did not trust him.

Nor should she, he thought ruefully. Nor could Renji, or anyone else, including himself: not when he was so susceptible to wrongness, and every choice he had ever made had been ill-timed, improper, unscrupulous, damaging, unwanted or unwise.

His decision to study abroad, where his appetite for academia had first been whetted and encouraged by the distance from his family and his exposure to the Western advocacy of individualism, which, his grandfather assured him, earned him nothing but the resentment of his ancestors who had worked so hard to bring honor and glory to the whole of their clan.

His marriage to a common waitress, which had garnered him the further disdain of his kin as well as that of his societal peers, and their smugness when it had ended in tragedy.

His mutually unappreciative relationship with Rukia, and how nothing he ever said or did seemed to please her, even when that nothing was, quite literally, an absence of anything at all.

One wrong choice after another. The freedom to choose wrongly? Byakuya was dictated by his passions, and Abarai Renji had a loathsome talent for reigniting them all.

Abarai Renji, the boy with the wolfish smile who had provoked Byakuya into playing the predator. The impoverished, individualistic, impulsive idealist who outwardly expressed with ease every devil-may-care unconventionality Byakuya had admired, attempted, and failed to achieve. The smoldering charcoal to his cold ash, who rubbed his face in the cinders of his own irrepressible capacity for recklessness that he had vowed, after one hard lesson too many, to smother; who reminded him that his nuclear winter had once been a bomb, and that the desolation of its aftermath had become no less devastating than the blast (a blast which had been so damnably warm, and bright, and that for a handful of years he had at least been able to see as an angelic host instead of a holocaust--).

It was his curse, that every attempt he made to live in the moment resulted in it being one of weakness. Conscientious self-containment had been the only of his decisions by which those who surrounded him had remained, if not happy, then at least relatively unharmed.

And he. . .he could endure it. For nearly five years, he had endured it -- the consumption of pain and its transformation into emptiness. It was a suffocating process, but he'd discovered the aeriform state of sorrow to be far easier to breathe than tears, and the end result bore little to no weight at all.

He hadn't known, until Renji lit the match, that it was a substance even more incendiary than oxygen; now he couldn't close his eyes without seeing the afterimage of the flame.

That angry, pleading, earnest gaze. That well-favored face, so open and ingenuous. That form, so thoughtlessly shaped through constant movement, and so casually revealed, screaming free in a whisper of silk.

Good God, he's disrobing, had been Byakuya's first thought upon sight of it.

He hadn't had much of a second one, having been too suddenly and completely absorbed in his visual documentation of the lines of Renji's sharp, narrow hips cutting into Byakuya's own low-slung pyjama bottoms, of the gold and black skin overlaying a frame far too sinfully well-muscled for its age, and of that hair -- that cherry-red hair, as vibrant and multifaceted as rubies beneath a jeweler's glass, still mussed from slumber and snaking silkily over broad shoulders and down a still-pristine, powerful back. . .

It wasn't until after he'd robotically acquiesced to his teacher's aid's terms regarding their duel that he'd even recognized he'd been staring, and conjured some hollow excuse as to why.

Renji's response, of course, had alleviated nothing. And he had been right: like hell Byakuya had not meant to strike him where and as hard as he had. Their entire exchange up to that point had done nothing but frustrate and infuriate him, and he had sorely wanted -- needed -- to cut the boy down, to show him his place.

As if the history professor even knew where that was any longer.

And that mortifying, reprehensible loss of control had only led to another: one that had left him, Kuchiki Byakuya, one month shy of thirty years old, esteemed shaper of young, impressionable minds and heir to a multi-trillion-yen corporation, petting and pawing and frotting like a bungling teenager -- with a bungling teenager -- on his dojo floor, every nerve ending ablaze with puerile prurience, already on the verge of shaming himself in his trousers by the time they were pushed alongside wrinkled silk down his hips and thighs by rough, impatient hands, only to be replaced by the hot, hard weight of Renji against him.

Then the humid glide of skin against skin, so familiar and yet so foreign; the intermingling scents of sweat and leather on the fingers twisting in his hair; toes splaying and curling, bodies rocking, a shoulder blade cutting into his palm and everywhere that mouth, that rapacious mouth, unable to be still even in the absence of real language, unable to be silent, speaking carnal oaths against Byakuya's flesh; it had been forever and it was happening so fast, everything quickening, everything, hot and dizzy and heartsick and desperate and Renji--

Byakuya's hold on his pen tightened, causing an upward stroke on the character for "good" to cross into another it oughtn't to have touched.

. . .it had, without a doubt, been the crudest, basest, most inelegant and undignified sexual encounter Byakuya had ever experienced -- omitting the knowledge that, in spite of the brevity of their exchange, it had also been the most fervid, exhilarating, enlivening, and salaciously exciting. Pressed for the truth, he would have called the event incomparable. Extraordinary. Ambiguous words from an ambivalent mind.

If only Renji were inclined to toe such lines.

In love with him. The boy had said he was in love with him, would not die on him because he had already died for him. You can trust me, he'd implied, trust me not to leave. Trust me to stay with you, always.

How could one so young speak with such conviction? Moreover, how had he managed to sound so abominably convincing? Their. . .physical compatibilities aside, what had Byakuya to noetically gain from a person nearly half his age and with only a fraction of his education? While hardly stupid, neither was Renji leaps and bounds ahead of the cerebral curve (nor would he ever be, if he did not soon invest in some form of protective headgear). He still had much to learn, and would do so at an industrious but unremarkable pace. Would Byakuya not eventually grow impatient, waiting for him to catch up?

But was he not a teacher? Did he not choose to become one owing to his desire to not only preserve knowledge, but distribute it? And had he himself not explained to Renji the satisfaction that was to be won through even such industrious, unremarkable efforts?

Hot-blooded and unhindered, dedicated, not scholarly, but studious: was Renji not the sensual manifestation of every variant passion Byakuya had ever possessed?

His pen, like his mouth, ran abruptly dry, embossing an inkless mark of Poor at the top of a test sheet. He opened his desk drawer to retrieve a new reservoir, and met with his dear wife's face: a framed photograph he did not display so as not to incite the interest -- and painful questions -- of his students.

Hisana smiled up at him tenderly, her eyes bittersweet even before her illness, already stained by the sadness of her early life -- or by some strange foresight of her future one.

Or Byakuya's.

He ran his fingertips along the cold, flat image of her pale cheek. How would she have judged his recent misconduct?

She had always proclaimed him (mistakenly, in his opinion) to be a man of plenteous love; perhaps, he now thought, she had been right, but like him, in the wrong sort of way.

Love he had -- not plenteous, but rampant. A ferocious, consuming thing, too like the thing which had consumed her. A contagious cancer of the heart: exceedingly rare and immeasurably deep, it moved breathlessly fast, and was always fatal. His emotions ran like a high fever, even when his body lay in a cold and celibate bed. Had somatic desire been the root cause of his affliction, he would far sooner have employed a partner for the relief of what unignorable breakthrough lusts might have plagued him than permitted himself to succumb to the ardent mouth and fire-tipped fingers of an underage pupil; but sex for its own sake, contact without connection, had always struck within him an off-putting, vacuous chord.

Renji was in love with him. The way he'd spoken and the things he'd spoken of left no room for even Byakuya's well-developed sense of doubt to operate. Renji's infatuation in no way resembled that of his anteceding classmates because it was not Kuchiki-sensei he had been pining for, nor even, after a time, Kuchiki Byakuya, but Byakuya alone. The man, and not the master.

Renji loved him, and Byakuya had taken advantage of that love, had used it in order that he could feel. . .

. . .that he could feel -- more than the heat of skin-against-skin, more than the scrape of teeth and tongue upon that sultry surface, and the mechanical motions that had tensed an already coiled spring inside of him to its breaking point -- that he could feel something he had never anticipated he would feel again; something he had all but sworn not to feel again.

She had made him make no such promise, but then, neither had she demanded he find another with whom to share his heart, and he had no way of knowing whether her silence on the subject had been the result of mercy, fear, or determination. Was he betraying her memory, or indulging it?

A part of him believed she would have wished the hopeful, fiery boy she'd fallen in love with every scant chance at happiness, no matter how outlandish, especially had she glimpsed a vision of Renji's future self, man-grown and granite-carved.

Another part of him, one that would forever be dabbing the tears from her cheeks with the mottled end of a silken headscarf, could recall only the pain and regret in her eyes in the moment, wretched and unspoken, she'd acknowledged to herself that she would be leaving this life, and that she could not take him with her.

He closed the drawer rather harder than necessary, eliciting a few startled jumps and inquisitive glances from his class, which he glared into submission.

All but one.

Hisana. . .

Hisana, I am so sorry.

Renji took a rare leaf from Fong Shaolin, and channeled ninjas.

Dressed in boots and black jeans, a black sweater and gloves, and a black zip jacket he'd "borrowed" from Iba, he furtively navigated his way through the well-to-do streets of Reiryo-ku. It was only a little before six, but the sun had already set, and in the darkness he was all but invisible save the last few spiky inches of his scarlet ponytail that was otherwise concealed by a wide black dreadband.

The way was long but sparsely populated -- each palisaded front yard seemed to take up the length of an entire block, and he figured he must have passed five at most by the time he reached the pale gates of his destination.

Renji exhaled robustly, his breath forming an impressive cloud in the gelid January air.

Here goes nothin'. . .

He pushed the page button on the call box, holding it down slightly longer than necessary to make sure the buzzer or the bells or whatever other sound effect was produced on the other end of the line was heard.

A few seconds of quiet followed, and then, finally, a wary but familiar #Yes?#

"Byakuya, open up, it's me."

A beat.

#What are you doing here?#

"Freezing my balls off." Hopefully he won't think that's a good thing. . . "Now open up or I'm climbing the gate."

A second long moment passed, and Renji was poised to leap up and grab hold of the whitewashed curly-cues ornamenting the top of the gate when a mechanical buzzing sound stayed his hands. He jogged past the still-opening gate, half-expecting it to slam shut again when he was midway through, but walked at what he hoped was a dignified pace the rest of the distance to the semi-transparent house at the end of the drive.

A light came on in the foyer. Kuchiki-sensei -- or rather, someone who was trying very hard to reclaim that exclusionary title -- met him at the door.

The gray collegiate sweatshirt he wore didn't help, no matter how prestigious the alma mater it proclaimed. Renji still enjoyed but was by now accustomed to the jeans. He was inordinately disappointed by the thick, slubby white socks.

"You know how much I loathe repeating myself." The scent of dark liquor was heavy on Byakuya's breath, but not heavy enough that it masked his words' double meaning.

Renji ignored the sting.

"Has anyone ever told you you're pretty hot when you're being deliberately obtuse?"

Pewter eyes widened -- in shock, anger, or maybe both.

"Do try not to use such large words, Renji. You'll exhaust yourself."

Definitely both.

"Yeah, well, I'm not the one trying to drink myself into a stupor."

"No," Byakuya conceded. "No, I imagine you never have to try -- or drink -- to arrive at that destination, but alas, not all of us are so naturally talented."

"Us? Is that a royal 'we'?"

Byakuya said nothing, and Renji didn't wait to pounce upon the moment.

"Look," he said, speaking with the confidence of having rehearsed at least this much on the walk over from Reiryo Station, "you're the one who said I shouldn't sell myself short, right? I didn't do this at school because I'm not a moron, and because there you're my teacher first, and I know that's important to you and I wanted to respect that; but make no mistake, we are gonna at least talk about this, and you need to respect me enough to realize that I'm not gonna just roll over and let you ignore what happened between us. I don't do tricks, remember?"

Byakuya listened to all this in silence, and was quiet for another few seconds still before he ruefully shook his head -- and it might have been the angle of the shadows, but Renji thought he even saw him smirk -- turned, and moved deeper into the house, leaving the door open and waving vaguely behind him that Renji could do as he willed.

The redhead sat down in the genkan to remove his boots, and added his bookbag (in which he'd stowed one of his school uniforms) and Iba's jacket to the dead-tree coat stand. He found Byakuya in a billiard room paneled with black lacquered wood. Four hanging lamps like frosted glass sedge hats, dark pink at their points and fading into pale rims, cast a warm, slightly rosy glow throughout the room that brought out the high flush in Byakuya's cheeks. He swirled a half-empty tumbler of clinking ice and alcohol in his right hand.

"You shouldn't have come here," he said, and downed the last of his drink.

"Relax," said Renji. "No one saw me, an' Sousuke thinks I'm crashin' at Yumichika's."

"That's not what I meant."

Renji's gaze met his and held it. Byakuya's eyes watered slightly, straining against the desire to look away.

"Whatever you think you came here for. . .it will not happen, Renji."

"Yeah, you said that before, too. It didn't work then, either."

Byakuya's jaw tensed as an unbidden thrum of heat was plucked from his spine.

The scotch.

"That," he said quietly, "was a mistake. One I have no intention of making again."

"Yeah, well." Renji leaned easily against the pool table, one hip to the wood, both hands splaying backward against the rich cerise felt. "Your intentions aren't the only ones up for consideration here, Byakuya."

"Do not call me that."

The redhead snorted. "Why? Because we're not fucking?"

"No. We're not."

"That's an easy fix."

Byakuya held up a hand. "Do not come any closer."

Renji hesitated, then took another step forward. "Why not? Are you afraid of what I'll do?"

Kuchiki-sensei endeavored to look forbidding, but could give no verbal reply.

"Afraid of what you'll do?" Renji pushed on, knowing that the older man's pride would not allow him to back away, until they were standing toe-to-toe. "I don't wanna have to fight you first every time we do this."

"We are not doing anything, Renji; you are going-- Take your hands off me!"

"Why? 'cause they feel good?"


Renji paused, caught off-guard by the admission, and Byakuya twisted out of his grasp. He concentrated on the chilliness of his glass, hoping to dispel the lingering heat from his upper arms where his pupil's hands had held him.

"That's not. . .that's not a bad thing, Sensei," Renji said softly. "It's supposed to feel good when, when other people touch you."

Byakuya jerked his head in a sharp negative. It isn't. It shouldn't.

An exasperated sigh climbed up Renji's throat as he looked briefly to the carved ceiling. "Okay, I hate having to say this, it makes me feel like a total asshole, but for a guy who's so against performing animals, you sure do play an awful lotta dead."

It had the desired effect (that is, any effect at all): Byakuya's head snapped up, a sudden, algid fury frosting over his storm-gray eyes.

"Get out of my house, Renji."

The redhead squared his stance. "Make me."

Byakuya's eyes strayed to the boy's right temple, where a shiny pink scar now stood in place of an angrier wound. "You know I can."

"So do it," Renji shrugged. "C'mon, Sensei. Kick my ass. Kick me out."

"You wish for me to hurt you again."

"No, I wish for you to stop bluffing."

"Bluffing?" Byakuya balked, but saw his proverbial window, and ran a finger along its casing, searching for drafts. "This is not a game, Renji. That you can even draw such an analogy only leads me to surmise that the feelings you profess to harbor for me do not run as deeply as you claim. You cannot be unaware of the consequences that would result if someone were to discover what transpired between us. You would likely escape relatively unscathed; I, on the other hand, would be subjected to the loss of my reputation, my career, and very possibly my freedom and my birthright. And you are willing to risk that. You are willing to risk me for the sake of yourself."

"I would escape unscathed? Do you have any idea what--" He caught the sentence by the tail and dragged it back, his lips frozen in the rounded beginnings of an O or a U or an R. He shook his head. "No, I'm not even gonna go there yet. Yes, I am willing to risk all of that. And so are you."

"I'm not. I c--. . ." Byakuya checked himself, but the rest of the word was simple enough to discern. ". . .I do not love you, Renji."

Renji shrugged again, and Byakuya raised a speculative eyebrow.

"You do not care?"

"Of course I care. But it would be really fuckin' quick if you did, and even then. . .I don't think you'd own up to it."

"You believe you know me so well?"

"A lot better than most."

The words were laden with meaning. Byakuya suppressed a shiver, then silently berated himself for having so foolishly stepped into that one. He unstoppered one of half-a-dozen crystal decanters resting on a dark brick-and-ebony bar, then changed his mind, but refilled his glass anyway before setting it aside, unwilling to appear indecisive in any respect.

He closed his eyes and drew a carefully measured breath. "Renji, what happened between us was. . .staggering, but it was a grave lapse in judgment on my part to have. . .unburdened myself upon you in such a way. In any way."

Renji's eyebrows utilized the hooks of his tattoos as footholds as they climbed up his forehead. "'Unburdened?'" he repeated. "What, like you just used me as a pack mule for your sexual baggage?"

"That is precisely what I did."

"No," Renji shook his head. "No, I'm not buying that."

"Then allow me to buy it for you."


"How much will it take? One hundred thousand? One million? Name your price. It can be here within the half-hour. Consider it payment for services rendered."

Renji gaped at him in disbelief. He blinked slowly, once, twice. ". . .wow. Wow, that's. . ." He took a deep, shaky breath and scratched at the back of his neck. "Goddamn, Sensei, I think that hurts worse than the head wound did. . ."

He looked down. His lips quivered -- into a smile. He looked up again and raised a hand to cup his teacher's astonished face, grazing one sharp cheekbone with his thumb.

". . .and you must really be at your wit's end if you honestly think I'm gonna fall for it. You think you're the first person to try and belittle me into submission? I'm used to feeling inadequate, especially around you, but I decided a long time ago that no one was ever gonna make me feel unworthy."

Byakuya stared at him, frustrated, discomfited. . .and execrably, ignominiously relieved. He exhaled a short, sharp breath, something between an incredulous scoff and a bitter sigh. "I did have to try." What kind of person would I be if I had not?

"You didn't. You don't. Enough tests, Sensei -- Byakuya. You're not my teacher here. You can't fail me."

"I can. I will." I already have; it's what I do. Why can't you understand that? Your fangs are venomous and I am diseased and whatever way this runs, when it is over, we will have destroyed one another.

Renji shrugged. "Then I'll retake the course, as many times as it takes." His hand slid down to Byakuya's shoulder, and the older man tensed, startled, as he was pulled into an embrace. Renji's chest was solid and warm against his own, shoring up his want, walling off his will. "Weren't you listening? To me, not being good enough doesn't mean I should quit -- it just means I have to work harder.

"I will learn you, forwards and backwards," his pupil promised, skimming his mouth along the vertically angled slope of Byakuya's neck and accelerating the pace of his pulse. "Where to touch you, and how, and when. I'll memorize the sounds you make, and the look on your face when you're about to come. . ."

Desire condensed and dripped down Byakuya's spine as the hot whisper preceded the graze of a tongue-tip along the shell of one sensitive ear, a soft nip of teeth in the auricle. He shuddered visibly, his fingers automatically tightening around thick cable knit he couldn't remember taking hold of in the first place.

"Renji. . ." How do you do this to me? How do you already seem to know. . . "You are so young. You cannot yet possibly know what you truly desire from life. In five years -- in one -- so many doors will have opened for you."

"That doesn't matter!" Renji argued. "I'd rather break yours down and be with you now."

"You should learn to heed more than your hormones."

"That's not all I'm talking about, and you know it."

And how Byakuya wished he could have wished he didn't. Now meant better than never. It meant I would regret forever not having had you when and for as long as I could.

Even had he known then what he knew now.

But even now, knowing what he'd learned since then?

He lifted a hand to Renji's throat, ran his fingers over the ebony marks he could see but could not feel, like inverted proxy expressions of his own underlying scars. This is for you. . .

If this boy wanted to surpass him, to succeed him. . .

Oh, Renji, Byakuya thought, shaking his head in dismay, in such a story, you have already taken my place.

"Please let me in, Byakuya," the boy pleaded, mistaking the gesture of resignation for one of refusal. "I told you, I'm not goin' anywhere until you do."

"Foolish," the history professor murmured, "impetuous. . ."

The redhead raked an angry hand through the tangled spikes of his ponytail. "Damn it, Byakuya--"

"I was referring to myself."

"Oh. No," Renji protested, "no, you're not, you're just. . .exceptional." He smiled, proud of his citation. "Surpassing that which is the expected standard."

"You, Renji, are the last thing I ever expected. The Spanish Inquisition of Seireitei Academy, year twelve."



Resignation accrued, Renji moved to finalize the contract, but was forestalled by Byakuya's hand on his chest.

"This will not happen at the Academy, ever, in any respect," the history professor -- or in this case, the future CEO -- dictated.

Renji shook his head in agreement.

"You will receive no special treatment in my class, and will be shown no leniency in regard to your duties as my teacher's aid, your assignments, or the marks either will afford you."

"I wasn't expecting any."

"You will tell no one. No one."

"Of course not." But Renji's eyes flickered momentarily to the left. He opened his mouth, then closed it again.

Byakuya frowned. "Renji. . .?"

The redhead moistened his lips and shifted his weight.

"Look, I didn't tell him anything; he figured it out on his own. And he gave me one of his phones, so if Sousuke calls--"

Byakuya halted the divulgence with a stoically lifted hand. "Who?"


He closed his eyes. "Ayasegawa Yumichika."

"If you knew him, you'd know it wasn't my fault! He's got this sixth sense, it's like--"

"Can he be trusted?"

Renji did, at least, take long enough to reply that Byakuya could infer he had given the matter actual thought.

"Unless you've got any designs on Madarame or Hisagi-senpai, yeah," the redhead decided. "Yeah, I think he'd take it to his grave. And. . ."

Byakuya's eyes opened and narrowed warily. "And?"

"Kira knows, kind of -- but he only knows how I feel about you," Renji added hastily, "not that anything's actually happened. And he won't find out, I promise you he won't find out."

Byakuya sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "It cannot be helped. This is not an auspicious beginning. . .although," he shrugged, "I don't suppose I could rightly hope for one. But no one else, Renji, is to know. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of discretion--"

Renji, who had been listening to him with anxious energy, tided suddenly towards him and silenced both his mouth and his mind with a kiss that could have coaxed a buddha back to darkness, and Kuchiki Byakuya burned -- had burnt, would burn, like the rotted wood that was his namesake, for the second love that was Renji's. Scatterhearts, the both of them, with sleepy eyes and hurricane heads.

"I get it, Byakuya," Renji assured him when the kiss broke, leaving Byakuya feeling lightheaded and cherry bombed. "I mean. . .I understand."

Byakuya bowed his head, permitting his brow to rest upon the redhead's shoulder. "Renji, your hands. . ." he murmured, ". . .they feel good."

Dirtying his heart as she had done, greasy fingerprints on glass that could be smeared, but never wiped away.

They stole now under the fabric of his shirt, accompanied by a warm press of lips against the side of his neck, and a pledge that threatened the stability of his knees: "They can feel better."

Hisana, I am so sorry. . .but neither was I able to deny my want of you.

As stale and selfish as a sick dog
Spurning sex like an animal of God
I'll tear your red hair by the roots
And hold you blazing
Hold you
cherished in the dead electric light. . . -- The Cure, "Shake Dog Shake"


A dull thump was readily absorbed into the humid air as Byakuya's back hit the mattress. Breathing heavily, head spinning, he stared up at the ceiling and jotted down a quick and admittedly sloppy mental note to adjust his housekeeper's wages.

"Holy fuck," Renji panted, not inaccurately, beside him. "That was. . .holy fuck. . ."

"Quite," Byakuya breathlessly agreed.

"You're. . ."

"I know."

"And I'm. . ."

"Surprisingly so."

"Goddamn. . .now I understand why Yumichika always bottoms. . ."



"Don't say unnecessary things."

"Sumimasen," Renji rumbled, but Byakuya could hear the boy's grin around the word.

The night was moonless, and so Byakuya's bedroom was dark even despite the knees-to-ceiling windows that wrapped around it in place of two walls. They were probably fogged anyway, he thought, but found he lacked the strength, energy and general give-a-damn to check. Idly he closed his eyes and curled his fingers where his hand had come to rest upon the sweat-slick and still slightly jumping muscles of Renji's abdomen, uncertain of whose racing pulse he felt becoming gradually calmer in or beneath his fingertips. Satiety blanketed his body in sleepy heat, and he allowed it, for the first time in years, to sink its way into the languid marrow of his bones.

"What the hell. . .Byakuya, what's this?"

The ceiling came abruptly once again into view as pewter eyes shot open. Byakuya's blood ran cold and his dignity, short, as he slowly turned his head, pupils still pleasure-blown enough to make out the menacing countenance of a stuffed felt Seaweed Ambassador.

"Put that away," he ordered.

"You mean back under your pillow?" The amusement in Renji's voice bordered on mockery.

"Abarai," Byakuya warned.

Renji chortled with laughter. "Oi, Byakuya, I know I said I wouldn't tell anybody about us, but this. . .this is just begging to be broadcast in hi-def."

"Abarai Renji, you are skating on extremely thin ice. I suggest you proceed with utmost caution."

"Or what, your vitamin powers will go boom boom?"

". . ."

Renji perched the plush on Byakuya's chest and lowered his voice to a gruff growl. "Tell me, Kuchiki-sama, are you filled with the power of waka-- augh!

"Sens-- oof!

"Byaku-- gah!

"Ow! Did you just fucking bite me?!"

"You were not complaining when I did so earlier."

"Well yeah, but that was-- mmf. . ."

Renji went lax and blessedly -- or at the very least, wordlessly -- silent beneath him. Byakuya felt strong hands rise to caress his sides, his back, felt the hot rush of reviving desire flutter back to life low in his belly, and he blindly tossed the offending item across the room in favor of putting his own hands to much better use.

"Oh, wow," Renji breathed against his lips, "I think your vitamin powers do go boom boom. . ."

"Renji. . ."

"Lemme guess: don't say unnecessary things?"

"Close. Shut up, Renji."

"Hai, Kuchiki-taishi. . ."

A/N: Wakame Taiiishiiiiii. XD And dear me, I actually made a deadline for once. Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! ♥3♥ Thanks so much for reading!